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Chapter: 11th 12th std standard Political Science History goverment rule laws life Higher secondary school College Notes

Rise of Feudal State

On the decline of the Roman Empire, the vast territories of Rome fell into the hands of powerful Nobles.

Rise of Feudal State


On the decline of the Roman Empire, the vast territories of Rome fell into the hands of powerful Nobles. Each of these Nobles became an authority unto himself and each by a process of 'sub-infeudation' of land created a community of his own around him. The supreme lord parcelled out his land among the tenants-in-chief, and the tenants-in-chief among the tenants, and the tenants in turn among the Vassals and Serfs. Thus a hierarchy was built upon the basis of land-holding. A rigid system of classes was established and the 'State' was swallowed up in the community. Services of various kinds, particularly military, were rendered to the immediate overlord, and the control of the supreme lord, or king, at the top of the social and economic ladder over the Vassals and Serfs at the bottom of the ladder was indirect and remote. The loyalty of each class was in the first instance to the class immediately above it. As a result of such limited loyalty, the idea of a sovereign power reigning supreme in a given territory remained foreign to the feudal period. In the place of a system of uniform and impartial law which the Romans had done so much to build up, there was reversion to custom as law. Real political progress was impossible as long as feudal ideas prevailed. Yet feudalism was not synonymous with anarchy. It justified its existence by providing peace and protection to the people of Europe. It was based upon personal loyalty and contract. In its later stage, particularly in England, where allegiance to the king took precedence over allegiance to the immediate lord, it helped the growth of the 'Nation State'.


Another institution which survived the confusion following the downfall of the Roman Empire was the Christian Church. Christianity began as a humble faith among the lower classes of society, but in the course of a few centuries it reached mighty proportions and about the year 337 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity. By the end of the fourth century it was the only recognised religion in the Roman World. It built its organisation on the Roman imperial model and when the Empire fell to pieces, it was able to step into its place and give Europe order and peace. During long periods of the Middle Ages, it was able to control the State; and itself became a powerful temporal authority, holding in its possession considerable wealth, especially landed property.


In feudalism the Church found a valuable ally, for it was in the interest of the political aspirations of the Church that Western Europe should be kept divided with no common political superior to offer resistance to the extravagant claims of the Church. The Protestant Reformation which came soon after in effect ended the secular supremacy of the Church, and the way was prepared for national monarchies.


With all its imperfections, feudalism has rendered inestimable service to the European polity. The political unity and the way of life of the State, built up laboriously by Rome in Western Europe, were threatened with complete destruction in consequence of the barbarian invasions, which caused the downfall of her Empire. At such time, by welding together the strong sentiment of personal loyalty and the stable attachments connected with the possession of land, feudalism gave some order and avoided total chaos; it provided a temporary scaffolding or framework of order on which a true national life could grow.


Secondly, it fostered among the big landlords self-reliance and love of personal independence.


Turbulent, violent, and ungovernable as was the feudal aristocracy of Europe says Myers, 'it performed the grand service of keeping alive during the later medieval period the spirit of liberty. The feudal lords would not allow themselves to be dealt with arrogantly by their king; they stood on their rights as freemen'.


As against a royal tyranny, exceeding the bounds of law, the greater lords could oppose a military power greater than the king's.

The defect, however, of the feudal system was, as may be seen from the foregoing discussion, 'the confusion of public, and private rights', which was yet essential to it. It also rendered difficult the formation of strong national Government, as a country was split into a vast number of practically independent principalities. Briefly, it was liable to the disease of anarchy; indeed where the private ownership of land by a feudal chief was the basis of social order, anarchy was, inevitable. Adam's remark that the feudal system was confusion roughly organised sums up its true place in the evolution of European polity.

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