The heredity of the fiefs was a weakness in the feudal system, but the Emperor had creative ways of dealing with it. For instance he could raise someone who was not in a position to have legitimate children – a bishop, for instance – to the dignity of count. It goes without saying that the Pope had to lend his cooperation in this case. However, this did not pose a serious problem as the Emperor usually managed to appoint a reliable ally to the Chair of St. Peter. In 996, Otto III nominated his cousin Bruno to be pope. Bruno became Pope Gregory V and loyally confirmed all the imperial nominations of bishops. Three years later, Bruno was succeeded by Gerbert d’Aurillac, the former adviser for scientific affairs to the emperor and one of Otto’s personal friends.
The most important representative of the imperial authority in what we now call Netherland was the Bishop of Utrecht. He had the rights of count in a very large area and was the spiritual leader of the surrounding counties. All this gave him considerable influence. The cathedral city of Utrecht must have looked magnificent in the eleventh century with its bishop’s palace and no fewer than six churches.
Compared to the Bishop of Utrecht, the other rulers, such as those of Flanders, Antwerp, Betuwe, Gelre, and Zutphen, had no power at all. The inhabitants of the northern coastal area had even put an end to the rule of the count and the influence of the remaining rulers in that area did not even extend to the next village. There was, of course, Count Dirk III, who controlled a stretch of dune land in the far west, but his authority carried almost no weight in areas to the east. This lack of power, however, would not last long. Under the name of Holland, this province would become one of the most important regions in Europe.
Feudal Europe of the year 1000 did not remotely resemble the world of today, particularly if we look at economic and social relationships. The gap between our twenty-first century, post-industrial society and the life of the medieval peasant is immense.
To start with, Western Europe was a peasant society in which craft, commerce and bureaucracy were virtually non-existent. Practically everyone worked on the land. Each family baked its own bread and slaughtered animals. In addition, most peasants were experts in simple activities such as fishing, weaving and pottery. Every now and then a traveler (with the inflated name of ‘merchant’) came to the village with products and stories from the big world outside. In this way the peasants did not live completely isolated lives. However, in principle, each village was autarchic: self-sufficient and in no need of the outside world.
Few peasants were free. Most of them were serfs, which meant that they and their families were bound to the land they cultivated and owed allegiance to the estate owner, their lord. They were obliged to work his land and to store the harvested crops in his granaries. The peasants could live with that, as in times of need the lord would open up those same granaries. A bigger grievance, however, was statute labor, which could range from road maintenance and harnessing horses to cleaning out pigsties. The serfs experienced these servile tasks as extremely humiliating. But what made life particularly difficult was that the lord was often their judge as well. It is true that he was obliged ‘to protect his serfs like a father’ and to judge with ‘the just mildness of a father’ but that did not stop him ordering an ear or the nose of the condemned to be cut off.
As surpluses were limited, everyone had to help on the land. There was hardly any craftwork to speak of and scarcely any basis for economic growth. Under these circumstances, coins were more or less unnecessary, although an exception will be quoted below. When products were exchanged, it was done by barter. Although there were regions with a more advanced economy (such as Friesland and the transshipment port of Dordrecht), generally speaking the people were incredibly poor.
Schoolmasters were just as scarce as craftsmen and merchants, because no one could be exempted from working on the land. The only exceptions to this rule were teachers in the service of an abbey with a lot of serfs and large granaries. Thus, the level of education in medieval society was low. A good illustration is the case of the nobleman Adelbold, who was to become bishop of Utrecht on the basis of his erudition. It was known of him that in 998 he wrote a letter to Gerbert d’Aurillac – already mentioned – to ask him how he should calculate the area of a triangle. In other words, even the greatest scholars and scientists had difficulties at a level that our children reach when they’re thirteen or fourteen years old.
In this way, we can conclude that even the odd person who for some reason or another was exempted from working on the land, rarely learned to read or write. Because of this, there could be no question of an efficient administrative system and therefore there was scarcely any supervision of the activities of the counts. A monarch with any sense of responsibility was constantly on the go in order to check for himself if his officials were honoring their oath to pass fair judgments and guarantee public order.
Officially, anyone who considered himself to be unfairly treated could call on the Emperor as ‘the father of the poor’ for help. Knightly tales from the Middle Ages delude us into thinking that the Emperor would immediately send a vassal to save the virgin in need, the disinherited son or the exploited widow. It is equally natural in these romances that after his inevitable defeat the villain would come to the royal court to account for his actions. The parody Reynard, a tale from the late twelfth century, paints a little more realistic picture. In this witty and well-known fable, the emissaries that the king sends out to arrest the hero of the title do not achieve anything because they are thoroughly corrupt and are only out to line their own pockets.
The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was in fact just as powerless as his counterpart in the animal kingdom, and for the same reason: he could not carry out any supervision of his vassals. This made it easy for them to enrich themselves over the backs of the serfs. When it came down to it, making policy, carrying it out and checking whether it was carried out and how, all rested in the hands of the same people.
The peasants had no option but to put up with this situation. They dreamt of a world in which they were not obliged to deliver their surpluses into the hands of corrupt men; of a land of milk and honey where grilled pigeons just flew into their mouths. They hoped for an honest monarch who would set things right; someone who would reward his good, hard-working and honest serfs and punish his untrustworthy officials. Perhaps the serfs were so disgusted by their masters that they even went so far as to long for Christ’s Last Judgment.
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