Georges Duby

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Georges Duby (October 7, 1919, Paris - December 3, 1996) was a French historian specializing 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 until his death in 1996.

Born in 1919 to a family of Provençal craftsmen living in Paris, Duby was initially educated in the field of historical geography before moving 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 being 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. Duby was elected to the Académie française in 1987.

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The Impact of the Mâconnais book

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. Duby suggested that this change coincided with a shift in the way people conceived of themselves and their families in the early Middle Ages, moving away from broader notions of kinship towards a more rigid, patrilineal idea of ancestry and primogeniture inheritance. 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 (which more recent research has since shown to be problematic): 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.

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.

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