Interview with Thomas Bisson

Thomas N. Bisson is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of Medieval History (emeritus) at Harvard University.  His research focuses on medieval France and Catalonia, and his books include Tormented Voices: Power, Crisis, and Humanity in Rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 and The Medieval Crown of Aragon.  He is also well known for his article “The Feudal Revolution”, which was published in Past & Present (No.142) in 1994.

His latest book is The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government.  We were able to inteview Professor Bisson by email:

1. The first thing that caught my attention about this book was the title: The Crisis of the Twelfth Century. Many medievalists would have viewed this century from books such as Charles Homer Haskins’ The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.  Did you decide on that particular title as a way to juxtapose your arguments against the ideas that saw the 12th century in a positive frame?

Yes.  I had come to believe (by 1985) that Haskins’ admirable book (and its title) obscured as much as it enlightened.  But, as I write more than once, my book seeks to expand upon, not to undo (non tollit sed perfecit).

2. The book examines how government emerges across medieval Europe, roughly between the years 1050 and 1225. What made you interested in this topic and how did the arguments in this book develop?

The Crisis of the Twelfth Century… originated as a Core course in Harvard College (1987-88).  The aim of that course was to introduce medieval history to undergraduates, especially those concentrating in fields other than history.  It made sense to project my specialist interest in European societies and institutions so as to open up a big problem in historical interpretation: what (if anything) feudalism (or lordship) had to do with government?  Any educated person, I thought (and think), ought to know something about these terms and this question.

The problem led me to the twelfth century, not so much because of Haskins, as because of the newer works of R. W. Southern and Georges Duby.  And above all because my reading in the sources of post-Carolingian Europe had shown me (with others) not only how inadequate was the concept of “feudalism” but also how deeply problematic was that of “government.”   My course became a laboratory on “power” in the twelfth century,  driving me to the conclusion that the normative form of power in that age was not government (let alone, feudalism!) but lordship.  And because the concepts of office, accountability, and competence were hard to find, anywhere in Europe, before about 1150, their appearance began to look like the origins (or revival) of government that had long ceased to exist.  And by viewing this from before rather than from afterwards, I have attempted to query the further conceptual issue of historical origins.  What the course and book arrived at was a late twelfth century (1180-1230) in which lordship is quite as massive as ever, yet is beginning to suffer government in its midst.  (Note that, while I deal with power 1050 to 1225, I find government only after 1160.)

3. One term that stuck with me from reading this book was ‘bad lordship’.  How would you explain what it meant to be a bad lord in the 12th century?

‘Bad lordship’ is a good question to raise.  Georges Duby cautioned me late in his career not to talk about it.  He was knowingly in agreement with some younger historians who believed it was a misleading and tendentious usage by self-serving churchmen, strategic verbiage making for unreliable evidence.  But my research over many years suggests that this critique misses a real historical truth: that from about 1050 to about 1150 many people believed that some lords were wicked.  Their multiple testimonies often stigmatized notorious individuals.  I only ask why this was so. We may reasonably suspect some of this evidence, but much of it cannot be explained away.  “Bad lordship” is a medieval concept, not my own.

4. The reviews that have come out already about this book predict that this book will be one that is going to promote a lot of discussion and debate (as well as recommendations that this should be on every medieval scholars’ book shelf). What avenues for research and inquiry would you suggest for your colleagues and students if they want to pursue the ideas you have raised about the roles of power, lordship and government in medieval society?

You are right about the reviews to date.  They do, indeed, suggest that Crisis will arouse debate.  I’m not surprised, and (I confess) not alarmed.  These reviews are addressed to general readers; no reviews, to my knowledge, choose or have space to deal with all the questioning I foresee.  (1) Was there a “crisis” in the twelfth century? My argument is that strains and troubles that can be called “crises” were compounded and multiplied after about 1060: in dynastic successions, in the church, in the failure of great lords to manage growing domains without managerial accountability; perhaps above all in the striving of a militant lesser aristocracy for dynastic lordship and nobility.  Their failure was prerequisite to the implantation of royal governments.   (2) Lordship as distinct from government.  In several places I allow for the identity of these terms, a point that will surely trouble no one, although it may surprise non-medievalists.  But whereas contemporaries made no distinction, we must do so-more and more-if we are to make historical sense of changes in the twelfth century.  (3) I argue for a prevailing shortage of government and political behavior.  There will be a defensive reaction against this, for practically all historians use these terms in reference to the twelfth century.  But no one can doubt that these terms are more or less charged with modern connotations.  Only by doing without them can we grasp how power changed in the later twelfth century.  (4) The rise of accountability and office.  My book offers a new narrative about this.  These concepts seem to me essential to government by any definition.  (5) Power as a matter of theory.  One (of six) reviewers to date finds the book much less than theoretically informed. This may be so, but it could be debatable.  There is much of Max Weber, sometimes explicitly, in my argument.  Moreover, the whole book works, however intuitively, from the “linguistic turn.”  It is premised on a critique of “government” and “politics” in the usage of modern historians.  The sources speak only of power and lordship.  Other points will be queried, including (6) violence.  Just how bad was it?  I continue to believe, as in 1994 (Past & Present no. 142), that the multiplication of castles and knights was a quasi-revolutionary phenomenon extending as late as the 1140s; but, as always before, I speak of “feudal revolution” only in inverted commas.  It is no more than an interpretive metaphor.  It should not be confused with mutation féodale.

Of these arguments, “crisis” will surely be questioned.  It is a largely modern concept, I make the case for it, but it will be for the reader herself to decide.  Lordship will be less controversial for the evidence of it is massive.  The critics who demolished feudalism will, I hope, wonder why they forgot about lordship.   My insistent critique of “government” and “politics” is absolutely grounded in the sources.

One reviewer (to date) has noticed that this book, like my Tormented Voices (1998), aims at compassionate history.  Above all else, I have tried to imagine how power was experienced.  Whether governments deserve the trust oppressed peoples may expect of them would seem to be a question beyond my book.

We thank Professor Bisson for graciously answering our questions.

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