Sunday, May 10, 2009

Manners, Custom and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period, by Paul Lacroix

Condition of Persons and Lands.

Disorganization of the West at the Beginning of the Middle
Ages.--Mixture of Roman, Germanic, and Gallic Institutions.--Fusion
organized under Charlemagne.--Royal Authority.--Position of the Great
Feudalists.--Division of the Territory and Prerogatives attached to
Landed Possessions.--Freemen and Tenants.--The Læti, the Colon, the
Serf, and the Labourer, who may be called the Origin of the Modern Lower
Classes.--Formation of Communities.--Right of Mortmain.

The period known as the Middle Ages, says the learned Benjamin Guérard, is
the produce of Pagan civilisation, of Germanic barbarism, and of
Christianity. It began in 476, on the fall of Agustulus, and ended in
1453, at the taking of Constantinople by Mahomet II., and consequently the
fall of two empires, that of the West and that of the East, marks its
duration. Its first act, which was due to the Germans, was the destruction
of political unity, and this was destined to be afterwards replaced by
religions unity. Then we find a multitude of scattered and disorderly
influences growing on the ruins of central power. The yoke of imperial
dominion was broken by the barbarians; but the populace, far from
acquiring liberty, fell to the lowest degrees of servitude. Instead of one
despot, it found thousands of tyrants, and it was but slowly and with
much trouble that it succeeded in freeing itself from feudalism. Nothing
could be more strangely troubled than the West at the time of the
dissolution of the Empire of the Caesars; nothing more diverse or more
discordant than the interests, the institutions, and the state of society,
which were delivered to the Germans (Figs. 1 and 2). In fact, it would be
impossible in the whole pages of history to find a society formed of more
heterogeneous or incompatible elements. On the one side might be placed
the Goths, Burgundians, Vandals, Germans, Franks, Saxons, and Lombards,
nations, or more strictly hordes, accustomed to rough and successful
warfare, and, on the other, the Romans, including those people who by long
servitude to Roman dominion had become closely allied with their
conquerors (Fig. 3). There were, on both sides, freemen, freedmen, colons,
and slaves; different ranks and degrees being, however, observable both in
freedom and servitude. This hierarchical principle applied itself even to
the land, which was divided into freeholds, tributary lands, lands of the
nobility, and servile lands, thus constituting the freeholds, the
benefices, the fiefs, and the tenures. It may be added that the customs,
and to a certain degree the laws, varied according to the masters of the
country, so that it can hardly be wondered at that everywhere diversity
and inequality were to be found, and, as a consequence, that anarchy and
confusion ruled supreme.

[Illustration: Figs. 1 and 2.--Costumes of the Franks from the Fourth to
the Eighth Centuries, collected by H. de Vielcastel, from original
Documents in the great Libraries of Europe.]

[Illustration: Fig. 3.--Costumes of Roman Soldiers. Fig. 4.--Costume of
German Soldiers. From Miniatures on different Manuscripts, from the Sixth
to the Twelfth Centuries.]

The Germans (Fig. 4) had brought with them over the Rhine none of the
heroic virtues attributed to them by Tacitus when he wrote their history,
with the evident intention of making a satire on his countrymen. Amongst
the degenerate Romans whom those ferocious Germans had subjugated,
civilisation was reconstituted on the ruins of vices common in the early
history of a new society by the adoption of a series of loose and
dissolute habits, both by the conquerors and the conquered.

[Illustration: Fig. 5.--Costumes of Slaves or Serfs, from the Sixth to the
Twelfth Centuries, collected by H. de Vielcastel, from original Documents
in the great Libraries of Europe.]

In fact, the conquerors contributed the worse share (Fig. 5); for, whilst
exercising the low and debasing instincts of their former barbarism, they
undertook the work of social reconstruction with a sort of natural and
innate servitude. To them, liberty, the desire for which caused them to
brave the greatest dangers, was simply the right of doing evil--of obeying
their ardent thirst for plunder. Long ago, in the depths of their forests,
they had adopted the curious institution of vassalage. When they came to
the West to create States, instead of reducing personal power, every step
in their social edifice, from the top to the bottom, was made to depend on
individual superiority. To bow to a superior was their first political
principle; and on that principle feudalism was one day to find its base.

