- Images of the Medieval Peasant
Paul Freedman’s Images of the Medieval Peasant is an intellectual history of medieval peasants based primarily on selected readings from primary sources and older analyses of attitudes toward the peasantry. As such it is a valuable reference work for those seeking an overview of the theological and literary writings on images of the peasantry. Only in the last chapter has the new cultural history informed his interpretation of his texts. Art, which one assumes would be a valuable addition to the analysis of image, is limited to a few pictures and a few references.
The book investigates the ambivalent attitude of the medieval elite toward the peasants. On the one hand, it was the serfs and peasants who provided the clergy and the nobility with their daily bread. On the other hand, those who profited from this labor felt superior to those who labored. The literate and privileged were quite willing to debase and denigrate the majority of Europe’s population (about 90 percent), who fed them. Freedman provides a useful catalogue of the arguments on both sides—the positive image of the peasant and the negative, debasing image.
In part one, Freedman revives the discussion that Georges Duby popularized in the Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined (1980). Medieval thinkers, mostly clerical, saw their society divided into those who prayed, those who fought, and those who labored with their hands. Presumably all three of these social classes had dignity and were interrelated tightly with each other in promoting the greater glory of God. But the mutuality of this social arrangement did not translate well into practice. The peasants were mistreated and often despised. While some writers lamented the position of the peasantry or saw virtue in their honest labor, peasant inferiority was always part of the dominant discourse of the literate.
Nagging problems about Genesis and the creation story had to be resolved in light of the suggestion in the Bible that, since Adam and Eve were the progenitors of all humans and they worked with their hands, then peasants must be socially equal to the nobility. By fourteenth-century England this simple lesson found its place in the couplet: “When Adam delved and Eve span/Where then were all the gentlemen?” A version of this reasoning existed all over Europe. A graceful theological way had to be found to justify the lower status of peasants and this was the Noah story. Ham, coming across his father naked and inebriated in the vineyard is cursed by Noah, who also visits the curse on his son Canaan. The serfs, then, were the descendents of Ham and his family. By extension, Ham was perceived as black and the founder of the African population. American thinkers justifying slavery revisited these old arguments and justifications for the subjugation of blacks.
Part three looks at the unfavorable image of the peasants that appears in European literature. Peasants form a large part in the parody and satire of medieval Europe from the fabliaux to plays. They also play a similar role in art, but this is not discussed in this section. The contempt with which the peasants were regarded became a reason to subjugate and mistreat them. But curiously, while the [End Page 456] men are regarded as ignorant bumpkins, peasant girls are occasionally allowed to dominate the repartee with knights who attempt to seduce or rape them. The French pastourelles offer examples of this type of exchange. But peasant women were more often raped in these stories than they were able to escape.
Peasants did, however, assert their liberty and did so as warriors despite the presumed prohibition of peasants bearing arms. Freedman uses the examples of Andorra, Switzerland, and Dithmarchen in the Netherlands to show successful struggle for freedom. Individual attacks on lords and even assassinations, Freedman argues, were regarded as acceptable. I suspect that, if he had considered Rodney Hilton’s studies of peasant rebellion in England more seriously, he would not have been so sanguine about...