Stephen Henry Rigby

title.none: Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Rigby)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.024 00.03.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephen Henry Rigby, University of Manchester,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Freedman, Paul. Images of the Medieval Peasant. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. Pp. xxi, 459. $65.00. ISBN: 0-804-73372-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.24

Freedman, Paul. Images of the Medieval Peasant. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. Pp. xxi, 459. $65.00. ISBN: 0-804-73372-4.

Reviewed by:

Stephen Henry Rigby
University of Manchester

Paul Freedman is already well-known to historians for his thought-provoking studies of medieval Catalonia. In Images of the Medieval Peasant, he broadens his focus to provide a survey of the intellectual and cultural representations of peasants to be found across medieval Europe. The Introduction sets out the key theme of the book: the tensions generated within medieval thought by the perception of peasants as in some sense alien and yet as neither marginal nor totally 'Other' since, unlike other subordinate or outsider groups such as Jews or lepers, peasants formed the majority of the population, were seen as providing essential services for society and were of Christian status. The rest of the book is divided into five parts. Part I begins with a discussion of medieval views of the peasantry within the wider context of medieval social theory, particularly in relation to the ideals of social hierarchy and reciprocity set out in the theory of the Three Orders. Chapter two then looks at those thinkers who were aware of the fact that the ideal of reciprocity extolled in the theory of the Three Orders was not always realized in practice and who lamented the consequent sufferings of the peasants, criticising those kings, nobles and prelates who plundered the poor for their own benefit.

Part II examines the ways in which the subordination of the peasants was justified. Such justifications ranged from the effects of the Fall and the introduction of sin into the world (chapter three), through the continuing influence of the curse of Ham and his descendants by Noah (chapter four), to the invocation of more recent historical events, as in the case of those French chronicles which explained serfdom as a punishment for the cowardice of those who refused to follow Charlemagne in his campaigns against the Saracens (chapter five). Part III explores negative images of peasants, including their association with dirt and excrement (chapter six) and the representation of peasants as ugly and grotesque (chapter seven). Part IV sets out more positive images of the peasantry, including the peasants' own appropriation of the chivalric linkage of bravery with freedom (chapter eight) alongside more familiar representations of peasants as the embodiments of simple virtue and piety (chapter nine). Part V looks at some of the problems involved in attempts to justify slavery or servitude (chapter ten) before going on to discuss the ways in which peasant rebels, such as those in England in 1381 or in Germany in 1525), could put the existing stock of discourses about the peasantry to their own uses (chapter eleven). Professor Freedman concludes with a discussion of the ways in which historians tend to conceive of the relationship between social reality and its representation. Although his book is largely thematic in structure, his Conclusion stresses the long-term chronological development whereby the positive and negative images of peasants which could coexist within particular works up to the early fourteenth century became more polarised in the later medieval period.

Works such as Henrik Specht's Poetry and Iconography of the Peasant (1983) have already made us aware of the variety of ways in which peasants were portrayed in the culture of the middle ages. Freedman's book, however, is on a more massive scale, drawing on the history, art, thought and literature of much of Europe (including not only Spain, France, Germany and England but also many other countries and regions) and including an examination of the ways in which medieval people made use of their patristic and ancient heritage. It is encyclopedic in its intellectual, chronological and geographical scope and manages to combine deep learning and intelligent judgements with intellectual provocation and scholarly originality.

If bad books exist to be corrected, good books are there to be disagreed with, so it is inevitable that, in a work of this scope, readers will find much with which they can profitably take issue. For instance, Freedman emphasizes the way in which medieval thought about the peasantry did not form some coherent, over-arching system but included its own internal inconsistencies, contradictions and tensions, fissures which meant that such thought could be opened up and put to uses very different uses from those for which they were originally intended. Certainly, whilst the influence of Althusserian social theory probably makes it worthwhile to remind us that human beings are not the passive puppets of some monolithic dominant ideology, the uses to which subversive social movements have been able to adopt ideas from the dominant culture of their day has been familiar in social theory since the days of Mannheim and in history since the work of Owst.

Nevertheless, whilst this point is, in itself, unexceptionable, the specific tensions which Freedman identifies within medieval thought about the peasantry sometimes seem to be in the eye of the reader. At times, Freedman does convincingly identify such inconsistencies within medieval thought, most notably in those works which saw Christ's sacrifice as bringing humanity a literal liberation from social servitude not just a spiritual release from the slavery of sin (e.g. p. 102). At other times, such inconsistencies are not so apparent. For instance, Freedman takes issue with Duby's claims that even those clerical writers, such as Stephen of Fougeres, who seem to sympathize with the exploited were really seeking to "consolidate the class barrier". As a counter-example, he offers Stephen Langton's attacks on the rich and powerful who drink the blood and grind the faces of the poor: unlike Fougeres, Langton "issues no accompanying instructions to the poor to bear their lot patiently" (except by implication). (44- 50) Yet here, as elsewhere in his discussion of other medieval thinkers, Freedman seems almost to treat Langton as though the latter was an empirical social theorist seeking a logically consistent theory rather than a moral teacher, a teacher who seems to have been addressing an imagined audience of nobles and prelates and who thus had no need, in this context, to remind the poor of their need for patience. As Freedman himself says, for Langton, "oppressive conduct will come back to haunt the wealthy in the world to come" when the poor get their reward. (49) At such points, it is not always clear what the internal tensions or inconsistencies within medieval thought about life in this world are supposed to be, at least when one takes the purpose, context and audience of a work into account. Similarly, Freedman sees a tension or moral problem between the negative depictions of peasants "as excluded from human society" and the belief that, nevertheless, the peasant's labours were necessary for the survival of society, a tension which had then to be resolved by presenting the peasant's negative qualities as a sign of a natural lowliness which made him suitable for a life of labour and discipline. (155-6) But did this tension exist within medieval ideas per se or do they lie in our own perceptions of such ideas, as when a fourteenth- century Italian poem justifying serfdom appears to our modern sensibilities "as a cruel and inappropriately merry account of seigneurial exploitation"? (147)

