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The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government [Hardcover]

Thomas N. Bisson
1.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

13 Oct 2008

Medieval civilization came of age in thunderous events like the Norman Conquest and the First Crusade. Power fell into the hands of men around castles who imposed coercive new lordships in quest of nobility, heedless of the old public order. In The Crisis of the Twelfth Century, acclaimed historian Thomas Bisson asks what it was like to live in a Europe without government, and he asks how people experienced power, and suffered. Rethinking a familiar history as a problem of origins, he explores the circumstances that impelled knights, emperors, nobles, and churchmen to infuse lordship with social purpose.

Bisson traces the origins of European government to a crisis of lordship and its resolution. King John of England was only the latest and most conspicuous in a gallery of bad lords who dominated the populace instead of ruling it. Men like him had been all too commonplace in the twelfth century. More and more knights pretended to powers and status, encroached on clerical domains and exploited peasants, and came to seem threatening to social order and peace. Yet as Bisson shows, it was not so much the oppressed people as their tormentors who were in crisis. Covering all of Western Christendom, this book suggests what these violent people--and the outcries they provoked--contributed to the making of governments in kingdoms, principalities, and towns.

The Crisis of the Twelfth Century is an unparalleled cultural history of power in medieval Europe, and a monumental achievement by one of today's foremost medievalists.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (13 Oct 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691137080
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691137087
  • Product Dimensions: 4.5 x 15.1 x 22.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 1.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,241,967 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

"Was the 'old public order' of Charlemagne and his successors so public and so ordered? Was the subsequent regime so close to anarchy? Bisson adds to this traditional account by thinking deeply about the benefits and disadvantages of government. He is very aware of the inhumanity of the past he studies. . . . Confronting this world of hunter and hunted, Bisson is inspired by attractively humane impulses. And he looks for public, accountable, official remedies for suffering and oppression."--Robert Barlett, New York Review of Books

"For some time, medievalists have associated the 12th century with 'renaissance.' . . .Thomas Bisson offers a radically different view, . . . [and] makes the case with considerable brio and insight. . . .A tremendously powerful vision of the period. Bissons vision of a dark 12th century can be questioned [but] that does not mean it should be dismissed. The Crisis of the Twelfth Century will be essential reading for all medievalists."--John H. Arnold, Times Higher Education

"The story is an old one, but so many-sided as to invite constant retelling from new angles. Bisson has found a new angle, and writes with prodigious sweep and learning."--Alexander Murray, London Review of Books

"The sustained argument is a fascinating one, the attractions of the book increased by sections devoted to rather different geographical areas from those that dominate most surveys of medieval Europe. [Bissons] effort to combine the traditionally separate fields of political and cultural history in explaining the 'origins of government' is admirable."--John Hudson, BBC History Magazine

"In an era when bold syntheses are still too rare, Bisson has taken on 12th-century government in the whole of western Europe, from Poland to Spain, to show with unusual clarity how the period was one of violence and exploitation and how 'government' was inseparable from the exercise of personal power. Bisson's take is controversial and will stir up opposition (it's part of the attraction of the book), but his vision, and his delight in showing patterns of real structural change, make his work refreshing; and I found his nearly 600 pages hard to put down."--Chris Wickham, History Today

"This is a book which scholars of central medieval power and society will have to ponder for a long time to come. Its sheer breadth, its ambition and the lightness with which it wears its scholarship all demand attention. . . . Few other books manage to use Europe's regional variation so elegantly to elaborate on coherent pan-European themes whilst avoiding any impression that developments were inevitable. Its contribution to the debate over changes in lordship and government will be massive. It will undoubtedly serve to pull historical interest back to the centre of medieval experience."--Theo Riches, Reviews in History

"The Crisis of the Twelfth Century is an unparalleled cultural history of power in medieval Europe, and a monumental achievement by one of today's foremost medievalists."--Spartacus Educational

"[T]he overall arc of the work's argument is impressive. . . . Bisson has provided historians with an impressive work that will hopefully spark new discussions of medieval lordship, politics, and government."--Jonathan R. Lyon, H-Net Reviews

