The Family at the Origin of Feudalism

September 1, 2022

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Chapter 2

When the Roman Empire was at its apogee of earthly splendour and glory, when it was renowned for its administrative and judicial institutions, its cities were linked by roads that are an engineering feat, some of which still survive. These roads permitted troops to defend the Empire’s borders and to keep the provinces under submission. They also facilitated travel by foot, horse, or oxen cart—a rather more common occurrence than we might suppose. The oxcart was the luxury mode of transport of the time: a convoy of up to ten carts provided all sorts of amenities for their travellers, even snow with which to make ice cream.

This situation drastically changed when the first barbarian hordes overran the Empire. The Franks were the roughest barbarians one could imagine, but as time went by they became a bit more civilised—though precariously. By the 7th and 8th centuries the hordes were just short of full-fledged barbarianism—the very modest fruit obtained by the Catholic Church after a tremendous struggle. She had pried some from Arianism, converted others, and gradually smoothed the rough edges off their customs.

Then, in a tragic fashion, the hurricanes of adversity blew in earnest upon this immense but fledgling work. The floodgates of the non-Christian world opened up and waves of pagans invaded Europe. From Russia and Prussia—regions still unknown at the time—descended barbarians even more primitive than those of the first invasion, laying waste, sacking, and reproducing the horrors perpetrated earlier in the Roman Empire of the West.
The Vikings, just as rough, came by sea from the north. At a certain moment, taken up with a sailing frenzy, families, tribes, nations, the whole kingdom set sail. They would travel in their longboats along the coast sacking, devouring, and levelling everything. Some of their chiefs called themselves “Sea Kings”. In this way they reached as far as Constantinople and invaded Byzantium. They always razed everything in their path and at times made profound incursions inland, leaving behind a few men who would continue the work of destruction.

The family is an institution of the natural order, founded on a sacrament, and given the task of perpetuating the human species and educating the offspring.
“Conversion of Clovis”. Orsay Museum, Paris

From the south came the Saracens. Crossing the Mediterranean into Spain, some invaded all the way into the heart of France, while others invaded Italy.
All the forces of hell were unleashed upon Western Christendom. It was an immense disaster. A civilisation whose edifice was just rising from the ground and that had been born from a miracle—the miraculous conversions of the Arians and Franks—was subjected to a hurricane that tore apart everything.
Indeed horrified with what was happening, the more civilised men began to climb hills and mountains and to establish themselves on less accessible spots so that when the invaders came their destructive force would be impeded by natural barriers. At the same time, they also began to sow and harvest and build houses behind swamps and places called marécage, or marshes, behind which are found fertile lands. The barbarians, who roamed the main roads between large cities, would not be able to find them hiding behind marshes, on mountains, or in more inhospitable regions.
These were disorderly flights of a terrified people. It was not whole cities that took flight, but groups of families; everyone went where one could.
In face of the harshness of both nature and adversaries, and no longer having a State to govern them—as the weak and powerless kings could no longer make their orders reach those absolutely inaccessible places—they were reduced to the initial basic cell of society: the family.
This primary natural organisation enabled them to survive. From this basic group emerged the paterfamilias, which was at the same time a political, economical, and religious unit constituting a small country in each locality. In each of these social groups, a man usually endowed with greater talents would assume leadership. He was the natural support of that fugitive community. A man with a very broad personality, endowed with a talent to lead, with an understanding of the surrounding dangers and a capacity to organise. Everyone felt supported by him. He organised life and his offspring inherited his qualities and functions.
Fugitive families then started to gather around this princeps family and to constitute small social units, naturally monarchic and family-based: monarchic because of the presence of a unique and unquestionable authority; family-based because it was made up essentially of the chief and his family, along with those who joined the group as newcomers but were not, properly speaking, part of the essence of that unit comprised of the chief and his family.

The Christian Institution of the Family: A Dynamic Force to Regenerate Society, by Tradition, Family, Property Association. Pages 8-13.

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