No More Feudalism

Rosemary Horrox

  • Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted by Susan Reynolds
    Oxford, 544 pp, £20.00, August 1994, ISBN 0 19 820458 2

The feudal system has usually been taken to entail a tenurial hierarchy in which land held of a superior carried certain obligations. In the resulting pyramid, only the man at the top could be said to enjoy full ownership of his land. The title of those lower down was limited by the rights reserved by those above them, so that they could not properly be said to ‘own’ land at all, only to ‘hold’ it from their immediate lord. Inevitably, given the powerful desire to hand on land to the next generation, such holdings tended to become hereditary, even where this had not been the original intention; but the residual rights of the overlord persisted, unless he were careless or profligate and let them be forgotten or actually gave them away. Medieval rulers thus derived their authority from their possession of rights over land, and their power was exercised most immediately over those who held land directly from them.

Historians have been tinkering with this basic model for years; latterly with a dawning conviction that they were trying to retune a clapped-out engine to avoid the bother of finding a new car. Now, at last, Susan Reynolds has scrapped it altogether. Her argument, put simply, is that the feudal system, as defined above, did not exist in early medieval Europe, and that if one approaches the sources (predominantly land grants and the disputes arising from them) with an open mind, it is apparent that land was being held and granted in a wide variety of ways. Some entailed restrictions, but this depended on the circumstances of the particular grant; it was not assumed that the donor would retain rights which limited the recipient’s ownership. Not until the 12th century do the terms in which land-holding is discussed begin to carry the assumptions inherent in the feudal model: notably, that a ‘vassal’ who holds a ‘fief’ thereby recognises the rights of a superior lord in the land.

The spread of this ‘feudal’ vocabulary is linked here with the emergence of academic law in Western Europe. A new breed of professional lawyers sought to make intellectual sense of the diversity of tenures by theorising about the underlying nature of property rights. The ideological framework they created was unreal, and its coherence spurious, but it increasingly shaped reality as professionals moved into drafting grants and debating cases. In England, the process can be seen particularly clearly in an area which lies outside the scope of this book: the relationship of lords and their dependent peasants – feudalism in its Marxist sense. The insistence of common lawyers that men must be either free or unfree meant that a multiplicity of local obligations and customs were crammed into a binary legal model whose limitations can still be seen in the poverty of the medieval Latin terminology for categories of peasant, compared with the richness of the vernacular.

This is not to say that any change was merely semantic. Freedom and unfreedom were real states, even if they did not always sit easily alongside the economic and social hierarchies of the day. Rulers were not only claiming, but enforcing, their new, ‘feudal’ rights over the lands of their leading subjects. Lawyers may have a weakness for tidying away messy realities, but they cannot generally create an intellectual model out of nothing, or force its adoption if it is too far out of step with contemporary norms. Reynolds meets the first point by arguing that the theory of fiefs developed out of ecclesiastical practice: that churches did usually make provisional grants of land and that this largely determined the way academic lawyers thought about property. The second issue is more complex. It is her central argument that insofar as feudalism can be said to have existed at all, it was a development of the late 11th century and its appearance then was not a matter of activating innate rights over land, but marked an extension of royal jurisdiction – using that word to denote an attribute of government rather than a right in property. ‘Feudalism’ was a manifestation of royal authority, not its source.

As a description of what happened this carries conviction. It fits well with the idea, also manifesting itself at this time, that rights resided in the ruler and therefore needed to be given, not just taken: something which can be seen most clearly in cases where individuals and communities sought ‘grants’ of rights they already exercised. The growing volume of royal charters does not just reflect the new reliance on written records, but also a desire for authorisation. In asserting the ruler’s right to give, such grants carried the implication that what had been given could also be taken away. Oddly, considering that this is the basic premise of the classic feudal system, in which grants create enduring obligations that make the recipient’s rights provisional, this perception of giving as a way of extending power has been largely ignored by historians of the high Middle Ages, who are inclined instead to see grants of liberties as an expression of royal weakness. The outpouring of royal charters under Richard I and John has traditionally been regarded as the equivalent of selling the ancestral silver for petty cash. Paradoxically, this reading derives from another aspect of belief in the feudal system. If a ruler’s power consists of rights deriving from the overlordship of land, then it is finite: a hoard which must not be squandered because it cannot easily be replenished.

Reynolds’s argument is that medieval royal power was not like that. It resided, and had always resided, in the king’s authority as king. But that authority was not something to be imposed by royal fiat. In England, at least, historians have rejected the notion that the king and his leading subjects were engaged in a perpetual struggle for the upper hand. The emphasis instead is on the reciprocity of power in a world where king and subjects needed each other. The expansion of royal authority on which Reynolds’s argument pivots cannot have been imposed from above. If it is not the result of a legal sleight of hand, neither is it a piece of thuggery by kings who suddenly found themselves strong enough to get away with it. The change must reflect the wishes of a wider constituency. The question of why that happened – of how, in Reynolds’s words, the reserves of authority latent in the title of king became something like effective jurisdiction – is, as she admits, unanswered. But the answer, when it comes, will surely be linked in England with the emergence of the common law, and the way in which it developed in response to a demand for justice from below.