Servitude was in fact to be found in all conditions and ranks, equally in
the palace of the sovereign as in the dwellings of his subjects. The
vassal who was waited on at his own table by a varlet, himself served at
the table of his lord; the nobles treated each other likewise, according
to their rank; and all the exactions which each submitted to from his
superiors, and required to be paid to him by those below him, were looked
upon not as onerous duties, but as rights and honours. The sentiment of
dignity and of personal independence, which has become, so to say, the
soul of modern society, did not exist at all, or at least but very
slightly, amongst the Germans. If we could doubt the fact, we have but to
remember that these men, so proud, so indifferent to suffering or death,
would often think little of staking their liberty in gambling, in the hope
that if successful their gain might afford them the means of gratifying
some brutal passion.

[Illustration: Fig. 6.--King or Chief of Franks armed with the Seramasax,
from a Miniature of the Ninth Century, drawn by H. de Vielcastel.]

When the Franks took root in Gaul, their dress and institutions were
adopted by the Roman society (Fig. 6). This had the most disastrous
influence in every point of view, and it is easy to prove that
civilisation did not emerge from this chaos until by degrees the Teutonic
spirit disappeared from the world. As long as this spirit reigned, neither
private nor public liberty existed. Individual patriotism only extended as
far as the border of a man's family, and the nation became broken up into
clans. Gaul soon found itself parcelled off into domains which were
almost independent of one another. It was thus that Germanic genius became

[Illustration: Fig. 7.--The King of the Franks, in the midst of the
Military Chiefs who formed his _Treuste_, or armed Court, dictates the
Salic Law (Code of the Barbaric Laws).--Fac-simile of a Miniature in the
"Chronicles of St. Denis," a Manuscript of the Fourteenth Century (Library
of the Arsenal).]

The advantages of acting together for mutual protection first established
itself in families. If any one suffered from an act of violence, he laid
the matter before his relatives for them jointly to seek reparation. The
question was then settled between the families of the offended person and
the offender, all of whom were equally associated in the object of
vindicating a cause which interested them alone, without recognising any
established authority, and without appealing to the law. If the parties
had sought the protection or advice of men of power, the quarrel might at
once take a wider scope, and tend to kindle a feud between two nobles. In
any case the King only interfered when the safety of his person or the
interests of his dominions were threatened.

Penalties and punishments were almost always to be averted by a money
payment. A son, for instance, instead of avenging the death of his
father, received from the murderer a certain indemnity in specie,
according to legal tariff; and the law was thus satisfied.

The tariff of indemnities or compensations to be paid for each crime
formed the basis of the code of laws amongst the principal tribes of
Franks, a code essentially barbarian, and called the Salic law, or law of
the Salians (Fig. 7). Such, however, was the spirit of inequality among
the German races, that it became an established principle for justice to
be subservient to the rank of individuals. The more powerful a man was,
the more he was protected by the law; the lower his rank, the less the law
protected him.

The life of a Frank, by right, was worth twice that of a Roman; the life
of a servant of the King was worth three times that of an ordinary
individual who did not possess that protecting tie. On the other hand,
punishment was the more prompt and rigorous according to the inferiority
of position of the culprit. In case of theft, for instance, a person of
importance was brought before the King's tribunal, and as it respected the
rank held by the accused in the social hierarchy, little or no punishment
was awarded. In the case of the same crime by a poor man, on the contrary,
the ordinary judge gave immediate sentence, and he was seized and hung on
the spot.

Inasmuch as no political institutions amongst the Germans were nobler or
more just than those of the Franks and the other barbaric races, we cannot
accept the creed of certain historians who have represented the Germans as
the true regenerators of society in Europe. The two sources of modern
civilisation are indisputably Pagan antiquity and Christianity.

After the fall of the Merovingian kings great progress was made in the
political and social state of nations. These kings, who were but chiefs of
undisciplined bands, were unable to assume a regal character, properly so
called. Their authority was more personal than territorial, for incessant
changes were made in the boundaries of their conquered dominions. It was
therefore with good reason that they styled themselves kings of the
Franks, and not kings of France.

