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The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200.

By Caroline Higgit. (New York; London: Holmes & Meier, 1991). xvii + 404 pp. ISBN 0-8419-1167-3. 39.95[pounds].

These two books have almost nothing in common apart from their chronological overlap. Barber's is a textbook for the general reader, an excellent example of the terse, pragmatic style of British writing; while Poly and Bournazel cater for a specialist market, an inner circle of French historians who build upon each others' insights with relentless enthusiasm but have little to offer to those unfamiliar with the foundations of their game. Barber draws on the fruits of twenty-five years of teaching to inform, to stimulate, and to create a thirst for further knowledge, a thirst he satisfies with a copious bibliography, including an extensive list of English translations of sources, some little known and little exploited. In the text he uses these narrative and literary sources to rich effect. He blends into his own clear exposition quotations from authors of the High Middle Ages that exactly reinforce his point while adding significantly to the colourfulness of the whole. He has an eye for the telling literary or artistic detail. As a result even those whose teaching experience is as long as Barber's own will find here the odd new reference, the unexpected juxtaposition that gives new meaning. For undergraduates the book is a considerable improvement on others in the field. In the first place it is broad in geographical scope, offering outline sketches of political history for the crusader states, Poland, Hungary and Scandinavia, as well as the more obvious western countries. Given that Barber has, for example, only twenty-four pages to devote to the history of Spain over three centuries, his narrative is clear and lively, and touches on all the essentials. Sensibly, he avoids being drawn explicitly into historiographical discussion, while yet making his reader aware that differences of opinion exist. Given the pressure of space, he inevitably concentrates more on kings than their political importance in this period really warrants; but so do the university courses for which the book will prove useful. More importantly, the political history is wedged between sections on society and the economy, on the Church and on mediaeval perceptions of the world. These give the reader a real sense of context. Although a synthesis, the author's voice, balanced, cool, yet absorbed, can be heard throughout. And if the occasional opinion, especially on matters economic and demographic, provokes disagreement, it serves to underline how convincing is the picture as a whole. The book should be issued in paperback as soon as possible.

Poly and Bournazel's Feudal Transformation caused a considerable stir when it first appeared in 1980. But it has not worn very well. It now comes as a shock to find the authors in their introduction regarding their work as a step on the path to updating Marc Bloch's Feudal Society for our times. Unlike Bloch, who covered the whole of Western Europe, Poly and Bournazel, without ever explicitly drawing attention to it, confine themselves almost exclusively to areas within the boundaries of modern France. Typically of French historians of their generation, they omit overt discussion of high politics, although kings and princes were in practice instrumental in the evolution of the vassalic relationships with which they are concerned in the first part of the book. Much of what they say about changing meanings of words related to vassalage now appears poorly substantiated assertion. Elsewhere there is a good deal of confusion: for example, on page I 3 3 they argue for the consolidation of a new serfdom in the twelfth century |reduced to the lowest level that the term could denote', while on page 136 they say that in many cases it was less restrictive than Carolingian serfdom. The decision to translate this work into English seems odd. The scholars to whom the original French version was addressed already had access to it, and the general reader is not likely to profit much from it. Nor has the translation been well served by the compiler of the Supplementary Bibliography specially prepared for this edition. If the aim was to provide up-to-date work that would correct what Poly and Bournazel say, then the bibliography fulfils this purpose for the much criticized chapter on heresy, but gives little assistance on nobility, on |clerical' and |popular' culture, on politics, on coinage, or on touching for the king's evil.
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Author:Dunbabin, Jean
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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