How to teach the feudal transformation

This term I have been able to add a new line to my CV by getting involved in some graduate teaching. This came about because Oxford Faculty of History offers a Master of Studies course on Medieval History, and its second term is spent on an Option course and there had been complaints, because all the options available were cultural history. So the person in charge at this point balanced all, brought all to mind etc., and naturally enough lit upon The Amazing Explanation For All Change in the Middle Ages ™!

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

This is a thing that I know at least a little bit about, and so I was happy to be asked to join in. I am in fact convening the course, but that’s misleading as I am the very junior wheel on a vehicle mostly supported by much more senior and knowledgeable colleagues. We have, however—and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to the students here should they find this, alas—had to invent it fairly quickly from scratch, and the result has been a bit various. In particular, the blurb I originally supplied for the Faculty website has turned out not to relate to the classes much. It went like this:

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, European society is often characterised as late-Antique or post-Roman, heading into the supposed Dark Ages; by the end of them, it is the home of the castles, chivalry, trebuchets, Romances and fine gowns that have fuelled the imagination of many a fantasy author and game designer. Since the early 1950s, a body of scholarship has existed that locates the series of changes that took the world from the late Roman to the high medieval periods closely around the year 1000, in a more or less violent and sudden ‘transformation’. Can this have been true? If so, how much, and where? Answering this question has produced almost as many answers as scholars and involves the study of knighthood, popular culture, the economy, castles, royal politics, heresy, reform, the effects of impure LSD (ergot) and a phenomenon that some historians argue never existed, feudalism. This option reopens the questions with a number of case studies and detailed examination of sources in a variety of genres, and encompasses a strongly comparative approach to European history around the year 1000 that will equip students with a critical basis to take on a much wider historical literature.

I mean, that still looks like an awesome course (to me at least), but the talk-up is a bit misleading. I’m pretty sure, for example, that none of us teaching this had time to discuss ergotism or heresy, and I would guess probably not medievalism either, more’s the pity. Instead, we went regional, with introduction and conclusions sessions, and between them sessions on France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Byzantium and England by various people. All of these areas have their own version of the debate about whether there was a rapid change circa 1000 and if so what it changed, and they certainly need comparing, not least because so much of the literature is on France, especially when you’re confined to English-language reading, but I would still like somehow to squeeze that quart into the pint pot and get some of the broader socio-cultural themes into play across the European board. We also used a variety of different class structures: set-piece debates, individual presentations followed by discussion, source-packs for close reading in class,1, and just free discussion of preset material, and that’s just the ones I know about. That seems as if it could either be a strength, being good training and avoiding dullness, or else a whirling confusion of expectations with no clear goals week-to-week; I could see either point of view, but can’t decide between them. It may vary per student and their individual capability.

An Oxford University seminar class in Exeter College

Stock picture of an Oxford seminar in a different faculty. You think History can afford chocolates? And of course I would never let people put bottles down on red baize without coasters!

We will obviously get student feedback and, equally obviously, I am consulting within the teaching group first and foremost, but since I haven’t written for a while it struck me that it might be interesting to ask the people reading this how you might go about working such a course. We have eight classes of two hours each; at the end of it they write an essay of 8,000-10,000 words, and that’s their assessment for the option. Can it be done in this scale? Should we knock stuff out, abandon the regional perspective, fix on a more limited set of teaching methods or mix it up some more? What would you advise? I make no promises about taking your advice, not least because it’s not all my call, but I’m interested in what shape it may take, if you feel like opining? If not, stay tuned, a seminar report should follow this rapidly.


1. This was me, and I didn’t feel it worked very well, not least because I didn’t have translations of the right sources ready and had to use what I had—this much I can fix, of course, and there are improvements I could also make to the instructions. Even so, I’ve yet to make this method deliver as a class. How about you?

