Which country first created a feudal system?

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Friedrich Engels

[On the decline of feudalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie]

While the fierce battles of the ruling feudal nobility filled the Middle Ages with their noise, the quiet work of the oppressed classes had undermined the feudal system throughout Western Europe and created conditions in which there was less and less room for the feudal lord. In the country, it is true, the noble lords still carried on their way, tormented the serfs, reveled in their sweat, rode down their crops, raped their wives and daughters. But cities had risen around them; in Italy, southern France, on the Rhine ancient Roman municipalities, risen from their ashes; elsewhere, especially in the interior of Germany, new creations; always encircled in shielding walls and ditches, fortresses, far stronger than the castles of the nobility, because they can only be conquered by a large army. Behind these walls and ditches developed - guild-bourgeois and petty enough - medieval handicrafts, the first capital accumulated, the need for intercourse between the cities and with the rest of the world arose, and, with the need, gradually the means too to protect this traffic.

By the fifteenth century the townspeople had already become more indispensable in society than the feudal nobility. It is true that agriculture was still the employment of the great mass of the population and thus the main branch of production. But the few isolated free peasants, who here and there still stand up to the arrogance of the nobility, proved sufficiently that in agriculture it is not the bear skinning and the blackmailing of the nobleman that is the main thing, but the work of the peasant. And then the needs of the nobility had increased and changed so that even for them the cities became indispensable; He got his only production tool, his tank and his weapons, from the cities! Native cloths, furniture and jewelry, Italian silk articles, [392] Brabant lace, Nordic furs, Arab fragrances, Levantic fruits, Indian spices - everything, except the soap - he bought from the townspeople. A certain world trade had developed; the Italians sailed the Mediterranean and beyond the Atlantic coasts as far as Flanders, the Hanseatic people still ruled the North Sea and the Baltic Sea with the emerging Dutch and English competition. The land connection was maintained between the northern and southern centers of maritime traffic; the roads on which this connection took place went through Germany. While the nobility became more and more superfluous and hindered development, the townspeople became the class in which the further development of production and transport, education, and social and political institutions were embodied.

All these advances in production and exchange were, in fact, in today's terms, very limited in nature. Production remained banned in the form of pure guild craft, so it still retained a feudal character; the trade remained within European waters and did not go beyond the Levantine coastal cities, where it exchanged the products of the Far East. But petty and limited, as the trades and with them the trading citizens remained, they were sufficient to overturn feudal society, and at least they kept moving while the nobility stagnated.

The citizens of the cities had a mighty weapon against feudalism - the money. In the feudal model economy of the early Middle Ages, there was hardly any room for money. The feudal lord got everything he needed from his serfs; either in the form of work or in that of the finished product; the women spun and wove the flax and the wool, and made the clothes; the men tilled the field; The children looked after the Lord's cattle, gathered forest fruits, birds' nests, and litter; the whole family also had grain, fruit, eggs, butter, cheese, poultry, young cattle and whatever else to deliver. Every feudal rule was self-sufficient; even war services were demanded in products; There was no traffic or exchange, no money. Europe had been pushed down to such a low level, had started all over again so much, that money at the time had a far less social than a purely political function: it served for Pay taxes and was mainly acquired by Robbery.

Everything was different now. Money had once again become a common medium of exchange, and with it its mass had increased considerably; even the nobility could no longer do without it, and since they had little or nothing to sell, since robbery was no longer so easy, they had to decide to borrow from the bourgeois usurer. Long before the knight's castles were laid in breach by the new guns, they were already undermined by money; in fact, gunpowder was, so to speak, just the bailiff in the service of money. Money was the citizens' great political leveling machine. Wherever a personal relationship was replaced by a monetary relationship, a benefit in kind by a monetary benefit, a bourgeois relationship took the place of a feudal one. It is true that the old, brutal natural economy remained in the country in by far most cases; But there were already entire districts where, as in Holland, Belgium, on the Lower Rhine, the peasants paid the gentlemen money instead of bonds and taxes in kind, where gentlemen and subjects had already taken the first decisive step towards the transition to landowners and tenants, so where? even in the country the political institutions of feudalism lost their social basis.

