Edward Muir: ‘Why didn’t the dog bark in Buia?’

Edward Muir is an authority on early modern ritual and the nature of community in Italy and Europe. Here, he discusses his work, methodology and new directions in the field (24-3-2011).

David Rosenthal: It might be useful to start by asking about your approach in your ‘The Idea of Community’ article of several years ago [Renaissance Quarterly, 55, 2002, 1-18]. When you found those documents, and in them the desperate cry of Costantino Rizzardi in the town of Buia in the Friuli, “help me my commune!”, you clearly thought that this was a way to unpack community. At the same time you were engaging, not for the first time, with the debate over the so-called Putnam thesis about social capital, which argued that the social democratic success of some northern and central Italian regions was rooted in medieval civic republicanism [R. Putnam, Making Democracy Work, Princeton, 1993]. This debate, which seemed to have flickered out, is in fact still exercising renaissance historians [N. Eckstein and N. Terpstra, eds., Sociability and its Discontents: Civil Society, Social Capital and their Alternatives in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Brepols, 2009]. How does your thinking about early modern communities fit into that debate?

Edward Muir: That document was a spia, a spy, a clue to a bigger set of concerns that preoccupied me all along, the relationship between communities and what me might call anti-communities, that is to say the processes that are corrosive or destructive or maybe even precede the creation of a community. In Italian terms, how do communities get constructed and what is on the other side of communities, what are people afraid of, and what are the sources of violence? So my work on feuding was an attempt to look at anti-community, or the way in which family and private networks were corrosive to community life. I’d already written this big study of feud, which in my own head is in dialectic with my work on communities. When I was writing on that book [Mad Blood Stirring, Johns Hopkins, 1993], I ran across this little document in the little town of Buia. Now Buia was in the midst of the enormous conflagration in 1511, the most bloody vendetta-factional outbreak in Renaissance Italy. I mapped out locations of violence in 1511 and a few years after that. This town of Buia was a peaceful island. So, to use a Ginzburgian model of microhistory, this was the piece that didn’t fit. Why didn’t the dog bark there? I ran across this case, a violent outbreak, but it was the community against the local lord rather than factional conflict that prevails everywhere else. That raised the question, what cultural or political resources did this community have that its neighbours didn’t? The answer became, it had statutes, a legal framework that local elites, in this case a notary, defended, and could use against the lord, and negotiate a better position for the community. So the hypothesis was that statues matter, that is to say the political-legal structure mattered. Now someone has to enforce it, believe in it, follow it, but that I think was what was going on in that moment when the community tried to prevent the arrest of their notary by the henchmen of the local lord. It’s a clue to another set of relationships.

I think communities, either latent or unrecognised, come into being in moments of stress – and in moments of stress people have to make choices. So this is a moment where you can see the operation of human agency, and one of big goals in scholarship in the last 25 to 30 years is to bring agency back in as we escape from structuralist kinds of models. In those moments people are forced to makes choices, which have consequences, with gains and losses. In this case I knew the names of most of the people hanging out in that tavern and tried to figure out who they were. I couldn’t go very far, but I realised that there were a number of families there on this occasion who were willing to protect the local notary against the lord. This was precisely the sort of thing that had failed to happen in so many other places in the previous seven or eight years, where communities, such as they were, were divided sometimes quite literally with chains in the road, defining turf, dominated by gangs, in a phenomenon that we can still recognise in the modern world. That didn’t happen there. It’s a Sherlock Holmesian method – to look for the piece that doesn’t fit. It always points towards something particular rather than general and it’s in the particular that you find agency – and that’s what I want to find.

As for Robert Putnam, he is one of these interesting guys who asks the right questions but I don’t think has correct answers. Putnam’s notion of social capital has several advantages. One, it pushes us away from what has become an arid debate between [renaissance] republicanism and monarchy, between a constitutional approach and looking at the otherwise hidden social fabric of communities. Looking for social capital points us towards acts of association, and the ways association can be a grounding for broader community connections. The really key question he asks is about this leap from thick trust to thin trust, a move from a community based on face-to-face interpersonal connections very often cemented by marriage alliances – a very powerful form of social cement but the opposite of a community – to what he calls thin trust, this acceptance of trusting in what in many ways is an abstraction, so that you’re willing to place your loyalty with people you don’t know. That seems to me the fundamental question in the creation of community, the nature of trust. Where does trust come from, how is it constructed, or represented, how is it renegotiated, rejuvenated and transmitted culturally over time?

