Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/26

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.
16
HISTORY

zon of his northern seas flecked by the venturesome keels of the first of the northern pirates.


THE FEUDAL SYSTEM

For about two centuries Europe passed through an epoch of the deepest misery. Danes and Scandinavians ravaged her from the northwest, Saracens from the south, so that only the upper Rhine and Danube, harboring a rich Teutonic civilization, escaped destruction. The Carlovingian Empire broke into pieces, Prankish, Lothringian or Burgundian, and Germanic, with the last of which went the imperial title. And this disintegration might have continued indefinitely to chaos had not feudalism appeared to fortify and steady declining civilization.

Only force could successfully resist force, and at every threatened point the same mode of local resistance sprang up. Men willing and able to fight protected the community, and exacted in return certain services. They soon began to build castles and to transmit their powers, together with their lands, to their heirs. Lands soon came to be viewed as related to other lands on conditions of military and other services. The Church followed the example, until, finally, by the eleventh century, one general formula underlay western European ideas: that every individual belonged to a class, and enjoyed certain rights on the performance of various services to a superior class, and that at the head of this ladder of rank stood either the Emperor, or the Pope, or both. The last step was a highly controversial one; on the first all men were agreed.

By this time feudalism had done its best work in restoring more settled conditions, and bringing to a conclusion the northern and southern piracy. From Sicily to the marches of Scotland, Europe was now one mass of small military principalities, only here and there held together in more or less efficient fashion by monarchies like those of France and England, or by the Empire itself. Every trade route was flanked by fortifications whence baronial exactions could be levied on the traders. And when, under more peaceful conditions, great trading cities came into existence—in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands—a fierce struggle arose for mastery between burghers and feudal potentates.