Tag Archives: Feudalism

Book bit bullets IV

There being little time for anything else, it’s time for another post of short reflections on reading; I’ve been travelling a lot lately so there has been time on trains for reading to be done. And I’ve come across quite a few interesting things, so here’s the traditional bullets.

Sveti Donata u Zadru

Sveti Donata u Zadru with accompanying Romanesque belltower

  • This is a round church in Croatia, Sveti Donata u Zadru, or San Donato de Zadar if you’re Italian—thankyou Phil for the Serbo-Croat version in comments—which I recently learnt actually predates Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen, but resembles it so closely because basically as soon as the Croats learnt about the one at Aachen they seem to have remodelled this one to look more like that. This was part of an article that successfully set out the weird disconnection of the enthusiastic imitation of Carolingian court culture and architecture by a ruling élite which was otherwise deeply embedded, and indeed partly legitimised, by its political resistance to the Carolingians…1
  • Secondly, I am at last reading Mayke de Jong’s In Samuel’s Image and I just wanted to say, anyone who has met and talked to Mayke will be able to hear
    her at full strength in her preface; rarely have I seen a personality so clearly rendered in print. Also, of course, the book is really interesting and I’m glad I was given an excuse to make it urgent.2
  • I took it to Kalamazoo and back and never quite got round to reading it, but now I have finally read Cullen Chandler’s 2009 piece in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History.3 Detailed comment would be out of place here but it was a really strange experience to see someone else using so many of the examples I know well, and often to a different purpose. It was rather like going to a meeting or similar and finding that the person you’re meeting know half your friends via an entirely different route. Meanwhile, the article as a whole gives me plenty to think about, mostly in the area of why I tend to favour economic over social explanations of transaction and whether I should rebalance that, and on the other hand, when Cullen gets to read my book, he is going to wonder whether I somehow sneaked an advance peek at his paper and then used all his references, because we really have picked up on quite a lot of the same people…
  • As well as my ridiculous to-read pile (pile? nay, bookcase…) I also keep a computer folder of PDFs that looked interesting. I’m less far behind with these than I am with the books, and so just caught up with something that T’anta Wawa shoved in my direction when I first started talking interdisciplinarity with them, an article called “Facing the State, Facing the World” by Michael F. Brown, which is about Amazonian peoples and how their self-identification has changed through their dealings with their various ruling states.4 The amount of stuff that rings out to me from this about identity formation on my tenth-century borders is so huge that I am basically going to pounce on TW as soon as their thesis is finished and brandish plans for a joint paper at them, in which I pontificate and they rein me in. There is plenty of this conversation to have. You may also find the paper interesting…
  • In an ideal world I would have managed to read all of Wolfgang Metz’s Karolingische Reichsgut before I had to give my Kalamazoo paper, or indeed before I finalised the text of “Settling the Kings’ Lands”, but at that point the world was not ideal in that way. He was asking a lot of questions I’ve always wondered about, to do with just how the Carolingians ran their lands and kingdoms, and one of the things he’s principally concerned with towards the end of the book is whether the nobility are given fiscal lands as part of their office, and how much and where, or whether their family lands are more important. Almost in the closing pages he suggests particularly that the Carolingian kings kept the nobility out of their biggest estates, the palace complexes like Ingelheim and Frankfurt, and that the counts of these palaces, while they seem in some cases to have had land associated with their office, had it at dispersed estates in the neighbourhood, rather than actually being in a position to live off the palace lands proper.5 This makes me wonder just how far the Carolingians were aware of the origins of their own rulership and the danger of over-mighty nobles in their lands. It should also serve to remind us of course that what of the fisc the Carolingians gave away is not half as important as what they retained, especially since in charter evidence we only really see the former and the latter remains a kind of fiscal dark matter which, in the case of places like Frankfurt at least, retained considerable gravitational pull.
  • Lastly, we have spoken here before of the erudite scholar and gentleman, Professor Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, and his slightly pessimistic view of the welfare of the peasantry in Catalonia’s feudal period. He deserves a lot more readership than he gets, especially among anyone working on the peasantry. I have also, I hope, mentioned his considerable generosity with time and photocopies, I’d have found the field far harder to work without his ready help, and now he has a new book out, a volume of collected papers including some stuff that’s new to me and which I shall have to get through urgently.6 Happily, and kindly, he has made this much easier by sending me a copy, for which I owe him many thanks—I hope I can reciprocate soon—and this makes me very pleased. It must be said though that he is almost in danger of stereotyping himself as the peasant pessimist, because not only does this collect most of the material in which he makes such arguments, but also the volume bears a title that could hardly be bettered in that line, La llarga nit feudal. Mil anys de conflicte entre senyors i pagesos, or for those reading only in English, The Long Feudal Night: a thousand years of conflict between lords and peasants. I assure you that he is a lot more cheerful in person than this makes him sound…
  • Cover of Gaspar Feliu's new book, La llarga nit feudal

    Cover of Gaspar Feliu's new book, La llarga nit feudal


    1. I learnt about this from M. Jurkovic & A. Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y arquitecture antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

    2. M. de Jong, In Samuel’s Image: child oblation in the early medieval west, Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 12 (Leiden 1996).

    3. C. J. Chandler, “Land and Social Networks in the Carolingian Spanish March” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 3rd Series Vol. 6 (Brooklyn 2009), pp. 19-44.

    4. M. F. Brown, “Facing the State, Facing the World: Amazonia’s native leaders and the new politics of identity” in L’Homme : revue française d’anthropologie Vol. 33, nos 126-128 (Paris 1993), pp. 307-326, online via Persée here.

    5. W. Metz, Das karolingische Reichsgut: eine verfassungs- und verwaltungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Berlin 1960), pp. 187-195.

    6. G. Feliu, La llarga nit feudal: mil anys de conflicte entre senyors i pagesos (Valencia 2010).

From the sources I: yer actual simony

All right, when a blogger lacks for content, especially a historical blogger, the best thing to do is always to get him or her back to the sources. Several things have arisen lately, on blog or off, where I’ve needed some particular source and been annoyed it wasn’t on the Internet, or that it was still only typed up on my old and disused P333 which now lurks in a shed unpowered. I found one of those latter in an old printout from teaching at Birkbeck, and typed it up for a recent lecture; then the photocopier broke down and no-one actually got the handout in time to refer to it, but y’know, I tried. So I thought that, having typed it up again, I’d also put it here, because it’s interesting and probably useful to teach with.

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

What this is, then, is my translation of an agreement between Count Ermengol I of Urgell (993-1010), son of my old fascination Borrell II of Barcelona (and also of Urgell), and Bishop Sal·la of Urgell (981-1010), who has also featured here in the past. They agree by this that Sal·la’s nephew, also called Ermengol, seen above in the mitre, will succeed his uncle as bishop, and set out the price that Ermengol demands for ensuring that this occurs. It goes like this.

I Count Ermengol, son of the late Count Borrell and the late Countess Ledgarda, swear that from this hour and hereafter to the last day of days, that Bishop Sal·la, son of the late Isarn and the late Ranló,a and I have nominated one Ermengol by this scripture, by this oath, namely, that I shall undertake to give the bishopric of the county of Urgell to Ermengol son of Viscount Bernat and of Viscountess Guisla. I Count Ermengol shall undertake to give [it] to that Ermengol, son of Bernat, and I shall perform his investiture. And from this hour in future I the above-written Count Ermengol, will not keep that Ermengol, the above-written son of Viscount Bernat, from that bishopric of Holy Mary at the See at Vic which is in Urgell.b And if Bishop Sal·la shall wish to ordain this above-written nephew Ermengol in his lifetime, I Count Ermengol as written above will be a helper to him in ordaining that Ermengol, the above-written son of Bernat, without any deception of this Ermengol, if Bishop Sal·la or his brother Bernat or any of the kinsmen or the friends of that Ermengol, the cleric named above, shall undertake to give me 100 pesas, or the value in pesetas, or a pledge of 200 pesas through another 60 pesas that they shall give me after the death of the above-written Bishop Sal·la, half of it in the first half of the year and the other in the other. And if Bishop Sal·la shall not have ordained this Ermengol his nephew in the lifetime of Bishop Sal·la, and I Count Ermengol be yet living, and that Ermengol, the above-written son of Bernat, be living, I that above-written Count Ermengol shall perform the ordination of the above-written cleric Ermengol,c if I be able, if the above-written cleric Ermengol shall wish to give me, or his kinsmen or his friends shall wish to give to me and shall have given those pesas or those pesetas or that pledge written above. And I the above-written Count Ermengol shall offer no disturbance to the above-said cleric Ermengol over his ordination to that bishopric of Urgell, not I nor any man nor any woman either by my counsel or by my stay. And I the above-written Count Ermengol shall be a helper to that Ermengol, the above-written son of Guisla, to hold and have the bishopric of Urgell just as Sal·la holds it today, against all men or women who should wish or attempt to attack him, without any deception of the above-written cleric Ermengol after the death of the above-written Bishop Sal·la or in his days, if Bishop Sal·la shall defer the episcopate to him, or give to him anything or that bishopric, if Ermengol the son of Viscount Bernat brother of Sal·la, and son of Viscountess Guisla, daughter of the late Sunifred of Lluçà,d shall wish to perform homage and fidelity to me on a dedicated altar, or on relics, and he should do [this] so that I Count Ermengol can have faith in his fidelity.

And that’s all there is, no signatures, no witnesses, but there seems no reason to doubt it per se because of Ermengol’s later reputation (see below), unless his viscount brother’s offspring got really literary when contesting their grandmother’s will with him I suppose (which they had to do). Unless that be the case, however, when they talk about lay investiture and simony and so on, this is what they mean. Here is a real example.1 This kind of deal was being cut in many places. Note especially, if you care to, the following things:

  1. The form of document they are using here is a convenientia, an agreement, and it is basically a feudal one; that ‘without any deception’ riff is straight out of feudal pacts of the era and because of that is almost one of the first phrases we have in written Catalan, ‘sin engany’, though this document is entirely Latin. And, in that form, we would not expect signatures, witnesses or indeed a date, as the text is apparently more part of the act than a record for the future. Yes, it’s arguable, but it has been argued and certainly this is what such oaths look like except for the Latinity.2
  2. Sal·la is already Count Ermengol’s sworn vassal (and yes, we are allowed to use that word in this context dammit), but ironically, his son, Ermengol II, would eventually swear fidelity to Bishop Ermengol…3
  3. You could probably just about argue that this is not simony, but insurance; Ermengol comes doesn’t say that he will oppose Ermengol archileuita (as he is at this time) as bishop if the money isn’t paid, just that he won’t help him or perform the investiture. Technically he’s being paid to ensure that Ermengol does become bishop, not to allow him to do so. However, I don’t think many canon lawyers in Rome of 1056 would have seen it that way. I also don’t think anyone in X1003 Catalonia cared, however.
  4. It should be noted that what we are reading here is an agreement about the ordination of a man who is now recognised as a saint, albeit largely for his war-leadership against the Muslims; so subsequent papacies have also forgiven him this unfortunate slip.4
  5. Sal·la did in fact ordain Ermengol in his own lifetime, as coadjutor, and Count Ermengol I was still alive to insist at that time—he died on campaign in Córdoba in 1010, fighting Castilians who had been hired by the other contendor for the Caliphate—so the money must have been forthcoming.5 Of course, a bishop ordaining his own successor is quite uncanonical too but SAINT okay SAINT d’you hear me? Heros de la reconquesta, homes!
  6. We don’t, sadly know how much was actually being paid because we don’t know what a pesa was at this time. It’s clearly a weight of bullion—Urgell is not minting coin at this time, though it does later—but how much is unclear. Gaspar Feliu once reckoned it was an ounce of gold or a pound of silver, reckoned as equivalents, but he’s since decided it’s more complicated than that.6 Of that order, anyway, so, a lot. And a peseta is not a coin, but the equivalent in kind, a pesa-worth. So, it’s 100 pesas now, or their equivalent, or else 200 later of which 60 to be paid now. He drives a hard bargain (which may be why Sal·la took the low price…).
  7. Also, just a small point but observe that the women mentioned are political agents. Count Ermengol disclaims that he might use a woman to upset the agreement; mothers are named for all participants (in fact, for a Catalan feudal agreement, it’s rather unusual for fathers to be named, but this is very early and that form’s not yet established) and Guisla’s parentage, which was powerful as was she, is also mentioned. They’re not actually here but then they’re not bishop or count; doesn’t stop them being important.

