Medieval civilization came of age in thunderous events like the Norman Conquest and the First Crusade. Power fell into the hands of men around castles who imposed coercive new lordships in quest of nobility, heedless of the old public order. In The Crisis of the Twelfth Century, acclaimed historian Thomas Bisson asks what it was like to live in a Europe without government, and he asks how people experienced power, and suffered. Rethinking a familiar history as a problem of origins, he explores the circumstances that impelled knights, emperors, nobles, and churchmen to infuse lordship with social purpose.
Bisson traces the origins of European government to a crisis of lordship and its resolution. King John of England was only the latest and most conspicuous in a gallery of bad lords who dominated the populace instead of ruling it. Men like him had been all too commonplace in the twelfth century. More and more knights pretended to powers and status, encroached on clerical domains and exploited peasants, and came to seem threatening to social order and peace. Yet as Bisson shows, it was not so much the oppressed people as their tormentors who were in crisis. Covering all of Western Christendom, this book suggests what these violent people--and the outcries they provoked--contributed to the making of governments in kingdoms, principalities, and towns.
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.
"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
Table of Contents
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Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Thomas N. Bisson: