I have previously written about the political and legal framework of the Middle Ages, for me an eye-opening view into a decentralized society, where law was based on custom and agreements bound by oath; where the king was not superior to the law, but servant to it – with standing no higher than the lords; where each lord had veto power.
In this post, I will look at various aspects of social life in the Middle Ages. These include arts and letters, serfdom, women in society, religious tolerance, and finally, some additional aspects of the role of the king. For this, I will use excerpts from a wonderful book by Régine Pernoud, entitledThose Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths. The book was originally written in French, published in 1977.
Régine Pernoud (17 June 1909 in Château-Chinon, Nièvre – 22 April 1998 in Paris) was a historian and medievalist. She received an award from the Académie française. She is known for writing extensively about Joan of Arc.
The book is an easy read; Pernoud does not exhaust the reader with significant details and footnotes. This is not to suggest that there is no depth – her target audience is not the academic community. She writes here with a view toward busting the prevailing myths about the Middle Ages – myths that circulate in both professional and lay circles. I find in this work a good amount that confirms my earlier reading in this time period, as well as new insights that are presented credibly.
Pernoud has written this book in a tongue-in-cheek manner – the each chapter title is in the form of a myth regarding the Middle Ages, for example: “Clumsy and Awkward,” “Crude and Ignorant,” and “Women without Souls.” In the course of each chapter, she describes and then debunks each of these myths.
Through my earlier work on the subject of the Middle Ages, I gained an appreciation of the development of a decentralized society, with decentralized law and political power. Pernoud, in this book, adds color to my view: the result of decentralization, as one should expect, was a flowering of liberal attitudes towards many subjects – in most ways more liberal than the Rome that preceded it, and the Renaissance that followed it.
I begin with a comment from the forward, written by Cornelius Michael Buckley:
The Middle Ages – those one thousand years of Western history between 500 and 1500 A.D. – witnessed the abolition of slavery, the liberation of women, checks and balances on absolutism, artistic achievements of medieval cathedrals, inventions of the book, the musical scale, and the mechanical clock. Why is it then that the very term Middle Ages is equated, even in the minds of so-called educated people, with such ideas as feudal servitude, cultural darkness, massacres, famines, and plagues?
Pernoud attributes such ignorance in part to classicism, which became predominant in the sixteenth century…. The revival of Roman law brought about legal standardization in the interest of centralized nation states. The Roman notion of the jus utendi et abutendi, the unrestricted rights of property, put an end to the legal rights enjoyed by medieval serfs and feudal lords. The result was the reintroduction of slavery, the subjection of women, the exploitation of the worker, and the rise of the absolutist state.
Several of these points raised by Buckley I had not previously considered. I will touch on only one now, as it is a notion that runs counter to my free-market and property-rights views.
JUS ABUTENDI. The right to abuse. By this phrase is understood the right to abuse property, or having full dominion over property.
Jus utendi fruendi et abutendi (d. civ.): Facoltà del proprietario di usare la cosa in modo pieno ed esclusivo (art. 832 c.c.), il che implica anche la possibilità di decidere se e come usarla, di trasformarla e, al limite, di distruggerla.
Roughly translated, courtesy of Google:
Right of the owner to use it in a full and exclusive manner (art. 832 cc), which also implies the ability to decide whether and how to use it, transform it and, ultimately, to destroy it.
This topic will be explored further, however it seems medieval law regarding property placed limits on the use of the property – the property owner did not have the right to destroy his property. The property-rights purist in me asks, why not?
It seems, the lack of the ability to destroy tied the lord to the land to the same extent as the serf was tied to the land – in other words, there was something about this concept (which at the moment I don’t fully grasp, and may never fully grasp) that leveled the playing field between lord and serf – both were tied to the land, albeit at quite different levels.
In any case, Pernoud’s book raises the curtain on this and many additional topics. Throughout this post, I include many links (primarily to Wikipedia entries). There are many characters introduced by Pernoud; I personally found it helpful to gain additional background for context and I thought it appropriate to include these links for this purpose.
