previous sub-section
Chapter 2 Modes of Production and Historical Development
next sub-section

Bois: The Structure of European Feudalism

Guy Bois's exhaustive study of the Norman "heartland" of feudalism during the great crisis of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, The Crisis of Feudalism (1976; English translation, 1984), combines a detailed macro-economic analysis of long-term movements of population, prices and wages, and production with a careful micro-analysis of lords and peasants as economic subjects.[15] His work is useful here primarily for its discussion of the rhythms of growth, stagnation, and contraction inherent in the feudal mode of production and for its elaboration of the long-term consequences of the general contradiction between the feudal forces and relations of production, namely, the contradiction between the basic production unit, the "small-scale" peasant family holding, and the seigneurial levy to which this holding was subjected because of the "large-scale" sovereignty of the lord of the manor.

According to Bois, the feudal economy must be recognized as a rational system, but rational in its own specific, non-capitalist sense. Peasants were oriented toward the preservation of their holdings, ensuring the continuation of their land and subsistence for their families; lords were concerned, above all else, with the maintenance of their caste status. Feudal societies were never autarchic, but only a small percentage of the harvest was commercialized and the market sector was completely subordinate to the natural economy. Neither lords nor peasants


were oriented toward the ideas of increasing productivity or profit-directed investment; rather, both were concerned, albeit in antagonistic ways, with reproducing the existing economic situation. Bois also emphasizes the primacy of petty production within the feudal mode of production, the overwhelming predominance of the peasant family plot over the manor that emerged with the iron plow during the great expansion of the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. For Bois, the plow team worked by the "skilled laborers" of the village, husbandmen who owned a plow and a team to pull it, constituted the most efficient unit of production and accounted for virtually all production on the manor, including the cultivation of the lord's demesne, which was little more than an agglomeration of such units. The feudal labor process also required considerable "unskilled labor," but this labor was provided by smallholders who assisted the husbandmen (as wage laborers) and cultivated their own small subsistence plots with spades. While units larger than those defined by the plow team were viable only under rare conditions, the plow team unit rendered serfdom less and less necessary. Lords began to abandon serfdom and appropriated an increasing share of their surplus in kind or in the form of money dues. Technological improvement was slow, and economic growth in the feudal mode of production was overwhelmingly extensive in character; population increases and increases in cultivatable land were the determining factors of expansion.

Although small-scale production was the axis of the system, Bois rejects the notion that the forces of production can be understood independently of the relations of production, the seigneurial levy to which peasant holdings were subjected. However, Bois insists that given the nature of the feudal forces of production—peasant possession of their own plots and plows and peasant control over the actual process of production—the long-term tendency of the feudal levy was constant decline. The resistance of peasants to surplus labor on the demesne and their struggle to devote labor to the family plot and to keep as much as possible of the product of that labor are inherent characteristics of the class struggle under feudalism. The development of the peasant community as the coordinating center of peasant family plots—and as bulwarks against outside intervention by feudal lords—eroded seigneurial power, especially where aristocratic political organization was weak. The constant struggles of the petty producers over time, aided by the lord's own ideology of perpetual tenures and service, were successful in eroding feudal levies and having them converted to fixed "customary"


amounts, often in the form of written charters modeled on those of the towns.

The only countervailing tendencies to the decline in the rate of customary feudal levies were reactive and extra-economic actions on the part of the lords: (1) the introduction of new forms of levy (banalités , such as fees for use of the lord's mill, oven, wine press, and so on) to augment declining forms; (2) recourse to the battlefield in an attempt to redistribute incomes by war (new lands, ransoms, and booty obtained by pillaging the countryside); or (3) a "political rearrangement of exploitation" (ultimately a strengthening of the central state, what Bois calls "centralized feudalism"—in the case of Normandy, the growth of absolutism and royal taxation, which found its way back into aristocratic coffers through civil and military service). However, given the dynamics of the feudal mode of production, Bois maintains that none of these seigneurial reactions could succeed in the long term. To comprehend Bois's argument regarding the "law of the declining rate of the feudal levy," we must therefore situate it within his discussion of the cyclical logic of feudal development.

Bois's achievement is to have successfully integrated neo-Malthusian demographic analysis into a mode of production analysis of feudalism. He demonstrates, by means of painstaking empirical research that can only be summarized here, the existence of alternating phases of expansion, stagnation, and contraction, each regulated by the unique characteristics of the feudal forces and relations of production. Phases of expansion began when a preceding phase of decline had "bottomed out": when the increasing rate of peasant productivity (caused by the withdrawal of a declining peasant population to the best, most fertile land and increases in pasture, animal husbandry, fertilizer, and so on) finally exceeded the rate of the feudal levy (which had "peaked out" after a cycle of warfare and political reorganization). Extensive economic growth developed as population began to increase once again (after the shocks of war, disease, and famine characteristic of the phase of decline were absorbed). As new lands were brought back into cultivation, total production increased. However, these increases in land, population, and production were accompanied by a decline in productivity (caused by diminishing returns on newer, less fertile lands, declines in pasturage, stock breeding, fertilizer, and so forth). Thus, Bois argues, during phases of feudal expansion the rate of the feudal levy declined with the declining rate of productivity. Peasant productivity constituted an absolute limit on the feudal levy because, in the context


of the feudal land market, only subsistence peasants wanted land, and because they could not pay more than they produced, the rate of the levy had to follow the decline in their productivity. Without a declining rate of levy, Bois concludes, continued long-term demographic and economic expansion in the face of falling productivity would have been incomprehensible.

