What was called the Feudal System was gradually being developed in Europe in the turbulent age of Charlemagne, as it had been developed in Egypt and in China ages before.
The chief classes of society in Europe at this time were the priests, the lords, and the serfs or villeins. The lords or knights paid for their estates by service in war to the king or prince, and the serfs paid for their land and protection by working on the lord's estate and giving him rent in kind -- that is, food and other useful things.
Some of the great emperor's decrees or laws still remain, and one of these gives a very lively picture of the life on the estates or manors. Throughout western Europe the land was gradually, and at different times, divided into these manors, with their great, open, hedgeless fields, farmed by the peasants working together as a community. And this old method of farming continued for a thousand years or so -- till the land was "enclosed" within hedges, and new methods of farming introduced in the eighteenth century. Today all that remains of the old system in our own country are the "commons," which here and there survive in our villages.
"We desire," decreed Charlemagne (about 800 A.D.), "that each steward shall make an annual statement of all our income, giving an account of our lands cultivated by the oxen which our ploughmen drive, and of our lands which the tenants ought to plough; of the pigs, of the rents, of the fines; of the game taken in our forests, without permission; of the mills, of the fields, of the forests, of the bridges and ships; of the freemen, and the districts under obligations of our treasury; of markets; vineyards, and those who owe wine to us; of the hay, firewood, torches, planks, and other kinds of lumber of the waste lands; of the vegetables and millet; of the wool, flax, and hemp; of the fruits of the trees, of the nut trees, larger and smaller; of the grafted trees of all kinds, of the gardens, of the turnips; of the fish-ponds, of the hides, skins, and horns; of the honey and wax.... They shall make all these known to us, set forth separately and in order, at Christmas, so that we may know how much of each thing we have.... Each steward shall have in his district good workmen -- namely, blacksmiths, a goldsmith, a silversmith, shoe-makers, turners, carpenters, sword-makers, fishermen, soap-makers, men who know how to make beer, cider, and perry, and other kinds of liquor good to drink, bakers to make pastry for our table, net-makers who know how to make nets for hunting and fishing; and other sorts of workmen too numerous to be named."
The details of this document remind us of the Great Survey of the English manors recorded in Domesday Book by William the Conqueror's directions, more than two centuries later.
When Charlemagne died (814) his unwieldy empire broke up. Gradually France and Germany became separate, and were taking roughly the geographical position they have today. Between them there was a large middle-land; stretching from the North Sea to the Alps, the struggle for which has troubled the peoples of Europe all through the ages, especially France and Germany; and Alsace-Lorraine, which figured in the recent great World War, was a part of this middle-land.
The crown of the Holy Roman Empire passed to a German prince, Otto the Great (962). Germany was to suffer for centuries for its close and troubled relations with Italy and Rome. Indeed, neither Italy nor Germany became nations till the nineteenth century, whereas France and England were soon to pass out of all connection with the Holy Roman Empire along the path to nationhood.
“Our duty as Christians is always to keep heaven in our eye and the earth under our feet.”
–Matthew Henry, Commentary, Genesis 1