Servile Harvest: Revealing a Social
System in Medieval and Renaissance
by Derek Grant Vaughn
One could certainly argue that the entire span of human history, the unabridged narrative of humankind, is nothing more than cyclical process of subordination and obsequiousness. The selfish desire to master the earthly world and those who inhabit it seems to lie at the very root of human nature. Thus, if we examine our own history as we might an epic work of literature, we will undoubtedly find certain inherent and repeated themes that reflect the grim complexion of the human race. Feudalism, imperialism, capitalism, dictatorships, slavery, sexism, racism, and genocide are just a few examples of philosophies, concepts, and actions designed (by people) to systematically subordinate one group while simultaneously elevating another. The places and the dates may change, but the principle holds true; the poor bow to the wealthy, and the weak bend to the mighty. The unending cycle of power and the control of social structure go on, transcending boundaries of race, language, and nationality; wealth it seems is the only international language. Moreover, since art imitates life, the different stages in this evolution of society can be identified through each period’s beliefs and ideals, which are reflected in its literature. Namely, we can find the principles and values of the feudalistic system in classic literary works throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Feudalism and its ideals are frequently found supporting the themes of, and adding substance and credibility to, individual works of the time.
First of all, to understand the role of the feudalistic system in the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we must understand what feudalism is, and more importantly, what it is not. Feudalism, a system of social structure and stratification that arose in medieval Europe, drained central power from the king and distributed it to individual lords and barons throughout the rural countryside. This arrangement predated royal absolutism, under which the nobility maintained their social status, but the king condensed national rule under his own divine power. Under feudalism, however, the lords were the masters of their domains, each with his own nearly independent state. The lord granted fiefs, or plots of land divided from the vast manor, to his vassals, which were a rung below their lords on the social ladder of inequality. Lords and vassals, however, maintained a mutually beneficial system. For example, vassals would supply any necessary funds or even military service; in return, the lord would grant fiefs, as well as protection. Thus, we see that even in the Dark Ages, with the Black Plague infesting all of Europe, the ruling class cling to each other to maintain their power.
So then, even in a time of cultural darkness, life was quite good for the chosen few in medieval European society, at least in comparison. On the other hand, the victims of feudalism found themselves existing in truly miserable conditions. The village peasants usually slept on the dirt floor of their huts, on a pile of straw, sometimes accompanied by their livestock. Peasants led a hard and short life of ignorance and desperation. However, it is clear that serfs were dramatically worse off. These unfortunate souls were bound in servitude to their lord just as they were bound to their inherited social location. However, their masters did, under their self-defined system, owe protection to the serfs. Obviously, this agreement is rich in irony since the lords were exactly who they needed to be protected from. Serfs, owing their life’s labor to their lord, had a pitiful existence that stopped just short of slavery. Although in theory, feudalism presents itself as a populist system granting all men the right to live; in practice, we see that a select few were somehow granted the right to live better. Therefore, we find that the hopeless plight of the serf and the relative comfort of his lord expose this restrictive social arrangement as a prime manifestation of human nature and the quest for power.
With the above perspective established, we must evaluate a few literary samples of the time to uncover the link between humans and humanities. First of all, it is nearly impossible to discuss feudalistic themes in literature without addressing Beowulf. This early Anglo-Saxon historical narrative dates back to the humble beginnings of royal servitude. Moreover, the power of rulers is an important theme addressed in Beowulf. In addition, an especially important aspect is the hereditary source of this kingly power, which is reflective of a society lacking in social mobility and innately disproportionate in the distribution of wealth, power, and prestige.
The Prologue of Beowulf effectively summarizes the early feudalistic view of the path to power. The text reads, "A young man ought by his good deeds . . . make sure that later in life beloved companions will stand by him, that people will serve him when war comes. Through deeds that bring praise, a man shall prosper in every country" (1063). This selection effectively lends admiration and respect to the selfish desire to subjugate. Ties to feudalism are also made clear with the notion that a king’s subjects should proudly extend their service in times of war. There are obvious connections here to a vassal’s prescribed duties to his lord. This give-and-take relationship is a foundation of the medieval social system. Also addressed here is the feudalistic theme of companionship, which proves important in later works as well. However, a major and surely intentional contradiction in this passage is the idea that power and favor are gained through one’s accomplishments. The reality is that the steadfast system of hereditary nobility ensured the promise of power regardless of one’s actions. Thus, this excerpt reinforces the work’s theme of regal power, as well as drawing ties to the medieval method of social organization.
Also, a relevant facet that is prominent and glorified in Beowulf is the protagonist’s pride. We see that Beowulf is indifferent to death and seeks conflict not because he truly wants to defend his people, but because he desires glory and stature. In his own words, Beowulf declares, "I shall . . . seek battle, [to] perform a deed of fame" (1095). One would think that this selfish quest for power would surely enrage his subjects, but the text indicates otherwise. When Beowulf is slain by the dragon, the narrator conveys his subjects’ sense of loss. He writes, "The people of the Geats, his hearth-companions, lamented the death of their lord. They said that he was of world-kings the mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people . . ." (1103). Thus, we see another imbedded message to the people, "Respect your ruler. He loves you." This tactic orients the followers around their lord, and gives them a sense of identity through their king. Again, an approach such as this one maintains the importance of power as one of the works themes, and reinforces the role and authority of the feudal lord.
