Sociology at the conquest of the Middle Ages

By proposing to study the Middle Ages as a sociologist, Alexis Fontbonne lays the foundations of a stimulating critical approach which invites us to think differently about historical practice but also the tools of sociology.

Opening the Middle Ages to sociology: at first glance, the objective stated by this Introduction to medieval sociology may seem surprising. After all, it has now been almost a century since in France, medievalism, the historical discipline studying the Middle Ages, was structured around a disciplinary opening to the social sciences, as evidenced by the journal of Annals founded in 1929 by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre and which has displayed the subtitle since 1994 History, Social Sciences. Sociologists such as Max Weber or Norbert Lias, widely cited in historical works, are now among the essential authors with whom history students are confronted one day or another.

However, as Alexis Fontbonne shows in the first chapter of his work, looking more closely, the relationship between the Middle Ages and sociology is far from obvious. On the one hand, it is not uncommon for medivists to neglect sociology and its vocabulary, or to make superficial use of it, using it as a toolbox from which one draws this or that concept, without worrying too much about their theoretical coherence. On the other hand, it is clear that the teaching of the medieval period is hardly part of the program of sociology studies, necessarily focused on contemporary society, so that very little work by current sociologists focuses on the Middle Ages.

It is therefore good to reconcile the historical study of the Middle Ages with the sociological approach that Alexis Fontbonne proposes, in his book, to identify the avenues of a medieval sociology. The author, a specialist in the history of religious representations in the Middle Ages, designed his work as a manual mixing theoretical discussions with practical examples, in order to produce for historians and sociologists something to do with the sociology of the Middle Ages (p. 21), by providing them with different concepts, data and food for thought.

From the Middle Ages of sociologists

To lay the foundations of this transdisciplinary dialogue, Alexis Fontbonne begins by highlighting (chap. 2) the debt of sociology to the Middle Ages. Several authors considered as founding figures of sociology (Auguste Comte, Mile Durkheim, Max Weber, Pierre Bourdieu) were in fact interested in the medieval period, either to identify certain constituent elements of Western civilization (in particular the role of the Church in the organization of society), or to develop certain notions thanks to the necessary distance for sociological reflection (p. 92) that the Middle Ages offer. This is for example the case of Pierre Bourdieu's field theory, which he developed by first focusing on the religious field and the medieval church.

Clear this medieval matrix of sociology then allows the author to discuss the way in which recent historical works can in turn shed new light on the classic works of sociology (chap. 3). To return here to the example of Pierre Bourdieu, heresy is defined for him in relation to the position of the actors in the religious field. In other words, the heretic is the one who places himself in opposition to the orthodoxy of dogma. However, the historiography of the last twenty years has since considerably qualified this vision, showing that it is first and foremost the Church itself which constructs heresy by attributing often infamous practices and characteristics to heretics.

In doing so, Alexis Fontbonne's objective is however not to simply point out this or that error of sociological interpretation which has since been corrected by historians, but on the contrary to invite reconsideration of certain classic notions of sociology in the light of advances in research in history, for example, by abandoning the concept of religious field to move to that of ecclesial field in order to better understand the articulation between the Church and the medieval social world. Indeed, for Bourdieu, the religious field in the Middle Ages is confused with the church, conceived above all as a bureaucratic institution and a space of struggles between agents confronting each other. for the definition of the Church and the monopoly of the representation of the Church (p. 127), which ultimately proves to be a rather limited point of view. On the contrary, speaking of an ecclesial field shifts the focus toecclesia, that is to say not only the church-institution, but also the community of believers (clergy and lay people). This allows us to further question the control of the Church on all dimensions of the social world (p. 131), opening the way to fascinating questions about co-extensiveness and reciprocal influences between the ecclesial field and the social world.

sociology of the Middle Ages

This preliminary critical work having shown the fruitfulness of a dialogue between medievalists and sociologists, Alexis Fontbonne comes to the heart of his subject: laying the foundations of a sociology of the Middle Ages. To do this, the author does not seek to construct a new theory or a perfectly articulated method. Her Introduction to medieval sociology is above all a practical-oriented manual, presenting different case studies.

Thus, he begins (chap. 4) by deconstructing certain preconceived ideas about the Middle Ages which could harm the sociological analysis of the period: pre-capitalist feudal world where the logic of economic domination would be absent, Christian age favorable to madmen and poverty, absence of rationality, etc. If this part will seem to open a few doors in the eyes of medivists, it is primarily intended for students of sociology in order to help them get rid of certain presuppositions to better change mental universe (p. 192). It is obviously impossible for the author to address here all aspects of the medieval period, and we will appreciate in this regard the numerous footnotes referring to a very rich scientific literature. Perhaps apprentice sociologists would nevertheless have liked the book, as an introductory manual, to also include more major summaries and reference works on the Middle Ages (particularly in the final bibliography), in order to better guide their first readings.

Alexis Fontbonne then considers (chap. 5) several examples of the application of sociological concepts to the historical study of the Middle Ages. By first returning at length to the different uses of sociology through historical research in XXe century, it inevitably addresses some relatively conventional cases, such as the birth of Annals or the debates, in the 1980s and 1990s, around the medieval genesis of the modern state. Among the various more recent avenues of research that he discusses, the author never seems more at ease than when he touches on his own research themes, namely the study of the ecclesial world. The section on the dynamics of domination in the rural and manorial world is also very interesting, even if we would have liked it to integrate more the most recent works and there are many relating to the use of violence in the Middle Ages.

Betray the Clerics

The last part of the book starts from the observation that we cannot decently study the Middle Ages as a sociologist without taking an interest in those who in turn produce knowledge about this period. start with the individuals of the Middle Ages themselves, who were quite capable of developing a reflection on the world around them (chap. 6). Among these modern sociologists, the author deals here mainly with clerics who develop an ecclesiological discourse, that is to say a discourse of the Church on itself and on the world. As Alexis Fontbonne clearly shows, this is a believing sociology, because it finds divine reasons behind the organization and hierarchies of the social world, and which therefore carries a prescriptive message. Taking into account this ecclesiological discourse on the world therefore also implies that researchers must betray the clerics (p. 311) by considering their words above all as a revealer of their own social position.

To extend the author's formula, would we then dare to say that to study the Middle Ages as a sociologist, we must also betray the medievalists?? Alexis Fontbonne does not go that far when he finally presents the perspective of a sociological analysis of the historians of the Middle Ages (chap. 7). The study of the conditions of production of scientific knowledge is today a field of research in its own right within the history and sociology of science, which has, however, until now shown little interest in medivists, no doubt because they represent a less well-known or prestigious community than, for example, mathematicians, philosophers or physicists. However, for many years, medivists have begun reflective work on their profession and their working conditions, which have a considerable influence on their work, such as the generalized model of project-based research funding (ERC, ANRetc.), which reinforces competition between researchers and proves to be an obstacle for exploratory and long-term research.

The sociological observation ofhomo medievisticus can therefore be declined in numerous ways. The characterization of the three capital of medievalism (bibliography, auxiliary sciences, social sciences) makes it possible to highlight certain path logics, such as the fact that mastery of auxiliary sciences (diplomatics, palography, numismatics, etc.) is valued within the framework of the doctorate, but turns out to be of no use for the aggregation competition. The quantitative analysis of the population of researchers and their work based on the directory of the Society of Mediivist Historians of Public Higher Education allows us to have an overview of the geographical distribution of medievalists (including 33% work in le-de-France), the degree of feminization of the profession (42% of women), or even the over-representation of certain research themes, starting with that of the Church and religion. It should be emphasized that the framework envisaged here is solely that of research and the French university, with its specific logics. It would be just as interesting to consider the medievalist community as a heterogeneous international entity, where scientific cultures but also very different career strategies and working conditions intersect depending on the country. But as the author himself recognizes, this chapter constitutes above all a sketch for researchand we therefore easily understand why he initially chose to focus on the case of the French medievalists.

Ambitious and extremely stimulating, this Introduction to medieval sociology succeeds in showing all the interest of a medieval sociology by offering readers numerous avenues for reflection. It should be noted that, due to his own research themes, Alexis Fontbonne gives a particularly important place in his book to the church and the religious question, whereas other themes which lend themselves just as much to sociological analysis are relatively little treated, such as for example the history of justice and violence. On the other hand, we can hardly blame the author for basing his work on his field of specialty, especially since he claims several times that he wants, with this book, to open targeted research projects rather than trying to achieve illusory exhaustiveness. We may still be surprised that historical sociology and what it teaches us about the Middle Ages is not ultimately addressed more, except through the tutelary figures of Max Weber and Norbert Elias. Among more recent authors, the American sociologist Charles Tilly, for example, would have had his place in the book, because of his work on the origins of the modern state, but also on social movements, which have considerably influenced the study of medieval revolts in the over the last few years. Despite these few bibliographical flourishes, we can only appreciate the very rich perspectives released by this book and hope that they will inspire many future vocations of medieval sociologists (and vice versa).