Tag Archives: historians

Leeds 2013 report part 1

I’ve been backlogged with reporting nearly this far before now, of course, and it’s the annual conferences that always seem silliest to report on in these circumstances. Who cares about the 2013 International Medieval Congress now? We’ve already had the 2014 one! Thoughts like this flap round this entry, but completeness compels me, and besides, hey, maybe you weren’t there, maybe you were and just didn’t go to the things I did, I’ll cover it, but because it’s also huge, I’ll put the actual paper reports behind a cut.

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Last year’s conference theme at Leeds was ‘pleasure’, and perhaps I’m just a gloomy type but this didn’t engage me much, so I found myself drawn by neither of the keynote lectures that always start the conference. Instead, I made an early assault on the second-hand book fair (which only runs till lunchtime the second day, so you have to be quick) and generally tried to get the shape of the new premises, because as you may recall the previous year saw the Leeds conference finishing its residence out at Bodington and Weetwood campuses and getting ready to happen on the university’s city centre campus. As you can see from the above left, parts of that are fairly splendid, and in general it did seem an improvement. There were still rooms that had people on the floor while in others seats were empty, and to be fair the conference staff did try and swap some sessions over when this became clear, at the cost of some delay, but in general the spaces and moving between them were more comfortable and having everything on one site was worth a lot.

Entry to the Great Hall on the main camopus of the University of Leeds

Entry to the Great Hall (where, in fact, I think I never went)

My fears that the essential communality of Leeds would be lost was unfounded, too: a centrally-positioned marquee serving still-dreadful but essential caffeine proved an anchor point past which almost everyone had to pass sooner or later, and in the evenings the main bar proved a reasonable place to search people out also and also had better beer than Bodington ever had (though not than the sadly-missed Stables pub at Weetwood). So in general the move seemed OK. But, the papers! Continue reading

Seminar CLXXIV: debating change around 1066

One of the stranger events I attended while still in Oxford (a category of thing of which I have now told you almost all) was a debate staged at the then-new Ertegun Centre, over the motion: “1066: the most important date in English history?” It was the public-school format, of course, with a speaker for, a speaker against and the option of a reply from each one, but what made it look interesting to attend was that the speaker for was Dr George Garnett, one of my more singular colleagues in the Faculty, and the speaker against was Dr George Molyneaux, repeatedly given first place as lecturer by my pupils on the British History 300-1087 course and also George Garnett’s doctoral pupil. Would the pupil now become the master? and so on.

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

The manuscript of Greater Domesday: the final judgement!

In actual fact, though the debate was not uninteresting, and could probably be said to have been won by George Garnett in as much as he was prepared to throw much more into the rhetoric of the occasion and also had a single point of focus that meant his opponent either had to pick another or be solely negative, the real interest for me and most others there seemed to be the meta-debate of what we as historians would consider significant change and how they could be rated against each other. Both Georges had chosen to rest their cases largely on duration, on changes that endured like cathedrals, language, towns, laws and landholding, and differed primarily on the question of whom these changes affected: in the case for it was everyone, in the case against those changes mentioned in the case for 1066 were dismissed as affecting only the aristocracy. (George Garnett then argued in his reply that if we let Marx set our criteria like that then nothing actually changed in England till the Industrial Revolution anyway.) But many more such arguments arose once the floor was opened. One contention for 1940 was resisted with the idea that only people since 1940 had been affected by it, so that older changes would be more significant by sheer demography of impact. The idea that counter-factuals were a tool for assessing such importance was damned as a trick of Niall Ferguson‘s and defended as being inherent in any historical judgement; and, thankfully, the question was also raised of whether we had enough evidence to make judgements like this anyway and what new evidence could unseat either George’s position. (George Garnett considered his position to be bolstered by so much evidence that evidence of other things couldn’t change it.) Probably this sort of thing could happen nowhere but Oxford, and even its participants questioned its worth as an intellectual exercise, but as a way of provoking conversation about what change actually is it proved unexpectedly stimulating.

In praise of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society

Among the things I was doing towards the end of 2012 that made me stub blog posts that are only now appearing was finally taking stock of one of the monuments of the field of medieval history, Feudal Society by Marc Bloch.1 It’s a fair guess that whatever bit of medieval society you’re interested in, you’ve seen this book cited somewhere or other, so universal is its impact, but it was written before the Second World War and its very title enshrines a concept that we’ve been trying to discredit for the last four decades, good ol’ feudalism, so what I mainly wanted to know was why does it remain such a big deal? And, since I have a copy loaned to me by a man now dead but whose heirs may some day want his books back, and because it does keep coming up even now, I finally made time to read it.

Portrait photograph of Marc Bloch from Wikimedia Commons

The man himself, from Wikimedia Commons

Part of the appeal of Bloch’s work and reputation is his career trajectory itself, of course: this was a man who fought in the trenches in the First World War, became a professor at first because the German academics had been thrown out of Strasbourg University and then, when the Second World War started, rejoined the army as a reserve captain, aged 57, experienced defeat and eventually joined the French resistance, in whose service he was captured by the German occupying forces in 1944, tortured and eventually shot as the Germans prepared to withdraw. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his work is full of interest in the underclass and the downtrodden; perhaps more surprisingly, it is also not entirely about France, though much of it is. But despite the drama of his life, there are others with similarly amazing lives who have made less of an impact, you can’t read that experience back out of his work without knowing it’s there anyway, and in Bloch’s case I think we can honestly say that it wasn’t just his good fortune in being based in Paris and helping to start a transnational longue durée school of historical study in the form of the Annales just as the world was about to become very very ready for a history that didn’t deal primarily in competing nationalisms that has ensured his immortality.

Cover of volume I of Marc Bloch's Feudal Society

Cover of volume I of the English translation of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, still in print today

So this book, what does it do? Well, it divides into two volumes, even in the original French, and the first more or less attempts a total picture of medieval society in the post-Carolingian world. The underlying premise here is that with the disintegration of state power in the tenth century under the pressure of invasion and economic collapse, the result was an increasing tendency for society to be defined by ties of dependency rather than ties of solidarity, a shift to vertical social relations away from horizontal ones protected and endorsed by public power, and that this shift became so fundamentally embedded that it came to be the defining characteristic of almost all medieval social organisation. So he covers law, kindred, vassalage, servitude, land organisation, and fits all this into his schema. Then in the second volume he deals in the power interests that kept it this way: nobility and noble aspirations, the conformity of the Church to these structures, the localisation and isolation of power around castles, and finally the beginnings of a recovery of state power that might combat this.

Cover of volumee II of Marc Bloch's Feudal Society

Cover of the second volume

A lot of this we might now nuance, especially the causes of the initial collapse of the Carolingian and post-Carolingian state, and we might especially want to try and extract Germany from the paradigm, though Bloch worked to include it, but often having done so we might, I think, I find that we have arrived at the same places where he founded his theory by a different route. You can easily see in this the seeds of the scholarship we now think of as the feudal transformation debate, but Bloch’s chronology was longer, and more subtle, seeing a ‘first feudal age’ taking shape in the mid-eleventh century as all the earlier changes bedded down into a describable structure, and then a ‘second feudal age’ in the second half of the twelfth century caused very largely by a recovery of state power at the same time as, and obviously linked with, the economic boom of the high Middle Ages, these being united by the importance of the personal ties that held them together but rather different in the ways that importance found its expression, and both periods of development rather than of stasis.2

I think that begins also to explain why the book has held its importance so. Some obvious reasons why this should be so, starting with that one, are:

  • it does not require the problematic forcing of all change into a relatively narrow chronological window that the feudal transformation scholarship does;
  • Bloch was always, always comparative, and will occasionally break out quick round-Europe surveys to remind his reader that firstly this is not just a French phenomenon he is discussing and that secondly the French version of it may not be typical, freeing him from many of the tropes that might otherwise have caused his work to be left behind;3
  • he was cautious, and pushed nothing much further than it would go, so that we find him starting paragraphs with the noble sentiment, “Let us not, however, exaggerate. The picture would have to be carefully shaded—by regions and classes.”4
  • Despite this, almost everything in society is in his picture somewhere, joined into a wider structure that, as long as you accept his terms, makes some kind of sense together; he’s drawing a really big picture with tiny detailed strokes.
  • But most importantly of all, I think, is how short the book is, so that nothing is overdone or overstated, especially given that half of each section is qualifications and variations. One goes to it looking for a concept that’s become fundamental to scholarship subsequently such as the idea of kindred as ‘friends by blood’, and finds that he does it in a page and a half, with maybe two examples. It wouldn’t stand up if someone less insightful had written it, but given that Bloch did, instead there isn’t enough of it to make it obviously falsifiable, while the idea still comes through at full force and sticks with you, even in translation.5

Really, after reading it, actively looking for things to object to, the best I could come up with is that Bloch chose to characterise all this as ‘feudal’, because we now think that this is not very helpful.6 But not only is this one of the rare cases where a historian using such language makes very clear what he meant by it (even if that is, more or less, ‘everything’), so that Chris Wickham in his saving throw for the term ‘feudalism’ of which I’m so fond took Bloch’s ‘imaginaire féodale” as one of the three ideal types people usually mean by the word, but he was also very very aware that it was a problematic term even in 1936.7 The English translation has an introduction by Michael Postan who, unsurprisingly, mounts a rigorous defence for the term:

“This is… an approach much wider than the one that equates feudalism with feudum and begins and ends its history with that of the knight service. In Bloch’s definition the fief is only an element, albeit a very important one, of the whole situation. But to him a society might still be feudal even if the fief occupied a more subordinate position. This latitude might strike the orthodox as incompatible with the etymology of the term. But, he argues, etymological rectitude is not the final test of an historical concept. ‘What’, he asks in his Métier d’un historien, ‘if the term is currently used to characterize societies in which the fief is not the most significant trait. There is nothing in this contrary to the practice of all the sciences. Are we shocked by the physicists persisting to apply [sic] the term atom, i. e. indivisible, to an object they subject to the most audacious division?'”8

This is admittedly someone else’s voice quoting from a different work but it’s not saying anything Bloch doesn’t himself say in the book’s very first chapter: the term ‘feudal’ is an anachronism invested with vast ideological loading by the French Revolution and which is subject to several definitions that don’t always overlap, this all seems very familiar to us now, but he was going to use it anyway and came up with a better reason than many for doing so, to wit, his ability to fit pretty much everything he wanted to link together into the structure with which it provided him.9

So the lessons for us as historians after immortality might seem to be: don’t be afraid to take a controversial position if you can demonstrate its worth; in so demonstrating, minimalism will often serve you better than making your points at full strength, and thus making it easy for people to find counters; always remember to consider the places and times and circumstances where what you’re attempting won’t float; and lastly, you’ll need to be really very clever. When I first read this it struck me as a near-perfect example of the contention that historians value caution more than almost anything else when evaluating others’ work, especially when they themselves know nothing much of the subject being written about, but it’s not just caution or choosing as subject something kin which people have continued to be invested for decades, almost in defiance of any explicable factor, that has guaranteed Bloch’s work such a long life: it’s that he managed to combine not going too far with covering almost everything, in a careful and considered fashion and I think that to do that you have to be something really out of the ordinary, as Marc Bloch clearly was.


1. M. Bloch, La société féodale (Paris 1939), 2 vols, transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (Chicago 1961), 2 vols; all citations below from the English translation.

2. Ibid. I pp. 59-71.

3. So, ibid. I pp. 176-189 is a deliberate tour of his concept round Europe, including two differing bits of France contrasted, Italy, Germany, England, Galicia and some final notes on Sicily, Syria, and Byzantium as places to which feudalism was ‘imported’. Eastern Europe would have been nice but as far as his project goes it’s a pretty reasonable sample.

4. Ibid. I p. 71.

5. Ibid. I pp. 123-125.

6. 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 (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169; Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994); and, with my usual reservations about it, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia 2008).

7. Chris Wickham, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nel’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.

8. M. M. Postan, “Foreword” in Bloch, Feudal Society, I pp. xi-xv at pp. xiv-xv, citing Bloch, Le metier d’historien (Paris 1948), transl. Peter Putnam (New York 1954), p. 86, presumably of the English.

9. E. g. Bloch, Feudal Society, I pp. xvi-xx, esp. p. xix:

“The term ‘feudalism’, applied to a phase of European history within the limits thus determined, has sometimes been interpreted in ways so different as to be almost contradictory, yet the mere existence of the word attest the special quality which men have instinctively recognized in the period which it denotes. Hence a book about feudal society can be looked on as an attempt a question posed by its very title: what are the distinctive features of this portion of the past which have given it a claim to be treated in isolation?”

If Modern Medieval were a Deadjournal…

… then I’d just have found its mission statement :-)

I shall place the blame for the plight of the humanities in another place [than decreasing enrolments, poor job prospects and idle students]. I shall place it on some humanists, if they should so be called. I shall bewail their preoccupation with the obscure and curse their avoidance of things that are important and therefore interesting. I shall point with scorn to their contempt for intelligibility, for communication to lay audiences, and for their lack of interest in synthesis, and pity therefore their general dessication.

Though the writer, who was Barnaby C. Keeney in 1955’s Speculum does go on, ” I shall deplore their scholarly avoidance of judgements of value and ethics”, which might be less MM-palatable. He goes on to say rather more about that, and the whole thing is worth reading if you can spare a few minutes. All the same: it’s nice to know you have bilious precedent isn’t it?


Barnaby C. Keeney, “A Dead Horse Flogged Again”, address to the 30th Annual Dinner of the Medieval Academy of America in Speculum Vol. 30 (Cambridge MA 1955), pp. 606-611, cited by Judith M. Bennett, “Our Colleagues, Ourselves” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 245-257 at p. 247 ubi vidi.

Objectivity and Crusader motives: maybe not so simple

Nat Taylor has a recent post in his Genealogist’s Sketchbook, talking about the historian’s right, or not, to make a moral judgement of the period we study. Are our standards applicable to the age so long gone, when religion and fear were so much more immediate (at least, now the Cold War is over and we’ve all learned to stop worrying and love the bomb…)? Or should we just withhold judgement on things like pogroms, Crusades, witch-hunting (not really medieval that one, of course, but you know what I mean) and so on that unfortunately still sing with contemporary relevance? Can we afford not to take a moral stand, when others are using those precedents to justify continuing, or at least excuse, such atrocities? Aren’t we supposed to be the voice of truth?

Well, I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s our business to confront the messiness of the past in whatever level of detail is necessary, and that because objectivity is impossible given how messy our own perspectives are, the best we can do is consciously try to separate what the evidence says from an acknowledgement of our own stance on the issue. That is to say, we must judge, because we are doing so already whether we like it or not. So we must make our perspective obvious, and say things like, “I personally find this distasteful but it clearly happened” rather than idealising or hiding the bad bits. Sorry, Bede, I realise you wouldn’t agree, but I think that’s what we need to do.

Godfrey of Bouillon, King of Jerusalem, with some of his knights

That said, I’m not sure Nat has lighted on the best example of necessary judgement. He is talking of teaching the Crusades, and reports setting the question, “Why did the First Crusade succeed, and why should it not have?” His point is the rarity of moralising answers to this question, but his comment on one that he did get causes my antennae to twitch. He reports:

One student wrote: ”It should not have succeeded because it was ill-conceived, disorganized, and motivated in large degree by chauvanism, xenophobia, and greed.” In fact, an army largely motivated by those things should succeed quite well, I think: no troublesome scruples or complex perspectives to slow them up.

Well, if you look to the top right of this browser window or tab, you’ll see a link called “Crusader Motives”, whereat lies a full-blown scholarly paper which addresses the question of where this, what I call the ‘we’re only it for the money’ argument about why people went on Crusade, belongs in the historiography. That in fact has been the question that’s brought the most hits to this blog ever since I put that page up. Because, you may not realise, the money motive has been more or less dumped from the scholarly picture in the last twenty years, largely under the influence of Jonathan Riley-Smith and his school, who have brought out all kinds of spiritual motives, love of oppressed brothers, the honest desire to save one’s soul by a supreme sacrifice in the name of the Lord, or a lord, or the two together in a powerful feudal-religious complex, devotion to Saint Peter, I mean you name it, anything more moral than simply getting rich quick. And as I discuss there, one of the planks of the Riley-Smith argument is that getting rich on Crusade was tricky because it was really very expensive to go and the evidence for returns is pretty discouraging. My stance is that actually, people still did hope they might get rich, and indeed preachers told them they might, but obviously the plethora of other reasons to go made things easier, and they certainly didn’t think in only that way. So I think Dr Taylor’s student may need to read, well, me…

Mission statements 2: custodians of memory

Logo of the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal

I was going to leave the previous post as a singleton, and then of course it was Remembrance Day. I might have thought the things I go on to say here when I came across Another Damned Medievalist’s post on the subject, but actually I was already thinking it because of, quite unconnectedly, having that evening watched an episode of Dr Who I’d not seen before in which they had cause to show part of a Remembrance ceremony. It was total coincidence that we chose that DVD this evening, as far as I can tell, but it contained the following words that may be familiar to you:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

This never fails to choke me up. And it’s not because of sadness for the loss of life, as such, or any of the more conventional tugs it’s meant to make at the heartstrings. I freely admit, I used to be a war geek, and I’ve made some effort to get an idea of what fighting in the wars of the last century might have been like, but it’s not even empathy that really gets me with that quote. I haven’t got much right to empathy anyway; I have no relatives who died in the war, indeed I exist only because of my father‘s clever ability to stay alive through it out of his own incompetence, as he told it. Somehow his incompetence made him a lieutenant who served at three invasions, so I’ve had my doubts about whether he, a lifelong pacifist, was really as useless a war sailor as he would have liked to think himself, ever since I read a really good article in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society about Australian Great War veterans and how they liked to remember their service.1 Meanwhile, it’s theoretically possible, though vanishingly unlikely, that my father’s landing craft may have ferried my maternal grandfather’s company onto a Normandy beach in 1944, long before they had ever had cause to matter to each other. They both survived. So it’s not even grief.

No, the reason that quote gets to me is because it’s not true. We won’t remember them, for the vastly most part. We’re already getting to the point where there aren’t enough veterans to hold memorial services for the Great War dead. Soon the media exposure those get will collapse as a result. In another century the Great War will be as distant from the people then as the Franco-Prussian War is now. Its history will probably still be taught in schools, but individual connections to the soldiers, whether by acquaintance or genealogy, will be the preserve of amateur researchers and real obsessives. After all, tracing one’s genealogy back as far as, say, the European settlement of the USA, is still fairly reasonable to our perspectives; but when you get people who claim to be descendants of English nobility from before the Conquest (which I have met twice already) you, or at least I, assume that they’re quietly and harmlessly mad, because we know what the evidence is like and that it basically can’t be done. It’ll be a good guess for most people that they had ancestors in the Great War, but for the most part knowing who they were or what they did or didn’t, won’t be an option without doing heavy research at Kew or wherever.

You may already have seen where I’m going with this. When popular memory fades, as it will, who remembers the fallen? Who, in fact, remembers anyone? We do. Historians are our cultural memory specialists. That sets all kinds of agenda that most of us would probably wish to disavow, but nonetheless we are the only ones who can. In the same way as I can’t bring back a full picture of Adalbert of Taradell, I haven’t been able to get a full idea of what, for example, Sergeant Edward Mott of the 1st Battalion, Border Regiment was like as a person: probably fairly frightening I would have to guess, because in my world people don’t charge German machine-gun nests single-handedly even after being wounded in the eye, but in 1915 actually some ordinary people did do stuff like that, because war is Hell. Similarly when I got my hands on the medal group of 2nd Lieutenant John Mitchell, RAF, my personal reaction was, “you madman!” but that doesn’t remember him as someone who knew him would have remembered him. We can’t do it perfectly; but when no-one else can remember them, we can at least pick up the bits and make something, and this is in some sense what we’re paid for (those of us who are).

Badge of Order of Saint Anne, awarded to 2nd Lieutenant John Mitchell, RAF

Now at the moment the Second World War is still close enough that memories are painful and we see the horror and the heroism with an unavoidable attachment. I read too many Biggles books when young and I still feel kind of the same way about the Great War although not to the extent of glamorising it I hope. But as I’ve argued above we seem now to be watching the Great War crossing that threshold of about three generations whereafter it will be difficult for people to be attached to its memory any longer. It will join the other stuff that we study in the past, where relevance is not immediately apparent and has to be argued, or else can even, eventually, be disowned because popular attachment is now so weak that just interest is a more powerful justification, which puts you about where I was with the previous post in this series. And it will be our job as historians, is already some of our jobs, to try and bring stuff like that back as far as it can be brought back, and to try and tell what it was and what it was like, with imaginative reconstruction where necessary and steadfast adherence to the evidence where possible and so on. Because no-one else will know how to do it well. We have been trained in where to look and how to evaluate. We are the memory experts; we’re boring compared to Beowulf’s scop, maybe, and it may be a toss-up as to who wins between us and Patrick Geary’s cartularising monks when it comes to care and disinterest,2 but for better or for worse, it’s we with the research Tardis whom society needs to hear these lost voices for them. I might have quarrels about whether we can improve ourselves by hearing them, but that’s what the previous post was about, why most of the uses for historians are dangerous or unhelpful in a situation where concrete benefit is demanded. This is the use for history that society will pay for least, though I suppose archivists have got it going on. But it might be the most important one.


1. Alastair Thompson, “Making the most of memories: the empirical and subjective value of oral history” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series, Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 291-303.

2. I refer here to Patrick Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985), which is actually really quite relevant to the whole question I’m attacking here.