Medieval anthropology: a working bibliography

Back in May I discussed the curious absence of anthropological research on the Middle Ages or ‘medieval anthropology’, and made wild and obviously false promises to produce a bibliography of this hemidemisemidiscipline.

– I’ve excluded material that is strictly bioarchaeological / forensic / epidemiological in nature; biological anthropologists do all sorts of interesting work on the Middle Ages but it’s a different sort of thing than I’m talking about here.
– Similarly, medieval archaeology is an enormous field but generally the archaeology of medieval Europe falls outside of anthropology. Where there is neither a comparative nor a holistic element to the work, I’ve excluded it.
– Material written by historians with an interest in anthropology is excluded, not because I have complaints about its quality but because my aim is to discuss the particularly anthropological literature on the Middle Ages.
– By chronology alone, large parts of New World archaeology and epigraphy (Maya, Aztec, Inka) can only reasonably be defined as ‘medieval’. The exclusion of the New World civilizations from the ‘medieval’ world may be pure ethnocentrism, but including it would dwarf all the other material by at least two orders of magnitude, and would defeat my purposes.
– I’ve tried to be relatively thorough but this is, as the title suggests, a working bibliography only. Contributions are welcome!

The bibliography currently has around 40 items, of which several authors have multiple publications each, and there is very little from the past decade. Despite the prominence of several of these figures (Kroeber, Goody, Turner, Appadurai, Macfarlane), I would almost be willing to stake the claim that they could get away with talking about the Middle Ages because their prominence allowed them to flout disciplinary conventions. Others (Hodgen, Naroll, Hewes) were eminent but little-known outside their own small circles. The bibliography roughly groups into several distinct categories; a) Icelandic studies; b) studies of medieval family / marriage using anthropological work on kinship; c) matter on religion and ritual using medieval Christianity as analogue or as comparative material; d) comparative-civilizational scholarship; e) formalistic material in cross-cultural studies.

Anderson, R. T. (1971). Voluntary associations in history. American anthropologist, 73(1), 209-222.
Appadurai, A. (1988). The social life of things: commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge Univ Pr.
Asad, T. (1983). Notes on body pain and truth in medieval Christian ritual. Economy and Society, 12(3), 287-327.
Asad, T. (1986). Medieval heresy: an anthropological view. Social History, 11(3), 345-362.
Asad, T. (1987). On ritual and discipline in medieval Christian monasticism. Economy and Society, 16(2), 159-203.
Boone III, J. L. (1986). Parental investment and elite family structure in preindustrial states: a case study of late medieval-early modern Portuguese genealogies. American anthropologist, 859-878.
Brown, D. E. (1988). Hierarchy, history, and human nature: The social origins of historical consciousness. Univ of Arizona Pr.
Bullough, D. A. (1969). Early Medieval Social Groupings: The Terminology of Kinship. Past & Present, 45(1), 3.
Carneiro, R. L. (1969). The measurement of cultural development in the ancient Near East and in Anglo-Saxon England. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, 31, 1013-23.
Cohn, B. S. (1980). History and anthropology: the state of play. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 22(2), 198-221.
Durrenberger, E. P. (1992). The dynamics of medieval Iceland: political economy & literature. Univ of Iowa Pr.
Geary, P. J. (1994). Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages. Cornell Univ Pr.
Gellner, E. (1992). Plough, sword, and book: the structure of human history. University of Chicago Press.
Goody, J. (1977). The domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge University Press.
Goody, J. (1983). The development of the family and marriage in Europe. Cambridge University Press.
Hastrup, K. (1985). Culture and history in medieval Iceland: an anthropological analysis of structure and change. Oxford University Press, USA.
Hastrup, K. (1990). Island of anthropology: studies in past and present Iceland. Coronet Books Inc.
Herzfeld, M. (1989). Anthropology through the looking-glass. Cambridge University Press.
Hewes, G. W. (1981). Prospects for More Productive Comparative Civilizational Studies. Cross-Cultural Research, 16(1-2), 167-185. doi:10.1177/106939718101600109
Hodgen, M. T. (1945). Glass and Paper: An Historical Study of Acculturation. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 1(4), 466-497.
Hodgen, M. T. (1950). Similarities and Dated Distributions. American Anthropologist, 52(4), 445-467.
Hodgen, M. T. (1952). Change and History. A Study of the Dated Distributions of Technological Innovations in England, New York: Wenner-Green Foundation for Anthropological Research.
Hodgen, M. T. (1964). Early anthropology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Univ of Pennsylvania Pr.
Hodgen, M. T. (1974). Anthropology, history, and cultural change. Univ of Arizona Pr.
Hsu, E. (2007). The experience of wind in early and medieval Chinese medicine. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (NS), 117, S134.
Kroeber, A. L. (1919). On the principle of order in civilization as exemplified by changes of fashion. American Anthropologist, 21(3), 235-263.
Kroeber, A. L. (1945). The ancient Oikoumene as an historic culture aggregate. Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 9-20.
Kroeber, A. L. (1958). Gray’s epicyclical evolution. American Anthropologist, 60(1), 31-38.
Kroeber, A. L. (1951). Is Western Civilization Disintegrating or Reconstituting? Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 95(2), 100-104.
Kroeber, A. L. (1966). An anthropologist looks at history. University of California Press.
Macfarlane, A. (1977). History, anthropology and the study of communities. Social History, 2(5), 631-652.
Macfarlane, A. (1978). The origins of English Individualism: some surprises. Theory and Society, 6(2), 255-277.
Macfarlane, A., & Sharpe, J. A. (1999). Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: a regional and comparative study. Routledge.
Moreland, J. (2006). Archaeology and Texts: Subservience or Enlightenment. Annual Review of Anthropology, 35, 135-51.
Naroll, R., Bullough, V. L., & Naroll, F. (1974). Military deterrence in history. SUNY Press.
Symonds, L. (2009). Death as a Window to Life: Anthropological Approaches to Early Medieval Mortuary Ritual. Reviews in Anthropology, 38, 48-87. doi:10.1080/00938150802672949
Turner, V. W., & Turner, E. (1995). Image and pilgrimage in Christian culture. Columbia University Press.
Van Gerven, D. P., Sheridan, S. G., & Adams, W. Y. (1995). The health and nutrition of a medieval Nubian population: the impact of political and economic change. American Anthropologist, 97(3), 468-480.



  1. Ooh, lots that could be added here! But let’s start with Donald Bullough again, but this time his book, Friends, Neighbours and Fellow-Drinkers: aspects of community and conflict in the early medieval west, H. M. Chadwick Memorial Lectures 1 (Cambridge 1991) and pretty much all of the work of Stephen White but especially his Custom, kinship, and gifts to saints. the laudatio parentum in western France, 1050-1150 (Chapel Hill: Carolina UP 1988) and his first volume of collected papers, Feuding and Peace-making in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (Aldershot: Ashgate 2005). Both of these are historians informed by anthropology: I believe there’s some work by Geertz which is the other way round, though I might struggle to find the reference. In particular, work on dispute settlement and burial archæology tends to drink from these streams at least a bit nowadays. (And then there’s the lunatic fringe working on matriliny… )

    • Jonathan – thanks! I actually forgot to remove that Bullough reference from my list on the grounds that I had decided to exclude ‘historians with an anthropological bent’. But on reflection it seems almost as if this category needs some attention, because you’re quite right that there are areas (disputes, burials, kinship, marriage, witchcraft) where there is cross-citation and some real interdisciplinarity and drawing lines in the sand may not be helpful.

      There’s also the issue not just of scholarship that is interdisciplinary, but work that isn’t (yet) interdisciplinary but should be read more widely by another discipline. So, e.g., the Kroeber book, An anthropologist looks at history, is, although ancient (originally published 1946, I think), a good starting point for interdisciplinary conversation.

    • Thanks – interesting post! As for my bibliography, I’m rather torn – on the one hand there is good ‘medieval anthropology’ written by historians and that I’d want my students to read. On the other hand, there is value in pointing out just how big the gap is in anthropology, identifying the many ways in which medievalists and anthropologists have not been working together. It also raises some tricky issues: Macfarlane is an anthropologist but his witchcraft book is no more ‘anthropological’ than all sorts of other stuff written by historians. Does the label follow the scholar or the work?

      (Out of modesty I have not added my own book to the list, although it surely qualifies.)

    • I’m afraid that if I were to start including philosophers, theologians, etc. who occasionally use anthropological theory to think about the Middle Ages then it would be an extremely different list, and not of much interest to anthropologists. That being said, there obviously is some wiggle room in my list for, e.g. people like Gellner, but Gellner’s work was thoroughly grounded in anthropological theory. I can’t say that’s true of people like Girard, or Norbert Elias, or other such peripheral figures.

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