A falling rate of productivity, however, meant rising agricultural prices relative to urban prices for manufactured goods. This price scissors was favorable to the market sector of the rural economy—the lord's demesne and the husbandmen's plots—but also meant falling wages and growing pauperization for smallholders. Economic conditions during expansionary phases favored the feudal accumulation of land, that is, the expansion of the demesne and the leasing of more land by husbandmen (and increasing use of wage labor by both lords and husbandmen), which further contributed to the morselization of the smallholders' plots (a process already set in motion with population growth). The expansion of the husbandmen's holdings and the immiseration of wage-earning smallholders promote social differentiation within the peasant community as well as providing at least the potential for a growing commercial sector in the countryside. The economic position of the lords was further augmented by the fact that during waves of expansion the total volume of the feudal levy increased as the volume of income generated from the creation of new tenures offset the declining rate of the feudal levy.

Feudal expansion, however, created the conditions for its own reversal. A brief period of stagnation, or "stagflation," ensued wherein population pressure continued to build and prices remained high, but total production leveled off and even declined as all cultivatable land was occupied and declining productivity accelerated. When the volume of the feudal levy showed signs of decreasing, that is, when no new land was available to counteract the declining rate of levy, the seigneurial class then had to attempt to increase the rate of the levy in order to offset its declining economic position. This political action, Bois maintains, was responsible for "turning the page" on the cycle of expansion-stagflation and initiating a phase of contraction. Of course, some lords might have attempted to revolutionize production rather than turn the feudal screws on the peasantry, but this was a possible (or increasingly unavoidable) option only for seigneurial landlords under certain historical conditions, namely, as we shall see, when the feudal economy was articulated with a capitalist mode of production developed to the point where feudal relations of production were no longer viable.


Feudal contraction, Bois contends, was not simply the mirror image of expansion, because unlike the latter, it tended to escalate until it became a violent, all-encompassing "crisis of society." Demographic limits prepared the ground for famine and disease, but attempts by lords to increase the rate of the feudal levy intensified the demographic crisis and pushed the peasantry beyond the limit of endurance. The result was a succession of catastrophes—famines resulting from the pressure of population on the harvest, the ravages of disease resulting from the malnutrition of the population, peasant rebellions against increasing seigneurial levies, wars by lords attempting to recoup their fortunes at the expense of other lords. Further increases in taxation to pay for wars, coupled with the devastating effects of the carnage on the countryside, precipitated a free-falling downward spiral of the feudal economy. These catastrophes might have been separated by periods of partial recovery, but Bois insists on their underlying continuity and cumulative nature: feudalism systematically produced the three scourges of famine, disease, and war; these were not external intrusions into the feudal system but inherent tendencies of the feudal mode of production.

Population decline is a key to recovery, of course, but Bois differs from the neo-Malthusian school in accentuating the primacy of the mode of production within which population growth and decline is inscribed. For Bois, as for Meillassoux, each mode of production has its own particular demographic laws, and within a feudal mode of production, demographic collapse, in and of itself, does not reverse the social crisis any more than population growth alone may be said to have caused it. Population movements can be understood, Bois maintains, only within the unique context of a feudal mode of production and its complementary tendential socio-economic laws: the law of the downward trend in the rate of the feudal levy (linked to the contradiction between seigneurial appropriation of the land and surplus and the individual character of peasant cultivation) and the law of declining productivity (linked to small-scale production and constant technology, allowing only extensive growth).

The outcome of famine, disease, and the ravages of the remorseless cycle of war-taxation-war was a fall in population and a contraction of the arable land under cultivation. This contraction, however, meant rising productivity (withdrawal to the best lands, increases in pasture, stockbreeding, fertilizer, and so on) and therefore a downward trend in agricultural prices and a relative increase in industrial wages. This price scissors meant rising real wages and therefore worked against the commercialized sector of the agrarian economy, the lords and husbandmen,


while raising the standard of living for smallholders (once the economic and military storms had passed). The total volume of the feudal levy, however, declined as the decline in the volume of holdings and the competition of lords for scarce tenants overwhelmed whatever increases in the feudal levy the lords may have attained by extra-economic means. Thus, although cumulative, the process of decline found a self-regulating limiting mechanism in the evolution of productivity: decline was halted when productivity reached the point where the peasant holding was able to support seigneurial charges and begin to carry out expanded reproduction. Thus the socio-economic conditions for another phase of expansion were assembled.

