The Serf, the Knight, and the Historian

The Serf, the Knight, and the Historian

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"The term 'feudal society' is a caricature. It was invented by nineteenth-century historians to capture a particular period in French history, that of the retreat of monarchy (and thus of state authority) and the supposed tyranny of fiefdoms. It had its uses. As caricatures go, it was no worse than many others. But it was both reductionist and unbalanced. Among other things, it reduced society to bonds of dependency that were ritualized and personalized, and it imagined a scenario of quasi-independent castles, each with its own knights, existing in a state of continuous warfare with one another. It largely ignored other links and networks, and it overlooked the fact that warfare between neighbors was intermittent and limited. Meanwhile, in the real world, apart from such conflict-though sometimes through it-social construction was going on."--Dominique Barthelemy

In a collection of combative essays, updated for this new translation, Dominique Barthelemy presents a sharply revisionist account of the history of France around the year 1000. He challenges the view, developed in the enormously influential writings of Georges Duby and others, that France underwent a kind of revolution at the millennium that transformed it into the classic feudal, or seigneurial, society we know from a host of college textbooks.

Barthelemy advances his own original views, positing a much more complex and incremental evolution, and maintaining that the post-Carolingian world was more dynamic and creative than Duby and his successors have held. Barthelemy's view requires historians to radically rethink their notions of the history of serfs and nobles, of the so-called Peace of God movements, of the influence (indeed, even the existence) of millenarian fears, and of the nature of the legal system in early medieval Europe. Moreover, it challenges the utility of the term "feudalism" itself, and of our notion that Europe of the High Middle Ages was a "feudal society."

Originally published in French under the title La mutation de l'an mil a-t-elle eu lieu?, this book has generated loud debate on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to having been revised throughout, the Cornell edition contains a new preface, concluding chapter, and bibliography.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 368 pages
  • 152.4 x 233.68 x 22.86mm | 544.31g
  • Cornell University Press
  • Ithaca, United States
  • English
  • 0801475600
  • 9780801475603
  • 1,273,450

Review quote

"Dominique Barthelemy is in my book the most interesting historian of the middle ages writing today in France, or possibly anywhere else. He combines the best of the French intellectual tradition with a deep understanding of what Anglophone anthropology and legal studies have to offer. His persuasive pen draws readers to approve the unexpected beauties his imagination and broad learning constantly elicits from his texts.The fertility of his mind seems unceasing. In this book, he transcends controversy over the supposed 'Mutation'of the year 1000, to convincingly reshape a gradual European social change over the medieval centuries around the ever-changing notions of serf and knight. This English version is more than translation of the 1997 French edition; with subtle rethinking and added chapters, it constitutes a significantly improved edition. This is a book to enjoy, but also to engage with. It will stand alongside Marc Bloch's Feudal Society and the oeuvre of Georges Duby, both as an exemplary demonstration of historical imagination and the evocation of medieval society for the twenty-first century." Paul Hyams, Cornell University"
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