Bastard Feudalism

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  • The Past and Present Society

    Bastard Feudalism RevisedAuthor(s): P. R. CossReviewed work(s):Source: Past & Present, No. 125 (Nov., 1989), pp. 27-64Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 23/01/2012 19:41

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  • BASTARD FEUDALISM REVISED* The term "bastard feudalism" may have been coined by Charles Plummer, but the concept as it is generally understood today is very largely the creation of K. B. McFarlane. Hence any reconsideration of its value must proceed via the seminal essay of 1945 in which he argued for the retention of the adjective "bastard", not in the sense of"misbegotten, debased, corrupted, degenerate", but as "having the appearance of, somewhat resembling". Thus "bastard feudalism" was to be utilized as a "label to describe the society which was emerging from feudalism in the early part of the fourteenth century, when most if not all its ancient features survived, even though in many cases as weak shadows of themselves, but when the tenurial bond between lord and vassal had been superseded as the primary social tie by the personal contract between master and man". During the two centuries which followed the death of Edward I "the new order of patronage, liveries and affinities occupied the front of the stage . . . with an epilogue which far outran medieval times. It is this new order that we call 'bastard feudalism'. Its quintessence was payment for service". l

    For McFarlane, then, the heart of bastard feudalism was the replacement of the tenurial relationship by the cash nexus. All other features of its social order flowed from this or were inherited from the parent form. The new contract relationships were enshrined in a new diplomatic; its characteristic instruments were the indenture of retainer and the letter patent, creating not hereditary tenants but feed retainers (generally for life) and pensioners for a term of years.2 Despite having initial doubts in some areas, and while acknowledging

    * I would like to thank Simon Lloyd for his kindness in reading a draft of this essay and for suggesting numerous improvements.

    ' K. B. McFarlane, "Bastard Feudalism", Bull. Inst. Hist. Research, xx (1945), pp. 161-80; repr. in England in the Fifteenth Century: Collected Essays of K. B. McFarlane, introd. G. L. Harriss (London, 1981), pp. 23-43. All citations are to the latter.

    2"There thus came into existence between a great lord and those who actually cultivated his estates a class of pensioners resembling the mesne tenants of the old feudalism. By this method many who had no tenurial connection with their patron were at least given a territorial one". "Over and above his indentured retinue (the hard core as it were of his affinity), a great man therefore was the patron and paymaster of a swarm of hangers-on, both men and women, not bound to do him exclusive service but in receipt of his bounty in ways both more and less permanent" (ibid., pp. 29-30).


    that the "bond which kept these masters and men together was not a sealed parchment but a calculation of mutual advantage to which that document bore witness", McFarlane tended to agree with N. B. Lewis that the indenture system had "a steadying influence in a society where old institutional loyalties were breaking down".3 Per- fectly aware of the evils which persisted within the bastard feudal order, primarily the abuse of livery and maintenance, he none the less held to the view that these were not themselves a prime cause of disorder and that this society was no more disordered than the feudal order which preceded it.4 As far as political consequences were concerned, he declined to accept the view that bastard feudalism was to blame for defects of government or for the Wars of the Roses. These were the results of the failures of kingship. Only an under- mighty king need fear an over-mighty subject, in that most famous retort.5 It was, in part at least, as a reaction against older and cruder formulations about the nature of, and motivation for, later medieval conflicts, that McFarlane developed a somewhat roseate picture of that society in general, and of its aristocracy in particular.6

    McFarlane's formulation has proved remarkably enduring. As J. G. Bellamy has recently said, "The quality of the debate engen- dered, and the incontrovertible fact that so many aspects of late- medieval English life were intertwined with bastard feudalism . . . has produced over the last thirty years a cohesiveness in investigation and a level of academic writing which can be regarded as a particularly creditable episode in English historical scholarship".7 What is particu- larly striking is the degree of unanimity which has been expressed. For this several reasons might be adduced, but the most important are, assuredly, the force and coherence of McFarlane's vision and "the seminal quality of his insights".8 He was, indeed, a great pioneer. In his perceptive introduction to McFarlane's collected essays, G. L. Harriss demonstrates not only how McFarlane continued to refine

    3 Ibid., pp. 36, 39; N. B. Lewis, "The Organisation of Indentured Retinues in Fourteenth-Century England', Trans. Roy. Hist. Soc., 4th ser., xxvii (1945), p. 39.

    4 "Maintenance was after all no novelty. The novelty lay in its being talked about, denounced and legislated against. It was in fact being measured by men with a higher conception of public order": McFarlane, "Bastard Feudalism", p. 42.

    5 K. B. McFarlane, "The Wars of the Roses", Proc. Brit. Acad., 1(1964); repr. in England in the Fifteenth Century, introd. Harriss, p. 238.

    6 For the influences upon McFarlane, see the introduction by J. P. Cooper to K. B. McFarlane, The Nobility of Later Medieval England (Oxford, 1973).

    7 J. G. Bellamy, Bastard Feudalism and the Law (London, 1989), p. 3. In what follows I am particularly indebted to this most useful work.

    8 England in the Fifteenth Century, introd. Harriss, p. ix.


    and develop his views right up to his death, but also the extent of his influence upon the current state of the art, as it were. Some of his less firmly held hypotheses subsequently proved untenable, but the overall interpretation of later medieval society which he offered has not been dented; on the contrary, it has been much strengthened.

    Much of the subsequent research has concentrated on how this social order actually functioned; upon the constitution and articu- lation of the affinity, for example.9 As far as magnate power is concerned, it has become clearer than ever that the prime concern lay with the maintenance of control within the great lord's own "inheritance" and within his own "country", and that his interest in the centre was most often in furtherance of this. As far as the members of the gentry are concerned, they were drawn into the affinities in search of patronage and protection. The strong majority verdict is that indenture and affinity were forces for cohesion, the society itself essentially stable. The perversion of justice and the parading of retainers remain undeniable features of that society, but they were not the fault of the institutions of bastard feudalism themselves. To McFarlane's own emphases in explaining the tendency to disorder and political conflict which was sometimes manifested-royal inad- equacy, higher expectations, better survival of records there has been added a growing emphasis upon the inadequacies of the law itself and of the legal system. The burgeoning interest in arbitration has stressed not only the potentially stabilizing factor of magnate regulation of disputes, but increasingly its role in compensating for the failure of the common-law courts themselves and indeed in effectively supplementing them. 10 Problems with livery and mainten- ance certainly occurred, and contemporaries were outraged when the system was abused; but these (it is averred) were not the fault of the system itself.

    To a large extent the discussion here has been conducted within the parameters which McFarlane himself determined. Thus, for example, the question of whether this era was more unstable, more criminous than its predecessor has remained a vital question, some- times in the forefront but more often in the background. The heavy

    9 Among the best-known studies are C. Carpenter, "The Beauchamp Affinity: A Study of Bastard Feudalism at Work", Eng. Hist. Rev., xcv (1980); M. Cherry, "The Courtenay Earls of Devon: The Formation and Disintegration of a Late Medieval Aristocratic Affinity", Southern Hist., i (1979). Studies on and around the subject of bastard feudalism are by now legion. I hope scholars will forgive me if I am sparing n my c1tatlons.

    10 See below, pp. 55-6, nn. 89, 93.


    concentration on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries has been retained, indeed deepened) with an occasional backwards glance into the thirteenth century and beyond, either in continued pursuit of the last point or with an eye to antecedents. There have, of course,