Historical materialism as a concept for understanding society, past, present and future, is under constant examination, by its adherents as much as by its opponents.footnote Some of these discussions are stimulating, intellectually exciting and perhaps even useful for the definition of political strategies. Much space has been occupied by those who are primarily concerned with one side of the Marxist project—theory rather practice. Whether or not this distances them from contemporary political issues is not my concern; but I intend here to examine the importance of the concepts of historical materialism to the practice of the working historian.

Marxist historians have, on the whole, applied themselves to the interpretation of particular periods or specific problems, as in the case of the older generation formed in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. They have not often engaged explicitly in the definition of the theoretical principles which they have applied to their work. That has been left to what one might designate as secondary writers, philosophers or socio-logists rather than historians. They use the work of historians at second hand, themselves having little or no experience of the problems of historical research, using primary sources.

If one is to consider the most important aspects of the application of theories of historical materialism to the practice of historical research and writing, it seems to me that the most useful starting-point would be to examine the main thrust of the anti-Marxists rather than the internal contortions of some of the Marxist theorists. There are many differing strands of the criticism of Marxist theories of history but at the moment I only want to consider two. First, the concept of the mode of production is much criticized, as is inevitable given its central importance for historical materialism. Second and perhaps more frequently, that essential feature of the mode of production concept, social class and class conflict, is frequently under attack.

The mode of production concept can be badly applied, both by practising historians and especially by theorists who are not such. Among the most obvious of the faulty uses of the concept is an assumption of a one-way determination by the economic base of all other aspects of a particular mode, on an even narrower form of technological determinism. Engels, towards the end of his life, took care to distance himself from this use of Marxism. Other distortions at the opposite end of the scale include an over-emphasis on class conflict at the expense of economic factors. In fact, these misuses of the mode of production concept tend not to be made by working historians, but rather by the sort of theorists I have referred to who do not engage in the application of theory to practice.footnote1 When the working historian finds that theory, as he/she applies it, does not explain the facts, it is the theory which has to be critically scrutinized.

Marxists, as well as their critics, can pick out and reject distortions of the mode of production concept. But critics of Marxism also attack what they regard as the ‘holism’ implied by historical materialism and by the mode of production concept in particular. Their target is not so much forms of rigid determinism as the idea that there is an interdependence of the different aspects of a social formation—economic base, class relations of production, legal, political and ideological superstructures. The working Marxist historian is careful not to assume one-way determination within the complexities of a social formation based on a mode of production, but does assume interconnections. And in insisting on these interconnections he/she, as a materialist, will give long-term priority to the material foundations of social class relations.

To come down to brass tacks, as a medievalist, I think that it is essential to recognize ‘feudalism’ as a mode of production, even though it may be prudent to accept its European specificity. This specificity is implied in the borrowing of the term ‘feudal’, derived from a particular European medieval institution, the ‘fief’, as broadly definitive of the mode. I do not think that a full understanding of medieval society is possible without this concept, not to speak of the by no means exhausted investigation of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. My main aim in this paper is to consider a particular aspect of medieval society which I think has been badly distorted by some non-Marxist historians. But I will first briefly outline my own understanding of the feudal mode of production in its socio-economic aspects, without entering into detail concerning so-called super-structural aspects.

The idea that medieval technology was at a low level and almost static has fairly frequently been challenged over the years. The use of water and wind power for corn-grinding and fulling mills is quite rightly emphasized—sometimes, perhaps, over-emphasized.footnote2 Nevertheless, the use of power-driven machinery was not sufficiently developed to alter the fact that that the basic units of production in both town and country were almost all so small that the labour force which worked them was based on the family, whether nuclear or three-generational.footnote3 In many cases, though by no means all, the family labour force would be strengthened by the addition of one or two—seldom more—hired workers. In the case of the holdings of middling or richer peasants, there might be young members of other, perhaps related, families, with the seasonal addition of smallholders whose holdings were insuficient for self-subsistence, and, at harvest time, itinerant men and women from towns.footnote4 In the towns the analogous unit of production was the artisan workshop, also with a family labour force. The traditional picture is of the addition of an apprentice, often from outside the town, and of a journeyman who had finished his apprenticeship but not yet acquired sufficient resources to own his own workshop. In fact, the situation was probably more fluid, the line between poor masters and journeymen often being blurred and the prospects for journeymen becoming masters very slim.footnote5