Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, medieval Europe experienced the beginnings of new political stability. As feudal institutions manipulated and increased their power over the people, land, and territories, private warfare and civil disorder decreased. I am not inferring that violence diminished between feudal lords and their underlings, rather a gradual shift of power as medieval rulers formed centralized states. Bureaucracy increased as power shifted from individual lords to an elaborate hierarchical feudal system of lords, castilians, knights, and peasants. The centralization of power pushed medieval society towards the institutionalization of the state. R.I. Moore and Thomas A. Bisson argue that the modern state has its origins in medieval society. Moore and Bisson approach the institutionalization of the state from different angles; however, they both agree on the process through which this change took place. How did medieval Europe progress from a decentralized political state towards an institutionalized society?
R.I. Moore's, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, examines an increase in persecution in medieval European society between 950 and 1250. Moore argues the institutionalization of the state came about through group-based persecution of inferior peoples. Persecution is not new. Groups have been selectively persecuted prior to the eleventh century, however the level of persecution that Moore examines and the affects of eleventh century persecution in Europe is new. Moore concludes that persecution was necessary and needed for the expansion of the state (Moore, 148).
After centuries of tolerance, Western Europe began persecuting minorities in the eleventh century. The development of a persecuting society was an institutional movement from a decentralized state of governing towards a more centralized state. Moore argues the upper end of society initiated the persecution that trickled down to ordinary people who continued the persecution that originated with the lords. Moore says, "[that] it seems necessary to conclude that heretics and Jews owed their persecution in the first place not to the hatred of the people, but to the decisions of princes and prelates" (Moore, 116). In other words, growing threats to the general population from heretics and Jews did not lead to their mass persecution. Persecution in medieval society started with those in superior positions taking aim at segments of the population they believed to be inferior.
To understand how persecution led to a centralized state, Moore examines the groups persecuted as an attempt to remove pollutants from medieval society leading to a stabilized state institution. Moore focuses on three groups of people: Jews, heretics, and lepers. "The main argument of The Formation of a Persecuting Society was, and is, that the persecutions of heretics, Jews, lepers, sodomites, and others in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe cannot be considered independently of one another, as they almost always had been hitherto" (Moore, 144). This is the central theme of Moore's book as he argues European society evolved from individualized persecution to group-based persecution.
Although the three groups are different, Moore has grouped Jews, heretics, and lepers in the same category. Moore argues that persecution is best understood by those doing the persecuting, not the persecuted. To better understand persecution, we must look all the different groups persecuted and find out what they have in common. Understanding the common denominator between those persecuted will lead to an understanding of why certain groups are persecuted and others were not.
Jews, heretics, and lepers are not new categories of people. They have a history; a history prior to persecution in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Examining heresy, we see the concern about the spread of heresy first appearing in secular political societies. If an individual is identified as a heretic, it did not matter what they said or did; what mattered was how society perceived them. This is different from the feudal world since what an individual did matter in eleventh century feudal society. The Jews, heretics, and lepers were categorized into one cohesive identity. An identity imposed on them by the state. "In the early middle ages as in the later, persecution began as a weapon in the competition for political influence, and was turned by the victors into an instrument for consolidating their power over society at large" (Moore, 138). Directed by the leaders of the state, Moore argues the persecution of various groups through the control and leadership of society led to the institutionalization of the state. Moore's persecuting society emerged benefitting those at the top. This is in direct correlation to the idea that persecution occurs from the top down, and not from the bottom up. The people who gained the most were those at the top while those at the bottom gained very little.
The poor also fall under suspicion of society. An increase in the poor allowed the elite of society to persecute the poor as a collective group similar to heretics, Jews, and lepers. Trial by ordeal was an accepted way of proving guilt or innocence. As the state emerges and crystalizes, the state takes over and, guilt or innocence is based on statutory law. The rule of law replaces the ordeal. Moore argues that the institutionalization of the state worked its way down to the lowest level of society, penetrating into peasant life. Every aspect of medieval society was connected to multiple levels of institutions. It was through the persecution of society by which the state was able to remove the pollution of society. Medieval society was rapidly expanding to the point of expansionism attempting to stabilize society and reduce feudal excesses. At this point, the institutionalization of medieval society is at its highest level of success.
