This book reinforces Thomas Bisson's position as one of the most important contemporary historians of the Middle Ages. Its origins lie in a course Bisson began teaching at Harvard in 1988, and some of its themes were tested in a lively debate in Past and Present in the mid-1990s. Like all good history, it is informed by issues current during its gestation. Bisson's central concern lies with government: its origins, and its claims to be an essential good in any civilized society. The latter may not have seemed in the least controversial in most of Western Europe at the end of the 20th century, but from the era of Reagan and Thatcher onwards, this has not necessarily been a self-evident truth in the USA and UK.
Bisson's title reflects his attempt to see the period in a different light from that still cast by Haskins's classic Renaissance of the Twelfth Century of 1928. Without denying that great intellectual achievements distinguished the century, Bisson contends that beyond the scriptorium and cloister darker realities characterized the experience of the mass of the European population. Well aware of the conceptual traps into which the use of the word 'crisis' can topple the unwary, he is careful to restrict this term to a crisis of 'lordship.' For Bisson, 'lordship,' defined as "personal commands over dependent people," (3) is primarily about personal rule, the exercise of power by an individual; it is affective power, based on personal loyalty owed to a lord, or calculations of self-interest made by those who place themselves under his sway. As such, it is associated with private power and advantage, and so to be distinguished from the public good or bureaucratized administration. By the end of the first millennium there was little room for the res publica expressed and honoured in words, if not consistently in deeds, under the Roman Empire and, diminishingly, within its successor states in the Frankish West. Bisson does not treat 'politics' as simply equivalent to 'power,' but uses the term in its classical sense, as relating to discourse about, and actions framed within, the concept of 'government,' and as such, he concludes that both 'politics' and 'government' were rare in the period from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. He points out that, John of Salisbury notwithstanding, contemporaries regularly spoke of 'lordship' and 'power,' but rarely of 'politics' and 'government.' The slow adoption of such terms, while doubtless reflecting the changing realities of power consequent upon the resolution of Bisson's 'crisis,' might also have resulted from Haskins's 'renaissance,' with growing scholarly awareness of classical notions of the res publica.
The twelfth century is now rarely seen as a period of political as well as cultural renaissance. Bisson's original scepticism about such an early appearance of the 'state,' with its associated phenomena of government and politics, is now the historical consensus. Parts of this book might therefore be seen as needlessly refighting old battles, but Bisson does give these arguments a new twist. He contends that the transition from lordship to government/politics/rational administration was less straightforward than is commonly assumed: 'lordship' long survived the twelfth century. Another characteristic of Bisson's approach is his concern for the plight of the underdog; his perspective is as likely to be from the hovels of the peasantry as from the lofty eyres of the mighty. His unapologetic humanity is refreshing, and is substantiated by reference to voluminous contemporary testimony. He is rather more inclined than some others to give credence to the innumerable atrocity stories.
The result is a portrayal of daily life as every bit as 'nasty, brutish and short' as Hobbes could have imagined. As such, Bisson might be accused of simply turning the historiographical clock back to the Middle Ages of 1066 and All That, but, however uncomfortable to modern sensibilities it may be, his case is convincing, and it is central to his wider argument. The usual experience of power by ordinary people in the long twelfth century was that of being on the receiving end of exploitative violence perpetrated by parasitic castle-dwellers. From the ninth to the mid- twelfth century, across...