Middle age until eighteenth century was marked by an era of feudalism and the whole social structure was crafted on the basis of the feudalistic pattern symbolizing aristocratic rule of the landlords.
Feudalism implied territorial ownership of lands by feudal lords or barons. The lords had their own rules and policies to administer their own estates, formed own judicial systems, minted own money, could levy their taxes and could ask for military services. They vested more powers than kings or emperors in their territory. They could maintain and had more armies than their kings.
Feudalism was born out of the relationship of mutual agreement between vassals and lords. Their agreement was based on their commitment towards each other for services. Birdzell and Rosenberg studied in depth about the social condition of the middle ages. In their most notable work, How the West Grew Rich, they studied in depth about the social and economic condition under the feudal lords. As defined by Birdzell (et all) Feudalism “is a system in which occupants of the land hold it as tenants of the sovereign in exchange for military service.” (Birdzell and Rosenberg 1986)
After the Roman Empire fell, whole economy of West was dependent on feudalism and the feudal lords. The wealth was generated from the several taxes being levied from the peasant class. The feudal lords were the owners of the land and the peasants had to cultivate lands as serfs. Peasants, or serfs, would farm the land in a form of slavery. There was no social mobility—status was defined by birth. There were no incentives to improve agricultural technology or output.
The feudal society and farmers were divided into two types of contacts, one was a social contract between the sovereign and his subjects in a similar manner as a contract between the state and new techniques making convenient to sell in the market. There was a private ownership of land, which were dependent on the market forces. In France also, though Feudalism declined yet in a different way. France began to establish their colonies in America. Landowners took opportunity to grow the crops, like maize and potatoes from America to their advantage.
Medieval towns and villages were comprised of merchants and artisans, who would trade simple manufactured goods for agricultural products. The peasants were given their dues not on the bases of wages for productivity but as said by Birdzell and Rosenberg, “political and social status, loyalty, and duty, reinforced by coercion”. (Birdzell and Rosenberg, 1986)
Guilds were the groups constituting members of particular crafts, like number of bakers in the town banded together and formed a guild. In the same way dyers, shoemakers, tanners, masons etc. had formed their respective guilds. Guilds were formed to assure that their members produced quality goods and every member got the fair reward for their labor. They also provided security towards any upheavals in the market and restricted the competition among merchants by fixing prices, wages and posing limitations on the number of hours during which merchandised could be sold. The importance of the guild also lied in the fact that they had a duty to take care of the widow and child of the merchant who had died and also penalized or punished the members found guilty of using corrupt ways. (Fiona, 1984)
As compared to England, Guilds were stronger in France as in England the centralization of power was in the hand of Government: this inhibited the growth of guilds. But by 1700 the power and position of guilds in England and by 1750 in France was weakened as they could not face the stiff competition posed on by the Industrial revolution, which also gave tremendous change and boost to agricultural development.
The military strength of Great Britain was getting stronger. Many activities took place in Europe as far as their military strength and strategic position was concerned. Before the Crimean War, army of Great Britain constituted men who had fought Napoleonic Wars during 1790-1815. Though the warfare had changed a lot since the battle of Waterloo since 40 years and the guns also had become better but instead of high technological equipment, bravery of a British officer was considered as a major factor in determining the outcome of war. But at the onslaught of Crimean War, the system of warfare began to change and there on the scene were the new groups of officers whose strategy depended more on the careful planning rather then mere bravery. .
But the Armies were more important in France than in Great Britain because France had to face number of revolutionary Wars during 1792 until 1802, which were fought between the French Revolutionary government and many European states. These wars needed number of soldiers because of the application of modern mass conscription.
Birdzell, L.E & Rosenberg, N. 1986. How the West Grew Rich. Basic Books.
Macdonald, Fiona. 1984. The Middle Ages. London: Silver Burdett Company.
Louis XVI. Under French Revolution
I am Louis XVI and during my reign, I saw France unleashed into horrible circumstances. During this period, I had to witness the revolution- the revolution that changed the whole political, social and economic structure and turned into the most ugly phase in the history of France. In July 1789, France erupted into the flames of revolution and the main reason was the rising discord between first two and the third Estates. With the roots already dug in the vagaries of long political, economical and social subjugation of the masses, there was total turmoil with all the forces conspiring to retain their independent rule.
At the time of accession to the throne, my chief financial officer, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), tried to set up financial reforms, which could levy tax on landowners instead of corvée; change the guild laws to facilitate the growth of industries; and put cut on the expenses of the monarchy. This is quite true that if these reforms had passed then there wouldn’t have been revolution at all but these financial reforms were not passed in Parlement, as they saw them as hindrance to their veto rights. At this moment, I had to dismiss Turgot and the country fell into worst ever-financial crises with total mismanagement of taxes.
Over and above the seven years war and the French interference in the American Revolution had put France completely into debt. Financial condition of the districts was getting miserable and it was becoming very difficult to levy taxes and forced the peasants to pay rent to landlords. Beggary and rioting became part of the life and peasants and middle class people began their protests openly but middle class people were taking more advantage of the chaos.
Tax collection, however, was a disaster and varied from region to region. Private businessmen were collecting the taxes that would give loan to the government and when they directly collected the taxes, they would deduct their principle and interest amount of the loan and would return rest back to the government. They were free to keep as much they wanted so more taxes were coming out of the Third Estate then it was going into the government exchequer. The worse part of the whole system was the decentralization of the finances; there was not one but hundred offices to distribute money and by 1780’s, no one knew the total asset and liability profile of the nation? The nations also went into deep inflationary crises. The prices were soaring high and not only peasants were forced to pay more prices for basic necessities but landlords too began to increase the fees on peasantry when they saw that they their purchasing power going down. In 1789, average household income of peasant was left in buying bread only.
On June 23, 1789, monarchy tried to bring certain changes in the financial system, and certain important financial reforms were initiated. But these reforms also did not succeed to get practical shape, as I refused to transform the Estates-General into the National Assembly and insisted on voting by estate and also deputed large number of soldiers outside the meeting hall of the deputies. But I had to change decision and agree to a vote by head on June 27 due to stiffening resistance by the third estate and willingness of deputies from the clergy and nobility to join the third estate in the National Assembly.
Royal troops were increased near Paris, and on July 11, Necker, the most popular among the masses was dismissed. These actions revoked the masses and suspicions aroused as these made people think that I sought to undo the reforms of the previous weeks. As a result, crowds began to gather at Paris searching for arms to fight against royal attack and on 14th July, these crowds attacked Bastille, which is a large fortress placed on the eastern side of the city. They thought that Bastille contained large number of ammunitions and many prisoners but there were just seven inmates at the fortress at that time. The attack on the Bastille was a turning point for full fledge revolution. This insurrection forced the monarchy to again appoint Necker and to withdraw the troops.
After the Bastille was stormed, the economic condition of the people became worse than before and poor weather condition added to the miseries of the peasants. Peasants in the rural areas panicked and they turned violent and went on an attacking spree at the homes of the landlords with the hope to protect the local grain supplies and reducing the rent of their lands.
Many leaders who were leading the revolution got an opportunity to again reform the administration of the state. On August 4, 1789, royal clan surrendered their personal privileges, bestowed to them by the state owing to their noble class and before the end of the day France saw an end to the feudal system by the National Assembly giving its approval. Though the resolution took years to sort out, but it paved the wave for reducing the dues peasants owed to their feudal lords and removing the very roots of the system of serfdom.
Kropotkin, P. (1927). The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793 (N. F. Dryhurst, Trans.) New York: Vanguard Printings. (Original work published 1909)