XXXII

FEUDALISM AS A TYPE OF SOCIETY

1 HAS THERE BEEN MORE THAN ONE FEUDALISM?

IN the eyes of Montesquieu, the establishment of ‘feudal laws’ was a phenomenon sui generis, ‘an event which happened once in the world and which will perhaps never happen again’. Voltaire, less experienced, on doubt, in the precise formulation of legal definitions, but a man of wider outlook, demurred. ‘Feudalism’, he wrote, ‘is not an event; it is a very old form which, with differences in its working, subsists in three-quarters of our hemisphere.’1 Modern scholarship has in general rallied to the side of Voltaire. Egyptian feudalism, Achaean feudalism, Chinese feudalism, Japanese feudalism—all these forms and more are now familiar concepts. The historian of the West must sometimes regard them with a certain amount of misgiving. For he cannot be unaware of the different definitions which have been given of this famous term, even on its native soil. The basis of feudal society, Benjamin Guérard has said, is land. No, it is the personal group, rejoins Jacques Flach. Do the various exotic versions of feudalism, which seem to abound in universal history today, conform to Guérard’s definition or to Flach’s? The only remedy for these uncertainties is to go back to the origins of the problem. Since it is obvious that all these societies, separated by time and space, have received the name ‘feudal’ only on account of their similarities, real or supposed, to Western feudalism, it is the characteristics of this basic type, to which all the others must be referred, that it is of primary importance to define. But first it is necessary to dispose of some obvious instances of the misuse of a term which has made too much noise in the world not to have undergone many perversions.

In the system which they christened ‘feudalism’ its first godfathers, as we know, were primarily conscious of those aspects of it which conflicted with the idea of a centralized state. Thence it was a short step to describing as feudal every fragmentation of political authority; so that a value judgment was normally combined with the simple statement of a fact. Because sovereignty was generally associated in the minds of these writers

1Esprit des Lois, XXX, I; Voltaire, Fragments sur quelques revolutions dans l’Inde, II (ed. Garnier, XXIX, p. 91).

-441-

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