Musée Condé Chantilly/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource

The Limbourg Brothers: ‘Boar Hunt,’ with the Château de Vincennes in the background; detail of a calendar miniature from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1416

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 their fortresses.

In his new book many of the elements of that “Feudal Revolution” recur, now extended to a later period. Bisson’s summary of developments in Catalonia in the years 1020 to 1060 presents such a picture very clearly: there was “a terrifying collapse of public justice and the imposition of a new order of coercive lordship over an intimidated peasantry.” Moving on into the twelfth century, the model is still recognizable: there is an “old passing world” ruled by a few nobles, and a “burgeoning new world” of “vicious men,” castle-lords and knights prepared to use violence against the despised peasantry. This book is indeed an extended discussion of the issues arising from that earlier debate. Bisson acknowledges that it is “not a systematic treatise, still less a textbook,” and those unfamiliar with the period may soon be lost. The book is an interpretation, an individual assessment of European history of that period, one that takes a stand on a dozen debated issues, often in implicit dialogue with other scholars. The main topics are lordship, violence, and the state.

Lordship was a building block of most societies until relatively recently—serfdom was abolished in Russia only in 1861. Such societies were distinguished by extreme inequalities, made visible by costume and gestures, like bowing and doffing of hats, and often supported by belief in hereditary superiority and inferiority of blood. Collective groupings existed, but were not powerful, and conflict and ambition were channeled more by vertical than horizontal solidarities: retainers, servants, and other followers and dependants sought patronage from the great, not action alongside their peers. At the highest level, lesser aristocrats became followers of great aristocrats, who themselves would be competing for the ruler’s favor. Costume dramas set in Tudor England, like Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth, convey some of the flavor of such a world.

It was the prevalence of lordship that complicates any discussion of the medieval state. Bisson repeatedly uses the far from standard formulations “lord-king,” “lord-ruler,” and even “lord-archbishop” to convey the point that every ruler of this time was also a lord, a master of men, a patriarch of some kind, possessing his position as inheritance or property, rather than (or as well as) holding it as an office—indeed, he writes, “there is no sign that European people in the twelfth century thought of lordship and office as contrasting categories.”


Kings were lords, but also more than lords. Like the great barons, their power was patrimonial: that is, inherited, dynastic, based on ideas of property we might call “private.” A king’s kingdom was his in the same way that a baron’s landed estates were his. Transmission of power was through father-to-son inheritance, not by election. Hence marriages, births, and deaths were the great punctuating points of medieval politics, not caucuses and ballots. Yet a king was also more than just the greatest of the barons. Both the Church and a long secular tradition saw him as having special duties as a ruler, duties that might be called “public.”

This dualism of lordship and the state meant that medieval rulership had two distinct faces, which were close to being opposites: on the one hand, the grand promises made at coronation by kings and emperors, to ensure justice and the protection of the weak and the Church; on the other hand, the reality of being a warlord trained in mounted warfare, a leader of proud, hard men, used to wielding lethal edged weapons, and the center of a court full of envy, ambition, and suspicion.

Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was a militarized world: it was “an age of castles,” when “those astride horses and bearing weapons routinely injured or intimidated people”—although, of course, they were still doing it in the thirteenth century, fourteenth century, fifteenth century, and beyond. The Cossacks were still doing it in the twentieth century. This raises a problem. In the absence of even a hint of dependable statistics, it is virtually impossible to weigh up the relative violence of different periods and places of the past. We know all the difficulties involved in dealing with modern crime figures; for the past we rarely have figures of any kind, but must rely on stories told by chroniclers (often ecclesiastical) and interested parties (usually plaintiffs). Historians read the laments, the individual accounts of plunder, murder, and rape, and try to assess whether this was the way life was then, or whether it simply reflects a very bad moment in that world. And while there can be little doubt that levels of violence were higher in the medieval period than in modern Western peacetime societies, we, who live in the aftermath of the worst genocidal atrocities in recorded history, should not make that claim with any complacency.

It is not difficult to gather stories of local violence and oppression from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. But if we put these twelfth-century tales alongside those of the sixth-century historian-bishop Gregory of Tours, whose History of the Franks reveals a world of monstrous cruelty, we might wonder if things had really gotten much worse in the intervening six hundred years. On one occasion, Gregory writes, a noble discovered that two of his serfs had married without his consent: he supposedly said how delighted he was that they had at least not married serfs from another lordship; he promised that he would not separate them, and then kept his word by having them buried alive together. And was the twelfth century any more full of violence than, say, late medieval France, a happy hunting ground for mercenaries and freebooters during the Hundred Years’ War?

The rulers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were trained in, and glorified, war, and expected to live off it, as well as off the tribute of a subjugated peasantry. If such rulers formed “the state” of their day, what are the implications? The state engages in violence; it takes away our property. How then does it differ from a criminal enterprise? This was a question that went back at least as far as Saint Augustine in the fourth century:

What are robber gangs, except little kingdoms? If their wickedness prospers, so that they set up fixed abodes, occupy cities and subjugate whole populations, they then can take the name of kingdom with impunity.

Augustine’s ponderings stem from the worrying doubt that states and kingdoms, indeed all lawfully constituted governments, are just the most successful of the robber gangs. This idea, that the state and the criminal gang are but larger and smaller versions of the same thing, was one recurrent strand in medieval thinking. In the words of Gregory VII, the reformist pope of the eleventh century:


Who does not know that kings and dukes had their origin in men who disregarded God and, with blind desire and intolerable presumption, strove to dominate their equals, that is, other men, through pride, plunder, perfidy, homicides, and every kind of crime, under the inspiration of the lord of this world, the devil?

Westerns (like Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) often explore the thin line between the gunslinger and the sheriff, or the poignancy of the bandit turned law officer; and the thinness of that line is clear in the Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century the kings of France, wishing to concentrate their forces against the English, called upon their barons to curtail their own feuds and vendettas: “We forbid anyone to wage war (guerre) during our war (guerre).” What the king does and what the feuding nobles do is the same kind of thing—“war.” Nowadays, we make a sharper distinction. For instance, in the modern world, someone who takes our property away is either a criminal or a tax collector. If the latter, then it is the state taking our property away, and most people, of most political outlooks, distinguish the lawmakers from the lawbreakers.

Traditionally the state took away people’s property in order to finance war. In Charles Tilly’s phrase, “the state made war and war made the state.” The war-making, tax-raising state is indeed the standard, familiar political unit of modern world history. If we go back in time, do we reach a period when such an entity did not exist?


Musée Condé Chantilly/RMN/Art Resource

The Limbourg Brothers: ‘Feast of the Duc de Berry’; detail of an illuminated manuscript page from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1416

Bisson is not a scholar who throws the term “state” around freely. Indeed, the conceptual vocabulary of his book is worth a mention. On the one hand, Bisson is happy to use the traditional but deeply contested terms “feudal” and “feudalism,” both of which even have entries in his glossary at the end of the book. He can write of “a massive feudalizing of England by the Normans.” Some historians would do away with these concepts altogether. Even if some kinds of estates were called “fiefs” (feoda), they argue, why should that fact lead us to a characterization of a whole society? Perhaps a touch of self-questioning is visible in Bisson’s embrace of the terminology: “‘Feudal monarchy’: is this the right concept?” he asks.

In contrast to his acceptance of this traditional terminology, Bisson has a marked tendency to use large conceptual terms with a peculiar, even personal, connotation. “Political” is an example. The bishops of this period, he says, “vied with one another for visible precedence,” yet such struggles “were not political disputes; they were concerned with status, not process.” A footnote refers us to an infamous incident when the archbishop of York, noticing that the archbishop of Canterbury had a seat higher than his, kicked it over and refused to be seated until he had a seat as high. Now, one might reasonably class this as a nursery tantrum, but why should not a public dispute over precedence count as “political”?

This wariness about the term “political” (usually in scare quotes in the book) is based on the idea that lordship “was personal, affective, and unpolitical in nature.” Might it not be clearer to say that the politics of that time was not the same as the politics of ours? It may be that we have here an example of a recurrent dilemma, either to say that the power relations of long ago are not politics at all, or to say that they are, but that we must differentiate between medieval and modern politics. Similarly, we may say that the superior authorities of that time cannot be called states at all; or we can argue that they were, but that we must distinguish medieval and modern states.