The extent to which feudality was already undermined by money at the end of the fifteenth century and consumed internally is evident in the thirst for gold that took hold of Western Europe at this time. gold the Portuguese sought on the African coast, in India, in the whole of the Far East; gold was the magic word that drove the Spaniards to America across the Atlantic Ocean; gold was the first thing the white man wore as soon as he stepped onto a newly discovered beach. But this urge to venture into the distance in search of gold, however much it is realized in feudal and semi-feudal forms in the beginning, was at its roots incompatible with feudalism, whose basis was agriculture and its conquests Land acquisition were directed. Shipping was a decided part of this bourgeois Industry that has impressed its anti-feudal character on all modern war fleets.

So by the fifteenth century feudality was in full decline in all of Western Europe; Everywhere cities with anti-feudal interests, with their own rights and with armed citizens, had wedged themselves into the feudal territories, had in part already made the feudal lords socially, through money, and here and there even politically dependent; even in the country, where agriculture was enhanced by particularly favorable conditions, the old feudal ties began to loosen under the influence of money; The old aristocratic rule continued to flourish only in newly conquered countries, such as Germany's East Elbe, or in areas that were otherwise backward and remote from the trade. But everywhere - in the cities as in the country - the elements of the population had increased, who demanded above all that the eternal senseless waging of war should cease, those feuds of the feudal lords that made domestic war permanent, even when the foreign enemy was in the country was, that state of uninterrupted, purely pointless devastation that had lasted throughout the Middle Ages. Even too weak to get their way, these elements found strong support at the top of the entire feudal order - in kingship. And here is the point where the consideration of social conditions leads us to those of the state, where we move from the economy into politics.

The new nationalities gradually developed out of the tangle of peoples of the earliest Middle Ages, a process in which, as is well known, in most of the former Roman provinces the conquered the victor, the peasants and townspeople assimilated the Germanic masters. The modern nationalities are also the product of the oppressed classes. The Menkesche Gaukarte of central Lorraine gives us a vivid picture of how the merger here, the boundary separation there took place1. One only needs to follow the border dividing Roman and German place names on this map to convince oneself that for Belgium and Lower Lorraine this largely coincides with the language border between French and German that existed a hundred years ago. Here and there there is still a narrow controversial area where the two languages ​​fight for priority; On the whole, however, it is clear what German and what Romansh should remain. The Old Low Franconian and Old High German form of most of the place names on the map, however, shows that they belong to the ninth or, at the latest, the tenth century, i.e. that the border was essentially drawn towards the end of the Carolingian period. On the Romance side, especially near the language border, there are now mixed names, composed of a German personal name and a Romance place name, e.g. west of the Meuse near Verdun: Eppone curtis, Rotfridi curtis, Ingolini curtis, Teudegisilo-villa, today Ippécourt, Récourt la Creux, Amblaincourt sur Aire, Thierville. These were Frankish mansions, small German colonies on Romanesque soil that sooner or later fell victim to Romanization. In the towns and in individual rural areas there were stronger [395] German colonies which retained their language for a long time; from one such example the "Ludwigslied" emerged at the end of the ninth century; But that a large part of the Frankish lords was Romanized earlier, is shown by the oaths of the kings and greats of 842, in which Romansh already appears as the official language of France.

Once the language groups have been demarcated (subject to later wars of conquest and extermination, such as those waged against the Elbe Slavs), it was natural that they served the formation of states on the given basis, that the nationalities began to develop into nations. The rapid collapse of the mixed state of Lotharingia shows how powerful this element was as early as the ninth century. It is true that the entire Middle Ages remained far from coinciding due to language and national borders; But every nationality, with the exception of Italy, was represented in Europe by a particularly large state, and the tendency to create national states that emerged ever more clearly and consciously constituted one of the most essential levers of progress of the Middle Ages.

