Boring Is Good, Actually
It’s been a heck of a winter, what with the advent of the Omicron variant, trucker convoys, and war in Europe. As I write this, I’ve just moved 400 miles and three cultural zones from Providence, Rhode Island, to Washington, DC. Ominous and imposing fencing is once again being erected around the US Capitol, this time in anticipation of the State of the Union address. Russia is toying with nuclear holocaust. Loud machines are tearing up the street outside the AHA townhouse for pipe work.
It’s all a bit much, frankly.
For those living through the period I usually study, Pyrenean Europe in the long 13th century, it was probably all a bit much too. The residents of Languedoc (the place where they say oc for yes), put up with constant warfare among local lords from the late 1090s to 1203, when this state of affairs was replaced by a full-blown, papally authorized crusade against “heresy”—a term as nebulous and ill used then as terrorist is today. To the region’s woes, the crusaders added political instability, the occasional massacre (“kill them all; God will sort it out”), Dominican inquisitors, and, perhaps worst of all, French rule. And just as things started to finally settle back down in the 1310s following a final wave of “antiheretical” persecutions, wham: a continent-wide famine and then the Black Death.
I am interested in some of the most quotidian and regular aspects of life in what is now southern France: legal contracts for the sale of land. Peter Ponce gives Ponce Peter three units of land and the buildings on it, which is bordered by the land held by William Raymond and the land held by William Raymond’s brother, Raymond William, and the land held by Raymond William’s son, William Raymond, and the public road, for 10 shillings paid at every All Souls’. That sort of thing. I won’t try to dissuade you from thinking that such items are incredibly banal—soporific, even. You would be right, even if I do occasionally stumble into a person named Arnold Prettybread (Panispulcher), Gerald Four-arms (Quatuorbrachia), Walter Dying-of-Love (Moriens-de-amore), or Guy Fleshbiter (Mordenscarnem), or the juicy tale of the lady Marquisa, the young widow of Arnold Bastion, living in Arnold’s old house with his attractive nephew (Desperate Housewives of Languedoc, anyone?). But I’ve been thinking a lot about the banality of such documents these days for the simple fact that they exist.
Not only do these documents exist—they exist in the thousands, scattered in archives throughout Languedoc. The precise number in each place varies widely based on the whims of fate and fire, but their quantity and ubiquity suggest that there were hundreds of thousands more that did not survive. And so, despite it all being a bit much, despite war and inquisition and famine and plague, the quotidian nevertheless persisted. People continued to butcher pigs, soak their skins in lye, scrape them thin, and stretch them on racks to let them dry. They cut up the result—parchment—into pieces, mixed ink from eggs and lamp soot, sharpened a quill, all to perpetuate the collective delusion that the written word, if properly formulated, possessed an abstract, impersonal, juridical authority and that an individual, if properly trained, could direct that authority to a purpose of their choosing. That is, they continued to write out, collect, and preserve contracts for minor transactions even as the sky was, metaphorically speaking, falling.
Humans persist in the strangest endeavors (e.g., turning pigs into legal documents) in times of great upheaval, so long as those endeavors are socially and culturally regular or expected. That the banal continues through crisis is, I think, a comforting truth. The banal can even create moments of peace and stillness in chaos. And so although everything might end in an instant, that’s no reason to change a routine, no matter where in history we find ourselves.
It’s all a bit much, but we still must get on with it.
Leland Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.
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