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The Transition to Feudalism

The new society created after the Germanic (barbarian) invasions of Western Europe was a synthesis of declining Roman civilisation and German tribal society in the process of evolving into class society.

Like the Dorian invasion of early Greek civilisation it seemed a step back. The decline in production affected every area of social life. Such chronicles of the Dark Ages as survived (like Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks) show a childlike credulity in all kinds of ridiculous miracles--an attitude which would have been laughed to scorn by a Roman patrician historian.

All the achievements of art and culture only survived in suspended animation in the institutions of the church. But the barbarians also brought new ideas and a possibility of moving forward once again. To take just one example, the Germans had developed a heavy plough which turned over a furrow rather than just scratching at the surface, and so increased grain yields.

What had been happening among the German tribes in the meantime? The Romans had maintained themselves for an amazing period of time by 'dividing in order to rule'. They didn't just divide tribe against tribe, but consciously developed trade of luxuries to rear a privileged elite among the tribes who were bought off, and so divided each tribe against itself.

As early as the first century A.D., Tacitus, after describing the democratic constitution of most of the tribes, moves on to the Suiones, a sea trading people:

"Wealth, too, is held in high honour; and so a single monarch rules with no restrictions on his power and with an unquestioned claim to obedience. Arms are not, as in the rest of Germany, allowed to all and sundry, but are kept in charge of a custodian who in fact is a slave...idle crowds of armed men easily get into mischief."

Since tribal society had no state, there was no possibility of preventing the young men from going out on raiding parties. We all know from cowboy films- the problems the old chief of the Apaches has in explaining this principle to the Colonel of the Seventh Cavalry. But whereas the Indian resistance to capitalist conquest was doomed, raiding parties into the declining Roman empire could do very well for themselves.

Retinues built up around the boldest young men. These armed retinues were thus dependent on an individual and not on the will of the tribe. They were attached to their leader by gifts of booty. They were the beginning of the end for tribal society, for bit by bit they became a permanent armed aristocracy, and elevated their leader to king.

This military aristocracy expropriated the Roman landlords or merged with them as they entered the territory of the Roman empire.

It is not the purpose of this pamphlet to trace all the detailed shifts West European society went through in the next few centuries. But it is instructive to look at the most serious attempt to replace the lost lustre of the centralised Roman empire, the Frankish empire of Charlemagne, and what happened to it.

Charlemagne conquered huge areas of Europe and set up provinces governed by counts. To provide food for the armies carrying out his conquests, the formerly free Frankish peasantry ('Frank', means free) were increasingly reduced to serf status.

These endeavours were greater than the productive resources of society could bear. Because productivity was low, communications were primitive. Under Charlemagne's successors the empire imploded, invaded by Normans, Vikings, and Saracens, and seemed on the point of collapse.

The local magnates seized their opportunity, setting up castles everywhere and becoming undisputed lords of the local villages, in return for defence of the land.

Charlemagne's successors had to accept the situation, granting land instead of gifts and accomodation to their men at arms, and demanding acknowledgement of sovereignty and military service in return. It was a measure of the stage society was at that land was the main form of wealth--command over land gave access to the privileges of the surplus.

Feudal Society

Feudal society thus emerged in the form of a pyramid of military obligations to those above in exchange for command of the land to those below.

The whole structure relied on the unpaid labour of the peasants working on the lords' land. Unlike slaves, they were not the property of the lord. Feudalism developed untidily. Some in the village were in possession of very little land and either existed still as slaves or as household servants working on the lord's land. Freer peasants had land to till and had to pay a rent in kind. Others had an intermediate status, working small plots to gain their own subsistence and forced to pay labour services the rest of the time, on the lord's land.

Exploitation under feudalism is clear and unveiled. The peasants pay services in money, labour or produce to the lords. Everyone can see what is going on. If the lord is in a position to force the peasant to work four days instead of three on his land, then it is clear to both parties that the rate of exploitation has been increased.

Under slavery, on the contrary, even the part of the working week which the slave has to work to gain his own subsistence seems to be unpaid. He therefore seems to work for nothing. Under capitalism, the wage worker is paid a sum of money which is presented as being the value of his labour. All labour seems to be paid.

In all three systems the producer is exploited: but the particular form of exploitation ultimately determined the whole structure of society.

Under feudalism the 'bodies of armed men' which comprised the state were mainly drawn from the ruling class, who had a monopoly of armed might. So political and economic power were in the same hands.

Justice in the village was largely in the hands of the lords' manorial courts. The feudal lord and his men-at-arms were police, judge, and executioners all rolled into one.

Looking back, we tend to regard feudalism as a static system. Compared to capitalism it undoubtedly was. But substantial advances were made under the stabilisation that feudalism provided.

For instance, the population of England probably doubled between 1066 and the fourteenth century--a mark of the advances in production. Large areas of forest and uncultivated land were put under plough for the first time. Huge regions of Eastern Europe were colonised by feudalism.

Feudalism provided a limited incentive for the producer to expand production for his own advantage. Sometimes the lord took the lead in developing agriculture or colonisation, sometimes the peasants. This depended on the class struggle. The tendency was for the lord to try to reduce the peasants' plots to a minimum, encroach on the common lands, and impose serf status. The peasants, on the other hand, were interested in reducing feudal dues to a minimum rent.

Innovations such as water and wind-mills were introduced under the new system. The lord would attempt to appropriate all the benefits of this advance by charging exorbitant fees for time use of his mill.

On the continent of Europe in the later middle ages, these 'banalities' were the main form of feudal revenue. Whether the incentive to produce more came from the lord's desire for more revenue for luxuries, or from the ambition of the peasants to set themselves up in business as independent farmers, production crept up.

But feudalism, like slavery before it imposed limits on the development of productivity. From generation to generation agricultural productivity was largely stagnant. The easiest way for the feudal lords to gain more wealth was to exploit more people. There was therefore a perpetual impulse to warfare, the net effect of which was to waste and destroy the productive forces.