Currently filling the gaps in my reading when some text I need isn’t available, because for example I’m on a train and the Internet isn’t, is something that arguably I should have read a long time ago, Poly & Bournazel’s The Feudal Transformation.1 Instead I’ve got my head round this literature from the point of view of Pierre Bonnassie’s La Catalogne,2 and by reading the critiques that other people have made of the newer, broader and double-headed work.3 There have been fewer criticisms of Bonnassie’s work because his evidence is so much more tightly focussed; his attempts to generalise out of Catalonia to the rest of France were less successful I think.
In any case, Poly and Bournazel’s work has been easier to attack, and now I’m getting into it I am seeing why. The main thing that strikes me however is not a criticism that I can remember seeing anyone else raise. They describe the phenomena of change that they detect in the material, and for each phenomenon there are a small bushel of examples taken from the extensive `terre et les hommes’ historiography.4 So phenomenon 1 is backed up with evidence from Catalonia, from Provence, from the Auvergne and Picardy; phenomenon 2 is backed up with evidence from Provence, from Mâcon and from Neustria; phenomenon 3 is supported by observations from Brittany, Neustria and Flanders, and so on. And it all looks pretty inarguable, because look, there are examples from everywhere, no? But when you stop and look at this, actually what is being set out is a picture of almost-infinite variations. Why doesn’t phenomenon 3 show up in the Auvergne? Is 2 completely lacking in Catalonia? (And where is Germany in all this, eh?5) None of these areas go through these processes of change in the same way. Every transformation is different, and we need to ask ourselves, even twenty years after this book was written and thirty after Bonnassie’s was, what forces draw these sets of changes together, rather than seeing them as something whose deviations from the `mutationniste’ pattern are what needs explaining.6
1. Jean-Pierre Poly, Eric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200, transl. Caroline Higgitt (New York 1983).
2. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe siècle à la fin du XIe siècle (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols.
3. Probably best accessed still in the debate with Thomas Bisson in Past and Present nos 142, 151 & 155 (1994 & 1995), some of which is online at FindArticles.
4. Gathered in a review article by Thomas Bisson, “‘La Terre et les Hommes': a programme fulfilled?” in French History Vol. 14 (Oxford 1990), pp. 314-325.
5. See Reuter’s article in the debate referenced in n. 3 above.
6. Poly & Bournazel have maintained a fierce debate with one of their sternest critics, Dominique Barthélemy, in the pages of Revue Historique du Droit Français et Étranger, in vols 72 & 73 (1994) and (1995) respectively; full references are provided by a review article by Christian Lauranson-Rosaz online at the Université de Clermont.