Tag Archives: feudal transformation

Seminar CXLII: fewer soldiers than you think

The seminar report backlog now reaches this year! And, fittingly, or because I am too ready to say yes to things, the first seminar I attended in 2014 was one that I was giving, before the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages in Birmingham on 20th January with the title Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia”. The seminar was only publicised the same day, so I was lucky to get an audience at all, but there were some and I’d like to thank those who came mainly because it was me, since what I do only really crosses the research interests of two people in Birmingham, neither of whom could attend. Anyway: my basic thesis was that there were not many soldiers in tenth-century Catalonia.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

I know I over-use this but it is at least more or less contemporary, a depiction of the armies of Israel from the tenth-century Bíblia de Ripoll. I hope, though, that no-one would try using the number of troops an artist can squeeze onto a full-page drawing as indicative of the actual scale of military service in his area…

If you know the field a bit this may strike you as strange.* In the classic feudal transformation argument this was then an area of quite extensive public military service whose use of force is rapidly privatised in the course of the events of 1020-1050. But before that, in 1010 and 1013, the Catalan army’s raiding Córdoba. To which I say, yes, indeed, there are undeniable references to three ‘public expeditions’—but only three, one of those is the 1010 raid and I discovered the third one a few years ago. Other than that it’s the attempt to defend Barcelona in 985, which of course failed. The few references to military action otherwise—and they are very few—are or could be to very small forces, sometimes extremely few like Oliba’s band of pig-rustlers we mentioned here a few posts back. The only reason you’d suppose, if you came to this evidence for the first time, that there was a lot of military action here is because it’s a frontier and there just must have been, or because it’s a Carolingian polity and we know that the Carolingians demanded large-scale military service and we even have legislation exempting people here from it, which is at least negative evidence, or because you just think that early medieval polities fielded large armies. I don’t want to deny any of those things, but the tenth century was not the high Carolingian era here, and the evidence you would want to prove that such things continued (or, in fact, had ever been demanded) here is very thin, and this in an area that is as we know not short of evidence, even if not really for this.

eleventh-century sword found near Schleswig

It’s surprisingly hard to find an image of an early medeval sword when you want one, and when you do it’s always a Viking one. This is a late eleventh-century one found near Schleswig. For the Museu d’Art Nacional de Catalunya’s Cataluña Carolíngia exhibition of 1999 they had to borrow one from Paderborn. I don’t mean to try and use that fact as part of the argument but nonetheless I think swords were not common here before 1000.

By way of exploring this further, I then acted like the Anglo-Saxonist I was supposed to be in that rôle and went through wills looking for weapons. Who, if anyone, held the sword in early medieval Catalonia? And the answer seemed to be, again, that while the part of evidentiary silence is always hard to assess, very few people can be shown owning swords, and they were all top-rank castellans or churchmen, these often providing their dependents with weaponry in their wills but not usually swords, of which even they had at most two. Lances and hauberks show up a little bit more often, but not much, and still in the hands of people who also bequeathed quite substantial estates. (Though one of the bishops, Guisad II of Urgell, bequeathed a spata ignea and if anyone has any ideas what that might have been, I’d love to hear them…)

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007. I am not a big man, and that is really not a big ‘castle’.

Lastly I looked at fortifications, because this is after all a country probably named after castellans, and there are certainly a few of those. But, especially if you’re looking for the few that remain from the tenth century, they are firstly not very big, and secondly usually extremely far up sharply pointy hills. If you remember my efforts to climb up to Gurb, you may also remember my wondering how its owners could ever have got horses up there. But if they had, there’d have been hardly any room in which to stable them. And with no horses it would take you two hours or so to reach even the nearest settlement, and far longer the nearest road. Gurb was not placed to control a routeway. I think all of these places were probably more watch-towers and refuges than any kind of offensive base. So where does this all lead us? I give you the conclusion:

