Is Victorian the New Feudal?

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on 9th March 2020

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on Monday

Since we are back on strike this week and I can blog unpaid if I want, let me bounce an idea off you all. I’m not sure how strongly I hold to this, but I found myself reflecting on it after going to the paper by another colleague of mine, Dr Elisabeth Leake, that I mentioned a few posts back. It is this: that whereas for many years, nay, centuries, the medieval past has been the one that modernity sets itself against, with especial reference to the word ‘feudal’, we are now moving into an age where that thing we do not wish to be is Victorian. Obviously, in saying such a thing I need to define ‘Victorian’ and more particularly I need to define ‘we’, given how much some people do in fact want to be Victorian in at least some ways. I probably mean ‘nineteenth-century’ more than ‘Victorian’, in fact, since I want to think more broadly here than Britain (so often the best plan). Still, I think there is something here to chew on, which I’ll try and set out a bit more.

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, image Crown Copyright and used under Open Government License

You would have to have been reading here for a very long time, or else have got here after avid pursuit of reviews in Early Medieval Europe, to remember that in 2010 I reviewed for that august journal a book by Kathleen Davis called Periodization and Sovereignty.1 Looking back now, and knowing how much I have continued to cite that book since then, I should have been nicer about it; I still think it is really two ideas extended to book length by considerable repetition, and it’s not really about the Middle Ages, but those two ideas are quite important. Specifically, one of them is that the pejorative sense of the word ‘feudal’ goes back to seventeenth-century discourses of modernity in which it came to typify the outdated aristocratically dominated social structures against which both the Jacobean kingdom, to an extent, and the new Parliamentary movement to a different and greater one, now set themselves. As Davis argues, here (and everywhere?) periodization is an act of power and differentiation; by saying that there is a division between ‘now’ and ‘then’ you mark yourself off as having left the ‘then’ behind.2 Whether or not you think that medievalists should use the ‘f-word’ to describe their societies of study, this helps understand how everyone else is using it and is arguably another reason to be careful.3

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, PA, 2008)

However, it’s now possible to find people trying to argue away the term ‘modern’ in much the same way as Brown and Reynolds want to get rid of ‘feudal’, albeit not for the same reasons. Indeed, their reasons are not the same as Davis’s, and I think it’s something more Davis-like that we’re watching. Of course, we have arguably never been modern, or equally arguably never haven’t, and paradoxically for medieval people ‘modern’ would have been the bad word with which to define that which was wrong, because their acts of power by periodization most often worked in the other direction; we are not ‘novel’ but still hold to the ancient ways…4 But, dear reader, I digress; this post, like Davis’s book, isn’t really about the Middle Ages. What I’m getting at is that we now most definitely have the word ‘postmodern’, which is another periodization term and therefore, per Davis though she doesn’t say it, another act of power by disassociation: modernity? We’re beyond that now.5 So where did it stop?

I can see two obvious answers here, and they’re both World Wars, although I think one could definitely add the financial crash of 2008 in the role of the buffers that finally stopped the intellectual train of modernity from rolling. At each stage things gave way: in particular, though not uniquely, in the Great War, among so much else, such as the last medieval empires, the idea of social progress by industrialisation, squashed into the corpse-filled mud of the trenches; in the Second World War one might single out colonialism, the price charged by the colonised for the survival of the colonial powers turning out to be decolonisation; and in 2008 it was the self-assurance of global capitalism, which had until then managed to maintain its own progress narrative and globalisation operations but now found itself faltering.

