I am trying to get a take on the Feudal Transformation/Revoluton/Mutation etc (as a non-specialist) and realising once again why I always find it so hard. Its not simply a dispute about why changes happened (or different timetables in different places). Its a dispute in which half the things which are said to have changed may not actually have happened at all (or happened many centuries earlier or later). For my own sake Im trying to work out some of the possible factors and connections, but Im still not sure Ive got a grip on it.
Im focusing here on France in a broad sense, because almost everyone does, but with the proviso that both England and Germany show things can be different. Firstly, there are some things that look rather like red herrings.
1) Castles and changing settlement patterns dont seem to be the key, because they occur in places outside France without the same effects.
2) Similarly patrimonialisation of lordship happens in France (following political fragmentation) and Germany (without political fragmentation).
3) The transition from slavery to serfdom also doesnt look very useful, because its not clear that slave modes of production are ever widespread, because slavery as social death is already in decay in the early Middle Ages and because for all the supposedly tight Carolingian legal boundary of slave/free the reality looks somewhat different.
4) A focus on the ‘rise of violence’ is very dubious; as Carolingianists keep on pointing out, you can see a lot of armed retinues and lordly violence in the Carolingian period as well. (I think there might be more traction in trying to examine exactly who is fighting who: is there a change between noble on peasant and noble on noble violence?)
5) The family mutation as Pauline Stafford and Constance Bouchard Britton (among others) have pointed out, increasingly looks to be due more to the different sources we have available than a definite change from a broad to a narrow idea of family.
The most promising focus is on what you can see that actually does change. At the start you have the Carolingian world, a society organised on a particular pattern of public order and local relationships; from the early eleventh century you have (in many places in western Europe) a different looking society, increasingly getting formally organised on a different pattern. In particular, you have some texts giving explicit rules of fidelity for the upper classes (and Id link with this chivalry, as a class-based code of conduct for acceptable/unacceptable violence, which probably develops in early eleventh century Normandy). You have formalised hereditary public office. You have the formal subordination of peasants to lords (as seen in consuetudines) and more institutionalised village government. The problem is how do you get from here to there. What you do with the tenth century?
The earlier view (down to Marc Bloch, say) was that you got anarchy in the tenth century and then new organisation in the eleventh. The feudal revolution view (Georges Duby onwards) is the Wile E. Coyote view of the Carolingian world: public order still keeps going without effective kings, till all concerned suddenly look down, realises theyve gone over the cliff and crash. One problem is that how much political fragmentation you see depends where you look. George Dubys Maconnais fragments a lot and the evidence for Carolingian public order continuing much into the tenth century is fairly weak. In contrast, some of the territorial principalities, like Aquitaine, look rather firmer, as Jane Martindales pointed out. If you say that small-scale political fragmentation is what drives the emergence of the new order (as Chris Wickham does), then the problem is why that should be? After all, in principle, a locally based society needs fewer explicit rules than a large-scale one does. If you see the territorial principalities as being able to maintain a vaguely Carolingian public order, then why do changes happen at all? Its hard to see why a Carolingian Catalonia that continues into the mid-tenth century then suddenly unravels, when the Carolingians never had much direct impact on the region anyhow.
One alternative to these two views is saying that theres a gradual evolution of institutions, but the problem here is finding the equivalent of the missing link. Saying its all down to Carolingian definitional practices, for example, needs you to find a continuation of such defining practices throughout the tenth century, which is tricky.
Or theres the approach mainly taken by those who study dispute settlement, that nothing really changes anyhow. Carolingian public order is always just a facade that doesnt affect practice anyhow, so theres really no practical difference between the Late Merovingian period and the eleventh century. That goes along with the view (Marxist but also held by others) that medieval peasants are always oppressed. The difficulty with the nothing changes view is answering why the facade is suddenly changed/removed when it is. Why are new rules of the game suddenly written down, when they havent needed to be before?
Which is why the most effective explanations Ive seen so far (such as by Robert Moore) tend to say that church reform and economic development are the key factors, which at least have the advantage of being things that we know did happen. The developing economy (and especially monetisation and the growth of towns) means there is more wealth going and that peasants have more options and both churches and lords are trying to grab control of it and them. Monasteries resort (as is their practice) to defining their rights via charters and this sets off rounds of defining by secular lords as well (either in direct competition or realising the benefits of the tactic). This fits with a view of the Peace of God which sees it at as least partly intended as an attempt by the upper classes as a whole to determine what is licit violence and what is not. (The aims of the Peace of God may be traditional ones of public order, but not the details of the provisions). Given that you can also see a lot of the Gregorian reform as being about setting rigid boundaries and definitions of church/world (as well as an attempt to welsh on the social norms previously agreed between the church and lay landowners), the whole thing hangs together vaguely plausibly. Whether its the best answer, Im not yet sure, but at the moment it looks more coherent than anything else Ive seen.