This would obviously change. Bonnassie’s picture of an eleventh century busy with cabalarii selling horses and weapons is well-evidenced and helps explain how there could emerge from the sack of Barcelona a polity capable of raiding Córdoba in opposition to Castilian troops and the best armies left to al-Andalus. There is very little evidence of the class of mounted knightly warriors who would make this possible before the year 1000, however; neither is there really any evidence of the relict militarised peasantry supposed to precede it, nor even normative reasons to expect one beyond the 840s. In between these two points we seem, as far as the evidence can carry us, to have a much less militarised society. This in turn implies that the rise of violence and feudalised warfare was indeed sudden and thorough, that the transformation was in this respect real. It was perhaps the new possibilities created by the collapse of the caliphate that made this large-scale militarisation possible, and it may be that by equipping to exploit them the counts gave power to a dynamic they could not, eventually, control. But whether this be so or not, it was not a tenth-century development. Frontier or not, tenth-century Catalonia briefly became a military backwater, or so the evidence and its lack suggest. Military service was possibly still general but extremely occasional, and might often have amounted to no more than a few days’ standing guard on a fighting top high above any potential action. The more normally beweaponed whom we can see seem more like thugs and their bosses, dependants rather than honourable servicemen, but even these are few. This is not what we have been taught to expect from this area and time, but what we have been taught to expect seems not in fact to have very much foundation in the actual surviving evidence, inappropriate though that evidence perhaps be for such questions. The conclusions that can be based on the evidence here, therefore, deserve testing against other areas whence the models that fail here were derived.


* Since this is intended for publication, and even now inches towards submission, I won’t give full references here, but rest assured I do have them and some day soon I hope you can enjoy them…

Feudal Transformations XIX: change before the year 1000

Cover of Guy Bois's Transformation of the Year 1000

Just after arriving in Birmingham, I finished reading Guy Bois’s provocative book The Transformation of the Year 1000 and was actually quite impressed; it represents a far better saving throw for the transformation theory than I’d anticipated.1 Seeing a problem with packing almost all the change required by the theory of Duby and Fossier and the like into a few decades shortly after 1000, Bois comes up with a quite complex paradigm of change in which he manages to have both slow change and a ‘revolution’ at the end of it.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Go on, one more time won’t hurt

This he does basically by saying that what we have in the tenth century is the final slow settling into ruins of the ancient state, with public government and justice, towns driven by a parasitic state apparatus administering those systems, and slave agriculture. This had been increasingly unsustainable as time went on and efforts like the Carolingian reforms to prop it up with new structures (and here’s the subtlety) actually accelerated its collapse by making more possible locally-concentrated power at the same time as a coincidentally burgeoning economy made that economically viable. Inside the old structure of society, therefore, new bases of importance and power were emerging centred on the market and on local territorial domination, all of which in fact made it harder to maintain the older bases of power as a monopoly. The revolution came when, with the end of the Carolingian state and withdrawal into the Île de France of its Capetian successor (because this is a paradigm about France, don’t think otherwise), the exterior structure of public power finally collapsed into dust, ceased to operate as a brake on the forces of social change, and what was left standing was this incubitic set of new power bases, now free to grow, around which the opportunistic (and here most of all the monks of St-Pierre de Cluny) coordinated their operations. And thus feudalism.2

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864x77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection
Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864x77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection

Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864×77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection

Silver denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Billon denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Billon denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Who even knows what they thought that monogram meant three hundred years later? Evidence of high medieval numismatists, as with so many other things, is easiest to find in Spain…

The first bit about this that caught my critical imagination is the idea that those who were interested in patching up the ancient state actually undermined it; that is, the Carolingians in trying to make things better actually make things worse. Bois exemplifies this using the monetary system, which is probably why it caught my attention. In brief, the Roman system of gold and silver coins struggled on till the sixth century, whereafter the gold coinage was debased until it more or less ceased to exist, in the course of which it was struck by hundreds and hundreds of semi-private issuers all over Francia. After this the whole system atrophied and a desultory and poor silver coinage of a very various standard was all the money there was. The Carolingians, faced with a mono-metallic system, reformed it several times until there were a restricted number of royally-controlled mints striking a more-or-less good coinage but only in silver. This was lower-value, thus more accessible, so that greater monetisation resulted than had been so for a while, enabling market exchange and the collection of revenues in coin at new levels. And that meant that when the royal hands came off the tiller in the early tenth century that resource was available to the new local powers, who start minting their own silver coin in profusion (here again, nost least the monks of Cluny).3 I think there are problems with this as an actual account of the history of the coinage – that local minting in silver takes much longer to start happening than Bois’s chronology of change implies, suggesting that it is a result of market growth not a cause, for one thing; for another, Cluny got a royal license to strike coin, and it was otherwise outside any useful royal jurisdiction so one could read that as an increase in royal power and it’s certainly hard to see it as the opposite – but it’s an excellent illustration of Bois’s more general model of damaging attempts to preserve a dying social system.4

