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William Robertson

A View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century (1769)

[1] Section I

Note editoriali

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations

Proofs I-XII | Proofs XIII-XVIII | Proofs XIX-XXIII | Proof XXIV-XXIX

View of the progress of Society in Europe with respect to interior government, laws, and manners.

The Effects of the Roman Power on the State of Europe - The Irruption of the Barbarous Nations - Their Settlements in the Countries they had conquered - Decay of the Roman Empire - Desolation occasioned by the Barbarians - Origin of the present Political System of Europe - The Feudal System - Its Effects upon the Arts, Literature, and Religion - The Crusades, and their Effects upon Society - Growth of Municipal Institutions - Emancipation of the Peasantry - Beginning of a regular Administration of Justice - Trial by Combat - Appeals - Ecclesiastical Courts - Discovery of ther Code of Justinian - Chivalry - Revival of Learning - Influence of Commerce - Italians the first Merchants and Bankers - Rise of Trade and Manufactures among the Cities of the Hanseatic League, - in the Netherlands, - in England.


Two great revolutions have happened in the political state, and in the manners of the European nations. The first was occasioned by the progress of the Roman power; the second by the subversion of it. When the spirit of conquest led the armies of Rome beyond the Alps, they found all the countries which they invaded inhabited by people whom they denominated barbarians, but who were nevertheless brave and independent. These defended their ancient possessions with obstinate valour. It was by the [2] superiority of their discipline, rather than that of their courage, that the Romans gained any advantage over them. A single battle did not, as among the effeminate inhabitants of Asia, decide the fate of a state. The vanquished people resumed their arms with fresh spirit, and their undisciplined valour, animated by the love of liberty, supplied the want of conduct as well as of union. During those long and fierce struggles for dominion or independence, the countries of Europe were successively laid waste, a great part of their inhabitants perished in the field, many were carried into slavery, and a feeble remnant, incapable of farther resistance, submitted to the Roman power.

The Romans having thus desolated Europe, set themselves to civilize it. The form of government which they established in the conquered provinces, though severe, was regular, and preserved public tranquillity. As a consolation for the loss of liberty, they communicated their arts, sciences, language, and manners to their new subjects. Europe began to breathe, and to recover strength after the calamities which it had undergone; agriculture was encouraged; population increased; the ruined cities were rebuilt; new towns were founded; an appearance of prosperity succeeded, and repaired, in some degree, the havoc of war.

The state, however, was far from being happy or favourable to the improvement of the human mind. The vanquished nations were disarmed by their conquerors, and overawed by soldiers kept in pay to restrain them. They were given up as a prey to rapacious governors, who plundered them with impunity; and were drained of their wealth by exorbitant taxes, levied with so little attention to the situation of the provinces, that the impositions were often increased in proportion to their inability to support them. They were deprived of their most enterprising citizens, who resorted to a distant capital in quest of preferment, or of riches; and were accustomed in all their actions to look up to a superior, and tamely to receive his commands [3]. Under so many depressing circumstances, it was hardly possible that they could retain vigour or generosity of mind. The martial and independent spirit which had distinguished their ancestors, became, in a great measure, extinct among all the people subjected to the Roman yoke; they lost not only the ha but even the capacity of deciding for themselves, or of acting from the impulse of their own minds; and the dominion of the Romans, like that of all great empires, degraded and debased the human species [A].

A society in such a state could not subsist long. There were defects in the Roman government, even in its most perfect form, which threatened its dissolution. Time ripened these original seeds of corruption, and gave birth to many new disorders. A constitution unsound, and worn out, must have fallen into pieces of itself, without any external shock. The violent irruption of the Goths, Vandals, Huns, and other barbarians, hastened this event, and precipitated ther downfal of the empire. New nations seemed to arise, and to rush from unknown regions, in order to take vengeance on the Romans for the calamities which they had inflicted on mankind. These fierce tribes either inhabited the various provinces in Germany which had never been subdued by the Romans, or were scattered over those vast countries in the North of Europe, and north-west of Asia, which are now occupied by the Danes, the Swedes, the Poles, the subjects of the Russian empire, and the Tartars. Their condition and transactions, previous to their invasion of the empire, are but little known. Almost all our information with respect to these is derived from the Romans; and as they did not penetrate far into countries which were at that time uncultivated and uninviting, the accounts of their original state given by the Roman historians are extremely imperfect. The rude inhabitants themselves, destitute of science as well as of records, and without leisure [4] or curiosity to inquire into remote events, retained, perhaps, some indistinct memory of recent occurrences, but beyond these, all was buried in oblivion, or involved in darkness and in fable [B].

The prodigious swarms which poured in upon the empire from the beginning of the fourth century to the final extinction of the Roman power, have given rise to an opinion that the countries whence they issued were crowded with inhabitants; and various theories have been formed to account for such an extraordinary degree of population as hath procured these countries the appellation of the storehouse of nations . But if we consider that the countries possessed by the people who invaded the empire were of vast extent; that a great part of these was covered with woods and marshes; that some of the most considerable of the barbarous nations subsisted entirely by hunting or pasturage, in both which states of society large tracts of land are required for maintaining a few inhabitants; and that all of them were strangers to the arts and industry, without which population cannot increase to any great degree, we must conclude, that these countries could not be so populous in ancient times as they are in the present, when they still continue to be less peopled than any other part of Europe or of Asia.

But the same circumstances that prevented the barbarous nations from becoming populous, contributed to inspire, or to strengthen, the martial spirit by which they were distinguished. Inured by the rigour of their climate, or the poverty of their soil, to hardships which rendered their bodies firm and their minds vigorous; accustomed to a course of life which was a continual preparation for action; and disdaining every occupation but that of war or of hunting, they undertook and prosecuted their military enterprises with an ardour and impetuosity, of which men softened by the refinements of more polished times can scarcely form any idea [5] [C].

Their first inroads into the empire proceeded rather from the love of plunder than from the desire of new settlements. Roused to arms by some enterprising or popular leader, they sallied out of their forests, broke in upon the frontier provinces with irresistible violence, put all who opposed them to the sword, carried off the most valuable effects of the inhabitants, dragged along multitudes of captives in chains, wasted all before them with fire or sword, and returned in triumph to their wilds and fastnesses. Their success, together with the accounts which they gave of the unknown conveniences and luxuries that abounded in countries better cultivated, or blessed with a milder climate than their own, excited new adventurers, and exposed the frontier to new devastations.

When nothing was left to plunder in the adjacent provinces, ravaged by frequent excursions, they marched farther from home, and finding it difficult or dangerous to return, they began to settle in the countries which they had subdued. The sudden and short excursions in quest of booty, which had alarmed and disquieted the empire, ceased; a more dreadful calamity impended. Great bodies of armed men, with their wives and children, and slaves and flocks, issued forth, like regular colonies, in quest of new settlements. People who had no cities, and seldom any fixed habitation, were so little attached to their native soil, that they migrated without reluctance from one place to another. New adventurers followed them. The lands which they deserted were occupied by more remote tribes of barbarians. These, in their turn, pushed forward into more fertile countries, and, like a torrent continually increasing, rolled on, and swept everything before them. In less than two centuries from their first irruption, barbarians of various names and lineage plundered and took possession of Thrace, Pannonia, Gaul, Spain, Africa, and at last of Italy and Rome itself. The vast fabric of the Roman power, which it had been the work of ages to [6] perfect, was in that short period overturned from the foundation.

