Feudal Society: Vol 1: The Growth and Ties of Dependence by Marc Bloch
Paperback: 324 pages
Publisher: Routledge; 2 edition (November 16, 1989)
Feudal Society by Marc Bloch is one of the definitive guides to the study of feudalism during the medieval period. The book’s main focus is on feudalism in Western Europe, though it does mention other regions as well, however only briefly. If you are just beginning the study of feudalism, I would actually recommend investigating other titles that give a more general overview of the subject from a high-level. Bloch’s books, volumes I and II, discuss the subject on a granular level, a “down in the weeds” approach as opposed to a surface-level overview. You will have to read and re-read this book, and even then, you will likely not understand everything fully. It’s certainly a book to be poured over, to diagnose sections or chapters or even paragraphs. It’s a book where you could spend hours investigating his cross-references and still not be satisfied. It is life’s work condensed into two volumes.
If you were to start with Bloch’s book as an introduction to the subject, I would recommend reading it through without stopping to examine or meditate too much. It can be overwhelming. Personally, as a reader, I have a hard time doing this. I found myself reading the same paragraphs several times to make everything sink in. If you were to read it without pause, you will come away with remembrance of the important points of the subject. You can easily get sidetracked if you want, for example, stopping to further investigate the differences between feudalism and manorialism.
A general breakdown of the book is as follows:
- Part I -The Environment: The Last Invasions
This section focuses on the time around the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent invasions of Europe by the likes of the Hungarians, Moslems, and Scandinavians.
- Part II – The Environment: Conditions of Life and Mental Climate
If you are reading this through for the first time, I actually feel like you could skip most of this section and come back to it later. In my opinion, the subject matter in this section is secondary or tertiary to the actual foundations of feudal society, except for Chapter 4: Material Conditions and Economic Characteristics. You should read Chapter 4, but the others you could probably skip (Chapters 5, 6, and 7). You might want to read Chapter 8 as well, as it discusses The Foundations of Law.
- Part III – The Ties Between Man and Man: Kinship
This section is important to understanding the powerful bond among kin that would carry over to the powerful bond between lord and vassal later on.
- Part IV – The Ties Between Man and Man: Vassalage and the Fief
This section is where you really get into the topics most people think of when they hear the word feudalism: vassal and lord, homage, the fief. Remember, this is not your seventh grade history course on feudalism. This part takes a deep dive into the subject matter. Be prepared to read in short bursts and come back to it later. If you are reading this book for a second time, I would start in part four and begin my study here.
- Part V – Ties of Dependance among the Lower Orders of Society
This is the last part of volume I. Here, you will find topics such as manorialism, serfdom, and villeinage. This is another great section to read and re-read.
So in conclusion, if you are new to the subject of medieval history and feudalism, do not start here. It will likely be overwhelming. If you are reading Bloch’s book for the first time, I would read it on a surface level and re-visit certain sections later. Also, you might consider skipping chapters five through seven on a first go-around. If I am coming back to Bloch’s book for a second or third time, I would start with sections four and five. These two sections get to the heart of the subject matter.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars