Early medieval history

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Frank Kingdom - introduction to feudalism

Gregory of Tours The History of the Franks.


Dynasties of France.


Because of central location of France, reading the history of France is a quite good way to learn the history o Western Europe. Personally I prefer “The history of France”, Perroy, Doucet, Latreille. (But it sometimes lacks important information about institutional reforms and introduced laws.)

See also History of France from Wikipedia.


In early VIth century German tribe of Franks united large part of the Western Europe. Under the Merowing dynasty (shortly called Merowings) they first conquered Northern France and Aquitaine (first Merowing king Clovis or Chlodwig), then his descendants conquered Southern France (ex. Burgundy) and large part of Western Germany. Here are a few basic reasons for success of Franks under the Merowing dynasty:

· Frank kingdom were middle-income state between half-barbarian territories of Germany and rich lands of Spain, Southern Gallia and Italy, therefore was not so intensively plundered as richer regions of former Roman Empire and thus the process of rebirth and military expansion started in Northern France earlier, when kingdoms of south were still in the phase of decline.

· Merowings were Catholics where Germanic rulers of southern kingdoms were Arians Christians (christianized by Arian missionaries before the fall of Rome) and thus were in conflict with old Roman (Catholic) noble elites. (Except Spain where Visigoths quickly melted with local inhabitants.) Therefore Franks could ally with Roman nobles and conquer southern kingdoms with ease. Sometimes such coincidences have a great importance in history.

Advantage of middle-income and isoquant of production

In economics there is a curve called isoquant of production, which shows what combinations of means of production (ex. capital and labour) give us the same level of production.


Assuming for a moment that costs of capital and labour (prices of one unit) are the same, we can see that when the number of units of capital and labour (means of production) used for production is the same (ex. 20), then average combinations of capital and labour gives us bigger production than non-average combinations (i.e. we reach better isoquant of production). It means 10 peasants cultivating 10 fields are more effective than 1 peasant cultivating 19 fields or 19 peasants cultivating 1 field. In other words: average combinations of means of productions are usually most effective, so in normal conditions middle-income groups of people and middle-income countries are more effective than others (social groups, countries). For example middle-income country can produce army that the best way combines the number of warriors with the quality of their equipment.

Of course there are some assumptions here: similar technology level (the same price for one unit), no law regulations promoting some social groups, no strong protectionist policy in international trade, etc. - therefore some times exceptions from this rule are possible. However the shape of this curve is the consequence of decreasing returns on scale (at some point, further increasing of the number of peasants cultivating a field becomes less and less effective), which are generally the consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, so the law presented here is quite universal.

More about economies of scale.


Wikipedia about Production function.


Wikipedia about Returns to scale.


Wikipedia about Production possibility frontier.


And the second law of thermodynamics.


In the second half of VIth century Frank Kingdom moved into a phase of feudal fragmentation. However Frank Kingdom still had all advantages of middle income country (mentioned above), and lost only some lands - no external enemy was strong enough to be a real treat for the existence of such large kingdom. (There were also other reasons, but this theory like the Theory of Gravity concentrates only on the strongest historic processes, so please forgive me some simplifications).

Merowing kings thinks about the kingdom as their private property, and divided the country between their sons. Moreover, having no money to pay state officials, rulers rewarded them with land. When king was strong, he could take off his reward (as today when government dismiss officials), but when ruler was weak, land became the private property of official who evolved into a class of feudals. Those feudals usually did the same as monarch, fragmenting country even further - and it was first of the processes that created the feudal fief system.

When king (or their feudal seigneur - land owner that was higher in hierarchy) was weak officials, and local land owners (like the Church) get immunities - they took over administrational, tax and court competencies of monarch in their domain (i.e. flef).

On the other hand, small land owners (farmers, poorer warriors) need some safety in times of continuous feudal wars and robbery raids, so they searched the protection of richer feudals. Times were so hard that many small land owners pass on tenures of their land to more powerful land owners only to get their protection. This way farmers became peasants, who had to pay for the privilege of cultivating their fields - this was the second process that created the feudal fief system.

The Church, which had educated personnel, developed more sophisticated system of such agreements called precarium (in three basic flavors: data, oblata and renumeratioria).


See also Wikipedia article about feudal system.

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