The Feudal System – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
Anarchies of the Merovingian period
Society on the dissolution of Charlemagne’s empire
Allodial tenure
Origin of Feudalism
Dependence and protection the principles of Feudalism
Peasants and their masters
The sentiment of loyalty
Contentment of the peasantry
Evils that cannot be redressed
Submission to them a necessity
Division of Charlemagne’s empire
Life of the nobles
Pleasures and habits of feudal barons
Aristocratic character of Feudalism
Slavery of the people
Indirect blessings of Feudalism
Slavery not an unmixed evil
Influence of chivalry
Devotion to woman
The lady of the baronial castle
Reasons why women were worshipped
Dignity of the baronial home
The Christian woman contrasted with the pagan
Glory and beauty of Chivalry

The Feudal System

ABOUT A.D. 800-1300.

There is no great character with whom Feudalism is especially identified. It was an institution of the Middle Ages, which grew out of the miseries and robberies that succeeded the fall of the Roman Empire.

Before I present the mutual relation between a lord and his vassal, I would call your attention to political anarchies ending in political degradation; to an unformed state of society; to semi-barbarism, with its characteristic vices of plunder, rapine, oppression, and injustice; to wild and violent passions, unchecked by law; to the absence of central power; to the reign of hard and martial nobles; to the miseries of the people, ground down, ignorant, and brutal; to rude agricultural life; to petty wars; to general ignorance, which kept society in darkness and gloom for a thousand years,–all growing out of the eclipse of the old civilization, so that the European nations began a new existence, and toiled in sorrow and fear, with few ameliorations: an iron age, yet an age which was not unfavorable for the development of new virtues and heroic qualities, under the influence of which society emerged from barbarism, with a new foundation for national greatness, and a new material for Christianity and art and literature and science to work upon.

Such was the state of society during the existence of feudal institutions,–a period of about five hundred years,–dating from the dismemberment of Charlemagne’s empire to the fifteenth century. The era of its greatest power was from the Norman conquest of England to the reign of Edward III. But there was a long and gloomy period before Feudalism ripened into an institution,–from the dissolution of the Roman Empire to the eighth and ninth centuries. I would assign this period as the darkest and the dreariest in the history of Europe since the Roman conquests, for this reason,–that civilization perished without any one to chronicle the changes, or to take notice of the extinction.

From Charlemagne there had been, with the exception of brief intervals, the birth of new ideas and interests, the growth of a new civilization. Before his day there was a progressive decline. Art, literature, science, alike faded away. There were no grand monuments erected, the voice of the poet was unheard in the universal wretchedness, the monks completed the destruction which the barbarians began. Why were libraries burned or destroyed? Why was classic literature utterly neglected? Why did no great scholars arise, even in the Church? The new races looked in vain for benefactors. Even the souvenirs of the old Empire were lost. Nearly all the records of ancient greatness perished. The old cities were levelled to the ground. Nothing was built but monasteries, and these were as gloomy as feudal castles at a later date. The churches were heavy and mournful. Good men hid themselves, trying to escape from the miserable world, and sang monotonous chants of death and the grave. Agriculture was at the lowest state, and hunting, piracy, and robbery were resorted to as a means of precarious existence. There was no commerce. The roads were invested with vagabonds and robbers. It was the era of universal pillage and destruction. Nothing was sacred. Universal desolation filled the souls of men with despair. What state of society could be worse than that of England under the early Saxon kings? There were no dominant races and no central power. The countries of Europe relapsed into a sullen barbarism. I see no bright spot anywhere, not even in Italy, which was at this time the most overrun and the most mercilessly plundered of all the provinces of the fallen Empire. The old capital of the world was nearly depopulated. Nothing was spared of ancient art on which the barbarians could lay their hands, and nothing was valued.

This was the period of what writers call allodial tenure, in distinction from feudal. The allodialist owned indeed his lands, but they were subject to incessant depredations from wandering tribes of barbarians and from robbers. There was no encouragement to till the soil. There was no incentive to industry of any kind. During a reign of universal lawlessness, what man would work except for a scanty and precarious support? His cattle might be driven away, his crops seized, his house plundered. It is hard to realize that our remote ancestors were mere barbarians, who by the force of numbers overran the world. They seem to have had but one class of virtues,—contempt of death, and the willing sacrifice of their lives in battle. The allodialist, however, was not a barbaric warrior or chieftain, but the despoiled owner of lands that his ancestors had once cultivated in peace and prosperity. He was the degenerate descendant of Celtic and Roman citizens, the victim of barbaric spoliations. His lands may have passed into the hands of the Gothic conquerors; but the Gothic or Burgundian or Frankish possessor of innumerable acres, once tilled by peaceful citizens, remained an allodial proprietor. Even he had no protection and no safety; for any new excursion of less fortunate barbarians would desolate his possessions and decimate his laborers. The small proprietor was especially subject to pillage and murder.