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny, from Wikimedia Commons

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny. “Cluny Transept exterior” by RTPeat / Richard Peathttp://flickr.com/photos/rtpeat/1086420685/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The problem I have with arguments like this that run, ‘O well they tried, poor dears, but the whole thing was doomed, quite hopeless, they were spitting in the rain’ about the Carolingians, which in some ways go back to Louis Halphen and his contemporaries, is that they benefit from the fact that the Carolingian Empire’s fall is there to be explained. Most of us would not, however, put this down to critical internal systems failure, but to a prolonged civil war more or less due to the royal family’s inability to stick to an equable division of power followed by a long series of assaults by raiders for north and east further destabilising transregional solidarities.5 A counter-factual approach that could accurately remove the effects of the Viking attacks and, if not eliminate the Brüderkrieg at least make it more like the equivalent, and very long-lived, Merovingian system in which the important thing was not so much the periodic war as that that war was always between rival Merovingians, perhaps by predicating a reasonable supply of healthy male heirs, would quite possibly entirely vindicate the Carolingian reform efforts, which after all did at least at first make them much stronger kings.6 An analysis that relies on an absence of competent legitimate operators of a system isn’t really assessing the viability of the system itself. Likewise, Bois’s argument is proven by the eventual collapse of the ancient state, but there’s a species of teleology involved when he says that the Carolingians’ own measures worked against their interests, which forces him to define the things they did that endured as part of the new world, if only because they survived. Given the collapse was to happen, there’s no successful innovation that Bois’s theory would actually credit to the Carolingians except ones that they abandoned.

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

Now, let’s take it to the March! Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona, as made a tiny bit more famous by my book

This is all the more paradoxical because the same problem exists in reverse with Catalonia and the scholarship of the feudal transformation. As Bonnassie famously argued, Catalonia (where a strong and (I would argue) even strengthening public power was maintained up till very late, there was then a political vacuum caused by a double minority in the rule of Barcelona forcing other motors of power to pick up the slack and after a short civil war the public power recovered only by adopting these other motors and abandoning its old ones) is an almost perfect archetype of the feudal transformation, but because it so clearly revolves around the power vacuum of 1018-1035 and before that the public power seemed to be riding the serpent of progress really pretty well, people don’t like it as a general model.7 There’s also the problem that this was the only area of Latin Europe with much of a gold coinage, because of raiding and trade with al-Andalus.8 But Bois’s argument also revolves around a dramatic state collapse at the same time as an economic take-off. Is this somehow not the same?

Gold mancus of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76)

Sticking with the metaphor, this is a gold mancus of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76), by way of illustrating that at least some things were not quite the same in Catalonia

Bois was of course writing a micro-study of Burgundy, not Catalonia, and it’s the anti-transformation lobby who have preferred to ignore Catalonia’s apparently indissoluble example of the phenomenon.9 All the same there is a problem here because Bois’s model doesn’t work for Catalonia. Firstly, it’s very unclear how much Carolingian reform was in fact applied here: the local law was left running, the final currency reform of 864 was never enacted here, the intellectual culture arguably stayed fairly Visigothic and the counts operated as independents from a very early stage. Secondly, as said, public power here did not atrophy: the counts, despite various troubles, remained militarily effective and towards the end of the period, fuelled no doubt by the various reveues of the frontiers, were even overhauling and improving the apparatus of state power and their control of it. Only when that effort was slackened did stuff go wrong. It is hard not to see Borrell II’s and his son’s creation of numerous castle-holding dependants as the seeds of their own undoing, but it’s not undoing but lack of doing that let them grow.10

Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), where as you have read some of that castle-ceding was done

Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but if you have a feudal transformation in one area and an explanation for it, but another one in a different area whose relevance you have to dismiss because its explanation is clearly different, this is kind of like ignoring that your theory has been falsified. Of course there are factors in CataloniaBurgundy’s changes of that era that Catalonia did not share, so the problem exists both ways, but this suggests to me that the problematic has been placed at the wrong level. If you accept both then feudal transformation becomes only one way that states of a certain kind might respond to the end of effective state governance in an ‘ancient’ or ‘public’ mould. After three years of teaching this subject to graduates, I came to conclude that the correct question to ask about the phenomenon it assumes is not, “Why is all of Europe going through a social crisis c. 1000?”, which is fairly easy to disprove premise by premise and then ignore, but “Why do so many and various polities of the post-Carolingian world finish up so similar in social articulation and governance despite their different situations and paces of change?” This turns it less into a question of modes of production or public versus private than into one of cultural transfer and the appropriation of ideas between governments, which is maybe not as exciting, but might have a lot more application to other situations.


1. G. Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992).

2. Ibid., pp. 161-167.

3. Ibid., pp. 165-166.

4. Philip Grierson, “Coinage in the feudal era” in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 949-959.

5. See François-Louis Ganshof, “L’échec de Charlemagne” in Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Vol. 91 (Paris 1947), pp. 248-254, transl. as “Charlemagne’s Failure” in idem, The Carolingians and the Frankish monarchy: studies in Carolingian history (London 1971), pp. 256-260, taken up by e. g. Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium. Soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire (New York City 1954), Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingien (Paris 1968), transl. as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977).

6. Ian N. Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent” in Peter H. Sawyer & Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 6-29.

7. 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, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, as ever; cf. Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order and the written word, 1000-1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 51 (Cambridge 2001).

8. Anna M. Balaguer, “Parias and Myth of the Mancus” in Mario Gomes Marques & D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area, 3: a symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 499-543; J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243.

9. Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, where see p. 773 n. 17; the whole article later repr. as “Note critique” in idem, La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? Servage et chevalerie dans la France des Xe et XIe siècles (Paris 1997).

10. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010).

Feudal Transformations XVIII: what’s behind it all

Cover of Guy Bois's Transformation of the Year 1000

Cover of Guy Bois’s Transformation of the Year 1000

During my first days in Birmingham, while short of online access that wasn’t immediately swallowed by professional e-mail and bibliographical searches, I was making my way through Guy Bois’s little book, The Transformation of the Year 1000. Since, at its core, this represents a more extreme version of the theory of a ‘feudal transformation‘ even than that proposed by the originator of the idea, Georges Duby, I had been expecting to find it basically mad, and certainly it’s fairly opinionated and largely inhabits an intellectual space well beyond the evidence, but still it is more subtle than I had expected, not least because it separates cause and effect in such a way as to get over the awkward constriction of the the chronology the focus on the year 1000 causes.1 Yes, he says, there was huge and violent social change around the year 1000 in this one bit of the Mâconnais (which is to be taken as typical at least of France, even though he often stresses how something else would have happened in other areas), but this was the result of a wide range of other changes going on since the sixth century if not before, while the ruling class tried to shore up the failing ancient society by increasingly removing its surviving foundations and replacing them with more viable ones. And one of these big changes is the growth of agricultural production, which as he rightly says is not very well understood.2 Now, Bois has views on this, in which, it must be said, it is far from alone, but they are worth reading and they go like this:

