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The F Word

30 August, 2004

Talkin’ ’bout something Medieval — the ‘F’ Word or, Splitter vs. Lumper

A few days ago (seems like yesterday), Kieran Healy used the dreaded ‘F’ word. He used it twice — at Crooked Timber and at his own site. I generally like Kieran’s stuff, but dammit, how many times do medievalists have to go through this? Feudalism. The ‘F’ word. Not actually a term used during the Middle Ages, but a description made up in, IIRC, the 18th c. Since then, defined and redefined as we know more and more about medieval society.

It isn’t what most people think it is. Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace proved that. Hell, even historians debate it. But still, sociologists and economists continue to use the term in an increasingly anachronistic (in the sense that so much work has been done on the topic since those fields took up the then-current working definition) sense. What I dread is that I will get these students (well, not exactly Kieran’s students, although I now have a colleague who teaches with Kieran who probably will), and will have to fight tooth and nail to explain to them that the ‘F’ word isn’t what they’ve learned, and instead is many things and nothing in particular. I’ll have to explain the nuances of historiographic debate, and then go into much longer and more complex examples from England, West Francia, East Francia, France, and Germany (not to mention various Spanish kingdoms and Portugal), over a very long period, to demonstrate that what they think of as Feudalism never actually existed in the way it’s been explained. It will take up a lot of time from my survey classes. It annoys me. It’s why I have a deal with one of my colleagues in Economics. Bob never defines the ‘F’ word and I don’t mess around with the ‘C’ word — Capitalism.

Kieran will be speaking about both:

These are the people I have to interest in the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.

Why, specifically, am I concerned about this? Because, as I commented at CT,

… there is no such thing as a transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, since the former is a very loose term that covers a set of political and social relationships, while the other is all to do with economics. Perhaps you mean manorialism? [ … ] there’s a reason lots of medievalists (the people who kinda know a little something about it) call it “the ‘F’ word.” I don’t think Brown is completely right about it (Brown, Elizabeth A.R. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” AHR 79 (1974), pp. 1063-1088), but I also would argue that most of us don’t completely buy Bloch’s interpretation, or at least might say that he’s often misinterpreted in terms of what the actual feudal relationship is.

I would also suggest that people read both Ganshof and Reynolds to get an even more complete picture. Those are just some of the basics — and I’m not even going back as far as Maitland.

Why, you might ask, does this matter so much to Another Damned Medievalist? It’s just a word, after all. And in some ways, I agree. Except …

I really think that the misuse of and misconceptions attached to this word have done more to present a false picture of the Middle Ages than perhaps any other single concept. For many people, it forms the foundations for a wonderfully romantic (in the small ‘R’ sense) picture, beloved by the SCA, RPG-ers, etc. It ties into the idea of the entire Middle Ages as “Dark Ages,” even though the period once so described never included the later M.A. It supports a mythos that includes a set of Us vs. Them, West vs. East, Christian vs. Islam social, political, and economic dichotomies that provide fodder for explanations and justifications for the furtherance of those antagonistic relationships up to and including the present. This saddens me, because the truth is so much richer than the fiction. Understanding that richness, and the complexities of the interactions between peoples and cultures in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages forces us to reinterpret a lot of what we see in the news. It makes us look again at Spain’s patron saint, Santiago Matamoros (talk about anachronism) and Italy’s recent attempt to ‘recognise a “historical truth” and refer explicitly to the “Christian roots of Europe” in its new constitution from a new perspective — just how true are those “historical truths”?

It’s only a few steps from such misinterpretations to the deliberate kinds of historical revisionism condemned by James McPherson in the September, 2003 issue of Perspectives, a journal published by the the American Historical Association. McPherson was goaded into speaking out against the misuse of the term “revisionist historians” by the Bush administration. One of the examples McPherson gave was the administration’s arguments for the invasion of Iraq:

The administration’s pejorative usage of “revisionist history” to denigrate critics by imputing to them a falsification of history is scarcely surprising. But it is especially ironic, considering that the president and his principal advisers have themselves been practitioners par excellence of this kind of revisionism. Iraq offers many examples. To justify an unprovoked invasion of that country, the president repeatedly exaggerated or distorted ambiguous intelligence reports to portray Iraqi possession of or programs to develop biological, chemical, and nuclear “weapons of mass destruction” that posed an imminent threat to the United States. In his State of the Union message on January 28, President Bush made clear his acceptance of a British intelligence report that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” to develop nuclear weapons. This assertion was “revisionist history” with a vengeance; the U. S. government knew at the time it was received that the intelligence was unreliable and learned soon afterwards that it was based on forged documents. Yet not until July did the administration concede its gaffe—and then tried to blame the CIA. That agency took the fall, but with respect to another administration justification for the war—Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda—the CIA refused to provide any aid and comfort. An official in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research offered (in the New York Times of July 12, 2003) a pointed description of the kind of revisionist history practiced by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al: “This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude: ‘We know the answers, give us the intelligence to support those answers.'”

