When is a fief not a fief? When it’s a fisc (Feudal Transformations IX)

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

If we’re looking at feudalism, and I’m afraid we still are, I think I’ve said by now that the meaning of that term that I find most plausible out of the several possible ones is that one that sticks to the etymology, and deals with the relations of lords and their followers who do service for a temporary grant of land under terms: feudo-vassalic relations, as some call it to disambiguate it from the other senses of ‘feudalism’.1 Because we’re working, ultimately, from the Latin feodum, or sometimes feudum, which becomes in English ‘fee’ and, via French, ‘fief’. And in the Oxford English Dictionary, firstly those two entries crosslink in the online version, but secondly the definition is:



noun 1 historical an estate of land held on condition of feudal service. 2 a person’s sphere of operation or control.

– DERIVATIVES fiefdom noun.

– ORIGIN Old French, variant of feu “fee”.

A bit circular, but clear enough. But is that what it means in the documents? Sometimes, alas, no; it’s not as simple as indexing uses of feodum and seeing how they rise or fall (even if you had the kind of sample or statistical significance measurement that would make such an exercise meaningful). Feodum doesn’t really crop up much before the ninth century, and when it does occur then it actually means ‘a supporting allotment of public land, or the revenues from it’, so for example, a fiscal castle will have an associated feodum which provides its upkeep.2 In this element it’s really quite like fiscum, which doesn’t quite mean the institution of the fisc, the landstock of the public power, as we read it now, but its individual portions. So that castle might just as well have a fisc, and some Catalan documents actually use the two words as equivalents, “fiscis sive feodis”.3

Certainly, use of the term feodum goes up and up in the eleventh century. And if you’re Dominique Barthélemy (which, after all I’ve said about him here, I kind of hope you’re not), you emphasise that the two words have been associated for a long long time and that you can’t be sure what’s meant when a fief turns up, and deny the whole transformation because you’ve spent years taking the model apart in detail in different places.4 On the other hand, if you’re Thomas Bisson, you perhaps generally prefer not to sacrifice the big picture by getting bogged down in that detail, and like to try and show that big things are genuinely changing, and that does at least make a better story.5 But if you do it by simply counting the use of the word feodum without ever considering its ambiguity or the sample size of the documents, you don’t necessarily carry me with you… 6

It’s not that his Spoleto article here isn’t interesting, or even valid. The contrast he draws between Flanders, where a public power remains in control of the new feudal arrangements of military service, and where they don’t therefore lead to a total collapse such as Catalonia suffers, between Provence where it does all go a bit wrong because there’s no overall power that can bring it back into order, even a feudal order, and between Occitania where there isn’t even too much trouble but where the feudo-vassalic structure nonetheless becomes the overriding social structure, is interesting, and deserves more investigation, though by someone else as it goes too late for me. But without some deeper investigation of how the words is used in these very different areas, I don’t necessarily think we’re comparing like with like, and we certainly can’t really quantify these supposed fiefs.

1. You can find this usage defended in Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42.

2. So, for example, in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas: Escuela de Estudios Medievales, Textos XVIII, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona no. 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 159.

3. Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208 at pp. 203-204, including a 1003 document from Sant Pere de Besalú which confers revenues, “ex censali publico, quod vulgum feum nominat… “; Dominique Barthélemy, “Autor d’un récit de pactes (« Conventum Hugonis »): La seigneurie châtelaine et le féodalisme, en France au XIe siècle” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 447-489 with discussion 491-495, at p. 458 where he cites Marc Bloch, “Questions féodales” in Annales d’Histoire Économique et Sociale Vol. 10 (Paris 1938) at p. 174 & idem, “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

4 Classically, Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; in English, idem “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (1996), pp. 196-205; idem, “The Year 1000 Without Abrupt or Radical Transformation”, eds & transl. Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein, rev. Barthélemy, in Little & Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 134-147; and, most relevantly, Barthélemy, “Autour d’un récit de pactes”.

5 Bisson, “Feudal Revolution”; idem, Tormented Voices: power, crisis, and humanity in rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 (Cambridge MA 1998).

6. Bisson, “Lordship and Tenurial Dependence in Flanders, Provence and Occitania (1050-1200)” in Feudalesimo, I pp. 389-439 with discussion pp. 441-446, including a lengthy critique from Barthélemy which however goes for him on a subjective basis about how serious disorder was, allowing Bisson to simply restate his own view, rather than this point where he’s actually weak.

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3 responses to “When is a fief not a fief? When it’s a fisc (Feudal Transformations IX)

  1. Pingback: The fisc: cheap at the price? « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Feudal Transformations XIII: proving a negative with power relations in Catalonia « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Charter-hacking II, From the Sources VIII, Feudal Transformations XVI: scribes who take us through the mutation documentaire | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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