Saturday, December 12, 2009

Whittow reviews Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government

Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton Princeton University Press, 2009) is reviewed by Mark Whittow, Corpus Christi College, on H-Albion. Hat tip: H-Law. Whittow writes:

This is a wonderful and important book. It is the fruit of a long lifetime studying medieval history, and as such an encouragement to the rest of us. More than seventy years a historian, Thomas Bisson only gets sharper, more engaged, and more wide-ranging. The Bisson of the early 1960s was a distinguished historian; half a century later he has become one of the leading interpreters of the central medieval West, and in this book he has given a shape to how we are to see the twelfth century that will no doubt dominate the scholarship of the twenty-first in much the same way that Haskins and Southern dominated most of the twentieth. It is a remarkable achievement.
The Crisis of the Twelfth Century holds few surprises, but that is no criticism, and indeed explains much of its likely impact. Its key themes, the central and lasting importance of lordship in western Europe, the ungovernmental nature of many aspects of medieval polities, and the significance of the late twelfth century in terms of the emergence of what would become a political society, or perhaps one might say a society with politics, are for most scholars uncontroversial. There was a time when historians enthused about twelfth-century government and the medieval origins of the modern state, but we have all become more sophisticated. Far from being out on a limb, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century lies on a main route of current thinking, with prominent traffic that includes Matthew Innes's skepticism about the Carolingian state, expressed most fully in State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: The Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000 (2000), the late Rees Davies's 2003 paper, "The Medieval State: The Tyranny of a Construct?" in the Journal of Historical Sociology, and most recently John Watts's The Making of Polities: Europe, 1300-1500 (2009). All share a view of the central Middle Ages where power is principally affective rather than institutionalized, where talk of the state is anachronistic until the thirteenth century, even if glimmers of state-like behavior appear in the late twelfth, and where the key phenomenon of power is lordship. In 1994 when Bisson argued the case for "The 'Feudal Revolution'" in Past and Present, the responses that followed in later issues of the same journal made him appear out of step with his peers, but now much the same arguments express something close to a widely held consensus. I suspect this will have given him a certain wry pleasure.
Of course Bisson is not simply saying what others are saying. He remains untypical, for example, in the degree of his stress on the arbitrary and violent nature of lordly power.
Continue reading here.