Human Agency in Medieval Society, 1100-1450


Dr Epurescu-Pascovici we are grateful to you for taking the time to join us. If you would, we’d like to start with an overview of your studies and career to date please.

I went to university in my native city of Bucharest to study history. I then went to Cornell University in the U.S. for my PhD in medieval studies; two experiences stand out in particular from the years of my graduate training: the opportunity to do a minor field in sociocultural anthropology and the semester I spent at the École nationale des chartes in Paris, a leading school of archival studies. After returning to Romania I’ve been a researcher at the University of Bucharest, where most recently I was the Principal Investigator of a European Research Council project on institutional accountability in late-medieval Savoy. 

Your book’s subject – what it meant to be an individual agent in European medieval society – is such a fascinating one, what first drew you to the subject and inspired you to research it further?

The inspiration came from anthropology, specifically from reading an article on religion and individual believers’ agency in Fiji, by one of my professors at Cornell, Hirokazu Miyazaki. This was towards the beginning of my graduate training and like many aspiring historians I was more familiar with the concept of power than with agency. But agency offered a different, more precise and suggestive conceptual focus; it brings into the spotlight the cultural roots of individual strategic conduct, the link between socio-political action and individual identity and self-fashioning, and ultimately, it investigates how the structures of power – such as institutions – are created through individuals’ strategizing and networking. There is an irony here, in that anthropologists associate agency with the ‘historical turn’ in their discipline, yet medieval historians are only just beginning to explore the potential of this construct for making sense of medieval society. I was surprised at the absence of a study of agency in medieval society – or put differently, of the individual as social agent; it seemed to me that the topic deserved to be treated in its own right. Obviously the subject is enormous: human agency is involved in every aspect of history (for example, there are now studies of the social self and of women’s strategies for marriage and dowries in the Middle Ages). I thought the most promising angle was from individual case studies, an approach that is apt to offer a rounded, holistic view of agency because it follows individuals in their social interactions and seeks to reconstruct their perspectives. To this end I turned to a variety of self-narratives and personal records, labelled ‘ego-documents’ by social historians. This book is not a work of microhistory, but in many ways my approach to the study of medieval society has been shaped by microhistory, and I think the influence of microhistory is visible in the book.

How do you define autonomous agency and the individual as autonomous agent? 

The reference to autonomy signals the fact that the protagonists themselves decided on the objectives and means of their strategic actions, rather than having these imposed on them by others; while socio-cultural influences were hugely important for individuals’ agency, so was self-interpretation and reflexivity. More broadly, I should stress that the book does not ‘apply’ any theory or definition but focuses on the historical actors’ perspective, although obviously it does not discuss it in their language: like politics or the economy, agency is an analytical construct to which we turn because it can focus our intuitions about the medieval practices of social interaction. Agency is approached here less as a clearly-delineated category and more as a discursive field encompassing a range of related developments: for example, the book also discusses non-action, specifically how individuals decide to abstain from decisive intervention, in effect placing their agency in abeyance. The autonomous individual agent is hailed as a hallmark of modernity, but this study shows that in the later Middle Ages at least the literate – and probably many of their contemporaries too – deserve this title. 

Society in the Middle Ages is generally held to have been very hierarchical and dominated by rank. What factors were most important in limiting an individual’s agency?

The still prevailing view of a rigid medieval hierarchy is challenged in the book through the analysis of medieval practice. One of the book’s arguments is that medieval society was far less structured than modern society – state institutions, for example, developed only in the late Middle Ages, noble status became enshrined only from the fourteenth century to bring exemption from direct taxation, and even the act of legislating required considerable effort. Consequently there was more room for individual action, strategies, and flexible networks – this is why agency, I believe, is a particularly apposite construct for the study of medieval history. It is not that the idea of a hierarchical, well-regulated society is absent from the sources, it is just that it generally comes from normative, programmatic texts emanating from the intellectual and political elites and seeking to impress an image of order on their audience precisely because social realities were very fluid. In this society the limits of the individual’s agency were less a function of institutional constraints and more to do with the agency of social competitors. The second part of chapter 4 also deals with the self-imposed limits on one’s freedom of action: placing one’s agency in abeyance for moral and practical reasons.  

Can you tell us about your case studies? What made you decide on them in particular?

