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 that tell what is going on and influence what is going to happen next.

Thus the year 1000, about which Duby wrote a book, inspired penitential purification, an outpouring of alms to the church, and clerical initiative to bring about peace. In its wake the “feudal revolution” took place in little more than a generation. And the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, wonderfully recreated in another of his books, demonstrated that the victorious Philip Augustus was no longer just the king of Paris, but the powerful ruler of France, master of his counts and dukes, and one of the great figures of Christendom.2

In an abundant flow of publications, Duby has been developing these theses, seeing what happened to them when he extended his research beyond the region around the abbey of Cluny to the northern France of the Carolingian and Capetian dynasties. He has used them to reconceive the history of medieval kinship, marriage, and the relations of fathers and sons.3 The Age of the Cathedrals is a good introduction to his historical vision and, except for the fact that it is lacking in any notes and bibliography, to his methodology as well.

His aim is to account for the changing character of medieval art—architecture, sculpture, and painting—by seeing it in constant interplay with the rest of society, with social relations, political power, religious style, thought, and sensibility. He deals with kings, clerics, knights, and burghers; the laboring peasants make it all possible, but are themselves cut off from art by “rusticity and brutishness.” What gives excitement to this book, what prevents it from being just another survey of medieval civilization, is the hand of the master choosing the telling details—the musical notes sculpted on the capitals of the choir at Cluny, the golden cross at Saint-Denis, the porch dedicated to the Virgin at Senlis—and interpreting them afresh, according to his complex understanding of each medieval stage.


The Romanesque, for example, is presented as an amalgam of the values and aspirations of the feudal classes, that is, the knights and the monks. In contrast with the adoption of pure but distant classical images by the artists working under the orders of the Carolingian kings, the Romanesque drew on Latin motifs still growing in the hospitable soil of southern France. New visual forms burst forth, nourished by the same energy that was creating seigniories and pressing for agricultural productivity. The knights, caring deeply about the abbeys as family tombs, made gifts of property and gold to the monks, who promptly used them for glittering treasures for the Lord.

Meanwhile the monks were trying to find a way to God, difficult in a “universe pictured as a sort of mysterious forest which no man could measure.” Their techniques for reasoning “proved to be as inadequate as the wooden plows that farmers dragged over parcels of cleared land.” One followed what tracks one could; the satanic forces in the underbrush sprouted in carvings on the Romanesque capitals, half serpent, half woman. People had glimmers of the divine through the liturgy; its gestural quality spoke to the unlettered knights, its musical harmony echoed divine harmony for the chanting monks. Crossing the threshold of the church was like crossing the threshold to the other world—funeral rites performed in the narthex underscored the point—and it was here that the Romanesque finally made its most astonishing innovation, the return to monumental sculpture. Statues no longer needed to be hidden near the altar or in the crypt lest they lead to idolatry or other dangers, but could instruct pilgrims in the tympanum of Conques, remind the knights of the judgment of the Lord’s court above the doorway at Moissac, and draw the initiated monks up toward heaven in the Ascension at Cluny.

These metaphors and connections give only a hint of Duby’s approach to Romanesque art, for his pages are as studded with insights as Sainte Foy’s reliquary is with jewels. The same perceptive analysis is applied to the Gothic: here in the king’s northern France and in the new towns, Duby associates the revived royal and episcopal power with the “light, logic, lucidity and yearning for God in human form” characteristic of the cathedrals. Rural prosperity and commercial expansion fed a buoyant optimism and helped fill the church’s coffers; the anointed king on his throne surrounded by his bishops reinforced a sense of pyramidal order; the cutting logic of the new Paris schools opened out the mysterious forest of the universe. The God of light now poured into the cathedral, where the incarnate God, the human Son, gave sacral expression to joy in the world and where an ordered unity reflected the hierarchy of men.

Duby then carries the argument forward to the later Gothic in France and Germany and the chapels, tombs, equestrian statues, and paintings of Italy and elsewhere in the fourteenth century. His closing image, suggesting a moment of freedom for the artist from patrons and commands, is of Jan van Eyck painting a portrait of his wife and Masaccio painting his own face into one of his frescoes.