Julian Berthier's 'Love Love' on display at Canary Wharf, London, UK

Hereby hangs a separate tale. For a short while in 2008, you could see this in the small dock that is what remains of the original Canary Wharf, London, surrounded by the banking and finance megalopolis that now occupies the rest of the site. At the time my anthropologist of resort was working nearby and later lamented that they had not photographed it and labelled it ‘Capitalism’ for dissemination by Internet, but it turns out to be weirder than that, because the boat was not sinking. It has in fact been modified to float and indeed sail like that as a piece of art by one Julien Berthier called ‘Love Love’. That briefly raised the possibility that M. Berthier or his patrons (Lehman Bros, ironically!) had themselves hit on the very same satire as T’anta Wawa, but actually it had been arranged nearly two years before the crash. I’m no longer sure what the moral of the tale should be, therefore…

Now, I’m well out of my area of expertise here and a suitably-equipped modernist or cultural studies specialist can probably shoot me down in flames. But I reached this argumentative position by considering the things that the Western academy currently disparages: the most obvious, and for me quite rightly, is colonialism, as we try to decolonise the curriculum and address the structural whiteness of the profession and indeed the attainment gap between white and non-white students—which, ironically, seems actually to be generating more work on colonialism rather than on non-Europeans when they were not subject to colonial rule (or even recognising colonisation within Europe, where traditional medievalists could, if they chose, get involved…)6.

That would probably make the starting point of the new dispensation circa 1948, which fits with Elizabeth’s work indeed, and that in turn would make the disparaged past the wartime Europe of fascism and empire.7 (Of course, Europe maintained quite a bit of fascism thereafter, as another of my colleagues, Professor Peter Anderson, works to remind us…) But from a medievalist perspective, the roots go back further. Of course they do, right? Medieval studies has come lately and somewhat violently to the idea that colonialism affects it at all, but we have been deconstructing some older ideas for quite a while, sometimes with modernists’ help and sometimes coming up with things that the modernists might profit from learning. In the former category I think of the idea that nations existed before the modern nation-state, whose weakening hasn’t exactly reduced the volume of medievalist scholarship in search of national origins but has at least moved it forward to points where those origins could be the work of government rather than the inborn ethic of an inexplicably coherent people.8 Associatedly, in the latter, I think of all the post-war work that has been done to dilute and question the idea of steady and reliable ethnicity. It would not be unfair to say that, like at least modern-day geneticists, early medievalists now either don’t think about ethnic identity very hard or, if they do, don’t believe in it as a stable category; even if one doesn’t accept that an early medieval individual might have been able to self-determine in ethnic terms, I think we would pretty much all accept that ethnicity could change across one or two generations, rather than being something you were stuck with that travelled in your blood and never diluted out.9 Of course, most of that work is about people who were, functionally, white, which does potentially distance it from the problems we now see ourselves facing; there is of course now quite a lot of work on the almost contradictory attitudes of various medieval writers to issues of race that did map onto skin colour, which could certainly be negative, even when the people in question probably weren’t actually black (I’m thinking here of Berbers in al-Andalus), but also apparently perfectly accepting (as with the black bishop in my previous post).10 Nonetheless, the separation of ‘identity’ from ‘race’ within ‘ethnicity’ and the idea that identity must be both expressed and accepted to do its social work remain, I think, some of our big teaching points.

Lombard belt fittings, from Wikimedia Commons

“Lombard belt buckles”, says Wikipedia, to which one might reasonably ask, “How do we know who wore them and whether they claimed to be or thought they were Lombards? Maybe these were just cool. Wearing Levis doesn’t make us all American…” Image by Sailko, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideas that this work attacks are nineteenth-century ones. And when you start looking around, there are other nineteenth-century ideas dying on the spears of postmodernism: the idea that there is necessarily such a thing as a fixed definitive archetype of a text, rather than whatever we have that the author left which maybe he or she wanted to change, or had already circulated in other versions, or in charter terms, the idea that there is an ‘original’; the idea that trade is necessarily a benefit to the societies involved, perhaps, although the current global trend isn’t listening to the post-colonial scholarship about how empires used trade to dominate weaker partners here as it might; and there are probably others.11 I think that there are probably many more, and that it’s not just the medievalists who now find themselves wanting no longer to be the heirs of their nineteenth-century forebears. Of course, it’s ironic that we set about doing this while our own dying empires return to protectionism and the restriction of movement, defensive measures that make perfect political sense when you’re in a weaker position with respect to your opposing quantities but sit badly with postmodern, post-state, post-capitalist ethics, not least because they only make sense in terms of those same nineteenth-century stable national identities. We’ve either got something important to tell the political world here or we’re badly out of step with change—perhaps both—but as ever, we are struggling to convince the world, or indeed our employers, to listen to us.

