Feudal Transformations XVIII: what’s behind it all

Cover of Guy Bois's Transformation of the Year 1000

Cover of Guy Bois’s Transformation of the Year 1000

During my first days in Birmingham, while short of online access that wasn’t immediately swallowed by professional e-mail and bibliographical searches, I was making my way through Guy Bois’s little book, The Transformation of the Year 1000. Since, at its core, this represents a more extreme version of the theory of a ‘feudal transformation‘ even than that proposed by the originator of the idea, Georges Duby, I had been expecting to find it basically mad, and certainly it’s fairly opinionated and largely inhabits an intellectual space well beyond the evidence, but still it is more subtle than I had expected, not least because it separates cause and effect in such a way as to get over the awkward constriction of the the chronology the focus on the year 1000 causes.1 Yes, he says, there was huge and violent social change around the year 1000 in this one bit of the Mâconnais (which is to be taken as typical at least of France, even though he often stresses how something else would have happened in other areas), but this was the result of a wide range of other changes going on since the sixth century if not before, while the ruling class tried to shore up the failing ancient society by increasingly removing its surviving foundations and replacing them with more viable ones. And one of these big changes is the growth of agricultural production, which as he rightly says is not very well understood.2 Now, Bois has views on this, in which, it must be said, it is far from alone, but they are worth reading and they go like this:

Before a problem so vast, we should mistrust unilateral interpretations based, in most cases, on an exogenous factor. I am thinking in particular of demography, the most convenient and also the laziest of ‘explanations’. Certainly, the demographic approach is essential and indispensable. The number of persons is the best indicator of agrarian growth, and it is also a factor in this growth, providing that it is located within the chain of causality of which it forms a part; otherwise, we have only an illusory interpretation. How can it be imagined that shortage of food ceased to bear on mortality? What factor could have produced such a situation? Similarly, one certainly cannot deny, a priori and on principle, the possibility that improved climatic conditions might have had some influence. But it is still necessary to demonstrate their impact on grain yields in the temperate zone, and then establish precise correlations between the chronology of climatic fluctuations of grain production over the long term. This is very far from yet having been done. In the actual state of affairs, it is to be feared that this line of research betokens a refusal to confront the complexity of the endogenous factors, that it is essentially a sort of retreat in advance. It remains dangerous, however, in that it appeals to a popular taste, specialised or not, by giving the illusion of opening up new horizons, by investing itself with a scientific aura through its recourse to the exact sciences and, above all, because it is a gesture in the direction of contemporary ecological awareness. In sum, it is easy to ‘sell’, but it will be understood that such a criterion will not be given high priority in the orientation of our discussion.3

You may guess that I am happier here with his slagging off of the demographic explanation than his attack on climate as a factor. Demography is not a good answer, because like so much in the feudal transformation debate, it could be either cause or effect: if you have too many mouths to feed you may open up more land for cultivation, but on the other hand if you are opening up more land for cultivation, you may now be able to have more children, whether beforehand you were practising what passed for contraception in the Middle Ages or whether you were, as some have suggested, resorting to infanticide.4 This kind of problem, and not just with that factor, is exactly why I rather like climate as a primum mobile; it must certainly have had an effect on society, but it’s hard to see society affecting it, in the tenth century at least.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

It’s never not time for my Feudal Transformation teaching diagram!

On the other hand, Bois was not wrong that the case was far from made in 1989, when he wrote. I also do feel that he has some justice in seeing people grabbing on to it as a current bandwagon in order to make their research ‘relevant’, although I would actually find it hard to point to medievalists getting into climate science rather than climate scientists getting into history, where I’ve seen.5 In fact, if the case must be made as he suggests, it may be impossible to close. We already know (I think) that almost all work on grain yields of the Frankish era is basically wrong, based on a misreading of the sources (and yes, I am still working on that for publication, nearly done now actually), and since those are most of the sources there are before the twelfth century, all we can do is demonstrate that yields certainly grew between the second and twelfth century, not really the kind of subtlety we need (though as subtle as many of Bois’s number tricks, it’s gotta be said).6 Archæology helps but the amount of time it would take before enough preserved grain of the right periods came to light and got analysed that we actually had any meaningful numbers, if that could even be done—you’d need some very long-phase settlements with a fixed amount of arable land, wouldn’t you, which in a period of clearance is basically unlikely ever to be possible—still drags a very long way into the future. On the other hand, as our climate continues to warm up, we may be in a position to do the kind of long-term experimental work that’s been done at l’Esquerda on a cycle long enough to actually test the difference that an averagely-higher temparature, and consequently less rain, makes on yields, though I do note already that drought was the problem they experienced most seriously there in the 1990s, not over-watering. You’d expect that on a Catalan hilltop, of course, and some experiments elsewhere would also be nice, but it may technically be feasible. Meanwhile, we do these days know an awful lot more about the climatic fluctuation, and it seems as blinkered to me to ignore the effects which that must have had on agriculture, as it certainly did in the fourteenth century, as it did to Bois in 1989 to ignore the internal factors of social change.7

