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Feudalism by F.L. Ganshof

Feudalism (1944)

by F.L. Ganshof

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This will be a different sort of review from what I usually write. In fact, if I was going to title it, I’d name it, "In Defense of Ganshof.” I will not be giving a detailed account of what the book covers, but rather an assessment of how what the book covers has been misrepresentated in later works.

I first purchased this book after reading Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals as well as several other books and articles discussing the use of the word “feudalism” in Medieval studies. Since Ganshof was mentioned so prominently in these works, I thought I should read it to get a better handle on the discussion. Quite often (though not specifically in Reynolds) Ganshof’s Feudalism has been mentioned as a principle culprit in how the term “Feudalism” has come to be so misused as representing something that was universal to Medieval Europe both in time and space.

Imagine my surprise then to find that Ganshof was not at all what I expected. Contrary to discussions I had read, Ganshof did not argue for a relatively uniform system of vassalage, of military or other service required in return for lands throughout Western Europe. Ganshof was very careful, when discussing what he considered to be feudalism, to identify areas where the social constructs he mentioned were and were not in effect. For example, in Ganshof’s introduction he states “... I propose to study feudalism as it existed in France, in the kingdom of Burgundy-Arles, and in Germany, since in these countries its characteristics were essentially the same, and to concentrate on the regions lying between the Loire and the Rhine, which were the heart of the Carolingian state and the original home of feudalism. Further afield, in the South of France and in Germany beyond the Rhine, the institutions that grew up are often far from typical of feudalism as a whole.” p xvii Later he specifically excludes regions such as the Crusader states, Spain, Italy, various regions of France and Germany and Eastern Europe and England from his discussion. His discussion also specifically discusses relationships among members of the nobility and not further down the social scale.

In addition, in the foreword written by F. M. Stenton in 1950, six years after the original publication date, he says, “In the past, the student of feudalism has been led astray by the mirage of an ideal type of social order, dominant throughout western Europe, displaying everywhere the same essential characteristics and resting everywhere upon identical postulates. Professor Ganshof’s study is founded upon a realist’s sense that social arrangements, arising from the instinctive search for a tolerable life, vary indefinitely with varieties of time and circumstance.” p ix

Certainly disagreements with specific aspects of Ganshof are valid. This work was first written over 60 years ago and this is a reprint of the 1964 edition and much more recent scholarship has been done on the subject. However when you read a book or participate in a discussion arguing about Ganshof’s portrayal of these institutions as being nearly universal in Western Europe over broad regions of time and space, be aware that this is not Ganshof’s intention, or what he has put forward.

If you are interested in learning about feudalism itself, there is a great deal of more recent scholarship and Ganshof is probably not highly useful. However if you’re interested in the historiography of feudalism and want to find out what this Ganshof guy was talking about, pick it up. It’s not long (176 pages) or expensive. Or you can order it through interlibrary loan.

As I said, not the sort of review I usually write. But from the moment I read this book (actually as soon as I got through the forward and introduction) I have had a sense that Ganshof has been treated unfairly and that later discussions should not be about Ganshof, but about the poor use that has been made of Ganshof. ( )
1 vote cemanuel | Oct 25, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
F.L. Ganshofprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Grierson, PhilipTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stenton, F.M.Forewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061310581, Paperback)

'Professor Ganshof's book answers the prayer of every teacher and student of medieval history for a lucid, concise and authoritative exposition of feudal institutions. Its author is one of the leading authorities in western Europe on Feudalism and its translator a leading English expert on the early Middle Ages. Professor Ganshof ... confined himself to those institutionalized relationships of lord and man, prevalent in western Europe from the ninth to the thirteenth century, which are commonly included in the narrower definition of Feudalism. The result is a summary of current doctrine which could scarcely be bettered.'

George Holmes, The Cambridge Review

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:46 -0400)

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