WMU News

Book on paradox of peasantry wins Grundler Prize

May 9, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- Pity the paradox of the poor peasant. In the Middle Ages, these agricultural workers were seen as a lower than, well, the dirt they toiled in, but yet regarded as somehow closer to God by many in the aristocracy and clergy.

The co-existence of these contradictory images and the movement of the peasantry from its lowly status into the citizenry are among the topics explored by a Yale scholar in a book that has won a prestigious prize for medieval studies scholarship from Western Michigan University.

Dr. Paul H. Freedman, professor of history at Yale University, received the 2001 Otto Grundler Prize for his book "Images of the Medieval Peasant." He received the award during ceremonies at the 36th International Congress on Medieval Studies held May 3-6 at WMU. The $2,500 prize is named for the former director of WMU's Medieval Institute, which each year hosts the world's largest gathering of scholars of medieval studies. Some 3,000 persons attended this year's event.

Freedman's book was selected from among submissions from the United States, Canada and Europe. Published in 1999 by Stanford University Press, the book examines how peasants were represented in the Middle Ages. Specifically, Freeman explores how peasants, who were derided in medieval art, literature and culture as dirty and foolish, could be simultaneously despised and exalted in sermons and didactic literature for their fortitude, simplicity and piety.

"From Roman times, there was a real hostility toward peasantry. What Freedman does, without making a big fuss of it, is show that the role of Christianity was crucial to the development of respect for people who were not aristocratic or clerical," says Dr. Clifford Davidson, WMU professor of English and medieval studies. "Because of Christianity, peasants were no longer considered the 'other.' It allowed them to be raised to the citizenry which was denied to them before."

Freedman points out that peasants, while pretty low on the totem pole, weren't considered the worst of the lot. That was saved for lepers, Jews, Muslims and the "monstrous races of the East."

"Peasants were not a minority, they constituted an overwhelming majority of the European populations. They were necessary to feed the rest of society and most important, they were Christians," he writes. "In other respects, peasants could be regarded as meritorious by virtue of their simple life, productive work, and unjust suffering at the hands of their exploitative social superiors. Their unrewarded sacrifice and piety were also sometimes thought to place them closer to God and more likely to win salvation."

The Grundler Prize was established by WMU President Emeritus Diether H. Haenicke to honor Grundler for his distinguished service to the University and his life-long dedication to the international community of medievalists. The prize is intended to recognize a book or monograph on a medieval subject judged by a selection committee to be an outstanding contribution to the field. Authors from any country are eligible for the prize and nominations are accepted from readers or publishers.

Freedman, author of several other books, including "Church, Law and Society in Catalonia, 900-1500," had presented parts of his book at prior medieval congresses in Kalamazoo. He has received a number of honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Premio del Rey Prize from the American Historical Association and fellowships with the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Institut d' Estudis Catalans in Barcelona, Spain. Freedman earned his doctoral and master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and a bachelor's degree from University of California, Santa Cruz. He has been a faculty member at Yale since 1997. Prior to that, he was on the faculty at Vanderbilt University.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
616 387-8400