Why does Moore argue that persecution was a catalyst pushing society towards the institutionalization of the state? Moore argues that medieval society exercised the persecution of groups of people thought to be threats. Persecution also led to the homogenization of medieval society. Society emulsified into a uniform and cohesive group, and those doing the persecuting underpinned the authority of the emerging state.
Thomas A. Bisson's, Tormented Voices, is a record of peasant abuses while in service to their lord. Similar to Moore, Bisson argues the abuse of peasants by their lords established the institutionalization of the state in rural Catalonia. The memorials, or records, chronicled by scribes available to Bisson highlighted how the social and cultural experiences of peasants figured into a broad crisis of power between those at the top of society and those at the bottom. Bisson's tormented voices are the shocking and unsettled voices of the peasantry that were chronicled at a specific point in medieval society. Medieval society gradually built institutional power through violence, while simultaneously expanding the centralization power of the lords over their subordinates. Although Moore and Bisson approach the institutionalization of the state from two very different perspectives, it is interesting they both agree centralization of feudal power infused through society from the top down.
Bisson's objective in Tormented Voices is to give the peasants a history. He examines the types of power peasants encountered, who exercised power over the peasants, and the character of society in which power was wielded over peasants. Bisson argues, "the evidence of such [violent] behavior is original in that it represents not merely event and consequence but also the process: the process of social ascent...of the ways in which new lordship was created" (Bisson, 94). In rural Catalonia, the king centralized society through violence on peasants through an elaborate feudal system of knights and castilians. This is consistent with Bisson's argument that the institutional power structure was the result of increased power from the top down and the effects of power over the people. Where Moore argued that persecution led to a centralized medieval society, Bisson argues that an increase of feudal power led to an increase of violence that led to the institutionalization of the state.
Bisson's examination of the memorials, "are consistent enough in their implied norms to invite reflection on two problems more deeply engaged with the historical meaning of the crisis: namely, violence and suffering. Both problems have been broached above in their contexts of people and power" (Bisson, 143). The lords influenced numerous jurisdictional rights over the peasants under them through the use of knights and castilians. The influence inflicted on peasants was violent and demanding. Often large and arbitrary dues were levied against the peasants solidifying the role of knights and castilians acting on behalf of the lord. Lords enforced their increased centralized power over peasants by collecting arbitrary fines. Bisson's research documented that the rights of the lords weighed heavily against the peasants.
Why now in the mid-eleventh century was there a shift to a centralized society? And why was there an increase in violence related to lordship? Bisson argues that an increase in the general population led to an increase in the number of lords. As the number of lords increased, so too did the level of violence from the lords towards the peasants. Lords were either maintaining or establishing their power over their peasants through and increase in knights and castilians. A new layer of bureaucracy was created that did not exist prior to the eleventh century. An enlarged bureaucracy required an increase in officials working on behalf of the lord increasing the power over the peasants. The increase of lordly power led to an increase of violence on the peasants as knights and castilians enforced their lord's power.
Bisson argues that an increase of lordship and an increase of the power of lords over the peasants led to a moral and cultural "crisis". Bisson documents the "crisis" through complaints from the peasantry and the reaction from the lords. Often the reaction of the lords far exceeded what was appropriate. "In one respect, however; the memorials of complaint stand distinct from other accounts: they are accounts of violence. More exactly, they are accounts of arbitrary behavior that typically lapsed into violence" (Bisson, 79). Bisson's views this as a change in politics and the governing of peasants from a moral and cultural perspective. Bisson debates where peasants "would have drawn the line between `just' and `unjust'" and has no conclusion to answer the debate (Bisson, 80). Bisson argues that a change in the governing of lords occurred and violence was sanctioned by the lords through their knights and castilians, enforcing the law as directed by the lord.
Moore and Bisson agree that during the eleventh and thirteenth centuries vast political expansion began and new lordships were popping up everywhere. The new lordships built a complicated hierarchical feudal system that was virtually unbreachable. The new lords sought to increase their power over the people preying on heretics, Jews, and lepers as Moore examines in a persecuted society. Bisson takes a different approach examining how lords used their power to increase violence over peasants through a structured system of knights and castilians. Moore and Bisson take different approaches to the institutionalization of the state, but untimely come to the same conclusion that the state centralized and strengthened between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Over time, a structure developed that bound new nobles into networks of obligation controlling their behavior. Fealty to lords increased as the state institutionalized in medieval society. The result of this organization was the formation of a civic society. The institutionalization of the state led to a stabilization of society creating peace and moderate protection of the law.