The Parliament o' Fowls

Exploring the Global Middle Ages with Gregory M. Rapp

Originally inspired by content for my Dictatus Papae piece over on my blog, Archimedes' Death Ray. I have since concluded that feudalism was not as prevalent or as pronounced as many earlier twentieth-century historians have suggested. Instead, borrowing from E. A. R. Brown and Susan Reynolds, feudalism and its many problems may be a bit more contrived by later historians than we originally thought. Feudalism, while an important concept in modern times, may have been less important in medieval Europe, and elsewhere.

The problem of feudalism is something that has soaked up a good bit of ink and paper, along with a few tenures in the history profession. Ironically, there may be little evidence of actual feudalism, as it has been perceived. In fact, E. A. R. Brown, known by colleges as Peggy Brown, and one of her students, Susan Reynolds, suggest that feudalism may require some contextualizing if we are to apply it so liberally across medieval Europe. In fact, E. A. R. Brown wrote a tremendously good read entitled “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,”[1] in which Brown delves into the historiography of the term itself, which proves to be quite recent. Later, in the 1990s, Susan Reynolds wrote a book[2], which covered a large swath of medieval Europe, on the same subject, but with less cheery results than her predecessor, E. A. R. Brown.

Feudalism, as a concept, is handled in many ways. In one respect, you have historians, economists, and even political scientists and philosophers, who see feudalism as an all-encompassing, ever-present, and uniform structuring in society: Marc Bloch (Feudal Society, 2 vols.), Jean-Pierre Poly and Eric Bournazel (The Feudal Transformation), and even Strayer (Feudalism) and Ganshof (Feudalism). Others, like E. A. R. Brown and Susan Reynolds, among others, tend to side with a more restricted sense of feudalism, something that requires a good deal of contextualization, footnotes, and asterisks to properly explain to those not familiar with socio-political and economic functions within medieval governing institutions.

So why is this important? The answer to this is very important because it shows just how malleable history is. History has no absolutes, no matter how hard historians try to nail down these absolutes. Well, I guess you could say history’s only absolute is that it doesn’t have any. This complicates things for popular historians, who are often forced to find absolutes, which don’t exist. Audiences often crave such things, because our own lives are often missing these absolutes. Feudalism, for a long time, was one of those contrived absolutes in medieval history. In fact, feudalism as a concept has impacted everything about how we perceive and contextualize the Middle Ages in Europe. Once people saw feudalism, they saw it everywhere. Thus, history becomes an imperfect object built by humans desiring to know absolutes about the past. Feudalism, as we know it, is a contrived -ism, something we shouldn’t take too seriously within a medieval context. Instead, evidence suggests that feudalism is, much like any -ism in academic discourse, a construct of later ages, something that didn’t exist in reality. If it did, we would need to place an asterisk and a few footnotes next to our proclamation.

Bibliographic Notes: 1. Brown, Elizabeth A. R. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe.” The American Historical Review 79, no. 4 (1974): 1063–1088. 2. Reynolds, Susan. Fiefs and Vassals. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

The Parliament o' Fowls is copyright © 2021 by Gregory M. Rapp. All rights reserved. Please note: I don't mind if people share printouts or electronic versions of postings found here, just be responsible in doing so. That means, give credit where credit is due, and don't sell those copies for the purpose of making a profit. Fellow educators: Feel free to use anything you see here in your courses, projects, etc., so long as you adhere to Fair Use and ethical academic practices.

One of the bonus, behind-the-scenes postings for The Parilament o' Fowls newsletter. Thought I'd share this here as well.

By trade, I am a writer, but that wouldn’t do my passions and my writing pursuits justice. When I first went to college, I thought I was going to work on hardware and on software for the rest of my life. I decided to take an introductory history class with Dr. Dale Streeter, who taught the first part of Western Civilization. I was hooked from his first lecture, which was like cracking open a popular history book, with amazing characters, rich settings, intense world-building, and, of course, attention to detail that just sings when it’s on the page. Dr. Streeter was the kind of professor who preferred balancing narrative with analysis, which made lecture notes easier to read and lectures far more enjoyable.

I thought history was going to be my calling, but economics, opportunities, and certain incentives brought me into English literature and creative writing for graduate school. It turns out, at that time, English instructors were a much-needed commodity, so I pursued English studies, leaving behind my dreams of being a professor of history.

