Medieval anthropology

At the International Medieval Congress this past weekend, I had the very unusual experience of being (as far as I am aware) the only representative of my discipline at a conference with over 3000 attendees (although there were plenty of linguists around, and at least some medieval archaeologists). A good time was had by all – well, at least by my wife (an actual medievalist) and myself and our friends. My paper (longer discussion to follow) was very well attended and well received, and initiated some interesting discussions.

My work on numerals is hyper-specialized, to say the least. There are maybe five or eight living anthropologists, worldwide, whose work is centrally about numerals, and perhaps a couple of dozen linguists on top of that. Of course there are people who have written about numerals other than these, but they are not specialists in the topic. But while my core research is hyper-specialized, I think of myself, by contrast, as a polymath. I have graduate-level training in cultural anthropology, history (both ethnohistory and history of science), archaeology, cognitive science, and linguistics. And it makes me very, very happy to have this breadth. So there really aren’t too many situations where I feel extraordinarily out of place in humanities and social science-type conferences, and this one was no exception. If the opportunity arose to present there again, I would jump at the opportunity – despite the fact that by all rights, I don’t really belong there.

On Saturday I attended an excellent roundtable entitled ‘Medievalism across Time and Space’ hosted by my friend Julie Hofmann, which dealt with the definition of the medieval both in scholarly discussions of different time periods and different regions, as well as in how the public perceives and understands ‘the medieval’. Ambitious, no? Also really fascinating stuff. In the middle of this discussion, someone made a comment that made me realize that of all times and places, North American anthropology really excludes ONLY the medieval from its purview. There are dozens of archaeologists trained jointly in anthropology and classics departments, and/or who teach interdisciplinarily in both fields. Hundreds of classical archaeology students every year get their archaeological training primarily in anthropology departments. Similarly, there are hundreds of early modernists in anthropology: people who focus on Spanish colonialism in the New World, for instance, or world-systems theorists, or people interested in Atlantic World / diasporic studies. But the medieval is almost entirely out of our grasp.

This is an odd gap, to say the least, for a discipline that purports to be a holistic comparative study of human behaviour. At the panel it was noted that in many small (and not-so-small) history departments, medievalists get the honour (???) of teaching Western civilization courses that start with Sumer (anthropological archaeology has numerous specialists) and end with the twentieth century (which the vast majority of cultural anthropologists have expertise in). And it’s not at all that I think that somehow this means I, or any other anthropologist, would do a better job than a medievalist would of teaching such a course, nor that I would want to do so. But if I were going to construct a ‘world survey’ anthropology course, it would be very challenging to come up with relevant material written by anthropologists or anthropologically-trained archaeologists that focuses on the millennium of history in which medievalists specialize. But I can’t think of any valid conceptual or methodological reason to exclude the medieval from the anthropological.

But it also occurs to me that, despite it not being a formal part of my training, I do have a lot of experiences, skills, and knowledge pertinent to medieval studies. I have two years of Latin. My wife is a medievalist and through osmosis, I know almost as much about her area of specialty as she does about mine. The first paper I ever wrote in grad school was on the historical ecology of the early Icelandic state, and I even once thought seriously about looking at the post-Roman archaeological record in Britain from the perspective of postcolonialism as my dissertation (little known secret, until now!). About 10% of my book (at least) deals with medieval Europe and the Middle East, and if you count the rest of Asia in there, more than that. And of course, I spout off about the late medieval transition from Roman to Western numerals at virtually any possible occasion, because so many people think they know why it happened, and are so very, very wrong.

One of the central ideas tossed around in the roundtable was that ‘the medieval’ is a nebulous object, subject to both scholarly and popular imposed definitions that satisfy no one. It was noted by many that ‘medieval India’, ‘medieval Japan’, ‘medieval Islam’, etc. all refer to very different social configurations and chronological periods, and I chimed in that of course if there were a chronological definition then one really needed to include New World societies as well – recognizing fully that no one is happy with such a definition in any case.