Many concurring causes prepared the way for this great revolution, and ensured success to the nations which invaded the empire. The Roman commonwealth had conquered the world by the wisdom of its civil maxims, and the rigour of its military discipline. But, under the emperors, the former were forgotten or despised, and the latter was gradually relaxed. The armies of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries bore scarcely any resemblance to those invincible legions which had been victorious wherever they marched. Instead of freemen, who voluntarily took arms from the love of glory, or of their country, provincials and barbarians were bribed or forced into service. These were too feeble or too proud, to submit to the fatigue of military duty. They even complained of the weight of their defensive armour as intolerable, and laid it aside. Infantry, from which the armies of ancient Rome derived their vigour and stability, fell into contempt; the effeminate and undisciplined soldiers of later times could hardly be brought to venture into the field but on horseback. These wretched troops, however, were the only guardians of the empire. The jealousy of despotism had deprived the people of the use of arms; and subjects, oppressed and rendered incapable of defending themselves, had neither spirit nor inclination to resist their invaders, from they had little to fear, because their condition could hardly be rendered more unhappy. At the same time that the martial spirit became extinct, the revenues of the empire gradually diminished. The taste for the luxuries of the East increased to such a pitch in the imperial court, that great sums were carried into India, from which, in the channel of commerce, money never returns. By the large subsidies paid to the barbarous nations, a still greater quantity of specie was withdrawn from circulation. The frontier provinces, wasted by frequent incursions, became unable to pay the customary tribute [7]; and the wealth of the world, which had long centred in the capital of the empire, ceased to flow thither in the same abundance, or was diverted into other channels. The limits of the empire continued to be as extensive as ever, while the spirit requisite for its defence declined, and its resources were exhausted. A vast body, languid and almost unanimated, became incapable of any effort to save itself, and was easily overpowered. The emperors, who had the absolute direction of this disordered system, sunk in the softness of eastern luxury, shut up within the walls of a palace, ignorant of war, unacquainted with affairs, and governed entirely by women and eunuchs, or by ministers equally effeminate, trembled at the approach of danger, and, under circumstances which called for the utmost vigour in council as well as in action, discovered all the impotent irresolution of fear and of folly.

In every respect, the condition of the barbarous nations was the reverse of that of the Romans. Among the former, the martial spirit was in full vigour; their leaders were hardy and enterprising; the arts which had enervated the Romans were unknown; and such was the nature of their military institutions, that they brought forces in to the field without any trouble, and supported them at little expense. The mercenary and effeminate troops stationed on the frontier, astonished at their fierceness, either fled at their approach, or were routed on the first onset. The feeble expedient to which the emperors had recourse, of taking large bodies of the barbarians into pay, and of employing them to repel new invaders, instead of retarding, hastened the destruction of the empire. These mercenaries soon turned their arms against their masters, and with greater advantage than ever; for, by serving in the Roman armies, they had acquired all the discipline or skill in war which the Romans still retained; and, upon adding these to their native ferocity, they became altogether irresistible.

But though, from these and many other causes, the progress and conquests of the nations which overran the [8] empire became so extremely rapid, they were accompanied with horrible devastations and an incredible destruction of the human species. Civilized nations which take arms upon cool reflection, from motives of policy or prudence, with a view to guard against some distant danger, or to prevent some contingency, carry on their hostilities with so little rancour or animosity, that war among them is disarmed of half its terrors. Barbarians are strangers to such refinements. They rush into war with impetuosity, and prosecute it with violence. Their sole object is to make their enemies feel the weight of their vengeance; nor does their rage subside until it be satiated with inflicting on them every possible calamity. It is with such a spirit that the savage tribes in America carry on their petty wars. It was with the same spirit that the more powerful and no less fierce barbarians in the North of Europe, and of Asia, fell upon the Roman empire.

Wherever they marched, their route was marked with blood. They ravaged or destroyed all around them. They made no distinction between what was sacred and what was profane. They respected no age, or sex, or rank. What escaped the fury of the first inundation, perished in those which followed it. The most fertile and populous provinces were converted into deserts, in which were scattered the ruins of villages and cities that afforded shelter to a few miserable inhabitants whom chance had preserved, or the sword of the enemy, wearied with destroying, had spared. The conquerors who first settled in the countries which they had wasted, were expelled or exterminated by new invaders, who, coming from regions farther removed from the civilized parts of the world, were still more fierce and rapacious. This brought fresh calamities upon mankind, which did not cease until the North, by pouring forth successive swarms, was drained of people, and could no longer furnish instruments of destruction. Famine and pestilence, which always march in the train of war, when it ravages [9] with such inconsiderate cruelty, raged in every part of Europe, and completed its sufferings. If a man were called to fix upon the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most calamitous and afflicted, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Theodosius the Great to the establishment of the Lombards in Italy (1). The contemporary authors who beheld that scene of desolation, labour and are at a loss for expressions to describe the horror of it. The scourge of God, The destroyer of nations, are the dreadful epithets by which they distinguished the most noted of the barbarous leaders; and they compare the ruin which they had brought on the world to the havoc occasioned by earthquakes, conflagrations, or deluges, the most formidable and fatal calamities which the imagination of man can conceive.