I finished taking class, for a short while, around 2015. I worked as an adjunct and dreamed of writing a novel. I later continued my graduate studies in 2016 and finished again in 2020. Coming out of academics was a bit jarring, to say the least. Yes, while I am still in academia, it is different now. It doesn’t feel like it once did—no more long chats about Chaucer, no more long nights researching Robin Hood tales, and definitely fewer nights reading convoluted (and yet mind-expanding) monographs. Instead, I had moved up into teaching college freshmen and sophomores the ins and outs of the English language, English composition, literature, and critical reading.

Around the late summer of 2020, with plenty of frustrations building up due to teaching, COVID-19, failed fictional writing projects, and a general sense of despair, I decided to review my old history textbooks, papers, and notebooks. There I found something I had lost: Curiosity in the world around me. I’d slumped into a deep funk, and I found it hard to realize that fiction wasn’t cutting it anymore. It didn’t have the same allure it had when I was an undergraduate and a grad student. Nonfiction, something I had railed against for nearly seven years, was beginning to feel more at home for me as a writer.

In the closing months of 2020, I found myself considering historical scholarship, cultural studies, and popular nonfiction my next challenge, my next move in writing. When I studied undergraduate and graduate history, I (and others like me) had been warned away from popular histories and popular nonfiction. They’re (generally) nonsense. They aren’t original in their thinking or their arguments. They’re simply trash.

Upon reviewing my notes from a graduate-level history class, I found a small note left by a professor of mine, Dr. John LaValle, at Western New Mexico University. He mentioned the need to move away from the popular-academic history dichotomy that dominated a good deal of historiography. He mentioned Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, as being a seminal work in history due to its ability to explain war policies, particularly in Great Britain, during the First World War. Dr. LaValle, who didn’t know me outside of my name on a computer screen, as I was a distance education student of his, woke something up that I didn’t know existed. He showed me that history can be written by anyone, even if that person isn’t (technically speaking) a trained historian. He even went on to mention that academic or professional historians often get history wrong as well. Thus, one didn’t need to be a member of academia to write good history. Instead, good histories were the byproducts of thorough research, good editing, strong revision, and the willingness to do what others weren’t.

Other foundational conversations, particularly those that occurred with another professor of mine, concerned the nature of writing history. (Oddly enough, these conversations were often had in the designated smoking areas at ENMU, where we’d exchange ideas and arguments, during the course of smoking four or five cigarettes each.) This professor, Dr. Suzanne Balch-Lindsay, argued that real histories tended to avoid certain human hubrises. First, and foremost, tone-deaf historians labeled their histories with “The” instead of “A.” She argued that there was no such thing as the history of something. There is always a history of something. The assumes the text is comprehensive, the final word on the matter, as if handed down by God while standing atop Mount Sinai. Another dictum she often repeated was that history was always interdisciplinary, meaning historians should always be open-minded when it comes to writing history by reading wide and deep. In practice, this meant a historian should read articles, monographs, and reference materials found in archaeology, anthropology, the social sciences, theological studies, philosophy, linguistics, etc. Historians, in other words, never have the final say when it comes to understanding historical realities. Dr. Balch-Lindsay also encouraged students like me to spend time with written materials and to do so in libraries or comfortable reading areas. She knew that writing history required a good deal of time alone and within one’s mind.

Dr. Balch-Lindsay, Dr. Streeter, and Dr. LaValle all provided a foundation for my writing, particularly nonfiction writing concerned with history. History should be engaging because it needs to compete with the distractions and white noise of twenty-first-century society. History needs to come alive, so readers are able to engage with it in a meaningful way. However, historical writing shouldn’t stoop so low as to do injustice to its sources and its subjects. History also needs to be worried about how it uses language (and source material), so it can construct a persuasive interpretation of what might have happened in the past. Popular history doesn’t always mean bad history. Bad history exists in academic monographs and articles as well. And finally, historians don’t have the last say or the only legitimate claim on understanding historical realities. In a world of specialization and siloing, historians and their historical scholarship would benefit most from an interdisciplinary approach.

The Parliament o' Fowls is copyright © 2021 by Gregory M. Rapp. All rights reserved. Please note: I don't mind if people share printouts or electronic versions of postings found here, just be responsible in doing so. That means, give credit where credit is due, and don't sell those copies for the purpose of making a profit. Fellow educators: Feel free to use anything you see here in your courses, projects, etc., so long as you adhere to Fair Use and ethical academic practices.

Due to power outages and inclement weather, I'll be forgoing postings this week. I'll return next week with some exciting stuff. See you all next week!

The Parliament o' Fowls is copyright © 2021 by Gregory M. Rapp. All rights reserved. Please note: I don't mind if people share printouts or electronic versions of postings found here, just be responsible in doing so. That means, give credit where credit is due, and don't sell those copies for the purpose of making a profit. Fellow educators: Feel free to use anything you see here in your courses, projects, etc., so long as you adhere to Fair Use and ethical academic practices.

In The Travels of Marco Polo, Marco Polo describes, in brief detail, the process in which the Grand Khan, a great and noble ruler by Polo's accounts, was able to turn paper into money:

In this city of Kanbalu is the mint of the Grand Khan, who may truly be said to possess the secret of the alchemists, as he has the art of producing money by the following process. He causes the bark to be stripped from those mulberry trees the leaves of which are used for feeding silk-worms, and takes from it a thin inner rind which lies between the coarser bark and the wood of the tree. This being steeped [soaked in water], and afterwards pounded in a mortar, until reduced to a pulp, is made into paper, resembling (in substance) that which is manufactured from cotton, but quite black. When ready for use, he has it cut into pieces of money of different sizes, nearly square, but somewhat longer than they are wide.[1]

The passage above shows that the late medieval Chinese were well ahead of the curve when it came to financial tools used within the confines of China. Moreover, the passage above, although would be quite strange to Polo's medieval contemporaries in Europe, is quite familiar to many of us, who live in a world where paper money runs our lives, and our world. Paper money, as we are familiar with it, is a relatively new phenomenon in the West, with virtual money and physical coinage taking precedence over printed monies on paper or paper-like media.

However, the one thing that many fantasy writers get wrong, along with many economists and historians of the past, is that money was a fickle creature in medieval times. We will see that, despite the preference for and preponderance of gold and silver in fantastical narratives, shows, etc., gold and silver were, indeed, rare commodities that weren't always adhered to as forms of currency, even well into the modern period.

In Barry Eichengreen's Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System, we find that the financial fetishism with gold, particularly, is problematic. In fact, Eichengreen suggests in his wonderful book that the gold standard “was a socially constructed institution whose viability hinged on the context in which it operated.” In fact, for much of ancient and medieval history, silver was deemed more important than gold. Gold, which was too weak for minting without some metal like copper to fortify it, would not become an important financial tool until much later in history. In fact, much of the world until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries operated on a bimetallic standard, that is, a standard that was backed by a combination of silver and gold reserves. Silver was the tougher of the two metals, and more plentiful. In the United States, the Free Silver Movement gained traction among poor farmers and workers, because it was deemed less harsh and friendlier to the working-classes than a gold standard.

In much of medieval history, few medieval peoples, particularly in the West, used gold or silver coinage. In fact, much of the coinage they used, particularly in the early and central Middle Ages, would be equivalent to what we might term virtual currency, something that existed all but in physical form. Instead, these currencies were used to denote quantities of things, much like one sees in the Hebrew scriptures, talking of a shekel of wheat, etc. The same could be said for those countries in the West, where monied economies were, for the most part, still a ways off. Although the late Middle Ages would see an influx of money, it would take some time for real money to trickle down, so to speak, to the masses.

End Notes:

  1. Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, (London, UK: Wordsworth, 1997).

  2. Barry Eichengreen, Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 29.

The Parliament o' Fowls is copyright © 2021 by Gregory M. Rapp. All rights reserved. Please note: I don't mind if people share printouts or electronic versions of postings found here, just be responsible in doing so. That means, give credit where credit is due, and don't sell those copies for the purpose of making a profit. Fellow educators: Feel free to use anything you see here in your courses, projects, etc., so long as you adhere to Fair Use and ethical academic practices.

