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

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

8. The Material Culture of the Peasantry in the Late Middle Ages: "Image" and "Reality"

Gerhard Jaritz

Research into the life of medieval peasants may, in many respects, still be placed "at the stage of specialized . . . probing."1 Generalized conclusions can be drawn only for some, often small areas. As at the beginning of the 1980 s, we are still walking on "pathways,"2 looking for "traces"3 of peasant culture and life in the Middle Ages. Although some new results have been achieved during the last decade,4 we are still confronted with a large number of unsolved problems.

In dealing with medieval peasants, and particularly with the material culture and the everyday life of peasants in the Middle Ages, we regularly encounter difficulties in analysis that are not present to the same extent when we investigate the nobility or townspeople. The reasons are clear. The chief problem is the "reality" of the representations of the peasants in the sources. Since one of our aims is to reconstruct the "realities" of the past in the most accurate way, we must consider that our view of matters may be very different from that of medieval people. Sources that emphasize the truth and reality of their contents may show medieval "truth" and medieval "reality," but not necessarily anything that we would understand as "our" truth or reality.

Most aspects of medieval material culture--as we all know--were normally not considered sufficiently important to be written down, or told to other people, or passed on to other generations. This was true especially for those spheres that were part of everyday life. When it did seem worthwhile to record material culture, it was for economic reasons or because what was being described was unusual, special, new, deviant, or subject to criticism. And that holds true even more strongly for the material culture and life of the peasants, who, in many respects or even generally, were not considered worthy of mention by members of the higher social ranks. Moreover, when peasants were the subject of certain treatises, chronicles,

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