An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 6, 2013

Barthélemy: The Serf, the Knight, and the Historian

Barthélemy, Dominique. The Serf, the Knight, and the Historian. Trans. Graham Robert Edwards. Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Elizabeth S. Leet (

In the ten years after the original publication of Mutation de l’an mil, a-t-elle eu lieu? (Fayard, 1997), the combative argumentation and vehement assertions that characterize Dominique Barthélemy’s monograph continue to echo throughout medieval scholarship surrounding the social, political, and military climates of the post-Carolingian period. By opposing the “reductionist and unbalanced” caricatures of both feudal society and, in particular, the so-called pivotal shifts between 930 and 1070 after which feudal society came into being, Barthélemy revisits the evidence that leads others to false conclusions. By dissecting texts and their respective contexts, he demonstrates the more complete understanding we may gain by reconsidering the evidence without anticipating the monolithic conclusions scholars have sometimes drawn.

Now, with the publication of Graham Robert Edwards’ The Serf, the Knight, and the Historian (Cornell University Press, 2009), Anglophone readers have the long-desired translation of Barthélemy’s influential monograph. With its new preface and concluding chapter, revisions to chapter one that include extensive summaries of such leaders in the field as Georges Duby, Marc Bloch, and Pierre Bonnassie, as well as an updated bibliography, this recent version has brought its heated debate to new audiences and has encouraged new participants in the ever-relevant discussion of the pivotal year 1000 A.D. Over the course of its nine individual essays exploring such topics as the rise of serfdom, the role of monasteries as centers of document production, and the different roles expected of the knightly class, The Serf, the Knight, and the Historian presents a comprehensive reevaluation of documentary evidence that has often led scholars to false conclusions.

In chapter one, “Revisiting the ‘Feudal Revolution’ of the Year 1000,” Barthélemy both acknowledges the contributions made by Georges Duby but also accuses him quite pointedly of making sweeping generalizations and using all-or-nothing reasoning. Duby postulated a deterioration in socio-political organization between 980 and 1030 that led to the rise of feudalism and its concomitant martial unrest. Barthélemy, therefore, contests any such totalizing perspective on what he argues was a gradual progression rather than a sudden change. This newly-revised chapter announces the author’s project of comparing recent historians who posit a “feudalization of the year 1000” with previous scholars who did not identify such a drastic and rapid shift. From this point forward, the book juxtaposes these two popular perspectives on post-Carolingian Western Europe and demonstrates how reevaluations of lexicon, categorical evaluations of socio-political organization, the contexts in which documents appeared and circulated, and the role of millenarianism can inform and enhance our understanding of the period.

Barthélemy moves to another case study, this time regarding the serf, a figure often cited and exploited by scholars to argue in favor of reductionist models of a sociopolitical crisis leading immediately to feudalism. In his second chapter “From Charters to Notices: The Example of Saint-Aubin, Angers,” Barthélemy identifies Olivier Guillot and Alain de Boüard as two proponents of “an ‘undeniable’ crisis in law and diplomatics.” (12) They claim that the proliferation of notices is a sign of crisis – despite an inability to define precisely what constitutes a notice.  Barthélemy structures this chapter – and the monograph as a whole – around the disparity between crisis and gradual progression, discussing the terminological differences – both assumed and supported – between notices and charters, the case for documentary diversification instead of a total rupture with previous styles and forms of legal treatises, the legitimization of the autographic cross, and finally the detailed narrative and discursive additions to evidential legal documents. The previous examples of legal documentation support Barthélemy's claim: scholars have tended to draw distinctions between notices and charters on the basis of their respective “objective” and “subjective” natures, just as they have also differentiated between the years preceding and following the year 1000 as though they, too, illustrate markedly different systems. (14) The case-study approach reduces the evidence to few examples, though thorough notes point to other instances and wider trends in documentation.