Charlemagne was the first who recognised that social union, so admirable
an example of which was furnished by Roman organization, and who was able,
with the very elements of confusion and disorder to which he succeeded, to
unite, direct, and consolidate diverging and opposite forces, to establish
and regulate public administrations, to found and build towns, and to
form and reconstruct almost a new world (Fig. 8). We hear of him assigning
to each his place, creating for all a common interest, making of a crowd
of small and scattered peoples a great and powerful nation; in a word,
rekindling the beacon of ancient civilisation. When he died, after a most
active and glorious reign of forty-five years, he left an immense empire
in the most perfect state of peace (Fig. 9). But this magnificent
inheritance was unfortunately destined to pass into unworthy or impotent
hands, so that society soon fell back into anarchy and confusion. The
nobles, in their turn invested with power, were continually at war, and
gradually weakened the royal authority--the power of the kingdom--by their
endless disputes with the Crown and with one another.

[Illustration: Fig. 8.--Charles, eldest Son of King Pepin, receives the
News of the Death of his Father and the Great Feudalists offer him the
Crown.--Costumes of the Court of Burgundy in the Fifteenth
Century.--Fac-simile of a Miniature of the "History of the Emperors"
(Library of the Arsenal).]

[Illustration: Fig. 9. Portrait of Charlemagne, whom the Song of Roland
names the King with the Grizzly Beard.--Fac-simile of an Engraving of the
End of the Sixteenth Century.]

The revolution in society which took place under the Carlovingian dynasty
had for its especial object that of rendering territorial what was
formerly personal, and, as it were, of destroying personality in matters
of government.

The usurpation of lands by the great having been thus limited by the
influence of the lesser holders, everybody tried to become the holder of
land. Its possession then formed the basis of social position, and, as a
consequence, individual servitude became lessened, and society assumed a
more stable condition. The ancient laws of wandering tribes fell into
disuse; and at the same time many distinctions of caste and race
disappeared, as they were incompatible with the new order of things. As
there were no more Salians, Ripuarians, nor Visigoths among the free men,
so there were no more colons, læti, nor slaves amongst those deprived of

[Illustrations: Figs. 10 and 11.--Present State of the Feudal Castle of
Chateau-Gaillard aux Andelys, which was considered one of the strongest
Castles of France in the Middle Ages, and was rebuilt in the Twelfth
Century by Richard Coeur de Lion.]

Heads of families, on becoming attached to the soil, naturally had other
wants and other customs than those which they had delighted in when they
were only the chiefs of wandering adventurers. The strength of their
followers was not now so important to them as the security of their
castles. Fortresses took the place of armed bodies; and at this time,
every one who wished to keep what he had, entrenched himself to the best
of his ability at his own residence. The banks of rivers, elevated
positions, and all inaccessible heights, were occupied by towers and
castles, surrounded by ditches, which served as strongholds to the lords
of the soil. (Figs. 10 and 11). These places of defence soon became points
for attack. Out of danger at home, many of the nobles kept watch like
birds of prey on the surrounding country, and were always ready to fall,
not only upon their enemies, but also on their neighbours, in the hope
either of robbing them when off their guard, or of obtaining a ransom for
any unwary traveller who might fall into their hands. Everywhere society
was in ambuscade, and waged civil war--individual against
individual--without peace or mercy. Such was the reign of feudalism. It is
unnecessary to point out how this system of perpetual petty warfare tended
to reduce the power of centralisation, and how royalty itself was
weakened towards the end of the second dynasty. When the descendants of
Hugh Capet wished to restore their power by giving it a larger basis, they
were obliged to attack, one after the other, all these strongholds, and
practically to re-annex each fief, city, and province held by these petty
monarchs, in order to force their owners to recognise the sovereignty of
the King. Centuries of war and negotiations became necessary before the
kingdom of France could be, as it were, reformed.

[Illustration: Fig. 12.--Knights and Men-at-arms, cased in Mail, in the
Reign of Louis le Gros, from a Miniature in a Psalter written towards the
End of the Twelfth Century.]