Before a problem so vast, we should mistrust unilateral interpretations based, in most cases, on an exogenous factor. I am thinking in particular of demography, the most convenient and also the laziest of ‘explanations’. Certainly, the demographic approach is essential and indispensable. The number of persons is the best indicator of agrarian growth, and it is also a factor in this growth, providing that it is located within the chain of causality of which it forms a part; otherwise, we have only an illusory interpretation. How can it be imagined that shortage of food ceased to bear on mortality? What factor could have produced such a situation? Similarly, one certainly cannot deny, a priori and on principle, the possibility that improved climatic conditions might have had some influence. But it is still necessary to demonstrate their impact on grain yields in the temperate zone, and then establish precise correlations between the chronology of climatic fluctuations of grain production over the long term. This is very far from yet having been done. In the actual state of affairs, it is to be feared that this line of research betokens a refusal to confront the complexity of the endogenous factors, that it is essentially a sort of retreat in advance. It remains dangerous, however, in that it appeals to a popular taste, specialised or not, by giving the illusion of opening up new horizons, by investing itself with a scientific aura through its recourse to the exact sciences and, above all, because it is a gesture in the direction of contemporary ecological awareness. In sum, it is easy to ‘sell’, but it will be understood that such a criterion will not be given high priority in the orientation of our discussion.3

You may guess that I am happier here with his slagging off of the demographic explanation than his attack on climate as a factor. Demography is not a good answer, because like so much in the feudal transformation debate, it could be either cause or effect: if you have too many mouths to feed you may open up more land for cultivation, but on the other hand if you are opening up more land for cultivation, you may now be able to have more children, whether beforehand you were practising what passed for contraception in the Middle Ages or whether you were, as some have suggested, resorting to infanticide.4 This kind of problem, and not just with that factor, is exactly why I rather like climate as a primum mobile; it must certainly have had an effect on society, but it’s hard to see society affecting it, in the tenth century at least.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

It’s never not time for my Feudal Transformation teaching diagram!

On the other hand, Bois was not wrong that the case was far from made in 1989, when he wrote. I also do feel that he has some justice in seeing people grabbing on to it as a current bandwagon in order to make their research ‘relevant’, although I would actually find it hard to point to medievalists getting into climate science rather than climate scientists getting into history, where I’ve seen.5 In fact, if the case must be made as he suggests, it may be impossible to close. We already know (I think) that almost all work on grain yields of the Frankish era is basically wrong, based on a misreading of the sources (and yes, I am still working on that for publication, nearly done now actually), and since those are most of the sources there are before the twelfth century, all we can do is demonstrate that yields certainly grew between the second and twelfth century, not really the kind of subtlety we need (though as subtle as many of Bois’s number tricks, it’s gotta be said).6 Archæology helps but the amount of time it would take before enough preserved grain of the right periods came to light and got analysed that we actually had any meaningful numbers, if that could even be done—you’d need some very long-phase settlements with a fixed amount of arable land, wouldn’t you, which in a period of clearance is basically unlikely ever to be possible—still drags a very long way into the future. On the other hand, as our climate continues to warm up, we may be in a position to do the kind of long-term experimental work that’s been done at l’Esquerda on a cycle long enough to actually test the difference that an averagely-higher temparature, and consequently less rain, makes on yields, though I do note already that drought was the problem they experienced most seriously there in the 1990s, not over-watering. You’d expect that on a Catalan hilltop, of course, and some experiments elsewhere would also be nice, but it may technically be feasible. Meanwhile, we do these days know an awful lot more about the climatic fluctuation, and it seems as blinkered to me to ignore the effects which that must have had on agriculture, as it certainly did in the fourteenth century, as it did to Bois in 1989 to ignore the internal factors of social change.7

Vineyards of the Miguel Torres company in the Penedès, Catalonia

Vineyards of the Miguel Torres company in the Penedès, Catalonia, now drying out, grabbed from here

The answer is, of course, that we need both: everywhere in Europe got a climate change leading up to 1000, probably, but not everywhere manifested the kind of rapid change that Duby, Bonnassie, Bois and others dubbed the ‘transformation’. That is exactly where Bois’s internal factors are important, and not least among them the eventual collapse or fragmentation of the Carolingian state of course; as our learned commentator Carl Anderson has observed here, the feudal transformation is really a post-Carolingian phenomenon (as long as we can wriggle Castile-León out of it somehow).8 We have a number of big social or economic pressures (if there’s a difference) acting on a whole range of areas from 900-1100, and it’s what those areas were like in themselves, including such micro-level differences as who was in charge, how effective they were and what they could see of the problems (which is where I really get interested), that probably determined how it all played out. The struggle will be, if I ever do crystallise all this, to write this up in a way that makes sense but still says more than, “well, it differed from place to place, basically”…