Barthélemy’s evidence demonstrates at each turn not that official documents employed radically new stylistic or formalistic modes, but rather that new types of documents joined the old. Furthermore, these documents often demonstrated little more than the particular tension between monastic orders and the surrounding communities. In other words, “The pattern is not so extraordinary: a recently founded or reformed monastery rubs up against its social environment, generating a host of charters and notices, transfers of property, and occasionally some friction, which the historian is then tempted to describe and model more or less as a sort of ‘feudal transformation.’” (27) Typifying his characteristically aggressive yet lucid tone, Barthélemy explains the faulty logic that espouses monolithic generalizations and demonstrates the limitations of scholarship that leads to such conclusions, described by Barthélemy as flimsy and spurious. The evidence points to texts that exercise a “narrative deposition of importance” instead of a total change in socio-political, legal, or juridical forms, the evidence supporting Barthélemy’s description of a world increasingly focused on the written record rather than having undergone a drastic transformation. (28)

The third chapter, “Voluntary Serfdom at Marmoutier in Touraine,” illustrates the unexpected frequency with which “free” people assumed the state of a serf and the problematic term servitude, “having dealt […] too hard a blow,” leading scholars to assumptions about what constituted such a life. (39) By examining the narrative development in acts of self-enserfment from the late eleventh century, Barthélemy illustrates the limitations of contemporary definitions of servitude and disproves two misconceptions hailing from the nineteenth century: first, that serfdom is a form of “monstrous traffic in men and women,” and second, that manumission undermined serfdom. (43) The gesture of a would-be serf to place a rope about his neck during the rite of self-enserfment would certainly seem to confirm these fears. Yet Barthélemy asserts that this rite insinuates the central relationship of a sinner to God, rather than a commodity surrendered to a new owner. Though he, too, acknowledges the resemblance between this image and an imagery of slavery, he identifies multiple referents that inform these rites and the interpretation thereof.

He concludes this chapter by discussing the contingent distinctions between serf and free person. The dependency of self-enserfment reflects yet further its similarity to vassalage as opposed to slavery, blurring the lines between serf, slave, and free person on the basis of their contractual or status-linked basis. These discrepancies appear also in the practices of chevage, or head tax, as well as marriage and inheritance taxes. In sum, the inclusion of adult members in this ritual of serfdom represents, as Barthélemy puts it, “entry into adulthood or to a stage, a new departure, in a career.” (58) As such, the stakes of serfdom fall within a social category more aptly named “servile status,” for despite the frequent use of property ownership to dominate the serf, he still, “[b]y gaining an indisputable foothold in property, […] had fundamentally emancipated himself in a way that the slave had not; on it he established a family.” (65)

Chapter four provides both a wealth of insight and a fair number of challenges. Entitled “Serfdom and its Rites,” the chapter covers an immense amount of ground, beginning by announcing the erroneous assumption made by Pierre Bonnassie that, around the year 1000, institutional Antique slavery gave way to the characteristic serfdom of feudal society. Barthélemy cites the misconception of medieval serfdom as legally rather than socially constructed, as well as the frequent terminological misconceptions that have often led scholars to equate servus with slave or serf and incurring the subsequent penalties of such a lexical leap. The fact that eleventh century servitude included diverse social and political stations, as well as the ownership of property and a juridical provision that allowed serfs to testify on behalf of their superiors is also particularly revealing. In sum, Barthélemy addresses existing evidence and unearths new texts that cover a wide historiographical territory, making this chapter equally illuminating and unwieldy.

The greatest strength of his fourth chapter is the nineteenth century scholarship that prefigures his own description of several overlapping versions of servitude, slavery, and serfdom. Initial insight into Guérard – whose theory that the three coexisting but distinct conditions of slavery, servitude, and serfdom set the tone for future historical studies of proportionality between such states of servitude – structures the evidence and allows the reader to trace the same thread throughout the chapter. Barthélemy cites Bloch’s theory that chevage, mainmorte, and formariage, while levying heavy financial obligations on the serf, also reflected the serf’s possession of a “genuine patrimony” and reinforced the distinction between life in servitude and servile status. (76) The chapter goes on to engage with popular presumptions about emancipation and manumission in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the mediation of negative associations with servitude by suggesting the only true servitude was to sin, thus rendering its feudal variety sufferable, and even the relationship between kinship-driven nobility and the possible telescoping of qualities of servitude within one noble person. By complicating the supposed dichotomy between noble and serf, Barthélemy destabilizes reader expectations yet further by describing the ministeriales (mayors or provosts) who, while technically serfs, challenge the modern assumptions that serfs were exclusively agrarian laborers.

