Feudalism and The Influence of Chivalry

Nor is Feudalism to be condemned as being altogether dark and uninteresting. It had redeeming features in the life of the baronial family. Under its influence arose the institution of chivalry; and though the virtues of chivalry may be poetic, and exaggerated, there can be no doubt that it was a civilizing institution, and partially redeemed the Middle Ages. It gave rise to beautiful sentiments; it blazed in new virtues, rarely seen in the old civilizations. They were peculiar to the age and to Europe, were fostered by the Church, and took a coloring from Christianity itself. Chivalry bound together the martial barons of Europe by the ties of a fraternity of knights. Those armed and mailed warriors fought on horseback, and chivalry takes its name from the French cheval, meaning a horse.

The knights learned gradually to treat each other with peculiar courtesy. They became generous in battle or in misfortune, for they all alike belonged to the noble class, and felt a common bond in the pride of birth. It was not the memory of illustrious ancestors which created this aristocratic distinction, as among Roman patricians, but the fact that the knights were a superior order. Yet among themselves distinctions vanished. There was no higher distinction than that of a gentleman.

The poorest knight was welcome at any castle or at any festivity, at the tournament or in the chase. Generally, gallantry and unblemished reputation were the conditions of social rank among the knights themselves. They were expected to excel in courage, in courtesy, in generosity, in truthfulness, in loyalty. The great patrimony of the knight was his horse, his armor, and his valor. He was bound to succor the defenceless. He was required to abstain from all mean pursuits. If his trade were war, he would divest war of its cruelties. His word was seldom broken, and his promises were held sacred. If pride of rank was generated in this fraternity of gentlemen, so also was scorn of lies and baseness. If there was no brotherhood of man, there was the brotherhood of equals. The most beautiful friendships arose from common dangers and common duties. A stranger knight was treated with the greatest kindness and hospitality. If chivalry condemned anything, it was selfishness and treachery and hypocrisy. All the old romances and chronicles record the frankness and magnanimity of knights. More was thought of moral than of intellectual excellence. Nobody was ashamed to be thought religious. The mailed warrior said his orisons every day and never neglected Mass. Even in war, prisoners were released on their parole of honor, and their ransom was rarely exorbitant. The institution tended to soften manners as well as to develop the virtues of the heart. Under its influence the rude baron was transformed into a courteous gentleman.

Origin of Feudalism

Thus Feudalism arose in the ninth and tenth centuries from the absolute wreck of property and hopes. It was virtually the surrender of land for the promise of protection. It was the great necessity of that anarchical age. Like all institutions, it grew out of the needs of the times. Yet its universal acceptance seems to prove that the change was beneficial. Feudalism, especially in its early ages, is not to be judged by the institutions of our times, any more than is the enormous growth of spiritual power which took place when this social and political revolution was going on. Wars and devastations and untold calamities and brutal forces were the natural sequence of barbaric invasions, and of the progressive fall of the old civilization, continued from generation to generation for a period of two or three hundred years, with scarcely any interruption. You get no relief from such a dispensation of Divine Providence, unless you can solve the question why the Roman Empire was permitted to be swept away. If it must be destroyed, from the prevalence of the same vices which have uniformly undermined all empires,--utter and unspeakable rottenness and depravity,--in spite of Christianity, whether nominal or real; if eternal justice must bear sway on this earth, bringing its fearful retributions for the abuse of privileges and general wickedness,--then we accept the natural effects of that violence which consummated the ruin.

The natural consequences of two hundred years of pillage and warfare and destruction of ancient institutions were, and could have been nothing other than, miseries, misrule, sufferings, poverty, insecurity, and despair. A universal conflagration must destroy everything that past ages had valued. As a relief from what was felt to be intolerable, and by men who were brutal, ignorant, superstitious, and degraded, all from the effect of the necessary evils which war creates, a sort of semi-slavery was felt to be preferable, as the price of dependence and protection.

We put some articles about the feudal system, you can read them at The Rights and Privileges in The Feudal System.