So there you are, perhaps it’s useful, I certainly think it’s interesting, and I had it typed up already…

(Cross-posted to Cliopatria with revisions.)


a Isarn was Viscount of Conflent and possibly also of Urgell from perhaps 954 until 974; Ranló was his wife and Viscountess, there is no problem with that title for scribes of the time.

b Vic, as Anglo-Saxonists may be more aware than many, is based on a Germanic word for trading-place. This is why both Urgell and, well, Vic, have Vics, but this is Vic de la Seu d’Urgell and that’s Vic d’Osona and because Vic got big and commercial and Seu d’Urgell mainly stayed a bishop’s fortress town Vic has basically got to own the name in Catalonia and no-one uses the full form anymore.

c I love the trouble the scribe took to keep the Ermengols distinct. Given that it is finally comprehensible in a way that many such documents are not I will happily forgive him making it nearly the opposite in achieving that.

d Sunifred was Vicar of Lluçà, which was at the time one of the richest frontier castles there was in Osona. Bernat had married down but well, and Guisla was a tough customer also.

1. The text is printed in Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, doc. no. 276.

2. On these documents and other Latin precursors you should see Adam 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).

3. Baraut, “Els documents, dels anys 1010-1035, de l’Arxiu Capitular de le Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 4 (1981), pp. 7-178, docs no. 486 & 487.

4. For more on him see Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: sanctity and power in the medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1-16.

5. Uncle and nephew appear together at the union of the monastery of Sant Pere del Burgal with the reforming house of Notre Dame de la Grasse in 1007 (and if you need a better proof of how what a later age saw as Church corruption was fine with the first wave of reformers if it got the job done, I don’t know where you’d find it). The document is edited in E. Magnou-Nortier & A.-M. Magnou (edd.), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de la Grasse tome I: 779-1119, Collection des documents inédits sur l’histoire de France : section d’histoire médiévale et de philologie, Série in 8vo 24 (Paris 1996), as doc. no. 91.

6. References gathered, if that sort of thing interests you, in Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London forthcoming), p. 00 n. 40.

The long long gripe of Hugh the Chiliarch

I don’t know how many of you may have heard of the Conventum Hugonis? I’ve been freshly reminded what a marvellous text it is by the last article in that Spoleto volume, which yes, does mean I’m about to shut up about it, for now at least. I had something of a flash of inspiration during the reading of this last paper, tried to write it down and wound up with a 3,600-word paper core, which I might even be able to do something with next year (but seriously, not before), so I don’t promise to shut up about it for ever, but all the same, I recognise that an audience can have too much feudalism. Where’s the human interest, I might hear you cry if both you and I had the right kind of software? And the answer is, here in this text I’m about to talk about.

The illumination for March from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, taken from Wikimedia Commons and depicting the Château de Lusignan

The illumination for March from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, taken from Wikimedia Commons and depicting the Château de Lusignan

Hugh IV de Lusignan was a fairly important castellan lord in the South of France, floruit c. 1040, and his line became famous enough eventually that they furnished a king of Jerusalem and their castle got into the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, as you see above. In Hugh IV’s day it probably wasn’t quite that substantial, but he was a major player. He was however a major player in a world dominated by Duke William V of Toulouse, whom he calls a count, and like most of the second rank nobility of his area he had to come to some kind of position vis-à-vis William. It being the age it was, this position was a feudal one, and the Conventum tells us all about it. But it tells us all about it not as an idealised text showing the way to do such things, but after relations between the two had deteriorated to open (if carefully limited) war, and so it’s as much a library of what could go wrong in feudo-vassalic relations as of how they should work. A sample of Hugh’s scribe’s style:

The count, while holding a court assembly with count Fulk, promised to give Fulk benefices from his own property. Fulk promised that he would give Hugh what belonged to him. The count sent for Viscount Ralph and said to him about this agreement: ‘Hugh won’t keep the agreement which he has with you because I forbid it. But Fulk and I have an agreement to give him Joscelin’s honour and wife. We shall act to your undoing because you are not faithful to me.’ When he heard this Ralph was very distressed and said to the count: ‘For God’s sake don’t do this.’ And the count said ‘Give me guarantees that you won’t give him your daughter and won’t keep your agreement with him, and in return I’ll make sure for you that he won’t get Joscelin’s honour or wife.’ And so they acted so that Hugh got neither one nor the other.

You wouldn’t know it, but they were actually patching things up at this stage, after Hugh had taken over a castle (one of many) that he felt the count should have got for him and didn’t, by force, and held it until William agreed to do some kind of right by him. To read it as Hugh had it presented, he had had endless ill-treatment from William, including insults and threats, and got nothing but loss for it, and he makes sure to recount all this, I mean all of it, he goes on for a while. The standard edition, or at least one of them, as a particular scholar called George Beech has all but made a career out of replacing work on this text, has a text that took up eight pages of the English Historical Review, and the translation, coordinated by Paul Hyams and online in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, that I quoted above, is fairly meaty for a webpage too.1

It’s a very rich text, anyway, especially in the Latin as it’s full of words we hardly ever get about particular sorts of grants, honour and so on (as well as words we just hardly ever get, like Chiliarch, a Biblical term meaning ‘ruler of a thousand men’, which is what Hugh’s scribe calls him). The Conventum can be read for the history of military tenure for service, certainly, but it can also be read looking for judicial process, for emotion (William is angry, Hugh is gloomy—but how much of that’s presentation?) and for fun (I find it reads best in the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android). But it’s such a piece that it really comes quite close to literature. It’s even been seen as a forerunner of the epic Troubadour romances in its style: I think that’s going much too far but it has got enough going on, grieving, confrontation, dialogue and fury, that such an argument can be made.2

