Talkin' 'bout something Medieval -- the 'F' Word or, Splitter vs. Lumper
A few days ago (seems like yesterday), Kieran Healy used the dreaded 'F' word. He used it twice -- at Crooked Timber and at his own site. I generally like Kieran's stuff, but dammit, how many times do medievalists have to go through this? Feudalism. The 'F' word. Not actually a term used during the Middle Ages, but a description made up in, IIRC, the 18th c. Since then, defined and redefined as we know more and more about medieval society.
It isn't what most people think it is. Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace proved that. Hell, even historians debate it. But still, sociologists and economists continue to use the term in an increasingly anachronistic (in the sense that so much work has been done on the topic since those fields took up the then-current working definition) sense. What I dread is that I will get these students (well, not exactly Kieran's students, although I now have a colleague who teaches with Kieran who probably will), and will have to fight tooth and nail to explain to them that the 'F' word isn't what they've learned, and instead is many things and nothing in particular. I'll have to explain the nuances of historiographic debate, and then go into much longer and more complex examples from England, West Francia, East Francia, France, and Germany (not to mention various Spanish kingdoms and Portugal), over a very long period, to demonstrate that what they think of as Feudalism never actually existed in the way it's been explained. It will take up a lot of time from my survey classes. It annoys me. It's why I have a deal with one of my colleagues in Economics. Bob never defines the 'F' word and I don't mess around with the 'C' word -- Capitalism.
Kieran will be speaking about both:
These are the people I have to interest in the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.Why, specifically, am I concerned about this? Because, as I commented at CT,
... there is no such thing as a transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, since the former is a very loose term that covers a set of political and social relationships, while the other is all to do with economics. Perhaps you mean manorialism? [ ... ] there’s a reason lots of medievalists (the people who kinda know a little something about it) call it “the ‘F’ word.” I don’t think Brown is completely right about it (Brown, Elizabeth A.R. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” AHR> 79 (1974), pp. 1063-1088), but I also would argue that most of us don’t completely buy Bloch’s interpretation, or at least might say that he’s often misinterpreted in terms of what the actual feudal relationship is.
I would also suggest that people read both Ganshof and Reynolds to get an even more complete picture. Those are just some of the basics -- and I'm not even going back as far as Maitland.
Why, you might ask, does this matter so much to Another Damned Medievalist? It's just a word, after all. And in some ways, I agree. Except ...
I really think that the misuse of and misconceptions attached to this word have done more to present a false picture of the Middle Ages than perhaps any other single concept. For many people, it forms the foundations for a wonderfully romantic (in the small 'R' sense) picture, beloved by the SCA, RPG-ers, etc. It ties into the idea of the entire Middle Ages as "Dark Ages," even though the period once so described never included the later M.A. It supports a mythos that includes a set of Us vs. Them, West vs. East, Christian vs. Islam social, political, and economic dichotomies that provide fodder for explanations and justifications for the furtherance of those antagonistic relationships up to and including the present. This saddens me, because the truth is so much richer than the fiction. Understanding that richness, and the complexities of the interactions between peoples and cultures in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages forces us to reinterpret a lot of what we see in the news. It makes us look again at Spain's patron saint, Santiago Matamoros (talk about anachronism) and Italy's recent attempt to 'recognise a "historical truth" and refer explicitly to the "Christian roots of Europe" in its new constitution' from a new perspective -- just how true are those "historical truths"?
It's only a few steps from such misinterpretations to the deliberate kinds of historical revisionism condemned by James McPherson in the September, 2003 issue of Perspectives, a journal published by the the American Historical Association. McPherson was goaded into speaking out against the misuse of the term "revisionist historians" by the Bush administration. One of the examples McPherson gave was the administration's arguments for the invasion of Iraq:
The administration's pejorative usage of "revisionist history" to denigrate critics by imputing to them a falsification of history is scarcely surprising. But it is especially ironic, considering that the president and his principal advisers have themselves been practitioners par excellence of this kind of revisionism. Iraq offers many examples. To justify an unprovoked invasion of that country, the president repeatedly exaggerated or distorted ambiguous intelligence reports to portray Iraqi possession of or programs to develop biological, chemical, and nuclear "weapons of mass destruction" that posed an imminent threat to the United States. In his State of the Union message on January 28, President Bush made clear his acceptance of a British intelligence report that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" to develop nuclear weapons. This assertion was "revisionist history" with a vengeance; the U. S. government knew at the time it was received that the intelligence was unreliable and learned soon afterwards that it was based on forged documents. Yet not until July did the administration concede its gaffe—and then tried to blame the CIA. That agency took the fall, but with respect to another administration justification for the war—Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to Al Qaeda—the CIA refused to provide any aid and comfort. An official in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research offered (in the New York Times of July 12, 2003) a pointed description of the kind of revisionist history practiced by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al: "This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude: 'We know the answers, give us the intelligence to support those answers.'"
I hate to put forth a "thin end of the wedge" argument, but this much is true, at least in the U.S.: as a discipline in K-12, History is given far less attention than it was 20 or so years ago. It is seldom taught by people with discipline degrees, and frequently by people who have taken as few as two undergraduate courses in the subject. It is taught much as a collection of names and dates to remember, and the critical thinking and analytical skills absolutely necessary to thinking as an historian never make an appearance. It it therefore arguably easier to convince the public that a particular interpretation of history is correct, because frankly, a large number of the public hated History in school because it was badly taught and, if they remember anything, it is either a few unconected events or their particular teacher's interpretation. They are comfortable with the lumpers, and see the splitters as troublemakers.
[ADM finds that the argument has taken on a life of its own in a place entirely unexpected and thinks, "what the hell ..." but goes with it]
Bush is a lumper of sorts. He relies on people not to be splitters. I will not comply. It is our responsibility as teachers to make sure our students know when to lump and when to split. The debate on the 'F' word is a teaching opportunity. Use it wisely ;-)