Feudal Transformations X: Stephen White vs. Thomas Bisson, 2nd round

It’s both good and bad to come back to an older post and revise it: good because it means I’m learning something, bad because I was wrong about being up to speed with it. But, I’ve never claimed to have the feudal transformation worked out, only that I might be getting closer to it, so here is another step closer, a post which engages with two of the previous ones from the Spoleto series (whose seed articles the seed of this one cites) and maybe even gets us further on.

The article this time is by Stephen White, who has featured here before and is with Dominique Barthélemy one of the more implacable opponents of the ‘feudal revolution’ theory or theories. Here, in a short and pithy article, he takes on Thomas Bisson’s ideas about violence and the importance of feudo-vassalic relations in the rearrangement of society that is held by many to have taken place around the year 1000 in Western Europe.1 Many might think this is greedy, as Professor White had already had a go at that thesis in 1996 as part of a debate in which Bisson was given a fairly thorough historiographic kicking by a selection of people who usually work earlier than him, White being the signal traitor from his own period.2 However, as discussed here Bisson went on with his theory after that, contending perhaps that no-one had really taken his point, which I might manage some sympathy with as White doesn’t necessarily seem to have taken it here either.3 What he does do however is remove an awful lot of the stuff that Bisson built up from his basic point, so it’s worth discussing here very briefly and then giving my own impression of the debate.

By his work shall ye know him (I can't find a picture of Bisson)

By his work shall ye know him (I can't find a picture of Bisson)

Professor Stephen White

Professor Stephen White

The late Professor Georges Duby

The late Professor Georges Duby

(Those images won’t lay out as I want them, but it’s more fun than not trying at all.)

White points out that Georges Duby, who largely started this whole debate off, didn’t think that fiefs, and therefore agreements over them, feudal relations as most properly understood, were very important where he studied, whereas Bonnassie saw them all over Catalonia and thought their repurposing crucial to the changes in society that took place.4 Bisson, argues White, tries to have it both ways by stressing that society in the wake of the transformation is entirely based around such pacts, and that they are clearly a very poor and ineffective substitute for the public government through courts and officials that had gone before. This is why Bisson got a kicking, and White proceeds to repeat it by arming himself with the work of Jinty Nelson and pointing out that the Carolingian state absolutely operated in such bases of patronage, agreements of service, and most crucially of all oaths of fidelity, whose language, White argues, is repeated almost word-for-word in the texts that Bisson uses, chief among them the Conventum Hugonis about which we were talking here not so long ago, to demonstrate the new era.5 Neither old nor new orders actually existed as Bisson conceives them, White argues, and the feudo-vassalic agreements that Bisson sees as a novel symptom of a new kind of society are in fact traditional texts taken, in the instance of Hugh the Chiliarch’s plaint and the letters of Fulbert of Chartres, to previously unpreserved lengths of detailed application which could nonetheless all have been sourced from Cicero, Carolingian capitularies, and ordinary oaths of the previous centuries.

Fair? Well, only partly. I too see problems with Bisson’s arguments about fiefs, seeing them where others do not, and I’ve discussed that already. On the other hand, though, I don’t read Bisson’s 1994 article the way that White seems to. White sees Bisson as arguing for a crisis of fidelity c. 1000, whence his article’s title; I find that Bisson argues for a rather broader change of political culture, in which an élite previously trammelled by a royal system of regulation is now set free to exercise its increasing monopoly on violence to its own advantage. This is a failure of the ‘public order’ in two senses, firstly that it doesn’t stop them, and secondly that it’s no longer a source for the lands and honores for which these lords now fight each other. I stress that I don’t necessarily agree with this in toto, but it is broader than White makes it.

Map of Europe c. 1100 CE (click-through for far better one)

Map of Europe c. 1100 CE (click-through for far better one)

