Wednesday, July 16, 2008

O HAY, do you like feudalism?

Stenton, Frank. The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066-1166. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961. Pp. v-312.

In this adaptation of his 1929 lecture series, Stenton attempts to synthesize the research of various scholars into a cursory text on the development of the English feudal system in the century following the Norman Conquest. As he states in his introduction, this work owes much to the existing scholarship of John Horace Round and Felix Liebermann. The work of these two historians lays the foundation for Stenton’s analysis, which is supplemented by his original research on the Danelaw Charters. His selection of Round and Liebermann as principle sources lends an added validity to the book, as both were considered preeminent sources in the field at the time of the book’s publication.

Stenton’s main argument espouses the idea that feudalism in the popular connotation of the word did not exist as an institution in pre-Norman England, but was an advent of the Norman Conquest. Although it developed along the Norman model in the subsequent century, Stenton maintains that there are sharp differences between the two systems. To evidence this and outline his theory, Stenton turns to the private charters of the twelfth century and other materials produced between 1066 and 1166 in an attempt to enlighten the viewer to “the way [. . .] members [of the twelfth century] regarded the social organization of their own day” (6). Stenton provides a nuanced argument which shows that although common vocabulary and similar systems of organization did exist between the models of feudalism implemented in Normandy and England, there is a stark contrast in the interpretation of Norman feudalistic principles. Stenton evidences these differences through an examination of the Domesday Book and the Bayeux Inquest of 1133, concluding from these sources that the requirements of feudal mainstays such as knight’s fees and services (including but not limited to feudem loricae) were often more generalized in England as opposed to specific in Normandy (15-17, 24). In addition, he supports his claims on the nature of English feudalism through other sources not of Norman production. Stenton references his own research on the Danelaw Charters in his discussion of English notions of knight-service and social order (115, 177). Stenton emphasizes the fact that the Normans were not the only group to have affected the English feudal system, citing Danish and Breton influences which “complicated the first phase of English feudalism” (24-25). In asserting this, Stenton would appear to both simultaneously validate and reject the notion that the Norman Conquest brought an “imported feudalism” to England.

Stenton’s extensive discussion of primary documents lends great validity to the arguments in his text. While these documents are infinitely useful in the author’s discourse, they are, in a sense, the least compelling quality of the book. The extensive quotations from primary documents tend to eclipse their analysis, which often seems to arrive as an afterthought. The proliferation of lengthy passages, however, may simply be Stenton’s compensation for his periodic frustration at the scarcity of comprehensive documents, especially feudal law cases (47).

Although the text is not inherently specialist, it has become more suited to a specialist audience with age. It is important to remember that the text is based on a lecture series from the early twentieth century. The amount of untranslated Latin which appears in the text may be insurmountable to modern readers, few of whom are likely to be well-versed in the language.

Stenton succeeds in his attempt to provide a cursory outline of the beginnings of the English feudal system. He satisfactorily provides a brief and well-documented history of feudalism’s development, which would be of great use to any scholar or enthusiast of medieval history.

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