1. The fiercely critical review by Barbara Rosenwein linked above, in Speculum Vol. 69 (Cambridge 1994), pp. 749-751, doesn’t get as far as dealing with such matters as whether the book actually has a case or not, so upset is she with Bois’s use of evidence and general slapdash chronology (including picking up on the unfounded dating of Saint-Laurent de Collonges mentioned a couple of posts ago). All that is of course very problematic; if his case rests on anecdata and thery’re all misread, he probably doesn’t have a case. But I feel that that point could have been made explicitly if she was confident in it.

2. Although a very good crop of studies on it arose from a conference in 1988, published as La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), in which Bois himself took part.

3. Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. J. Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992), p. 99.

4. I struggle with references for early medieval contraception, I’ll admit, but Julia Smith has some neat remarks on it in her Europe After Rome: a new cultural history 500-1000 (Oxford 2005), pp. 70-71, and in the Further Reading pp. 321-322 recommends John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge 1992). For infanticide I go back to Emily Coleman, “Infanticide in the Early Middle Ages” in Susan Mosher Stuard (ed.), Women in Medieval Society (Philadelphia 1976), pp. 47-70, which is also referenced by Smith p. 321 with a useful list of reactions to its controversial argument.

5. A rapid websearch suggests that our new cite of reference for the so-called medieval climatic anomaly is now N. E. Graham, C. M. Ammann, D. Fleitmann, K. M. Cobb & J. Luterbacher, “Support for global climate reorganization during the ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly'” in Climate Dynamics Vol. 37 (Berlin 2010), pp. 1217-1245, DOI: 10.1007/s00382-010-0914-z.

6. P. F. Brandon, “Cereal Yields on the Sussex Estates of Battle Abbey during the later Middle Ages” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 25 (London 1972), pp. 403-420, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.1972.tb02184.x; Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, last modified 4th December 2010 as of 8th April 2011, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), mostly online via Google Bookslast modified not available as of 8th May 2011, pp. 121-128.

6. Bruce M. S. Campbell, “Physical Shocks, Biological Hazards, and Human Impacts: The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Revisited” in Simonetta Cavaciocchi (ed.), Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europe preindustriale, secc. XIII-XVIII. Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Atti della ‘Quarantunesima Settimana di Studi’ 26-30 aprile 2009 (Firenze 2010), pp. 13-32, online here.

7. Cf. José Ángel García de Cortázar, “Estructuras sociales y relaciones de poder en León y Castilla en los siglos VIII a XII: la formación de una sociedad feudal” in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 497-563 with discussion pp. 565-568.

Letting in the lowly in Lournand

In the first chapter of his controversial little book, The Transformation of the Year 1000, Guy Bois mentions a church in the tiny area of Burgundy that he chose for his micro-study, a “tiny, pre-Romanesque chapel… without… any significant alterations”, at Collonge in Lournand.1 Now, in this day of Google Image search, such a footnote is an invitation full of search terms, and especially for me, because the Romanesque rebuilding hit Catalonia very forcefully and there is really not much pre-Romanesque building left up there. (It’s usually assumed it was largely in wood anyway, but there are cases of doubt.2) Thus, if I want to know what the churches of the kind of people I write about were like, I have to start by looking elsewhere, so I did.

The chapel of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, Burgundy

The chapel of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, Burgundy

Bois gives no reference for the date of the chapel, which seems to be dedicated to Saint Laurent, and the website I found for it thinks it’s actually fourteenth-century Romanesque, again with no authority cited. Looking at the pictures, it seems to me that it’s so basic that it could readily be either, and only the bell-tower is very indicative, that being Romanesque in original style despite its modern patch-up but also quite possibly an addition, as these things often are in Catalonia. So the jury, unless there is a Burgundian equivalent of the Catalunya Romànica of which I don’t know, is probably out. It’s so basic that if all you wanted was an idea of what the tenth-century church would have been like it might serve anyway.

