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ON THE CONDITION OF THE FEUDAL
PEASANTRY IN ENGLAND.
BY JAMES BIRCHALL,
Late Government Lecturer in History, Training College, York
A knowledge of the principles and practices which prevailed during the Feudal age of English history must ever be of the highest interest and importance to us, for the simple reason that they lie at the foundation of our constitutional monarchy, and were the original of our modern code of manners. Indeed, as Sir James Macintosh has well observed, “Feudalism and its offshoot, Chivalry, constitute the great distinction between ancient and modern civilisation;" to which observation I may add that they are also the prominent features which distinguish the politics and society of the Old World from those of the New. Woman never occupied so important a position in Greek and Roman society as she does in ours; while the powerful sentiments of loyalty and allegiance which bind our English society together, as to its centre the Sovereign, are feelings to which the Americans are strangers. In so far as the latter people have borrowed their legal principles and social customs from us, they are tinged with the spirit of Feudalism; but, as their mode of government is essentially democratic, and Feudalism was essentially aristocratic, their political institutions and the instincts created by them are different from ours, because they are based upon a different foundation.
Our whole life, political and social, is thoroughly feudal; and so long as the English gentleman receives the guests he invites to his table with stately ceremony and etiquette, the English farmer regards his landlord with respectful awe, and the retired capitalist aspires to the dignity of a landowner and the lordship of the manor, so long will the spirit of Feudalism fashion our ideas and influence our social relations. I am therefore all the more confident in reading this paper to you, because the nature of my subject must have already enlisted your interest, whatever may be the attention which my mode of treatment may deserve at your hands.
When the battle of Hastings gave to William of Normandy the crown and realm of England, and the subjection of the various counties and districts followed, each Norman chieftain was left to carve out his own portion of the conquered territory, and maintain his own right therein. During the twenty years of confusion and civil warfare which necessarily ensued, the position of the king was that of the successful leader of a band of adventurers established in the lands and habitations of a conquered nation. A kingdom so defenceless as this condition of things must have rendered England, was a tempting prey to a foreign invader, and hence we read that the Duke of Normandy's newly-acquired dominion was very soon threatened by formidable armaments preparing by the King of Denmark. The Conqueror immediately availed himself of the impending danger to place his kingdom in a state of defence-a measure which he was the more readily enabled to accomplish by the information which the Great Survey of the realm, then just completed, afforded him of the strength and resources at his command. For this purpose he held a great council and military array of the kingdom on Salisbury Plain, in the year 1086. There were present 60,000 men, all possessors of at least a portion of land sufficient to maintain a horse, or to provide a complete
suit of armour. All of these, before they separated, voluntarily surrendered to the king the estates they had conquered, and received them back on such conditions as insured to the realm and crown for the future & well-appointed army for the defence of both, and revenue and services for the support of the latter. Thus was the Feudal System by law established in England; and the tenures by which it was upheld were those which affected the subject either as a soldier, a defender of the country, or as a farmer and tradesman, a producer of its wealth and subsistence.
If we could have accompanied one of the great landowners from this first feudal array of the realm to that portion of its soil which he had hitherto appropriated by the right of the sword, but which the sovereign had now by law granted to him in fief, we should probably have witnessed that his first act on his arrival was to assemble, in like manner as the king had done, all the dwellers or tenants on his estate, and then divide anew his lands among them. Perched on the summit of some isolated rock or commanding eminence, his castle-keep, strengthened by both nature and art, overlooked his little realm. In this fortress himself and family and personal attendant freemen made their abode, and around them lay that portion of the estate which the lord of the castle retained as his own domain, to be cultivated for his own immediate support by his slaves or villeins, who huddled together in the group of huts which formed the feudal village situated beneath the frowning walls of the donjon keep. The rest of the estate beyond this domain of the lord was allotted to the freemen or liberi homines of the manor, of whom there were two classes—the knights or military tenants, the noblyborn, who held their fiefs by the tenure of knight-service or chivalry, the same as that by which their lord held from the king; and the socage-men or yeomanry, who held, as their name implies, by a plough or agricultural tenure, farming
their lands for the mutual benefit of their lord and themselves. Whereas, in the earlier years of the Feudal period, the knightly tenants were the Norman followers of their lord ; these were generally Saxon thanes, reduced from their rank of nobility. They were termed ignoble; and the service by which they held their lands, though worthy of a freeman, was considered base and degrading in an age when the sword and the battle-axe were held to be more honourable implements than the spade or the shuttle. But, if peaceful, and therefore derogatory to a gentleman, their occupation, the training they received in forestry and field sports, contributed to too many victories for them to be despised; and, as the bowmen and billmen of Old England, they will ever have their deeds of prowess sung in strains as triumphant as those which record the exploits of the Black Prince or Henry of Monmouth.
Of this free and sturdy class, Chaucer has given us two characteristic portraits in the prologue to his Canterbury Tales-the Yeoman and the Miller. The former is represented as in attendance upon his lord while making the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket; but as he was a military yeoman, who rendered personal military service, in addition to other obligations, for the land which he farmed, we will pass on to the Miller, who belonged more directly to the peasantry or farming class, paying his fee to the lord in kind, as by meal, malt or other produce.
- The Miller was a stout carle for the nones ;
And thereto broad, as though it were a spade.
And therewithal he brought us out of town.” This Miller is a perfect type of the class to which he belonged, who, being all freeholders, and inheriting the love of individual liberty of their Saxon forefathers, were a free, outspoken, rollicking set of men, ever ready, as the men of Kent, for a riot or a brawl. Thus the Miller, before the pilgrims set out from the Tabard Inn, “for drinking was all pale, so that unethes (uneasily) on his horse he sat.” And before he began his tale, which he persisted in telling out of his turn, he says"But first I make a protestatioun
That I am drunk, I know it by my soun,
It is time, however, that we now turn our attention to the villein or slave class of tenants upon the lord's estate. As the free tenants were divided by their birth into the two sections of noble and ignoble, so these were composed of two grades.
First, there were those who had been partially emancipated, or who, being freemen, held tenements, on the condition of rendering services which were base and uncertain, by which, though personally free, they were territorially in