Feudal Transformations VIII: two ways of confusing the issue

Back to the Spoleto volume once more! Bracketing the clutch of papers I just mentioned are two by Hans-Werner Goetz and Patricia Skinner.1 Goetz is putting the case of East Francia under the Carolingians, and Skinner is dealing with Southern Italy before and under the Normans. Neither of these two plays the conventional game that the papers discussed before were playing, but the ways in which they differ from it are themselves so huge that it’s really striking.

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sister St Matilda, from Wikimedia Commons

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sistermother St Matilda, from Wikimedia Commons

(By the way, since I drafted this and found that image in my stash, Gabriele at the Lost Fort has posted a series of far better ones and some introduction to Quedlinburg’s importance and history, so once you’ve read this, go and have a look. Hoi! I said once you… Oh well, anyway.)

Because of Karl-Ferdinand Werner and a Spanish scholar called Carlos de Ayala Martínez, Goetz’s article is not the longest paper I have ever had to read. All the same, sixty pages of very theoretical German historiography, my first German for a while, took me a long time to get through. He must have expanded what he said at the conference a very great deal, as he presumably had no longer to speak than anyone else and all their contributions, even François Menant’s which is seriously mostly footnotes, come in at between thirty and forty pages.2 So, what does it do? Goetz is tangling with the fact that really not a lot has been written about East Francia before the Ottonians.3 In looking into the gap, he takes a historiographical stereotype of the feudal transformation in Germany, which as he points out (and others, most notably Tim Reuter, whom many of us miss, have also pointed out in English) is a rather different, more state-guided and controlled affair than in parts West, which acquires a legalistic form which underpins a number of the stereotypes that Reynolds took to task in Fiefs and Vassals.4 (He doesn’t cite Reynolds or Brown, but then he is sort of on their side.) This leads him into much musing on what people have said about whether East Francia, whose shape was rarely the same for twenty years together, whose capital shifted, and which, his developing argument reveals, was changing the way its government operated over the period, was any kind of state, as well the larger metadebate about whether the state as defined by Weber, with its claimed monopoly of legitimate force, can ever be seen in the Middle Ages and if not, what terms or definitions can be used instead. This is, incidentally, another field where Professor Reynolds has been busy, but anyway, you can see where Goetz’s wordcount is coming from.5

By the end he has drawn out several long strands of the feudal state as it is conceived of for the later period, Ottonians or Salians, and stressed in each case that antecedents of some of its characteristics can be found in the Carolingian predecessor quasi-state. The message is that it really isn’t as simple as the scholarship has made it, because these elements which later form part of the ‘feudal imaginary’ as we imagine it often occurred there in contexts which are not, or not yet, feudal. I would have to go back into the text for examples, but that’s his basic attack; our definition of ‘feudal’ needs an awful lot of looking at before it will deal with this extensive but partial prefiguring. He is basically digging a big and obvious ditch in front of anyone who wants to argue that the Ottonians and Salians built their states on a new style of political relations that could be called feudal, rather than on a selective and evolving inheritance from the Carolingians and their idea of rule, but he does so very carefully, politely and with incredible breadth of citation.

But, apart from Reynolds and Brown, do you know what’s basically missing from the citation? Primary sources. This is an almost entirely historiographical paper. Of course if he’d had to prove every point from the sources rather than by regula magistri (or really, given whom he’s citing, regula collegarum) the paper would have been even longer, but it is also a stylistic choice tat places him in a tradition. He is basically doing a nuanced and subtle form of the old Verfassungsgeschichte, plotting the formation of the state. He is willing to consider jumps, skips, and “the possibility of a discontinuous evolution” but it’s basically ‘what makes this polity work and how does that change’? As such it’s a very odd, to this non-German anyway, mix of new thinking and old learning, and to get through the sixty pages only to find that the conclusion was, more or less, “seriously, guys, it’s all really complicated!” was something of an anticlimax.

The cathedral of San Cataldo in Palermo, from Wikimedia Commons

The cathedral of San Cataldo in Palermo, from Wikimedia Commons

Compared to this, and to the four thick papers already discussed that lie between Goetz’s and hers, Skinner’s paper is a real breath of fresh air. It does deal with the historiography, including both Brown and Reynolds, and does due deference to the conference theme by giving some account of the way in which Sicily and Southern Italy have been made to take a part in this big meta-narrative of feudalisation. It does this in a very few pages, though, sorting it clearly into themes, and then goes about much the same feat as Goetz, showing that the real picture was far far messier than that, but she does it Jarrett-style (I suppose, rather, I do it Skinner style, but I have read very little of her work; I’m familiar with quite a lot by people she came up with such as Jinty Nelson who would probably approach it the same way, though), by adducing example after example from bulging charter archives and showing that some places in Italy fit better than others, that the Normans didn’t necessarily bring a clean slate of feudal rule but kept whatever worked in their takeover areas, and that again, it’s all much more complicated. But where Goetz appears to be arguing for a new and better version of the main theory that will somehow take account of all that variation, Skinner is saying that there’s just too much of it, and that a better approach would be to throw out this silly expectation we seem to have that places can be made to fit and that there is a path they should have been on, and instead study what was actually going on in each area and see how many units of what size this makes, and thus we can make something a bit more meaningful of the way that the Normans manage to build a kingdom that runs more or less as a unit out of this variety and what that means in its political and social context. I like this approach a lot better, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

The kind of stuff she throws up as evidence for the variety all seems very like home to me though. She has the same kind of frontier all-to-play-for conditions in her material as I do in mine, and the same sense of Islam-only-just-over-there motivating the warrior class too maybe. I already found Sicily really interesting for its mixture of cultures, in just the sort of edge situation that first interested me in Catalonia, and I think this paper has indicated to me that when I have models I want to test somewhere else, which is my ultimate aim for now, Southern Italy is probably where I should start by testing them. And you know, Sicily looks nice to visit :-) It’s nice to have some long-term aims…

A tombstone of a Norman noblewoman in Palermo, lettered in all of Latin, Greek and Arabic, from Wikimedia Commons

A tombstone of a Norman noblewoman in Palermo, lettered in all of Latin, Greek and Arabic, from Wikimedia Commons


1. Hans-Werner Goetz, “Staatlichkeit, Herrschaftsordnung und Lehnswesen im Ostfräkischen Reich als Forschungsprobleme” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 85-143 with discussion pp. 145-147, & Patricia Skinner, “When was Southern Italy « feudal »?”, ibid. pp. 309-340 with discussion pp. 341-345.

2. François Menant, “La féodalité italienne entre XIe et XIIe siècles”, ibid. pp. 347-383 with discussion pp. 385-387.

3. Though you could start with the coverage in Timothy Reuter, Germany in the Early Middle Ages 800-1050 (London 1991) and you’d have as good a grounding as there is in English I think.

4. Idem, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195.

5. Susan Reynolds, “The idea of the nation as a political community” in Len Scales & Oliver Zimmer (eds), Power and the nation in European history (Cambridge 2005), pp. 54-66.

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5 responses to “Feudal Transformations VIII: two ways of confusing the issue

  1. shorter version:

    Germany =/= France.

    :-)

  2. Ah, but obviously all the Meridional countries are comparable anyway, right? Right? Come on, the weather’s so much more propitious for holid^H^H^H^Historical enquiry :-)

  3. Pingback: Book bit bullets III « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. OK, a moment of annoying pedantry: I thought Saint Matilda was Otto I’s mother, not his sister. On a happier note, I am impressed (and intrigued) by your very idiomatic French in the “la bêche intellectuelle de Michel Bur” in another Feudal Transformation post.

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