One of the major institutions of pre-industrial society, and one that makes it hard for people in the modern Western world fully to grasp the past, is lordship. Lordship means a personal bond, reciprocal but not equal, tying inferiors to superiors, bringing the latter a power over the former that modern democratic and egalitarian ideologies would abhor. We are not accustomed to address others as “Master” or “Mistress,” “My Lord” or “My Lady.”
Of course modern Western societies are not communities of equals. Vast differences in wealth and access to education exist. But the world of lordship embraced and endorsed those differences. Hierarchy was a valued ideal, and some people considered themselves better born than others—remember those nineteenth-century novels with characters “of good family.” The aristocrats (“aristocracy” means “rule by the best”) did not court their inferiors. They ruled them, and, if they were just and well disposed, they protected them and furthered their interests. This is what “good lordship” meant. Not all lords, of course, were good. Submission to cruel, arbitrary, or unhinged masters could mean misery or death. Much of the savagery of the French Revolution is to be explained by the fact that thousands of peasants had suffered just such a submission.
Thomas Bisson’s new book concerns itself with lordship, that all-pervasive institution, in a formative period of European history, the twelfth century (or rather the “long twelfth century,” starting well before 1100 and continuing after 1200). It is an age that evokes for many the majesty of the great cathedrals, like Chartres and Canterbury, the rise of a new kind of intellectual inquiry, embodied in the questing spirit of Abelard or the emergence of the first universities, and the flourishing of the love lyrics of the troubadours and the tales of Arthurian romance. There is even the (now well established but initially paradoxical) notion of “the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.” This book, however, presents a different, and much darker, twelfth century.
Bisson, professor of medieval history emeritus at Harvard, is one of the leading historians of the Middle Ages. His early work concentrated on Catalonia, a region with particularly rich archival sources from this period; he has continually expanded both his geographical range and the breadth of the historical questions he asks. In the 1990s he was a participant in a lively debate on the so-called “Feudal Revolution,” the theory that a transformation in the patterns of power and authority took place in Europe in the decades around the year 1000. In those years it was argued that older, official, and public structures of justice and administration were replaced by new, more violent, and more localized forms, based on strongmen and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.