There has also been an assumption that peasant life was unchanging, that it has been the same for thousands of years. I have also been reading Carlo Levi's classic book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which makes this assumption.
Levi was an interesting person, a doctor and painter who got on the wrong side of the Fascists under Mussolini. In 1935 he was sent into political exile from his native Torino to a little village way down in the foot part of the "boot" of the Italian peninsula, and he spent a year there, among those he called "my peasants."
He was pardoned after a year and hurried back to northern Italy. But because he was Jewish, he was soon in trouble again and had to go into hiding. While in hiding he wrote a memoir of his year in a peasant village, published in Italian in 1945 right at the end of the war, and translated into English in 1947. It is still in print, in Italian, English, and many other languages. His depiction of the very harsh life of southern Italian villagers brought their plight to the attention of the post-war Italian government, which sought to improve things.
The memoir is called Christ Stopped at Eboli NOT in the rather sweet, sentimental sense of "Jesus stopped off in Eboli for the night and did some miracles while he was there." Rather, it means that Christianity and civilization got as far south in Italy as Eboli but didn't get any further. Eboli is about two-thirds of the way down the peninsula, a short distance south of Naples, and at that point the train lines that had been following the coast south turned east instead, ignoring the south. Here's how Levi defines it:
"We're not Christians," they [the peasants] say. "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli." "Christian" in their way of speaking means "human being." ... We're not Christians, we're not human beings; we're not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden. ... Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, ... nor the Greeks. ... None of the pioneers of Western civilization brought here his sense of the passage of time, the deification of the State. ... The seasons pass today over the toil of the peasants, just as they did three thousand years before Christ."
This is certainly evocative. But were the villagers among whom Levi lived for a year leading a life unchanged from the Middle Ages, much less the Bronze Age? One would have to say NO.
To begin with, they were Christian. There was a church in the village with a priest. When Levi arrived they took their sick children to him, not because there was no other doctor, for there were in fact two other doctors, both trained at the University of Naples, a university that did not exist in the Middle Ages. But both the villagers and Levi considered these men grossly incompetent, and the villagers added that the doctors were not "Christian." So they did indeed use the term Christian to mean a competent human, but their use of the term here certainly indicates they believed themselves good Christians in contrast.
And the State had reached their village. There were carabinieri, the national police. The whole idea of political prisoners requires a state and politics—and there were several other political prisoners there besides Levi. The mayor was proud of how Fascist he was; a medieval village might well have had a mayor but nothing comparable to positioning in a political party.
Some of the material culture of modernity had also reached the village. Levi was brought there in an automobile. There was electricity, even though he said dismissively it might be a single bulb hung from the ceiling. Most of the villagers could read and write; there was a public school, where among other things they learned standard Italian, so Levi could talk to them without understanding their local dialect. There was daily mail service, even if brought in on a mule. There was even a public restroom with running water, though he claimed he was the only person ever to use it. The villagers grew and ate tomatoes, which their medieval ancestors would not have done, as they are a New World food. Some people from the village had moved to America.
This was not a land untouched by time. Back in the early nineteenth century one might have been able to make such a case a bit more plausibly, but these villagers were living in the twentieth century, even if a different version of the twentieth century than Levi's friends back in Torino. (In the same way, the Amish today are living in the twenty-first century, even if they don't have TV or drive cars.)
So what did the villagers mean when they said that Christ stopped at Eboli? Levi thought it meant that they considered themselves inferior, scarcely human. Given the grim conditions under which they lived (as he described it), my own interpretation of what he called a "proverbial phrase" is something closer to that song in the show Paint Your Wagon, "I'm so lost, so goldarn lost, not even God can find me." They weren't saying they were inferior. They were saying everyone had forgotten about them, even Christ.
© C. Dale Brittain 2020
For more on medieval life, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages. Also available in paperback.