What did it mean to be an autonomous agent in European medieval society? Dr Epurescu-Pascovici’s new book investigates this fundamental issue.
In the simplest terms, agency is about individuals’ capacity to act upon the world. In more complex terms, it is about everyday resilience, socioeconomic strategies, navigating society’s structures of power and meaning, and fashioning one’s identity; when collective agency comes into play, the result is societal change. The idea for this monograph came to me when I realised that there is no book-length study of agency in medieval society, in stark contrast to the centrality of the concept in sociology and anthropology. Perhaps the relative neglect of the subject is in part to do with historians’ indifference to ‘theory’: as the adage goes, medievalists don’t need conceptual constructs, they have their documents. But just as detrimental have been two long entrenched views of medieval culture and society, which have only come under challenge relatively recently: that belief in God as the author of history left little room for individuals to see themselves as autonomous moral agents, and that feudal relations and a rigid hierarchy limited the capacity to strategize of most people below the elites, leaving them disempowered. This book offers detailed evidence against both these views. Its starting point is a question that has not been foregrounded in the scholarship: what did it mean to be an individual agent in medieval European society? There is obviously no simple answer, and the book is an exploration of the many facets of the individual experience of engaging with the world, from society’s influence on individual conduct to patterns of strategic action to the individual’s sense of effectiveness in the world.
What this book is not is a study of medieval individualism. Based on about a dozen case studies, from modest professionals to urban notables to knights and middle-rank seigniors, the book offers a mosaic view of the possibilities for autonomous action during the later Middle Ages. It covers both daily socioeconomic conduct and episodes political crisis and the reactions they elicited. As the book is based on personal records and self-narratives, pragmatic literacy and the opportunities it opened feature prominently, but the techniques of the body as well as belief in the efficacy of prayers, potions, and magic are also discussed. At times social scientific concepts can feel a bit rarefied, but what made researching and writing this book so exciting for me was the opportunity to weave into the analysis something of the richness of individuals’ experience of the medieval world. The selection of source material has made it possible to focus on social practices, networks, and strategies, rather than the usual building blocks of historical narratives of the Middle Ages, such as aristocratic power, lordship, and the church.
Rather than just a fashionable synonym for power, agency is about problematising the traditional focus on power. The distinction between the two concepts is detailed in the book; in brief, however, power often stems from institutions and the control of resources – this is known as ‘structural power’ or domination – whereas agency is about each individual’s capacity to generate effects in the world and attain his or her strategic objectives. Foregrounding agency is a way of going a step further and investigating how the structures of power are created through strategizing and networking. Equally, however, agency as a field of study is defined by the interest in the cultural roots of human actions and in the effects of social conduct on the individual’s identity.
In the modern era power is often experienced as the effect of an institution or system, whereas in medieval society it had a distinct human face. Historians have been unequivocal that power was a conspicuous, brutal presence in medieval society. But how it came to be both wielded and resisted by groups and individuals, in a world that was far less structured than ours and thus demanded more individual effort, is a question that leads us to the cluster of issues outlined in the opening of this essay, that is, to what social scientists and historians call agency. Viewed through the power paradigm, medieval subaltern social groups, such as peasants, labourers, and servants, would appear disempowered, and yet one of the more intriguing findings of this book is the anxiety of the elites vis-à-vis the subaltern’s capacity to subvert their designs through everyday resilience and effective tactics and strategies. Like politics and the economy, agency is a social scientific construct, rather than a notion used by the protagonists of our historical studies, but the book argues that it is particularly apt to focus our intuitions about the salient medieval concerns with the possibilities and effects of individual and collective action.
This guest post was written by Dr Ionuț Epurescu-Pascovici, who received his PhD in medieval studies from Cornell University. He is a researcher in the Humanities Division of the Research Institute of the University of Bucharest.