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Feudalism: A System of Private Law

A much-neglected book on the history of the state and its development is Hendryk Spruyt’sThe Sovereign State and Its Competitors. While many writers on the state have noted the coercive nature of states, few have taken the time to really explore the distinctions between the type of civil government known as “a state” and other types of civil government. Critics of anarcho-capitalism often wrongly assume that the absence of a state would mean the absence of civil government, but serious proponents of anarchism have never claimed that civil government can or should disappear. Opponents of the state merely assert that a civil government that relies on a monopoly on coercion is illegitimate. This is of course different from asserting that all types of civil government are illegitimate.

Indeed, every society has had some type of civil government, but not every society has used states as part of its system of civil government. Law can exist in an anarchic system, and we see this everyday in the international sphere which is anarchic and yet also governed, however imperfectly, by law and third-party arbitration. (People who scoff at this system as too violent naturally ignore the daily reality of civil war and strife that occurs continually within states.)

Spruyt’s contribution lies in that fact that he takes the time to examine non-state systems of civil government to truly define what makes those systems different from state systems. Martin Van Creveld has done this to a certain extent, but largely turns to an examination of the rise of the state itself in The Rise and Decline of the State. Spruyt’s The Sovereign State and Its Competititors does stay true to its title by examining both the state (which he calls the “sovereign state”) and the competitors including city states, defense leagues such as the Hanseatic League, and the feudal system.

In this post, I just want to have a look at Spuyt’s survey of the feudal system which was a non-state system of civil government. Spruyt notes: “the basic characteristics of feudalism in Western Europe are a fragmentation of political authority, public power in private hands, and  a military system in which an essential part of the armed forces is secured through private contracts.”

All to often, when libertarians make such assertions (Spruyt is not a libertarian), such views are dismissed as fanciful imaginings or desperate attempts to poke holes in the universally known fact (apparently) that states are the only alternative to chaos.  Moreover, should one assert that civil government in the middle ages was a workable system, we are told that “everyone knows” that the middle ages were marked by the centralized and despotic rule of hyper-powerful kings. Or, if one succeeds in showing that medieval monarchs were actually quite weak, the critic will then switch tactics and claim that the lack of strong states is to be blamed for every shortcoming of the period, including superstition, enthusiasm for the death penalty, and even the agrarian economy, which naturally meant that for most, the economy offered a subsistence-level lifestyle.

Those who are unfamiliar with the literature on the middle ages rely primarily on what they see in movies to lead them to the conclusion that everything about the middle ages must have been awful. But, we know at least that the lack of sovereign states did not prevent economic growth since, as Spruyt notes, “in the later stages of the eleventh century, the economy began to expand dramatically” and that towns and trade began to expand quickly as well.

Spruyt notes that states were not necessary to protect these new sources of capital, and the Hanseatic League, for example, which was non-territorial, had no system of centralized hierarchy, and was based on a defense-for-members model that led to a high degree of prosperity and economic success for its members. Conflict between members were not decided by any state that enjoyed a monopoly on coercion, but on negotiation and arbitration.

The Feudal system was similar in that power was decentralized, and conflicts were resolved through complex systems of contracts and arbitration. Warfare was expensive and depended on valuable and highly-specialized knights whose terms of service were restricted by private agreements.

I’ll let Spruyt spell out the rest. I’m not attempting to score any particular rhetorical points here, but simply to provide some information on a system of civil government that was not a state and relied on private agreements. Most importantly, if one party to the agreement (i.e., the lord who promised to provide defense from enemies) did not deliver on his promises, then the contract could be unilaterally voided by the other party):

Feudalism: Rule by Personal Bonds

I argue that feudalism is a highly decentralized system of political organization which is based on pesonal ties. I therefore essentially follow Strayer in defining feudalism as a mode of political organization. “To sum up, the basic characteristics of feudalism in Western Europe are a fragmentation of political authority, public power in private hands, and  a military system in which an essential part of the armed forces is secured through private contracts.”

“…one common explanation sees the rise of feudalism as a response to these ubiquitous and sudden threats which necessitated the presence of local defense. Standing armies, far away, were of no avail. Individuals sought and found protection from local strongmen. These local strongment were the knights who had constituted the heavy cavalry of Charles Martel, Pepin, and Charlemagne in their conquests. Now the knights provided local protection by the presence of their strongholds. Feudalism emerged out of an already existing warrior elite… ”

“Others see a strong Germanic influence. Like the old Germanic chieftains who fought the Roman imperial legions, Frankish kings were seen as leaders in war. These leaders had a reciprocal relation with their followers. “As described by Tacitus, at any rate, the comes was a free warrior who voluntarily, by a solemn obligation (sacramentum) agreed to become a devoted follower of a military chief (princeps), sharing his fortunes even to the death in a return for sustenance, equipment, and a share of the booty gained in war.” The retinue of the kind thus expected spoils for military service. The quid pro quo that we find in the lord-vassal relation has its origin in ancient custom.”