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46 responses to “How to teach the feudal transformation

  1. I will be interested too.

  2. Can you re-post this diagram at a higher resolution? Considering the importance of schematic modes of information transmission in the Middle Ages… (sorry, I just can’t deny my art-historical nature)

  3. The evil imp in me wants to say, “You mean you actually want me to tell you how to do a job I know nothing about?” :)

    Er, I guess I did say it – how’d HE get out?

    This is a difficult question. I like the idea of exploring the social/cultural/economic developments but Chris Wickham taught me the value of regionalization in _Framing<_. My personal preference would still be to explore the broader issues while offering cautions that this is an overview and a few examples of how things differed over time and space. I think a good selection of case studies should be able to get that message across even without the caution.

    As for the last part, exciting confusion is far better than structured tedium. Keep 'em engaged and interested. You do that and they'll learn as long as the subject matter isn't completely off base which I know you won't let happen.

    • I suppose it is a slightly strange position you occupy—you’ve read and know more than most of my students ever will in the field, but not had anthing like as much teaching… makes my job look kind of redundant :-) But it wasn’t just you I was asking…

      The close involvement of a certain CJW, meanwhile, is indeed one reason why I think we will not be giving up a regional comparative perspective, but I think that in that case I probably need to rejig the introductory session to include some of the social agendas more explicitly; this time it was basically built around the debate in Past and Present, which is a gift, but only really about violence and castles. The equivalent one in Little and Rosenwein’s Debating the Middle Ages is wider-ranging and should maybe have been something they all read, not just one, but it’s also actually not a debate, just a group of papers. And one would also ideally want something by a millennialist like Richard Landes. At some point the reading becomes unreasonable to ask and one has to scale back down again…

      • Thank you. The lack of a structured, theoretical basis has and continues to bother me. Maybe “bother” is the wrong word but there have been plenty of instances where I’ve said, “This sounds really smart/stupid/right/wrong,” and someone who knows what they’re doing has said, “Well, why don’t you take a look at the evidence this way.”

        For the course it sounds as if you’re doing this anyway but to me it would be easier to learn by looking at the various transformation themes in general based on the how/why/in what way they occurred and then explore how these differed in various regions. Or maybe I’m imposing my own teaching on this, “First you’ll learn the basic principles of corn production and after that we’ll look at the differences in production systems in clay vs sandy soils.” Agronomy ain’t history.

        • As it ran this time, the structure was roughly (1) here’s an argument! (2) here it is in France, (3) in Spain, etc. until (8) so, what do you now think of the argument? I think that now we probably need to set the argument as advance reading and have a new (1) Y’know, there were certainly some big changes going in European society weren’t there? But do these have anything to do with social organisation? And that would be where heresy and chivalry and mercantilism and reform and and and etc. all go in, before we start turning exclusively to castles, lords and peasants. Yup.

          As to the more general point, you are aware that historians themselves don’t agree on any one structured or theoretical basis, right? We’re like the English language, we just steal the bits we like from other theories and run off with them before anyone can say we’re using them wrong…

  4. 1) *Not* that there’s anything wrong with cultural history!
    2) Maybe those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students in the pic brought their own?
    3) I love the reading pack for close discussion of sources! Takes me back to undergrad days at Melbourne Uni… But in my opinion it does need to be built onto a contextualising lecture /or at least a pack of somehow related secondary discussion in order for people to have some handles on approaching the texts.
    4) I think this approach to a seminar is nice: as long as *ultimate* goals of participation are clear, I wouldn’t have a problem with delivery being highly varied. My own spin on it would be at the exciting rather than whirling confusion end of the spectrum. :)

    • No, of course cultural history is grand (and assimilative!) but when it’s all that’s on the menu a rethink is arguably needed. And, it’s nice to be able to answer student demand, because the graduates actually are something like informed consumers.

      The close-reading pack came with a small bibliography of secondary reading, I should make clear, so it did more or less meet that criterion. And as for the students in the picture, I strongly suspect that the super-normal diversity range depicted means it’s a staged shot, so the chocolates are essentially advertising, though I’d be happy to be wrong.

      Two votes for variation now, that’s good to see, thankyou!

