1066 And All That

There is a trade-off between depth and breadth. I have extolled the many virtues of depth in earlier posts about history and the way historical societies were organized and functioned at a local level. But in order to dig deeply into past worlds, historians incur a certain number of start-up costs early in their research careers: language skills, paleography skills, familiarity with archives and sources, and with what is often a long and complicated historiography. These investments make it difficult to study – with the same level of expertise – vastly different societies or different time periods in one research career. It doesn’t stop one from dreaming about it, though. If I could lead parallel (historical) research lives, what would I study? Vicky would be a classicist. Intriguing as the classical world is, I think I would choose medievalist.

Studies of medieval Europe can shed so much interesting light on questions that interest students of historical political economy – particularly those related to institutions and long run development. A project on comparative forms of serfdom has me reading a lot of secondary literature on medieval history, where one can see early iterations of those institutional features, such law and property rights, we tend to associate with later periods.

Serfdom offers a convenient lens through which to read this work, especially when one looks at serfdom as a political-economic system, situated in a larger legal framework. Existing models of serfdom tend to overlook the fact that it was, in western Europe, a tenurial relationship; enserfed peasants still had property rights. (This was, as I have noted here, in stark contrast to the Russian version of serfdom.) These property rights were limited and less secure than they eventually became, but still significant in that they contributed to the existence of lively markets in land and credit on manorial estates. These are especially well documented in the many micro-level studies of manorial economies in late medieval England. But it’s the question of enforcement that draws our attention to law and politics in this period.

One of the monopolies granted to noble landlords by medieval monarchs was judicial: they had the right to dispense justice on their territories and demand that their serfs use their courts. This appears to have been a common feature of serfdom – both in medieval western Europe and early modern central and eastern Europe (the so-called “second” serfdom). It has been very well studied in the English case, as these manorial court rolls are particularly rich sources for the study of late medieval society. What is especially fascinating is the way these manorial systems of justice fit into the larger legal landscape: noble landlords were not the only game in town. There were royal courts and canon law courts, for instance, with their own jurisdictions. There were market courts that dealt with commercial transactions at periodic fairs. (And, related to James’s post on Monday: there was a jury system.)

What about the politics? Well, these different jurisdictions, allocated as they were to different powerful entities, were often in competition with one another. In medieval England, the royal courts are thought to have gained over time at the expense of the seigneurial courts. The monopoly that nobles held over judicial affairs on their estates was weakened, expanding the scope of recourse for serf tenants (particularly with regard to questions of “custom” – the rents owed to lords) and undermining the institution of serfdom well before the Black Death. I can hardly do justice (ha!) to this history in a blog post: interested readers should consult research like this or this here for a fuller picture.  At the local level, the work of Chris Briggs on medieval credit markets offers some evidence of competing manorial jurisdictions and forum shopping practices among serfs.

Lest you think this story is confined to late medieval England, it should be noted that evidence for earlier periods on the European continent hints at a broadly similar evolution. This study by Warren Brown presents evidence for competing systems of enforcement for property rights, ranging from the informal (clan violence) to the increasingly formal (practices and procedures expanded and systematized under Charlemagne’s rule) to the formal (codified practices of canon law). The extent of the demand for more formal approaches to dispute resolution is one of the remarkable implications of the surviving source materials for these early periods.

In an earlier post, I pointed out that the archives for medieval Europe shows that surprisingly well-established formal mechanisms of dispute resolution and contract enforcement co-existed with more traditional informal ones. We see further evidence of that in the work summarized here. The extensive and well-documented manorial court system used witnesses or “pledges” to enforce oral agreements. Powerful dynasties used traditional – often violent – forms of enforcement as well as the more formal mechanisms offered by the Church and/or Carolingian authorities.  The gripping tales of revenge and bloodlust that characterize medieval chronicles and hagiographies are often dramatizations of more quotidian aspects of everyday life and social stability: property rights, contract enforcement, conflict resolution.

There is something about the graphic violence, though, and (apparent) anarchy in early narrative sources that fires the imagination and plays to our tendency to believe that everything was totally different in the olden days. But far from being a violent free-for-all, there was underlying method to what many can’t help but see as medieval madness. That said, a dramatization like Game of Thrones would have probably lost its “escapist” appeal if the episodes had addressed real historical issues like “why the court of the Targaryens was a better place to take credit disputes than the Lannisters” or “what happened when some smallfolk were fined for squandering the lord’s chattels.” For those of us interested in institutions and long-run development such plotlines would have been exciting enough.


  • Tracy Dennison

    I am Professor of Social Science History at the California Institute of Technology. I am interested primarily in the character and role of institutions in premodern societies, and how they affected the decisions ordinary people made in their everyday lives. To date, my work has focused on the role of entities like states, landlords, communities, and households in central and Eastern Europe before 1900. My current research project examines the relationship between state capacity and the rise and decline of serfdom in Europe, in particular the cases of Prussia and Russia.

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