Middle Ages: Fallacies and Myth
Pernoud begins by describing some of the countless false and mythical ideas she encounters regarding the Middle Ages:
I had recently been put in charge of the museum of French history in the National Archives when a letter was sent to me requesting: “Could you tell me the exact date of the treaty that officially put an end to the Middle Ages?…In what city were the plenipotentiaries gathered who prepared this treaty?”
Of course, no such treaty was signed; no such event occurred – were the people conscious that they lived in some “Middle Age”? There was, however, one event of transformation described in the book: “the Council of Trent (1547 – 1563), which can justly be regarded as the demarcation between the medieval Church and the Church of classical times.”
The Council issued condemnations on what it defined as Protestant heresies at the time of the Reformation and defined Church teachings in the areas of Scripture and Tradition, Original Sin, Justification, Sacraments, the Eucharist in Holy Mass and the veneration of saints. It issued numerous reform decrees. By specifying Catholic doctrine on salvation, the sacraments, and the Biblical canon, the Council was answering Protestant disputes…. The Council of Trent, delayed and interrupted several times because of political or religious disagreements, was a major reform council; it was an embodiment of the ideals of the Counter-Reformation.
I do not understand enough of this history to suggest the effect of society on this Council, or the effect of this Council on society – as is almost always the case, societal transformation is not demarcated by such obvious, singular events. In any case, there is no declaration from this Council that claimed the end of the Middle Ages!
Pernoud further sets the stage by highlighting common, everyday sayings that use the term “Middle Ages” or “medieval” in some derogatory, backward sense: “We aren’t in the Middle Ages anymore”; “That’s a return to the Middle Ages”; “That’s a medieval mentality.”
I suspect in these few short phrases, Pernoud has captured well the prevailing view about this dark period, the one thousand years in between the demise of Roman law and the re-emergence of Roman law. It is interesting: Roman law – the law of a most centralized state – is prevalent during the periods we are led to believe are “light.” It is not in use during the period of “dark.” Yet, from my earlier work on this topic, there is much to recommend from this so-called dark, or middle age.
Perhaps the terms “light” and “dark” in the context are accurate only from the point of view of centralized power!
A sense of Pernoud’s style of writing in this book is well-captured here:
The Middle Ages still signifies: a period of ignorance, mindlessness, or generalized under development, even if this was the only period of underdevelopment during which cathedrals were built!
Artistic and Literary Achievements
Pernoud begins by addressing the myths regarding the supposed lack of arts and letters during the medieval times, with man’s creative mind only to re-appear with the Renaissance:
“Arts and Letters, which appeared to have perished in the same shipwreck as Roman society, seemed to flourish again and, after ten centuries of shadows, to burn with a new brilliance.” That is how it was put in 1872 by the Dictionairre général des letteres….
Such is the marker of ignorance that Pernoud attacks within the first two chapters. There were two periods of light – the classic time of antiquity, and the Renaissance. In between were these terrible Dark Ages, with no light.
Pernoud suggests otherwise: Latin and Greek authors were known during the Middle Ages – these were not lost. How on earth could the Renaissance have occurred had these texts been lost, had the manuscripts not been painstakingly copied and safeguarded, she asks?
Such texts were not hidden in Constantinople, only to be found with the subsequent flight to Europe by the Byzantines. Such misperception overlooks the libraries of Europe, for example the library of Mont-Saint-Michael which, in the twelfth century, contained texts of Cato, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil and Horace.
What changed with the Renaissance was not that these ancient texts were found, but that through these texts the work of the ancients should be models to be imitated. Not so during the Middle Ages. Roman law and the philosophies of the ancients were not looked at as the pinnacle of man’s achievement:
Bernard of Chartres, in the twelfth century, had exclaimed: “We are dwarfs who have climbed on the shoulders of giants.” He nonetheless concluded that, thus carried by the Ancients, he could “see farther than they could”.
