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.

Although, in the only place where he writes of a ‘model’ of development, Duby falls into the once fashionable habit among medieval historians of attributing the ups and downs of social development to the expansion and contraction of the population, he more consistently locates the ‘motor’ of development in the lords’ demands for peasant surplus. We find this concept already present in the first part after he has described the forces of production. In this description he emphasizes the low productivity of agriculture (yields of twice the seed sown at most) and the conflict between the primarily pastoral economy of the barbarians and the cereal-producing economy of the Romanized west. He suggests that, at any rate as far as the barbarian aristocracy was concerned, the economy should be interpreted as a gift-giving economy in which the initial supply came only partly from peasant surplus, but to a great extent from war booty and tribute, being redistributed not through trade but as largesse, alms and charity. But this aspect of the economy, so clearly a hangover from the heroic age of the migrations, had to be fitted in to the still surviving structures of the Romanized provinces, including not only the organized estates worked by serf or slave labour, but a circulation of goods still determined by the market and measured in terms of coined money.

At this point Duby introduces an important argument connected with the dietary habits of this society, a theme which, like some others, surfaces from time to time throughout the book. Evidently, what food was eaten and how it was prepared is an important feature of a primitive agrarian economy. It also touches on the subject of mental attitudes and cultural practices. Duby suggests here that a determining element in the Roman-barbarian symbiosis was the gradual abandonment by the barbarians of their diet based on animal products (butter, animal fat) for one which was at the same time that of a settled agriculture (bread, wine, oil) as well as being at the basis of the religious ritual of the much admired Roman world (the sacramental bread and wine of Christianity). Bread is baked from grain which is capable of being ground into flour by the process of milling. Wine and olive oil came from plants which required many years of care in cultivation. Their conversion into food implies a level of technical expertise supposedly lacking in the barbarian economy.