But no expressions can convey so perfect an idea of the destructive progress of the barbarians as that which must strike an attentive observer when he contemplates the total change which he will discover in the state of Europe, after it began to recover some degree of tranquillity, towards the close of the sixth century. The Saxons were by that time masters of the southern and more fertile provinces of Britain; the Franks of Gaul; the Huns of Pannonia; the Goths of Spain; the Goths and Lombards of Italy and the adjacent provinces. Very faint vestiges of the Roman policy, jurisprudence, arts, or literature remained. New forms of government, new laws, new manners, new dresses, new languages, and new names of men and countries, were everywhere introduced. To make a great or sudden alteration with respect to any of these, unless where the ancient inhabitants of a country have been almost totally exterminated, has proved an undertaking beyond the power of the greatest conquerors [D]. The great change which the [10] settlement of the barbarous nations occasioned in the state of Europe, may, therefore, be considered as a more decisive proof than even the testimony of contemporary historians, of the destructive violence with which these invaders carried on their conquests, and of the havoc which they had made from one extremity of this quarter of the globe to the other [E].

In the obscurity of the chaos occasioned by this general wreck of nations, we must search for the seeds of order, and endeavour to discover the first rudiments of the policy and laws now established in Europe. To this source the historians of its different kingdoms have attempted, though with less attention and industry than the importance of the inquiry merits, to trace back the institutions and customs peculiar to their countrymen. It is not my province to give a minute detail of the progress of government and manners in each particular nation, whose transactions are the object of the following history. But, in order to exhibit a just view of the state of Europe at the opening of the sixteenth century, it is necessary to look back, and to contemplate the condition of the northern nations upon their first settlement in those countries which they occupied. It is necessary to mark the great steps by which they advanced from barbarism to refinement, and to point out those general principles and events which, by their uniform as well as extensive operation, conducted all of them to that degree of improvement in policy and in manners which they had attained at the period when Charles V. began his reign.

When nations subject to despotic government make conquests, these serve only to extend the dominion and the power of their master. But armies composed of freemen conquer for themselves, not for their leaders. The people who overturned the Roman empire, and settled in its various provinces, were of the latter class. Not only the different nations that issued from the North of Europe, which has always been considered as the seat of liberty [11], but the Huns and Alans, who inhabited part of those countries which have been marked out as the peculiar region of servitude (2), enjoyed freedom and independence in such a high degree as seems to be scarcely compatible with a state of social union, or with the subordination necessary to maintain it. They followed the chieftain who led them forth in quest of new settlements, not by constraint, but from choice; not as soldiers whom he could order to march, but as volunteers who offered to accompany him [F]. They considered their conquests as a common property, in which all had a title to share, as all had contributed to acquire them [G]. In what manner, or by what principles, they divided among them the lands which they seized, we cannot now determine with any certainty. There is no nation in Europe whose records reach back to this remote period; and there is little information to be got from the uninstructive and meagre chronicles, compiled by writers ignorant of the true end, and unacquainted with the proper objects, of history.

This new division of property, however, together with the maxims and manners to which it gave rise, gradually introduced a species of government formerly unknown. This singular institution is now distinguished by the name of the feudal system; and though the barbarous nations which framed it, settled in their new territories at different times, came from different countries, spoke various languages, and were under the command of separate leaders, the feudal policy and laws were established, with little variation, in every kingdom of Europe. This amazing uniformity hath induced some authors (3) to believe that all these nations, notwithstanding so many apparent circumstances of distinction, were originally the same people. But it may be ascribed, with greater probability, to the similar state of society and of manners to which they were [12] accustomed in their native countries, and to the similar situation in which they found themselves on taking possession of their new domains.

