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Brown Tyranny of a Construct

Brown Tyranny of a Construct

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The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval EuropeAuthor(s): Elizabeth A. R. BrownSource:
The American Historical Review,
Vol. 79, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 1063-1088Published by:
on behalf of the
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TheTyrannyof aConstruct:Feudalism andHistorians ofMedievalEuropeELIZABETH A. R. BROWN
Thomas N.Bissonintroduced hispaper"Institu-tionalStructures of theMedievalPeace" bycautioning hisaudience that inhisdiscussion of peacemovements,peaceassociations, and peaceinstitutionsin southernFrance andSpain hewould not attemptto relate hisfindings to"feudalism."'His approachwasdescriptive-andthoroughlyenlightening-and nofurtherreference to anyismoccurred untilthequestionperiod.Then,bestowing thedouble-edgedpraise that ishis hallmark,ProfessorJohnF.Benton askedhow historianscould havemanaged tooverlook forsolong such abundantevidence that would necessitate therevisionofnumerouslectures onmedievalsociety.Responding to thisremark,Pro-fessorBisson againalluded to theeventualnecessity ofevaluatinghiscon-clusionswithreference tothe generaltopicoffeudalism,but timepreventedhimfromelaborating. It occurred tomeasthisinterchange wastaking placethat thefailure ofhistorians to takeaccountofthe dataused byBisson maywell haveresultedfromtheirconcentrationonfeudalism-as model or IdealType-andtheirconsequenttendency.todisregardordismissdocumentsnot easilyassimilable intothat frame ofreference.Whatever theirrelevancetothesubjectof ProfessorBisson'spaper,feelingsofuneasinessconcerningthe term"feudalism" are notuniquelymine. Historianshave foryearsharboreddoubts about theterm"feudalism"and thephrase"feudalsystem,"which has oftenbeen used as asynonymfor it. Oneofthefirst,andcertainlyoneof thewittiest andmosteloquent,
An earlierversion of this article waspresentedto ameeting of the ColumbiaUniversitySeminaronMedievalStudies, May8,1973.Iam grateful tothemembers of the seminarfor their ques-tions andsuggestions.For their adviceand counsel Iwould also like toexpressmy thanks toProfessor Fredric Cheyetteof AmherstCollege, Professor JohnBell Henneman oftheUniversityofIowa,Professor Joshua Prawerof theIsrael Academy of SciencesandHumanities,Pro-fessorThomas N.BissonoftheUniversityof California atBerkeley,Professor John F.Benton of theCalifornia Institute ofTechnology, Professors EdwinBurrows, PhilipDawson,Charlton Lewis,and Hyman SardyofBrooklyn Collegeof theCityUniversity ofNewYork,Barbara W.Tuchman, and finallythemembersoftheHistoryCluband my studentsatBrooklyn College.1ThomasN. Bisson, "InstitutionalStructures of theMedieval Peace,"apaperpresentedtoacolloquium held atPrincetonUniversityonMarch 31,
ElizabethA.R. Brown
to commentonthe problemwas Frederic William Maitland.In lectureson English constitutionalhistory prepared in 1887 and 1888he wrote:Now werean examinertoask whointroducedthe feudal systemintoEngland?one very good answer,ifproperlyexplained, wouldbeHenry Spelman,andifthere fo-llowed the question,what was the feudal system?a goodanswer tothatwould be, an early essay incomparative jurisprudence....Ifmy examinerwentonwithhisquestionsand askedme,whendid the feudalsystemattain itsmostperfect development?Ishiould answer,about the middle of thelastcentury.2Thanks toJ.G.A.Pocock,itisnowknownthatHenrySpelman,a learnedEnglish antiquarianof the seventeenthcentury,used neither the term"feudalsystem"northeword "feudalism,"butthisdoes notdetract fromthe validityorthe importanceof Maitland'sobservations. Followingin thestepsoftheScottishlegalscholarSirThomasCraig, Spelman held thatthesocialandpoliticalrelationshipsof medievalEnglandhad been uniformandsystematic enoughtobedescribedadequatelyasregulatedbya"'feudallaw'[which]was anhierarchicalsystemimposedfromabove asamatterofstatepolicy."The workofCraigandSpelmanhad itsvirtues,fortheywerethe first Britishhistorians toattempttorelateBritishinstitutionstocon-tinental developments.Both, however,reliedfortheirknowledgeofconti-nental institutions on Cujas'sandHotman's sixteenth-centuryeditions of thetwelfth-centuryLombardLibriFeudorum,whichgave,toparaphrasePocock,apreciseanddetailed "definition of thefeudumwherebyitcouldbe recognizedinany partofEurope," or, as he says, "a systematicexpositionofthe principles of tenure,forfeitureandinheritance."These criteria CraigandSpelman employed toclassifytheevidence from Scottishand English sources, and theirsimplificationand regimentationofphenomenanotablyoffset the advantages to historicalthought of their demonstrationthat thedevelopmentofEnglandand Scotland could be understood only in thecontext of theEuropean
Given thesebeginnings,itisnowonder that eighteenth-centuryBritishwritersbegantoacceptthe concept of a uniform feudal government andtoconcentrate on the system,the construct, instead ofinvestigating thevarioussocialandpoliticalrelationships found in medievalEurope. "Theywere,"Pocockobserves,"making an'ism' of [feudalism]; theywere reflectingonits essence andnatureand endeavoring to fit it into apattern of generalideas."4 In so doing theyresembled Boulainvilliers andMontesquieu, who
2FredericWilliamMaitland,TheConstitutionalHistory ofEngland,ed.H. A. L.Fisher(Cambridge,19o8),
SeealsoFisher'sintroductiontothisedition,p. v.
J.G.A.Pocock,TheAncient Constitutionand the Feudal Law:EnglishHistoricalThought
in theSeventeenthCentury(Cambridge,1957), 70 n.2,93-94,249,79-80,97-99,70-79,
Pocockperhaps exaggeratestheseadvantages (p.
because ofthe strength ofhisadmiration fortheboldness andimagination withwhichCraig and Spelmanchallenged thedistortedly insularapproachtakenbyCokeand the commonlawyers.Itseemsclear,furthermore,thatPocock himselfdoes notquestion the validityor theusefulness of theterm"feudalism."
Ibid., 249; seealsoRobertBoutruche,Seigneurieetfe'odalite:Le premierdgedes liens
d'homme ahomme(Paris,1959), 15nn.16-17,16n.20.

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