Vineyards of the Miguel Torres company in the Penedès, Catalonia

Vineyards of the Miguel Torres company in the Penedès, Catalonia, now drying out, grabbed from here

The answer is, of course, that we need both: everywhere in Europe got a climate change leading up to 1000, probably, but not everywhere manifested the kind of rapid change that Duby, Bonnassie, Bois and others dubbed the ‘transformation’. That is exactly where Bois’s internal factors are important, and not least among them the eventual collapse or fragmentation of the Carolingian state of course; as our learned commentator Carl Anderson has observed here, the feudal transformation is really a post-Carolingian phenomenon (as long as we can wriggle Castile-León out of it somehow).8 We have a number of big social or economic pressures (if there’s a difference) acting on a whole range of areas from 900-1100, and it’s what those areas were like in themselves, including such micro-level differences as who was in charge, how effective they were and what they could see of the problems (which is where I really get interested), that probably determined how it all played out. The struggle will be, if I ever do crystallise all this, to write this up in a way that makes sense but still says more than, “well, it differed from place to place, basically”…

1. The fiercely critical review by Barbara Rosenwein linked above, in Speculum Vol. 69 (Cambridge 1994), pp. 749-751, doesn’t get as far as dealing with such matters as whether the book actually has a case or not, so upset is she with Bois’s use of evidence and general slapdash chronology (including picking up on the unfounded dating of Saint-Laurent de Collonges mentioned a couple of posts ago). All that is of course very problematic; if his case rests on anecdata and thery’re all misread, he probably doesn’t have a case. But I feel that that point could have been made explicitly if she was confident in it.

2. Although a very good crop of studies on it arose from a conference in 1988, published as La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), in which Bois himself took part.

3. Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. J. Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992), p. 99.

4. I struggle with references for early medieval contraception, I’ll admit, but Julia Smith has some neat remarks on it in her Europe After Rome: a new cultural history 500-1000 (Oxford 2005), pp. 70-71, and in the Further Reading pp. 321-322 recommends John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge 1992). For infanticide I go back to Emily Coleman, “Infanticide in the Early Middle Ages” in Susan Mosher Stuard (ed.), Women in Medieval Society (Philadelphia 1976), pp. 47-70, which is also referenced by Smith p. 321 with a useful list of reactions to its controversial argument.

5. A rapid websearch suggests that our new cite of reference for the so-called medieval climatic anomaly is now N. E. Graham, C. M. Ammann, D. Fleitmann, K. M. Cobb & J. Luterbacher, “Support for global climate reorganization during the ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly'” in Climate Dynamics Vol. 37 (Berlin 2010), pp. 1217-1245, DOI: 10.1007/s00382-010-0914-z.

6. P. F. Brandon, “Cereal Yields on the Sussex Estates of Battle Abbey during the later Middle Ages” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 25 (London 1972), pp. 403-420, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.1972.tb02184.x; Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, last modified 4th December 2010 as of 8th April 2011, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), mostly online via Google Bookslast modified not available as of 8th May 2011, pp. 121-128.

6. Bruce M. S. Campbell, “Physical Shocks, Biological Hazards, and Human Impacts: The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Revisited” in Simonetta Cavaciocchi (ed.), Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europe preindustriale, secc. XIII-XVIII. Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Atti della ‘Quarantunesima Settimana di Studi’ 26-30 aprile 2009 (Firenze 2010), pp. 13-32, online here.

7. Cf. José Ángel García de Cortázar, “Estructuras sociales y relaciones de poder en León y Castilla en los siglos VIII a XII: la formación de una sociedad feudal” in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 497-563 with discussion pp. 565-568.

2 responses to “Feudal Transformations XVIII: what’s behind it all

  1. Allan McKinley

    Just to add to the problems of climate, temperature and rainfall are not in a linear relationship. To take a modern example, increased temperatures in the Sahel (the semi-arid area south of the Sahara) have coincided with more rainfall. In Britain at least (and presumably the other maritime climates of Europe) warmer weather can mean wetter winters (and rot and pests increasing). And if your grain of choice is actually a type that favours a relatively cold temperature then warmer weather is bad news for yields…

  2. Pingback: Nearest neighbours in the pre-Catalan foothills | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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