The strangeness of the Carolingian rural state

There’s nothing like reading research far outside your field to give you a new perspective on your own work. In my case it’s making my way through Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality that’s brought home to me how strange the Carolingian empire was in one respect.

Flannery and Marcus’ book is an anthropological/archaeological look at a wide range of prehistoric, historical and contemporary societies at varying levels of social complexity. There’s no mention of the Carolingians (or indeed any European societies), but there is a lot on cultures in the Americas, including the Moche, Mayan and Zapotec civilisations.

Panorama of Monte Alban from the South Platform

Panorama of Monte Albán site

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Gene-culture co-evolution 1: the secret of cultural evolution’s success

I’ve just finished reading Joseph Henrich, The Secret of our Success, the first book I’ve read on gene-culture co-evolution, an emerging academic field. (I’ve also seen it described as evolutionary culture anthropology (ECA)). Henrich’s book is a very interesting read, written in a populist way, but with citations of a substantial amount of original research. It’s also the first book I’ve found which has me thinking that possibly evolutionary approaches could be of use to historians.

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Evolution, Demography and Inheritance

I have been reading some popular works on anthropology and evolutionary psychology and am getting increasingly fed-up with their frequent assumption that men instinctively want to sleep with as many women as possible so that they can have as many children as possible. Even excluding the modern Western world, in which many men do not want to have children (or at least not be held responsible for them), there doesn’t seem to me much historical evidence that men wanted to father as many children as possible.

Firstly, and most brutally, in many contemporary and historic societies, girls have been undervalued and sometimes even killed or abandoned by their fathers. For the survival of a man’s genes, a female child is valuable; in many patrilineal societies, she’s not valuable because she doesn’t preserve his “name”. But I don’t think the historic evidence is particularly strong even for the weakened hypothesis that men want to sleep with as many women as possible so that they can have as many sons as possible. In societies where elite men have large harems, for example, women are selected for these harems, based on their beauty (Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, pp. 70-71 cites letters about this from King Zimri-Lim of Mari in Syria from the eighteenth century BC). This implies that such successful men are less interested in sleeping with as many fertile women as possible and more concerned with sleeping with women they find sexually attractive.

Clay tablet recording activity of Zimri-Lim (from Wikimedia)

Most men, however, aren’t as prosperous as Zimri-Lim. One of the most basic constraints on how many children you choose to father is how many you can afford to support. This is so even in historical periods without effective contraception or abortion. Abandonment of the mother and/or child, adoption and even infanticide have always been possible options. But in most past societies, a child whose father didn’t support them was either not going to survive into adulthood, or was going to have its chances of marriage and reproduction severely limited. So in evolutionary terms, this is not likely to be a successful strategy.

But there’s also another issue in societies with private property: the question of what the children (especially the sons) inherit when their father dies. Whether it’s land or livestock, at some point there’s likely to be a sharing-out of resources, even if it’s postponed for a generation. And at that point, having too many sons can again be a problem, because it means splitting resources into smaller shares or excluding some sons from any inheritance. There’s been interesting work by Ruth Mace at UCL trying to model how African pastoralists decide whether or not to have more children and how many sons to give wealth to.

This concern to get the “right” number of heirs may also explain various family options which develop.  For example, the institution of concubinage, already visible in the Code of Hammurabi from around 1750 BC, may have developed precisely because concubine’s sons could be conditional heirs, who were normally excluded from inheritance, but could be made heirs if one was needed.

Ruth Mace states in another article (p.447):

It has long been recognized that maximizing reproductive success is not necessarily about maximizing fertility alone, going right back to the pioneering work of ornithologist David Lack [in 1954].

So why, sixty years on, are some authors still writing statements such as:

A man can have a nearly unlimited number of children – in theory he can beget several children every day – while a woman’s capacity is limited to one child per year under optimal conditions, and moreover in many societies many children die before they grow up. From the perspective of human reproduction, one may state that sperm is cheap while eggs are expensive.

(Quote from Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. 2nd ed, 2001, p. 108)

Sperm may be “cheap”, but raising a child to adulthood is almost always expensive for fathers as well as mothers, if they’re going to ensure their line’s continuation. I’m currently trying to work out what kinds of evolutionary effects it’s worth considering when thinking about patriarchy in western Europe in the common era. The badly flawed evolutionary  accounts of male humans that still turn up frequently, and which ignore so much historical evidence, don’t seem to me a reliable basis for making further hypotheses about male behaviour.














Mary Douglas on why discourses succeed

As I said in a previous post, I’ve been trying to get to grips with Mary Douglas’ ‘How institutions think’ and finding my usual problem with her stuff. There are some very good individual insights, but it’s hard to work out the overall shape of her argument. (It also doesn’t help that she’s not very good at defining her terms). But I’m increasingly coming to think that the book might most usefully be understood as a way of thinking about discourses without using Foucault’s ideas. (She does refer to Foucault, but only in passing).

If Douglas’ ‘classification’ corresponds to the idea of a discourse (and it’s a bit hard to be certain on this, because she doesn’t define the term), then two of her key questions become: why are there discourses, and why are discourses of some types and not others? After all, why should individuals decide to share a particular way of thinking/speaking, and how do particular ideas win in a marketplace of them? If you’re Foucault (or Edward Said or the like) at this point you bring in power. Power produces a discourse and forces it on others, classifying people into criminals, madmen, homosexuals, wily Orientals, etc.

Mary Douglas, however, is implicitly interested in groups (which she tends, rather confusingly, to call institutions) which don’t have this kind of coercive power. A lot of her examples are from tribal societies, scientific communities and egalitarian religious sects, none of which can get too coercive without a subgroup breaking away and going off to found a new tribe, science or religion. So why do some, but not all discourses succeed here?

On the ‘why discourses’ question, her answer is basically for cognitive ease: institutions and classifications/discourses are useful shortcuts to avoid extra thinking for oneself. At this point it’s easy to start thinking that it’s only the intellectually lazy who do this, but in fact it’s frequently convenient for all of us. As one minor example, I probably save 5-10 minutes every morning by limiting my consideration of what I should eat for breakfast to ‘suitable’ breakfasts, rather than the totality of foodstuffs in my house. At a more abstract level, I remember getting told early in my mathematics degree that original mathematical thought was like a cavalry charge – very expensive in resources and to be reserved for emergencies. It’s almost always better to adapt an existing technique than invent one from scratch. And as Douglas herself points out, such institutions/classifications aren’t just used for trivial decisions: in times of famine, in most societies available food gets preferentially distributed to those classified as ‘most important’, without frantic efforts by the marginalised to preserve themselves.

As to why particular discourses, Douglas’ view is that the classifications that seem ‘natural’ are the most effective, and most likely to be accepted. I put natural in quotes, because her point is that such ‘natural’ analogies are actually the projected reflection of existing institutions. So kingship is justified by the relation between the head and the rest of the body. But seeing the relation of the parts of the body in this way is not inevitable: it is the dominant image because it ‘makes sense’ in a hierarchical society. In this way, institutions and practices are justified by hidden circular reasoning. This use of natural analogies is particularly prevalent in gendered ideas, for example. Culture is to nature, as mind is to body, as man is to woman, as human is to animal, etc, etc.

She also points out how institutions are responsible for remembering and forgetting for individuals, which is a less novel idea for historians. Though she does have a nice point about institutional memory generally being shorter in competitive groups/societies, because memory gets rewritten each time another faction gets to the top. This is one of several points where she looks at whether particular social structures are particularly prone to some kinds of thinking. And her preferred groups for discussion (tribal societies, scientific communities and religious sects) would obviously fit into her schema of grid-group, though she doesn’t mention that concept in the book at all. (There is a short piece by her on grid-group theory that I have found useful on the web).

Apart from the lack of grid-group stuff, the book does seem to be a summary of many of her earlier interests: the classification theory and its social purposes underlies a lot of ‘Purity and Danger’, and the stuff on natural analogies is also in ‘Natural Symbols’. And the whole principle that traditional and/or small-scale and/or religious social groups are actually much like ‘moderns’ in their thought processes is basic to all her work. Whether there is any change in her understanding of these ideas, I’m less sure – because she’s sometimes vague about ideas and terminology, it ‘s hard to be certain about shifts.

How useful is Mary Douglas for the Middle Ages? Her work seems to have led Eamon Duffy to become an ethnographer of medieval Catholics, which is a benefit in term of providing thick descriptions, and a loss in terms of any attempts at historical objectivity.

The two big problems with her style of functionalism remain: it ignores the issue of power and it requires ‘knowing better’ than your subjects: ‘you may think that you’re doing this because of X, but actually you’re doing it because of Y’. (For this reason, her ideas about pollution pissed off some environmentalists a lot). A related problem with ideas of ‘natural symbols’ is that because of structuralism, it’s easy to think it’s all just about binaries. But though the pairs of man/woman, mind/body, sacred/profane often seem to line up in the expected way in medieval thought, medieval society isn’t as simple as that in practice and other institutions presumable get naturalised in other ways. If we’re using Douglas, we’re going to have to be careful and not just assume that any reference to the body politic, for example, means exactly the same.

But I also think that Douglas’ ideas have some interesting current applications. If I get round to it (among other posts and the stuff I’m actually meant to be writing), I want to look at Mary Douglas’ ideas and the current US debate on gay marriage. (Now there’s a teaser for you…)