As the conquerors of Europe had their acquisitions to maintain, not only against such of the ancient inhabitants as they had spared, but against the more formidable inroads of new invaders, self-defence was their chief care, and seems to have been the chief object of their first institutions and policy. Instead of those loose associations, which, though they scarcely diminished their personal independence, had been sufficient for their security while they remained in their original countries, they saw the necessity of uniting in more close confederacy, and of relinquishing some of their private rights in order to attain public safety. Every freeman, upon receiving a portion of the lands which were divided, bound himself to appear in arms against the enemies of the community. This military service was the condition upon which he received and held his lands; and as they were exempted from every other burden, that tenure, among a warlike people, was deemed both easy and honourable. The king or general, who led them to conquest, continuing still to be the head of the colony, had, of course, the largest portion allotted to him. Having thus acquired the means of rewarding past services, as well as of gaining new adherents, he parcelled out his lands with this view, binding those on whom they were bestowed to resort to his standard with a number of men in proportion to the extent of the territory which they received, and to bear arms in his defence. His chief officers imitated the example of the sovereign, and, in distributing portions of their lands among their dependants, annexed the same condition to the grant. Thus a feudal kingdom resembled a military establishment, rather than a civil institution. The victorious army, cantoned out in the country which it had seized, continued ranged under its proper officers, and subordinate to military command. The names [13] of a soldier and of a freeman were synonymous (4). Every proprietor of land, girt with a sword, was ready to march at the summons of his superior, and to take the field against the common enemy.

But though the feudal policy seems to be so admirably calculated for defence against the assaults of any foreign power, its provisions for the interior order and tranquillity of society were extremely defective. The principles of disorder and corruption are discernible in that constitution under its best and most perfect form. They soon unfolded themselves, and, spreading with rapidity through every part of the system, produced the most fatal effects. The bond of political union was extremely feeble; the sources of anarchy were innumerable. The monarchical and aristocratical parts of the constitution, having no intermediate power to balance them, were perpetually at variance, and justling with each other. The powerful vassals of the crown soon extorted a confirmation for life of those grants of land, which, being ad first purely gratuitous, had been bestowed only during pleasure. Not satisfied with this, they prevailed to have them converted into hereditary possessions. One step more completed their usurpations, and rendered them unalienable [H]. With an ambition no less enterprising, and more preposterous, they appropriated to themselves titles of honour, as well as offices of power or trust. These personal marks of distinction, which the public admiration bestows on illustrious merit, or which the public confidence confers on extraordinary abilities, were annexed to certain families, and transmitted like fiefs, from father to son, by hereditary right. The crown vassals having thus secured the possession of their lands and dignities, the nature of the feudal institutions, which, though founded on subordination, verged to independence, led them to new and still more dangerous encroachments on the prerogatives of the sovereign. They obtained the [14] power of supreme jurisdiction, both civil and criminal within their own territories; the right of coining money; together with the privilege of carrying on war against their private enemies, in their own name, and by their own authority. The ideas of political subjection were almost entirely lost, and frequently scarce any appearance of feudal subordination remained. Nobles, who had acquired such enormous power, scorned to consider themselves as subjects. They aspired openly at being independent; the bonds which connected the principal members of the constitution with the crown were dissolved. A kingdom, considerable in name and in extent, was broken into as many separate principalities as it contained powerful barons. A thousand causes of jealousy and discord subsisted among them, and gave rise to as many wars. Every country in Europe, wasted or kept in continual alarm during these endless contests, was filled with castles and places of strength erected for the security of the inhabitants; not against foreign force, but against internal hostilities. An universal anarchy, destructive, in a great measure, of all the advantages which men expect to derive from society, prevailed. The people, the most numerous as well as the most useful part of the community, were either reduced to a state of actual servitude, or treated with the same insolence and rigour as if they had been degraded into that wretched condition [I]. The king, stripped of almost every prerogative, and without authority to enact or to execute salutary laws, could neither protect the innocent nor punish the guilty. The nobles, superior to all restraint, harassed each other with perpetual wars, oppressed their fellow-subjects, and humbled or insulted their sovereign. To crown all, time gradually fixed, and rendered venerable this pernicious system, which violence had established.

Such was the state of Europe with respect to the interior administration of government from the seventh to the [15] eleventh century. All the external operations of its various states, during this period, were, of course, extremely feeble. A kingdom dismembered, and torn with dissension, without any common interest to rouse, or any common head to conduct its force, was incapable of acting with vigour. Almost all the wars in Europe, during the ages which I have mentioned, were trifling, indecisive, and productive of no considerable event. They resembled the short incursions of pirates or banditti, rather than the steady operations of a regular army. Every baron, at the head of his vassals, carried on some petty enterprise, to which he was prompted by his own ambition or revenge. The state itself, destitute of union, either remained altogether inactive, or, if it attempted to make any effort, that served only to discover its impotence. The superior genius of Charlemagne, it is true, united all these disjointed and discordant members, and formed them again into one body, restored to government that degree of activity which distinguishes his reign, and renders the transactions of it objects not only of attention but of admiration to more enlightened times. But this state of union and vigour, not being natural to the feudal government, was of short duration. Immediately upon his death, the spirit which animated and sustained the vast system which he had established, being withdrawn, it broke into pieces. All the calamities which flow from anarchy and discord, returning with additional force, afflicted the different kingdoms into which his empire was split. From that time to the eleventh century, a succession of uninteresting events, a series of wars, the motives as well as the consequences of which were unimportant, fill and deform the annals of all the nations in Europe.

To these pernicious effects of the feudal anarchy may be added its fatal influence on the character and improvement of the human mind. If men do not enjoy the protection of regular government, together with the expectation of personal security, which naturally flows from it, they never [16] attempt to make progress in science, nor aim at attaining refinement in taste, or in manners. That period of turbulence, oppression, and rapine, which I have described, was ill-suited to favour improvement in any of these. In less than a century after the barbarous nations settled in their new conquests, almost all the effects of the knowledge and civility, which the Romans had spread through Europe, disappeared. Not only the arts of elegance, which minister to luxury, and are supported by it, but many of the useful arts, without which life can scarcely be considered as comfortable, were neglected or lost. Literature, science, taste were words little in use during the ages which we are contemplating; or, if they occur at any time, eminence in them is ascribed to persons and productions so contemptible, that it appears their true import was little understood. Persons of the highest rank, and in the most eminent stations, could not read or write. Many of the clergy did not understand the breviary which they were obliged daily to recite; some of them could scarcely read it [K]. The memory of past transactions was, in a great degree, lost, or preserved in annals filled with trifling events, or legendary tales. Even the codes of laws, published by the several nations which established themselves in the different countries or Europe, fell into disuse, while, in their place, customs, vague and capricious, were substituted. The human mind, neglected, uncultivated, and depressed, continued in the most profound ignorance. Europe, during four centuries, produced few authors who merit to be read, either on account of the elegance of their composition, or the justness and novelty of their sentiments. There are few inventions useful or ornamental to society, of which that long period can boast.

Even the Christian religion, though its precepts are delivered, and its institutions are fixed in Scripture, with a precision which should have exempted them from being misinterpreted or corrupted, degenerated, during those ages of darkness, into an illiberal superstition. The barbarous [17] nations, when converted to Christianity, changed the object, not the spirit, of their religious worship. They endeavoured to conciliate the favour of the true God by means not unlike to those which they had employed in order to appease their false deities. Instead of aspiring to sanctity and virtue, which alone can render men acceptable to the great Author of order and of excellence, they imagined that they satisfied every obligation of duty by a scrupulous observance of external ceremonies [L]. Religion, according to their conceptions of it, comprehended nothing else; and the rites, by which they persuaded themselves that they could gain the favour of Heaven, were of such a nature as might have been expected from the rude ideas of the ages which devised and introduced them. They were either so unmeaning as to be altogether unworthy of the Being to whose honour they were consecrated; or so absurd as to be a disgrace to reason and humanity [M]. Charlemagne in France, and Alfred the Great in England, endeavoured to dispel this darkness, and gave their subjects a short glimpse of light and knowledge. But the ignorance of the age was too powerful for their efforts and institutions. The darkness returned, and settled over Europe more thick and heavy than before.

