XVII

THE PARADOX OF VASSALAGE

1 THE CONTRADICTIONS OF THE EVIDENCE

BEYOND the numerous particular problems raised by the history of European vassalage there is one great human problem which dominates them all. What was it in the actions and the hearts of men that constituted the real strength of vassalage as a social cement? The first impression conveyed by the documents is of a strange contradiction, which must be squarely faced.

No protracted study of the texts is necessary in order to cull from them an eloquent anthology in praise of vassalage. First of all, it is extolled as the most cherished of bonds. A common synonym for ‘vassal’ was ‘friend’ (ami), and commoner still was the old word dru (probably of Celtic origin) which had almost the same meaning, but with a more definite suggestion of choice; for if it was sometimes applied to amorous relationships, it seems never (unlike ami) to have been extended to those of the family. Moreover, it was a term common to the Gallo-Roman and the German languages. ‘In the last hour’, said the bishops of Gaul to Lewis the German in 858, ‘there will be neither wife nor son to aid thee; nor companionship of drus and vassals to bring thee succour.’ Needless to say, as affection flows upward from the vassal to the lord, so it descends from the lord to the vassal. ‘Girart’, says a character in the French epic, ‘became the liege-man of Charlemagne, from whom he then received friendship and a lord’s protection.’ ‘Mere fiction!’ those historians who only accept the testimony of dry documents will perhaps exclaim. But this is not the final word. ‘I am the lord of this estate,’ a landowner of Anjou is reported by the monks of Saint-Serge to have said: ‘for Geoffrey’ (who was in possession of it) ‘had it from me as a fief, in friendship.’ And how can we ignore the evidence of the following lines from Doon de Mayence which express with such frank simplicity that true union of hearts in which life is inconceivable for one without the other?


Se me sire est ochis, je voeil estre tués,
Et se il est pendu, avec li me pendés;
Se il est ars en feu, je voeil estre bruslés,
Et se il est noié, avec li me getés.

-231-

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