Whatever explanation we wish to accept, it should be clear that Frankish kingship evolved around mounted knights who expected some form of return for their services. Indeed, if the chieftain could not deliver his end of the bargain, the vassal could renounce his obligation to the superior, provided this was done explicitly and before witnesses.

“Feudalism, therefore, placed military force directly in the hands of the vassal. The decentralizing tendency of localized military force, however, was initially mitigated by a variety of policies. The Carolingians managed to control fragmentation of political rule until the end of Charlemagne’s reign. While the empire was still in existence, and trade and coinage were still available, service was rewarded by monetary payment. Monetary payment from the center curtailed the decentralizing tendencies of feudalism…

Although there were established administrative centers such as Aachen, the king would tour his domains while residing at the castles and churches of his inferiors. In other words, the king tried to maintain direct supervision over his vassals.

“However, with the decline of the empire and in the incursions of Vikings, Saracens, and Magyar raiders, trade and availability of coinage declined. Reciprocal military obligations now had to be repaid in-kind by land. It was this repayment in-kind that had such a decentralizaing effect and that led to feudalism proper.”

The resulting system of rule consisted of two sets of obligations, we described by [Marc] Bloch. Feudalism is first the set of reciprocal military obligations where the weaker seeks the protection of the stronger, in return for military service when required by the superior. Sometimes the guarantee of protection would suffice, but usually the military service was rewarded by the superior in the form of a benefice, a gift, which later usually became a land grand, a fief. When the vassal became a holder of lands under his own jurisdiction, this gave rise to the second set of obligations. These relations were hierarchical, nonreciprocal, and did not involve military relationships. These were the manorial relations. At first the tilling of the soil was primarily done by free men, but gradually serfdom became more prevalent. The peasants would till the soil and transfer [a] portion of the crops to the manorial holder.

In short, one can say that feudalism “has analogies with barter economics, its duties protections and services being exchanged rather than bought or sold. It was an explicity bilateral relation with specific duties and obligations. Because of the emergence of in-kind rewards, this logic of organization led to fragmentation of political rule.

There are three main differences between the logic of feudal organization and organization based on sovereign territoriality [i.e., a state]. First, feudal rule lacked hierarchy. Second, territorial rule was not exclusive. Third, feudal rule of territory was imperfect. Manorial relations in some ways resembled territorial rule the closest. One would be subject to the jurisdiction of a lord by one’s residence in a given area. However, seen in a system of larger political rule, the territorial holdings of the lords were dependent on the specific personal relations in which they were embedded. Feudal relations superseded the manorial.

The logic of feudal organization lacked a sovereign, a final source of authority and jurisdiction. Service was owed to those with whom one had entered into vassalage. It was not uncommon to have lands from several lords, all of whom were entitled to service from that vassal for the lands held from them. Thus, one could simultaneously be the vassal of the German emperor, the French king, and various counts of bishops, none of whom necessarily had precedence over the other. For example, the Count of Luxembourg was a prince of the empire and hence nominally subject to the emperor, but he also held a money fief (a pension) form the French king and was thus also subject to him. A vassal might recognize different superiors under different circumstances.

Not only was hierarchy diffuse, but one could question whether there was indeed any hierarchy at all. For example, the king of France was enfeoffed to several bishops for land he held from them. It is only later with the principle of ligesse, the superiority of some types of homage over others, that hierarchy started to be established.

As a final illustration of the personal and voluntary bonds that held together political actors in this period (as opposed to bureaucratic and compulsory bonds) we can look to Dorothy Sayers’s essay on warfare in the middle ages from the Penguin Classic edition of The Song of Roland. As Spruyt notes, military service and vassalage was government by specific and personal agreements between the lord and vassal. Sayers explored the reality of this in battle. Since these bonds were based on personal agreements, the obligations became void in case of the death of one of the parties to the agreement. Thus:

Under the feudal system, it was the duty of every great lord to serve the King in battle, bringing with him so many armed vassals, each of whom brought many lesser vassals of his own, and so on down the whole scale of hierarchy. Each vassal was bound by oath of allegiance to his lord and to his own lord only, “while their lives should last”; consequently, if a great lord was killed in battle, his followers were automatically released from their allegiance; they could — and some did — retire from the conflict and take no more part in it.

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