In praise of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society

Among the things I was doing towards the end of 2012 that made me stub blog posts that are only now appearing was finally taking stock of one of the monuments of the field of medieval history, Feudal Society by Marc Bloch.1 It’s a fair guess that whatever bit of medieval society you’re interested in, you’ve seen this book cited somewhere or other, so universal is its impact, but it was written before the Second World War and its very title enshrines a concept that we’ve been trying to discredit for the last four decades, good ol’ feudalism, so what I mainly wanted to know was why does it remain such a big deal? And, since I have a copy loaned to me by a man now dead but whose heirs may some day want his books back, and because it does keep coming up even now, I finally made time to read it.

Portrait photograph of Marc Bloch from Wikimedia Commons

The man himself, from Wikimedia Commons

Part of the appeal of Bloch’s work and reputation is his career trajectory itself, of course: this was a man who fought in the trenches in the First World War, became a professor at first because the German academics had been thrown out of Strasbourg University and then, when the Second World War started, rejoined the army as a reserve captain, aged 57, experienced defeat and eventually joined the French resistance, in whose service he was captured by the German occupying forces in 1944, tortured and eventually shot as the Germans prepared to withdraw. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his work is full of interest in the underclass and the downtrodden; perhaps more surprisingly, it is also not entirely about France, though much of it is. But despite the drama of his life, there are others with similarly amazing lives who have made less of an impact, you can’t read that experience back out of his work without knowing it’s there anyway, and in Bloch’s case I think we can honestly say that it wasn’t just his good fortune in being based in Paris and helping to start a transnational longue durée school of historical study in the form of the Annales just as the world was about to become very very ready for a history that didn’t deal primarily in competing nationalisms that has ensured his immortality.

Cover of volume I of Marc Bloch's Feudal Society

Cover of volume I of the English translation of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, still in print today

So this book, what does it do? Well, it divides into two volumes, even in the original French, and the first more or less attempts a total picture of medieval society in the post-Carolingian world. The underlying premise here is that with the disintegration of state power in the tenth century under the pressure of invasion and economic collapse, the result was an increasing tendency for society to be defined by ties of dependency rather than ties of solidarity, a shift to vertical social relations away from horizontal ones protected and endorsed by public power, and that this shift became so fundamentally embedded that it came to be the defining characteristic of almost all medieval social organisation. So he covers law, kindred, vassalage, servitude, land organisation, and fits all this into his schema. Then in the second volume he deals in the power interests that kept it this way: nobility and noble aspirations, the conformity of the Church to these structures, the localisation and isolation of power around castles, and finally the beginnings of a recovery of state power that might combat this.

Cover of volumee II of Marc Bloch's Feudal Society

Cover of the second volume

A lot of this we might now nuance, especially the causes of the initial collapse of the Carolingian and post-Carolingian state, and we might especially want to try and extract Germany from the paradigm, though Bloch worked to include it, but often having done so we might, I think, I find that we have arrived at the same places where he founded his theory by a different route. You can easily see in this the seeds of the scholarship we now think of as the feudal transformation debate, but Bloch’s chronology was longer, and more subtle, seeing a ‘first feudal age’ taking shape in the mid-eleventh century as all the earlier changes bedded down into a describable structure, and then a ‘second feudal age’ in the second half of the twelfth century caused very largely by a recovery of state power at the same time as, and obviously linked with, the economic boom of the high Middle Ages, these being united by the importance of the personal ties that held them together but rather different in the ways that importance found its expression, and both periods of development rather than of stasis.2

I think that begins also to explain why the book has held its importance so. Some obvious reasons why this should be so, starting with that one, are:

  • it does not require the problematic forcing of all change into a relatively narrow chronological window that the feudal transformation scholarship does;
  • Bloch was always, always comparative, and will occasionally break out quick round-Europe surveys to remind his reader that firstly this is not just a French phenomenon he is discussing and that secondly the French version of it may not be typical, freeing him from many of the tropes that might otherwise have caused his work to be left behind;3
  • he was cautious, and pushed nothing much further than it would go, so that we find him starting paragraphs with the noble sentiment, “Let us not, however, exaggerate. The picture would have to be carefully shaded—by regions and classes.”4
  • Despite this, almost everything in society is in his picture somewhere, joined into a wider structure that, as long as you accept his terms, makes some kind of sense together; he’s drawing a really big picture with tiny detailed strokes.
  • But most importantly of all, I think, is how short the book is, so that nothing is overdone or overstated, especially given that half of each section is qualifications and variations. One goes to it looking for a concept that’s become fundamental to scholarship subsequently such as the idea of kindred as ‘friends by blood’, and finds that he does it in a page and a half, with maybe two examples. It wouldn’t stand up if someone less insightful had written it, but given that Bloch did, instead there isn’t enough of it to make it obviously falsifiable, while the idea still comes through at full force and sticks with you, even in translation.5

Really, after reading it, actively looking for things to object to, the best I could come up with is that Bloch chose to characterise all this as ‘feudal’, because we now think that this is not very helpful.6 But not only is this one of the rare cases where a historian using such language makes very clear what he meant by it (even if that is, more or less, ‘everything’), so that Chris Wickham in his saving throw for the term ‘feudalism’ of which I’m so fond took Bloch’s ‘imaginaire féodale” as one of the three ideal types people usually mean by the word, but he was also very very aware that it was a problematic term even in 1936.7 The English translation has an introduction by Michael Postan who, unsurprisingly, mounts a rigorous defence for the term:

“This is… an approach much wider than the one that equates feudalism with feudum and begins and ends its history with that of the knight service. In Bloch’s definition the fief is only an element, albeit a very important one, of the whole situation. But to him a society might still be feudal even if the fief occupied a more subordinate position. This latitude might strike the orthodox as incompatible with the etymology of the term. But, he argues, etymological rectitude is not the final test of an historical concept. ‘What’, he asks in his Métier d’un historien, ‘if the term is currently used to characterize societies in which the fief is not the most significant trait. There is nothing in this contrary to the practice of all the sciences. Are we shocked by the physicists persisting to apply [sic] the term atom, i. e. indivisible, to an object they subject to the most audacious division?’”8

This is admittedly someone else’s voice quoting from a different work but it’s not saying anything Bloch doesn’t himself say in the book’s very first chapter: the term ‘feudal’ is an anachronism invested with vast ideological loading by the French Revolution and which is subject to several definitions that don’t always overlap, this all seems very familiar to us now, but he was going to use it anyway and came up with a better reason than many for doing so, to wit, his ability to fit pretty much everything he wanted to link together into the structure with which it provided him.9

So the lessons for us as historians after immortality might seem to be: don’t be afraid to take a controversial position if you can demonstrate its worth; in so demonstrating, minimalism will often serve you better than making your points at full strength, and thus making it easy for people to find counters; always remember to consider the places and times and circumstances where what you’re attempting won’t float; and lastly, you’ll need to be really very clever. When I first read this it struck me as a near-perfect example of the contention that historians value caution more than almost anything else when evaluating others’ work, especially when they themselves know nothing much of the subject being written about, but it’s not just caution or choosing as subject something kin which people have continued to be invested for decades, almost in defiance of any explicable factor, that has guaranteed Bloch’s work such a long life: it’s that he managed to combine not going too far with covering almost everything, in a careful and considered fashion and I think that to do that you have to be something really out of the ordinary, as Marc Bloch clearly was.

1. M. Bloch, La société féodale (Paris 1939), 2 vols, transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (Chicago 1961), 2 vols; all citations below from the English translation.

2. Ibid. I pp. 59-71.

3. So, ibid. I pp. 176-189 is a deliberate tour of his concept round Europe, including two differing bits of France contrasted, Italy, Germany, England, Galicia and some final notes on Sicily, Syria, and Byzantium as places to which feudalism was ‘imported’. Eastern Europe would have been nice but as far as his project goes it’s a pretty reasonable sample.

4. Ibid. I p. 71.

5. Ibid. I pp. 123-125.

6. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169; Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994); and, with my usual reservations about it, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia 2008).

7. Chris Wickham, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nel’Alto Medioevo (8-12 aprile 1999), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 15-46 with discussion pp. 47-51.

8. M. M. Postan, “Foreword” in Bloch, Feudal Society, I pp. xi-xv at pp. xiv-xv, citing Bloch, Le metier d’historien (Paris 1948), transl. Peter Putnam (New York 1954), p. 86, presumably of the English.

9. E. g. Bloch, Feudal Society, I pp. xvi-xx, esp. p. xix:
“The term ‘feudalism’, applied to a phase of European history within the limits thus determined, has sometimes been interpreted in ways so different as to be almost contradictory, yet the mere existence of the word attest the special quality which men have instinctively recognized in the period which it denotes. Hence a book about feudal society can be looked on as an attempt a question posed by its very title: what are the distinctive features of this portion of the past which have given it a claim to be treated in isolation?”

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3 responses to “In praise of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society

  1. A really fine post.

  2. Steve Joyce

    Yes indeed: a fine post

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