Once upon a time, France did not exist. Julius Caesar said the land of the Gauls (tribes the Greeks called Keltoi) was divided into three parts and he set out to conquer them all. Caesar was probably speaking of the area known today as France, as well as parts of Switzerland, Germany, and the Low countries. Caesar subdued many tribes in living in the land of the Gauls, but only the southern part was ever completely romanized -- Gallia Narbonensis. When the Roman Empire collapsed, Northern Gaul was once again dominated by warriors known as Franks.
George Duby begins his story in the year 987 A.D. and ends it in 1460 with the success of the Capetians who in defeating Henry VI, finally drove the English from their land. During this 500 year period, France developed from a land composed of small settlements and huge swaths of rural farmland and wilderness to a network of villages and towns centered on commerce and trade. In 987 A.D. Duby says power was tied to geneology, but by the end, wealth was also a major factor.
Duby not only addresses the Middle Ages of 987 to 1460 A.D., but he comments on how he as an historian went about reconstructing his story from contemporary materials available from various sources. So, this is not only a history book, it is a book on historiography of sorts. For example, Duby says the use of various Latin words in various documents could mean many different things. How does the historian know what these terms imply? The underlying meaning of Latin words changed over time, just as English words we use today have changed meaning over time.
My favorite section of the book is "The Village." Around 1,000, villages as they came to be known, did not exist in France. There were 'bourgs' which were small towns outside the gates of walled monasteries, or where a castle or a Roman Villa had once existed. Castles were built everywhere during the Feudal period as lords battled for control of their lands. These castles were known in France as 'maisons fortes' or fortified houses. Lords and their retinues moved from one fortified house to another and never slept in the open. In the southwest, these fortified castles were known as 'castelnaus.'
Because of the power of the church, the territory now know as France seems to have been organized into parishes (parochia). The parish center was a church (later a cathedral) and it's burial grounds. Christian churches were probably built where pagan structures had once stood. (Panofsky suggests the major Cathedrals in France are laid out in the pattern of the constellation Libra). Women came to the burial grounds and left grave goods, a pagan practice Duby says the church eventually eradicated (guess he didn't read "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil").
Duby indicates there was little "law and order" of the sort dominant males appreciate in 1,000 A.D. He says many groups vied for power including a multitude of splinter groups who "occupied the twilight between heresy and orthodoxy." Women, were perceived to wield magical pwoers and were greatly feared. In the rural areas dominated by women, male power was impotent.
Duby's book covers the transition from a world where families fought for power and the rural areas ruled, to one where one lord finally dominated the others--the King. The winning family was named Capet and one or another branch of this family dominated France until the French Revolution. The source of their power was commerce and trade, and their close alliance with the church.