From the end of the expansion of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, through the crisis of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and into the onset of expansion in the sixteenth century, Bois demonstrates, seigneurial incomes scarcely ceased to decline. As we have seen, the key to this decline was the effective possession and control of the means of production by the peasantry and its corollary, the extra-economic nature of seigneurial power. During periods of expansion, the lords could not counteract the effects of falling peasant productivity on the rate of the levy, while at the moment of saturation their attempts to raise the levy or create new obligations simply exacerbated the problems of the peasantry and precipitated a crisis whose ultimate outcome, declining population, further undermined seigneurial revenues. Warfare was worse than counterproductive, yet the other, ultimately inescapable alternative, political reorganization, did nothing to alter the forces of production or improve agricultural productivity and furthermore created a powerful rival to seigneurial authority. Absolutism certainly created a more efficient mechanism for extracting the surplus from the countryside, but it did so by undermining the basic feudal relation of production, the private sovereignty of the lord of the manor. Political reorganization of the seigneurial class into estates or parliaments, as in Poland or England, reinforced traditional seigneurial rights and powers, but because such political institutions no more altered the mode of production than absolutism did, their success in reversing the long-term decline in feudal levies could be only temporary. Centralized feudalism, insofar as it succeeded in squeezing fiscal blood from peasant stones, necessarily succeeded in lowering the ceiling of economic expansion. If such policies had been completely successful, a situation difficult to conceive in the context of a feudal mode of production, they would have contracted the feudal economy to a static state of unrelieved pov-


erty with no surplus whatsoever. Since, as we know, this was not the outcome of European feudalism, the question to be answered is simply why not.

The real index of the change within feudalism, Bois maintains, was not the political reorganization of the seigneurial class but the penetration of capitalism into the feudal sector. Rent and profit became inextricably mixed by the sixteenth century: new economic patterns began to take root as the diminution of feudal rents and the expansion of money taxes weakened seigneurial authority and strengthened peasant independence. Lords were no longer interested in keeping peasants to the letter of their tenures but rather in expropriating them; the urban bourgeoisie began to penetrate the land market; social differentiation between husbandmen and cottagers within the peasant community increased as successful peasants accumulated at the expense of smallholders. In the sixteenth century these tendencies were not yet dominant, Bois admits, but the trend of their cumulative development was unmistakable. Each wave of feudal expansion, he notes, moved lords and husbandmen to accumulate and commercialize. Each wave was broken by feudal obstacles to accumulation (the productivity of the family unit and plow team, the ideology of self-sufficiency rather than profitability, the rural solidarity of the peasant community, and so forth) and an ebb of decline took over. But because the feudal levy declined over time and seigneurial authority weakened with each crisis, each wave of accumulation broke further (in the twelfth, thirteenth, sixteenth, and eighteenth centuries) since the thrust of previous accumulations broke down feudal resistance to later waves. As long as the principal impulses behind each wave of expansion remained feudal, that is, as long as the feudal mode of production remained dominant, the process of accumulation remained discontinuous. However, the role of commercial capitalist impulses grew with the monetization of the rural countryside, the pauperization of smallholders, and the decline of the feudal levy in relation to the market value of land. When commercial rents exceeded declining seigneurial charges, the main barrier of feudal relations of production to capitalist expansion was irreversibly broken. By the sixteenth century, feudal development had reached the point where landlord interests and behavior were beginning to approximate the pattern described by Rey.

Bois's time period and his focus on Normandy obviously preclude an exploration of the uneven and combined development of the global feudal economy and the regional differentiation that became increas-


ingly evident as the sixteenth century progressed. His interest in the dynamics of the forces and relations of production in the countryside, the overwhelmingly dominant sector of the feudal economy, leads Bois away from important questions regarding the role of urbanization, regional trade, and the development of rural manufacturing within the structure of the feudal mode of production. Although he notes the emergence of proto-industrialization, international trade, and a commercial land market by the sixteenth century, urban developments and the "birth of capitalism" remain largely beyond his chosen limits. In order to situate the place of the town within the feudal mode of production and locate the origins of capitalist relations of production and their articulated development within the logic of feudal dissolution, we must look to Kriedte and Anderson for assistance. Finally, Bois's focus on the primacy of the productive forces leads to a certain lack of interest in political developments and state building. Bois certainly recognizes political centralization as an almost lawlike tendency of feudal development, but his analysis breaks off with absolutism merely "on the horizon." We need to explore the concept of the absolutist state as "centralized feudalism" in more depth as well as its specific effectivity within the context of the transition to capitalism. Perry Anderson admirably addresses these deficiencies and provides us with another essential component of our general synthesis.

previous sub-section
Chapter 2 Modes of Production and Historical Development
next sub-section