Revolution and Revelation

The Age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980-1420

by Georges Duby, translated by Eleanor Levieux and Barbara Thompson
University of Chicago Press, 312 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined

by Georges Duby, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
University of Chicago Press, 382 pp., $9.95 (paper)

For the past thirty years Georges Duby has been reconstructing the history of feudal society along lines that were first laid out by the great French historian Marc Bloch. In doing so Duby has himself become one of the most interesting and productive historians at work today. Bloch’s inspiration he has acknowledged, of course, both in his earliest work on the Mâconnais region in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and again in 1970 when he made the inaugural address at the College de France. Bloch’s example, he said then, had helped him to discover the living people behind the dust of the archives.1

In Feudal Society, Bloch distinguished two feudal ages, the first beginning as early as the ninth century and continuing until the middle of the eleventh century. The first age was distinguished from the second more by its economic tone and expansiveness than by social institutions; the hierarchical relations of lord and vassal and seigneur and serf simply took shape as time passed.

Duby also sees feudalism as going through phases but as starting later, during the eleventh century, and as clearly identified by a seigniorial mode of production and political decentralization. For him the years between 1070 and 1150 were a time of “great progress.” He contrasts the practices of the tenth century and earlier, when bands of warriors went pillaging with their king and lived off booty rather than the meager production of their slaves, with the succeeding system by which the knights extracted most of their wealth from the labor of their unfree peasants. He also points up the contrast between dukes with a clientele of “friends” still loyal to the old public institutions and the emerging chains of lords and vassals each having seized the powers of the state on his own seigniorial lands. Then the Viking and other raids cease; Carolingian institutions crumble; the year 1000 comes and goes without the world ending. Instead feudalism is firmly in place.

Its heyday was relatively short. First, the revival of the cities and of commerce during the mid-twelfth century affected the rural economy, and then the strengthening of the Capetian monarchy by the early thirteenth century undermined the political power of the seigneurs. The castellans had to pay attention to the king’s men; the knights became a landed nobility.

Duby has shifted other of Bloch’s emphases as well. Feudal Society had devoted only a few pages to the clergy, while Duby has insisted on the seigniorial properties and feudal powers of the abbeys and bishops; there were really two feudal ruling classes, one religious, one secular, sometimes in alliance with each other, sometimes in competition. Bloch and others of the Annales school emphasized the importance of the longue durée—the continuity of historical structures over an extended period. To this Duby added the possibility of sudden changes, of history moving “abruptly, by fits and starts.” For him dates are important as are precise events, not just as fortuitous conjunctions of circumstances, but as dramas…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.