At times, Freedman himself seems to see this problem. Thus he claims, on the one hand, that "the moral and religious dubiousness of the existing order was not altogether lost on the upper echelons" of medieval society (258) and that explaining slavery, and particularly serfdom, amongst Western Christians was 'tricky' within the terms of Christian theology (239) whilst, on the other hand, contends that serfdom was "less clear-cut than slavery as a violation of a fundamental natural order" and that those defending the existing order could argue "that serfdom was no more a unique form of bondage than anything else in a society built around mutual obligations". (83) Perhaps rather than internal 'tensions', a better metaphor might be the 'elasticity' of the conceptions which medieval people used to describe society. These conceptions tended to be twisted and shaped according to the external social interests of those who invoked them rather than the internal inconsistencies of the texts. Indeed, ideas were so malleable that even the curse of Ham, the classic justification of serfdom, could also be employed to attack the idea of hereditary servitude. (102) As Christopher Hill famously put it, "The Bible is a large book in which men find different things in different ages in different circumstances."

A further point of criticism might be Freedman's attempted conceptualisation of the link between social reality and its textual or discursive representation. For Freedman, discourses about peasants undoubtedly did "reflect the material conditions of medieval society" but we also need to understand the 'complex mediators' between reality and its representation. However, in the case of the peasantry, these mediators turn out to be "notions of labour, human dignity and mutuality" (5), which seems to imply that the supposed mediators between reality and social discourses are themselves social discourses, which leaves the issue of 'mediation' rather hanging in the air. Freedman returns to this issue in his Conclusion where he distinguishes a strong interpretation of the "productive quality of discourse" and language in which the text is the only reality "with no world 'out there' to which it pertains" and a weak interpretation, one which he himself prefers, in which "texts do have some influence on social reality" (295): apart from the most vulgar of vulgar Marxists it would be difficult to imagine any historian of the last hundred years who would disagree with him.

Nevertheless, if this general formulation is likely to win general acceptance, Freedman's views on the specific ways in which texts about peasants had an influence on social reality are not always entirely clear. After all, in criticising Barrington Moore, Freedman himself argues that peasant revolts "did not require the external stimulus of a new ideology" but could employ existing discourses to justify themselves. (286-7) And since favourable and unfavourable depictions of the peasants 'coexisted' from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries (289) it would seem that the explanation of revolts in specific times or places is to be found in particular political, social and economic conjunctures rather than in the internal tensions or logical contradictions inherent in centuries-old ideas. Again, Freedman's own analysis seems to minimise the explanatory role of the ideas which he has presented to us. Similarly, whilst Freedman provides us with a fascinating description of the way in which particular ideas and images could be used to justify peasant subordination in different times and places, such as the common use of Noah's curse in Germany and its virtual absence in Hungary or Catalonia (106), he offers little evidence that such specific local justifications influenced either the nature of serfdom in particular areas or the forms of opposition to it. Once more, the impact which texts have on social reality seems to be weaker in Freedman's actual analysis than is claimed even in his own 'weak' claims for the productive quality of discourse.

Finally, Freedman's views of the nature of the historical discipline might also provoke some disagreement. In particular, in his discussion of the historical fabrications produced in the middle ages, Freedman claims that the recent "decline of historiographic positivism" has turned our attention to the process of historical invention "and given it the status of a narrative not to be easily separated from 'reliable' history. As the boundaries between literature and history have become permeable, it is easier to view the latter as a rhetorical strategy, a discourse of contingency and manipulation, rather than a science." (107) Yet, in practice, Freedman himself continues to refer to 'legends' and 'myths' produced by medieval people about the past, myths which he (scientifically?) distinguishes from the actual reality of the past. (107, 115) It is hard to see here how Freedman's own historical practice differs from the 'positivism' (in itself, a term which tends to be used to criticise others rather than invoked as a self-description) which he had previously denounced. Certainly, the massive scholarship involved in Freedman's own analysis would seem to imply that history- writing is something more than just a 'discourse of manipulation' unless, that is, the 150 pages of footnotes in which he supplies the evidence to buttress his own case constitute nothing more than a 'rhetorical strategy'. If this were the case, it would be difficult to imagine why Freedman believes that we should give his arguments any greater credence than those of anyone else (Duby, Barrington Moore etc.)--which would seem to undermine the case for writing his book in the first place. As so often, there is a gap here between what a historian has actually achieved in practice and his own conceptualisation of that achievement.

However, these criticisms of Freedman's case are of relatively minor significance and are, in the main, the product of an engagement with the text's own internal tensions rather than of the mounting of new arguments from a position which is external to it. Images of the Medieval Peasant is essential reading for anyone interested in medieval culture and should generate responses and further research from historians of medieval thought and society, not to mention literary scholars and art historians.