Montesquieu

What gave the notion of a gene­ral sta­tute made in the time of the conquest is that a pro­di­gious num­ber of ser­vi­tu­des were seen in France toward the begin­ning of the third dynasty ; and as the conti­nual pro­gres­sion which was made with those ser­vi­tu­des had not been noti­ced, in an obs­cure time a gene­ral law was ima­gi­ned that never was.

At the begin­ning of the first dynasty there were infi­nite num­bers of free men, both among the Franks and among the Romans ; but the num­ber of serfs grew so that at the begin­ning of the third dynasty all the plow­men and almost all the inha­bi­tants of the cities1 were serfs ; and whe­reas at the begin­ning of the first there was approxi­ma­tely the same admi­nis­tra­tion in the cities as among the Romans – bodies of bour­geoi­sie, a senate, courts of judi­ca­ture – about all we find towards the begin­ning of the third is a lord and serfs.

When the Franks, the Burgundians, and the Goths made their inva­sions, they would take the gold, the sil­ver, the fur­ni­ture, the clo­thing, the men, the women, the boys the army could take with it : it was all taken in com­mon and the army divi­ded it up.2 The whole body of his­tory pro­ves that after the ini­tial set­tle­ment, which is to say after the first rava­ges, they accep­ted the inha­bi­tants by agree­ment, and left them with all their poli­ti­cal and civil rights. That was the right of nations of those times : you took eve­ry­thing in war, and gran­ted eve­ry­thing in pea­ce­time. If it had not been so, how would we find in the Salic and Burgundian laws so many pro­vi­sions contra­dic­tory to the gene­ral ser­vi­tude of men ?

But what the conquest did not do, the same right of nations that sub­sis­ted after the conquest did3 : resis­tance, revolt, and the taking of cities brought in their wake the ser­vi­tude of the inha­bi­tants ; and since, besi­des the wars which the dif­fe­rent conque­ring nations waged amongst them­sel­ves, there was that par­ti­cu­la­rity among the Franks, that the various divi­sions of the monar­chy cons­tantly gave rise to civil wars bet­ween bro­thers or nephews, in which this right of nations was always prac­ti­ced, ser­vi­tu­des became more gene­ral in France than in other coun­tries ; and that, I believe, is one of the cau­ses for the dif­fe­rence there is bet­ween our French laws and those of Italy and Spain on the rights of lords.

The conquest was but the mat­ter of a moment, and the right of nations which was applied there pro­du­ced some ser­vi­tu­des. The prac­tice of the same right of nations over seve­ral cen­tu­ries cau­sed the ser­vi­tu­des to be pro­di­giously exten­ded.

Theodoric, belie­ving that the peo­ples of Auvergne were not loyal to him, said to the Franks about his divi­sion : “Follow me : I will lead you to a coun­try where you will have gold, sil­ver, cap­ti­ves, clo­thing, and herds in abun­dance ; and you will trans­fer all the men to your coun­try.”4

After the peace that was made bet­ween Gotram and Chilperic,5 those who were laying siege to Bourges having been orde­red to return, they brought so much booty that they scar­cely left any men or herds in the coun­try.6

I could cite num­ber­less autho­ri­ties7 ; and as in these mis­for­tu­nes the bowels of cha­rity were stir­red ; as seve­ral holy bishops, seeing the cap­ti­ves chai­ned in pairs, used the sil­ver of the chur­ches and even sold holy ves­sels to redeem as many as they could ; many holy monks took part ; it is in the Lives of the Saints8 that we find the best expla­na­tion of this mat­ter. Although we can reproach the authors of these Lives for being some­ti­mes a bit too cre­du­lous about things that God has cer­tainly done, if they were in the order of his desi­gns, still one does not fail to draw great insights from them on the ways and the prac­ti­ces of those times.

When we cast our eyes on the records of our his­tory and our laws, it seems that all is sea, and the seas even want sho­res9 : all these cold, dry, insi­pid, hard wri­tings have to be devou­red, as the fable says that Saturn devou­red the sto­nes.

An infi­nite num­ber of lands that free men were exploi­ting10 chan­ged to poten­tial mort­mains when a coun­try was sud­denly dives­ted of the free men who were living there ; those who had many serfs took or made others cede large ter­ri­to­ries and built vil­la­ges there, as we see in various char­ters. On the other hand, the free men who culti­va­ted the arts tur­ned out to be serfs who were to prac­tice them ; ser­vi­tu­des res­to­red to the arts and to tillage what they had lost.

It was a com­mon prac­tice for owners of land to give it to the chur­ches to lease it back them­sel­ves, thin­king to par­take by their ser­vi­tude of the holi­ness of the chur­ches.

While Gaul was under Roman domination, they constituted separate bodies ; they were usually freed men or descendants of freed men.

See Gregory of Tours, book II, ch. xxvii ; Aimoin, book I, ch. xii.

See Lives of the Saints, above.

Gregory of Tours, book III.

Gregory of Tours, book VI, ch. xxxi.

[In the edition of 1758, this paragraph is followed by Annex 22.]

See Chronicle of Fredegar for the year 600 and its continuation for the year 741. Annales de Fulde, year 739, and Lives of the Saints, cited below.

See the lives of St. Epiphane, St. Eptadius, St. Césaire, St. Fidole, St. Porcien, St. Treverius, St. Eusichius and St. Leger, the miracles of St. Julian, etc.

Deerant quoque littora Ponto. Ovid, book I.

Even the colonists were not all serfs : see laws XVIII and XXIII in Codex, De agricolis censitis vel colonis, and law 20 of the same title.