March 19, 2010

Historical Surveying

This is a fascinating piece contrasting modern and early modern (and medieval) attitudes to surveying. Working out who owns what was probably even more central to the primarily agrarian cultures of the past than it is today: afterall one of the signs of modernity is the invention of different forms of property in the world, whether the concept of shares of a company or the idea of a future. In the medieval world the habitual survey was something like the Doomsday book, you rounded up the oldest members of the community and asked them who had owned what and you asked the community who now owned what. The piece linked to gives other examples. What O.F. Smith also proves in that piece is that at some point in the early modern era you have a shift towards a more mathematical and statistical attempt to understand what people did and did not own. In a sense it is a movement from a experiential understanding of space to a mathematical one- parallel perhaps to the move from the intuitive to the counter intuitive in the natural sciences.

You might think of the latter as superior- but it depends what you are measuring superiority by. The older system could persist in a society with a stronger idea of what E.P. Thompson called the moral economy- that property was held by the consent of the property less and its price could be set by violence- whereas the statistical makes more sense in a society in which absolute right determines ownership. The former means that the community can decide to forget ownership, the latter means an outside agent determines it no matter what the community thinks. It is worth noting that in some areas we still adopt the former model- we still in the UK have jury trial where it is the opinion of the community, represented by the jurors, about a case that determines guilt or innocence and not the opinions, however certain, of experts relying upon natural or any other science. I think more interesting than the polemical points though is trying to reenter and understand a world in which communal knowledge was more important than a statistical survey- this is one of those moments when we are confronted by the strangeness of our forebears- at least for me the idea that a consensus is better than a ruler is strange enough to merit further investigation and reflection.

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