Periods and Peasants

David Pettegrew and I are working on a paper (very slowly, I might add) about peasants for a conference next winter. Our current plans are to look at three contexts for peasants: the Isthmia corridor outside of the ancient city of Corinth, a fortified area around a small harbor southeastern coastal of the Corinthia, and a rather more isolated inland valley called Lakka Skoutara in the far southeastern Corinthia.  We plan to approach these three areas through the lens of methodology.  In each area, we conducted intensive pedestrian survey and produced different assemblages. The rural nature of these assemblages qualified the inhabitants of these areas as “peasants” (using an incredible broad definition of this term).

My recent reading of Kathleen Davis’ Periodization and Sovereignty has made me reconsider my ease with such seemingly transhistorical categories like “peasants”.  While I am neither qualified to speak with any authority on ancient, medieval, or even modern peasants, I do recognize that the identification of an individual or group of individuals as peasants is not unproblematic. This is a category rooted, at least in part, in assumptions of pre-modern modes of production, like subsistence agriculture, and various kinds of economic and political relationships associated with these practices.  Peasants play a key role in our definition of the pre-modern and consequently undeveloped world.

The transhistorical category of the peasant, in fact, made it easy for early ethnographers and archaeologists to find parallels between modern Greek “peasant” farmers and their ancient predecessors. This not only provided the foundations for at least some of our understanding how ancient Greeks worked the land, but also (in a circular way) provided a justification for the persistence of ancient Greek culture and practices in the attitudes, practices, and beliefs of 19th and 20th century rural denizens.  In short, the peasant became one of the crucial points of contact between ancient and modern and represented both the stability of the Greek culture and its backwardness.

The question is, of course, what do we as archaeologists do when studying such transhistorical figures as peasants in the ancient landscape? Archaeological approaches traditionally embrace the kind of generalizations that create typologies (and ultimate feeds into periodization schemes both informed by the material culture and also informing our interpretation of objects).  While Davis’ book does not reject the need for periodization schemes, she does insist that we locate these themes historically and understand how they serve to structure power relations in the present.  Our paper leans toward a diachronic reading of peasant landscapes rooted in a particular set of methods which insist on the similarities in material culture among groups living in (demonstrably?) different historical circumstances.

An additional challenge comes from the spatial and material definitions of peasants in the landscape and asks that we mingle the spatial with the chronological in ways that reveal another layer of how we understand the the relationship between the pre-modern and modern worlds.  By writing the rural/urban dichotomy into ancient landscapes and locating the peasant in the rural sphere, we run the risk of isolating rural areas as spaces of historical stability (or even spaces “without history“) and set them against the dynamic culture of the urban.  Thus the rural/urban dichotomy reinforces the division between the developed and the undeveloped while locating the impetus for historical change within the confines of a dynamic urban space capable of modernization.

A Good New Blog for the New Year

I think that there are some important things afoot in the Late Antique and Byzantine blogging community.  Not only is the Byzantine Studies Association of North America looking to enhance its web presence, but the venerable David Pettegrew appears to have made a serious commitment to blogging his ongoing research on all things Corinthian.  Check out his blog here.

Most recently, his blog has featured translations of Niketas Ooryphas dragging his fleet over the Isthmus in the 9th century. Apparently he was an admiral in the Byzantine navy who was tasked with the suppressing the Arab navy that had held Crete since the 820s.  David took the time to translate the text from Theophanes Continuatus that describes the dragging of Niketas’ navy over the Isthmus and, few days later, supplemented this translation with translations of related texts from Kedrenos and Skylitzes.

I’ll offer three random observations on these texts:

1. Baptism and the Flesh.  At the conclusion of all three texts Niketas tortures apostate Christians captured from the Cretan fleet by flaying them alive or by dipping them in kettles of boiling pitch.  Niketas explained the former punished by “saying that this skin that was separated from them was not their own.” The latter had obvious parallels with Christian practices of immersion.  In both cases the spiritual rite of baptism was completely inverted and positioned as a physical ritual.

2. Nostaligia in 9th century in Greece. Niketas actions fit into a larger pattern of nostalgic behavior in 9th century Greece.  By dragging his fleet across the Isthmus, Niketas re-enacted the heroic deeds of earlier admirals.  In this way, they remind me, broadly, of the work of Paul of Monemvasia which looked back to traditions of the desert fathers to edify residents of his Peloponnesian city.  They also remind me of the deeds of another Niketas who wrote the Life of Theoktiste of Lesbos blending the Early Christian story of Mary of Egypt with references to Homer, Thucydides, as well as the Early Christian Church Fathers.

3. Blogged Translations. David and I have talked a bunch about blogging lately, and our conversations have focused on the idea that our jobs as academic is to create and disseminating knowledge. Blogs (as short hand for any online, self-published, environment) make it easy to distribute texts that fall awkwardly at the margins of traditional academic correspondence.  Translations are a perfect example of these kinds of texts that are not substantial or analytical enough to fit into a peer review publication, but nevertheless play a key role in the study of Ancient and Medieval society. David’s blog is a great example of how a scholar can disseminate knowledge that might otherwise be lost in a peer-reviewed, final publication.