Lords and Masters : Domination in Medieval Normandy (11th-15th Centuries)

Date / time: 15 June, 12:00 am


Call for Papers, deadline – 15 June 2023 


Taking inspiration from Robert Fossier’s important questions on who dominated the territory and inhabitants (la terre et les hommes) of medieval Normandy, we are keen to reopen major historiographical debates on feudalism and serfdom. Our conference aims to stimulate new reflections on the notion of domination. We take the term to include not only the actual control of people and/or territories, but also strategies implemented by the dominators to legitimize and justify the social order over which they ruled. Through reinterpretation of political, economic, social and religious arenas, considered together, this conference positions itself within the cursus of recent works on the fabric of power in medieval societies. It aims to question, and perhaps redefine, the concept of domination. Whilst domination contributed much to social hierarchy, other formative aspects – such as cooperation, negotiation and contestation – should not be overlooked.


The medieval Latin expression ‘dominium’ stimulates discussion of power relations in medieval Norman society and the sources which can be brought to bear on the subject, whether textual, iconographic, archaeological, numismatic, etc. ‘Dominium’, from which a number of medieval words derive from ‘dominus’ (lord) to ‘domeigne’ (demesne) is, according to Alain Guerreau, an ‘original social relationship constituted by the simultaneity and unity of domination over men and over land’. Even though this concept does not necessarily appear as such in the written sources of the period, it has been increasingly deployed by historians from an interdisciplinary perspective, as evidenced by the recent program ‘Dominatio: formes et modalités de la gouvernementalité au Moyen Âge’ . Following in the succession of conferences on medieval Normandy organized at the International Cultural Centre of Cerisy-la-Salle (Manche), this conference will also thrive on dialogue between humanities and social sciences – influenced by the work of Max Weber, Pierre Bourdieu and James Scott – to understand the characteristics of domination in Normandy. Such new approaches can also be boosted by the application of tools recently developed in the field of digital humanities.

Who holds power ? Between the reign of Duke Richard II (996-1026) and the reconquest of the duchy by Charles VII in 1450, the masters of Normandy changed on many occasions. The territory was disputed bewteen several dynasties (« Rollonides », Plantagenet, Capetian, Lancastrian). Not only was it conquered and occupied but it was also a theatre of conflict between its own inhabitants (princes, nobles, rural and urban communities, churchmen) for control of men and resources. Domination was not the exclusive privilege of the few. In addition to the usual suspects of king, lord, bishop, and abbot, other groups, such as village leaders (vavassors etc.), urban elites (mayors, merchants, etc.) and administrators (provosts, sergeants, etc.) should not be overlooked. Their synergies with the ruling elites can also be debated.

Domination is not simply a question of binary relations (for example, lord/dependent, cleric/laity, prince/subjects), nor is it fixed (one domination can drive out another, or can be contested), or compartmentalized (in terms of economic, social, political, and cultural, categorization). Its cumulative effects, at different levels of society, are complex: a person who dominates can also be dominated. Several forms of domination can be exercised over a single individual or a single group. Indeed, according to Michel Senellart, domination ‘has no other purpose than to strengthen itself indefinitely’.’

That said, domination is not a synonym for power or government. Constructed at an inter-personal level and characterized by a wide range of relationships which intersect in all aspects of existence, the notion of dominance emphasizes the complexity of social bonds in Normandy from the 11th to 15th centuries. Over a period of nearly five hundred years, political and dynastic changes as well as epidemics and fundamental socio-economic transformations have created, and recreated, the forms and levels of domination. As a result, particular attention can be paid to dynamics, rhythms and reactivations over time. Other questions can also be raised, for instance the place of women in the mechanisms of domination, and the evolution of certain forms of power over time, including the scope of offices and officeholders.

