Personal Networks in History: A Bleg

by Henry Farrell on April 29, 2009

Help requested – I am frantically writing a paper, and trying to remember where I came across a particular datum from a historian (which was, I think, cited in a more general text – perhaps James Scott’s _Seeing Like A State_; perhaps not) The datum was that peasants in mediaeval societies knew only a very limited number of other people, and that the average peasant in France (or perhaps the UK), would meet only eighty people or so over the course of his/her life. Anyone out there know where this claim comes from?



Ahistoricality 04.29.09 at 8:58 pm

I’ve heard variations on that, but never sourced. And it sounds more like pseudo-social science than history, the kind of factoid that early sociologists liked to make up more or less out of thin air to illustrate ahistorical facets of modernity.


Henry 04.29.09 at 9:09 pm

No, this was specifically referencing a particular author, unless my memory is very badly mistaken, which it might be.


urizon 04.29.09 at 9:14 pm

This essay by Blas Pedro Uberuaga mentions Edmund Burke. This makes sense to me, as I remember coming across this same information during my English MA studies — and Burke was most definitely among the various philosophers and writers I studied during a literary theory seminar.

Hope this helps.


Chris Bertram 04.29.09 at 9:14 pm

Lots of stuff like that in Graham Robb’s _The Discovery of France_. (Which I’m intending to post on when I have a bit of time.)


Theophylact 04.29.09 at 9:14 pm

You might have a gander at The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, which has a lot of data to suggest just such a thing.


Theophylact 04.29.09 at 9:15 pm

Two minds…

The Robb is really wonderful.


Will Shannon 04.29.09 at 9:22 pm

Perhaps a stab in the dark, but maybe try Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen.


Henry 04.29.09 at 9:23 pm

Since the paper has to be in by tomorrow (or, more precisely today plus what I hope is a bit of wiggle room), the Robb book won’t make it in, but it looks fabulous from the description.


Tyler Cowen 04.29.09 at 9:34 pm

I believe it pops up in Leo Braudy’s book on the history of fame but I don’t think the number is given as eighty. And maybe there is another version of the number in the series *A History of Private Life* (I can’t remember which volume though). The Robb book is splendid, by the way.


Kieran Healy 04.29.09 at 9:35 pm

You are thinking about Bodo. Give me two minutes to look it up.


Trey 04.29.09 at 9:38 pm

Could it be Roger Gould?


Kieran Healy 04.29.09 at 9:39 pm

You probably got the reference from Russell Hardin, maybe here. He cites a paper by Axel Leijonhufvud (1995), The Individual, the Market and the Industrial Division of Labor, in: C. Mongardini (ed.), L’Individuo e il mercato, Rome, 61–78. This paper might of course cite some of the stuff already mentioned.


Kieran Healy 04.29.09 at 9:44 pm

Here’s a link to the Leijonhufvud paper. It contains a reference to work by Eileen Power (1963) that’s the original source.


dsquared 04.29.09 at 9:47 pm

Good old Kieran. I would love, btw, to see what the eventual citation reference looks like (Power, cited in Leijonhufvud, cited in Hardin, cited in CT comments?)


Soren 04.29.09 at 10:01 pm

Do you mean James C. Scott’s piece titled “State Simplification”?


MM 04.29.09 at 10:30 pm

It reminds me of ‘Pig Earth’ by John Berger, but I may be completely mistaken.


Henry 04.29.09 at 10:36 pm

Nice sleuthing Kieran – that is exactly the reference, and the source that I found it in.


cooper 04.29.09 at 10:44 pm

Sounds like how Axel Leijonhufvud described the life of Bodo, someone who lived in a parish of St something or other in Paris. The number 80 strikes me the number of people said to be in the community and also the number he knew extremely well over his lifetime…sorry it was an addendum to my studies , I can’t clearly remember it.


Another Damned Medievalist 04.29.09 at 10:45 pm


All that to get to Power!


Kieran 04.29.09 at 10:50 pm

Well you can never find a damn medievalist when you need one.


Barry 04.29.09 at 10:53 pm

Please note that that cite doesn’t say ‘the average peasant *knew* only 80 people in his life’, but rather that ‘almost all of his consumption came from ~80 people’.

That’s different.


Henry 04.29.09 at 10:54 pm

Ah, but the actual reference says this, or close enough to be useful for my piece.


Ahistoricality 04.30.09 at 12:51 am

Henry, have you read the original source, Eileen Power? It’s available at Google Book and describes a medieval world vastly different from what your recollection, or your reference, seem to be saying.