So in my copious (ha!) spare time over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to put together a working bibliography of ‘medieval anthropology’: scholarly publications in social/cultural, linguistic, or archaeological anthropology that have as one of their central objects the Old World between roughly 500-1500 CE. Because I do know they’re out there, at least in limited quantities, and it seems like a real gap. The only things I want to exclude are a) physical anthropology; b) medieval archaeology as written by non-anthropological archaeologists, i.e. almost anyone trained in Europe.

So how about it: any anthropologists in the audience know of any material I should be including?

Edit (2010/01/31): I have now created this bibliography which can be found here.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

11 thoughts on “Medieval anthropology”

  1. Check John Moreland, from Sheffield…. He’s fairly anthropological, I think you’ll find, and I know he’s done at least some medieval work :)

    Mind you I don’t think you’ll like what *kind* of anthropology he does… >:D

    1. Thanks. I do know his work, actually; I’ve used his work in classes (Moreland 2006). I guess I don’t know how anthropological he is by training, but that article was in the Annual Reviews so it certainly counts.

      Moreland, J. 2006. Archaeology and Texts: Subservience or Enlightenment. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 135-51.

  2. I wonder how much of this is down to the fact that so many of us medievalists are influenced by, or at least informed by, the Annales school, and the idea that we need to cast our nets wide when looking for evidence and constructing our arguments. I’ve never had formal archaeological training, but I’ve had to become somewhat conversant with basic language and archaeological approaches — for example, the changing theories about Romano-Barbarian burial practices and grave goods — as well as much that has drifted in from cultural anthropology and some of the other social sciences, as much as I have to be aware of the literary sources for my period. When there isn’t all that much, you use what you can. Leaves me stuck with lots of onomastics and place-name studies, among other things. I think this is most true for historians, but there’s a lot of transliminal seepage for most people who do pre-millenial medieval stuff.

    1. ADM: You’re entirely right. I should probably have mentioned that my readings in the Annales school (well, mostly Braudel) have doubtless reinforced my strongly-held belief that you can’t just excise some small part of space or time to subject to analysis. And yeah, it’s partly methodological (archaeologists are subject to the same absence of evidence), but also partly theoretical – there is no reason to assume that other places and times will be *in*comparable. Unfortunately, Annales, world-systems analysis, and related schools of thought are considered to be incredibly passé in an anthropological environment governed by ‘thick description’ and an excessive focus on ethnographic particulars.

      I must, however, offer a small squawk of protest at your use of the (appropriate but mildly nauseating) word ‘transliminal’ …

  3. :-) Ah, but I was trained by someone who has spent much of his scholarly life digging on the limes in the actual Rhine-Danube sense! So really, I mean it in both the literal and figurative ways! Does that make it slightly less nauseating?

    1. Oh, I suppose so! Although if that is the case then there should be a corresponding ‘cisliminal’, and the only references I can find to that are in weird psychic research literature!

    1. It is of some interest, but not for this list that I’m compiling, because as far as I can tell the contributors are historians, not anthropologists. (I don’t speak Dutch so I could be way off base here).

  4. Here’s a fun spanner to throw in — trans works, if we see the limes in the sense I was using it, providing that trans-can apply to anything from where the limes starts and where it ends, because it’s pretty much accepted now that it should be seen as a region, rather than a line — a frontier zone, where the intermingling of culture generally obtains. But cis- I think has to stop at where the fuzzy area of the limes begins. This may work metaphorically, too, but is indeed irritating in terms of precise language.

    But I’m not sure what else works…

  5. I only recently discovered—through an encyclopedia article by Paul Glennie—that there are a number of works on English historical geography of the feudal period out there. The couple I have seen are fairly anthropological in that they use landscape, settlement pattern, and place names to hang their analysis on.

    1. MTBradley: Yes, I agree. There is a wide literature in historical geography, historical sociology, and other ‘historical’ social sciences that has a deep concern with the Middle Ages, and that has linkages to anthropology. There are also any number of medieval historians who have been exposed to anthropological concepts and use them well. Much of this linkage takes/took place through Marxist thought, where one cannot really exclude the medieval without nullifying one’s ability to understand historical processes. Yet it seems problematic that very little of this work is being done by anthropologists themselves – that we as a discipline have surrendered our right to comment on a full millennium of the history of the “Old World”.

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