The fall of Orthodox England – The Ecclesiastical Roots of the Norman Conquest, 1043-1087 (Part 3)

by Vladimir Moss

The Growth of Feudalism

Thus was the Papist heresy crushed – for the time being. However, the serpent of Papism lay bruised, not completely scotched; and a more permanent triumph could be hoped for only if a healthy antidote against its poison could be built up within the West. This depended, above all, on the strength of the other pillar of Christian society in the West – the sacred power of the anointed kings. Such an antidote existed, as we shall see, in England, where a powerful monarchy ruling most of the country arose in the person of King Alfred the Great. On most of the continent, however, the monarchy was deeply involved in a phenomenon that had a profoundly negative impact on both political and ecclesiastical life – feudalism.


The word “feudalism” comes from the Latin feuda, translated as “fief”, which means a piece land held in exchange for service to a lord. Feudalism, in the sense of the widespread division of the land into fiefs, is a common phenomenon in many lands in time of invasion or social decline. But the term was invented to describe the particular socio-political organisation of Western Europe in the later Middle Ages. It arose as a defensive reaction to the Viking invasions of the ninth century, and the breakdown in central authority which they caused. The breakdown was worst in West Francia, modern France, where royal authority almost disappeared. One result was serfdom: the lands which had belonged to the crown, the royal “fisc”, were given to local landowners, both ecclesiastical and lay, and the peasants who had cultivated the land, deprived of any protection from the crown, threw themselves on the mercy of the local landowners, bartering their and their children’s labour in return for protection. The second was feudalism proper: the freemen became vassals of lords, swearing to fight the lord’s battles in exchange for protection. A vassal was a knight – that is, he owned arms and a horse and was able to fight. Since this required money, he very likely owned land – either inherited, “allodial” land, or a “benefice” or “fief” granted temporarily, in the vassal’s lifetime only. A vassal might himself have vassals. Thus many of the king’s counts, or local officials, were at the same time both feudal lords and vassals of the king.

Feudalism ate into the king’s power in two ways: first, the kings’ peasants hardly counted as his subjects any more since their real masters were now their landowners; and secondly, the king’s vassals tended to leave his service for that of the most powerful local feudal lord. The king did not always resist this process, but rather reinforced it, since he saw that the feudal lord was the only guarantee of law and order in the countryside. Thus in the capitulary of Meersen in 847 King Charles the Bald ordered all free men to choose a lord, and likewise forbade them to leave their lord without just reason – which effectively made the bond of vassalage permanent in all normal cases. Again, in a capitulary issued at Thionville, he gave official recognition to the vassal’s oath, which thereby replaced the oath of allegiance as the main glue holding society together. Finally, in the capitulary of Kiersy in 877, Charles sanctioned hereditary succession to counties and other fiefs, which meant that county administration became hereditary and passed out of the king’s control.[14]

As a defensive system to preserve a minimum of order in a time of foreign invasion, feudalism undoubtedly had merits. But it was evidently much inferior not only to Byzantine-style autocracy, but also to the Carolingian system that preceded it. Moreover, as the threat of invasion passed, and feudalism spread from its homeland in Northern France throughout Western Europe in the eleventh century, its degrading and coarsening effect on general morality, and its potential, in certain circumstances, for a more-than-local despotism, became more obvious.

As Maurice Keen writes: “In effect, as a result of the confusion of the ninth and tenth centuries, government had ceased to have much to do with even a rudimentary state machine. It had become part of the patrimony of powerful men. What bound this society together was not a sense of obligation to a common weal, but the personal oaths of individual men to individual lords. The peace of society depended on how far these individuals were prepared to observe their promises, and here force was a moving factor. The system had grown out of the exigencies of a military situation, and bore plenty of marks of its origin. The true centre of a lord’s authority was his castle, behind whose walls or pallisades he could defy all comers: where too he held his court and judged his subjects. The most essential obligation of the vassal was his service in war: his estate was valued by the number of soldiers it could maintain. And if a man was injured in his right by a rival, or if his lord or his underling broke the sworn agreement between them, what king and count and vassal alike fell back on was the ancient right of the free man, the vendetta. He defied his rival in solemn language, and he made war upon him. The wars of feudal noblemen left little peace in many parts of Europe over the four centuries following the year 1000.”[15]