In chapters five and six, Barthélemy moves from a discussion of serfdom to the other end of the chivalric spectrum – the knightly class. In chapter five, “The Word miles and the History of Knighthood,” he charts the terminological rise of miles (knights) in the tenth century from the previous caballius (horseman) and vassus (vassal). This medieval caste, beginning with the values of “perfect fidelity and military art,” soon grew into complex cultural rites like dubbing, tournaments, courtly rituals, and crusading. (144) Barthélemy argues for a knighthood “symbolized by arms and horses” and indistinguishable from the “public ethos” of the knight’s sword as royal weapon serving the public interest. (156) As such, he asserts that knighthood predates the “transformation of the year 1000” and moves into chapter six, “Carolingian Knighthood.” Here, Barthélemy disputes the theory that a militarized, Christian knighthood developed in the post-Carolingian period when evidence supports the existence of such a class in the ninth century. Though preceding the elaborate rituals that characterized high medieval chivalry, the ninth century knight bore the only crucial symbols of his status: arms and a horse. The “warrior beauty” (164) embodied by these “protochivalric” Carolingian knights demonstrates what Barthélemy argues convincingly, that the feudal system developed gradually over the course of a century rather than suddenly around the year 1000. (162)

The shift towards the secular and the political continues throughout chapter seven, “Knighthood and Nobility around the year 1000.” By charting the continuity of knightly roles, as well as their contribution to the surprising legal stability of this period often assumed to be rife with intertribal and intercastellan fighting. Furthermore, the relationship between hereditary nobility and earned knighthood, as well as the complex rites that solidified both – from marriage to a wealthy woman or the dubbing procedure – complicates what scholars have often argued about the nature of feudal aristocracy. Arguments illuminating the real relationship between the Church and the practices of knighthood – one that was tenuous at best – lead to Barthélemy’s exploration of the Peace of God and millenarianist movements around the year 1000 in his chapter eight. After all, violent knightly intervention might just as often serve the Church’s needs as violate its mores and Christian pacifism. The rise of the Crusades and the power wielded by the Templars belie any reticence with which Church authorities may have blessed the knights. Barthélemy explains, “[t]he Church was understandably wary of overvalidating the lay powers with whom it had such an ambivalent relationship or of providing advance cover for the sort of ‘blunders’ that sword fighters were bound to make.” (213) Even the sword and horse that defined a knight evoked luxury and “barbaric splendor” (221) such that constituted a problematic disparity between these two poles of power in the high Middle Ages – between the Christian ecclesiastical authority and the military might of the growing knightly classes.

The penultimate chapter, “The Peace of God in the Days of the Millennium,” discusses the supposed apocalyptic fervor around 1000 A.D. Moving from analysis of the relationship to the relatively secular power of the knights and nobility in chapter seven, Barthélemy demonstrates here the limited millenarian sentiment in the period and dispels the assertion that Peace of God initiatives were a popular effort to curtail the growing power, autonomy, and violence of knights. He insists, “The model narrative of the ‘feudal revolution’ uses the Peace of God twice over: as witness to the violence and as reaction to it. Is that not once too often?” (264) Barthélemy again challenges his reader to assume a healthy skepticism when reviewing the oft cited foundational studies of the period.

Added for the Cornell edition of Barthélemy’s Mutation de l’an mil, a-t-elle eu lieu?, the final chapter synthesizes the responses of the scholarly community to the arguments of his previous three hundred pages. After ten years of debate and controversy, he details the ground gained by the anti-transformation camp, while still admitting his role in solidifying a sort of loyal opposition to the dominant critical predisposition towards transformationism. Barthélemy even concedes that, while often the object of his critique due to a tendency towards “literal” terminological interpretation, the “transformationists” do land close to certain realities of the year 1000, despite a tendency towards “overschematization.” (305) Most interestingly, though, Barthélemy delineates his continued study of the Peace of God and its antiseigneurial reactions to the changes in the feudal aristocracy between the late ninth century and the mid twelfth century most broadly. Then, ending abruptly by mentioning the distinction between the exercise of knightly pastimes and occupations and a morally-inflected English notion of “chivalry,” the chapter – and the book itself – comes to a close.

Overall, Barthélemy presents a study both thorough and bold. By tilting at scholarly giants – challenging and correcting them, as he sees fit – the project is a quick and engaging read. Declarative sentences, exclamation points, and series of rhetorical questions lead the reader directly to Barthélemy's frustration with and corrections to more than 150 years of medieval historical scholarship. Regardless of each particular reader’s scholarly perspective or critical bent, the passion of the text, its distinctive authorial perspective, and its faithful translation by Graham Robert Edwards combine to present an exciting and energizing read that remains just as relevant today as upon its original appearance.

Elizabeth S. Leet
University of Virginia