It can also of course be read critically, which is where the Dominique Barthélemy article I was reading comes in.3 Why was William treating Hugh so badly? Was it because at several points in the narrative Hugh is also dealing with William’s biggest rival, Fulk Nerra Count of Anjou?4 (Mind you, you see from the above that William and Fulk could at least appear in public together, so I’m not sure I reckon that so much.) When William shunted Hugh from lord to lord, was he merely grinding Hugh’s face in the muck of subjection to make a point? Or was he involved in delicate brinkmanship with a number of potentially dangerous castellans and trying to bind enough other lords to him to maintain control by an alliance of the great against the many not-so-great? Did Hugh really get nothing from those ties, or did it just break down later? Was, perhaps, the real trick to stop Hugh by any means necessary from taking Fulk as his lord instead, and therefore to make sure that a great number of things that Hugh wanted were in William’s control and not to be got by any other route? If William had emptied the bag, would Hugh have stuck with him? Hugh pleads his absolute loyalty at many points in the text, but how far do we trust it, given that the text seems basically to be to get Hugh’s outraged rebellion, in reality very calculated it seems clear, well justified and acknowledged as such by William? This is an agreement that renews Hugh’s fidelity; it’s hardly going to present him as anything other than utterly loyal, is it? and so on. And this is why the text has taken so much work and will continue to source and cause more, because it’s full of personality apparently overriding politics, and will source either. I recommend having a look if you haven’t.

A view of modern-day Lusignan

A view of modern-day Lusignan


1. Jane Martindale (ed.), “Conventum inter Willelmum Comitem Aquitanorum et Hugonem Chiliarchum” in English Historical Review Vol. 84 (London 1969), pp. 528-548, transl. Paul Hyams et al. as “Medieval Sourcebook: Agreement between Count William V of Aquitaine and Hugh IV of Lusignan”, online here, last modified 25 April 1996 as of 15 September 2008. Beech’s edition is in George T. Beech, Yves Chauvin & Georges Pon, Le « Conventum » (vers 1030), un précurseur aquitain des premières épopées, Publications romanes et françaises 212 (Geneva 1995). On the family more generally, it’s still conventional to cite Sidney Painter, “The Lords of Lusignan in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries” in Speculum Vol. 32 (Cambridge MA 1957), pp. 27-47. Beech has been working on this text for many many years; his first piece on it was in 1966 (J. Beech, “A Feudal Document of Early Eleventh Century Poitou” in Pierre Gallais & Yves Rou (edd.), Mélanges offerts à René Crozet à l’occasion de son 70e anniversaire par ses amis, ses collégues, ses élèves et les membres du C. E. S. C. M. (Poitiers 1966), I pp. 203-213—it really is given as J. Beech, I’ve seen the original, I don’t know how that happened), and his most recent ones were in 1998 and 1999, George T. Beech, “The lord/dependant (vassal) relationship: a case study from Aquitaine c. 1030″ in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 24 (Amsterdam 1998), pp. 1-30, and “The Contribution of Diplomatics to the Identification of an Early-Eleventh-Century Aquitainian Narrative” in Adam J. Kosto & Anders Winroth (eds), Charters, Cartularies and Archives: the preservation and transmission of documents in the medieval west. Proceedings of a Colloquium of the Commission Internationale de Diplomatique (Princeton and New York, 16-18 September 1999), Papers in Mediaeval Studies 17 (Toronto 2002), pp. 61-80.

2. Beech, Chauvin & Pon, « Conventum »; cf. Dominique Barthélemy, ‘Du nouveau sur le Conventum Hugonis‘ in Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes Vol.153 (Paris 1995), pp. 483-495, and in reply Beech, “The lord/dependant (vassal) relationship”.

3. Barthélemy, “Autor d’un récit de pactes (« Conventum Hugonis »): La seigneurie châtelaine et le féodalisme, en France au XIe siècle” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 447-489 with discussion 491-495.

4. Studied in detail in Bernard S. Bachrach, Fulk Nerra, the Neo-Roman Consul, 987-1040. A Political Biography of the Angevin Count (Berkeley 1993), as well as many other works by him; Regesta Imperii brings up 21 on title keyword search alone, and it probably hasn’t got them all…

When is a fief not a fief? When it’s a fisc (Feudal Transformations IX)

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

If we’re looking at feudalism, and I’m afraid we still are, I think I’ve said by now that the meaning of that term that I find most plausible out of the several possible ones is that one that sticks to the etymology, and deals with the relations of lords and their followers who do service for a temporary grant of land under terms: feudo-vassalic relations, as some call it to disambiguate it from the other senses of ‘feudalism’.1 Because we’re working, ultimately, from the Latin feodum, or sometimes feudum, which becomes in English ‘fee’ and, via French, ‘fief’. And in the Oxford English Dictionary, firstly those two entries crosslink in the online version, but secondly the definition is:

fief

/feef/

noun 1 historical an estate of land held on condition of feudal service. 2 a person’s sphere of operation or control.

– DERIVATIVES fiefdom noun.

– ORIGIN Old French, variant of feu “fee”.

A bit circular, but clear enough. But is that what it means in the documents? Sometimes, alas, no; it’s not as simple as indexing uses of feodum and seeing how they rise or fall (even if you had the kind of sample or statistical significance measurement that would make such an exercise meaningful). Feodum doesn’t really crop up much before the ninth century, and when it does occur then it actually means ‘a supporting allotment of public land, or the revenues from it’, so for example, a fiscal castle will have an associated feodum which provides its upkeep.2 In this element it’s really quite like fiscum, which doesn’t quite mean the institution of the fisc, the landstock of the public power, as we read it now, but its individual portions. So that castle might just as well have a fisc, and some Catalan documents actually use the two words as equivalents, “fiscis sive feodis”.3

Certainly, use of the term feodum goes up and up in the eleventh century. And if you’re Dominique Barthélemy (which, after all I’ve said about him here, I kind of hope you’re not), you emphasise that the two words have been associated for a long long time and that you can’t be sure what’s meant when a fief turns up, and deny the whole transformation because you’ve spent years taking the model apart in detail in different places.4 On the other hand, if you’re Thomas Bisson, you perhaps generally prefer not to sacrifice the big picture by getting bogged down in that detail, and like to try and show that big things are genuinely changing, and that does at least make a better story.5 But if you do it by simply counting the use of the word feodum without ever considering its ambiguity or the sample size of the documents, you don’t necessarily carry me with you… 6

It’s not that his Spoleto article here isn’t interesting, or even valid. The contrast he draws between Flanders, where a public power remains in control of the new feudal arrangements of military service, and where they don’t therefore lead to a total collapse such as Catalonia suffers, between Provence where it does all go a bit wrong because there’s no overall power that can bring it back into order, even a feudal order, and between Occitania where there isn’t even too much trouble but where the feudo-vassalic structure nonetheless becomes the overriding social structure, is interesting, and deserves more investigation, though by someone else as it goes too late for me. But without some deeper investigation of how the words is used in these very different areas, I don’t necessarily think we’re comparing like with like, and we certainly can’t really quantify these supposed fiefs.