Putnam’s historical construction of Italian history is pretty faulty, it’s based on a crude understanding of medieval Italy. It’s a kind of hopeless model, in the sense that if you didn’t become a community in the 12th century it’s all over. I think Friuli is a prime example of why the model is wrong. Friuli was capable of dramatic social change after 1976. By his measure it has one of the highest levels of community association today, an enormous success as a region making plans for its future, particularly after the earthquake of 1976, and leapfrogging itself from a backward region to one of the richest regions in Europe – and it had no communal tradition at all, Buia is this little weird exception. The model doesn’t take account of moments of agency in which communities can transform themselves quite radically. There are also two big disadvantages in the way he presents it. He really does ignore economic models, He doesn’t want to see poverty as making a difference. Secondly, he doesn’t place enough weight on religion. And if we think about events over the last 10 to 15 years, religion has become paramount as a symbolic field in which identity is formed  and divisions are made – it’s both a community builder and corrosive to communities. In the United States, but Europe too. If you think about contemporary France or Holland, for example, what is the place of Muslim communities there? It’s always true in America, which is a bizarrely religious place. Plus, our social science colleagues are interested in building models, and though we use models, as a way of clarifying ideas, we have a kind of aversion to them because in the end we’re interested in change, and most models have a static component.

DR: The other important theme for you is ritual. I’m thinking of putting these things together now and talking about ritual communities. What is the role of ritual in the approach to community that you have developed? More generally, how would you describe the kind of anthropology that you have imported into renaissance history and where do you think that’s heading now?

EM: My first approach to ritual, as I would now look back on it, was a little naïve. I saw ritual as a way of creating communities through representation, but more importantly through the capacity to evoke emotions. It was a kind of enactment of a set of ideas. These were about ideas of community – you were a member of a community by participating in ritual in an essentially non-literate society that has to do with public performances. My initial approach was not open enough or aware enough of counters to that, on a local level, or a gendered level, or a class level. Second is something I really learned from Richard Trexler in the heavy debates we had for many years, as good friends. His approach is much more radical than mine in the sense that it’s behaviouralist, almost to the complete exclusion of ideas or formal ideas, or he would want to make it that way. The telling point of his approach is to talk about the ways the affective processes of rites and rituals take place even before any appreciation of language or ideas in a child’s life. So he talks about children learning to pray who could not possibly comprehend theology – and this becomes a kind of embodied memory. That was a really powerful idea. He was perhaps a little too radical, because ideas do matter. There’s a dialogue going on all the time between formal articulated sets of principles and behaviour that cannot be reduced to these principles. But on the other hand behaviours often call forth an explanation.

So what was going on that tavern in Buia may have had nothing to do with statutes, but to represent that action outside the community you have to enter into a broader intellectual field. So there’s a dialogue always going on between words and actions, ideas and emotive moments. That’s what intrigued me all along: that you can’t have a community without a passion for it; and at the same time there’s something quite fragile about a community based on ritual. One of the really telling ethnographic moments that all historians should see is Nicolae Ceauşescu’s last speech. Here is an authoritarian regime based on mass rallies, public presentations. He’s up there giving this speech, and the crowd starts chanting, and you literally watch his power dissolve right in front your eyes. You can see it in his face, in the people around him, you can see it in the whole crowd. You literally watch the collapse of a performance. So without some deeper connections, these performances can be incredibly fragile and transitory.

As for anthropology today, ethnography in particular, it’s deeply in crisis. My main guide for thinking about this is the work of George Marcus and James Clifford, who have been involved in what they would call repatriating anthropology, bringing methods from the study of what we would no longer call the primitive, to apply them to the global world, and to look at change. They’re particularly interested in what happens with globalisation in all kinds of societies, even including NGOs and voluntary organisations. In that sense they have become much closer to being historians, because they are interested in processes of change, than they would have been 30 years ago. So in some ways there has been an intriguing merging of approaches [though] I think there’s still a tendency in anthropology to want to construct, maybe unravel, deep meanings through behaviour and representations. There’s a very interesting essay by Clifford on Fort Ross in northern California [J. Clifford, ‘Fort Ross Meditation’, in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Harvard UP, 1997]. It’s the point where the Spanish and Russian empires met, it was a Russian trading post.  He uses this as a device to understand something broader about empires, about the way empires moved indigenous peoples from Alaska down there – in fact he has a whole series of issues. That’s something that historians can still latch on to. It’s like my use of Buia, though his is much more broadly interpretative because there’s a lot of bigger issues.

