Wednesday 16 August 2017

Marc Bloch: Feudal Society (1940)

Translation: L.A. Manyon, 1962
Edition: Routledge Kegan Paul, 2014
Review number: 1507

The foreword to this Routledge Classics edition, by Geoffrey Kozol, starts by asking, "Why read a work of history written over seventy years ago?" Clearly, after such a long time, a scholarly work of this kind no longer represents current knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, any more than earlier historical classics like Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Carlyle's history of The French Revolution do.

Each of the books mentioned, including this one, has good reasons why you might want to read them. Three in particular are common to all of them: they have all been influential in one way or another; they are all quite general overviews of topics often treated on a smaller scale by specialists; and they are all of high literary quality.

In Feudal Society Bloch attempts a study of several centuries of Western European social history, analysing the genesis, flowering and eventual modification into something else of the culture known as "feudal" - that is, based around vassal/overlord relationships, tied to land grants (fees, the origin of the word feudal). Given the fragmentary state of the documentary record, especially in the early years going beyond the major chronicles to understand the society is hard work, but in this book Bloch uses a huge array of small scale records (mainly legal documents) to produce as full a picture as possible.

To research this way is now far more common, but the scale of the project in this case means that it is still an impressive synthesis - indeed, it would be fair to say that Bloch is phenomenally successful. Naive historical accounts, in any era, tend to paint a picture of society as though it remains the same over long periods of time, so that Roman customs and fashion appear to be constant from the late Republic to the end of the Empire, for instance, or (more relevantly) as though feudalism as an organising principle sprang into being in the tenth century and then was replaced during the fifteenth, and was the same in France, Germany, Italy and even England after the cataclysm of 1066. It is clear that these pictures are nonsensical, and Bloch of course gives a far more nuanced and subtle description of a culture which was never uniform, and which developed significantly over time. Bloch identifies the economic downturn of the late Carolingian era and the disruptions to social order and centralised power at the time of the Magyar and Viking raids as causes of the adoption of personal vassalage and serf labour in the manorial system, as a development of Germanic and Roman customs. The argument is convincing, but I would like to read a modern equivalent of this book to see how today's scholarship has modified this viewpoint. That is, of course, if there is a modern historian with such detailed and widespread knowledge and understanding.

At the end of Feudal Society, Bloch suggests that one area which could the focus of further study is how European feudalism is related to other historical cultures which have been described using the word. He discusses in particular the Japan of the samurai, and describes a number of significant differences from medieval western Europe. Although I don't think it's all that clear from the text, I'm sure that Bloch was perfectly well aware that the use of the "feudal" label for Japan is based on superficial likenesses: the real interest is to look at how and why the similarities and differences on opposite sides of the globe.

Overall, Feudal Society is an inspiring classic from "the father of scientific history", and, like Carlyle and Gibbon, deserves to be read and remembered. My rating: 10/10.