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FEUDALISM, A NEW KIND OF FREEDOM

An eighth century Anglo-Saxon tale went;

Ever since I buried my lord I must mourn alone. Now I sail the icy seas in search of a new lord who will welcome me into his drinking hall and divert me from my grief.

This warriors lament was that he no longer had a master to whom to pledge his fealty. Note that this is a voluntary pledge and that it was made to a man. Feudalism in the early middle ages was a voluntary association of free men with a set of clearly developed exchanges of responsibility that particularly suited life in Europe. There were no large cities. The population of Paris was probably not over one hundred and fifty thousand. People lived in scattered communities separated by vast tracts of forest.

But in Islam life was quite different. Islam was a community. It too had a hierarchical structure but this structure was devoted to Allah. The warrior followed the hallowed traditions of the desert not for himself, but for Islam. "May God keep you safe and bring you much Booty." Muhammad is said to have told a warrior. The warrior protested that he had not become a Muslim for the sake of wealth. Muhammad answered, "Honest Wealth is good for an honest man." The difference is quite dramatic. In one case a free man offers his abilities to another with a clear expectation of reward. In the second the warrior is offering himself to God and the reward is irrelevant.

Feudalism

We tend to look on Europe in the middle ages as a society lost in a dark age, a period of torment and misery. But in doing so we lose one of the most important effects of the middle ages. On the other hand, if we think of the period as the birth pains of a new world our vision is of an entirely different kind of period. The idea of free men interacting together out of free choice is a concept totally alien to any non-European culture in past history. The building of a new world out of the chaos that resulted from the disintegration of the Roman Empire had to have been an arduous task. In the anarchy that prevailed over most of Europe nobles of all descriptions held their domains from each other and from the marauding bandits of the forests by developing armed retainers to protect them and their lands. But these were selected from men who considered themselves free. This goes as well for those who tilled the land. Of course there were slaves, but the majority of men who made the middle ages work were free men bound together by mutual agreements and obligations. This was the system we call "feudalism".

The underlying mechanism that made feudalism work was the act of commendation, an agreement where one free man places himself for life at the service of another. The act was known by many names and differed considerably from occasion to occasion. However, whether king or peasant, just about everyone throughout the middle ages was bound to someone in some way by one form or another of commendation. Notice that the implied obligations operate in both directions. This example comes from Tours probably in the second quarter of the eighth century.

To the magnificent Lord (A.), I (B.). Inasmuch as it is known to all and sundry that I lack the wherewithal to feed and clothe myself, I have asked of your pity, and your goodwill has granted to me, permission to deliver and commend myself into your mundoburdus (one of the terms by which commendation was known); This I have therefore done, in such a fashion that, you have undertaken to aid and sustain me in food and clothing, while I have undertaken to serve you and deserve well of you so far as lies in my power. And for as long as I shall live, I am bound to serve you and respect you as a free man ought, and during my lifetime I shall not have the right to withdraw myself from your authority and mundoburdus; I must on the contrary be for the remainder of my days under your power and protection. And in virtue of this action if either one of us tries to alter the terms of the agreement, he will have to pay ( fine of) x solidi to the other, but the agreement itself shall remain in force. Whence it has seemed good to us that the two parties concerned should draw up and confirm two documents of the same tenor, and this they have done.

In this way the early middle ages served as the breeding ground for a new western culture. Unlike Greece and southern Italy, they had never known a stable government. It wasn't until the ninth century that any kind of stability appeared north or west of the Alps. In Europe at the beginning of the ninth century, some relief too, in the absence of learning and the use of reason, came with the ascendancy of Charlemagne and the subsequent Carolingian empire. It wasn't to last but a brief time, but Charlemagne's support of learning and education did bring about a short-lived interest in reason.