Didactic narratives like Beowulf make the commoners of Anglo-Saxon Europe slaves to ideology as much as they are physically enslaved by their rulers. By poeticizing the idolized world of regal treasure, "splendid armor," and dramatic bravery, the common class blindly fall victim to an act of grand and inspirational misdirection, resulting in a false fraternal association with their rulers. Thus, feudalism serves as a powerful buttress for the theme of Beowulf, which is the importance lordly rule.
Another literary work that reflects the concept of feudalism is Dante’s Divine Comedy. The influence of this model of social stratification in Dante’s work is prominent and undeniable. The Divine Comedy is arguably the most structured and methodic work in all of literature, indicative of the structured social rankings of his time. However, during Dante’s life, he witnessed the rise of the middle class, an important episode in the evolution of feudalism, signaling its end. The population migration from manors and villages to rapidly developing towns facilitated the rise of merchant guilds, which, combined with the augmented role of national monarchs, gradually became the new lords of the land. Additionally, with the rise of mercantilism (the predecessor of capitalism), the marketplace began to assume its role as the cultural epicenter, replacing the manor, and to an extent, the medieval Church. Thus, Dante’s transformational society enabled him to approach feudalism in a new way. Moreover, we see that Dante uses his narrative to implement imaginary justice on those who have sinned in the earthly world. In fact, he exacts potent punishment for those of the ruling class who have betrayed the proletarian masses. In this way, Dante attempts to counteract centuries of noble supremacy and echoes one of the work’s themes, which is that earthly wealth is of little importance.
Specifically, we see that Dante names hypocrites and gluttons and indicates their designated rank in his stratified Hell. In this way, Dante insures his audience that immoral rulers shall meet their fate through God’s judgment, regardless of their earthly rank. The poet reiterates a promise from the New Testament when he assures that the gate to Hell is wide (V.20). Another example of an attempt to discredit the feudal system can be found in canto II, when Beatrice reassures Dante. She declares, "One ought to be afraid of nothing other / than things possessed of power to do us harm, / but things innocuous need not be feared" (88-90). If we take these lines and apply them to the sunset system of serfdom, it is seen as a reminder of the supremacy of God’s will. Thus, these lines could suggest that earthly power is an oxymoron, since God is the only true ruler. In this selection, we find a cautionary critique of the feudal system and human rule.
The Divine Comedy is far too complex and structured to be sufficiently addressed here, but we do see specific aforementioned instances of feudal reference. Living in the twilight of vassalage, we see that Dante holds a different view of the system than the Beowulf poet. Instead of endorsing this constraining arrangement, Dante’s tone denotes criticism and establishes the scornful comedy as a type of satire. Ultimately, we see that Dante discredits the role of earthly rule and reminds his readers that they owe service only to God.
Finally, Cervantes wrestles with the remains of feudalism in the Renaissance with Don Quixote. Cervantes comments on the ideological resistance of the nobles in the face of the rising lower and middle classes. Although the feudal system has nearly given way to mercantilism and imperialism, there is still an underlying sentiment in Cervantes’ Spain that suggests the greatness of the ruling class. The author battles this belief through his characters and theme, which maintain that social class and human value are unrelated.
First, we see that with the character of Sancho Panza, Cervantes shows that proletarians can have true honor and value. Sancho is a humble peasant who represents the common man and his potential for excellence. We see that Sancho does not need wealth or power to establish himself as a truly good person. Moreover, with his constant assurances that God’s will shall be done, Cervantes is highlighting the supremacy of God’s rule and the futility of earthly power through Sancho.
Also, Cervantes uses the character
of Don Quixote to show the illusions of the old feudal system. Don
Quixote is the physical manifestation of the chivalric code. Therefore,
his various humiliations and grand illusions signify the erroneous
assumptions of lordly superiority. For example, when Don Quixote
encounters a farmer whipping a young servant boy, the action lends
itself to a deeper meaning. Don Quixote forms an agreement with the
farmer who promises to stop beating the boy. The boy, however, claims
that the farmer is no knight. Our protagonist then explains to the boy
that anyone can be a knight, since “every man is the son of his works.”
The boy replies, “But this master of mine—of what works is he the son,
seeing that he refuses me the pay for my sweat and labor?” (1.4.1983).
This rational argument is an attack of the chosen nobility. The boy is
questioning the morality and justice of servitude. Of course, Don
Quixote sees no problem with the situation since he is representative of
the feudal system itself. This instance serves as a clear illustration
of feudalism’s presence in Renaissance literature. Moreover, it provides
an example of servitude, supporting the work’s theme, which is that
wealth and status do not factor into a person’s self-worth.