Thursday, 15 September 2016

Ignorance and Knowledge of Medieval Peasants

A question that fascinates me is that of how much your average medieval peasant farmer actually understood of the world. Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that what fascinates me is how difficult it is to know the answer to that, or even to understand the bounds of the question itself.

In a post from a while back Tom was arguing that medieval people were predominantly ignorant. He was pointing out that many of them seemed to believe things that were palpably not true and genuinely crazy - like mice being born from the soil itself, or geese growing on trees. It's important to be charitable, of course: it is pretty unfair to say that somebody is "ignorant" about things they couldn't possibly know (like, say, the theory of evolution). But Tom was definitely on to something. For instance, I have recently been reading a book called Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field. In it, as an aside, the author mentions that people in the Middle Ages actually seemed to think that swallows went to live under the sea when they migrated. More than that: they thought it was possible to go fishing for swallows with a net in wintertime. Also, the people in his local area, until fairly recently, used to build fires in the homes using elder twigs, wood and bark - which causes cyanide to metabolise in the body and was responsible for them basically slowly killing themselves.

Which is very odd, because this very book is written by a farmer and portrays a very compelling vision of how intimate a connection a farmer (read: peasant) has with the land he farms. He knows every yard of it, and everything about it - how could he not? He works on it every day, and does very little else. How could you and all your relatives go their whole lives working on a farm every day without realising that animals breed by mating with each other just like humans? Would none of you ever have come across the nest of a mouse? Or watched a goose lay eggs?

And this vision of the ignorant and bewildered peasant is matched pound-for-pound by the image of the peasant as possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of his (albeit small) world. Take a passage from Evelyn's Sylva, or A Discourse on Forest Trees, which I came across today for other reasons - it goes on for ages about all the different things an elm tree can be used for and all its characteristics: how it can be used for chopping blocks, for mills, for ship planks below the water line, for providing relief to cattle in its leaves, for healing wounds and cuts or consolidating fractures, etc. etc. If people in ye olde days could know so much about elm trees, why did they have such odd ideas about mice, swallows and geese? More to the point, if they knew so much about elm trees, why were they slowly poisoning themselves with elders? In Guns, Germs and Steel Jarred Diamond describes how hunter gatherers in New Guinea know in precise detail the effects of all of the plants in their area of forest - what's safe to eat and what isn't; what's the tastiest; when fruits ripen, etc. That chimes with plenty of other things I've read and seen. What's the difference between a hunter gatherer in the jungle and a peasant farmer?

It is extremely difficult to put yourself into the shoes of somebody who, in all likelihood, never strayed farther than a day or so from his home in his entire life and never went to school. Everything you would know would be gleaned from the accumulated wisdom of the people around you, from hearsay and conjecture, and from personal practical experience. The question remains: how much would you actually know - and would you think that swallows went to live under the sea in winter?

33 comments:

  1. "What's the difference between a hunter gatherer in the jungle and a peasant farmer?"

    Just a half-formed thought, but might one crucial difference be that the hunter-gatherer is an allrounder (let's call him a fox!) while the peasant is a specialist (a hedgehog, if you will)?

    That is, the hunter-gatherer has to know lots about the world around him because he does lots of different things: hunting different game, gathering different sorts of plants and fighting other tribes (hunter-gatherers do *a lot* of this, apparently). In contrast, the peasant needs to know about his particular branch of agriculture. He's not a warrior or a scout or a tracker or a priest or a lawmaker or a judge or a medicine man, whereas the hunter-gatherer may be all of these things and more.

    Of course, the peasant's society has specialists to perform all of those roles: knights, reeves, lords, sheriffs, etc. That allows the society to build up surpluses and develop and so forth, but it necessitates everyone specialising a great deal more than in a hunter-gatherer society.

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    1. Yes, there may be something to that.

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  2. One way all of us can test common assumptions about mediaeval ignorance is to ask ourselves this question: "Would I, an educated person of the 21st century, be capable of planning the food and resources supply of a large extended family through a one-year period, with surplus to pay for taxes, replacement household items and farm animals, and for extra income?"

