Wickham on “feudalism”

Chris Wickham is perhaps Britain’s leading historian of European history between the end of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. His two books, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 (2009) and Medieval Europe (2016), are rich and intriguing accounts of the heterogeneous and diverse histories that the period encompasses.

One topic in particular that is of interest to anyone with even a passing interest in medieval social history is the question of “feudalism”. Marx treated feudalism as the central social formation, the mode of production, of the Middle Ages. In the following century Marc Bloch’s historical writings were primarily focused on “feudalism”, including both the political arrangements of the system and the agrarian relations that the period embraced. Here is Bloch’s 1940 characterization of feudalism:

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e. the fief) instead of a salary, which was out of the question; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and, within the warrior class, assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority—leading inevitably to dis-order; and, in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State, of which the latter, during the second feudal age, was to acquire renewed strength—such then seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism. (Bloch, Feudal Society v. II: Social Classes and Political Organisation, kl 4413)

And here is Perry Anderson’s neo-Marxist summary description of the “feudal mode of production” in his 1974 Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism:

The feudal mode of production that emerged in Western Europe was characterized by a complex unity. Traditional definitions of it have often rendered this partially, with the result that it has become difficult to construct any account of the dynamic of feudal development. It was a mode of production dominated by the land and a natural economy, in which neither labour nor the products of labour were commodities. The immediate producer – the peasant – was united to the means of production – the soil – by a specific social relationship. The literal formula of this relationship was provided by the legal definition of serfdom glebae adscripti or bound to the earth: serfs had juridically restricted mobility. The peasants who occupied and tilled the land were not its owners. Agrarian property was privately controlled by a class of feudal lords, who extracted a surplus from the peasants by politico-legal relations of compulsion. This extra-economic coercion, taking the form of labour services, rents in kind or customary dues owed to the individual lord by the peasant, was exercised both on the manorial demesne attached directly to the person of the lord, and on the strip tenancies or virgates cultivated by the peasant. Its necessary result was a juridical amalgamation of economic exploitation with political authority. The peasant was subject to the jurisdiction of his lord. At the same time, the property rights of the lord over his land were typically of degree only: he was invested in them by a superior or noble (or nobles), to whom he would owe knight-service – provision of a military effective in time of war. His estates were, in other words, held as a fief. The liege lord in his turn would often be the vassal of a feudal superior, and the chain of such dependent tenures linked to military service would extend upwards to the highest peak of the system – in most cases, a monarch – of whom all land could in the ultimate instance be in principle the eminent domain. Typical intermediary links of such a feudal hierarchy in the early mediaeval epoch, between simple lordship and suzerain monarchy, were the castellany, barony, county or principality. The consequence of such a system was that political sovereignty was never focused in a single centre. The functions of the State were disintegrated in a vertical allocation downwards, at each level of which political and economic relations were, on the other hand, integrated. This parcellization of sovereignty was constitutive of the whole feudal mode of production. (147-148)

This tradition, from Marx through Bloch and Anderson, describes feudalism as a system that pervaded western Europe and depended upon bonded labor and a system of disaggregated political and military power. It is very interesting, therefore, that Wickham is reluctant about the concept of “feudalism” altogether. In The Inheritance of Rome he refers to the “feudal revolution”, but always in quotation marks and usually in reference to the academic debate with that label. (Bisson’s “Feudal Revolution” is a landmark for this debate; link.) Markham is somewhat more willing to use the term “feudal” in Medieval Europe without quote marks, but retains his skepticism about the concept. He distinctly does not regard the “European socio-economic-political world” as a unified system at all; rather, he sees a great deal of variation, local varieties, and different dynamics. Here is the idea that provides the key foundation of his skepticism: he insists on the heterogeneity of historical experience, social arrangements, and political regimes that existed across the expanse of territory encompassed by the map of western Eurasia.

