Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Feudal System
By William Robertson (1721–1793)
From History of Charles V.

AS the conquerors of Europe had their acquisitions to maintain, not only against such of the ancient inhabitants as they had spared, but against the more formidable inroads of new invaders, self-defence was their chief care, and seems to have been the chief object of their first institutions and policy. Instead of these loose associations, which, though they scarcely diminished their personal independence, had been sufficient for their security while they remained in their original countries, they saw the necessity of uniting in more close confederacy, and of relinquishing some of their private rights in order to attain public safety. Every freeman, upon receiving a portion of the lands which were divided, bound himself to appear in arms against the enemies of the community. This military service was the condition upon which he received and held his lands; and as they were exempted from every other burden, that tenure, among a warlike people, was deemed both easy and honourable. The king or general, who led them to conquest, continuing still to be the head of the colony, had, of course, the largest portion allotted to him. Having thus acquired the means of rewarding past services, as well as gaining new adherents, he parcelled out his lands with this view, binding those on whom they were bestowed, to resort to his standard with a number of men in proportion to the extent of the territory which they received, and to bear arms in his defence. His chief officers imitated the example of the sovereign, and, in distributing portions of their lands among their dependents, annexed the same condition to the grant. Thus a feudal kingdom resembled a military establishment, rather than a civil institution. The victorious army, cantoned out in the country which it had seized, continued ranged under its proper officers, and subordinate to military command. The names of a soldier and of a freeman were synonymous. Every proprietor of land, girt with a sword, was ready to march at the summons of his superior, and to take the field against the common enemy.
  But though the feudal policy seems to be so admirably calculated for defence against the assaults of any foreign power, its provisions for the interior order and tranquillity of society were extremely defective. The principles of disorder and corruption are discernible in that constitution under its best and most perfect form. They soon unfolded themselves, and, spreading with rapidity through every part of the system, produced the most fatal effects. The bond of political union was extremely feeble; the sources of anarchy were innumerable. The monarchical and aristocratical parts of the constitution, having no intermediate power to balance them, were perpetually at variance, and jostling with each other. The powerful vassals of the crown soon extorted a confirmation for life of those grants of land, which, being at first purely gratuitous, had been bestowed only during pleasure. Not satisfied with this, they prevailed to have them converted into hereditary possessions. One step more completed their usurpations, and rendered them unalienable. With an ambition no less enterprising, and more preposterous, they appropriated to themselves titles of honour, as well as offices of power or trust. These personal marks of distinction, which the public admiration bestows on illustrious merit, or which the public confidence confers on extraordinary abilities, were annexed to certain families, and transmitted like fiefs, from father to son, by hereditary right. The crown vassals having thus secured possession of their lands and dignities, the nature of the feudal institutions, which, though founded on subordination, verged to independence, led them to new, and still more dangerous encroachments on the prerogatives of the sovereign. They obtained the power of supreme jurisdiction, both civil and criminal, within their own territories; the right of coining money; together with the privilege of carrying on war against their private enemies, in their own name, and by their own authority. The ideas of political subjection were almost entirely lost, and frequently scarce any appearance of feudal subordination remained. Nobles, who had acquired such enormous power, scorned to consider themselves as subjects. They aspired openly at being independent: the bonds which connected the principal members of the constitution with the crown were dissolved. A kingdom, considerable in name and extent, was broken into as many separate principalities as it contained powerful barons. A thousand causes of jealousy and discord subsisted among them, and gave rise to as many wars. Every country in Europe, wrested or kept in continual alarm during these endless contests, was filled with castles and places of strength erected for the security of the inhabitants; not against foreign force, but against internal hostilities. An universal anarchy, destructive, in a great measure, of all the advantages which men expect to derive from society, prevailed. The people, the most numerous as well as the most useful part of the community, were either reduced to a state of actual servitude or treated with the same insolence and rigour as if they had been degraded into that wretched condition. The king, stripped of almost every prerogative, and without authority to enact or to execute salutary laws, could neither protect the innocent nor punish the guilty. The nobles, superior to all restraint, harassed each other with perpetual wars, oppressed their fellow-subjects, and humbled or insulted their sovereign. To crown all, time gradually fixed, and rendered venerable, this pernicious system, which violence had established.  2

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