In the universal despair from this reign of anarchy and lawlessness, when there was no security to property and no redress of evils, the allodialist parted with his lands to some powerful chieftain, and obtained promise of protection. He even resigned the privilege of freedom to save his wretched life. He became a serf,–a semi-bondman, chained to the soil, but protected from outrage. Nothing but inconceivable miseries, which have not been painted by historians, can account for the almost simultaneous change in the ownership of land in all European countries. We can conceive of nothing but blank despair among the people who attempted to cultivate land. And there must have been the grossest ignorance and the lowest degradation when men were willing to submit to the curtailment of personal freedom and the loss of their lands, in order to find protectors.

Thus Feudalism arose in the ninth and tenth centuries from the absolute wreck of property and hopes. It was virtually the surrender of land for the promise of protection. It was the great necessity of that anarchical age. Like all institutions, it grew out of the needs of the times. Yet its universal acceptance seems to prove that the change was beneficial. Feudalism, especially in its early ages, is not to be judged by the institutions of our times, any more than is the enormous growth of spiritual power which took place when this social and political revolution was going on. Wars and devastations and untold calamities and brutal forces were the natural sequence of barbaric invasions, and of the progressive fall of the old civilization, continued from generation to generation for a period of two or three hundred years, with scarcely any interruption. You get no relief from such a dispensation of Divine Providence, unless you can solve the question why the Roman Empire was permitted to be swept away. If it must be destroyed, from the prevalence of the same vices which have uniformly undermined all empires,–utter and unspeakable rottenness and depravity,–in spite of Christianity, whether nominal or real; if eternal justice must bear sway on this earth, bringing its fearful retributions for the abuse of privileges and general wickedness,–then we accept the natural effects of that violence which consummated the ruin. The natural consequences of two hundred years of pillage and warfare and destruction of ancient institutions were, and could have been nothing other than, miseries, misrule, sufferings, poverty, insecurity, and despair. A universal conflagration must destroy everything that past ages had valued. As a relief from what was felt to be intolerable, and by men who were brutal, ignorant, superstitious, and degraded, all from the effect of the necessary evils which war creates, a sort of semi-slavery was felt to be preferable, as the price of dependence and protection.

Dependence and protection are the elemental principles of Feudalism. These were the hard necessities which the age demanded. And for three hundred years, it cannot be doubted, the relation between master and serf was beneficial. It resulted in a more peaceful state of society,–not free from great evils, but still a healthful change from the disorders of the preceding epoch. The peasant could cultivate his land comparatively free from molestation. He was still poor. Sometimes he was exposed to heavy exactions. He was bound to give a portion of the profits of his land to his lordly proprietor; and he was bound to render services in war. But, as he was not bound to serve over forty days, he was not led on distant expeditions; he was not carried far from home. He was not exposed to the ambition of military leaders. His warlike services seem to be confined to the protection of his master’s castle and family, or to the assault of some neighboring castle. He was simply made to participate in baronial quarrels; and as these quarrels were frequent, his life was not altogether peaceful.

But war on a large scale was impossible in the feudal age. The military glory of the Roman conquerors was unknown, and also that of modern European monarchs. The peasant was bound to serve under the banner of a military chieftain only for a short time: then he returned to his farm. His great military weapon was the bow,–the weapon of semi-barbarians. The spear, the sword, the battle-axe were the weapons of the baronial family,–the weapons of knights, who fought on horseback, cased in defensive armor. The peasant fought on foot; and as the tactics of ancient warfare were inapplicable, and those of modern warfare unknown, the strength of armies was in cavalry and not in the infantry, as in modern times. But armies were not large from the ninth to the twelfth century,–not until the Crusades arose. Nor were they subject to a rigid discipline. They were simply an armed rabble. They were more like militia than regular forces; they fostered military virtues, without the demoralization of standing armies. In the feudal age there were no standing armies. Even at so late a period as the time of Queen Elizabeth that sovereign had to depend on the militia for the defence of the realm against the Spaniards. Standing armies are the invention of great military monarchs or a great military State. The bow and arrow were used equally to shoot men and shoot deer; but they rarely penetrated the armor of knights, or their force was broken by the heavy shield: they took effect only on the undefended bodies of the peasantry. Hence there was a great disproportion of the slain in battle between peasants and their mounted masters. War, even when confined to a small sphere, has its terrors. The sufferers were the common people, whose lives were not held of much account. History largely confines itself to battles. Hence we are apt to lose sight of the uneventful life of the people in quiet times.

