March 12, 2004

Author Speaks About Medieval Civil Society

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Yesterday, Director Richard Landes of the Boston University Center of Millennial Studies and author of “The Peace of God: Social Violence and Religious Response in France around the Year 1000” among other books, spoke to listeners in Kaufmann Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall on his theory concerning how and when the Western world became modern. Landes’ lecture was titled “When Adam Delved and Eve Span: Demotic Christianity and the Economic Expansion of Europe, 11th to 13th Centuries.”

Landes presented a picture of 11th century medieval society where a substantial cultural change allowed “civil society” to emerge out of a “prime-divider society” and paved the way for the emergence of modern society.

“I would like to say that starting in the 11th century, you start to see the bottom up dynamics that characterize modern society,” Landes said.

In prime-divider societies only one class can gain and it can only do so at the full expense of another class.

“The elite uses its power to institutionalize its dominance,” and the working class is stigmatized in prime-divider societies, Landes said.

According to Landes, in these societies there is a fear among the elites that if they do not dominate others, they themselves will be dominated.

“If I don’t rule over you, you will rule over me,” Landes said.

To illustrate the hegemony the elites employ upon subordinates in prime-divider societies, Landes used an image of dozens of crabs stuck in a wire basket — as soon as one of them nears the lip of the basket, the rest pull it back down.

“When one of their own begins to succeed, he threatens their world,” Landes said.

With the emergence of civil society in the 11th century, the prime-divider society gained some competition. Civil society focuses on equality, although Landes was quick to point out that each society contains aspects of the other.

“All societies, all peoples, engage in zero sum and positive sum behavior,” Landes said.

“Positive sum behavior” was defined by Landes as goodwill toward neighbors, trustworthiness, and a perception of manual labor as dignified.

Civil society was allowed to emerge in some regions of the Western world because of what Landes calls “demotic [or popular] religiosity,” which allowed for equality before the law, dignity of manual labor, access to religious texts and iconoclasm.

According to Landes, different translations of the Bible led to peasant revolts in some communities and promoted social equality and peace in others. Also Landes said that class harmony occurred particularly when the “Adam and Eve” were portrayed as manual laborers.

“My argument is not that the text causes change but rather the way people read the text [causes change],” Landes said.

Ithaca High School sophomores Nathan Frank and Robert Golkaowski said that they had trouble grasping Landes’ theory, but absorbed as much as they could.

“Some of the stuff he said I disagreed with and how they interpreted the Bible,” Golkaowski said. “How did it cause a revolt?”

Frank admitted that there was an incentive to be had for attending Landes’ lecture. “We came for the extra credit because we have a hard global [studies] teacher,” he said.

Saadia Eisenberg, graduate student in medieval European history at the University of Michigan, who has read Landes’ Peace of God found the lecture “thought provoking [and] insightful” but added, “I would say it’s for specialists, upper-level undergraduates, familiar with the Middle Ages.”

Archived article by Clark Merrefield