The unhitching of the king’s authority from lordship over land has major implications for how we should discuss medieval royal power. Authority can now be seen as growing (and contracting) in more subtle and complex ways than by the defence of a bundle of rights. Rights, indeed, become a manifestation of power rather than its source – precisely the claim being made here in respect of the king’s ‘feudal’ rights. At the same time, the king’s lordship (using that word in a non-tenurial sense) emerges as far more wide-ranging and flexible once one abandons the assumption that it was primarily mediated through a tenurial hierarchy. In practice, inevitably, the king’s power was often mediated through his nobility – within a hierarchical society this was as much a matter of conviction (and courtesy) as of convenience. But when medieval rulers sought service directly from lesser figures this was not in itself contentious. It could become so, but this had more to do with the role such men were asked to perform than with the fact of their being asked at all. Fascination with the royal use of ‘new men’ is testimony to the extent to which it is recognised as not fitting the feudal model – and traditionally the king’s employment of ‘gentry’ rather than nobility has been hailed as a sign of the emergence of a post-feudal, pre-modern state.

Abandoning the feudal system does not only have implications for understanding what royal power was. It also has a bearing on how that power is seen as evolving. In particular, it disposes of the need to posit a major change in the ideological basis of monarchical authority en route to the emergence of the modern state. Whether ‘feudalism’ is identified with weak or powerful central authority (and opinions differ on that), it is indubitably not modern. In any account of political development, feudalism, as traditionally defined, has to be got rid of somewhere along the line. It was once fashionable to evoke cataclysmic change. In England, the Wars of the Roses were the favoured candidate, bringing the self-destruction of the feudal nobility and clearing the way for the arrival of the Tudors and their non-feudal servants. More recently, the emphasis has been on earlier, gradual change, in which feudal assessments are replaced by Parliamentary taxation or the feudal host gives way to contract armies. These are real changes, but they do not have to be taken as signalling a shift in the nature of royal power from ‘feudal’ to something else – ‘national’ appears to be the preferred antonym at the moment.

That dichotomy is no longer necessary. The king’s power has never been feudal, it has been national all along. What this also means is that the late Middle Ages can no longer be defined by their departure from the feudal model – or by their decline from it, as in their characterisation as ‘bastard feudal’. The phrase is now unfashionable, although the initial dislike of it had more to do with its pejorative overtones than with any wish to deny its post-feudal implications. More recently, however, late medievalists have been looking over their shoulders and wondering when (or, more heretically, whether) this feudal world actually existed. Being told authoritatively that it did not simply confirms what several of us were thinking: that the state of affairs we had been describing was the medieval norm rather than an aberration.

Unpicking the feudal system immediately makes power look more negotiable; loyalties more complicated; relationships more fluid – precisely the attributes traditionally assigned to the ‘post-feudal’ late Middle Ages. It is then only a short step to arguing that political life was no more than a public arena in which private jealousies and ambitions could be played out. Reynolds, who is not concerned with politics as such, does not address the issue directly, although she comments in passing that fluid loyalties do not equal moral collapse. She also, implicitly, presents two counter-arguments to any suggestion that, with no feudal structure, authority and obedience were only the unstructured interplay of personalities. The more persuasive is the role she assigns to the king. Never just a sort of super-lord, primus inter pares, he was always special, and it is the authority inherent in his kingship which provides the crucial extra-personal dimension to obedience – although there is no reason to assume that only the king could generate this sort of loyalty. In a deferential and hierarchical society other lords were surely able to evoke similar feelings, albeit on a more limited scale.

At the same time, Reynolds plays down the importance of personal relationships. This springs specifically from her need to deny a primitive stage of political development in which feudalism emerged from the relationships of the war-band. But even in the later part of her argument there is a tendency to stress the formal nature of relationships and hence to minimise their mutuality. This is probably inevitable given the nature of the sources being used. Reynolds is concerned with land grants, and the value of land means that such grants are not only the most formal, but the most likely to imply an unequal relationship between donor and recipient. Relationships might also be manifested in other, less formal ways that placed more reliance on personal bonds between the men involved.

The world evoked here is a far more fluid and complex structure than the feudal system it replaces: a world of hard choices rather than clear-cut requirements. To 20th-century eyes, it is inherently more plausible than the tidy certainties of the feudal system. Feudalism, after all, was the product of not just one, but two efforts at tidying up. The theorising of medieval lawyers was taken up from the 16th century onwards by antiquarians, who saw it as a way of making sense of a past which they already perceived as not only temporally remote but intellectually alien. Their portrayal of feudalism was designed to prove how much things had changed; and it has kept that role ever since.

‘Making things fit’ sounds an unpleasantly coercive doctrine. Medieval theorists disagreed. For them, order (in all its senses) was the way in which man came nearest to God. Their attempts to find an ideal structure behind their disorderly world tricked historians for centuries into seeing the Middle Ages as a period of closed, rigid hierarchies. The theorists’ patterns were unreal. But they wanted them to be real and we do not.