Feudal England (Part 1)

By William Morris

Entry 8429


From: holdoffhunger [id: 1]


Revolt Library Anarchism Feudal England (Part 1)

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(1834 - 1896)

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production. His literary contributions helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, while he helped win acceptance of socialism in fin de siècle Great Britain. (From: Wikipedia.org.)

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Feudal England (Part 1)

Source: Feudal England; Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 84, 20 August 1887, p. 266-7;
Transcribed: by Graham Seaman.

THE Norman Conquest found a certain kind of feudality in existence in England; a feudality which was developed from the customs of the tribes with little or no admixture of Roman law; and also even before the Conquest this country was slowly beginning to be mixed up with the affairs of the Continent of Europe, and that not only with the kindred nations of Scandinavia, but with the Romanized countries also. But the Conquest of Duke William did introduce the complete or Romanized Feudal system into the country; and it also connected it by strong bonds to the Romanized countries, but thereby laid the first foundations of national feeling in England. The English felt their kinship with the Norsemen or the Danes, and did not feel their conquests when they had become complete, and consequently mere immediate violence had disappeared from them; their feeling was tribal rather than national; but they could have no sense of co-nationality with the varied populations of the provinces which mere dynastical events had strung together into the dominion, the manor, one may say, of the foreign princes of Normandy and Anjou; and as the kings who ruled them gradually got pushed out of their French possessions, England became conscious of her separate nationality, though still only in a fashion, as the manor of an English lord.

It is beyond the scope of this article to give anything like a connected story, even of the slightest, of the course of events between the conquest of Duke William and the fully developed medieval period of the 14th century, which is the England that I have before my eyes as Medieval. That period of the 14th century united the developments of the elements which had been stirring in Europe since the final fall of the Roman Empire, and England shared in the general feeling and spirit of the age, although from its position the course of its history, and to a certain extent the lives of its people was different. It is to this period, therefore, that I wish in the long run to call your attention, and I will only say so much about the earlier period as may be necessary to explain how the people of England got into the position in which they were found by the statute of laborers enacted by Edward III., and the Peasant's Rebellion in the time of his grandson and successor Richard II.

Undoubtedly, then, the Norman Conquest made a complete break in the continuity of the history of England. When the Londoners after the Battle of Hastings accepted Duke William for their king, no doubt they thought of him as being much in the same position that the newly slain Harold had been; or at any rate such a king as Knut the Dane, who had also conquered England; and probably William himself thought no otherwise, but the event was quite different, for on the one hand not only was he a man of great character, able, masterful, and a great soldier in the modern sense of the word, but he had at his back his wealthy dukedom of Normandy, which he had himself reduced to obedience and organized; and, on the other hand, England lay before him, unorganized, yet stubbornly rebellious to him; its very disorganization and want of a center making it more difficult to deal with by merely over-running it with an army levied for that purpose, and backed by a body of house-carles or guards, which would have been the method of a Scandinavian or native king in dealing with his rebellious subjects. Duke William's necessities and instincts combined led him into a very different course of action, which determined the future destiny of the country. What he did was to quarter upon England an army of feudal vassals drawn from his obedient dukedom, and to hand over to them the lordship of the land of England in return for their military service to him, the suzerain of them all. Thenceforward, it was under the rule of these foreign landlords that the people of England had to develope.

The development of the country as a Teutonic people was checked and turned aside by this event. Duke William brought, in fact, his Normandy into England, which was thereby changed from a Teutonic people (theod) with the old tribal customary law still in use among them, into a province of Romanized Feudal Europe, a piece of France in short; and though in time she did grow into another England again, she missed for ever in her language, her literature, and her laws, the chance of developing into a great homogeneous Teutonic people infused usefully with a mixture of Celtic blood.

However, this step which Duke William was forced to take, further influenced the future of the country by creating the great order of the baronage, and the history of the early period of England is pretty much that of the struggle of the king with the baronage and the church. For William fixed the type of the successful English medieval king, of whom Henry II. and Edward I. were also notable examples. It was, in fact, with him that the struggle towards monarchical bureaucracy began, which was checked by the barons, who extorted Magna Charta from King John, and afterwards by the revolt headed by Simon de Montfort in Henry. III.'s reign; was carried on vigorously by Edward I., and finally successfully finished by Henry VII. after the long faction-fight of the Wars of the Roses, had weakened the feudal lords so much that they could no longer assert themselves against the monarchy.

