2019 Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture

James Handy, a Master’s student of European History, discusses the recent Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture given by Professor Chris Wickham on the topic of feudalism.  Professor Chris Wickham opened his Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that Hobsbawm himself ‘was not terribly interested’ in medieval history. Among his extensive works on the rise of modern capitalism, however, Hobsbawm wrote an introduction to Karl Marx’s Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. This year’s lecture used Hobsbawm’s introduction as a starting point in what was a highly enjoyable lecture on the economic logic of feudalism.

According to Wickham, the study of feudal society has too often been situated within a ‘meta-narrative of failure’, within which teleological terms such as ‘pre-capitalist’ are suggestive of a weakening of feudal processes. By prioritising a focus on the unique customary facets of medieval societies and how these in turn influenced their rise and decline, historians have often obscured an underlying economic logic to feudalism. Like Hobsbawm then, Wickham is wary of economic historians’ tendency to produce demarcation disputes by attempting to fit dynamic concepts into static ones. In this way, feudalism should be seen as a flexible world system rather than a fixed set of regional social relations.

Understood as a world system, feudalism enables us to begin to comprehend the medieval world as an innovative set of economic relations on its own terms, rather than as a developmental stepping stone towards modernity. ‘Different regions get brownie points’, asserts Wickham, for being most like modern society with individual regions ‘passing the baton’ to whoever looks most like us. Historical transformations – ranging from the centralising bureaucratisation of China’s Ming dynasty to the urbanisation of tenth century northern Italy – are best understood as products of feudal economics.

Generalising outwards, Wickham asserted that at the centre of this dynamic system was the peasant family – the vast majority of people between the Neolithic and twentieth century. For Wickham, the economic logic of feudalism lies in the fact that the peasantry were responsible for the surplus needed for economic growth. This necessitated an immensely costly ‘stabilising’ programme by the Church and nobility to justify the extraction of surplus from the peasantry. Elites responded by nurturing art, religion, ritual and political culture in ways that reinforced exploitative productive processes. When this failed, elites maintained a dispersed monopoly of violence. If the economic logic of feudalism was inherently on the side of lords, asks Wickham, why expend a tremendous amount of resources keeping market forces at bay?

A key theme of the lecture was that feudalism consisted of far more exchange complexity than previously thought. A key reason for this dynamism was that medieval economies were not solely propelled by lords’ economic demand. Wickham drew on archaeological surveys from across Europe and the Mediterranean that have shown a wide availability of coloured and patterned ceramics as evidence of peasants’ disposable incomes. From as early as the tenth century in Tuscany, for example, both lords and peasants could purchase professionally made ceramics imported from urban centres. Furthermore, many peasants worked with considerable autonomy such as the flax producers and merchants of Busir in Egypt, whose textiles were shipped as far as the Low Countries as part of a global network of peasant trade. We can therefore see that commerce could hold an important role among rent-paying peasantry.

Wickham concluded his lecture by rebutting the idea that there was a global systematic trend towards a weakening of the feudal process. High levels of commerce do not undermine feudalism if we concede that feudal economies logically tended towards increased peasant surpluses which lords struggled to confiscate.

The lecture challenged historical assumptions and set out new perspectives for thinking about the past, exactly as a Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture should do.

I would also like to thank the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund for supporting my Master’s in European History. It was during a previous Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture that I was made aware of the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund, whose financial support I have found invaluable.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.