A penance, a picture and a question

I owe you a post from last week, but I am still on holiday just now, and I didn’t think when packing to bring the notes that would source the next real post (or even a record of what it is, though I think it’s about Chris Wickham redefining what we should mean by feudalism).1 The next thing that I have written up would probably be a professional liability to publish, so I won’t; but I should put something up.2 So what should it be?

Well, here’s an idea I won’t use. Years ago, the erstwhile blogger Carl Pyrdum of Got Medieval invented a sort of blog post called a Google Penance, in which one atoned for occasions when people found your blog via search terms that made clear they were really very much looking for something else, by posting something at least slightly related.3 The challenge, of course, was to keep it clean, and that wasn’t always easy. I’ve just checked my stats, and find that I’m in the middle of such a bad search moment; the hits on my recent post ‘Name in Print XXX: the other parcel from China‘ have lately gone through the roof. On due inspection this seems to be because it’s been circulating via social networks in Pakistan, as well as to other places from there, and that the reason for that is that something or someone was searchng for ‘China XXX’ or variants thereof and that is what started coming back. A hidden danger of Roman numerals for you all to consider! But other than suggesting some reading about Chinese knowledge of Roman science, I can’t think of anything safe to say that would answer that search query in some respect, so let’s move on.4

Nestorian priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a Nestorian church in Qocho, China

‘Nestorian’ priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a ‘Nestorian’ church in Qocho, China, by DaderotOwn work, CC0, Link, with snigger quotes all to be explained below

Then I thought, hey, if I can’t write a proper post from the point in 2019 when the blog’s backlogged to, maybe I have an image I downloaded then which is worth a post. Over lockdown I sorted out my image files, so this was an easy question to answer: I basically wasn’t downloading academic images in early 2019, and the only ones I did already went into a post here, the above being one of them. This is, I suppose, a picture of people in China, which is at least part of what my websearchers were after, so maybe it is the required penance, but it’s not really a post.

So instead here’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask for literally years. I only realised a few months ago that I’d accidentally deleted the stub I’d left to remind myself to do so. Since then I’ve been trying to remember, and this seems like the occasion. Shortly before I started this blog, as part of the same attempt to give myself an academic presence quicker than publication could, I put up a personal website. Some of you may have looked at it; it’s usually no more than a few months out of date. Now, one of its sections is a list of academic works I have notes on. I suppose that I thought it might be useful for people assembling bibliographies, but mainly of course it was supposed to demonstrate that I was doing the academic study thing and knew some stuff. And I have maintained it, in my normal obsessive-compulsive fashion, because it became part of my note-taking routine: copy up useful references, index item in my bibliography file, add it to website, and now make entry in Zotero. But in the sixteen years I’ve had that site up, no-one has ever been in contact with me about those notes pages, and I don’t have access to logs at that level so contact is the only way I could know if anyone was using them. And they are work to maintain, which quite possibly I have never really needed to do. So I just thought I’d ask you, my captive audience: have you ever used those pages, are they, you know, any use to you or anyone? Would you miss them if they, you know, went away? Just asking…

1. If I’m right, it’s a report on an early presentation of what became Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present no. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40, which is a game-changing piece of thinking.

2. It arose when a then-promising undergraduate asked me about academic careers, and I gave them the usual warning speech and then said, out of some sense that the case required it, that I would log my next week’s work for them so that they could see what the job involved. Having done so, in a period of quite bad industrial relations, I decided I couldn’t let the student have it, in case someone publicised it and I got into trouble. Industrial relations are now arguably worse, and I think there are better things I can do with such a log than stick it here. Plus which, it’s probably not actually very interesting reading!

3. Carl’s now-inaccessible blog was proudly but not unjustly described by him at a conference years back as ‘kind of a big deal’, and although it was easier then to be one he was leading the pack. Some reflection in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Blogging the Middle Ages”, in Brantley L. Bryant, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog (New York City NY 2010), pp. 29–42, which was actually also my first print citation…

4. If you do want this, try Matthew P. Canepa, “Distant Displays of Power: Understanding Cross-Cultural Interaction among the Elites of Rome, Sasanian Iran and Sui–Tang China”, ed. by Canepa in Ars Orientalis Vol. 38, Theorizing Cross-Cultural Interaction among the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean, Near East and Asia (Washington DC 2010), pp. 121–154, and Krisztina Hoppál, “The Roman Empire According to the Ancient Chinese Sources” in Acta Antiqua no. 51 (Budapest 2011), pp. 263–306, DOI: 10.1556/AAnt.51.2011.3-4.5.