The corporations and the citizens had great weight in restoring the
monarchical power, as well as in forming French nationality; but by far
the best influence brought to bear in the Middle Ages was that of
Christianity. The doctrine of one origin and of one final destiny being
common to all men of all classes constantly acted as a strong inducement
for thinking that all should be equally free. Religious equality paved the
way for political equality, and as all Christians were brothers before
God, the tendency was for them to become, as citizens, equal also in law.

This transformation, however, was but slow, and followed concurrently the
progress made in the security of property. At the onset, the slave only
possessed his life, and this was but imperfectly guaranteed to him by the
laws of charity; laws which, however, year by year became of greater
power. He afterwards became _colon_, or labourer (Figs. 13 and 14),
working for himself under certain conditions and tenures, paying fines, or
services, which, it is true, were often very extortionate. At this time he
was considered to belong to the domain on which he was born, and he was at
least sure that that soil would not be taken from him, and that in giving
part of his time to his master, he was at liberty to enjoy the rest
according to his fancy. The farmer afterwards became proprietor of the
soil he cultivated, and master, not only of himself, but of his lands;
certain trivial obligations or fines being all that was required of him,
and these daily grew less, and at last disappeared altogether. Having thus
obtained a footing in society, he soon began to take a place in provincial
assemblies; and he made the last bound on the road of social progress,
when the vote of his fellow-electors sent him to represent them in the
parliament of the kingdom. Thus the people who had begun by excessive
servitude, gradually climbed to power.

[Illustration: Fig. 13.--Labouring Colons (Twelfth Century), after a
Miniature in a Manuscript of the Ste. Chapelle, of the National Library of

We will now describe more in detail the various conditions of persons of
the Middle Ages.

The King, who held his rights by birth, and not by election, enjoyed
relatively an absolute authority, proportioned according to the power of
his abilities, to the extent of his dominions, and to the devotion of his
vassals. Invested with a power which for a long time resembled the command
of a general of an army, he had at first no other ministers than the
officers to whom he gave full power to act in the provinces, and who
decided arbitrarily in the name of, and representing, the King, on all
questions of administration. One minister alone approached the King, and
that was the chancellor, who verified, sealed, and dispatched all royal
decrees and orders.

As early, however, as the seventh century, a few officers of state
appeared, who were specially attached to the King's person or household; a
count of the palace, who examined and directed the suits brought before
the throne; a mayor of the palace, who at one time raised himself from the
administration of the royal property to the supreme power; an
arch-chaplain, who presided over ecclesiastical affairs; a lord of the
bedchamber, charged with the treasure of the chamber; and a count of the
stables, charged with the superintendence of the stables.

[Illustration: Fig. 14.--Labouring Colons (Twelfth Century), after a
Miniature in a Manuscript of the Ste. Chapelle, of the National Library of

For all important affairs, the King generally consulted the grandees of
his court; but as in the five or six first centuries of monarchy in France
the royal residence was not permanent, it is probable the Council of State
was composed in part of the officers who followed the King, and in part of
the noblemen who came to visit him, or resided near the place he happened
to be inhabiting. It was only under the Capetians that the Royal Council
took a permanent footing, or even assembled at stated periods.

In ordinary times, that is to say, when he was not engaged in war, the
King had few around him besides his family, his personal attendants, and
the ministers charged with the dispatch of affairs. As he changed from
one of his abodes to another he only held his court on the great festivals
of the year.

[Illustration: Fig. 15.--The Lords and Barons prove their Nobility by
hanging their Banners and exposing their Coats-of-arms at the Windows of
the Lodge of the Heralds.--After a Miniature of the "Tournaments of King
Réné" (Fifteenth Century), MSS. of the National Library of Paris.]

Up to the thirteenth century, there was, strictly speaking, no taxation
and no public treasury. The King received, through special officers
appointed for the purpose, tributes either in money or in kind, which
were most variable, but often very heavy, and drawn almost exclusively
from his personal and private properties. In cases of emergency only, he
appealed to his vassals for pecuniary aid. A great number of the grandees,
who lived far from the court, either in state offices or on their own
fiefs, had establishments similar to that of the King. Numerous and
considerable privileges elevated them above other free men. The offices
and fiefs having become hereditary, the order of nobility followed as a
consequence; and it then became highly necessary for families to keep
their genealogical histories, not only to gratify their pride, but also to
give them the necessary titles for the feudal advantages they derived by
birth. (Fig. 15). Without this right of inheritance, society, which was
still unsettled in the Middle Ages, would soon have been dissolved. This
great principle, sacred in the eyes both of great and small, maintained
feudalism, and in so doing it maintained itself amidst all the chaos and
confusion of repeated revolutions and social disturbances.

