Origins of the Free Society

Jonathan Goodwin
Bionic Mosquito

by Jonathan Goodwin:
the System To Save It?

I have previously
about the political and legal framework of the Middle
Ages, for me an eye-opening view into a decentralized society, where
law was based on custom and agreements bound by oath; where the
king was not superior to the law, but servant to it – with standing
no higher than the lords; where each lord had veto power.

In this post,
I will look at various aspects of social life in the Middle Ages.
These include arts and letters, serfdom, women in society, religious
tolerance, and finally, some additional aspects of the role of the
king. For this, I will use excerpts from a wonderful book by Régine
Pernoud, entitled Those
Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths
. The book was
originally written in French, published in 1977.

(17 June 1909 in Château-Chinon, Nièvre
– 22 April 1998 in Paris) was a historian and medievalist. She
received an award from the Académie française. She
is known for writing extensively about Joan of Arc.

The book is
an easy read; Pernoud does not exhaust the reader with significant
details and footnotes. This is not to suggest that there is no depth
– her target audience is not the academic community. She writes
here with a view toward busting the prevailing myths about the Middle
Ages – myths that circulate in both professional and lay circles.
I find in this work a good amount that confirms my earlier reading
in this time period, as well as new insights that are presented

Pernoud has
written this book in a tongue-in-cheek manner – the each chapter
title is in the form of a myth regarding the Middle Ages, for example:
“Clumsy and Awkward,” “Crude and Ignorant,”
and “Women without Souls.” In the course of each chapter,
she describes and then debunks each of these myths.

Through my
earlier work on the subject of the Middle Ages, I gained an appreciation
of the development of a decentralized society, with decentralized
law and political power. Pernoud, in this book, adds color to my
view: the result of decentralization, as one should expect, was
a flowering of liberal attitudes towards many subjects – in most
ways more liberal than the Rome that preceded it, and the Renaissance
that followed it.

I begin with
a comment from the forward, written by Cornelius Michael Buckley:

The Middle
Ages – those one thousand years of Western history between 500
and 1500 A.D. – witnessed the abolition of slavery, the liberation
of women, checks and balances on absolutism, artistic achievements
of medieval cathedrals, inventions of the book, the musical scale,
and the mechanical clock. Why is it then that the very term Middle
is equated, even in the minds of so-called educated people,
with such ideas as feudal servitude, cultural darkness, massacres,
famines, and plagues?

Pernoud attributes
such ignorance in part to classicism, which became predominant
in the sixteenth century…. The revival of Roman law brought about
legal standardization in the interest of centralized nation states.
The Roman notion of the jus utendi et abutendi, the unrestricted
rights of property, put an end to the legal rights enjoyed by
medieval serfs and feudal lords. The result was the reintroduction
of slavery, the subjection of women, the exploitation of the worker,
and the rise of the absolutist state.

Several of
these points raised by Buckley I had not previously considered.
I will touch on only one now, as it is a notion that runs counter
to my free-market and property-rights views.

. The right to abuse. By this phrase is understood
the right to abuse property, or having full dominion over property.

utendi fruendi et abutendi
(d. civ.): Facoltà del proprietario
di usare la cosa in modo pieno ed esclusivo (art. 832 c.c.), il
che implica anche la possibilità di decidere se e come
usarla, di trasformarla e, al limite, di distruggerla.

Roughly translated,
courtesy of Google:

Right of
the owner to use it in a full and exclusive manner (art. 832 cc),
which also implies the ability to decide whether and how to use
it, transform it and, ultimately, to destroy it.

This topic
will be explored further, however it seems medieval law regarding
property placed limits on the use of the property – the property
owner did not have the right to destroy his property. The property-rights
purist in me asks, why not?

It seems, the
lack of the ability to destroy tied the lord to the land to the
same extent as the serf was tied to the land – in other words, there
was something about this concept (which at the moment I don’t fully
grasp, and may never fully grasp) that leveled the playing field
between lord and serf – both were tied to the land, albeit at quite
different levels.

In any case,
Pernoud’s book raises the curtain on this and many additional topics.
Throughout this post, I include many links (primarily to Wikipedia
entries). There are many characters introduced by Pernoud; I personally
found it helpful to gain additional background for context and I
thought it appropriate to include these links for this purpose.