Rather than looking for a single all-embracing concept of the “social and political system of the medieval period”, Markham insists on recognizing the diversity of arrangements found throughout the period, and the parallel importance of detailed historical investigation of various sub-regions. Franks, Magyars, Bulgars, Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards, Danes, Khazars, Anglo-Saxons, and Andalusian Muslims — the populations of various regions of Europe possessed their own histories and social arrangements, with influences flowing in all directions over time. Attempting to capture the social system of much of this map in terms of an abstract concept of “feudalism” is an error of historiography. There are commonalities across the regions and populations of the face of Europe, created by the fundamental existential circumstances of life in an environment with limited technology, communication, and travel. But the problems of material life, and the political and coercive arrangements through which groups of people were coordinated and controlled, varied across time and space. This critique can be put in terms of Weber’s idea of ideal types as well (link): the concept of feudalism is an ideal type, that accentuates some features of the social order and minimizes others, in order to capture a broad social reality in a compact description. But for Wickham the historian, this attempt is wrong-headed. We do not gain anything of intellectual value by asserting that rural England, Saxony, and the territory of the Khazars were all “feudal” in their fundamental social relations. 

Let’s look a little more closely at Markham’s account in the two books. A key idea in traditional conceptions of feudalism is the idea of “infeudation”, or the dispersal of authority, power, landed property, and military authority. Wickham introduces a number of novel ideas for describing the structure of medieval society, including especially cellularization, capillarization, and networks. In The Inheritance of Rome he introduced the idea of “cellularization” as a way of describing the social, economic, and political structure of medieval Europe. He attributes the concept to historian Robert Fossier (Enfance de l’Europe. Aspects économiques et sociaux. Tome 1: L’homme et son espace). The vocabulary of cellurization is used only twice in Inheritance, but it is used frequently in Medieval Europe. Here are a few examples from the latter book:

It [decentralized social life] marks a fundamental difference between the political systems of the early middle ages and those of later centuries, in which the public sphere had to be recreated, and always coexisted with a cellular structure of locally based powers, as we shall see in later chapters. (pp. 145-146). 

The French peasantry were increasingly caged inside the cellular structure of local power, and subjected, on top of rents, to lordly exactions which were often heavy, sometimes arbitrary, and always designed to underpin direct domination. (p. 180). 

Conversely, the weakening of the public framing for politics forced local powers to become better defined, creating the cellular structure of the future. And both of these developments fit what Marc Bloch meant by the ‘fragmentation of powers’: they were an always-possible consequence of the politics of land, in a world where the state was not separately supported by taxation. (pp. 180-181)

State-building was by now based on different, cellular, units: the newly legal, although of course highly exploitative, local lordships, large or small, of the eleventh century – to which we can now add the urban and rural communities of the twelfth, which gained their own autonomy, where they could, inside and against these lordships; and also dioceses, the cells of the international papal network. (p. 248)

The key implication of the language of “cellularization” in application to medieval society is the idea of extreme localization of most social, political, and economic activities. A cellular organism (in biology) is one that accomplishes its key metabolic activities based on processes under its immediate control — bacteria, fungi, and molds, for example. A complex multicellular organism is one that embodies a functional system of interdependence between different parts of the organism; a division of labor between different organs; and a complex system through which the metabolic needs of each cell in the organism are satisfied as a result of the activities and products of distant parts of the organism. Analogously for the social case: a large-scale non-cellular distributed social system depends upon a regional division of labor, a more or less well developed system of trade, communication, and transport, and a degree of central coordination of activities. By describing large swaths of medieval society as “cellular”, Markham is asserting autarky, self-sufficiency, and extremely limited trade for large parts of the territory of the region. Subsistence farming and handicraft production define the fundamental material terms of existence in such a world. The “cells” in this construction are not households or hamlets, but may be as large as minor lordships controlling a radius of a few dozen kilometers. But the structure is cellular nonetheless, because there is little connection among these units within the broader region.

Another term that Markham uses frequently is the idea of “capillarization” of revenues and power. For example —

The Lombard kings did not tax, after the first couple of generations of their rule at least. They operated entirely in the framework of a political practice based on land. But inside that framework, their hegemony was very great, and unusually detailed: their capillary power arguably extended to much more modest levels of society than the Frankish or Visigothic kings achieved. (146)

The state was much weaker in the post-Roman world, and one would not expect much of a tax-based movement of goods; an equivalent might be the movement of rents from one estate-centre to another, to feed landowners and kings who were located elsewhere, but the evidence we have for exchange, even in the relatively localized early Middle Ages, seems more capillary than that for the most part. (222)

