The Feudal (not futile) Era

Charlemagne’s empire crystalized an economic, social, and political system called feudalism. This system flowed from the mixture of Roman and Germanic ways of life as channeled by Christian beliefs and practices. Roman society favored a landed estate, owned by the aristocracy and worked by slaves. Christian teachings did not prohibit slavery—both Old and New Testament regulated slavery rather than forbidding it, but the New Testament also stresses the brotherhood and equality of all Christians under the Lord Christ and in His Church. Under Germanic leaders, the working class shifted from slaves to serfs. Serfs, unlike slaves, were not property to be bought and sold. They belonged to the land and could not be removed from the land; when the land changed hands, owners moved but serfs remained. The genius of feudalism was that mutual obligations and services existed at every level of society. Like a lease between renter and landlord today, the agreement between serfs and lords placed each party under obligation to the other. Serfs tended the land, produced a crop for the lords, and had other duties on the estate. Lords protected their serfs, acknowledged their rights, and saw that their basic needs were met. Abuses happened in feudalism, as was the case with slaves and masters and is the case with employers and workers today. But feudalism was right for Europe’s Middle Ages (and similar systems existed in India, China, and especially Japan around the same time).

Lords owned land and directed the serfs who lived on the land. But lords answered to higher officials—to counts and dukes and earls and other nobility. Those counts and dukes and earls answered to kings. The kings answered to an emperor. The emperor answered to God—sometimes directly and sometimes through Church officials (and that balance could be contentious at times). Each of these relationships involved promises of loyalty and protection, and the feudal bonds could be broken if promises were not kept. Many of the landowners—lords, counts, dukes, and earls—were warriors, or knights, who served their kings and their emperor. They needed wealth to be knights—to have armor and weapons and a horse, as well as means to maintain them and training to use them properly. They might train some of their serfs as infantry, but warfare relied upon the cavalry of knights, and those knights were expected to follow the rules of warfare and of society according to the code of chivalry.

Feudalism helped to maintain a stable society, but it also opened the door to a passage toward our modern economy. Not all peasants were serfs who worked the land on the lords’ estates. Some serfs on the estates, and some peasants not tied to the land, excelled in crafts that were not agricultural. Some were builders in stone or in wood. Some were smiths, working with metals. Some made clothing. Sheep were raised for their wool, so the fabric industry needed shepherds, shearers, spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, and tailors. Likewise, cattle were raised for milk, for farm labor, for meat, and for leather. Tanners and shoemakers came from the peasantry. (Consider how many of these crafts became last names that still are used today.) Some serfs were released from their manorial duties and became free peasants. Some ran away from the estate. Some already lived in free cities. Together, they formed a class of workers who were able to unite into guilds that oversaw their crafts and protected their rights as workers.

A city might have three shoemaking shops, each owned and operated by a craftsman and his family. The three shops did not compete for customers; instead, the master shoemakers met frequently as a guild to set prices for shoes and to discuss their work. If a fourth shoemaker moved to town, he could not open a shop without joining the guild and receiving its permission to work in the city. Likewise, each master shoemaker had assistants who were learning to make shoes—perhaps his own sons, perhaps apprentices from other families. These assistants might hope to open their own shop one day, or they might hope to take the place of their master when he died; but they could do neither without permission from the guild. Every craft had its own guild. The lords, the counts and dukes and earls, the kings, even the emperor and the Church leaders could not interfere with the guilds. They made their own rules and governed their own affairs. The seeds of capitalism were already sprouting during the Middle Ages within the guilds.

Merchants had their guilds as well. They bought items in one city and sold them in another; they also purchased and sold items that had traveled the silk roads from far-away lands. Medieval merchants were also proto-capitalists as they combined forces to protect their trade and to resist interference from governments and the Church. One of the most powerful merchant guilds, the Hanseatic League, operated in northern Europe at the height of the Middle Ages. Travel between cities was both protected and financed by merchants in the various cities of the League. Even the emperor and the archbishops of the Church had no power to tell the members of the Hanseatic League what to do with their money, their purchases, and their sales.

Rudimentary banking existed in ancient empires, including Rome, but most people preferred barter and personal trade to government currency. Money from the government was used mostly to pay taxes, not as exchange between citizens. Lending institutions were problematic, because the Bible prohibits usury—lending money or items of value for repayment with interest assessed on the loan. Instead of usury, Christians were expected to care for one another, to lend to the needy without expecting (or demanding) repayment, to pay a worker timely wages and to prefer heavenly treasure over earthly wealth. One loophole used during the Middle Ages was for Christians to lend to Jews and for Jews to lend to Christians. They could charge interest on their loans, since they were not family under the same religion. Since Jews were barred from owning land in most European countries, banking was one of the few businesses open to them. (Jews have no natural gifts for banking or desire to handle money; Christian rulers essentially forced them into the banking business.) By the High Middle Ages, usury was redefined from “lending at interest” to “lending at excessive interest.” By that definition, Christians were able to finance one another’s ventures. Some families, such as the Fuggers, became very wealthy under this system. Historians who claim that modern banking was invented in Italy during the Renaissance overlook the development of capitalistic financial practices in Europe long before the Italian banks were established in the 1400s.

These times were not Dark Ages in Europe. They were times of development and improvement, times which were leading Europeans toward the modern era. Science, education, and theology were also taking strides at this same time, as I will show in a future post. J.