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The 2 1/2 orders?

25 June, 2010

The 2 1/2 Orders?

Following on tenthmedieval’s comment on this post, and a conversation at the massive group exam read of last week, I have some thoughts.

The conversation was about the F word at first. A group of us were talking, me, a Late Antique person, a very modern person, and two high school teachers. I mentioned the F word, and one of the high school teachers said, as they often do, “but wait, I always teach the Feudal Pyramid — it’s in the textbook! What am I supposed to tell them?” Me being me, I said, “well, really, that’s a model that has been pretty much abandoned. Textbooks tend not to be written by medieval specialists, so the information is often very outdated. If it were a university course, there’s a good chance that the first half would be taught by someone who was a pre-modernist, and they’d correct the misrepresentations.” So we talked a bit about feudalism and Peggy Brown, and Susan Reynolds, and Chris Wickham, and manorialism, and other such things… like Duby and the Three Orders and how a feudal obligation is between members of the same social group.

Fast forward to the last post.

Because what do you do with the three orders? it doesn’t really work unless ‘those who pray’ are really the low-level monks — except that in the Early Middle Ages, at least, even monks tend to be not from the lower echelons of society. And if we look at the people who are at the top of the ecclesiastical food chain, so to speak, they are members of the leading families. Their brothers and fathers are comitesand duces — and even kings. And yet we have a model that is based on lines that we see more and more to be very fluid between the first two orders. By birth, they are largely the same people. And yet, so much of the existing scholarship of the past, oh… hundred years? has created an understanding of society that means that we always seems to express some sort of surprise, or at least forceful assertion, when we find something that indicates that the interests of ecclesiastics and laity were often the same, and were intertwined. And yet, it is only logical. So where do we go from here, to get to where we can start really changing our models? Or should we?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 June, 2010 10:40 pm

    I'm a non-specialist of course but this is roughly how I think of the structure of early medieval society (i.e. before the emergence of an urban commercial class as a significant political player).Power is concentrated in the hands of relatively few families. They monopolise secular and ecclesiastical power. There are a few institutional conflicts of interest but by and large their interests are the same and clerical and monastic celibacy is really quite handy for simultaneously providing juicy jobs for younger sons while not diluting the patrimony.Everybody else pretty much gets shafted.I think this only really starts to break down when an urban bourgeoisie emerges. Then it gets a whole lot more complicated in terms of both secular and religious authority.

  2. 25 June, 2010 10:58 pm

    a feudal obligation is between members of the same social group.This doesn't feel right to me, but perhaps because I'm more conversant with Asian feudalisms (and yes, I know just how much trouble that term can get me into): In both the Chinese and Japanese cases that can be called feudalism (with footnotes), cross-class relationships are the core of feudalism, the basic organizing principle which bypasses the state (sort of) and creates an alternative system of power and influence. That's a gross overgeneralization, which I'll probably regret later, but a definition of feudalism which precludes the integration of multiple social classes in the system of power and exchange seems terribly limited and hardly useful. Maybe that's the point.

  3. 26 June, 2010 3:21 am

    It occurs to me, rereading this, that the problem with textbooks is the tests (actual or implied) towards which and the standards based on which the textbooks are written. As long as state standards repeat old tropes, and achievement tests (up to and including the Praxis for teachers) base questions on prevalent errors, the textbooks must continue to teach them, or else they are serving their consumers poorly. Conversely, as long as the textbooks perpetuate these ideas, the tests and standards will continue to reflect them, on the assumption that the texts enact real knowledge and that history doesn't change.It's a catch-22, for sure.

  4. 26 June, 2010 10:00 am

    Jonathan — regarding Japan, at least, shoot. I was going to agree, but now I'm wondering. I think there are other things in play in both China and Japan, in the sense that the peasant has a particular social role that is respected far more than in the West. So that's one part. But in general, I think you're right, at least for the Tokugawa era, and probably generally from the Kamakura on. I think part of it is the nature of land tenancy and the presence of serfdom — these things can be difficult to deal with and are part of why the older feudal models in the west don't work. But also, I think there is enough research to show that the relationships between tenants and landlords were sufficiently different than the relationships between lords and vassals that the feudal pyramid model is bogus. hmmmm.

  5. 26 June, 2010 4:03 pm

    This is where we get into the dreaded periodization problem: I (and most Asianists, I think at this point) consider Tokugawa to be Early Modern (also, Ming-Qing China) and feudalism — though it's useful in earlier periods — isn't really the appropriate paradigm. You're right, for example, that landlord-tenant relations often are more commercial than feudal in nature, though some of the 'servitor family' relationships are arguably remnants of a kind of local feudalism. I think the shoen (estate) system and military offshoots(mid-Heian to early Warring States) in Japan does bear a striking resemblance to Western European feudalism structurally (though the evolution is rather different). You're right that the physiocratic Confucian concept of agriculture as the foundation of society creates a kind of ideological glue in China (and in Tokugawa Japan, because Confucianism isn't all that influential earlier than that) that's mostly lacking (as far as I can tell) in middle-ages Europe, and there are actually very few periods in Chinese history where the land tenure system strongly resembles the feudal model. I don't know enough, obviously, about the European scholarship: it may well be that there's a systemic, fundamental difference between aristocratic feudal relations and the lord-serf relationship which requires tacking manorialism onto feudalism to encompass European society more fully. But it seems to me that, in their origins at least, the serf-lord relationship is an exchange of service for protection which is at least cognate to the aristocratic power relations and helps explain how the system came to be.

  6. 26 June, 2010 4:18 pm

    Ah, the tyranny of 19th-century scholarly constructs. I swear, I'm going to write a book on how the Victorians set scholarship back 1000 years with their desire for classification. Maybe I'll call it The Real Dark Ages… 🙂

  7. 26 June, 2010 8:53 pm

    The trouble with just two orders — those that work and those that don't, with those that don't justifying their privilege either through religion or the military — is that there's another bunch of those that don't, the underclass, the vagabonds and sturdy beggars of Elizabethan legislation, about which we know even less than we know about the others.

  8. 28 June, 2010 11:16 am

    James, for my period, I don't know that there *is* much of an underclass in the sense that you mean. Also, really, I'm not sure how much of it is pure privilege in the Late Antique – Early Medieval period, in that there is also rather a clear concept of duty and responsibility as well. Of course, this is why the concept of orders works better in some ways than classes. And of course there are all sorts of different variations of people within the orders, whether 3 or 2 1/2. Those who work include the free peasants, who could and did hold land and even owned it outright, as far as we can tell, but also slaves and serfs and artisans. I think the variation is far more dependent on family relationships for those who pray and fight, but even there … hmmm.Matt, if you did that, I'd buy it! It would make a great series of Leeds panels, I think. Jonathan, I think that cognate is what ends up being the kernel of the taxonomical problem. When a free peasant gave up rights to land and promised service to someone for protection, they end up with no recourse — it's a very uneven transaction that ends up putting the non-warrior into a different legal category and makes him an economic dependent (to some extent), and really locks him AND his descendants into a new relationship. That's not the same with the contractual sets of obligations for lands and military service you see among the other orders — they have recourse and one set of obligations doesn't necessarily prevent a person from being bound by oath to a different person (although it does make things pretty complex — I'm looking at YOU, Hugh de Lusignan). Considering Japan especially, I wonder if the position of the Emperor (no matter if he actually wields power) and/or an accepted ShĹŤgun makes a difference, because theoretically, all land grants and obligations fuse in his person. That's not the case in Early Medieval (or even later Medieval) Europe, where there is never the possibility of *a* locus of authority…Have you read Brown's "Tyranny of a Construct", by the way? Or Reynolds' Fiefs and Vassals?