    Obviously, we are not meant to, and most of us didn't prepare for it from early childhood, but looking at how easy we have it, and yet how many decently paid people can't manage their finances on a monthly basis, one starts to appreciate what those backwoods people were accomplishing. Maybe we know one or two things - I used to know a little outdoorsmanship, although I have forgotten most of it - but the whole complex system of cycles, turning earth into fodder, fodder into animal, animal into smoked meat and so on, and breaking it down into daily routines, that's more complex than my job and more complex than my life.

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    1. I don't want to create the impression I think peasants were ignorant. It's more that there seem to be conflicting narratives. They seem to have known a huge amount about certain things. But bizarrely little about others. It seems unfathomable to me, for example, that they wouldn't have known more about animals than they seem to have known. Animals would have been such a fundamental part of their lives.

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  3. Lots of people in every age know lots of things that simply aren't true.

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  4. This is a very interesting question. I, too, find it difficult to understand how people could have been very uninformed on topics that must have been common in their lives. I wonder, though, if this is a case of selective reportage. Was it really the case that all peasants everywhere during the middle ages (which, in itself, is a few centuries) believed the nonsense about swallows? Or was it that one isolated incidence of this was recorded and applied generally?
    I sometimes wonder what people in the future might think about what people of the 21st century believed if they happened to read selective fragments of facebook or twitter posts, for instance.

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  5. This is a very interesting question. I, too, find it difficult to understand how people could have been very uninformed on topics that must have been common in their lives. I wonder, though, if this is a case of selective reportage. Was it really the case that all peasants everywhere during the middle ages (which, in itself, is a few centuries) believed the nonsense about swallows? Or was it that one isolated incidence of this was recorded and applied generally?
    I sometimes wonder what people in the future might think about what people of the 21st century believed if they happened to read selective fragments of facebook or twitter posts, for instance.

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    1. Probably something to do with jet fuel not melting steel beams....

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  6. There is a difference between peasants who were smart and peasants who were not.

    A smart peasant would know that talk of mice coming from the soil is something rich idiots who have never had to work a trade think because they are isolated from it in their towers (ivory or otherwise).

    A dumb peasant would not.

    To a modern person, how to manage finance and debt is one of the most important things towards security and prosperity, but think of how many people are bad at that (though many more are quite adept).

    One peasant might know everything about farming their plot of land. Their neighbour might have dug their outhouse next to their well.

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  7. I think one of the things to consider is that for most of history, there wasn't much reliable information transfer available to people.

    Direct cause and effect (like mouse nests) is something that they'd pretty obviously have knowledge of, but elder twigs slowly killing you or where swallows go when they migrate, that requires inquiry and information beyond what was locally available. Swallows living under the sea is just the kind of rumor that a society with no real information transfer other than word-of-mouth could come up with.

    So yeah, they'd be remarkably well informed about their immediate area, and then their knowledge would rapidly decrease as you moved away from that. They'd know something about the local market town, a lot less about the regional capital, and almost nothing but rumor about goings on in the next kingdom over.

    Further, you have to consider the source of some of the ideas, like "mice being born from the soil". That sounds suspiciously like an ancient Greek philosopher idea. Any farmer would likely scoff, but Herodotus would write that shit down. "Colorful local customs of the Barbaroi".

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    1. Yes, it was Aristotle who popularised spontaneous generation. But it was taken seriously for a very long time. I agree that farmers would scoff - but I think there was a often a "next level of vermin down" aspect: "Yes, *mice* give birth to litters, but what about *woodlice*? Eh?".

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  8. Interesting post. I think I can say some useful things. Sorry for my english, I'm sure I'm going to make some mistakes.

    Well, in the first place it's very, very difficult to know how and what the people in the past thought. There is a entire branch of history (social history) dedicated to that study... And it's results are average at best. I know about it because I'm and historian... Unemployed, but that's not what we are discussing here.

    The incongruity that you talk about may seem bizarre, but it's pretty normal even right now. We all use computers but the percentage of the computer users that really know what they are doing is... limited. The same with a lot of things (hell, we don't even know how our food is made and we eat it every day).

    But I didn't want to talk about that. What I wanted to say it is that the vast majority of knowledge that was transfered by (and for) the common people in the times before public school and governmental education plans was useful in the praxis, but rarely was 'scientifically accurate', and in our modern way of dealing with knowledge, if it isn't scientifically accurate it isn't knowledge. A lot of strange traditions, beliefs and ideas were transfered, yes, but it was the way that people has to deal with things that they couldn't understand because total inability. A lot of times these 'bizarre ideas' housed pieces of knowledge, moral ideas and that things. Realy strange but, in it's own way, usefull. In the other hand some ideas were simply wrong and bizarre, but in defense of our ancestors, follow the migration of geesee it's easy nowadays, but the study of the birds is pretty modern.

