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In the centuries under review in this chapter the self-sufficient manor, the feudal aristocracy, and the cultural isolation of Europe fell before the forces of economic change. In much the same way and for many of the same reasons the political institutions and practices of feudalism succumbed to the joint attacks or monarchs and the middle class. Even in its day of glory feudalism had within itself certain weaknesses. It had never been able to maintain more than a modicum of order, and indeed under the chivalric code the proper occupation of the knight was warfare. To the interminable civil strife that persisted were added such larger wars as the Crusades, and both sapped baronial families of men and treasure. The feudal nobility sold privileges to their tenants and disposed of land to pay ransom or buy passage to the Holy Land at the same time that monarchs were introducing taxation and tightening the royal hold on government. Furthermore, used to the near anarchy of feudal life and required to devote nearly all of their time and attention to the management and defense of their estates, the barons could engage only spasmodically in attempts to control the royal government. As the royal power grew in scope and became more complex in the hands of professional civil servants, the nobles were in an increasingly unfavorable position to check it. Finally, the prestige which the feudal polity always accorded the crown put baronial dissidents at a disadvantage in a custom-conscious age. [excerpt]


This is a part of Section V: The Rise of Capitalism and the National State to 1500. The Contemporary Civilization page lists all additional sections of Ideas and Institutions of Western Man, as well as the Table of Contents for both volumes.

More About Contemporary Civilization:

From 1947 through 1969, all first-year Gettysburg College students took a two-semester course called Contemporary Civilization. The course was developed at President Henry W.A. Hanson’s request with the goal of “introducing the student to the backgrounds of contemporary social problems through the major concepts, ideals, hopes and motivations of western culture since the Middle Ages.”

Gettysburg College professors from the history, philosophy, and religion departments developed a textbook for the course. The first edition, published in 1955, was called An Introduction to Contemporary Civilization and Its Problems. A second edition, retitled Ideas and Institutions of Western Man, was published in 1958 and 1960. It is this second edition that we include here. The copy we digitized is from the Gary T. Hawbaker ’66 Collection and the marginalia are his.