Maryanne Kowaleski, director of Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies, advocates for the 90 percent—the medieval peasantry. Photo by Joanna Klimaski

Maryanne Kowaleski, Ph.D., is at the helm of an “Occupy” movement.

And although the oft-forgotten peasantry of medieval England—the “90 percent”—might not galvanize the protesters of Zuccotti Park, her “Occupy the Middle Ages” rally was well received among North American medievalists this spring.

In March, Kowaleski, the Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J., Distinguished Professor of Social Science and outgoing president of the Medieval Society of America, used her final presidential column for the Medieval Academy News to make a case for peasants. By and large, she said, North American medievalists devote ample research to the flashier figures of medieval society, yet tend to overlook the other 90 percent of the population.

“Royalty, aristocrats, clergy, mystics, barbarians, and even marginal people such as lepers and heretics make the cut, but not the social group responsible for the vast majority of the preindustrial economy,” she said.

This discrepancy was especially noticeable when Kowaleski, who is director of Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies, was vetting applications for a position in the medieval history faculty. Of the hundreds of applications received, none focused on medieval peasants or agriculture, and remarkably few of their syllabi devoted even an entire class lecture to peasants.

The reasons for this neglect of medieval peasants vary. Some scholars say it is more important to expose students to those who wielded power in society. Others argue that today’s increasingly urbanized or suburbanized societies make it difficult for students to connect with the agrarian peasantry.

Moreover, more prominent medieval figures are easier to study because scholars have access to primary texts written by and about them; peasants leave a fainter documentary trail.

“There’s a tendency to underplay the importance of peasants because they couldn’t read or write and they didn’t leave texts, so people say they were powerless,” she said. “But [they]vastly outnumbered the kings, popes, and poets we know so well.”

Kowaleski has promoted study of the peasantry since early in her career. While a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, she wrote her licentiate thesis on peasant land markets and her doctoral thesis on the interaction of rural and urban trade.

Peasants may have been poor, illiterate, and thus ostensibly unimportant, but they were the bedrock of the English economy.

“The gross national product of England was completely agrarian. Its chief export was wool,” she said. “So to understand medieval England’s balance of trade, you need to know where the wool was coming from and how agriculture was organized—and it’s peasants who were raising the sheep or growing the grain, which was another significant English export.”

It is one thing to deduce peasants’ importance based on trade—but without a wealth of documents to chronicle their lives, how else can one understand their role in society?

Kowaleski’s presidential address for the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America in April focused on how new developments in the study of humans can paint a more complete picture of peasant life. Three approaches are particularly valuable: demography, the quantitative study of past human populations via mortality, fertility, and migration rates; osteoarchaeology, the study of human skeletal remains; and paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases.

Information from censuses and skeletal remains, for instance, tell an interesting story about the migrations of young peasant women. English poll taxes, which recorded the populations of rural and urban areas alike, indicate that more women lived in towns than in the countryside. Scholars deduce that, because of restrictive inheritance customs that typically passed over daughters, many young women left home to find work as servants in towns. Migration also tended to delay the age at which women married.

“If you migrate, you need to settle in, make some money, meet someone,” Kowaleski said. “Generally, these women were probably getting married in their early twenties, whereas if they stayed home on the farm, they might be getting married at 17 or 18.”

Osteoarchaeological studies corroborate this theory. Excavated skeletons reveal that the mortality rates of urban women peaked later, between the ages of 25 to 34, as opposed to 17 to 25 for rural women. Since childbirth was a leading cause of death, scholars can infer that mortality peaking at older ages points to a later age of marriage for urban women.

Bones also reveal many of the specific illnesses that felled peasants. They also show at what stages of their life they may have experienced malnutrition, and indicate the hard physical labor that peasant women in particular endured, compared to their urban sisters.

“Paleodemography is a useful entry point for understanding the silent majority of the medieval ages,” she said. “It’s a way to get at people who don’t leave written texts, because the evidence is written on their bones.”

Currently, Kowaleski is writing Living by the Sea: An Ethnography of Maritime Communities in Medieval England. She received a 2011 Andrew W. Mellon Short-Term Fellowship to conduct research for the project at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., which earned her Fordham’s 2012 Funded Research Scholar Award in the Humanities.


Joanna Klimaski Mercuri is a staff writer in the News & Media Relations Bureau. She can be reached at (212) 636-7175 or [email protected]