09.04.04, Nieus, Le vassal, Le fief et l'Écrit

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Susan Reynolds

The Medieval Review baj9928.0904.004


Nieus, Jean-François (ed.). Le vassal, le fief et l'écrit. Pratiques d'écriture et enjeux documentaires dans le champ de la féodalité (XIe-XVe siècles). Actes de la journée d'études organisée à Louvain-la-Neuve le 15 avril 2005. Louvain-la-Neuve: Institut d'études médiévales de l'Université Catholique de Louvain, 2007. Pp. 218. ISBN: 978-2-503-52892-2.

Reviewed by:
Susan Reynolds
Institute of Historical Research, London

This review must start with a declaration of interest: its author is said in the second sentence of the foreword to Le Vassal, Le Fief et L'Écrit, to have put forward theses that are too radical. But, although the editor in his very first sentence has already said that the history of feudalism is at a crossroads, none of the contributors, all of whom write in English or French, is concerned with any particularly new or controversial ideas. Gérard Giordanengo's essay on the academic Law of Fiefs does not involve considering the social or political background, while the rest of the contributors work within the traditional paradigm of non-Marxist feudalism without entering into any serious controversy. As the title of the book suggests, they are interested in the important question of the light that documentary sources from the eleventh century and later throw on feodo-vassalic relations and on such changes within those relations as may have accompanied the spread of writing and record-keeping.

Of those who concentrate on the period before 1300, Jean-François Nieus draws attention to the need for work on la diplomatique féodale of northern France, and discusses charters produced for lords and "vassals" there; Dirk Heirbaut argues that Flemish feudalism was exceptional in its lack of bureaucracy and of either "typically feudal documents" or any "great book of feudal law"; Hélène Débax constructs a typology of documents proprement féodaux from Languedoc, notably the many records of oaths of fidelity that have been preserved and the various kinds of record of enfeoffments. On the later middle ages Emmanuel Johans describes the systematic recording of homages and lists of fiefholders in Rouergue and the Cévennes; Antheun Janse shows how Charles the Bold's administrators made carefully planned and detailed lists, with assessments of income, to maximize the military service and taxation he could get from landholders in the Low Countries; and Jean-Marie Yante uses a survey of fiefs in the marquisate of Arlon to illustrate the complexity of its geography. Two contributors venture outside the area of modern France and Flanders and deal with the whole period: Giordanengo gives a summary account of the academic Law of Fiefs and Italian and French jurists who used it and wrote about it, while Karl-Heinz Spiess discusses a selection of German "feudal books". René Noel adds a thoughtful conclusion.

There is much solid learning, meticulously footnoted, here. Ungrateful as it may seem to say so, however, even more light could have been cast on the changes in the documents and what they record if the contributors had paid more attention to the terminology those documents use. The word "vassal" is an important one in this connection. It seems to have acquired the meaning of fiefholder under influence of the twelfth-century Libri Feudorum and the academic Law of Fiefs that developed from it. Except in the French vernacular, where it seems to have had a different meaning which sometimes creeps into Latin documents, it does not seem to have been used (much or at all?) in northern Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries until the Law of Fiefs began to be studied at first or second hand. Scholars' references to "vassals" when the word is not in the source cited and, moreover, may not have been used at all in the area and period under discussion, make it hard for the reader to see when, how, and even if the academic feudal law began to influence those who wrote charters and other records. Another key word, feodum/feudum was used through the period but its use and meaning changed: the stage when it began to be used more or less exclusively in some areas (though not all) for noble properties also casts light on the growing professionalism of law and government. The light is brighter, however, if the various rights and obligations attached to properties called fiefs are noted: they were not always and everywhere the same.

The terminology of some of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century documents studied here suggests that professionalism or quasi-professionalism started in some areas without direct influence from academic law. Administrators and lawyers who practised what is generally classified as "customary law," though it was increasingly the custom of bureaucracies and courts rather than of the rest of society, may well have picked up ideas from each other without having even heard of the Libri Feudorum. The evidence of changing terminology, and also changing arguments, about German benefices in the twelfth century, some of which I cited in my Fiefs and Vassals (440-51) including some in one of the "feudal books" described by Spiess, might be relevant here. Another question concerns the later medieval documents that did use some of the new terminology: how far did the rights and obligations of property change with the new terminology or because of it? Rulers and other lords certainly imposed new obligations but were these the product of academic law or simply of administrative ingenuity?

Le Vassal, Le Fief et L'Écrit stimulates the desire for more and wider comparisons than it explicitly contains. Exceptionalisms, whether in Flanders or Languedoc or anywhere else, look less striking if one starts, not from the traditional paradigm of non-Marxist feudalism, with all its special attributes, but from the evidence of different areas documented at the same time as the supposed exception. Without wholly abandoning the paradigm, one might make wider comparisons if one blurred its edges. Defining particular practices as feudal so as to restrict discussion and comparison to them begs the very questions that need to be considered. Reliefs (succession dues), for instance, are often assumed to be an intrinsic part of feudo-vassalic relations, but at least in some parts of France they may have been taken first from peasants. They seem, incidentally, never to have been taken regularly by kings of France from the great nobles whom historians call "royal vassals." It is tempting to wonder whether the reliefs given away by the count of Flanders in 1127 had been owed only, or at all, by nobles. That part of the paradigm, like quotas of noble military service and the "feudal pyramid of tenure," seems to have come from England, which, like Italy and Spain, is not directly considered here. Yet both Italy, through the Law of Fiefs, and England, through the Norman Conquest, contributed to the paradigm as it took shape between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. No conference or book of essays can include everything, but wider comparisons might affect conclusions about the areas that are so carefully studied in this one.

That is maybe to ask for too much. The volume as it stands shows that, even if moving outside the feudo-vassalic paradigm might offer more problems and questions to investigate, there is evidently still plenty of room within it for scholars to do the kind of serious, detailed, and revealing work on the sources that is published here.

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Author Biography

Susan Reynolds

Institute of Historical Research, London