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If we focus our attention primarily on the property caught up in these exchanges, are we perhaps mistaking the secondary for the primary? And are rights and obligations attached to property, or are they instead an outcome of the ritual of exchange itself? Should we look for institutions abstracted from individuals, or should our research prey be, first, the individuals in their particular, complex networks of relationships and, second, the systematic practices and transactions in which they engaged?
These are all, I believe, important questions, and a less powerful and less daring work than Reynolds's would not have raised them. Thanks to her thoroughgoing critique of the conventional concept of "feudalism," historian will have to reconsider some of their most fundamental questions about the social structure and political organization of the central Middle Ages.
We are clearly in for an exciting ride. Her book is one that everyone concerned with the period should read, reread, and ponder. Brown, "The Tyranny of a Construct: White, Custom, Kinship, and Gifts to Saints: Cartulaire des Guillems de Montpellier Montpellier, , nos.
See for examples the cases printed in P. Forkosch Indianapolis, , pp. This review is reproduced here from Speculum 71 , by kind permission of Professor Cheyette]. The development of the social and political structures out of which emerged the modern European state was a long protracted process, the early stages of which are sparsely documented to say the least. The received view has long been that military arrangements were fundamental during the western middle ages, that they determined the shape of much else and - some say -- fixed the eventual form of the nascent state.
This is all very plausible. Models constructed on this premise have proved immensely helpful to both the narratives expected of nineteenth-century historians and the analyses of their more recent successors. Though "Feudalism" is emphatically not a term native to the medieval period, words like feodum translated or frenchified as "fief" continue to satisfy most scholars as adequate warrant for a feudal vocabulary of words and concepts.
This usage has greatly facilitated comparisons between one region and another. England was not feudalized until , some say, much later than France. Parts of the Netherlands and central Europe escaped altogether. The model has proved even more indispensible to those whose interest lay in the comparison of whole societies and cultures, sociologists as much as historians. Feudalisms have been found and, supposedly, measured against each other the world over. The Islamic iqta and the Japanese chigyo were each enhanced in its own way by receipt of the feudal accolade.
And men looked and they found it good. All this represents a huge investment of intellectual time and effort, not to mention a great deal of intelligence and insight. Little wonder then that most scholars are highly loath to abandon any part of it. Yet the drawbacks, as in "The Emperor's New Clothes", were always evident to any outside viewer with an open mind. Hardly any two writers agreed in their understanding of the model, even when they said they did, or when they explicitly used a predecessor's definition.
Those who took the trouble to frame a precise definition always slid away from it once they entered in medias res , as it were. Where good models enhance the data's meaning or are dropped , the Feudalism model exhibited all the warning signs of counter-productivity. Evidence that failed to fit tended to get shunted aside as an anomaly, pre-, post- or extra-feudal as required. Thus failures seldom got to modify and sharpen the main model. It seemed to some users as if the word "feudal" alone was enough to render comprehensible phenomena they could not otherwise explain in direct language.
Feudalism served all too often as a semantic smokescreen. In the aftermath of British scandals around the multiple use of a very different kind of model in the s, one great scholar foreswore the use of all models in the future. This would be an over-reaction here. We know these days that we could not avoid models if we tried. Better by far to make conscious than ignorant use of them. For scholars they inevitably remain an essential tool of social description and analysis, not least those of past societies. Still, the case for a fifty-year moratorium on the use of the "F"-word and its derivatives does look unanswerable.
Plenty of smaller-scale images and models exist to fill any feared lacuna. Most of these serve much better to prompt us to pose direct questions at our sources, questions which are in principle answerable and lead to advances in the genuine understanding of ther men and women of the past and the patterns within which they led their lives. In pursuing my own researches along these lines, I have had much company at least since Peggy Brown's notorious article on "Feudalism: Very few dare compose textbooks without the assistance of a calming dollop of the Feudalism drug.
It is not even as simple as it seems to participate in the arguments of legal scholars expressed in their own technical vocabulary. User Account Log in Register Help. Your recently viewed items and featured recommendations. She simply cannot be telling the whole story. One often has the impression of listening to half of a heated telephone conversation, knowing you could discover the other half by following out the footnotes, and learn what exactly is being argued about by reading the documents to which those footnotes lead, but wanting the time or ambition or even the access to the well-stocked research library that such further reading would require. The third argument is anthropological and philosophical:
Our students feed on lies that they can easily grasp, in place of harder because more complex truths. This should matter to all save the most deeply lost of post-modernists. In betraying our duty to teach messy complexities, historians make their distinctive contribution to the current predominance of pseudo-analysis and sound-bite. Susan Reynolds sets out to tackle the nonsense head on. Her book divides analytically into two parts. First she sets up for criticism a model of Feudalism as it is generally understood by scholars.
This is no simple task because of the nature of the beast, and many of the usual culprits have already cried "Foul! I shall concentrate on this explosive or negative side of the arguments here. That this kind of counter-claim is ultimately unanswerable because unverifiable is in effect part of her critique. She has nevertheless tried to meet it in advance with careful definitions and exclusions. But she also tries to suggest how to proceed in the absence of a Feudalism model, proposing her own questions and hypotheses rather than any new global counter-model.
Physically, the book also divides into two parts. The first three chapters examine the generalities, and specifically the two alleged institutions of her title, Fiefs and Vassals. The rest of the book seeks to prove her case country by country, with the bulk 3 chapters understandably devoted to France but chapters too on Italy cast in a quite central role , Germany and England.
Before she can criticize the ever-changing myth of Feudalism, she must first construct a single received view. This foolhardy enterprize boils down in the end to the contention that "the relationship between rulers and nobles in the late middle ages had evolved out of that between early medieval war-leaders and their followers" Behind the European state, in other words, should lie the heroic Gefolgschaft.
For this she finds no good supporting evidence. Her quest and her corrosive demolition of proof-texts deployed in its defence ranges far and wide. But her main charge attacks the central redoubt of her title, Fiefs and Vassals, from whose institutional fusion many have undoubtedly deduced an honorable, personal dyadic relationship of dependency, sealed by a land grant as guarantee of the allegedly all-important future military support of tenant to lord.
She shows convincingly that the contemporary terms behind these analytical categories of fief and vassal did not in the early middle ages carry the meanings the model associates with them. They were not, indeed, the words used for the phenomena at all in key areas and periods. Before , latin "feodum" and equivalents seldom denoted noble property, and probably carried no implication of tenure conditional upon military service.
Neither word denoted anything characteristically noble before the thirteenth century; much of their usage was at a "blue-collar" level of ministerials and border-line freemen. She is sceptical too that there existed in this period any unified ritual of Homage and Fealty. Fealty, a high medieval lawyers' Frenching of latin "faith" words, she rightly rejects outright.
She prefers to talk in more neutral terms of fidelity oaths 87 sq. On this basis, no responsible text-book can call "fealty" an institution before the late twelfth century, or, under that name, after. Yet in the later middle ages, fief and vassal were conceptualized and did approximate to institutions around which important sectors of society were organized.
In her attempt to outline how this came about, Reynolds also explains how both the "feudal" model first surfaced and how it appeared eventually to justify very large-scale characterization of medieval culture as essentially "feudal". While these changes occurred in "a very long twelfth century" , the critical period began with the disintegration of Carolingian central power in the tenth and eleventh centuries and culminated in the watershed of Gregorian Reform. The twelfth-century intellectual revival, centered on the schools of Northern France and Italy, went along with new forms of bureaucratic government and a new, much more professional law.
The schoolmen publicized new "methods of argument and habits of close attention to the words of texts" 73 that encouraged everywhere an unpacking of concepts previously permitted to clump together unanalyzed. Rights of government and property were now in consequence expounded in a new, much sharper fashion.
Italian lawschools applied the new learning even more directly to social analysis for specifically Italian reasons. They associated recent treatises from their own Lombardy with the prestigious texts of Roman Law as the Libri Feudorum for use in lecture-room and court. Much of their argument on this corpus of material was recorded in writing, and it was here that words like "vassallus" and "feodum" were first defined as feudal terms of art, "a virtually new category" within a systematized conceptualization. Only now, mostly from the early thirteenth century on, did secular usage in northern Europe progressively adopt the sharper academic terminology, thus laying a foundation on which secular lawyers could erect each in his own country the related analytical systems of the later middle ages.
It remained only for sixteenth-century French political theorists and then later historians and antiquarians to read their history of the middle ages backwards through the lenses created by the Lombard lawyers, and hey presto! As my quotations show, Reynolds is unabashedly empiricist in tone and style. Yet beneath the surface she deploys wide if individual reading in the literature of social theory. At her best, she can render its sporadic opacity into form immediately usable by the most implacably anti-theory archival historian.
Her target is the tendency to read history backwards from the high middle ages with its fuller evidence and sophisticated systems of legal explication. She rightly doubts that the early middle ages thought in such terms. She also establishes, in plausible style, that the feudo-vassalic hypothesis will not wash; fiefs and vassals were simply neither ubiquitous enough nor, before the thirteenth century, central enough to property and power relations in Western Europe to warrant the focus on them. She is therefore an atheist, not an agnostic, on Feudalism.
The thrust of her book is to throw the onus on those who disagree to ask why they still find the creaking model useful. Its defenders should put up or shut up. This combative stance and the tone in which it is couched are not well calculated to win the hearts and minds of defectors, least of the conservative scholars from Continental Europe from whom many Americans still take their lead.
The book reads as almost caricature British, its author the very model of a British revisionist. There is much understatement and honesty discourse.
Reynolds admits that her inquiries have been in various respects "unsystematic", "impressionistic", but "I have tried to do my honest best". She sometimes appears to argue against received views simply because these are received. This is in part a consequence of the task she set herself.