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Response to Review no. 754

This is a fair review, even a generous one, and in some ways pertinently engaging. Theo Riches rightly notes that my book draws on primary sources for the physical and emotional ‘experience of power’ to the exclusion of (in usual senses) semiotic meanings. He recognizes that my insistence on lordship, even if theoretically under-informed, marks a new departure in historical study. He sees merit in my choosing familiar case-histories of troubled power in France, Germany, and the Church, without quite admitting how much they resemble the less familiar ones in Iberian lands and England. Moreover, this review well conveys my own troubled sense of how and why something like ‘government’ becomes perceptible in the later 12th century (chapters 5, 6). For that was hardly less an ‘age of lordship’ than the one preceding, so that the conventional stress on law, justice, and consent towards 1200 quite misrepresents the history of power. This is why ‘politicisation’, for want of a better term, matters. Whatever the entrenched reality of lordship, ways of talking about power were changing after 1150 even as service, here and there, began to look official and accountable. Only from this time forward can European government, however minimal its traces, be said to have a continuous history.

It is perhaps wide of the mark to speak of my book (in two places) as ‘ambitious’. It was 25 years in the making, and the teaching from which it springs was of an unparochial European history. It represented, already in my article of 1994 (1) to which T. Reuter’s query was a response, a sea-change in my thinking about medieval history. In my altered view, moreover, I am far from contending ‘that 12th-century sources tell us very little about … institutions’ – on the contrary, they are full of evidence on that subject; what is lacking in them is evidence of government. This is true even of ecclesiastical lordships, whose place in my narrative of power figures diversely in chapters 2 to 5. Vastly if one-sidedly documented, their history could only be done adequately in a volume to itself. Dr Riches rightly questions my interest in social theory, but not quite accurately. I do not dismiss Foucault (p. 20), but cite him pertinently. To the charge of omitting semiotics, I plead guilty, apart from one point the reviewer overlooks: throughout, the book is attentive to the very words of contemporaries, and these words are signs within cultures. Among countless examples, let me only point to verbal representations: of German knights (pp. 226, 232–3), of pretensions to lordship in Spain (p. 254), of status in Flanders (p. 263), and of abuse by a bailiff in Languedoc deemed rightful by his victim (p. 581). Max Weber, for his part, is quite on board, for much of my argument may be read as a historically-informed critique of his sociology of power, often in his own conceptual verbiage. One misprint requires correction, because it could well mislead: the crisis of Catalonia dealt with in chapter 6 arose in the 1170s and 1180s.

The reviewer has two considerable reservations: my choice and treatment of sources, and my untheoretised treatment of lordship. It is right to recognize that recent and postmodernist scholarship is concerned with power. I wish to disown any implication to the contrary, whether in a tiny unwary remark in my preface, or in my book as a whole. But the modern study of ‘context-bound’ evidence is fraught with problems of its own. Some of it I have found unpersuasive. My extended pages on Anjou are meant to serve as pertinent commentary, with no pretense to their being the last word. Throughout The Crisis of the Twelfth Century my discussion of violence and customs is more nuanced than in 1994 as well as substantially unchanged. The widely current insinuation, repeated in this review, that ecclesiastical sources misrepresent lay practice is no longer tenable in general. It can only be defended in reference to specific contexts. All historical evidence is partial. I make constant allowance for exaggeration and misrepresentation in the tendentious records; what most interests me is the truth that comes through. And to suggest that fiscal records of periodic balance might have been usual before the 12th century is a worse argument from silence than my own to the contrary. That there were ‘checking mechanisms’ in prescriptive accountability we may be sure – but what, exactly, does the reviewer believe needed to be verified?

It is a better criticism that my conception of lordship is not always clear. But I do not believe that this failing stems from my ‘avoidance of theoretical issues’. If my representation of Carolingian power (mostly implicit) seems unsure, it is because our sources are profoundly equivocal about the extent to which lordship pervaded kingship, delegacies, and justice in the 9th century. In any case, just how can modern (or postmodern) theory help us here? The contemporary sources do show that public order and accountable office were cultivated values if not always realities for the Carolingians, their normative projection much stronger than in the 12th century. Moreover, the lordship that concerns me was as much a culture as an institution (chapter 2). Contrary to the reviewer’s impression, I deal with it in many of its diversities, distinguishing the dominations of castellans from those of kings, princes, and prelates; and while more could have been written about lesser clerical lordships, the characteristic disparagement of peasants, so far from being overlooked, is a major and insistent argument of my book.

Two of my findings have wider significance than has been noticed in reviews to date. First, if accountability goes with justice – and I treat it as ‘the justice of accountability’ –it is because of the quasi-seigneurial nature of service. Am I right in contending that servants (agents) habitually aimed at domination? Has this ever been noticed (let alone, argued) by historians? What the sources seem overwhelmingly to teach is how anachronistic it is to suppose that men appointed to serve others in this remote past normally served any but themselves. Second, my contention that assemblies (as such) become ‘politicised’ with causes recognized as collective is in stark contrast with the prevailing understanding of parliamentary origins.(2) What I have tried to show is that the convocation of towns to assemblies is a consequence, not the cause, of this politicising of societal interests. Whatever the future of European parliamentary life around 1200, it began then as a timely response to the non-political liabilities of lordship. Its novelty is a problem in medieval not modern history.


  1. T. N. Bisson. ‘The “feudal revolution”’, Past & Present, 142 (1994), 6–42.Back to (1)
  2. See, e.g., Joseph F. O’Callaghan, The Cortes of Castile-León, 1188–1350 (Middle Ages Series, Philadelphia, 1989), together with countless textbooks, which stress the novelty of convoking towns to elite assemblies. Many scholars have questioned the importance of urbanism in this context, notably Antonio Marongiu, Medieval Parliaments: a Comparative Study, tr. S. J. Woolf (London, 1968); but see also Carlos Estepa Díez, in Las Cortes de Castilla y León en la Edad Media (2 vols., Valladolid, 1988), i, pp. 23–103. A wholly new treatment of English parliamentary origins will be found in John Maddicott’s Ford Lectures (2004), to be published by Oxford University Press.Back to (2)