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The "Feudal Revolution"

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T. N. Bisson

Past and Present, No. 142. (Feb., 1994), pp. 6-42.


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THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"*


What were west European societies like in the post-millennial
centuries when medieval civilization came to maturity? Were they
a new world bursting the fetters of the old or a continuous and
traditional order of empire, monarchy and church? What place
in them had the ruling classes and toiling masses? In the past
half-century much research on such questions has been devoted
to the case of early medieval France, where historians have been
led to stress novelty, arriving at an original and coherent understanding of massive social and institutional change towards the
year 1000. Their work has opened up a remarkable testing-site
for the problematic relation between power and government.
Rejecting the axiomatic continuities of Marc Bloch and his
predecessors, Georges Duby postulated a breakdown in public
law and order in the Maconnais during the years 980 to 1030. A
new and harsh regime of lordship arose in castles sheltering
knights who imposed an array of novel obligations on peasants;
the latter, descended from rustics free and unfree, came to form
a new class in time. Custom, violence and violent customs
replaced the old order of public justice. 1 Likewise in the 1950s
J.-Fr. Lemarignier showed how political chronology pointed to
a devolution of power in late Carolingian times, with kingdoms
fracturing progressively into principalities, counties, then most
critically - at the end of the tenth century - into castellanies.
Moreover by a boldly original method he demonstrated how the
Capetian monarchy, ever weakened by the test of need and
recourse yet holding out conceptually till the 1020s, was then
swamped in the seigneurial tide and lost its public character. 2
* The argument of this article has been presented in lectures at the Universities of
Birmingham and Notre Dame and before the Shelby Cullom Davis Seminar at
Princeton University. I acknowledge helpful suggestions made on those occasions.
1 Georges Duby, La societe aux Xle et XIIe silicles dans la region miiconnaise (Paris,
1953; repr. with changed pagination, 1971). See also Marc Bloch, La societe jeodale,
2 vols. (Paris, 1939-40), trans. L. A. Manyon, Feudal Society (Chicago, 1961); and
(for example) Henri See, Les classes rurales et le regime domanial en France au moyen
age (Paris, 1901).
2 J.-Fr.
Lemarignier, "La dislocation du 'pagus' et le probleme des
'consuetudines' ", Melanges d'histoire du moyen age dedies d la memoire de Louis Halphen
(Paris, 1951), pp. 401-10; J.-Fr. Lemarignier, "Structures monastiques et structures
(cont. on p. 7)

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

Disciples of Duby and Lemarignier put this model to the test in


many regions of France, Spain and Italy, finding comparable
chronologies in diverse circumstances. Nowhere was the picture
so clear as in the Spanish March, where Pierre Bonnassie discovered that an old public order based on Visigothic law preserving
peasant property and slavery was smashed by castle-generated
violence in the 1020s; out of the crisis emerged a novel and
radically feudalized social order by 1060. 3 Bonnassie was among
the first to describe such change as revolutionary, although he
was anticipated by Duby himself, whose work in the 1970s on
ideology suggested that the social changes now so manifest were
justified and anticipated in the 1020s in tendentious talk about
the three orders of society - and about the heaven-sanctioned
obligation of the many who work to serve those who fight and
those who pray. 4
It seemed convenient to speak of these clustered changes collapse of public justice, new regimes of arbitrary lordship over
recently subjected and often intimidated peasants, the multiplication of knights and castles, and ideological repercussion - as a
"feudal revolution". But it was clear that the significance of these
changes had little to do with the pertinence of the metaphor.
Neither Duby nor Bonnassie has thought this image worth
insisting upon. The former backed away from it, while Bonnassie
reserved the term "revolution" strictly for the disruptive genesis
of feudal societies. Robert Fossier, he too persuaded of transformation, spoke more generally of "a veritable social revolution"
(n. 2 cont.)

politiques dans la France de la fin du Xe et des debuts du Xle siecle", 11 monachesimo


nell'alto medioevo e la Jormazione della civiltd occidentale, 8-14 aprile 1956 (Settimane
di studio del Centro ita1iano di studi sull'alto medioevo, iv, Spoleto, 1957),
pp. 357-400, revised edn., trans. Fredric Cheyette, Lordship and Community in
Medieval Europe (New York, 1968), pp. 100-27; J.-Fr. Lemarignier, Le gouvernement
royal aux premiers temps capetiens, 987-1108 (Paris, 1965).
3 Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe d la fin du XIe siecle: croissance et
mutations d'une societe, 2 vols. (Toulouse, 1975-6). A list of comparable studies cannot
be given here; works by Robert Fossier (Picardy), J.-P. Poly (Provence), Pierre
Toubert (Latium) and many others are conveniently cited in J.-P. Poly and Eric
Bournazel, La mutation Jeodale, Xe-XIIe siecles, 2nd edn. (Paris, 1991).
4 Georges Duby, Les trois ordres, ou I'imaginaire du jeodalisme (Paris, 1978), trans.
Arthur Goldha=er, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined (Chicago, 1980), ch.
13; Pierre Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, trans. Jean
Birrell (Cambridge, 1991; ideas first expressed in 1978), p. 59: "The transition from
[the slave system to feudal society] constitutes what we may, with Georges Duby,
call the Feudal Revolution". See also pp. 130-1, 146,243.

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

extending from 990 to 1060. 5 But when I.-P. Poly and Eric
Bournazel undertook to synthesize the new regionalist research
towards 1977 (just when the notion of revolution feodale became
current), they chose to strengthen the metaphor. 6 Their concept
of mutation feodale implied a radical disjunction between the
feudal societies of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and the
public order which preceded it. They made the new chronology
heuristically plausible, or even paradigmatic. Teachers learned
how to explain that, while fiefs and vassals (and lords) could be
found in the eighth and ninth centuries, feudalism (or "feudal
society") was a post-millennial phenomenon. Lately Guy Bois,
returning to evidence from Cluny first exploited by Duby, argued
that the persistence of antique order was even more thoroughgoing than Duby had shown when, at a moment more precisely
determined than other scholars had dared to think possible, private property (including slave labour) was swept away in a
"feudal mutation or revolution" - here the metaphors are run
together - more catastrophic than any had yet supposed. "The
feudal revolution", Bois roundly concluded, "was a European
event".7
Reaction had already set in. It could be overheard in France
by 1985 and became current in Georges Duby's new history of
medieval France published in 1987. This book so played down
the impact of banal lordship and violence as practically to undo
the tournant its author and Lemarignier had described in the
1950s. 8 Meanwhile Dominique Barthelemy, engaged in new
research on the Vendomois, abandoned the implications of mutation in 1988; Guy Bois's La mutation de l'an mil (1989) was
severely criticized for its uneasy use of problematic and equivocal
sources;9 and Barthelemy has lately called for categorical rejection
5 Robert Fossier, Enfance de ['Europe, Xe-XIIe siecles: aspects economiques et sociaux,
2 vols. (Paris, 1982), i, pp. 288-601.
6 J.-P. Poly and Eric Bournazel, La mutationfeodale, Xe-XIIe siecles (Paris, 1980),
trans. Caroline Higgitt, The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200 (London, 1991).
7 Guy Bois, La mutation de ['an mil: Lournand, village maconnais, de l'antiquitil au
jeodalisme (Paris, 1989).
8 Georges Duby, Le moyen age: de Hugues Capet a Jeanne d'Arc, 987-1460 (Paris,
1987), trans. Juliet Vale, France: The Middle Ages, 987-1460: From Hugh Capet to
Joan of Arc (Oxford, 1991), chs. 5,6.
9 Alain Guerreau, "Lournand au Xe siecle: histoire et fiction", Le Moyen Age, xcvi
(1990), pp. 519-37. See also "L'an mil: rythmes et acteurs d'une croissance",
Mildiilvales, no. 21 (1991), pp. 3-114, a gathering of reflections on Bois's book, with
the latter's reply.

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

of the concept of "feudal mutation". He argues: (1) that too


much has been made of verbal transformations - miles to caballarius or beneficium to feudum, for example - as an indicator of
social and legal change; (2) that the history of servitude has been
misconceived, notably by failing to distinguish between diversely
experienced simultaneous modes of agrarian dependency; so that
no very troubling crisis of "free" peasants is discernible towards
A.D. 1000; and (3) that the concept of a pre-existing "public
order" preserving justice, freedom and property is anachronistic,
inattentive to social realities in the tenth and later centuries, and
prone to exaggerate violence. 10 What is left of "mutationism" (as
Barthelemy calls it)? What could be left - but continuity?
Such a reaction was as predictable as the dawn. It is too early
to say whether it is justified, for if one may suppose that
Barthelemy's good-natured "note critique" is too slightly documented to be fully persuasive, one may also suppose that he has
not exhausted the case against a historical construct of massive
change. One does not safely bet against continuity in history. But
it is not too soon to wonder whether continuity is quite the right
concept to put (back) in place of disruption. My own research
on the history of power in the twelfth century has led me to
believe not only that Duby and Bonnassie (and others) were
basically correct in postulating a caesura in the early eleventh
century, but also to suppose that "revolution" may indeed be
more nearly the right term for it than "mutation". But I also
think the nature of this change, whatever we call it, has been
misunderstood. Mutations are finished by definition; revolutions
seldom are. The purpose of this article is to re-examine the
matter of continuity and change from the tenth to the twelfth
century with specific reference to power, lordship and the problem of violence.
I

One thing must be affirmed at the outset: there was, in some


sense, public order in the tenth century. This is so not because
"mutationism" requires it or because revolutions feast on old
regimes, but because contemporaries thought it was so. They
10

Dominique Barthelemy, "La mutation feodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)",

Annales E.S.C., xlvii (1992), pp. 767-77. See also Dominique Barthelemy, La societe
dans le comte de Vendome de ['an mil au XIVe siecie (Paris, 1993).

10

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

complained incessantly that this order was being violated or


turned into disorder, implying a sturdy and abiding sense of
regnal rectitude. Adso of Montier-en-Der deplored the emergence of "tyrants" violating "rights and statutes of laws" in
Burgundy after the death of Richard the Justiciar (d. 921), evoking the absence of "king" or "judge who wished in true justice
to resist this wickedness of impious men".ll When knights of the
king and the bishop got into a bloody brawl at Laon in 935, King
Raoul put the matter to his magnates in an assembly (placitum). 12
Not all violence was violation, but many examples of injuries
explicitly linked to order, remedy or their absence could be
cited. 13
Moreover virtually the only conspicuous events of this age,
including the hypothetically troubled years 975-1025, were public
convocations and courts: vicarial tribunals in the Maconnais; great
pleas and trials in Francia and the Spanish March; coronations
and synods, the latter mostly in north Frankland, but including
the early assemblies to secure the Peace in regions extending from
Picardy to the pyrenees. 14 On some of these occasions - in the
synod of Saint-Basle de Verzy (991), for example, or in King
Robert's assembly at Compiegne (1023) - we can overhear
troubled clergymen on either side of debates over right order;
always the norm or appeal is to peace. 15 Such events were fully
public affairs, recorded by chroniclers in old Frankish lands,
continuous with Carolingian or Visigothic ceremonial. They gave
expression to the will of kings, princes, bishops and abbots.
Burchard of Worms thought of such luminaries as bearers of
11 Adso, De miraculis S. Waldeberti (ed. J. P. Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus,
Series latina, 221 vols., Paris, 1844-64 [hereafter P.L.], cxxxvii, col. 695).
12 Les annales de Flodoard, ed. Philippe Lauer (Paris, 1905), p. 61.
13 E.g. Flodoard, Historia Remensis ecclesiae, iv.16 (ed. Lejeune, 2 vols., Reims,
1854, ii, pp. 51-2); Pope Gregory V to Queen Constance (P.L., cxxxvii, cols. 931-2);
cf. Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, ed. J. D. Mansi, 31 vols. (Florence
and Venice, 1759-98), xviii, pp. 263-6 (synod of Trosly, 909).
14 Duby, Societe miiconnaise (1953), pp. 102-4, 112, 159, 168; (1971), pp. 98-100,
105, 140, 146; Lemarignier, Gouvernement royal, p.58; Bonnassie, Catalogne, i,
pp. 152-3, 166-70; Diplomatari i escrits literaris de l'abat i bisbe Oliba, ed. Eduard
Junyent and A. M. Mund6 (Barcelona, 1992), nos. 15,22,56,62,63; H.-W. Goetz,
"La paix de Dieu en France autour de I'an mil: fondements et objectifs, diffusion et
participants", in Michel Parisse and Xavier Barral i Altet (eds.), Le roi de France et
son royaume autour de ['an mil (Paris, 1992), pp. 131-45.
15 Richer, Histoire de France, 888-995, iv.51-73 (ed. Robert Latouche, 2 vols., Paris,
1930, ii, pp. 230-66); Ferdinand Lot, Etudes sur le regne de Hugues Capet et la fin du
Xe siecle (Paris, 1903), pp. 31-81; Gesta pontificum cameracensium, iii.27 (P.L., cxlix,
cols. 157-8); Duby, Trois ordres, pp. 39-40 (Three Orders, pp. 25-6).

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

11

legitimate power. 16 For power was seen as ever to attach to


offices. Men argued about Duke Hugh's fitness to be king in 987,
worried whether bishops or abbots were well chosen. 17 What is
admittedly harder to discern is whether Carolingian precepts of
administrative service continued to be respected. IS Vestiges of
official documentation survive from councils and courts, not even
traces of delegated routine action. We know this order much as
contemporaries knew it, not so much as government (whose
purposes of protection and justice none the less persisted) but as
illustrious presence. We glimpse it in stately itineration through
the provinces, such as that of King Lothair in 954, or in the
Ottonian celebrations finely described by Karl Leyser. 19
Now it can hardly be argued that contemporaries were unaware
of such an order because it failed to protect freedom and property
very well, still less because it countenanced extra-legal structures
and procedures. No one doubts that personal and patrimonial
lordships were proliferating in Carolingian times, or that disputing parties could easily bypass regalian tribunals. A resoundingly
"public" law of Aethelstan dating from 926-30 enjoins against
"those lordless men of whom no justice can be got".20 Yet
expressly legal proceedings persisted in the tenth century;
diversely styled placitum, mallus, iudicium, they are conspicuous
in meridional records, but attested everywhere in old Frankish
and English lands. 21 Here it is clear, and often explicit, that justice
Decreta, xv Argumentum (P.L., ex!, col. 895).
Major themes in later books of Richer's Histoire de France; see notably iv.I-12
(ed. Latouche, ii, pp. 144-66).
18 E.g. Capitularia regum Francorum (ed. Alfred Boretius and Victor Krause, 2 vols.,
Monumenta Germaniae Historica [hereafter M.G.H.], Legum sectio ii, Hanover,
1883-97, i, p. 172, and ii, p. 315, art. 13); Hincmar, "Ad episcopos regni" (P.L.,
cxxv, cols. 1015-16).
19 Richer, Histoire de France, iii.3 (ed. Latouche, ii, p. 10); Karl Leyser, "Ottonian
Government", Eng. Hist. Rev., xcvi (1981), pp. 746-52.
20 Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History, ed. William
Stubbs, 9th edn. (Oxford, 1913), p.74. Informal settlements were recorded even
where lex-based justice was prevalent: Bonnassie, Catalogne, i, p. 186.
21 Histoire generale de Languedoc, new edn., 16 vols. (Toulouse, 1872-1904), v, nos.
108,121,158,168; J.-P. Poly, La Provence et la societejeodale, 879-1166 (Paris, 1976),
pp. 47-50; Patrick Wormald, "Charters, Law and the Settlement of Disputes in
Anglo-Saxon England", in Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre (eds.), The Settlement
of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 151-68. In Le6n judgements retained their ancient diplomatic until the twelfth century, e.g. Coleccian
documental del archivo de la catedral de Lean, 775-1230, ed. Jose Maria Ferruindez
Cat6n, v (LOOn, 1990), nos. 1347, 1350, 1358.
16

17

12

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

is determined by law, or by law-sanctioned writing. 22 Was this


order not public? The courts offered remedies to all on the basis
of prescriptive authority expressive of God-ordained regalian
power. It is unnecessary, indeed misleading, to invoke modern
statist conceptions of public/private to understand this regime.
What was "public" - actum publice, as early Flemish acts have
ie3 - was open and deemed legitimate. One brought records to
court or relied on lex to prove a "just" title or tenure.
So defined, this old regime long survived. The exalted legitimacy of the higher aristocracy was not questioned; conceivably
great councils and festival courts of the twelfth century carry on
an unbroken tradition of official solemn action. K. F. Werner
contends that Romanist administrative order lasted in Carolingian
and princely families into the twelfth century.24 Elisabeth
Magnou-Nortier believes in a thoroughgoing survival of public
military and judicial institutions after 1100 in the South. 25 Such
findings, although they may seem to underestimate the pervasive
force of lordship, have useful bearing on the problematic chronology of institutional disruption.
II

It is this regime, revisionist historians suggested, that was subverted by the multiplication of fighting men, of castles and of
harsh new lordships of command based in castles. But the impact
of such an intrusion cannot be grasped without considering the
nature of violence in the tenth century. In this old order violence
was frequent, continuous and by no means new. Capitularies had
railed against abuses of office, protection and military purveyance,
22 See e.g. Diplomatari de l'abat Oliba, no. 62: "illi dixerunt: Non tenemus iniuste,
sed per scripturam emptionis ... Iuste iudicatum fuit a predicto iudice ... secundum
legis ordinem (they said to him: we do not claim unjustly but by a record of purchase
... It was justly judged by the aforesaid judge ... according to law)". The record
goes on to quote from the Liber iudicum.
23 Chartes et documents de l'abbaye de Saint Pierre au Mont Blandin a Gand, ed. A.
van Lokeren, 2 vols. (Ghent, 1868), i, nos. 20, 23, 26, 27, 3l.
24 K. F. Werner, "Konigtum und Fiirstentum im franzosischen 12. Jahrhundert",
Probleme des 12. Jahrhunderts (Vortrage und Forschungen, xii, Stuttgart, 1968),
pp. 177-225, trans. Timothy Reuter, The Medieval Nobility: Studies on the Ruling
Classes of France and Germany from the Sixth to the Twelfth Century (Amsterdam,
1978), ch. 8.
25 Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, La societe largue et l'eglise dans la province ecciesiastigue
de Narbonne (zone cispyreneenne) de la fin du VIIIe a la fin du XIe siecie (Toulouse,
1974), chs. 3-7.

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

13

until they fell silent. We have the anguished testimony of contemporaries that Vikings and Magyars perpetrated frightful havoc in
many regions for several generations after about 840; not by
accident we know the history of this crime wave in some detail.
It can hardly be doubted that monastic narrators exaggerated the
damage; but damage there was, including psychic trauma, and
the invaders taught well. 26 If aliens, even unhorsed, could plunder
harvest piles or monastic treasures, so could penurious vassals or
mounted servants in a magnate's household. 27 The Saracens' capture (972) and ransom of Abbot Maieul of Cluny was a dangerous
lesson, widely noticed. But pillage and seizures were endemic in
society. The bishops assembled at Trosly in 909 had likened
oppressive men to predatory fish in the sea, which devour one
another. 28
Violence, in short, was as normal and enduring as the public
order it afflicted. That it was dis-order, none who placed their
hope in legitimate authority doubted. But another view is possible. Was not the habitual resort to brute force an order of power
in its own right? Warfare was violent by definition, not only in
armed clashes or seizures but especially in requisitioning and in
devastating hostile lands. In 945 King Louis IV's Norman allies
attacked Duke Hugh in the Vermandois, ravaging crops, seizing
or burning vills, violating churches - another lesson for the
knights. 29 Violence was likewise normal in the feud, a system of
customary vengeance rooted in kin right, which public authorities
could only hope to channel, hope to limit the dangers it held for
the innocent. "The mortal hatreds", wrote Marc Bloch, "which
the ties of kinship engendered ranked undoubtedly among the
26 See generally Bloch, Sociert! Rodale, i (Feudal Society). More recent views are to
be found in P. H. Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London, 1971), ch. 6;
Georges Duby, Guerriers et paysans, VIIe-XIIe siecle: premier essor de l'economie
europeenne (Paris, 1973), pp. 129-75, trans. H. B. Clarke, The Early Growth of the
European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century
(London, 1974), ch. 5.
27 Flodoard, Historia Remensis ecclesiae, i.20 (ed. Lejeune, i, pp. 150-1), tells of
brigands in Nevers becoming ominously aware of peasants depositing valuables to a
saint's protection.
28 L. M. Smith, The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny (Oxford, 1920), pp.
134-6; Bloch, Socihe feodale, i, p. 16 (Feudal Society, p. 7); Sacrorum conciliorum nova
et amplissima collectio, ed. Mansi, xviii, pp. 266-7.
29 Annales de Flodoard, ed. Lauer, p. 96; Flodoard, Historia Remensis ecclesiae, iv.31
(ed. Lejeune, ii, p. 546); Philippe Lauer, Le regne de Louis IV d'Outre-mer (Paris,
1900), p. 127.

14

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

principal causes of the general disorder". 30 Here we may allow


that customary vengeance had its own (un-public) dynamic or
rationale; unleashed, it could only encourage destructive and
afflictive impulses such as may often have given rise to dispute
in the first place. But violence could take other forms: coercion,
fiscal exaction, extortion, for instance. By no means all such
oppressive behaviour violated societal norms. It looks as if customs and even ransoms connected with Frankish military administration formed a continuum of harsh but substantially lawful
practice, even though it early became clear that the clergy and
unarmed population required protection against the army's
excesses. 31 Violence became institutionalized within as well as
outside the regalian legal order.
And it may reasonably be supposed that prevalent modes of
violence - seizure, intimidation, physical assault, arson, exaction - were nurtured in the habits of war and vengeance. There
is timeless poignancy in the Bayeux Tapestry's representation of
a woman and child escaping a house torched by hefty Norman
retainers. 32 But the normal brutalities of war and feud could not
as such have had much effect on the history of social order in
west European lands. What mattered more was the way in which
violent practices came to affect relations of lordship and dependence. For it is in this respect that violence had the potential to
mould a new order of power.

III
Among the Miracles of Saint-Maximin of Trier composed towards
964 is the story of a "rich and noble" man named Bemacher
who was not content with the village he had acquired in commendation from the monks; so "fired with the torches of avarice
he unjustly usurped for himself little fields of the poor men that
adjoined the village's lands on all sides, for that land was fertile.
And having gathered crowds of ploughmen he ordered those
fields to be cultivated. Then they on whom he had inflicted this
violence [violentiam] implored him by God and St Maximin that
he make do with what he had and not despoil them wickedly of
Bloch, Societe feodale, i, p. 199 (Feudal Society, p. 128).
Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, "La place du concile du Puy (v. 994) clans l'evolution
de l'idee de paix", Melanges o/ferts ilJean Dauvillier (Toulouse, 1979), pp. 489-506.
32 The Bayeux Tapestry, ed. F. M. Stenton, 2nd edn. (London, 1965), pI. 52.
30
31

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

15

their tiny possessions". When Bernacher refused, the assembled


peasants called on their saint, who obliged with a suitably terrifying prodigy that brought their master to his senses and ended his
persecution. 33
This story is hardly proof that new lordships originated in
violence, still less that wicked lords came to bad ends. A more
prudent master might have succeeded in imposing his protectorate
on peasants clearing new fields; and of good lords our sources
seldom speak. Gerald of Aurillac, who "did not fight invading
the property of others but defending his own, or rather his
people's rights", was extolled as a saint. Ordinary lords, his
biographer implies, did not behave like that. 34 Bernacher's story
was more typical; indeed it was not unique in the domains of
Saint-Maximin. 35 It well illustrates the freedom with which ecclesiastical tenants could expand their holdings in fecund lands and
the temptation this aroused in the strong man who shared the
abbey's lordship.
His coercive means are not specified because everyone knew
what violentia meant. Lambert of Nantes was said to have built
a castle (probably Craon) in the 840s from which he dominated
lower Anjou, and "that bellicose man held that territory by his
violence [violentia sua] till the end of his life". 36 Lords like these
were attended by retinues of armed men, mostly mounted, who
shared in the booty and aspired to fiefs or lordships of their own.
Such was the equitatus of the viddme Bodel, who at some time in
the eleventh century had forcibly imposed on tenants of SaintPere of Chartres the obligation to maintain his knights "headed
out on expedition or returning". 37 More often the word was
33 Sigehardus, Miracula Maximini episcopi Treverensis, ch. 2 (Acta sanctorum quotquot
orbe coluntur, ed. lohannes Bollandus et al., Antwerp, 1643-, Maii, vii, p. 29E).
34 Vita Geraldi, i.8 (P.L., cxxxiii, col. 647; trans. Gerard Sitwell, St Odo of Cluny,
London, 1958, p. 101).
35 See the remarkable story cited by Karl Leyser, Medieval Germany and Its
Neighbours, 900-1250 (London, 1982), pp. 6-7.
36 La chronique de Nantes, 570 environ 1049, ch. 10 (ed. Rene Merlet, Paris,
1896, pp. 29-30).
37 Cartulaire de l'abbaye de Saint-Pere de Chartres, ed. Benjamin Guerard, 2 vols.
(Paris, 1840), ii, no. 73, p. 320: "Pravas quoque consuetudines, quas in terra sancti
Petri non hereditaria antiquitate sed tirannica invasione obtinueram, quas vu1go gesta
[i.e., gite] dicimus, quia ibi jacere et descendere cum meo equitatu, proficiscens in
expeditionem vel revertens consueveram . . . relinquo (1 also relinquish the bad
customs 1 had in St Peter's land not by hereditary prescription but by tyrannical
invasion, which are commonly called glte, because 1 used to stay or stop there with
my retinue headed out on expedition or returning)".

16

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 142

"cavalcade" (cavalcata), as in Catalonia where the role of garrison


knights as a terrorist police force has been well described by
Bonnassie. 38 But the lord's military retinue was known in west
Frankland long before it is attested in Catalonia, and it served,
like the tower that sheltered it, not only to subject peasants by
force but also to plunder the weak or unarmed wealthy passing
by. Saint Odo told of a "most evil man named Arlaldus . . .
[who] held a certain small castle called Saint-Cere, and coming
out from this like a wolf in evening he attacked the retainers of
Gerald, who . . . gave him some little gifts and arms for his
knights". 39
The new castle on its rock became an ominous spectacle in the
tenth century. At Conques in Rouergue the monks recalled how
Count Raymond III (961-1010) had insisted against their will on
fortifying the precipice overhead, declaring that his intention was
"to subjugate by his violence [again, violentia sua] and submit to
his lordship those who neglected to render their due submission
to him".40 No lesser lord would have dared to speak so frankly.
Few greater lords would have wished to admit that a castle had
any other purpose than regional defence. But by the end of the
tenth century the security of the county was crumbling in Francia
and Burgundy as also in the South. Brigand-lords plundered
monastic lands from castles, probably newly built or rebuilt, as
at Seignelay in the early eleventh century and at Chatillon-Coligny
a generation later. 41
Lay lordship without violentia - that is, without a castle became uncommon in much of France. The unfortified dominations exercised by rich peasants or horsemen fell into dependence
on castles or disappeared. Greater territorial lordships survived
only where, as in Anjou and Normandy, the public security once
38 Bonnassie, Catalogne, ii, pp. 569-74, 596-9, 767-8, and see the early oaths of
peace printed in C. J. Hefele, Histoire des conciles d'apres les documents originaux, trans.
Henri Leciercq, 11 vols. (Paris, 1907-52), iv, pp. 1409-10; and in Christian Pfister,
Etudes sur le regne de Robert le Pieux, 996-1031 (Paris, 1885), pp. Ix-Ixi.
39 Vita Geraldi, i.40 (P.L., cxxxiii, col. 666; Odo of Cluny, p. 128).
40 Liber miraculorum sancte Fidis, ii.5 (ed. A. Bouillet, Paris, 1897, p. 108). See also
Jean Dunbabin, France in the Making, 843-1180 (Oxford, 1985), pp. 143-50, where
this text is cited among others.
41 Rodu/fi Glabri historiarum libri quinque, v.8 (ed. John France, Oxford, 1989,
pp. 226-8; ed. Maurice Prou, Paris, 1896, pp. 119-20); Yves Sassier, Recherches sur
le pouvoir comtal en Auxerrois du Xe au debut du XlIIe siecle (Auxerre, 1980), pp. 104-5.
For Chatillon, see Les miracles de Saint Benoft, viii. 15 (ed. E. de Certain, Paris,
1858, p. 296).

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

17

defended from urban strongholds could be transformed into (or


revived as) structures of personal fidelities in strategically distributed castles. Yet even in Normandy, one of the strongest such
formations, the early ducal power was so unpolitically fragile as
to be dangerously threatened when the duke's fortified viscounts
allied against him.42 A count of Rouergue, we have seen, could
think of his castle as a means of enforcing his local lordship.
Moreover, if it seems puzzling that religious houses with extended
or isolated domains should have resorted to lay lords for protection, the truth is that in this age they had no choice. Better to
harness violence at a price than to give it free rein. The records
are filled with the irony of advocates pillaging those they were
charged to protect. 43
Violence was nurtured in the economy and sociability of castles.
Even if the master's domain sufficed for his upkeep, the support
of his knights, whether from his treasure or his enfeoffments,44
must have been - or have seemed - chronically insufficient.
Bernacher was surely not alone in finding the spectacle of prospering peasants insufferable; the competition to exploit improving
but always relatively scarce lands was a generator of violence as
well as of economic exchange. Nor could one mingle with peasants
if one wished to escape their labour. Armed, pretentious and
poor, the knights clung to their stoned-off space, talking of
weapons and deeds, of strikes, of demands; of lucrative stratagems
42 Jean Yver, "Les chateaux forts en Normandie jusqu'au milieu du XIIe siecle:
contribution a l'etude du pouvoir ducal", Bulletin de la Societe des antiquaires de
Normandie, liii (1955-6), pp. 39-51; D. C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The
Norman Impact upon England (Berkeley, 1964), pp. 141-2; David Bates, Normandy
before 1066 (London, 1982), pp. 174-7; B. S. Bachrach, "The Angevin Strategy of
Castle-Building in the Reign of Fulk Nerra, 987-1040", Amer. Hist. Rev., lxxxviii
(1983), pp. 533-60.
43 Oath of 1023: "Cellaria in circuitu ecclesie causa salvamenti ejusdem non infringam", ed. Pfister, in his Etudes sur le regne de Robert le Pieux, p. Ix. See also Abbo of
Fleury, Collectio canonum, ii (P.L., cxxxix, cols. 476-7); Chronicon sancti Michaelis
monasterii in pago Virdunensi, 1033-44, iv.81 (ed. Georg Waitz, M.G.H., Scriptores
[hereafter SS]); Adso, Miracula S. Waldeberti (P.L., cxxxvii, cols. 696-7); Miracles
de Saint Benoit, iii.13 (ed. de Certain, p. 159), and vi.3 (p. 221); "R. ad Hugonem
abbatem S. Germani Parisiensis", Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France, ed.
Martin Bouquet et al., 24 vols. (Paris, 1738-1904), xvi, p. 170, no. 500 (1162-80):
"contra vos et nos Theobaldus advocatus noster, immo nostrorum rapt or (Theobald
our defender or rather our pillager against you and us)"; Jacques Flach, Les origines
de l'ancienne France, 4 vols. (Paris, 1886-1917), i, pp. 437-47.
44 Both are illustrated by the consuetudines of Count Bouchard at Vendome: Eudes
de Saint-Maur, Vie de Bouchard le Venerable, comte de Vendome, ed. Charles Bourel
de La Ronciere (Paris, 1892), pp. 33-8.

18

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 142

more than of management or incomes. Ransom was a device of


the keep from the outset; notoriously exampled in the coups of
Vikings and Saracens, it became a seigneurial as well as a military
technique, readily convertible into protection money. 45
The masters of castles were hardly above such habits, which
they had to share, indeed, to dominate. The early oaths of peace
draw no distinction between knights who owned, held or were
sheltered in castles. All indifferently were capable of: violating
churches or the sanctuaries about them (on excuse of protecting
them); attacking unarmed priests, monks or pilgrims, or seizing
their horses and property; plundering domestic animals; seizing,
robbing or ransoming villagers (male and female) or merchants;
burning houses; seizing crops at harvest; destroying mills or
confiscating grain from them; beating villagers' animals; attacking
"noble women without their husbands" or widows or nuns. Here,
in the brilliantly reversed image projected by the oath imposed
on knights in a council held at Beauvais in 1023, was laid out the
whole programme of vialentia; an anti-inventory of seigneurial
rights. 46
For what must be stressed is that the violence of castellans and
knights was a method of lordship. In practice and expression it
was personal, affective, but inhumane; militant, aggressive, but
unconstructive. It had neither political nor administrative character, for it was based on the capricious manipulation of powerless
people. Nothing whatever survives to show that the castellan elite
of the eleventh century thought of their lordships in normative
or prescriptive terms; we have no surveys of domains from them,
no evidence of accountability. We must suppose that their servants shared their predatory outlook, while the cavalcade
enforced the abrasive immediacy of personal domination. In social
terms it was a quest for status. Only lords could be noble, only
nobles could govern: could exercise the powers of justice and
command that created the presumption of nobility. But two
difficulties intervened to deflect this aspiration. It was all the
swelling masses of armed horsemen could do to avoid being taken
for peasants. They needed servants, dependents, suppliants;
needed to dominate proprietorially. They needed virtually to
45 Liber miraculorum sancte Fidis, iv.4 (ed. Bouillet, pp. 179-80); see above, n. 28.
This paragraph argues a main theme of Georges Duby, Guerriers et paysans,
pp. 179-204 (European Economy, ch. 6).
46 Texts cited in n. 38.

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

19

replicate the mastership of slaves. Were not unbeaten peasants as


free as themselves?47 It was all the harder in that peasants were
likely to see through their pretences: there is psychological plausibility in Bonnassie's conjecture that associated peasants were
influential in mobilizing the Truce in Roussillon in the 1020s. 48
Moreover knights shared with banal lords a second liability: that
judicial powers (other than domestic ones) were losing such sanction in public authority as they had ever had and were becoming
occasions for exacting money. Nothing so clearly reveals the
diffusion of affective lordship as the appearance of the consuetudines, exactions claiming the sanction of custom, in the later tenth
century. In the county of Vendome towards 1016-31 the customs
both domanial and fiscal were pecuniary; there is no sign of courts
generating revenues, only of vicaria as a cluster of "forfeitures"
to remedy certain criminal transgressions. 49 Not even the vestigial
survival of public procedures could deflect the landslide towards
lordship: towards an unpolitical mode of affective patrimonial
power rooted in will instead of consensus. "You are mine", Count
William V of Aquitaine is said to have declared to Hugh lord of
Lusignan, "to do my will".50 Would either have said less to his
peasants?
Castellans and knights would have said the same. And we can
learn something yet more remarkable about their outlook by
attending to the moral climate in which their wilful violence came
to be stigmatized. What first impresses, to be sure, is the vehemence of the indignation, bearing witness to a renewal of
Carolingian ideals. The one whose malfeasance is feared is made
to renounce it in sworn self-accusations cast in the clericallanguage of outrage: the verbs are "violate", "plunder", "ransom"
(with redimere having already the sense of arbitrariness that will
make of redemption one of the most feared incidents of tyranny
Cf. Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism, p. 19.
Bonnassie, Catalogne, ii, pp. 656-62. See also Rodney Hilton, Bond Men made
Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (New York, 1973),
pp. 70-1, on the problematic evidence of peasant unrest in Normandy about 996.
49 Eudes de Saint-Maur, Vie de Bouchard, ed. Bourel de La Ronciere, pp. 33-8. On
this text, see Dominique Barthelemy, "Sur les traces du comte Bouchard: dominations
chatelaines it Vendome et en Francia vers l'an mil", in Parisse and Barral (eds.), Roi
de France, pp. 99-109.
50 "Conventum inter
Guillelmum Aquitanorum comes [sic] et Hugonem
Chiliarchum", ed. Jane Martindaie, Eng. Hist. Rev., lxxxiv (1969), p.543: "quod
meus tu es ad facere meam voluntatem".
47
48

20

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 142

in the later Middle Ages).51 Moreover the "bad customs" to


which allusions multiply are sometimes explicitly termed
"unjust" and must otherwise have been thought so implicitly;
nor were they unknown to lordship. "The greater [men]", wrote
the chronicler of Mouzon, "oppress their lessers, as is today the
bad custom". But "badness" introduces us to a zone of less
precise meaning; it attached to novelty as well as disorder, while
leaving it sometimes unclear how the violence of command related
to that of war. 52
Here we need to look again at the Oath of Beauvais. Its inventory of renunciations contains exceptions that were omitted in the
summary given above. For example, the knight promises not to
break into sanctuaries' 'on excuse of protection, unless on account
of some malefactor who has broken this peace or on account of
a homicide or ... of the seizure of a man or horse". And consider
the following items in full: "I shall not forcibly burn or destroy
houses unless I find an enemy horseman or robber inside and
unless they should be joined to a castle or serve as a castle . . . I
shall not destroy a mill or seize the grain in it, unless I should be
in a cavalcade or an army [hostis] and unless it should be in my
land".53 These articles may be said to concern the knight acting
as policeman, warrior and lord. They suggest that in practice the
brutal devices of warfare have been encroaching on lordship; that
limits were now to be set on peacetime violence. But it seems
unlikely that exceptions would have been admitted if the peacemakers could have imposed their programme on the knights. The
Oath of Beauvais bears clear signs of compromise. We may read
in its provisions at least a hint of how unrepentant (or prerepentant) knights habitually thought of their own violent ways.
The promise not to seize mills is limited not only by the continOath of Beauvais, ed. Pfister, in his Etudes sur le regne de Robert le Pieux, pp. Ix-lxi.
Chronique, ou Livre de fondation du monastere de Mouzon, i.7 (ed. Michel Bur,
Paris, 1989, p. 152). See also Cartulaire de Saint-Pere de Chartres, i, p. 73; The
Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, vii.8 (ed. Marjorie Chibnall, 6 vols., Oxford,
1968-80, iv, p. 42). On "bad customs" see generally see, Classes rurales et le regime
domanial, pp. 318-26; Bloch, Societe jiodale, i, pp. 179-84 (Feudal Society, pp. 113-6);
Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, "Les mauvaises coutumes en Auvergne, Bourgogne meridionale, Languedoc et Provence au Xle siecle: un moyen d'analyse social", Structures
feodales et feodalisme dans [,Occident mediterraneen, Xe - XIIle siecles: bilan et perspectives de recherches (Rome, 1980), pp. 135-72.
53 Ed. Pfister, in his Etudes sur le regne de Robert le Pieux, pp. Ix-lxi. See also Poly
and Bournazel, Mutation feodale, 2nd edn., pp. 235-40 (Feudal Transformation,
pp. 151-5).
51

52

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

21

gency of cavalcata and hostis, as if cavalcades were legitimate, but


also by the words nisi in mea terra fuerit ("unless he should be in
my land"), as if a knight could do as he pleased with a mill in
his own lordship. It appears that the clerical ideal of peace ran
into resistance already in this early critical phase of seigneurial
transformation.
Is it not possible, indeed, or even likely, that the multiplying
knights of the early eleventh century when poverty stared them
in the face, when their social survival was a desperate scramble
for resources and incomes, when prospects of plundering the
Muslims were only beginning (for most) to improve, and when
the ecclesiastical theory of a militia Christi still lay in the future:
possible that these knights struggling to establish their lordships
and patrimonies developed some rationale of violence to justify
their behaviour? Would they not have come to think of peasants
as their enemies to be enslaved? Would not such men have viewed
the Peace as threatening their way of life?
This possibility has yet to be explored. Overlooked by those
older historians who thought of feudalism as bellicose and
anarchic as well as, more surprisingly, by others stressing oppressive class formation, it requires neither a return to such views
nor categorical rejection of them. Nor is it to deny that castles of
the eleventh century could be "places of peace" where enemies
were informally and orally reconciled. There was sufficient order
in the aristocracy for society to survive. 54 But complaints of
violence continued and as time passed exploitative (or "tyrannical") lordship ceased to seem shocking. The evidence of this
will concern us further; what matters here is when such behaviour
originated - and why then. Our attention is drawn again to the
turn of the eleventh century, with a different focus. Neither
violence nor seigneurial formation was then new. Or was it that
just then they ceased to seem new?
IV

The invasions had ended - or at least the foreign ones had. But
there were more armed and fortified men about than ever, more
people to dominate in growing populations, more agrarian wealth
for the taking. While violence and the arrogation of patrimonial
54 See Barthe1emy, "Mutation feoda1e?", p. 774; Duby, Societe mdconnaise (1953),
p. 196, and (1971), p. 165.

22

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

power remained unjust, the failure of old remedies together with


the accelerated diffusion of judicial powers in lands too vast for
weakened lord-kings to master emboldened the ambitious in selfjustifying and arbitrary habits that assumed an irreversible
dynamic of their own. Disruption occurred when the violence of
lordship could no longer be contained. The evidence assembled
by Duby, Lemarignier and others, taken together, is compelling.
The consuetudines make their appearance in records of all kinds
at the end of the tenth century - because, surely, powers chiefly
fiscal were then proliferating without sanction in regalian delegation. At exactly the same time - the first series of councils runs
from 989 to 1014 - the Peace of unarmed people and the clergy
was placed under religious protection. At exactly the same time
scribes less professional but more realistic than their elders were
beginning to change their vocabulary of power: the term miles in
the unclassical sense of "horseman" was introduced, together
with an adjusted sense of caballarius; while dominus, hitherto
reserved for God, kings and bishops, and lately applied to counts,
was henceforth descriptive of masters of castles. Other designations of seigneurial power became current: potestas, dominium,
mandamentum. The new vocabulary of lordship was by no means
always pejorative; yet at exactly the same time we begin to hear
of "bad customs" (malae comuetudines). Denounced in the council
at Le Puy about 994, they figure commonly thereafter in the
South, then after 1000 in Champagne, Picardy and the
Maconnais. 55
This cacophony of symmetrical evidence surely points to
abrupt and disruptive change. "Without doubt", H. -W. Goetz
has lately concluded, "the Peace of God was a reaction to mounting troubles ... at the moment when lordships appeared".56 Yet
it has been argued that the malae consuetudines were not only
continuous with Carolingian military abuses but substantially
public - and lawful - as ever; the originality of the early Peace
of God, according to Magnou-Nortier, was simply to moralize
this habitual violence. 57 Moreover Duby has described the new
vocabulary as a belated "revelation", breaking the "envelope"
55 See generally Lemarignier, "Dislocation du 'pagus'''; Duby, Trois ordres,
pp. 183-205 (Three Orders, ch. 13); Poly and Bournazel, Mutation feodale, 2nd edn.
(Feudal Transformation), chs. 1, 5.
56 Goetz, "Paix de Dieu en France", p. 132.
57 Magnou-Nortier, "Place du concile du Puy", pp. 489-98.

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

23

of an inertly conservative documentation, of a "coercive lordship" (seigneurie banale) already in place. 58 But the new usage
figures also in records that are themselves novel in substance,
including some that can only be called records of lordship. 59 It is
unlikely that peasants anywhere thought of predatory coercion
as justified custom, least of all when associated with new or
expanding lordships. In any case, the changed perception of
violence was part of a conceptual revelation which Professor
Duby himself allows to have been a "brusque mutation". There
was a new preoccupation with power in unofficial and affective
forms. Was not this revelation itself a manifestation of revolution?
Even of a "feudal revolution"? Two points must be made here.
When Georges Duby renounced his own metaphor, he noted that
the social changes in question had to do with lordship and production (seigneurie), not the fief. 60 This was not only to give up the
subtly Marxian irony of a feudal regime originating in revolution,
but also to overlook one of Pierre Bonnassie's most startling
discoveries: that the making of castellanies in Catalonia was
attended by the division of militant lordships into knights' fees
(cavalleriae), notional units or shares that were explicitly termed
"fiefs" (jeva) already in the eleventh century. This means that
the multiplication of castellanies entailed an exponentially
increased number of fiefs in regions where, as in Catalonia, the
endowments of knights took this form. And if we recall
Bonnassie's further discovery that until the eleventh century fiefs
had been known in east Pyrenean lands only as occasional grants
from fiscal lands to comital officers, it follows that the feudalizing
of Catalonia was an explosive transformation. 61 Do we not reasonably speak of such changes as "revolutions"? In Catalonia if
anywhere there would seem to have been a "feudal revolution"
in a comparatively precise sense of the words. Poitou may have
experienced something similar. Elsewhere we know less about
the tenures of knights and castellans, it is true, and some of our
information points to more deliberate and less complete feudalizing. In Provence, for example, manse-holding knights were surely
less like vassalic lords than the garrison knights of Catalonia. In
58 Duby, Trois ordres, pp. 183-6 (Three Orders, pp. 147-50); Moyen lige, pp. 89-90
(France, pp. 55-6).
59 Records cited in nn. 44, 50.
60 Duby, Trois ordres, p. 189 (Three Orders, p. 153).
61 Bonnassie, Catalogne, i, pp. 209-11, and ii, chs. 13, 14.

24

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 142

Picardy the proliferation of castles and fiefs was delayed until the
twelfth century. But knights multiplied with castles and their
masters in other regions, perhaps first on the model of episcopal
lordships in old Frankish lands. 62
The changes here in question have a further and more considerable feudal dimension which has been little noticed by historians
of the millennium. Imagine the plight of castellans trying to
secure the fidelity of their knights. None too faithful themselves
to traditional obligations, these lords on the take were vulnerable
to every temptation and liability of betrayal. What were the
garrison knights in the king's castle at Melun to make of their
castellan who in 991 was so easily talked out of his fealty to
Bouchard of Vendome by the aggressive Count Odo of Blois?
They fought for their unfaithful lord against Bouchard's Norman,
Angevin and royal allies in 991 - and had to plead for the king's
mercy when they lost. The castellan and his wife, the latter with
cruel ostentation, were hanged. 63
It is an astonishing story of suborned vassalage and betrayal,
notorious in its day and long remembered. Richer of Reims told
it in a set piece on treachery, filled with duplicitous speeches and
oaths; and if he invented words, he seems to have well understood
the settlement. The recaptured garrison claimed they were not
traitors to the king (rei majestatis regiae) but fideles of their lordcastellan. Richer further represented Count Odo as pleading that
he too was no traitor, for he had quarrelled not with the king
but with a "fellow knight" (commilito, meaning Bouchard).64
Here the tension between old public order and the new vassalic
regime flares into visible conflict. This was no constitutional issue,
being governed by ideas (including the Roman concept of treason)
not by laws. Steeped in Carolingian theocratic ideology, Richer
may well have exaggerated the distinction between fidelities
public and personal. What cannot be doubted is that permissible
options for solemnly commended men at all levels of society were
62 Poly, Provence, pp. 137-8; Robert Fossier, La terre et les hommes en Picardie
jusqu'ti lafin du Xl/le siecle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1968), ii pt 3; Poly and Bournazel, Mutation
feodale, 2nd edn., p. 132 (Feudal Transformation, pp. 64-5).
63 Richer, Histoire de France, iv.74-8, 80 (ed. Latouche, ii, pp. 266-75, 276-8);
Historia Francorum Senonensis (ed. Georg Waitz, M.G.H., SS, ix, Hanover, 1851,
p. 369); Eudes de Saint-Maur, Vie de Bouchard, ed. Bourel de La Ronciere, pp. 18-19.
MRicher, Histoire de France, iv.78, 80 (ed. Latouche, ii, pp. 272, 276-8); Lot,
Hugues Capet, pp. 159-63. One is reminded of the case of Ganelon in the (Oxford)
Roland,l1. 3765-75 (ed. F. Whitehead, La Chanson de Roland, Oxford, 1970, p. 110).

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

25

coming under discussion in north Frankland at the end of the


tenth century. For what is most remarkable about Richer's story
is that it does not stand alone.
Indeed it is not even Richer's best. His account of Bishop
Adalbero's betrayal of Charles of Lorraine was represented in
righteous horror as a re-enactment of the denial of Christ. 65 This
too happened in 991, a traumatic year for those who, supportive
of the new kings, were not deaf to charges of dynastic betrayal;
for Richer's mentor Gerbert, whose writings are full of anxiety
about fidelity and its violation; and for no one more than Richer,
who may well have been goaded by these events to write of all
recent Frankish history in terms of fides, sacramenta, and their
breach: one long string of perfidies. Flodoard had been less insistent on fidelity, even when recording the same events, so it appears
that even at Reims this preoccupation with good faith was new
or increasing in the 980s;66 and it is well known that Kings Hugh
and Robert were regarded by some, especially in the South, as
usurpers. 67 In any case, the accession of the great Duke Hugh,
with his own congeries of castles and vassals, could only have
encouraged a reshuffling of lesser fidelities and have accentuated
the problem of prior or mUltiple allegiances, a problem worsened
by multiplying temptations to prefer new benefices to old
lordships.
That such things were indeed happening is suggested by the
three most explicit meditations on fidelity that have come down
to us from early Capetian France: the chapter "On the King's
Fidelity" in Abbo of Fleury's Canons, the famous letter on fidelity
written by Fulbert of Chartres to Duke William V of Aquitaine
about 1020, and the Conventus of about the same time between
the same prince, William, and the castellan of Lusignan. Abbo's
text reads like the calm after a storm. Dating from 994-6 and
addressed to Kings Hugh and Robert, it not only speaks of the
65 Richer, Histoire de France, ii.47 (ed. Latouche, ii, pp. 216-18). See also Geoffrey
Koziol, Begging Pardon and Favor: Ritual and Political Order in Early Medieval France
(Ithaca, 1992), pp. 118-19.
66 Cr. Richer, Histoire de France, i.64 (ed. Latouche, i, p. 122), Annales de Flodoard,
ed. Lauer, p. 53; Richer, Histoire de France, ii.5 (i, pp. 132-4), Annales de Flodoard,
p. 64; but see both narratives, passim.
67 Histoire generale de Languedoc, v, cols. 307-12, 326-8. See also Jean Dufour,
"Obedience respective des Carolingiens et des Capetiens, fin Xe siecle - debut XIe
siecle", in Xavier Barral i Altet et al. (eds.), La Catalogne et la France meridionale
autour de l'an mil (Colloque international D.N.R.S. / Generalitat de Catalunya,
"Hugues Capet, 987-1987: la France de l'an mil", Barcelona, 1991), pp. 21-44.

26

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 142

election of kings as a rightful means of securing the "concord of


the whole kingdom", but also stresses the right of the "ordained
king" to require "faith by oath [sworn] to himself, so that discord
may not be generated in any parts of his realm". There follows
a long quotation from the Fourth Council of Toledo to the effect
that some peoples are so perfidious as to refuse to observe their
sworn faith to kings, merely feigning in words what they inwardly
reserve, with terrible consequences for their souls. What hope
can such peoples have in war? Who will trust them in peace? It
is the fearful spectre of a crumbling society. 68
So even this monk rhetorically evoking the old order seems
caught up in timely anxieties about fidelity. His chapter helps us
to understand Gerbert's testimony that Hugh Capet made some
special effort to secure professions of fidelity from prelates and
princes. 69 It was a matter of public solidarity. And with Fulbert
of Chartres we see more concretely how benefices and rewards
were muddying the waters of good faith. A fidelis, he wrote (at
Duke William's request), must not only "abstain from wrong
[but also] do what is good" if he is to "deserve his casamentum".
This term, while evidently here synonymous with beneficium,
suggests that Fulbert had knights as well as magnates in mind. It
is the word he had applied to the holdings of his sub-vassal
knights at Vendome and Chartres in 1008, in letters that mark
the earliest known attempt of a lord to define the substance of
(lesser) knightly fealty.70 By 1020 Fulbert was known for his
concerned authority in such matters, and we can see from the
intriguing details of lordship, vassalage, infidelity and violence in
Aquitaine that fill the Conventus what it was that Duke William
(here count in Poitou) needed from the bishop. His problem was
that Hugh lord of Lusignan could not be content with a fidelity
of submission that left the count free to alter agreements bearing
on Hugh's interest without consulting him. When Hugh did the
same in reverse, as if his armed and ambitious clientele entitled
him to an equal claim to his lord-count's good faith, there was
trouble: vengeful seizures and devastations over alleged violations
of good faith and sworn commitments relating to the control or
Abbo of Fleury, Collectio canonum, iv (P.L., cxxxix, col. 478).
Die Briefsammlung Gerberts van Reims (ed. Fritz Weigle, M.G.H., Die Briefe der
deutschen Kaiserzeit, ii, Weimar, 1966, nos. 107, 112).
70 The Letters and Poems of Fulbert of Chartres, ed. Frederick Behrends (Oxford,
1976), nos. 51,9, 10.
68

69

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

27

inheritance of castles and lordships. All that is left of public order


here is the tenacious recognition that complaints should be
pleaded openly and procedurally; the Conventus itself has virtually
the content of a deposition. The count-duke for his part, though
he may retain something of his public prestige, can no longer
command officially, can only negotiate with lesser fortified lords
on the basis of personal and mutual fidelity of which the rewards,
obligations and rules are still in gestation. 71
These events and records point to a crisis of fidelity in the
millennial generation, yet another coincident sign of structural
change. Without ceasing to be a "public" obligation, fidelity, or
more exactly its sworn content, was being tainted by a vassalage
more demanding and less promising than it had been in
Carolingian times - and far more prevalent. Bishop Fulbert
recognized the reality and tried to rationalize it; but there was
reaction. As late as 1023 King Robert was resisting a feudalcontractual view of fidelity, to judge from the tortuous letter
Fulbert wrote in the name of Odo 11.72 It became harder to
promote official or political consensus among such few lordprinces as remained actively loyal to the king. But the traditional
consensus itself was less political than moral. The pervasive word
in our texts is fides (faith), notfidelitas; and fides for these anxious
theocrats was morally absolute while institutionally ambiguous. 73
The rituals and protocols of this penitential age bear witness to
the onerous subjection of those who were fideles of the king and
of God. The infideles included heretics as well as violators of
oaths. 74
So one might easily have overlooked the changing content of
oaths while deploring the broken word. But Fulbert of Chartres
was not the only prelate to question the multiplying commitments
71 "Conventum", ed. Martindale, pp. 541-8. Records in comparable procedural
form are known from the South, cited by Poly and Bournazel, Mutation feodale, 2nd
edn., p. 138 and n. 1 (Feudal Transformation, p. 69 and n. 78). See also Duby, Moyen
age, p. 107 (France, p. 73).
72 Letters and Poems of Fulbert of Chartres, ed. Behrends, no. 86.
73 Dudonis Sancti Quintini de moribus et actis primorum Normanniae ducum, ii.87 (ed.
Jules Lair, Caen, 1865, p.243); Briefsammlung Gerberts von Reims (ed. Weigle, nos.
26, 112, 147, 168); Richer, Histoire de France, iA, 12-14, 17,46,64 (ed. Latouche,
i, pp. 14, 16, 32,34,42,94, 122), and iv.25, 27, 46 (ii, pp. 184, 186,214).
74 Lemarignier, "Structures monastiques", pp. 381-2 ("Political and monastic
structures", p. 111); Duby, Trois ordres, pp. 163-8 (Three Orders, pp. 130-4); Koziol,
Begging Pardon and Favor, chs. 1,2. On fidelity in general, see Poly and Bournazel,
Mutation feodale, 2nd edn. (Feudal Transformation), ch. 2.

28

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

of vassals and lesser men. Already in 988 Gerbert had commented


on the suffering caused in France by the "perfidy of knights".
More remarkably he (for it was surely Gerbert) had King Hugh
explain to the pope how Archbishop Arnulf had not only sworn
a solemn oath of fealty to the king, but also compelled his knights
and "citizens" at Reims to swear that they would persist in their
fides even if he himself should fall into enemies' hands. 75 The
more specifically oaths were conditioned - and think of those
oaths to the Peace! - the harder they must have been to observe.
But this specificity was a jolting novelty. It was a matter of lurid
interest in the synod of Saint-Basle de Verzy that the archbishop's
oath could be read in unformulaic writing. 76 Bishop Fulbert's
detailing of vassalic obligations may accordingly point to prevailing dissatisfaction with the inert and perfunctory professions
of fidelity in the county courts as well as to the manifest need to
discipline knights. A penal sanction against perjury appears in
written oaths in the South at this time. 77

v
Violence - violence in deed and word - , the accelerated
diffusion of powers of command among more and more lords
dispensing knights' fiefs, institutional reaction: the Peace of God,
newly realistic vocabulary, the regulation of knightly and vassalic
fidelity. Once only these events and signs coincided: at the end
of the tenth century and for a few years thereafter. Some (besides
knights) may have thought the Peace an over-reaction, but during
the 1020s the king's authority itself was reduced to seigneurial
means of expression; security and public justice collapsed in
explosive violence in Catalonia and Provence; and new efforts to
pacify and discipline the strong in Francia and Aquitaine betray
desperation. By the middle of the eleventh century people had
ceased to think of the king and the princes as guarantors of
social order.
This may be likened to a revolution (as well as a revelation)
because it confirmed, rewarded and institutionalized the subvers7S Briefsammlung Gerberts von Reims (ed. Weigle, no. 125); Gerbert of Reims, "Acta
concilii Remensis" (P.L., cxxxix, col. 310).
76 Gerbert of Reims, "Acta concilii Remensis" (P.L., cxxxix, cols. 289-96).
77 Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, "Fidelite et feodalite meridionales d'apres les serments de fidelite, Xe - debut du XIIe siec1e", Annales du Midi, lxxx (1968),
pp. 464-5.

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

29

ive inroads of lordship on public power, while sanctioning patrimonial claims to service, fidelity and dependence. There were no
revolutionaries, the ideologues being content to justify or
deplore; 78 only unwitting agents, the banal lords and knights who,
lacking experience in accountable official service, were swept
forward in a tidal wave of self-promoting opportunism. The
resultant regimes, in greater Francia, Burgundy and much of
Aquitaine, were more or less "feudal", and by no means unconstructively so. The reorienting of fidelities coincided with discussions of tenurial right whence arose customary law in many
regions. But seigneurial brutality was itself a new custom of the
millennium. It persisted where, as in the early oaths of peace, it
is first attested; it spread where it had been unknown.
In persisting and spreading, it perpetuated a "revolution"
which, like other ideological upheavals, was incomplete at its
fiashpoint. Its later history is an unwritten story framed in a
familiar chronology: a story of relentless seigneurial aggrandizement held in check by old theocratic regimes only to burst into
violence in the end. In Normandy the viscounts were beyond
ducal domination in the 1040s and there was chronic violence
again from about 1090; in England assaults on church lands and
dispossessions were common from about 1070, were repressed
under Henry I, then exploded in notorious troubles under Stephen
(1137-45); while in Germany and Le6n-Castile the kings preserved traditional structures of elite power until (respectively)
1075 and 1110, when for different reasons militant lordships
multiplied together with accelerated castle-building, enfeoffments
and impositions. Everywhere there was defiance of royal or
princely authority, not in principle, but on the definition of peace:
that is, on the control of castles. Moreover it was characteristic
that societies reorganized under lord-princes who exploited the
new order of fidelity/homage (Normandy, England, Catalonia,
France) relapsed into aggregates of oppressive castellan lordships
before giving way to new regimes of judicial and fiscal
accountability. 79
These disruptions and relapses only intensified a routinely
harsh experience of power. Not even old elite and ecclesiastical
Duby, Trois ordres (Three Orders), chs. 2-13.
The nearest approach to this problem of frontiers and chronology may be found
in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism, ch. 3. See also Poly and Bournazel, Mutation
feodale, 2nd edn. (Feudal Transformation), ch. 1.
78
79

30

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 142

dominions were exempt from coercive violence and distraint:


their masters, however benevolent themselves, did not collect the
taxes. Towards 1127 Abbot Peter the Venerable thought it normal
and manifest that lay lords affiicted their peasants with arbitrary
demands beyond customary obligations, pillaging and oppressing
to the point of driving people away.80 Nor was this far-fetched.
Such behaviour is widely attested in the twelfth century, vividly
evoked by Suger and Orderic Vitalis as well as by the abbot of
Quny; by ecclesiastical memorials of Compostela, Vezelay and
Ely; by the convergent narratives of violence in England under
King Stephen; by the complaints of franchisal peasants in Old
Catalonia; and echoed by innumerable charters, letters and papal
records alleging depredations of church lands and the spoliation
of deceased prelates. 81 Historians remain disinclined to allow this
evidence much weight, persisting in old suspicions of clerical
lamentations. 82 They have reason for caution. It was in the interest
of prelates and monks to complain of exactions by lay lords such
as they too were imposing. Moreover, since any uncustomary
demand could be represented as violent and since peasants sought
to fix obligations in growing economies, a structural tension
80 The Letters of Peter the Venerable, no. 28 (ed. Giles Constable, 2 vols., Cambridge,
Mass., 1967, i, p. 86). I am less inclined to think Peter was exaggerating than Duby,
Societe maconnaise (1953), p. 320, and (1971), p. 255.
81 Suger, Vie de Louis VI le Gros, chs. 2, 5, 7, 15, 17, 19-21 (ed. Hemi Waquet,
Paris, 1929); Liber de rebus in administratione suagestis, chs. 2, 10-12, 15 (ed. A. Lecoy
de La Marche, in Oeuvres completes de Suger, Paris, 1867); Ecclesiastical History of
Orderic Vitalis, iv (ed. Chibnall, ii, pp. 268, 272), viii.4, 27 (iv, pp. 146, 296-300,
330), x.17 (v, pp. 300, 302), xi.7, 11 (vi, pp. 46, 60); Historia Compostellana, i.37,
54, 96 (ed. Emma Falque Rey, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio mediaevalis,
Turnhout, 1988, pp. 76,93,155-9), ii.91 (pp. 411-2), and iii.47 (pp. 508-11); Hugues
le Poitevin, Chronique de l'abbaye de Vezelay, ii (ed. R. B. C. Huygens, Monumenta
Vizeliacensia, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio mediaevalis, Turnhout, 1976,
pp. 419, 424-6, 456), iii (p. 497), iv (pp. 529-31); Liber Eliensis, ii.l08-9, 120-2,
131-2, 135-9 (ed. E. O. Blake, London, 1962, pp. 188-91, 203-5, 210-13, 218-24);
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, MS. E, sub anno 1137; William of Malmesbury, Historia
novella, ii.483 (ed. K. R. Potter, London, 1955, pp. 40-2). For Catalonia, Arxiu de
la Corona d'Arago, Barcelona (hereafter A.C.A.), Cancelleria, Pergamins extrainventaris, cited in T. N. Bisson, "The Crisis of the Catalonian Franchises, 1150-1200",
in Jaume Portel1a i Comas (ed.), Laformacio i expansio delfeudalisme catald: homenatge
a Santiago Sobreques i Vidal (Estudi General, v-vi, Girona, 1985-6), pp. 153-72. Some
idea of other sources containing allegations can be formed from works cited below,
n.82.
82 See e.g. Duby, Moyen age, p.98 (France, pp. 65-6); Barthelemy, "Mutation
feodale?", p. 773. Among older works, see Flach, Origines de l'ancienne France, i,
pp. 317-472; Achille Luchaire, Histoire des institutions monarchiques de la France sous
les premiers capetiens, 987-1180, 2nd edn., 2 vols. (Paris, 1891), i, pp. 234-6; See,
Classes rurales et le regime domanial, pp. 318-26.

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

31

worked so as to justify seigneurial pressure. Lordship, as Duby


observes, rendered the service of protection to tenants in return
for their contribution: "the anachronism", he suggests, "would
be to conceive of the seigneurie in terms of oppression". 83
This is carrying critical doubt too far. It could only be justified
if deployed against those who insist on seigneurie as a mode of
production by a new class in pursuit of collective power. But
there was nothing political about the outlook of militant fidelity,
cavalcades and bad customs. What is incontrovertibly certain,
what cannot be ignored in superabundant evidence no matter
how tendentious, is that there were oppressive lords in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. We know many of them by name and
their deeds sometimes in detail: Robert of Belleme, Thomas de
Marle, William de Beauchamp, Arnau de Perella, to mention but
a few of the more notorious. 84 The afflictions charged against
these lords - seizures, assaults, extortions, ransoms, physical
coercion and intimidation - cannot be explained away; there are
far too many such allegations, not all in fact by clerics, too widely
attested, to mislead us. The anachronism would be to reject this
undoubtedly moralized reality, to fail to ask whether the tendency
towards a self-justifying ethic of violence perceptible in the early
Peace of God was confirmed thereafter.
What seems clear is that wilful, exploitative lordship, including
that addicted to violence, became an institution even as it was
discredited in the eleventh century. It drew ideological support
from the old order it pervaded in that it maintained the arbitrariness of slave lordship just when agrarian slavery was disappearing
from western Europe. Had not the Apostle himself admonished
servants (servi) to submit to lords in all fear, "and not only to
Moyen age, p. 98 (my translation; cf. France, p. 65).
Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, viii.5, 16 (ed. Chibnall, iv, pp. 158-60,
228-30); Henry of Huntingdon, "Epistola de contemptu mundi", in Henrici archidiaconi Huntendunensis historia Anglorum, ed. T. Arnold (London, 1879), pp. 308-10;
Suger, Vie de Louis VI, chs. 7, 24 (ed. Waquet); The Letters and Charters of Gilbert
Foliot, ed. A. Morey and C. N. L. Brooke (Cambridge, 1967), no. 3; Bisson, "Crisis
83

84

of the Catalonian franchises", pp. 161-5. I am not persuaded by Fran\=ois-Olivier


Touati, "Violence seigneuriale, queUe violence? Le point de vue d'un observateur
revolte et partial au debut du XIIe si~de: Guibert de Nogent", Violence et contestation
au moyen age (Actes du 114e congres national des Societes savantes, 1989, section
d'histoire medievale et de philologie, Paris, 1990), pp. 47-57. Guibert's exaggerations
hardly exonerate a "tyranny" recorded by several sources; cf. Dominique Barthelemy,
Les deux ages de la seigneurie banale: pouvoir et societe dans la terre des sires de Coucy,
milieu XIe - milieu XIIIe siecle (Paris, 1984), pp. 69-99.

32

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

the good and gentle but also to the wicked ones"?85 An unsure
line marked off the perversity acceptable to the clergy in the
name of order from that they denounced in the name of peace.
Lords at Laon must have learned gratefully of the archbishop's
sermon on the Petrine text in 1114, dwelling as it did on the
sufferance of "hard and greedy" masters; perhaps not accidentally
one of those lords, Thomas de Marle himself, carried on a singularly ferocious reign of rural terror in the next few years. 86 Such
ideas were widely held in these generations when new forms of
servility were becoming customary. In bitterly ironic hyperbole
King Henry IV denounced Pope Gregory VII for having "trod
under foot" anointed prelates and priests "like slaves who know
not what their lords may do". 87
This was a normative as well as a vituperative remark. Slaves,
even those of the newly customary sort (to whom the same word,
servus, was applied), might suffer oppression from which the free
were exempt. But it was in the economic dynamic of lordship to
limit liberties at whatever level of society: just as free peasants
had been reduced to common subservience with bondsmen and
customary tenants within the castle's districtus, so towards 1100
swelling urban populations were financially pressed without
regard to prior status by princes and prelates. All lay lordship
expressed the arbitrariness of social-functional superiority.
Knightly values, not excepting the penchant to violence, pervaded
the aristocracy. William the Conqueror's death-bed renunciations, as recorded by Orderic Vitalis, are as damaging a confession as (in its way) any oath exacted from a knight, merely on a
larger scale. 88 What mattered for the common experience of
1 Pet. 2:18.
Guibert de Nogent, Autobiographie, iii.10 (ed. E.-R. Labande, Paris, 1981,
pp. 358, 360; trans. J. F. Benton, Self and Society in Medieval France: The Memoirs
of Abbot Guibert of Nogent, New York, 1970, pp. 183-4). On Thomas de Marle, see
Guibert, iii.l1, 14 (ed. Labande, pp. 362-72, 396-412; Self and Society, pp. 184-90,
198-207); Suger, Vie de Louis VI, ch. 24 (ed. Waquet). Cf. n. 84. I am aware that
Jacques Chaurand attempted to exonerate Thomas, but have never been able to locate
a copy of his book.
87 Quellen zur Geschichte des Investiturstreites, ed. Emst Bemheim, 2nd edn., 2 vols.
(Leipzig, 1913-14), i, no. 31 (27 March 1076), trans. T. E. Mommsen and K. F.
Morrison, Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century (New York, 1962), p. 150.
88 Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, vii. 15 (ed. Chibnall, iv, p. 94): "Naturales
regni filios plus aequo exosos habui, nobiles et uulgares crudeliter uexaui, iniuste
multos exhereditaui, innumeros maxime in pago Eborachensi fame seu ferro mortificaui (I treated natives of the realm with unreasonable severity, cruelly afllicted
nobler and lesser people, unjustly disinherited many men, and caused countless people
8S

86

(con,. on p. 33)

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

33

power was whether lord-princes could discipline their own


knights and ministers, for theirs as a rule was the violence - as
in the case of Henry I's entourage89 - that sullied a ruler's
reputation. Arbitrariness proved negotiable in time: both tallage
and protection money have some resemblance to commutation as
we begin to hear of them after about 1050. 90
Bad lordship came of age in the twelfth century. Men then
spoke of the "bad customs of bad lords" or of "those who badly
dominate" as if these were familiar categories of misfortune. 91 In
1149 the Catalan knight Bertran de Castellet bequeathed to his
brothers "all the loot from my four bad boxes" together with
other property they were to assign piously for the remedy of
Bertran's soul. 92 "I give this land", says a knight in Anjou in
1168, "free of all fiscal obligation . . . and of all those things
which knights customarily extort by violence from the poor". 93
The pretence falls: violence, however deplorable, is held to be
customary - that is, legitimate. Nor is this all. In 1202 the barons
of Old Catalonia would claim and secure at the king's expense the
right to "maltreat [male tractaverint] their peasants or take things
away from them" in their own domains. 94 With this famous
provision we come close to a theory of bad lordship. If the barons
themselves could speak openly of their inflictions and seizures as
abuses immune from sovereign sanctions, then a whole category
of seigneurial violence was vindicated against the aggressive tend(n. 88 cont.)

to die by starvation and violence, especially in Yorkshire)". See also iii (ii, p. 90),
and v.19 (iii, p. 194).
89 Eadmeri historia novorum in Anglia, ed. Martin Rule (London, 1884), pp. 192-3,
trans. Geoffrey Bosanquet, Eadmer's History of Recent Events in England (London,
1964), p. 205.
90 See generally Carl Stephenson, "The Origin and Nature of the taille", Revue
beige de philologie et d'histoire, v (1926), pp. 801-70, repr. in B. D. Lyon (ed.),
Mediaeval Institutions: Selected Essays (Ithaca, 1954), pp. 41-103; La chronique de
Morigny, 1095-1152, ed. Leon Mirot (Paris, 1912), pp. 5-6; See, Classes rurales et le
regime domanial, pp. 479-82.
91 Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi, ou Chronique du Pseudo-Turpin, ch. 11 (ed.
C. Meredith lones, Paris, 1936, p. 121); Gualbertus, De miraculis S. Rictrudis, ii.1
(Acta sanctorum, ed. Bollandus, Maii, iii, p. 133).
92 Fiscal Accounts of Catalonia under the Early Count-Kings, 1151-1213, ed. T. N.
Bisson, 2 vols. (Berkeley, 1984), ii, no. 144.
93 My translation from the source quoted by Bloch, Societe /iodale, ii, p. 199 (Feudal
Society, p. 411).
94 Cartes de los antiguos reinos de Aragcln y de Valencia y principado de Cataluna, 26
vols. (Madrid, 1896-1922), i, p. 86. See also Paul Freedman, The Origins of Peasant
Servitude in Medieval Catalonia (Cambridge, 1991), chs. 3,4.

34

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

encies of the remedial peace lately instituted by King Alfons I


(1162-96).
VI
For by this time we have come full circle. The tenacious survival
of customary violence may seem out of phase with the revival of
administrative power in the twelfth century. Had not rulers like
Louis VI and Henry I long since suppressed the terrorism of
fortified lordships? Historians impressed with their success would
do well to ponder the evidence for a self-justifying mentality of
exploitative power. It points further to what may be considered
the most profoundly subversive legacy of the eleventh century:
the demise of accountable service.
This matter is illuminated by a curious fable concerning the
rectitude of Count Geoffrey of Anjou (1129-51) composed by
Jean de Marmoutier towards 1180. Having lost his way in the
forest, the count falls in with a peasant who, not recognizing him,
is induced to comment on the count's reputation. We learn that
Count Geoffrey himself is a fine chap, but is badly served by his
ministers. Echoing the traditional theocratic ideal, the peasant
describes Geoffrey as just, strong and compassionate. Under so
admirable a ruler the people's only foes are the count's agents:
"the provosts, stewards and other ministers". When the count
visits his castles, his ministers requisition and pre-empt, sellers
hide their wares, and creditors are left unpaid. As the count
ponders the news that he is being supported by plunder, the
peasant invites him to hear more: how at harvest time the provosts
"go out to the villages and, forcing the peasants to assemble, by
a new law - or rather, violence - they impose a grain tax on
them". They demand from each as much as they can, dragging
to court on false charges any who complain, from which the only
escape is paying off the "wicked judges". In mounting exasperation the count hears further allegations, notably that of provosts
summoning peasants to castles on pretence of war so as to sell
them "the licence of returning home". In the end the count's
identity is revealed, the peasant-informer is entertained and
rewarded, and in a final lively scene his provosts are summoned
together with his creditors. It is virtually a trial, in which the
count "diligently hearing the cases of each, learned from them
the sum of the debt owing to each one". The drama mounts as

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

35

the count exclaims: "I thought I was keeping peace - and behold,
such disturbance [turbatio]!" The provosts confess, are ordered
to make restitution, and the good count directs his ministers to
swear to restore illicit collections before giving up their posts. 95
This fable, fictional though it may be, is no caricature. It is
symptomatic, indeed informative, on three critical points: (1) the
continuity of arbitrary lordship; (2) the identity of those who
served lord-princes in their domains and the nature of their
service; and (3) the nature of their accountability. And when the
matter is put in this way, it can be seen at once that the first and
second points are in reality the same. The provosts charged with
malfeasance are the very "bad lords" whose earlier history has
occupied us. Their abuses and deceits are almost exactly the same
as those attested of knights from the earliest statutes and oaths
of the Peace down to Thomas de Marle or the "devils" of King
Stephen's castles.
But the argument hardly depends on Jean de Marmoutier. As
early as we begin to hear of ministri, provosts, bailiffs and advocates, they are not only careless of their commissions but acting
like lords. Already about 995 Abbo of Fleury had seen through
them, referring to the violence of men charged to defend churches
"who think themselves not so much advocates as lords". 96 In the
time of Henry I (1031-60) a steward of Fleury's domain at
Germigny-des-Pres found it easier to impose an annual
"demand" (guaestum) on his tenants than to keep track of their
due renders; and although a peasant himself he "was an assiduous
hunter".97 The first certain reference to a (Capetian) royal provost
is found in a diploma of Henry I enfranchising the people of
Orleans from exactions by his ministri on the vintage; but if
provosts were instituted to do better, the initiative failed. 98 The
king's records are filled with complaints against their encroach95 Historia Gaufredi, i (in Chroniques des comtes d'Anjou et des seigneurs d'Amboise, i,
ed. Louis Halphen and Rene Poupardin, Paris, 1913, pp. 183-91).
96 Abbo of Fleury, Collectio canonum, ii (P.L., cxxxix, col. 477): "qui se putant
non jam advocatos sed dominos". See also Historia miraculorum [S. Rictrudisj, iii.3
(Acta sanctorum, ed. Bollandus, Maii, p. 93E): "Sed erat miles ex adverso, cui nomen
Osbertus, qui villae ipsius advocationem sibi usurpaverat, non tamen advocatus sed
tyrannus (But there was opposed a knight named Osbert who had usurped the
advocacy of that village for himself, yet not an advocate but a tyrant)".
97 Miracles de Saint Benoft, viii.2 (ed. de Certain, pp. 278-9).
98 Catalogue des actes d'Henri fer, roi de France, 1031-1060, ed. Frederic Soehnee
(Paris, 1907), no. 109; Lemarignier, Gouvernement royal, p. 157.

36

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

ments and exactions in the Ile-de-France. 99 At Chartres towards


1114 the provosts of the canons had diminished the patrimony
and afflicted the peasants, rapaciously exacting money, grain,
animals and fowl; "and", wrote Bishop Ivo, "they were sending
their sergeants on horseback through the prevOtes, demanding
grain from peasants as if they were lords"; they had "prodigious
meals" got up for them, imposed reliefs and sold marriage
licenses; struck and imprisoned people, etc., all without the chapter's approval. 100 In Flanders the castellans at Saint-Omer gouged
the townspeople "unjustly and violently" by demanding an
annual Christmas payment "beyond the fief and anciently instituted prebend", a bad custom renounced in the charter of 1127.101
Although some in England suspected Normans, Bretons and
Flemings were responsible, there was nothing specifically French
about such oppressive behaviour. 102 Everywhere in the medieval
West men appointed to guard castles, collect customary revenues
and keep local order behaved not as agents but as lords on the
make - and typically (though surely not always) as aggressive
lords replicating the predatory methods of the early castellans.
At St Gall the abbey's manorial bailiffs were said to have usurped
the standing of knights in the early eleventh century: proud, well
armed, neglectful of agrarian chores, avid for the hunt. 103 In Italy
an imperial vicar at Piacenza exploited his powers of protection
and justice to create a personal lordship of intimidation in the
1160s. 104 The best evidence comes from Catalonia. Seeking to
establish a territorial tribunal towards 1150, the Count-Prince
Ramon Berenguer IV (1131-62) received a flood of written
memorials detailing the misconduct of his castellans and bailiffs.
Here the palpable terror of power delegated to armed men in
quest of nobility may be read in veritable portraits of violence.
99 Henri Gravier, Essai sur les prevOts royaux du Xle au XIVe siecle (Paris, 1904),
pp. 66-7.
lOO Cartulaire de Notre-Dame de Chartres, ed. E. de Upinois and Lucien Merlet, 3
vols. (Chartres, 1862-5), i, no. 33. Forty years later the situation had hardly improved,
see nos. 57, 58.
101 "Le privilege de Saint-Omer de 1127", ed. Georges Espinas, Revue du Nord,
xxix (1947), pp. 45-8, art. 15.
102 Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, iv (ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 202); William of
Malmesbury, Historia novella, ii.43 (ed. Potter, p. 41).
103 Benjamin Arnold, German Knighthood, 1050-1300 (Oxford, 1985), pp. 48-9.
104 Ferdinando Giiterbock, "Alla vigilia della Lega Lombarda: il dispotismo dei
vicari imperiali a Piacenza: documenti", Archivo storico italiano, xcv (1937), pp. 64-77.
Karl Leyser drew this evidence to my notice.

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

37

Berenguer de Bleda, clanking about the vills of Font-rubi with


his knights, was given to housebreaking, demanding provisions
from, and beating, peasants. In the Ribes valley the vicar Ramon
remorselessly exploited his jurisdiction of custom to extort money
for occasions such as intestacy, sterility and deaths of children.
And the lately free peasants at Caldes de Malavella and Llagostera
lamented the arrogant self-promotion of a peasant named Arnau
de Perella who had shirked the count's summons to military duty,
appropriated the vicarial revenues and - worst of all - created
his own clientele in the service of a familial lordship of conspicuous consumption. 105
Nowhere in these lay societies was it possible to delegate power;
one could only share it. Knowing nothing of the terms on which
revenues were commended to provosts, we can only characterize
their service by reference to contemporary perceptions of it and
to widespread tendencies to claim such charges as hereditary.
Achille Luchaire spoke of "local administration" by "halffeudal" provosts, meaning presumably that these functionaries
were half bureaucratic in nature. 106 K. F. Werner argued that
even in the eleventh century provosts were removable agents of
inherently official character; but his evidence of ex-provosts is
hardly conclusive on this point, while his claim to have discovered
"whole dynasties of such officials" in the comitallands of BloisChampagne looks on its face a self-destructing anachronism. 107
Even if we admit the subsistence of public order at the level of
the principality, it hardly follows that bureaucratic ideals
informed the deportment of fideles who came between the lordruler and his people. We know nothing of their oaths - and
must therefore presume that they swore fidelity to lords before
honesty to tenants. 108 We know hardly more about their accountability, but on this point we have failed to heed the lessons of
such evidence as exists.
The depiction of fiscal management in the fable of Anjou should
not be read as parody. Occasional or informal audits of stewards
or bailiffs must have been the rule on monastic and episcopal
105 A.C.A., Cane., perg. extrainv. 3409,3141,3288 (Font-rubi); 3217, 3433 (Ribes);
Ramon Berenguer IV extrainv. 2501 (Caldes and Llagostera); Bisson, "Crisis of the
Catalonian Franchises".
106 Achille Luchaire, Manuel des institutions franfaises: periode des Caphiens directs
(Paris, 1892), pp. 539-42; Luchaire, Histoire des institutions monarchiques, i, p. 216.
107 Wemer, "Konigtum und Fiirstentum", pp. 200-3 (Medieval Nobility, pp. 256-8).
108 A new kind of oath becomes visible in France only after about 1150.

38

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

lands as well as on princely ones in the eleventh and twelfth


centuries. For these audits the only written instrument would
have been the survey of domains: that is, a static description of
the lord's tenants and their obligations. This was a prescriptive
accountability, responding to the question: what should I (do I)
have? "How much money do I have?", asked Count Geoffrey.
"Lord", said the provost, "1000s. of your revenues are on
hand". 109 It is an inventory, not the active reckoning of a balance
or profit.
This sort of accountancy - ancient, biblical, timeless - served
to test fidelity; it was an accountancy of lordship. HO We catch a
glimpse of it on one of Fleury's Gascon domains, where in the
later eleventh century a grasping steward named Joscelin was
summoned "to render account for certain matters unfaithfully
[infideliter] managed by him". 111 Here as in the Angevin fable it
looks as if accounting was an event precipitated by infidelity; or
as if the audits of servants faithful and unfaithful alike were
irregular. It is true that Orderic Vitalis defined the notoriously
bad lordships of Hugh of Avranches and Robert of Belleme partly
in terms of their failure to account, but these passages date from
c.1125-37, when a new mode of accountancy was becoming
known in Normandy and England. 112 As a rule fidelity seems not
to have been measured with numerical precision. This does not
mean that reckoning was unknown. A steward who could not
provide for his lord's lodging or lay on an occasional meal was
clearly in arrears; and it is not difficult to imagine the embarrassment of affective confrontation within the seigneurial familia. But
there is no trace of written accountancy, prescriptive or otherwise,
in the lesser military aristocracy. The real test of a servant's
fidelity is reputation. As late as 1100 accountability is not yet
administrative. It is remedial, judicial, moral - and it is
occasional.
The assurance of fidelity ceased to satisfy the greater lords in
109 Historia Gaufredi, i (in Chroniques des comtes d'Anjou et des seigneurs d'Amboise,
ed. Halphen and Poupardin, p. 188).
110 See e.g. Matt. 12:35, Luke 16:2, Rev. 20:12; The Rule of Saint Benedict, chs. 2,
64 (ed. and trans. Justin McCann, Westminster, Md., 1952); Hincmar of Reims, De
ordine palatii (ed. Thomas Gross and Rudolf Schieffer, M.G.H., Hanover, 1980,
11. 50-2).
111 Miracles de Saint Benolt, viii.22 (ed. de Certain, pp. 310-12).
112 Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, iv (ed. Chibna11, ii, pp. 260-2); see also
xi.44 (vi, p. 178).

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

39

the twelfth century. Their domains were growing in population


and value, so that their written descriptions kept going out of
date. Moreover, as we know from the history of Cluny, seigneurial
revenues failed to keep pace with rising costs, a disparity probably
worse in military households than in the church. 113 The growth
of markets and tolls, especially in the North, and the acceleration
and expansion of exchange in coined money changed the nature
of the values exploited and commended by lords after about 1075.
Yet it is unlikely that these economic circumstances would alone
have overturned the old system of prescriptive accountability.
The greater domains were not only hard to control by traditional
means of trust, they were also vulnerable to the demands of a
numerous class of petty lords and knights (and would-be lords)
who were creating and inflicting their own lordships without any
accounting at all. And when such men, with the outlook of
predatory lords, were entrusted with castellanies, prevOtes, shires
and bailiwicks, there resulted a tension which generated an
administrative conception of accountability. The very idea of such
responsibility must have antagonized the castellans who so fiercely
resisted good lords like Louis VI and Charles the Good. Was not
an accountability measured by precision and limits a "new
custom"? And, like any new custom of this age, suspect on its
face? Who was the "bad lord" in this snarling universe of competing lordships?114

Accountability was the last frontier of militant lordship. Ahead


lay a new world of government, not untainted with the old;
behind lay several generations of proliferating dominations under
which venerable principles of public order had been deeply compromised. Opinions may reasonably differ as to the place of these
changes in a yet larger history of societal transformation. What
113 Recueil des chartes de l'abbaye de Cluny, ed. Auguste Bernard and Alexandre
Bruel, 6 vols. (Paris, 1876-88), v, nos. 4132, 4143; Georges Duby, "Economie
domania1e et economie monetaire: le budget de l'abbaye de Cluny entre 1080 et
1155", Annales E.S.C., vii (1952), pp. 155-71, repr. in Georges Duby, Hommes et
structures du moyen age (Paris, 1973), ch. 2.
114 The relation between bad lordship and the new accountancy will be documented
in a book in progress. For another perspective, see Alexander Murray, Reason and
Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1978), chs. 7,8.

40

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER

142

seems beyond reasonable doubt is that over several decades


around the year 1000 the implantation of new lordships typically
fortified and violent broke through an old barrier of regalian
control; that people were then aware of a crisis of power, and
reacted to it; but that variable regional circumstances enhanced,
diluted or delayed its consequences. The coincidence of the crisis
with dynastic change, the cessation of invasions, and agrarian
prosperity gave Francia and adjoining lands centrality; but everywhere the shocks, when they occurred, must have accelerated
the slippage from official, accountable and lawful ways of action
to affectively arbitrary ways.
Disruptive, recurrent, this transformation was surely more than
an "adjustment" in continuous experience. 11S It forced, painfully,
a new acceptance of noble lordship as the basis of social order.
Its resemblance to a revolution, feudal or other, is not in the end
what matters; the concept of "feudal revolution", however
descriptive, remains problematic and may lose whatever evocative
force it had in the discourse of its inventors when applied to the
continuous history of lordship. Yet it is just that neglected history
which compels us to reconsider the tumultuous millennium: to
wonder what then happened to give violence a new and long
lease on life. "While justice sleeps in the hearts of kings and
princes", remembered the chronicler of Mouzon about the diocese of Reims in the 970s, "strong men agitated against [the
archbishop] ... [and] they began, each as he could, to make
himself greater". 116 A terrible dynamic was sprung, an oppressive
flaring of disdainful pretensions along the social seam torn open
by mentors of the three orders. It was not a class struggle,117 for
neither the unpoliticized many nor the violent few claimed a
cause or found sympathy in the old elites - except, in a sense,
the knights who could only gain from the enlarged respectability
of lordship. Only by recognizing the characteristic violence of lay
seigneurial power can we see that the typical struggle of the
eleventh and twelfth centuries was not that between lords and
peasants but that opposing two levels of the seigneurial elites.
Here if anywhere was quasi-ideological conflict: knights, retainers
As Barthelemy calls it, in "Mutation feodale?", pp. 774-5.
Chronique de Mouzon, i. 7 (ed. Bur, p. 152).
117 Which is not to say that peasant resistance, sometimes in visibly collective forms,
was unknown to these agrarian societies. See e.g. Reyna Pastor de Togneri, Resistencias
115

116

y luchas campesinas en la epoca del crecimiento y consolidacian de la formacian feudal:


Castilla y Lean, siglos X-XIII (Madrid, 1980), as well as citations in n. 48.

THE "FEUDAL REVOLUTION"

41

and servants struggling for respectability with their fragile claims


to coercive patrimonial domination, bewildered princes and kings
seeking to square their own seigneurial instincts with revived and
clerically inspired notions of lawful public order.
The new insistence on lordship was insidious as well as violent.
Its impact is to be sensed in (and between) the lines of innumerable conventions and oaths, not forgetting rituals entirely unwritten, of which the formulaic language conceals as well as reveals
the intensely personal bondings of a henceforth uninhibited effort
to sanction obligations in fidelity. Dominique Barthelemy questions the significance of this "flowering" of conventions in the
eleventh century - "a purely documentary fact", he calls it 118 but this is to fly in face of the evidence. It is, indeed, another
documentary "revelation", which Duby (originally) and others
correctly read as symptomatic of institutional change. The point
is not (of course) that such fidelity was categorically new in the
eleventh century; but that the simultaneous collapse of royal
power and the county courts then forced a new burden on sworn
commitments redeployed about lordships and castles.
Responsibility in functions of whatever sort tended to become
power. Power did not (as lordship did not) cease to be "public"
in some sense; public order persisted even as its peace-keeping
devices were transformed. Nor can two recent studies of settlements of disputes be held to disprove a radical disruption of
public legal procedures; on the contrary, they plausibly show
how, in Provence and the west of France, mUltiplying claims to
seigneurial rights together with heightened fears of violence gave
rise to peace-generating mechanisms supplanting without effacing
law-based justice. 119 More problematic and less clear is how coer118 Barthelemy, "Mutation feodale?", p.773. The very extent of this hitherto
neglected documentation remains uncertain, so little do we yet know of northern
forms of seigneurial regulation in relation to vastly abundant survivals in the South.
See generally Paul Ourliac, "La 'convenientia''', Etudes d'histoire du droit prive ofJertes
d Pierre Petot (Paris, 1959), pp. 413-22; see also Poly and Bournazel, Mutationjeodale,
2nd edn., p. 146 (Feudal Transformation, p. 75).
119 Barthelemy, "Mutation feodale?", pp. 772-3, citing Patrick J. Geary, "Vivre en
conflit dans une France sans etat: typo10gie des mecanismes de reg1ement des conflits,
1050-1200", Annales E.S.C., xli (1986), pp. 1107-33; S. D. White, "'Pactum . ..
legem vincit et amor judicium': The Settlement of Disputes by Compromise in EleventhCentury Western France", Amer. JI. Legal Hist., xxii (1978), pp. 281-308. The old
sociology of power, as in Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive
Sociology, ed. and trans. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, 2 vols. (Berkeley, 1978),
i, pp. 31-6, 53, and ii, pp. 641-52, 1006-90, may still have as much to teach us about
this transformation as the new anthropology of law.

42

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 142

cive lordship transformed peasant status and tenure. Barthelemy


may therefore be justified in questioning the concept of
social mutation: in doubting a uni-directional shift from
freedom/slavery to servility.120
But the quasi-revolutionary transformation of power here
envisaged should not be confused with other social changes, not
even with those, such as the diffusion of dynastic-patrimonial
conceptions of property or the deepening of religious sensibility,
which may be found to straddle the millennial generation. These
are another, bigger subject. The crisis of the millennium was one
of power, which (as always) survived; what collapsed was government. "Who does not know", asked Gregory VII in tendentious
rhetoric, "that kings and princes derive their origin from men
ignorant of God who raised themselves above their fellows by
pride, plunder, treachery, murder?"121 It is usual, and in a sense
correct, to dismiss this famous insinuation as an aberration in
medieval political thought, but it was surely based on familiar
experience. Few peasants - few people in the mass - would
have misunderstood in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. One
might hope to evade one's lord's violence, one expected him to
demand and constrain. Few expected him to govern.
Harvard University

T. N. Bisson

Barthelemy, "Mutation feodale?", pp. 771-2.


Letter to Bishop Hermann of Metz (15 March 1081), viii.21, Das Register Gregors
VII (ed. Erich Caspar, 2 vols., M.G.H., Epistolae selectae, Berlin, 1920-3, ii, p. 552).
Cf. I. S. Robinson, Authority and Resistance in the Investiture Contest: The Polemical
Literature of the Late Eleventh Century (Manchester, 1978), p. 132.
120
121