Ben Alpers 04.30.09 at 1:19 am

Incidentally, there was no UK in the Middle Ages.


Colin Danby 04.30.09 at 1:57 am

Google books are teh awesome, and it was nice to come across the Leijonhufvud piece.

I’m with Barry — Power certainly supports a limited and stable number of exchange contacts, which is the point Leijonhufvud goes with (though where is 80 from?) but definitely not “would meet only eighty people or so over the course of his/her life” which seems like a weirdly small number.


kid bitzer 04.30.09 at 2:11 am

the original datum was that the average peasant would *eat* only eighty or so people.


Janice 04.30.09 at 2:38 am

History is largely made up of Bodos.

I love how Power ended that chapter. Thanks for bringing it back to mind!


anon 04.30.09 at 3:43 am

Public Service Announcement

Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen is quite outdated and Robb’s book is just plain terrible (and wrong). Nobody should rely on either book for research. See:


Kieran Healy 04.30.09 at 3:56 am

sounds more like pseudo-social science than history

Peasants into Frenchmen is quite outdated and Robb’s book is just plain terrible

What’s the state of the art on this stuff these days, anyway?


Cryptic ned 04.30.09 at 5:25 am

Books that aren’t unreadably boring are unreliable and tend to stretch the truth, Kieran. That’s nothing new.


Ahistoricality 04.30.09 at 5:28 am

Another Damned Medievalist 04.29.09 at 10:45 pm


All that to get to Power!

I hope ADM will come back and actually respond to Kieran’s query, and explain where Power sits in the historiography at this point. My reading of the chapter left me amused and thoughtful, but also concerned at the level of supposition and approximation necessary to flesh out the sources into a portrait.

My initial reaction — “more like pseudo-social science” — was largely triggered by the combination of overgeneralization (“peasants in mediaeval societies”) and oddly specific quantification (“only eighty people or so”) of a complex social phenomenon. These factoids sometimes have very questionable geneaologies, but because they stick in the head and illustrate something we already think to be true (the narrow social world of the peasant as opposed to our rich modern life, etc.), they get cited a lot.


Chris Bertram 04.30.09 at 7:07 am

I’m grateful to anon above for alerting me to the reviews of Robb. When and if I do blog about Robb, I’ll be saying slightly different things as a result (what a pity!). Nevertheless, the reviews by professional historians (I’ve googled some more) are very revealing about them too. The wounded _amour propre_ at a talented writer getting more attention than they do, the sneering at the personal detail that Robb reveals in his book (the cycling) , and the distortion of the book’s contents in significant respects (Kale’s _ad hominem_ overplaying of Robb’s alleged romantic anti-modernism) are all examples.


dave 04.30.09 at 8:08 am

banned commenter


Chris Bertram 04.30.09 at 11:33 am

#33 Yes, Dave, wrong is still wrong. Obviously I’m not a historian and that puts me in a very weak position to evaluate academic historians’ dismissal of Robb. I can, however, read, so I am able to compare the content of the book to their reports of it. Take the TNR review by David A. Bell of Johns Hopkins, for example. It contains the following passage:

bq. Hufton’s magnificent study of the eighteenth-century poor contains the sort of stunning original material that begs for a writer of Robb’s talent to convey to a larger public. Her vision of millions of men and women struggling to get by through an “economy of makeshifts,” many of them tramping at their tragically slow pace through the French countryside, often reduced to petty theft or prostitution to survive, is as colorful and as powerful as Robb’s vision of millions of men and women living their entire lives in virtual isolation, rarely encountering strangers or leaving the valleys of their birth. But Hufton’s tale has the advantage of being supported by the evidence.

Someone who hadn’t read Robb’s book and who relied entirely on the review would never suppose that there is an entire chapter of _The Discovery of France_ called “Migrants and Commuters” nor that said chapter references Hufton’s work several times.


dave 04.30.09 at 11:51 am

banned commenter


Another Damned Medievalist 05.01.09 at 2:51 am

Ahistoricality —

I think pretty much everybody takes the story of Bodo with a large grain of salt these days, but Power is still one of the people who began to ask these kinds of questions and set the stage for the kind of stuff I do (mediated by people like Herlihy and Wemple, among many others). I’d say you’re right in your gut feeling — although one can find examples of what Power talks about in many documents, her account rests on what’s probably a very general amalgamation.

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