Article

Peasants

Philip Slavin

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online December 2010 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0068
Peasants

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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Medieval peasantry has been a subject of much scholarly work since the mid-19th century. To a large extent, the pre–World War I scholarship was characterized by two main trends: (1) a “romantic” nationalist approach, reflecting the wider cultural and political tendencies of the period; (2) a careful, sometimes quasi-philological reliance on primary texts, deposited at various archives. As a rule, the students of medieval peasantry avoided scholarly and ideological debates. The interwar period was a crucial phase in the formation of medieval rural history. It was during this period that some of the most influential scholars emerged, whose impact can be felt in the scholarship of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These included Eileen Power (b. 1889–d. 1940), Marc Bloch (b. 1886–d. 1944), and Evgeny Kosminsky (b. 1886–d. 1959). The postwar period witnessed the development of four main schools of peasant studies. First, the Annales school, shaped by Fernand Braudel (b. 1902–d. 1985), which pioneered in the fields of the environmental milieu and the mentalité of medieval peasants. To some extent, the Annales school was the precursor of the contemporary multidisciplinary approach. The main stronghold of the Annales was France. Second, there was the “neo-Malthusian” approach, which was adopted in the United Kingdom by Michael Postan (b. 1898–d. 1981) and in France by George Duby (b. 1919–d. 1996). The neo-Malthusians emphasized the relation between demography and economic growth. Third, the Marxist approach, stressing the importance of class conflict and socioeconomic inequality within the “feudal” society, has developed under the influence of several important left-wing historians, the most influential of whom was Rodney Hilton (b. 1916–d. 2002). The Marxists tended to emphasize the theoretical, rather than the practical, side of the subject. Finally, and to some extent as a response to the Marxist school, the so-called Toronto school of revisionists emerged, led by J. Ambrose Raftis (b. 1922–d. 2008). Raftis and his students of the University of Toronto advocated the strengths within the peasant society, such as “peasant individualism,” relative harmony between various classes, and the rustic involvement in a wider economic life. The Toronto school paid considerable attention to painstaking analysis of archival materials, rather than theory or nontextual (material) evidence. The four schools have had a lasting impact on the contemporary scholarship dealing with rural life and peasant society in preindustrial Europe. In the early 21st century, however, new trends and directions seem to be under way. This new scholarship is strongly interdisciplinary in its approach, using all available evidence, from the written word to DNA sequences on skeletal and animal skin remains. Particular attention is paid to the biological and ecological context in which medieval peasants lived.

Article.  10052 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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