That local lords in some cases were rising, militarized, families from the same community, former village-level medium owners or even former rich peasants (above, Chapter 21), did not make things any better; such families had a local knowledge that made domination easier, and also often had capillary hierarchical links with their neighbours or former neighbours, in the form of patron and client as well as landlord and tenant. (540)

This is a suggestive metaphor that evokes the minute subdivision of relationships through the social landscape. Capillarization in biology refers to the circulatory system of mammals and other orders; the capillaries are the very small blood vessels that proliferate through tissue and lungs to deliver nutrients and oxygen and remove waste products. So the key idea is “proliferation of a broadening network of channels”. In the circulatory context, the fluid moves in a complete circuit — traveling from the heart to tissue and returning. Here is a diagram:

In applying the idea of capillarization to the medieval social world, it is not entirely clear that the processes in question are circulatory (out-bound and in-bound). Rather, it seems that Wickham has in mind an extractive capillary system, in which a central fiscal power has established channels through which taxes or labor services flow from periphery to center. (This description does not imply that the power in question is “king”; it may be a regional lord controlling an extended territory.) On this view, the system will look more like the branching network of the roots of a tree:

On either scenario, the meaning of capillarization is reasonably clear: it involves the proliferation of channels of influence permitting the flow of taxes and products from local to regional places (the tree-root system) or possibly a roundtrip flow of services from the center to periphery and a return trip conveying taxes and labor services from periphery to center. We might say, then, that a “capillarized” rural society is no longer cellular; rather, it is interpenetrated by a system of circulation or extraction that succeeds in delivering products, ideas, or commands from a “center” to “periphery” and return.

Finally, Wickham often analyzes rural society — and occasionally town and city society — in terms of the networks of activity that can be discerned at the distance of a thousand years. Sometimes he applies this idea in terms of “social networks” — groups of individuals connected by family, loyalty, friendship, etc. — who are then able to call upon each other in times of need for collaboration or completion. Sometimes the networks that he describes are defined in terms of information flows — the flow of ideas through the Christian church establishment across a territory. A third application has to do with trade and market relationships, both nearby and distant.

The motor of exchange before 800 was, broadly, aristocratic wealth and buying-power; the richer élites were, the more they were able to sustain large-scale networks of production and distribution. (550)

These ideas are suggestive. But do they enable a significantly different view of the economic and political structure of feudal society — or do these terms simply provide a different vocabulary for describing the system that is familiar from Bloch? We might say that these concepts differ from traditional concepts of feudalism — even as they aim to capture similar social characteristics — in virtue of their abstraction. The concept of “infeudation” used by Marx and Bloch is inseparable from other specific assumptions about military subordination among lords, the lack of power of rural producers, and the nature of central political or monarchical power. The concepts of cellularization, capillarization, and a networked regional society are neutral about the nature of the power relations that sustain these social relations among individuals and communities. They serve to describe the “topology” of economics and power in the circumstances of the natural and technological environment of the period in Eurasia between 500 CE and 1500 CE without making specific assumptions about the legal instantiations of these relationships. 

In an unexpected way, Wickham’s use of these concepts might be seen as a more abstract theoretical application of the most fundamental ideas of historical materialism articulated by Marx. The argument goes something like this: Human beings in X region in the eighth century find themselves in small nucleated settlements with very little ability to communicate or transport goods or people to places more than 25 kilometers distant. They satisfy their needs by farming and handicraft, and they cultivate for the purpose of consumption. (They are thus “cellularized”.) More distant powerful figures (“lords in waiting”) have an interest in gaining access to some of their crops. These figures gain coercive ability (armed groups) capable of extracting tribute (rent, taxes, tribute, gifts) from peasant communities. The hamlets become “cellularized”: multiple hamlets are drawn into extractive relationships with more distant bosses who dominate them. Land and peasant labor are the primary sources of wealth; so the lords compete over territory and the right to extract from their “dominions”. Cellularization and the growth of capillaries and networks are then comprehensible results rather than simply being the embodiments of “infeudation”. 

(It would be very interesting to consider the passage from Perry Anderson quoted above and construct a sentence-by-sentence analysis and critique based on Wickham’s historical accounts of Eurasian developments during the centuries considered. This would establish fairly precisely the ways in which Wickham’s account differs from traditional accounts of “feudalism”.)

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