Pernoud suggests that Middle Age thinking looked forward, building on the past; the Renaissance brought a time when Europe looked backward, longing for an ancient past. In both the ancient times of Rome as well as the classical times of the Renaissance, through Roman law the state was made paramount. Might we not find, in this reality, a clue of the desire for the period to be labeled “dark”?
Pernoud touches on a theme that I first came across in my earlier work – the conformity of architecture throughout the Roman Empire, suggesting the control Rome held throughout the land. This conformity offers one small glimpse of the extent of centralization under the most centralizing power of the expanded Mediterranean and European region.
The conformity of architecture ranged from the “most humble” little country churches and Knights Templar chapels to the enormous pilgrimage church. This is contrasted to the varying design found throughout Europe during the Middle Ages:
How is it that the abbey of Fontenay is so different from that of Thoronet, when in both instances we are dealing with Cistercian abbeys responding to the same original necessities, to the same traditional norms, to the same design? How can these nuances be so marked that we cannot confuse three sister abbeys belonging to the same region, like Thoronet, Silvacane, and Sénanque?
As to literature, the subject is taught in France today (1977), according to Pernoud, as if it did not exist in France prior to the sixteenth century.
Is it conceivable that there were a thousand years without any poetic or literary production worthy of the name? A thousand years lived by man without his having expressed anything beautiful, profound, or great about himself? Who could believe this?
It seems only the lack of curiosity or an attempt to hide history could explain this.
…the High Middle Ages saw the book begin to spread in the form in which it still occurs today, the codex, the instrument of culture if there ever was one, which henceforth replaces the volumen the ancient scroll; printing would not have been able to render the services it did without this invention of the book.
Of course, the Gutenberg press itself is a product of the latter Middle Ages, its developer, Johannes Gutenberg, a child of the times. But even before this, the codex was developed. This form, developed in the Middle Ages, made possible the efficient use of movable type in a mechanical press.
Pernoud moves on to music:
It was also in this period that musical language was worked out that would be used everywhere in the West up to our times.
She identifies the hymns and liturgical chants rooted in this dark time; authors such as Virgil the Grammarian or Isadore of Seville in the sixth century,Aldhelm in the seventh, Bede the Venerable in the eighth.
Those who have studied these works, written in a difficult Latin, of course, but much less difficult for us than classical Latin, have appreciated their intense richness of thought and poetry, their striking freedom of expression.
Serfdom and Slavery
Slavery is probably the one thing about civilization that most profoundly marks ancient societies…. If one amuses oneself, as I have done, by going through school textbooks for high school classes, one observes that none of them points out the progressive disappearance of slavery from the fourth century on. They mention medieval serfdom in very severe terms but pass over in silence the rather paradoxical return of slavery in the sixteenth century.
Prior to looking into this period of the Middle Ages, I had not considered this one simple (and what should have been obvious) point: for all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth about serfdom, it wasn’t slavery. Even further, I had little understanding about the institution of serfdom, at most accepting of the stereotype. Pernoud sheds light on the fallacy of my thinking:
The fact is, there is no comparison between the ancient servus, the slave, and the medieval servus, the serf. Because the one was a thing and the other a man…. The substitution of serfdom for slavery is without a doubt the social fact that best emphasizes the disappearance of the influence of Roman law, of Roman mentality, in Western societies from the fifth and sixth centuries on.
The serf had rights, the slave had none. The serf’s rights were different in magnitude to that of his lord, but directionally similar:
…the medieval serf was indeed a person and treated as such; his master did not have over him the right of life and death that the Roman law recognized. Besides, far more than a determined juridical category, serfdom was a state, tied to an essentially rural and land-based mode of life….the lord of the domain could not expel him anymore than the serf could “clear out.” It was this intimate connection between man and the soil on which he lived that constituted serfdom, for in all other respects, the serf had all the rights of the free man: he could marry, establish a family, his land as well as the goods he was able to acquire, would pass on to his children after death. The lord, let us note, had, although obviously on a totally different scale, the same obligations as the serf, for he could neither sell nor give up his land nor desert it.
The lord could not expel the serf – the serf had a right to be on the land. The lord was also equally tied to the land – he could not even sell it! This last point is a complete revelation to me, and one that, as mentioned, runs counter to all I accept regarding property rights.
The serf was most definitely not a slave:
The situation of the serf, as we shall see, was radically different and in no way comparable to that of the slave, who did not have the right to marry or establish a family or to avail himself in any way of the dignity of a human person: he was an object that could be bought and sold and over which the power of another man, his master, was unlimited.
Pernoud goes on to describe the life of one particular serf, Constant Le Roux, serf of the lord of Chantoceaux in Anjou. This Constant, a serf, was able to amass land, was granted the custody of a storeroom near a monastery church, and put in charge of various assets belonging to the nuns of Ronceray “as a life income….” Constant was then able to pass these holdings along to his nephew, being without a son himself. He was most definitely not a slave! Pernoud suggests that anyone willing to study the documents would find many like Constant Le Roux.
Of course, while being a serf was preferable when the reciprocal arrangement was imposed by vital necessities – security being primary – it became intolerable once the serf reached some level of independence, being able to assure his living on his own. For this, there was the work of freeing serfs – with many recorded acts of emancipation.
Pernoud examines the situation of a recently retired farm worker from our time, living in the poorhouse with nothing to call his own. This in contrast to the serf, who at the end of his productive working days would have been entitled to live on the lord’s domain peacefully:
…nothing would have belonged to him as his own, but the use of it could not have been withdrawn from him.
Pernoud explains that the serf and the lord had a similar relationship to the land, despite the fact that the lord “owned” the land – each had a right to use the property. Even the lord only had right of usage over his principle domain:
And, from this point of view, the serf had the same relation to the land as the lord himself: the latter never possessed it in full ownership as we understand it today; ownership belonged to his descendants: he could sell or alienate only the secondary belongings that came to him through personal inheritance, but over the principle domain he had only a right of usage.
Pernoud expands on this limitation on the property owner. Whereas, under Roman law (and today), the property owner has the right to destroy his property if he chooses, this was not the case in Medieval times:
This is the specific characteristic of the period, this particular conception of the relations of man and earth, into which the notion of full and complete ownership did not enter. A characteristic of Roman law, ownership, the right to “use” and “abuse”, did not exist in our medieval customs, which knew only usage; and usage moreover that was most of the time burdened with multiple easements: the right of the peasant of the place to pasture his animals in the forest of the domain, the right to take wood from it for building or his fireplace, and so on.
There are remnants of this in parts of Europe today, where private owners of open or forested areas are required to maintain these and allow for others the possibility of hiking and other recreational activities. The land is privately owned, yet available for public use.
Whatever might have been the advantages and the drawbacks, there was a great distance between medieval serfdom and the renaissance of slavery that was abruptly produced in the sixteenth century in the colonies of America…it seems unquestionable that the renewed influences of antiquity played a part in justifying this unjustifiable commerce.
The serf, while not free, was no slave. He had rights. He was able to build his own property and wealth. He was able to live like a man, owing to his lord a portion of the harvest in exchange for protection.
Women Were Human, Too
Pernoud describes the position of women in medieval society, a position that would not again be fully achieved in the West until just the last several decades. She begins with an example that is not generally applicable to modern times, but telling nonetheless:
It is not surprising, in fact, to think that in feudal times the queen was crowned just like the king, generally in Reims…. [A]s much importance was attributed to the crowning of the queen as to that of the king.
This as opposed to the position of the queen both before and in the centuries immediately following the period:
…it was only in the seventeenth century that the queen literally disappeared from the scene in favor of the “favorite”.
While women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche of Castile readily dominated their century, while they unquestionably exercised power when the king was absent…the woman in classical times was relegated to the background; she exercised power only in a hidden way….
It was the reintroduction of Roman law, again beginning to have some influence as early as the fourteenth century, which – in addition to the benefits of centralization – also returned women to a secondary status.
Now Roman law is no more favorable to the woman than it is to the child. It is a monarchical law, which allows only one single end. It is the law of pater familias, father, proprietor, and, in his own home, high priest, the head of the family with sacred, in any case unlimited power in what concerns his children: he has the right of life and death over them – it is the same for his wife, despite some limitation belatedly introduced during the Byzantine Empire.
It was by relying on Roman law that jurists like Dumoulin, through their treatises and their teaching, contributed both to extending the power of the centralized state and also – what interests us here – to restricting the freedom of women and their capacity for action, particularly in marriage.
As an aside, apparently Dumoulin prophesied the fall of the Roman Catholic Church in 2015!
According to Pernoud, there is a myth that it was only in the fifteenth century, at the beginning of the Renaissance, that the Church admitted that women had a soul. Pernoud attacks this in her usual manner, highlighting several examples of women who took action for their faith:
So, for centuries, soul-less beings were baptized, confessed, and admitted into the Eucharist! How strange that the first martyrs honored as saints were women and not men: Saint Agnes, Saint Cecilia, Saint Agatha…. How truly sad that Saint Blandine and Saint Genevievewere deprived of immortal souls.
Women occupied positions of high learning and scholarship…
It is surprising, also, to note that the best-known encyclopedia of the twelfth century came from a woman religious [presumably "religious woman"], the abbess Herrad of Landsberg. It was the famous Hortus deliciarum, Garden of Delights, in which scholars draw the most reliable information about the state of technical knowledge of that time.
…and held positions of leadership over men:
…Robert d’Arbrissel decided to found two convents, one for men and the other for women….this double monastery was placed under the authority, not of an abbot, but of an abbess….the first abbess, Petronilla of Chemillé …was twenty-two years old…. during the whole feudal period, the place of women in the Church was certainly different from that of men…but it was an eminent place….
What of women in everyday life, “peasants and townswomen, mothers of families and women practicing a trade”? Through the recorded notarial acts, legal documents, and even the “inquiries ordered by Saint Louis…”
…we find there, taken from everyday life, thousands of small details…here the complaint of a woman hairdresser, there of a woman salt merchant (trading in salt), of a woman miller, of the widow of a farmer, of a chatelaine, of a woman Crusader, and so on.
…the tax rolls…show a host of women plying trades: schoolmistress, doctor, apothecary, plasterer, dyer, copyist, miniaturist, binder, and so on.
Women owned and ran businesses and shops. Further, they voted!
The picture that comes into focus from the whole of these documents presents for us more than one surprising trait, since one sees, for example, women voting like men in urban assemblies or those of rural parishes….When texts allow us to differentiate the origin of the votes…women are explicitly named among the voters, without anything being said to imply it was a usage particular to the locality.
Married women were not held in a position of acting in businesses matters only with the husband’s permission:
In notarial acts, it is very common to see a married woman act by herself, in opening, for example, a shop or a trade, and she did so without having to produce her husband’s authorization.
Finally, women had access to fulfilling state functions (arguably not a worthy goal, from my viewpoint, nevertheless…):
It was only at the end of the sixteenth century, through a parliamentary decree dated 1593, that women would be explicitly excluded from all state functions.
Access to official royal duties, religious duties, scholarship, business and entrepreneurial roles, suffrage, and state functions: one can argue that women in the Middle Ages had more relative equality than at any time until only quite recently.
Believe it or not, the world was round as early as the thirteenth century, according to Brunetto Latini. Latini, who understood this well before Columbus, also understood much more than this. From the Wikipedia source:
While in France, he wrote his Italian Tesoretto and in French his prose Li Livres dou Trésor, both summaries of the encyclopaedic knowledge of the day. The latter is regarded as the first encyclopedia in a modern European language.
He died in 1294, leaving a daughter Bianca Latini who had married Guido Di Filippo De’ Castiglionchi in 1284. His tomb can be found in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Florence, to the left of the high altar.
Latini was afforded a burial in a most holy place in the church. This in contrast to the treatment of Galileo during the enlightening period of the renaissance, where he was denounced a heretic and lived under house arrest until his death in 1642.
The sentence of the Inquisition was delivered on June 22 . It was in three essential parts:
Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse and detest” those opinions.
He was sentenced to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition. On the following day this was commuted to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life.
His offending Dialogue was banned; and in an action not announced at the trial, publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any he might write in the future.
Upon his death, an most honorable burial was denied:
The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II, wished to bury him in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and other ancestors, and to erect a marble mausoleum in his honour. These plans were scrapped, however, after Pope Urban VIII and his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, protested, because Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for “vehement suspicion of heresy”.
Galileo was not alone. During this time began the great age of witchcraft trials. The first trials explicitly mentioned in the texts were in the fourteenth century in the Toulouse region. These trials became more intense in the second half of the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, we are presented with such characters as Nicolas Rémy, judge and general prosecutor for Lorraine, who sent to the stake, according to Pernoud, some three thousand witches and sorcerers. There is more:
…in fact, with the seventeenth century – the age of reason – the number of witchcraft trials swelled to insane proportions. There was scarcely a region that cannot call to mind famous trials, whether Loudun, Louviers, Nancy, the Méautis affair in Normandy, and so on.
This age of reason, this enlightenment, was in contrast to the view taken by the church in the medieval world (NB: the Wikipedia entry is cautioned):
The Councils of Elvira (306), Ancyra (314) and in Trullo (692) imposed certain ecclesiastical penances for devil-worship and this mild approach represented the view of the Church for many centuries.
The general desire of the Catholic Church’s clergy to check fanaticism about witchcraft and necromancy is shown in the decrees of the Council of Paderborn which in 785 explicitly outlawed condemning people as witches, and condemned to death anyone who burnt a witch. Emperor Charlemagne later confirmed the law. The Council of Frankfurt in 794, called by Charlemagne, was also very explicit in condemning “the persecution of alleged witches and wizards”, calling the belief in witchcraft “superstitious”, and ordering the death penalty for those who presumed to burn witches.
Similarly, the Lombard code of 643 states:
“Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female servant as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds.”
This conforms to the teachings of the Canon Episcopi of circa 900 AD (alleged to date from 314 AD), following the thoughts of St Augustine of Hippo which stated that witchcraft did not exist and that to teach that it was a reality was, itself, false and heterodox teaching.
The Church of the time, rather than punishing witchcraft, opposed what it saw as the foolish and backward belief in witchcraft itself, which it saw as superstitious folly.
According to John of Salisbury, bishop of Chartres in the twelfth century:
“The best remedy against this sickness is to cling firmly to the faith, refuse to listen to those lies, and never to give one’s attention to such pitiable follies.”
Which period might be labeled enlightened, and which period labeled dark?
It’s (Not Necessarily So) Good to be King!
This topic was extensively covered in my earlier post. I touch on it here to demonstrate the breadth of Pernoud’s work, but also because she brings some additional views on the subject, especially the utility of Roman law in enabling centralizing power.
Today it is generally accepted that only centralized power, promulgating generalized laws offers the most efficient and fair legal system. It was not always so. There was a time when “relations between men were capable of being established on bases other than that of a centralized administration, that authority was able to reside elsewhere than in a city…”
The feudal order, in fact, was very different from the monarchical order that replaced it and to which succeeded, in a still more centralized form, the order of state control that is found today in various European nations.
Pernoud goes on to give a brief review of how this decentralized system came about:
A centralized power in the extreme, that of the Roman Empire, collapsed in the course of the fifth century. In the disarray that followed, local powers arose; this was sometimes the head of a band of fellow adventurers grouped around him; sometimes, too, the master of an estate trying to assure for those around him as well as for himself a security no longer guaranteed by the state.
This can help us understand what happened at that time: some little farmer, powerless by himself to assure his security and that of his family, applied to a powerful neighbor who had the possibility of maintaining armed men; the latter consented to protect the farmer in exchange for which the farmer would give him a part of his harvest.