One area in which community studies is going is network theory. I’m thinking of the sociologist Paul McClean and political scientist, John Padgett. The problem with that is it’s heavily quantitative and most historians, including myself, are not equipped to do that work. It’s incredibly labour intensive. Avner Greif, the economist at Stanford, has a similar approach, looking at 15th-century Florentine loans and contracts, using loans as a marker of social networks and relationships. It’s so sophisticated and complicated I’m not sure if in the long run this is going to be a major source of historical knowledge. Paul McClean has been doing this stuff for 20 years and in many ways he has a very powerful demonstration of the obvious. I’m not sure I’d say what I’ve learned – class mattered in Florence, a few elites were lending money to one another. Well, I think I already knew that.

DR: Networks in general have become interesting, though, if we’re interested in community. In early modern terms we’re often thinking in terms of two broad categories of community, one closely linked to spaces, and then those that are not necessarily linked to one particular space – and therefore cross-urban networks become quite important. So for example in work I’ve done on German migrants in Florence in the early 16th century. They’re scattered around, a group here, another there, but these people know each other. So other factors, like a common ethnic identity, can transcend particular spaces.

EM: Right, and everybody ends up with multiple networks, so the question is, which one is the most important? And that tends to be contextual and changing. Here’s the tension: you can map these loans in 15th-century Florence, but it’s in specific contexts and moments of choice where you have a loan that matters or doesn’t matter, where you figure out whether your ethnic connection is more important than your neighbour or another commercial relationship. I’m often struck by a passing comment by Ronald Weissman in ‘The Importance of Being Ambiguous’ [in Urban Life in the Renaissance, eds. S. Zimmerman and R.F. Weissman, Univ. Delaware Press, 1989]. It’s based on the simple observation that if you look at the portfolios of a lot of Florentine merchant families it looks like they are losing their shirts financially because they have all these outstanding loans they never collect. His answer is, well there’s something going on here other than the maximisation of profit. It’s something to do with a set of social connections. You can’t find that in Padgett and McClean’s network theory. What you have is the quantitative measure of loans, to whom they are made and how much they are.

I think there’s also an economy of energy here. There are only so many of us and we’ll only live so long. So how much time do we spend demonstrating to the satisfaction of our colleagues in the business school that we’re right. I was at the Stanford Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences a few years ago, which was heavily dominated by political scientists, economists, psychologists, sociologists, and there were a few of us who were humanistic types. We became incredibly frustrated with the gap between the methods of the heavy quantifiers and those of us who are more interested in an interpretative framework. The best example was a very good historian who was writing a history of romantic love since the 12th century. We all know as historians that it’s an interesting topic. Love changes, it gets connected to marriage at certain points, at other points it’s got nothing to do marriage. It’s one of the most powerful cultural concepts we have. He gave a talk about chivalric love and how it changed in the Protestant Reformation. The social science types could not get beyond primate sexual behaviour. Their idea was that love was about mating. To some degree it is, but it changes. They had no ability methodologically to look at change. What is interesting to the historians is precisely the stuff that goes beyond primate mating behaviour, and has a cultural resonance. I think that tension is very powerful – even more powerful than it may have been in the Sixties and Seventies because of a lot of scepticism on the historians’ side about what can be achieved through these methods.

Two points here. There are great achievements coming out of the intellectual tradition of social science history, one of which is of course Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber’s work, which utterly transformed the way we think about Florentine families. And I think of Scofield and Wrigley’s work on population, particularly in Britain, in the same way. So the demographic stuff was really successful. In the United States there was a moment of dramatic cleavage. I can date it quite precisely to 1975. Before that we were told that quantitative methods would answer all historical questions. We would know what caused the French Revolution. In 1975 there was a famous book called Time on the Cross [R. Fogel and S.L. Engerman, 1974]. It was a macro-economic study of slavery in the US by two economists. It was based on a counterfactual assumption. They asked, would slavery as an economic system have survived if there hadn’t been a civil war? And they had massive bodies of data to argue that slavery as an economic system was functioning quite well. Now this looked like science but was politics. The American Historical Association convention of 1975 was devoted to that book – and I think it led to a cleavage when a lot of us gave up on the full-fledged formal application of social science models in history, because it looked to us like the emperor had no clothes. The fundamental fact was that there was a civil war and it was a war about values, about what kind of a country you wanted to have. It wasn’t about whether one economic system was better than another.

