The catastrophic collision of two dissolving anterior modes of production — primitive and ancient — eventually produced the feudal order which spread throughout mediaeval Europe. That Western feudalism was the specific result of a fusion of Roman and Germanic legacies was already evident to thinkers of the Renaissance, when its genesis was first debated. Modern controversy over the question dates essentially from Montesquieu, who pronounced the origins of feudalism to be Germanic in the Enlightenment. Ever since, the problem of the exact "proportions" of the mixture of Romano-Germanic elements which eventually generated feudalism has aroused the passions of successive nationalist historians. Indeed, the very timbre of the end of Antiquity itself frequently altered according to the patriotism of the chronicler.
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In An Economic Theory of the Feudal System, published in 1976 by Verso in a translation by Lawrence Garner, Witold Kula constructs a model of the Polish economy as it developed from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Introducing the book, Fernand Braudel wrote:
Kula's demonstration proceeds step by step. It analyses the very dynamic of the feudal economy, and its functional possibilities for the seigneurial economy oriented towards the export trade; for the peasant plots which sought to produce a surplus for the local market; for the craft guilds with their difficulties in a relatively unurbanized society. Numerous Polish monographs-studies of production and prices-provide documentation for Kula's hypotheses. His model is then submitted to the test of the "long-term dynamic.” The problem for it is to ascertain “the constant or recurrent phenomena whose cumulative action determined structural transformations.” For each of the parties to the system, nearly always unconsciously, by merely adapting their historical calculations to changing economic or political conjunctures, to their particular situation, to the resistances of the others, eventually falsified the inter-play of the system and altered the model so much that in the end it disintegrated. Thus from 1820 to 1860 the whole system was overthrown in a Poland that remained “feudal,” yet where the landowners had become capitalist entrepreneurs whose behaviour would have been aberrant and impossible in 1780 or so.In the excerpt below, Kula defends the concept of an "economic system" and the theorization therof.
Kula demonstrates the possibility of sudden ruptures in an economic model, once its resilience has been tried too repeatedly by a number of contradictions working in the same direction — contradictions some of which may be internal or inherent to the system itself, and others external and sometimes unpredictable (for example, the halt of European purchases of Polish cereals during the Continental System). His analysis of these is unerringly subtle and logical.
Kula's work is thus an example of a Marxist problematic mastered, assimilated and elevated to the level of a lucid and intelligent humanism, and a broad explanation of the evolution of the collective destiny of men. All the findings of Polish and non-Polish economic and historical research are gathered here in an effort of objective and patient reflection, of unusual intellectual honesty. The subject of this book — in effect, underdevelopment in modern history — is of such great interest that this novel approach to it, at once very general in its analysis of a phenomenon of long duration, and very concrete in its account of the daily economic calculations of peasant, lord, magnate or squire, is an important event for historians.