In the Merovingian period we find a certain number of small proprietors, called vassi, commending themselves to other men more powerful and more rich, who were called seniores.
our selection from La Chevalerie by Léon Gautier published in 1884. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Chivalry.
One very specious objection is made as regards feudalism, which some clear-minded people obstinately confound with chivalry. This was the favorite theory of Montalembert. Now there are two kinds of feudalism, which the old feudalists put down very clearly in two words now out of date — “fiefs of dignity” and “fiefs simple.” About the middle of the ninth century, the dukes and counts made themselves independent of the central power, and declared that people owed the same allegiance to them as they did to the emperor or the king. Such were the acts of the “fiefs of dignity,” and we may at once allow that they had nothing in common with chivalry. The “fiefs simple,” then, remained.
In the Merovingian period we find a certain number of small proprietors, called vassi, commending themselves to other men more powerful and more rich, who were called seniores. To his senior who made him a present of land the vassus owed assistance and fidelity. It is true that as early as the reign of Charlemagne he followed him to war, but it must be noted that it was to the emperor, to the central power, that he actually rendered military service. There was nothing very particular in this, but the time was approaching when things would be altered. Toward the middle of the ninth century we find a large number of men falling “on their knees” before other men! What are they about? They are “recommending” themselves, but, in plainer terms, “Protect us and we will be your men.” And they added: “It is to you and to you only that we intend in future to render military service; but in exchange you must protect the land we possess — defend what you will in time concede to us; and defend us ourselves.” These people on their knees were “vassals” at the feet of their “lords”; and the fief was generally only a grant of land conceded in exchange for military service.
Feudalism of this nature has nothing in common with chivalry.
If we consider chivalry in fact as a kind of privileged body into which men were received on certain conditions and with a certain ritual, it is important to observe that every vassal is not necessarily a cavalier. There were vassals who, with the object of averting the cost of initiation or for other reasons, remained damoiseaux, or pages, all their lives. The majority, of course, did nothing of the kind; but all could do so, and a great many did.
On the other hand we see conferred the dignity of chivalry upon insignificant people who had never held fiefs, who owed to no one any fealty, and to whom no one owed any.
We cannot repeat too often that it was not the cavalier (or knight), it was the vassal who owed military service, or ost, to the seigneur, or lord; and the service in curte or court: it was the vassal, not the knight, who owed to the “lord” relief, “aid,” homage.
The feudal system soon became hereditary. Chivalry, on the contrary, has never been hereditary, and a special rite has always been necessary to create a knight. In default of all other arguments this would be sufficient.
But if, instead of regarding chivalry as an institution, we consider it as an ideal, the doubt is not really more admissible. It is here that, in the eyes of a philosophic historian, chivalry is clearly distinct from feudalism. If the western world in the ninth century had not been feudalized, chivalry would nevertheless have come into existence; and, notwithstanding everything, it would have come to light in Christendom; for chivalry is nothing more than the Christianized form of military service, the armed force in the service of the unarmed Truth; and it was inevitable that at some time or other it must have sprung, living and fully armed, from the brain of the church, as Minerva did from the brain of Jupiter.
Feudalism, on the contrary, is not of Christian origin at all. It is a particular form of government, and of society, which has scarcely been less rigorous for the church than other forms of society and government. Feudalism has disputed with the church over and over again, while chivalry has protected her a hundred times. Feudalism is force — chivalry is the brake.
Let us look at Godfrey de Bouillon. The fact that he owed homage to any suzerain, the fact that he exacted service from such and such vassals, are questions which concern feudal rights, and have nothing to do with chivalry. But if I contemplate him in battle beneath the walls of Jerusalem; if I am a spectator of his entry into the Holy City; if I see him ardent, brave, powerful and pure, valiant and gentle, humble and proud, refusing to wear the golden crown in the Holy City where Jesus wore the crown of thorns, I am not then anxious — I am not curious — to learn from whom he holds his fief, or to know the names of his vassals; and I exclaim, “There is the knight!” And how many knights, what chivalrous virtues, have existed in the Christian world since feudalism has ceased to exist!
The adoption of arms in the German fashion remains the true origin of chivalry; and the Franks have handed down this custom to us — a custom perpetuated to a comparatively modern period. This simple, almost rude rite so decidedly marked the line of civil life in the code of manners of people of German origin, that under the Carlovingians we still find numerous traces of it. In 791 Louis, eldest son of Charlemagne, was only thirteen years old, and yet he had worn the crown of Aquitaine for three years upon his “baby brow.” The king of the Franks felt that it was time to bestow upon this child the military consecration which would more quickly assure him of the respect of his people. He summoned him to Ingelheim, then to Ratisbon, and solemnly girded him with the sword which “makes men.” He did not trouble himself about the framea or the buckler — the sword occupied the first place. It will retain it for a long time.
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