This entry from the extended 2013 reading list is one of those books that probably only an academic could love. Georges Duby‘s The Three Orders (Les Trois Ordres ou L’imaginaire du féodalisme) or, as the great historian calls it in the English subtitle, Feudal Society Imagined, is part meditation, part explication, part analysis, and, to prove that there is truth in advertising, part the imagination of a brilliant mind. The work is a historical “explanation” for the rise – and fall – and rise of what historians, one assumes, like to call the idea of “ternarity” in social organization during the Middle Ages. The ternary concept conceives of a society composed of “those who pray” (the clergy and their associates – and sometime opponents – the monks), “those who fight” (nobles and knights, a seemingly mutually inclusive group, though Duby does a nice job of showing us that the story of the “ruling class” is more complex), and “those who labor” (that would seem to be the peasantry – though again, Duby explains that our standard descriptions might not be as accurate given the realities of those times). All this is pretty standard – if arguable – stuff.
What makes The Three Orders both representative of Duby’s oeuvre and an engrossing – and challenging -read is Duby’s approach to his explanation of these changes in medieval society. Because of his embrace of what he as a member of the “Annales School” of historical inquiry called the “history of mentalities,” he explores, through close examination and explication, key documents. These writings represent, to his thinking, the accepted verities that under gird the psychologies of these three groups – clergy (including monks), nobles (especially knights), and laborers (which, over this period of transition from the late tenth to the early 13th centuries came to represent not just peasant farmers but the group who came to be known as “la bourgeoisie” – mercantilists).
Duby examines significant works across this historical period. The earliest, written primarily by prelates such as the bishop Gerard of Cambrai, attempt to repress “heresies” that question the association of monarchs (and knights) with church sanctioned “divine” empowerment over the ever exploited third group, people who actually work; those of the middle period by monks such as Andrew of Fleury argue that the monastic life (retirement from the world to contemplate God) supersedes all other human activity and renders concerns about social organization, for want of a better term, trifling; finally, the heavily scholastic work of William the Breton, fueled both by the rise of intellectualism (Duby unashamedly assumes Paris to have been the cradle of higher learning – and thinking) and by the changes wrought by the “third order” (the rise of mercantilism – and money – shifted power from the church to the state – and that power vested itself in the monarch and his knights) interestingly, promotes the idea of the king as the pinnacle of the social order, a demi-god around whom gather the “best and brightest” (the court, the university and the church) and whom the bourgeois seek to serve.
The triggers for these shifting views over this period of slightly more than 200 years Duby presents more as gloss for the writing they inspired than for their importance as events in the lives of the French people of this period. The collapse of the Carolingian dynasty, the tenuous (and at times chaotic) rise of the Capetian dynasty, and especially Millenarianism (which reared its preposterous head in the period around 1000 CE just as it has in the period around 2000 CE) all contributed to the uncertainty that caused Gerard of Cambrai to defend the “divinity” of the crown and Andrew of Fleury to dismiss ‘”the world” as an antechamber of eternity. It is William the Breton, in his celebratory poem on Phillip II’s victory over Normandy and Brittany in 1214 that brings those domains under the rule of the French monarch who codifies that world view that we know as “the three estates.”
Duby stops there. The three stations of life – the church, the nobility (especially knighthood) , and the rest (after all, whether wealthy merchant or impoverished peasant, commoner is commoner) have, after some turmoil, reasserted their primacy of purpose and stabilized. What is left for readers is to consider how Duby’s elucidation of that far off time provides insights into our own imaginings of this new millennium.