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23.11.01 Quirós Castillo (ed.), Archaeology and History of Peasantries 2

23.11.01 Quirós Castillo (ed.), Archaeology and History of Peasantries 2

The role of the peasantry in human history can hardly be overestimated. From the European Bronze Age to contemporary Asia, beyond and before, peasants--understood, for lack of a generally agreed definition, as people who work the land and enjoy its products--have perhaps been the single most consistent feature of our globally shared historical development. It goes without saying that the study of the peasantry therefore constitutes an essential element of historical research and, by extension, the world we live in. Yet, peasant studies have not always been given centre stage in our academic endeavours, having experienced, like other study areas, highs and lows in modern scholarship. Moreover, some historical periods and geographies have attracted a vastly larger share of scholarly interest into the peasantry than others: within the study of European history, the Middle Ages have traditionally received a lion’s share, while the preceding Roman period has suffered from comparative neglect. Recent revivals of peasant cultures in locales in which the peasantry had disappeared, combined with the growing realisation that the future of the globe depends on the kind of sustainable living characteristic of the peasantry, underlines the significance of academic engagement with the phenomenon, past and present.

It is these multiple junctures that frame the volume under review: Archaeology and History of Peasantries 2, edited by Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, is produced within the remit of the research project “Peasantry Agency and Sociopolitical Complexity in North-western Iberia in Medieval Ages”; its broad goal is “to explore the new theoretical and methodological approaches that characterize historical and archaeological studies of pre-industrial peasantries” (19). The volume joins another, also edited by Quirós Castillo, concerned with the analysis of the material record in relation to “the socio-political dimensions of peasant societies, the agency of the peasantry, the agrarian landscapes and the peasant economies” (24). These volumes are published in a sub-series of the Documentos de Arqueología Medieval, launched in 2009 under the auspices of the Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, also overseen by Quirós Castillo; they arise moreover from a number of interrelated projects, funded by the Spanish government, within a wider national research initiative--in turn explaining the focus on the territory of modern Spain in the volume under review.

Following a preface (19-20) and an introduction (chapter 1, pp. 21-38), both by Quirós Castillo, the volume’s eleven thematic chapters are presented in three groups: chapters 2-5 on “the theoretical characterization of peasant societies”; chapters 6-8 on “relations between the peasantry and the encompassing societies”; and chapters 9-12 on “the transformations of peasant societies in terms of the longue durée” (25). This neat, threefold structure obscures the thematic and conceptual disparity that characterises the volume and its chapters, the quality of which stretches a wide spectrum.

To begin with, although Quirós Castillo contends that “the papers cover Iberia, but also other European contexts” (25), the “other” is largely missing: the geographical scope remains actually narrow, with only two chapters venturing outside the Iberian peninsula, into three broad zones: chapter 9, by Rosamond Faith, heads to both Britain and France in her exploration of the moral economy of the peasant household in early medieval England and Provence (157-166); and chapter 11, by Eva Svensson, showcases work done primarily in Sweden, in discussing the changing strategies of forest peasants in boreal inland Scandinavia (191-207). A consequence of the volume’s focus on Iberia is the repeated reference to the more recent historical developments regarding the Spanish peasantry, in the context of the enforced suppression and social marginalisation of traditional rural life in the twentieth century under the Franco-regime, creating a complicated relationship with all things rural in Spanish society. Or, as Jesús Izquierdo Martín put it in chapter 3 (59-69) in his attempt to configure the past of the peasantry and its communal orientation as a means to reflect upon and change current, self-centred practices: “The contempt for the ‘peasant’ was so extreme after Franco’s ‘desarrollismo’ and post-dictatorial modernization that the rural was converted into a space of subaltern monstrosity” (60). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the processes that led to the concentrated study of the peasantry in the 1970s elsewhere, epitomised in the creation of The Journal of Peasant Studies in 1973, did not find a match in Hispanic scholarship, as José-Miguel Lana Berasain illustrates through the study of words (such as the Spanish vocabulary of “campesinado,” juxtaposed inter alia with English “peasant”) in chapter 2 (41-57): “El ámbito académico español y de los países de habla hispana, no dejó de participar en este crecimiento del interés por el campesinado” (44). Against this backdrop of the bedevilling of the peasantry in modern Spain, the volume looks in deliberate contradistinction for direction for modernity in the past, and more specifically from peasant cultures. This laudable, non-academic aim is summed up by the editor in chapter 1: “studying peasantry,” observes Quirós Castillo, “is much more than doing an academic exercise, since it has a transformative political dimension today” (24).

Almost inevitably, this orientation focuses attention on the agency of peasants and, conversely, on their adaptability and flexibility, pace Franco. Furthermore, as Julián M. Ortega illustrates in his discussion of the late-medieval peasantry in southern Aragon in chapter 8 (129-153), this foregrounds the diversity of rural strategies, as for instance in the Sierras de Gúdar and Javalambre: “los campesinos [...] desarrollaron estrategias productivas diversificadas” (140). Similarly, the communal pastures in the Cantabrian mountains studied by Margarita Fernández Mier in chapter 12 (209-236) provide the forum for creative adaptation and communal change in the outgoing Middle Ages: “las comunidades [...] son capaces de ser resilientes, adaptándose a las nuevas circunstancias sociopolíticas y desplegando distintas estrategias que les permiten mantener su derecho de aprovechamiento sobre amplias zonas de forma colectiva” (231). Outside the Iberian peninsula, Svensson’s Scandinavian forest peasants, too, excelled in adaptation: when under land pressure, they engaged in resource colonisation in the forests, thus widening their exploitation of natural resources, for instance through the capture of bears and the selling of furs in the first half of the first millennium; in later centuries, the peasants engaged intensively in the use of “outland resources for commodity production” (199), becoming not only wealthy in the process but also dependent on the market, thereby however testing the limits of their identification as peasants. It is not impossible that the double sowing and harvesting seasons documented through archaeobotany for instance at Zornoztegi in northern Spain around the turn of the first millennium, reviewed besides other cases by João Pedro Tereso in chapter 5 (77-92), is equally evidence for ingenious adjustment to changing circumstances, even if this cannot be established from the studied faunal remains. Overall, it is not surprising that in her discussion of examples from medieval Provence and England, Faith is able to explain “the longevity of the peasantry as a social form” through the peasants’ ability to be “economically adaptive” (165).

A point that is repeatedly underlined in the various explorations of peasant agency is its relationship to moments of crisis, or at least challenges: in his comparative exploration of the Valdeorras region in the post-Roman phase and the early Francoist-period respectively in chapter 10 (167-190), Carlos Tejerizo García speaks for instance of “moments of danger in which the agency and the interests of different social groups are activated in different arenas of struggle” (185). What is problematic about this crisis-oriented appreciation of agency is that it inadvertently distances the idea of agency from stable conditions and, hence, ordinary life. This is an issue that has been discussed intensely for instance in slavery studies, where the idea that the agency of the enslaved is only or primarily called upon in the form of resistance or rebellion to slavery, especially under extreme conditions, is no longer tenable, not least because it makes the non-rebels appear unduly barren of agency. Such insights would help to establish a more probing framework for the analysis of peasant agency, too.

More generally, despite the volume’s clear emphasis on the need to link diverse spatial, chronological, and disciplinary niches, there is limited evidence that key themes and issues have actually been thought through in a comparative fashion. There exists even a considerable disconnect between the individual chapters: for example, the idea of a “moral economy,” the topic of Faith’s exposition, features also in other contributions (e.g., 50, 195, 212-213), but without any obvious cross-fertilisation. (Note conversely Faith’s cross-referencing to other chapters in the footnotes on related topics: 160 and 165). Likewise, Faith’s stress on families, women, and children as integral to the peasant household has only a weak echo in the rest of the volume, giving “the peasantry” a somewhat lifeless, monolithic image (the chief exceptions being chapters 7 and 11, also authored by women). But for me, the call to “choral reflection and transversal confrontation” (24--the English is regularly unusual) jars most noticeably with the volume’s reluctance to probe deeper concerning a key dimension of peasant life illustrated in several chapters--namely the peasants’ recurrent dependency on more powerful historical actors: in short, the thorny issue of the nature of peasant life within the complex web of freedom and slavery. The relegation of slavery to the margins of the contributions, as is customary in medieval scholarship, is unfortunate, given that the volume asks specifically after the impact of peasant life on wider historical developments.

