More on Peasants

This week, between grading final papers and planning for my research trip to Cyprus, I indulged myself and read (slowly and superficially to be sure) Eric Wolf’s Peasants (1966). This is one of those short books (just over 100 pages) that represents moment in time and captures many of the essential features of a particular topic. Wolf’s analysis of peasant societies recognizes the deeply interconnected character of peasant modes of production, social order, and ideological predilections. (This is part of a larger project on peasants that I have discussed elsewhere in my blog.)

Wolf identified the peasant first and foremost as an economic creature set within a larger and more complex system. Importantly, the peasant is characterized by: “an asymmetrical structural relationship between the producers of surplus and the controllers.”  In other words, peasants pay rent of some kind and this distinguishes the peasant from the group that Wolf calls a primitive cultivator.  Peasants live in a more complex society with a greater degree of social stratification that requires the “transfer of wealth from one section of the population to another.” (10)  In general, settlement patterns reflect this transfer of wealth with peasants living in the countryside and powerholders residing in more densely built up areas.

This economic relationship to other segments of a complex society and the way in which powerholders in society extract the peasants’ surplus for their own gain play key roles in the social, economic, and ideological organization of peasant society. The role of phenomenon like social insurance, the economic analysis of kinship and residential organization, and the existence of ceremonial funds intersect with the specific power relationships that characterize the extraction of wealth from peasant groups.  The influence of this kind of structural analysis persists in some form in many modern considerations of peasants. H. Forbes recent consideration of peasants on the Methana peninsula depended, in part, on a similar constellation of structural relationships (see my comments on this book here).

Such broad reaching conclusions are framed by the assumption that peasants are both transhistorical figures appearing in different times and places and historical figures in the development of human society:

“This book is concerned with those large sections of the mankind which stand midway between the primitive tribe and industrial society.  These populations, many million strong, neither primitive or modern, form the majority of mankind. They are important historically, because industrial society is built upon the ruins of peasant society. They are important contemporaneously, because they inhabit that “underdeveloped” part of the world whose continued presence constitutes both a threat and a responsibility for those countries which have thrown off the shackles of backwardness. While the industrial revolution has advanced with giant strides across the globe, the events of every day suggest that its ultimate success is not yet secure.” (p. vii)

Thus peasants become a kind of looking glass through which scholars can recognize earlier forms of human development in general, and the precursor to local phenomenon.

The challenge for archaeologists, particularly those studying the ancient world, is how to identify the material analogs to the kind of relationships that characterize peasant life.  While we know that peasant life did exist in antiquity and in ancient Greece in particular, it much more difficult to recognize the manifestations of peasant life in the countryside. It would be problematic to identify all rural producers as peasants, for example, because the Greeks used slaves for some forms of agricultural production and we also know that landowners could reside in the countryside for stretches of time.  It is ironic for the archaeologist, that peasants who through cultivation made such a tremendous impact on the lived environment of rural space would have left such complex and problematic traces in the material record.

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