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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 21.djvu/487

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473
THE BOOK-MEN.

like. Even in our time vestiges of the like belief exist among us, but then it was universal and denied by none, whether prince, priest, or populace. There is no parallel to this state of things in modern times, except in the interior towns of Africa.

It was then universally conceded that the nobles were men of a superior race; that their blood was different and purer than that of other men. All the land belonged to them. No one doubted their title. The population of every barony considered the baron as their rightful master, holding his authority from God himself. It was next to sacrilege to disobey him. Yet these barons were brutal, extortionate, and cruel. They were constantly at war with each other, and therefore lived in fortified castles, whence they now and then sallied to levy contributions among their own serfs, rob passengers and caravans on the highway, or plunder and* burn the property or massacre the people of neighboring fiefs. They had the right of life and death over their vassals. These could not marry or travel without their permission. The maidens of the baronies were obliged to gratify the lusts of the baron whenever he took a fancy to any of them; and this, so far from being considered as an act of outrageous despotism, was generally accepted as an honor conferred. No Turkish pasha or Russian boiar holds now greater power than the feudal lords possessed and abused during the middle ages. They exacted and took the first, the largest, and the best products of the labor of the people; and none (not even those who were the victims of unscrupulous tithes, tribute, and pillage) ever suspected that the nobles exceeded their divine and rightful privileges. The people, when robbed, or put to the rack, might think their lord was a hard and cruel master; but his right to do as he pleased was to every mind unquestionable.

The laws which then existed (if indeed the name of law could be justly applied to such an ordination of society) were only such as were calculated to maintain the power and fortune of the tyrants we have just described. Murder was punished only when the culprit was a villain, or a man of inferior rank to that of his victim; and then the punishment was graded, so that the murder of a noble or priest by a villain or inferior was avenged by the most revolting and agonizing tortures and death, while, if on the contrary the victim was a villain and the homicide a nobleman, a few pence was the price of blood. Trials there were none worthy of the name. They tested the guilt or innocence of those who were suspected of offenses by various superstitious practices, such for instance as making the supposed offender walk over red-hot plowshares. If he got burned he was guilty, if he passed over unscathed he was innocent. The favorite mode of deciding causes before the courts was the trial by battle. The parties were made to fight it out, but not always with equal arms. The villains were permitted only to wield the club, while the gentry entered the lists sword in hand, clothed in armor and on horseback.