Gossip and Resistance among the Medieval Peasantry
By Chris Wickham
Past and Present, No. 160. (1998)
Introduction: I aim in this article to offer a defence of the study of gossip in medieval (and not only medieval) history. It is therefore, perhaps, appropriate to begin with a story, which I will use as a point of reference for some of the themes I want to discuss. It takes shape from a court case from twelfth-century Tuscany: that is to say, from the testimonies of seventeen witnesses recorded in or around 1138 in a dispute between a peasant cultivator called Compagno and the very rich and powerful monastery of Passignano, situated in the Chianti hills about forty kilometres south of Florence, over the ownership of a piece of land at Mucciana on the river Pesa, where Passignano had just built a mill. To be precise, we have two stories, one for each side; and we do not have the final arbitration, so we cannot be sure even what the arbiter thought was true. But the two stories are interesting in their own right, as images of plausible and thus possible truths.
The witnesses were all local; all or most were themselves peasants; they split roughly evenly between the two sides. Compagno’s opponents thought the issue was simple: he had never owned or publicly claimed the land until the monastery of Passignano began to build its mill. They said that Compagno’s great-grandfather Rodolfino had three daughters, only one of whom received land at her marriage; the others (including Compagno’s grandmother) only got movables. The descendants of the first daughter sold this land and after two similar transactions Passignano had got hold of it. They also said that Compagno, although never openly contesting the land by the river, had in fact claimed another piece of land, by implication from the same inheritance, from the then owner, Arlotto (the man who had alienated it all to Passignano in fact); he had done so by the simple expedient of turning up and ploughing it, sowing millet there. Someone told Arlotto about it, and he appeared on the land to ask Compagno what he was up to; on hearing Compagno claim the land, Arlotto ‘forbade him, threatening him, and began to run to get arms’. Compagno made himself scarce and did not return.