In each of these medieval states the king was now at the top of the entire feudal hierarchy, a top that the vassals could not shirk and against which they were at the same time in a state of permanent rebellion. The basic relationship of the entire feudal economy, the granting of land in exchange for certain personal services and taxes, provided, in its original, simplest form, enough material for disputes, especially where so many were interested in seeking deals. How now only in the later Middle Ages, when feudal relationships in all countries formed an inextricable tangle of approved, withdrawn, renewed, forfeited, changed or otherwise conditioned entitlements and obligations? Charles the Bold, for example, was the emperor's feudal man for some of his countries and the king of France's feudal man for others; on the other hand, the king of France, his feudal lord, was at the same time the feudal man of Charles the Bold for certain areas, his own vassal; how to avoid conflicts? Hence this centuries-long interplay of the attraction of the vassals to the royal center, which alone can protect them from outside and against each other, and the repulsion from the center, into which that attraction turns incessantly and inevitably; Hence the uninterrupted struggle between royalty and vassals, the dreary din of which drowned everything else during that long time when robbery was the only source of income worthy of a free man; hence the endless series of betrayal, assassination, poisoning, insidiousness and all conceivable wickedness that is hidden behind the poetic name of chivalry and speaks of honor and loyalty.

It is obvious that in this general confusion, royalty was the progressive element. It represented the order in the disorder, the developing nation against the fragmentation into rebellious vassal states. All the revolutionary elements that formed beneath the feudal surface were just as dependent on royalty as royalty on them. The alliance of royalty and bourgeoisie dates back to the tenth century; often interrupted by conflicts, as nothing constantly followed its path in the whole of the Middle Ages, it renewed itself more and more firmly, more and more powerfully, until it helped the kingship to the final victory and the kingship subjugated and plundered its allies in gratitude.

Kings and citizens alike found powerful support in the emerging class Lawyers. With the rediscovery of Roman law, labor was divided between the priests, the legal consultants of the feudal period, and the non-spiritual legal scholars. From the outset, these new lawyers were essentially of the bourgeoisie; but then the law they had studied, exercised and exercised was essentially anti-feudal in character and, in certain respects, bourgeois. Roman law is so much the classic legal expression of the living conditions and collisions of a society in which pure private property rules that all later legislations were unable to improve anything fundamentally. In the Middle Ages, bourgeois property was still strongly linked with feudal restrictions, for example consisting largely of privileges; Roman law was in this respect also far ahead of the civil conditions of that time. The further historical development of bourgeois property could only consist in the fact that it developed into pure private property, as it happened. This development, however, had to find a powerful lever in Roman law, which already contained everything that the bourgeoisie of the later Middle Ages only unconsciously strived towards.

Even if in many individual cases Roman law offered the pretext for increased oppression of the peasants by the nobility, e.g. where the peasants could not provide any written evidence of their freedom from the usual burdens, this does not change the matter. Even without Roman law, the nobility would have found such pretexts and found them [397] every day. In any case, it was a tremendous step forward when a law came into force which absolutely does not know feudal relations and which modern private property fully anticipated.

We saw how the feudal nobility began to become superfluous, even a hindrance, in economic terms in society in the later Middle Ages; just as it already stood politically in the way of the development of the cities and of the national state that was then only possible in monarchical form. In spite of all this, he had been held by the fact that up until then he had the monopoly of weapons, that without him no wars could be waged, no battles could be fought. That too should change; the last step was to be taken to make it clear to the feudal nobility that the social and state period that they had ruled was over, that he was no longer needed in his capacity as a knight, even on the battlefield.

Fighting the feudal economy with an even feudal army, in which the soldiers were bound by closer bonds to their immediate liege lords than to the royal army command - that obviously meant moving in a vicious circle and not getting anywhere. From the beginning of the fourteenth century the kings strive to emancipate themselves from this feudal army, to create their own army. From this time on we find in the armies of kings an ever increasing proportion of hired or hired troops. Initially mostly infantry, consisting of the evacuation of the cities and runaway serfs, Lombards, Genoese, Germans, Belgians, etc., used for the occupation of the cities and for siege service, initially hardly to be used in open field battles. But as early as the end of the Middle Ages we also find knights who, with their who knows how, brought together followers to hire foreign princes and thus demonstrate the hopeless collapse of feudal warfare.

