Interdisciplinary Conversation VI: the use of medievalists as per Lévi-Strauss

I described a few posts ago the long long path that led to the publication of my recent article “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”; this is a post about something I found on the way. It became clear early on with that piece that the problem with the general understanding of agriculture in the early Middle Ages had become Georges Duby; he didn’t originate a lot of the ideas that he popularised, but his work is now where most people find them and he integrated them into an overall progress narrative that everyone but early medievalists finds very useful, so it’s hard to shake people’s convictions even now that the early Middle Ages must have been the agrarian Dark Ages.1 But of course Duby’s key works were published in the late sixties and early seventies and he lived until 1996, so it became important to be sure he’d not modified his own views since, because of the incessant reprinting of those old works, it would have been possible that no-one much noticed.2

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby. I no longer have any idea where I found this image in 2008, alas, so I hope it’s copyright-free

Now, the short answer is that he didn’t, despite some wavering, but in the course of trying to find that out I came across an issue of a journal with which he’d long been concerned, Études rurales, celebrating his career and including a number of pieces by him, which I therefore knew I had to seek out.3 I think I found this out maybe three separate times, and downloaded all the articles at least twice (finding the second time that I’d already done so years before and forgotten), over the long time it took me to revise the article, but in 2016 I was at last actually reading them, and it was interesting. None of the Duby pieces were in fact new, all being reprints of classic or rare work from long before, but several people were updating his findings or, in some cases, just praising them, and one of the latter was no-one less than Claude Lévi-Strauss. When I set to writing this post I had to wonder if such a meeting of minds was possible anywhere else in this era than Paris; I went through my bibliographies and decided that if Clifford Geertz had written something saying how cool David Herlihy‘s stuff was, or maybe for the UK if Mary Douglas had about—well, who? Richard Southern‘s?—it might be of the same order, but those things didn’t happen, and I couldn’t think of other parallel grand academic personalities of such broad social scope. Anyway, in Paris in 1996 it did happen and Lévi-Strauss wrote a short laudatory piece, the basic point of which is that anthropologists should read lots of medieval history because it’s really good to think with.4

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss, from “Le Structuralisme de Lévi-Strauss”, La-Philo, online here, and far too cool an image not to use even though not really very much what he looked like for most of his long life, it seems

Now, since (as indeed he says and I have often lamented) the general tendency of medievalists is to borrow their theory from anthropologists (and not, as Sean Manning has just been pointing out in comments, usually the currently-active ones), this could be said to be swimming against the tide. Lévi-Strauss explained himself by saying that the vast scope of the Middle Ages, with its diversity of social hierarchy and structures, belief systems and economic foundations, provides the laboratory of alternatives that one never has studying a concrete population who are what they are whether you understand it or not. It offers the counter-factuals which allow you, the anthropologist, to say, well, my study group didn’t have to turn out this way, other things have happened; what makes the difference here? “C’est cette fluidité… qui fait du Moyen Áge un vaste laboratoire où l’ethnologue et l’historien peuvent mettre á l’épreuve leurs hypothèses théoriques.”5 And he gave a few examples from Duby’s work, as the occasion required.

Now, when I read that the first time, my thought was, well, are these accolades that medievalists would want? Is what we provide only a databank against which others can better evaluate the Great Us and Where We Are Now? Is our function to illuminate the present, rather than to make visible the past? But since then, of course, I have raised a small amount of money and hope, indeed, to do so more in order to do exactly the kind of work that le grand prof. was praising here, pointing out that the Middle Ages offer models based in complexity and fluidity that serve better to illuminate quite a lot of modern situations than a constitutional perspective founded in the naturality of the nation-state. So I might be moving towards a qualified presentism as part of our rôle in a way I would once have rejected as unfair to the lives, dilemmas, choices and actions of the people who actually populated the world we study. I think, on reflection, that Lévi-Strauss here managed to bridge the gap I have occasionally pointed out between presentism and the people whose actions and situations did not lead directly to modern Western national constitutions and social structures, by finding a way for, “toutes sortes d’expériences sociales… dont la plupart resteront abortives,” still to inform us.6 Sometimes these old guys were pretty clever, I guess!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28 at pp. 5-10.

2. The two most relevant works here being the much-reprinted (and still in print) Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, transl. Cynthia Postan (London 1968) and Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (Ithaca NY 1974), translations of French works from 1966 and 1973 respectively.

