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

7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691137087
ISBN-10: 0691137080
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Editorial Reviews


"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. Bisson's 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. [Bisson's] 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 Back Cover

"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, école des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales

"Bisson's 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 Bisson's 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 life's 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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (November 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691137080
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691137087
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,153,647 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Lori Reeser on July 25, 2011
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.
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21 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Vicki Moyer on November 10, 2009
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.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Crawford on October 2, 2011
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.
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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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