Tag Archives: feudal transformation

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?”

Feudal Transformations XVIII: who wants that third field?

My academic endeavours seem to come round in cycles. I spent a good chunk of later 2012 working my way through Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque I in pursuit of the latest learnings about crop yields in order to finish writing up my paper on crop yields.1 Now that I am finally doing that writing up, with the addition of Italian evidence about which you will in due course hear much more, I find that I have now reached in the queue the posts I stubbed to write up later while reading it, and so even though I left this stuff to sit idle fifteen months ago it’s now topical again just as I come back to it! Hallelujah! or something. Anyway, what I want to talk about here was just a throwaway to Devroey, so much so that it’s not even actually in my notes on the book, and not really new with him, and yet it has quite big implications I think, and this topic is the possible reasons why we seem to see a switch from two-field to three-field agriculture between the eighth and tenth centuries in Europe.

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l'Europe franque

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book just mentioned

You may remember that I’ve written about this before, and back then it was because of a piece written by one Helmut Hildebrand who argued that the pressure to shift from a system in which one grew crops in half your land and let the other half lie fallow in any given year to one in which you divided your land in three, grew a winter crop like wheat in one, a spring crop like rye in another and left only the third to lie fallow, thus doing important things to your overall yield, was mainly down to demographic pressure.2 I then suggested, largely because of Chris Wickham but also, I now realise, to Peter Reynolds and Christine Shaw, that pressure from lords to render more was probably also a factor, and to my relative delight this turns out to be the position that Devroey also takes, turning the shift in systems back into something that might be a causal driver rather than an effect of a change we have to explain by other means, that is, the apparent rise in European population from c. 900 onwards.3

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

All the same, this cannot just be accepted, because every bit of any explanation that might bear on the changes and growth in European society that we see over the tenth and eleventh centuries which have come to be characterised as the ‘feudal transformation’ need attaching to the scheme of change at both ends. If, in fact, lords were causing this shift in production methods, why? Such things are usually put down to lords’ essential interest in getting as much revenue as possible from their estates, but this is actually a very twentieth-century concern, a capitalist think-back to people whose priorities were really otherwise constructed. Someone like Chris Wickham, for example, is very sceptical that most lords would have been this involved in the details of agriculture, rather than just demanding a non-specific more that the peasants had somehow to come up with.4 This allows us to leave at least some initiative with the peasants, but when it comes down to second crops, it’s hard immediately to see how that could work out: if what an average lord is mostly concerned with was maintaining himself and his family in the style to which they were accustomed, turning up with rye instead of the wheat that was demanded is unlikely to have cut the mustard, I’d say. Peter Reynolds would have said that the peasants were growing something else to eat themselves, relinquishing all hope of holding onto a wheat crop that was fundamentally grown for their lords, but cases like big monastic estates that wanted ‘poor’ bread as well as good stuff to meet the demand they faced from workers and the poor suggest that that is either insufficiently or excessively cynical: the lords probably wanted the rough stuff too.5

Peasants at work with a light plough, from a manuscript image in the Biblioteca de l'Escorial

Not necessarily Catalan peasants, but at least from a manuscript in the Escorial in Madrid, rather than the usual French or English ones

Well, Devroey is more or less ready for this, as he suggests specifically that the driver of change might be the need of an increasingly equestrian nobility to feed its newly-numerous horses, leading to them requiring oats in a new way from a peasantry who would not previously have grown them. This, I think, he largely gets from Pierre Bonnassie, who concluded similarly for Catalonia after noting a rise in oats being rendered at about the same time as a boom in the mention of horses in the eleventh-century charters, not unreasonably supposing that these were associated.6 This gets us a bit further on, because it expresses lordly demand in terms that aren’t purely economic. The problem with the profit motive, you see, is that it should be a universal, were everyone in history a rational economic actor anyway. Lords in the seventh century should really have been just as interested in making themselves more wealthy as lords in the eleventh, so if we only see the latter doing it there’s something here about the difference between the two societies that still needs explaining. For Bonnassie that difference was the new possibility of military endeavour against Muslim Spain, leading to a new demand for horses to participate in the endeavours of the aristocracy and consequently a new demand for their feed from the peasantry those aristocrats controlled. But how could this have worked out in an area such as those in which Devroey is interested where there was no gold-rich open frontier?

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

For want of a render of oats a horse was lost, for want a horse the rider was lost…

I suppose that the answer must be that in the earlier period, competition between aristocrats for importance and influence must have been waged in different areas. The obvious one of these, and one which I get very much from the work of Jinty Nelson and Stuart Airlie, is the Carolingian court.7 As long as that functioned and had a decent range of appeal, an ambitious member of the aristocracy could make himself (or herself) far more important more quickly by obtaining office or honores from the king than he could by becoming slightly richer than his local rivals, in a game which they could obviously play too. Access to that royal patronage was the thing worth competing for that could decide such contests for status. But once the king ceased to be able to control his far-flung properties or to afford to grant his nearby ones, anyone outside the core was forced back into the local game.8 Without the ability to leverage a court connection to get someone a leg-up into the privileged classes or get (or deliver) royal officers’ intervention in a local matter, such a person’s wealth and how readily they spent it could be the reason men commended themselves to them, rather than to the castellan down the road who’d just put new solars in at his main residence and was gunning to have his son made the next bishop, for example. Magistra and I have debated here before how this newly-constrained competition for status might have made the overall increase in agricultural productivity of the period hard either to perceive or to enjoy for its appropriators, but if Devroey should happen to be right and this sequence of development be how we might explain it, then that competition might be more cause than effect, and the continuing importance of a court and its patronage explain the much less obvious existence of such phenomena in Ottonian Germany, for example.9 Theo Riches has observed in comments here before now that the ‘feudal transformation’ is essentially a post-Carolingian phenomenon, which is uncomfortably true, but this refocussing of aristocrats on the land might be why.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. H. Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290.

3. C. Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226; idem “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32; P. Reynolds & C. E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351. Devroey’s analysis is in Économie et société, I pp. 108-111.

4. Wickham, The Framing of the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 268-272.

5. Reynolds & Shaw, “Third Harvest”, but cf. the different grades of bread being demanded in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie, for example, ed. Léon Levillain as “Les statuts d’Adalhard pour l’abbaye de Corbie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 13 (Bruxelles 1900), pp. 233-386, repr. separatim (Paris 1900), relevant parts translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32, or the huge variety of grains in which the estates of Santa Giulia di Brescia rendered to the monastery in their polyptych of c. 906, Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia” in Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Pasquali & Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979), pp. 41-94, also printed in Ezio Barbieri, Irene Rapisarda & Gianmarco Cossandi (edd.), Le carte del monastero di S. Giulia di Brescia (Pavia 2008), I no. 46 whence online here.

6. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 470-471.

7. Combining Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” and Stuart Airlie, “The Aristocracy”, both in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 338-430 and 431-450 respectively.

8. Here I am sort of nostalgically pleased to see that I am still following Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 223-234.

9. See Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195 at pp. 188-193.

Seminar CLXIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 5

Did you see that? Surely not! But yes! It was a post about my research area! But it went so quick you may have missed it because now it’s back to Anglo-Saxon England again, which does seem to be most of what I spent the spring of 2013 reading or hearing about. I did go to one other seminar between this and the previous one reported, in fact, but it didn’t really give me anything to work with so instead we pick up where we left off with John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, here with his sixth and final lecture on the 22nd February, “Landscapes of the Mind”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

This lecture revolved around the worthy contention that it’s only really possible to understand how people in the Anglo-Saxon world were using and changing their landscape if we also have some idea how they thought about it, easy to say but rather less easy to do! There are some obvious texts, and some less obvious ones: John did not, for example, use The Ruin, a poem which seems to be about what was then left of Roman Bath that even I have worked to death in a teaching context but which seems, well, kind of like a literary construct, but he did use The Wife’s Lament to open up for us a world constructed in zones, in here and out there, safe versus wild, the hall, as we might (and John did) put it, and the sparrow. As I say, the literary and textual evidence for this kind of thinking has been well worked over but there is these days also the possibility of doing more, and recently much more, with the archæology.1

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, Tæppes hlæw, Tæppa’s Low, built within an Iron Age fort and later, as we now believe, equipped with a church

One of the things that becomes obvious when you approach the matter like this is that the Anglo-Saxons were keen reusers of sites that had associations with the past. Despite the otherworldliness felt by the narrator in the Ruin, or rather, because of it, they built in old monumental precincts, they buried people in Iron Age or Bronze Age burial mounds, or, as at Taplow above, built new burial mounds within Iron Age structures. It seems unlikely that the people reusing such sites can have had more idea what their original purpose had been than do we, but that they connected with something unusual may have been enough. After conversion to Christianity, also, as we’ve seen before, these sites retained old associations so that executed criminals might be buried there, or, The Wife’s Lament suggests, the living imprisoned there as exiles from normal space. Those were, however, some kind of official response, and for people without a full understanding of Christian practice such places presumably shared their significance with newer places of contact with the beyond like churches, all being points of access to the sacred or supernatural.

Crop-marks of a 'woodhenge'-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire

Crop-marks of a ‘woodhenge’-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire, a point which became the main entrance of the Saxon settlement, which, John told us, also backed onto a Roman road, had burials at all its entrances and was laid out on a grid-plan

Both churches and older constructions could in fact be seen as replications of antiquity, John argued, the stone structure of churches calling on Roman antiquity and Anglo-Saxon mounds calling on the older landscape in which their builders found themselves. These ‘structures of eternity’, perhaps also reflected in stone cairns, contrast sharply with the ephemeral, transient traces of the structures of the living, timber houses that would move over generations as one mouldered and a new one replaced it nearby, and that would be opened and closed by rituals we see in the form of placed deposits of materials, animal remnants and so forth.2 These also had their life-cycle, whereas the landscape of the beyond worked in terms beyond mere life-times or generations.

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth, with a distinctive fabric that may result from the imitation of building in wood. Photo by the author, more of these in a future post…

Much of this, however, seems to have changed, wouldn’t you know it, around the year 1000, when the building of churches on a much wider scale really got going, many of which were probably therefore of wood; they start to have stone fonts, too, which is hard to show earlier when baptism may have been done in lead or wooden tanks. Stone bridges begin to be known, by the twelfth century stone houses too, whose generational perambulation around sites was thus arrested.3 In the 1050s, as discussed here before, we also seem to start seeing fortification in stone. The landscape now became permanently occupied, unlike the light, precise and ephemeral imprint left on it by the earlier Anglo-Saxon cultures. John, closing with these ideas, was careful to stress extensive local variation, made worse by the fact that our texts, largely from the West Saxon milieu, tell us little of the areas where we can see most investment in material culture, the Wash catchment area he’d identified in earlier lectures. For some areas, especially the West Midlands, there is for some periods just no settlement evidence at all, and almost everywhere there is still much more to do. But, a cheering thought, with so much of what is being done now a matter of digital record, we can proceed to do this more with a much better and easier grasp of what there is to do it with.


1. A first attempt at both in Sarah Semple, “A fear of the past: the place of the prehistoric burial mound in the ideology of middle and later Anglo-Saxon England”, in World Archaeology Vol. 30 (London 1998), pp. 109-126.

2. Most of what I now know about such things I know from sharing a Common Room for two years with Clifford Sofield, whose work has been mentioned here before but from whose thesis, “Placed deposits in early and middle Anglo-Saxon rural settlements”, unpublished D. Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2012, we should expect interesting publications.

3. On the explosion of church-building the best place to look is, of course, John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), forgive no page references but I’m away from my notes as I write this. On bridges, the best and almost only thing is Nicholas Brooks, “Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1381″ in Nigel Yates & M. James Gibson (edd.), Traffic and politics: the construction and management of Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1993, Kent History Project 1 (Woodbridge 1994), pp. 1-20. Where you go for stone houses, I’ve no idea, it’s after my period; wait for John’s book!

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.

Charter-hacking II, From the Sources VIII, Feudal Transformations XVII: scribes who take us through the mutation documentaire

When I set this post up as a stub at the end of June 2012 – yup – it was while I was still working steadily through the three thick volumes of Catalunya Carolíngia IV, and I read a document and decided it was my new favourite charter. This happens quite a lot if you’re me—I think my current favourite charter is Beaulieu LXXI, for reasons I may some day get to—but this one played into the continual problem people working on the supposed changes around 1000 have, or indeed anyone working on change may have if their evidence base grows hugely at a certain point in their period: how do you tell that the changes you are seeing are not simply the result of having enough evidence to catch them at last?

The three volumes of the Catalunya Carolíngia covering Osona and Manresa

Shortage of evidence is not really a problem I have

This is of course nothing other than the ‘mutation documentaire’ argued by Dominique Barthélemy in opposition to those who see a ‘mutation féodale’, a feudal transformation around or soon after the year 1000, and it’s especially problematic for Catalonia where the evidence only really begins in the 830s and gets much denser from 940 onwards. This is far from the first time I’ve brought this up here, and I’m not the first to try and find counters either; we’ve seen Brigitte Bedos-Rezak’s take here and I could also, as ever, mention Pierre Bonnassie’s use of numismatic evidence to show that the charters of Catalonia do in fact reflect known changes very quickly.1 I’ve since tried testing for actual change between documents that cover the same sort of things, but we still come up against the problem that change on the documents might be provoked by factors other than changes in actual social practice, even if that would probably also do it… This document enables another attack, however, as we’ll see. I translate from the Latin given in the footnote:2

“In the name of the Lord. I Ermemir am seller to you Adroer, buyer. By this document of my sale I sell to you my selfsame alod that I bought from Déudat and that was the late Atilà’s, that is, houses with a courtyard and gardens and cultivated and waste land as well as a vineyard with its trees, which came to me through purchase or whatever voice, and it is in the county of Manresa, in the castle [term] of Avinyó, in the villa that they call [that]. And all these things inserted above bound: from the east on the torrent that runs there and from the south on the farmstead or on the fief and from the west on the road that goes to various places and from the north on the vineyard of me the seller. Whatever is included within those same four bounds thus I sell you, the selfsame alod that is described above, for the price of 20 solidi in equivalent goods, and it is manifest. Over the which aforesaid alod that I sell you, indeed, I hand from my right to yours dominion and power to do whatever you may want. For if I the seller or any other man who should come to disrupt this same charter, let him not avail in vindicating this but let him compound the selfsame houses with the courtyard and the land with the vineyard and the selfsame trees twofold with all their improvements, and in future let this charter of sale remain firm and stable now and for all time.
“This same charter of sale done the ninth Kalends of May, in the second year that King Louis, son of Lothar, was dead, and King Hugh ought to reign.
“Ermemir S[ub]S[cribe]S, who asked for this same charter of sale to be written and the witnesses to confirm. Mark of Odó. Signed Atilà. Signed Bonfill.
“Oruç, priest, who wrote this same charter of sale and S[ub]S[cribe]S on the day and year as above.”

So, OK, what is so special about this, you may be asking, it looks like a regular enough document? And that’s part of its charm: Oruç clearly knew how a charter should go and stuck to the formulae as far as possible, but in some places it wouldn’t quite work and he had to adapt. The most obvious of these is the dating clause. It’s 989 and there are no more Carolingian kings; Catalonia is famous for its preference for these, to the extent that at this same period one or two scribes went so far as date their documents by Duke Charles of Lorraine, Louis’s uncle who never actually succeeded him, but here we seem to have a scribe or even a transactor who thinks this ridiculous, a lone voice of pro-Capetian opposition.3 There’s no way that’s formulaic pressure, or even a political agenda for the area laid down from on high: this can only be, as with the other dating clause variations at this time, a contemporary reaction to change.

Castell d'Avinyó landscape

Castell d’Avinyó as it now is. I guess it was busier then? From Wikimedia Commons

Once you start looking for those traces of shifting practice, there are more here. The important one for my current work is the reference to a fief on the southern boundary. I know that’s a loaded word, but bear with me. There are in fact quite a few charters from Osona and Manresa, and maybe further afield, that have a benefice, beneficium, on their boundaries. That’s another word with a lot of possible meanings, but there’s three things about it I notice when it turns up: firstly, the word almost never occurs in any other context, so it’s not as it sometimes is elsewhere a catch-all for almost any property, goods or landholding. Secondly, there’s only ever one of these things per charter, and it’s tempting because of that to say it’s always the same one per area and that there is only one. Thirdly, it never, ever, belongs to anyone, whereas usually all the other tenures given as bounds have named owners. (With our example of the day we’re in the wilds and most of the other sides are natural features, but see here if you want.) What I take this to mean is that this land is a benefice, that is, a revocable holding given by a lord to a subordinate, whoever holds it, and that therefore it probably associates with an office. From there it’s but a short jump to saying: this is the allotment of land that supports the local castle, and this is a jump I have made relatively happily before now.4

While I was reading Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I became aware that new words that seem to be doing this same job start to occur towards the end of the tenth century, two of which are the ones we have here, aragal and fevum. The former is tricky: in Castilian documents it seems to mean `stream’ or ‘watercourse’, but Niermeyer gives it as a variant of areale and makes it basically a farm or a piece of land where a farm will be put.5 My sense is that the estate meaning is what we have here, but in any case here the scribe himself isn’t sure it’s right, apparently; it may be a fief. That presents other problems because of other documents doing just this dance not between fief and aragal but between fief and fisc, but that’s exactly why it seems to me that this is the allotment of the local castle, the benefice as was.6 But apparently no longer! Again, formulaic pressure should keep it the same here, but with everything else pretty much stuck in the usual register, ‘my right to yours’, ‘dominion and power to do whatever you may wish’, and so on, this word has to change, because apparently something is going on that means it’s not like a benefice any more. One might suspect that that something is a recognition of hereditary tenure, or maybe a reclassfication or restressing of fiscal rights by the count, and the fact that those two seem like trends in opposite directions isn’t exactly helpful, but this does seem to me a case where the scribe is genuinely having to change his words with the times.

Scribal signture of Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 242, by Jonathan Jarrett

The signature of at least an Ermemir, in a different document, Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 242, photo by your humble author

There is more I could say about this charter. The tenure history is unusually informative, for a start, and that itself raises the possibility that either the scribe or the transactor were unusually talkative (though that again evidences a willingness to bend formulae to practice). Also, I suspect that this Ermemir who makes the sale, and possibly Adroer to whom he sells, could be found elsewhere signing as priests in that manner I described a while back. Alas, I still don’t have a way into the Montserrat archive where this document resides, so although Ermemir signs this document autograph so that it ought to be possible to compare with the relevant priest as above, I still can’t. But we have plenty to talk about already, no?


1. For Barthélemy’s position I suppose the quickest consultation is D. Barthélemy, “The Year 1000 without abrupt or radical transformation” in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 134-147, extracted and translated from Barthélemy’s La société dans le comté de Vendôme de l’an mil au XIVe siècle (Paris 1993), pp. 333-334, 349-361 & 363-364. Also referred to here: Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices: an essay in interpretative methodology” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343, and Pierre Bonnassie, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

2. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1555: “In nomine Domini. Ego Ermemirus vinditor sum tibi Adrovario, emtore. Per hanc scriptura vindicionis mee vindo tibi ipsum meum aulode que ego emi de Dodadus et qui fuit de Atilanii condam, id est casas cum curte et ortos et terra culta vel erma simul cum vinea vel cum arboribus, qui mihi advenit de comparacione vel per quacumque voce, et est in comitatum Minorissa, in castrum Avignone, ad ipso villare quem dicunt. Et afronta ec omnia superius inserta: de oriente in torente qui inde discurit et de meridie in ipso aragal vel in ipso feo et de occiduo in via qui pergit in diversa loca et de circii in vinea de me vinditore. Quantum infra istas IIIIor afrontaciones includunt sic vindo tibi ipso aulode quod superius resonat, totum ab integrum, cum exio vel regresio suo, in propter precium solidos XX in rem valentem, et est manifestum. Quem vero predicto ipso aulode que tibi vido de me iuro in tuo trado dominio et potestatem ad facere omnia que volueris. Quod si ego vinditor aut ullusque homo qui contra anc ista carta vindicione pro inrumpendum venerit non oc valeat vindicare set componat ipsas casas cum curte et orto et terra cum vinea vel cum ipsos arbores in duplo cum omnem suam immelioracione, et in antea ista carta vindicione firma et stabilis permaneat modo vel omnique tempore.
“Facta ista carta vindicione VIIII kalendas madii, anno II quod obiit Leudevicii regi, filium Leutarii, et debet regnare Ugone rex.
“Ermemirus SSS., qui ista carta vindicione rogavi scribere et testes firmare. Sig+num Eudone. Sig+num Adila. Sig+num Bonefilio.
“Aurucius presbiter, qui ista carta vindicione scripsit et SSS. die et anno quod supra.”


