Speculum 70 (4):743-759 (1995)

My subject on this occasion goes uneasily with my piety. Lordship did not as such much interest my teachers William E. Lunt and Joseph R. Strayer, who were leaders in their turn of the Medieval Academy of America. In their presidential addresses of 1954 and 1968 both scholars dealt magisterially with subjects each had studied for forty years. Lunt spoke on financial relations of the papacy with England, Strayer on the place of Normandy and Languedoc in the building of an administrative monarchy in France. It is easy to see that in a considerable sense both historians were working on medieval government, and it is some measure of their achievement that even today no one wishing to be informed in this grand subject can do much better than read Lunt and Strayer. I wish I could discourse on my own years of research as did those admirable scholars. If I cannot, it is not simply because I lack the accumulated erudition to reflect summarily on my work; it is also because I lack the conceptual serenity of my teachers in our common subject matter. Like Lunt and Strayer I have worked on justice, finance, and the beginnings of parliamentary life in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; unlike those mentors I became uneasy about the paradigm in which these studies were framed. I came to wonder how Strayer could have held students, myself included, spellbound with details about the deportment of judges or sergeants while saying nothing about the adequacy of concepts like “government” or “administration” to describe such behavior. Believing there was something timeless about the action of people in power, he was gifted at evoking the ways of modern bureaucrats in those “corridors of power” he knew from his own experience in Washington. He assumed with other historians of his day and ours that all societies have governments, so that he could speak of feudalism as essentially a “method of government,” of “political organization … reduced to the simplest possible terms.”
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