But the barons were not always fighting. In the intervals of war the peasant enjoyed the rude pleasures of his home. He grew up with strong attachments, having no desire to migrate or travel. Gradually the sentiment of loyalty was born,–loyalty to his master and to his country. His life was rough, but earnest. He had great simplicity of character. He became honest, industrious, and frugal. He was contented with but few pleasures,–rural fêtes and village holidays. He had no luxuries and no craving for them. Measured by our modern scale of pleasures he led a very inglorious, unambitious, and rude life.

Contentment is one of the mysteries of existence. We should naturally think that excitement and pleasure and knowledge would make people happy, since they stimulate the intellectual powers; but on the contrary they seem to produce unrest and cravings which are never satisfied. And we should naturally think that a life of isolation, especially with no mental resources,–a hard rural existence, with but few comforts and no luxuries,–would make people discontented. Yet it does not seem to be so in fact, as illustrated by the apparent contentment of people doomed to hard labor in the most retired and dreary retreats. We wonder at their placitude, as we travel in remote and obscure sections of the country. A poor farmer, whose house is scarcely better than a hovel, surrounded with chickens and pigs, and with only a small garden,–unadorned and lonely and repulsive,–has no cravings which make the life of the favored rich sometimes unendurable. The poorer he is, and therefore the more miserable as we should think, the more contented he seems to be; while a fashionable woman or ennuied man, both accustomed to the luxuries and follies of city life, with all its refinements and gratification of intellectual and social pleasures, will sometimes pine in a suburban home, with all the gilded glories of rich furniture, books, beautiful gardens, greenhouses, luxurious living, horses, carriages, and everything that wealth can furnish.

So that civilization would seem often a bitter mockery, showing that intellectual life only stimulates the cravings of the soul, but does not satisfy them. And when people are poor but cultivated, the unhappiness seems to be still greater; demonstrating that cultivated intellect alone opens to the mind the existence of evils which are intensified by the difficulty of their removal, and on which the mind dwells with feelings kindred to despair. I have sometimes doubted whether an obscure farmer’s daughter is any happier with her piano, and her piles of cheaply illustrated literature and translations of French novels, and her smatterings of science learned in normal schools, since she has learned too often to despise her father and mother and brother, and her uneducated rural beau, and all her surroundings, with poverty and unrest and aspiration for society eating out her soul. The happiness produced merely by intellectual pleasures and social frivolities is very small at the best, compared with that produced by the virtues of the heart and the affections kindled by deeds of devotion, or the duties which take the mind from itself. Intellectual pleasures give only a brief satisfaction, unless directed to a practical end, like the earnest imparting of knowledge in educational pursuits, or the pursuit of art for itself alone,–to create, and not to devour, as the epicure eats his dinner. Where is the happiness of devouring books with no attempt to profit by them, except in the temporary pleasure of satisfying an appetite? So even the highest means of happiness may become a savor of death unto death when perverted or unimproved. Never should we stimulate the intellect merely to feed upon itself. Unless intellectual culture is directed to what is useful, especially to the necessities or improvement of others, it is a delusion and a snare. Better far to be ignorant, but industrious and useful in any calling however humble, than to cram the mind with knowledge that leads to no good practical result. The buxom maiden of rural life, in former days absorbed in the duties of home, with no knowledge except that gained in a district school in the winter, with all her genial humanities in the society of equals no more aspiring than herself, is to me a far more interesting person than the pale-faced, languid, discontented, envious girl who has just returned from a school beyond her father’s means, even if she can play upon an instrument, and has worn herself thin in exhausting studies under the stimulus of ambitious competition, or the harangues of a pedant who thinks what he calls “education” to be the end of life,–an education which reveals her own insignificance, or leads her to strive for an unattainable position.

I am forced to make these remarks to show that the Mediaeval peasant was not necessarily miserable because he was ignorant, or isolated, or poor. In so doing I may excite the wrath of some who think a little knowledge is not a dangerous thing, and may appear to be throwing cold water on one of the noblest endeavors of modern times. But I do not sneer at education. I only seek to show that it will not make people happy, unless it is directed into useful channels; and that even ignorance may be bliss when it is folly to be wise. A benevolent Providence tempers all conditions to the necessities of the times. The peasantry of Europe became earnest and stalwart warriors and farmers, even under the grinding despotism of feudal masters. With their beer and brown bread, and a fowl in the pot on a Sunday, they grew up to be hardy, bold, strong, healthy, and industrious. They furnished a material on which Christianity and a future civilization could work. They became patriotic, religious, and kind-hearted. They learned to bear their evils in patience. They were more cheerful than the laboring classes of our day, with their partial education,–although we may console ourselves with the reflection that these are passing through the fermenting processes of a transition from a lower to a higher grade of living. Look at the picture of them which art has handed down: their faces are ruddy, genial, sympathetic, although coarse and vulgar and boorish. And they learned to accept the inequalities of life without repining insolence. They were humble, and felt that there were actually some people in the world superior to themselves. I do not paint their condition as desirable or interesting by our standard, but as endurable. They were doubtless very ignorant; but would knowledge have made them any happier? Knowledge is for those who can climb by it to positions of honor and usefulness, not for those who cannot rise above the condition in which they were born,–not for those who will be snubbed and humiliated and put down by arrogant wealth and birth. Better be unconscious of suffering, than conscious of wrongs which cannot be redressed.

