William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up – Chapter 2 – Mediæval Society

We have now to deal with that Mediæval Society which was based on the fusion of ideas of tribal communism and Roman individualism and bureaucracy. The fullest, and one may say the most pedantic type of this society is to be found in the Mediæval German Empire; it was modified somewhat in other countries; in France by the fact that several of the other potentates, as, eg., the Duke of Burgundy, were theoretically independent of the King, and practically were often at least as powerful. In England, on the contrary, the monarchy soon gained complete predominance over the great barons, and a kind of bureaucracy soon sprang up which interfered with the full working of the feudal system.

The theory of this feudal system is the existence of an unbroken chain of service from the serf up to the emperor, and of protection from the emperor down to the serf; it recognizes no absolute ownership of land; God is the one owner of the earth, the emperor and his kings are his vice-gerents there, who may devolve their authority to their feudal vassals, and they in turn to theirs, and so on till it reaches the serf, the proletarian, on whom all this hierarchy lives, and who has no rights as regard his own lord except protection from others outside the manor that he lives and works on; to him his personal lord was the incarnation of the compulsion and protection of God, which all men acknowledged and looked for.

It is quite clear that this system was mixed up with religious ideas of some sort; accordingly, we find that the Middle Ages had a distinct religion of their own, developed from that early Christianity which was one of the forces that broke up the Roman Empire. As long as that Empire lasted in its integrity, Christianity was purely individualistic; it bade every man do his best for his future in another world, and had no commands to give about the government of this world except to obey 'the powers that be' in non-religious matters, in order to escape troubles and complications which might distract his attention from the kingdom of God.

But in Mediæval Christianity, although this idea of individual devotion to the perfection of the next world still existed, it was kept in the background, and was almost dormant in the presence of the idea of the Church, which was not merely a link between the earthly and the heavenly kingdoms, but even may be said to have brought the kingdom of heaven to earth by breathing its spirit into the temporal power, which it recognized as another manifestation of its own authority. Therefore, the struggles of the Temporal and Spiritual Powers, which form so large a part of the history of the Middle Ages, were not the result of antagonism of ideas between the two, but came of the tendency of one side of the great organization of Society to absorb the other without rejecting its theory; in short, on the one hand the Church was political and social rather than religious, while on the other the State was at least as much religious as it was political and social.

Such, then, was the theory of Mediæval Society; but apart from whatever of oppression on life and thought was inherent in it, the practice of the theory was liable to many abuses, to which the obvious confusion and misery of the times are mostly referable. These abuses again were met by a protest in the form of almost constant rebellion against Society, of which one may take as examples the organized vagabondage of Middle Europe, the Jacquerie in France, and in England what may be called the chronic rebellion of the Foresters, which produced such an impression on the minds of the people, that it has given birth to the ballad epic known by the name of its mythical hero, Robin Hood. Resistance to authority and contempt of the 'Rights of Property' are the leading ideas in this rough but noble poetry.

Besides these irregular protests against the oppression of the epoch, there was another factor at work in its modification – the Gilds, which forced themselves into the system, and were accepted as a regular part of it.

The ideas which went with the survivals of the primitive communism of the tribes were, on the one hand, absorbed into the feudal system and formed part of it, but on the other, they developed associations for mutual protection and help, which at first were merely a kind of benefit societies according to the ideas of the times. These were followed by associations for the protection of trade, which were called the gilds-merchant. From these the development was two-fold: they were partly transformed into the corporations of the free towns, which had already began (sic) to be founded from other developments, and partly into the craft-gilds, or organizations for the protection and regulation of handicrafts – which latter were the result of a radical reform of the gilds-merchant, accomplished not without a severe struggle, often accompanied by actual and very bitter war. The last remains of these craft-gilds are traceable in the names of the city companies of London.

It should be noted that this tendency to association was bitterly opposed in its earlier days by the potentates of both Church and State, especially in those countries which had been more under the influence of the Roman empire. But in the long-run it could not be resisted, and at last both the gilds and the free towns which their emancipated labour had created or developed were favoured (as well as fleeced) by the bureaucratic kings as a make-weight to the powerful nobles and the Church.

The condition of one part of mediæval life industrial was thus quite altered. In the earlier Middle Ages the serf not only did all the field-work, but also most of the handicrafts, which now fell entirely into the hands of the gilds. It must be noted also that in their best days there were no mere journeymen in these crafts; a workshop was manned simply by the workman and his apprentices, who would, when their time was out, become members of the gild like himself: mastership, in our sense of the word, was unknown.

By about the year 1350 the craft-gilds were fully developed and triumphant; and that date may conveniently be accepted as the end of the first part of the Middle Ages. By this time serfdom generally was beginning to yield to the change introduced by the gilds and free towns: the field serfs partly drifted into the towns and became affiliated to the gilds, and partly became free men, though living on lands whose tenure was unfree – copyholders, we should call them. This movement towards the break-up of serfdom is marked by the peasant's war in England led by Wat Tyler and John Ball in Kent, and John Litster (dyer) in East Anglia, which was the answer of the combined yeomen, emancipated and unemancipated serfs, to the attempt of the nobles to check the movement.

But the development of the craft-gilds and the flocking in of the freed serfs into the towns laid the foundations for another change in industrialism: with the second part of the mediæval period appears the journeyman, or so-called free labourer. Besides the craftsmaster and his apprentices, the workshop now has these 'free labourers' in it – unprivileged workmen, that is, who were nevertheless under the domination of the gild, and compelled to affiliation with it. The gildsmen now began to be privileged workmen; and with them began the foundation of the present middle-class, whose development from this source went on to meet its other development on the side of trade which was now becoming noticeable. In 1453 Constantinople was taken by the Turks; the art of printing was spreading; Greek manuscripts were being discovered and read; a thirst for new or revived learning, outside the superstitions of the mediæval Church and the quaint, curiously perverted and half-understood remains of popular traditions, was arising, and all was getting ready for the transformation of mediæval into modern or commercial society.

Commonweal, Volume 2, Number 19, 22 May 1886, P.61