  5. With regards to the original blurb, I would certainly be concerned about the cultural credentials of anyone apparently equating “ergot” with “impure LSD”. As “any fule kno”, LSD (pure or impure) is not jknown to have been synthesized until the 20th century; and the ergotamine from which it was first known to have been synthesized, while indeed itself derived from ergot, could not accurately be equated with LSD itself.

    So: ahem.

    (Not that, of course, the original blurb was your fault.)

    That said, I think one has to get a little bit regional with this kind of topic, if only because transparently different things were going on to cause any changes in different regions. For example, we might well concede that significant changes were taking place in Scandinavia c. 1000, though the most significant change was surely the introduction of Christianity. This was, I should think, not one of the processes taking place simultaneously in, say, France or Italy … or Byzantium (though this is, perhaps, not considered “European”). I suppose it might also be possible to see pan-European currents — after all, brand new Scandinavian Christianity might be expected to reflect contemporaneous trends in Christianity from Britain and/or Germany — but I would need to know more about what was up at the regional level before being able to separate out what was local and what was “European”.

    Perhaps that would be a way to go? Run with regional views for, say, at least the first part of the course and then debate whether anything “European” is going on?

    • Not that, of course, the original blurb was your fault.

      Nah, it was mine, thrown together in a great hurry and apparently using ‘facts’ I learnt when drunk. I will fix that. Is it OK to blame the likely teacher? I have blamed him for so much else, after all :-)

      More seriously, yes. Firstly about the head-start on Christian development Scandinavia gets by its late Christianization (on which, if you like, see here) but also on the necessity of comparison. I think that the way we currently tend is to put in a broad social class, perhaps by collapsing two of the others into each other; what was not clear there is whether it should go first or last, and I think you provide a good argument for the latter here. I don’t think there’s much scope for including Scandinavia though!

      • That’s a pity: I was just thinking it would be nice to make full use of the contrastive/comparative regional approach by including a more peripheral area, and thinking about processes of mimesis, parallel development and differentiation around the margins of Christian Europe. But I suppose there’s a point at which things become too diffuse, and this is probably it…

        • Well, it would allow us to contrast it with an area in which there is no chance of making the case for a feudal transformation because the starting point is different and the end point is, if anything, the fully-realised royal recovery position. But as far as the course is concerned we could equally well achieve that by saying “You should be aware that for somewhere like Scandinavia, by the way, this question is just irrelevant. Scandinavia’s really interesting. feel free to read something about it if you like” and the pedagogical gain for the course would be exactly the same…

      • No Scandinavia? So by “European” do we mean countries that currently use the euro? Oh, wait, that would exclude Britain .. but include FInland! :) So what’s “European society”, then? :) Is it defined by having a “feudal transformation”?

        • Well, I reckon you’re completely right, Jonathan, in that Scandinavia lies beyond the scope of most extant scholarship on the feudal transformation, and that it would pretty impractical to lever somewhere like this into the course you’re actually trying to run. But the northern periphery (among others) is still worth thinking about, precisely because it’s from the late 10th and 11th centuries — as you point out Carl — that kingdoms began to take shape. The relative importance of foreign influence and parallel development in the periphery during this period is a big deal in current Scandinavian scholarship. Recent work by people like Lars Hermanson on relationships between kings and aristocrats from the later 11th century onward, when powerful military elites were becoming highly assertive, has been pretty heavily influenced by Reynolds. There are questions about whether it’s possible to identify the importation of ‘feudal anarchy’ in 12th century Scandinavia, or if we’re simply seeing the working out of a new sort of political order. For some, the difference in ‘stating point’ between the Scandinavian kingdoms and, say, England, is not as significant as one might at first think. But it’s true that in some respects effective government was aided by the fact that kingdoms were taking shape just as the clerical elites were establishing themselves, and making textual instruments available, and money economies were bedding down. And we’re getting pretty far from the year 1000.

