Monday, February 12, 2007

Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England

I've been carrying this book around for quite awhile now, and I keep meaning to post about it, and keep forgetting. Last summer, when I first started thinking about my essay on the Old English "Seven Sleepers" legend and was casting around, blindly, in the literature of selfhood, Nancy Partner recommended to me the historian David Gary Shaw's book, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England, as the best book she knew of on selfhood in the Middle Ages. I have to agree. Then again, what do I know? Seriously, I am not as much of an expert on this subject as is Nancy Partner, who I admire tremendously, so naturally, I take her word for it, but what I do know, now having read this book, is that it is one of the best [and most elegantly written] works I have read on selfhood, period, not just in the Middle Ages. I would put this book alongside Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self as required reading for anyone interesting in parsing out the various relationships and psychic traffic between self and world, both in the past and present, although admittedly, Shaw's book is mainly concerned with the medieval, epsecially the late medieval town [urban] self.

It is the primary aim of Shaw's book, as he himself states it, to make "an interesting guess" at "reading meaning into past selves," a task which has often been considered problematic by historians, by considering what he terms the "social self." To start with, Shaw considers the self to be "a highly localized site of awareness" that "is bound, at least for this worldly life, to a body. An important corollary of this principle is that the self identifies with its body and expresses itself by its body" [p. 12]. Further, he writes, "History's weight on us is constant and immense, and it is composed mainly of language and custom. We do not originate these, but we enter into them as into a house, well furnished both with goods and routines." It has to be stressed, however, that self

is not constructed solely by its environment, but also by the interpretive action that means not only suffering the world but also coming to understand it and your place within it. There is room here for a self to innovate and try to transform that place by thought and action. The particualr way a self or groups of selves do so is the actual subject of history.

The question of self and society focuses, then, on the nature of the self's agency when each individual emerges slowly into a world already so well appointed. It is not only that you grow inside a particular language such as English. That is only the bladest part. It is that you were born into a particular historical situation, into a family with a known social standing, a reputation, and a level of wealth, and its own quirky traditions. . . . Thus, on Pierre Bourdieu's account, the sense of agency is grander than the reality just because the limitations and dominance bequeathed by the milieu, by the
habitus (custom), are deemed decisive. [p. 13]

An here's one of my favorite parts:

. . . . the self is always, as Charles Taylor has argued, pre-eminently a self-interpreting animal. If culture can dominate and constrain a person, if the subjective identity is a necessary part of understanding how power relations work, it is because the core of the self is an interpreter who can only be controlled by trying to put a blindfold or blinkers on its creative narrative. Although parts of everybody's account of life are plagiarized, this does not prove that his or her stories cannot be significantly original. Some social historians might not think that these narrative or hemeneutical idiosyncracies add up to much, but if one is as interested in meaning as in causation, then God is in the details. [p. 15]

For Shaw, "the self in history is mainly the social self, for it is perhaps all that is left of human nature to say that a person's nature is to fashion herself out of tools she does not own, in the context of a world that she did not initiate, and cannot ignore" [p. 16]. I will leave everyone with Palgrave's brief description of the book:

Necessary Conjunctions is an original study of how regular medieval people created their public social identities. Focusing especially on the world of English townspeople in the later Middle Ages, the book explores the social self, the public face of the individual. It gives special attention to how prevalent norms of honor, fidelity and hierarchy guided and were manipulated by medieval citizens. With variable success, medieval men and women defined themselves and each other by the clothes they work, the goods they cherished, as well as by their alliances and enemies, their sharp tongues and petty violence. Employing a highly interdisciplinary methodology and an original theory makes it possible to see how personal agency and identity developed within the framework of later medieval power structures.


kdegruy said...

I just ILLed this as a treat for myself when I finally, finally print out and circulate my 'finished' thesis to the committee on Monday. And it came today (my librarians are fast!) And I'm not peeking at it in between edits. I'm not. I'm especially not reading Ch. 7.

Thanks for posting the blurb!

Eileen Joy said...

kdegruy--I'm so glad you ordered this book; you'll love it. Cheers, Eileen