The case studies were chosen to offer a mosaic view of the possibilities for autonomous action in the later Middle Ages; to this end they are drawn from different types of sources (broadly described as ego-documents), different social backgrounds, and different regions. The book moves from autobiographical insertions in chronicles to the private registers of urban notables to conduct literature in the vernacular, from Picardy to Limousin and from Paris to Florence. While salient topics such as self-interpretation, strategizing, and networks are discussed throughout the book, each chapter focuses more closely on a particular facet of agency in the later Middle Ages, from the implications of belief in divine intervention on everyday conduct to the social imaginary that informs socio-political action to gender relations.

You must have drawn on a very wide range of resources and disciplines. What are ‘ego-documents’?

Indeed, this project is steeped in anthropology and social theory but also engages with literary theory, for example with regard to narrating the self; this is simply because in these fields agency was more often a focus of reflection than in medieval studies. The concept of ‘ego-documents’ is sometimes misunderstood; it does not designate introspective texts but a very wide range of sources in which the ‘ego’ surfaces in significant ways, such as private registers and memoirs, as well as chronicles in which the authors refer to themselves. The point is precisely to go beyond the few well-known literary autobiographies of the later Middle Ages. The term ego-document originated in the 1950s in a circle of Dutch social historians – among the sources they edited was the diary of Anna Frank. In my book the concept is extended to encompass charters – the bulk of our evidence before the late Middle Ages – inasmuch as they were written in the first person and speak of an individual’s initiatives: strategic conduct thus reconstructed (say, the acquisition of land or the building of a mill) can be read as a text, as I try to do in chapters 2 and 3 of the book.

Was there anything in your findings that particularly surprised you or that you think might surprise many readers?

As I alluded to in answer to one of your previous questions, we tend to think of the individual as ‘the finest achievement of modern civilisation’, as the philosopher Charles Taylor put it. Thus I was surprised and frankly reluctant at first to accept what the evidence was pointing to, which is that in the late Middle Ages there was an even greater concern with the individual, and particularly with the possibilities and implications of individual conduct. By contrast, today institutions are a huge part of our lives – the impersonal bureaucracies that Max Weber wrote about. In the late Middle Ages these were just being developed, and the individual, rather than structural factors such as institutions and political systems, was at the centre of social reflection, including by ordinary bourgeois writing in the vernacular, as detailed in chapter 5 of the book. 

I was also surprised to discover that clerics such as Galbert of Bruges and the Franciscan Salimbene of Parma, both highly familiar with the official view of divine intervention in human history, nevertheless did not approach their own lifeworld through its prism but on the contrary stressed human over divine agency; the gap between theory and practice was considerable. Readers might find it a bit surprising that private records often described as ‘family books’ could function as the medium for a discourse about individual achievement and the self; this is the case with both the French livres de raison and the Italian ricordanze. I don’t want to extrapolate from a dozen of case studies, but in general I found that kinship ties were less instrumental for individuals’ designs than is suggested in the scholarly literature. 

Naturally all interested parties will have to read your book, but can you give us some insight into your conclusions?

To expand on my previous answer, the book argues that late-medieval social relations were defined by a concern with the possibilities and effects of individual strategic action, more than with the power grounded in institutions and the control of resources – the so-called ‘structural power’ or domination. This is most evident in the attention paid at the time to the capacity of individuals from subaltern social groups, such as peasants and labourers, to subvert the designs of their superiors – something that would be difficult to account for within the paradigm centred on power. The case studies show that individuals’ specific modes of agency – that is, their preferred patterns of acting upon the world – were personal constructs rooted in cultural values but also reworking them creatively. In particular, I argue that individuals’ effectiveness in the world was essential for their self-fashioning – something that might come as a surprise (to go back to your previous question), considering that medieval theologians insisted that God was the primary author of history. 

An important caveat is that these findings are based on the ego-documents of the middle-rank aristocracy and urban notables, but it should be emphasised that c. 1400 a sizeable part of the population possessed at least the rudiments of literacy. I do not propose that these findings should be extrapolated to the peasant majority. But let me emphasise that although the social strata on which the case studies shed light have limited demographic representativity, they played a prominent role as agents of historical change, including in respect to the transition to early modernity – a topic touched upon in the book’s conclusions.

From 1100 to 1450, you have covered a vast period. How did agency change over that time?

Frankly more research into agency during this period is needed before this question can be answered adequately. We should be straightforward about both the possibilities and limitations of the sources. There is a huge increase in the quantity and quality of evidence from around the middle of this period – this has been called a ‘documentary revolution’ – which can create distortions. Before specific strategies or types of socio-political network appear in our records they would have been in use for quite some time, but it’s hard to tell precisely for how long. 

The book shows that fourteenth-century bourgeois from Paris and Florence were keenly aware of the strategies and capacity for autonomous agency of farmers, labourers, and servants; but how this anxiety towards the subaltern manifested itself – and indeed, whether it did at all – in the twelfth century is more difficult to document. Using the case-study method, the book highlights the element of individual initiative, negotiation and the building of socio-political networks underlying historical processes that have previously been approached in structural, macrohistorical terms: one example is the drive towards better record-keeping and clearer norms about landed property and its role in the relations between higher and lower lords, analysed here for thirteenth-century Picardy. I argue that this process – on which a few decades ago historians would have put a ‘feudal’ gloss – cannot be meaningfully understood without reference to the initiatives of even middle-rank seigniors and their trained administrators, or divorced from their self-understanding as autonomous agents. 

One development that does seem indicative of real change in patterns of agency is closely tied to the progress of pragmatic literacy. Even in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries written records were essential for strategic moves in local politics and the land market, but c. 1400 urban notables wrote down memoranda in their private registers as part of an effort at self-fashioning; they also used these same registers to articulate their reflections on effective socioeconomic conduct and passed them down to the family posterity, which gave them an edge over social competitors. 

What do you hope medievalists will take from your work?

I found each of the case studies fascinating – this is why researching this book has been such an exciting experience for me. Notwithstanding that writing in a second language is always challenging, I hope I’ve managed to convey some of the richness of the source material and the contexts on which it sheds light; certainly on topics such as the livres de raison there is very little written in English, although these records open a rare window into the lived experience of society in the late Middle Ages. But more than the case studies themselves, I hope the approach taken here will be of interest to colleagues – beginning, obviously, with the foregrounding of agency as an analytical construct in the study of medieval society. I think this perspective is at the very least a useful complement to more traditional approaches based around the concept of power. 

The book’s findings about the capacity of the seemingly disempowered to shape the social interactions and structures in which they participated should be read as a warning that any study that ignores the middle and lower social strata in favour of the political and intellectual elites inevitably gives a very partial picture of society. Agency is a central concept in social theory, which means that medievalists cannot ignore it without risking being excluded from the larger conversation about history, society, and culture. Re-inventing the wheel is not advisable either: agency is so entrenched in social theory that even if the medievalist seeks to redefine it, reference to the social scientific literature remains imperative. 

I hope colleagues will find the book’s introduction helpful in this respect, as it discusses the agency theory with an eye to its relevance in the study of the medieval past. Lastly, in lieu of the traditional building blocks of historical accounts of the Middle Ages – such as power, lordship, and religion – this book proposes a different set of analytical foci: social practices, strategies, and networks. I am obviously curious to find out what medievalists make of it. I realise, of course, that the field can be a bit conservative at times and sceptical of novel analytical constructs (not that agency, to re-iterate, is novel in the social sciences).

Will you continue your work in the subject or do you have new projects lined up?

For the past five years I have been working on a project about administrative accountability in Savoy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, based on the accounts (computi) of the Savoyard castellanies, the basic territorial-administrative units. It is a fascinating subject for a number of reasons, notably the records’ extraordinary level of detail on local socioeconomic developments and the fact that the accounts of the House of Savoy were inspired by the Exchequer pipe rolls: the reformist Count Pierre II introduced them to Savoy after his decades in the service of King Henry III had familiarised him with the English financial administration. This is a very interesting example of the transfer of institutional models in medieval European history. Accountability (both personal and institutional) and agency are concepts that go hand in hand, and so there is an important thematic continuity between the present book and my ongoing research on Savoy. Everyone’s work has been slowed down by the pandemic and I’m no exception, but I hope to finish a monograph on this topic by the beginning of the next year.

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?

Fortunately, I already had a large part of the archival material scanned – I’m talking about the manuscripts of the Savoyard castellany accounts. Since I’m based in Bucharest but work in the French and Italian archives I have to plan my research trips carefully, and the logistical experience I had built up came in handy this summer: I managed to take advantage of the easing of the restrictions in August and September to go to the archives and libraries in Chambéry and Grenoble. So overall, I was probably less affected than most colleagues.

3 b/w & 2 line illus.; 320pp
£65/$99, 9781783275762
Hardback and ebook
March 2021
Boydell Press



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IONUȚ EPURESCU-PASCOVICI is Research fellow, Humanities Division, Research Institute of the University of Bucharest.