The Greeks

Jean-Pierre Vernant (editor)

The University of Chicago Press 1995

The Byzantines

Guglielmo Cavallo (editor)

The University of Chicago Press 1997

The Egyptians

Sergio Donadoni (editor)

The University of Chicago Press 1997

Medieval Callings

Jacques Le Goff (editor)

The University of Chicago Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999 http://dannyreviews.com/
These four books are part of an Italian social history series. Each contains ten or so long essays by specialists on particular "types" of people, defined by profession, activity, position, or other criteria. This framework is not an opening for simplistic typological classification, but rather a method for approaching social diversity: the contributors vary in the extent to which they try to describe regional and temporal variation, but all are wary of oversimplification.

Some of the essays deal with clearly defined positions ("The Emperor" and "The Pharaoh") or groups with a well-developed sense of identity ("Monks") or in the process of evolving one. Others are studies of groups defined on the basis of external criteria. Where social specialisation is limited, no attempt is made to impose artificial categories: in The Greeks, for example, the essays describe roles rather than separate groups: "War and Peace", "The Citizen", "Becoming an Adult", "Spectator and Listener", "Forms of Sociality", and "The Greeks and their Gods".

The focus in most of the essays is on symbolic and ideological systems, on how individuals perceived themselves and were perceived by others, in their relationships to society as a whole and in their allegiances to particular groups. The essays explore nuances in terminology, both modern and contemporary, and the extent to which categories were real or perceived as real. An essay on the Byzantine "Poor", for example, analyses contemporary terms for and attitudes to poverty, its connection with monasticism, and so forth, rather than entering into any kind of economic analysis, while essays on "The Saint" and "The Marginal Man" address Byzantine ideas of sanctity and exclusion.

This approach means that many topics are not covered at all: military theory and technology, for example, or theology. Literary and historical evidence is obviously central, but the contributors are wary of too narrow an emphasis on this and many draw on archaeology and evidence from material culture as well. Some of the essays are also closer to traditional social or economic history: "The Peasant and Agriculture", "The City-Dweller and Life in Cities and Towns", and "Women and the Family" (Medieval Callings) and "The Economist" (The Greeks), for example. And a few enter into historiographical territory: "The Saint" contains an explanation of how to read Byzantine saints' lives.

Short bibliographies of varying selectivity accompany the essays. One consequence of the European-wide sourcing of contributors is that many of the works listed in these are in languages other than English, which may be a drawback for students. (The translator of Medieval Callings has sensibly supplemented the essays' bibliographies with a list of suggested readings from the literature available in English.)

In general the essays are pitched so as to be accessible to those without much background knowledge of the culture in question, to students or the lay reader. They are, however, substantial enough to avoid superficiality and they illuminate aspects of life which remain shadowed in more general social history or in narrowly biographical studies. Where they treat milieux about which I am reasonably knowledgeable (Greece and medieval Europe), I found them thought-provoking and challenging; where they cover less familiar territory (Byzantium and Egypt), I thought they were excellent introductions.

July 1999

External links:
The Greeks
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
The Byzantines
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
The Egyptians
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Medieval Callings
- buy from Amazon.com
Related reviews:
- books about Egypt + North Africa
- books about Greece + Greek history
- more ancient history
- more medieval history
- more social history
- books published by The University of Chicago Press
%T The Greeks
%E Vernant, Jean-Pierre
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1995 [1991]
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0226853837
%P 318pp

%T The Byzantines
%E Cavallo, Guglielmo
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1997 [1992]
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0226097927
%P 293pp

%T The Egyptians
%E Donadoni, Sergio
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1997 [1990]
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0226155560
%P xvi,361pp

%T Medieval Callings
%E Le Goff, Jacques
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1996
%O paperback, bibliographies, index
%G ISBN 0226470873
%P vii,392pp