Human Nature in Rural Tuscany: An Early Modern History.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Grew, Raymond
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: Human Nature in Rural Tuscany: An Early Modern History (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Hanlon, Gregory
Accession Number: 254405160
Full Text: Human Nature in Rural Tuscany: An Early Modern History. By Gregory Hanlon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. xiii, plus 17 plates, plus 218).

Local history has a double appeal for historians. Its necessary concreteness gives a comforting reassurance of historical reality. Abstractions about trends and patterns are replaced by individuals who have names and kin. Events occur in a circumscribed setting easily connected to a specific climate, geography, economy, and even architecture. At the same time, the intimate detail of a world in miniature can be attached to some larger historical vision. Tiny, controllable bits of information thus acquire significance, while generalizations come with evidence. Such microhistory (a genre particularly developed in Italy) invites a kind of ethnographic history, and that is Gregory Hanlon's approach in his study of one Tuscan village in the early modern period. Era and place are well chosen-a time of significant change about which there is interpretive debate, located where historical records tend to be unusually informative. As his title suggests, Hanlon's work is more unusual in his interpretive emphasis. Where we might expect a focus on the particularities of this rural village or analysis of how it changed over two centuries, (1) Hanlon aims to demonstrate the constancy of human nature.

Chapter titles categorize universal social behaviors: Governance, Cooperation, Competition, Reproduction, and Invention (leading to the concluding assertion that "all history is Universal History" [173]). Hanlon's introduction and conclusion explicitly reject fashionable emphasis on the formative impact of culture and any fondness for cultural relativism. "The 'Other' is a fiction invented by philosophers and explains nothing at all. So the reader will see in the following pages that 'culture' is a hypothesis I do not need." (4). References to primate behavior at the beginning and end of chapters cite science to bear witness that the behavior found in Montefollonico is to be expected. The tone that follows is one of acceptance without moral judgment and a rather benign picture of ordinary life. Ideas are little explored despite repeated references to popular expectations of justice and to the Church. Duly reported, economic and institutional changes are treated not as historical problems to probe but as the context of normal behavior.

There is plenty of room, however, for detailed and evocative descriptions of community life. Even in this small town (some 350 people lived within the walls, 450-500 outside), elective offices were important. Chosen apparently for their personal qualities as well as their connections, the local notables who held these offices worked attentively to keep conflicts from escalating, although recourse to magistrates was common. They in turn used wide discretion in their rulings; yet there was a general belief that justice would be done. Violence is to be expected (as natural male behavior), but the overall picture is one of social stability, despite recurring conflicts-a view consonant with an unchanging human nature. Much of the evidence comes from legal records, and Hanlon squeezes his sources hard, while aware that they can provide only a partial picture. "We risk being fooled by the expressions of unity emanating from the normative texts, for people brought their worldly ambitions, their hierarchies, and their nepotism into the groups to which they belonged." (161). He extracts statistics from very small samples to suggest a great deal: calculation and ambition revealed in dowry arrangements; increased female infanticide when harvests are bad; rational economic decisions; the preference for godparents from among local notables who enjoy a reputation for reliability; frequent litigation but usually between people of equivalent social status.

What we learn about this Tuscan town, and it is a lot, is generally consonant with other research on the region and era. In fact Hanlon makes excellent use of the most relevant secondary literature. There is much about local farming and particular crops, some good accounts of the privileges that came with social standing, and tales of some pretty awful priests. Although Hanlon insightfully sees in baroque piety a growth in Church discipline (the topic is placed in the chapter on innovation), his discussion is restricted by determination not to allow culture independent importance. The church flourished, he notes, in economic hard times. Other changes include the increased concentration of wealth and the growing importance of legal training as an avenue of advancement. There are some surprises, too, like the finding that the process of infeudation in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italy was a kind of progress, making for a government more sensitive to local needs. Those who prefer to think of history as the study of change and of societies as formed by culture can nevertheless enjoy this well-written account and perhaps find comfort in the fact that even this careful author has recourse at times to rather traditional cultural explanations, as in the comment that "Mediterranean societies all praised masculine toughness and courage, when it was combined with cunning and political astuteness" (88).


(1.) Compare, for example, Frank McArdle, Altopascio: A Study in Tuscan Rural, 1587-1784 (Cambridge, 1978), in which social history is used to address historiographical issues related to the crisis of the seventeenth century.

Raymond Grew

University of Michigan
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.