Just after arriving in Birmingham, I finished reading Guy Bois’s provocative book The Transformation of the Year 1000 and was actually quite impressed; it represents a far better saving throw for the transformation theory than I’d anticipated.1 Seeing a problem with packing almost all the change required by the theory of Duby and Fossier and the like into a few decades shortly after 1000, Bois comes up with a quite complex paradigm of change in which he manages to have both slow change and a ‘revolution’ at the end of it.
This he does basically by saying that what we have in the tenth century is the final slow settling into ruins of the ancient state, with public government and justice, towns driven by a parasitic state apparatus administering those systems, and slave agriculture. This had been increasingly unsustainable as time went on and efforts like the Carolingian reforms to prop it up with new structures (and here’s the subtlety) actually accelerated its collapse by making more possible locally-concentrated power at the same time as a coincidentally burgeoning economy made that economically viable. Inside the old structure of society, therefore, new bases of importance and power were emerging centred on the market and on local territorial domination, all of which in fact made it harder to maintain the older bases of power as a monopoly. The revolution came when, with the end of the Carolingian state and withdrawal into the Île de France of its Capetian successor (because this is a paradigm about France, don’t think otherwise), the exterior structure of public power finally collapsed into dust, ceased to operate as a brake on the forces of social change, and what was left standing was this incubitic set of new power bases, now free to grow, around which the opportunistic (and here most of all the monks of St-Pierre de Cluny) coordinated their operations. And thus feudalism.2
The first bit about this that caught my critical imagination is the idea that those who were interested in patching up the ancient state actually undermined it; that is, the Carolingians in trying to make things better actually make things worse. Bois exemplifies this using the monetary system, which is probably why it caught my attention. In brief, the Roman system of gold and silver coins struggled on till the sixth century, whereafter the gold coinage was debased until it more or less ceased to exist, in the course of which it was struck by hundreds and hundreds of semi-private issuers all over Francia. After this the whole system atrophied and a desultory and poor silver coinage of a very various standard was all the money there was. The Carolingians, faced with a mono-metallic system, reformed it several times until there were a restricted number of royally-controlled mints striking a more-or-less good coinage but only in silver. This was lower-value, thus more accessible, so that greater monetisation resulted than had been so for a while, enabling market exchange and the collection of revenues in coin at new levels. And that meant that when the royal hands came off the tiller in the early tenth century that resource was available to the new local powers, who start minting their own silver coin in profusion (here again, nost least the monks of Cluny).3 I think there are problems with this as an actual account of the history of the coinage – that local minting in silver takes much longer to start happening than Bois’s chronology of change implies, suggesting that it is a result of market growth not a cause, for one thing; for another, Cluny got a royal license to strike coin, and it was otherwise outside any useful royal jurisdiction so one could read that as an increase in royal power and it’s certainly hard to see it as the opposite – but it’s an excellent illustration of Bois’s more general model of damaging attempts to preserve a dying social system.4
The problem I have with arguments like this that run, ‘O well they tried, poor dears, but the whole thing was doomed, quite hopeless, they were spitting in the rain’ about the Carolingians, which in some ways go back to Louis Halphen and his contemporaries, is that they benefit from the fact that the Carolingian Empire’s fall is there to be explained. Most of us would not, however, put this down to critical internal systems failure, but to a prolonged civil war more or less due to the royal family’s inability to stick to an equable division of power followed by a long series of assaults by raiders for north and east further destabilising transregional solidarities.5 A counter-factual approach that could accurately remove the effects of the Viking attacks and, if not eliminate the Brüderkrieg at least make it more like the equivalent, and very long-lived, Merovingian system in which the important thing was not so much the periodic war as that that war was always between rival Merovingians, perhaps by predicating a reasonable supply of healthy male heirs, would quite possibly entirely vindicate the Carolingian reform efforts, which after all did at least at first make them much stronger kings.6 An analysis that relies on an absence of competent legitimate operators of a system isn’t really assessing the viability of the system itself. Likewise, Bois’s argument is proven by the eventual collapse of the ancient state, but there’s a species of teleology involved when he says that the Carolingians’ own measures worked against their interests, which forces him to define the things they did that endured as part of the new world, if only because they survived. Given the collapse was to happen, there’s no successful innovation that Bois’s theory would actually credit to the Carolingians except ones that they abandoned.
This is all the more paradoxical because the same problem exists in reverse with Catalonia and the scholarship of the feudal transformation. As Bonnassie famously argued, Catalonia (where a strong and (I would argue) even strengthening public power was maintained up till very late, there was then a political vacuum caused by a double minority in the rule of Barcelona forcing other motors of power to pick up the slack and after a short civil war the public power recovered only by adopting these other motors and abandoning its old ones) is an almost perfect archetype of the feudal transformation, but because it so clearly revolves around the power vacuum of 1018-1035 and before that the public power seemed to be riding the serpent of progress really pretty well, people don’t like it as a general model.7 There’s also the problem that this was the only area of Latin Europe with much of a gold coinage, because of raiding and trade with al-Andalus.8 But Bois’s argument also revolves around a dramatic state collapse at the same time as an economic take-off. Is this somehow not the same?