The Age of the Cathedrals, in the pleasant translation by Eleanor Levieux and Barbara Thompson, suggests many new ways to uncover meaning in medieval art. Whether it is adequate as a historical theory of “artistic creation,” of “art and society,” is another matter. Certainly Duby touches the necessary bases: the purpose of art, the patron, the viewers and users, and, as information becomes more ample, the position of artists and builders themselves. But the movement from society to art and back again is always straightforward; there are no mixed messages, no crossed purposes; no tensions. Art reflects: elites are optimistic, the art is optimistic. Art teaches: it asserts hierarchy and the unity of body and soul in the Incarnation against the more egalitarian dualities of the heretical Albigensians.

These “elective affinities” between artistic and social styles, however brilliantly presented by Duby, need sometime to be proven in detail, as E. H. Gombrich urged some years ago in In Search of Cultural History and as Michael Baxandall showed could be done in his Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy.4 In that book the common vision and language of the artist, patron, and viewer are reconstructed by a close reading of multiple texts. Further, one may ask about Duby’s analysis, need art always reflect or be parallel to other kinds of experience? Can’t it say something different? Must the woman-serpent on the Romanesque capitals express only a fear of women? And when the Virgin comes to the fore in cathedral sculpture, as at Senlis and Reims, and becomes the image of the church, what do we make of that? A statement about women, or about the feminine in men? Indeed, Meyer Schapiro has called our attention to independent aesthetic meanings in Romanesque art—churches praised because their beauty makes one joyful and decorated textiles appreciated for ingenious design and contrasting colors.5


Interestingly enough, part of the great achievement of Duby’s more recent book, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, is that he uses a more flexible cultural theory and that he establishes social and cultural connections in greater detail. The notion of the three orders into which society is divided—those who pray, those who fight, and those who work—the oratores, the bellatores, and the laboratores—was very much alive in the eighteenth century until the three estates came crashing down in the French Revolution. The idea had an end, but did it have a beginning, and if so, when and why? This is the difficult and important question Duby asks in this book.

One general answer was current among historians when he began, that of the linguist and mythographer Georges Dumézil, Duby’s colleague at the Collège de France. The tripartite division of both the gods and society, Dumézil held, is an ancient habit of language and thought particular to Indo-European peoples; sometimes it is associated with an actual tripartite division of people in everyday life, but the mental construct can exist independently.6 For the author of The Year 1000 and The Battle of Bouvines, Dumézil’s thesis was interesting, but did not explain chronology. Moreover, the mythographer’s three “functions” did not correspond perfectly to the medieval ones: Dumézil’s first function was sovereign power, both juridical and magical, therefore broader than the utterances of the oratores; his third function was fertility and nourishment and was in some places represented as a woman or goddess, whereas France’s laboratores were almost always men. Duby’s task then was to account for the emergence of a precise historical image from a rich and latent cultural reserve.

The first appearance that medievalists have found of the tripartite idea in France is around 1025, in the writings of two cousins, Gerard and Adalbero, bishops respectively of Cambrai and Laon, defenders of the principles of Carolingian monarchy, then foundering in the person of the weak Capetian king. Earlier, binary terms had been used for social classification: the orders of the clergy and the people, the two swords of priest and king. Three-part classifications had appeared before—the virgins, the celibate, and the married—but not a division of all men into three social functions. Hierarchy was built into the image from the beginning: by imitating the order in heaven, those that God had chosen to work by the sweat of their brow would obey those above them, who would rule them with charity. At the top the bishops would guide the king in keeping the edifice in harmonious order. This was a new formulation—Duby talks of Gerard and Adalbero as tailors, patching together a new garment out of existing swatches of material—but it was being used to hold together an old institution.

Not unexpectedly the idea had competitors, groups offering images which threatened to efface boundaries (namely, heretics and the enthusiasts of the Peace of God movement) and then those who wanted to draw the boundaries in a different way. Ultimately the monks carried the day, that is, the monks of Cluny and elsewhere who dominated cultural life during the “feudal revolution” and the flowering of the Romanesque after the year 1000. They talked about a quadripartite division of society: The holy monks leading the way; the clerics; the knights; and finally the people, the countryfolk. Here was an image that might pacify unruly knights and had some plausibility in the decentralized conditions of eleventh-century France, an image that to some extent “followed the channel cut by the social structure itself.” Other classifications proffered in the course of the church reform and urban developments of the twelfth century had the same traits: they took account of something observed in the social world and they kept the classifier’s own group on top. Gregorian reformers reverted to a binary distinction between the clergy and the laity as they tried to get rid of married priests and princely control of benefices, while Saint Bernard of Clairvaux added merchants to the end of a procession headed by monks of noble birth.