          • Well, that’s it, exactly. If I were running a course on state formation, or on medieval Europe as a colonising society, or even—to actually join the two ends up—Moore’s alleged “First European Revolution” then I would absolutely put something about Scandinavia in. I’ve been interested in that ever since I did the editing for this project. But for all the reasons I just gave Carl, it isn’t going to work for what I’m actually doing.

            • One of my abiding vices (one that has on occasion impacted on this blog of yours I’m afraid) is always to try and sneak in the additional example, usually ill thought-out. It’s a singularly unhelpful tendency. Hadn’t realised you were involved in the Berend/Bagge-fest too…

        • I would quite happily leave Britain out, but since we invented the ‘feudal pyramid’ it has to be dealt with, alas. In Finland it would be really interesting to do, actually, because there feudalism is imposed by conquerors but with a certain amount of cultural leakage across borders by of protective emulation, to the best of my limited understanding. It would still be a couple of centuries later though.

          No, seriously, it’s a fair point. But the paradigm was originally French, and has been best developed in France, Spain and Italy. We only have eight weeks, there’s really only so far it can travel and still be a genuinely comparative exercise. So one good outcome would be for the students to start asking exactly these sorts of questions; and indeed, they could legitimately choose an essay title that examined them. With this much pressure on time, though, I think dedicating a class to Scandinavia just to show we have an insular/Meridional paradigm here would be overkill; Germany and Byzantium are already questioning the generalisation for us. If I could squeeze anything more in—and there were any useful literature in translation—it would be Muslim Sicily, Africa and al-Andalus. I think that comparison would actually teach more than one with Scandinavia has the potential to do.

          • France, Spain, and Italy …. Well, putting on my sociolinguistic hat, that translates to “areas in which Western Romance dialects/languages are spoken”. The point made by jpg about the relative similarity of English and Scandinavian “starting points” is well made, though concerning ourselves only with elite groups, we could then perhaps justify post-Conquest England (though not the rest of Britain) as somehow belonging to a Western Romance-speaking feudal sphere. But then it might be interesting to compare England with FInland after all, due to the “feudalism … imposed by conquerors” thing. :)

            • I think that, rather than some weird kind of linguistic determinism (I mean, are we actually heading for a Romance-makes-you-feudal proposition there?) the selection is more of places that have been deemed to have (a) late Antique political existence as units and (b) some kind of feudal system in the High Middle Ages. The original feudal transformation paradigm is supposed to explain how you get from one to the other so what we’re doing is testing it. If somewhere didn’t go from point (a) to point (b) we’re actually involved in a wider question about the existence of and nature of feudalism. Obviously we can’t escape that debate in this course, because it has set the terms and they may be wrong. But equally, that is a different question. I am not saying that a course set to compare different alleged feudalisms would not be as interesting! But the transformation paradigm can only apply to some of them, and so we’ve selected those. And then, as I say, there is the problem of a lack of translated literature. (Though, for all I know Scandinavia might be better off there than Spain, frighteningly.)

              • Well, I am not wishing to imply linguistic determinism, but I can’t help but think that “a late Antique political existence as units” is something which matches a former existence as parts of the Western Roman Empire. I’m not suggesting that speaking Romance makes you feudal, but perhaps having been a Roman province that was sufficiently non-overrun by howling baribariansas to remain Romance-speaking also meant you retained some vital element of Romanitas that nudged you towards feudalism (for whatever reason)? I am, of course, out of my depth here — not knowing enough about these parts of the medieval world (as I spend more time with the howling barbarians), but, anyway …

                • Well, there is something to what you say, in as much as the areas where it doesn’t work are mostly the non-Romance ones (England, Germany, and I guess if any of us could do Pannonia we might find it similar. Weirdly, Byzantium does kind of work if you change a few terms appropriately, and so does al-Andalus, but they both go through it earlier. That’s one of the reasons that’s what I’d like to add.) That said, and as that implies, there are some areas included in my political definition that won’t fit a purely linguistic criterion…

  6. Paul Fouracre usually teaches this module to third-year undergraduates at Manchester: http://www.currentstudents.arts.manchester.ac.uk/ug/pdf/cuguides/hist/hist30762.pdf

    This was my introduction to the feudal transformation. The course assumed little prior knowledge of the period. The ‘Duby model’ and the P&P debate were introduced at the beginning of the course and gradually bashed into our heads over the next few weeks as we loosely discussed the outlined topics with regard to the debates. Regional issues played a bigger part than the outline suggests, but as you can see the course was arranged thematically. Overall the module was excellent – lots of reading and hard-going at times, but ultimately a class which inspired some of us (or at least me) to persist with the topic.

    • Wow, that’s a lot broader than ours—the benefit of an eleven-week term I suppose, but still, the Crusades? It’s really more of a Central Europe survey with an argument built in, isn’t it? Very useful to see, though, thankyou. Is it accurate that there were no primary sources in the reading, however? That’s perhaps excusable at an undergraduate level, but certainly not an omission we could compass in a graduate course. If there were some, what was Paul using? (I should ask him myself, really, but this will be quicker…)

      • The outline does make it sound like a survey module (and I seem to remember that’s what I had expected), but the transformation debate was definitely the core of it. The primary sources were given out each week in preparation for the next; this outline was essentially just Paul’s recommended reading to guide us through it all. If I recall, some of the primary sources included some Cluny charters he (or perhaps Alex Ralston, a student of his who was working on Cluny at the time) had translated, Marmoutier charters regarding serfdom, letters of Fulbert (most notably the one to Duke William obviously), the Laudatio Parentum, Ralph Glaber, the documents translated in Head & Landes, and more which escape me at the moment.

        The last couple of weeks on the twelfth century I’m sure you could do without. We looked at Guibert, Abelard, Bernard of Clairvaux, etc. just as a means of sort of looking at what generally happened in the wake of this supposed anarchy.

  7. All right, take two on the blurb: do you pedants prefer this?

    Since the early 1950s, a body of scholarship has existed that locates the series of changes that turned late Roman Europe into its high medieval successor closely around the year 1000, in a sudden and violent ‘transformation’. Can this have been true? If so, how much, and where? Addressing this question has produced almost as many answers as scholars and involves factors such as knighthood, lay literacy, popular heresy, economic and demographic growth, castles, settlement shift and anxiety about the Millennium, as well as a phenomenon that some historians argue never existed, feudalism. Do we have here an explanation of the development of medieval society or is the whole argument baseless? This option reopens the question by detailed examination of sources in several genres and involves a strongly comparative approach to European history around the eleventh century, which will equip students with a critical basis to tackle a much wider historical literature.

    Begone, ergot and non-Roman Europe! Goodbye, fifty words and the gratuitous trebuchet! Hello, greater accuracy and clarity? And at what cost in market appeal?

    • I quite liked your drunken ‘facts’ in terms of market appealing strategies. I hazzard the opinion that the new blurb only sounds exciting to those who already know this is exciting… and why would they need this option? Is there a middle ground?

    • I liked the first one. That one told me it should be fun with ideas flying around the room and bouncing off the walls (unless it’s a nice day where you’ll probably take the class outside and teach ‘em under tree). This second one sounds kind of stuffy, at least in comparison.

      Leave in ergot. Heck, if you want some quotes from William Manchester about peasants running around naked and jumping in bed with the family pig, let me know and I’ll provide some. Pull the students in.

    • Yeah, I was afraid that might be the case, and I kind of agree. I could retain the original first sentence, which might help; I have spare words. The problem then is ‘Europe’, as Carl and JPG have been diligently pointing out. I don’t think I can retain ergot and a sensibly-sized definition, but that would at least keep the trebuchet even if I don’t think it will ever be mentioned. (If it were going to be, it would have to be as part of the state recovery and the twelfth-century crisis that Bisson sees where the recovering states suddenly drop the ball.) Hmm. Some thinking here still to do. Thankyou for feedback!

