Campus & Community

Gossip, litigiousness, the invention of the address

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Daniel Lord Smail explores small talk and big epochs

How did we get here from there? That’s the question that preoccupies historian Daniel Lord Smail, who joined Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences as professor of history on Jan. 1.

Smail is a late medieval historian, covering the period from 1250 to 1500, and his work has thus far centered on the southern French city of Marseille. He discovered in Marseille “a very, very large archive that was comparatively understudied at the time I began working on it,” he said. The archive contained notarial records (contracts, property transactions, loans, and debts), court records, and more.

His first monograph, “Imaginary Cartographies: Possession and Identity in Late Medieval Marseille” (Cornell University Press, 1999), used these records to, as Smail put it, “study the mental maps that lie behind the ways in which people identified property in property transactions in Marseille in the 13th and 14th centuries.”

“There were few maps and no such thing as the science of surveying in the middle ages,” explained Smail. “There were no addresses. So how do they know where a property is located?” It turns out that record keepers used a variety of terms to identify property and locations, and that these terms, which in the 13th century were very diverse, slowly became standardized over the following centuries. “One can think of it as the invention of the address, about how it came about that addresses were attached to properties,” said Smail.

“Imaginary Cartographies” was awarded the Social Science History Association’s President’s Book Award in 1999 and the American History Association’s Herbert Baxter Adams Prize in 2001.

Smail’s next book, he says, was the product of serendipity. As he was researching his first book in the Marseille archives, he came across the records of the Palace Court, the first level of legal jurisdiction in medieval Marseille. “I began looking at [the records],” said Smail, “and realized that this was an extraordinarily rich volume of material.” And there were a lot of them – thousands and thousands of pages of records of litigation. “These are primarily records of people engaged in lawsuits related to property, dowry, things like that. They tell us stories about the interactions of people and you get witness testimony that’s astonishingly vivid,” Smail said. “It really inserts you in the period in a way that no other record does from the middle ages.”

When Smail reads the court records, he isn’t as interested in the facts – who owed money to whom – as he is in the process, the ways in which the people interact, and the type of information allowed to be presented to the courts. He discovered that a type of oral communication – gossip, essentially – called “fama” had quasi-authoritative standing in the medieval legal system.

The product was Smail’s second monograph, “The Consumption of Justice: Emotions, Publicity, and Legal Culture in Marseille, 1264-1423” (Cornell University Press, 2003). In this book, Smail takes an anthropologically inspired approach to trace the rise of law courts in late medieval states. He shows that boisterous fishermen, merchants, prostitutes, craftsmen, widows, and others used the courts as a new theater in which to attack, humiliate, and harass their enemies. He concludes that it was this pursuit of petty vendettas, not any loftier thirsting for legal adjudication, which largely fueled the early growth of court systems.

The book was the recent co-winner of the Hurst Prize of the Law and Society Association.

Smail describes his books as cultural histories, or “intellectual histories with a small ‘i’ – they are about how very ordinary people think about their world and navigate through their world.”

Deep history

In addition to medieval history, Smail is interested in what he has termed “deep history.” History is often thought of as beginning with the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Greece, approximately 6,000 years ago. Smail would argue that human history is “deeper,” and begins with the first hominid, Australopithecus, as early as 5.4 million years ago.

“It’s the onus of history to give students some understanding of the whole span of time, from the big bang down to the present,” said Smail. Other disciplines carve out things that are particular to their history, like geology will study the movement of continents, and evolutionary biology will study the extinctions and descent of animal species, but it’s history’s role to be inclusive and to draw the various pieces together.

“Time matters,” said Smail. “Time matters because it gives you a context for understanding things in the present world.”

Smail noted, for example, that in Paleolithic societies (beginning 2 million years ago), women were extraordinarily mobile. They had to be, because they lived in hunting and gathering societies. “One of the effects of the agricultural revolution is the loss of female mobility, the association of women with the household. And then you get spectacular cases like foot-binding practices in China, or the invention of high heels in Europe, things that hinder women’s mobility.

“It’s interesting to look at these things in a postlithic era, but it’s even more interesting if you see the long time perspective, how the invention of civilization has meant that women get locked down and don’t move nearly as much,” said Smail. And this is just one of many kinds of cross-time comparisons Smail makes that “make you think,” as he said.

Current work

Smail, who recently published an article on deep history, is currently working on a short book on the subject. Some historians believe that history is limited to its sources, and therefore history is limited to that period after which writing developed. Smail plans to tackle this objection head-on, arguing for the inclusion of other disciplines like archaeology and evolutionary biology.

Smail is also planning on continuing his work with fama – the way people talk about reputation, news, and facts – in medieval Marseille. There is a convention in medieval history that points to the important transformation from orality to written records. The use of fama in medieval Marseille represents a time when written documentation shared the spotlight with information passed orally, a time when the world of information was much more complex.

This semester, Smail is teaching an undergraduate tutorial for history majors on medieval Europe and a graduate proseminar. “It’s great,” he said, “to be working with students who don’t have to be convinced that the medieval is important.”

Smail received his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1984 and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1994. He joined the faculty of Fordham University as an assistant professor in 1995, was promoted to associate professor in 2001, and to full professor in 2004.