Thomas N. Bisson


On his book The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government

Cover Interview of May 15, 2009

The wide angle

The Crisis of the Twelfth Century was conceived in 1987 when, upon moving from Berkeley to Harvard, I was invited to offer a course in Harvard’s undergraduate core curriculum.  I welcomed the opportunity, for after some 25 years of teaching what I had been taught about medieval Europe, I was ready to try out a new and different view of the twelfth century.  With the help of students and teaching fellows, my course, which was offered from 1988 to 2003, became an ongoing laboratory experiment in historical reinterpretation.  My new argument was there from the start, but students read the sources with me.  They were invited to draw their own conclusions about the shortcomings as well as the merits of my revisionist case.

To argue for a “crisis” in the twelfth century is altogether new, for two reasons.  First, it challenges the view made famous by Charles Homer Haskins in his 1928 book entitled The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.  Was this not the grand creative century in medieval history, the century in which all was growth, creativity, and human progress?  Second, my book challenges the great corollary of Haskins’s work: that government was a real element of twelfth-century progress, exemplified in the celebrated reigns of William the Conqueror and his Norman and Angevin successors, and in much else.

In my view, now long tested with students, this understanding of history is either seriously mistaken or seriously misleading.  Wherever one looks in twelfth-century Europe, what the sources talk about is power and lordship, not government.  Contemporaries had no definition of government, nor even a vision of it.  Even when, after about 1160, they were stumbling into ad hoc contrivances for the general welfare, they had no vocabulary for that—no way of thinking about government or the state.  And because I refrain from imposing any such usage on my subjects, the modern relevance of my book will seem understated to some readers.

Conceived during Ronald Reagan’s second term, and published at the moment of Barack Obama’s election, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century has resonance for us—to say the least.  The Europe of knights, castles, and violence was, in our perspective, an ungoverned jungle.  Government was to be the solution as well as a resolution, not the problem.  To begin to think about power as “ours,” not just as “mine,” was new and progressive in the twelfth century.  Unregulated power no longer worked.  It is from the resolution of compounded crises in the twelfth century that government originates as a continuous phenomenon in European history.