Ages: Fallacies and Myth

Pernoud begins
by describing some of the countless false and mythical ideas she
encounters regarding the Middle Ages:

I had recently
been put in charge of the museum of French history in the National
Archives when a letter was sent to me requesting: “Could
you tell me the exact date of the treaty that officially put an
end to the Middle Ages?…In what city were the plenipotentiaries
gathered who prepared this treaty?”

Of course,
no such treaty was signed; no such event occurred – were the people
conscious that they lived in some “Middle Age”? There
was, however, one event of transformation described in the book:
“the Council
of Trent
(1547 – 1563), which can justly be regarded as the
demarcation between the medieval Church and the Church of classical

The Council
issued condemnations on what it defined as Protestant heresies
at the time of the Reformation and defined Church teachings in
the areas of Scripture and Tradition, Original Sin, Justification,
Sacraments, the Eucharist in Holy Mass and the veneration of saints.
It issued numerous reform decrees. By specifying Catholic doctrine
on salvation, the sacraments, and the Biblical canon, the Council
was answering Protestant disputes…. The Council of Trent, delayed
and interrupted several times because of political or religious
disagreements, was a major reform council; it was an embodiment
of the ideals of the Counter-Reformation.

I do not understand
enough of this history to suggest the effect of society on this
Council, or the effect of this Council on society – as is almost
always the case, societal transformation is not demarcated by such
obvious, singular events. In any case, there is no declaration from
this Council that claimed the end of the Middle Ages!

Pernoud further
sets the stage by highlighting common, everyday sayings that use
the term “Middle Ages” or “medieval” in some
derogatory, backward sense: “We aren’t in the Middle Ages anymore”;
“That’s a return to the Middle Ages”; “That’s a medieval

I suspect in
these few short phrases, Pernoud has captured well the prevailing
view about this dark period, the one thousand years in between the
demise of Roman law and the re-emergence of Roman law. It is interesting:
Roman law – the law of a most centralized state – is prevalent during
the periods we are led to believe are “light.” It is not
in use during the period of “dark.” Yet, from my earlier
work on this topic, there is much to recommend from this so-called
dark, or middle age.

Perhaps the
terms “light” and “dark” in the context are
accurate only from the point of view of centralized power!

A sense of
Pernoud’s style of writing in this book is well-captured here:

The Middle
Ages still signifies: a period of ignorance, mindlessness, or
generalized under development, even if this was the only period
of underdevelopment during which cathedrals were built!

and Literary Achievements

Pernoud begins
by addressing the myths regarding the supposed lack of arts and
letters during the medieval times, with man’s creative mind only
to re-appear with the Renaissance:

and Letters, which appeared to have perished in the same shipwreck
as Roman society, seemed to flourish again and, after ten centuries
of shadows, to burn with a new brilliance.” That is how it
was put in 1872 by the Dictionairre général des

Such is the
marker of ignorance that Pernoud attacks within the first two chapters.
There were two periods of light – the classic time of antiquity,
and the Renaissance. In between were these terrible Dark Ages, with
no light.

Pernoud suggests
otherwise: Latin and Greek authors were known during the Middle
Ages – these were not lost. How on earth could the Renaissance have
occurred had these texts been lost, had the manuscripts not been
painstakingly copied and safeguarded, she asks?

Such texts
were not hidden in Constantinople, only to be found with the subsequent
flight to Europe by the Byzantines. Such misperception overlooks
the libraries of Europe, for example the library of Mont-Saint-Michael
which, in the twelfth century, contained texts of Cato, Plato, Aristotle,
Cicero, Virgil and Horace.

What changed
with the Renaissance was not that these ancient texts were found,
but that through these texts the work of the ancients should be
models to be imitated. Not so during the Middle Ages. Roman law
and the philosophies of the ancients were not looked at as the pinnacle
of man’s achievement:

of Chartres
, in the twelfth century, had exclaimed: “We
are dwarfs who have climbed on the shoulders of giants.”
He nonetheless concluded that, thus carried by the Ancients, he
could “see farther than they could”.