DR: Your agenda has clearly been democratising in some sense, both in your work on communities and ritual, about as you say discovering the agency of people who previously were not regarded as having much of a role in history. I suspect most historians using ethnographic methods are thinking about what are in some sense marginal groups.

EM: This is where I’d say Ginzburg’s methods are particularly helpful, controversial as they are. He’s looking for fragments of oral culture, or certainly was in the Seventies and Eighties, the ways in which we recapture these lost words. Trials and inquisition records are the best way to do it, as notaries transcribe those words. I’m deeply attracted to that as a model. He’s shown we can find the agency and voices of individual people who were otherwise lost. They tend to be people who get themselves in trouble. That generates records, so we construct a cultural norm by learning all about the circle around it, by defining the abnormal – which is a lot of what we’ve done over the last 20 to 25 years.

DR: Is that played out? Have we now excavated the margins?

EM: I think there is some sense of, do we need one more study of a heretic, or a lesbian nun, or a crazy miller? One book that continues to do this very effectively, though, is Thomas Robisheaux’s The Last Witch of Langenburg [Norton, 2009]. What he’s done is take the last witchcraft trial in Germany in the late 17th century, and what he does is look at what we might see as various communities of discourse that speak about this case. So there’s a medical one, a theological one, a judicial one, there’s the actual neighbourhood in which the case takes place with a set of people who knew this woman and had their animosities and friendships, and there’s the local civic government. He brings all of this into play. It’s not just about finding the marginal voices. He’s not so much interested in her or the case, as much as these multiple rhetorics and discourses. There’s a lot still to be said about that: it’s not just Menocchio the heretic miller, but the range of discourses that appear in a community around a particular question or phenomenon.

We’re also more and more interested in the movement of peoples, because massive migration is a contemporary problem, and I think also the relationships among different religious communities. There are institutions that have not been very extensively explored. In Italy there are orders of catechumens who are dealing with conversion. Eric Dursteler has written a book that’s coming out on conversion of Muslims to Christianity, which he uses as a way of tracing mostly women who had a relationship with Christian men, but he is really looking at the whole conversion process [E. Dursteler, Renegade Women: Gender, Identity, and Boundaries in the Early Modern Mediterranean, Johns Hopkins, 2011]. We would see that as very common in early modern Europe but it’s not much interrogated. What does it meant to convert, to change from one religion to another, or from one community to another? One way to look at migrants is to look at health records, since you always assume the outsider is bringing disease. Giulia Calvi did this 20 years ago with the plague in Florence of 1630, so you learn all about these vagabonds because that’s who the health authorities were interested in.

So have we depleted the marginal? I’m not so sure. But I think the next move is to be able to map out the range of interactions in and possible ways of conceiving of a community. One of my graduate students, Stephanie Nadalo, who’s working on Livorno, is trying to do this. Livorno was founded in 1591, as a community open to any religion. It’s specifically in the statues, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. Protestants even. It doesn’t mention Muslims but there was a Muslim community there, and she’s even found a mosque in the 17th century. Here you have these multiple religious communities, a city in which the cathedral and Sephardic temple are in the same piazza – all under government protection. What she’s interested in is the relationship between these communities. She’s plotted this out spatially, the way conflicts are resolved, and networks of relationships that she can reconstruct through loans. This is not one town – what does it meant to be a Venetian or a Florentine – but what does it mean to be an Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jew in relationship with other people? And in so doing, of course what happens is she interrogates and in some ways undermines the very notion of community. So an Ashkenazi will identify him or herself that way and yet there are all kinds of other relationships that take place in a community like that, and so we get back to networks. However, we have to keep this from getting analytically too vague. Historians have several deep failings. One is that our taste for the particular can destroy our ability to create generalisations. Secondly we must have a commitment to trace and explore change. So any time we import social science models we have to be careful, because change is what we are about or should be about. That’s what our discipline contributes to the larger intellectual discourse.

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