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.
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).