Bois was of course writing a micro-study of Burgundy, not Catalonia, and it’s the anti-transformation lobby who have preferred to ignore Catalonia’s apparently indissoluble example of the phenomenon.9 All the same there is a problem here because Bois’s model doesn’t work for Catalonia. Firstly, it’s very unclear how much Carolingian reform was in fact applied here: the local law was left running, the final currency reform of 864 was never enacted here, the intellectual culture arguably stayed fairly Visigothic and the counts operated as independents from a very early stage. Secondly, as said, public power here did not atrophy: the counts, despite various troubles, remained militarily effective and towards the end of the period, fuelled no doubt by the various reveues of the frontiers, were even overhauling and improving the apparatus of state power and their control of it. Only when that effort was slackened did stuff go wrong. It is hard not to see Borrell II’s and his son’s creation of numerous castle-holding dependants as the seeds of their own undoing, but it’s not undoing but lack of doing that let them grow.10
Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but if you have a feudal transformation in one area and an explanation for it, but another one in a different area whose relevance you have to dismiss because its explanation is clearly different, this is kind of like ignoring that your theory has been falsified. Of course there are factors in
CataloniaBurgundy’s changes of that era that Catalonia did not share, so the problem exists both ways, but this suggests to me that the problematic has been placed at the wrong level. If you accept both then feudal transformation becomes only one way that states of a certain kind might respond to the end of effective state governance in an ‘ancient’ or ‘public’ mould. After three years of teaching this subject to graduates, I came to conclude that the correct question to ask about the phenomenon it assumes is not, “Why is all of Europe going through a social crisis c. 1000?”, which is fairly easy to disprove premise by premise and then ignore, but “Why do so many and various polities of the post-Carolingian world finish up so similar in social articulation and governance despite their different situations and paces of change?” This turns it less into a question of modes of production or public versus private than into one of cultural transfer and the appropriation of ideas between governments, which is maybe not as exciting, but might have a lot more application to other situations.
1. G. Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992).
2. Ibid., pp. 161-167.
3. Ibid., pp. 165-166.
4. Philip Grierson, “Coinage in the feudal era” in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 949-959.
5. See François-Louis Ganshof, “L’échec de Charlemagne” in Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Vol. 91 (Paris 1947), pp. 248-254, transl. as “Charlemagne’s Failure” in idem, The Carolingians and the Frankish monarchy: studies in Carolingian history (London 1971), pp. 256-260, taken up by e. g. Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium. Soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire (New York City 1954), Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingien (Paris 1968), transl. as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977).
6. Ian N. Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent” in Peter H. Sawyer & Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 6-29.
7. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, as ever; cf. 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).
8. Anna M. Balaguer, “Parias and Myth of the Mancus” in Mario Gomes Marques & D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area, 3: a symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 499-543; J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243.
9. Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, where see p. 773 n. 17; the whole article later repr. as “Note critique” in idem, La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? Servage et chevalerie dans la France des Xe et XIe siècles (Paris 1997).
10. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010).
I have a problem. Gold coinage did not peter out in the West, as I understand it; it ceased, because it was a prerogative of the Emperor alone. As I recall, in about 534 a Frankish fit of coining was stopped in its tracks by a strong Byzantine protest. As for the Longobard tremisse, they are a partial exception that is typical of the Longobards’ very troubled and conflicted relationship with the Empire. The Longobards coined gold coins, thus impinging on the Imperial prerogative, just as they had impinged on Italy, but only small ones, no denarii, and in imitation of two individual Byzantine issues; not unlike the way they left the capitals,Rome and Ravenna, alone (this is a crude sketch of what I think, and, in this form, easily refuted; I can only say that this is not the place for my theories about the rise of Longobard Italy). And while the gold proportion in the tremisse was debased by comparison with the Roman originals, it was almost constant across more than a century of coining at a dozen or more different sites.
Well, I can see how that understanding could arise, but if I may I will refine it. The Byzantine protest (which we only know of from Procopius’s History of the Wars, something that needs remembering) was not about striking in gold per se, but about the use of kings’ names on the coins rather than the emperor’s. The Visigoths began to do this at almost the same time as the Franks. Prior to that, however, and indeed thereafter, a continuous coinage struck in the name of the emperor, usually the tremissis rather than any larger denomination, was struck in all of Francia, Spain, Burgundy and Italy, and Anglo-Saxon Kent joined in in the mid-sixth century after the general shift to ruler’s names rather than imperial ones. (The Burgundian coinage never became regnal, due to the early extinction of that kingdom’s independence by the Franks.) In that respect the Lombards only continued earlier practices. Those gold coinages however deteriorated in fineness over the course of the seventh century, albeit more so in Francia than anywhere, and especially in the north sea zone, a silver penny/denarius coinage grew up to replace the now `pale-gold’ shillings/tremisses.
