One of the biggest misconceptions held among the independent and alternative media is that of feudalism and the political, economic and social arrangements which characterized that unfairly maligned epoch.
Derogatory language is often used to describe feudal times with commentators often suggesting that today’s political and financial elites seek to return mankind to such a supposedly depressed, stagnate and repressive condition.
Those who receive the most animus from alternative media pundits are the authority figures and institutions which reigned throughout the period – knights, dukes, kings, princes, popes, priests, bishops, churches, monasteries, and cathedrals.
Yet, was this the case; was feudalism which existed throughout much of the Middle Ages really that bad?
Politically, despite the distortions found in contemporary history books and political science texts, state power in feudal times can be categorized in one term – decentralized – which in reality meant a considerable amount of individual liberty and freedom for all, including serfs.
Naturally, feudal political conditions across Europe varied, however, a look through Carl Stephenson’s classic work, Mediaeval Feudalism, is instructive:
So far as eleventh-century France is concerned, we may disregard
the royal authority altogether. The kingdom of the West Franks,
which had never been more than a political makeshift, now seemed
on the point of final dissolution. . . . The ancient rights of the crown
had long since passed to such men as were able, with or without
legal authorization to organize and defend a local territory. . . .
The greater of the king’s alleged vassals never came near his court,
whether to perform homage or to render any other service. What
respect could they have for a theoretical lord who was defied with
impunity by petty officials on his own domain?1
Professor Stephenson continues with words that should warm the hearts of anti-statists everywhere:
France, obviously, had ceased to be a state in any proper sense
of the word. Rather, it had been split into a number of states
whose rulers, no matter how they styled themselves, enjoyed
the substance of the regal power.2
In Germany, too, power was radically diffused as Professor Stephenson describes:
. . . in various other ways the rulers of Germany sought to
maintain the Carolingian tradition of a grandiose monarchy.
They even revived the imperial title and made brave efforts
to reign on both sides of the Alps. But the task was an
impossible one. The Holy Roman Empire became a mere
sham; and as the prolonged contest between the royal
and the princely authority ended in the complete victory of
the latter, Germany. . . was resolved into a group of feudal
Despite their aggrandizing efforts, the German kings could never succeed in establishing absolutist rule:
Vainly trying to be Roman emperors, the successors of
Otto I . . . became [as kings] purely elective, degenerated
into a sort of decoration to be borne first by one local prince
an then by another.4
Germany remained, for the longest time, an area of decentralized political authority as Professor Stephenson explains:
From the Rhineland to the Slavic frontier, armies were
made up of knights, society was dominated by a
chivalrous aristocracy, the countryside was dotted with
motte-and-bailey castles, and governments were
organized on the basis of feudal tenure.5
Political and economic theory have demonstrated that power which is diffused typically leads to low levels of taxation. In the case of medieval feudalism, this certainly was the case:
. . . if the lord needed military service or financial aid beyond
what was specifically owed by his vassals, his only recourse
was to ask them for a voluntary grant. He had no right to tax
or assess them arbitrarily, for his authority in such matters was
determined by feudal contract.6
Likewise, law was not “made up” by legislative acts, but was that of custom and tradition based on the natural law which kings, lords, vassals, and commoners were all obliged to live by:
Nor does he [the king, or lord] have a discretionary power
of legislation. Law was the unwritten custom of the country.
To change or even to define it was the function, not of the lord,
but of his court. It was the vassals themselves who declared the
law under which they lived; and when one of them was accused
of a misdeed, he was entitled to the judgment of his peers, i.e.
his fellow vassals.7
Warfare, too, was limited in scope compared to the massive human slaughter and destruction of property which has taken place over the past two centuries:
The general character of feudal warfare may be easily
deduced from what has already been said about
vassalage and chivalry. . . . when two feudal armies
met, each knightly participant was apt to conduct
himself as he saw fit. The final outcome would depend
on a series of duels in which the determining factor was
individual prowess. But battles on a large scale were
rare in feudal Europe. The characteristic warfare of the
age consisted rather of pillaging raids into the enemy’s
territory, of skirmishes between small bands of knights,
and of engagements incident to the siege of castles.
While there used to be a debate about the conditions of serfs compared to that of modern day wage earners, the argument is now falling apart with studies showing that real wages and corresponding standards of living have actually contracted over the past half century for most. Where there can be no debate, however, is the moral condition of the people of the feudal past compared with contemporary times where “gay marriage” and other abominations have now been given legal status. No right-minded person could argue that marriage, the family, and child rearing are in better shape today than they were in the supposed “Dark Ages.”
In nearly every aspect of societal appraisement, medieval feudalism was a far superior social order than anything which has come in its wake. Those who denigrate it not only show their historical ignorance, but play into the hands of their elite oppressors who understand that a return to such a social order would be a much greater threat to their power than any presidential candidate or his “movement.”
1Carl Stephenson, Mediaeval Feudalism, Ithaca, NY.: Great Seal books, 1942; 1960, pp. 77-78.
2Ibid., p. 78.
6Ibid., p. 31.
8Ibid., pp. 66-68.