Let no one here misunderstand and pervert me. I am not exalting the ignorance and brutality of the feudal ages. I am not decrying the superior advantages of our modern times. I only state that ignorance and brutality were the necessary sequences of the wars and disorders of a preceding epoch, but that this very ignorance and brutality were accompanied by virtues which partially ameliorated the evils of the day; that in the despair of slavery were the hopes of future happiness; that religion took a deep hold of the human mind, even though blended with puerile and degrading superstitions; that Christianity, taking hold of the hearts of a suffering people, taught lessons which enabled them to bear their hardships with resignation; that cheerfulness was not extinguished; and that so many virtues were generated by the combined influence of suffering and Christianity, that even with ignorance human nature shone with greater lustre than among those by whom knowledge is perverted. It was not until the evil and injustice of Feudalism were exposed by political writers, and were meditated upon by the people who had arisen by education and knowledge, that they became unendurable; and then the people shook off the yoke. But how impossible would have been a French Revolution in the thirteenth century! What readers would a Rousseau have found among the people in the time of Louis VII.? If knowledge breaks fetters when the people are strong enough to shake them off, ignorance enables them to bear those fetters when emancipation is impossible.

The great empire of Charlemagne was divided at his death (in A.D. 814) among his three sons,–one of whom had France, another Italy, and the third Germany. In forty-five years afterwards we find seven kingdoms, instead of three,–France, Navarre, Provence, Burgundy, Lorraine, Germany, and Italy. In a few years more there were twenty-nine hereditary fiefs. And as early as the tenth century France itself was split up into fifty-five independent sovereignties; and these small sovereignties were again divided into dukedoms and baronies. All these dukes and barons, however, acknowledged the King of France as their liege lord; yet he was not richer or more powerful than some of the dukes who swore fealty to him. The Duke of Burgundy at one time had larger territories and more power than the King of France himself. So that the central authority of kings was merely nominal; their power extended scarcely beyond the lands they individually controlled. And all the countries of Europe were equally ruled by petty kings. The kings of England seem to have centralized around their thrones more power than other European monarchs until the time of the Crusades, when they were checked, not so much by nobles as by Act of Parliament.

Now all Europe was virtually divided among these petty sovereigns, called dukes, earls, counts, and barons. Each one was virtually independent. He coined money, administered justice, and preserved order. He ruled by hereditary right, and his estate descended to his oldest son. His revenues were derived by the extorted contributions of those who cultivated his lands, and by certain perquisites, among which were the privilege of wardship, and the profits of an estate during the minority of its possessor, and reliefs, or fines paid on the alienation of a vassal’s feud; and the lord could bestow a female ward in marriage on whomever he pleased, and on her refusal take possession of her estate.

These lordly proprietors of great estates,–or nobles,–so powerful and independent, lived in castles. These strongholds were necessary in such turbulent times. They were large or small, according to the wealth or rank of the nobles who occupied them, but of no architectural beauty. They were fortresses, generally built on hills, or cragged rocks, or in inaccessible marshes, or on islands in rivers,–anywhere where defence was easiest. The nobles did not think of beautiful situations, or fruitful meadows, so much as of the safety and independence of the feudal family. They therefore lived in great isolation, travelling but little, and only at short distances (it was the higher clergy only who travelled). Though born to rank and power, they were yet rude, rough, unpolished. They were warriors. They fought on horseback, covered with defensive armor. They were greedy and quarrelsome, and hence were engaged in perpetual strife,–in the assault on castles and devastation of lands. These castles were generally gloomy, heavy, and uncomfortable, yet were very numerous in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They were occupied by the feudal family, perhaps the chaplain, strangers of rank, bards, minstrels, and servants, who lived on the best the country afforded, but without the luxuries of our times. They lived better than the monks, as they had no vows to restrain them. But in their dreary castles the rooms were necessarily small, dark, and damp, except the banqueting hall. They were poorly lighted, there being no glass in the narrow windows, nor chimneys, nor carpets, nor mirrors, nor luxurious furniture, nor crockery, nor glassware, nor stoves, nor the refinements of cookery. The few roads of the country were travelled only by horsemen, or people on foot. There were no carriages, only a few heavy lumbering wagons. Tea and coffee were unknown, as also tropical fruits and some of our best vegetables. But game of all kinds was plenty and cheap; so also were wine and beer, and beef and mutton, and pork and poultry. The feudal family was illiterate, and read but few books. The chief pleasures were those of the chase,–hunting and hawking,–and intemperate feasts. What we call “society” was impossible, although the barons may have exchanged visits with each other. They rarely visited cities, which at that time were small and uninteresting. The lordly proprietor of ten thousand acres may have been jolly, frank, and convivial, but he was still rough, and had little to say on matters of great interests. Circumscribed he was of necessity, ignorant and prejudiced. Conscious of power, however, he was proud and insolent to inferiors. He was merely a physical man,–ruddy, healthy, strong indeed, but without refinement, or knowledge, or social graces. His castle was a fort and not a palace; and here he lived with boisterous or sullen companions, as rough and ignorant as himself. His wife and daughters were more interesting, but without those attainments which grace and adorn society. They made tapestries and embroideries, and rode horseback, and danced well, and were virtuous; but were primitive, uneducated, and supercilious. Their beauty was of the ruddy sort, –physical, but genial. They were very fond of ornaments and gay dresses; and so were their lords on festive occasions, for semi-barbarism delights in what is showy and glittering,–purple, and feathers, and trinkets.

