Episode 64: Feudalism and Early Normans

The Normandy of William the Conqueror was a product of the feudal age of Western Europe. In this episode, we explore the history of feudalism, and we examine words associated with feudalism which entered the English language. We also look at the early history of Normandy to see how it fits into the feudal puzzle.  Along the way, we examine certain aspects of Norman French, and we explore some of the differences between the Norman French dialect and the standard Old French spoken in places like Paris.


22 thoughts on “Episode 64: Feudalism and Early Normans

  1. Regarding the word “tender” and its related words pertaining to stretch, English retains a common phrase used at least in the UK, though not in the Americas. It’s “to be on tenterhooks”. It means to be in tense, in a state of anticipation. There’s a whole article about it in Wikipedia; tenters were used to stretch cloth back in the day.

  2. Is the Hindu European root word ‘peku’ that meant moveable related to the word ‘ped’ (foot), or are those different root words?

    • Hi Helena,

      Those are distinct Indo-European words. The PIE root *peku meant ‘moveable property,’ and the PIE root *ped meant ‘foot.’

  3. Just listened to your episode on the rise of feudalism in continental Europe and was intrigued by the PIE root *peku or however it’s written — the one that gave us all those derived words for property.

    You talked about the development of the concept of property and its link to cattle.

    You may know this already, but if not, it may interest you to learn that the german word for cattle is “Vieh”, pronounced “fee”. !! 🙂

  4. Hi Kevin,

    It makes sense why the Norse language was totally replaced by (Norman) French within a couple generations, since Norse men married and had children with Frankish women, like you noted. Is it known why the same or similar situation did not happen in England, when the Anglo Saxons first came over (and presumably interbred with Celtic women; I think recent DNA evidence shows there is more intermarrying than previously thought but I could be wrong)? Seems odd there is so little Celtic influence on English from that period if Celtic women were raising babies.

    • I think this is one of the great linguistic mysteries. Theoretically, the Celtic languages ‘should’ have had a greater impact on English, but they didn’t. Some linguists like John McWhorter argue that there are subtle Celtic influences in English – like the way we use the word ‘do’ in many verb phrases. I tried to address this topic as best I could in Episode 30: The Celtic Legacy.

      • I recently listened to the Audible version of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. And you’re right, McWhorter believes there’s a Celtic influence on English grammar. But as you suggest, there’s hardly a consensus on that issue.

    • It’s just speculation, but perhaps it was the difference in the situation. After the collapse of Roman authority in Britain, maybe people felt insecure, and those with new Anglo-Saxon overlords saw them as the future and were enthusiastic about adopting their culture and language. Whereas Rollo and his people were coming into a relatively more stable situation. Even so, you’d have expected a bit more Celtic influence on English

      • Another speculative argument is that there were too little vikings that captured Normandy to take over the local population; it was a mere military campaign, not a mass migration. The same happened to the Varyags — the Vikings in Slavic Rus who became it’s first ruling dynasties but we’re completely assimilated. Is I imagine, for them it was only logical to become one with your people, while Anglo-Saxons were the people themselves.

        One more, even more speculative thought is that the Viking raiders were losing their culture in general as they were integrating into the bigger Christian European world. The same happened with virtually every orher European people from early Celts and Germans to late medieval Balts and Finns. However, during the Great Migration there wasn’t such a difference in cultural authority among non-Christian peoples, so the new settlers often dominated the locals just by the right of the strongest.

        Having thought about both ideas, I come to believe that ultimately it’s about the means to stay in power. If you’re in minority and surrounded by a global culture that is very strong “proprietary ecosystem”, so to speak — you have no choice but to become part of it. On the contrary, when your culture backs your power, you would promote it in every way possible.

        The tricky part is to test these arguments with the Norman conquest of England. I guess I have to listen a dozen next podcasts for that…

    • From what I understand from Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” the Romans, under Julius Caesar, did their best to wipe out the Celts. Maybe there just weren’t enough of them left to make an impact?

  5. Pingback: RNI - المهندسون المغاربة

  6. Regarding the word valet in UK English. French, Canadian French, US English and a good percentage of lay brits pronounce it ‘valey’ in the french dialect.
    From pre-shakespeare times it was actually pronounced valett with a t, and it still is by the Gentry who still have them and their general echelon and staff.
    (emphasis on 1st syllable, its end sounds similar to ‘millet’)

    I guess most people only hear it in US movies and french/continental (and now all posh) restaurants and hotels. Film and tv sometimes use US pronunciations so it can be sold abroad and be more accessible (e.g. privacy), so that’s all us mere peasants tend to hear.

    I used to lend my piano to an under butler (trained at BP) living and working at a country estate with resident Titled elderly and venerated Lord years ago, i’d no idea either, it sounds mis-pronounced, but not so.

    Heard it again recently confirmed by Royal staff talking about discretion on a documentary while youtubing ( inner life of the royals type theme, post paul burrel)

    Definitely ‘valett’ to anyone who moves in that world apparently.

    • For what it is worth … In the late 1970s I worked in Paris. My immediate boss was Monsieur Valet, and my supervisor out at Fontenay aux Roses was Monsieur Grandvalet.
      In both cases their surname was pronounced as “val-lay”, with the emphasis on the last syllable.
      This does not, of course, prove that all of France pronounces it that way, but I have a tendency to this day to think of a Gentleman’s gentleman (Jeeves) as a val-LAY.

      • In North America (I’m in Canada) it seems to be pronounced valAY, except when the subject is valet parking, when it’s VALay. Wonder why?

  7. Interestingly enough, modern historians of the Middle Ages (particularly of France and England) have recently been questioning whether “feudalism” is a useful term in describing social relationships in the central Middle Ages. As early as the 1970s E. A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in the _American Historical Review_ questioned whether this was a useful lens for understanding society. Susan Reynolds really filled out a lot of the details on this critique in the 1990s. (There was a brief period when medieval historians referred to feudalism as the “f-word.”)

    Going back to this particular topic, it is interesting to compare two biographies of William the Conqueror. David Douglas, writing in the 1960s, seems to use the word “feudal” or some variant in every other sentence of his description of William’s governmental innovations. David Bates, writing just a couple of years ago, managed to avoid the word entirely except when referring very briefly to the historiographical debate over “feudalism” as a concept.

    As a professional historian of the Middle Ages, I can see some merit in the concepts behind “feudalism,” but I find that the term “feudal” is not useful in describing what’s happening in the Middle Ages. As a rule of thumb, I have found that omitting “feudal” or substituting “medieval” generally does not remove any necessary level of meaning from most sentences.

  8. I particularly enjoyed your discussion of “precaria”. In Costa Rica (and possibly in other Central American countries), squatters are referred to as “precaristas” due to their “precarious” living situation. I find it absolutely fascinating that the word “precarious” itself was originally linked to the land.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed your podcast since my son introduced me to it last year. Thank you for the time and effort you put into it!

  9. Hi Kevin, I really enjoy this episode and am looking to look more in depth/at original sources. Do you happen to know the sources you used for this episode?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.