European Feudalism from Its Emergence through Its Decline

By Jupp, Kenneth | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, December 2000 | Go to article overview

European Feudalism from Its Emergence through Its Decline


Jupp, Kenneth, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


KENNETH JUPP [*]

AFTER THE COLLAPSE of the Roman Empire, the outstanding feature of Europe was the feudal system. Thenceforward until the late Middle Ages, land paid virtually all the costs of government in England, and indeed throughout most of Europe. The following account focuses primarily on England as a particular case of a system that obtained quite generally, although, of course, details varied from country to country and also within countries. The land in use was overwhelmingly agricultural. Europe took refuge in a feudal system in the face of increasing barbarian invasion. In England, following the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century, the continental feudal system was super-imposed on the existing Saxon tenure of land, which had already developed some of its characteristics.

Feudalism is now a term that carries connotations of privilege and oppression. It was indeed a system of unequal hereditary status. Yet it stood for a kind of justice, because no one was so high that his privileges were not conditional upon the discharge of obligations, and no one was so low that he was without certain rights. Although in practice it often fell short of this ideal, it was only when feudalism began to disintegrate, that privilege became wholly divorced from obligation, which simply disappeared. This disintegration was inextricably tied to the increasing treatment of land (whether in town or country) as absolute private property free from obligation, and to the increasing dependence of government upon other sources of revenue. In systems based on Roman law, a landowner always had dominium. England differs from the continent of Europe in this, because under the English common law the Crown remains the sole ultimate owner of the land. The subject has freehold tenure (Lat. tenere: "to hold") from the Crown.

It is tempting to regard this as a vestigial remnant of the early Teutonic and Celtic systems (including the clan systems of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales) in which ultimate ownership of all land was vested in the chief or king, not as his private property, but in his capacity as trustee for the tribe or nation. But title to English land derives from William's conquest, and probably took this form because of William's need to establish an armed guard over his conquered Saxon subjects, and at the same time to reward his followers in the venture.

I

The Legacy of Rome

THE ECONOMY OF the Roman republic was almost entirely agricultural. Its political history was dominated by the land, of which there was always a shortage. Hemmed in from access to the mouth of the Tiber and the coastal ports by the Etruscans in early days, then by the Latins, and finally by the Carthaginians, Rome was unable to trade independently, so that there was very little industry. Merchants, shopkeepers, and workmen in the city dealt mostly in imported goods. The urban dwellers were fed on cheap imported grain. The ager publicus (public land) could be rented from the state, but to the peasant proprietor who lacked capital, it was useless except for grazing. Military service was frequent. Bad harvests, enemy raids, and neglect of husbandry during absence on military service could put the peasant proprietor into debt. But his land tax remained unchanged. Had he been paying the true rental value on the land, the tax would have varied to reflect such vicissitudes, and he could have survived unscathed. Unde r harsh laws of debt, defaulters could be sold into slavery. The only escape was nexum---a personal pledge of service with the creditor until the debt was paid off.

A hundred and twenty years of war against Carthage vastly increased the ager publicus, but left it so devastated that the peasantry would not re-occupy it. New colonies were founded on land allotted to discharged soldiers. But the bulk of it was sold off to the rich patricians who had made fortunes from war and provincial administration. …

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