The Accolade After the painting by Sir E. Blair Leighton

The Accolade After the painting by Sir E. Blair Leighton

Feudalism was intensely aristocratic. A line was drawn between the noble and ignoble classes almost as broad as that which separates liberty from slavery. It was next to impossible for a peasant, or artisan, or even a merchant to pass that line. The exclusiveness of the noble class was intolerable. It held in scorn any profession but arms; neither riches nor learning was of any account. It gloried in the pride of birth, and nourished a haughty scorn of plebeian prosperity. It was not until cities and arts and commerce arose that the arrogance of the baron was rebuked, or his iron power broken. Haughty though ignorant, he had no pity or compassion for the poor and miserable. His peasantry were doomed to perpetual insults. Their cornfields were trodden down by the baronial hunters; they were compelled even to grind their corn in the landlord’s mill, and bake their bread in his oven. They had no redress of injuries, and were scorned as well as insulted. What knight would arm himself for them; what gentle lady wept at their sorrows? The feeling of personal consequence was entirely confined to the feudal family. The poorest knight took precedence over the richest merchant. Pride of birth was carried to romantic extravagance, so that marriages seldom took place between different classes. A beautiful peasant girl could never rise above her drudgeries; and she never dreamed of rising, for the members of the baronial family were looked up to as superior beings. A caste grew up as rigid and exclusive as that of India. The noble and ignoble classes were not connected by any ties; there was nothing in common between them. Even the glory of successful warfare shed no radiance on a peasant’s hut. He fought for his master, and not for himself, and scarcely for his country. He belonged to his master as completely as if he could be bought and sold. Christianity teaches the idea of a universal brotherhood; Feudalism suppressed or extinguished it. Peasants had no rights, only duties,–and duties to hard and unsympathetic masters. Can we wonder that a relation so unequal should have been detested by the people when they began to think? Can we wonder it should have created French Revolutions? When we remember how the people toiled for a mail-clad warrior, how they fought for his interests, how they died for his renown, how they were curtailed in their few pleasures, how they were not permitted even to shoot a pheasant or hare in their own grounds, we are amazed that such signal injustice should ever have been endured. It is impossible that this injustice should not have been felt; and no man ever became reconciled to injustice, unless reduced to the condition of a brute. Religious tyranny may be borne, for the priest invokes a supreme authority which all feel to be universally binding. But all tyranny over the body–the utter extinction of liberty–is hateful even to the most degraded Hottentot.

Why, then, was such an unjust and unequal relation permitted to exist so long? What good did it accomplish? What were its extenuating features? Why was it commended by historians as a good institution for the times?

It created a hardy agricultural class, inured them to the dangers and the toils of war, bound them by local attachments, and fostered a patriotic spirit. It developed the virtues of obedience, and submission to evils. It created a love of home and household duties. It was favorable to female virtue. It created the stout yeomanry who could be relied upon in danger. It made law and order possible. It defended the people from robbers. It laid a foundation for warlike prowess. It was favorable to growth of population, for war did not sweep off the people so much as those dire plagues and pestilences which were common in the Middle Ages. It was preferable to the disorders and conflagrations and depredations of preceding times. The poor man was oppressed, but he was safe so long as his lord could protect him. It was a hard discipline, but a discipline which was healthy; it preserved the seed if it did not bear the fruits of civilization. The peasantry became honest, earnest, sincere. They were made susceptible of religious impressions. They became attached to all the institutions of the Church; the parish church was their retreat, their consolation, and their joy. The priest tyrannized over the soul and the knight over the body, but the flame of piety burned steadily and warmly.

