More theory: genealogical narrative and the feudal transformation

There is a paper by Randolph Starn in that van Engen volume I mentioned starting so long ago, called “Who’s Afraid of the Renaissance?”.1 Its main purpose is to argue that medievalists and Renaissance scholars cannot afford, for all that they do subtly different things with their material, to exclude each other from their orbits. This may well be true but as someone whose period comes nowhere near the Quattrocento I’m not worrying too much just now. He does however say some interesting things about periodization.

He observes as an initial point that if you imagine there was a Renaissance at all, you are implicitly accepting three periods; the Renaissance itself, the golden period which it revives, and the interval in between in which that period was in eclipse. We usually call these the Renaissance, Antiquity and the Middle Ages respectively of course but they are all required by the concepts embodied in the first alone, and some have rejected them. Again, all fine. But because one of the things that occupies Renaissance and late medieval scholarship, he argues, is setting the boundary between each other, a boundary that he argues is unhelpful, it is very focused on a grand narrative transition between epochs. And he argues that this is unhelpful because it neglects things that don’t fit the story, and this is also all very fair and true and needs not to be forgot.

So his alternative is to suggest, rather than a narrative approach, a genealogical one. He suggests that rather than telling one story we follow lines down, or up, through history, looking for connections as a genealogist looks for ancestry or descent, expecting some branches to stop, other new ones to `marry’ in, thus allowing things to enter and leave the family without prejudice to their importance or the family’s. I quite like this conceptually, even though I don’t usually have to worry about grand narratives (except the ruddy feudal transformation) because of focusing on nature’s narrative duration, the lifespan, rather more than many. He is certainly right that this allows for a more nuanced and personalised reading of history than a truly big story like `the end of the Middle Ages’, and various analogies with modern family tree software that lets you zoom in and out on particular generations or groups could also be worked in.2 The trouble comes when you stop trying to work vertically.

A real family tree or genealogy has siblings on it. It also has collateral lines, running in parallel but not directly linked. This model has no power to distinguish between the two. Let’s take the good old Transformation, since I can discourse on it easily. As you’ll see from the diagram thumbnailed below, I have views on how things derive in the feudal transformation. I’d also like to keep them so please, if you should find it useful, use it with my name attached and copyright recognised, without other change. But back to the thread.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation

Somehow, for example, we descend down this notional tree from, for example, a system where the court is the dominant field of political interaction to one where castle lordships are as high as it gets. We also descend from, let’s pick something fairly neutral, an armed yeomanry to a subject and disarmed peasantry who are `protected’ by armoured horsemen. So is the court the `sibling’ of the armed peasantry? Is the castle the `sibling’ of the knights? That latter sounds as if it makes sense, the former less so, though it’s kind of been argued. So which of those two from the upper generation is the parent of the latter two? Do they in fact give rise to either? Even together? Or are they in fact separate `families’? Why are they on the same tree then? And yet they clearly are related, even if only by time, whereas our scheme demands more consequence than that.

So I think it’s a nice idea, but when I try and put something I want to explain into it, it doesn’t help, and probably forces me to make false associations or ignore important ones. Therefore I suspect that it’s not much use for explaining things that actually happened. We may have to keep telling stories instead.

1. Randolph Starn, “Who’s Afraid of the Renaissance?” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 129-147.

2. I should speak a word here for Spansoft‘s Kith & Kin, which has been helping me keep families sorted and Catalan noblewomen called Adelaide distinct since 1999. Not that modern, therefore, although current versions look very different from what I started with (a shareware version that you can still find on the internet in places), but really quite robust and useful. Doesn’t deal gracefully with cousins who marry, though; if anyone knows anything that does, I’m open to suggestions also.

6 responses to “More theory: genealogical narrative and the feudal transformation

  1. My preferred way of explaining things is by thinking about tension between poles. Two poles might be isolated castle and imperial court. What processes in a given situation push the locus of power toward one or the other?

    Doesn’t work for everything but what does?

    Your chart is exactly right, even if it is funny.

  2. Interesting notion, about dissolving boundaries and recreating a new way of viewing the time periods. It’s by no means new–I recently read and have been pondering an essay by Jacques Le Goff “For an Extended Middle Ages” (in *The Medieval Imagination*) arguing for continuity from late antiquity through the 17th century–but this does create an interesting new framework. I also like the way you’ve appropriated this idea and created a possible way of conceptualizing this idea.

    I wonder if there aren’t multiple “genealogical” frameworks that could be created, though. I didn’t want to overtake your comments, so I’ve posted some of my own thoughts over on my own blog (

  3. I don’t think I’ve appropriated the framework, really, it’s in the article, I’ve just tested it and found it wanting. As you say over at Point of Know Return, it presents an interesting way of looking at languages, but that’s plotting like and like together. If I try and do full-on social history with it I wind up trying to put ironworking on the same tree as courtly love poetry and so forth, and though there is a link (ironworking leads to weapons, weapons leads to a military class, military class leads to a non-subsistence élite, non-subsistence leads to leisure, leisured élite leads to literature…) it’s all backwards, because in reality iron-working spreads and membership of the military class shrinks… And once you have those on the tree there’s no space in the framework to put other things in relation unless you start doing the sort of mental gymnastics that an unwilling dieter might do to classify chocolate as a vegetable… So I don’t think it helps much, and as you say linguists were already using this model. But if you get some help from it that’s all good.

    Professor Muhlberger, I agree with you about the tension between centre and locality. Following in the steps of my Doktorvater I tend to look at the success of kingship being focussed on the ability to pull that tension towards the court, be it by patronage or status play or whatever. It strikes me writing this, however, that I never really think about how an unwilling noble might deliberately try and pull it his way. Somehow we always blame the king now whether for success or failure… I wonder if there’s a reaction to the sort of 1066 and All That all-barons-are-evil analysis hidden in this or if I just forgot to think about it.

  4. Pingback: What kind of post-modern are you? « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. “Doesn’t deal gracefully with cousins who marry, though”

    OK, I can’t resist this – of course it shouldn’t, because that’s incest!

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