Pernoud suggests
that Middle Age thinking looked forward, building on the past; the
Renaissance brought a time when Europe looked backward, longing
for an ancient past. In both the ancient times of Rome as well as
the classical times of the Renaissance, through Roman law the state
was made paramount. Might we not find, in this reality, a clue of
the desire for the period to be labeled “dark”?

Pernoud touches
on a theme that I first came across in my earlier work – the conformity
of architecture throughout the Roman Empire, suggesting the control
Rome held throughout the land. This conformity offers one small
glimpse of the extent of centralization under the most centralizing
power of the expanded Mediterranean and European region.

The conformity
of architecture ranged from the “most humble” little country
churches and Knights Templar chapels to the enormous pilgrimage
church. This is contrasted to the varying design found throughout
Europe during the Middle Ages:

How is it
that the abbey
of Fontenay
is so different from that of Thoronet,
when in both instances we are dealing with Cistercian abbeys responding
to the same original necessities, to the same traditional norms,
to the same design? How can these nuances be so marked that we
cannot confuse three sister abbeys belonging to the same region,
like Thoronet, Silvacane,
and Sénanque?

As to literature,
the subject is taught in France today (1977), according to Pernoud,
as if it did not exist in France prior to the sixteenth century.

Is it conceivable
that there were a thousand years without any poetic or literary
production worthy of the name? A thousand years lived by man without
his having expressed anything beautiful, profound, or great about
himself? Who could believe this?

It seems only
the lack of curiosity or an attempt to hide history could explain

…the High
Middle Ages saw the book begin to spread in the form in which
it still occurs today, the codex,
the instrument of culture if there ever was one, which henceforth
replaces the volumen the ancient scroll; printing would
not have been able to render the services it did without this
invention of the book.

Of course,
the Gutenberg press itself is a product of the latter Middle Ages,
its developer, Johannes
, a child of the times. But even before this, the codex
was developed. This form, developed in the Middle Ages, made possible
the efficient use of movable type in a mechanical press.

Pernoud moves
on to music:

It was also
in this period that musical language was worked out that would
be used everywhere in the West up to our times.

She identifies
the hymns and liturgical chants rooted in this dark time; authors
such as Virgil
the Grammarian
or Isadore
of Seville
in the sixth century, Aldhelm
in the seventh, Bede
the Venerable
in the eighth.

Those who
have studied these works, written in a difficult Latin, of course,
but much less difficult for us than classical Latin, have appreciated
their intense richness of thought and poetry, their striking freedom
of expression.

and Slavery

Slavery is
probably the one thing about civilization that most profoundly
marks ancient societies…. If one amuses oneself, as I have done,
by going through school textbooks for high school classes, one
observes that none of them points out the progressive disappearance
of slavery from the fourth century on. They mention medieval serfdom
in very severe terms but pass over in silence the rather paradoxical
return of slavery in the sixteenth century.

Prior to looking
into this period of the Middle Ages, I had not considered this one
simple (and what should have been obvious) point: for all of the
wailing and gnashing of teeth about serfdom, it wasn’t slavery.
Even further, I had little understanding about the institution of
serfdom, at most accepting of the stereotype. Pernoud sheds light
on the fallacy of my thinking:

The fact
is, there is no comparison between the ancient servus,
the slave, and the medieval servus, the serf. Because the
one was a thing and the other a man…. The substitution of serfdom
for slavery is without a doubt the social fact that best emphasizes
the disappearance of the influence of Roman law, of Roman mentality,
in Western societies from the fifth and sixth centuries on.

The serf had
rights, the slave had none. The serf’s rights were different in
magnitude to that of his lord, but directionally similar:

…the medieval
serf was indeed a person and treated as such; his master did not
have over him the right of life and death that the Roman law recognized.
Besides, far more than a determined juridical category, serfdom
was a state, tied to an essentially rural and land-based mode
of life….the lord of the domain could not expel him anymore than
the serf could “clear out.” It was this intimate connection
between man and the soil on which he lived that constituted serfdom,
for in all other respects, the serf had all the rights of the
free man: he could marry, establish a family, his land as well
as the goods he was able to acquire, would pass on to his children
after death. The lord, let us note, had, although obviously on
a totally different scale, the same obligations as the serf, for
he could neither sell nor give up his land nor desert it.

The lord could
not expel the serf – the serf had a right to be on the land. The
lord was also equally tied to the land – he could not even sell
it! This last point is a complete revelation to me, and one that,
as mentioned, runs counter to all I accept regarding property rights.

The serf was
most definitely not a slave:

The situation
of the serf, as we shall see, was radically different and in no
way comparable to that of the slave, who did not have the right
to marry or establish a family or to avail himself in any way
of the dignity of a human person: he was an object that could
be bought and sold and over which the power of another man, his
master, was unlimited.

Pernoud goes
on to describe the life of one particular serf, Constant Le Roux,
serf of the lord of Chantoceaux in Anjou. This Constant, a serf,
was able to amass land, was granted the custody of a storeroom near
a monastery church, and put in charge of various assets belonging
to the nuns of Ronceray “as a life income….” Constant
was then able to pass these holdings along to his nephew, being
without a son himself. He was most definitely not a slave! Pernoud
suggests that anyone willing to study the documents would find many
like Constant Le Roux.

Of course,
while being a serf was preferable when the reciprocal arrangement
was imposed by vital necessities – security being primary – it became
intolerable once the serf reached some level of independence, being
able to assure his living on his own. For this, there was the work
of freeing serfs – with many recorded acts of emancipation.

Pernoud examines
the situation of a recently retired farm worker from our time, living
in the poorhouse with nothing to call his own. This in contrast
to the serf, who at the end of his productive working days would
have been entitled to live on the lord’s domain peacefully:

would have belonged to him as his own, but the use of it could
not have been withdrawn from him.

Pernoud explains
that the serf and the lord had a similar relationship to the land,
despite the fact that the lord “owned” the land – each
had a right to use the property. Even the lord only had right of
usage over his principle domain:

And, from
this point of view, the serf had the same relation to the land
as the lord himself: the latter never possessed it in full ownership
as we understand it today; ownership belonged to his descendants:
he could sell or alienate only the secondary belongings that came
to him through personal inheritance, but over the principle domain
he had only a right of usage.

Pernoud expands
on this limitation on the property owner. Whereas, under Roman law
(and today), the property owner has the right to destroy his property
if he chooses, this was not the case in Medieval times:

This is the
specific characteristic of the period, this particular conception
of the relations of man and earth, into which the notion of full
and complete ownership did not enter. A characteristic of Roman
law, ownership, the right to “use” and “abuse”,
did not exist in our medieval customs, which knew only usage;
and usage moreover that was most of the time burdened with multiple
easements: the right of the peasant of the place to pasture his
animals in the forest of the domain, the right to take wood from
it for building or his fireplace, and so on.

There are remnants
of this in parts of Europe today, where private owners of open or
forested areas are required to maintain these and allow for others
the possibility of hiking and other recreational activities. The
land is privately owned, yet available for public use.

might have been the advantages and the drawbacks, there was a
great distance between medieval serfdom and the renaissance of
slavery that was abruptly produced in the sixteenth century in
the colonies of America…it seems unquestionable that the renewed
influences of antiquity played a part in justifying this unjustifiable

The serf, while
not free, was no slave. He had rights. He was able to build his
own property and wealth. He was able to live like a man, owing to
his lord a portion of the harvest in exchange for protection.

Were Human, Too

Pernoud describes
the position of women in medieval society, a position that would
not again be fully achieved in the West until just the last several
decades. She begins with an example that is not generally applicable
to modern times, but telling nonetheless:

It is not
surprising, in fact, to think that in feudal times the queen was
crowned just like the king, generally in Reims…. [A]s much importance
was attributed to the crowning of the queen as to that of the

This as opposed
to the position of the queen both before and in the centuries immediately
following the period:

…it was only
in the seventeenth century that the queen literally disappeared
from the scene in favor of the “favorite”.

While women
like Eleanor
of Aquitaine
and Blanche
of Castile
readily dominated their century, while they unquestionably
exercised power when the king was absent…the woman in classical
times was relegated to the background; she exercised power only
in a hidden way….

It was the
reintroduction of Roman law, again beginning to have some influence
as early as the fourteenth century, which – in addition to the benefits
of centralization – also returned women to a secondary status.

