From the Destruction of Rome to the Age of Charlemagne - Origin of the Feudal System

The Empire of the Caesars fell in the West only by degrees, and the changes introduced by the northern tribes were gradual, though they proved great. Province after province yielded to the invaders; and before the end of the fifth century, every country in Europe had undergone extensive changes, and received fresh accessions to the number of its inhabitants. The Visigoths had seated themselves in Spain, the Franks in Gaul, the Saxons in the Roman provinces of South Britain, the Huns in Pannonia, and the Ostrogoths in Italy and the adjacent provinces. And not only had. they been enabled to take up their abode, but in general they became masters, and changed the face of all that they touched: 'new governments, laws, languages; new manners, customs, dresses; new names of men and of countries, prevailed; and an almost total change took place in the state of Europe.' That change has been called a change from light to dark ness, and it assuredly led to the extinction of that taste for literature and that regular administration of government which were the relieving features of the Roman despotism. But if it thus produced an immediate evil, it led to an ultimate good. The population was reinvigorated by the admixture of the new races, and from the fresh elements it had acquired there sprung institutions which might be considered as in many respects an improvement upon those that formerly prevailed.

It was out of these new circumstances that what has been called the Feudal System took its rise. This was a feature in society unknown in former ages. Hitherto men had been the slaves of individual masters, or, as in the more celebrated states of antiquity, they were bound together by the common tie of citizenship, and owed allegiance to none. Patriotism was their highest virtue, and all looked upon the state as a parent, to which, having got support from it, they were bound to give support in their turn. But in these times the rude inhabitants of the north had formed little or no conception of what a state was, and at first they were not prepared to relinquish their much-cherished individual freedom in exchange for rights which they thought they did not need. Changes at length came over them and society gradually took new forms. Those who had led them on to battle, began to be looked upon as their guardians in peace. Victorious armies, cantoned out into the countries which they had seized, continued arranged under their officers, each of whom had a separate territory allotted to him, on which he could retain and support his immediate followers, while the principal leader had the largest and in this way all were bound in allegiance, both to their immediate superiors and to their chief, and all were in readiness to be called out to arms whenever their services were thought to be required. This military chieftainship,' infusing itself as an element in the barbarian societies, was the first advance to anything like civil or social government since the extinction of the Roman power. Nations, indeed, were still far from having the advantage of a regular government. The method of conducting judicial proceedings, and of administering justice, was still peculiarly unsettled and uncertain, The authority of the magistrate was so limited, and the independence assumed by individuals so great, that they seldom admitted any umpire but the sword. It was then that trial by ordeal became universal, and men's guilt or innocence was thought to be proved by the capacity of their bodies to withstand the influences of red-hot iron or boiling water applied to them, or by their overcoming their accuser in single combat.

These observations are applicable, with scarcely any variation, to all the nations which settled in Europe during the fifth and sixth centuries. Speaking of this subject, Dr. Robertson says - ' Though the barbarous nations which framed it [the Feudal System], settled in their new territories at different times, came from different countries, spoke various languages, and were under the command of separate leaders, the feudal policy and laws were established, with little variation, in every kingdom of Europe. This amazing uniformity hath induced some authors to believe that all these nations, notwithstanding so many apparent circumstances of distinction, were originally the same people. But it may be ascribed, with greater probability, to the similar state of society and of manners to which they were accustomed in their native countries, and to the similar situation in which they found themselves on taking possession of their new domains.' We shall now offer a few remarks respecting them individually.

No people at this period exhibited a more energetic character than the Franks, a Teutonic race originally settled on the Lower Rhine and Weser, and who had acquired their name (freemen) while successfully resisting the Roman power in an earlier age. About the year 486, they were under the rule of Clovis, who achieved the conquest of Gaul by the defeat of the Roman governor, and afterwards added Burgundy and Aquitaine to his dominions - the former by marriage, and the latter by the forcible expulsion of the Visigoths. This may be considered as the foundation of the French monarchy. Clovis adopted the Christian faith, and caused his people to follow his example. It is remarkable that while in war he exercised unlimited power over his subjects, they shared with him the legislative authority, meeting annually in the Champs de Mars to suggest and deliberate upon public measures, in the settlement of which the meanest soldier had equally a voice with his sovereign.