1. You can find this usage defended in Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42.

2. So, for example, in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas: Escuela de Estudios Medievales, Textos XVIII, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona no. 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 159.

3. 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, including a 1003 document from Sant Pere de Besalú which confers revenues, “ex censali publico, quod vulgum feum nominat… “; Dominique Barthélemy, “Autor d’un récit de pactes (« Conventum Hugonis »): La seigneurie châtelaine et le féodalisme, en France au XIe siècle” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 447-489 with discussion 491-495, at p. 458 where he cites Marc Bloch, “Questions féodales” in Annales d’Histoire Économique et Sociale Vol. 10 (Paris 1938) at p. 174 & idem, “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

4 Classically, Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; in English, idem “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (1996), pp. 196-205; idem, “The Year 1000 Without Abrupt or Radical Transformation”, eds & transl. Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein, rev. Barthélemy, in Little & Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 134-147; and, most relevantly, Barthélemy, “Autour d’un récit de pactes”.

5 Bisson, “Feudal Revolution”; idem, Tormented Voices: power, crisis, and humanity in rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 (Cambridge MA 1998).

6. Bisson, “Lordship and Tenurial Dependence in Flanders, Provence and Occitania (1050-1200)” in Feudalesimo, I pp. 389-439 with discussion pp. 441-446, including a lengthy critique from Barthélemy which however goes for him on a subjective basis about how serious disorder was, allowing Bisson to simply restate his own view, rather than this point where he’s actually weak.

Feudal Transformations VIII: two ways of confusing the issue

Back to the Spoleto volume once more! Bracketing the clutch of papers I just mentioned are two by Hans-Werner Goetz and Patricia Skinner.1 Goetz is putting the case of East Francia under the Carolingians, and Skinner is dealing with Southern Italy before and under the Normans. Neither of these two plays the conventional game that the papers discussed before were playing, but the ways in which they differ from it are themselves so huge that it’s really striking.

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sister St Matilda, from Wikimedia Commons

(By the way, since I drafted this and found that image in my stash, Gabriele at the Lost Fort has posted a series of far better ones and some introduction to Quedlinburg’s importance and history, so once you’ve read this, go and have a look. Hoi! I said once you… Oh well, anyway.)

Because of Karl-Ferdinand Werner and a Spanish scholar called Carlos de Ayala Martínez, Goetz’s article is not the longest paper I have ever had to read. All the same, sixty pages of very theoretical German historiography, my first German for a while, took me a long time to get through. He must have expanded what he said at the conference a very great deal, as he presumably had no longer to speak than anyone else and all their contributions, even François Menant’s which is seriously mostly footnotes, come in at between thirty and forty pages.2 So, what does it do? Goetz is tangling with the fact that really not a lot has been written about East Francia before the Ottonians.3 In looking into the gap, he takes a historiographical stereotype of the feudal transformation in Germany, which as he points out (and others, most notably Tim Reuter, whom many of us miss, have also pointed out in English) is a rather different, more state-guided and controlled affair than in parts West, which acquires a legalistic form which underpins a number of the stereotypes that Reynolds took to task in Fiefs and Vassals.4 (He doesn’t cite Reynolds or Brown, but then he is sort of on their side.) This leads him into much musing on what people have said about whether East Francia, whose shape was rarely the same for twenty years together, whose capital shifted, and which, his developing argument reveals, was changing the way its government operated over the period, was any kind of state, as well the larger metadebate about whether the state as defined by Weber, with its claimed monopoly of legitimate force, can ever be seen in the Middle Ages and if not, what terms or definitions can be used instead. This is, incidentally, another field where Professor Reynolds has been busy, but anyway, you can see where Goetz’s wordcount is coming from.5

By the end he has drawn out several long strands of the feudal state as it is conceived of for the later period, Ottonians or Salians, and stressed in each case that antecedents of some of its characteristics can be found in the Carolingian predecessor quasi-state. The message is that it really isn’t as simple as the scholarship has made it, because these elements which later form part of the ‘feudal imaginary’ as we imagine it often occurred there in contexts which are not, or not yet, feudal. I would have to go back into the text for examples, but that’s his basic attack; our definition of ‘feudal’ needs an awful lot of looking at before it will deal with this extensive but partial prefiguring. He is basically digging a big and obvious ditch in front of anyone who wants to argue that the Ottonians and Salians built their states on a new style of political relations that could be called feudal, rather than on a selective and evolving inheritance from the Carolingians and their idea of rule, but he does so very carefully, politely and with incredible breadth of citation.

But, apart from Reynolds and Brown, do you know what’s basically missing from the citation? Primary sources. This is an almost entirely historiographical paper. Of course if he’d had to prove every point from the sources rather than by regula magistri (or really, given whom he’s citing, regula collegarum) the paper would have been even longer, but it is also a stylistic choice tat places him in a tradition. He is basically doing a nuanced and subtle form of the old Verfassungsgeschichte, plotting the formation of the state. He is willing to consider jumps, skips, and “the possibility of a discontinuous evolution” but it’s basically ‘what makes this polity work and how does that change’? As such it’s a very odd, to this non-German anyway, mix of new thinking and old learning, and to get through the sixty pages only to find that the conclusion was, more or less, “seriously, guys, it’s all really complicated!” was something of an anticlimax.