At the same time, the basic requirement of a war-ready infantry arose in the cities and in the free peasants, where such had still existed or had been newly formed. Until then, the knighthood, with their followers on horseback, was not both the core of the army but rather the army itself; the train of serfs who ran along with them did not count, they seemed - in the open field - only to be uprooted and plundered. As long as the heyday of feudalism lasted, until the end of the thirteenth century, the cavalry fought and decided all battles. From then on things change, and at different points at the same time. The gradual disappearance of serfdom in England created a numerous class of free peasants, landowners (yeomen) [398] or tenants, and with it the raw material for a new infantry, trained in the use of the bow, the British national weapon of that time. The introduction of these archers, who always fought on foot, whether they were mounted on the march or not, gave rise to an essential change in the tactics of the English armies. From the fourteenth century onwards, English knighthood preferred to challenge on foot, where the terrain or other circumstances make it appropriate. Behind the archers, who initiate the fight and wear down the enemy, the closed phalanx of the dismounted knighthood awaits the enemy attack or the appropriate moment to advance, while only a part remains on horseback to support the decision by flanking attacks. The uninterrupted victories of the British at that time in France are based essentially on this restoration of a defensive element in the army and are mostly just as much defensive battles with offensive recoil as those of Wellington in Spain and Belgium. With the acceptance of the new tactics by the French - possible since Italian crossbowmen hired from them to take the place of English archers - the British ended their victorious run. Also at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the infantry of the Flemish cities had dared - and often with success - to oppose the French knighthood in open field battle, and by attempting to betray the non-empire Swiss peasants to the Archduke of Eastern Empire, Emperor Albrecht which he himself gave the impetus for the formation of the first modern infantry of European repute. In the triumphs of the Swiss over the Austrians and especially over the Burgundians, armored riding - mounted or dismounted - finally succumbed to the infantry, the feudal army to the beginnings of the modern army, the knights to the bourgeoisie and free peasants. And the Swiss, in order to determine from the outset the bourgeois character of their, the first independent republic in Europe, silver-plated immediately their war glory. All political considerations disappeared: the cantons turned into advertising tables to round up mercenaries for the highest bidder. Elsewhere, too, and especially in Germany, there was a lot of advertising going on; but the cynicism of a government that only seemed to be there to sell its country children remained unmatched until, at the time of the deepest national humiliation, German princes surpassed it.

Then in the fourteenth century gunpowder and artillery were also brought to Europe by the Arabs via Spain. Until the end of the Middle Ages the handgun was of no importance, which is understandable [399] since the bow of the English rifleman from Crécy hit just as far and perhaps more safely - though not with the same effect - as the smooth rifle of the infantryman from Waterloo. The field gun was also still in his childhood; on the other hand, the heavy cannons had already repeatedly laid the free-standing masonry of the knight's castles in breach and announced to the feudal aristocracy that the end of their empire would be sealed with the powder.

The spread of the art of printing, the revival of the study of ancient literature, the whole cultural movement that has been growing stronger and more general since 1450 - all of this came to the benefit of the bourgeoisie and royalty in the struggle against feudalism.

The co-operation of all these causes, strengthened from year to year by their increasing and increasingly in the same direction driving reciprocal interaction, decided in the last half of the fifteenth century the victory, not yet of the bourgeoisie, but of the monarchy over feudalism. Everywhere in Europe, right into the distant neighboring countries that did not go through the feudal state, royal power suddenly got the upper hand. On the Pyrenean Peninsula, two of the Romance language tribes there united to form the Kingdom of Spain and the Provencal-speaking realm of Aragon submitted to the written Castilian language; the third tribe united its linguistic area (with the exception of Galicia) to form the Kingdom of Portugal, the Iberian Holland, turned away from the inland and proved its justification for a separate existence through its activity at sea.

In France, Louis XI succeeded. Finally, after the fall of the Burgundian intermediate empire, the national unity represented by the kingship was to be established in the then still very limited French territory to such an extent that his successor was able to interfere with Italian dealings and that this unity only once again - through the Reformation - for a short time Time was in question. England had finally given up her Quixottic wars of conquest in France, from which she would have bleeding to death in the long run; The feudal nobility looked for a replacement in the Wars of the Roses and found more than they had been looking for: they rubbed one another against each other and brought the House of Tudor to the throne, whose royal power exceeded that of all its predecessors and successors. The Scandinavian countries had long been unified, Poland was approaching its heyday with an as yet undiminished royal power since its unification with Lithuania [400], and even in Russia the overthrow of the princes and the shedding of the Tatar yoke had gone hand in hand and Ivan III finally sealed. In the whole of Europe there were only two countries in which royalty and the national unity that was impossible without it at the time did not exist at all or only existed on paper: Italy and Germany.


1 Spruner-Menke, "Hand Atlas on the History of the Middle Ages and Modern Times", 3rd edition, Gotha 1874, map no. 32.