Feudal Transformations VII: Michel Bur and the motte-and-bailey castle

I don’t plan to talk about each of the papers in that Spoleto volume individually, but Michel Bur’s contribution is a very good example of the kind of explanation of the changes in European society around the year 1000 that annoyed me enough to draw my famous diagram.1 His argument, very basically, is that at the end of the tenth century new motte-and-bailey castles proliferate all over northern France, and that this must have fundamentally affected the way that areas are run, bringing the collection of surplus much closer and, well, transforming society. And certainly this has some weight, but it’s only part of an argument. There are two ways to tackle this, what after one of the earlier posts we might call the Bedos-Rezak way, that is invalidate it by logical and theoretical argument, and the Jarrett way, which is to punch it full of exceptions until it deflates. First let’s do the theory.

Model of motte-and-bailey castle, from Wikimedia Commons

Model of motte-and-bailey castle, from Wikimedia Commons

It is certainly the case that one of the changes in society that characterises this period is the way castles pop up everywhere like plague. In Italy, where the phenomenon was first really studied, they call it Incastellamento and the effects on society of a new local and unassailable structure of domination are well worked out.2 But it’s not as if the technology to achieve these sites is unthinkable before this time. The Romans could throw up fortified camps many times this size as part of an afternoon’s work, and if you follow the campaigns against the Vikings in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or the Annals of St-Bertin you’ll find each side putting up forts against each other as if it were no big thing.3 So, why isn’t everyone doing it before this? What’s changed? What, in fact, explains the castles?

Dépiction de l'action d'une bêche intellectuelle d'un archéologue, comme vue par Jonathan Jarrett

Dépiction de l'action d'une bêche intellectuelle d'un archéologue, comme vue par Jonathan Jarrett

The diagram above illustrates what’s going on here. Castles are part of a larger cycle of causation in this process, and because M. le Prof. Bur is an archaeologist as well as a historian this is what he knows best of all and sees in most detail. Above therefore we see the intellectual spade of M. Bur exposing the castles to the historical view, leaving the fact that they in turn were permitted to arise by other phenomena buried. So, what about these other phenomena? Time for the Jarrett view.

This is one of those things where Susan Reynolds has a good grip on the problem of explaining it all. We know that later kings police the building of castles very tightly, because it is by then well understood that just this process of local Incastellamento is downright detrimental to their command of an area. If their armies can be diverted or resisted they have no recourse against their vassals, and so on. So it is assumed that the Carolingians and their ilk were just as avid against local castle-building when in fact this is very hard to show. Certainly there are Carolingian cases of rebels’ castles being demolished, but these aren’t adulterine castles in the later English sense, these are just castles that were in the wrong hands. Out in my area, in the supposed cauldron of the Feudal Transformation, pretty much the first thing a lord does when he opens up a new area is put a tower up in it.4 You’ve seen some of these towers in the blog already:

The Castell de Tona, Osona, Catalunya, photo by Jonathan Jarrett

The Castell de Tona, Osona, Catalunya, photo by Jonathan Jarrett

Tona here boasts a tower whose foundation date is unknown but which was certainly not a refuge for the townsmen; you can barely get two people inside. And Òdena, founded by Sal·la of Bages as I told you a while ago, is not so very much bigger. I could tell you more, but I don’t have the pictures to hand to make the point.5

What remains of the Castell d'Òdena, founded by Sal·la and Unifred

What remains of the Castell d'Òdena, founded by Sal·la and Unifred

Now certainly Northern France was not a frontier area like Catalonia, and the obvious need for defensive towers and guardposts is rather less. All the same, there was no fear on the part of the counts of these castellans-in-the-making. The counts made a good few of them, they wanted this area castled, because castles brought them power. How? They could demand military service from these places, they could use them as bases, they could if they had to maintain garrisons out there but they’d far rather have had someone else paid for that.6 And perhaps this was a dangerous game to play, gambling on the biddableness of their fideles in time of trouble, but the prize was arguably worth the gamble, because the prize was military domination of an ever-increasing area and a considerable increase of surplus as the newly-protected areas around the new castles filled out and become productive. You can actually, with Catalonia, put castles into a different chain of causation with land clearance and therefore economic growth, though which caused which would be a bit more of an argument.7

So Michel Bur is surely right to stress the importance of castles, and when Dominique Barthélemy tried to dismiss his findings in questions by saying that the ‘wave’ of castles at issue were spread over most of a century, Bur was quite easily able to answer with “no they’re not, I’ve dug them and you haven’t” or words to that effect.8 But Barthélemy’s argument is the wrong one to use. The castles were important, and not just in Northern France either; but there are so many other things that are important too happening at the same time that this is not the answer we need, if it even exists.

1 Michel Bur, “Le féodalisme dans le royaume franc jusqu’à l’an mil: la seigneurie” 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. 53-78 with discussion pp. 79-83.

2. Originated, I believe, with Pierre Toubert in (or rather translated from) his Les structures du Latium médiéval: Le Latium méridional et la Sabine du IXe siècle à la fin du XIIe siècle (Rome 1973); international findings gathered by him and Miquel Barceló in L’« Incastellamento »: Actes des Rencontres de Gérone (26-27 Novembre 1992) et de Rome (5-7 Mai 1994) (Rome 1998).

