Chapter 7

The Feudal System

by Adam Smith Icon

How was the allodial government overturned to give way to the feudal system?

These great lords were continually making war on one another. In order to keep their tenants, they gave them annual land leases. This lease was later held by them for life.

The great lords usually engaged in very hazardous enterprises with their vassals. They extended this right to the land to their son and grandson’s life so that=

  • their vassals’ families might not be left destitute in the worst cases, and
  • their vassals could be more encouraged to follow them.

It was thought cruel to turn out an old tenant. And so finally, the right became hereditary and was called “feudal”.

  • The feudal tenant was bound to certain services, the chief of which was service in war.
  • If the heir was unable to perform it, he was obliged to appoint one in his place.
  • In this way, wardships were introduced*.

*Superphysics Note: The Roman system was created from the top down, with the senate awarding lands to soldiers, under the idea of a state. The feudal system is built from the ground-up, with the lords personally awarding lands to tenants without any idea of a state.

When the heir female succeeded, the feudal baron had a right to marry her to whomever he pleased because the baron should have a vassal of his own choosing.

Prima seizin, Relief, Escheat

The prima seizin was another emolument of the lord. When the father died, the son had no right to the estate until he publicly declared his willingness to accept it. The lord sometimes had the estate to himself and enjoyed its profits for some time. The heir paid a sum to get it back, which was called relief.

The escheat was another emolument of the lord. After the estate became hereditary, it returned to the lord if there was no heir. The same thing happened if the heir failed to perform the required services. There were other small sums due to the superior on redeeming his son when=

  • taken prisoner, or
  • on knighting him, and
  • on the marriage of his daughter, etc.

The same causes that made allodial lords give away their lands to their vassals on leases which afterwards became hereditary, made the king give away more of his lands to be held feudally.

What a tenant possessed in feu was much the same with real property. They were subject to the above-mentioned emoluments. But they possessed their lands for themselves and posterity.

Feudal property might be inferior to allodial property in some respects. But the difference is so inconsiderable that allodial lordships soon become to be held feudally.

Around the 10th century, all estates came to be held feudally.

The allodial lords exchanged their rights for a feudal tenure so that they could enjoy the king’s protection.

Some historians are mistaken in saying that the origin of feudal laws was the usurpation of the nobility. They say=

  • that the nobility wanted to have the king’s lands to be theirs and be hereditary,
  • that the king was so weak and could not evict the lords, and
  • that the feudal law was introduced because of the reduction of the king’s power.

But it was actually the opposite. It was because of the increase of his power. It required the king’s influence to make the lords hold their lands feudally. The best proof of this is William the Conqueror changing all the allodial lordships in England into feudal tenures.

Malcolm Kenmure1 did the same in Scotland. The introduction of the feudal system into Europe removed=

  • popular government,
  • all the popular courts – Decennary, hundred, and county courts were prohibited

All public affairs were managed by the king and the great feudal lords. Only the hereditary lords had a right to sit in parliament. Those great lords immediately under the king were considered as his companions, pares convivii comites. They advised on public affairs. Everything important was done through them. They had to be called together to get the majority’s consent before any law could be passed.

The barons or inferior lords observed the same method in their jurisdictions. They were called pares curiae baronis.

Without the majority’s consent, the baron could not=

  • go to war, nor
  • make a law.

Nothing could be done in the kingdom without almost universal consent. Thus, they became a kind of aristocracy with the king at the head.

Besides these orders of men, there were two others which were held in the utmost contempt.

  1. The villains (villani).

They ploughed the ground and were [40] adscripti glebae.

  1. The inhabitants of boroughs.

They were in the same state of villainage as the villains, or a little beyond it. The boroughs were much under the influence of the lord who gave them protection. It was the king’s interest to=

  • weaken as much as possible this interest and
  • favour their liberty

Henry 2nd carried this so far. If a slave escaped to a borough and lived there peaceably a year and day, he became free. He gave them many other privileges. But what secured them most was the power of forming themselves into corporations upon paying a certain sum to the king. They held of him in capite.

At first, every man paid his proportion to the king. But afterwards, the borough paid the sum and levied it as it seemed proper. Through this, the number of inhabitants increased. The burden became lighter. The boroughs became opulent and very considerable.

In the reign of King John, a law* was made that if a lord married his ward to a burgher he only forfeited his wardship.

*Superphysics Note: Magna Carta?


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