Traditionally, the concept of feudalism is discussed in relation to the ideas of vassalage and fiefs as the main characteristic features of the Medieval feudalism.
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However, in her book Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted, Susan Reynolds states that it is inappropriate to follow the narrow discussion of feudalism with references to the concepts of vassalage and fiefs, and it is necessary to focus on the broad sense and explain feudalism in the context of the complex economic structure which affected the development of the Medieval society1.
According to Reynolds, feudalism is not directly linked to the traditional discussion of vassalage and fiefs promoted by F. L. Ganshof and Marc Bloch because of the historians’ failures while interpreting the medieval documents to support their arguments.
Thus, Reynolds tries to explore in her book “how far vassalage and the fief, as they are generally understood, constituted institutions which are definable, comprehensible, and helpful to the understanding of medieval history”2.
Reynolds’s thesis that feudalism should be discussed in the broad context as the influential economic and social structure opposes the ideas declared by Ganshof and Bloch, but the author’s statement can be discussed as successful because Reynolds provides the credible evidence to support her words while re-reading and interpreting the medieval documents.
Thus, Reynolds openly attacks the traditional vision promoted by Ganshof that vassalage and fiefs are the key features to characterize the nature of the Medieval feudalism. According to Ganshof, the vassalage based on the principles of vassals’ obedience and lords’ maintenance in the form of providing fiefs are the central institutions to determine the unique nature of the Medieval feudalism3.
Reynolds opposes this argument while noting that the term ‘vassalage’ “no longer matches either the evidence we have available or the conceptual tools we need to use in analyzing it. It is both too diffuse and too narrow”4. Furthermore, referring to the study of documents and analysis of the presented material, the author concludes that fiefs and vassalage are “post-medieval constructs”5.
That is why, when historians try to apply the documents’ terminology to their discussions, they should “fit their findings into a framework of interpretation that was devised in the sixteenth century and elaborated in the seventeenth and eighteenth”6.
From this point, Reynolds focuses on the analysis of the medieval documents in the context of the studied historic period, and her discussion of vassalage and fiefs appears to be more complex and appropriate than the traditional view of Ganshof.
In spite of the fact that Bloch admits in his works that such terms as ‘vassalage’, ‘fiefs’, and ‘peasantry’ cannot serve to explain all the complexity of the feudal society, Reynolds does not accept the historian’s position. According to Reynolds, such discussions of the terms’ meanings are abstract, and it is necessary to refer to the detailed analysis of the medieval documents78.
Reynolds’s argument sounds convincingly because the author refers to the complete analysis of the medieval texts to support her thesis. Thus, Reynolds pays much attention to the meaning of words used during the Medieval era, and she states that “even if one context suggests some content for a word, that content cannot be assumed to be inherent in the word itself in such a way as to be transferred to other contexts and other cases”9.
That is why, many historians often misread the Medieval texts and documents while referring to the common vision of feudalism as an easy system based on the concepts of vassalage and fiefs. In this context, the evidence provided by Reynolds to support the argument is more convincing because of discussing the sources from many perspectives.
Reynolds’s approach to opposing Ganshof and Bloch’s arguments is successful because the author not only avoids focusing on the traditional narrow sense but also provides the effective evidence to support her basic ideas.
Furthermore, if Ganshof and Bloch discuss the basics of the feudal society only from social and economic perspectives, Reynolds goes far and provides the discussion of the legal sphere during the medieval period in order to explain her conclusions10.
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That is why, in Reynolds’s book, much attention is paid to the explanation of the principles of the medieval property law with references to the normative statements and documents as the background for the author’s discussion.
Feudalism is usually considered as the main institution and social phenomenon associated with the period of the Medieval history. The book Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted written by Susan Reynolds includes an effective argument that the discussion of vassalage and fiefs as the basics to explain the whole system of the feudal society is inappropriate because of the narrowness of this vision.
Reynolds states that the focus on the context and the role of the social and economic structure is necessary, and the author successfully opposes the arguments declared by such historians as F.L. Ganshof and Marc Bloch while referring to her provocative, but reliable, interpretation of the medieval documents.
Bloch, Marc. Feudal Society. New York: Routledge, 1962.
Ganshof, Francois-Louis. “Benefice and Vassalage in the Age of Charlemagne”. Cambridge Historical Journal 6, no. 2 (1939): 147-175.
Reynolds, Susan. Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
1 Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 2.
2 Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals, 2.
3 Francois-Louis Ganshof, “Benefice and Vassalage in the Age of Charlemagne”, Cambridge Historical Journal 6, no. 2 (1939): 149.
4 Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals, 47.
5 Ibid., 2.
6 Ibid., 2.
7 Ibid., 4.
8 Marc Bloch, Feudal Society (New York: Routledge, 1962), 16.
9 Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals, 119.
10 Ibid., 58.