This was a voluntary action, a trade. It was based on an oath, a sacramentum. The act had religious value. Such was the basis for societal relationships beginning in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is important to note the moral and religious tone of the relationship – the oath was sacred.
Law was not uniform. This did not present a problem for the individual, but for the jurist – the law followed the individual! When someone was arrested for a crime, the first question asked was “What is your law?” He was tried according to his own law, and not the law of the region where he was arrested. It was truly a case where ignorance of the law was no excuse, because the law followed the man!
What was his law? Law was custom, particular to a community or region. Law was old and good.
Custom, usage that was lived and tacitly approved, governed the life of the human group and constituted obstacles to individual caprices.
As to offenders:
…if no public power to sanction offenders existed, the latter were rejected by the group, which amounted to the same thing, especially in a time when life was difficult for an isolated person.
The entire relationship was governed by community, not by state, actions. A common set of moral and ethical values within the community were necessary to ensure that such a system would survive and thrive.
What if satisfaction could not be achieved by such relatively peaceful means – trials, verdicts, and the like? There was the possibility of private war: “…the right for the group to avenge and offence suffered by one of its members and to obtain reparation.”
This sounds so…barbaric; yet, is it? The system inherently kept conflicts to a relatively low level, neighbor against neighbor, lord against lord. The idea of a continental or world war seemed unimaginable, and certainly unnecessary, when differences could be resolved locally.
But what of the feudal king? What was his position relative to society? Was not the king empowered to resolve every conflict, enact necessary law, etc.? It is incorrect to view the feudal king in the same manner as the monarch of more recent history. Pernoud describes this briefly, yet thoroughly:
…if we consider royalty with respect to its political, military, administrative role, how can we see in Louis XIV the successor of Saint Louis? That the terms are the same is, then, in itself, a historical error; in reality, the evolution of the royal function has been so profound that the use of a different terminology should be imperative. The feudal king was one lord among other lords; like the others, he administered a personal fief, in which he rendered justice, defended those who populated his domain, and collected rent in kind or in money. Beyond this domain, there was the king, the one who had been marked by holy oil; he was the designated arbiter in conflicts, the suzerain of suzerains, the one who assumed defense of the kingdom and to whom, for that reason, the other lords owed military aid….his title of king did not signify that his economic or military power was greater than that of some particular vassal….
Whatever his authority might have been, the feudal king possessed none of the attributes recognized as those of a sovereign power; he could neither decree general laws nor collect taxes on the whole of his kingdom nor levy an army.
There was nothing terribly special about being king throughout much of this period. As previously discussed, he was under the law just as the lords were under the law. The lords had duty to the law, even if it meant defying the king – and the king understood this. Sadly, the renaissance marked the end of this relationship:
But the evolution about to begin, notably in the fifteenth century, ended in precisely conferring these powers on him; it was the direct consequence of the renaissance of Roman law, to which it would be impossible to impute too much importance.
If one interested in the possibility of a greatly decentralized society takes away nothing more regarding this period of the Middle Ages, it should be this concept that the law was different. The law did not empower the sovereign – there was no concept of sovereign. The law was supreme, and each king and lord was subject to uphold the law.
In my previous work, I found a concept of law and king in the Middle Ages quite different than our own, resulting in a decentralized society – one in which a man was bound to law based on custom, not based on sovereign power.
In this work, based on Pernoud’s book, I have found in the same time and place a liberal society – certainly liberal when compared to the Rome that preceded it and the monarchs and state that followed it. Arts and letters were not neglected, but thrived; serfdom, while not freedom in the sense we understand today, was not serfdom in the way typically understood today – and it certainly was not slavery which dominated the centuries before and after this period; women, while not holding equal roles in society, held prominent roles with many opportunities for personal expression; and tolerance for views outside of traditionally accepted Church doctrine existed, certainly when compared to the witch trials that followed.
None of this should be terribly surprising: in a society that is politically decentralized, one would expect to see more freedom generally. This certainly seems to be the case in the Middle Ages.