One of the most important examples of Bisson’s idiosyncratic use of general terms is his treatment of the word “government.” He is reluctant even to apply the term to Norman England. “Royal lordship” was not the same thing as “government.” Sometimes government is completely absent. Late-twelfth-century Europe was “an ungoverned society,” although there were also “proto-governments” at this time; by the mid-thirteenth century “something like government hovered.” This unwillingness to see the rulers of the central Middle Ages as constituting “governments” is to be explained partly because, in Bisson’s view, the people of that time lacked any understanding of the state as distinct from lordship, but also because there are certain criteria for government, as distinct from lordship, that the rulers did not meet. He identifies three: accountability, official conduct, and social purpose.

“Accountability” is an important term in Bisson’s historical vocabulary. Sometimes it means quite literally the rendering of financial accounts, like the Catalan fiscal records which Bisson himself has edited. He emphasizes the birth, in the twelfth century, of “a newly searching and flexible accountability,” as simple surveys of resources and fixed revenues, which can be found from early in the Middle Ages, were supplemented by balance sheets of incoming and outgoing assets. The English Pipe Rolls, annual audits of income and expenditures of the royal sheriffs, are a classic example. The English Dialogue of the Exchequer of 1178, or thereabouts, reveals a department of government that is professional, with its own technical expertise, and (in the Dialogue) its own handbook or manual. Slightly later, in 1202, there appears what has been called “the first budget of the French monarchy.”

But Bisson also uses the word in a broader sense: accountability means official responsibility, answerability. He associates it with the idea of office. Record-keeping is in fact one test of official status. And true government is “the exercise of power for social purpose,” “social purpose” perhaps to be glossed here as “the common good.” It is the emergence of “official conduct aimed at social purpose,” linked, interestingly, with the rise of public taxation, that, for Bisson, signals the shift of the balance from lordship to government in the thirteenth century.

However, the chronology of state formation in the Middle Ages is a disputed issue. Some historians talk as if there were a stateless period at some point in the central Middle Ages. Others hold the view that, to take one notable example, the kingdom of England of the year 1000 was not only a state but a strong, centralized, and pervasive state. If taxation and a standardized coinage are, in Bisson’s words, parts of “a new model of associative power” around the year 1200, then the uniform land tax and centralized currency of eleventh-century England show that that model already existed in some places two hundred years earlier.

What cannot be disputed is that over the course of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, the state became increasingly bureaucratic. The documents produced by the English government in the eleventh century could be placed on one large table (even given that monumental oddity, Domesday Book, the extensive survey of land ownership made in 1086 under William the Conqueror). The documents produced by the English government in the thirteenth century fill whole rooms and could never be read in one person’s lifetime. Written records supplemented or replaced older oral forms of information gathering, testimony, or command (Michael Clanchy’s 1979 masterpiece, From Memory to Written Record, analyzes this development for precociously bureaucratic England in the Norman and Plantagenet period). But more bureaucratic government does not necessarily mean less violent, or even less arbitrary, government.

Historians like bureaucracy, because it feeds their hunger for written sources, the raw material with which they work; but the bond between historians and government is deeper than that. The historical profession grew up in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in close symbiosis with government. Not only was the heart of historical study usually the archives produced by past governments, but many of the students and teachers in those generations, the first to study history as a discipline, entered government service. Charles Homer Haskins, the founding father of American medieval scholarship, was an adviser to Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

He was also the teacher of Joseph Strayer, himself the teacher of Bisson. Such academic genealogies can be overplayed, but there is no doubt that all three great medievalists, Haskins, Strayer, and Bisson, demonstrate a deep-rooted concern with the techniques and records of administration, with the procedures of the bureaucrats and officials. Strayer was as familiar with the modern as with the medieval version, since he worked for the CIA. One of his most vigorous pieces of work is entitled On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (1970; one might notice the emphasis on both the “origins” and the “modern”; we live in the modern state; its origins go back a long way, but the state of those days was not the state of ours). The book contains Strayer’s cogent definition of feudalism as “public powers in private hands,” with that confident assurance that these adjectives, “public” and “private,” convey a simple and evident distinction that will arouse no intellectual discomfort in readers. By contrast, Bisson’s book is generated in part by his wrestling with such concepts and their implications.

