For some time, medievalists have associated the 12th century with "renaissance": the re-entry of classical learning into Europe, the flowering of intellectual culture, the development of systematised law, and, perhaps, the roots of rational government and "the state".
Thomas Bisson offers a radically different view. He gives us a dark, bloody, brutal Middle Ages, when power flowed from castles, the sword and exemplary violence. This is, in some respects, a return to an older Middle Ages, a defiantly anti-modern vision of radical difference. But Bisson makes the case with considerable brio and insight. He insists that we must meet the past in its own language on its own terms and, in so doing, he provides a compelling and often repellent vision of the period.
The argument is pursued across Europe, but with a particular concentration on England, France and Catalonia (the author's area of specialisation). There was no such thing as "government" or "politics" in the 12th century, Bisson argues, only power - potestas - which flowed from individual lords, backed up by the constant threat and common presence of brute force. The res publica had no place here, only individual self-aggrandisement, notionally ameliorated by oaths of fealty (though such oaths were often broken and were, in themselves, signs of the lack of any secure sense of collective endeavour).
Where abstract political ideas appear in certain sources, they are mere intellectual garlands, with no purchase upon the practice of power. Similarly, the law codes issued by various 12th-century rulers were affectations or aspirations, unconnected by any shared thread of jurisprudential logic and, in fact, wielding little or no legislative force. As the effluent streams of competing lordships met, the eddying currents sometimes formed destructive rip tides of violence. And this was a new development, a consequence of societal change and the collapse of earlier Carolingian authority. Not that violence itself was new, but violence, and the competing lordships it underpinned, had become ubiquitous, a daily experience of power at its most brutal for the oppressed masses and the Church across Europe.
"Lordship", as an abstract notion, is misleading: power was understood at the time, both by those wielding it and those subjected to it, in relation to individual lords. One might hope for a benevolent lord; but there was no overarching ideal of "lordship" to which one could appeal should the local potentate in fact be a psychopathic bastard (as several undoubtedly were). As Bisson observes, "bad lords were conspicuous in this permissive age ... because they exemplified to excess a habitual mode of domination".
Change did come, but late, and for reasons other than the conscious development of "government". Towns gained charters of liberties, not through the efforts of revolutionary bourgeoisies, but to wield their own lordship. Parliaments (in the sense of collective meetings) stumbled intermittently across the possibility of debate and argument in the service of some collective goals. Office-holding was a fluid appendage of individual lordship and only eventually became something directed towards governance.
The "origins of European government" do, then, have a place in Bisson's narrative - but later than others would place them, glimmering only in the late 12th century, and still blinking uncertainly at the world around them by the mid-13th. Too often, he argues, we are misled by teleological expectations of what comes later. Accounting, for example, was for a long period "prescriptive" rather than "probatory": accounts and surveys provided an inflexible expectation of what a lord demanded from a certain resource. The notion of "accountability" in the administrative sense is alien to the period. "Rendering account" was, rather, a way of checking up on the fidelity of an individual servant, and it happened occasionally, not systematically. Only in the late 12th century do we see it become a tool for rational management; according to Bisson, the change comes via some sense that economic conditions were changing and hence needed monitoring, and a slow recognition by rulers of the innate utility of a written record.
This is a tremendously powerful vision of the period, drawn from a vast range of sources. Bisson's interpretation sits, provocatively, at a curious intersection between American and French historiography. He converses with the dominant narratives of state formation set down by Charles Homer Haskins and Joseph Strayer, rejecting Haskins' chronology, but measuring the 12th century precisely against the agenda set in these works. Yet Bisson is also happy to reinvigorate very French models of post-Carolingian political crisis, different versions of which have been passed down from Marc Bloch to Dominique Barthelemy. At some points, the argument holds together more from the sheer weight of material pressing down than from clearly structured argument and, occasionally, Bisson's portentous language topples into incoherence. He is to a degree also prey to simply reversing the teleologies he has identified: whereas Haskins and Strayer looked back for the emergent threads, as they saw it, of later "civilisation", Bisson goes to the other pole, holding up barbaric practices and lack of clear authority as a sign that all is chaos. One wonders, then, what he makes of the violence of later - clearly bureaucratic, administrative, "political" - ages.
This sustained attempt to look at the 12th century in 12th-century terms is hugely impressive and frequently instructive. Not everyone will be persuaded by the account Bisson renders. While he banishes certain concepts - such as politics and government - as anachronistic, he allows a considerable latitude to some of his own terms, so that "violence" sometimes means brutal personal damage and, at other points, includes taxation, coinage and the spoils of vacant episcopal sees.
Much depends, as he recognises, on how one reads the surviving sources. Other historians have argued that claims of "violence" against "the poor" are rhetorical strategies by clerical authors. Bisson suggests that, while we should not treat such claims at face value, they are prey to exaggeration rather than invention; violence did exist, and was an abiding concern. Meanwhile, any language that might be seen as "political" he dismisses as inherited empty rhetoric. His focus on lords and kings also means that activities by towns and villages that one might call political are ignored or dismissed. Bisson has considerable pity for the non-noble classes, oppressed by lords; but he finds it hard to imagine they possessed anything approaching political agency.
How violent was medieval society? It's a hard question to answer from the surviving sources. And this is still the case. Reading the tabloid press from 2008, a historian of the future might be led to imagine every 21st-century community oppressed by knife-wielding youth. Were consistent official crime figures to survive, they could perhaps provide a different picture.
Telling the past "in its own terms" always means telling it in the terms of particular past sources. But if Bisson's vision of a dark 12th century can be questioned, that does not mean it should be dismissed. The Crisis of the Twelfth Century will be essential reading for all medievalists.
Thomas Bisson, emeritus Henry Charles Lea professor of medieval history at Harvard, has taught at Amherst and Swarthmore colleges, and at the University of California, Berkeley. He specialises in medieval France, with secondary interests in medieval Catalonia. The author or co-author of a dozen books, Bisson is a member or corresponding fellow of several national academies, including the British Academy.
In his free time he plays the piano, saying modestly: "I play well enough to satisfy myself, but not others." When it comes to listening, Schubert's Lieder are his favourite.
He also has a passion for poetry of all kinds, and cites the work of Keats, Yeats, Eliot and Heaney among his favourites. He has two "wonderful" daughters and gets on very well with his sons-in-law - one is an expert on Schubert's Lieder and the other, who is a former student of Bisson's, is a medievalist.
The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government
By Thomas N. Bisson
Princeton University Press
Published 3 December 2008