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.”)
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.)
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.
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.
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.