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The Serf, the Knight, and the Historian (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1307-1310 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0402

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Every national historiography has its demons and for many French medievalists it is the conditions which for several centuries thwarted the creation of a centralized nation state ruled by a legitimate king with Paris as its capital. This period of “disruption” traditionally was seen to begin sometime after the death in 877 of Charles the Bald, Charlemagne’s grandson, and to end with the process of reconstituting royal power, which generally is thought to have begun in the reign of Philip Augustus (1179–1220). The French label this period of royal weakness a “feudal” age. The institutions which flourished during this period are considered “feudal” and particular attention is given to “feudal” warfare, supposedly dominated by heavily armed “knights” engaged in mounted shock combat.

For several centuries, French scholars argued that the process of political fragmentation was caused by Charles’s successors who failed to quell endemic civil war and to deal effectively with the Vikings. About sixty years ago, however, an effort began, frequently associated with the names of Georges Duby, Pierre Bonnassie, and Jean-François Lamarignier, to overturn the traditional chronology and to date the beginning of “feudalism” to the decades on either side of the millennium. The traditionalists had regarded the fragmentation of central power largely as having stopped at the level of the so-called “principalities,” e.g. Anjou, Normandy, and Flanders. The new approach, labeled “the feudal mutation,” argued that real power devolved to a very local level where so-called “castellans” in their “castles” ruled a few square kilometers of territory and subjected the rural population to a harsh regime of exploitation in an environment dominated by endemic violence.

Sorbonne professor Dominique Barthélemy’s The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, focused on refuting the arguments for “feudal mutation” and affirming the traditional view, is a translation of his La mutation de l’an mil a-t-elle eu lieu? Servage et chevalerie dans la France des Xe et XI siècles (1997). The translation is comprised of chapters two through eight of the unrevised original, itself based on earlier articles, to which Barthélemy has added two new chapters, one and nine.

The first of these two new chapters is a useful survey of French historiography comparing and contrasting the views of the traditionalists and the mutationists, while stressing Barthélemy’s own struggle to vindicate the former and expose the weaknesses of the latter. Throughout, Barthélemy does not incorporate important Anglophone and German scholarship. For example, it would take at least five pages simply to list the relevant books and articles on Anjou, Normandy, and the Poitou that I have written during the past four decades and which Barthélemy ignores. In chapter nine, “New Perspectives on France around the Year 1000,” Barthélemy presents a score card calling attention to scholars whom he believes he has convinced to reject the “feudal mutation.” He seems, in addition, to want to give attention to relevant Anglophone scholarship, but, unfortunately, the effort is far too limited.

Since Anglophone medievalists have pursued vigorously the process of expunging “feudalism” and its various adjectival derivatives from their professional vocabulary in response to Susan Reynolds’s magisterial Fiefs and Vassals (1994), Barthélemy’s 1997 concern with “feudal mutation,” translated unchanged in 2008, will seem anachronistic. However, rather than deal with the various technical strengths and shortcomings of Barthélemy’s aging research, I will, in deference to the readers of this journal, focus the remainder of this review on military matters, broadly conceived. Take note that the phrase “feudal warfare” is a staple, even of Chapter Nine, and that the adjective adds nothing positive to our understanding of military operations during the period.

In order to put Barthélemy’s views regarding military matters in perspective, it is necessary to take note of the basic tri-partite institutional military structure prevalent in the West from the dissolution of the Roman empire to the Gunpowder Age. At the local level there was a militia, which included all able bodied men regardless of wealth and status, but excluding clergy, who were mustered to defend the area in which they lived when it was attacked. Secondly, there...



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