Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800

By Chris Wickham | Go to book overview
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Peasants and local societies:
case studies

THIS CHAPTER AND the next two look at early medieval society from a different perspective, that of the peasantry. This is not at all easy in our period, or indeed in most periods before the nineteenth century at the earliest, for peasants were seldom literate until very recently, and the huge majority of narrative accounts which discuss them at all were the work of outsiders—clerics, notaries, more recently academics; even modern accounts of peasant experience by peasants themselves are typically the work of members of village elites, or of ex-peasants, distanced from their former traditions by education and urbanization. At best, these accounts are external reconstructions, and they are usually full-blown constructions, inventing peasant experience on ideological grounds, through the lens of moral exemplification, class-based hostility and contempt, or (in the case of ex-peasants) nostalgia.1 This is certainly true for the late Roman and early medieval periods, where hostile constructions dominate accounts of peasantries, where indeed these exist at all.

There are some exceptions to this in our sources. One is some saints' lives, usually external to peasant experience of course, and always highly moralized and exemplified, but also occasionally using as a basis for their narratives assumptions about peasant perceptions and social relationships that are not exclusively negative. A second, on the surface, is law, which, in particular in the Romano-Germanic West, often appears to give us direct evidence about peasant social practices. This type of evidence was traditionally given by far the greatest weight by early medieval historians who were interested in peasants, not only because it gives us more information than most other sources do, but also because medieval social history came out of legal history, thus making it easier for historians to write as if law-codes were accurate accounts of peasant social action. Such assumptions were common into the 1960s. This reading of legislation is, however, naive.2 It cannot be the case that schematic legal texts exactly encapsulated the range of social

1 For hostile and distanced views in the later middle ages, Freedman, Images, is now classic.

2 Cf. Wickham, Land and power, pp. 205–7.


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