Also White’s argument ultimately leads to a situation where nothing really changed in society over the tenth and eleventh centuries, whereas it seems pretty demonstrable that stuff actually did. I mean, at the simplest level, the Carolingian Empire broke up into a welter of smaller states, many of which we now know and love. Even if the basis of political relations at a low level was the same circa 820 and circa 1020, which is the keystone of White’s argument and with which as a statement I don’t have a problem, the fact that the superstructure of 820 had vanished two centuries later must affect the way those people go about their business in each case. In the simplest terms, that development removes the ability to appeal beyond a certain level that had previously been there; so people’s ideas of what’s possible must change and that must affect what they try to do. It can’t just stay the same, even if there are documentary arguments which mean that change may be overstated by the mutationnistes.6 And it’s this change in political horizons that Bisson has seen clearly where White’s work seems to blur it, perhaps because his work on the early period is essentially local anyway.7 This is what Bisson sees as explaining the wave of violence that he finds in the sources, and it’s perhaps the proliferation of local lordships against which there is no recourse that leads to new kinds of records lamenting violence, whereas beforehand the victims would have gone to the king or his missi or someone, someone who is in many areas no longer available, rather than resorting to local rhetoric and calling on their saints and so forth. And that alteration in horizons and external involvements means that it’s each man for himself on a more local basis than before, however much of that sort of vying there was before the collapse, and we see this, as has also been discussed here, giving rise to a proliferation of local castles and so forth. Some of course see the proliferation of castles as the cause of that change of political targeting, but if so the castles are only happening because of the collapse of that consensus of authority that might prevent their building, so I think it’s all the same but parallel, not series.8

So in sum: Bisson has a genuine point but strings impossible derivations from it, White also has a point but fails to recognise Bisson’s and to an extent fails to describe the actual developments of the time, Barthélemy says we’re all misreading the evidence anyway but when pushed seems still to admit that there was change, an impression he can only get from those self-same sources and hey, he wasn’t supposed to be in this post anyway.10 And I think there genuinely was a change, but I’m not going to say that pulling lots of its parts back to a collapse of royal authority is enough of an explanation, because why does that authority fail hey? So this is not yet my answer, but it is a notice that I still don’t think we have a good enough one yet. By the time this goes up, I shall of course have heard another one, so we’ll see if I still stand by this then…

1. Stephen White, “A crisis of fidelity in c. 1000″ in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and societies, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 27-48, taking on Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42.

2. Dominique Barthélemy, “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205; Stephen D. White, “Debate: the feudal revolution. II” ibid., pp. 205-223, repr. as “The ‘feudal revolution’: comment. II” in idem, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (London 2005), II; Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195; Chris Wickham, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. IV” ibid., pp. 197-208.

3. Bisson defends himself in Thomas N. Bisson, “Debate: the `Feudal Revolution’. Reply” ibid., pp. 208-234, and continues in idem, “Lordship and Tenurial Dependence in Flanders, Provence and Occitania (1050-1200)” in Il Feudalesimo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 389-439 with discussion pp. 441-446.

4. Referring to Georges Duby, La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans le region mâconnaise, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hauts Études, VIe section (Paris 1953, 2nd edn. 1971), repr. in Qu’est-ce que c’est la Féodalisme (Paris 2001), of which pp. 155, 170-172, 185-195 & 230-245 transl. Frederick L. Cheyette as “The Nobility in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mâconnais” in idem (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: selected readings (New York 1968), pp. 137-155, and on which see now idem, “Georges Duby’s Mâconnais after fifty years: reading it then and now” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 28 (Amsterdam 2002), pp. 291-317; and 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, II pp. 575-599 & 609-610 transl. in idem, “The Banal Seigneurie and the `Reconditioning’ of the Free Peasantry” in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 114-133, II pp. 781-829 transl. J. Birrell as “The Noble and the Ignoble: a new nobility and a new servitude in Catalonia at the end of the eleventh century” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 196-242. On the place of such oaths and agreements in Catalan history see now 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).

5. The work in question being Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 383-430.

6. Barthélemy so described Poly and Bournazel in his “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; they responded in kind with “Que faut-il préférer au « mutationisme »? ou le problème du changement sociale” in Revue historique de droit français et étranger Vol. 72 No. 3 (Paris 1994), pp. 401-412, with a further round as Barthélemy, “Encore le débat sur l’an mil” ibid. Vol. 74 (1996), pp. 349-360 & Poly & Bournazel, “Post scriptum“, ibid. pp. 361-362. Why have I never written all those down in one place before? That took ages to pin down and then I find François Bougard did it already: “Genèse et réception du Mâconnais de Georges Duby” in Bulletin du Centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre, Hors serie 1 (2008), online here.

7. See for example the papers collected in White, Feuding and Peace-making, and the review by Jonathan Jarrett in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007). pp. 124-126.

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


3 responses to “Feudal Transformations X: Stephen White vs. Thomas Bisson, 2nd round

  1. Pingback: The BloodHound | Dog Information

  2. I have been thinking of doing a graphic Novel about life in the 1100s. This site is really great!

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