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95.12.01, Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals

95.12.01, Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals

Susan Reynolds' monumental new work, both because of the densely technical nature of much of its argumentation, and because of the centrality of the edifices it attacks, seems already destined to become one of those works that are much more talked about than read. But the reader who perseveres through the author's page-long paragraphs and starchy, common-sensical aphorisms on medieval society and government will find a work devastatingly simple in its aims and methodology, a work that seeks to accomplish somewhat less than its burgeoning reputation might suggest, but that accomplishes a very great deal none the less.

Reynolds is careful to state that the "feudalism" that concerns her is not a broadly-modeled Marxist or "manorial" feudalism, understood as a system of relations between a small military elite and a large mass of subject peasantry, but rather the narrower model espoused and refined by European medievalists of this century and the last, that concentrates on vassalage and the fief as the defining institutions which bound together society and government in medieval Europe between around 800 and 1300. Her aim is simply to try to discover "how far vassalage and the fief, as they are generally understood, constituted institutions which are definable, comprehensible, and helpful to the understanding of medieval history" (p. 2).

After a short introductory chapter, Reynolds devotes the second and third chapters of her book to sketching out traditional views of vassalage and the fief respectively. Each chapter follows with an incisive discussion of the difficulties with the traditional view, and ends with some suggestions as to what concepts and norms one might wish to examine in lieu of the understandings of medieval government and property that have tended to arise from the traditional views of fiefs and vassalage. The remainder of the book consists of a survey of evidence on fiefs and vassalage from across Europe, with chapters on Gaul under the Merovingians and Carolingians, on France between 900 and 1100, Italy, France 1100-1300, England, and Germany.

In the traditional view as summarized by Reynolds, fief (*feodum*) and vassal (*vasallus* etc.) were used by medieval scribes in precise technical ways, as terms of art. When those terms are examined and their technical meanings recovered, it is said, they reveal a European Middle Ages in which notions of public order and property rights were decidedly weaker than they were to become in modern times -- weaker, or non-existent. Vassalage, for instance, in the traditional view, is taken to be an affective personal bond uniting a free man to his lord, a bond usually symbolized by a ceremony of submission ("homage") and sometimes argued to have had its origin in the allegiance of the members of a war-band to their military leader. The widespread existence of this "personal" bond is taken to indicate the weakness or absence of more abstract ideas of public order, whether described by "the state," Latin *respublica*, or some other term. Likewise, the fief is traditionally taken to be a grant of land from a lord to a free follower, with tenure of the land contingent on the performance of certain specified services, usually military, and more generally on the allegiance of man to lord. The prevalence of such revocable and dependent grants is taken to indicate medieval man's weak understanding of full property rights. Finally, in the traditional view, fief and vassalage are thought to have been unified and generalized, such that by a certain point (variously located depending on the national historiography in which one is working), most free men were vassals of some superior, and "held" their land in fief, rather than owning it. Government in this "feudal society" would have consisted of the dues and services exacted by lords from their immediate vassals. The result, it is said, was a society in which governmental relations were essentially "personal," dependent on specific contracts between lords and men rather than on general notions of public order and duty.

The traditional understanding of these terms thus underpins a teleology the significance of which goes well beyond a debate over the finer points of medieval property law. The stakes here are high. If the crude scheme sketched above even approximates medieval realities, then one has to look elsewhere for the beginnings of modern notions of private property and public order, ideas the European Middle Ages would appear to have confused grievously. If, on the other hand, the traditional understanding of feudo-vassalic relations is to be reshaped, the matter will be of interest to anyone concerned with the development of European politics and society between 1000 and 1800.

Reynolds' title bills her work as a "reinterpretation" of the medieval evidence. She puts preaching into practice with a single-handed examination of a vast conspectus of medieval charters, restricting herself, as she must, to printed sources (and still forced to omit Spain and the kingdom of Jerusalem from her endeavors). Her re-reading of the medieval documents is based on two simple premises. In the first place, she argues that historians have simply misread many of the early medieval documents on which traditional views of fiefs and vassalage have been based. Such documents, she contends, were generally not intended as normative statements of any kind, either as regards property law, or as regards the relations between superiors and inferiors. Many of these documents were produced under special circumstances and cannot be used as a basis for generalization. Nor did the creators of these documents use words in a way that was intended to furnish a consistent guide either to categories of property or to the legal status of persons. In the second place, Reynolds also takes issue with the prevailing view of medieval values and ideas that is suggested by the traditional understanding of "feudal" terms. Between 500 and 1300, she argues, most people expected to have what we would today call full rights of property in their land. They expected to be able to bequeathe what they had inherited and acquired, and expected to be secure from the threat of unreasonable confiscation of their lands. She further argues that medieval Europe saw no real decay or diminution of ideas of public order. Such ideas remained firm, she argues, and were centered on the figure of the king, who was always widely thought to command the allegiance of all his free subjects, not merely those to whom he happened to have given some land. Particularly in her arguments concerning medieval political values, the author relies on ideas already developed in an earlier book, *Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300* (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) -- many of the contentions that appear in *Fiefs and Vassals* as pithy maxims receive a much fuller argumentation in this earlier work, which thus stands as a very helpful, perhaps even indispensable precursor to Reynolds' book on feudalism.

Reynolds' attack on a precise and technical reading of feudo-vassalic terms in the early documents (before 1100) relies on simple questions of methodology. How far is a historian justified in treating words found in early medieval charters as terms of art? Was "vassal" as tightly delineated a concept as modern "tort" or Roman "usufruct"? Was it (or its cousins), in short, a jurist's term? Her answer, at least for the period before 1100, is a resounding negative. In Reynolds' view, the history of the law (or laws) of medieval Europe can be roughly divided into two periods before and after 1100, the former an age of customary law, deeply shaped by local practice and by the implicit norms of community and public order she explores in *Kingdoms and Communities*. After 1100, on the other hand, responding to new intellectual trends, and even more to the needs of increasingly centralized and bureaucratic governments, European law became the province of "professionals," whose appetite for systems and distinctions caused the old customary norms and rules to be schematized, regularized, and eventually distorted almost beyond recognition. It was these later jurists, she argues, who created rigid definitions of vassalage and the fief, and who invented historical developments to explain how these "institutions" had arisen. What were fluid terms of convenience around 1000, she argues, were rigid jurists' terms by 1300, and by 1600 constituted the basis of a vast pseudo-history of medieval government and property law erected by later jurists who assiduously sought the "origins" of the "feudal system" they saw in the professional legal writings of the period from 1300 or so onward. And modern scholars, says Reynolds, have consistently failed to challenge this technical, pseudo-historical reading at its roots.

Reynolds is at her most convincing when she carefully elicits the multiple phenomena that corresponded to single terms such as *beneficium*. Less convincing are her efforts to argue that certain terms may have had little or no meaning in the period before 1100, or may at best have been used in a "non-committal" fashion, a claim she makes for the various senses of the words *feo*, *fevum*, *feudum*, *beneficium* and similar terms in France from 900-1100. While it is easy to be persuaded by Reynolds' argument that the meanings of these terms must have varied from place to place and that each should be evaluated in its own context (p. 119), it is harder to accept the assertion that "the words used in records compiled within different monasteries against a background of customary law and kept by the monasteries for their own use *could not have had* the technical senses they might acquire in later ages of professional law" (p. 120, emphasis mine). The paramount "use" of these charters to the churches that kept them was the defense of church rights, presumably in court. It is hard to see how those rights could have been well-served by language that was deliberately non-committal. Reynolds' point here seems really to be that one cannot expect people around 1000 to use these terms like lawyers. Not like lawyers of the year 1250, one might respond, but certainly like lawyers of the year 1000. While the author might argue that in 1000 Europe was as yet uncontaminated by any lawyers worth the name, this would, I think, be to insist too strongly on the division between the ages of "customary" and "professional" law. There was certainly law of a sort before 1100, and there will also have been those who did their best to use the existing law to their advantage, none more so than the churches. The currency of fief-words before 1100 suggests that, even in the age of customary law, they were considered to mean *something,* even if that something may have varied considerably with time and place.

Reynolds, in any case, does not hew too closely to a destructive insistence that nothing whatever can be said about feudo-vassalic terms before 1100, and her explorations of their range of meanings is illuminating. *Feodum* and its relatives begin in the ninth and tenth centuries to replace *beneficium* and *precaria* as the standard term for church grants of dependent property. The words also came into wider currency to describe lay property relations. Overall, Reynolds isolates two clusters of usage: on the one hand the terms are used to denote superior rights of a more or less political nature, as evinced by references to, for example, "the king's fief." Also visible is the usage one expects from the traditional model, in which the words denote property that is markedly subordinated to a superior and owes some kind of service or dues. The dissimilarity of these senses leads Reynolds to suggest that fief-words before 1100 were at best a catch-all used to indicate any property held with other than full and free property rights, whether the rights enjoyed were superior and verged on what we would call jurisdiction, or inferior, and encompassed dependent services (pp. 164-165). The conclusion seems unduly hesitant given that Reynolds has already pointed to a general sense of reward and indebtedness that clings to the complex of fief-words. Fiefs as "gifts or favors that incur debt" easily encompass both superior and inferior rights, in a specific way, as the author herself notes: the gifts or favors themselves create the obligations that are the essence of inferior rights, while the ability to make such gifts out of one's own resources goes hand in hand with the exercise of superior rights (land and rights "in the king's gift," for example). But Reynolds is deliberately uninterested in the derivations of words as such, and her hesitancy to generalize here leads her to a weaker synthesis than her own results might permit.

Alongside her unwillingness to attribute any technical sense to the use of feudal terminology before about 1100, Reynolds also argues that many of the early documents were produced in special circumstances that make them unfit for generalization. Only occasionally does this insistence lead to interpretations that seem a little strained. She notes, for example, that the great bulk of surviving charters come from the church, but are nevertheless used to support generalizations concerning property-relations between the laity. Reynolds argues forcefully and convincingly that the church had its own set of needs, needs that go a long way toward explaining the prevalence of dependent tenures of one kind or another in the surviving charters, but which may be less helpful in understanding lay property-relations. The church, after all, was forbidden under canon law from any permanent alienation of its lands. On the other hand, the widely prevalent expectation that heirs would be able to enjoy what their fathers had enjoyed, whether church land or not, would have been a powerful threat to the cohesion of church patrimonies. "Precarious" tenures in which the church retained a property-interest were the apparent compromise. In making this argument Reynolds denies any long-term "trend" of church benefices to become inheritable, arguing instead that the benefice was the linchpin of a continuing and largely unresolved tension between a church's obligation to preserve its lands intact, and the powerful social expectation of inheritance. Under the Carolingians, she suggests, the church benefice anchored a compromise of a different kind as well, and was used in partial fulfillment of rulers' needs for land, resulting in the creation of the so-called benefices *verbo regis*, granted to lay supporters of the king, out of church lands. The benefice, as Reynolds sees it in Carolingian charters, was vaguely defined, simply a precarious conveyance of land with less than full property rights, most visible in transactions involving the church, which had a special need for contracts of this sort. Of benefices granted by laity *to* laity, Reynolds finds too little evidence to venture any generalizations, and remains unconvinced either that all Carolingian benefices entailed vassalage, or that vassal benefices were widespread, though she does concede their existence and their importance in the provision of military service. And she objects strenuously to any attempt to disambiguate the Carolingian term *beneficium*, noting its use for precarious conveyances, for the obligations of high churchmen to the king who had invested them with their church, and for governmental offices and the lands that often accompanied them. As regards documents which seem to shed more light on the laity, such as Carolingian capitularies or the records of particular agreements between Frankish kings and their chief lay supporters, Reynolds again insists on the exceptionality of most these documents, generated, as she says, in response to particular political circumstances and thus of little value for deducing broader norms (p. 32). One might have liked to hear more about the ways in which ad hoc measures might nonetheless establish norms and precedents, but it seems to be Reynolds' view that any such preoccupation with rules will have been foreign to the "age of customary law." The search for norms and distinctions did not begin, she argues, until professional lawyers, with their appetite for rationalization, became prevalent after 1100.

This distinction between "academic" (or "professional") and "customary" law (which also figured prominently in *Kingdoms and Communities*) is an important key to Reynolds' re-interpretive criteria. Given the frequency of her recourse to this distinction, the author spends relatively little space in defining her terms. One thing that is quite clear, however, is her active distrust and even dislike of those she labels "professional" lawyers. "Few things are more suggestive of professional law," she writes (p. 460), "than distrust of its practitioners," and the author herself exemplifies the point with numerous sarcastic jabs at the "academics" and their unwholesome taste for "neatness" and "tidiness." Reynolds suggests early on that historians may have tended to treat customary law as somehow second-class, less "real" than written law based in authoritative texts. The author herself seems as often to take the opposite view, namely that "professional" law was an overbred, even pathological form of law that emerged from European universities around 1100, less interested in the daily realities of medieval life, more interested in esoteric argument and "hard cases." Though the book is not, of course, about the thought-patterns of medieval lawyers, the existence of this formidable reserve of largely unexplored animus toward those the author labels "academic" lawyers is at least unsettling. The categories need further discussion. In general, in Reynolds' hands, the categories of "customary" and "professional" law have a tendency to harden into near-rigidity, and we see this in the author's unwillingness to attribute to the early Middle Ages any interest whatsoever in rules, norms or categories. The distinction works least well for Italy, where there had been an important "professional" legal class of judges and notaries since well before 900.

The somewhat rough-and-ready counterposition of customary and professional law, and the author's obvious dislike of "professionals," can occasionally be distracting, but both are red herrings of a sort in the last analysis. One would very much like to hear more about *where* the odd tastes of the "academics" came from -- why they were so enamored of argument and distinction, and from whence came the impetus to refine and regularize the earlier norms governing property. But Reynolds' answer in the end does not have much to do with legal professionalism per se. The rise of rigid feudal terminology, in Reynolds' view, has a great deal more to do with the rise of centralized governments in what the author calls "a very long twelfth century." These governments used an ever-growing class of literate professionals, lawyers and administrators, to specify the duties their subjects owed. In this climate of increased specificity, rights were more and more often committed to writing, and became the subject of professional debate -- not because of the predilections of the lawyers themselves, but because of the needs of their masters. The argument is vastly more compelling than anything to do with "professional mindsets" per se, and it is the argument on which Reynolds ultimately relies. That she does not assert it more forcefully at every point may be due to her unwillingness to offer any models or generalizations of her own, even when she seems to have assembled materials that would readily enable her to do so. She notes, for example, the Investiture Controversy as "an early occasion for the drawing of distinctions," but offers little analysis of this point and does not recur to it in conclusion. Nonetheless, though Reynolds does not formally and explicitly undertake to discuss the reasons for the new appetite for rules and distinctions, attributing it now to "academic" law, now to the needs of more demanding kings, the argument emerges clearly, and it has everything to do with the fresh needs of twelfth-century government.

The other prong of Reynolds' rereading of the documents is her belief in a simple set of core political values that informed most of the Middle Ages. Most important is her argument that medieval society was always informed by a strong sense of public order, and by the conviction that all free men were obligated equally to the king, who, far from being one lord among many, was the normative type of secular power, of which all other secular power-holders were simply a copy. Reynolds uses these ideas less as a tool for rereading individual documents than as a tool for a rereading of the conventional model of feudo-vassalic relations. Given the currency of these political ideas, Reynolds argues, it is hard to see how, for example, it could have been widely believed that a king could only exact services, much less political loyalty, from his immediate tenants. In general Reynolds finds no convincing evidence that medieval people derived their political ideas from their ideas about property, or that changes in property law drove political changes. In general, she argues, many documents that are traditionally taken to show varieties of dependent property right should instead be taken to show political subjection, a continuing concern of medieval rulers of all kinds. The fact that one had done homage for one's land, or that one's land was recorded as being "under" a king or lord, need not have meant that the superior enjoyed a share of the property rights, merely that the property-holder was politically subject. Reynolds argues here mostly on faith, as indeed one must -- the individual documents reveal so little of the assumptions that guided their creators that one must seek that information elsewhere. Reynolds' faith in any case is very firm, and her creed is simple and, to most medievalists of today, unexceptionable. In the end the real strength of the book may lie as much in Reynolds' deployment of this core set of medieval political beliefs to make nonsense of many elements of the traditional view, as in her re-examination of the documents themselves.

This re-examination, though, is worthwhile in itself. Along the way Reynolds tackles a number of constructs particular to various national scholarships: for England, the notion that the Norman Conquest radically changed ideas about property and service, for France the notion that late medieval "feudal aids" were the decayed remnants of archaic personal relationships, for Germany the idea of the "proprietary" church. In every case Reynolds' simple tools suffice to cast serious doubt on the usefulness of these constructs. The non-technical intentions of early medieval documentors, and the very technical intentions of those in the service of aggressive new governments from 1100 on, suffice to explain virtually all of the developments Reynolds examines, in a fashion much clearer and more compelling than the labored constructs she assails. The field of feudalism is littered with such dragons and chimeras, and if Reynolds does not kill off every one of them, she draws blood consistently.

Most criticisms of a work as ambitious as *Fiefs and Vassals* are likely to be unfair by definition. The author's blanket assertions that early medieval people cannot in principle have been interested in general rules of any sort seems too conservative, especially when couched in terms which seem almost to appeal to a theory of *mentalites*. The argument from the increased needs of twelfth-century governments serves Reynolds well in explaining the new specificity of law post-1100 -- surely the lesser specificity of law before 1100 could also be explained in terms of the differing needs of early medieval governments. As it stands one is left with the impression that the solid folk of the age of customary law cultivated a sensible abhorrence of legal distinction and esoteric law, and would be drawn only reluctantly into courtroom argumentation by twelfth-century kings and their cunning viziers.

The book is unfortunately rather difficult to follow in places. This may be the paradoxical result of the essential simplicity of Reynolds' key theses. Examinations of particular documents or events often simply result in a reassertion of the book's essential maxims on the non-technicality of early medieval documents and the ubiquity of the core medieval political values. Here again the lack of an explicit argumentative framework in places may be the result of the author's unwillingness to generalize -- but again, there are powerful arguments implicit in the book, and they might have been shaped into a more overarching frame, rather than simply permitted to reemerge as occasion demands.

Nonetheless, the work's difficulty and idiosyncrasies cannot obscure its very formidable strengths. The debate over "professionalism" in law certainly has room to continue, but one cannot ignore Reynolds' assertion that it is wrong in principle to seek the same precision on documents of 800 as in those of 1200. Much of what Reynolds offers is simply hard medicine -- each of the scanty early medieval documents must be taken very much on its own terms, without shortcuts. And her insistence on a guiding set of medieval political values, that render much of the traditional "feudal" picture very dubious at best, is a powerful interpretive tool that can only benefit from the vigorous and clear assertion it receives in both of the author's books. Revolutions are made by zealots, not by moderates, and any criticism of this work must go hand in hand with a considered appreciation of Reynolds' concise and powerful vision of medieval political ideals.