Tag Archives: feudal transformation

Seminar CLXXXI: things missing from the Miracles of Saint Faith

Somehow my seminar report backlog is still in May 2013, which was clearly a very busy month, but this was the last thing in it, 29th May when Dr Faye Taylor came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to give a paper entitled “Miracles and Mutation in Southern France”. This was part of a larger project in which she was evaluating what hagiography can tell us about the social changes enveloped in the interminable debate over the supposed feudal transformation, and here she focused on one of the two pieces of it that have been made most crucial to it, and one beloved of this blog, the Miracles of Saint Faith.1

The reliquary of Sainte-Foi de Conques

The lady herself, in her somewhat incongruous housing at Sainte-Foi de Conques.

To remind you of the nature of this text, it is a four-part collection of miracles performed by Saint Faith, or Sainte Foy, a child martyr under Diocletian who in the ninth century was stolen from her first burial place and set up at the abbey of Conques, where she seems to have liked it and caused a great many miracles while the abbey grew slowly and steadily due to her and its position on the pilgrim route to Compostela. The first two books were written by a northerner, a Chartres-trained clergyman called Bernard of Angers, whose changing reaction to the saint’s cult from shock at the idolatry of the reliquary statue and the processions it got taken on slowly becomes convinced and somewhat blinkered devotion to the cult, so that he wound up collecting its miracles and then updating them. The third and fourth books are however later additions done in-house by anonymous authors, and are worth considering separately. Bernard’s work was very good, though; as I have observed here before, it’s very hard to read the stories he gathered and not get a clear sense of the saint as a sort of gleeful magpie child with powerful friends in Heaven, and I’m not going to attempt to rationalise her out of my prose in what follows.

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France. By Peter Campbell (self-made, Canon A70) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

For Dr Taylor, however, the best way to see Saint Faith in these stories was as a saint becoming a lord. Apparently Conques shed its vicecomital abbots in the late tenth-century; this now confuses me looking back at my notes, because I have it down that these abbots were of the vicecomital family of Conflent, which is to say that we’re talking the kindred of Bishops Guisad II and Sal·la of Urgell and of the vicar Sal·la of Bages, all figures well-known on this blog, but I knew nothing of this and even now can’t find any other note of it.2 So I think I must have misunderstood. In any case, without their lay lords’ protection the monks at Conques seem to have relied on their saint, putting her reliquary up behind the altar and before long getting a bright young man from Chartres in to write up how dangerous she was to cross.3 46% of the miracles involve people of the knightly or castellan classes, who were presumably the intended audience for these cautionary tales (and Faith’s miracles are apparently unusually often punitive, 176 punishments in 155 stories!), and a lot of them are located in the Rouergue, at least early on; in the later books the focus shifts, Book III especially liking Clermont and the Auvergne whence came the then-Abbot Odolric, which is suggestive. Faith defended her patrimony, therefore, she had fideles who helped from whom she expected devotion and service, and she went visiting; she was carried in procession in the reliquary to her various properties, apparently before this was usual. She was not necessarily a figure of peace, however, and neither were her monks: Pierre Bonnassie saw in the Miracles a landscape of castellan violence but Conques itself was retaining mercenary soldiers and some of its monks bore arms! It’s hard not to see the abbey as as much of a participant as any of the people the miracles are directed against in the general fragmentation of peace and defence that makes up a lot of the so-called Transformation.4

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

If it’s possible to do a post about Conques without picturing its fantastic Romanesque tympanum, I don’t want to know. By Peter Campbell (self-made, Canon a70) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the violence and the castellans and the shift to, er, alternative norms of conflict resolution, there are some things in the stories that one would not expect and some things that one would missing, or so Dr Taylor argued.5 In some of these cases I agree with her, but in others my sketchy acquaintance with the text leaves me not quite comfortable with her argument. Certainly, I agree and had not previously noticed that the language of feudalism, beyond fidelis, is basically absent here: the lordships we see are not ‘banal’, don’t have judicial power and so on; they are based on little but lineage, wealth and warfare, at least as we see them active. Neither have we any trace of ‘bad customs’, feudal dues and so on; in this respect everything is as it was although, according to Dr Taylor, missing the big lords who had once held it together. I thought that this might be fair for Conques itself, which does seem somewhat to sit in a bbubble in these texts, but though they might be locally forgotten they don’t seem to have been gone: at the occasional councils we see in the Miracles there are still dukes, counts and so forth, and they knew who Faith was.6 That was indeed more or less the point of including such stories, I think Dr Taylor and I would agree, but as with the Peace of God, another supposedly missing element, that they only come up in such contexts is hardly proof of their absence. It is surprising, however, how little such supposedly big movements in society seem to have affected Saint Faith and her followers, I do agree there.