How did the ‘dominators’ impose themselves? To build and maintain their power, they used a whole set of specific strategies, discourses, relationships and techniques of government, all of which need to be considered. If coercion or the use of violence comes first to mind, other forms of social control can also be seen to exist. For example, Norman feudalism remains a crucial issue, based on the relationship between a lord and his vassal. The language and discourses of domination (titles, coinage, literary patronage, etc.) likewise contributed to the legitimization of power and the mechanisms of social distinction. Domination embodied a form of constraint but was also accompanied by justification of a specific social order. Even so, we can question the extent to which this permeated society, thereby raising issues of the relationships of claimed dominance with actual power, and also of the role of consent of the people.

There is also an important spatial element to be considered. Contributors are invited to reflect on the instances and places of domination. Although lordship and village structures allowed control of populations, other environments come to mind, such as princely courts, urban communes, craft workshops and judicial circuits. The practical operation and internal management of lordships, through the collection of dues, are also relevant. To build on the work of Charles Homer Haskins, Joseph Strayer and Thomas Bisson, we encourage consideration of agency within institutions rather than the institutions themselves. What is the scope of action of seigneurs, baillis, vicomtes, officers of the chambre des comptes and of the Echiquer, and the prévôts? To what extent did they overlap or compete? In addition, domination was inscribed tangibly in the landscape and in daily life through building strategies, territorial planning and methods of social distinction. The place of castles and fortifications in medieval Norman society has been the subject of much research since Michel de Boüard’s pioneering work. Participants are invited to take advantage of recent archaeological studies on elite residences, rural settlement, infrastructure (e.g. ovens, tithe barns, mills, fisheries, bridges, fords, parks, roads, etc.) and material culture.

In order to discuss the specificity of Norman social structures, the uniqueness of which can be questioned, we are taking a long chronological perspective, from the beginning of the 11th century to the end of the 15th century, with the intention of making possible comparison across both time and space. Within this chronological spread, some periods have been studied more than others. We are keen not to neglect less explored periods, such as the reigns of Philippe le Bel and his sons. The conference will also be an opportunity to stimulate debate on controversial points. Did those who dominated automatically form their own distinct political society – the elite? Did the emergence of the state from the 13th century encourage new forms and patterns of domination?


Forging domination. It is useful to think about domination through the involvement of its actors. But we must bear in mind that domination is not just generated by conflict situations but is also forged by a range of strategies, such as cooperation, accommodation, competition, coercion and violence, as Dominique Barthélemy and Joseph Morsel have emphasised for the 11th-15th centuries. Domination involves complex hierarchies, from the lord to the local peasant community leaders. Is there coherence in these groups? Do their interests converge or diverge, and in what ways? Those who dominate play a significant role in the construction of power relationships. We hope that contributions will shed light on groups, communities or individuals through extended case studies. We should not forget the existence of mixed forms of domination. Ecclesiastical actors should be taken into account, since the Church participated in the defining of domination over people and terrritory, especially after the Gregorian reform and its application in Normandy.

New masters, new dominations. Papers are invited on the major figures of Norman history. David Bates’ biography of William the Conqueror established ideas concerning that ruler’s domination but what of the successive rulers who ruled Normandy ? Political ruptures are also promising areas of study since they often generated change or evolution of the modalities of domination. Questions arise on modes of governance as well as on their permanence, or otherwise, across periods of dynastic change. Papers could be on the process of conquest (1106, 1144, 1204, 1417, 1450), considering, for instance, the establishment of new powers as well as efforts at cooperation with local elites and communities. Domination in Normandy is not only a local phenomenon. Domination might come from outside the duchy, as too the individuals who participated in the exercise of power. French, English, Angevin, Bretons, and Burgundian (the list is not exhaustive) also ruled the duchy. The relevance of the notion of the state, accepted from the 13th century but debated for the earlier period, can be interrogated. In this respect, the ducal and royal officers deserve attention in the exercise of their roles.