"This is a deeply learned book, not for the faint of heart or the unsophisticated reader. Bisson presumes a thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the events and close readings of a wide range of texts. However, the astute reader will be rewarded with an illuminating comparative study of a pivotal point in the history of the European Middle Ages."--Theresa Earenfight, Journal of the Review of Politics

"Bisson's book . . . sweeps aside still-prevailing assumptions of teleology in political and constitutional history and forces historians of different areas of Europe to battle against any parochial instinct. That it raises so many questions is an indication of its considerable contribution to and departure from existing histories of governments and states of the central Middle Ages."--Alice Taylor, Speculum

"Bisson . . . is to be commended . . . for so effectively setting the agenda for future historians."--William Chester Jordan, Journal of Law and History Review

"This book reinforces Thomas Bisson's position as one of the most important contemporary historians of the Middle Ages. . . . Few have the knowledge of the period enjoyed by Bisson. . . . [T]his sophisticated, nuanced and subtle book will amply reward the reader's effort."--Peter Fleming, Labour

From the Inside Flap

"In this persuasive work of comparative European history, Thomas Bisson overturns received ideas about change, Renaissance, and government. He enables us to feel almost physically the oppression of castles, the violence of horses, and all that was, even before its own crisis, the power of the lords ruling Europe. This masterpiece crowns a prolific career in history. It will stand as a great classic."--Jean-Claude Schmitt, cole des Hautes tudes en Sciences Sociales

"Bissons view is that power as lordship was not political in this period but personal, patrimonial, self-indulgent, and above all violent. This book is a major contribution to the field, not only because it is the fullest development of Bissons learned position, but because of the prodigious amount and varying character of the sources he commands and his deftness in deploying them."--Edward Peters, author of Europe and the Middle Ages

"This is an excellent book. In it, Bisson sums up a lifes work and offers a grand narrative on major socioeconomic and sociopolitical changes in the central Middle Ages. There is no recent book that even attempts such a task as this. It is a very considerable contribution."--Chris Wickham, author of Framing the Early Middle Ages


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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
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.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing and hypocritical 17 Jun 2012
Format:Hardcover
Bisson's argument, building upon his previous essays and put across in this book, is that the Twelfth century was not a period of `Renaissance', as has been suggested by some historians, but rather that the realities of power made this time of violent disturbance for the populace of Europe. Bisson's mission is an admirable one and his rejection of typical anachronisms, as well as his interesting observations pertaining to the nature of lordship, certainly makes this an interesting read. Yet where this book falls down is in its generalisations, failure to adequately define terms used and dismissal of all previous works of history, and this is not aided by his sometimes obtuse writing style which renders many of his wider observations more difficult to penetrate.

Bisson fundamentally rejects the tendency among historians to ignore power and to regard the Twelfth century teleologically as a period of gradual progression towards the Early Modern state; he specifically refers to Haskins' work The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. There is one problem with this analysis of `modern' historiography, Haskins' wrote his book in 1927 and the other historian whom Bisson refers to, Southern, wrote predominantly in the 1970s. Historians have come a long way in their interpretations in even the last forty years and to dismiss prior historical work in this regard is academically dishonest. This is not to say that Bisson's work is not controversial but it is only in his more tenuous strands in which he offers a fundamentally new argument and much of this seemingly stems from a matter of semantics and passion for controversy which plagues many historians seeking saleability.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting concept, poorly written 26 July 2011
By Lori Reeser - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This was a frustrating book to read because I spent most of the time trying to figure out what the author meant. The start of the book is particularly rough because the author does not explain why he wrote the book, what his thesis is, or what kind of evidence he will be examining. Also, and this in particularly annoying in this level of research, he writes in sentence fragments. He also starts sentences and paragraphs with `But', as well as other such errors. It's very annoying and makes it difficult to understand. If this was a best seller or genre book it would be tolerable, but his audience is mostly college educators and students.