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: 'Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit'

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: ‘Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit’, image from their site. This is the ethic that gave us medievalists so many of our core texts, almost all edited to produce that single Urtext that may never have existed. The thing I love about this as a teaching point is, of course, that its expression of German identity predates the German state by some way…

What that thing we have to tell and what the wider implications of this are, I haven’t got as far as working out—part of the problem with getting people to listen, of course—except maybe this one point. If, in fact, the medieval world is losing its relevance as the Great Other of Our Past to which both disparagement and fantasy resort, in exchange for factories, steam, brass, smoggy alleys and empire, then we may at least be a bit freer to decide what it should mean or tell people; but that elusive term ‘relevance’ is going to be harder and harder to claim, unless we work on two things. The first of these, more difficult, is medievalisms in the post-modern; I’m sure there are some, not least because even if the gaslamps might be encroaching there’s still a lot of market for medievalising fantasies at the moment. The second, though, and the one I’ve contended for for longer, is the value of the Middle Ages as a society that did things differently to us, which probably actually now grows more powerful, because if it also did things differently to the Bad Other, the reasonable use of it as an alternative perspective should become easier to promote. Since the Bad Other of this hypothesis was itself quite medievalising, though, and the Middle Ages did of course also have empires, slavery, and mass production even if not industry as the modernists would see it, that might require a level of special pleading and blinkers I’m not sure I personally can pull off…12

Silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Here is a mass-produced medieval item, a silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73. Florentine textile would be another obvious example; so would thirteenth-century Paris study Bibles… The production line is itself not a difficult idea to come up with, it was mechanised energy that made the difference.

Anyway, this is where my musings have led me. There is probably plenty wrong with the above and I offer it up only for testing, perhaps to destruction, but I wonder what people think?


1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008); Jonathan Jarrett, “Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. By Kathleen Davis. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2008. viii + 189 pp. £28. ISBN 978 0 8122 4083 2” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 348–349.

2. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 23-50.

3. Old reasons to be careful to be found in 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, DOI: 10.2307/1869563, or more extensively Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996); for recent resistance, see Richard Abels, “The Historiography of a Construct: ‘Feudalism’ and the Medieval Historian” in History Compass Vol. 7 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1008–1031. I have never quite finished forming my own view.

4. ‘We have never been modern’ is easy to cite, because in French it was the title of an influential book by Bruno Latour, available in English as Latour, We have never been modern, transl. Catherine Porter (Cambridge MA 1993). “We have never not been modern” is harder. The earliest use of it I can quickly find as a reaction to Latour is in a 2004 blog post by Steven Shaviro, “Bruno Latour”, The Pinnochio Theory 18 February 2004, online here, but it was already being used as a phrase that needed quotation but no referencing in a much earlier article on a quite different subject, Donna J. Haraway, “The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order” in Feminist Review, Consuming Cultures, No. 55 (New York 1997, pp. 22–72, on JSTOR but not recommended reading with food or if squeamish. The quote was obviously already around but I can’t find out who first said it. Presumably it was a response to Latour… Anyone know? As for medieval reverse period snobbery, I immediately think of Hrabanus Maurus, and I probably do that because of listening to Mayke de Jong, who briefly dicusses that learned cleric’s studied avoidance of novelty in her “Monastic Writing and Carolingian Court Audiences: some evidence from Biblical commentary” in Flavia De Rubeis and Walter Pohl (edd.), Le scritture dai monasteri, Acta instituti Romani Finlandiae 29 (Roma 2003), pp. 179–195, online here, at pp. 189-190 with references.

