Feudal England (Part 4)

By William Morris

Entry 8434


From: holdoffhunger [id: 1]


Revolt Library Anarchism Feudal England (Part 4)

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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 4)

Source: Feudal England; Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 87, 10 September 1887, p. 290-1;
Transcribed: by Graham Seaman.

The complete feudalism of the fourteenth century fell, as systems always fall, by its own corruption, by development of the seeds of change, some which indeed had lain asleep during centuries, to wake up into activity long after the events which had created them were forgotten.

The feudal system was naturally one of open war; and the alliances, marriages, and other dealings family with family, made by the kings and potentates, were always leading them into war by giving them legal claims, or at least claims that could be legally pleaded, to the domains of other lords, who took advantage of their being on the spot, of their strength in men or money, or their popularity with the baronage, to give immediate effect to their claims. Such a war was that by which Edward I. drew on England the enmity of the Scotch; and such again was the great war which Edward III. entered into with France. You must not suppose that there was anything in this war of a national, far less of a race character. The last series of wars before this time I am now speaking of in which race feeling counted for much was the Crusades. This French war, I say, was neither national, racial, or tribal; it was the private business of a lord of the manor claiming what he considered his legal rights of another lord who had, as he thought, usurped them; and this claim his loyal feudatories were bound to take up for him; loyalty to a feudal superior, not patriotism to a country, was the virtue which Edward III.'s soldiers had to offer if they had any call to be virtuous in that respect. This war once started was hard to drop, partly because of the success that Edward had, falling as he did on France with the force of a country so much more homogeneous than it; and no doubt it was a war very disastrous to both countries, and so may be reckoned as among the causes which broke up the feudal system. But the real cause lay much deeper than that. The system was not capable of expansion in production; it was, in fact, as long as its integrity remained untouched, an army fed by slaves, who could not be properly and closely exploited; its free men proper might do something else in their leisure, and so produce art and literature, but their true business as members of a conquering tribe, their concerted business, was to fight. There was, indeed, a fringe of people between the serf and the free noble who produced the matters of handicraft which were needed for the latter, but deliberately, and as we should now think, wastefully; and as these craftsmen and traders began to grow into importance and to push themselves, as they could not help doing, into the feudal hierarchy, as they acquired status, so the sickness of the feudal system increased on it, and the shadow of the coming commercialism fell upon it. That any set of people who could claim to be other than the property of free men should not have definite rights differentiated sharply from those of other groups, was an idea that did not occur to the Middle Ages; therefore, as soon as men came into existence that were not serfs and were not nobles, they had to struggle for status by organizing themselves into associations that should come to be acknowledged members of the great feudal hierarchy; for indefinite and negative freedom was not allowed to any person in those days; if you had not status you did not exist except as an outlaw. This is, briefly speaking, the motive power of necessity that lay behind the struggle of the town corporations and craft gilds to be free, a struggle which, though it was to result in the breaking up of the medieval hierarchy, began by an appearance of strengthening it by adding to its members, increasing its power of production, and so making it more stable. About this struggle, and the kind of life which accompanied it, I may have to write another time, and so will not say more about it here. Except this, that it was much furthered by the change that gradually took place between the landlords and the class on whom all society rested, the serfs. These at first were men who had no more rights than chattel-slaves had, except that mostly, as part of the stock of the manor, they could not be sold off it; they had to do all the work of the manor, and to earn their own livelihood off it as they best could. But as the power of production increased, owing to better methods of working, and as the country got to be more settled, their task-work became easier of performance and their own land more productive to them; and that tendency to the definition and differentiation of rights, moreover, was at work for their benefit, and the custom of the manor defined what their services were, and they began to acquire rights. From that time they ceased to be pure serfs, and began to tend towards becoming tenants, at first paying purely and simply service for their holdings, but gradually commuting that service for fines and money payment — for rent, in short.

Towards the close of the fourteenth century, after the country had been depopulated by the Black Death, and impoverished by the long war, the feudal lords of these copyholders and tenants began to regret the slackness with which their predecessors had exploited their property, the serfs, and to consider that under the new commercial light which had begun to dawn upon them they could do it much better if they only had their property a little more in hand; but it was too late, for their property had acquired rights, and therewithal had got strange visions into their heads of a time much better than that in which they lived, when even those rights should be supplanted by a condition of things in which the assertion of rights for any one set of men should no longer be needed, since all men should be free to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. Of that came the great episode of the Peasants' War, led by men like Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, and John Ball, who indeed, with those they led, suffered for daring to be before their time, for the revolt was put down with cruelty worthy of an Irish landlord or a sweating capitalist of the present day; but, nevertheless, serfdom came to an end in England, if not because of the revolt, yet because of the events that made it, and thereby a death-wound was inflicted on the feudal system. From that time onward the country, passing through the various troubles of a new French war of Henry Vth's time, and the War of the Roses, did not heed these faction fights much. The workmen grew in prosperity, but also they began to rise into a new class, and form a class underneath the old working men. and to lay the foundations of capitalistic production. England got carried into the rising current of commercialism, and the rich men and landlords to turn their attention to the production of profit instead of the production of livelihood; the gildless journeyman and the landless laborer slowly came into existence; the landlord got rid of his tenants all he could, turned tillage into pasture, and sweated the pastures to death in his eagerness for wool, which for him meant money and the breeding of money; till at last the place of the serf, w;which had stood empty, as it were, during a certain transition period, during which the non-capitalistic production was expanding up to its utmost limit, was filled by the proletarian working for the service of a master in a new fashion, a fashion which exploited and (woe worth the while!) exploits him very much more completely than the customs of the manor of the feudal period. I hope to be able hereafter to go into the question of the life and production of the workman of the earlier period. At present I will make an end by saying that the feudal serf worked hard, and lived poorly, and produced a rough livelihood for his master; whereas the modern workman, working harder still, and living little if any better than the serf, produces for his master a state of luxury of which the old lord of the manor never dreamed. The workman's powers of production are multiplied a thousandfold; his own livelihood remains pretty much what it was. The balance goes to his master and the crowd of useless, draggle-tailed knaves and fools who pander to his idiotic sham desires, and who, under the pretentious title of the intellectual part of the middle-classes, have in their turn taken the place of the medieval jester. Truly, if the Positivist motto, "Live for others," be taken in stark literality the modern workman should be a good and wise man since he has no chance of living for himself! And yet, I wish he were wiser still; wise enough to make an end of the preaching of "live on others," which is the motto set forth by commercialism to her favored children.

Yet in one thing, the modern proletarian has an advantage over the medieval serf, and that advantage is a world in itself. Many a century lay between the serf and successful revolt, and though he tried it many a time and never lost heart, yet the coming change which his martyrdom helped on was not to be for him yet, but for the new masters of his successors. With us it is different. A few years of wearisome struggle against apathy and ignorance; a year or two of growing hope — and then who knows? Perhaps a few months, or perhaps a few days of the open struggle with brute force, with the mask off its face, and the sword in its hand, and then we are over the bar. Who knows, I say? Yet this we know, that ahead of us, with nothing betwixt except such incidents as are necessary to its development, lies the inevitable social revolution, which will bring about the end of mastery and the triumph of fellowship.

William Morris.

From : Marxists.org


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