Page images
PDF
EPUB

Ps taken in

important clety. Of the

naIIV

tory; and though some may present more striking and entertaining incidents than others, yet each is important to the eye of the historian as steps taken in the general progress of society. Of these periods one of the most important, as well as one of the most interesting, is that which comprises the rise and fall of the feudal system. It is one of the many military periods which the world has seen; but is distinguished from all others, both by a peculiar organization of society, and by an institution totally without parallel in other ages, so that the name of the feudal period, and that of the chivalrous period, are perhaps equally appropriate. As an epoch of marvellous incidents and great enterprises, it affords unfailing matter for entertaining research ; but its importance as a subject of study is derived from the extraordinary advance which society made during its existence towards the establishment of institutions, and the acknowledgment of truths, that might seem absolutely incompatible with the very means that brought them forth.

That a well contrived and organized system of oppression should have begot rational liberty as its child and successor; that bloody wars and fierce contentions should have had for a result the softening of manners and the refinement of society; and that wanton aggression and brutal outrage should have produced definitions of right and limitations of power, are at present well-known facts, but are still as extraordinary as they are important; and in

V

CO

tracing how these great things were brought about, we may well derive many an important lesson, many an exhortation, and many a warning, even while we seem to be reading nothing but an account of battles and sieges, great military enterprises, and acts of magnificent daring.

No portion, perhaps, of the feudal or chivalrous period affords a more distinct picture of its characteristic peculiarities than that comprised in the life of Richard I., King of England. He was himself a type of the age to which he belonged, and his good and bad qualities very faithfully represented the faults and excellencies of feudalism and chivalry. But before we proceed to narrate the events comprised within the limits of his life, we must take a brief view of the state of society at the time, especially in England, even though it may be necessary to repeat or abridge what others have before said upon the same subject; for we must not take it for granted that the reader is already acquainted with anything materially affecting that which we have to narrate.

Nevertheless, it will not be necessary to trace minutely the origin of the feudal system, or to show by what steps it gradually assumed a complete and homogeneous form. Suffice it to say, that it was, in its commencement, a certain constitutional organization, adopted by a great society of military adventurers, for the purposes of general defence and mutual support in conquered countries; and its chief distinguishing feature or characteristic, was the general distribution of the territory amongst the soldiery, in unequal portions, but upon one general principle and condition,-namely, that of military service upon the part of the holderof each estate to the leader from whom he obtained it. This general holding of the great bulk of the territory by such tenure, seems to me the sine qua non of the feudal system; and from it, indeed, that system derives its name. In countries where it did not exist as the general rule, there might be some feudal institutions—there might be some customs and laws resembling those of feudalism ; but the feudal system was not established. *

Of course this system was not framed at once; but was gradually produced by the necessities of the northern invaders of the Roman empire, when placed in a new situation by the effects of their own conquests. They brought the rude materials of

* Independent of the custom of giving a heriot upon the death of a great man, which some persons have looked upon as a feudal relief—though I can by no means do so, inasmuch as the heriot was levied upon the personal property of the dead man, not upon the real property of the heir, who very possibly might receive no part of the personal goods from which the heriot was taken-but independent of this questionable case, the AngloSaxons had several feudal institutions. We must indeed put aside the oath of fealty, which has too often been confounded with that of homage in a most unphilosophical manner; but still the benefice or læn was held by military service to a chief, and though not hereditary, was of the nature of a fief, being thus of feudal tenure. Nevertheless the general possession of the land was not held by that tenure till after the Conquest, and the feudal system cannot properly be said to have existed amongst the Anglo-Saxons. their government from their native wilds, but fashioned them according to the circumstances in which they were placed in the lands they acquired. Though the great body of the invaders was composed of different nations, yet a similarity of customs prevailed amongst them; and though the districts that the various tribes conquered were far apart, yet everywhere they met the vestiges of Roman institutions. The similarity of circumstances in these points produced a similarity of necessities; and the general adoption of an uniform system was the result.

It must not indeed be understood that perfect uniformity was established throughout Europe, for such was not the case. In some places, more of the Roman forms and institutions were retained; in others the northern notions predominated; but the differences, though important to the countries into which the Roman empire became subdivided, were not important as to the system itself. The forms of the feudal system in various parts of Europe were only varieties of the same plant, the seeds of which had been brought from the north, and cultivated in Roman soil.

The unequal distribution of corporeal and mental qualities, has always impressed the mind of man in a social state with a conviction that it is necessary some should lead and some should follow; and the only difference in this point between the most purely democratical and the most purely monarchical forms of society, consists in the method of

selecting the leaders. What was the method adopted by the northern invaders of Rome while in their native wilds, matters little; nor is it of much consequence at what period a regular subordination of chiefs was established, from the great leader of a mighty host to the patriarch who was followed to the field by his five or six sons. As they were all essentially warlike nations, and all from a very early period were engaged in active enterprise, it is probable that military qualities were the original titles to command, and that they soon adopted a general gradation of leaders.

The first expeditions of the northern nations were purely predatory. When spoil was taken, it was in almost all cases equitably divided ; * but when territory was acquired as well as moveable plunder, a complication of interests took place; and we find, especially in the earlier periods of feudalism, an infinite number of discrepancies in the allotment of conquered territories, which are difficult to account for. The exceptions, indeed, do not prove that some regular system of distribution did not prevail ; because the course of the invaders was subjected to a thousand accidents, by which they were obliged of necessity to guide their proceedings. Sometimes their conquests were not altogether successful; sometimes they encountered a tribe as bold and hardy as themselves, and were obliged to enter

* The reader need not be reminded of the story of Clovis and Vasi.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »