Feudal Society is a great work of historical synthesis in the finest French tradition. The author treats feudalism as a living and vitalising force in the society of Western Europe from the ninth to the thirteenth century. After surveying the social and intellectual conditions in which feudalism developed, Bloch examines the nature of the bond of kinship both as a predecessor and as a concomitant of vassalage. The core of the book is a masterly account of the creation of ties of dependence and of relations of lord and vassal, and the origins and nature of the fief. The nobility and their way of life, knighthood and chivalry, the clergy and other forces in society are also portrayed, and the work concludes with a discussion on feudalism as a type of society. Throughout the author treats history as a living organism and endless process of creative evolution. “Here is one of those rare books of impeccable scholarship (superbly translated by Mr Manyon) which no intelligent person could possibly read without pleasure and interest and excitement. What Bloch’s book gives us is the anatomy of an age. Some would call it sociology rather than history, or at any rate historical sociology. If so, it adds a new dimension which most historical writing lacks.”—GEOFFREY BARRACLOUGH, The Observer
“This is not only a scholar’s book for other scholars, or a mine of information for students, though it happens to be both these things as well, it is a book for every intelligent reader interested in the living past of Europe.” —C. V. WEDGWOOD, The Daily Telegraph
Marc Bloch, one of the great historians of our time, was born at Lyons in 1886 and educated at the École Normale in Paris. He was for many years Professor of Medieval History in the University of Strasbourg before being called in 1936 to the Chair of Economic History at the Sorbonne. In the war he joined the Resistance, but was caught by the Gestapo, tortured, and shot near Lyons in June 1944. Though his other writings had won him international reputation among historians, Feudal Society is generally regarded as his masterpiece.
MARC BLOCH’S book, now the standard international treatise on feudalism, is the last product of his scholarly activities. Yet it must not be read as an epitome of his lifes work. The second volume appeared in 1940 and was circulated to his friends in this country as from the “author on active service” de la part de l’auteur aux armées. But although his wartime readers could have had no premonition of his tragic end three years later, and had every reason for expecting him to go back to the study of the Middle Ages, the book must have struck them then, as it must strike the informed reader now, as part of a serial, un traiteé fleuve, on the Middle Ages of which the other instalments had appeared a few years earlier. The best known and the most important of these earlier instalments, Les Caractères originaux de I’histoire rurale française, like the several studies which preceded and accompanied it,1 presented an image of the medieval world, which from Bloch’s own point of view was incomplete. In spite of the generous sweep of their ideas, those earlier books did not illuminate the entire range of medieval culture and society. Their interest was sharply (in writing about Bloch we cannot use the word narrowly) focused on the material basis of medieval existence: soil, topography, technique of cultivation, forms of settlement; or else on those social relations through which the material basis plainly showed.
That this was not Bloch’s full view of the Middle Ages must be obvious not only from his writings, but also from innumerable hints and references all over his Caractères originaux itself. True enough, his predilections and his preoccupations as a historian were with “rational” aspects of history, with tangible facts capable of being understood, i.e. ordered and analysed in the way in which most modern scientists order and analyse their data. Students of ideas who happen to have preserved a vocabulary uncorrupted by recent usage will therefore recognise Bloch’s approach as “positivist” in the proper sense of the word. Bloch himself might have fought shy of this appellation. In his posthumously published notes on the historian’s craft he dissents from positivists of the wrong kind, the positivistes de stricte observance or the positivisme un peu rudimentaire or positivisme mal compris.2 But this very anxiety to dissociate himself from the misconceptions of positivism displays an affinity with positivism properly conceived. To him history is a science in the true epistemological sense of the term: a connaissance which offers us un classement rationel et une progressive intelligibilité. And he accordingly defends history’s claim to the name of science (au nom scientifique) even though it be incapable of Euclidean demonstration of immutable laws. 3
Yet this attitude, even though positivist and rational in the proper sense of the terms, did not restrict him to economic phenomena, to the mere business of earning and spending, or to those social problems which Marxists would classify as “social relations of production” Everything in historical inquiry capable of being tested by verifiable proof and of yielding useful sense was grist to his mills. And those powerful millstones of his ground fine sense out of the greatest possible variety of historical facts—men’s ideas, beliefs, fears and political incentives as well as their material needs and economic devices.