5. For writing of this kind a good anthology is Joyce Appleby, Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham and Allison Sneider (edd.), Knowledge and postmodernism in historical perspective (New York City, NY, 1996), though a review of this and other works in the same vein by Patrick Karl O’Brien here shows that the victory of the postmodern is far from complete, and may even be heading for mainstreaming.

6. Two justifiably and simultaneous strident calls for this work in L. Le Grange, ‘Decolonising the University Curriculum’ in South African Journal of Higher Education Vol. 30 (Matieland 2016), pp. 1–12, online here, and Savo Heleta, “Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa” in Transformation in Higher Education 1 (Durbanville 2016), a9, online here, but it’s not just South Africa with this problem, as witness Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kisane, Sadia Kureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon & Sujit Sivasundaram, Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change (London 2018), online here, esp. pp. 63-64 but really passim. As for colonisation within Europe, I was thinking straightforwardly of R. R. Davies, The First English Empire: power and identities in the British Isles 1093-1343, Ford Lectures 1998 (Oxford 2000), which people seem slowly to be forgetting.

7. See Elisabeth Leake, “At the Nation-State’s Edge: Centre-Periphery Relations in post-1947 South Asia” in Historical Journal Vol. 59 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 509–539, and eadem, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (Cambridge 2017).

8. In this area we’re all more or less stepping in the path laid down by Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd edn. (London 2006), online here, which may not be a perfect book if you’re a medievalist but is a very good place to start, and means that for example we now have the assumptions behind George Molyneaux, The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century (Oxford 2015) rather than those behind, say, William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: the transition from paganism to Christianity (Manchester 1970).

9. The case for self-determination in Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554 (Cambridge 1997); my go-to reference for this concern is Walter Pohl, “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity” in idem and Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of the Ethnic Communities, 300–800, The Transformation of the Roman World 2 (Leiden 1998), pp. 17–69, with honourable mention to Florin Curta, “Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 159–185. Resistance in Heinrich Härke, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 1–28, online here, even though the same man can write “Archaeologists and Migrations: A Problem of Attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 30 (Chicago IL 1998), pp. 19–46. For a geneticist’s statement of the irrelevance of race, see Andrea Manica, Franck Prugnolle and François Balloux, “Geography is a better determinant of human genetic differentiation than ethnicity” in Human Genetics Vol. 118 (New York City NY 2005), pp. 366–371, online here.

10. My references for the work that’s gone on demonstrating that the Western Middle Ages were not completely lacking people of colour are sadly thin; I need to collect more, but at the moment the best thing for it I own is Pamela A. Patton (ed.), Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 62 (Leiden 2016), and I’m more aware of work that wants to stress that there was also racism in the Middle Ages, such as Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons & Jews: making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton NJ 2003), Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City NY 2014), or Geraldine Heng, The invention of race in the European Middle Ages (New York City NY 2018). We might also ask why all this work is by women and why there are no equally obvious male contributions, but that would be a different post, by somebody else!

11. While I know that I’ve read short punchy proclamations of the death of the single original Urtext in scholarly editing, trying to find any of them on the web drowns you in Biblical scholarship that is predictably uninterested in the idea of plural originals, so right now the best I can find is the first part of John Bryant, The fluid text: a theory of revision and editing for book and screen (Ann Arbor MI 2002). On the same problems in charter studies I tend to cite Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 38-48, which some day I will write up into a proper methodological article. As for exploitative trade, the most obvious example available right now to me is probably Erika Rappaport, A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world (Princeton NJ 2017), which should probably make me feel guilty rather than thirsty but sadly doesn’t.

12. On Victorian medievalising the best thing I’ve found is Marcus Bull, Thinking medieval: an introduction to the study of the Middle Ages (Basingstoke 2005), pp. 7-41.

One response to “Is Victorian the New Feudal?

  1. Pingback: I found this coin, 3: imperial violence | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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