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Article Published September 03, 1999
The Dawn Of Medieval Fuedal France
By: Xenia Stanford Biography & Archived Articles
Historians often disagree about what to regard as the beginning of The Middle Ages. Some see it starting with the fifth century overthrow of the Romans and others as the ninth century when Charlemagne became the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Whichever beginning date is used, most agree the Early Middle Ages yielded to the High Middle Ages with the ascent of the Capetians to the throne in the tenth century. The 12th to the 15th century is generally recognized as The Late Middle Ages.
To some the term Dark Ages is synonymous with The Middle Ages or at least the Early Middle Ages. Both the terms "Medieval or Middle Ages" and "Dark Ages" seem to have arisen in the 15th century when historians, such as the Roman called Flavio Biondo of Forlí, romanticized the Roman Empire and their own age, which they called modern or the Renaissance for cultural rebirth. Everything between they categorized as dark or culturally stagnant.
In my previous columns I have attempted to show you why the term Dark Ages is not fitting and mainly the product of egoism of some "modern" scholars. The Roman influences definitely set the stage for The Middle Ages but progress in many areas consistently marched forward. Different times produced the need for different solutions.
THE MIDDLE AGES AS THE "AGE OF HEROES"
The seeds of dissolution of any empire or age, according to Giovanni Battista Vico, are implanted in the very essence that made them great or succeed. Such is the case in the Roman Empire, which he would have termed the "Age of Gods" for its focus on religion, family and the arising of basic institutions. It eventually caved as the needs changed and the system could no longer be sustained.
Following the "Age of Gods" is always the "Age of Heroes" Vico claimed in his book Scienza nuova (published in 1725). In this age, like the Middle Ages, the common people are subjugated to the will of a higher class or nobles usually in turn for protection. When the masses rebel and overthrow the nobles or heroes this is known as the "Age of Men", a time of equal rights for all. However, nothing lasts as this is a cyclical progression according to Vico and not as simple as our divisions of Ancient, Middle or Medieval and Modern Ages.
If any term or concept though does apply to The Middle Ages, it is that of the "Age of Heroes" with its feudal and seigniorial systems. Ancient Roman practices form the basis for both the seigniorial and feudal systems employed during The Middle Ages or Medieval period but in these latter times the systems were intertwined and magnified.
Often feudal is applied to the entire system but there are actually two interlinking practises. One is "fealty" (loyalty) or feudalism in which conquered lands are granted to loyal or faithful subjects, usually those who distinguished themselves in battle. The seigniorial system arose from the needs of peasants or commoners for protection. To obtain such protection they turned to the most powerful and nearest liege (lord) or sieur (sire or sir) or seigneur (seignior or senior).
Thus you can see how these fit together - the king or conqueror designates lands to his faithful fighters who in turn are beseeched for protection by those not so graciously endowed by wealth and power. However, they could also work separately or in different circumstances. The powerful to whom the commoners turned when the feudal system was not in place were warlords who had seized the land and power rather than been granted it.
In many cases in history those granted lands and status through fealty did not have serfs, i.e. those who were allowed to own or sublease the land giving a portion to the lord in exchange for protection. Rather they possessed slaves who tilled their soil and cared for their livestock. There are, of course, occasions where both slaves and serfs co-existed under the feudal lord. However, slaves were forced to work at whatever and however long the lord deemed necessary and were given what meager necessities would keep them alive to work.
The lifestyles and means of slaves and serfs often did not differ and sometimes the slaves were better off as no one cared if the serfs had enough to eat to keep working. The concept though of the original willingness to offer goods and services in exchange for protection is certainly different from the concept of slavery. It is this implied contract or bond between master and serf that forms the seigniorial system. Further, it is the unique combination of both the feudal and seigniorial systems that created the practice we commonly associate with the Middle Ages.
EARLY MIDDLE AGES OR PRE-MEDIEVAL TIMES
While some, as earlier stated, date Early Middle Ages from the overthrow of Rome in the fifth century to the ousting of the Merovingians by the Carolingian house (named for Charlemagne), I regard this post-Roman reign as Pre-Medieval. Like many other scholars, I see the Middle Ages as those in which the interconnected feudal and seigniorial system was the dominant facet of life. This did not really occur until the time of Charlemagne in the early ninth century. Thus the Early Middle Ages began around 800 AD and lasted until the end of the Carolingian line and the assumption of the French throne by the Capetians in the tenth century.
