The history of the Middle Ages: governement

FROM the fifth to the twelfth century society, as we have seen, contained kings, a lay aristocracy, a clergy, citizens, peasantry--the germs, in fact, of all that goes to make a nation and a government; yet no government, no nation. We have come across a multitude of particular forces, of local institutions, but nothing general, nothing public, nothing, properly speaking, political.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, on the contrary, all the classes and the particular forces have taken a secondary place, are shadowy and almost effaced; the stage is occupied by two great figures, government and people.

Here, if I am not mistaken, is the essential distinction between primitive Europe and modern Europe. Here is the change that was accomplished in the period extending from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. Viewed by itself, that period seems a characterless one of confusion without cause, of movement without direction, of agitation without result. Yet, in relation to the period that followed, this period had a tendency and a progress of its own; it slowly accomplished a vast work. It was the second period of European civilization--the period of attempt and experiment, succeeding that of origins and formation and preparing the way for that of development properly so called.

The first great event of this period was the crusades--a universal movement of all classes and all countries in moral unity, the truly heroic event of modern Europe. Besides the religious impulse that led to the crusades, there was another impulse. They gave to men an opportunity of widening their horizons, of indulging the taste for movement and adventure. The opportunity thus freely taken changed the face of society. Men's minds were opened, their ideas were extended, by contact with other races; European society was dragged out of the groove along which it had been travelling. The moral state of Europe was profoundly modified.

The social state underwent a similar change. Many of the smaller feudal lords sold their fiefs, or impoverished themselves by crusading, or lost much of their power during their absence. Property and power came into fewer hands; society was more centralised, no longer dispersed as it formerly was. The citizens, on their part, were no longer content with local industry and trade; they entered upon commerce on a grander scale with countries overseas. By the end of the crusades the march of society towards centralisation was in steady progress.

Already in the twelfth century a new idea of kingship had begun, very faintly, to make its appearance. In most European countries the king, under the feudal system, had been a head who could not enforce his headship. But there was, all the while, such a thing as kingship, and somebody bore the title of king; and society, striving to escape from feudal violence, and to get hold of real order and unity, had recourse to the king in an experimental way, to see, as one might say, what he could do. Gradually there developed the idea of the king as the protector of public order and justice and of the common interest, as the paramount magistrate--the idea that changed European society from a series of classes into a group of centralised states.

But the old order did not perish without efforts to perpetuate itself. These efforts were of two kinds; a particular class sought predominance, or it was proposed that the classes should agree to act in concert. To the first kind belonged the design of the Church to gain mastery over Europe that culminated with Pope Gregory VII. It failed, for three reasons--because Christianity is a purely moral force and not a temporal administrative force; because the ambitions of the Church were opposed by the feudal aristocracy; and because the celibacy of the clergy prevented the formation of a caste capable of theocratic organization.

Nothing, however, could arrest the march of centralisation. In France the war of independence against England brought a sense of national unity and purpose, and feudalism was finally overthrown, and the central power made dominant, by the policy of Louis XI. Similar edicts were brought about in Spain by the war against the Moors and the rule of Ferdinand. In England, feudalism was destroyed by the Wars of the Roses, and was succeeded by the Tudor despotism. In Germany, the House of Austria began its long ascendancy. Thus in the fifteenth century the new principles prevailed; the old forms, the old liberties were swept aside to make way for centralised government under absolute rulers.

At the same time another new fact entered the European history. The kings began to enter into relations with each other, to form alliances; diplomacy was created. Since it is in the nature of diplomacy to be conducted more or less secretly by a few persons, and since the peoples did not, and could not, greatly concern themselves in it, this development was wholly favourable to the strengthening of royalty.

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