**spoiler alert** Book review that I wrote for a British History class:
Barbara Hanawalt examines peasants and the peasant family in The Ties That Boun**spoiler alert** Book review that I wrote for a British History class:
Barbara Hanawalt examines peasants and the peasant family in The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. This book rebukes the established ideas and beliefs about medieval people, by laypeople and by scholars. Two of the issues that she raises in the introduction are how varying historians have viewed the peasant family from viewing the peasant family as extended families living in one household, or peasant families as the conjugal or nuclear family. Hanawalt finds the truth somewhere in between these two extremes, with her argument falling towards the latter view, although she explores the complex relationship between family and community. Her book provides new insight into the lives of the medieval peasants, and to come to a new understanding of what their world may have been like. Hanawalt acknowledges the problems of past studies on medieval people, especially peasants. She notes that historians and scholars have not fully studied the English medieval peasant, their research was flawed, or they were viewing medieval peasants from a modern perspective, thus doing them an injustice (9-10).While much information can be gleaned from manorial court rolls, she states that previous historians and scholars have overlooked sources such as archaeology, wills, and coroner’s rolls. Hanawalt uses these sources, especially the coroner’s rolls, in her analysis of peasants and peasant families, and all of her conclusions on peasants arise predominately from these documents. She also cites the influence of anthropological research methods in her acknowledgements. While the coroner’s rolls are morbid, they do provide much insight into the everyday life of peasants, and the demise and death of peasants, as well. She states that they are like “a very succinct verbal snapshot of life” (viii). Hanawalt uses the unit of a family to understand how peasants lived in Medieval England. She begins with defining what a peasant and family were during the medieval era. Her premise is that, “medieval English peasant families were not exactly like our own, but they were also not extended, full of holes, porous, or solely centered on the community” (9). She shows how the family was the most important unit in the economy, especially in the chapter on inheritance. According to Hanawalt’s research of wills, it was important for the peasants to keep land and other possessions within the family, “Although customs varied from manor to manor, the strong sentiment that property should descend to the person with the closest blood tie remained firm” (73). Again, she is illuminating the importance of the nuclear family through inheritance and wills. Hanawalt discusses peasant homes and their land and the village and other surroundings through the use of archaeological evidence, as well as other sources. One of the most fascinating incidents from the coroner’s rolls is that of a young girl being mauled by a bear that made its way up to the second floor of an inn (38-39). From this incident, Hanawalt is able to show that some two story homes did exist, although they were rare. She also outlines what she can glean about their diets, and other mundane aspects of everyday life, such as how archaeological evidence shows that the “floors” of the home were swept often (41). While this section on the “material world” is very interesting, it does not fit in wholly to Hanawalt’s overall argument. It sets up the peasant world before venturing into social and economic issues, and thus reaching Hanawalt’s argument. Hanawalt goes into a discussion of the family members, and various life stages of the medieval peasant. The family was the economic unit in Medieval England, and by exploring each role of the family, she is able to show how important members were to the family economy. Even children contributed to the family economy. In the chapters on stages of life, many of these center around inheritance, especially the chapters on “Growing Up and Getting Married” and “Widowhood.” Interestingly enough, according to Hanawalt and an old proverb, widows and their children were able to survive the death of a husband and father, but the reverse was not true (220). The chapter on widowhood shows how community and the family were both simultaneously important to the peasant family. Women were able to inherit land and other possessions when their husbands died, thus showing the importance of kinship and family, but women also had a new role in the community. In the last section, she devotes her analysis to the importance of community, and whether community or extended family was more important than the conjugal or nuclear family. She also discusses ways in which the community took care of its members, such as in the case of orphans or the sick, and the emotional bonds between neighbors and kin. In this final chapter, Hanawalts states that community ties and family ties were both important, Community could provide only a portion of the material and emotional needs of an individual. While important to the medieval peasant, it was rather limited as a surrogate for family. The argument of Shorter and Ariès suffers from a basic fallacy, namely, that humans have only a finite ability to form emotional bonds….In traditional society, these authors argue, these ties were with the community, and in the modern period they shifted over to family. Humans, however, form a variety of emotional bonds that vary somewhat with the circumstances. A peasant’s ties with his neighbors, while emotional, were of a very different sort from those with family…(266) While Hanawalt spends most of her book on the family itself and how it functioned as a unit, these two chapters show the importance of community in relation to the family itself. These two chapters work well at the end of the book. They serve to tie together the points that Hanawalt raises in her introduction. Hanawalt focuses primarily on the latter years of the Middle Ages, predominately the 14th and 15th centuries. She contrasts between the era before the plague and after the plague, and how the plague affected peasants, their habits, and their family life, most notably in the ways in which community and family life changed, “The plague and other diseases took their toll of the community in more than numbers of dead. Although family units tended to regroup fairly quickly, with more distant kin taking the place of family who died, they did not have the same socialization into the community that the former tenants had, the mutual cooperation and community cohesion that had been built on generations of interactions and trust” (266). The plague was devastating to the medieval peasant family, but the nuclear or conjugal family was able to stay intact, although community appears to have become less important, due to the extreme death rate. Hanawalt’s conclusion is that the medieval family is not similar to the modern family, as other historians have concluded, but they aren’t radically different either. Instead medieval peasants and the peasant family were more complex than they have been portrayed by other historians. Even through the changes in the later middle ages, with the devastation of the plague, Hanawalt states, “the peasant family remained much the same throughout these two centuries of cataclysmic changes and, moreover, that the family was able to maintain its basic structure” (3). In some ways, Hanawalt’s work is a critique on other scholarly works on the peasant and medieval life. Even in the epilogue, she criticizes how other historians have viewed the medieval peasant, Historians are so dedicated to showing change over time and revolutionary breaks with the past that they often overlook historical behavior that does not change radically. Historians are also prone to make implicit value judgements about the past, looking back at earlier times with nostalgia for lost innocence or, alternatively, seeing in the past the horrors of a benighted time from which we modern people have fortunately escaped. Neither approach does justice to the lives of our peasant ancestors. We are not entirely like them, but they are not alien to use even though we are separated from them by five hundred years. (268)
Her epilogue is short, and does not conclude with a multitude of answers. Instead, she seems to want to disprove commonly held beliefs on peasant life in the Middle Ages. Though Hanawalt does delve deeply into the primary sources she is drawing conclusions from, she realizes that there will probably never be a complete story of the medieval peasant family, although she tries her best to present a more accurate representation of peasant life in the Middle Ages, by studying and analyzing how peasant families actually functioned.