Hence his plan to pass from the Caractères originaux and similar studies to a treatise on feudalism considered as a system of human relations. In so far as the earlier studies dealt almost entirely with agriculture and village society, they bypassed many other topics of medieval history and gave no more than part of Bloch’s full design. In order to complete his picture and to do so in a manner appropriate to his outlook he had to follow his earlier studies with a further treatise analysing the medieval world from the point of view of its social order, or rather of those elements in the social order which were not involved in productive processes or directly determined by them. And that meant writing the story of the social ties embodied in vassalage, fealty, personal dependence, private authority over men, as well as of the older ties of family and tribal system which the feudal system absorbed or replaced.
It is on these relations that the present volume concentrates and thereby complements Bloch’s other studies. Yet even taken by itself it opens up a view of the Middle Ages much wider and perhaps truer than most other studies dealing ostensibly with the same subject. A hasty reader, trained in the British or German tradition of medieval studies, may consider the book as yet another recapitulation of the ideas which form the main corpus of academic thought about the Middle Ages. In this corpus “feudalism” is merely a name for the legal or customary principles embodied in the feudum as the universal principle of military organization. Thus told the history of feudalism is mainly the story of baronial and knightly contracts of service. In tracing their origin constitutional historians are often content to demonstrate how military necessities of the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages called into existence the knights’ fees with their baronial and honorial superstructures. In tracing the subsequent mutations of English or German feudalism, they try to show how the military system of fees broke up, was replaced, revived or bastardised, and how new contractual principles—indenture or plain hire—replaced the older contract of military fief.
This identification of feudalism with military service is bound to narrow the history of feudalism down to a single issue and to remove out of its history a vast range of subjects which other historians habitually weave into it and to which the word and concept of feudalism owes its prominent place in historiography. How far this difference of approach can sometimes go has recently been demonstrated at an Anglo-Soviet occasion, when the two principal speakers, the Russian and the English, gave carefully composed disquisitions on feudalism which hardly touched at a single point. The English speaker dwelt learnedly and gracefully on military fiefs, while the Russian speaker discoursed on class domination and exploitation of peasants by landlords. Needless to say the Russian disquisition was packed tight with familiar Marxist furniture — the state as a vehicle of class rule, “commodity exchange” as a solvent of feudalism, feudal economy as an antecedent of early capitalism. Yet for all its dogmaticism and ancient verbiage, the Russian use of the term appeared to bear more directly on the intellectual enterprise of history than the conventional connotation adopted by the English speaker.
Needless to say, the concept of feudalism as it figures in English and perhaps German historiography has its uses. The English and German lawyers who gave it birth and the constitutional historians who developed it have brought to its study a great deal of juristic and scholastic rigour. This rigorous tradition has now deposited a body of ideas which university teachers can usefully employ for pedagogical purposes, mainly as a vehicle of intellectual discipline and an antidote to the journalistic levities of modern historiography. But regarded as an intellectual tool, to be used in the study of society, the conventional Anglo-German approach has been, to say the least, unhelpful. In so far as it concentrates on military service it cannot provide a key to the fundamentals of medieval society or indeed any society; in so far as it concerns itself with contractual principles it conceals from the view the underlying social realities. And even within the narrow range of legal and contractual problems it cannot allow for the time lag between the evolution of legal forms and the changing needs of society.
Of course, from some points of view the legalistic formulation of feudalism is no worse than its other generalized formulations. It is indeed possible (and some writers have also found it convenient) to argue that no port-manteau formula and certainly no single term can do what we expect the term feudalism to do, i.e. to sum up the essentials of a social system or of a historical situation. Such comprehensive words, be they mercantilism, capitalism, or socialism, must over-simplify the reality they purport to epitomize. In some contexts the practice of giving general names to whole epochs can even be dangerous. It may lure its practitioners into the worst pitfalls of the nominalist fallacy, and may encourage them to endow their terms with real existence, to derive features of an epoch from the etymology of the word used to describe it or to construct edifices of historical argument out of mere semantic conceits.
These are all very real dangers. But the same dangers are inherent in all general terms. If pressed consistently this objection to general terms will hold good against such humdrum concepts as war, peace, state, estate, class, industry, agriculture. Indeed, without generalized terms representing entire groups of phenomena not only history but all intelligent discourse would be impossible. Of this Bloch was well aware. Why he asks “be afraid of general words? No science can do without abstractions and is the chlorophylic function more “real” than the economic function?” 4 But if generalized concepts are to be used, there is much to be said for employing only the useful ones, i.e. those which help us to distinguish one historical situation from another, and to align similar situations in different countries and even in different periods. 5 And in order that the concept of feudalism could be thus useful it must invoke the really essential features of an historical situation or an epoch and show them in their interdependence. This the constitutional and legal concepts of feudalism cannot do, but this is what Bloch obviously had in mind. True enough, his definition of feudalism, where he attempts it (e.g. in Part might at first sight bear strong resemblance to conventional definitions of text books. But looked at more closely it will be found to embrace most of the significant features of medieval society. “A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e. the fief) instead of salary; supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man, fragmentation of authority; and, in the midst of all of this, survival of other forms of association, family and State.”6 This is certainly an approach much wider than the one which equates feudalism with feudum and begins and ends its history with that of the knight service. In Bloch’s definition the fief is only an element, albeit a very important one, of the whole situation. But to him a society might still be feudal even if the fief occupied a more subordinate position. This latitude might strike the orthodox as incompatible with the etymology of the term. But, he argues, etymological rectitude is not the final test of an historical concept. “What”, he asks in his Métier d”historien, “if the term is currently used to characterize societies in which the fief is not the most significant trait. There is nothing in this contrary to the practice of all the sciences. Are we shocked by the physicists persisting to apply the term atom, i.e. indivisible, to an object they subject to the most audacious division?” 7
A connotation of feudalism in which fief is merely a part clearly derives from the assumption “that the framework of institutions which govern a society can in the last resort be understood only through the knowledge of the whole human environment”, and is equally clearly implied in his insistent references to the ambiance sociale totale. 8 It is therefore not surprising to find him introducing his story of feudalism by a stimulating and perceptive discussion of medieval mentality. For not only are men’s ideas embedded in the ambiance sociale, but they are of the very essence of social structure. To quote him again, “social classification exists in the last analysis only by virtue of the ideas which men form of it.” 9
However, what makes this epigram significant is not only its emphasis on ideas but its underlying assumption that the true universe of discourse of an historian of feudalism is social classification. And once social classification becomes the main theme in the history of feudalism, that history must inevitably concern itself with the masses of people below and outside the system of military fiefs.
Bloch may insist that the manor had a history separate from that of the feudal system, but he repeatedly emphasizes that it was “an essential element in feudal society” He in fact begins his final definition of feudalism with “a subject peasantry” If he does not deal with a subject peasantry in greater detail in the main body of this book, this is merely because he has already done so in the Caractères originaux. From this point of view the two studies are complementary and cannot display Bloch’s view of feudal society except in combination. And even then the view might be capable of yet another enlargement. For all we know, had Bloch survived the war he might have rounded off his account of the Middle Ages by a major work on the history of medieval ideas les caractères orginaux d’histoire morale et intellectuelle européenne. — M.M. Postan
1 More especially Rois et Serfs, Paris, 1920; “Liberté et servitude personelles au moyen âge”, Annuario de historia del derecho español, Madrid, 1933; and “The Rise of Dependent Cultivation”, in Cambridge Economic History, I. xi
2 Le métier d’historien, Paris, 1948 (English translation under the title of The Historian’s Craft), pp. xii, 4.
3 Ibid., pp. xvi, xii-xiii, 72.
4 The Historian’s Craft, p. 74.
5 “un lexique dont la généralité se veut supérieare aux résonances d’aucune époque particulière”, ibid., pp. 87-8; also p. 72.
6 Below, p. 446.
7 P. 86.
8 Métier d’historien, p. 8 and passim.
9 Below, p. 268, also p. 59.