According to Solonevich, feudalism could be defined as “the splintering of state sovereignty among a mass of small, but in principle sovereign owners of property”. Contrary to Marx, it had nothing to do with ‘productive relations’ and was far from being an advance on previous forms of social organisation. “It is sufficient to remember the huge cultural and unusually high level of Roman ‘production’. Feudal Europe, poor, dirty and illiterate, by no means represented ‘a more progressive form of productive relations’ – in spite of Hegel, it was sheer regression. Feudalism does not originate in productive relations. It originates in the thirst for power beyond all dependence on production and distribution. Feudalism is, so to speak, the democratisation of power [my italics – V.M.] – its transfer to all those who at the given moment in the given place have sufficient physical strength to defend their baronial rights – Faustrecht.. Feudalism sometimes presupposes a juridical basis of power, but never a moral one.

“The feudal lord does not rule ‘in the name’ of the nation, the people, the peasants, or whoever else there might be. He rules only and exclusively in his own interests, which have been strengthened by such-and-such battles or parchments. For the feudal lord the monarch is not the bearer of definite moral ideals or even of the practical interests of the people or nation, but only ‘the first among equals’, who has had the luck to be stronger than the rest…

“The thirst for power is, of course, a property common to all humanity, and therefore the tendency to the development of feudalism will be to a greater or lesser degree characteristic of all countries and all peoples of the world…. But if we discard trivialities, then we must say that Rome, for example, had no knowledge at all of feudal relations. There were landowners and there were senators, there were proconsuls and there were emperors, but there were no barons. The sovereign power ‘of the people and senate of Rome’, engraved on the Roman eagles, remained the single indivisible source of all power – even the power of the Roman emperors. The civil wars of Rome bore no relation to the feudal wars of medieval Europe. Nor did Ancient Greece with its purely capitalist relations know feudalism. Yes, Greece was split up into a series of sovereign states, but, though tiny, these were nevertheless states – monarchies and republics, in principle having equal rights in relation to each other and by no means in relations of feudal submission or co-submission.”[16]

One of the worst aspects of feudalism was the fact that the Church, too, was bound up in the feudal nexus, with churchmen having lay lords higher than themselves and vassals lower than themselves, which resulted, as Papadakis writes, in “the unrestrained secularization of the western clergy. By the 900s most churchmen – both high and low – had lost nearly all their independence and sense of corporate identity, as their functions everywhere became identified with those belonging to lay vassals. Quite simply, as rulers came to regard all ecclesiastical organization under their effective control as a facet of the secular system, conventions governing one sphere were adjusted to fit the other. As a result, bishops and abbots were not exempt from the secular obligations and responsibilities attached to feudal tenure. As feudal dependents they, too, had to attend court, give advice and, when required, supply their lay superiors with military service… Characteristically, promotion to an episcopal see or a rich abbey was often the reward of previous dutiful service in the royal household. It is worth adding that ecclesiastical tenants were also preferred for many posts because their lands and their jurisdictions were not governed by inheritance [celibate priests had no (legal) children]. Whereas the heirs of a lay vassal holding of the king by hereditary right could occasionally create legal difficulties or foment rebellion, an heirless but enfeoffed celibate cleric was incapable of doing so. This was probably a decisive reason why so many high ecclesiastics, time and again, became essential associates in royal government everywhere.”[17]

The control exercised by feudal lords over clerical appointments was symbolised by the ceremony of “lay investiture”, whereby the lord endowed the cleric with a ring, signifying the cleric’s entry into feudal tenure of a church or lands. Such a ceremony was distinct from ecclesiastical ordination. But in practice the power inherent in lay investiture determined who should be ordained (and for how much).

