Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Feudal Nobility
By Henry Hallam (1777–1859)
From Middle Ages

THERE has been some dispute about the origin of the nobility in France, which might perhaps be settled, or at least better understood, by fixing our conception of the term. In our modern acceptation it is usually taken to imply certain distinctive privileges in the political order, inherent in the blood of the possessor, and consequently not transferable like those which property confers. Limited to this sense, nobility I conceive, was unknown to the conquerors of Gaul till long after the downfall of the Roman empire. They felt, no doubt, the common prejudice of mankind in favour of those whose ancestry is conspicuous, when compared with persons of obscure birth. This is the primary meaning of nobility, and perfectly distinguishable from the possession of exclusive civil rights. Those who are acquainted with the constitution of the Roman republic will recollect an instance of the difference between these two species of hereditary distinction, in the patricii and the nobiles. Though I do not think that the tribes of German origin paid so much regard to genealogy as some Scandinavian and Celtic nations—else the beginnings of the greatest houses would not have been so enveloped in doubt as we find them—there are abundant traces of the respect in which families of known antiquity were held among them.
  But the essential distinction of ranks in France, perhaps also in Spain and Lombardy, was founded upon the possession of land, or upon civil employment. The aristocracy of wealth preceded that of birth, which indeed is still chiefly dependent upon the other for its importance. A Frank of large estate was styled a noble; if he wasted or was despoiled of his wealth, his descendants fell into the mass of the people, and the new possessor became noble in his stead. Families were noble by descent, because they were rich by the same means. Wealth gave them power, and power gave them pre-eminence. But no distinction was made by the Salic or Lombard codes in the composition for homicide, the great test of political station, except in favour of the King’s vassals. It seems, however, by some of the barbaric codes, those namely of the Burgundians, Visigoths, Saxons, and the English colony of the latter nation, that the free men were ranged by them into two or three classes, and a difference made in the price at which their lives were valued: so that there certainly existed the elements of aristocratic privileges, if we cannot in strictness admit their completion at so early a period. The Antrustions of the kings of the Franks were also noble, and a composition was paid for their murder treble of that for an ordinary citizen; but this was a personal, not an hereditary distinction. A link was wanting to connect their eminent privileges with their posterity; and this link was to be supplied by hereditary benefices.
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  It has been laid down already as most probable that no proper aristocracy, except that of wealth, was known under the early kings of France; and it was hinted that hereditary benefices, or, in other words, fiefs, might supply the link that was wanting between personal privileges and those of descent. The possessors of beneficiary estates were usually the richest and most conspicuous individuals in the estate. They were immediately connected with the crown, and partakers in the exercise of justice and royal counsels. Their sons now came to inherit this eminence; and as fiefs were either inalienable, or at least not very frequently alienated, rich families were kept long in sight; and whether engaged in public affairs, or living with magnificence and hospitality at home, naturally drew to themselves popular estimation. The dukes and counts who had changed their quality of governors into that of lords over the provinces intrusted to them, were at the head of this noble class. And in imitation of them, their own vassals, as well as those of the crown, and even rich alodialists, assumed titles from their towns or castles, and thus arose a number of petty counts, barons, and viscounts. This distinct class of nobility became co-extensive with the feudal tenures. For the military tenant, however poor, was subject to no tribute: no prestation, but service in the field; he was the companion of his lord in the sports and feasting of his castle, the peer of his court; he fought on horseback, he was clad in the coat of mail, while the commonalty, if summoned at all to war, came on foot, and with no armour of defence. As everything in the habits of society conspired with that prejudice which, in spite of moral philosophers, will constantly raise the profession of arms above all others, it was a natural consequence that a new species of aristocracy, founded upon the mixed considerations of birth, tenure, and occupation, sprung out of the feudal system. Every possessor of a fief was a gentleman, though he owned but a few acres of land, and furnished his slender contribution towards the equipment of a knight. In the Libri Feudorum, indeed, those who were three degrees removed from the emperor in order of tenancy are considered as ignoble; but this is restrained to modern investitures; and in France, where sub-infeudation was carried the farthest, no such distinction has met my observation.  3
  There still, however, wanted something to ascertain gentility of blood where it was not marked by the actual tenure of land. This was supplied by two innovations devised in the eleventh and twelfth centuries—the adoption of surnames and of armorial bearings. The first are commonly referred to the former age, when the nobility began to add the names of their estates to their own, or, having any way acquired a distinctive appellation transmitted it to their posterity. As to armorial bearings, there is no doubt that emblems somewhat similar have been immemorially used both in war and peace. The shields of ancient warriors, and devices upon coins or seals, bear no distant resemblance to modern blazonry. But the general introduction of such bearings, as hereditary distinctions, has been sometimes attributed to tournaments, wherein the champions were distinguished by fanciful devices; sometimes to the crusades, where a multitude of all nations and languages stood in need of some visible token to denote the banners of their respective chiefs. In fact, the peculiar symbols of heraldry point to both these sources, and have been borrowed in part from each. Hereditary arms were perhaps scarcely used by private families before the beginning of the thirteenth century. From that time, however, they became very general, and have contributed to elucidate that branch of history which regards the descent of illustrious families.  4
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