I suppose I should be of two minds about Marc Bloch's "Feudal Society," a French work from the late 1930s which became available in English in the early 1960s, and was still fresh and exciting back when I was taking a freshman course on "Western Civilization." In theory, the book (and it is one book, although published in paperback in two volumes) has two major drawbacks. In practice, I find it solid, admirable, and well worth reading.
One drawback is the author's romantic glorification of the medieval peasant -- Norman Cantor has called attention to this in his "Inventing the Middle Ages," pointing out that Bloch gave it Marxist trappings. I call it romantic because I suspect that Bloch owed at least as much to Jules Michelet's nineteenth-century historiography, initially with a veneer of "science" added. Of course, Bloch actually went out and did fundamental work in the archives, and tried to get a real picture of how, in the long term, life had been lived by ordinary people, instead of relying on Michelet-style suppositions. (Yes, Bloch's "Annales" school is supposed to be the antithesis of the enthusiastic Michelet; but, while Bloch established its methodology in reaction to existing approaches, in Bloch's last book "The Historian's Craft," Michelet is still among "our great forebears.")
The second is the concept of "Feudalism" itself, which these days makes anyone with a serious background in medieval studies very uncomfortable. A very good case can be made that "Feudalism" is largely a set of modern constructs, re-invented several times since the sixteenth century to suit different legal, political, and social purposes, and presented as an "Historic Fact" alongside contemporary and later "discoveries" such as "Anglo-Saxon Liberty," "The Norman Yoke," and "Our Ancestors the Gauls." (A short, pointed, introduction to one aspect of the problem is J.G.A. Pocock's "The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century.")
If it means anything for modern-day historians, the term applies to how control of land, and its revenue, was linked to social status, political authority, judicial functions, and reciprocal military obligations -- a large, messy, topic. So the feeling is growing that the word is best avoided, as carrying too much baggage, and too likely to be invoked as a substitute for thought.
Indeed, as picked up by Karl Marx, Feudalism, equated largely with landlord-tenant agriculture instead of sub-divided political and judicial authority, became a theoretical concept to be applied to a variety of extra-European societies, as a stage in an inevitable social evolution. In this role, it produced, or at least became a part of, bitter, and literally murderous, disputes over the nature of Russian and Chinese society, among others.
Even with all this in mind, and many years after first reading it, I find Bloch's emphasis on the material basis of medieval society refreshing, and think that he carried it out with reasonable consistency. Whatever his agenda, he went looking for real data, and adjusted theory to match it, which is where he parts company with both Michelet and Marx. That later work has revealed a more complex, and in some ways different, picture does not discredit his effort. And having the hardworking peasant as a sort of collective hero helps hold together discussions of things like field rotation, strip cultivation, and plough-teams, which most readers will not find all that gripping on their own.
More important, in some ways, Bloch presented feudal *society* -- not some imaginary entity called "Feudalism" or "The Feudal System" -- as a whole set of ways of ordering people and institutions, and making resources available to various parts of a diversified ruling class. The unsystematic nature of actuality is not denied, but it is classified in terms of common elements.
This getting down to practical realities may not sound so impressive, but a couple of generations of scholars had been smacking each other over the head (in this case, figuratively) in an argument of whether "Feudalism" was *really* Roman or Germanic, with partisan sub-divisions on whether either origin was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. Somehow, figuring out how it worked had seemed less important than what Mircea Eliade called "The Prestige of Origins" -- a form of mythical thought as much as a topic of historical research.
So instead of a broad theory of a single "origin," we get "The Growth of Ties of Dependence" (volume one of the paperback edition), followed by "Social Classes and Political Organization," showing the extent to which the pattern of rural hierarchies did, or did not, carry over into "higher" or "more advanced" developments.
Although probably much more accurate for France than for other parts of Europe, and for some centuries more than others, the book does manage to present a (by and large) convincing picture of how Europe re-organized itself between the collapse of Rome and the High Middle Ages. A reminder of the people who made it all possible, but were usually left out of the chronicles, and certainly are missing from most of the chansons de geste and romances, is not a bad basis for a book.
Still, largely for reasons of documentation, Bloch is sometimes rather better at explaining how the military aristocracy was supported, than at presenting the daily lives of the people who were doing the work. His analysis of how some knights and officials had "fiefs" which were simply stipends, or even what we might consider cafeteria privileges, is an interesting sidelight to "life on a medieval manor" approaches. It also reveals that methods of supporting the clergy and the nobility were not all that different, which shouldn't be a big surprise, given the limited options available.
So I continue to think of Bloch's "Feudal Society" as a valuable contribution, to be read and pondered, although not taken at face value, by anyone seriously interested in medieval European society, or supposedly comparable systems elsewhere. Since it has also generated a half-century of follow-ups, attacks, and defenses, it is also a good book to have read as part of getting acquainted with a wider literature.