Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

6. Thunder and Hail over the Carolingian Countryside

Paul Edward Dutton

What farmers thought, how they imagined their world to work, and what strategies they consciously adopted to confront a capricious natural world are matters that rarely surface in the records of the Middle Ages. No writer in the ninth century spent much time pondering the thoughts of those who worked and managed the land, probably because it was assumed that those thoughts were unremarkable. Yet what could be more important for our proper appreciation of an age like the Carolingian, in which the countryside and agricultural concerns dominated, than to acknowledge the centrality and, indeed, intelligibility of popular thought? What most worried the Carolingian farmer before his crops were harvested was the weather and what most pressed him afterward were the claims made upon a portion of that harvest by demanding lords. The common Carolingian dread of destructive thunder- and hailstorms not only tells us something about the nature of the rural economy of the period,1 but also about the way in which people responded to calamity and, on occasion, turned it to their advantage.

One day in 815 or 816, Agobard, the bishop of Lyons, encountered a crowd that was preparing to stone to death three men and a woman who were bound in chains.2 The bishop learned that the people of his diocese believed that ships traveled in clouds from a region called Magonia in order to retrieve the produce that had been cut down by hail and lost in storms. The people explained to Agobard that the four individuals they had cap­\ tured were aerial sailors who had fallen out of one of the cloud-ships.3 After reasoning with the captors, the bishop believed he had finally uncovered the truth behind the story and, with the captors in a state of confusion, the matter was apparently resolved.

Unfortunately, Agobard neglected to tell us what specific and revealing truth he had uncovered. What he did do was write a fascinating tract, "Against the Absurd Belief of the People Concerning Hail and Thunder."4.

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