THE next two centuries, the twelfth and thirteenth, see the consolidation and development of the feudal system, an extraordinary and disconnected effort of Europe against Asia and the struggle between the temporal monarch and the eternal church. To the reader the story looks like nothing so much as a confused chronicle of war, war which on the surface appears to be the creation of ambitious individuals, but is really the expression of economic, political, and racial forces often obscure, as life seeks to create a synthesis out of a mass of antitheses. The effort of a transition stage is always towards a new unity, an effort hampered by those who see in it a threat to their interests or dignity. We shall see in the succeeding years the failure of the attempt to secure European unity and the success of the attempt, though a success not everywhere repeated, to obtain national unity. The conception of the Crown and the relations to it of the component parts of the nation become clearer, and we arrive at a stage of Constitutional development such as had not been witnessed for nearly a millenium. The abiding fact is the gradual restoration of law to the position which it had enjoyed in the last ancient civilisation. The term " Feudalism" implies a system of political and social organisation based upon land tenure. Some scholars profess to trace its origins to the Roman villa with its dependent cultivators, but its true origin is probably twofold. Feudalism developed " from below " during the troubled times of the Norse invasions of Western Europe, when the practice of " commendation " grew up. By this a man " commended " himself to a lord, offering him homage and service, generally labour-service, in return for protection. From " above" Feudalism was created by royal grant of governmental areas or " fiefs " to great nobles. Both processes were actively at work all over Europe in the ninth century. Development was more rapid on the main- land of Europe than in England, so that William the Conqueror, although he did not actually introduce Feudalism into England, brought with him a more developed form of it.
The typical feudal structure of society may be considered as a pyramid with the king as its apex. Below him come his tenants-in-chief, holding land on condition of military service (or knight-service); below them come the subtenants, also holding by military tenure and, at the base of the pyramid, the mass of unfree cultivators called villeins.
These serfs, living on the manors of their lords, had small holdings of land, generally of about thirty acres each in England, scattered in acre strips in the open fields of the manor; and in return for these they had to work so many days a week for the lord and perform extra labour (" boon-work ") for him at the busier agricultural seasons. They were not slaves, in the sense of being personal chattels, but, on the other hand, their freedom of action, e.g. to leave the manor or to marry, lay at the pleasure of the lord, who could not, however, rob them of their land. The lord of the manor or feudal overlord also enjoyed, by royal grant and by virtue of his position, legal powersthe right to hold a court and to try offenders for prescribed offences.
The process of the consolidation and dissolution of the feudal system may best be studied in England, even at the risk of confusing the reader by anticipations, for it is here that we can see the creation of what we mean by a national unity and the creation of constitutional relations between its parts. The Norman Conquest placed a fertile and comparatively undeveloped land in the power of a body of foreign adventurers under a war-leader. The leader became King of England, and he parcelled out English land among his followers, who became his vassals. Some of them were already great nobles with possessions on the continent such as the king himself had; others were " ennobled " for the first time; others were ecclesiastics who held land on what may be called secular tenure, owing service and homage to the king for it.
The great landowner sought to be as independent as he dared. He claimed to dispense justice on his own estate;
he parcelled it out among his followers who became his vassals and owed him service; he sought to limit in every possible way his duty to the King. The power of the King was due very largely to his personal prestige and, though theoretically very great, was actually slight. For power and in the Middle Ages the King's power meant the armed strength he could put in the fieldhe depended almost wholly on the nobles. In turn the noble, when asked to supply armed forces, called upon his vassals, and he thus not only maintained a retinue, but a private army with which he could and did wage war on his own account, disturbing " the King's peace " if the King was not strong enough to prevent him. The initial stages of the conquest of Ireland and of Wales were the work of the great Norman nobles.
Duty, expressed ceremonially as homage, practically as the provision of armed forces, was owed as payment for land which was theoretically in the King's gift. Now William the Conqueror was not merely an English king, for he was, as Duke of Normandy, the vassal of the French king. His nobles owed him as its king allegiance for lands in England, and for lands in Normandy as its duke, but they also owed allegiance to the King of France for lands held under the latter's suzerainty. Divided allegiance became a complication that confuses much of medievalhistory.
The King naturally sought to organise his kingdom; he began to create his own civil service and his own law" the King's servants," and later to increase his own military force. All three naturally came into conflict with the rights claimed by the great landowner on his own land and in his personal actions. A strong king like the first William bad no difficulty in bringing recalcitrant vassals to heel. But when there was a weak king or a disputed succession, as in the reign of Stephen, the great nobles were almost the independent allies of whichever claimant to the superior title they found it politic to recognise.
Over against both were the lands held by the Church and the power the Church claimed over the persons of meni virtue of the power it claimed over their souls. If there were worldly ecclesiastics who were reckoned among the persecutors of the serfs, there were others bold enough to stand up against tyranny and oppression. In England, where masters and serfs were of different nationalities, to use the modern term, it was to the Church and to the Crown that the serf looked for protection against his master, the landowner. All these antitheses were present and it took centuries to work out a synthesis.