As to the contest between the Crown and the Church, two things are to be noted: first, that at least in the earlier period the Church was on the popular side. Thomas Beckett was canonized, it is true, formally and by regular decree; but his memory was held so dear by the people that he would probably have been canonized informally by them if the holy seat at Rome had refused to do so. The second thing to be noted about the dispute is this, that it was no contest of principle. According to the medieval theory of life and religion, the Church and the State were one: separate manifestations of the Kingdom of God upon earth which was part of the Kingdom of God in heaven; the king was an officer of that realm and a liegeman of God. The doctor of laws and the doctor of physic partook in a degree of the priestly character. On the other hand the Church was not withdrawn from the everyday life of men; the division into a worldly and spiritual life neither of which had much to do with the other, was a creation of the protestantism of the Reformation, and had no place in the practice at least of the medieval Church, which we cannot too carefully remember is little more represented by modern Catholicism than by modern Protestantism. The contest, therefore, between the Crown and the Church was a mere bickering between two bodies, without any essential antagonism between them as to how far the administration of either reached: neither dreamed of subordinating one to the other, far less of extinguishing one by the other.

The history of the Crusades, by the way, illustrates very emphatically this position of the Church in the Middle Ages. The foundation of that strange feudal kingdom of Jerusalem, whose king had precedence in virtue of his place as lord of the center of Christianity over all other kings and princes; the orders of men-at-arms vowed to poverty and chastity, like the Templars and Knights of St. John; and above all the unquestioning sense of duty that urged men of all classes and kinds into the holy war, show how strongly the idea of God's kingdom on the earth had taken hold of all men's minds in the early Middle Ages. As to the result of the Crusades, they certainly had their influence on the solidification of Europe and the great feudal system, at the head of which, in theory at least, were the Pope and the Kaisar. Doubtless, also, the intercourse with the East gave Europe an opportunity of sharing in the mechanical civilization of the peoples originally dominated by the Arabs, and infused by the art of Byzantium and Persia, not without some tincture of the cultivation of the later classical period.

The stir and movement also of the Crusades, and the necessities in which they involved the princes and their barons, furthered the upward movement of the classes that lay below the feudal vassals, great and little; the principal opportunity for which movement, however, in England, was given by the continuous struggle between the Crown and the Church and Baronage.

The early Norman kings, even immediately after the« death of the Conqueror, found themselves involved in this struggle, and were forced to avail themselves of the help of what had now become the inferior tribe — the native English, to wit. Henry I., an able and ambitious man, understood this so clearly that he made a distinct bid for the favor of the inferior tribe by marrying an English princess; and it was by means of the help of his English subjects that be conquered his Norman subjects, and the field of Tenchebray, which put the coping-stone on his success, was felt by the English people as an English victory over the oppressing tribe with which Duke William had overwhelmed the English people. It was during this king's reign and under these influences that the trading and industrial classes began to rise somewhat. The merchant gilds (of which subject of gilds more hereafter) were now in their period of greatest power, and had hardly begun, as they did later, to develope into the corporations of the towns; but the towns themselves were beginning to gain their freedom and to become an important element in the society of the time, as little by little they asserted themselves against the arbitrary rule of the feudal lords, lay or ecclesiastical: for as to the latter, it must be remembered that the Church included in herself the orders or classes into which lay society was divided, and while by its lower clergy of the parishes and (afterwards) by the friars it touched the people, its upper clergy were simply feudal lords; and as the religious fervor of the "cultivated clergy," which was marked enough in the earlier period of the Middle Ages (in Anselm, for example), faded out, they became more and more mere landlords, although from the conditions of their landlordism, living as they did on their land and amid of their tenants, less oppressive than the lay landlords.

William Morris.

( To he continued. )

From : Marxists.org


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