As the inhabitants of Europe during these centuries were strangers to the arts which embellish a polished age, they were destitute of the virtues which abound among people who continue in a simple state. Force of mind, a sense of personal dignity, gallantry in enterprise, invincible perseverance in execution, contempt of danger and of death, are the characteristic virtues of uncivilized nations. But these are all the offspring of equality and independence, both which the feudal institutions had destroyed. The spirit of domination corrupted the nobles, the yoke of servitude depressed the people, the generous sentiments inspired by a sense of equality were extinguished, and hardly anything remained to be a check on ferocity and [18] violence. Human society is in its most corrupted state, at that period when men have lost their original independence and simplicity of manners, but have not attained that degree of refinement which introduces a sense of decorum and of propriety in conduct, as a restraint on those passions which lead to heinous crimes. Accordingly, a greater number of those atrocious actions, which fill the mind of man with astonishment and horror, occur in the history of the centuries under review, than in that of any period of the same extent in the annals of Europe. If we open the history of Gregory of Tours, or of any contemporary author, we meet with a series of deeds of cruelty, perfidy, and revenge, so wild and enormous, as almost to exceed belief.

But, according to the observation of an elegant and profound historian (5), there is an ultimate point of depression, as well as of exaltation, from which human affairs naturally return in a contrary progress, and beyond which they never pass either in their advancement or decline. When defects, either in the form or in the administration of government, occasion such disorders in society as are excessive and intolerable, it becomes the common interest to discover and to apply such remedies as will most effectually remove them. Slight inconveniences may be long overlooked or endured; but when abuses grow to a certain pitch, the society must go to ruin, or must attempt to reform them. The disorders in the feudal system, together with the corruption of taste and manners consequent upon these, which had gone on increasing during a long course of years, seemed to have attained their utmost point of excess towards the close of the eleventh century. From that era, we may date the return of government and manners in a contrary direction, and can trace a succession of causes and events which contributed, some with a nearer and more conspicuous, others with a more remote and less [19] perceptible influence, to abolish confusion and barbarism, and to introduce order, regularity, and refinement.

In pointing out and explaining these causes and events, it is not necessary to observe the order of time with a chronological accuracy; it is of more importance to keep in view their mutual connexion and dependence, and to show how the operation of one event, or one cause, prepared the way for another, and augmented its influence. We have hitherto been contemplating the progress of that darkness which spread over Europe, from its first approach to the period of greatest obscuration; a more pleasant exercise begins here; to observe the first dawnings of returning light, to mark the various accessions by which it gradually increased and advanced towards the full splendour of day.

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations

Proofs I-XII | Proofs XIII-XVIII | Proofs XIX-XXIII | Proof XXIV-XXIX


(1) Theodosius died A. D. 395; the reign of Alboinus in Lombardy began A. D. 571; so that this period was 176 years.

(2) De l’Esprit des Lois, liv. XVII, ch. 3.

(3) Procop. De Bello Vandal., ap. Script. Byz., edit. Ven., vol. I, p. 345.

(4) Du Cange, Glossar., voc. Miles.

(5) Hume’s History of England, vol. II, p. 441.

References to Proofs and Illustrations

[A] Note I

[B] Note II

[C] Note III

[D] Note IV

[E] Note V

[F] Note VI

[G] Note VII

[H] Note VIII

[I] Note IX

[K] Note X

[L] Note XI

[M] Note XII

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations

Proofs I-XII | Proofs XIII-XVIII | Proofs XIX-XXIII | Proof XXIV-XXIX