3. On these tendencies see Anscari M. Mundó, “La datació de documents pel rei Robert (996-1031) a Catalunya”, in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 4 (Barcelona 1967), pp. 13-34.

4. In J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), p. 84, where an example is given.

5. Jan Frederik Niermeyer (ed.), Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus. Lexique latin médiéval–français/anglais. A Medieval Latin–French/English Dictionary (Leiden 1976), p. 59.

6. Locally, see 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, but the usage is more widespread than that and was thus noticed a long time ago by none other than Marc Bloch, in e. g. “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

Feudal Transformations XVI: two fields or three?

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system


As with so many of the best bits of learning, a while ago I came up against something in a book that I was reading, for completely different reasons, that made me think anew about the fabled old feudal transformation (and you might think I’d thought enough about that, these days). This thing was a chapter by one Helmut Hildebrandt about the spread of the three-field system in Central Europe, by which he turned out to mean substantially Germany with a glance at the Paris basin.1 Over that area he argued that over the eighth to tenth centuries the system of using three fields in rotation, one for sowing a winter crop to be harvested in spring, one for a summer crop to be harvested in the autumn and one lying fallow to get the next winter crop, became fairly widely established, whereas it had been largely missing before that. I wasn’t thinking much of this till the date 1000 crossed the text and I suddenly wondered about the effects of increased yield on the economy, since as you may recall as much of an answer as I have to the whole transformation question is that, “it’s the economy, stupid”. So, does all this add up to anything I should have thought about by now?

Well, the evidence Hildebrandt had for the phenomenon is kind of horrible: he’s very largely arguing from the ways that rents were collected by ecclesiastical landowners over the period, as revealed in sources like polyptychs and leases. That makes sense in so far as they’re kind of all we have (though in England I don’t think anyone would try and argue about this without using survey evidence too2) but it has all kinds of issues. Churches had long-term land strategies in ways that lay landowners didn’t necessarily: they could be supporting a lot more unproductive mouths than the average lay household, not just in the community but in terms of poor relief and hospitality, and of course their land was never divided by inheritance so they could plan in a longer term.3 Their rents might therefore be exactly the place we’d expect to see systematisation but we can’t really argue from that that it got any further into the community. Of course, the churches were a lot of landownership, so it’s still significant. But since Hildebrandt was very happy here to argue against deducing significant change from such evidence where it would take away from his overall picture, on the grounds that underneath a rent structure the land can be organised any way that pays it, there are still problems.4 In fairness, there he was mainly talking about common fields, and the more work I see about common fields in the earlier Middle Ages the more I think the debate is basically anachronistic in the hands of everyone but Gaspar Feliu.5 No, I am cautious about accepting this phenomenon as anything like universal, but then so was Hildebrandt, emphasising variation and alternatives and making a complex picture of a tendency towards a three-field system that in some areas with special conditions worked out differently.6 But even if we say that it’s only a trend and that the ecclesiastical landowners we see doing it may be leading that trend, it ought to make some kind of difference to how much wealth is in the system and that is kind of the motor of change either side of 1000 as far as I’m concerned. So is this where that change is coming from?

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Well, as we’ve seen before and will doubtless see again, there’s a problem with most ’causes’ of broad social change in the Middle Ages, which is that they tend to happen together and so one can usually argue that any one is causing all the others. This is the point of my famous diagram, above, after all. The biggest problem I have with this change in agriculture being such a driver is that it was new to me, because in Catalonia the situation is a lot more varied, with three-field going back to an uncertain date but two-field arable and grassland rotation equally common and vines messing up the picture by being a cash crop. People here at the right time tended to have land in a variety of small plots good for only one thing and a system is hard to construct for it.7 Hildebrandt’s picture really only covers Germany, the Low Countries and North-Eastern France, and the problem is that only the last of these really undergoes something that is easily recognisable as part of the feudal transformation model, and even there there’s a degree of top-down collapse of authority for other reasons that might be enough all by itself.8 Meanwhile, where this change is most marked is where there’s least other change. So if it’s a motor it isn’t much of one.

The other problem is one of the chicken and the egg. Here this is especially important. Hildebrandt did consider why this change that he saw was happening, and his belief was that the change towards common fields, at least, which is later than the change of field rotation as he saw it, is down to the increase of population requiring a greater yield from existing land and so idle land in awkward locations being brought into cultivation where before individual ownership had not been able to work it usefully.9 I think that seigneurial renders should probably also be considered as a driver there but we can easily guess where I got that from.10 Either way, the shift of systems is a consequence here of other things that have their place in the debate as causes. Even though it’s earlier than most of the big social changes embroiled in the feudal transformation model, a partial change in crop rotation seems likely to be an effect, not a cause, part of the bigger take-off run of the European economy in this era.11

So at the end I don’t think this gets me any new answers. But I am suddenly very conscious that to the best of my knowledge this kind of work has not been done for my area, and I’m not sure that sources exist from which it could, as yet. And that bothers me, because if I’m going to discount this there I’d like to do so from more than silence.


1. Helmut Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290. You can see why it was an unexpected find given that it’s about neither Anglo-Saxons nor settlement.

2. I suppose I think of Christopher Taylor, Village and Farmstead: rural settlement in medieval England (London 1983) but his “The Anglo-Saxon Countryside” in Trevor Rowley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlement and Landscape. Papers Presented to a Symposium, Oxford 1973, British Archaeological Reports (British series) 6 (Oxford 1974), pp. 5-15, might be a better parallel.

3. Nowhere witnessed so thoroughly as in the regulations on bread in the Statutes of Adalhard Abbot of Corbie, translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32.

4. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 284-287.

5. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “La pagesia i els béns comunals” in Els grans espais baronials a l’Edat Mitjana: desenvolupament socioeconòmic. Reunió científica. I Curs d’Estiu Comtat d’Urgell (Balaguer, 10, 11 i 12 de juliol de 1996) (Lleida 2002), pp. 23-40; cf. C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5, about which as you may remember I had views.

6. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 279-284 (esp. 282-283) and 287-290.

7. Working from Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507, and further work collected in Immaculada Ollich, Maria Ocañ & Montserrat Rocafiguera (edd.), Experimentació arqueològica sobre conreus medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), online at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sK1ptZDwfV8C as of 28 July 2011, where they really don’t have an archaeological basis for separating the early and high medieval field systems; Reynolds’s initial paper describes them using both two-field and three-field in their tests precisely for this reason.

8. Classically described in Jean-François Lemarignier, “La dislocation du « pagus » et le problème des « consuetudines », Xe-XIe siècles” in Charles-Edmond Perrin (ed.), Mélanges d’histoire du moyen âge dédiés à la mémoire de Louis Halphen (Paris 1951), pp. 401-410, repr. in Lemarignier, Structures politiques et religieuses dans la France du haut Moyen Âge, ed. Dominique Barthélemy, Publications de l’Université de Rouen 206 (Rouen 1995), pp. 245-254.

9. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 286-287.

10. Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, and his “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32, the last of which is where I read it.