Take Esther Pascua Echegaray’s comments in chapter 7 (113-128) on the complex relations between different communities, lay and religious, evidenced in the documentary records of the monastery of San Millán (in La Rioja) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries: noting the documentation of multiple “dependant peasants” (116), the discussion centres on understanding “dependence as a privilege,” because “accessing the monastery’s network of power and influence was not available to everyone” (125). But how does this affect our views on the monastery’s (increasingly?) imposing role, and the individual peasant’s freedom, let alone the freedom of those who were not able to access this network of power and influence? Likewise, Tejerizo García refers inter alia to churches “exercising direct control over the peasant population” (178), avoiding however confrontation with the observed peasant dependency by citing Chris Wickham’s idea of leopard-spots, i.e., the notion that “the peasant mode generally coexisted with areas of aristocratic economic dominance,” leading to “microregional differences that characterized the early middle ages as a whole.” [1] It is of course a commonplace in Medieval Studies to regard forms of dependency outside a framework of slavery, thus to counter-position the period sharply from the preceding, Roman age. But this counter-positioning hinges on an archaic conceptualisation of slavery, one that ignores the many status and dependency levels in slavery, and the richly documented agency of enslaved persons, including in the Roman world. [2] It would have been refreshing to see more searching explorations of the peasantry’s dependencies, not least vis-à-vis the Roman period against which it has been repeatedly pitched in this volume, instead of rushed contextualisations through the prism of medieval difference.

Looking the other way in chronological terms, “From Iron Age egalitarianism to Roman imperial dominion” in northwestern Iberia in chapter 6 (95-112), Inés Sastre and colleagues approach the problem with a similarly stark vision when citing “the absence of a slave system” (106) to question, intriguingly, the idea of an independent provincial peasantry under Roman rule: in the (by them assumed) absence of slaves, the peasants are seen as having been made to work the land of the large estate owners, rattling any notion of their independence. The chapter concludes nonetheless that there is no need “to assume that the peasant communities were in a situation of servitude (unfree),” wondering however whether “they formed part of the local citizenship” (107). Ironically, given that, in Wickham’s view, legal status is not the key determinant for determining somebody’s status--free or unfree, it follows that the lived experiences of different forms of dependencies, by contrast, are the decisive criteria. But to assess such criteria, recourse to outdated meta-narratives about slavery’s development in human history--in the Roman period, yes; in the medieval age, no--is not an analytically productive approach. This is not to say that everyone outside a particular civic community must be deemed enslaved; or that all forms of dependency equate to slavery. But what this volume inadvertently underlines is that it is high time to conceive of “the peasantry” no longer as a monolithic block characterised in opposition to an outdated model of slavery, but precisely as a mosaic of social, economic, and legal statuses, with crucial repercussions for our understanding of the role of individual freedom in human history. Conspicuously in this context, Lana Berasain discusses John Common’s idea of the “bundles of rights” (47, and passim) in the study of property relations, a concept that has been equally seminal in the study of ancient slavery, not least in the work of Moses Finley. [3] Relaxing further the modern approach to the statuses of peasants, within both the free and unfree categories, will complicate the study of this already highly heterogeneous group. But the complexity of defining what is meant by the peasantry is inherent in the topic, as openly acknowledged throughout this volume, such as when Tejerizo García cites Africanist Deborah Bryceson on the fact that peasantries “do not adopt fixed forms” (184); [4] it is not less well illustrated by the differently elastic concepts of peasantry adopted by the volume’s various authors (including, as noted, market-oriented forest “colonists” in chapter 11 11 besides La Rioja’s “dependent peasants” in chapter 7--to cite just two extremes). The fragmentary nature of our evidence, too, encourages a more flexible approach; as Giovanni Levi recalls in chapter 4 (71-76), the documentation is such that firm, categorical interpretations are to be treated with extreme caution (71: “le fonti sono per definizione ingannatrici”), especially when it comes to generalisations from what are ultimately isolated cases: “il problema fondamentale della nostra ricerca è il rapporto fra caso specifico e generalizzazione” (72).

In sum, it is high time to show the same flexibility in our scholarly approaches to the study of the peasantry across the ages as many of the subjects studied in this volume demonstrated: fixed models and preconceptions are more likely to hinder than help our efforts to centre the peasantry more powerfully in our historical imagination, including for the purpose of addressing urgent contemporary issues. As Sastre et al. conclude: “there is certainly still much work to be done” (110).



1. C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages. Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford, 2005), 571.

2. For a recent exploration of examples and contexts from the ancient world, and discussion of several key theoretical issues involved, see K. Vlassopoulos, Historicising Ancient Slavery (Edinburgh, 2021), 189-199.

3. M. I. Finley, “Between Slavery and Freedom”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 6 (1964): 233-249, esp. at 247: “All men […] are bundles of claims, privileges, immunities, liabilities and obligations with respect to others”.

4. D. Bryceson, “Peasant Theories and Smallholder Policies: Past and Present”, in Disappearing Peasantries, eds. D. Bryceson et al. (London, 2000), 1-36, at 3