      • I don’t object to ergot per se, only to its description as impure LSD. :) You could easily bring back the first sentence, or some version of it, with its appeal to contemporary medievalism (regardless of whether or not that appears in the course). Imply that vigorous brainstorming and debate shall ensue. As for the “Problem of Europe” in relation to feudalism, Romans, late antiquity, etc., well, why not imply that this is something that students will actually engage with in course? See if they (eventually) find an answer. :)

        Moreover, since WordPress is squishing comment threads into ever narrower columns, I will note here that, yes, I would not expect any purely linguistic criteria to guide us through political definitions. I just couldn’t help but think that the linguistic angle was in some sense diagnostic — and that a discussion of feudalism or a feudal transformation at this period, it may be premature to talk about “European” contexts.

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  9. I’ve only taught this at undergrad level, but here’s a few ideas at how I’d approach a grad course:

    1) If you’re comparing regions’ societies (as I think you must), then spell out the theoretical underpinning, probably in terms of MarxLite. A narrative can get away with leaving theoretical analysis implicit; a comparison can’t.

    2) As well as spelling out your social-theoretical assumptions, spell out your anthropological ones. How do we weight the relative importance of law, violence and consensus? You need to plant a flag for Reynolds or Bisson or Althoff or whoever.

    3) Prune extraneous areas like England. The FR isn’t meant to explain going from Rome to Medieval except for people like Blois: it aims to explain going from the Carolingian order to the Medieval. Pace the feudal pyramid, 1066 throws a spanner in the works since other areas don’t really have a comparable equivalent. Concentrate on comparing, say, France, Flanders, Lotharingia, Burgundy, Catalonia, Lombardy and Tuscany (that’s your six core weeks right there).

    4) Prune extraneous themes. Do you really need to talk about millennialism? What are you concentrating on, social or cultural change? If you’re working on a MarxLite base, can you leave the cultural/millennial/heretical superstructure for the closing discussion?

    Finally, it may be that “exciting confusion is far better than structured tedium”, as Curt said above, but that ignores the fact that confusion very often produces tedium.

    • I’m not sure we’re of one mind on this, I have to admit. (Plus ça change…) I think the theoretical underpinning is the transformation theory itself, which we then test against evidence. Of course we select the evidence, but there’s no way round that. It may say something for us, at least, that we had three people on the course who think that although Bois (or Bloch, whichever you meant :-) ) is too far gone Barthélemy is missing something describable, and at the end of the course none of the students agreed with us… Either way, I don’t think MarxLite will do, even if I could give an account of it. Bloch was no Marxist but it’s principally his vision that everyone else has run with on this field. And where cultural or social change is concerned, I think again the theory intertwines them and that needs examining, not least because one may be causative of the other. There are almost certainly extraneous themes in this debate, but no-one agrees which ones, and that’s part of the point of the course.

      As for 1066, well, part of the debate over England in general as of course you know is how much of a change-point that was (and behind that is one about the Carolingian inspirations of the Anglo-Saxon kings, get Levi talking about Æthelred the Unready’s penitential state for example). If what we’re seeing in 1066 for this theory is a sudden moment of top-down régime change, then Flanders has 1127, Catalonia has 1018, and Lotharingia, Burgundy and Italy have so many one couldn’t even pin it to one. But having an area where the theory doesn’t work is important as it forces discussion of what the changes actually that the theory is trying to account for. So, for example, one of our classes was a discussion around the proposition, “There was a Feudal Revolution in Byzantium: we call it the land crisis of the tenth century”. You would call that extraneous, but I think we would call it interesting, whereas your suggested core zones would have Tim Reuter sighing at us from beyond the grave about our Francocentricism.

      The point about confusion and tedium is well taken, though, which is why I’m trying to nail this stuff down a little bit so that the students have some idea what’s happening well in advance of being swept into it.

  10. +1 for “the theoretical underpinning is the transformation theory itself, which we then test against evidence”, though that is, admittedly, because I have always been suspicious starting from theory, despite that seeming to be a popular approach.

    “Francocentrism” … it’s all the fault of those darned Western Romance speakers! :)

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