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
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
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”.