Introducing the first posting series, Dictatus Papae, which chronicles the eleventh- and twelfth-century conflicts between Church and State known as the Investiture Controversy.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church [. . . ] I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. —Matthew 16:18–19

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. —1 Peter 2:13–14

THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY (2017–2020) offered a number of confusing and often polarizing moments in public political discourse, particularly in terms of the role religion should have in a supposedly secular society. In 2020, Trump, campaigning for another four years as president and appealing to the (often ultraconservative) Christian Right, projected himself as a national leader who favored (and protected) religious freedoms. Taking it a step further, Trump's administration took on an active and cooperative relationship with America's conservative Christian base, with faith-based policies, statements, and photo-ops. Trump-era policies and posturings led to photo-ops like the ones seen in 2020, around a key time in the election season, showing he was an important ally (and protector) of religion, religious conservatism, and the conservative Christian Right. Ironically, Trump's policies and posturing, to push the Republic Party closer to the Christian Right, brought on pronouncements claiming the United States was backsliding into what many perceived to be a medieval-style theocracy.

(Above Image: Prayers for the Trump Administration. Credit: Andrew Harrer/ Bloomberg via Getty, 2017)

In Engel v. Vitale (1962) and later in School District v. Schempp (1963), the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS), under Chief Justice Warren, who led the most progressive court in SCOTUS's controversial history, struck down the legality of state-sanctioned prayer activities in schools. Americans, from different walks of life at the time, saw these decisions by the Warren Court as wicked attacks against God and the very religious freedoms guaranteed in the United States' constitution. Much like the Trump presidency's polarizing moments, Warren's court wasn't the first nor the last conflict concerning the cooperation between Church and State in the United States. In fact, the conflict reaches further back, to around the early decades of the American Republic. Thomas Jefferson, a president and a Founder of the American Republic, was the first to articulate what has come down to us as the Separation of Church and State Doctrine. This doctrine's foundation can be clearly found in a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists (in 1802), concerning the cooperation between Church and State in the new republic.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. —Thomas Jefferson, 1802[1]

This letter to the Danbury Baptists hearkens back to known historical realities, historical myths, Enlightenment ideals, and (very probably) Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vols., 1776–1788), which, in part, blamed Rome's decline and fall on Christianity and its followers. Although Gibbon's conclusions concerning the negative impact Christianity had upon the Roman Empire have since been refuted, the work still holds a special place in the conversation concerning the cooperation between Church and State.

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more Earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. —Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire[2]

The war over the limitations of state-church relations is nothing new in the United States, and it certainly isn't new in the history of Western societies. What the 1962 and 1963 court decisions, along with Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists and Trump's meeting with spiritual (i.e., Christian) leaders in 2016, show is the longer struggle for understanding between the State (i.e., government entities) and the Church (i.e., faith-based organizations). Should these two be partners? Should either be supreme over the other? (So, should we follow the words of Matthew (see above) or Peter (also above) ?) Alternatively, should there be a firm wall of separation between these two parties?

While many Americans have come to terms with Jefferson's wall of separation, this hasn't always been a reality in western societies (and elsewhere). We live in an era of self-proclaimed secularism in the Developed World, which supposedly avoids turning to gods, goddesses, and/or otherworldly spirits for guidance, intervention, knowledge, and/or the occasional smiting of one’s enemies. Instead, we tend to focus our efforts on science, coherent logic, and verifiable facts. (Although the jury is still out on some of these.) If people in the Developed World were asked if they consider religion a personal foundation, outside of superficial practices and observations of major holidays, only the truly religious might answer in the affirmative. Others, many others, in fact, might not openly admit the influence of religion in their lives, mundane or otherwise.

The separation of Church and State, larger society and religion, are the byproduct, particularly in the West, of political and social developments, often stretching back centuries, stemming from complicated (and often tumultuous) histories influencing these spheres of human life. During the early years of the American constitutional experiment, President Thomas Jefferson is credited with offering an official, yet contested interpretation of the country's First Amendment protections (and limitations). This interpretation still stands largely un-revised by proceeding generations of Americans. Despite challenges to the doctrine in question, many Americans today tend to believe it is an actual law, and, as such, it means the Church and the State shouldn't work too closely together. When those understandings break down, it is viewed as devolution, bordering on the reemergence of medieval theocracy.