Now Roman
law is no more favorable to the woman than it is to the child.
It is a monarchical law, which allows only one single end. It
is the law of pater familias, father, proprietor, and,
in his own home, high priest, the head of the family with sacred,
in any case unlimited power in what concerns his children: he
has the right of life and death over them – it is the same for
his wife, despite some limitation belatedly introduced during
the Byzantine Empire.

It was by
relying on Roman law that jurists like Dumoulin,
through their treatises and their teaching, contributed both to
extending the power of the centralized state and also – what interests
us here – to restricting the freedom of women and their capacity
for action, particularly in marriage.

As an aside,
apparently Dumoulin prophesied the fall of the Roman Catholic Church
in 2015!

According to
Pernoud, there is a myth that it was only in the fifteenth century,
at the beginning of the Renaissance, that the Church admitted that
women had a soul. Pernoud attacks this in her usual manner, highlighting
several examples of women who took action for their faith:

So, for
centuries, soul-less beings were baptized, confessed, and admitted
into the Eucharist! How strange that the first martyrs honored
as saints were women and not men: Saint
, Saint
, Saint
…. How truly sad that Saint
and Saint
were deprived of immortal souls.

Women occupied
positions of high learning and scholarship…

It is surprising,
also, to note that the best-known encyclopedia of the twelfth
century came from a woman religious [presumably “religious
woman”], the abbess Herrad
of Landsberg
. It was the famous Hortus deliciarum,
Garden of Delights, in which scholars draw the most reliable
information about the state of technical knowledge of that time.

…and held positions
of leadership over men:

decided to found two convents, one for men and
the other for women….this double monastery was placed under the
authority, not of an abbot, but of an abbess….the first abbess,
of Chemillé
…was twenty-two years
old…. during the whole feudal period, the place of women in the
Church was certainly different from that of men…but it was an
eminent place….

What of women
in everyday life, “peasants and townswomen, mothers of families
and women practicing a trade”? Through the recorded notarial
acts, legal documents, and even the “inquiries ordered by Saint

…we find
there, taken from everyday life, thousands of small details…here
the complaint of a woman hairdresser, there of a woman salt merchant
(trading in salt), of a woman miller, of the widow of a farmer,
of a chatelaine, of a woman Crusader, and so on.

…the tax
rolls…show a host of women plying trades: schoolmistress, doctor,
apothecary, plasterer, dyer, copyist, miniaturist, binder, and
so on.

Women owned
and ran businesses and shops. Further, they voted!

The picture
that comes into focus from the whole of these documents presents
for us more than one surprising trait, since one sees, for example,
women voting like men in urban assemblies or those of rural parishes….When
texts allow us to differentiate the origin of the votes…women
are explicitly named among the voters, without anything being
said to imply it was a usage particular to the locality.

Married women
were not held in a position of acting in businesses matters only
with the husband’s permission:

In notarial
acts, it is very common to see a married woman act by herself,
in opening, for example, a shop or a trade, and she did so without
having to produce her husband’s authorization.

Finally, women
had access to fulfilling state functions (arguably not a worthy
goal, from my viewpoint, nevertheless…):

It was only
at the end of the sixteenth century, through a parliamentary decree
dated 1593, that women would be explicitly excluded from all state

Access to official
royal duties, religious duties, scholarship, business and entrepreneurial
roles, suffrage, and state functions: one can argue that women in
the Middle Ages had more relative equality than at any time until
only quite recently.


Believe it
or not, the world was round as early as the thirteenth century,
according to Brunetto
. Latini, who understood this well before Columbus, also
understood much more than this. From the Wikipedia source:

While in
France, he wrote his Italian Tesoretto and in French his prose
Li Livres dou Trésor, both summaries of the encyclopaedic
knowledge of the day. The latter is regarded as the first encyclopedia
in a modern European language.

He died in
1294, leaving a daughter Bianca Latini who had married Guido Di
Filippo De’ Castiglionchi in 1284. His tomb can be found in the
church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Florence, to the left of the high

Latini was
afforded a burial in a most holy place in the church. This in contrast
to the treatment of Galileo
during the enlightening period of the renaissance, where he was
denounced a heretic and lived under house arrest until his death
in 1642.

