By J. Patrick Geary
Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, Vol. 12 (2001)
Introduction: Providing a synthesis of the studies of European peasant religion in the Middle Ages demands first that one place the European peasantry within its spatial, social, and historical dimensions. Second, it requires a review of the complex and hotly debated question of medieval religion or religious culture. Both are fraught with difficulties, but without these steps, there is no possibility of dealing with the complex issues of peasant religion in Europe. The following essay is divided into three parts. The first presents a chronology of religious conversion and peasant history to roughly the year thousand. The second reflects on the methodological and conceptual issues raised by the evidence presented in the first part. The third then looks at peasant religion in Europe to the end of the Middle Ages.
The western European peasantry derived from the amalgamation of traditional European populations in the conquered Roman Empire and migrants from the Germanic regions on the empire’s borders across the third through tenth centuries. Although once the Germanic migrations were termed invasions and seen as moments of major rupture, increasingly these events are seen as more gradual and certainly less disruptive than often imagined. Nevertheless, important changes took place in the nature of rural society in this period.
Roman agriculture relied to a great extent on slave labor on large estates owned by magnates or by the emperor and the state. In addition, an unknown percentage of agricultural workers were tenant farmers who, while free before the law, worked the lands of the aristocracy. Small landowners, while not unknown in western Europe, apparently made up a very small proportion of the agricultural population and in the course of the third through sixth centuries seem to have been pressed into economic and political dependence on magnates who owned vast estates and who dominated public life. In northern and western Europe, late Roman agriculture was seriously disrupted in border areas during the third century by internal as well as external problems and a falling population due in large part to plague. The traditional villa or estate system was under stress if not disappearing. Even in other areas that experienced less physical disruption, late Roman agrarian society suffered under the increasing burden of taxation to support a large and inefficient military. An increasingly oppressive and differentially enforced tax system drove peasants to abandon the estates on which they worked and to flee to areas where powerful aristocrats could provide them protection from state demands.
By the fourth century, imperial laws sought to ensure tax revenues by making trades, including farming, hereditary obligations and by binding agricultural workers to the lands on which they lived. These coloni, while remaining free persons before the law, lost the independence to sell their labor to other landlords or to migrate to towns or to other less burdensome regions. In regions of Gaul and Spain, rural populations including both peasants and landlords revolted against central government agents. These uprisings of “bacaudae” were ruthlessly repressed, but the result was the disruption of normal agricultural production. As a result large areas of the empire were termed “agri deserti” or abandoned areas, although they may not have been so thoroughly abandoned by a population as no longer accessible to the Roman fiscal authorities.