So the trifunctional theory was eclipsed, remaining quietly in manuscripts, but with certain features that could give it social force in the right circumstances. It was not as ascetic in tone as the classifications that gave leadership to the monks; and it provided formal status to the peasants, whose toil was fundamental to the seigniorial system, while making clear that their oppression was based on natural inequality.

The time of the Three Orders came with the revival of royal power and episcopal authority during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries (the time too of the ordered Gothic cathedrals and the theology of the Incarnation). Duby shows that the idea of three social estates was tried out first to justify the authority of the dukes of Normandy in their own realms. Then it was pulled in binary directions by Parisian doctors who were aware of the power struggles between clergy and knights and of the danger of sedition from the oppressed. It ended up in the capable hands of the chaplains to Philip Augustus, anointed king of France and victor at the Battle of Bouvines.

In William the Breton’s Philippiad, the king is represented as above all three orders, keeping the hierarchy stable and each order in its place, punishing injustice and assuring peace as Christ’s vicar on earth. The image then spreads everywhere that the French vernacular goes, acceptable to the oratores and bellatores “because the common fear and hatred of the serfs enforced a closing of the ranks around the sovereign.” As for the peasants, they were now well down the ladder of the laboratores, below the merchants furnishing goods to the court for survival. A hundred years later, when the king summoned representatives of his three estates for the first time, no toilers were expected.

So ends Duby’s stunning account of the transformation and acceptance of a central social conception. Through its pages he offers a chorus of observation about the multiple relations that images have with social structure and the various ways that images change. We are in a different world from the reflections and correspondences of The Art of the Cathedrals. The images of a harmoniously divided society change by conscious effort, through the writings of Adalbero and Gerard in their workshops, but they also change in a less straightforward manner. “The history I am recounting, the history of a social fantasy [un rêve de société] is made up of…imperceptible displacements, partial superimpositions, and imperfect condensations. It is also made up of lapses of memory, whether conscious or not.” Those imperceptible displacements are not only in the minds of monks, but also in social processes, which can cause cracks in the ideological system; one way or another they will bring about new forms of thought. To take hold, the social representation has to make sense to its audience, and this always involves, for Duby, serving a social or political interest: “the ternary figure was far more suitable [than the binary] because it expressed at once the antagonisms existing within the dominant class and the structural complicity of its two antagonistic opponents, ecclesiastic and lay.” The resulting image can be mystifying and constricting, or it can be expanding, giving order to “the complexity, changeability and nebulousness of the social realm.” It can even be a discovery: feudalism was both a “revolution” and a “revelation.”

The Three Orders will prompt readers to think anew about the purposes served by other large social representations, such as our ideas of class and the slippage between systems of two, three, and four elements. Even the well-established three estates were often adjusted and reshuffled in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: An important bishop and royal adviser adds a third lay estate of lawyers and merchants in between the nobility and the “little people” and puts the church in a special category by itself because it is “common to all the estates”; others wonder whether the ennobled judges might not be a fourth estate; the jurist Charles Loyseau, whose classic statement of the three orders opens Duby’s book, also talks of a binary division of those who command (the king, his magistrates, and officers) and those who obey (everybody else). What else is the Protestant Reformation, carried on though it was in Indo-European tongues, than an elimination of the order of those who pray? Is it a coincidence that it was in Geneva that a seventeenth-century utopian dreamed of a society where no one commanded and where the last binary distinction had disappeared—the hermaphroditic land of Australie?

Duby ends his book with the ironic wish that such dreams may continue even though they be but mirages. Carefully, even lovingly translated by Arthur Goldhammer, The Three Orders does not quite capture the flow of Duby’s French, but it will amply reward every minute of the reader’s concentration.

This Issue

February 2, 1984