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The Story of Old France by  H. A. Guerber
Table of Contents


 

 

FEUDALISM

[82]

C
HARLEMAGNE had forseen that the different nations over which he ruled were never likely to unite so as to form one single people. He followed the old Frankish custom, and planned a division of his realm among his three sons; and several years before his death he set them up as kings, under himself, in what we now call France, Italy, and Germany. But two of these princes dying before him, the third, Louis, became Charlemagne's sole heir.

Louis was so gentle and devout that he early earned the surname of Meek, or Pious (le Débonnaire), and had he been allowed to do as he pleased, he would doubtless have entered a monastery and spent all his life there in prayer and study. But the peace he so dearly loved was not to fall to his lot, for even when very young he was compelled to take part in his father's many wars.

On coming to the throne at the age of thirty-six, Louis I declared that he meant to have a quiet and orderly court, with none of the license or splendor which had distinguished that of Charlemagne. But the nobles, who were great fighters, did not appreciate a quiet life, and a court where religious services took up the greater part of the day soon proved very irksome to pleasure-loving people. Besides, the Emperor felt little sympathy for their tastes or pursuits, and in his horror for everything pagan, even ordered the destruction of all the old Frankish and Saxon poetry, which his father had so painstakingly collected.

Temperate both in meat and drink, the only pastime Louis ever permitted was the hunt, so it was no wonder [83] that his dull court was soon deserted by the nobles, who preferred to live in their own way at home. They were further encouraged in their disregard of the Emperor's wishes by the disobedience of his own sons, who no sooner attained manhood than they openly defied him, a mode of conduct in which they persisted as long as he lived, as you will see.

Charles Martel and his successors divided much of the land in France among a few great warriors who were to keep their estates as long as they lived, and in exchange for this gift of land were to maintain men ready to fight on horseback for their king whenever called upon to do so. These lords were therefore said to do homage to the king for their lands, and were called the vassals of their royal suzerain, or master. Each of these lords, in turn, bestowed farms and villages upon his warriors, also in exchange for help in time of war. So these warriors were known as the vassals or servants of their suzerain, the lord. These warrior vassals also gave away part of their holdings to lesser folk for services of one kind or another.

In this way, little by little, there was established in France a society built on promises, or on faith, and called feudalism. In the feudal society the king came first, then the great overlords, next the warrior vassals, and then the serfs, or farmer and peasant class, who cultivated the soil and gave part of their harvests to the fighting men in exchange for their protection. These serfs were almost slaves, but they could be sold only with the land they tilled.

The lowest class of all comprised the common or household slaves,—mostly prisoners of war,—but as these could [84] purchase their freedom, and as it was often given to them as reward for some service, this class gradually became less and less numerous, until it finally died out entirely in France.

The great warrior lords of France were at first nearly all of the conquering Frankish race, while the former inhabitants were reduced tot he middle or lower classes, composed of merchants, artisans, and serfs.

Now, conquered people always feel somewhat resentful, and they are apt to hate their conquerors, which is the principle reason why the Frankish lords and their subjects often failed to agree. But as the lord was made the judge and ruler of the people on his land, the lower classes had to learn submission, and little by little they ceased to struggle or murmur openly.

To protect themselves from the enemy, or from any neighbor who might try to take their new lands away from them, these Frankish lords soon built fortresses, where not only they and their families, but all their dependents, could find refuge in time of need. Such fortresses, or castles, many of which still exist, were often built on mountains or near rivers. To make it impossible for an enemy to enter, they were surrounded by first wide moats—ditches filled with water—and then by high and very thick walls made of great blocks of hewn stone.

The outer wall generally had but one opening, or gateway, with a tower above it, or turrets of either side. This gate was provided with a drawbridge, which could be lowered or raised as the owner of the castle wished. It also had a strong iron grating, sliding up and down in deep grooves, which was dropped at the least hint of [85] danger, and great doors heavily studded with iron. Guards were posted here and there along the wall and in the turrets near the gate, to keep constant watch over the surrounding country, and to give the alarm if any enemy drew near.

Inside the outer wall, and built against it, were many buildings, opening into the castle yard. These were the granaries, stables, barracks, and servant quarters of the castle.

In the center of the inclosure, which sometimes included several rings of walls, one inside of another, there generally stood the donjon, or keep, a huge tower which was the dwelling of the lord and his family, and the place where the chief treasures were kept. The ground floor of this dwelling was often very dark, because, for safety's sake, few openings were made in the lower part of the wall, so it was generally used as a guard room.

[86] In the cellars, or vaults, underneath were the dungeons, or prison cells. Captives were often chained to the walls of these cold dark, damp places until they died.

Over the guard room were the great hall and the living rooms of the lord and his family, which were far brighter and pleasanter than any of the others within the inclosure. Winding stairs, cut in the thick stone walls, led up tot he bedrooms above, and finally to a terrace on top of the tower, whence one could behold all the surrounding country, and enjoy in safety sun and air and extended view.

Such were the homes which the nobles constructed when Louis's court grew dull for them. There each lord held a little court of his own, until in time one and all longed to become their own masters, and ended by flatly refusing to obey the king or emperor.


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