3. Easily accessible in M. Swanton (ed./transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996), and in the older translation of J. A. Giles online here, and in Janet L. Nelson (transl.), The Annals of St-Bertin (Manchester 1991), online here for those with subscriptions.

4. So, for example, the Torre dels Fils de Guadamir, as it’s briefly known, seen in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíingia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 1472; see Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, pp. 183-184. The tower was apparently a family venture, perhaps by the sons of an estate manager of the Cathedral of Vic. It seems to have rapidly disappeared or else, more likely, changed its name.

5. Tona was certainly standing by 889: see Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. 9. For Òdena’s connection to Sal·la see ibid. doc. no. 769.

6. The military service more or less assumed, see now Ramon d’Abadal & Josep María Font i Rius, “El regímen político carolingio” in J. M. Jover Zamora (ed.), Historia de España Menéndez Pidal, tomo VII: la España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, volumen II. Los Nucleos Pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. M. Riu i Riu (Madrid 1999), pp. 427-577 at pp. 467-503. Some form of comital control over castles is evidenced from the apparent resumption of the castle of Maians near Bages by Count Borrell II between 966 and 972; given to the monastery of Sant Benet de Bages in its 966 endowment (Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíingia IV, doc. no. 995A) it was gone by the monastery’s church consecration in 972 (ibid. doc. no. 1127), when the scribe used the monastery’s lack of military property as a moral high ground, and Unifred, Sal·la’s son, later held it from Borrell (ibid. doc. no. 1238). On all this see Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 38-46.

7. So, for example, economy driving lordship in Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle: croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols; the other way round in Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Societat i econòmia” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols. 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 81-115.

8. Again the delight of having the discussion printed! After Barthélemy’s harangue, Bur begins his response with (I translate): “Thankyou for that bracing statement of a case. It permits me to be clear in my turn.” In academese of course that’s tantamount to rolling up sleeves and asking him to step outside. Let no-one ever say that good manners prevent you being rude.

13 responses to “Feudal Transformations VII: Michel Bur and the motte-and-bailey castle

  1. This blog is turning into quite an historigraphical resource. I can imagine grad students’ delirious joy at your sensible explanations of problems and arguments.

  2. If you can call hand-sketched thought diagrams with illegible French labels sensible… but thankyou, I’m glad it reads as if it might be useful.

  3. Speaking for grad students, of which I am one, I know several who actually print your posts to study in-depth as time permits. They don’t always speak exactly to our particular projects, but they are well written, informative, and give us a more informal way of exploring ideas and areas we wouldn’t normally.

  4. Thanks for the very good post, but can I also suggest that we don’t forget the Reuter way to tackle these questions, and ask: ‘Were they doing the same thing in Germany?’ If they are (and as far as I know they were building castles there too), that scuppers that as THE cause of the F word.

    Of course, medieval Germany is Different, which is a Bad Thing (as opposed to medieval England being Different, which is a Good Thing, and medieval France being Typical, which is a Good Thing), but it’s still a very handy rule of thumb, just as any suggestions on the causes of the ‘Fall of the Rome’ have to pass the ‘But did it happen in the East as well?’ benchmark.

  5. Michael: that’s marvellous but horrifying. For once I’m actually glad I make myself do the footnotes, just so I know that I have some basis for what I’m saying…

    Magistra, it is the key question, I agree. Incastellamento plainly isn’t the root cause of the supposed transformation anyway, as I think I demonstrated, though obviously if your local lord sets up a castle just over your village it will make a difference to what you can do to resist his demands! But the question is who allows him to? In France the king loses the ability to demand his rights from castles, and we slowly get this idea of adulterine castles and permission developing. In Germany, by contrast, the king may not control the castles, but the big nobility more or less do, and the kings are the big nobility in Saxony for a while; one of the interesting things about the Henry IV situation is that you can see him trying to hold this supposed heartland and it slipping like sand through his fingers. If we really understood why that happened, and Leyser’s article about the crisis of the nobility is a big step towards it, we’d really have a good demonstration case for the loss of royal power elsewhere. All the same, I don’t think the Reuter argument helps here, because we can say how Germany is different, and it’s that the big nobility keeps control of castles in a way that can’t be maintained in the West. One of the things that I’m getting from this volume is an idea that fiefs are what you make to keep people in your service when you haven’t got much clout left otherwise. In Germany they just don’t become necessary till much later if ever, although some people have reason to use them, whereas the argument is that in the West they’re general. I think that’s probably questionable but I think it is true, especially in Catalonia, that higher or older public structures stop being sufficient and effective in a way that doesn’t occur in Germany, and that one of those public rights is access to and use of fortifications.

  6. you page is very inter esting.

  7. this is realy boring by my self.


  9. Wow! This is a neat concept. I must say as a grad student in tech history this is invaluable for giving me a more current sense of scholarship on the subject. I enjoyed DeVries Medieval Military Technology, but it is 18 years old. Time to go find articles to corroborate what I’ve read here….

  10. Pingback: I should have read this the moment I bought it, III | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  11. Pingback: Feudal Transformations VIII: two ways of confusing the issue | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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