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Reviewed by:
  • The Serf, the Knight and the Historian
  • Diana Jefferies
Barthélemy, Dominique, The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, trans. Graham Robert Edwards, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2009; paperback; pp. 368; R.R.P. US$29.95; ISBN 9780801475603.

Dominique Barthélemy's central concern is to examine the historiography that he claims created the notion of a 'feudal society' in France from the ninth century to the twelfth century. He rejects the interpretation by historians such as Georges Duby that society underwent a fundamental change around the first millennium producing a system of serfdom that was recognisably different from the system of slavery in antique times, and a new type of warrior class, knighthood. He argues that this view of French history is nothing more than a construct because the society was far too complex to fit into such reductionist theories.

This is not the first time Barthélemy has expressed this point of view. This edition has been translated into English by Graham Robert Edwards from the French La mutation de l'an mil a-t-elle eu lieu? Servage et chevalrie dans la France des Xe et XIe siècles published in 1997. However, Barthélemy acknowledges his translator's skills in the preface saying that Edwards' knowledge of the Middle Ages and his constant referral to the Latin sources has improved the original text (p. xi).

In his opening chapter, Barthélemy describes his method as being a comparison between modern historians who uphold the idea that society in France was transformed around the millennium and older historians who were not familiar with this transformation (p. 7). His major area of investigation involves examining how historians have read their primary sources. He then proceeds to reinterpret the historical models with his own close reading of the primary sources.

The text is divided into two sections: the first is concerned with exploring the modern constructions of serfdom, and the second with modern constructions of knighthood. One example of his method occurs early in his first chapter on serfdom, 'From Charters to Notices: The example of Saint-Aubin, Angers'. Barthélemy argues that the idea that society was transformed during the millennium was based on a too systematic distinction between the 'charter' and the 'notice'. It was around the year 1000 that the formal and objective charter was superseded by the less formal and subjective notice (p. 14). In categorizing documents in this manner, historians claim that serfdom was no longer a public institution but had become a private agreement around the year 1000. As Barthélemy explains, this 'documentary transformation becomes [End Page 187] the model and reflection of a critical transition from a society still marked by Antiquity to a feudal society' (p. 15). Barthélemy's revisionist reading of the period is therefore based on the argument that the distinction between the two types of documents is a modern misreading of the sources.

Once the critique of the historiography has been completed, Barthélemy begins his own reading of the primary sources and draws a rich picture of the serf's life. He shows that serfdom was often a voluntary state from which it was possible to lead a comfortable and profitable life. His final conclusion in regard to serfdom is that there was a single institution in France that placed people in servitude, but how this servitude was expressed was based on individual circumstances and practical considerations. Therefore, it is impossible to simplify serfdom into a single model and only by reading documents carefully and without any preconceived notions based on the work of earlier historians, can the truth about this institution in society emerge.

The second section, Barthélemy's examination of knighthood, uses the same method to argue that knighthood did not suddenly appear at the time of the millennium. Again, Barthélemy turns to a linguistic analysis, based on the word miles, to argue that knighthood did not emerge suddenly as a separate class in the eleventh century. He then embarks on an investigation of how mounted warriors and their activities have been described since Carolingian times. Barthélemy demonstrates very effectively that forms of knighthood existed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 187-188
Launched on MUSE
2010-07-14
Open Access
No
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