Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted

Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted

Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted

Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted

Synopsis

Fiefs and Vassals is a book that will change our view of the medieval world. Offering a fundamental challenge to orthodox conceptions of feudalism, Susan Reynolds argues that the concepts of fiefs and vassalage that have been central to the understanding of medieval society for hundreds of years are in fact based on a misunderstanding of the primary sources. Reynolds demonstrates convincingly that the ideas of fiefs and vassalage as currently understood, far from being the central structural elements of medieval social and economic relations, are a conceptual lens through which historians have focused the details of medieval life. This lens, according to Reynolds, distorts more than it clarifies. With the lens removed, the realities of medieval life will have the chance to appear as they really are: more various, more individual, more complex, and perhaps richer than has previously been supposed. This is a radical new examination of social relations within the noble class and between lords and their vassals, the distillation of wide-ranging research by a leading medieval historian. It will revolutionize the way we think of the Middle Ages.

Excerpt

The area considered in this chapter is more or less that contained in what came to be known as the kingdom of France. After a brief period when its kings secured part of the middle kingdom, the boundaries of the western kingdom seem to have remained much the same from the treaty of Verdun until the thirteenth century. I shall occasionally refer to areas outside the kingdom, like the areas east of the Rhône that now form part of France or parts of the Low Countries that lay just within the empire. Inconsistent as this may be, I do it partly because pieces of evidence from those areas sometimes provide particularly tempting illustrations of conditions that I suspect were also found within the kingdom and partly because I am aware that by focusing on the kingdoms of France and Germany I am squeezing out the borderlands between them. Partly too I have put in some references here because French historiography has, quite understandably, tended to work within the boundaries of modern France. As a result, information about these areas has contributed to the picture of feudo-vassalic institutions associated with France.

Discussing the whole kingdom at once, wherever one draws its boundaries, may seem hopelessly foolhardy and superficial. Generalization about property rights in the kingdom of the Franks before 888 is hazardous enough: any uniformities that one deduces from royal legislation and royal charters probably mask a great deal of local variation. After 888 generalizing about the western part of the empire becomes even harder, since local customs were even more likely to diverge when central control weakened. Some historians have claimed that the very idea of the western kingdom as a whole kingdom fell into abeyance, so that the kingdom of the Franks came to be thought of as covering only those parts of the north that were under direct royal control. It has more recently been recognized, however, that this implies a crude view of the use of words and names. It is true that the words Francus (translatable either as Frank or Frenchman) and Francia were most often used in connection with the relatively small area to which royal activity and influence became restricted and that lords in other areas . . .

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