9 responses to “A penance, a picture and a question

  1. I’ll give you an example of abuse of the term “feudalism”. Until recently in Scotland you would pay an annual “feu duty” on, say, a house, a pasture, a meadow, or what have you that you owned. Eventually the Edinburgh government swept that away on the grounds it was “feudal” and therefore intrinsically repugnant.

    Wickedpaedia contains such nonsense as “In feu holding, there is a substantial annual payment in money or in kind in return for the enjoyment of the land.” Having paid feu duty myself I can assure you that “substantial” is the last term I’d have used. The payments had no index-linking and so were, by my time – and my father’s, and … – were peanuts.

    I don’t deny that there might have been decent reasons for the reform – but if so they never seemed to be mentioned in debate. “Feudal”, “feudal”, “feudal” was the cry.

    I liked this point I came across: apparently one feature of the old system led to one of the world’s most beautiful urban areas.

    “It was because of the ability to impose conditions on its feuars that the City Council of Edinburgh was able to establish rules regarding the heights of buildings on the various streets in the New Town, and, for example, to require builders of houses in Charlotte Square to construct the facades to Robert Adam’s design.”

    Will the new? Ho, ho: very sarcastic.

    • Interesting! To whom was feu duty payable? The government? And if so in what capacity? The point of a feudal due in some ways is that it’s a private arrangement of something other societies would run publically, so the inverse seems a strange way for it to wind up…

  2. The Vassal paid his feu duty to his Superior.

    Your duties to your Superior seem to have been only two. (i) Pay up. (ii) You must honour constraints on permitted developments, if any – this is rather like the Deed of Covenant restriction here in England that happens to stop me building a new house in my back garden.

    The whole business had no discernible effect on me either as owner of a tenement flat or later of a village cottage. I paid my feu (as far as I know) as part of my monthly mortgage Standing Order (I suppose my solicitors fixed everything up with the Building Society to ensure that this went smoothly). Alternatively maybe I paid some compensation at the time of purchase which excused me paying a monthly or quarterly feu thereafter. Search me: whichever it was the sums were tiny enough not to feature in my discussions with my solicitor. I had perfect freedom to let or sell the property and pocket all the proceeds.

    I was subject to no development constraints that I was aware of other than any imposed by the local council. In neither case did I have any idea who my Superior was. (I suppose both matters would have been mentioned on the Deeds.)

    Apart from the existence of the trivial feu duty the effect was much like owning freehold English property except that in England the flat would not, as I understand it, have been held in Freehold, but in Leasehold.

    My experience of buying property in Scotland was far better than in England. The habits were saner – no bloody “chains” – and the solicitors who acted as “men of business” for sellers and buyers – no Estate Agents were involved in either of my purchases or sales – were inexpensive, expeditious and, to be blunt, clearly more intelligent and business-like than the English solicitors I have dealt with. So the defects of the old system were invisible to me.

    Nor can I ever remember my father grumbling about the old system. In fact he hardly mentioned it except once to comment that you could be Vassal for one patch of land and Superior for another. Maybe that was a reference to his own position. But after my mother died we – my siblings and I – sold up everything and, again, the feus weren’t even discussed with our solicitor.

    I’m with Viscount Falkland: if it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change. That’s the way to liberate enough energy to permit necessary change to be carried off well.

    • This is all fascinating, and I had no idea about it. I must consult my Scottish medieval law friend when next I see them. This particularly intrigues me:

      In neither case did I have any idea who my Superior was.

      Combined with:

      you could be Vassal for one patch of land and Superior for another

      it seems to suggest that pretty much anyone could have been the Superior for those estates, and might not have been much better informed about than you except that, presumably, they got paid for it. I was assuming the local council or whatever had swept up these rights but by the sound of it, nothing yet so systematic?

  3. Allan McKinley

    I have to say I’ve never been aware of the note page, but it looks an interesting resource. However, I would note that you introduce this in conjunction with an inferred comment about workload, maintaining this would be an odd priority if you yourself have other recorded you can draw on. The academic workload is excessive enough without routine acts adding to this for minimal demonstrable value to you or to the furtherance of knowledge.

  4. I’m super excited to hear what you have to say about Chris and the feudal economy. I’ll share more of my thoughts about it with you when you do release the post, but for now I do wonder how much of a game changer it will actually be. For, as Chris is forever lamenting, most medievalists are not remotely interested in economics, and most of the historians who do work on the medieval European economy lean more towards empiricism, quantification and the application of modern economic laws than the kind of theoretical model building that Chris, as a committed neo-Marxist, favours.

  5. Pingback: Seminar CCLXXI: feudalism beats capitalism for most of history | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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