Happy Lammas, Slaves, Now Get to Work

Lammas season((Northern Hemisphere)) has come, which means bloggers and social media users posting their photos of amber waves of grain. But there is dark side to our love of grain. It lies at the root of many evils: deforestation, environmental damage, slavery around the world, top-down imperial bureaucracies, epidemics, poor nutrition . . . pretty much everything that makes us human, right?

Located in what is now Syria, Ebla was an important city-state of the Bronze Age Middle East. ((Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.))

The photo shows 15 grinding stones — “querns” is an old medieval term. Maybe there were more. A woman knelt in front of every one. Maybe she was a palace slave — or an orphan, a foundling, or a widow with no family —someone of low status, however you look at it.

Back and forth she worked the upper stone, turning wheat into flour to make the bread. Bread for the king, bread for the royal court, bread for the temple priests and priestesses, bread for the royal guardsmen.

Archaeologists today can look at her toe bones, how they were shaped by kneeling for long hours at the grindstone.

Woman at a quern, drawing by J. Sylvia. ((Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.))

This is not a blog post about the Paleo diet; in fact, before there were towns, people were harvesting wild grasses along with many other things.

There is a version of human prehistory what “most of us (I include myself here) have unreflexively inherited,” writes Yale political scientist James Scott in his recent book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. In this “narrative of progress, “agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-crops, on the other hand, were the origin and generator of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws.”

Doesn’t this remind you of another “narrative of progress,” in which anarchic animism and shamanism were replaced by polytheism and then by a more pure monotheism — and then by atheism, particularly if you are a Marxist.

In chapters covering domesticaion, epidemics, slavery, war, barbarian-city rellationships, environmental destruction, and the fragility of city-states, Scott draws on examples from Bronze Age Egypt, Mespotamia, China, and other areas to contend that “the standard narrative” is wrong to suggest that people chose sedentary town life voluntarily.  Yet archaeologists and historians pay more attention to the sites with stone ruins and writing than to those without, even though the early city-states represented only a tiny fraction of the Earth’s population.

I can’t help but see a parallel to the way that the study of religion focuses on large, text-oriented religious organizations and on the interplay of specialists within them rather than on the “lived religion” and the personal spiritual experiences of average people.

The “standard narrative,” Scott writes, holds that it is “nconceivable that the ‘civilized’ could ever revert to primitivism “— yet it happpened again and again. People often fled rather than be forcibly incorporated into city-states: “Fixed settlement and plough agriculture were necessary to state-making, but they were just part of a large array of livelihood options not be taken up or abandoned as conditions changed.”

Maybe being “spiritual but not religious” is like slipping past the royal guardsmen to take up a life of hunting, gathering, and easy feral agriculture once again.

4 thoughts on “Happy Lammas, Slaves, Now Get to Work

  1. We had a similar discussion recently as we were hiking up Idaho’s Selway River stuffing our faces with endless berries. Imagine you’re a Nez Perce accustomed to picking berries, digging camas early summer, eating venison, and hanging out by beautiful rivers pulling out salmon and eels by the bucketload, and then some heat-exhausted foreigners can’t comprehend why you’re unenthusiastic about growing dryland wheat. I’d only take up farming at gunpoint too.

  2. One thing that surprised me is that James Scott did not use Genesis 12 , the departure of Abram (later Abraham), his extended family, and his flocks of animals from the city of Harran (after his earlier residence in Ur) in order to follow a pastoral lifestyle as an example of people fleeing a Mesopotamian city-state.

    With all the attention paid to biblical history and archaeology over the decades, could not the possible dates of that exodus be linked to the history of Mesopotamia?

  3. Cynthia Lepthien

    It’s much easier to “slip past the royal guardsmen” in a spiritual sense than in an economic sense.

  4. Pitch313

    The “march toward urban civilization” narrative, like other narratives of understanding that are passed along in academia and intellectual circles, can be dominant over any other possibilities. Even overwhelmingly dominant.

    But we do not really get many choices about enculturation. “Unreflexively inherited” describes it pretty well. Only later in a lifetime, in some cultural circumstances, do choices appear that individuals may take and maybe alter living situations. Or world views.

    Had my childhood circumstances been a little different, for example, I might have been turned into the “good Catholic” that some of my relatives cast my immediate family into the pit because my parents chose not to go along with that plan for me. And so I got to make choices that I otherwise might not have been able to make.

    The widely accepted narratives may certainly turn out to be incorrect. But it’s difficult to imagine (for me, at least) large human populations living without urban civilizations.

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