“The hastily ordained and ‘invested’ clerk was often altogether unworthy (if not also incompetent and untrained) of the priestly calling. Church assemblies and individual churchmen, it is true, routinely complained. All the same, neither the power of laymen to appoint and invest clergy, nor the encroachment and spoliation of Church property, was ever discontinued. As a matter of fact, lay nominations to vacant sees became so frequent that they were no longer regarded a radical departure from canonical tradition. The abuse was recognized as a perfectly acceptable practice. In 921 the archbishop of Cologne was thus solemnly admonished by the pope himself for attempting to block a royal appointment at Liège. Pope John X’s letter informing the archbishop that no episcopal candidate was to be consecrated in any diocese without royal authorization still survives. As far as pope John was concerned, the right of the feudal power to interfere at the highest level in the internal affairs of the Church was ‘ancient usage’. Ecclesial autonomy, to say nothing of ecclesial political and economic freedom, was apparently of little consequence. Canon law evidently had long given way to the feudal system…”[18]

The development of feudalism was aided by the German land law system, which prevailed throughout the former Carolingian empire. The result, continues Papadakis, “was the so-called Eigenkirchentum, or proprietary church system, an arrangement by which the parish with all its appurtenances became the private property of its founder. In terms of ecclesiastical power, according to one investigator, the main result of this ‘Germanization’ or ‘privatization’ was complete revolution. Its overall effect on Latin ecclesiastical organization at any rate was profound as well as extensive.

“This becomes evident when traditional canon law is compared or contrasted with German land law. Plainly put, unlike the Church, early barbarian Europe did not understand the legal concept of corporate ecclesiastical ownership. The idea of an abiding corporation with legal rights simply did not exist in German customary law. Thus, the conviction that the Church could also simultaneously own land or real property, as a corporate personality or institution, was unknown. Rather, according to Germanic law, everything built on a plot of land, whether it was the local parish church or the monastery, was considered the exclusive ‘property’ of the landlord; the man who had built and endowed it was also its real owner. Control and rights of ownership of the foundation constructed on an estate, quite simply, continued to be in the hands of the proprietor. To be sure, the church could never actually be secularized. On the other hand, it could always be given, sold, traded, or exchanged if necessary. It was even possible to dispose of it as a sort of fief by leasing it to one’s relatives or liegemen. In sum, the treatment of parishes was identical to the holding of ordinary pieces of real property… It is worth adding that the resident priest of the Eigenkirche (usually an ill-trained serf from the lord’s own estate) was in practice appointed and dismissed by the proprietor. His status resembled a small quasi-feudal dependent. Almost invariably, if the incumbent was married or living in concubinage he was able to pass the parish on to his son or heir.

“…The practice of buying and selling rural parishes as a profitable investment was in time also applied to bishoprics and cathedrals. Although such sales were not a general phenomenon, it remains true that in some areas such as the Midi region, bishoprics were habitually sold or bequeathed as Eigenkirche. This was presumably still the practice in 1067 when the bishopric of Carcassone was sold to the count of Barcelona by the viscount of Albi….

“Everywhere the priest had really become essentially an estate servant. His private arrangement with the lord of the parish had in fact replaced the canonical bond uniting him to his bishop. It was this personalized local relationship that ultimately mattered, rather than the bishop’s potestas jurisdictionis. Throughout Europe, to put it another way, episcopal control enjoyed by all prelates was succeeded by a division of control among an unlimited number of owners. The diocese no longer actually functioned as a single administrative unit, but as a collection of private independent churches, in which the bishop’s pastoral and disciplinary powers were in practice relaxed or ignored altogether. Before long, given the moral and intellectual shortcomings of the priesthood, this diocesan centralization was to generate further serious pastoral and canonical problems. The confusion of authority and rights within the diocese just described was, in the main, also responsible for the ensuing simony and incontinence among the western clergy.

“It was undoubtedly lay control of ecclesiastical structure that made possible the purchase or sale of virtually every clerical grade the general rule by the tenth century. Simony became in fact unavoidable once clerical offices began to be treated like secular appointments. If a secular vassal could be taxed on inheriting his fief, so could every clerical candidate on his elevation to office. Besides, the offices in question were profitable, and to grant them out without any remuneration would have been pointless if not unusual in the agrarian world of the Middle Ages. In the event, the bishop who had received his position by canonical election (without paying for it) had before long become a great rarity…”[19]

(End of Part 3)

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