When the need of such an institution as Feudalism no longer existed, then it was broken up. Its blessings were not commensurate with its evils; but the evils were less than those which previously existed. This is, I grant, but faint praise. But the progress of society could not be rapid amid such universal ignorance: it is slow in the best of times. I do not call that state of society progressive where moral and spiritual truths are forgotten or disregarded in the triumphs of a brilliant material life. There was no progress of society from the Antonines to Theodosius, but a steady decline. But there was a progress, however slow, from Charlemagne to Philip Augustus. But for Feudalism and ecclesiastical institutions the European races might not have emerged from anarchy, or might have been subjected to a new and withering imperialism. Say what we will of the grinding despotism of Feudalism,–and we cannot be too severe on any form of despotism,–yet the rude barbarian became a citizen in process of time, with education and political rights.

Society made the same sort of advance, in the gloomy epoch we are reviewing, that the slaves in our Southern States made from the time they were imported from Africa, with their degrading fetichism and unexampled ignorance, to the time of their emancipation. How marked the progress of the Southern slaves during the two hundred years of their bondage! No degraded race ever made so marked a progress as they did in the same period, even under all the withering influences of slavery. Probably their moral and spiritual progress was greater than it will be in the next two hundred years, exposed to all the dangers of modern materialism, which saps the life of nations in the midst of the most brilliant triumphs of art. We are now on the road to a marvellous intellectual enlightenment, unprecedented and full of encouragement. But with this we face dangers also, such as undermined the old Roman world and all the ancient civilizations. If I could fix my eye on a single State or Nation in the whole history of our humanity that has escaped these dangers, that has not retrograded in those virtues on which the strength of man is based, after a certain point has been reached in civilization, I would not hazard this remark. Society escaped these evils in that agricultural period which saw the rise and fall of Feudalism, and made a slow but notable advance. That is a fact which cannot be gainsaid, and this is impressive. It shows that society, in a moral point of view, thrives better under hard restraints than when exposed to the dangers of an irreligious, material civilization.

Nor is Feudalism to be condemned as being altogether dark and uninteresting. It had redeeming features in the life of the baronial family. Under its influence arose the institution of chivalry; and though the virtues of chivalry may be poetic, and exaggerated, there can be no doubt that it was a civilizing institution, and partially redeemed the Middle Ages. It gave rise to beautiful sentiments; it blazed in new virtues, rarely seen in the old civilizations. They were peculiar to the age and to Europe, were fostered by the Church, and took a coloring from Christianity itself. Chivalry bound together the martial barons of Europe by the ties of a fraternity of knights. Those armed and mailed warriors fought on horseback, and chivalry takes its name from the French cheval, meaning a horse. The knights learned gradually to treat each other with peculiar courtesy. They became generous in battle or in misfortune, for they all alike belonged to the noble class, and felt a common bond in the pride of birth. It was not the memory of illustrious ancestors which created this aristocratic distinction, as among Roman patricians, but the fact that the knights were a superior order. Yet among themselves distinctions vanished. There was no higher distinction than that of a gentleman. The poorest knight was welcome at any castle or at any festivity, at the tournament or in the chase. Generally, gallantry and unblemished reputation were the conditions of social rank among the knights themselves. They were expected to excel in courage, in courtesy, in generosity, in truthfulness, in loyalty. The great patrimony of the knight was his horse, his armor, and his valor. He was bound to succor the defenceless. He was required to abstain from all mean pursuits. If his trade were war, he would divest war of its cruelties. His word was seldom broken, and his promises were held sacred. If pride of rank was generated in this fraternity of gentlemen, so also was scorn of lies and baseness. If there was no brotherhood of man, there was the brotherhood of equals. The most beautiful friendships arose from common dangers and common duties. A stranger knight was treated with the greatest kindness and hospitality. If chivalry condemned anything, it was selfishness and treachery and hypocrisy. All the old romances and chronicles record the frankness and magnanimity of knights. More was thought of moral than of intellectual excellence. Nobody was ashamed to be thought religious. The mailed warrior said his orisons every day and never neglected Mass. Even in war, prisoners were released on their parole of honor, and their ransom was rarely exorbitant. The institution tended to soften manners as well as to develop the virtues of the heart. Under its influence the rude baron was transformed into a courteous gentleman.