11. On which see La croissance agricole du haut Moyen Âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

From the sources VI: a longer more complicated piece of swearing

You know what? There isn’t enough swearing on this blog. I know we just had some the other day (week, month…) but it was short and a bit weird, you know. I think you deserve better. Also, more to the point, I think my future students on that Feudal Transformation course deserve better, so when I was getting that previous one I also transcribed another Catalan feudal oath that is more typical in its length and its content. I’ll give a translation below and put the text in the footnote. Once again, vernacular words and phrases are emboldened, but it’s hard to draw the lines in some cases; we have `vernacular’ words with Latin inflections here… There’s also some weird play with singular and plural here that I think may betray a model text that only covered one person, so I’ve stuck to the text in that respect even where it seems to make no sense (huge singular count-countess Gestalt!) and otherwise tried to make the oddities of the text appear in the translation.

I, Ermemir of Castelltallat, son of the late woman Bellúcia, swear that from this same hour I will in future be faithful to my lord Ramon, Count of Barcelona, and his wife Elisabet, Countess, without fraud or evil intent and without any deception and without trickery. And I the above-written Ermemir from this hour will not do you Ramon or Elisabet already said out of their life nor their members that they have on their body, nor their cities or city, nor of their bishoprics or bishopric, nor of their counties or lands, nor of their fortresses or castles, nor of their rocks or peaks, managed estates or wild lands, nor of their honour that they have in al-Andalus, nor of the selfsame parish of Castelltallat, nor of the lordship that the count ought to have there.

The hilltop, castle, church and observatory of Castelltallat, Manresa, Catalonia

Of course tall hills are good for more than just castles but I think Ermemir would be a bit surprised by what his home is now used for (image from Wikimedia Commons)

And I, the above-written Ermemir, will be faithful over all those same things to Ramon and Elisabet the above-written, and will not do them out of them, nor offer them any harm, and I will be their help against any gathered men or man, women or woman, who might wish to attack them or do so. And of this aid I will not deceive them and I will help them without any trickery except [where it concerns] the viscount of Cardona himself, the sons of the late lord Folc, my lord.

And I, the above-written Ermemir, within the first 30 days that I shall know that the above-written Count Ramon be dead, if I shall have survived him, I will swear a similar oath to and hold it from the selfsame son to whom Ramon the already-said shall have left the selfsame city of Barcelona, like the one I’ve sworn to them, to the already-said Ramon and the already-said Elisabet. Just as has been written above, thus I the afore-said Ermemir hold it and for it serve the aforesaid Count Ramon and the already-said Elisabet without deceiving them, except whatever the above-written Count Ramon and Elisabet, the above-written countess, shall forgive me through the grace of their generous hearts, without compulsion. So help me God and these same relics of the saints.1

You may ask what makes this one more typical than the last one.2 Answers might be, firstly, that there was a castle involved, and that some of the rights protected specifically refer to the counts; later on this would become a formalised clause granting access and indeed reversion on demand. Secondly, there was another lord, the viscount of Cardona (apparently at this time uncertain, which probably dates the oath to 1040, when Folc I (1019-1040) had very briefly been succeeded by his brother Eribau Bishop of Urgell (bishop 1035-1040) who then died on pilgrimage to Jerusalem).3 It may be in the Bible that no man can serve two masters, but two was relatively unambitious for a Catalan castellan where the layers of infeudation could get a lot deeper than this.4 It does also mean that what was going on here is that Ramon Berenguer I, the Elder, (1035-1076) was gazumping another lord by bribing his client, but that is basically how Ramon Berenguer overcame the Feudal Transformation and it’s interesting to see him doing it this early in his reign; if this does date from 1040, he was sixteen or seventeen at this point and hadn’t yet proclaimed his majority. In this case, the viscount retained the ultimate call on Ermemir’s loyalty; when Ramon Berenguer was older and less opposed, he no longer accepted such second-place status, another thing that makes this look early. Thirdly, there’s an arrangement for the succession; that hold over the viscount of Cardona might not have been a good one, but it was meant to endure, although for some reason the count seems to have been more prepared for his own death than that of Ermemir (who may, of course, have been little older). The whole thing looks a bit more as if one could find the institutional basis of a governing class in it than the previous all-female one (though right at this time female government was all too accepted as far as as Ramon Berenguer was concerned, in the shape of his implacable grandmother and regent, Countess Ermessenda of Girona (993-1057), so I don’t mean to imply that the two women’s agreement was less effective than the men’s one here).5

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya, as shown in the Liber Feudorum Maior (image from Wikimedia Commons)

There are, you see, a great many things that have been called `feudal’ without any good basis or thought or agreement about what the word might actually mean; but as long as we’re able usefully to call anything feudal, I think that agreements like this, involving, you know, a fief, held under conditions of loyalty and service with reversion between generations, are probably one such thing. And this is what that looks like.


1. The text is Barcelona, Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, Pergamins sin fecha, Ramón Berenguer I, n.o 69 dupl, as edited by Francesco Miquel Rosell in his (ed.), Liber feudorum maior: cartulario real que se conserva al Archivo de la Corona de Aragón. Reconstitución y edició (Barcelona 1945), vol. I doc. no. 205:

Iuro ego Ermemirus de castro Talatus, filis qui fuit de Belucia, femina, quod de ista hora in antea fidelis ero ad Raimundum, comitem Barchinonensem, seniorem meum, et ad Elisabeth, comitissa, coniugem suam, sine fraude et malo ingenio et sine ulla decepcione et sine engam. Et ego Ermemirus suprascriptus de ista hora in antea no dezebre Raimundus nec Elisabeth iam dictos de illorum vita nec de illorum membris que in corpus illorum se tenent, nec de illorum civitates vel civitatem, nec de illorum episcopatos vel episcopatu, nec de illorum comitatibus vel terris, nec de illorum castris vel castellis, nec de illorum rochas vel puios, condirectos vel eremos, nec de illorum honore quod habent de Ispania, nec de ipsa parrochia de Castel Talad, nec de ipsa domnegadura que comes ibi habere debet. Et ego, Ermemirus suprascriptus, de ista omnia suprascripta fidelis ero ad Raimundum et ad Elisabeth surascriptos, et nu’ls en dedebre, ni mal nu’ls en menare; et adiutor contra cunctos homines aut hominem, feminas aut feminam, qui eis tollere voluerint aut voluerit, tulerit aut tulerint. Et de ipso adiutorio nu’ls engannare et sine engan lur en aiudare, exceptus ipse vicecomite de Carduna, qui fuit de ipsos filios domno Fulchoni, seniori meo. Et ego, Ermemirus suprascriptis, infra ipsos primos XXX dies quod ego sciero quod iam dictus Raimundus comes mortuus fuerit, si ego eum supervixero, ad ipsum filium cui iam dictus Raimundus dimiserit ipsam civitatem de Barchinona tale sacramentum l’en iurare e l’en tenre, qualem ad iam dictum Raimundum et ad iam dicta Elisabeth iurad lur en’e. Sicut superius scriptum est, si o tenre et o atendre ego Ermemirus suprascriptus ad prescriptum Raimundum comitem et ad Elisabeth iam dictam sine illorum engan, exceptus quantum me suprascriptus Raimundus comes et Elisabeth, comitissa suprascripta, me absolvran per illorum gradientes animos per grad, sine forcia. Sic me adiuvet Deus et istarum sanctarum reliquiarum.