The sentence
of the Inquisition was delivered on June 22 [1633]. It was in three
essential parts:

Galileo was
found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, namely of having held the
opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe,
that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may
hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared
contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse
and detest” those opinions.

He was sentenced
to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition. On
the following day this was commuted to house arrest, which he
remained under for the rest of his life.

His offending
Dialogue was banned; and in an action not announced at the trial,
publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any he
might write in the future.

Upon his death,
an most honorable burial was denied:

The Grand
Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II, wished to bury him in the main
body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his
father and other ancestors, and to erect a marble mausoleum in
his honour. These plans were scrapped, however, after Pope Urban
VIII and his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, protested,
because Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for “vehement
suspicion of heresy”.

Galileo was
not alone. During this time began the great age of witchcraft trials.
The first trials explicitly mentioned in the texts were in the fourteenth
century in the Toulouse region. These trials became more intense
in the second half of the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century,
we are presented with such characters as Nicolas
, judge and general prosecutor for Lorraine, who
sent to the stake, according to Pernoud, some three thousand witches
and sorcerers. There is more:

…in fact,
with the seventeenth century – the age of reason – the number
of witchcraft trials swelled to insane proportions. There was
scarcely a region that cannot call to mind famous trials, whether
Loudun, Louviers, Nancy, the Méautis affair in Normandy,
and so on.

This age of
reason, this enlightenment, was in contrast to the view
taken by the church
in the medieval world (NB: the Wikipedia
entry is cautioned):

The Councils
of Elvira (306), Ancyra (314) and in Trullo (692) imposed certain
ecclesiastical penances for devil-worship and this mild approach
represented the view of the Church for many centuries.

The general
desire of the Catholic Church’s clergy to check fanaticism about
witchcraft and necromancy is shown in the decrees of the Council
of Paderborn which in 785 explicitly outlawed condemning people
as witches, and condemned to death anyone who burnt a witch. Emperor
Charlemagne later confirmed the law. The Council of Frankfurt
in 794, called by Charlemagne, was also very explicit in condemning
“the persecution of alleged witches and wizards”, calling the
belief in witchcraft “superstitious”, and ordering the death penalty
for those who presumed to burn witches.

the Lombard code of 643 states:

“Let nobody
presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female servant as
a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by
Christian minds.”

This conforms
to the teachings of the Canon Episcopi of circa 900 AD (alleged
to date from 314 AD), following the thoughts of St Augustine of
Hippo which stated that witchcraft did not exist and that to teach
that it was a reality was, itself, false and heterodox teaching.

The Church
of the time, rather than punishing witchcraft, opposed what it
saw as the foolish and backward belief in witchcraft itself, which
it saw as superstitious folly.

According to
John of
, bishop of Chartres in the twelfth century:

best remedy against this sickness is to cling firmly to the faith,
refuse to listen to those lies, and never to give one’s attention
to such pitiable follies.”

Which period
might be labeled enlightened, and which period labeled dark?

(Not Necessarily So) Good to be King!

This topic
was extensively covered in my earlier post. I touch on it here to
demonstrate the breadth of Pernoud’s work, but also because she
brings some additional views on the subject, especially the utility
of Roman law in enabling centralizing power.

Today it is
generally accepted that only centralized power, promulgating generalized
laws offers the most efficient and fair legal system. It was not
always so. There was a time when “relations between men were
capable of being established on bases other than that of a centralized
administration, that authority was able to reside elsewhere than
in a city…”

The feudal
order, in fact, was very different from the monarchical order
that replaced it and to which succeeded, in a still more centralized
form, the order of state control that is found today in various
European nations.

Pernoud goes
on to give a brief review of how this decentralized system came

A centralized
power in the extreme, that of the Roman Empire, collapsed in the
course of the fifth century. In the disarray that followed, local
powers arose; this was sometimes the head of a band of fellow
adventurers grouped around him; sometimes, too, the master of
an estate trying to assure for those around him as well as for
himself a security no longer guaranteed by the state.

This can
help us understand what happened at that time: some little farmer,
powerless by himself to assure his security and that of his family,
applied to a powerful neighbor who had the possibility of maintaining
armed men; the latter consented to protect the farmer in exchange
for which the farmer would give him a part of his harvest.