We have already stated, and we cannot sufficiently insist upon this
important point, that from the day on which the adventurous habits of the
chiefs of Germanic origin gave place to the desire for territorial
possessions, the part played by the land increased insensibly towards
defining the position of the persons holding it. Domains became small
kingdoms, over which the lord assumed the most absolute and arbitrary
rights. A rule was soon established, that the nobility was inherent to the
soil, and consequently that the land ought to transmit to its possessors
the rights of nobility.

This privilege was so much accepted, that the long tenure of a fief ended
by ennobling the commoner. Subsequently, by a sort of compensation which
naturally followed, lands on which rent had hitherto been paid became free
and noble on passing to the possession of a noble. At last, however, the
contrary rule prevailed, which caused the lands not to change quality in
changing owners: the noble could still possess the labourers's lands
without losing his nobility, but the labourer could be proprietor of a
fief without thereby becoming a noble.

To the _comites_, who, according to Tacitus, attached themselves to the
fortunes of the Germanic chiefs, succeeded the Merovingian _leudes_, whose
assembly formed the King's Council. These _leudes_ were persons of great
importance owing to the number of their vassals, and although they
composed his ordinary Council, they did not hesitate at times to declare
themselves openly opposed to his will.

[Illustration: Fig. 16.--Knight in War-harness, after a Miniature in a
Psalter written and illuminated under Louis le Gros.]

The name of _leudes_ was abandoned under the second of the then French
dynasties, and replaced by that of _fidèles_, which, in truth soon became
a common designation of both the vassals of the Crown and those of the

Under the kings of the third dynasty, the kingdom was divided into about
one hundred and fifty domains, which were called great fiefs of the crown,
and which were possessed in hereditary right by the members of the highest
nobility, placed immediately under the royal sovereignty and dependence.

[Illustration: Fig. 17.--King Charlemagne receiving the Oath of Fidelity
and Homage from one of his great Feudatories or High Barons.--Fac-simile
of a Miniature in Cameo, of the "Chronicles of St. Denis." Manuscript of
the Fourteenth Century (Library of the Arsenal).]

Vassals emanating directly from the King, were then generally designated
by the title of _barons_, and mostly possessed strongholds. The other
nobles indiscriminately ranked as _chevaliers_ or _cnights_, a generic
title, to which was added that of _banneret_, The fiefs of _hauberk_ were
bound to supply the sovereign with a certain number of knights covered
with coats of mail, and completely armed. All knights were mounted in war
(Fig. 16); but knights who were made so in consequence of their high birth
must not be confounded with those who became knights by some great feat in
arms in the house of a prince or high noble, nor with the members of the
different orders of chivalry which were successively instituted, such as
the Knights of the Star, the Genet, the Golden Fleece, Saint-Esprit, St.
John of Jerusalem, &c. Originally, the possession of a benefice or fief
meant no more than the privilege of enjoying the profits derived from the
land, a concession which made the holder dependent upon the proprietor. He
was in fact his "man," to whom he owed homage (Fig. 17), service in case
of war, and assistance in any suit the proprietor might have before the
King's tribunal. The chiefs of German bands at first recompensed their
companions in arms by giving them fiefs of parts of the territory which
they had conquered; but later on, everything was equally given to be held
in fief, namely, dignities, offices, rights, and incomes or titles.

It is important to remark (and it is in this alone that feudalism shows
its social bearing), that if the vassal owed obedience and devotion to his
lord, the lord in exchange owed protection to the vassal. The rank of
"free man" did not necessarily require the possession of land; but the
position of free men who did not hold fiefs was extremely delicate and
often painful, for they were by natural right dependent upon those on
whose domain they resided. In fact, the greater part of these nobles
without lands became by choice the King's men, and remained attached to
his service. If this failed them, they took lands on lease, so as to
support themselves and their families, and to avoid falling into absolute
servitude. In the event of a change of proprietor, they changed with the
land into new hands. Nevertheless, it was not uncommon for them to be so
reduced as to sell their freedom; but in such cases, they reserved the
right, should better times come, of re-purchasing their liberty by paying
one-fifth more than the sum for which they had sold it.