  9. 28 June, 2010 4:16 pm

    Argh, I wrote a long response and then Blogger gave me "Unable to complete your request" and ate it. This will doubtless be better for the rewrite…Reactive points: firstly, Matt, I agree, please write that book! Secondly, I also struggle with the idea that feudal relations are between equals. Even at the noble level this isn't true. Look at the Conventum of Hugh of Lusignan for example; both Hugh and Duke William are nobles and bellatores but the power balance is nothing like equal. When we add to that that, thirdly, there certainly are some tenants or landlords who are also those landlords' vassals, there is a case to answer here. Yes, very few peasants undertake oaths of fidelity and service; but enough were being pressured to that the Carolingians repeatedly legislated about it and I can (naturally 🙂 ) find you Catalan examples. Eckhard MĂĽller-Mertens's 1963 book is really good on this, and as outraged for the downtrodden peasantry as you'd expect of a work written in the Communist DDR of course. So there is some truth in the old narrative, it's just probably not the correct one to generalise from.So we have now approached a situation where we have to say that the early medieval thinkers who theorised the three orders—and let's not forget that a big part of the attraction of this idea was that it was contemporary—missed the target. Of course both Alfred and Adalbero were more pitching an ideal than journalistically describing reality. Obviously Alfred knows there are people out there who do not work, pray or fight, because he provides that successful merchants can be accorded noble rank, doesn't he? Actually, as aspirational theory, these two things don't contradict… But it's not real, and if it was supposed to be then it's obviously inadequate. I presume that David Pratt's recent book touches on this.Part two to follow! (Bloody Blogger.)

  10. 28 June, 2010 4:18 pm

    All right, so, what is better? I do actually have a model of my own for how medieval power works, but it's not very good yet; I'll try and knock a post together about this myself all the same, but, how about this for society at large?It is certainly correct to consider lords lay and lords spiritual as part of the same group. For all that, they have differences as well as overlap. Churchmen do not have heirs, cannot (or should not) take up arms against opponents or make a living from war and plunder. Lay lords cannot excommunicate, have less 'grip' with saints, and have to devolve their property onto others. Their strategies are not dissimilar but the means at their disposal to achieve them are different. So although I think a new model must have these people all in the same 'order', it should be an order that differs noticeably in make-up (and dress) from one end to the other.Then I think one needs to distinguish professionals, who do not work the land but do not hold office or rights that guarantee them others' revenues. In this we could potentially include priests and monks, in fact, depending on what we think of tithe; but we should certainly include merchants, teachers, artisans, musicians, healers, prostitutes, hired warriors, Vikings, pirates, thieves, lawyers, notaries and many many more (though several of these groups quite possibly owned land and some of them, as we've seen, could be accepted into the band of those with jurisdiction). Here should also be included two groups who often aren't, labourers and landlords without jurisdiction, the sort of small-scale guy who owns lands in five or six places, must therefore have tenants and can afford not to work the land himself but who does not have any legal jurisdiction or public office. (Canonically, of course, these are the guys to watch come the magic Year 1000…)And then at the bottom we have the peasant, at least notionally self-sufficient, supplying him- or herself and others more or less willingly, from land on which he or she lives (and possibly from others' land too of course). At the bottom? I'm not sure these guys aren't more secure than most of the previous lot… Either way, though there are surely edge cases I think that this covers most people: those who don't work the land where they live but live from others by means of rights or power over others; those who don't work the land where they live but survive from others on the basis of one or several skills; and those who do work the land where they live. So actually a three-orders model is still arguable, I think; but Alfred and Adalbero divided them up wrong…

  11. 28 June, 2010 6:39 pm

    Is it just me, or did you just reinvent and relocate the middle class into the early medieval? I kind of like it, in that it makes the later rise of cities more of a piece with the rest of society. But fundamentally, doesn't it just clarify that the feudal system had outliers, rather than radically redefining it?ADM, looking at it now, I find that I have read Brown's piece before: it didn't stick because at the time I was also reading people like Jeffrey Mass and John Hall (esp. "Feudalism in Japan-A Reassessment", 1962) who took the concept seriously for comparative purposes but also recognized the non-unity of the concept as used by European historiographers (Coulbourn gets cited a lot by Japanese historians!). Sometime in the '80s, though, we gave up on the comparative thing for a while (except for the Marxisant strain which kept using their own version of the term), and now we've got Karl Friday in History Compass declaring the death knell of medieval comparisons (I haven't read it yet, but I've got it on request). Neither the Emperor nor the Shogun actually "fuse all land grants" in any meaningful way until the Tokugawa which (following Berry) I tend to think of as more federal than feudal.

