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feudalists put down very clearly in two words now out of date - "fiefs of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,
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.
In 838 at Kiersy we have a similar scene. This time it is old Louis who,
full of sadness and nigh to death, bestows upon his son Charles, whom he loved
so well, the "virile arms" - that is to say, the sword. Then immediately
afterward he put upon his brow the crown of "Neustria." Charles was fifteen
These examples are not numerous, but their importance is decisive, and
they carry us to the time when the church came to intervene positively in the
education of the German miles. The time was rough, and it is not easy to
picture a more distracted period than that in the ninth and tenth centuries.
The great idea of the Roman Empire no longer, in the minds of the people,
coincided with the idea of the Frankish kingdom, but rather inclined, so to
speak, to the side of Germany, where it tended to fix itself. Countries were
on the way to be formed, and people were asking to which country they could
best belong. Independent kingdoms were founded which had no precedents and
were not destined to have a long life. The Saracens were for the last time
harassing the southern French coasts, but it was not so with the Norman
pirates, for they did not cease for a single year to ravage the littoral which
is now represented by the Picardy and Normandy coasts, until the day it became
necessary to cede the greater part of it to them. People were fighting
everywhere more or less - family against family - man to man. No road was
safe, the churches were burned, there was universal terror, and everyone
sought protection. The king had no longer strength to resist anyone, and the
counts made themselves kings. The sun of the realm was set, and one had to
look at the stars for light. As soon as the people perceived a strong
man-at-arms, resolute, defiant, well established in his wooden keep, well
fortified within the lines of his hedge, behind his palisade of dead branches,
or within his barriers of planks; well posted on his hill, against his rock,
or on his hillock, and dominating all the surrounding country - as soon as
they saw this each said to him, "I am your man"; and all these weak ones
grouped themselves around the strong one, who next day proceeded to wage war
with his neighbors. Thence supervened a terrible series of private wars.
Everyone was fighting or thinking of fighting.
In addition to this, the still green memory of the grand figure of
Charlemagne and the old empire, and I can't tell what imperial splendors, were
still felt in the air of great cities; all hearts throbbed at the mere thought
of the Saracens and the Holy Sepulchre; the crusade gathered strength of
preparation far in advance, in the rage and indignation of all the Christian
race; all eyes were turned toward Jerusalem, and in the midst of so many
disbandments and so much darkness, the unity of the church survived fallen
It was then, it was in that horrible hour - the decisive epoch in our
history - that the church undertook the education of the Christian soldier;
and it was at that time, by a resolute step, she found the feudal baron in his
rude wooden citadel, and proposed to him an ideal. This ideal was chivalry!