Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted by Susan Reynolds

siria's review against another edition

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Fiefs and Vassals has the dubious distinction of being both an important read and a tedious one. Susan Reynolds' study is a systematic reassessment of the concept of 'feudalism' in France, England, Italy and Germany, which argues that the entire concept of 'feudal' landholding and relationships are based on assumptions which don't hold up to serious examination. Too much of our understanding of medieval land tenure and social interactions has been based on reading later, high medieval meanings of terms (fief, vassal, benefice) back into earlier documents, and the very concept of 'feudalism' is not one which appears in a medieval text. The model is one which most historians would admit doesn't hold up—and yet the F word keeps showing up in textbooks and academic works.

Reynold's survey of the sources is vast and much of it beyond the areas with which I'm familiar, but the meticulous footnotes offer the reader easy access to follow up the original material. I think her central idea—that feudalism is an untenable concept—is a convincing one, as are several of the points she makes about historical methodology. Yet her prose style can be a bit leaden and opaque—Fiefs and Vassals is emphatically not a book for the non-specialist, and even as a medievalist who doesn't specialise in legal history I found it tough going at points.

I also think a good editing session would have made this book stronger (and shorter) by removing some of the repetition and a very British tendency to apologise a lot for this or that aspect of her argument/approach, etc. Some of her nominalist tendencies can also be taken to the extreme and while Reynolds does repeatedly point to the importance of context in determining meaning, it doesn't take much to see that it would also be possible to succumb to a paralysing skepticism if that nominalism was also applied to a study of contexts.