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Heteronomy: Tyranny of a Construct?

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By the time this article is published, it will have been 45 years since the publication of Elizabeth A.R. Brown’s ‘The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe.’ In this milestone of the field, she shed light on the various negative effects of the overreaching concept of Feudalism, and the ways in which it was unthoughtfully applied to medieval history as a whole. While the article is well-known to all significant scholars in the field today, the impact it had hoped to have – specifically, Brown’s hope that Feudalism would ultimately become relatively marginalized as a concept, and that ‘Perhaps in its downfall it will carry with it those other obdurate isms – manorial, scholastic, and human’ – must be found wanting. Misconceptions and faulty models continue to populate the field – perhaps none more stubbornly than Heteronomy.

Heteronomy, a term first introduced to IR scholarship by John Ruggie nearly four decades ago, refers to the idea that a wide variety of governmental types populated Christendom throughout the medieval era, until the invention of the state in 1648. The wide variety of titles given to the realms of the time and the misconceptions surrounding medieval politics that we bring with us might initially incline us to accept this as a necessary part for any geopolitical model of the medieval era to be constructed. However, further investigation will show that this concept must be heavily qualified for it to continue in serious consideration of medieval history, if not discarded altogether.

This article will demonstrate the invalidity of the concept by illuminating its many weaknesses – specific focus will be given to the underdeveloped nature of the concept, the way in which it prevents us from considering medieval-era anarchy and sovereignty, and most damning of all, its unfounded nature. It will do so first by reviewing the dominance of Feudalism as a concept in pre-Browning medieval studies as well as Browning’s own critique thereof, drawing conclusions about the many grounds upon which we can seek to refute the concept of heteronomy today. It will then examine Heteronomy as a concept and reject it through identifying various omissions and overreliances in the justifications put forth by its proponents as well as phenomena it has failed to explain. It shall conclude by identifying the concept as part of the flawed ‘Rupture Thesis’ framework, and shall recommend its replacement with more accurate concepts.

Feudalism in Medieval Historiography

Our review of Feudalism and its impact upon the literature surrounding medieval political and geopolitical structures must begin with its definition. Unfortunately, no consensus definition exists. The literature is largely oriented around 3 different conceptions of the term – these consisting of F.L Ganshof’s classical description of feudalism as the property relations surrounding the fief (Brown, 1974, p. 1071), Marxist conceptions of economic and social repression as the primary forces of feudalism (Abels n.d. p.2), and focuses on the military aspects of feudalism from Joseph R. Strayer and others (Brown, 1974, p. 1073).

Despite this multifaceted definition, Feudalism as a concept has had notable staying power in academia – largely due to the ease with which one can use it to impose uniformity on the varied structures of medieval Europe – and now constitutes a central pillar of almost all frameworks used to understand the social and political structures of Latin Christendom. Brown’s critique of the concept exposes several ways in which this has served to distance our understanding of these structures from the historical realities – namely, the ways in which its multitude of definitions leads to a lack of clarity in serious analyses of medieval political structures, as well as the fact that it never existed in any uniform manner across Europe except as an “ideal type” to be striven for – leading Brown to conclude, and us to believe, that there is no function the concept of feudalism serves that cannot be better done by other concepts (Brown 1974, p. 1066).

Ultimately, despite these well-known arguments, feudalism remains the dominant manner in which scholars today analyze medieval politics, leading the academy to analyze most medieval political structures on their conformance to or divergence from the ideal of feudalism, while placing little emphasis upon analyzing these structures and their properties in their own rights. We can see this on full display in Larkins’ otherwise excellent From Hierarchy to Anarchy: Territory and Politics Before Westphalia. In his effort to deemphasize the 1648 treaty of Westphalia as the beginning point of state sovereignty in favor of the Renaissance, he constructs a comparison of medieval political structures to their Renaissance equivalents, making repeated and uncritical references to feudalism. He grounds his usage of this concept in Reynolds’ Fiefs and Vassals for its discussion of its titular subject as the center of feudalism – but in doing so, he ignores the work’s own critique of feudalism’s prevalence as a concept throughout the literature (Brown, 1974, p. 212).

Larkins is far from the only author to make uncritical reference to this rightly controversial concept. Benno Teschke, in his book The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics, and the Making of Modern International Relations, on the transition between the medieval and modern international orders published in 2003, sought to define international systems based on the property relations within their constitutive units (Teschke, 2003, p. 46). In seeking to define a new era to serve as the birth of sovereignty, he makes numerous references to feudalism while failing to reference the controversy over the concept as a whole – especially problematic, considering the importance that the fief has in his argument, and the disputed nature of the fief’s place in medieval structures.

Another example of uncritical reliance on feudalism-informed frameworks can be found in the work of Andrew Phillips, who, while avoiding the usage of the concept of feudalism in his otherwise outstanding book, War, Religion and Empire, made numerous references to ‘Feudal Law’, usually in connection to Canon Law, to explain the nature of power structures throughout Medieval Europe such as feuds between nobles........

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