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
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