This is how feudalism starts

When you read the news story that over 50 cities and 20 states had signed pledges to meet the terms of the Paris climate agreement, despite Trump’s plan to make the United States the only country in the world apart from Saudi Arabia to not sign the agreement, what’s your reaction? Some liberals cheer the fact that local governments are willing to take up the slack when our federal government fails us. Some conservatives cheer the fact that our federal government is doing less, because they think we should have a weak central government that does as little as possible.

I, however, immediately thought of Charles the Great.

Charles the Great, also called Charlemagne, became King of the Franks at the age of 32, when his father died. The year was 768, and Central Europe had been deteriorating socially and politically for almost 300 years since the Western Roman Empire collapsed. This was a period of constant violence and social upheaval.

The Roman military had been the centralized source of “law and order” for over a thousand years, so when their system disintegrated the practical effect was that any local hoodlums, egotists and power-grabbers could get away with doing whatever they wanted. Art and scholarly activity ground to an abrupt halt, and every city across the continent was mired in violence. For all practical purposes, “public law and order” simply didn’t exist, and hadn’t existed for hundreds of years.

Charlemagne was charismatic and ambitious, and quickly accumulated power, being crowned King of the Lombards and then finally the first emperor of the Holy Roman empire. He was also smart: he knew there was no way he could enforce uniform centralized law on a continent that had no infrastructure, and more importantly no social will to hold together as a unified people. So he deliberately advocated for strong local government and limited central (what we could call “federal”) government. As described by Franz Bauml in Medieval Civilization in Germany 800-1273:

Charles himself recognized the impossibility of carrying out rigidly consistent administrative policies: his capitula missorum, for instance, which contained instructions for his provincial inspectors, are an expression of the intent to centralize governmental administration. Of no less significance, however, were the capitula legibus addenda, which furthered the development of the various tribal laws.

The Charlemagne empire was founded on a fusion of the ancient Roman ideal of a centrally administered universal empire with the fragmented, tribal socio-economic reality of the times.

What was it like for the average person living in these times? It was a legal nightmare.

Local regions had their own tribal laws that may or may not have agreed with the vague and weakly-enforced imperial laws (sound familiar?); moreover, in Germanic tribal tradition jurisdiction travels with the person, depending on what tribe you claim allegiance to. So if you are a Rhaetian traveling in Gaul, you might be subject to Charlemagne’s imperial law, Rhaetian law, and Gaulish law simultaneously. In 816, archbishop Agobard of Lyon reported that in the region of Frankish Gaul, “One frequently sees conversing together five persons, no two of whom are governed by the same law” (quoted from p.12 of Medieval Justice, by Hunt Janin).

This situation only worsened after Charles The Great’s death. His son, Louis The Pious, was generally incompetent and knew he had no ability to rule all of Europe, even with the centralized government being as weak and hobbled as it was. He divided the region up among his three sons, which incidentally is why Germany and France are different countries today. While the state disintegrated, the forms of subservience to central power remained, and what emerged was the foundation of the framework that would eventually become known as feudalism.

Janin defined feudalism this way:

We can define feudalism as a fragmented system of reciprocal rights and duties that arose from a pervasive breakdown of law and order. In theory, the king stood at the apex of a hierarchy of power but in practice his power was limited by custom, powerful nobles, and the church…

Western European feudalism was born in France. The Normans brought Norman feudalism with them when they conquered England in 1066… Feudalized justice intermixed elements of Roman Law and barbarian (tribal) law with the personal interests of the feudal lords themselves.

With increasing violence between different regions, as well as attacks from the outside, it was within everyone’s interest to forge close ties with the nearest local rich person who may have enough resources to protect them. The interest was reciprocal: if I have a nice big stone castle that I live in, then I benefit from purchasing the loyalty of fighting men by giving them the resources to fight, and purchasing the loyalty of farmers by letting them use my land to farm.

Over time the system became more complex, rigid, and formalized. I’ve written about the complex power-plays and drama that still hobbled the relationships between Emperor, lords and clergy in the year 1075. Even the famous Magna Carta of 1215, which many people praise as having inspired the freedoms written in to the United States constitution, was not written as a stirring defense of individual freedom as some people might have you believe. It was written by the lords and clergy who wanted to make sure that the freedom that they enjoyed as the one percent of their time, unchecked by federal law and power, could not be taken away by kings or emperors.

The Magna Carta was a defense of feudalism, and of unrestrained capitalism, more than it was a defense of individual liberty.

And what are the ingredients that lead to the complicated interrelationships between kings, lords, clergy, peasants and serfs that everyone reads about in medieval history books today?

1. A weak and ineffective central government that is paralyzed by internal bickering

2. A wealthy “one percent” class who are essentially above the power of any federal law to act.

3. Local police forces acting as self-important bullies demanding compliance to their “local customs”.

4. Chronic economic and physical insecurity, leaving people with no option but to supplicate themselves to local lords and police.

They are conditions that feel awfully familiar.

Don’t get me wrong: we won’t be going back to knights on horseback and peasants tending crops in the fields any time soon. Feudalism will look very different in a technologically advanced society than it did in the middle ages. Maybe it will look like unpaid internships being the only way writers and programmers can hope to secure a job. Maybe it will look like police never being punished for interpreting the “law” however they want and subjecting citizens to cruelty. And maybe it will look like a federal government being so ineffective that even matters as globally important as helping to preserve the environment are handled by a patchwork of contradictory local laws.

What do you think? If feudalism re-emerges in a modern form, what do you think it will look like?


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  1. Sam says:

    Sorry to be pedantic on an otherwise interesting article, however:

    The Magna Carta was a defense of feudalism, and of unrestrained capitalism,

    Capitalism doesn’t exist until the 16th Century (at last in a European context), and even that’s in it’s pre-industrial mercantile form.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      “Capitalism doesn’t exist until…”

      Sure thing, buddy. Of course

      Just for future reference, let me tell you something about how I use language when I write. I often use terms the way they are understood in common parlance, even if those terms also have a more technical definition that doesn’t quite fit with that usage. For example, I have frequently used the term “democracy” to refer to any electoral representative political system (including the system we are under in the United States). Why would I do that? Because that’s how many, many people use the term, and everyone understand what I mean when I use the term that way. There are plenty of people out there who know that the U.S. is a Constitutional Federal Republic rather than a Direct Democracy…. and not a single one of them is befuddled or perplexed, or fails to understand what I mean, when I say things like “we need to protect our democracy” or “hackable voting machines are a threat to our democracy”.

      And you know what? I strongly suspect you know what I mean by the term “capitalism” in this context, as well.

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