    Another very importante idea it's that the knowledge in the past was rarely 'single thought'. What the peasants of one english village ''knew'' about life was pretty diffent that the citizen of one french city ''knew''. There were points in common, of course but, in general therms, a lot of 'everyday life' things were traditional of one single place. The knowledge of that 'trivial matters' (to call it somehow) was roughly centralized. It's a world very different of ours and it's very difficult to even imagine it.

    In the other hand, don't trust everything the academics say about the hunter-gatherers, nomadic people and else. There are a lot of
    mythification in the work of anthropologists that is never rebutted because nobody made the propper study.

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    1. Those are good points - especially when it comes to anthropologists. It's even more true of people studying the hoi polloi hundreds of years ago.

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  9. Another point about all this is that people are highly susceptible to accepting bodies of thought *in their entirety*. You see this all the time: people go along with all the policies of the party they vote for because it's simpler that way; or they want to believe that every aspect of someone they admire is admirable; or they accept absurd religious doctrines along with ones that might be simply useful principles for living.

    Chinese medicine is an excellent modern example: some of it works because it contains chemicals that have a particular effect; some of it is just placebo. But millions - maybe a billion - people believe in it wholesale; and believe that it works *as a system* and in special ways.

    Now, take a body of knowledge that offers detailed ways of explaining the world - "natural philosophy" or "science" - and it's not hard to see how eager medieval minds would accept the hogwash along with the genuine explanations. Spontaneous generation is an advance on "God made it on day six", after all.

    Also, I'm not sure that belief in spontaneous generation precluded belief in procreation by the same species. I suspect a lot of people thought, at one time, that mice arose spontaneously from soil, but that they then reproduced like higher animals.

    There are obvious fantasy analogues here: Morgoth made orcs (by whatever method - I don't think Tolkien ever really decided), but then orcs bred "after the manner of the children of Illuvatar". Or, in Norse myth, dwarfs are spontaneously generated "maggots of Ymir" - but they also are sexually functioning beings (hello, Freya) capable of breeding (see Hreidmar and his sons).

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  10. people can hold multiple sets of beliefs that are incongruous, they might hold bad natural history theory in conversation but still everyone wants their cows to mate with the local prize bull and the community has laws about accidentally letting your cows in the neighbors bull pasture to be impregnated. Religion is full of incongruous ideas.

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  11. "In less enlightened times, we would have thought that your daughter's illness was caused by demonic possession, but now we know that it's the result of a toad or small dwarf living in her stomach." - Theodoric of York, Medieval Doctor.

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  12. When one asks "what did a peasant know?" they are actually asking "what did the peasants know?". They lived in villages where everyone knew everyoe and they often all pulled together and that includied their minds if one man didn't knowsomething there were dozes maybe hundreds of other people he knew and trusted (within tested limits) that could be consulted.

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  13. I find it very hard to believe that peasants would have thought mice were generated from the soil. I encountered a mouse nest, with baby mice, as a child. Surely a peasant would stumble across that, or even a mouse giving birth. Suckling baby mice aren't that different from, say, puppies suckling a bitch, so surely a peasant would realise mice reproduce in the same way.
    On the other hand, there are some things a peasant couldn't possibly know. No idea if this is a real thing or not, but Ars Magica (3rd ed) stated that in the medieval paradigm, people believe that rotting meat spontaneously produces maggots. I can well believe you would think that, because no one is going to see flies laying eggs and know that's what's happening and that's where maggots come from.

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    1. Yeah, I think that has to go into the class of things that it would be unfair to attribute to "ignorance". Unless you had a microscope you couldn't possibly know where maggots actually came from.

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  14. 'Swallows sleep underwater during the winter' was still current in the late eighteenth century, and seems to have been viewed as a possibility even among the educated classes. (It's in Charlotte Smith's poem 'The Swallow', for example, which was written in 1797.) And belief in spontaneous generation lingered on into the 19th century. Without modern scientific techniques, these sorts of beliefs were remarkably difficult to disprove.