The cathedral of San Cataldo in Palermo, from Wikimedia Commons

The cathedral of San Cataldo in Palermo, from Wikimedia Commons

Compared to this, and to the four thick papers already discussed that lie between Goetz’s and hers, Skinner’s paper is a real breath of fresh air. It does deal with the historiography, including both Brown and Reynolds, and does due deference to the conference theme by giving some account of the way in which Sicily and Southern Italy have been made to take a part in this big meta-narrative of feudalisation. It does this in a very few pages, though, sorting it clearly into themes, and then goes about much the same feat as Goetz, showing that the real picture was far far messier than that, but she does it Jarrett-style (I suppose, rather, I do it Skinner style, but I have read very little of her work; I’m familiar with quite a lot by people she came up with such as Jinty Nelson who would probably approach it the same way, though), by adducing example after example from bulging charter archives and showing that some places in Italy fit better than others, that the Normans didn’t necessarily bring a clean slate of feudal rule but kept whatever worked in their takeover areas, and that again, it’s all much more complicated. But where Goetz appears to be arguing for a new and better version of the main theory that will somehow take account of all that variation, Skinner is saying that there’s just too much of it, and that a better approach would be to throw out this silly expectation we seem to have that places can be made to fit and that there is a path they should have been on, and instead study what was actually going on in each area and see how many units of what size this makes, and thus we can make something a bit more meaningful of the way that the Normans manage to build a kingdom that runs more or less as a unit out of this variety and what that means in its political and social context. I like this approach a lot better, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

The kind of stuff she throws up as evidence for the variety all seems very like home to me though. She has the same kind of frontier all-to-play-for conditions in her material as I do in mine, and the same sense of Islam-only-just-over-there motivating the warrior class too maybe. I already found Sicily really interesting for its mixture of cultures, in just the sort of edge situation that first interested me in Catalonia, and I think this paper has indicated to me that when I have models I want to test somewhere else, which is my ultimate aim for now, Southern Italy is probably where I should start by testing them. And you know, Sicily looks nice to visit :-) It’s nice to have some long-term aims…

A tombstone of a Norman noblewoman in Palermo, lettered in all of Latin, Greek and Arabic, from Wikimedia Commons

A tombstone of a Norman noblewoman in Palermo, lettered in all of Latin, Greek and Arabic, from Wikimedia Commons


1. Hans-Werner Goetz, “Staatlichkeit, Herrschaftsordnung und Lehnswesen im Ostfräkischen Reich als Forschungsprobleme” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 85-143 with discussion pp. 145-147, & Patricia Skinner, “When was Southern Italy « feudal »?”, ibid. pp. 309-340 with discussion pp. 341-345.

2. François Menant, “La féodalité italienne entre XIe et XIIe siècles”, ibid. pp. 347-383 with discussion pp. 385-387.

3. Though you could start with the coverage in Timothy Reuter, Germany in the Early Middle Ages 800-1050 (London 1991) and you’d have as good a grounding as there is in English I think.

4. Idem, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195.

5. Susan Reynolds, “The idea of the nation as a political community” in Len Scales & Oliver Zimmer (eds), Power and the nation in European history (Cambridge 2005), pp. 54-66.

More feudalism from Spoleto: Elizabeth Brown where are you now?

Larry Swain did ask me to write more about this Spoleto volume, and what with him and the debate I seem to have got started with Another Damned Medievalist, I suppose there’s an audience of at least two for this post. I’ll try and keep it brief, though, because even for me it’s quite dry, and basically there’s only so many times I can illustrate a post with ye olde feudal homage illumination, so I have to keep myself limited on the number of posts where I actually talk about it.

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

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

Sometimes you have to wonder whether Elizabeth Brown should have bothered. Spoleto draws a very European crowd, obviously, and especially among them Italians and Germans. Therefore, in the middle of this volume is a clutch of German and Italian papers that make up quite a lot of its weight. Of these the weightest is by Hans-Werner Goetz and I’ll come back to that in another post, if at all, because it’s doing something different to the following four.1 These four, Piero Brancoli Busdraghi, Amelio Spicciani, Hagen Keller and Gerhard Dilcher, are all basically arguing about the content of relations between lords and their soldiers at different points and periods.2 Busdraghi, Spicciani and Keller all cover Italy, though of these only Spicciani really comes south of Lombardy and Keller gets good ground out of comparisons with Germany. Dilcher is different in that he focuses on Germany, and under the Salians and Staufen kings whereas all the others are paying attention to the eleventh century most of all, and Spicciani again earlier too where it’s useful. I think Keller’s is the most subtle and Spicciani’s the most empirically justifiable, but the basic question is the same: how feudal is it all? And this would be enough to make many people quite frustrated, because as I mentioned in 1974 Elizabeth Brown asked us all to stop that.

It is not quite basic and unmodified as some of the work she was contesting. As Chris Wickham said at this same conference, people do get their models of feudalism confused, but even when you’re clear about what you’re looking for, the human variation involved in society makes it a lumpy fit. All of these scholars were, either explicitly or implicitly, working with a juridical definition of feudalism that more or less limits it to military arrangements made between lords and soldiers paid for with temporary land grants, but they weren’t being quite as simplistic as “is my model visible here?”, because That Never Works. Instead they’re conceptually working at one remove, where the question is, “what is going on in my area that makes it distinctive in its transition towards feudalism?”, which lets you use the local variations to try and explain why your area is such a lumpy fit to the model. It is, however, still working with the model.