Looking to medieval Europe, we find a society where the Church and the State, society and religion, were intertwined, and this intertwining of what we might perceive as public and private affairs was (usually) justified by all sides of elite public discourse. The lack of cooperation between the Church and the State could spell disaster, or so the thinking went. The State protected the Church from the alienation of its properties, and the State could also provide necessary protection against unsavory types, seeking to murder or rob clergymen. The Church, on the other hand, provided protection in the form of prayers to God and veneration of the Saints, all in hopes of ensuring monarchs had long, stable reigns and the fields were plentiful with crops. Unlike (say) many modern societies and states, religion played a tremendous and often symbiotic role in societal and governmental functions, especially in medieval Western Europe. In many cases, it was hard to find where state and/or societal entities began and where religious organizations ended. To say this was a completely harmonious relationship would be an ahistorical argument. Much like our own modern societal and governmental relationships with religious entities, there was serious contention, an ever-lasting friction, like two tectonic plates grinding against one another, that dominated conflicts throughout the medieval period in Western Europe. One such conflict, and the focus of this posting series, consisted of the Investiture Controversy, one of the crisis' more innocuous-sounding names, which impacted much of Western Europe, albeit in varying intensities. The German and Italian regions of Europe appear to have experienced a brunt of the conflict, but it also raged on, with a lower intensity, in regions like France and faraway England.

A good deal of ink has been spilt in attempts to understand the big picture implications of the Investiture Controversy both during and after the medieval period in Western Europe. Entire careers, tenure, and even many dusty, multi-volume histories have been consumed by this subject. This series of postings on The Parliament o' Fowls is neither entirely comprehensive nor is it the last word on the matter. For much of this posting, the political decisions of Pope Gregory VII, a monk who was (in)famously known for his reforms within the Western Church during the eleventh-century CE. All of these reforms, in part, helped spark the seemingly inevitable conflict we know today as the Investiture Controversy. Other actors in this grand drama of Church and State include Countess Matilda of Tuscany, Heinrich IV, Heinrich V, and the many papal successors to Gregory VII's lofty ideas and revolutionary church reforms.

A quick note needs to be discussed here before we continue with this posting series, though. As I mentioned before, a good deal of ink has been spilt trying to comprehend what the big picture consequences are for the Investiture Controversy. However, we have to be careful of broad brushstrokes of grandiose generalizations that claim to know the big picture when it comes to moments in history, especially those moments located within the global Middle Ages. Gerd Tellenbach, a well-known Church historian, offers a great critical lens in which to view events (including crises) in Church history:

[T]he second half of the eleventh century was an epoch of church history whose importance can only be understood in connection with its preconditions and its consequences.[3]

While Professor Tellenbach is discussing how one should handle the history of the late-eleventh- and early-twelfth-century for the Western Church, in particular the Investiture Controversy, his critical lens also applies, in many respects, to the way we should handle history in general. One of the many problems historians have with popularizers' histories is the use of broad brushstroke connections between the decades, centuries, and millennia. While we need to seek out the bigger picture, we need to do so in a way that isn't ahistorical in nature. Therefore, we need to remember that history's big picture is much like a tel. For those unfamiliar with a tel, it is a geographical formation that is artificial in nature. Generally speaking, a tel is formed over time, an accumulation of various strata (i.e., layers) that, over time, produce a hill-like structure. For example, an old city might be built upon an old city built upon an old town built upon an old settlement. Each stratum contributes to the overall big picture we see. That is each layer creates the tel we are seeing. If we attempt to remove a layer, the tel itself loses its structure, metaphorically speaking. Each layer contributes to the thing we see in the present. Without the layers, one on top of another, we do not have the structure before us. The same thing can be said for history. The Investiture Controversy does not impact (say) the modern era in ways we might assume. Like the tel, the Investiture Controversy is a layer, which only makes sense with the previous and succeeding layers, but it helps contribute to the modern era's problems concerning the relationships between Church and State in the West. While it doesn't make up the tel in its entirety, it provides a foundational layer for subsequent events. While it seems rather pointless to explore one of the many strata in this particular tel, we find that doing so allows us to understand preceding and succeeding layers within this historical structure.

End Notes: 1. Thomas Jefferson’s full 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists can be found here: 2. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vols.) can be found on Project Gutenberg in eBook form: [Volume 1]; [Volume 2]; [Volume 3]; [Volume 4]; [Volume 5]; AND [Volume 6]. 3. Gerd Tellenbach, The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century, trans. Timothy Reuter, (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000), xv.

The Parliament o' Fowls is copyright © 2021 by Gregory M. Rapp. All rights reserved. Please note: I don't mind if people share printouts or electronic versions of postings found here, just be responsible in doing so. That means, give credit where credit is due, and don't sell those copies for the purpose of making a profit. Fellow educators: Feel free to use anything you see here in your courses, projects, etc., so long as you adhere to Fair Use and ethical academic practices.

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