Historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and sociologists are accustomed to categorizing the inhabitants of the rural farming households of medieval England as peasants without questioning the disciplinary implications of imposing such a category on historical subjects. Foundational categories, such as the worker, the peasant, the woman, become so familiar that they appear natural and divert us from studying the historical and power-charged processes involved in their constructions, past and present. The century-old debate over views of medieval English peasants as bound statically by custom, on the one hand, or as dynamically diverse or mobile, on the other, perhaps expresses embedded disciplinary tensions in the historic division of labor between anthropology (including archaeology) and history. From their disciplinary formation in the early modern period, anthropology and history together have constructed and guarded an imaginary but nevertheless potent boundary between the historical and the primitive, a boundary that divided the European colonizer from the non-European colonized and that within Europe divided the historical past from the traditional past. Who gets an anthropology and who gets a history therefore becomes a question of historic and power-charged disciplinary practices. As a foundational category, “peasant” straddles both disciplines and both divisions of the past, historical and traditional.
In this essay, I wish to examine the powerful yet unacknowledged ways in which these disciplinary practices inform medieval peasant studies. I shall focus especially on the study of the material culture of the medieval English peasantry. Both history and archaeology claim the medieval English peasant to justify disciplinary narratives.