The Medieval Review 12.06.10

Bagge, Sverre, Michael H. Gelting, and Thomas Lindkvist. Feudalism: New Landscapes of Debate. The Medieval Countryside. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, NV, 2011. Pp. vi, 232. 80 EUR. 978-2-503-53158-8. . .

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth A.R. Brown
Brooklyn College

The eleven papers collected in this volume were originally presented at a conference on feudalism held in Bergen in September 2006. The title of the book, presumably selected by the editors, declares that the essays offer "new landscapes of debate," a phrase that serves as a clever if not entirely convincing link to the Brepols series in which it appears, The Medieval Countryside. From the standpoint of the book's contents, the title is a bit misleading. Not only do the essays not concern landscape (and only tangentially the countryside), they are not dedicated to debating the meaning of feudalism, its utility as a tool for research, or the reasons for its development and endurance. This does not detract from their interest. Mainly focused on different geographical regions of medieval Europe, they contain a variety of reflections on feudalism, which cast light on the current status of the feudal constructs, provide ammunition for their overthrow, and suggest promising approaches to future investigation of medieval social and political history.

Happily, many of the essays acknowledge and demonstrate the uselessness and deleteriousness of the feudal construct. Others, however, reveal the remarkable appeal, vigor, and longevity of the model, which, like a roly-poly toy, seems impossible to knock down and flatten, much less demolish. The attractiveness of the construct as the subject of colloquia (demonstrated by Adam Kosto, pp. 149-51, 155, 157) has considerably fortified its powers of endurance. Indeed the three editors of the book seem dedicated to its preservation. Revealing their allegiance to it, they declare in their introduction: "Feudalism in practice differs considerably from Ganshof's neat picture--in itself not intended as a complete picture of practice over the whole feudal area--but it seems premature to pronounce its death at the present moment." (13). They seem loath to acknowledge that in some parts of medieval Europe no trace of the elements long associated with feudalism can be found. In dealing with one of these regions, Romania, the editors emphasize the existence of "parallels to the fief as well as to vassallage [sic]" (12), and conclude regarding the area that "it is difficult to talk about real feudalism"--as if, although difficult, it is hardly impossible to do so.

Of the essays, some are virtually construct-free. One of these is the interesting article of Cosmin Popa-Gorjanu on Romania (217-32). Having first surveyed the damaging influence of the construct on the study of the Romanian Middle Ages and then presented a brisk and illuminating survey of the functioning of medieval Romanian society, Popa-Gorjanu concludes (232) with a ringing denunciation, music to my ears, which is worth quoting:

The concept of feudalism has dominated the research of the medieval institutions of the principalities for more than a century. It has exerted an unavoidable atttraction as a tool of analysis or as a theoretical model with which to understand and define institutions, social practices, and customs. But its multiple meanings and connotations, either Marxist or non- Marxist, and the disagreements of historians concerning the very definition of feudalism and 'the feudal' are generating confusion for students. For the researcher, each encounter with the word feudal in the secondary literature occasions a cognitive examination of its possible meanings. For the student, this exploration is more difficult and sometimes contradictory. It seems to me that the scholarly literature produced so far has achieved valuable results as concerns medieval institutions due to the careful examination of the primary sources. The use of the term, unless carefully defined, is a hindrance rather than an aid to the historian's work.

Similarly, in her essay "Economic and Political Aspects of Leases in the Kingdom of the Franks during the Eighth and Ninth Centuries: A Contribution to the Current Debate about Feudalism" (27-55), Brigitte Kasten shows that neither benefices or the positions held by officials in eighth- and ninth-century Francia reveal any trace of characteristics associated with feudalism and thus decries the construct as "get[ting] in the way of our view of the realities of the time and of the multiplicity of potentialities for political and social action" (28). Likewise, János M. Bak, studying Hungary ("Feudalism in Hungary?" 203-16), notes that those who have tried to find feudalism there have "lumped together a number of interpersonal relationships" and advises scholars "not to restrict themselves by the construct 'feudalism'" (216). In his essay on Denmark ("The Problem of Danish 'Feudalism': Military, Legal, and Social Change in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries," 159-84), Michael H. Gelting notes the closeness of many of its institutional forms (which did not include fiefs and vassals) to those of other areas of western Europe. Commenting astutely "that the presence or absence of feudal institutional forms was but a matter of comparatively superficial differences, mere variations of the rules of the game" (184), he challenges historians to consider a wide range of phenomena in analyzing medieval societies, rather than according special preference to institutions linked with with feudalism. Erik Opsahl's study of "Fealty and Politics in Medieval Norway" (185-201) similarly calls for exploration of "common European features" in Norwegian institutions, although he apparently still believes in the usefulness of discussing "the question of 'feudalization' in different regions of Europe" (198). Let me voice the hope that Opsahl will make an effort to provide general access to the unpublished article by the late Aaron Gurevich to which he refers (see 186 n. 5: "Feudalism on Trial by Historians or On Medieval 'Peasant Civilization'").

Other essays reveal the nostalgic feelings of attachment that make some scholars who acknowledge the construct's uselessness reluctant to abandon it altogether. The title of Dominique Barthélemy's paper, "Vassaux et fiefs dans la France de l'an Mil" (57-75), suggests more emphasis on "feudal" categories than it in fact contains. Beginning with a discussion of the attempt made by Jacques Flach at the end of the nineteenth century to reorient the study of medieval society from constructs and systems to phenomena, Barthélemy argues that although the word "féodalité" should be jettisoned or used only sparingly, it is still useful to look for fiefs and vassals or their analogues and try to comprehend how they functioned. To this end, he explores the picture of the counts of Blois presented in the work of Richer of Reims and probingly analyzes the intricacies of the Conventum Hugonis of the early eleventh century. In light of the institutional and social complexities his analysis reveals, it is difficult to understand why, in the end (75), he feels it necessary to try to relate his findings to the notion of féodalité--even if he prudently encloses the word in quotation marks. Although institutions resembling those associated with the model can be found in the sources he examines, there seems no reason to privilege them over others designed "to reinforce alliances" and secure support against adversaries (71).

Similar although less pronounced reluctance to abandon the construct appears in Hélène Debax's article "L'aristocratie languedocienne et la société féodale: le témoignage des sources (Midi de la France: XIe et XIIe siècles)" (77-100). Her analysis of the sources reveals an intricate social network featuring oaths and exchanges, but her conclusion that this society "paraît bien être une 'société féodale'," is puzzling, encouraging readers as it does to focus on the image of a vague global feudal society rather than the concrete reality she illuminates.

Despite all the arguments that have been advanced over the years and that are expressed in this volume, some contributors seem unabashedly convinced of the construct's utility and indispensability. John Hudson's paper, entitled "Imposing Feudalism on Anglo-Saxon England: Norman and Angevin Presentation of Pre-Conquest Lordship and Landholding" (115-34), studies the extent to which post-Conquest descriptions of pre-Conquest institutions involved the use of categories "of a sort often called feudal" (115). Hudson's problematic thus assumes the importance of these categories in post- Conquest England, although his analysis shows that whereas some words he terms feudal, "such as baron, feudum, and homagium," were used to describe Anglo-Saxon institutions, "the degree of distortion...was perhaps not as great as might have been expected" (133-34). It is tantalizing to think that a construct-free perspective might have led Hudson to discuss precisely how post- Conquest writers described Anglo-Saxon political and tenurial ties, and the extent to which they perceived them as different from those found after 1066.

The title Gerd Althoff chose, "Establishing Bonds: Fiefs, Homage, and Other Means to Create Trust" (101-14), suggests that his essay will focus on fiefs and homage as two bonds among others that linked human beings during the Middle Ages. But Althoff's first paragraphs show that what he in fact is aiming to do is to study "the feudal bond" in order to cast light on the construct he prefers to term Lehnswesen (without explaining how he thinks this word differs from "feudalism," a term he also uses) (101-2). In light of Althoff's emphatic declaration that feudalism "most certainly did exist and had an essential influence on the functioning of lordship" (101), his conclusion comes as no surprise: that "the feudal bond was the bond that many or all members of the ruling classes maintained to the king" (114).

Adam J. Kosto is fully as attached to the construct as Althoff. Writing on the subject "What about Spain? Iberia in the Historiography of Medieval European Feudalism" (135-58), Kosto bemoans the lack of attention paid to Spain in studies of feudalism during the construct's heyday in the middle of the twentieth century, and through the present day. Beginning with Marc Bloch, and ending with Susan Reynolds, Kosto decries the failure of authors to include Spain in surveys of feudalism and of institutions linked with the construct. [1] Noting that now "most of the debate [is] being carried out in conferences rather than syntheses," he calls for "a place at the table" for Iberia (157). Believing that the debate about feudalism has resulted not in demonstrations of the construct's uselessness but rather in the production of "a diversity of models," Kosto holds that "Iberian feudalism" is now fully relevant to such discussion. Although his conservatism distinguishes Kosto from most of the other participants in the conference, his impassioned plea for Iberian inclusion in discussions of degrees and sorts of feudalization witnesses the hurdles that still confront those who are battling to end feudalism's reign.

The paper written by my long-time friend and colleague Susan Reynolds recalls the battle cry that Co van de Kieft and I sounded in 1974. Reflecting on her book Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted ("Fiefs and Vassals after Twelve Years," 15-26), Reynolds once again denounces the construct, an "ideal type [which] is a mere bundle of characteristics that do not seem to belong together in any coherent way, especially [since] the evidence of some of them anywhere is weak" (24). She realizes, however, that the struggle continues. Acknowledging the survival of the notion of "medieval feudalism," she asks whether it is "right to think of [it] as a single, general phenomenon" (23). The valiant work she has done makes clear the answer she would give.

Noting that her book was "very negative," Reynolds calls for investigation of a range of topics to illuminate the fabric and functioning of medieval society, including kingdoms and communities, and customary law, subjects she herself has explored. This is opportune counsel, offered by one of the chief leaders in the campaign against the construct. The emphasis that some of the contributors to this book place on "fiefs and vassals" suggests that Reynolds' focus in her book on these "feudal" institutions and her demonstration of the importance of lawyers and the Libri feudorum in their articulation may have had the unintended consequence of reinforcing some scholars' belief in their central importance. Her insistence in this article on the need for progressing beyond concentration on words and concepts associated with the construct to other topics will serve as welcome encouragement to historians to expand their perspectives. As these essays demonstrate, the time is long overdue for historians of medieval society to turn to broad questions essential for understanding the functioning of any society. Among the most important seem to me the following: how material assets (including land) were acquired, exchanged, apportioned, and exploited; how wars were fought, conflicts resolved, and violence restrained; what rituals were practiced; what records were kept and preserved; and how social bonds and power relationships were forged and maintained. Conferences on feudalism seem ripe for replacement by meetings dedicated to discussing and structuring a comprehensive questionnaire, whose terms would ensure that no region, including Spain, would lack a place at the table.



1. Kosto expresses interest in the current whereabouts of Marc Bloch's papers, about which essential information is given in Carole Fink's Marc Bloch: A Life in History (Cambridge, 1989), 355-59. I myself have used the papers housed in the Archives nationales in Paris, which contain much material on La société féodale.