The best guide to all of this is Mark Blackburn & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Musem, Cambridge, 1: the earlier Middle Ages (Cambridge 1986), but most of the coins used in it are visible online so you can see the changes and uses for yourself. This link gets you the collection’s early medieval items that are online—those that do not have thumbnail images still have full-size images in the individual catalogue entries if you click through—and you can see from that the range of issuers of the so-called pseudo-imperial coinages and the shift to ruler’s own representations in the imperial style.
I think this is probably one of the best reflections I’ve seen yet on the nature of the feudal transformation problem. I think the answer to it, as you say, lies in some kind of diffusion of ideas and practices. Like you, I don’t think everywhere in western Europe is experiencing a structural crisis circa.1000, though in the period 980 – 1150 everywhere in Western Europe experiences political system breakdown in some shape or form – Francia proper and Burgundy in the period 987 – 1031, Catalonia 1020 – 1060 and Aquitaine after the death of William V, Normandy in the minority of William the Conqueror and then more thoroughly under Robert Curthose, Germany and Northern Italy with the civil wars of the investiture controversy, the Hauteville territories in Southern Italy from 1085 – 1130, Tuscany after the death of Countess Matilda in 1115, Galicia and Leon after the death of Alfonso VI in 1109, Flanders after the murder of Charles the Good in 1127 and England with the Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign. Thomas Bisson would argue that the same forces are behind all these crises – the stresses of economic growth and social development combined with the multiplication of knights, fief-holding dependents and castles leading to a crisis of power. But that gives us the signal to say “how do the knights, fiefs and castles appear in all these places to begin with?” And that’s where the exchange of ideas between governments comes in, in some places more obvious (i.e. Norman England and Southern Italy) than others. Whether these knights, fief-holding dependents and castles are inevitably going to lead to these political crises (as Bonnassie or Bisson would argue) or whether its more contingent factors (as you argue for the Catalonia case) is debatable. But what is really striking by the time we get to 1150 is just how similar Western European societies are, despite the obvious differences between all the different states/ polities and all the political fragmentation and/ or breakdown in between, indeed more similar to each other than they were in 850 when none of these common features present in 1150 were in existence anywhere. That’s why the feudal transformation isn’t dead yet. We need to find some explanation for why that all happened, even if inevitable and irreversible structural crisis – total systems failure of the Carolingian public order (in Duby and Lemarignier’s version), total systems failure of the ancient state (Bonnassie’s, Bois’ and Salrach’s version) or total systems failure of theocratic lord-kingship (in Bisson’s version) , let alone the pivotal year 1000, isn’t the answer.
Thankyou! Very kind. Predictably for a comment that states its agreement with me, I basically agree with all of this. One thing I would add is that I think Bisson sort of does or did too, because his Crisis of the Twelfth Century seems to me to be an exploration of its second stage, the way everything turns out similar after the chaos. He may have been ahead of us all this time!
I think where we differ from Bisson is that he’s most interested in the next stage of pan-western European developments – the emergence of rational, accountable, bureaucratic royal government (he of course adopts a modified Weberianism in the Crisis of the Twelfth Century) and of politics as we’d understand it (the reconciliation of opposing interests and ideas through debate and formal processes) in the period 1150 – 1300, which was what he’d devoted his very distinguished career to before he picked up on the feudal revolution debate from Duby and Bonnassie. We, coming at from an early medievalist angle rather than a high/ late one, see it somewhat differently, in that we’re more interested by changes brought about by the revolution itself than in their aftershocks and further consequences, but I think we do see eye to eye with Bisson all the same in that we see European societies getting more and more similar features to each other in the Central Middle Ages and that some kind of common forces and processes must be behind it all.
Yes, I agree with that. The question then becomes one of whether the eventual commonality is contextual or, well, memetic I guess. Is that form of government just such a good idea that everyone ‘catches’ it? Or is everyone just sharing a context in which, despite the diverse circumstances of system breakdown, the pieces were always likely to fall out in that form? Probably both, I guess, similar problems with similar solutions, plus competition, a kind of governmental arms race (John Gillingham’s analysis of the French and Angevin crown’s mobilisations of tax and renders to raise armies against each other is my root here). But given my personal interests the meta-question here is how much can we call agency and how much inevitability? How much is people making decisions and how much is system structure? And so on. This is really always one of my questions, along with ‘who is the audience for this source?’…
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