There are some interesting ideas in the book. If I have it right this is Bisson's thesis. 1) There was an increase in violence related to `lordship' starting in the mid-eleventh century. This was due to an increase in population overall, but especially of `lords'. These extra high status individuals (younger sons mostly) in order to maintain their status needed to establish their own, new territory. In essence, a new layer of lords was created between the king, prince or duke and the peasants. 2) This led to a moral and cultural `crisis' manifested by complaints from the peasantry and reactions from the overlords. The modern approach is to see these changes as political in both the governing and faction sense. Bisson's thesis is that these events can be viewed from the moral and cultural angle as well, and that this is how the people alive then saw these events. One of the big changes that happened is the beginnings of an awareness that the debate over issues may be as important as the resulting ceremony recording the decree. Before this time the process of coming to an agreement was rarely recorded. This was seen as irrelevant, the important thing was that the agreement was sanctified by the lord. Bisson examines the Investiture Conflict, the Norman Conquest of England and various papal, HRE and Spanish events from this light.

I'm not sure I completely agree with the first part. To me it seems that the violence stopped being from outsiders (Vikings and Arabs) and became internally generated. This meant that it was able to be dealt with internally, by rulers controlling lesser lords. I agree about the excess gentry, these were the source of many of the fighters in the Crusades, the Norman invasion, the reconquest of Spain, etc. I also like the idea of looking at events from a different angle, it helps explain things that don't make sense otherwise. Human events are rarely pure, politics, economics, culture, and a host of other factors influence the outcome.

If you already know about the Investiture Conflict, the Norman Conquest, the various troubles of the HRE in controlling their underlings and a bit of papal history you are ready for this book and will find the ideas intriguing. I am mostly familiar with British, Papal and Mediterranean history, so some details were new to me.
20 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too Dense for this Average Reader. 10 Nov 2009
By Vicki Moyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Well researched but, WARNING: this is not a layman's book. It is written by an expert scholar. A greater than average knowledge of the time period is a requisite. I would put this book into the bracket of an upper division college course. Not a quick read. Very dense and full of people and names probably known only in the academic world. I cannot recommend this to the average reader looking for easily grasped information about the workings of the 12th century. I was disappointed for I am an average reader and could not muddle my way through all of Bisson's writing. This book is expensive so be sure your medieval knowledge base is solid and thorough before you purchase it.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars rambling, impenetrable, and obscure, if occasionally interesting 2 Oct 2011
By Robert J. Crawford - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, but a really tough read 26 July 2013
By David Kocot - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The book presents a fascinating look at the political chaos of the 11th-12th centuries, which makes one rethink the whole idea of a "12th Century Renaissance". Violence was endemic, political power was fragile (the author makes this point most poignantly by simply listing all the violent political crises and civil wars which every kingdom and major principality in western Europe experienced - oftentimes more than once - over several pages), and the 'little people' were constantly getting screwed by rapacious self-made "lords" and their "bad customs". The book has plenty of detail that left me thirsting for more, although several regions (Italy springs to mind, which is a shame, since the Norman invasion of southern Italy seems to prove the author's point as well - if not better - than any other happening in the book does) seemed to get short shrift. My chief complaint is that the prose is very tough to wrap your head around sometimes - run on sentences abound, and I found myself continually wondering who "he" referred to when there were three or four people referenced in the same sentence. I frequently had to re-read whole paragraphs to try and parse exactly what the author was trying to say. I would strongly recommend the book, though, to someone with a more than passing interest in medieval history and a lot of patience.
4.0 out of 5 stars Revisionist history... if you're interested in the twelfth century, you should read at least a bit of it 3 Dec 2013
By medievalnerd - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I agree with the other reviewers that this book is not easy to read. It's written mainly for a scholarly audience (where it has been well received thus far). Bisson does not make it easy for general readers or nonspecialists: he offers a number of case studies, loosely connected, and much of his argumentation remains implicit.

On the other hand, Bisson articulates here a far better understanding of twelfth-century political/institutional history than you will find in earlier books. Historians used to understand the twelfth century, anachronistically, as the moment when modern government (bureaucracy, understood in a positive light, and law and order) was born, a kind of renaissance or triumph of politics over the chaos of the post-Carolingian world (see, for example, Warren's old biography of Henry II of England). Bisson demonstrates, over and over again, how inadequate that view is when we really look at the sources. They indicate that twelfth-century peoples suffered from a high degree of violence, turmoil, and uncertainty, and that even the imposition of centralized governments later in the century was achieved through injustice and force of arms.

This is a book, then, about both the cost of political chaos and the cost of stability.
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