It must also be edited in Gaspar Feliu i Montfort & Josep María Salrach (edd.), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 18-20 (Barcelona 1999), but I haven’t had time to check there. Getting Spanish books out of the Bodleian’s fetching system is something of a lottery alas; will it take a day, or a week? Will it happen at all? No-one knows. 75% of cases it turns up on time. That still makes one in four library days a bloody annoyance though. Cambridge spoiled me in this respect.

2. On these texts and their variations and significance, as I said last time, the go-to reference is now Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order, and the written word, 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2001), plus if you can get it Michel Zimmermann, “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i expansió del feudalisme català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with English summary p. 557.

3. On this family I would ordinarily reference Manuel Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260, not least because it’s online for free here, but I now own (though have yet to read) Francesc Rodríguez Bernal, Els vescomtes de Cardona al segle XII: una història a travers dels seus testaments (Lleida 2009), which I expect will tell me rather more.

4. The best schematised discussion is, I think, still in Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), vol. II pp. 596-608, with diagrams that make the conventional feudal pyramid look just a touch idealised.

5. I am perpetually drawn two ways on Ermessenda: on the one hand, clearly she was awesome and when her actual husband was alive seems to have been his perfect partner, you really couldn’t say which of the two was dominant or in charge, but on the other hand her refusal to let go of that status once he was dead was a major contributing cause to decades of civil war, death and social collapse. She is studied in Antoni Pladevall, Ermessenda de Carcassona, Girona i Osona. Esbós biogràfic en el mil·lenari del seu naixement (Barcelona 1975), and the period as a whole in any of Kosto, Making Agreements, Bonnassie, Catalogne or Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Els Grans Comtes de Barcelona, Biografies catalans: serie històrica 2 (Barcelona 1961). There must be more up-to-date work on her but I haven’t met it yet.

Feudal Transformations XV: proving a negative with power relations in Catalonia

Will you permit me one another post dancing round the supposed feudal transformation? You will? So kind, I’ll try and make it interesting by including, as well as the duelling historians, good old Unifred Amat, the much-beloved castellan of previous posts, as well as the inevitable Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona. Let’s first set up some background. As Chris Wickham teaches us, there are several ways one can read the word `feudal’ when you’re actually doing scholarship on this period: there’s the grand-scale Marc Bloch whole-society sense, in which feudalism is the defining ethic that pervades social conduct and organisation, as espoused these days by Poly and Bournazel; there’s the Marxist sense, in which it is an economic organisation in which production is controlled by the producers but a ruling class extracts surplus from the producing class in order to maintain their social and economic dominance, as opposed to various other forms I won’t discuss here, as espoused, well, mainly by Chris really; and there is a more restricted sense about the organisation of power, in which the resources for military power are farmed out to lesser lords by greater ones in exchange for the lesser lords doing various services to the greater. This can also be called `feudo-vassalitic’, which is a horrible word but avoids confusion with the other two senses, something that has otherwise happened a great deal leading for several scholars to argue for an end to the use of the term `feudal’ at all, since what happens is that people use evidence for one sense about another and so on and so on.1 (Like matriliny and matriarchy.) So here I am talking solely about the third, feudo-vassalitic, sense. Obviously there is some cross-over: a society where power is organised solely via military bonds of service is probably not going to have a capitalist economic set-up, because that would allow other means of power organisation to operate and would make a paid army far more effective and less dangerous to those in power. (There are probably exceptions, but stay with me.) Likewise such a society is likely to preach ethics of loyal service and heroism that get into the literature and help pass those ethics out more generally, and so on. This is kind of the Bloch argument by the back door, however, and I don’t want to go there with this post (not least because it took him a two-volume book). I just want to talk about organising military service in frontier Catalonia.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

By, say, 1040, it was very simple how this was done here: a great lord, like the count, bestowed a certain property, usually a castle but potentially, at the very bottom of the scale, just a salary, on a lesser character, and that lesser character swore to return it on demand, not to deny the count use of or access to the castle, and generally not to prejudice his interests in any way. The obligations were almost always negative here, not to do things, rather than to actually do things, though the obligation to turn up with troops on demand is usually there. This comes out in undated oath documents that read like this:

I, Amat son of the woman Ermengarda, swear that from this hour in future I will be faithful to you, Elisabeth, countess, without fraud or evil intent and without any deception and without your trickery, just as a faithful man ought to be to his lord, as I know myself, by direct faith. And I the above-written Amat will not do you, the already-said Elisabeth, out of the New Castle of Barcelona that I hold, not I, [any] men or man, women or woman, by my counsel nor by my cunning, and through whatever means you shall ask it of me, by your yourself or by your messengers or messenger, I will put you in power over it without your trickery. And if there should be man or men, woman or women, who take from you, Elisabeth, the already-said castle or do you out of it, I Amat already-said will have neither [common] end nor truce nor society with them or with him or with them or her until you shall have the already-said castle returned; and just as much will I be your helper in this cause until it be returned, I will not do you any harm over it, but just as it is written above, thus I will carry it out in correct faith. Just as it is written above, so I will hold it and attend to it. By God and these relics of the saints.2

I freely admit that I give that in full solely because I need it for the Feudal Transformation course next year, but you get the idea. The bits I’ve thrown into bold were in the vernacular in the original, these documents containing the earliest written Catalan there is.3 So okay, there’s that. Now there’s an argument against the whole idea that Western European society goes through terrible spasms around the year 1000 (or, ya know, whenever) that runs that instead the documentary record does so, and starts recording things that have been going on for a long time already that we previously didn’t see because the documents were formulaic, and recorded Roman-derived ideals not actual practice.4 Leaving aside the obvious issue that if the documents are changing the demand for them must also be changing, implying changes in the constitution of society that are probably quite substantial, it is also possible to attack this idea in more direct ways by proving that the documents do respond to change.5 And then it’s possible just to haul up counter-examples where what seem to be contemporary details over the organisation of power are thrashed out in a completely different way, and that’s where I’m going here. So, Unifred Amat, right?