    I think the really crucial thing is probably to ruthlessly distinguish between immediate practical knowledge and everything else. Your peasant farmer knows, in incredible detail, about everything that he can see and touch in the world around him - but beyond that? Guesswork. Where do the swallows go when they fly off in the winter? Fuck knows. Somewhere that isn't here. Mice give birth to other mice... but sometimes they seem to just appear from nowhere, the way flies and maggots seem to just breed themselves out of rotten meat. How do they do that? Fuck knows. Maybe they're just born out of the earth.

    What causes diseases? Why do some people die young? Why do the rains come some years and not others? No-one knows. No-one *can* know, because the answer isn't something that you can pick up and feel, like a branch or a handful of grain. (And you don't have the kind of data-collection capacity that you'd need to systematically connect slow death with elder fires - not with so many other things that could be killing people along the way.) Just make up a plausible-sounding story and be done with it.

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    1. The swallows thing strikes me as sheer drivel, though. Anybody who has seen a swallow would surely know they couldn't live underwater? It just seems...well, stupid.

      You're probably right about the rest of it.

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    2. How WOULD they know, though? They didn't understand how gils worked and how some things lived underwater and some things didn't. Some did, some didn't. They didn't understand the science behind it. And even if they figured that birds usually drown in water (except the birds that don't and are usually very well off in water, which muddles the issue further), the actual theory was that they buried themselves in the bottom mud, so maybe that was different than just being in the water?

      Thing is, these people (peasants, particularly) had zero ways to gather knowledge over large areas. To them, some birds simply vanished come winter. Nowhere to be seen. To a person who really has no idea what the rest of the world is like, no real tools to think about the fact that maybe the rest of the world is hotter when it's cold here, and whose whole world is just this small area around them, everything had to be *somewhere*. Since the birds weren't anywhere else, they were somewhere you couldn't see. Like the bottom of the lake.

      Thing is, it might sounds stupid to us now, but these people, uneducated peasants, had literally no way to actually *know* better. We think it's stupid, but that's because we know exactly how birds work and where they go. Until you get some real science in on things, weird beliefs and strange theories are pretty universal.

      Ultimately, this belief probably persisted because, as Joseph says, who really cares? They're some birds you usually don't even use for anything. You don't need much of an explanation for where they go, if you're an utilitarian, down-to-earth peasant who's mostly concerned about staying alive. Maybe they went under the lake, who cares? That explanation is sufficient to answer the question, so it's good enough.

      We need to consider the fact that we're not only talking about people with practically no education at all, but also people whose priorities were VERY different than ours and the people's who actually investigated these things. Stupid explanations are good as long as they're simple and inconsequential.

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  15. All the more reason to snatch up Goblin Punch's free pdf "Book of Mice" and start peppering your campaign with spontaneously generated monsters. Make those beliefs work for ya.

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  16. Couldn't it very well be that some pieces of 'common knowledge' were really more common myth? Stories kept around to easily explain things to children, but that are not actually taken seriously?

    Consider ideas like Babies being brought by The Stork, or Santa coming down the chimney to bring gifts, or that Cupid flies around on Valentine's day, shooting people with arrows that make them fall in love. No adult in the modern world actually believes any of these stories, but they are still used, even sometimes in entertainment made for adults, as a either an artistic device, or a sort of shorthand.

    I personally don't think that people have really changed much over centuries. When we have accounts that peasants "believed that mice came spontaneously out of the ground" I think it is much more likely that said peasant knew exactly where mice come from, but being unable to rid his home from mice exclaimed "They just keep coming! Born right out of the ground!" That peasant called upon a common myth to express an idea, and some historian wrote it down like it was a serious statement.

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  17. This is an interesting post Noisms, and a great question. People like to think of their forefathers as idiots, and it will happen to us as well. Gygax claimed that magic never existed, that wizards are made up, but they did. Today the world of fairy tales and our world are two separate things, but this wasn't always the case. We know that that is true from those who were able to write, or express themselves in some way.

    It was always assumed fact that if you forced a man's killer to approach his victim, that the corpse will begin to bleed. The only way to disprove this was to know, for a fact, that you had the right murderer and test the theory. This had to be done more then once, but this still wasn't good enough because now you have to convince the public that this isn't true, and that is easier said than done.

