MY TOP SHELF – 17

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

17

ROIS ET SERFS

Marc Bloch (1920)

Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, Paris, 1920; facsimile reprint Slatkine-Megariotis, Geneva, 1976; rebound in quarter vellum with red cloth boards and red label embossed.

I was born in France.  I have drunk the waters of her culture.  I have made her past my own.  I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests.

Winston Churchill used the term ‘unconquerable fidelity’ to refer to some of the people opposing the Third Reich.  It is a very just epitaph for the French historian, Marc Bloch.  Coming from a family of assimilated Alsatian Jews, Bloch studied in Paris at the Ecole Normale Supérieur and then in Berlin and Leipzig.  He served in the infantry throughout the First World War and attained the rank of captain.  He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.  Between the wars he won an international reputation as an historian and helped to found the Annales School.  He invoked the work of German historians and his great work spanned all Europe.  He re-joined the army in 1939 and wrote a book Strange Defeat after the capitulation.  He worked on historiography, and he also served the Resistance, code named ‘Narbonne’.  Vichy police took him and handed him over to the Gestapo who tortured him and shot him shortly before the Allies arrived.  His friends had asked him to get out of France, but he had thought that he had a duty to stay.

In Strange Defeat, Bloch had uttered those most beautiful words that are set out at the head of this note.  I shall come back to his execution when looking at War and Peace, but it is enough to say now that Marc Bloch was a man to whom the word ‘patriot’ might be applied both fairly and decently.

Rois et Serfs (‘Kings and Serfs’) was Bloch’s doctoral thesis that looked at emancipation ordinances of 1315 and 1318 and found that the references to ‘natural freedom’ did not represent an endorsement of human liberty – they were just part of a conventional formula, a drafting device, although Bloch saw behind it a conflict between the ideals of the church fathers of equality and the reality of their hierarchy.  The work prefigures his later work with its focus on royalty and the functions of royal officials and the ways of the common people.  It contains valuable advice for lawyers today.  Ces discourses préliminaires tournaient tousjours dans le même cercle de pensées ou de lieux communs, sans avoir la vie reelle qu’un bien lointain rapport, – étant forcement elogieéux pour le personage qui avait commandé l’acte, et presentant invariablement ses motifs sous le jour le plus flatteur.  In translation – statutory preambles are self-serving propaganda.

But this book stands here for the great ‘Feudal Society’ (La société féodale), a clear and simple picture of feudalism that offers us a picture of medieval Europe.  It is extremely wide in its scope but, like the work of Maitland, it is rooted in the concrete and it is graphically written.  It is one of those great histories that can be read and enjoyed equally by the specialist and the general reader.  It is in truth a masterpiece of composition – in French or English.

Here are some extracts to show the style and substance of this colossal achievement.

Yet the revival of interest in Roman law provoked lively opposition.  Fundamentally secular, it disturbed many churchmen by its latent paganism.  The guardians of monastic virtue accused it of having turned away the monks from prayer.  The theologians reproached it with supplanting the only forms of speculative activity that seemed to them worthy of clerics.  The kings of France themselves or their counsellors, at least from Philip Augustus on, seem to have taken umbrage at the too easy justifications which it provided for the theorists of Imperial hegemony.  Far from arresting the movement, however, this opposition did little more than attest its strength.

The principal difficulty, therefore, which faced the central government was to reach residual subjects, in order to exact services and impose the necessary sanctions.  Thus there arose the idea of utilizing for the purposes of government the firmly established network of protective relationships.  The lord, at every level of the hierarchy, would be answerable for his ‘man’ and would be responsible for holding him to his duty.  This idea was not peculiar to the Carolingians….Under the Carolingians, on the other hand, various royal or imperial edicts were concerned with defining precisely the offences which, if committed by the lord, would justify the vassal in breaking the contract.  This meant that, with the exception of such cases, and apart from separations by mutual agreement, the tie lasted for life.

Yet, whatever the inequalities between the obligations of the respective parties, those obligations were none the less mutual; the obedience of the vassal was conditional upon the scrupulous fulfilment of his engagements by the lord.  This reciprocity in unequal obligations….was the really distinctive feature of European vassalage.  This characteristic distinguished it not only from ancient slavery but also, and very profoundly, from the forms of free dependence known to other civilizations, like that of Japan, and even to certain societies bordering on the feudal zone proper.

In reflecting on this picture of people being bound together by mutual agreement and ties, we are speaking of times more than a millennium ago.

It was there in the commune that the really revolutionary ferment was to be seen with its violent hostility to a stratified society.  Certainly these primitive urban groups were in no sense democratic.  The greater bourgeois, who were their real founders and whom the lesser bourgeois were not always eager to follow, were often in their treatment of the poor hard task masters and merciless creditors.  But by substituting for the promise of obedience, paid for by protection, the promise of mutual aid, they contributed to the social life of Europe a new element, profoundly alien to the feudal spirit properly so called.

There is a riveting insight there, both French and universal.

Assuredly the English parliamentary system was not cradled in ‘the forests of Germania’.  It bore the deep imprint of the feudal environment from which it sprang.  But the peculiar quality which distinguished it so sharply from the Continental systems of ‘Estates’, and, more generally, that collaboration of the well-to do classes in power, so characteristic of the English political structure so long ago as the Middle Ages – the origin of these is surely to be found in the firm establishment on English soil of the system of assemblies composed of the free men of the territory, in accordance with the practice of the barbarian epoch.

The book ends with these words.

Nor was it an accident that in Japan, where the vassal’s submission was much more unilateral and where, moreover, the divine power of the Emperor remained outside the structure of vassal engagements, nothing of the kind emerged from a regime which was nevertheless in many respects closely akin to the feudalism of the West.  The originality of the latter system consisted in the emphasis it placed on the idea of an agreement capable of binding the rulers; and in this way, oppressive as it may have been to the poor, it has in truth bequeathed to our Western civilization something with which we still desire to live.

So much of all this is treasure.  Here is the work and the writing of a man of immense learning and authority.  This great French scholar and patriot gives me the same feeling that I get when I am reading Maitland – that I am in the hands of an historian whose judgment has been forged in the mastery of his evidence and whose integrity is assured by the demonstration of his technique. You are blessed indeed if you ever get to read a work of history that is as enlightening – as illuminating – as ‘Feudal Society’.

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