Georges Duby is not only the most interesting medievalist writing in France today, but one whose total scholarly production over the last 20 years has given him a European pre-eminence. He is best known in this country for his Rural Economy and the Life of the Countryside in the Medieval West, translated and published in England in 1966. His articles on the political and cultural development of the French nobility in the early Middle Ages have been the most original development of this theme since the great work of Guilhiermoz. footnote1 A profound grasp of the history of the economy is combined with a sensitive perception of the wider culture of the period, its art and its ideas as may be seen from his contribution to the Skira series, Art Idées Histoire, footnote2 published in Switzerland. Duby is a highly original researcher, steeped in the original sources of the early medieval period, but at the same time with a remarkable power of synthesis. For him the duty of the historian is not simply to communicate discoveries to fellow-scholars but to give his synthesis of the history he knows well to a wide public. His new book, Guerriers et Paysans VIIe-XIIe si¨cle: premier essor de l’économie européenne is such a work. In spite of its title it is not simply a précis of the economic history of an obscure and difficult period of European history, but an essay in the interpretation of the evolution of the whole human society during this period. footnote3

Duby does not align himself with any historical school, although in the introduction to his masterly thesis La société aux XIe et XIIe si¨cles dans la région mâconnaise (1953), he paid tribute to the influence of Marc Bloch, whom he had never met. In the book with which we are concerned he makes no reference to the work of Henri Pirenne, other than in the bibliography, although Pirenne’s interpretation of the period with which Duby is concerned continues to be enormously influential, undermined by criticisms in part rather than as a whole, and recently defended by one of his most influential successors, Hans van Werweke. footnote4 The closest that Duby comes to referring to an historical school is that section of the work entitled ‘Les temps féodaux’ when he writes . . . ‘The use which Marxist historians make of the word feudalism to define one of the main phases of economic and social evolution is justified by the role which the ‘feudality’—in the widest sense, namely the forms through which power was exercised in western Europe after about the year 1000—played in the organization of new relationships between the forces of production and those who profited from them.’ It is clear that there is a good deal of Marxist influence in the way in which Duby has ordered his interpretation, more than there was in Marc Bloch’s work, though it existed there, too. footnote5 Nevertheless Duby is not a Marxist, though his ideas are well worth the attention of Marxist historians. They demonstrate that there is no hermetic seal between the ideas of Marxists and non-Marxists and that the interaction between them can be mutually beneficial.

The book is full of, one might almost say overflowing with, ideas and interpretations. There are many subsidiary themes which contribute to the main structure of the argument, and these cannot all be discussed here. I propose, in this review, to give a comprehensive account of the argument. This account will be fairly lengthy but although its object will be to inform those who have not read the book it will also be my own structuring, and therefore appreciation, of Duby’s interpretation. In view of the critical remarks with which I shall conclude I want to emphasize that my summary is also a positive evaluation.

There are certain fundamental concepts in this work which are repeated and which determine the author’s choice of themes. The first of these, which is formulated in the short introduction and subsequently often repeated, is that it is possible to find a ‘motor’ (moteur) or ‘spring’ (ressort) within the economy of early medieval Europe which was the root cause of its development in the same sense that the search for profit is the ‘prime mover’ of the development of the capitalist economy. footnote6 The second important concept which emerges, without being precisely formulated as such, is that the social order is shaped by the relationship of exploitation between the rulers and the ruled. The third, which is also to be found in much of Duby’s other work, is that ‘collective mentalities’ (analogous to, but not the same as, class consciousness in Marxist writing) play a positive role in retarding as well as in promoting the forward movement of economy and society. The fourth, which is connected with this, is the similarly positive role of political action and political form.

The structure of the argument determines the plan of the book. The first part deals with the society which had emerged by the 7th century as a consequence of the impact of the undeveloped barbarian, mainly Germanic, aristocracies on the decrepit civilization of Rome, a mutual process of invigoration and sophistication. The second part is an examination of the subsequent development and modification of the barbarian ‘war economy’, that is an economy where the ruling class appropriates surplus as booty through open pillage. This covers the period from the 9th to the middle of the 11th century. The third and last part, from the middle of the 11th to the end of the 12th century, is entitled ‘Les conquêtes paysannes’ because the theme is the development of a settled but expanding agrarian economy in which the ruling class appropriates the surplus of the peasant holdings in a regular and organized way through the collection of rent and the profits of jurisdiction.