Seminar LXXII: half of the world for a thousand years in one hour

On 3rd November 2010 the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research heard a paper entitled “Eurasia: society and solidarity 500-1500″. This, you might think, was just a bit ambitious, but as we rapidly learnt the paper had come about because the speaker had been asked to write an 8,000-word chapter for the Cambridge History of the Word covering that territory, and as we already knew, that speaker was Susan Reynolds, and though she professed ignorance and inadequacy throughout I can’t think of many people, if any, who could attempt this even if so asked, and not many more who might be asked. What we got was therefore a kind of first run that enabled all of us to put our areas of interest into a much bigger picture for a while. Summarising what was already a summary (except in as much as Susan probably had more space here than she will have in the chapter) doesn’t seem likely to succeed but I don’t think I can do much more; my notes for this paper run to two sides of narrow-lined longhand even before the questions started, I usually aim for half that, and that shows either how much I didn’t know or how well-packed the time was, I think the latter.

For Professor Reynolds the unifying theme of this huge spread, if there was one, was inequality: all societies of any size in this scope had haves and have-nots and the order in which they were arranged was usually fairly stable as long as not transgressed; polities were seen as natural, and this reinforced hierarchy. Even the poorest societies practised a hierarchy of genealogical structure, in the modern sense, or, as she said, “in my modern sense”. Most governments were monarchical, were expected to be such, and were challenged only by rivals for that status. Over the period these governments tended to have acquired more control of land and increased rights over it more generally. This was the development of the age that Susan thought could be most safely asserted as a generalisation. Land was always the basic source of power, even as professionalisation took hold towards the end of the period, but nowhere did a ruler hold all rights in his territory while, at the other end of the scale, very little property appears originally to have been held in common, as opposed to rights in property, which often were. Rights in property were usually very confused compared to most of our schema, and of course remain so. (Susan used herself as an example: “I’m a tenant of the Duke of Bedford, you know. It’s not feudal. It’s just how it is.”)

Map of the Silk Road

Map of the Silk Road

Production rose and populations expanded over the period, though again not continuously, not least because all areas, more or less, in this span were affected by the Black Death and its subsequent lighter-toned offspring, which travelled along the same routes as goods and ideas both, especially the Silk Road, one of the few things that gave the area Susan had been assigned any unity; although there was some argument afterwards about the importance of sea trade, this was, she argued, less steady and more variable than this long route along which wayside stops became hemisphere-famous cities. In other respects, though, the period was one in which large-scale social change is hard to assert, rather than shifting political configurations; technology and lifestyles were not very far from each other, viewed from outside the period, from 500 to 1500 across the area, especially compared to the advances and developments after this period. (David Ganz asked about before, and Susan agreed that that was probably very similar but that it was, thankfully, outside her remit here.)

Medieval hierarchy depicted; original source sadly unknown

Governments were layered, either hierarchically or from centre to periphery; connections between the two were made either by government officials or religious organisations, most often. Rulers were expected to give justice and take counsel, even eastern ‘despots’, in whom Susan found little reason to believe as the topos is largely based on court flattery writing aimed at the despots themselves whom it also usually urges to take counsel… Nonetheless, some rulers did not stay within the expectations of their societies and those in the most hierarchical organisations were the hardest to quell without terminal violence and upheaval, because their developed status made them invulnerable. Bureaucracy accrued with structure of government, but did not necessarily preserve that structure; it could often persist without the unity that had originally given it cause. Instead, political survival came best through solidarity, the acceptance of an order and development of an identity within it that could then be employed by others outside, if they would accept the existence of such groups. The larger your polity was, of course, the more disparate its member groups and the harder this was to do with any uniformity.

The Mughal Emperor Akbar debating different religions with scholars in his court

The Mughal Emperor Akbar (just slightly out of period) debating different religions with scholars in his court

Religion might lend some more egalitarian ideas, but more often was part of the hierarchy itself; this should not be allowed to shroud the extent to which rulers and religious clashed, which was common in many places. Christianity, among these religions, was unusual in its mobilisation against opponents, among whom cohabitation and mutual influence were more common. Another social glue was law, sometimes, but these often existed without any real influence detectable in the sources (which of course vary massively, another point of subsequent discussion, though less massively than we might suppose, Susan argued). Legislation through consensus achieved in assemblies was however common and sometimes effective, and almost all local government was done this way. Professional law declined in Islam and rose in Christianity over the period; one wonders why both, and will presumably never know.

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria dAmer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria dAmer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

In all areas, the bottom levels of society were roughly similar, and more or less enslaved, though Europe (alone?) had mechanisms of emancipation that could sometimes be called on and social mobility also came, here as elsewhere, from geographical mobility. Towns, contrary to popular wisdom, rarely made free and rarely gave impulse to democratic movements: this should not be taken as axiomatic. Collective action by the populations of towns was quite common, however, even if it did not institutionalise itself very widely. Class conflict also existed everywhere, as could be seen in the number of fairly hopeless revolts for goals we cannot now see clearly, for the most part, but which could probably usually be characterised as ‘justice’ rather than revolution, that is, uprisings were often aimed at a reversion to a status quo and almost never at a new order. Once more, most of the oppressed would accept a hierarchy if it were justly run. This was repeated several times and was clearly the point Susan felt most strongly about; it is certainly worth making before we allow too many generalisations about human nature and the desire to be free in the same sense that we now understand that word (i. e. idealistically).