Although the feudal and seigniorial systems brought by the Romans to their conquered lands influenced the local methods, it was not a dominant way of life for the Franks until the time of Charlemagne. After overthrowing the Romans, the Franks, like most other cultures formerly under ancient Roman influence, returned to a more tribal way of life where warlords invaded and seized the lands and possessions of the residents. The organized system of protection of peasants and rewarding loyalties seemed to fade away under the post-Roman rulers. However, it was this return to tribal methods in the Kingdom of the Franks carved out by Clovis in 481 AD that created the very need for the feudal and seigniorial system that arose and strengthened about three centuries later.
Clovis I created the Kingdom of the Franks by conquering the lands north of the Pyrenees to include territory now held by modern Belgium, Switzerland, France and Germany. However, it was this unifying ruler who also caused the divisiveness that followed his death. His Salian Law with its succession method was responsible for the ensuing turmoil over the next three centuries. This system of succession differed from those where one heir, usually the oldest son, succeeded the king. The code devised by Clovis I was based on the tribal roots from which he arose where lands were divided equally among all the sons of the deceased ruler.
Thus at his death the kingdom was divided into four to ensure each of his sons had an area to rule. These four parts were Paris (later known as Île de France), Orleans (at times included Burgundy), Soissons (later Neustria) and Austrasia (now Germany). Although many times during the next three centuries the lands were recombined under one Merovingian descendant, the constant upheaval eventually created the need for a strong seigniorial system where the commoners could go about their daily life without constant threat.
The back and forth combining and dividing of the kingdoms from the conquest by Clovis I in 481 AD to the death of his fourth great grandson Thierry III in 691 AD led to great turmoil separated by periods of relative peace and stability. Even during the periods when one ruler oversaw the entire Kingdom of the Franks, the king was too far away to protect his subjects from the invading foreign tribes or even from their own Frankish neighbours.
Warlords either gained land by conquering the areas possessed by their neighbours or were granted territories to protect on behalf of the king. The peasant or local farmers and trades people felt the devil they knew was better than the invaders who constantly pillaged their homes and villages. Thus they turned to their local warlord offering goods and services in return for protection and stability.
At the death of Thierry III in 691 AD, the kingdom was split into two: Neustria (meaning western) and Austrasia (meaning eastern). Neustria expanded beyond Soissons to include the former kingdoms of Burgundy, Orleans and Paris. Austrasia included the lands today within German borders.
The inability of the Merovingians to maintain a single kingdom with a single language and culture planted the seeds for the eventual permanent division of the Kingdom of the Franks into France and Germany as well as other smaller countries. It was, of course, not as simple as that and definitely was not caused solely by the warring and family feuds among the Merovingian lines. In fact, the increasing divisiveness in the family through the generations was caused by the growing differences in bloodlines caused by marriages of the Merovingian progenitors to local brides in the various duchies.
DIVIDING LANGUAGES AND CULTURES
The intermarriage of the Merovingians with the Burgundians and Germanic tribes created separate cultures and separate languages. The Austrasia rulers, although descended from Clovis I, had more Germanic blood than the Neustrian people who remained truer to the Frankish (mainly of Celtic origin) and Burgundian (with primarily Scandinavian roots) heritage.
While the Austrasians spoke mainly German, the Neustrians were more influenced by the vernacular Latin left by the Romans. However, in both there were many regional dialects and in Neustria alone there was a major language difference between the western and eastern regions. The Old French dialects of Neustria were divided between two main branches: langue d'oil and langue d'oc, so named for how they pronounced "oui" for yes. The langue d'oil was found primarily in the western parts of the kingdom and langue d'oc, influenced by the Burgundians, was found mainly in the eastern part of Neustria.
It was not until the High Middle Ages that travel helped standardize the spoken language though written remained mainly the scholarly Latin of the scribes. Even when the vernacular French tongues were used for writing through this period, the standardization in spelling did not occur until Modern French, in which the Francien or Parisian brand of langue d'oil prevails.
The different spellings in the various documents written in Old and Middle French can be very confusing to modern genealogists if they attempt to use the originals. Luckily, many historically significant texts have been translated by modern scholars. Those written in the vernacular that would pertain to family history are in versions most of us, even those well versed in Modern French cannot completely decipher. Try reading Beowulf in the original and you will see what I mean. Beowulf's works are in Old English but it is, for all intents and purposes, a foreign language to even highly literate English speaking people today.
The earliest equivalent surviving work for the French is Sequence de Ste. Eulalie detailing the life of that Saint. It was written in the ninth century in langue d'oil, which though the root of Modern French, this version is still mostly unintelligible to all except scholars of Old French linguistics.
Although much poetry was written in langue d'oc while langue d'oil became the primary language of narrative, we are lucky that the written language of the scribes who kept church and other records during this time was scholarly Latin which has changed very little since the time of the original Roman Empire.
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