Harriet Martineau
How to Observe

The baron lives in his castle, on a rock or some other eminence, whence he can overlook his domains, or where his ancestor reared his abode for purposes of safety. During this stage of society there is little domestic refinement and comfort. The furniture is coarse; the library is not tempting; and the luxurious ease of cities is out of the question. The pleasures of the owner lie abroad. There he devotes himself to rough sports, and enjoys his darling luxury, the exercise of power. Within the dwelling the wife and her attendants spend their lives in handiworks, in playing with the children and keeping them in order, in endless conversation on the few events which come under their notice, and in obedience to and companionship with the priest. While the master is hunting, or gathering together his retainers for the feast, the women are spinning or sewing, gossiping, confessing, or doing penance; while the priest studies in his apartment, shares in the mirth, or soothes the troubles of the household, and rules the mind of the noble by securing the confidence of his wife. Out of doors, there are the retainers, by whatever name they may be called. Their poor dwellings are crowded round the castle of the lord; their patches of arable land lie nearest, and the pastures beyond; that, at least, the supply of human food may be secured from any enemy. These portions of land are held on a tenure of service; and, as the retainers have no property in them, and no interest in their improvement, and are, moreover, liable to be called away from their tillage at any moment, to perform military or other service, the soil yields sorry harvests, and the lean cattle are not very ornamental to the pastures. The wives of the peasantry are often left, at an hour's warning, in the unprotected charge of their half-clothed and untaught children, as well as of the cattle and the field. The festivals of the people are on holy days, and on the return of the chief from war, or from a pre-eminent chase.

Now, what must be the morals of such a district as this? And, it may be added, of the whole country of which it forms a part? For, if there be one feudal settlement of the kind, there must be more; and the society is in fact made up of a certain number of complete sets of persons—of establishments like this. There is no need to go back some centuries for an original to the picture: it exists in more than one country in Europe now.

This kind of society is composed of two classes only; those who have something, and those who have nothing. The chief has property, some knowledge, and great power. With individual differences, the chiefs may be expected to be imperious, from their liberty and indulgence of will; brave, from their exposure to toil and danger; contemptuous of men, from their own supremacy; superstitious, from the influence of the priest in the household; lavish, from the permanency of their property; vain of rank and personal distinction, from the absence of pursuits unconnected with self; and hospitable, partly from the same cause, and partly from their own hospitality being the only means of gratifying their social dispositions.

The clergy will be politic, subservient, studious, or indolent, kind-hearted, effeminate, with a strong tendency to spiritual pride, and love of spiritual dominion. It will be surprising, too, if they are not driven into infidelity
by the credulity of their pupils.

The women will be ignorant and superstitious, for want of varied instruction; brave, from the frequent presence or promise of danger; efficient, from the small division of labour which is practicable in the superintendence of such a family; given to gossip and uncertainty of temper, from the sameness of their lives; devoted to their husbands and children, from the absence of all other important objects; and vain of such accomplishments as they have, from an ignorance of what remains to be achieved.

The retainers must be ignorant—physically strong and imposing, perhaps, but infants in mind, and slaves in morals. Their worship is idolatry—of their chief. The virtues permitted to them are fidelity, industry, domestic attachment, and sobriety. It is difficult to see what others are possible. Their faults are all comprehended in the word barbarism.

These characteristics may be extended to the divisions of the nation corresponding to those of the household: for the sovereign is only a higher feudal chief: his nobles are a more exalted sort of serfs; and those who are masters at home become slaves at court. Under this system, who would be so hardy as to treat brutality in a serf, cunning in a priest, prejudice in a lady, and imperiousness in a lord, as any tiling but the results—inevitable as mournful—of the state of society? Feudalism is founded upon physical force, and therefore bears a relation to the past alone. Right begins in might, and all the social relations of men have originated in physical superiority. The most prevalent ideas of the feudal period arise out of the past; what has been longest honoured is held most honourable; and the understanding of men, unexercised by learning, and undisciplined by society and political action, falls back upon precedent, and reposes there. The tastes, and even the passions, of the feudal period bear a relation to antiquity. Ambition, prospective as it is in its very nature, has, in this case, a strong retrospective character. The glory that the descendant derives from his fathers, he burns to transmit. The past is everything: the future, except in as far as it may resemble the past, is nothing.

Such, with modifications, have been the prevalent ideas, tastes, and passions of the civilized world, till lately. The opposite state of society, which has begun to be realized, occasions prevalent ideas, and therefore prevalent virtues and vices, of an opposite character.

As commerce enlarges, as other professions besides the clerical arise, as trades become profitable, as cities swell in importance, as communication improves, raising villages into towns, and hamlets into villages, and the affairs of central communities become spread through the circumference, the lower classes rise, the chiefs lose much of their importance, the value of men for their intrinsic qualifications is discovered, and such men take the lead in managing the affairs of associated citizens. Instead of all being done by orders issued from a central power—commands carrying forth an imperious will, and bringing back undoubting obedience—social affairs begin to be managed by the heads and hands of the parties immediately interested. Self-government in municipal affairs takes place; and, having taken place in any one set of circumstances, it appears likely to be employed within a wider and a wider range, till all the government of the community is of that character. The United States are the most remarkable examples now before the world of the reverse of the feudal system—its principles, its methods, its virtues and vices. In as far as the Americans revert, in ideas and tastes, to the past, this may be attributed to the transition being not yet perfected—to the generation which organized the republic having been educated amidst the remains of feudalism. There are still Americans who boast of ancestors high in the order of birth rather than of merit; who in talking of rank have ideas of birth in their minds, and whose tastes lie in the past. But such will be the case while the literature of the world breathes the spirit of former ages, and softens the transition to an opposite social state. A new literature, new modes of thought, are daily arising, which point more and more towards the future. We have already records of the immediate state of the minds and fortunes of men and of communities, and not a few speculations which stretch far forward into the future. Every year is the admission more extensively entered into that moral power is nobler than physical force; there is more earnestness in the conferences of nations, and less proneness to war.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.