Feudal Transformation

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

This is an index to the various posts I have written reacting to scholarship wrestling with the big question of the Feudal Transformation. If you don’t know what that even is, start with no. 1… Or, I would advise, save your time and read something more soluble. Meanwhile, these posts exist as a kind of initial argument with myself and anyone else who’ll read it prior to my eventually trying to write about this huge subject succintly.

  1. Feudal Transformations, a reaction to the variation covered by Poly & Bournazel’s seminal text, The Feudal Transformation
  2. Feudal Transformations II, a short report on a systematic breakdown of the Transformation as seen by Josep María Salrach in 1998
  3. Feudal Transformations III, a reflection on Victor Farias’s saying that the nobility in positions of public power in Catalonia are actually reliant on the peasantry for support
  4. “Of course you realise this means war… “, not strictly part of the series but a narrative of the events surrounding the Transformation as it’s held to have happened in Catalonia
  5. Feudal Transformations IV, a further reflection on Josep María Salrach, this time dealing with how the nobles control castles both before and after those events but not necessarily during
  6. Feudal Transformations V: el ‘Hipòtesi’ del Professor Riu, dealing with the ideas of long continuity of local power in various forms posited by Manuel Riu in his classic article, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya”
  7. Feudal Transformations VI: Chris Wickham suggests, the involvement of Chris’s ideas of what happens to power in the period of incastellamento via an article of his on Tuscany, also containing a list much like this of parts I to V
  8. Plz be respectin feudalizm: further opinions from Chris Wickham, not for some reason numbered, but should be in here, the first of several reactions to a Spoleto conference volume on feudalism, in which Chris’s introductory theoretical argument is found useful but not finally my answer
  9. Feudal Transformations VII: Michel Bur and the motte-and-bailey castle, second Spoleto response, arguing that monocausal explanations will never do
  10. Feudal Transformations VIII: two ways of confusing the issue, fourth Spoleto response, comparing German and South Italian cases through two very differently-styled articles
  11. When is a fief not a fief? (Feudal Transformations IX), Spoleto the fifth, arguing against Thomas Bisson that we cannot quantify feudalism by quantifying references to fiefs
  12. Feudal Transformations X: Stephen White vs. Thomas Bisson, 2nd round, finding problems both with Bisson’s schematism and White’s somewhat dehumanised takedown
  13. Feudal Transformations XI: Chris Wickham takes still another (at)tack, documenting Chris’s new attempts to describe change via the means of studying assemblies
  14. The unbearable emptiness of being post-Roman: Aragonese depopulation and the rest of the field (Feudal Transformations XII), a study of what the archæogical chronology does to the historians’ picture of this supposedly rapid and time-localised change
  15. Feudal Transformations XIII: storing more and working less, a note about two attempts by students of Pierre Bonnassie’s to put some archæological flesh on the bones of his views on agricultural growth in the tenth and eleventh centuries
  16. Feudal Transformations XIV: Königsferne, exploring the possibilities of a paradigm of royal politics in which the status of kingship is the greater the further from the king one is
  17. Feudal Transformations XV: proving a negative with power relations in Catalonia, arguing that the documents of how castles were held and handed out in Catalonia in the period before the supposed transformation simply won’t support a reading as `feudal’ arrangements avant la lettre
  18. Feudal Transformations XVI: two fields or three?, wondering whether the shift to three-field agriculture needs to be in this story and if so where
  19. Another one not numbered in the series, but obviously following up on no. 14 above, looking at changes in castle tenure in Catalonia in charters from the run-up to the year 1000
  20. Feudal Transformations XVII: the scribes who take us through the mutation documentaire, a close reading of changing modes of social organisation in a charter by a scribe who remembered the way it used to be…
  21. Feudal Transformations XVIII: what’s behind it all?, a brief entanglement with Guy Bois’s book The Transformation of the Year 1000 over issues of demography and climate as causes of change
  22. Feudal Transformations XIX: change before the year 1000, a more thorough critique of Bois’s theory based (of course) on a comparison with Catalonia

I’m sure there’ll be more; I haven’t solved it yet…

14 responses to “Feudal Transformation

  1. Pingback: Darn climate sceptics! get out of my field! « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Here’s my attempt at an analogy for the whole “ancient to medieval”/ “feudal transformation” malarkey. Apologies for the awful humour. But if you like it, that’s great. https://carolingiansarecool.blogspot.com/2023/02/the-biggest-question-of-them-all-how-do.html

  3. Please be assured that none of the experiences aforementioned are mine, but they all could have plausibly happened to an unfortunate student at a provincial English university. As a certain West Frankish/ Lotharingian bishop alive in the year 1k said “non sic gesta scias, sed cuncta geri potuisse.”

  4. Though I’ve definitely done my fair share of piecing together what might have happened on a night out, it was never as exciting and terrifying as this. I feel that the sort of metaphor I chose (I actually saw someone use for the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England) is particularly apt for early medieval history, especially the feudal transformation, as its clear that something did happen its just we don’t know what did and its very hard to put the pieces together because a lot of it doesn’t quite add up.

    • Obviously I agree with the basic premise here, but of course there are those who would not, by which I mainly mean Dominique Barthélemy, but he’s not alone. Even by saying “its clear that something did happen,” you’re staking a position. The first thought that always comes to my mind is jurisdiction, and where it resided either side of the blackout. My more cynical side would tend to align with a view that says the local aristocrats can almost always swing a dispute in their direction, and that what disappears in that blank patch, like traffic cones from roadworks or shopping trolleys from supermarkets, is the higher level of appeal to which it might once have been possible, and maybe even safe, to go. But is the supposed Transformation not more than that shortening of the effective social structure?

      Then the other question this raises for me is the idea of blackouts, actually. For the Roman-English transition, I agree, we are in the dark a lot of the time. But by medieval standards most of the areas identified for the ‘feudal transformation’ are pretty well documented, and indeed this is why Barthélemy’s argument has to be about how we read the documents we have, not where we do and don’t have them. Of course we are trying to look through a very small number of windows and see into other rooms whose windows are not open to us. But for me the frustration is not that all this change is happening while we can’t see it; we’re looking at it, however partially, and still can’t see it properly…

      • Yeah, to be fair in some ways the blackout analogy for the feudal transformation is not as apt as for the Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England one. In the case of the former its archaeology (plus a smattering of Patrick, Germanus of Auxerre, the Gallic Chronicle, Gildas and Procopius). In the case of the latter, as you say, we do actually have a fairly significant amount of documentation in the half centuries on either side of 1000, which in regions like your Catalonia is actually quite prodigious by early medieval standards. The only problem, which I tried to allude (not very successfully) to in the analogy, is what comes before and after in terms of documentation and how do we read the documents.

        The point that Matthew Innes would make is about the geography and time frame of the documentation. The regions where the documentation is very good in the period 750 – 900 (above all, his Middle Rhine Valley), aren’t the same as the regions where its much better in the period 900 – 1050 (Burgundy, Catalonia, Tuscany and other classic case studies of the feudal revolution).. Thus in the places where we know very clearly what the Carolingian order looked like (in the ninth century), we can’t follow the transformation properly, and the regions where we can follow the transformation, we don’t have as clear a picture of what the Carolingian order looked like. Of course, that argument is one I found in a book he wrote over twenty years ago, and he may have changed his views quite a bit.

        The Barthelemy line is of course that we can see is actually deceiving us. I guess there is another analogy that could work there, but since it would be rather too slanted to Barthelemy’s view and involve discussion of illicit substances I’d rather not go into it.

        • Aha, good points both (and as far as I know, Matthew hasn’t changed his mind about very much in at least the last decade). I’d offer Chris Wickham’s The Mountains and the City as a book that tries to get round the former problem, but even the most generous reader of it would have to admit that the two case studies are not necessarily like with like, and that there’s still a time gap in the middle. Mercé Aventín, Vilamajor 872-1299: de la fi del sistema antic a la consolidació del feudalisme (Sabadell 1990), is a book which at least argues that it really is comparing like with like in three snapshots through the era; but even if one accepts that, it’s sadly not very widely read… But Duby and Bois were at least trying the same trick with the Mâconnais.

          Meanwhile, on the latter point, yes, well, you are probably not the first person to suggest, implicitly or explicitly, that to see tenth-century France Barthélemy’s way you’d have to be on something…

          • Charles West is another one who tries to get round the problem, yet its noticeable that he’s working with not nearly as much source material for the period 880 to 1030 than for either the period 800 to 880 or the period 1030 to 1100. Until someone can find a regional archive that provides consistent levels of documentation across the period 800 to 1100, we’re always going to be dogged by this problem.

            • How about increasing levels of documentation? Most Catalan ones can manage that, but you have to accept a start point of about 880. The areas with documents that go further back than that are also the thinnest preserved, not usually because of being peripheral—Girona for example—though possibly the reverse, less free transaction going on to be recorded; but mainly because of copying into cartularies and then, as in the case of Ripoll and Elna, the subsequent destruction of those cartularies. But even there, and also in the areas where many originals survive, the proportion of record holds more or less steady in rising numbers from 880 to about 940, climbs much more steeply thereafter till 1100 or so, and then just persists rich. This is, I think, one of the reasons why Bonnassie’s version of the Transformation is the hardest to overturn; but it’s also down to more-or-less unique factors, not that this has stopped people generalising from it just as freely as they do from Frederick Jackson Turner’s insistence that his frontier theories only applied to 19th-century North America. I’m still trying to work out what that means for the rest of late/post-Carolingian Europe though!

              • Yeah, I think Catalonia is the Goldilocks of the Feudal Transformation. The documentation there, as well as being prodigious in its volume, starts as you say at exactly the right time so you can get a proper sense there of the (late) Carolingian order, just before it starts to morph into something different. Thus even Barthelemy will admit that the feudal transformation in Catalonia is unshakeable, but the card he’ll of course play is it’s too weird, you can’t generalise from it.

                And one might say fair play to him. But our assumptions about which regions are “normal” and atypical are always open to change. For example, it used to be argued that the Ile de France, specifically as it appears in the polyptych of Saint Germain des Pres, represented the norms of Western European economic and social development in the sixth to ninth centuries. Now it’s actually recognised as being quite an exceptional region. So maybe something closer to the reverse (concerning political and social development) could happen with Catalonia in the future. You never know …

                • I’m not sure I’d say fair play to anyone who dismisses a well-documented area as too weird in one footnote in 1992 and then never returns to it again, even if it weren’t my research area. But for all that I might agree with him, and I think that those ‘unique factors’ I mentioned really do make the difference, those being firstly, the frontier, escape route for those who might otherwise be serfs, and secondly, the sudden collapse of comital authority under Berenguer Ramon I so soon after triumph over al-Andalus. There is something in that outcome about the peculiar readiness of the Midi to settle for female power, for sure, but only because for whatever reason the male power wasn’t there when it had been before. But if Berenguer Ramon I had been Ramon Berenguer I instead, twenty years early, quite a lot could have been different…

                  • I think i was being too charitable to Barthelemy there and i do think thr Catalonia case needs to be explained in relation to the rest of Europe, not written off as an anomaly – and i dont think its really fair to sPeak of anomalies in early medieval regional history gIve How different tge source bases are. And somewhere like Catalonia deserves as much explanation As is due to the Maconnais, Picardy, Touraine or whichever places Dominique Barthelemy doesn’t feel he can casuslly dismiss in a footnote because they’re less
                    “Peripheral” and more important.

                    • Well, quite, but that doesn’t mean that once the ignored areas have their separate explanations, that those explanations will turn out to be transferable, does it? That’s the thing. It’s why Bonnassie’s ‘From the Rhône to Galicia’ is not regarded with the same reverence as his La Catalogne and its various derivations, because even he found it hard to generalise from.

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