In returning to the history of Saudi Arabia in preparation for my recent lecture on the Islamist Entanglement and struggling to define the precise relationship between the United States and its so-called ally, it finally struck me what the two countries have colluded in creating. In essence the United States has adopted a feudal relationship with the Saudi monarchy. What is worse, rather than champion its distinctive founding ideology of individual rights, the US has essentially captained the re-institution of the feudal system as the basic system of international relations throughout the world. Viewed from this perspective, US actions in support of dictators, theocracies and other oppressive regimes around the world are understandable, and completely consonant with the poor treatment the US and its closer allies often reserve for each other. God help us, because we’re headed back to the Dark Ages!
Want to know why this tribal barbarian is so happy? He’s just been infeuded by the most powerful lord in all of history!
Feudalism, a political system found in various forms in all developing world cultures through history, but especially associated with the darkest time in the history of Western civilization, is an attempt to mitigate human barbarism not by identifying the principles required for people to live in peace, but rather by establishing a set of inter-dependencies to discourage war and to accrue short term advantages.
When the feudal system originated in Europe, it was because the most powerful chieftains could not directly manage their territories during the constant war that was life in the post-Roman world. Charlemagne, for instance, was constantly running from one front to another—from the Muslims in Spain, to the Lombards in Italy, to the Germans in central Europe. Despite his martial prowess, he understood that no area that he had conquered would stay conquered for long in the religious and tribal setting of the time, so he extended the system of “stem duchies,” whereby semi-independent regional rulers were entrusted with maintaining order on the frontiers. In the south, there was the “Spanish March.” In the east, there were numerous regions such as Bavaria and Saxony, each ruled by a “dux” (a duke).
To make sure that the system functioned by design, and that no part became too self-involved, Charlemagne sent envoys to every part of his empire on a regular basis. They were known as the “Missi Dominici.” The Missi were foreign to the territory they managed, so that they wouldn’t have special ties to its rulers, and they were sent to insure that imperial directives were implemented. One was a lay official, the other an ecclesiast, so that both dimensions of medieval governance could be managed.
The fundamental relationship that the Missi Dominici were supposed to oversee through their “shuttle diplomacy” was the basic form of barter that defines every feudal relationship: “land for loyalty” (sometimes known as Frankish Resolution 242!)
In this barter arrangement, a vassal was granted territory (a fief or “feud”) by his lord in exchange for various expressions of loyalty. Whenever the lord required an army in defense of his broader objectives, the vassal was to provide a levy of knights and peasants from his territory. In exchange the vassal’s claim to his land was sanctioned and protected by his lord. If one landholder’s claim was threatened by another it was the lord’s obligation to arbitrate the relative claims of his vassals and to interpose his military might when needed. This type of relationship existed at every level within the medieval social hierarchy, from serfs and farmers to knights, barons, counts and dukes, all the way up to kings and emperors.
An important aspect of this system was that the moral legitimacy of any particular regime took a back seat to power politics. Feudalism was the systematization of “might makes right.” For instance, before Charlemagne’s reign, when Frankish feudalism was still in its infancy, Pippin—a servant of the reigning Merovingian king Childeric III—went to the Pope and demonstrated that it was he, not Childeric, who exercised real power in the kingdom. The Pope then sanctioned the transfer of power from the Merovingians to Pippin’s family, later known as the Carolingians.
Childeric deposed by Pippin. (His hair is being cut in preparation for life in the monastery.)
Later, when Rollo the Viking was granted Normandy by the king of France in 911, it wasn’t because he had a moral claim to it, but rather because he promised to “stabilize” a region that was otherwise subject to the very depredations that Rollo had engaged in but was now supposedly willing to forgo. (You could say he was willing to play Fatah to other the Vikings’ Hamas.) Not surprisingly, Rollo’s powerful descendants nearly toppled the French kingdom on multiple occasions thereafter. The French-Norman version of the “peace process” extended for many centuries, and only closed with the Hundred Years’ War.
What on earth does this have to do with the present day? I’m sure to some of you (especially my students!) the parallels may already be evident. Before revealing the trappings of the modern feudal system, however, I still need to elaborate on how feudalism works in Part 2: False Morality, Pragmatism, and Collectivism. Stay tuned!