Sovereign Subjects, Feudal Law, and the Writing of History

Sovereign Subjects, Feudal Law, and the Writing of History

Davis, Kathleen (Princeton University)

Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 36:2, Spring (2006)


Forty years ago, the Renaissance legal historian Donald R. Kelley suggested that medievalists take an interest in “de origine feudorum,” the philological and historiographical pursuit of the origin of feudal law by sixteenth-century legal scholars. For Kelley, the “pioneering mediaevalists” who began the historical study of feudalism deserve attention for their contribution to the development of historical writing, for their links to the Enlightenment and later philological nationalisms, and for their role in shaping historical knowledge, on which he cites Herbert Butterfield’s maxim: “Our knowledge of the past is seriously affected if we learn how that knowledge came into existence and see the part which historical study itself has played in the story of the human race.” Ironically however, feudalism’s central importance to historiography has itself deterred critical investigation of this search for feudal origins, which not only laid the narrative basis of all subsequent concepts of feudalism, but also — and more importantly — mediated the theorization of sovereignty and subjection by some of Europe’s most influential sixteenth- century jurists at a crucial moment of empire, slavery, and colonialism. Long before feudalism’s denomination as an “ism” in the eighteenth century, the spatio-temporal concept of a feudal European past “came into existence” as an argument over the nature of sovereignty and the history of imperium (in its related senses of executive power and supreme territorial rule), culminating in a theory of slavery and of a social contract. To this conjunction we owe the later, persistent association of the Middle Ages with subjugation, as well as the role of the Middle Ages as the enabling figure of exclusion in much philosophical and political thought.

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