We thus see that in olden times, as also later, freedom was more or less
the natural consequence of the possession of wealth or power on the part
of individuals or families who considered themselves free in the midst of
general dependence. During the tenth century, indeed, if not impossible,
it was at least difficult to find a single inhabitant of the kingdom of
France who was not "the man" of some one, and who was either tied by rules
of a liberal order, or else was under the most servile obligations.

The property of the free men was originally the "_aleu_," which was under
the jurisdiction of the royal magistrates. The _aleu_ gradually lost the
greater part of its franchise, and became liable to the common charges due
on lands which were not freehold.

In ancient times, all landed property of a certain extent was composed of
two distinct parts: one occupied by the owner, constituted the domain or
manor; the other, divided between persons who were more or less dependent,
formed what were called _tenures_. These _tenures_ were again divided
according to the position of those who occupied them: if they were
possessed by free men, who took the name of vassals, they were called
benefices or fiefs; if they were let to læti, colons, or serfs, they were
then called colonies or demesnes.

[Illustration: Fig. 18.--Ploughmen.--Fac-simile of a Miniature in a very
ancient Anglo-Saxon Manuscript published by Shaw, with legend "God Spede
ye Plough, and send us Korne enow."]

The _læti_ occupied a rank between the colon and the serf. They had less
liberty than the colon, over whom the proprietor only had an indirect and
very limited power. The colon only served the land, whilst the læti,
whether agriculturists or servants, served both the land and the owner
(Fig. 18). They nevertheless enjoyed the right of possession, and of
defending themselves, or prosecuting by law. The serf, on the contrary,
had neither city, tribunal, nor family. The læti had, besides, the power
of purchasing their liberty when they had amassed sufficient for the

_Serfs_ occupied the lowest position in the social ladder (Fig. 19). They
succeeded to slaves, thus making, thanks to Christianity, a step towards
liberty. Although the civil laws barely protected them, those of the
Church continually stepped in and defended them from arbitrary despotism.
The time came when they had no direct masters, and when the almost
absolute dependence of serfs was changed by the nobles requiring them to
farm the land and pay tithes and fees. And lastly, they became farmers,
and regular taxes took the place of tithes and fees.

The colons, læti, and serfs, all of whom were more or less tillers of the
soil, were, so to speak, the ancestors of "the people" of modern times;
those who remained devoted to agriculture were the ancestors of our
peasants; and those who gave themselves up to trades and commerce in the
towns, were the originators of the middle classes.

[Illustration: Fig. 19.--Serf or Vassal of Tenth Century, from
Miniatures in the "Dialogues of St. Gregory," Manuscript No. 9917 (Royal
Library of Brussels).]

As early as the commencement of the third royal dynasty we find in the
rural districts, as well as in the towns, a great number of free men: and
as the charters concerning the condition of lands and persons became more
and more extended, the tyranny of the great was reduced, and servitude
decreased. During the following centuries, the establishment of civic
bodies and the springing up of the middle classes (Fig. 20) made the
acquisition of liberty more easy and more general. Nevertheless, this
liberty was rather theoretical than practical; for if the nobles granted
it nominally, they gave it at the cost of excessive fines, and the
community, which purchased at a high price the right of
self-administration, did not get rid of any of the feudal charges imposed
upon it.

[Illustration: Fig. 20.--Bourgeois at the End of Thirteenth
Century.--Fac-simile of Miniature in Manuscript No. 6820, in the National
Library of Paris.]

