Feudalism is often portrayed as a stagnant system where little changed over centuries. The reality was a system that was more dynamic and productive than anything before it argues Neil Faulkner.
The medieval world can appear conservative and unchanging. This is so only in relation to what followed. Compared with the ancient world, it was dynamic - because it was much richer.
As the stock of knowledge, skill, and resources accumulates, humanity’s capacity for further social development increases. The more advanced the assemblage of know-how and equipment, the easier further improvements in the productivity of labour become. The pace of progress tends to accelerate through history.
Technology, however, can only determine what is possible; it cannot guarantee that potential will be realised. This depends on the other two motors of history: the struggle for control of surplus within the ruling class; and the struggle over the distribution of surplus between the classes.
Feudalism was a system of competitive military accumulation. In its European setting, it was especially dynamic because of the tendency to political fragmentation inherent in the continent’s distinctive geography (see MHW 29).
At every level of the feudal hierarchy, there was struggle for territory, resources, and military manpower - dynastic wars between kings, civil wars between kings and barons, and regional wars between rival barons. This violence was fed by the system’s propensity to produce surplus warriors (see MHW 30 and 31).
Warfare - the most extreme form of competition - is never conservative. Those who do not adopt the latest technology and tactics suffer defeat. Military technique was therefore an especially dynamic sector of the medieval social order.
Plate armour superseded chainmail. Firearms replaced bows. Timber castles were rebuilt in stone. Small feudal retinues gave way to large professional armies. To adapt was to survive. But the new ways of war were, invariably, more expensive. Demand for improved arms, armour, and fortifications triggered economic growth and social change.
So did the demand for the increasingly elaborate trappings of lordly power - grand houses, tapestries and hangings, fine furniture, fashionable clothes, jewellery and ornaments, tablewares, quality wines, and much else. The power-play of the feudal elite was incomplete without its baubles and trinkets of rank. And this, too, received impetus from the relentless competitive struggle for wealth and position among the magnates.
Feudal competition therefore meant work for artisans and markets for traders. These congregated in the towns, where they organised themselves into guilds and girded the perimeter with walls, allowing them to maintain their independence.
Kings granted urban charters. Town burghers favoured the royal ‘law and order’ party. Both, for different reasons, were opposed to feudal anarchy.
In the countryside, yet more important changes were under way. Because of the rising feudal demand for armaments, luxuries, and pageantry that could be satisfied only by purchases on the market, lords wanted money.
Labour-services were therefore commuted into cash-payments, and serfdom evolved into a more impersonal, less burdensome commercial contract. This strengthened the village and the peasant-entrepreneur.
Serfdom, anyway, had never been universal. In medieval England - a society about which we are especially well-informed because of the Domesday Book and a wealth of land-charters and manorial records - a majority of the peasantry had always remained formally free: they were ‘sokemen’ or ‘freemen’.
Though often subject to various feudal payments, most English peasants worked as independent farmers on land they either rented, held by custom, or owned freehold.
After the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon village - with its finely graded peasantry, its collective organisation, and its centuries-old custom and practice - endured. At the level of the individual manor, Norman England was a compromise between feudal authority and village traditions.
In parts of Europe like England, where the village was strong, peasants were able to exploit the imperatives of feudal competition to advance their own position. It is in the micro-relationship between manor and village in regions of medieval Europe that we find the secret of the coming transition from feudalism to capitalism.
European agriculture had made a giant leap forwards between the 6th and 12th centuries. The heavy wheeled plough was the key to this.
Pulled at first by yoked oxen, and later, once suitable harness had been developed, by horses, the medieval plough could cut deep through the most intractable soil, turn the sod, and tap buried stores of nutrients.
Much new land, previously unworkable, could be brought into cultivation. Old land, kept in good heart by crop rotation, fallow years, and manuring by sheep and cattle, could be endlessly revitalised by plough-churned stubble and dung.
Historians estimate that grain yields doubled.
Many other innovations also contributed to increasing labour productivity. Water-mills, with complex arrangements of cranks and flywheels, mass-processed grain and powered blacksmiths’ forges.
Rivers were canalised to accommodate cargo-barges, and rudders replaced steering oars on seagoing ships. Wheelbarrows eased rural labour, and eyeglasses extended the working lives of clerks, copyists, and scholars.
The social surplus steadily increased. Europe in the 13th century was a place of rising population and prosperity. On the land, beneath the level of the feudal elite - and largely beneath the gaze of history - minor gentry and better-off peasants were driving a process of economic advance.
The feudal elite had an interest in raising revenues from landholdings, but also an interest in waste expenditure on a colossal scale - building cathedrals and castles, paying and equipping soldiers, and competing in displays of pageantry, luxury, and grand living.
The dynamic of feudalism - competitive politico-military accumulation - was in contradiction with economic improvement - which required investment of surplus in land clearance, drainage, enclosure, agricultural equipment, and so on.
Recent research has revealed that the improvers tended to be the middle section of medieval rural society. Their aim was to create more efficient and productive farms geared to the market. They paid close personal attention to the business of farm management, husbanding resources, investing with care, and seeking to increase economic profit and their own social standing.
Quite simply, between c. 1350 and 1500, many of the minor gentry and better-off peasants in the most economically advanced parts of Europe turned themselves into capitalist farmers.
It was this ‘middling sort’ that powered the explosive social struggles that broke across Europe in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. This will be our next subject.
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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