Interior view of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, showing altar

Interior of the chapel

However, the date of the chapel is not the big question that Bois is using it for here: his query is instead whether slaves were allowed in in the tenth century. That raises questions that are larger than simply, “was this building even standing then?”, such as “were there still slaves then, or should we be talking about serfs?”, “what’s the difference anyway?” and, what Bois is concerned with, “what human rights did slaves have in this era?” The “what’s the difference” question has a neat semantic answer, to wit, a serf can be sold with land he or she works, but a slave can be sold as goods in their own right, but as with definitions of aristocrat that work on whether the person works land themselves or not, while this may be consistent it’s not necessarily historically relevant to the period in question.3 If a slave has a house and some kind of agreement with her or his master about what work they do on a normal basis, and if a serf isn’t guaranteed that his or her children will inherit the holding, it could be quite difficult to draw lines between their status. Bois does so more or less at control of the children, saying that serfs’ children are their own even if their dependence is hereditary but that a slave’s children are the master’s to dispose of and house as convenient. It’s on this basis that he argues that Lournand pre-1000 was still a slave society, because its holdings are all one family to one homestead which is too convenient to be anything but arranged.4 That seems to me to rest on an idea that all homesteads are equivalent and that we could somehow tell if two were an old single one divided, whereas my limited experience of the Cluny charters suggests that measuring these plots isn’t really possible. It’s not clear to me where a lot of Bois’s numbers come from in this chapter, indeed, but I’ve worked with Cluny boundary clauses a bit and I don’t think you can map them continuously between generations, so I’m inclined to mistrust the logic here.

Exterior view of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, showing portal and bell-tower

Exterior view showing portal and bell-tower

However, the question about admittance is one that he raises justly, and does so moreover on the basis of work by Pierre Bonnassie, to whom I am more generally sympathetic. Bonnassie and consequently Bois both make admittance to worship in church a big part of the decline of slavery.5 Even though the Church itself is a big landowner and runs a lot of slaves, albeit often on quite privileged terms, the basic starting point that a slave too has a soul that must be saved makes important breaks in the legal idea that a slave is a chattel, a possession and not a person. Christian doctrine is pretty kind to the humble anyway, so there’s just a certain basic level below which anyone who may approach the altar can’t slip, but there’s also the question of Church marriage, which once applied to slaves seriously impinges on the master’s right to arrange his or her labouring population and their reproduction as she or he chooses. As a good Western liberal, I’ve never really got how people can class other people they live with and see daily as somehow not-really-people, but obviously that distinction is inherent in a slave system, and if such non-people are then allowed to become partakers in your religion’s principal rite of union with your god, that’s something of a blow to that distinction, to say the least. So, it’s a crucial step away from subhuman status to have been able to go to Church in the Middle Ages. (In my area, where slaves were often Muslim prisoners of war, it wasn’t an easy step to take either.) There really wouldn’t have been a lot of room in the tiny chapel at Collonge or, presumably, any precursor it had, but who was in that space would have at some point, be it fifth-century or eleventh-century or somewhere between the two, been a very sharp social issue, and one that we can say almost nothing about.


1. Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. J. Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992) pp. 28-29 & n.

2. My pet case here is the now-twelfth-century Sant Andreu de Tona, where the stone structure located by digging in the 1940s was dated to an otherwise unattested reconstruction in the eleventh century precisely because it was stone, the assumption being that the well-attested building of 889 put up by Romanising notables on a hill basically made of building stone would nonetheless have to have been wood. See Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert, Antoni Pladevall i Font, Albert Benet i Clarà, Dolors Arumí i Gómez, A. Cavallé i Crivillers & R. Espadaler i Parsarises, “Sant Andreu de Tona” in Jordi Vigué (ed.) Catalunya Romànica III: Osona II, ed. Vigué (Barcelona 1986), pp. 639-44 and cf. J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 106-108.

3. The go-to for this terminological discussion for me, because it set out explicitly to compare ancient, medieval and modern usages, is Michael Bush (ed.), Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage (London 1986), where the papers by Stanley Engerman and Wendy Davies (but of course) might be the most use, but I think this definition is my own, all the same.

4. Bois, Transformation, pp. 18-20.

5. P. Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, online here, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59.

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.