Georges Duby in 1980
|Died||December 3, 1996 (aged 77)|
|Fields||Social and economic history of the Middle Ages|
Georges Duby (7 October 1919 - 3 December 1996) was a French historian who specialised in the social and economic history of the Middle Ages. He ranks among the most influential medieval historians of the twentieth century and was one of France's most prominent public intellectuals from the 1970s to his death.
Born to a family of Provençal craftsmen living in Paris, Duby was initially educated in the field of historical geography before he moved into history. He earned an undergraduate degree at Lyon in 1942 and completed his graduate thesis at the Sorbonne under Charles-Edmond Perrin in 1952. He taught first at Besançon and then at the University of Aix-en-Provence before he was appointed in 1970 to the Chair of the History of Medieval Society in the Collège de France. He remained attached to the Collège until his retirement in 1991. He was elected to the Académie française in 1987.
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Although Duby authored dozens of books, articles and reviews during his prolific career--for academic as well as popular audiences--his reputation and legacy as a scholar will always be attached to his first monograph, a published version of his 1952 doctoral thesis entitled La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise (Society in the 11th and 12th centuries in the Mâconnais region). La société exerted a profound influence on medieval scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century, placing the study of medieval feudal society on an entirely new footing. Working from the extensive documentary sources surviving from the Burgundian monastery of Cluny, as well as the dioceses of Mâcon and Dijon, Duby excavated the complex social and economic relationships among the individuals and institutions of the Mâconnais region, charting a profound shift in the social structures of medieval society around the year 1000.
Duby argued that in early eleventh century, governing institutions--particularly comital courts established under the Carolingian monarchy--that had represented public justice and order in Burgundy during the ninth and tenth centuries receded and gave way to a new feudal order wherein independent aristocratic knights wielded power over peasant communities through strong-arm tactics and threats of violence. The emergence of this new, decentralized society of dynastic lords could then explain such later eleventh-century phenomena as the Peace of God, the Gregorian reform movement and the Crusades.
Following upon this, Duby formulated a famous theory about the Crusades: that the tremendous response to the idea of holy war against the Muslims can be traced to the desire of disinherited (but well-armed) second and third sons of this French parvenue aristocracy to make their fortunes by venturing abroad and settling in the Levant. While Duby's theory had long-lasting influence, later scholars such as Jonathan Riley-Smith have done much to discredit it, arguing that there was no large-scale shortage of land in Western Europe at the time, that knights actually lost money going on crusade, and that lay religious sentiment was their primary motivation.
Duby's intensive and rigorous examination of a local society based on archival sources and a broad understanding of the social, environmental and economic bases of daily life became a standard model for medieval historical research in France for decades after the appearance of La société. Throughout the 1970s and 80's, French doctoral students investigated their own corners of medieval France, Italy and Spain in a similar way, hoping to compare and contrast their own results with those of Duby's Mâconnais and its thesis about the transformation of European society at the end of the first millennium.
Although he was never formally a student in the circle of scholars around Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre that came to be known as the Annales School, Duby was in many ways the most visible exponent of the Annaliste tradition, emphasizing the need to place people and their daily lives at the center of historical inquiry.
Duby was also a pioneer in what he and other Annaliste historians in the 1970s and 80's came to call the "history of mentalities", or the study of not just what people did, but their value systems and how they imagined their world. In books like The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined and The Age of Cathedrals, Duby showed how ideals and social reality existed in dynamic relationship to one another. His distilled biographical essay on William Marshal set the knight's career in the context of feudal loyalties, honour and the chivalric frame of mind.
Duby's interest in the idea of historical "mentalities" extended to thinking about the position of contemporary society vis-a-vis its past. In Le Dimanche de Bouvines (1973) on the pivotal 1214 battle of Bouvines, Duby chose not to analyze the battle itself, but the ways it had been represented and remembered over time and the role its memory had played in the formation of French ideas about its medieval past. The book remains a classic of Annales-style historiography, eschewing the "great man" and event-oriented theories of political history in favor of asking questions about the evolution of historical perceptions and ideas over the long term, the longue durée. Duby also wrote frequently in newspapers and popular journals and was a regular guest on radio and television programs promoting historical awareness and support for the arts and social sciences in France. He served as the first director of Société d'édition de programmes de télévision (aka La Sept), a French broadcast network dedicated to educational programming.
His last book, L'histoire continue (History Continues) (1991; Engl. trans. 1994), is an intellectual autobiography. In it, Duby stresses the importance of the historian as a public figure who can make the past relevant and exciting to those in the present.