This latter fact of the early subjection and of the continuous improvement of the lot of the lower classes under agricultural feudalism corresponds to the earlier situation in Italy, where the lot of the latifundian slave was made more dignified, his family life legalized, and his foothold to a secure life made firmer by the rules of tenure adopted by the later Roman emperors.Next Page
Agricultural feudalism. The feudalization of public authority by the great landowners began long before the time of the Merovingians. The German kings, instead of introducing feudalization, were actually unable to prevent its growth and spread. 3 As an agricultural system "all the essential features of the manor . . . (with the exception of the lord's jurisdiction) may be reasonably traced to the later Roman law . . . ." 4
Agricultural feudalism rested upon the firm base of large estates. Boissonade describes this in these words: 5
The land domination of the lay aristocracy grew through its encroachment upon the public lands, the violence it displayed toward the small landowners, the pressure it exerted upon the heads of state, and through colonization.
Whatever is said of land ownership during this early period is relatively true also of social class position, or the social class ladder was set deep in the earth. Landowners were powerful personages, and powerful personages were landowners. They were one and the same, aristocrats, and hosts to kings. Office holders had become landholders. Business men without land had lost out in the race for place. Churchmen of large-landowning families themselves retained, and others acquired, prestige according to the size of the land tracts they frequently supervised, in connection with their other duties. Serfs were divided into several categories or classes almost exactly according to the amount of land inherited by them. Land policy, therefore, greatly affected the continuity of the social classes and the perpetuation of aristocratic folkways and mores.
Primogeniture, the hallmark of the true aristocratic tradition, was in one section of southern France for a short time forgotten, only to be reinstated for the preservation of large estates and the high nobility. (One thinks of what happened in Poland where primogeniture of title was not customary: the story is told that among seven noblemen in one village there was one dress suit for use on separate visits to the court.) With regard to the situation in southern France, Hulme writes: 6
Many causes brought about sub-infeudation. Great principalities were broken up, especially in the south, by the right of succession, which allowed equality of partition among the heirs. Only rarely in the north, if at all, were territories left to the younger sons. In the south, however, partition upon succession was the rule . . . . if the rule had been applied indefinitely the great southern principalities would have disappeared. But they saw the peril, and, as early as the middle of the tenth century, strove to avert it. Marriages were arranged to restore disrupted domains; and the younger sons were made ecclesiastical dignitaries, or territories were given to them of insignificant size.
Thus the "extra" sons of high families found places left for them in the middle ground between the very strong and the very weak. Social circulation was, in a controlled and modified form, from the top downward. Church offices were reserved, political offices were distributed, smaller plots of land found, not for aspiring or capable serfs or servants, but for sons born "almost to glory," the younger sons of high noblemen. This phenomenon will recur again in the case of English and American upper and middle classes. It is a very potent factor, preventing, in part, the rising of persons from below. This is social circulation in reverse, a counter motion that tends to nullify any natural percolation of talent that might be moving or trying to move from beneath upwards.
The full establishment of agricultural feudalism accompanied the political decentralization of the ninth century. It was the invasions of the ninth, not the fifth, century which were decisive in breaking down public authority. Therefore, it may well be argued, the rough and tumble era of civil wars and insolent independence, when barons were strong of arm and ready in battle, came after the social class structure had become stabilized. It can therefore be strongly inferred that the adventurers who played a large part in the internal strife of western Europe at the time of the inth and tenth century invasions were men of higher class backgrounds, not upstarts, as Sorokin and others have stated.
3. Hulme, op. cit., p. 148.
4. Ashley, op. cit., pp. 14 - 15.
5. P. Boissonade, Le travail dans l'Europe chrétienne au moyen age, (V - XVe siècles) (Paris, 1921) p. 103; translation ours.
6. Hulme, op. cit., p. 321.