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Monday, July 14, 2014

French Revolution: End of Feudalism

Feudalism in Europe originated after the fall of the Roman Empire. After passing through different historical processes, it developed its unique character and formulated a culture that dominated the European society for centuries to come.

Feudalism in France had a different history and culture. French society was divided into three estates with the nobility or feudal lords being the first, the clergy second; followed by the rest of the people.

To show their power and riches, the nobility built chateaux and castles on their landed property where they resided along with their family, retinue and domestic help. They belonged to the privileged class, enjoyed a high status in the society and were exempted from taxation. In the church, they sat on special seats separate from the commoners.

The peasants were regarded as their subjects and had to pay a number of taxes to the nobility. If they baked bread in the lord’s oven or pressed wine from his brewery, they had to pay a certain amount of money to the lord for using these services. Moreover, they were obliged to work on his land three days in a week without payment. As a result, they were reduced to poverty while the landlords accumulated wealth and spent it lavishly on their own comfort and luxury.

While the feudal system dominates our politics, culture and society, we still live in medieval times
Time and again, the French peasants revolted against these injustices, but the rebellions were crushed because the peasants did not have weapons and military training to fight against the professional and well-equipped army.

Louis XIV, the most powerful ruler of France who succeeded to the throne in 1638 weakened the power of the feudal lords by asking them to live at the court of Versailles, where he kept an eye on them and reduced their influence on their estates. At Versailles, they had to spend a lot of money to maintain their high standard of living. Instead of opting for lesser luxury, they began to extract more money from the peasants who remained in perpetual debt.

The outbreak of the French Revolution changed the entire political and social condition of France. On July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob attacked the fortress of Bastille and demolished it and marked the beginning of the revolution. The news of the fall of Bastille reached the countryside which electrified the peasants who, encouraged by this act, decided to take advantage and revolted against their landlords. They raided the chateaux, burned the documents of their dues as well as the property of their landlords. They scorned and humiliated them, while some of them were dragged and abused for their misdeeds. The clergy were not spared either since they were also a privileged class and possessed agricultural land.

By the time, the news of the peasants’ rebellion reached Paris, many important events had already occurred to further deteriorate the order set by the ruling classes. While a session of the national assembly was in progress, an angry mob stormed the galleries of the assembly in Paris to watch its proceedings.

Fearing the mob and pressurised by the peasants’ destructive activities in the countryside, a member of the national assembly was forced to take a radical decision on Aug 4, 1789 and others followed him. One by one, members of the nobility stood up and announced the surrender of their privileges and dues owed to their peasants. It was a spectacular scene where the nobility abolished feudalism voluntarily.

A member expressed his sympathy to the peasants and lamented their poverty. He requested his fellows not to treat them as drafted animals but as human beings. Some of the nobles disagreed with the proceedings and asked the members to stop but such was the enthusiasm of the deputies that they continued the session for the whole night and passed the decrees to abolish feudalism.

Initially, the king refused to sign the documents saying that he would not allow the nobility or clergy to be destroyed but in the end, he succumbed to the pressure of the mob and signed his approval. This is how feudalism came to an end in France and as a result, society evolved on the basis of equality.

Although feudalism in Pakistan has changed its character, it is still politically, socially and culturally dominant. All efforts of land reforms have failed and feudalism remains unchanged in Sindh and southern Punjab, where most of the feudal lords claiming to be be descendants of the Sufi saints have inherited spiritual power; which is a great hindrance in the development of the society.

There is no hope that these feudal lords will realise the changing situation globally which has no space for the redundant institution of feudalism. It has become outdated and lost its utility. Only when feudalism is abolished, talented people will emerge and contribute to the development of society. If it is not done voluntarily, perhaps violence would come in the end to eliminate it.
Mubarak Ali - dawn.com