Ruth Mazo Karras

title.none: Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages

identifier.other: baj9928.9504.007 95.04.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ruth Mazo Karras, Temple University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Gurevich, Aron. Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Pp. xv + 247. ISBN: ISBN 0226310833.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.04.07

Gurevich, Aron. Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Pp. xv + 247. ISBN: ISBN 0226310833.

Reviewed by:

Ruth Mazo Karras
Temple University

This collection of unrevised articles by a leading Russian medieval historian shares some of the problems—duplication and obsolescence—common to the genre, but it has features that set it above the genre. Many of the articles are not otherwise available in English, and several are translated from Russian. In addition, the volume traces the intellectual development of an important scholar whose access to books and to formal and informal contacts with the academic community was severely limited. As Howlett notes in her Foreword, Gurevich traveled outside the Soviet Union for the first time in 1988. For much of his career he did not hold prestigious positions; as a non-Party member and a Jew, and one who was labeled an "anti-Marxist" for his Annaliste leanings, he found himself relegated to the provinces, away from libraries and colleagues. Nevertheless, this is not a book of which one can say "What is remarkable is not how well he does it, but that he does it at all"; Gurevich is creative and insightful, and does history very well indeed.

The articles in the book fall into three groups: theoretical/methodological articles, pieces dealing with conceptions of the afterlife in the High Middle Ages, and analyses of Old Norse culture. The methodological articles, originally published in 1983 and 1987, are unlikely to tell medievalists anything new about the Annales school (which Gurevich greatly admires) or the approach to cultural history (or historical anthropology) through mentalité. It is of some historiographical interest, however, to see how Gurevich approaches these issues. In "Historical Anthropology and the Science of History," originally presented at a seminar at the USSR Academy of Sciences, Gurevich explains the concept of mentalitéand justifies its use. He is especially concerned to establish the compatibility of the history of mentalities with Marxist history—not necessarily Party Marxism, for he criticizes "the inclination of some of our colleagues to rewrite history time and again, not on the basis of new knowledge but for opportunistic reasons" (10). He argues for the interrelation of the material and the mental and argues that Marxists (not Marx himself) make an error by relegating spiritual life to the superstructure. The people who collectively create economic and social change are human and are influenced by their individual consciousness. The fact that Gurevich was writing in a milieu where such an argument needed to be made is an interesting contrast with the United States, where the history of mentalities had to contend not mainly with those who argued that only material conditions mattered, but with those who argued that ideas themselves mattered much more than the cultural context in which they were embedded.

Gurevich suggests that the historian who wishes to study the mental worlds of the past must be an observer from outside, must ask "those questions which past cultures could not put to themselves" and "elicit new answers which earlier cultures could not have provided." (6) The culture under study must always be other, and too much empathy with that other is dangerous. He thus replaces the positivism of the historian, which he criticizes as "the accumulation of facts" which are "only the most obvious information" (5), with the objectivism of the anthropologist-observer, not acknowledging what contemporary anthropology has come to recognize, that the observer is always an observer-participant. He notes that historians bring their own concerns to the sources, and that this means that "all historical reconstruction can only be a contemporary reconstruction," but does not come to grips with the specific ways in which this is especially true of the history of mentalities; the only actual mind to which the historian has access is her own.

The second article, "Medieval Culture and Mentalite According to the New French Historiography," is a review of the Annales school as seen by a self-conscious outsider. Gurevich discusses the work of Duby, LeGoff, Aries, and Ladurie, and tries to isolate their theoretical assumptions. Despite the practitioners' claims that their work is simply the application of imagination and insight to sources, the underlying assumption that "political events are manifestations of socio-economic processes" (33) is in itself a theoretical framework.

Gurevich critiques Duby for concerning himself mainly with aristocratic ideology, suggesting that concepts like the three orders are linked to the collective consciousness of all levels of society. Citing Jean-Claude Schmitt's Le Saint Levrier (The Holy Greyhound) as an example, he suggests the use of exempla as a source for the beliefs of the silent majority of parishioners. This is indeed a fruitful source, but Gurevich both here and in his other work provides no satisfactory way of distinguishing between those exempla which come from a learned tradition and those which reflect the audience's oral traditions. Such a way is not easy to find, but his methodology would seem to require one.

This problem of distinguishing between learned and popular traditions is posed more concretely in the second section of the book, where several overlapping essays deal with popular narratives of the afterlife. He takes the Visio Thurkilli, a description of a vision of an Essex peasant in 1206, and the Visio Godeschalci, a parallel from Holstein in 1189, as Latin texts which due to pressure from the public came to include "fragments of the popular cultural tradition" (51). There is some internal evidence that the composition of the Vita Thurkilli involved turning a fragmentary oral account into a polished written one. Yet when Gurevich claims that a particular "feature of the treatment of space in VT can more likely be explained by the systematic nature of the Latin author's mind than by the folkloric nature of the work" (57), he gives no justification. It is simply the historian's gut feeling as to what sounds like it comes from a learned tradition and what does not. This is probably the way most of our minds work, but not the methodological rigor for which Gurevich has called in the earlier chapters. The strict attention to the liturgical hours in the narrative "must be more typical of the monk who wrote it than of the peasant in whose mind the church hours could hardly have occupied such a prominent place" (58)— this conjecture, while most likely right, is based on plausibility to the modern historian rather than the juxtaposition and comparison of contemporary texts. Similarly, in the Vita Godeschalci, Gurevich wonders whether the physical layout of the afterlife has its origins in folklore—"the tree with the shoes and the field with the terrible thorns, the stream in which floats the cold weapon and the parting of the three ways" (61)—but the absence of a literary tradition for these phenomena does not mean the presence of an oral one. Gurevich concludes that scholarly and popular traditions existed in symbiosis in the Middle Ages, and that it is hardly possible to disentangle them, a conclusion with which it is difficult to disagree.

Gurevich moves from visions of the afterlife to analyses of Romanesque portals of the Last Judgment to discuss medieval notions of the individual. He takes issue with Aries (and to some extent Chaunu), who argued that the idea of individual responsibility and judgment only developed gradually and that the judgment of the individual on the deathbed (as opposed to the Last Judgment at the end of time) did not appear until the fifteenth century. Gurevich suggests that popular consciousness was much more personal than was official ideology. He uses exempla and visions of the afterlife to illuminate the iconographic sources used by Aries. He suggests that the Middle Ages had a dual concept of judgment; it happened both at the death of the individual and, collectively, at the end of time. Individual responsibility does not represent a late phase of the understanding of sin and judgment, it is present all along. "The concept of human personality, directly responsible for an individual's fate according to his choice of the way to salvation or the road which leads to perdition, was not formed on the eve of the Renaissance; it is inherent in medieval thought" (88).

An analysis of Gislebertus' portal at Autun shows that one work of art can encapsulate both versions of judgment: the dead rising from their graves at the Second Coming are already divided into the elect and the damned. Gurevich dismisses the efforts of art historians to explain the image by saying that the medieval mind did not see a conflict. "This mind is not afraid of paradoxes and is capable of connecting quite contradictory notions and judgments" (95). This essentializing of "the" medieval mind aside, Gurevich is no doubt quite right; the capacity for paradox, to believe two complementary things at the same time, is not by any means limited to the Middle Ages.

The last part of the book is devoted to ethnohistorical analyses of Old Norse literary texts from various genres. Specialists will be familiar with this work, published from 1968 on. To a certain extent all these analyses are dated. Any new historical anthropology of medieval Scandinavia (or more specifically Iceland, from where the texts come) will have to take into account Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland (Oxford, 1985) and especially William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago, 1990). Nevertheless Gurevich has insights to offer.

The first article to focus on Old Norse mentalities, "Saga and History: the `Historical Conception' of Snorri Sturluson," argues that the kings' sagas, including Heimskringla, "belong to a genre which stands halfway between folklore and literature" (103 ). The Scandinavian mentality was mythological and did not have the same social consciousness and categories as did the rest of Europe. This argument is no longer tenable in light of more recent research, for example that of Sverre Bagge (Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, Berkeley 1991). Indeed, the trend of much scholarship has been to see Scandinavian literature and law in a wider European context, heavily influenced by Continental learned traditions, whereas for Gurevich the very fascination of the Scandinavian material is its affinity with indigenous popular culture.

The longest article in the book, "On Heroes, Things, Gods and Laughter in Germanic Poetry," is actually several separate essays. With regard to heroes, Gurevich focuses on two poems of the Poetic Edda: Atlaqvida and Atlamal. He attempts to explain Gunnar's motivation for demanding proof of his brother's death before he will reveal the location of the Niflung treasure. The standard explanation, that Gunnar wants to be certain the secret will die with him, seems illogical to Gurevich, who says that Gunnar has enough confidence in Hogni's bravery that he need not fear his brother would reveal the secret. Similarly, Gudrun's killing of her own sons defies rational explanation. Gurevich suggests that these actions make sense on a deeper level, where con cepts like justice and cruelty are meaningless. The heroes are like gods in the irrelevance of good and evil to them. "Apparently, we can speak about a specific 'eddic' stage of consciousness and about a corresponding form of understanding and interpretation of morality, a form common to the lays of the gods and the heroes" (141). He suggests that the deeper explanation is, in fact, the residue of an archaic sacrificial ritual. Gunnar's demand for his brother's death and his acquiescence in his own, Gudrun's killing of her sons and husband, become the ancient sacrifice of the king. By the time of the composition of the later Atlamal these surviving elements no longer made sense and the poet eliminated them. By seeking a coherent explanation for all these seemingly irrational acts, however, Gurevich may be requiring of the poems and the characters the same sort of logic he denies they exercise. Would the audience of such literature really have expected a rational, coherent set of motives for the characters? Modern audiences outside the academy by and large do not.

Gurevich goes on to discuss the ethical value of objects, especially gold and weapons, in Eddic poetry; he accords them a ritual significance as well, although here as in the discussion of heroes and ritual sacrifice he does not indicate to what extent the audience would actually have been aware of these archaic survivals embedded within the texts. In the last part of the article he argues that the humorous depictions of the gods, for example in Lokasenna, are not signs of disrespect to them; the fact that the gods commit with impunity what for mortals would be perversion and crime is "ipso facto confirmation of the power and the special nature of the gods" (167). Yet if the rules do not matter to the gods, why is it such an insult to accuse them of violations? He discusses the way many religions parody the sacred, and sees Lokasenna in this context. The argument here arises not out of the text itself but a priori: medieval Scandinavia was an archaic culture, therefore it must have had certain characteristics of archaic cultures, like the importance of the comic principle.

Gurevich's analysis of the Icelandic economy of gift exchange in "Wealth and Gift-Bestowal Among the Ancient Scandinavians" has stood the test of time well. He argues here that "wealth primarily fulfilled a social function in that the transfer of possessions contributed to the acquisition and increase of social prestige and respect, and sometimes the handing-over of property could involve greater prestige than its retention and accumulation" (179). He links this economy of exchange to rituals in other cultures, such as the North American potlatch. Miller, in Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, and Jesse Byock, in Medieval Iceland (Berkeley, 1988), have developed some of these ideas, and more could certainly be said on the subject; one might wonder, for example, whether the descriptions in the family sagas of gift exchange reflect actual practice in the Saga Age or whether there were other reasons why later authors envisioned their ancestors' economic practices in that way. The nature of economic relations is also the subject of the last two articles, which focus on law and property, notably the collective nature of odal land. His semantic analysis stresses the connection—symbolic if not practical—between land, freedom, and nobility. Gurevich's work here could usefully illuminate work being done on other parts of Europe on the nature of the relations among land, lordship, and power.

Missing in Gurevich's analysis of medieval mentalities—perhaps because this is a recently developed area of scholarship with which he is not very familiar—is any attention to gender issues. But surely when considering the nature of lordship and ownership, and the relation of the kin group to the land, gender—in particular the role landholding plays in masculine identity—is a relevant issue to consider. Its total absence detracts from the potential richness of his analysis.

This is a quirky, provocative book. Many of its essays are not on the cutting edge of scholarship, but they reveal a consistent and insightful attempt to get at an aspect of the Middle Ages that many scholars have either ignored or despaired of. It is not an introduction to historical anthropology for the beginning student, but anyone with an established interest in the subject will find it stimulating.