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Feudal Customs
by [?]

Barbarous as the feudal customs were, they were the first attempts at organising European society. The northern nations, in their irruptions and settlements in Europe, were barbarians independent of each other, till a sense of public safety induced these hordes to confederate. But the private individual reaped no benefit from the public union; on the contrary, he seems to have lost his wild liberty in the subjugation; he in a short time was compelled to suffer from his chieftain; and the curiosity of the philosopher is excited by contemplating in the feudal customs a barbarous people carrying into their first social institutions their original ferocity. The institution of forming cities into communities at length gradually diminished this military and aristocratic tyranny; and the freedom of cities, originating in the pursuits of commerce, shook off the yoke of insolent lordships. A famous ecclesiastical writer of that day, who had imbibed the feudal prejudices, calls these communities, which were distinguished by the name of libertates (hence probably our municipal term the liberties), as “execrable inventions, by which, contrary to law and justice, slaves withdrew themselves from that obedience which they owed to their masters.” Such was the expiring voice of aristocratic tyranny! This subject has been ingeniously discussed by Robertson in his preliminary volume to Charles V.; but the following facts constitute the picture which the historian leaves to be gleaned by the minuter inquirer.

The feudal government introduced a species of servitude which till that time was unknown, and which was called the servitude of the land. The bondmen or serfs, and the villains or country servants, did not reside in the house of the lord: but they entirely depended on his caprice; and he sold them, as he did the animals, with the field where they lived, and which they cultivated.

It is difficult to conceive with what insolence the petty lords of those times tyrannized over their villains: they not only oppressed their slaves with unremitted labour, instigated by a vile cupidity, but their whim and caprice led them to inflict miseries without even any motive of interest.

In Scotland they had a shameful institution of maiden-rights; and Malcolm the Third only abolished it, by ordering that they might be redeemed by a quit-rent. The truth of this circumstance Dalrymple has attempted, with excusable patriotism, to render doubtful. There seems, however, to be no doubt of the existence of this custom; since it also spread through Germany, and various parts of Europe; and the French barons extended their domestic tyranny to three nights of involuntary prostitution. Montesquieu is infinitely French, when he could turn this shameful species of tyranny into a bon mot; for he boldly observes on this, “C’etoit bien ces trois nuits-la, qu’il falloit choisir; car pour les autres on n’auroit pas donne beaucoup d’argent.” The legislator in the wit forgot the feelings of his heart.

Others, to preserve this privilege when they could not enjoy it in all its extent, thrust their leg booted into the bed of the new-married couple. This was called the droit de cuisse. When the bride was in bed, the esquire or lord performed this ceremony, and stood there, his thigh in the bed, with a lance in his hand: in this ridiculous attitude he remained till he was tired; and the bridegroom was not suffered to enter the chamber till his lordship had retired. Such indecent privileges must have originated in the worst of intentions; and when afterwards they advanced a step in more humane manners, the ceremonial was preserved from avaricious motives. Others have compelled their subjects to pass the first night at the top of a tree, and there to consummate their marriage; to pass the bridal hours in a river; or to be bound naked to a cart, and to trace some furrows as they were dragged; or to leap with their feet tied over the horns of stags.