Feudalism and Enlightenment

Feudalism is a term that our popular culture more or less automatically associates with the medieval world, or at least the northern part of it. We do so at our peril, however, for a simple reason: Feudalism never existed. How can this be? Have historians simply been wrong all this time? Is feudalism somehow a giant hoax that has fooled everyone who has studied the Middle Ages, a convenient fiction created by frustrated medievalists intent upon imposing order on a disordered world? Hardly. While feudalism as a coherent, conscious, and cogent plan for how to model society never existed, eleventh and twelfth-century society in northern Europe certainly possessed and became characterized by feudal relations—that is to say, relationships that were based on the idea of mutual obligation and service in the public arena. The nature of those relations differed considerably, however, between England, France, and Germany, and often did so even within those realms.

[Backman, Clifford R. Worlds of Medieval Europe.
Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2002. p 176.
Copyright © 2002. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.]

So what about all those toiling, oppressed masses? In his book, Backman does not claim that the particular conditions identified with feudalism did not exist, or that society was not stratified. He merely approaches the history of medieval Europe as a historian rather than as a radical polemicist trying to score political points against retrograde conservatives. The historical view reveals that art, culture, philosophy, science, and technology flourished in the medieval period, but that societies were very fragmented. The common people suffered from numerous small wars, unchecked pestilential diseases, inconsistent food distribution, and haphazardly unhygienic urbanization.

European national entities had not stabilized as yet, but it is arguable that the medieval impulses toward holism and syncretism helped to formulate the Renaissance ideas about nationalism. Long before the vaunted Enlightenment thinkers, the Renaissance was characterized by explosive creativity in art, music, literature, and science; and the modern notions of political and religious self-determination were first developed during the Renaissance period.

The primary innovation of the Enlightenment thinkers, as diverse as they were in France, England, Italy, Scotland, and Germany, was the elevation of rationalism as the greatest human good. However, rationalism as an end in itself is quite unnatural, as it presumes that the natural condition of humankind is irrationalism, which the rationalist is hopeful to correct. That is, if “common sense” were rational, then human society would already have developed rationally enough, and there would be no need for enlightenment.

No, the “freethinker” or “progressive thinker” required something new, the “light of reason” to teach the unregenerate commoner where his true interests lay. Only by stripping away his religious, cultural, familial, social, political, and historical presuppositions could he approach the state of enlightenment, which would be functionally the same as Rousseau’s mythical condition of noble savagery. Then the new, rational order of society could be enacted and human nature could finally attain its perfect state. If anything stood in the way, of course, it must be ruthlessly torn down, purged, ground into dust; everything from the past must be sacrificed for the goal of perfect liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

This wondrous program for improving the human condition was most ardently pursued by the French Enlightenment thinkers, and it found its apotheosis in the ultimate universal reformer, Napoleon Bonaparte. I don’t want to skip over the Jacobin experiment in reforming society through sensational violence, but it has not actually finished up yet, having been continued by the Bolsheviks and by Al Qaeda.

Oh my. . . where, oh where would we be without those heroic French Enlighteners? Well, the French would be much better off, but the Americans would be pretty much the same. The USA would have a justice system based primarily on English common law, a legislative system not far removed from the English parliamentary system, and a chief executive more concerned with running the government in an efficient, Burkean manner than with remaking the whole world to fit some utopian democratic fantasy. Oops . . . well, maybe America would be better off on that last score.

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