INTRODUCTION

GENERAL SCOPE OF THE INQUIRY

ONLY within the last two centuries or so could the words ‘Feudal Society’, as the title of a book, have conveyed an idea of what the book was about. Yet the adjective itself is a very old one. In its Latin form, feodalis, it dates from the Middle Ages. The French noun féodalité, feudalism, though of more recent origin, goes back at least to the seventeenth century. But for a long time both these words were used only in a narrowly legal sense. The fief (feodum) was, as we shall see, a form of real property, and féodal was therefore understood as meaning ‘that which concerns the fief (this was how the French Academy defined it); and féodalité might mean either ‘the quality peculiar to a fief or the obligations incident to such tenure. The French lexicographer, Richelet, in 1630, described these terms as ‘lawyers’ jargon’—not, be it noted, historians’ jargon. When did it first occur to anyone to enlarge their meaning so as to designate a state of society? Gouvernement féodal and féodalité are used in this sense in the Lettres Historiques sur les Parlemens, published in 1727, five years after the death of their author, the Comte de Boulainvilliers.1 This is the earliest example that I could find, after fairly extensive research. Perhaps one day another inquirer will be more fortunate. Until this happens, however, this strange man Boulainvilliers, at once the friend of Fénelon and the translator of Spinoza, above all an impassioned apologist of the nobility whom he believed to be descended from Germanic chieftains—a sort of prototype Gobineau with less enthusiasm and more learning—may be regarded as having a presumptive claim to be the inventor of a new historical classification. For that is what it really amounts to, and in the study of history there have been few stages so decisive as the moment when ‘Empires’, dynasties, famous periods identified with some great name—in a word, all the old arbitrary divisions born of a monarchical and oratorical tradition—began to give place to another system of classification, based on the observation of social phenomena.

It was however a more celebrated writer who first gave wide currency to this conception and to the terminology that expressed it. Montesquieu

1Histoire de l’ancien gouvernement de la France avec XIV Lettres Historiques sur les Parlemens ou Etats-Généraux. The Hague, 1727. The fourth letter is entitled Détail du gouvernement féodal et de l’établissement des Fiefs (1, p. 286) and contains (p. 300) this sentence: ‘Je me suis étendu dans l’extrait de cette ordonnance, la croyant propre à donner une idée exacte de l’ancienne féodalité’.

-xxiii-

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