  12. 28 June, 2010 9:22 pm

    Jon D — this reminds me of a question that we came up with at our comparative medieval panel at Kalamazoo a couple of years ago. Is feudal necessarily medieval?Jon J — I like that — 3 orders, but divided differently.

  13. 28 June, 2010 9:36 pm

    Is feudal necessarily medieval?No, unless we define it that way. As my father says, 'he who defines the terms, wins the argument.'In the narrower aristocratic sense that you're using 'feudal' (as I understand it), then relations within the samurai class during the Tokugawa period may qualify (except that in the vast majority of domains, the relationship between samurai and land was severed, or at least abstracted, to the point where only the Shogun-daimyo and daimyo-elder relations might qualify) in theory, but their status was more caste-like (including formal limits on how high a low-born samurai could climb in the administrative system) than feudally fluid. But taken as a whole, the Tokugawa period is much more like the European early modern era than the medieval (whatever that means these days).

  14. 29 June, 2010 12:46 am

    Jonathan, I don't think my second class is a middle class by any definition that is usually in play (though as you say, if we make one up…). It includes proletarians and some parts of it would be upper-class in many models. I suppose that's the reinvention.What I am very conscious of now that I read it again is that I seem to have fixated on means of production like a proper Marxist… However, when you say, "fundamentally, doesn't it just clarify that the feudal system had outliers, rather than radically redefining it?" I have to stridently say, "No!" because there's nothing about my account there that is necessarily feudal. It doesn't need to be stitched together with oaths—it could be but other more tributary modes (there I go again) would also work (and do, for most of Byzantium etc.)As that Brown article would argue, there's no benefit from using the word 'feudal' in this argument, not least because we are very unlikely to be using the same definition… (I will quite happily use the term as a shorthand for 'feudo-vassalic', which is horrible, but that's a long way from thinking it can govern a noun like 'system'.)

  15. 29 June, 2010 1:44 am

    It doesn't need to be stitched together with oaths…But the 'feudo-vassalic' system was mostly stitched together, as you say, with mutual obligations: the top and bottom (though I have some qualms about the implied hierarchy given the nature of the 'middle' as you define it) were part of a system of politically mediated land tenure. It's easy enough to sketch a social system, divide it up, and say that it doesn't need certain kinds of political binding agents because it has others — economic, religious, etc. — but that doesn't mean that they're not actually bound together in that way. I've never been entirely clear on what constitutes a Weberian class, but from what I do understand, that may fit what you're doing better that the 'proper Marxist' label which really doesn't suit what you're doing. Though the competing interests of your three classes certain qualifies as a driver of historical change….

  16. 29 June, 2010 10:44 am

    But the 'feudo-vassalic' system was mostly stitched together, as you say, with mutual obligationsYes, certainly! But I don't think that necessarily pertains to a large part of medieval society over time and space—Viking Scandinavia? Seventh-century England? Fourteenth-century Bruges? etc.—so while it's compatible with the model I was suggesting it's certainly not required by it. Sometimes land tenure is mediated by rent only, or by an agreement of military service to a public institution, as for example with freeholders under the Carolingians, who are sworn by oath to the king, yes, eventually, along with every other free man, but who serve under a count or other royal representative to whom they are not so bound. If that's feudal then we lose the definition that enables us to distinguish that situation from one in which they are bound to the count by oaths, and not to the king, and the king has no claim on them except through the count (which is your classic pyramid structure, and one which hardly ever applies).I have not read all the Weber I should, because I find his definition of state so useless for the medieval period when, as ADM says above, legitimate use of violence is widely distributed. But maybe I should have a closer look.

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