The Peasant Rusticus: Life near Paris in the Time of Clovis
By David Powell
CONCEPT: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Graduate Studies (2010)
Introduction: “History,” wrote the late Eileen Power, “is largely made up of Bodos.” With that final sentence of her essay on Bodo, a Carolingian-era peasant near Paris, Power announced the arrival of the common man on the scene of popular historiography, a genre that was then dominated by examinations of famous men and their deeds. Among medievalists, Power needs little introduction. Medieval People, her most famous and popular work, has had ten editions and numerous reprints since its original publication in 1924. The first of its profiles was titled, “The Peasant Bodo: Life on a Country Estate in the time of Charlemagne,” and remains a common fixture on the reading lists of history undergraduates.
Bodo was an unlikely revolutionary. A dutiful serf on an ecclesiastical estate, the most rebellious thought Power attributes to him is a wish that “the [estate] house and all its land were at the bottom of the sea,” expressed as he “shivers and shakes the rime from his beard” while plowing the abbot’s fields on a midwinter morning. It was in expressing such feelings at all, if only through the speculations of an historian writing eleven centuries later, that Bodo became an early standard bearer for the masses of so-called “ordinary people” and their “everyday lives” that have so thoroughly occupied generations of social historians since Power’s time. These efforts have benefited modern readers by giving new illumination, color, and depth to narratives that were once rendered in flatly political, military, or economic hues.
The study of Late Antiquity, which has sought to shed additional light on the transition from the world of classical antiquity to that of the Middle Ages, has reaped particularly large benefits from the rise of social historiography. Indeed, it does not seem unreasonable to claim that without the social perspective, Late Antiquity might not exist as a separate field of study (a distinction for which it must still fight in some quarters). Social history, however, has not been a panacea; many historical theaters within Late Antiquity remain stubbornly resistant to inquiry, their meager sources providing just enough information to tantalize those who would fill in the blanks.