How does this look in practice? Of the four papers here, two particularly address a particular document of 1037, and the other two use it as an endpoint or starting point. The document is an edict of Emperor Conrad II that was intended to end a two-year uprising by the lesser vassals of the kingdom of Italy (which, you may need to know, was the north; of the south, which was nothing like as coherent, we’ll hear another time). The vassals were up in arms because they felt in danger of not being allowed to succeed to benefices that the lords had given their fathers; their expectation was that the “ius patrum suorum” should be continued in their hands, and Conrad went some way to setting rules for this that had not, previously, existed in a way anyone could rely on. This was good for his image as lawmaker and peacemaker and, Dilcher argues, more or less left Germany out of it, where such rules came, if at all, with the Roman law revival of rather later and on a background of long-developed German, not Italian, custom. But Dilcher’s focus is later, so his paper starts with this Edict; meanwhile, Brancoli Busdraghi’s ends with it and it forms a constant background to Spicciani’s and a frequent partner in the dance through concepts and practices that forms Keller’s contribution. It’s obviously a fascinating document and a good place to focus all their sorts of enquiry.3 So Brancoli Busdraghi finds that it plays substantially to the interests of the powerful, because although it does make it harder for them to arbitrarily remove their followers’ sons’ livelihood (which is, Spicciani emphasises, what it will have meant in some cases) it also fixes those followers in dependent service, removing their options too. Spicciani reads it in quite the opposite way, seeing the combination in pursuit of a ‘class’ interest as an indication that the lords are more or less at the mercy of the mob here and stressing the skill of the compromise that Conrad finds. Keller asks, somewhat incredulously, how a simple law could apparently resolve such social tension, and argues therefore, Barthélemy-like, that what is really happening here is orally-transmitted expectations being made concrete but that were already pretty general; Conrad therefore restores order by recognising it and only a few people have to change their practices. This somewhat fails to explain the uprising in the first place, and Spicciani’s strength is in explaining it, but Keller has much to say about how writing could exaggerate the importance of things simply by bringing them to the fore of our attention.

He cites some English work for this. In this he is unusual, but there is one work they all cite, and it’s not Brown but Reynolds.4 In a sense, they have to, because she goes for the Edict among the many other sources she considers misrepresented or unrepresentative. Against her argument that basically all the evidence for the model at issue is late and at least slightly wrong, Dilcher and Keller both claim at different levels of subtlety that oral practices underlie these later reflections so that really, the system is there beforehand but not evidenced in writing. In this way they avoid dealing with any of the rest of her criticisms about the model itself, or any of Brown’s. None of them cite Brown. But what they are doing, despite its actual historical content, is setting papers around the question of how much logic-chopping you have to do to retain the feudal model in the case of their areas. Does it really help? Is it not more interesting that the Romagna and Lombardy do power relations in different ways, and to explore why that is and what effects it has, than merely trying to work out at what different points they move onto a ‘feudal’ base? It helps me less to be told, with a considerable backing from almost entirely secondary sources—Spicciani’s demonstration of variation in other areas is a breath of fresh air but he is still basically discussing other historians, not the sources, and the others use even less primary material—that the passage to feudalism was more or less influenced by written law and Italian custom, than it would to be told how this lord and that lord organised their armies and whether it was significant for their status and effect, if it worked, and so on. I don’t think ‘is it feudal or not and if not why not?’ is useful to us most of the time, because if what we are finding is that ‘feudal’ is a category that doesn’t fit easily then its explanatory value is strongly diminished. And you know, Brown said that in 1974 and twenty-five years later Reynolds’s work, by attacking on so many fronts that some of them had to be defensible, was here actually making it easier to ignore what Brown and she were saying in common. I could wish Brown had been at the conference and able to speak her piece; apparently it still needed saying.


1. Hans-Werner Goetz, “Staatlichkeit, Herrschaftsordnung und Lehnswesen im Ostfräkischen Reich als Forschungsprobleme” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 85-148.

2. Piero Brancoli Busdraghi, “Rapporti di vassallaggio e assegnazioni in beneficio nel Regno italico anteriormente alla costituzione di Corrado II”, ibid. pp. 149-173; Amleto Spicciani, “Concessioni livellarie, impegni militare non vassallatici e castelli: un feudalesimo informale (secoli X-XI)”, ibid., pp. 175-227; Hagen Keller, “Das Edictum de beneficiis Konrads II. und die Entwicklung des Lehnswesens in der erste Häfte des 11. Jahrhunderts”, ibid. pp. 227-261; & Gerhard Dilcher, “Die Entwicklung des Lehnswesens in Deutschland zwischen Salier und Staufern”, ibid. pp. 263-308.

3. It is edited, should you be interested, in Harry Bresslau (ed.), Die Urkunden Konrads II. mit Nachträgen zu den Urkunden Heinrichs II., Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Diplomata regum et imperatorum Germaniae) IV (Hannover 1909, repr. 2001), online here, doc. no. 244.

4. I only just gave these references, it seems, but, for completeness: Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169; Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994).

Plz be respecting feudalizm: further opinions from Chris Wickham

I figure in these hard times Geoffrey Chaucer needs all the promotion he can get, you know? Though he seems, despite his absence from the Internet, to be writing in to the Guardian, or at least his agent is. But, you will be shocked to hear, this wasn’t the whole point of my post.

The 1999 Spoleto conference on feudalism that I mentioned before had its keynote speech given by Chris Wickham, and he set out to rehabilitate the word and its meanings. If you’ve been through a course in medieval history that went before 1200, you are probably aware that in 1974 Elizabeth A. R. Brown went thoroughly into the uses of the word ‘feudalism’ to describe the society of the high Middle Ages in an article in the American Historical Review, found them basically lacking because of lack of consensus about what it meant and lack of basis for the various explanations that there were, and asked all historians to please stop teaching it as soon as possible.1 Not satisfied with the results, Susan Reynolds in 1994 wrote a thick book, about ten times the length of Brown’s article, in which she railed at considerable length at how silly all the people were who were still using this broken and misleading concept and requested them at length to acquire clues and similar.2 Reynolds’s book was sufficiently vituperative and powerfully-phrased, and her career sufficiently autumnal, that while those who loved controversy lapped it up, those who had no intention of changing were able to more or less dismiss it as the fulminations of a crank. This was unfair, because it says important things, but it doesn’t, admittedly, leave one very clear on what Reynolds actually thinks did organise medieval society, at least in part because she’d written that at length elsewhere anyway.3 Reynolds’s work can’t be ignored, but nonetheless, because it’s older and therefore better cited, because it’s (slightly) less polemical, because it’s of US origin and therefore attracts itself to more people who are aware of the historical community on the Internet perhaps, and mostly I suspect because it’s shorter, Brown’s article remains a bigger influence on people than Reynolds’s book. Another Damned Medievalist has written about this, and so I’ll refer you there and get on with the point. If you do want more, the Reynolds debate is one of the rich patches in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook and Melissa Snell’s blog on About.com tackled the whole issue not so very long ago too, so that should be all the HTML any reasonable person can eat and beyond that you’ll actually have to read some print.