I hate to put forth a “thin end of the wedge” argument, but this much is true, at least in the U.S.: as a discipline in K-12, History is given far less attention than it was 20 or so years ago. It is seldom taught by people with discipline degrees, and frequently by people who have taken as few as two undergraduate courses in the subject. It is taught much as a collection of names and dates to remember, and the critical thinking and analytical skills absolutely necessary to thinking as an historian never make an appearance. It it therefore arguably easier to convince the public that a particular interpretation of history is correct, because frankly, a large number of the public hated History in school because it was badly taught and, if they remember anything, it is either a few unconected events or their particular teacher’s interpretation. They are comfortable with the lumpers, and see the splitters as troublemakers.

[ADM finds that the argument has taken on a life of its own in a place entirely unexpected and thinks, “what the hell …” but goes with it]

Bush is a lumper of sorts. He relies on people not to be splitters. I will not comply. It is our responsibility as teachers to make sure our students know when to lump and when to split. The debate on the ‘F’ word is a teaching opportunity. Use it wisely 😉

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 August, 2004 10:29 am

    Nice one.I’m an early modernist, and not as up on the medievalists’ research on this as I might be. I know enough to tell off political economists for their use of (capital-letter) Feudalism – and that whole ‘transition from F to C’ thing – but not quite enough to follow it up with the crushing argument that’s needed. This may help quite a lot…OK, we are all, perhaps, splitters on something and lumpers on others, since it’s impossible to know everything. Specialists always find themselves outnumbered by those who’d prefer nice simple schema (black v white, F v C, etc); all that can be done, I suppose, is to keep on making the correction whenever given the chance. But in some areas of life, lumping – and relying on the lumpers for a world view – is more dangerous and worrying than others.I’m not sure that history teaching in the UK is in quite such a dire situation; in secondary schools at least (age 11 onwards) the subject is taught specifically by history teachers (who’ve often taken a history degree before going on the post-grad teacher training). But I get the impression that medieval history (especially social and economic) is, to put it mildly, not a highly prioritised subject area.

  2. 31 August, 2004 4:51 pm

    From what I can tell, a lot of the stuff that goes into the UK exams is 19th c. and forward. I don’t particularly mind when the Medieval stuff isn’t taught, but hate when it’s taught badly. Early Modern is fun as well — I managed to do a PhD that is technically Ancient/Medieval, but have an equal amount of coursework in Early Modern, although I tend to gravitate towards Reformation/Catholic Reformation after taking a summer course at Warwick.

  3. 31 August, 2004 8:21 pm

    I’ll certainly be looking up some medieval history when I’ve finished my PhD. 🙂 Claire 17thC

  4. 1 September, 2004 7:55 pm

    Ah, the F word! Great topic. And I generally agree with your take on splitters and lumpers.Here’s my decidedly low-fi, teacher-o-centric take on the matter: I tell first year students that the word is “problematic”, that it’s the subject of a great academic debate, but that despite this the term is both ubiquitous and generally still useful as a handle. Meaning, that with a bunch of qualifiers, and hedges, and hems and haws, we can still employ the word “feudalism” with some meaning, although when discussing specific periods and places, conditions must be described as specifically as possible.Here’s another thing I do it. I split feudalism into two distinct but vaguely related terms, “economic feudalism” and “political feudalism”. Economic feudalism is simply manorialism. Sometimes there are serfs, sometimes there are allodialists, frequently there are both. Political feudalism I describe as a system in which “political power is viewed as a personal possession” (students love alliteration), and in which ties of loyalty (sometimes bound with formal oaths, sometimes not) extend up an down a hiearchical chain.Again, be specific when describing specific places and conditions.Mostly, I keep using the term “feudalism” because it’s been, as you’ve seen with Kieran’s usage, impossible to escape. Everyone’s heard the term, and everyone thinks she or he has a grip on what it means. (And, I think, to some extent, they are somewhat right about what it means.)As an aside, another medievalist and I concluded just yesterday that Peggy Brown has lost the debate, that we’ll be using this term into the distant future.(I also just reread what I’ve written here and have realized that I might have just validated Peggy Brown’s contention, that the word is too vague to be useful… Sigh.)

  5. 1 September, 2004 8:45 pm

    Yep! I don’t buy Brown entirely, because I think we can’t get rid of the term. It’s there. But we can do what we do, which is qualify it and then bring it down to the barest minimum definition. Where I differ with you is that I clearly delineate feudalism and manorialism, and never refer to ‘economic feudalism’ except to say that manorialism refers more to the economic underpinnings that allow the political relationships to operate –except that it doesn’t, since the political both precedes and survives the economic. Kinda. But for me, it’s essential to divide the two, because otherwise, the students end up with a really messed up mishmash of the different kind of relationships and think that peasants are vassals, etc. So, I talk about Lord-Vassal as relationships between social equals (most fun example is John and Philip Augustus) and Landlord/Lord of the Manor-Peasant. It works really well beacuse it fits into the discussion of the Three Orders (plus the people who don’t really fit in) and the conflicts that arise between orders and classes and how class is defined. And that discussion is so important when we get to Early Modern and Modern stuff, that I like to make sure we get the F and M words right.


  1. In praise of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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