This was a
voluntary action, a trade. It was based on an oath, a sacramentum.
The act had religious value. Such was the basis for societal relationships
beginning in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is important to note
the moral and religious tone of the relationship – the oath was

Law was not
uniform. This did not present a problem for the individual, but
for the jurist – the law followed the individual! When someone was
arrested for a crime, the first question asked was “What is
your law?” He was tried according to his own law, and not the
law of the region where he was arrested. It was truly a case where
ignorance of the law was no excuse, because the law followed the

What was his
law? Law was custom, particular to a community or region. Law was
old and good.

Custom, usage
that was lived and tacitly approved, governed the life of the
human group and constituted obstacles to individual caprices.

As to offenders:

…if no public
power to sanction offenders existed, the latter were rejected
by the group, which amounted to the same thing, especially in
a time when life was difficult for an isolated person.

The entire
relationship was governed by community, not by state, actions. A
common set of moral and ethical values within the community were
necessary to ensure that such a system would survive and thrive.

What if satisfaction
could not be achieved by such relatively peaceful means – trials,
verdicts, and the like? There was the possibility of private war:
“…the right for the group to avenge and offence suffered by
one of its members and to obtain reparation.”

This sounds
so…barbaric; yet, is it? The system inherently kept conflicts to
a relatively low level, neighbor against neighbor, lord against
lord. The idea of a continental or world war seemed unimaginable,
and certainly unnecessary, when differences could be resolved locally.

But what of
the feudal king? What was his position relative to society? Was
not the king empowered to resolve every conflict, enact necessary
law, etc.? It is incorrect to view the feudal king in the same manner
as the monarch of more recent history. Pernoud describes this briefly,
yet thoroughly:

…if we consider
royalty with respect to its political, military, administrative
role, how can we see in Louis
the successor of Saint
? That the terms are the same is, then, in itself, a
historical error; in reality, the evolution of the royal function
has been so profound that the use of a different terminology should
be imperative. The feudal king was one lord among other lords;
like the others, he administered a personal fief, in which he
rendered justice, defended those who populated his domain, and
collected rent in kind or in money. Beyond this domain, there
was the king, the one who had been marked by holy oil; he was
the designated arbiter in conflicts, the suzerain of suzerains,
the one who assumed defense of the kingdom and to whom, for that
reason, the other lords owed military aid….his title of king did
not signify that his economic or military power was greater than
that of some particular vassal….

his authority might have been, the feudal king possessed none
of the attributes recognized as those of a sovereign power; he
could neither decree general laws nor collect taxes on the whole
of his kingdom nor levy an army.

There was nothing
terribly special about being king throughout much of this period.
As previously discussed, he was under the law just as the lords
were under the law. The lords had duty to the law, even if it meant
defying the king – and the king understood this. Sadly, the renaissance
marked the end of this relationship:

But the evolution
about to begin, notably in the fifteenth century, ended in precisely
conferring these powers on him; it was the direct consequence
of the renaissance of Roman law, to which it would be impossible
to impute too much importance.

If one interested
in the possibility of a greatly decentralized society takes away
nothing more regarding this period of the Middle Ages, it should
be this concept that the law was different. The law did not empower
the sovereign – there was no concept of sovereign. The law was supreme,
and each king and lord was subject to uphold the law.


In my previous
work, I found a concept of law and king in the Middle Ages quite
different than our own, resulting in a decentralized society – one
in which a man was bound to law based on custom, not based on sovereign

In this work,
based on Pernoud’s book, I have found in the same time and place
a liberal society – certainly liberal when compared to the Rome
that preceded it and the monarchs and state that followed it. Arts
and letters were not neglected, but thrived; serfdom, while not
freedom in the sense we understand today, was not serfdom in the
way typically understood today – and it certainly was not slavery
which dominated the centuries before and after this period; women,
while not holding equal roles in society, held prominent roles with
many opportunities for personal expression; and tolerance for views
outside of traditionally accepted Church doctrine existed, certainly
when compared to the witch trials that followed.

None of this
should be terribly surprising: in a society that is politically
decentralized, one would expect to see more freedom generally. This
certainly seems to be the case in the Middle Ages.

with permission from the Bionic

22, 2013

© 2013 Bionic

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