XIX

SERVITUDE AND FREEDOM

1 THE STARTING POINT: PERSONAL STATUS IN THE FRANKISH PERIOD

IMAGINE the problem confronting a man in the early ninth century, trying to determine the differences in legal status among a group of assorted human beings in, say, the Frankish state. He might be a high official of the Palace on a mission in the provinces, a bishop counting his flock, a lord taking a census of his subjects. There is nothing fanciful in the situation; we know of more than one actual attempt of this kind, and the impression conveyed is that there was much hesitation and disagreement. In the same region, at more or less the same date, we almost never find two manorial surveys (censiers) employing the same criteria. Evidently, to contemporaries the structure of the society in which they lived did not possess clear-cut contours. The fact was that very different systems of classification cut across each other. Some, borrowing their terminology indifferently from Roman or from Germanic traditions—traditions that were themselves in conflict—were now very imperfectly adapted to the present; others tried their best to express the reality but did it clumsily.

One fundamental and very simple contrast prevailed; on one side were free men, on the other slaves (in Latin servi). If we allow for the way in which the harshness of theory was mitigated by whatever still survived of the humanitarian legislation of the Roman emperors, by the spirit of Christianity, and by the inevitable compromises of everyday life, the servus remained, in law, the chattel of the master, who had the unrestricted disposal of his person, his labour, and his property. In consequence, having no legal personality of his own, he appeared as an alien being, outside the ranks of the community. He was not summoned to the royal host. He did not sit in the judicial assemblies, could not bring an action there in his own right, and was not justiciable by them unless, having committed a grave offence against a third party, he found himself handed over by his master to the justice of the State. That the populus Francorum was composed only of free men, independently of any ethnic distinction, is proved by the fact that the national name and the legal status came in the end to be synonymous. Libre or franc—the two words became interchangeable.

On closer examination, however, this apparently sharp antithesis gives

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