The archaeology of domination. Through the construction of fortifications and elite residences, those who dominated had a marked impact on landscapes, commercial exchanges and ways of life. How did they establish their position tangibly, in full sight of those they dominated ? What of the archaelogical markers of domination? How do consumption patterns reveal themselves ? Recent studies based on archaeological evidence have highlighted the importance of social distinction and territorialisation at all levels, from the village to the duchy as a whole. Papers could be dedicated to specific sites or find and collections, or else take a more synthetic approach.

Arguments of the past. This conference will provide an opportunity to return to the issues raised by Léopold Delisle or Lucien Musset, fundamental to Norman historiography but rather pushed aside nowadays. First, the notion of feudalism can be questioned to discuss its relevance as well as to reassess the concept of a “Norman model” of feudalism. Was this the essential factor which contributed to the emergence of a dominant class ? Lordship, as the interface between those who dominated and those who were dominated, is another crucial area of consideration. Who held the land? With what rights? What was the status of those who occupied land ? Can geographical variations in modalities and forms be identified? Papers are encouraged which propose new interpretations of the distinctive, but often controversial, ideas developed by Guy Bois on Normandy, such as questions of serfdom, slavery and the relative level of freedom of the peasantry.

Overlapping issues integrate our various themes. First, the relationship of space and territorialisation of power, enlightened by Florian Mazel’s studies, is a key element in a medieval society which had its distinctive forms. Papers might ask if changes in the later middle ages diminished the link between domination and the land. Secondly, interpreting ‘documentation’ in the widest manner (texts, archaeology, numismatics, iconography, etc.), how do sources reveal and reflect domination? What role did written texts play in the definition of domination. This prompts consideration of discourse as well as of norms, whilst also bearing in mind change over time and the intersection of theory and practice. These themes must also be studied through law and the exercise of justice (canon law, customs, compilations, orders, trials, etc.) since this is the context not only where domination is conceptualised and defined, but also where it is put into execution.

Submission guidelines

The conference will take place in the Centre Culturel International de Cerisy-la-Salle (Manche). Papers should be 30 minutes long and in French. Exceptionally, papers may be given English or Italian on condition that the speaker prepares a handout and/or powerpoint in French. We encourage those speaking in French to provide a short handout giving an outline in English for non-French members of the audience.

Abstracts should be submitted to cerisydominor@gmail.com by June 15th, 2023. Please include : the title of the paper, an abstract of 250-300 words (i.e. 1500-3000 characters including spaces) and a brief biographical note giving details of previous work and publications. The final programme will be announced in October 2023. We invite participants to offer papers based on specific issues or case studies but also to indicate how they consider their work fits within the broader context of domination and within the themes of this conference. We are keen to encourage reflection on the agency of individuals, groups, or communities.

Early career researchers are particularly encouraged to submit proposals. The organizers anticipate being able to offer financial support to doctoral students and post docs not yet in paid employment.


Hugo Fresnel, Université de Caen Normandie, Centre Michel de Boüard – CRAHAM, UMR 6273.

Bastien Michel, Université de Caen Normandie, Centre Michel de Boüard – CRAHAM, UMR 6273.

Advisory committee

  • Pierre Bauduin (Université de Caen Normandie, Centre Michel de Boüard – CRAHAM, UMR 6273) ;
  • Boris Bove (Université de Rouen Normandie, GHRIS, EA 3831) ;
  • Gaël Carré (DRAC de Normandie, SRA) ;
  • Anne Curry (University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities) ;
  • Antoine Destemberg (Université d’Artois, CREHS, UR 4027) ;
  • Laurence Jean-Marie (Université de Caen Normandie, Centre Michel de Boüard – CRAHAM, UMR 6273) ;
  • Frédérique Lachaud (Sorbonne Université, Centre Roland Mousnier, UMR 8596) ;
  • Fabien Paquet (Université de Caen Normandie, Centre Michel de Boüard – CRAHAM, UMR 6273) ;
  • Daniel Power (Swansea University, MEMO) ;
  • Diane Rego (Université de Caen Normandie, Centre Michel de Boüard – CRAHAM, UMR 6273).

Image: Wiki Commons