It is rare that I read a book about a subject I know fairly well and still feel, at the end, that I am really not sure what the author wanted to say or prove. I feel confused and frustrated, like I wasted an awful lot of time slogging through a poorly written book. To be sure, it is written at the graduate level, assuming a very high level of knowledge, with innumerable references to events that are unexplained, personalities that are not described, and basic facts, such as the feverish building of that new technology, the strong castle. What the author is attempting to do is carve out a new interpretation, but it is never clear where exactly he intends to go with it - in 600 pages! In other words, he never states his purpose, never reviews what he has proven, and fails to put it all together in the conclusion.
I will offer here what I think he meant to say, though I could be wrong. At the beginning of the period, 11 C CE, the Dark Ages have ended, a vast economic expansion has begun (with the colonization of new farm land, new farming and a variety of other technoloiges), and new lordships are popping up everywhere, based on the strong castle as a defensive perimeter that is virtually unbreachable except at great effort. These new lords sought status, riches, and glory, and to get all that they cowed and then preyed up the peasantry and even local religious dignitaries, often able to ignore the admonishments of distant kings or religious authorities. There followed a period of chaos and rapine that reached catastrophic proportion, often resulting in the sack and burning of cities, monasteries, and entire regions.
Slowly, a network appeared that bound these new aristocrats into webs of obligation that moderated their behavior, first from fealty to kings as the feudal state blossomed with its oaths and contracts, then later with the extension of the spiritual reach of a reinvigorated church, in particular to advance that other colonial enterprise, the Crusades. The rediscovery of Roman law helped to set up a legal framework to support all of this. The end result was the establishment of an idea for civic society - with peace, some protection of law, and the gradual substitution of competence for fidelity in administrators of fiefs - that kings and their vassals should uphold in accordance with some Christian norms.
That is pretty much it for the ideas. What the book adds are many many stories to support this by way of scholarly proof (way too many in my opinion). I understood more clearly what the period was like for the downtrodden, which I had underestimated before, as well as the long struggle to establish a more peaceful order. Unfortunately, the author could have done this in about half the space, if not 1/3.
In my opinion, this book brings out the worst in turgid academic writing. Indeed, it reads more like notes from a graduate seminar than a finished book. I often failed to understand why the author was going into detail on certain subjects - I felt similarly when reading exegeses of Latin texts as an undergraduate, i.e. it was just plain obscure - and entire sub-chapters would abruptly end without establishing even an inkling of what he was getting at. Just when I was about to give up, however, he would go into something that interested me for a time, some detail I did understand and wanted to know, such as the view of troubadours in the new courts that popped up all over. But these nuggets were sparsely scattered throughout the book, which was long on incomprehensible, awkward prose and references to controversies that only his fellow professionals of knowledge would recognize as relevant. The writing style is so strange that it made me wonder if Bisson's native language was English.
I cannot recommend this book except to a small circle of specialists, Bisson's immediate peers. This brought me back to the struggles I faced as an undergraduate trying to take part in academic debates, i.e. being forced to adapt one's perspective to the norms created by a self-appointed, mutually supporting few. The trouble is, I now see it as extravagantly specialized and undeserving of the effort. If you are interested, there are far better and more beautifully written history books on the same period, some of them popular, some academic. This book is nothing but a chore with meagre rewards.