Seminar CLIX: lords in the middle

One of the many notable things about being in the thick of the Oxford academic environment for that while that I was was the very large number of very good doctoral students hanging about, often from outside the UK, all gnawingly nervous about their prospects on the job market and very often being supervised by Chris Wickham; had we not already established that Chris has some modern-day equivalent of ravens informing him of the world’s doings I would wonder how he kept track of them all. I cannot remember now if Nicholas Schroeder was one of Chris’s, but he was certainly one of the brighter sparks doing the Oxford seminar circuit while I was there.1 I saw him present twice, and the first of these occasions was on 28th January 2013, when he spoke to the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “The Forgotten Lords: the feudal revolution and monastic lordship in Lotharingia, c. 900 to c. 1250″.

Map of tenth-century Lotharingia

Map from M. Schroeder’s handout for the paper, pencil customisations in the original; apologies for photo quality, I’m away from home as I write this

Invoking the feudal revolution at all of course means stepping into a dense historiographical forest over the social changes of the tenth and eleventh centuries in Europe, in which as M. Schroeder observed, the debate has died without being solved. In his home country of Belgium, however, the local version was very much carried into orthodoxy by the work of Léopold Genicot, who saw the great estates of the earlier period being broken into new territorial lordships by means of lords subjecting peasants to what had previously been public jurisdiction, and solidarities developing within the communities subject to those lords.2 To this were then added various new voices, Florian Mazel arguing for a new style of ecclesiastical lordship developing in the period of papal reform in which rule via advocates and lay abbots ceases to be acceptable and a more old-fashioned and direct form of lordship had to be adopted instead, Paul Fouracre arguing that even in the eleventh century ties of lordship were more personal than territorial, the familia being the most important group to which anyone belonged, and Charles West most recently arguing that what was going on was the ultimate success of the Carolingian effort to create a locally-responsible lordship based on relationships that was, however, intended to be different from ownership but in fact never really became so before the state that required this ceased to be. Charles also argues that this worked out very differently on the two sides of the Meuse, Champagne becoming a big territory and Upper Lotharingia never ceasing to be a land of monastic lordships within a greater lord’s less intensive territory.3

The current state of the old abbey of Stavelot-Malmédy

The current state of the old abbey of Stavelot-Malmédy, whence most of the information in the paper here discussed, from Wikimedia Commons

Having laid all this out for us in good critical fashion, M. Schroeder then began the task of setting it against his work on the monastery, documents and territory of Stavelot-Malmédy.4 This hit immediately against two complications: the first was trying to get perspective on a society that is larger than just the Church when the Church’s documents are almost your only source, and the other was that the Church, as Mazel’s paradigm just discussed implies, had different pressures on the way it managed its property from those operating on laymen. I am not convinced that the ideologies are that different, in fact, but in the eleventh century especially the Church was under pressure from within itself and without to adhere more closely than before or later to the ideology its members urged upon society more widely. Nonetheless, M. Schroeder pointed out that one can find all manner of models of lordship in the Stavelot evidence, more than any of the templates outlined above accommodate: there’s already territorial lordship in the tenth century (he said), with both jurisdiction and personal ties (in labour and service obligations); attendance at courts of the monastery’s familia could be demanded from people both inside and outside its territoria, people could live inside the territoria who were ‘strangers’ because they were not members of the familia, and Stavelot’s one attempt to create a castle lordship seems to have failed and got reorganised into villages. What M. Schroeder did not see, however, was the monastery’s subordinates and advocates becoming threats to its own authority, and neither did he see much collapse of the various forms of lordship into each other until the late twelfth and early thirteenth century.

The château-fort de Logne as it now stands

The castle lordship may not have worked out but the castle itself is still quite impressive! The château-fort de Logne as it now stands

In questions two things came out: one, raised by Mark Whittow, was what archæology might add to this, which of course really hits against the problem that that archæology is arrayed across several countries and turns out to be M. Schroeder’s post-doctoral project, and the other, raised by me, was that some way to distinguish between the different rows and columns of what he called a matrix of lordship might be to consider who had set them up. I think that might work for Catalonia to an extent, in as much as counts and monasteries do seem to aim for different things there, but I don’t think I got the question out right as what M. Schroeder answered with was that the important thing might be when lordship and village organisation combined. That may well be true but I still want to know if what I had meant to ask would have been useful… Anyway, that aside, this was a very careful sifting of evidence through a variety of frameworks that left me with some hope that there are in fact ways to advance the tired old feudal transformation debate to the point where we might actually reach new ways to express and explain the developmental similarities it currently struggles to unite.


1. Although there are other publications by now, the one of M. Schroeder’s that got mentioned in the introduction was Jean-Pierre Devroey & Nicholas Schroeder, “Beyond royal estates and monasteries: landownership in the early medieval Ardennes” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 39-69, DOI:10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00334.x.

2. At the time I noted down a reference to ‘Genicot 1968′ but the venerable professor turns out to have been quite busy that year and I don’t know which publication was meant: the most obviously relevant seems to be his “Nobles, sainteurs et alleutiers dans le Namurois du XIe siècle” in Album J. Balon (Namur 1968), pp. 117-123, but that seems pretty short to be a classic and irreplaceable formulation!

3. Referring to F. Mazelle, Féodalités 888-1180 (Paris 2010); P. Fouracre, “Marmoutier and its Serfs in the Eleventh Century” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 15 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 29-50 and idem, “Marmoutier: familia versus family. The Relations between Monastery and Serfs in Eleventh-Century North-West France” in Andrew Reynolds, Wendy Davies & Guy Halsall (edd.), People and Space in the Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 15 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 255-274; Charles West, Reframing the Feudal Revolution: Political and Social Transformation between Marne and Moselle, c. 800-c. 1100 (Cambridge 2013).

4. The charters of the abbey are edited in Joseph Halkin & Charles Gustave Roland (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Stavelot-Malmédy (Bruxelles 1909-1930), 2 vols, which is apart from anything else one of the most handsome books I think I ever handled in the course of medieval studies.

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3 responses to “Seminar CLIX: lords in the middle

  1. Pingback: Seminar CLXXVIII: comparing post-Roman European uplands | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Nicolas Schroeder

    Dear Jonathan,

    Thank your very much for this post. I didn’t get your question, indeed. I’m sorry about that. Better late than never? I’ll try to answer here.

    The concept of a “matrix” (which I borrowed from Chris’s “Community and Clientele”) is not only about lordship, but about broader “social change”. As I understood it (I might be wrong, of course), Chris used it to explain the development of more formalized peasant communities in the 12th-13th centuries. In his historiographic account, Chris explains that some historiographies tend to use a “top-down” model (the French “revolution féodale” with Fossier’s “encellulement”), but that other historiographies tend to insist much more on bottom-up processes (Susan Reynold in Kingdoms and communities, for example). Chris thinks that both explanatory frameworks work, depending on which parts of medieval Europe you are looking at. Hence, we need a model that takes into account various initial situations and various developments, eventually leading to quite similar results. His suggestion is to consider that many factors were pushing towards a reorganisation of society on a local level. In this “matrix”, social structures (both lordships and peasant communities) would have a common tendency to evolve towards something more “local”.

    I hope this – admittedly rather long – quote will sum it up: “Horizontal relationships, those of collectivities, have been seen by historians since the beginning of this century as developing in opposition to vertical ones from 1100 or so onwards. But it may well be that they are only products of the same sort of development. Élite families, effective class differences, influential local political-juridical networks certainly existed in practice in the ninth century; it is these de facto realities that crystallized into the strong and coherent vertical power networks of the eleventh century. But horizontal relationships already existed in practice too. There were villages, even if they did not have clearly denned boundaries; there were local circumscriptions dominated by boni homines, even if these latter were in some sense public officials; there were informal local customs and collective practices. (…) And, even though we must recognize that, usually, horizontally organized social groups, whether strong or weak, were informally structured or else (at least in theory) patterned along public lines in the Carolingian world, we should not doubt that it was once again these realities that were the ancestors of the crystallizing local communities of the twelfth century. That is to say: communities, like clienteles, had to formalize themselves, to give identity to society as a whole in the more localized political environments that replaced the Carolingian world order. It is only because communities were a hundred years or so slower to crystallize than clienteles had been that we see them simply as a reaction to the latter; in reality, both have roots that go far back into the past in a less organized form.” (C. Wickham, Community and clientele in twelfth-century Tuscany: the origins of the rural commune in the plain of Lucca, Oxford, 1998, p. 236-237)

    This model has been very useful for me because what the Stavelot-Malmedy evidence suggests is that in some cases the ones who were “setting up the different rows and columns of the matrix” were lords against peasants, sometimes peasants against lords, sometimes lords with peasants, sometimes lords with some peasants against other peasants (there are many other possible combinations – you name them). I think this explains that the evolutions that took place between the 10th and 12th century were so varied on a local level, as I tried to describe in my paper. However, at some point in the 13th century, we see a new formalization of peasant societies (the village community) and lordship (seigneurie hautaine (what Duby would describe as “banal lordship”) and foncière) that became predominant all over Lotharingia. As a matter of fact, on a formal level, this type of social organization of the countryside would remain unchanged until the end of the 18th century. Both “worked” together. You cannot imagine “seigneurie hautaine” without formalized village communities, but the opposite is also true. Hence, I don’t think this was only “imposed” by lords, or only “created” by peasants. It’s a complex evolution of the post-carolingian world that cannot be “explained” by focusing on one actor.

    Does that make any sense? And does it answer to your question at last?

    All the best and thanks again for taking time to write about this talk,
    Nicolas

    • Hullo Nicholas, and thankyou for the explanation! That does make a good deal of sense, both of your position and of why I didn’t immediately pick up the answer: it’s a lot to summarise (and I have never quite got round to reading Community and Clientele, to my shame). I think that, as Mark Whittow doubtlessly said at your paper, the way you (and Chris) put it seems very likely to be right, but also, alas, a challenge to make simple to follow!

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