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The Image of the Medieval Peasant as Alien and Exemplary (Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture)by Paul Freedman
Synopses & Reviews
The medieval clergy, aristocracy, and commercial classes tended to regard peasants as objects of contempt and derision. In religious writings, satires, sermons, chronicles, and artistic representations peasants often appeared as dirty, foolish, dishonest, even as subhuman or bestial. Their lowliness was commonly regarded as a natural corollary of the drudgery of their agricultural toil.
Yet, at the same time, the peasantry was not viewed as “other” in the manner of other condemned groups, such as Jews, lepers, Muslims, or the imagined “monstrous races” of the East. Several crucial characteristics of the peasantry rendered it less clearly alien from the elite perspective: peasants were not a minority, their work in the fields nourished all other social orders, and, most important, they were Christians. In other respects, peasants could be regarded as meritorious by virtue of their simple life, productive work, and unjust suffering at the hands of their exploitive social superiors. Their unrewarded sacrifice and piety were also sometimes thought to place them closest to God and more likely to win salvation.
This book examines these conflicting images of peasants from the post-Carolingian period to the German Peasants War. It relates the representation of peasants to debates about how society should be organized (specifically, to how human equality at Creation led to subordination), how slavery and serfdom could be assailed or defended, and how peasants themselves structured and justified their demands.
Though it was argued that peasants were legitimately subjugated by reason of nature or some primordial curse (such as that of Noah against his son Ham), there was also considerable unease about how the exploitation of those who were not completely alien—who were, after all, Christians—could be explained. Laments over peasant suffering as expressed in the literature might have a stylized quality, but this book shows how they were appropriated and shaped by peasants themselves, especially in the large-scale rebellions that characterized the late Middle Ages.
This book examines the conflicting images of peasants from the post-Carolingian period to the German Peasants' War—how they were represented as subhuman yet as close to God; as contemptible yet as exemplary Christians—and how such views formed the basis for social movements.
Examines the conflicting images of peasants from the post-Carolingian period to the German Peasants' War.
“Freedmans command of material drawn from all over Europe is impressive and anyone interested in the medieval or early modern German peasantry will profit greatly from reading this book.”—Central European History
About the Author
Paul Freedman is Professor of History at Yale University and the author, most recently, of Church, Law, and Society in Catalonia, 900-1500.
Table of Contents
Introduction: marginality and centrality of peasants; Part I. Peasant Labor and a Hierarchical Society: 1. Peasant labor and the limits of mutuality; 2. The breakdown of mutuality: laments over the mistreatment of peasants; Part II. The Origins of Inequality: 3. Equality and freedom at creation; 4. The curse of Noah; 5. National myths and the origins of serfdom; Part III. Unfavorable Images of Peasants: 6. Representations of contempt and subjugation; 7. Peasant bodies, male and female; Part IV. Peasant Agency, Peasant Humanity: 8. Peasant warriors and peasant liberties; 9. Pious and exemplary peasants; Part V. The Revolt Against Servitude: 10. The problem of servitude: arbitrary mistreatment, symbolic degradation; 11. Peasant rebellions of the late middle ages; Conclusion: harmony and dissonance.
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