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THE epoch known as the Middle Ages dates from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. The most prominent feature of this period was the FEUDAL SYSTEM, which may require a word or two of preliminary explanation.
The Feudal system is regarded by some as a Military, by others as an Aristocratic institution. It may be fairly regarded as both, for while it was Military in its origin, it became Aristocratic in its development.
The rise of Feudalism dates from the parcelling out of the conquered territory of the Roman Empire amongst the invading tribes, whose King or Chief first chose his portion, and divided the rest among his captains. These, in their turn, made concessions of land—first called benefices, and afterwards fiefs*to their soldiers, on condition that they and their
Fiefs.-In modern Latin, feodum; from the Saxon fee, salary; and od, property-whence feudality or feudalism. This word designated the land given in recompense for military service by a chief to his soldiers. The word fief was employed for the first time in a chart of Charles le Gros, in 884, to designate the concessions described, which, up to the ninth century, had been called benefices--in Latin, beneficium. The fiefs were divided into the great fiefs, or feudal peerages; then into single fiefs, which derived directly from the crown; and double fiefs, whose owners did not derive from the crown, but from his first suzerain or lord, who was himself most likely the vassal or feudatory of some other suzerain or lord more powerful. The number of fiefs in France varied in this way to an endless extent.
heirs should do military service, and make payments of money or produce.
Thus every tenant, it will be seen, was bound to render military and pecuniary service to his landlord, and became in fact a slave, as his life and labor were at the command of the landowner. The recipient of the land was called a vassal, and the donor was styled the Suzerain or Lord. This same Suzerain was, in his turn, the vassal of the Crown for the land conferred on him, and bound to render "faith and homage."
All the land, both that of the great vassals of the Crown, who in the sixth century took the name of Barons, as well as that of their tenants, was held under a certain tenure or condition, which is familiarly known as the feudal tenure. This mode of holding land, which lasted during most of the Middle Ages, is the very opposite of the freehold system; for the former is held on a condition, and the latter is free from all condition. The feudal and the freehold tenures are therefore just the reverse of each other.
The gift of lands for military service may be traced to the time of the two Roman Emperors, Severus and Probus, 222 and 276 a.D. It was the immemorial usage of the German tribes. When, therefore, the Roman Empire fell into the hands of the victorious barbarians, Europe was organized on this territorial basis.
The feudal tenure was first introduced into Gaul by the Franks, who under their King, Clovis, 481 a.d., became the dominant people of Europe. In the
→ Clovis drove the Romans, the Visigoths, &c., out of Gaul, which was thereafter called France, and founded the French monarchy, the first strong government that emerged from the ruins of the Roman Empire. It broke up after his death in 511 A.D.
course of two centuries many of these great landowners in France became so rich and powerful as to threaten the Monarchy. They were constantly engaged in wars with each other: and the stronger seizing on the land of the vanquished, so added to his possessions and to the number of his retainers or vassals. In 715 A.D., Charles Martel, one of these territorial Lords, actually governed France under the name of "Mayor of the Palace ;" and his son, Pepin the Short, in 752 A.D., deposed the King, Childeric III., and had himself proclaimed in his place, becoming the Founder of the second French dynasty.
From the time of Clovis, the Royal Power became constantly weaker from the usage of dividing the Kingdom among the various heirs, until, as just related, one of the feudal Lords was able easily to seize on the Monarchy. Charlemagne, one of the sons of Pepin, raised the Monarchy by his genius to such a height as utterly to eclipse the rivalry of the great feudal Chiefs; but on his death, his Kingdom was again split up, and the Royal Power once more declined. The successors of Charlemagne were all weak men, on whom the feudal Chiefs were able to impose their own terms. About 876 A.D., they forced Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, to declare their estates hereditary. They even went further, and succeeded in causing the government of the various provinces of the Kingdom, which were all in their hands, to be also declared hereditary.
We now enter the Middle Ages in France, the subject of this chapter. From this time the power of the leading Barons became so great that they treated the Royal Authority with contempt. In 987 A.D., one of the