Despite dominating western Europe in the 11th century by the 14th century Feudalism was faced with a crisis that generated a wave of revolutionary struggle. Neil Faulkner looks at the causes and outcomes.
Western feudalism, apparently so dominant in the 11th century, was undermined by five dynamic processes.
First, the productivity of the medieval economy meant an accelerating rate of increase in both labour productivity and aggregate output. One consequence of this was rapid technological advance in the means of destruction. Military expenditures escalated.
Second, the fragmented political landscape and the intense competition for land, revenue, and manpower between rival feudal magnates compelled the ruling class to seek cash to hire soldiers, purchase equipment, and build fortifications. Feudal obligations were commuted into cash-payments.
Third, the resilience and resistance of the peasant village imposed limits on feudal landlordism in many parts of Europe. The peasants formed a collective powerful enough to defend customary rights and sometimes to make substantial gains.
Fourth, the growth of the market created opportunities for the economic and social development of the middle sections of society. At the top were feudal magnates wasting resources on war, display, and luxury. At the bottom were poor and middle peasants eking out a living as subsistence farmers. Between them were those who would come to be called ‘the middling sort’.
Minor gentry, rich peasants, and prosperous urban artisans and traders formed the most economically enterprising sections of medieval society. As markets expanded and social relations were increasingly commercialised, the middling sort emerged as the petty-capitalists at the forefront of social change.
The fifth process undermining feudalism was the rise of the centralised monarchical state. In some parts of Europe, kings failed to assert their power, and warring regional barons remained politically dominant. In others, the state, with ups and downs, grew steadily stronger.
England provides a clear example of the latter process. Over time, medieval English kings relied less and less on their feudal retinue, and more and more on buying the services of professional soldiers or trained militia.
The English royal state marginalised hostile regional barons and minimised the risk of feudal anarchy by forming a political alliance with loyalist magnates and the middling sort. This alliance underlay England’s astonishing battlefield supremacy in the 13th century.
At Cr√©cy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, heavily outnumbered English armies formed of dismounted men-at-arms and massive wedges of longbowmen recruited from English and Welsh yeomanry (rich peasants) destroyed French armies of feudal knights.
The forces of change were propelled forwards by the great crisis of the 14th century. Feudal waste expenditure continued to rise in contradiction with the demands of population growth, labour productivity, and general prosperity. Society faced a choice between war, cathedrals, and grand living on the one hand, or investment in estates, industries, and trade on the other.
By the middle of the 14th century, the medieval European economy was seriously unbalanced. Many faced poverty and starvation. When, in 1349, the continent was struck by the Black Death, as many as one in three of its weakened population may have perished.
Depopulation and impoverishment threatened the incomes of lords and the very survival of peasants. The crisis bred bitter struggles.
In 1358, peasant revolt erupted across northern France, and in Paris, Etienne Marcel led 3,000 urban artisans to the royal palace and forced the King’s heir to put on the colours of revolt.
In 1381, the English peasants under Wat Tyler entered London, forged an alliance with sections of the urban population, and confronted the King and the Lord Mayor. ‘When Adam delved and Eve span,’ asked the radical ex-priest John Ball, ‘who was then the gentleman?’
In the towns and villages of Flanders, too, and in the city-states of northern Italy, the common people rose up against the oppression of landlord, merchant, and bishop. In 1378, the Florentine ciompi, the ordinary artisans of the woollen trades, overthrew the mercantile elite, seized power, and retained control of the city for two months.
In distant Bohemia, when the radical preacher Jan Hus was burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1415, the Czech population rose in revolt. Armed with hand-guns and formed in defensive wagon-laagers, the Hussites resisted suppression by the forces of feudal Europe for 20 years.
‘All shall live together as brothers,’ declared the democratic-egalitarian Taborite wing of the Hussite movement; ‘none shall be subject to another.’ Fighting to win such freedom in the face of ruthless counter-revolutionary violence, the Taborites had no illusions about their struggle: ‘All lords, nobles, and knights shall be cut down and exterminated in the forests like outlaws.’
The anti-feudal revolutionary wave generated by the 14th century crisis was eventually defeated everywhere. It had been a revolution of the middling sort. It was in some of the most economically advanced regions of Europe that it had achieved its greatest momentum - in northern France, Flanders, England, northern Italy, and Bohemia.
It was a premature eruption of social forces not yet fully formed. Feudalism was still powerful enough to contain and corral the revolution in its early heartlands. Petty-capitalism and the middling sort were not yet hegemonic.
Even in the rebel movements, the primitive prejudices of the past jostled for attention with radical visions of a world transformed. From the biological horror of the Black Death arose the political horror of the pogrom. Bishops and kings denounced the Jews for poisoning the wells, and anti-semitic mobs rampaged through the ghettoes.
But the old order could not be restored. Acute labour shortages in the wake of the Black Death tilted the balance of class forces sharply in favour of the peasantry across much of Europe. The rebellions were crushed, but the monetisation of social relations continued to work like an acid dissolving the feudal order from within.
When, in 1517, an obscure German theological scholar called Martin Luther issued his Ninety-Five Theses denouncing abuses in the Catholic Church, he unwittingly detonated a second anti-feudal revolutionary wave. This one would bring the system crashing down.
The Reformation started by Luther was destined to culminate in history’s first ‘bourgeois revolutions’ - the Dutch Revolution of the mid 16th century and the English Revolution of the mid 17th century.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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