Alan Macfarlane

[Published in Rural History (1994), 5, 1, 103-8]

Aaron Gurevich, Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages (Polity Press, Oxford, 1992), ISBN 0 7456 0696 2, ed. Jana Howlett, xiii + 247 pp. (price unknown)

      In order to appreciate this book, we need to know something of the author's background. Aaron Gurevich is currently Professor at the Institute of General History, Russian (formerly USSR) Academy of Sciences. The helpful introduction by Jana Howlett, who has also translated the essays into lucid and pleasant prose, gives a glimpse into the difficulties of a historian working in the Soviet Union during the years since the Second World War. A brief footnote on p.210 which states that "Bloch's Feudal Society has so far been considered too controversial for publication in the USSR" epitomizes the difficulty. As Howlett writes, "Western historians of the Middle Ages cannot imagine the obstacles facing a Soviet scholar working in their discipline". (p.ix) Gurevich was twice thrown out of his job for "ideological reasons" and branded as an 'Anti-Marxist'. The fact that he is a Jew and not a member of the Communist party did not help.

    The background is important in several ways. The disadvantage is a certain cramping of the scope of the secondary literature and field of ideas to which Gurevich refers. Many of the themes he explores have been studied widely in recent years and quite often we get the impression of wheels being re-invented. While the French historical works of the Annales school are fully cited, those written by English and American academics are hardly referred to. Some of this will be alluded to below.

   The narrowness of reference is even more marked in relation to anthropology. A book which forcefully argues the case for the application of anthropological approaches in history might have been expected to cite a wide range of anthropological literature, in the tradition of the well-known overviews by Keith Thomas, Peter Burke, David Gaunt and others. In fact, only six anthropological works are mentioned, in passing. For a book that deals with anthropological topics such as time, space, commodity fetichization, gift-giving, oral literature, myth, kinship, it is a pity that a little more use could not have been made of the extensive comparative insights of anthropologists.

   On the other hand there are advantages in being for long at an angle to the main lines of European historical research. Firstly, it leads to the ability to see the strengths but also the weaknesses of the Annales school. While admiring its goals, Gurevich puts forward a number of convincing objections to the anti-theoretical stance of some of its recent members and a number of the detailed findings, particularly of Aries, Chaunu and Duby.

    Secondly, it is tempting to see a deeper influence from his background. Long trapped within a totalitarian ideology where politics, economics, society and thought were prevented from splitting apart, as they have done in 'open' societies, it may have been easier for Gurevich to imagine a past world where the separation into institutional spheres had also not occurred. Thus he argues forcefully that we should understand his main period of study, namely western Europe from the seventh to thirteenth centuries, as one where "It is clear that different spheres of ancient thought, ethics, law, poetry and myth were not yet completely differentiated and isolated from each other." (p.197)

This was a world where man and nature, spiritual and material, the community and the individual, were linked together in ways which we in the West now find difficult to imagine. Thus "...the replacement of epic reality by a new type of rationale and the disentanglement of the individual from the thick network of the magic influence of people and things are signs of one and the same change...the transition from myth to 'novel'." (pp.159-160) Gurevich may not be totally right, but it is refreshing to find the assertion of an undivided world related to the 'holistic' approach of  anthropology.

   Thirdly, his political predicament makes him especially sensitive to the role of comedy and ritual inversion. Some of the most interesting parts of the book apply the earlier theories of Bakhtin to the area of parody and humour in the early middle ages. Thus Gurevich suggests that  while the "Church began to fear laughter in more modern times, such as the age of the Enlightenment..." (p.169), such an opposition between play and work, between humour and seriousness, may be modern. He writes that much of the apparently irreverent contents of early sagas was "a play on the holy, but play in archaic and ancient cultures was a highly serious matter and directly linked to the world-view...much in common with Bakhtin's of carnival culture...In fact, carnival, buffoonery and parody of the holy do not deny a serious view of the world..." (p.169) Anthropologists, of course, have long argued that such 'play' and ritual inversion often strengthens secure total systems by providing channelled relief and a re-assertion of values. Here again there is a vast anthropological literature from Van Gennep, through Turner and Gluckman, to modern applications of Bakhtin, for instance in Mumford's Himalayan Dialogue. Drawing on this material would have deepened an interesting insight.

    What, then, does Gurevich mean by 'historical anthropology' and what benefits does he expect it to provide so that he can prophecy that "I believe that the discipline of history in the coming century will be oriented primarily towards anthropology and culture" (p.20). His major theme is an argument against the sin of taking one's own culture and projecting it backwards, tempero-centricism, the historical equivalent to the cardinal sin of anthropology, ethno-centricism. Again and again he warns against the danger of modernizing the past, projecting our own values onto what is ultimately a "foreign country", a world that existed from the fall of Rome to about the fifteenth century in a part of western Europe. He writes that "One of the principles of historical analysis is that each period and civilization must be judged by its own standards, and we must not apply our own values or inappropriate criteria to other ages." (p.177) He stresses that an anthropological understanding of ritual would  "...help overcome the strong tendency in Germanic studies to modernize the behaviour of the heroes of epic poetry." (p.147) He warns that "All the terms used by historians, such as 'property', 'wealth', 'authority', 'state', 'religion', must be applied with due consideration for the specific features of an epoch, society or stage of social development." (p.14) This is summarized in the warning "One of the common mistakes of historical investigation is an unjustified transference of concepts inherent in the historian's mind into the minds of the people of the epoch he studies." (p.200)

    For Gurevich, the central aim of history is the imaginative reconstruction of the past in its own terms. "One of the main tasks of historical anthropology is to reconstruct images of the world which are representative of different epochs and cultural traditions. This requires the reconstruction of the subjective reality..." (p.4) or again, he writes that "What is most important...is that historical anthropology should be geared to the reconstruction of a world picture specific to different civilizations and socio-cultural communities by means of relatively objective and verifiable methods." (pp.6-7) The ultimate aim is "to penetrate the secrets of the consciousness of people in epochs far distant from our own and to explain the particularities of their world-view..." (p.44). We would all, presumably, agree. But how are we to achieve this? This was the central problem of R.G.Collingwood in his various celebrated works. Collingwood's speculations, though finally somewhat mystical, are more sophisticated than those of Gurevich, who only touches on a few of the remedies.

    One of these is to use the method of comparison and contrast. By this he tends to mean contrasting the present with the past and comparing different geographical and temporal eras in the past. For instance he suggests a three-way procedure, "...seeing in the paganism of the Germanic peoples and in the Christianity of the Middle Ages not only two different spiritual worlds but also the opposition of both of them to the culture of modern times." The distinction between comparison and contrast is further elaborated in the next sentence. "On this level the world models of Iceland and Latin Europe can be contrasted as two highly specific realizations of the single type of world-view and opposed to the world model of modern times". (p.175; italics in the original) This method gets us some way. But we are still left with considerable problems. Gurevich does not do what some have attempted, which is to take descriptions of a variety of social systems in other agrarian civilizations as possible alternative models which may help us to see what is unique and what special about the period under study. This is a method fraught with danger, but it is one which attempts to overcome the difficulty of trying to understand cosmologies and social systems in the past which have no resemblance to what we have experienced in modern western society. 

    Another suggested methodological approach is to use a wider range of sources. In particular, Gurevich has drawn our attention to two types of evidence upon which nearly all of the empirical part of the book is based. One is the well-known saga literature, and the other is less used, namely medieval visions of the after life. His treatment of the former in a number of chapters is illuminating and enjoyable, though one ultimately has a sense of slight disappointment after reading a promising account, for instance of the previously unused 'Tale of Therstein Goose-Pimples' and his encounter with the Devil in a communal lavatory. For specialists on Norse literature there may be something of interest here.

    The use of visions of the afterworld is more exciting and he is sensitively aware to the difficulties of using texts which have moved from an oral culture through a scribal phase. This material  does make it possible for Gurevich to begin  to sketch in early medieval attitudes to time, space and notions of the person. One of the most interesting results of this is a complete re-evaluation of the theories of Aries and Chaunu concerning the emergence of notions of the individual soul in the West. Gurevich's findings deserve to be widely known.

     Having outlined the Aries theory that individual salvation was an invention of the early Renaissance, Gurevich looks in detail at a number of visions of the after-life in early art and literature. He concludes that "Aries' conclusion cannot be endorsed. A closer study of the sources shows that the idea of individual judgment taking over the soul of a person immediately after his death was well known even at the beginning of the Middle Ages." He expands this by saying that "...acceptance of individual responsibility for the life you have lived, which Aries takes as a symptom of the disintegration of the medieval world-view and a presage of the Renaissance, was in fact an integral part of that world-view from the very beginning." (p.36) In fact, the idea of the individual soul is an integral feature of Christianity.  "Christianity confers on each individual personal responsibility for his choice of the path of righteousness or sin. This is why the judgment of each soul is axiomatic in vision stories." (p.77)

     If Gurevich is right, as seems probable, it re-enforces the theories, going back to Weber and beyond, and developed recently by Morris, Dumont and others, that there is something intrinsically individualistic in Christianity as a religion which helps to explain the peculiar nature of modern civilization in the west. This individualism is at the level of ideology.

    Gurevich's Russian background may also have helped him to notice another peculiarity of western Europe.  This concerns the absence of real village communities in the early history of the West. He writes that "It should be remembered that, during the greater part of the Middle Ages, European peoples did not have any terms designating village community it its totality....Any idea similar to the Russian 'mir', designating both the universe and a village community, was absent during the epoch under consideration." He describes how "...the community was, at that period, rather a loose formation...a separate farmstead and house were central. People operated from an individual home. This is a fact I wish to emphasize..." (p.203). There is no 'Community' in the full sense meant by Tonnies or others. We have gesellschaft, not gemeinschaft. This fits well with F.W.Maitland's insights into the absence of village communities in England throughout the Anglo-Saxon and later period.

    Having stressed the individualistic and associational nature of early German and Norse society, Gurevich's third analysis of the problem takes him in another direction. He rightly warns us against the dangers of projecting capitalist notions of commodities back into the twelfth century and before, pointing for instance to the symbolic nature of medieval treasure troves and the magical importance of objects. He is here saying in other terms what many anthropologists, such as Polanyi have long argued, namely that we are dealing with an 'embedded' economy. This seems likely.

    He also rightly warns against the danger of applying modern notions of private property to the ancient Germans and Scandinavians and argues that in ancient Scandinavia "Land was not something which could be freely used and transferred - it belonged inalienably to its owners...Odal meant not only 'family estate' but also 'patrimony'...There was no pure economic category of possession..." (p.178) Later he writes that the "idea of land as an instrumental thing, as a purely material object which can be freely dealt with, is not primordial...The interpretation of landed property as a soulless external object is alien to medieval law." (p.203) Early Scandinavia was a society based on family rather than individual ownership. There was a strong restrait lignager, the forbidding of alienation of land without the permission of other members of the kindred. "The hereditary landed estate of a kindred was odal. It was a family property which passed from one generation to another. Its alienation was strongly resisted..." (p.204) This seems plausible and suggests that the Scandinavian situation was much as it was in France in the period documented by Marc Bloch.

     Yet he takes the argument too far in two ways.  Firstly, he suggests that this family property is a residual trace of an earlier agnatic corporate lineage system. These are not the terms he uses, but this is what seems to be meant when he writes: "Study of the Norse sources reveals...some traces of the odals belonging, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, to a wider collective than an individual family. Odal originally developed as the property of a large patriarchal family..." (p.204) No evidence that a "large patriarchal family" had ever existed is given.  Until it is, this can be no more than an assertion. 

   Secondly, Gurevich implies that this family-based system was a universal feature of Western Europe in this period.   The test case is Anglo-Saxon and early medieval England. Over and over again, Maitland argued that there is absolutely no evidence of family ownership in Anglo-Saxon England.  There is a long and brilliant attack on the idea of family ownership in his History of English Law. For instance, Maitland wrote that  "No one word is there to show that a son at birth was deemed to acquire a share of the land that his father held." [1] Against this, Gurevich is only able to argue weakly, without any specific use of either Maitland or more modern historians and anthropologists such Eric John, James Campbell or Jack Goody, that there is a tendency of historians "to take into consideration only laws and kingly title-deeds" and that there has not been much progress since the days of Seebohm, Vinogradov and Maitland". (p.208) His only positive evidence is  that there may be something in Beowulf meaning "a hereditable domain evoking joy". (p.208)

   If, as seems likely, Maitland was right, then Gurevich himself reveals part of the reason for the difference. He writes that in Scandinavia "The Church, striving to acquire peasants' plots, sought to cancel these restrictions and to proclaim the freedom of alienation of ancestral land possession, but its attempts failed." (p.204) As we know from recent scholarship on Anglo-Saxon England, particularly the work of Eric John and Jack Goody, the Church did not fail in England. There is no evidence of the persistence of some kind of agnatic or "patriarchal" joint family group, which held the land as a unit, no trace of restrait lignager. It is indeed odd, but there it is.

    This book never gets very close to solving what is probably an irresolvable problem, how to walk the tightrope between making the past too like the present, and hence losing its otherness and special character, or making it too alike, falling into a sort of historical 'Orientalism'. Yet we can welcome it as a stimulating, clearly argued and learned work which provokes us to thought. We do get the sense of a genuine intellectual trying with sensitivity and scholarship to get outside the prison of our present civilization and to enjoy and understand the past in its own terms. The more who do this, the more we will be protected against that death of historical understanding which was not just an academic worry in Stalinist Russia. It is indeed true that "In an epoch of colossal acceleration in the historical process which threatens to turn contemporary man in a being without roots in the past, a new perception of history is necessary." (p.31)

Alan Macfarlane,

King's College,


     [1] F.Pollock and F.W.Maitland, The History of English Law, (Cambridge, 1968), 2nd edn., ii, pp. 240-260. See also for an attack on ownership by the village community, F.W.Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond (Cambridge, 1921),pp. 346-353.