The Crowd in the Early Middle Ages, c. 500 – c. 1000

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The Crowd in the Early Middle Ages, c. 500 – c. 1000

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Title: The Crowd in the Early Middle Ages, c. 500 – c. 1000
Author: Bobrycki, Shane
Citation: Bobrycki, Shane. 2016. The Crowd in the Early Middle Ages, c. 500 – c. 1000. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: Early medieval Europe is not well known for its crowds, unlike Antiquity or the later Middle Ages. After sixth-century demographic and urban decline, crowds were smaller, less spontaneous, and easier to control than in other periods of European history. This study, the first comprehensive analysis of collective behaviors and representations in Europe from c. 500 to c. 1000, argues that crowd-scarce early medieval societies nevertheless organized their institutions around the behavior of crowds. Assemblies, festivals, fairs, and the church’s invisible multitude of saints ensured that collective behavior remained central to early medieval public life. Under the impact of Christian values and new physical realities, elites abandoned old prejudices against mobs and rabbles while embracing the crowd’s legitimacy, with enduring results for later medieval political and religious life.

In chapter 1, archaeological and demographic evidence reveal how early medieval gatherings co-opted seasonal agglomerations such as markets, harvests, and festivals. Early medieval gatherings depended on the temporary accumulation of populations, and so became less spontaneous than their Roman antecedents. Chapter 2 draws on the sociology of crowds and on written and archaeological sources to trace the decline of late antique crowd spaces (the old circuses, theaters, baths, and colonnades of Roman cities). It shows why and where early medieval elites developed new, medieval gatherings, such as royal and church assemblies, hunts, armies and war-bands, and political ceremonies.

In chapter 3, the semantic history of collectivity in early medieval Latin and vernacular writings demonstrates how technical and connotative distinctions in ancient words for crowds became attenuated in the face of new concepts. The same word that had meant “a dangerous rabble” in the first century could be used to describe a sacred gathering of monks in the ninth century. Chapter 4 studies patterns to which crowds conformed in the imaginations revealed by written sources: clichés and type-scenes which repeated themselves in saints’ lives, histories, liturgy, and poems. Many of these literary devices reinforced links between crowds and legitimacy. Nevertheless, the chapter ends with counter-examples, in which elites expressed anxieties about crowds using new, gendered polemics.

Chapter 5 investigates rituals and their representations, like royal assemblies and liturgical rites, which arose at the intersection of early medieval material horizons for physical assembly and early medieval mentalities. It argues that the role of crowds in early medieval ritual gatherings, and their representation in visual media, endured in subsequent medieval political, religious, and legal institutions. It concludes by showing how eleventh-century demographic and urban expansion sparked a new crowd regime, which departed but also arose from the concepts and practices shaped in the first half-millennium of the Middle Ages.
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