I figure in these hard times Geoffrey Chaucer needs all the promotion he can get, you know? Though he seems, despite his absence from the Internet, to be writing in to the Guardian, or at least his agent is. But, you will be shocked to hear, this wasn’t the whole point of my post.
The 1999 Spoleto conference on feudalism that I mentioned before had its keynote speech given by Chris Wickham, and he set out to rehabilitate the word and its meanings. If you’ve been through a course in medieval history that went before 1200, you are probably aware that in 1974 Elizabeth A. R. Brown went thoroughly into the uses of the word ‘feudalism’ to describe the society of the high Middle Ages in an article in the American Historical Review, found them basically lacking because of lack of consensus about what it meant and lack of basis for the various explanations that there were, and asked all historians to please stop teaching it as soon as possible.1 Not satisfied with the results, Susan Reynolds in 1994 wrote a thick book, about ten times the length of Brown’s article, in which she railed at considerable length at how silly all the people were who were still using this broken and misleading concept and requested them at length to acquire clues and similar.2 Reynolds’s book was sufficiently vituperative and powerfully-phrased, and her career sufficiently autumnal, that while those who loved controversy lapped it up, those who had no intention of changing were able to more or less dismiss it as the fulminations of a crank. This was unfair, because it says important things, but it doesn’t, admittedly, leave one very clear on what Reynolds actually thinks did organise medieval society, at least in part because she’d written that at length elsewhere anyway.3 Reynolds’s work can’t be ignored, but nonetheless, because it’s older and therefore better cited, because it’s (slightly) less polemical, because it’s of US origin and therefore attracts itself to more people who are aware of the historical community on the Internet perhaps, and mostly I suspect because it’s shorter, Brown’s article remains a bigger influence on people than Reynolds’s book. Another Damned Medievalist has written about this, and so I’ll refer you there and get on with the point. If you do want more, the Reynolds debate is one of the rich patches in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook and Melissa Snell’s blog on About.com tackled the whole issue not so very long ago too, so that should be all the HTML any reasonable person can eat and beyond that you’ll actually have to read some print.
Roland receiving the sword Durandal from Charlemagne in exchange for homage, from Wikimedia Commons
Anyway, the fine art of leaving Susan Reynolds by herself and arguing with the (easier) Brown was on good form in Chris’s hands in 1999.4 He carefully stays more or less clear of Fiefs and Vassals, arguing that he doesn’t have time to do a detailed critique of the sources, and instead goes for the theoretical throat, which is Brown. Yes, he admits, ‘feudalism’ is an ideal type, and thus probably didn’t really exist anywhere as we imagine it. But we can’t get very far without ideal types, he argues, because, lacking 100% information, we have to construct in order to imagine what our subject population was really like and doing. Ideal types are a thing that powers the imagination, and powers discussion about the respects that they don’t match. What he’s essentially arguing here is that we need, if we’re to understand medieval society to our own contentment, to be able to work not in terms of slow assembly, but in terms of bold-but-wrong thesis, careful and destructive antithesis, and synthesis, repeated each step closer to the objective reality and so on, you know, the way we actually do history.5 None of us do history without any basis in the area at all, from first principles, so the real issue with ideal types is whether one can identify the ones one uses or not! Do you know why you think what you think, can you argue it? and so on.
Having thus cleared some ground in which a concept of feudalism might stand, Chris argues that in fact there are three, and that really most of the trouble has come from people confusing them and using one’s inapplicability to disprove another. He separates them out as follows:
- Marxist feudalism (because this is Chris after all): the feudal mode of production in which peasants own and operate the means of production but lords control it. The advantage of this is that it brings the 80% of medieval society who didn’t write or ride chargers into the picture and reminds us that it all comes down to who feeds whom at some level; the downside is that it really doesn’t cover much else and frequently doesn’t describe how people are actually related when for many other reasons we’d want to call their society feudal. For example, a Catalan free peasant paying rent to a lord but otherwise independent in the 1030s is in a society where feudal oaths are the organisational basis of pretty much all power relations; but for a Marxist he isn’t himself embedded in the feudal mode, so that breaks quite easily when you try and make it do more than it can cover.
- Exactly opposite, the juridical sense which says that really, the only thing you can call feudal is relations centred around fiefs, that is what others might usually call ‘feudo-vassalic relations’ so as to separate it cleanly from the whole big shebang; a lord and a follower in a relation of mutual benefit where the follower gets to hold land from the lord ‘in fief’ or ‘in fee’ in exchange for service and loyalty. The problem with this is self-evidently the opposite one, that it misses out the peasants and anything not to do with the military organisation of society, and thus misses really rather a lot, though many would argue that the rest isn’t ‘feudal’, thus setting themselves at complete cross-purposes with the Marxists…
- Finally, the Marc Bloch version, what Georges Duby called, translated from the French, ‘the feudal imaginary’. This is the big-picture version of Poly & Bournazel’s Feudal Transformation and also of course of Bloch’s own Feudal Society, in which everything is built up from the juridical version to extend through the whole of medieval society, its literary production, its self-image, its self-justifications and legends, its economy and culture, its religion (Jesus as Lord and lord) and the whole lot really.6 The obvious problem with this is that it is, again, an ideal type; I’ve argued elsewhere and many have before me too that this just never happened all at once, and if this is the real definition nowhere was ever ‘feudal’. Chris, having already defended ideal types, says that that doesn’t matter because it gives a big picture view that encompasses both (1) and (2) and leaves you feeling as if you can see the society better. We know it’s wrong, in detail, but it’s helpful, even if by now mainly to critique.
I am usually persuaded by Chris to an extent, except mainly where he justifies an argument with something like, “because aristocrats/peasants are like that”. (And indeed, one of the great beauties of the Settimane series is that they also publish some version of the discussion, so you get Chris having a very high-level exchange of compliments with Dominique Barthélemy that includes him saying, “As you know well, some historians cannot argue their way out of a paper bag” in print where it can be found and cited (p. 50), which amuses me.) So here I think he quite rightly distinguishes between some concepts which have been wrongly identified together, and makes an entertaining and persuasive pitch for continuing to talk about feudalism, which can basically be summarised as ‘we already are, so we may as well admit it’. And I do use the word freely in a way that would cause some of my colleagues to start uneasily, mainly because in my area I can point you at upwards of a hundred feudal oaths and contracts which are, among other things, almost the earliest written examples of a Romance language but that also make a pretty good case for admitting that in Catalonia there was a feudal system, even if it didn’t necessarily reach everywhere and include everything.7 But, in the end, the basic problem is this: it being a good thing to think with doesn’t alter the fact that it makes you think in terms of one thing (or here, three that are one; Chris draws the Trinitarian analogy himself in the discussion). And what was going on wasn’t one thing, but lots all at once. So although Chris may not be, I remain confused and unconvinced, but now by Brown and him alike.
1. 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, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169.
2. Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994).
3. Eadem, Kings and Communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1997).
4. Chris Wickham, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nell’Alto Medioevo (8-12 aprile 1999), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 15-46 with discussion pp. 47-51.
5. That is, assuming that you accept that there was an objective reality, which I do even if everyone in it perceived it differently. Let’s not have that argument again just now.
6. Referring to Marc Bloch, La Société Féodale (Paris 1949), transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (Chicago 1961); to Georges Duby, Les Trois Ordres, ou, l’imaginaire du féodalisme (Paris 1980), transl. Arthur Goldhammer as The Three Orders: feudal society imagined (Chicago 1980); and to Jean-Pierre Poly & Eric Bournazel, La Mutation Féodale, Xe-XIIe siècles, transl. Caroline Higgit as The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200 (New York City 1983), 2nd edn. in French 1991.
7. Now covered at length in English by 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), which does not entirely replace Michel Zimmermann, “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in Jaume Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i Expansió del Feudalisme Català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with Catalan summary p. 523, Castilian summary p. 531 & English summary p. 557. On the linguistic importance, you can see Joan Bastardas, “El català vers l’any 1000” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 495-513 with Catalan résumé p. 495 & French & Provencal résumés & English abstract p. 514.