The historiography available to Professor Reynolds was substantially Eurocentric, it’s worth noting, and this is a characteristic generally, she thought, of work covering this period, which is one set with reference to developments in Europe, developments furthermore that were subsequently exported or adopted overseas in many places, which makes that worse. Another characteristically Reynoldsian aside about words and their varied meanings (and do follow that link if you are fond of such things) in historical writing—which culminated with “serfs!”—drove the point home that the historiography has done the same thing in many cases, exporting European phenomena as terms locals would not have recognised for what they were used to identify.

The apparent steadiness of state that Susan had depicted led to a conversation in questions about what distinguished this period from others. She said that new ideas such as the Rights of Man and the State of Nature do in fact change things permanently; John Sabathapy said that he had felt while she talked that most differences she’d mentioned were surely geographically determined, not philosophically, but she argued that while the differences can and should be explained geographically, the similarities must be explained by ideas. This is logically really quite interesting, or perhaps illogically: it seems to me to imply a neutral space in the middle where something is neither similar nor different. This may not fit the binary well, but Susan is known for arguing that thinking in triads is better than in diads for your history… There is here considerable room for thought and, for those that want to think about it, may make it clear why the regulars at this seminar have such a great affection for Susan; she would say otherwise, I don’t doubt, but she is a very wise person, and few other people could have said anything coherent, still less anything as erudite as this was, about such a wide area and period.

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10 responses to “Seminar LXXII: half of the world for a thousand years in one hour

  1. The most recent read I’ve had about such broad topics is the book of Josep M. Salrach : La fam al món : passat i present. Famine surely was also a recurrent topic in Eurasia 500-1500. In fact, Salrach position is that famine is consistently more a failure of human solidarity than an effect of climate hazards.

  2. Good post as always, and thank you very much for posting the link to the Danny Millum interview. I found that fascinating. It reminds me that one area I haven’t read on is the transition from peoples to nation-state. I really need to work on that next time I read later medieval stuff.

    And I loved what she had to say about popular histories. Most folks aren’t dumb; they’re like me, uneducated. Remove a little of the jargon, brighten up the prose a bit (and for God’s sake leave in the footnotes – why do publishers think people are afraid of them?) and folks will read it.

    The popularity of Heather’s _Fall of the Roman Empire_ (and, unfortunately, Bryan Ward-Perkins) shows this, I think. Of course selling that to a publisher is another story, and I’d think it close to impossible for someone early in his or her career.

    • Footnotes are also a problem because they up printing costs, so risk ruling a book out of the mass-market bracket, I think. On the other hand I also think that this is an excuse that software must surely by now have eroded. And Heather’s Fall is not a small book…

  3. I agree with you re the software/footnote issue. And Reynolds’ calling for shorter books was the one item I disagreed with her on. _A Distant Mirror_ is 700 pages and it’s a big seller; amazingly (just checked) Heather’s outselling it on Amazon. Hope springs eternal. Anyway, IMO, if it’s interesting people will read it regardless of length. And maybe they’ll catch the bug. Happened to me (in my case the culprit was Tolkien).

    • I would not object if books, on average, were shorter, I have to admit. I just have too many of the things to read and not enough time. And it took me three goes to make it all through Lord of the Rings, Maybe you’re just more hardcore than me :-)

  4. Re: footnotes – I am with Curt Emmanuel on this and would add that I want the footnotes at the bottom of the page or at least at the end of the chapter – having to mark your place then go to the back of the book to read the footnote drives me nuts

    On length – if the material is well written then I am happy if the book is long because I want to keep on enjoying it. Consider too that the popular fictionalized history books are often fairly long yet still sell.

    Loved the Reynolds interview and thank you for linking to it. I would add that we need to think about who we study/teach history for – if it is just for academics then use all the jargon and be as dull as you want but understand that the consequence will be that 1) historians will quickly become irrelevant and first in line when budgets get slashed and 2) that the rest of us will read Bernard Cornwall et.al. to find out about the past.

    • Cecelia, you’ve just decided my next post for me. It’ll be something of a rant. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I opened the book I’m now reading and was going to append it at the bottom of my (expected – no promises) review but I think the topic deserves its own comments.

      • Well, footnotes versus endnotes is an age-old battle. The publishers prefer endnotes because fewer type sizes to set up per page, the readers prefer footnotes because of accessibility. On the other hand, author-date footnotes hardly have any advantage: one volume I’m currently reading, an exhibition catalogue with translations of its articles, has three bookmarks in, one for the (endnoted per article) Castilian, one for the (endnoted per article) English and one for the bibliography so I can see what the notes actually refer to. This being a large volume on gloss paper, it is not easy to handle…

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