3 Philippe Braunstein (ed.), Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), online here. Duby wavered about some of his conclusions about agriculture in Georges Duby, L’histoire continue (Paris 1991), p. 97, but while he admitted he might be wrong he made no suggestion about what would be more right.

4. Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Remise de l’épée à Georges Duby” in Braunstein, Duby, pp. 21–23, online here.

5. Ibid., p. 22, meaning (for those without French), “It’s this fluidity… that makes the Middle Ages into a laboratory where the ethnologist or historian can put their hypothetical theories to the test.”

6. Ibid., p. 22, meaning, “all sorts of social experiences… of which the greater part would remain abortive”.

8 responses to “Interdisciplinary Conversation VI: the use of medievalists as per Lévi-Strauss

  1. Have I treated you to my conjecture about yer old-fashioned farming in strips? (No doubt thousands have conjectured it before me, but so what?)

    To wit: the problem was a lack of a securable supply of small change. This meant that any imbalance in services supplied by one peasant to another couldn’t be compensated by handing over a farthing or a groat, and expecting it not to be stolen. Hence the rococo nonsense of arable strips, and relocating the strips every year, and whatnot – common pasture, etc, etc.

    I recently looked at an account of the Parliamentary Enclosure of the West Fields of Cambridge (early 19th century). The Commoners were offered a choice: a fenced pasture for themselves to graze in common, or an allotment of land each, also fenced. They voted for the latter, nem con. But by the 19th century their new land was not vulnerable to theft by a local baron, abbot, or bishop, nor indeed a rapacious King, and if the money they made from it, selling fruit and veg or eggs or pork, say, they could pop it in the bank until it was needed.

    I don’t claim that my notion is a complete explanation but it does seem to me to be part of the tale.

    • That is an interesting theory. My own immediate thought when I hear ‘old-fashioned farming in strips’ is Celtic lynchets, but once I’ve dragged myself into the right millennium, I think my problem with this is that, especially in the modern-ish era of wage labour, land is worth so much more than small change that the two things wouldn’t easily balance out. Of course, these aren’t very big bits of land or held for very long, but still, in a era where a day’s labour was worth a few pennies, if one just thinks through to the number of days of labour such a strip would need, and consider that its produce must still produce a profit on that labour and the capital of the seedcorn, it has to be worth quite a lot more than the kind of imbalances that could ever have been settled by plentiful small change, don’t you think?

      • Ah, but it’s compensating for the imbalances of contributions that currency could be used for, not the total contributions.

        Separate point: I know (roughly) how common pasture operated, but how did common meadow work? How was an individual stopped from taking more than his share of the hay? Did it, for example, work like the arable fields, so that each person had a strip or strips from which he, and he alone, could cut hay?

        I take it that everyone with rights of common pasture would need hay to feed his beasts through the winter. Does that mean that Commoners would have rights to hay in proportion to their rights to common grazing?

        In addition to common meadows would there be privately used meadows?

        In general I’m interested in what actually happened in that antique system of agriculture and what changed with the Parliamentary Enclosures. Much that “everyone knows” on these topics seems to me to be a syrupy confection of sentimentality and agitprop.

        • No, I get that, it just seems to me that land would ineluctably be worth much more, even little of it for a year only, than any amount that could be affected by shortage of coin.

          As for common land, this is something about which I know almost nothing, as almost all the evidence is twelfth-century or later. Each arrangement would be slightly different, too; the laws for common land were only standardised in the nineteenth century, and I’m sure even that left exceptions. The one thing I can say with some certainty is yes, there would be privately-used meadows as well as common ones, not least because this was one way lords muscled in on such rights, by getting commoners to take further land off them as dependents. The name I would look for stuff about this under is Christoper Dyer; his sentiments may be more on the Marxist side than you would automatically trust but his work could not be described as ‘syrupy’…

  2. Great point: “Is our function to illuminate the present, rather than to make visible the past?” My take on this is: “Remember Clio” (the greek muse). In the sense that it forces upon his disciples the search for a better definition and application of basic concepts as: ‘time’, ‘knowledge’ and of course, ‘us’.

    • I agree with the first two but I’m not so sure about the third. Time and knowledge can be summative and contain everything, but ‘us’ is a category and so has an implied non-membership (‘them’) along with its membership. I think the more tightly one could define ‘English’ the less happy I would be about fitting into it!

  3. Thanks for the tip about Dyer. By golly he churns it out, doesn’t he?

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