Fortunately for the progress of liberty, the civic bodies, as if they had
been providentially warned of the future in store for them, never
hesitated to accept from their lords, civil or ecclesiastical, conditions,
onerous though they were, which enabled them to exist in the interior of
the cities to which they belonged. They formed a sort of small state,
almost independent for private affairs, subject to the absolute power of
the King, and more or less tied by their customs or agreements with the
local nobles. They held public assemblies and elected magistrates, whose
powers embraced both the administration of civil and criminal justice,
police, finance, and the militia. They generally had fixed and written
laws. Protected by ramparts, each possessed a town-hall (_hôtel de
ville_), a seal, a treasury, and a watch-tower, and it could arm a certain
number of men, either for its own defence or for the service of the noble
or sovereign under whom it held its rights.

In no case could a community such as this exist without the sanction of
the King, who placed it under the safeguard of the Crown. At first the
kings, blinded by a covetous policy, only seemed to see in the issue of
these charters an excellent pretext for extorting money. If they consented
to recognise them, and even to help them against their lords, it was on
account of the enormous sacrifices made by the towns. Later on, however,
they affected, on the contrary, the greatest generosity towards the
vassals who wished to incorporate themselves, when they had understood
that these institutions might become powerful auxiliaries against the
great titulary feudalists; but from the reign of Louis XI., when the power
of the nobles was much diminished, and no longer inspired any terror to
royalty, the kings turned against their former allies, the middle classes,
and deprived them successively of all the prerogatives which could
prejudice the rights of the Crown.

The middle classes, it is true, acquired considerable influence afterwards
by participation in the general and provincial councils. After having
victoriously struggled against the clergy and nobility, in the assemblies
of the three states or orders, they ended by defeating royalty itself.

Louis le Gros, in whose orders the style or title of _bourgeois_ first
appears (1134), is generally looked upon as the founder of the franchise
of communities in France; but it is proved that a certain number of
communities or corporations were already formally constituted, before his
accession to the throne.

The title of bourgeois was not, however, given exclusively to inhabitants
of cities. It often happened that the nobles, with the intention of
improving and enriching their domains, opened a kind of asylum, under the
attractive title of _Free Towns_, or _New Towns_, where they offered, to
all wishing to establish themselves, lands, houses, and a more or less
extended share of privileges, rights, and liberties. These congregations,
or families, soon became boroughs, and the inhabitants, though
agriculturists, took the name of bourgeois.

[Illustration: Fig. 21.--Costume of a Vilain or Peasant, Fifteenth
Century, from a Miniature of "La Danse Macabre," Manuscript 7310 of the
National Library of Paris.]

There was also a third kind of bourgeois, whose influence on the extension
of royal power was not less than that of the others. There were free
men who, under the title of bourgeois of the King _(bourgeois du Roy_),
kept their liberty by virtue of letters of protection given them by the
King, although they were established on lands of nobles whose inhabitants
were deprived of liberty. Further, when a _vilain_--that is to say, the
serf, of a noble--bought a lease of land in a royal borough, it was an
established custom that after having lived there a year and a day without
being reclaimed by his lord and master, he became a bourgeois of the King
and a free man. In consequence of this the serfs and vilains (Fig. 21)
emigrated from all parts, in order to profit by these advantages, to such
a degree, that the lands of the nobles became deserted by all the serfs of
different degrees, and were in danger of remaining uncultivated. The
nobility, in the interests of their properties, and to arrest this
increasing emigration, devoted themselves to improving the condition of
persons placed under their dependence, and attempted to create on their
domains _boroughs_ analogous to those of royalty. But however liberal
these ameliorations might appear to be, it was difficult for the nobles
not only to concede privileges equal to those emanating from the throne,
but also to ensure equal protection to those they thus enfranchised. In
spite of this, however, the result was that a double current of
enfranchisement was established, which resulted in the daily diminution of
the miserable order of serfs, and which, whilst it emancipated the lower
orders, had the immediate result of giving increased weight and power to
royalty, both in its own domains and in those of the nobility and their

These social revolutions did not, of course, operate suddenly, nor did
they at once abolish former institutions, for we still find, that after
the establishment of communities and corporations, several orders of
servitude remained.

