Lammas seasonNorthern 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?
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.
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.