Bisson’s book is called The Crisis of the Twelfth Century. “Crisis” means a vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything. But in that sense, any century of human history is a crisis. One might even say that this is simply the condition of human life—we are always in an Age of Crisis (although the situation might not always be as alarming as today’s). Bisson acknowledges that “‘crisis’ was not a common word in the verbiage of the day,” and the one instance he cites of the contemporary use of the word (in its Latin form discrimen) refers to a succession crisis in Poland in 1180. He wishes to see the various distinct political crises he discusses (such as the Saxon revolt of 1075, the communal insurrection in Laon in 1111, the “anarchy” of King Stephen’s reign) as part of “the same wider crisis of multiplied knights and castles.”

However, a case can be made that the levels of violence and disorder in this period were largely dictated by the patterns of high politics rather than by a deep-seated structural malaise. Disputed successions, or the accession of a child-king, could indeed upset the world of knights and castles, unleashing the strongmen and their castle-based predatory attacks. Yet a regime of knights and castles could also form the basis for fairly stable feudal monarchies, such as one sees in France and England for most of the thirteenth century. If this is so, there were, of course, crises in the twelfth century, but no Crisis.

The violence and greed of European knights of this period were directed beyond the local victims. Bisson’s “long twelfth century” was not only an age of predatory lords in their castles bullying their peasantry but also an age of expansionary, one could say colonialist, violence. Christian armies, led by these predatory lords, crossed into Muslim lands, capturing Toledo in 1085, Jerusalem in 1099, and landing in North Africa in 1148; they destroyed the last remnants of West Slav paganism in the Baltic in 1168; they even turned their formidable fighting strength against their estranged Christian cousins in the Greek East, and sacked Constantinople in 1204. The energies generated in the conflicts between mounted men in the West, and the expertise they acquired in subjugating and fleecing the local peasantry, could be exported. The story of European violence is far from unique, but it was in the central Middle Ages that it took a form that shaped the subsequent history of the world.

A traditional view of the development of European society in the central Middle Ages, a view to be found in textbooks past and present, is that the empire of Charlemagne (747–814) and his successors had important elements of public authority, in the form of officials with delegated powers and courts open to all free men, but that this regime was replaced, around the year 1000, with a heavily militarized and violent world of strongmen in castles, lording it over peasants. Over the course of time this world was, in its turn, transformed by the persistent efforts of the kings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries into a network of more centralized and bureaucratic states, which led ultimately to modern systems of government. Like every model at this level of generality, as long as people who know something about the subject have created it, there must be some truth in this picture, however little it can be the whole truth. But we might have questions. Was the “old public order” of Charlemagne and his successors so public and so ordered? Was the subsequent regime so close to anarchy?

Bisson adds to this traditional account by thinking deeply about the benefits and disadvantages of government. He is very aware of the inhumanity of the past he studies. He refers, with allusion to the words of the twelfth-century cleric John of Salisbury, to “hunter-lords.” John was talking about the way that aristocrats were obsessed with the chase, but we might apply his phrase in a wider sense. Since some theorists believe that human society is imprinted with its origins in hunting packs and the mentality of the pack, the predatory lordship of the central Middle Ages could be conceived of as just such a hunting pack—but its prey being fellow human beings, rather than beasts.

Confronting this world of hunter and hunted, Bisson is inspired by attractively humane impulses. In an earlier book, Tormented Voices, a microhistorical analysis of complaints raised by Catalan peasants in the twelfth century, he stated explicitly that he was attempting “an essay in compassionate history.” Likewise in this book. And he looks for public, accountable, official remedies for suffering and oppression. He seems sympathetic to the idea that “power is rightly oriented towards the social needs of people.” “If ever government was the solution, not the problem,” he writes, “it was so for European peoples in the twelfth century.” Is the modern world so happy in its governments? Whether we should endure the violence of the state, as a defense against the yet more fearful violence of our neighbors, and whether there comes a point where the violence of the state must be resisted are great recurrent questions of moral and political life. The questions raised by Bisson’s book remain open.

This Issue

June 24, 2010