As Roman power crumbled, and as the kingdoms of their barbarian successors followed the same course, the land of Europe was left in the hands of many thousands of farmers and hundreds of larger holders. As we covered in Lesson 8, some people were comfortable being self-reliant and simply took empty pieces of land, making it their own. Others, less comfortable standing alone or simply content where they were, made deals with existing landholders to continue living as they had been. Over time, this became a new model of land ownership and use.
The general situation in Europe was this:
- There were very large land-holders who also employed armed men (generally in declining numbers) and who liked to give themselves impressive titles. Nonetheless, they generated no real production and so they had to trade land for the things they needed.
- There were large and medium land-holders who tried to use their lands efficiently, but were having difficulty doing so.
- There were small land-holders who were producing well, but had to deal, every so often, with one of the violent groups.
- There were millions of tenant farmers who survived (usually fairly well) working someone else’s land and paying some form of rent. But they also demanded a guarantee of safety.
- There were also millions of marginal people, more or less an under-class. These were damaged people, alcoholics, thieves and other less respectable types.
Since this was more or less all there was, and since these people carried the Judeo-Christian principles (at least to a significant extent) they slowly built a new model of cooperation. The whole process was sloppy, variable and full of difficulties (as human relations always have been), but the new model was more or less this:
- The very large land-holders were obliged to keep a sufficient fighting force and to keep the levels below them content. If the level below them became angered, the king could be killed (which happened a lot during this era) or forced to act as the next level down demanded, as happened in 1215 in England. (And many other places and times.) It’s interesting that these kings and their courts – their advisors and so on – traveled a great deal of the time. The court of the king was as likely as not held in a tent.
- The large and medium land-holders (and there were almost always several levels of these) were given numerous small holders to oversee. The smaller holders had to provide them faithful counsel (advice), fighting men if needed, and loyalty. At the same time, these land-holders were obliged to spend time with the largest holders (who called themselves princes or kings), to help them govern their area, and to provide them with fighting men (complete with weapons) for a certain number of days per year.
- The small land-holders had to provide a few fighting men when requested by those at the levels above them, but usually only for a number of weeks per year. In return, the level above had to provide fighting men if they were somehow attacked.
- The tenant farmers worked someone else’s land as they had been, and were also guaranteed certain rights by their landlord. They didn’t properly own their land, but neither could they or their descendants be pushed off of it. And when they were too old to work, they had to be fed.
- The marginal people were left more or less as they were, and their care was given mainly to the churches and monasteries.
This arrangement (and versions of it) came much later to be called serfdom, but only the tenant farmers in this list were actually serfs. And it’s also true that a large number of people remained in cities and stood more or less outside of these arrangements.
It’s also worth noting that people of this time could run away from their situation if they wanted to: there were no fenced borders or identity documents. Even the lowest and most restrained serf could run away, and if he or she remained elsewhere for a year and a day, they were automatically freed of all obligations under their previous arrangements.
And so land ownership and security during these centuries were maintained with private agreements; by private contract. And these arrangements became terribly complex over time. One medieval noble (of a medium-high level in these arrangements) named John Toul had allegiances to four different lords, and complained about the situation in this way:
If Grandpre goes to war with Champagne for his personal grievances, I must personally assist Grandpre, but I must also send knights to Champaigne.
But if Grandpre goes to war with Champagne on behalf of his friends, I must personally assist Champagne, and send one knight to Grandpre.
There were many cases like this, and thousands of small, interconnected hierarchies. Overall it worked reasonably well. Wars, at that time, were tiny by modern standards, and were nearly always limited to nobles who wished to fight. Local farmers were left out of the fighting almost entirely.
What you can see from this is that the development of Western civilization was driven by initiative. People simply took it upon themselves to build the things they needed. Waiting for permission or begging a ruler to do it for them simply didn’t work, and so they did it themselves. And again, passages from the Christian gospels supported this, such as the line from Jesus where he asks, “why don’t you judge of your own selves what is right?”
Another place this showed itself was in learning. There were schools all through Europe at this time, but not very many. Italy still had quite a few, but it seems that most learning involved tutoring. But even in England, at least five schools founded in the 6th and 7th centuries still exist.
Rates of literacy were certainly lower in this period than in our own, and books fewer, but literature was far from absent. Most of the new literature from this time, however, was religious. A great number of stories were written as “Lives of Saints.” So many, in fact, that when Rev. Alban Butler collected these stories centuries later, his Lives of the Saints, compiled between 1756 and 1759, he found 1,486 of them.
Furthermore, pilgrim’s guides were published all through this period (these people did travel) and were read in more or less every village.
At the same time, the books of Latin and Greek authors remained available in a number on monasteries, although certain manuscripts were lost. For example, a library at Mont Saint-Michael (now in France) contained texts from many of the most important ancient authors.
Still, the education establishment of the time grew hard, arrogant and restrictive, as such establishments tend to do. In response, however, the best young Europeans relied again upon initiative and founded their own new places of learning, in this case, universities.
European universities began as private enterprises; as commercial arrangements between the teachers and their pupils. It was only after these schools were established for many years that rulers began to acknowledge them and to certify them.
The University of Bologna operated for seventy years before a king calling himself “Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor,” declared it a place for research in 1258. What became the University of Paris actually began with a few small and unapproved schools. The man who turned them into open places of learning was Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Unhappy with the censorship of intellectuals, Abelard and others helped form what became a university. And it wasn’t until 1231 AD, 130 years after Abelard opened his first school, that a Pope formally recognized the University of Paris.