From a philosophical viewpoint, the most important man of this period was an Irish monk named John Scotus Erigena. Erigena was well versed in Greek philosophy and his writings apply philosophical reasoning to Christian themes. At one point he was drawn into a controversy between a monk, Gottschalk, and an archbishop, Hincmar, over Augustine's theory of predestination. To put the argument in as simple terms as possible, Gottschalk had been placed in a monastery as a child and forced by Hincmar to remain there against his will throughout his life. He said, in a fairly accurate though severe reading of Augustine, that God has predestined angels and the elect to salvation, and the demons and reprobates to condemnation. Gottschalk, of course, rejoiced openly that Hincmar was certainly among the reprobates. Christ, he said, died not for all men, but only for the elect. Hincmar then wrote opposing Gottschalk, but his writings had little effect so he called on Erigena to intervene. Erigena's answer was that true philosophy is true religion and true religion is true philosophy. Therefore, he said, that double predestination leads to a contradiction and thus everyone is judged alike. This answer satisfied no one and only resulted in stirring up the controversy even more. But it does highlight Erigena's commitment to philosophy and reason as a source of truth. According to Erigena, nature includes both the is and the is-not. Essences, for example, are not. We can either comprehend or perceive only accidents, never the essence that lies behind them. Therefore what is above any element in nature is not for that element. Thus, it is impossible to know God, the scriptures must be understood only metaphorically. He quoted Paul who said, "I give you milk and not meat." Thus Erigena was noted for an Eastern philosophical approach to Christianity in the west. He was also known for his translations of Pseudo-Dionysus. This eastern view of God has always been a minor strand in western Christianity because it does not accord well with the assumption of a rational world. It leaves God out of the sphere of rationality.

After the death of Charles the Bald in the tenth century, the Carolingian empire disintegrated and Europe was plunged into what was referred to as "A dark century of lead and iron." The eleventh century brought out two philosophers of note. Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard. Anselm's importance to the development of philosophy was due to his particular Augustinian attitude that a Christian should understand what he believes. He put it in these terms, "I believe in order that I might understand." He advanced two arguments for the existence of God beginning from this point of view. Not as an agnostic convincing himself of the existence of God, but as a believer trying to understand the existence of God. In his "Monologium", he began with the assumption that there are degrees of perfection in the universe. For example degrees of goodness, of beauty, and so forth. None of these degrees of perfection imply any limit to perfection other than the degrees to which they themselves are limited to. They consequently imply the existence of a being which is perfection in an unlimited and absolute form. Degrees of wisdom imply absolute wisdom, of goodness absolute goodness. In addition he assumed that existence itself was a form of perfection. Therefore, that which is absolutely perfect necessarily exists. This argument was to have a strong effect on late medieval philosophy.

But it is the argument in the "Proslogium" which he is best known for. In this argument he is attempting to appeal to non-Christians as well as Christians. What he said was that if the fool of the psalms, who says in his heart that there is no god, really understands what Christians mean by God, he is logically bound to recognize his existence. This part of the argument has been labeled the "ontological" argument for the existence of God.

However, he did not leave it there. He went on to say that if a doubter is told that God is defined as that than which no greater can be thought, he understands what was said. Therefore he has admitted that God has subjective existence in the sense that he exists as a mental entity that is acknowledged by the doubter as well as by the believer. But that which exists objectively and not merely in the mind is obviously greater than that which exists only in the mind. If we mean by greater, more perfect, then God who has been defined as absolute perfection is that which is greater than which can be thought. Therefore, since existence is a form of perfection, he must exist objectively. It should be obvious by now to the reader just how much this approach leans on the concept of a rational God in a rational world. To assume that we can know God through rules we find in our sensory world is to assume that the logic out of which we devise these rules extends as well to God.

The two greatest love stories of the middle ages were the platonic love story of the poet Dante and Beatrice in the thirteenth century, and the story of the philosopher monk Peter Abelard and the nun Heloise in the twelfth. Both are perfect examples of the culture of the late medieval dedication to the absolute ideal. The first a true dedication to platonic love, and the second to a dedication to God and learning. Although they had a son together Heloise refused to marry Abelard because that would end his career as an academic theologian. He became a monk and she a nun. His brilliant lectures brought him multitudes of followers. His abrasive attitude brought him into constant conflict with elder church authorities and forced him to move from city to city until in 1121 a synod at Soissons forced him to cast his treatise "On the Divine Trinity" into the flames. He went into seclusion but his fame attracted followers and he formed a school dedicated to the "Paraclete." When he was forced to leave he turned the school over to Heloise who then turned it into a convent. His fame grew to the point that he was brought to another synod in 1141. Because he was not allowed to defend his teachings, he appealed to Pope Innocent II who confirmed his condemnation. Finally, he retired to Cluny where he composed a "Profession of Faith" which showed his complete orthodoxy. Although he is best known for his answer to the problem of universals, he said that the universal is simply the meaning of the name, the work that is most important for our present purposes was called "Sc et Non" or "Yes and No." This consisted of one hundred and fifty-eight questions answered affirmatively by some authorities and negatively by others. He made no attempt to offer his own solution to the controversies. He believed that he was quoting each in a way that showed their inner essence to be in agreement. This method was developed most fully by Peter Lombard, who in a work called "The Sentences" set down the bulk of accepted theology in the form originated by Abelard. The "Sentences" became the principal theological textbook for the next several centuries.