At the close of the thirteenth century, on the authority of Philippe de
Beaumanoir, the celebrated editor of "Coutumes de Beauvoisis," there were
three states or orders amongst the laity, namely, the nobleman (Fig. 22),
the free man, and the serf. All noblemen were free, but all free men were
not necessarily noblemen. Generally, nobility descended from the father
and franchise from the mother. But according to many other customs of
France, the child, as a general rule, succeeded to the lower rank of his
parents. There were two orders of serfs: one rigorously held in the
absolute dependence of his lord, to such a degree that the latter could
appropriate during his life, or after death if he chose, all he possessed;
he could imprison him, ill-treat him as he thought proper, without having
to answer to any one but God; the other, though held equally in bondage,
was more liberally treated, for "unless he was guilty of some evil-doing,
the lord could ask of him nothing during his life but the fees, rents, or
fines which he owed on account of his servitude." If one of the latter
class of serfs married a free woman, everything which he possessed became
the property of his lord. The same was the case when he died, for he could
not transmit any of his goods to his children, and was only allowed to
dispose by will of a sum of about five sous, or about twenty-five francs
of modern money.

As early as the fourteenth century, serfdom or servitude no longer existed
except in "mortmain," of which we still have to speak.

[Illustration: The Court of Mary of Anjou, Wife of Charles VII.

Her chaplain the learned Robert Blondel presents her with the allegorical
Treatise of the "_Twelve Perils of Hell_." Which he composed for her
(1455). Fac-simile of a miniature from this work. Bibl. de l'Arsenal,

_Mortmain_ consisted of the privation of the right of freely disposing
of one's person or goods. He who had not the power of going where he
would, of giving or selling, of leaving by will or transferring his
property, fixed or movable, as he thought best, was called a man of

[Illustration: Fig. 22.--Italian Nobleman of the Fifteenth Century. From a
Playing-card engraved on Copper about 1460 (Cabinet des Estampes, National
Library of Paris).]

This name was apparently chosen because the hand, "considered the symbol
of power and the instrument of donation," was deprived of movement,
paralysed, in fact struck as by death. It was also nearly in this sense,
that men of the Church were also called men of mortmain, because they
were equally forbidden to dispose, either in life, or by will after death,
of anything belonging to them.

There were two kinds of mortmain: real and personal; one concerning land,
and the other concerning the person; that is to say, land held in mortmain
did not change quality, whatever might be the position of the person who
occupied it, and a "man of mortmain" did not cease to suffer the
inconveniences of his position on whatever land he went to establish

The mortmains were generally subject to the greater share of feudal
obligations formerly imposed on serfs; these were particularly to work for
a certain time for their lord without receiving any wages, or else to pay
him the _tax_ when it was due, on certain definite occasions, as for
example, when he married, when he gave a dower to his daughter, when he
was taken prisoner of war, when he went to the Holy Land, &c., &c. What
particularly characterized the condition of mortmains was, that the lords
had the right to take all their goods when they died without issue, or
when the children held a separate household; and that they could not
dispose of anything they possessed, either by will or gift, beyond a
certain sum.

The noble who franchised mortmains, imposed on them in almost all cases
very heavy conditions, consisting of fees, labours, and fines of all
sorts. In fact, a mortmain person, to be free, not only required to be
franchised by his own lord, but also by all the nobles on whom he was
dependent, as well as by the sovereign. If a noble franchised without the
consent of his superiors, he incurred a fine, as it was considered a
dismemberment or depreciation of the fief.

As early as the end of the fourteenth century, the rigorous laws of
mortmain began to fall into disuse in the provinces; though if the name
began to disappear, the condition itself continued to exist. The free men,
whether they belonged to the middle class or to the peasantry, were
nevertheless still subject to pay fines or obligations to their lords of
such a nature that they must be considered to have been practically in the
same position as mortmains. In fact, this custom had been so deeply rooted
into social habits by feudalism, that to make it disappear totally at the
end of the eighteenth century, it required three decrees of the National
Convention (July 17 and October 2, 1793; and 8 Ventôse, year II.--that is,
March 2, 1794).

It is only just to state, that twelve or fourteen years earlier, Louis
XVI. had done all in his power towards the same purpose, by suppressing
mortmain, both real or personal, on the lands of the Crown, and personal
mortmain (i.e. the right of following mortmains out of their original
districts) all over the kingdom.

[Illustration: Fig. 23.--Alms Bag taken from some Tapestry in Orleans,
Fifteenth Century.]

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