Medieval Studies Regions of Medieval France
Robert F. Berkhofer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0099


While there were kings who claimed to rule the western Frankish kingdom after the division of the Carolingian Empire in 843, there was no concept of “France” from the 10th to 12th century, outside of the royal domain (the so-called Île de France, framed by the Seine, Oise, and Marne rivers). See the bibliography Medieval France. Some scholars argue that older administrative divisions (pagi and counties) and political divisions (Austrasia, Neustria, Aquitaine) of the Carolingian Empire persisted in some places and helped define boundaries between areas, while others insist that the later 9th and 10th century witnessed the destruction of the Carolingian pattern of rule and its replacement by new local units of lordship. The most important new units were a variety of principalities. These principalities were ruled by virtually independent dukes and counts, and only slowly became incorporated in the realm by the Capetian kings of France, notably in the 12th and 13th century. Many scholars believe that this process of integration was incomplete at the end of the Middle Ages, even after the last independent principality, Brittany, was formally joined to the realm in 1532. Known as pays in French (meaning country or homeland, from Latin patria), these lordships were foci for rule, socioeconomic structures, and identity during the medieval period and afterwards. Now regions of modern France, they have served as useful (if sometimes controversial) units for historical studies because the continuity of regional “identity” is still an important political question today. Because studies of regions tend to be particular rather than general, there are no comprehensive reference works. On the other hand, local historical societies, research centers, and journals exist in such profusion as to defy any simple listing.

Scholarly Approaches

In the late 20th century, French historical scholarship on the Middle Ages was dominated by the Annales-school approach, including the training of medieval historians in France and beyond. One aspect of this influence was medievalists insisting that the “thèse d’État” (required for French doctoral students until 1982) be a historical monograph about a region of medieval France. These regional studies were thought to contribute to a collective history of medieval France and especially of the relation of natural resources and geography to human activities, or “la terre et les hommes.” The purposes and achievements of this scholarly program are lucidly explained by Bisson 2000, which traces its elaboration in the second half of the 20th century. Inspired by the early work on rural history by Bloch 1978 (originally published in 1931) and works by Annaliste pioneers such as Braudel 1995 (originally published in 1949), the real growth of studies about regions of medieval France followed the success of Duby 1982 on the Mâconnais region of Burgundy. Although northern regions were explored first, the work of Le Roy Ladurie 1974 (originally published in 1966) on peasant life in Languedoc foreshadowed a later shift to the south. Furthermore, the desire to link these regional examples to a “histoire totale” of medieval France (see Le Goff and Toubert 1977) often yielded multivolume works of erudition with extensive bibliographies, which offer starting points for future research on each region. Some of these studies took medieval principalities as their focus, such as Normandy, Anjou, or Toulouse, whereas others used artificial or postmedieval territorial divisions (Picardy, Languedoc) or particular centers (Narbonne, Vendôme) to circumscribe their study of medieval sources. Many of these studies assumed the formation of regional principalities in the post-Carolingian period, though more recent work has been critical of their coherence as units of rule or identity. The success of this French scholarship inspired both French and international scholars to produce similar studies for other regions within France and Mediterranean regions beyond France. The growth of political regionalism within modern France, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, stimulated further study of medieval regions and forced a reconsideration of the importance of the pays for medieval people and modern historians (see Bedos-Rezak 1993). Although earlier scholarship sometimes assumed continuity in regional identity from the early Middle Ages, such claims today would have to be proven on a case-by-case basis.

  • Bedos-Rezak, Brigitte. “French Medieval Regions: A Concept in History.” In Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques: Special Issue: Polity and Place: Regionalism in Medieval France. Edited by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak. Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques 19.2 (Spring 1993): 152–166.

    Reconsiders the value of regional studies, in particular the utility of “region” as a historical construct; introduction to a collection of essays that adopt a critical approach to defining medieval regions.

  • Bisson, Thomas N. “La terre et les hommes: A Programme Fulfilled?” French History 14 (2000): 322–345.

    DOI: 10.1093/fh/14.3.322

    Analysis of Annaliste-inspired regional studies, including the evolution of the scholarly genre, evaluation of its achievements, and appendices of chronological development and bibliography to 2000. Includes opinions from six leading French practitioners about “la terre et les hommes.”

  • Bloch, Marc. French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics. Translated by Janet Sondheimer. London: Routledge, 1978.

    English translation of Les Caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française, first published in 1931 and republished with supplementary material in 1955. Broadly explores the relationship of land and people from prehistory to the French Revolution.

  • Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. 2 vols. Translated by Siân Reynolds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

    English translation of La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, first published in 1949. A sweeping study of the Mediterranean and inherently antiregional in perspective; its methodology of combining physical and human geography and emphasis on socioeconomic structures inspired the approach of many subsequent regional works.

  • Duby, Georges. La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise. Paris: École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1982.

    First published in 1953 and reprinted in the author’s Qu’est-ce que la société féodale? in 2002, but never translated, this seminal regional study explored transformations of power and society (which the author later called “feudal revolution”) in the Mâconnais with emphasis on nobility, knighthood, peasant status, and agrarian life.

  • Le Goff, Jacques, and Pierre Toubert. “Une histoire totale du moyen âge est-elle possible?” In Tendances, perspectives et méthodes de l’histoire médiévale “Actes du 100e congrès des sociétés savante.” 31–44. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1977.

    Considers critically the question of whether exploring the dense strata of local structures (only possible in regional slices) might collectively produce an histoire totale of medieval France.

  • Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. The Peasants of Languedoc. Translated by John Day. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

    English translation of Les paysans de Languedoc, first published in 1966. Employing quantitative studies of economic phenomena together with theories of structural anthropology, argues for durability of material and mental structures of peasant life.

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