Manuscript portrait of Pope Gregory VII receiving inspiration from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove

A man who knew about reform, Pope Gregory VII, apparently borrowing the Advice Dove beloved of his predecessor Gregory I. Does anyone know what manuscript this image is from? It’s floating around the web without attribution. At least it means I haven’t used exactly the same images as I did in the last Saint-Foi post…

The biggest of these missing elements, however, was reform, and here it’s too intensely subjective to be able to call. I think that the various places I’ve been in hearing people argue about the Church reform of the tenth and eleventh centuries have convinced me that although Popes Gregory VII and Innocent III knew and could say what they meant to be done in the name of Church reform, and we might also be able to say this in England thanks again to a few figureheads with a clear agenda, on the ground and especially early on it was a lot less clear what reform should mean.7 A new freedom from lay lordship, as at Conques, might indeed have been part of it in most places; views on Church wealth, clerical marriage and even payment for office however took a lot longer to be widely shared and we can easily find tenth- and eleventh-century churchmen doing reform-like things on some of these scores while completely ignoring other parts of the later agenda. (Bishops Sal·la of Urgell and Miró Bonfill of Girona would be classic cases indeed, and the latter especially: he went to Rome and was charged by the pope with the task of reforming the Catalan Church, apparently without reference to the fact that Miró himself was also Count of Besalú!8) Dr Taylor put some work into arguing that once it had shed its lords (whom I wish I could find) Conques was as unbothered by reform as it was from these other currents of the age, on which it bobbed without being moved. Me, I have to wonder whether the monks would have agreed…


1. Auguste Bouillet (ed.), Liber miraculorum sanctae Fidis, Collection des textes pour servir à l’étude et à l’enseignement de l’histoire 21 (Paris 1897); Pamela Sheingorn (transl.) with Robert A. Clark (transl.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia 1994).

2. On that family see Manuel Rovira, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260, online here.

3. Cf. Barbara H. Rosenwein, Thomas Head and Sharon Farmer, “Monks and Their Enemies: A Comparative Approach” in Speculum Vol. 66 (Cambridge 1991), pp. 764-796, DOI:10.2307/2864632. On the text see Kathleen Ashley & Pamela Sheingorn, Writing Faith: Text, Sign, and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy (Chicago 1999).

4. Pierre Bonnassie, “Les descriptions des forteresses dans le Livre des Miracles de Sainte-Foy de Conques” in Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Médiévale en l’Honneur du Doyen Michel du Boüard, Mémoires et Documents publiés par la Société de l’École des Chartes 27 (Geneva 1982), pp. 17-26, transl. J. Birrell as “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132-148; Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42. I don’t myself remember references to such monastic soldiery in the text but I don’t have any trouble believing that there are some.

5. Stephen D. White, “Debate: the feudal revolution. II”, ibid. no. 152 (1996), pp. 205-223, repr. as “The ‘feudal revolution': comment. II” in idem, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (London 2005), II; idem, “A crisis of fidelity in c. 1000″ in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and societies, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 27-48.

6. Liber Miraculorum Sanctae Fidis I.28.

7. For example see John S. Ott & Anna Trumbore Jones (edd.), The Bishop Reformed: Studies of Episcopal Power and Culture in the Central Middle Ages (Aldershot 2007).

8. A paper on each of these guys lurks among my conference trash, and writing this up makes me think suddenly that perhaps they are in fact the same paper. For now, please forgive me if I don’t give a reference here: I just have too many! Miró’s trip to Rome is documented in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Antoni Riera i Viader, Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Empúries, Besalú i Peralada, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LXI (Barcelona 2003), doc. no. 469, however.

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).