    The mice from the dirt deal; that one is easy to explain, if conditions are right (or terribly wrong) mice populations spontaneously, and very suddenly reach horrifying numbers. This still happens today, the last case that I know of happened in Australia, it is nightmarish, and it defies logic. Mice so bad that when you open a grain bin millions of them fall out. One has to ask, how is this possible? Yes the people knew that mice gave birth, but when something like this happens, even today it baffles the mind because not even mice can breed this fast. These mice spreed disease, and consume every last speck of food. Science cannot sufficiently explain this happening, but that doesn't stop it from happening. The mice are born of the earth, a punishment by god, witchcraft. We don't like answers like this, but until they can prove why this happens during one season, and not another, you can't disprove these theories. Besides, to a farmer, what does it matter? The fact is everything that he owns has been destroyed by mice from no cause of his own doing. One either excepts defeat and death or they except what has happened and rebuild.

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    1. Good points.

      I don't want to suggest that our forefathers were idiots - they were as intelligent if not more so than us. But that's what makes some of these things so puzzling.

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    2. "Mice so bad that when you open a grain bin millions of them fall out."

      This also happens with tribbles.

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  18. I like people's comments above that the mice-generation and swallows-undersea ideas may have been local and not universally held (not even held in the next village or family), or held as a kind of double-think. But there's also the idea of "Analogia". I took a class on medieval German literature in college. We read an excerpt from a bestiary: "Leo the Lion, although he is King of the Beasts, flops down helplessly on his back when he sees a three-leafed clover" The professor explained that medieval readers of this book wouldn't have read this as a practical guide to the behavior of real lions, but would have read it as a poetic statement of the power of the Holy Trinity, written about as a three-leafed clover, and how the lion (symbol for secular governmental powers? Nature or Reality itself?) is helpless and subservient before the Triune God. Many medieval readers (and listeners to stories) did not care about the everyday realism and logic of stories. They would look into the details of the story for poetically symbolized "deeper truths" of a theological nature. Observation of the scientific phenomena of the world was not as important as the deeper reality and theological truths underneath- these phenomena were analogia or symbols which should be read for theological meaning. Even art- portraits, icons, statues from Late Antiquity onward did not hew to an accurate depiction of outward reality, but instead tried to reveal the spiritual and symbolic truth of their subjects. Karen Armstrong, in her book The Battle for God, posits that books like the Bible and the Quran were written for people who would know to read them poetically, not literally. When the Scientific Revolution trickled slowly down through the population in the wake of the European Renaissance, Fundamentalist movements arose among people who were trying to impose a literalist expectation on the Bible, Torah, etc. which their ancestors would not have. So the swallows and mice might have been allegories, analogia, Christian theological symbols not believed in a literal sense when the peasants were out in the field dealing with animals.

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  19. "Bridgekeeper: What... is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
    King Arthur: What do you mean? An African or European swallow?
    Bridgekeeper: Huh? I... I don't know that.
    Bridgekeeper: Auuuuuuuugh.
    Sir Bedevere: How do know so much about swallows?
    King Arthur: Well, you have to know these things when you're a king, you know."

    Sorry, I couldn't resist.

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  20. If you believed the world was flat with defined edges, and you saw swallows disappear over the ocean horizon where your understanding of the world told you there was no land, what would you think?

    We tend for forget that basing our understanding of the world on authorities is not limited to earlier cultures. Indeed, unless you hopped in a plane and followed migratory swallows to their destination, the only reason you know they are flying to another land is because someone told you so: a parent, a teacher, a book, or the television, mostly likely.

    Almost everything we know, we know because it was taught to us, not because we have personally observed it. We just think our authorities are smarter than their authorities.

    It’s not so crazy to burn elder wood, even if you know it has some harmful effects, if the alternative is to die quickly from the cold. Particularly if that is the only contaminant in your life.

    Today, our activities contaminate the air with trace amounts of carbon monoxide and other industrial pollutants, and we live in houses contaminated by the off-gassing of the synthetic fibres in our carpets, couches and clothes, and there are hundreds of other examples of contaminants that we knowingly put into our food and water, or even apply to our bodies. Our bodies don’t have to contend with just one contaminant, but many. So who is smarter?

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