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Unifred was son of a major frontier nobleman called Sal·la, the kind of independent who doesn’t need a title and who owned all over the counties of Osona and Manresa, putting up castles, clearing lands, funding settlers and founding a monastery, which is just as well as otherwise I doubt we’d have any of the documents that tell us about this stuff. He is, in any case, the sort of person whom a scribe can have called “egregious prince” and it not immediately be assumed by scholars that the document was a forgery.6 Because he divided this importance between his sons, none of them are as irrepressible, but Sal·la also appears to have got them to take service with or hold lands from Count Borrell II, something that he himself did not do. I’ve never understood why he did this; times had presumably changed. In any case, one result was that in 951 Borrell was prevailed upon to give Unifred a substantial whack of land at Buc, on the Riu d’Or in Manresa. The document of this was unusually sonorous in phrasing, cursing any infringers with the recipient’s sins and a portion in Hell with Judas, which is unusual for non-ecclesiastical properties.7 I can’t explain that either, but I can tell you what happened next, or what is recorded anyway, which is that on the same day with most of the same people watching Unifred sold that same property straight on to one Guifré for 200 solidi.8 Obviously that put Guifré in his debt, but the only expression of a relation of subjection here is between Unifred and Borrell: Unifred was Borrell’s fidelis, whereas there’s no link specified between Guifré and anyone. So what was going on here? I see four possibilities:

  1. Unifred is hard up for cash and effectively mortgages a gift from the count to provide it. Guifré gets the land, Unifred the money, Borrell gets to push his old chief magnate’s family just a little bit further into subjection. Obvious problem: why doesn’t Unifred just ask for the money himself? Borrell may have more land than cash, but this is not a big amount for Borrell.9
  2. Guifré is a frontier settler, wanting a new project, and Unifred is his local lord; Unifred doesn’t have spare land so gets some from the count. Problem: why does Unifred do this? Guifré must be subject to him in some way that is not stated for this to work.
  3. the classic feudal answer: Unifred wishes to repay Guifré for various services or to enrol him for future ones (effectively enfeoffing him with land) and thus prevails upon his own lord to grant the land and then sells it. Guifré gets the land under terms of service that we don’t have, possibly entirely oral given the vernacular’s use in such oaths later, Unifred thus gets a client and the money, Borrell gets, well, nothing. Obvious problems: Borrell gets nothing while Unifred becomes more important, and then there is the money: Guifré pays through the nose for this land, can he really also be a feudal dependant? With that kind of spare money, why be dependent at all, or at least, why not get better terms than that?
  4. even more complex: Guifré is Unifred’s follower in some way or other and they wish, or Unifred wishes, to arrange a relationship of subjection for land in a quasi-feudo-vassalitic style for which as yet the documents do not exist; Unifred gets the land from Borrell and gives the money to Guifré so that Guifré has a counter-gift to make which expresses his obligation in some way; that is, the money is a token for the service that Unifred was really receiving. Advantage: pacifies Barthélemy. Problems: involves assuming that almost all the documents are misrepresenting things and that we know better. In particular, why use a sale formula that explicitly says that Guifré has paid all his dues for the land (“nichil de isto precio ad me comparatore remansit et est manifestum“)? A donation formula would have been more suitable; there are plenty of documents out there that do contain donations with conditions, using phrases like “in tale racione videlicet ut…” and then setting a rent or whatever.10 So the documents could have done this better, if this is what’s going on, and the money is still very hard to explain.

At the end of this, I at least am clear in my mind that this is not a feudal agreement. A fifth way of reading it is that a client of Borrell’s is here being set up with a local lord, or that Borrell is increasing his trusted castellan’s personal army to help him hold the frontier zone down; Borrell was keen on ensuring that sort of thing, ideally without paying for it himself.11 In that case, the initiative might have been the count’s, which would have its echoes in genuinely feudo-vassalitic documents but which is not here being arranged feudally. If the initiative was Guifré’s, however, then his terms were presumably advantageous to him; he wanted the land and was willing to pay. Why he approached Unifred is harder to say, but Unifred’s family was certainly important. If the initiative was Unifred’s, it makes slightly more sense, but one would expect the terms of subjection to be more explicit. It must be said that Borrell often did this, selling land to his men for large sums, but they were usually holding from him on other terms elsewhere beforehand.12 Maybe that’s the case here too and Unifred had already set up Guifré in this area and now wanted to let him do more; it’s odd that we don’t have the document but arguments from silence never hold much water round here. But it’s the money, the money that messes up any simple feudal equivalence here; Guifré obviously had means, he could have just bought land from someone else.

Buc is now known as Castellnou de Bages

On the other hand, it’s the gift from Borrell that messes up a simple sale hypothesis. Unifred was demonstrating a connection to the count here, and that implies patronage. But if it was straight feudalism, he’d have no need to do that; the need to demonstrate patronage implies competition with other possible patrons. And that gives agency to Guifré; presumably, he could choose from whom to get his land. (I mean, presumably he could have approached the count himself!) So in fine, I think what we have here is Borrell choosing to reinforce Unifred’s status as local domnus (not that that term is used), which might also explain the solemn curse and so on, and Unifred apparently needing comital help to hold on to that status when a wealthy local chooses to test this. I don’t see anything here to indicate that that local need have wound up as Unifred’s vassal, or that Unifred wound up with anything more than 200 solidi. If that was the aim of the game, this was a very strange way to organise it and, although much better ones would be available later, rather better ones were also available now.
Because of the implied competition for clients, however, it seems more likely to me that the local climate of lordship itself was not fully formed here, rather than that the means of record for it hadn’t yet been invented. I see here Carolingian, Matthew-Innes-style patronage, where the centre chooses to endorse one of a number of possible local interests who need that endorsement to achieve local dominance.13 We seem to be a long way here from the world of the convenientiae, and that’s in political as well as documentary terms. So there is still, for me, a transformation to explain here, and probably will be for a while.


1. It’s probably as well to give these references again I suppose: Chris sets out the three ideal types in “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nell’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; opposition to the whole idea mounted classically by 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 (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169, and more thoroughly and crossly by Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994). Bloch: M. Bloch, La société féodale (Paris 1949), transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (New York City 1961); Poly & Bournazel, Jean-Pierre Poly & Eric Bournazel, La mutation féodale, Xe-XIIe siècles (Paris 1981), transl. Caroline Higgit as The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200 (New York City 1983), 2nd edn. in French 1991.

2. Here I’ve used F. Miquel Rosell (ed.), Liber feudorum maior: cartulario real que se conserva en la Archivo de la Corona de Aragón (Madrid 1945), 2 vols, I. doc. no. 418 of between 1039 and 1049; this must be reprinted in Gaspar Feliu & Josep María Salrach (eds), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 19-21 (Barcelona 1998), but I didn’t have time to order that up as well. If you want the Latin/Catalan, I can provide. For more on this kind of document you can see the very excellent Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order, and the written word, 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2001), though it doesn’t entirely supplant Michel Zimmermann, “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i expansió del feudalisme català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona Nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with English summary p. 557.

3. J. Bastardas, “El català vers l’any 1000″ in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 495-513 with French & Provencal résumés & English abstract p. 514.

4. This argument is of course forever associated with the name Dominique Barthélemy, who propounded it in “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, later expanded into La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Paris 1997) with the addition of other reprinted articles, the whole question reprised again in his L’An mil et la Paix de Dieu : la France chrétienne et féodale, 980-1060 (Paris 1999); in English, his thinking can be accessed in idem “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell in Past and Present no. 152 (1996), pp. 196-205; Barthélemy, “The Year 1000 Without Abrupt or Radical Transformation”, eds & transl. Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein & rev. Barthélemy, in Little & Rosenwein, Debating the Middle Ages, pp. 134-147 and now Barthélemy, The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, transl. Graham Robert Edwards (Ithaca 2009).

5. The best counter-attacks so far mounted (of course) by Pierre Bonnassie, firstly in “Sur la genèse de la féodalité catalane : nouvelles approches” in Feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, pp. 569-606, and idem, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

6. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 144-151.

7. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 678. Like most of the documents relating to Sal·la and sons, this one only survives as a typescript copy of an original that someone took away for `safe-keeping’ during the Spanish Civil War. I live in hope that this cache will some day turn up. There is also ibid. no. 679, which does survive in the original and appears to be a variant copy of 678 by a different scribe allotting slightly different terms to the grant. I can't work out any way to make this part of solving the puzzle I deal with here, rather than just another complication, so I leave it aside in the argument.

8. Ibid., doc. no. 680.

9. Michel Zimmermann would have us believe that Borrell and his father were extremely short of money, which is why they kept selling castles (“La rôle de la frontière dans la formation de Catalogne (IX-XIIème siècle)” in Las Sociedades de Frontera en la España Medieval. Aragón en la Edad Media: sesiones de trabajo, II seminario de historia medieval (Zaragoza 1993), pp. 7-29 at pp.17-18), but for me at least the way that Borrell managed his resources doesn’t fit thus; he frequently gave stuff away, as here, which you might think he could have demanded payment for, and it’s not clear to me why his expenses should have been much higher than his forebears, who certainly went to war more often than he did. I don’t mean to say he didn’t want to keep those expenses down (see n. 11 below!) but that isn’t the same thing, necessarily.

10. If you’ve already got Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, out and in front of you by this point (as I’m sure you all have) you can find such a donation there as doc. no. 700, where a priest called Esperandéu gives a church to the cathedral at Sant Pere de Vic, “in tale racione, videlicet, ut” he gets the revenues from the estate for his life and he also gets to choose the next priest, who will be similarly funded by those revenues, and that priest the next one and so on, though all these priests will at least have to come from the cathedral chapter. Is this simony? I actually can’t work it out…

11. So, witness Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Diplomatari del monestir de Tavèrnoles (segles IX-XIII)” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 12 (Montserrat 1995), pp. 7-414, doc. no. 23 where Borrell gladly passes on to the eponymous monastery a frontier civitas and fortress that he has apparently been garrisoning with standing troops at his own expense, turning it into into a monastic development zone. This is, I think, the only clue we have that he did this and it also contains a fabulous lengthy description of what he expects that development to look like, so it’s well worth a look. In fact I should make it into a ‘From the Sources’ post.

12. The most obvious example is the family of the previous post, the castellans of Gurb, where Ansulf was Vicar of Sant Llorenç already when Borrell gave him a whack of land in Gurb but who then bought a church nearby from the count for a swingeing amount of gold (discussion and references Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 116-117) but he is far from the only example (more and general discussion ibid. pp. 151-154).

13. Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), more or less passim really.

“Studying history stops people believing rubbish”, and other Internet gems

I’m actually catching up on backlog here, assisted by the fact that both Oxford Medieval History seminar and Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar have had to cancel their first week’s event this term. There is of course the little matter of imminent Kalamazoo and a few other more local deadlines, so things are still a bit pressed. In that spirit, I hope you won’t mind if once more I link you to a bunch of things that other people have written while I get on with mine.

  • First up, I was genuinely delighted to see that someone (who has so far remained anonymous) has done a wonderful and sympathetic photo-tour of my old workplace, the Department of Coins and Medals in the Fitzwilliam Museum. He has captured both its industry and its habitual near-chaos, and it probably also qualifies as bookshelf porn; do have a look, it’s great, and cheered me a great deal as I did and do like the place. (A tip of the hat goes to my erstwhile colleague Andy Woods, who mentioned this on Academia.edu.)
  • Secondly, do you remember Francis Fukuyama, the man who declared that history was basically coming to a kind of entropic close as liberal democracy won out everywhere? I could sort of understand his point of view when I first met this, as I live in an allegedly-liberal democracy myself and didn’t get out of it much then, but you might have expected him to backpedal a bit these days. Instead, he now has a book called The Origins of Political Order in which, if this review and interview in the New York Times is a fair account, he basically goes straight from tribalism to feudalism without pause or consideration. “He explicitly assumes that human social nature is universal and is built around certain evolved behaviors like favoring relatives, reciprocal altruism, creating and following rules, and a propensity for warfare”, says the reviewer, which will give you an idea. There is much praise quoted from political scientists, but dear gods, this is no kind of `science’ I wish to recognise, and I think it will make most historians feel slightly ill. Consider yourself warned for when your students have read it…
  • More authentically medieval, you may have met in old work on medieval Europe, occasionally still parroted in textbooks, the idea that the transition in Europe from post-Roman to high medieval society was based, among other things, around the recovery of the ability to make and use the `heavy plough‘, a wheeled plural-beast-drawn thing capable of turning thick, clayey, fertile soils, with consequent benefits in crop yield, harvest size, surplus and bang! feudal transformation! etc. Since the Romans had heavy ploughs, and they’re not exactly mystical high-tech., this has always looked like rubbish to some people, or at least, more to do with social choice and structure than with the actual technology, and occasionally we find bits of the things that help fill in the picture. The latest of these is also, I think, the furthest west anything like this early, and has come out of the very interesting excavations at Lyminge led by Dr Gabor Thomas that I’ve mentioned here before. It is inarguably seventh-century and should hopefully bury this ghost of technological determinism plus Dark-Age benightedness in the hole whence it came. (I learn this from David Beard’s Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog, to which a hat tip.)
  • Borrowed from the webcomic Least I Could Do

    But the cream of the crop is indubitably the one I’ve borrowed for the title, which may become my new motto, and which comes from a report in The Guardian, itself reporting on a report by the English school inspectorate, OFSTED, which, ah, reports that in too many schools, pupils are not being taught to go beyond the textbooks, which are often themselves constructed for the A-Level examinations and not beyond, resulting in a `stultification’ of history and children not being prepared for further study in the subject. Well, yes, we have many of us met stuff that looks as if this could be its explanation, I’m sure. But the interesting bit is where OFSTED set out their stall for what they’d hope the teaching of history in schools would achieve. Although this refers to and sits alongside the current government’s insistence on a connected narrative, rather than an episodic drop-in on supposedly-important eras (and the article is accordingly headed with an icon of the government’s current history god Simon Schama), it carefully ignores the bit that comes with that about an excessive emphasis on skills.

    Instead they conclude that: “… history is well placed to enhance pupils’ sense of social responsibility, teaching about diversity, migration and national identity”. And when they say, “teaching about,” they seem to mean “teaching to question,” as they quote an unnamed pupil (unnamed even in the actual report, not that the Guardian links to it of course, but it’s easy enough to find here) who said, as per the title, “Studying history stops people believing rubbish“. That’s it! I mean, damn, print the t-shirt, start the marches! The trouble is, I grow to suspect more and more, is that the powers-that-be would rather have voting populations who do believe rubbish, and I don’t know how we win that fight (though some thoughts will eventually emerge here in the next few weeks). This one I also got via David Beard, this time at his Archaeology on Europe blog, so a hat tip there. And that’s it for now, see you shortly!

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?