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


Of my six original books, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century is the only one likely to prove controversial.  But I shall welcome debate, it if comes, for what my 25 years with this subject have taught me is that the sources surviving from the twelfth century—everywhere in Europe, from Poland to Portugal, Sicily to Scotland—are overwhelmingly supportive of my thesis.  Lordship was the normal form of power everywhere.  In its new and most generative guises it was attended by violence, and it remained predominant even as it was overtaken by government toward 1200.

Some medievalist historians, especially older ones, may be troubled by the idea of a twelfth century without government.  A smaller band of younger scholars have already taken issue with me about violence, and they will surely contend against my book.  My arguments about exploitative lordship and constraint, however, have been revised and strengthened since I first set them out in 1994; and (to repeat) my support in the sources is strong.

I think it likely that Crisis will earn a recognized place in the ongoing study of power and institutional life in medieval Europe.  It will be recognized for defending the old historians who first wrote about feudalism, without commending their justly discredited concept.  Lordship, not “feudalism,” was the contemporary reality.  My book is, I believe, the first to make clear how fundamental this really was in the twelfth century.  I contend, further, that among writings in English, my book is the first fully to renounce the anachronistic concepts of government and politics with reference to the long (and formative) twelfth century.  I hope that this position will prove influential.

© 2009 Thomas N. Bisson