But the distinguishing glory of chivalry was devotion to the female sex. Respect for woman was born in the German forests before the Roman empire fell. It was the best trait of the Germanic barbarians; but under the institution of chivalry this natural respect was ripened into admiration and gallantry. “Love of God and the ladies” was enjoined as a single duty. The knight ever came to the rescue of a woman in danger or distress, provided she was a lady. Nothing is better attested than the chivalric devotion to woman in a feudal castle. The name of a mistress of the heart was never mentioned but in profound respect. Even pages were required to choose objects of devotion, to whom they were to be loyal unto death. Woman presided in the feudal castle, where she exercised a proper restraint. She bestowed the prize of valor at tournaments and tilts. To insult a lady was a lasting disgrace,–or to reveal her secrets. For the first time in history, woman became the equal partner of her husband. She was his companion often in the chase, gaily mounted on her steed. She always dined with him, and was the presiding genius of the castle. She was made regent of kingdoms, heir of crowns, and joint manager of great estates. She had the supreme management of her household, and was consulted in every matter of importance. What an insignificant position woman filled at Athens compared with that in the feudal castle! How different the estimate of woman among the Pagan poets from that held by the Provençal poets! What a contrast to Juvenal is Sordello! The lady of a baronial hall deemed it an insult to be addressed in the language of gallantry, except in that vague and poetic sense in which every knight selected some lady as the object of his dutiful devotion. She disdained the attentions of the most potent prince if his addresses were not honorable. Nor would she bestow her love on one of whom she was not proud. She would not marry a coward or a braggart, even if he were the owner of ten thousand acres. The knight was encouraged to pay his address to any lady if he was personally worthy of her love, for chivalry created a high estimate of individual merit. The feudal lady ignored all degrees of wealth within her own rank. She was as tender and compassionate as she was heroic. She was treated as a superior, rather than as an equal. There was a poetical admiration among the whole circle of knights. A knight without an object of devotion was as “a ship without a rudder, a horse without a bridle, a sword without a hilt, a sky without a star.” Even a Don Quixote must have his Dulcinea, as well as horse and armor and squire. Dante impersonates the spirit of the Middle Ages in his adoration of Beatrice. The ancient poets coupled the praises of women with the praises of wine. Woman, under the influence of chivalry, became the star of worship, an object of idolatry. We read of few divorces in the Middle Ages, or of separations, or desertions, or even alienations; these things are a modern improvement, borrowed from the customs of the Romans. The awe and devotion with which the lover regarded his bride became regard and affection in the husband. The matron maintained the rank which had been assigned to her as a maiden. The gallant warriors blended even the adoration of our Lord with adoration of our Lady,–the deification of Christ with the deification of woman. Chivalry, encouraged by the Church and always strongly allied with religious sentiments, accepted for eternal veneration the transcendent loveliness of the mother of our Lord; so that chivalric veneration for the sex culminated in the reverence which belongs to the Queen of Heaven,–virgo fidelis; regina angelorum. Woman assumed among kings and barons the importance which she was supposed to have in the celestial hierarchy. And besides the religious influence, the poetic imagination of the time seized upon this pure and lovely element, which passed into the songs, the tales, the talk, the thought, and the aspirations of all the knightly order.

Whence, now, this veneration for woman which arose in the Middle Ages,–a veneration, which all historians attest, such as never existed in the ancient civilization?

It was undoubtedly based on the noble qualities and domestic virtues which feudal life engendered. Women were heroines. Queen Philippa in the absence of her husband stationed herself in the Castle of Bamborough and defied the whole power of Douglas. The first military dispatch ever written in the Middle Ages was addressed to her; she even took David of Scotland a prisoner, when he invaded England. These women of chivalry were ready to undergo any fatigues to promote their husbands’ interests. They were equal to any personal sacrifices. Nothing could daunt their courage. They could defend themselves in danger, showing an extraordinary fertility of resources. They earned the devotion they called out. What more calculated to win the admiration of feudal warriors than this devotion and bravery on the part of wives and daughters! They were helpmates in every sense. They superintended the details of castles. They were always employed, and generally in what were imperative duties. If they embroidered dresses or worked tapestries, they also wove the cloth for their husband’s coats, and made his shirts and knit his stockings. If they trained hawks and falcons, they fed the poultry and cultivated the flowers. They understood the cares of the kitchen, and managed the servants.

But it was their moral virtues which excited the greatest esteem. They gloried in their unsullied names; their characters were above suspicion. Any violation of the marriage vow was almost unknown; an unfaithful wife was infamous. The ordinary life of a castle was that of isolation, which made women discreet, self-relying, and free from entangling excitements. They had no great pleasures, and but little society. They were absorbed with their duties, and contented with their husbands’ love. The feudal castle, however, was not dull, although it was isolated, and afforded few novelties. It was full of strangers, and minstrels, and bards, and pedlars, and priests. Women could gratify their social wants without seductive excitements. They led a life favorable to friendships, which cannot thrive amid the distractions of cities. In cities few have time to cultivate friendships, although they may not be extinguished. In the baronial castle, however, they were necessary to existence.

