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  • The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government
  • Anne E. Lester
The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government. By Thomas N. Bisson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008. 720 pp. $39.50 (cloth).

In The Crisis of the Twelfth Century Thomas N. Bisson, one of the most distinguished and prolific medievalists in the United States, has set out to rewrite the twelfth century by asking us to question the widely accepted paradigm of renaissance and renewal that has captivated historians for generations. That the years between 1090 and [End Page 136] 1215 were a period of staggering transformation is certain; it is the nature of the changes and the experience of living through them that Bisson strives to convey anew. As in much of his other work, Bisson's main focus is power. " Power was order " (p. 5), "power was felt " (p. 3), and it took concrete form in domination, violence, capital, hierarchy, intimidation, and hegemony. Power in the twelfth century was not just political; it was all-encompassing. While many have written about the emergence of the state, bureaucracy, and royal ritual, it is the experience of power in its complex registers that Bisson seeks to illuminate. For Bisson the twelfth century was an age of crisis, evident in violent impositions, new customs of coercive lordship, the possession of castles, the elusive benefit of justice for the masses, and the normalized suffering of peasants and townsfolk (p. 574). And yet, as Bisson argues, it is from viewing the crisis in all its articulated gore and brutality that we can better see its redress in law and its transformation into government and peace.

Bisson frames his study very broadly, and this is both the book's greatest strength and its weakness. His overall assessment of the twelfth century as a time of "strain and crisis" (p. viii) is built upon a multitude of examples culled from across Europe. The final product is impressive and masterful, but at times overwhelming. Part of the challenge of his text comes from Bisson's style. As he states at that start, the book is "an essay on the history of human power during the long century when medieval lordship—the domination of people by one or a few, in extremely variable forms—came to maturity" (p. ix). While his analysis is profound, and his writing sympathetic and elegant, it is not always easy to follow his perambulations across Europe and conceptualize the totality of the crisis Bisson seeks to evoke.

Bisson's "essay" (in 720 pages, no less) unfolds over five long and substantive chapters that move chronologically from 875 to 1225, illuminating the crucible out of which the crisis of power grew to analyze its effects and resolution. The introduction (chapter 1) addresses Bisson's method: "holding to the concept of power" (p. 15) in his search for its exercise to know institutions and their beginnings as office, accountability, and justice, for it is in redress and restraint, rather than in scholastic renderings of Cicero, he argues, that we find government. His goal is straightforward: "to address how and why the experience of power became that of government in medieval Europe" (p. 17). Medieval notions of public and moral power, however, were grounded in much earlier definitions of public order, peace, and authority, which drew on a vocabulary and inheritance that was Roman and Carolingian. Yet the twelfth century was far from those two realities, and it [End Page 137] knew of such ideas through the practices of lordship and nobility, the subject of chapter 2, "The Age of Lordship (875-1150)." It was in lordship that power was felt. The physical geography of lordship found articulation in castles, which, as Bisson recounts in chapter 3, "Lord-Rulership (1050-1150): The Experience of Power," blanketed Europe. Castles were strong points from which violence, coercion, and occasionally protection were wrought. When claims to power clashed, violence followed, and Bisson charts these eruptions across the European countryside in his longest chapter, chapter 4, "Crises of Power (1060-1150)," looking closely at dynastic anxieties; the contest between the Papacy and...