Roland receiving the sword Durandal from Charlemagne in exchange for homage, from Wikimedia Commons

Roland receiving the sword Durandal from Charlemagne in exchange for homage, from Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, the fine art of leaving Susan Reynolds by herself and arguing with the (easier) Brown was on good form in Chris’s hands in 1999.4 He carefully stays more or less clear of Fiefs and Vassals, arguing that he doesn’t have time to do a detailed critique of the sources, and instead goes for the theoretical throat, which is Brown. Yes, he admits, ‘feudalism’ is an ideal type, and thus probably didn’t really exist anywhere as we imagine it. But we can’t get very far without ideal types, he argues, because, lacking 100% information, we have to construct in order to imagine what our subject population was really like and doing. Ideal types are a thing that powers the imagination, and powers discussion about the respects that they don’t match. What he’s essentially arguing here is that we need, if we’re to understand medieval society to our own contentment, to be able to work not in terms of slow assembly, but in terms of bold-but-wrong thesis, careful and destructive antithesis, and synthesis, repeated each step closer to the objective reality and so on, you know, the way we actually do history.5 None of us do history without any basis in the area at all, from first principles, so the real issue with ideal types is whether one can identify the ones one uses or not! Do you know why you think what you think, can you argue it? and so on.

Having thus cleared some ground in which a concept of feudalism might stand, Chris argues that in fact there are three, and that really most of the trouble has come from people confusing them and using one’s inapplicability to disprove another. He separates them out as follows:

  1. Marxist feudalism (because this is Chris after all): the feudal mode of production in which peasants own and operate the means of production but lords control it. The advantage of this is that it brings the 80% of medieval society who didn’t write or ride chargers into the picture and reminds us that it all comes down to who feeds whom at some level; the downside is that it really doesn’t cover much else and frequently doesn’t describe how people are actually related when for many other reasons we’d want to call their society feudal. For example, a Catalan free peasant paying rent to a lord but otherwise independent in the 1030s is in a society where feudal oaths are the organisational basis of pretty much all power relations; but for a Marxist he isn’t himself embedded in the feudal mode, so that breaks quite easily when you try and make it do more than it can cover.
  2. Exactly opposite, the juridical sense which says that really, the only thing you can call feudal is relations centred around fiefs, that is what others might usually call ‘feudo-vassalic relations’ so as to separate it cleanly from the whole big shebang; a lord and a follower in a relation of mutual benefit where the follower gets to hold land from the lord ‘in fief’ or ‘in fee’ in exchange for service and loyalty. The problem with this is self-evidently the opposite one, that it misses out the peasants and anything not to do with the military organisation of society, and thus misses really rather a lot, though many would argue that the rest isn’t ‘feudal’, thus setting themselves at complete cross-purposes with the Marxists…
  3. Finally, the Marc Bloch version, what Georges Duby called, translated from the French, ‘the feudal imaginary’. This is the big-picture version of Poly & Bournazel’s Feudal Transformation and also of course of Bloch’s own Feudal Society, in which everything is built up from the juridical version to extend through the whole of medieval society, its literary production, its self-image, its self-justifications and legends, its economy and culture, its religion (Jesus as Lord and lord) and the whole lot really.6 The obvious problem with this is that it is, again, an ideal type; I’ve argued elsewhere and many have before me too that this just never happened all at once, and if this is the real definition nowhere was ever ‘feudal’. Chris, having already defended ideal types, says that that doesn’t matter because it gives a big picture view that encompasses both (1) and (2) and leaves you feeling as if you can see the society better. We know it’s wrong, in detail, but it’s helpful, even if by now mainly to critique.

I am usually persuaded by Chris to an extent, except mainly where he justifies an argument with something like, “because aristocrats/peasants are like that”. (And indeed, one of the great beauties of the Settimane series is that they also publish some version of the discussion, so you get Chris having a very high-level exchange of compliments with Dominique Barthélemy that includes him saying, “As you know well, some historians cannot argue their way out of a paper bag” in print where it can be found and cited (p. 50), which amuses me.) So here I think he quite rightly distinguishes between some concepts which have been wrongly identified together, and makes an entertaining and persuasive pitch for continuing to talk about feudalism, which can basically be summarised as ‘we already are, so we may as well admit it’. And I do use the word freely in a way that would cause some of my colleagues to start uneasily, mainly because in my area I can point you at upwards of a hundred feudal oaths and contracts which are, among other things, almost the earliest written examples of a Romance language but that also make a pretty good case for admitting that in Catalonia there was a feudal system, even if it didn’t necessarily reach everywhere and include everything.7 But, in the end, the basic problem is this: it being a good thing to think with doesn’t alter the fact that it makes you think in terms of one thing (or here, three that are one; Chris draws the Trinitarian analogy himself in the discussion). And what was going on wasn’t one thing, but lots all at once. So although Chris may not be, I remain confused and unconvinced, but now by Brown and him alike.


1. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169.

2. Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994).

3. Eadem, Kings and Communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1997).

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

5. That is, assuming that you accept that there was an objective reality, which I do even if everyone in it perceived it differently. Let’s not have that argument again just now.

6. Referring to Marc Bloch, La Société Féodale (Paris 1949), transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (Chicago 1961); to Georges Duby, Les Trois Ordres, ou, l’imaginaire du féodalisme (Paris 1980), transl. Arthur Goldhammer as The Three Orders: feudal society imagined (Chicago 1980); and to Jean-Pierre Poly & Eric Bournazel, La Mutation Féodale, Xe-XIIe siècles, transl. Caroline Higgit as The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200 (New York City 1983), 2nd edn. in French 1991.

7. Now covered at length in English by 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), which does not entirely replace Michel Zimmermann, “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in Jaume Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i Expansió del Feudalisme Català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with Catalan summary p. 523, Castilian summary p. 531 & English summary p. 557. On the linguistic importance, you can see Joan Bastardas, “El català vers l’any 1000″ in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 495-513 with Catalan résumé p. 495 & French & Provencal résumés & English abstract p. 514.