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Closure Theory and Medieval England

Closure Theory and Medieval England

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Published by epifanz
Closure Theory and Medieval England
Closure Theory and Medieval England

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Published by: epifanz on Nov 20, 2012
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06/11/2015

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Scott Waugh
Closure Theory and Medieval England 
In the last fifty years, the basic features of the economy and society of medieval England have become more and more distinct as historians,excavating a mass of sources have steadily reconstructed social institu-tions and charted the changes they underwent in the five centuries afterthe Norman Conquest. The record-keeping of the English medieval gov-ernment and other institutions has provided the foundation for studies of individual manors, villages, estates, regions, towns, and families, to thepoint that the English countryside and population are perhaps betterknown than any other region in Europe during the same period. As tech-niques used to analyze the historical data have improved, a deeper under-standing of different groups and individuals has emerged. Perhaps thebest known example of this refinement has been the use of manorialcourt rolls. Once used simply to reconstruct manorial organization, theyhave now been made to yield information regarding the demography of peasant families, the structure of village society, and the place of womenin the peasant family and community. The transformation of social insti-tutions has also become clearer. The rise and catastrophic drop in popula-tion, the shifting nature of overseas trade in wool and cloth, the flow of specie into and out of England, the increasing differentiation within allranks of society, and the place of women, clergy, and merchants in aworld largely dominated by agrarian pursuits have all been intenselyscrutinized and specified to the point that their broad outlines are widelyaccepted by historians.Much of this social history has been empirical, constructed out of thedocumentation relating to particular institutions, such as a manor orestate, using previous studies of similar organizations as a blueprint.Nevertheless, various social or economic theories have informed debatesabout the overall course of English social history in the later MiddleAges and the causes of particular changes. Sweeny, Dobb, Hilton andother historians used a Marxist framework to analyze the transition fromfeudalism to capitalism, viewing lord-peasant relations as exploitativeand eventually producing resistance and rebellion. Brenner has built onthis tradition to fashion a comprehensive explanation of English socialand economic development based on class structure and its attendantcontradictions, tensions, and conflict. His work was, in part, a responseto the Malthusian-Ricardian argument put forward by M.M. Postan and John Hatcher, in which the motor for change was the fluctuation of thepopulation within a technologically stagnant agricultural system.
120
 
Though both sides agreed on the general population trends between
1000
and
1500
, they split on the causes and consequences of those shifts.Brenner argued that population change alone could not explain thedecline of serfdom and the beginnings of the agricultural revolution inEngland because the same forces in France and Eastern Europe producedprecisely opposite results. Alan MacFarlane has carved out yet anothertheoretical position, based on the rational choice theory of neo-classicaleconomics, in which individuals acting in the market place were respon-sible for producing capitalism in England.Ideally, therefore, a survey of the economy and society of later medievalEngland should explain these interpretative currents as well as the histor-ical reality on which they are based. Indeed, the two cannot be separated.To his great credit, S.H. Rigby has crafted a lucid and comprehensibleaccount of the theoretical underpinnings of these historical controversiesalongside a comprehensive survey of what is known about the Englishsociety and economy in the later Middle Ages.
1
As Rigby points out inopening his book, all historical investigations proceed from some theoret-ical base, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, so that it is impor-tant to make explicit their role in historical explanation. Rigby’ssecondary goal is to demonstrate the nature of historical explanation, aswell as the ability to ascribe causes to historical change, by using thedebates about medieval social change as a prime example.
Marxism Without Liabilities
Rigby does not pretend to be neutral in his exposition. After brieflyexploring the strengths and weakness of both Marxist and Parsonian the-ories of social stratification, which have informed much of the historicalwork in this field, Rigby embraces social closure theory, as defined byParkin and Murphy, to remedy what he sees as the shortcomings of theseother models of social organization. He wants to retain the sense of dichotomous conflict that is so central to Marxist analysis of class rela-tions and the integrative, binding force of functionalism while sheddingtheir liabilities. Rigby’s major complaint with Marxism seems to be thatit is essentially reductionist. Without denying that people were broadlygrouped into large classes, such as lords and peasants, which clashed overproperty rights or access to the means of production, Rigby stresses thatsociety was also divided vertically into groups whose members had acommon set of interests which overlapped with but were not identical tothose of a broader class to which they might belong. Social closure the-ory, derived from Weber, views society as a collection of self-defininggroupssystacts in Runciman’s terminology which compete with oneanother for resources and develop strategies to exclude and dominateother groups based on a variety of characteristics. These subordinategroups then develop strategies of their own, called usurpationary closure,to wrest power from dominant groups or at least to correct the politicalimbalance between them. This conflict did not necessarily push histor-ical change in any particular direction, as Marx predicted of class con-flict. By using closure theory, Rigby argues, historians, on the one hand,
1
S.H. Rigby,
English Society in the Later Middle Ages: Class, Status and Gender 
,MacMillanPress, London
1995
, £
45
HB
,
15
.
50
PB
.
121
 
can avoid being trapped in Marxist dilemmas about base and superstruc-ture and can examine social categories such as gender which are incom-patible with a class analysis, while on the other, can avoid falling into thefunctionalist trap of over-emphasizing social harmony at the expense of group conflicts which rent medieval society.Armed with this theory, Rigby moves across the landscape of medievalEngland, re-examining familiar historical and theoretical landmarks inthe light of social closure. He begins with relations of production and thedistribution of property rights in the countryside and towns before look-ing at the principles of closure in relation to the nobility, clergy, women,and Jews. Along the way, Rigby quite usefully tests the theoreticalassumptions of historians who have debated various topics. The battlesover the nature of economic expansion and decline in the later MiddleAges have been fought out among three groups: followers of AdamSmith, Malthus, and Ricardo who see population as the prime mover;monetarists who claim that the economic data on prices can be betterexplained by monetary shifts than by population change; and Marxists,notably Brenner, who base their explanation on the dynamic of class rela-tions between lords and peasants. Rigby’s explanations of these theoreti-cal viewpoints are lucid and his criticisms of each trenchant andinformative. For someone new to the field, they provide a secure founda-tion for understanding how historical interpretations of the transforma-tion of medieval English society have been shaped. In addition, Rigbysupports his analysis of the theoretical underpinnings of those debateswith a remarkable array of data culled from the vast literature of histori-cal findings about every sort of institution and social grouping inmedieval England, as well as with a broad selection of contemporarywritings. His inclusion of lengthy explanations of the place of womenand Jews in medieval society, along with his discussion of social ideology,is both welcome and novel. What is refreshing in his reportage is the wayin which he fits interesting details together to construct a reliable yetsophisticated understanding of English medieval society.The question, which Rigby poses in regard to the Marxist concept of the‘feudal relations of production,’ is whether the theory of social closuretells us anything ‘which we did not know already’.
2
Put another way, canclosure theory explain medieval social relations and social change in amore satisfying manner than other theories? Rigby’s proposition is thatthe terms of closure theory, such as exclusion, usurpation, or dual-clo-sure, ‘help us to classify and to make sense of natural phenomena,’ mean-ing the features and changes of English medieval society.
3
Is thistaxonomy preferable to Marxist or functionalist terminology, in the senseof either being truer to the historical record or clearer in explicatingmedieval phenomena?
The Clergy
Rigby makes the best use of closure theory in his description of theclergy, which provides a good example of the complex layering of 
2
Ibid., p.
58
.
3
Ibid., p.
14
.
122

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