And here, where she was so well known, woman’s worth was recognized. Her caprices and frivolities were balanced by sterling qualities,–as a nurse in sickness, as a devotee to duties, as a friend in distress, ever sympathetic and kind. She was not exacting, and required very little to amuse her. Of course, she was not intellectual, since she read but few books and received only the rudiments of education; but she was as learned as her brothers, and quicker in her wits. She had the vivacity which a healthy life secures. Nor was she beautiful, according to our standard. She was a ruddy, cheerful, active, healthy woman, accustomed to exercise in the open air,–to field-sports and horseback journeys. Still less was she what we call fashionable, for the word was not known; nor was she a woman of society, for, as we have said, there was no society in a feudal castle. What we call society was born in cities, where women reign by force of mind and elegant courtesies and grace of manners,–where woman is an ornament as well as a power, without drudgeries and almost without cares, as at the courts of the Bourbon princes.

Yet I am not certain but that the foundation of courtly elegance and dignity was laid in the baronial home, when woman began her reign as the equal of her wedded lord, when she commanded reverence for her courtesies and friendships, and when her society was valued so highly by aristocratic knights. In the castle she became genial and kind and sympathetic,–although haughty to inferiors and hard on the peasantry. She was ever religious. Religious duties took up no small part of her time. Christianity raised her more than all other influences combined. You never read of an infidel woman when chivalry flourished, any more than of a “strong-minded” woman. The feudal woman never left her sphere, even amid the pleasures of the chase or the tilt. Her gentle and domestic virtues remained with her to the end, and were the most prized. Woman was worshipped because she was a woman, not because she resembled a man. Benevolence and compassion and simplicity were her cardinal virtues. Though her sports were masculine, her character was feminine. She yielded to man in matters of reason and intellect, but he yielded to her in the virtues of the heart and the radiance of the soul. She associated with man without seductive spectacles or demoralizing excitements, and retained her influence by securing his respect. In antiquity, there was no respect for the sex, even when Aspasia enthralled Pericles by the fascinations of blended intellect and beauty; but there was respect in the feudal ages, when women were unlettered and unpolished. And this respect was alike the basis of friendship and the key to power. It was not elegance of manners, nor intellectual culture, nor physical beauty which elevated the women of chivalry, but their courage, their fidelity, their sympathy, their devotion to duty,–qualities which no civilization ought to obscure, and for the loss of which no refinements of life can make up.

Thus Chivalry,–the most interesting institution of the Middle Ages, rejoicing in deeds of daring, guided by honor and renown, executing enterprises almost extravagant, battling injustice and wrong, binding together the souls of a great fraternity, scorning lies, revering truth, devoted to the Church,–could not help elevating the sex to which its proudest efforts were pledged, by cherishing elevated conceptions of love, by offering all the courtesies of friendship, by coming to the rescue of innocence, by stimulating admiration of all that is heroic, and by asserting the honor of the loved ones, even at the risk of life and limb. In the dark ages of European society woman takes her place, for the first time in the world, as the equal and friend of man,–not by physical beauty, not by graces of manner, not even by intellectual culture, but by the solid virtues of the heart, brought to light by danger, isolation, and practical duties, and by that influence which radiated from the Cross. Divest chivalry of the religious element, and you take away its glory and its fascination. The knight would be only a hardhearted warrior, oppressing the poor and miserable, and only interesting from his deeds of valor. But Christianity softened him and made him human, while it dignified the partner of his toils, and gave birth to virtues which commanded reverence. The soul of chivalry, closely examined, in its influence over men or over women, after all, was that power which is and will be through all the ages the hope and glory of our world.

Thus, with all the miseries, cruelties, injustices, and hardships of feudal life, there were some bright spots; showing that Providence never deserts the world, and that though progress may be slow in the infancy of races, yet with the light of Christianity, even if it be darkened, this progress is certain, and will be more and more rapid as Christianity achieves its victories.


Hallam’s Middle Ages; Sismondi’s Histoire des Français; Guizot’s History of Civilization (translated); Michelet’s History of France (translated); Bell’s Historical Studies of Feudalism; Lacroix’s Manners and Customs of the Middle Ages; Mills’s History of Chivalry; Sir Walter Scott’s article in Encyclopaedia Britannica; Perrot’s Collection Historique des Ordres de Chivalrie; St. Palaye’s Memoires de l’Ancienne Chivalrie; Buckle’s History of Civilization; Palgrave’s English Commonwealth; Martin’s History of France; Freeman’s Norman Conquest; M. Fauriel’s History of Provençal Poetry; Froissart’s Chronicles; also the general English histories of the reign of Edward III. Don Quixote should he read in this connection. And Tennyson in his “Idylls of the King” has incorporated the spirit of ancient chivalry.

The Crusades

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages