Some reflections on violence, reconciliation and the “feudal revolution”

Some reflections on violence, reconciliation and the “feudal revolution”

By Fredric L. Cheyette

Conflict in Medieval Europe, ed. Piotr Gorecki and Warren Brown ( Ashgate, 2003)

Introduction: When Georges Duby died, I was moved to read once again the book that first made his reputation and that for many medievalists represents his masterpiece, La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise . This book was in many ways the fons et origo of two generations of French medieval social history, the model for untold numbers of theses on “la terre et les hommes” in one region or another of Europe, many published and many more that will probably never be completed. For the social and political history of the tenth and eleventh centuries in France, the Mâconnais created what we may call the “standard model.” Although Duby himself was very cautious about using the word “feudal,” out of his description of the transformation of Burgundian society around the year 1000 eventually came the dominating picture of the mutation féodale, Englished as the “feudal revolution.”

Violence and the social means by which it was controlled, if not a major topic in the pages Duby devoted to the tenth and eleventh centuries, figure prominently among the assumptions that guide his argument. They continue to lurk — quietly or not — on the fringes or at the heart of many discussions of the “feudal revolution.” The path from the Mâconnais to the subject of this conference, therefore, inevitably leads to a detour through the terminology and definition of “feudalism.” In following this side road, I do not intend to go back over the ground long ago plowed by Elizabeth A.R. Brown and more recently by Susan Reynolds concerning the use of the words “feudal” and “feudalism” and the concepts they refer to. But before I turn to the large question of how our developing understanding of the processes of violence and reconciliation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries destabilizes what has been for over a generation the “standard model,” I want to reflect for a moment on why we have so long bothered with ‘feudalism,’ the mutation féodale or ‘feudal revolution,’ and why we should stop doing so.

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