Friday, September 19, 2014

On Gift Giving, in the Middle Ages and Today

     The really cool thing about team-teaching with a medievalist, dear reader, is that I get to learn about medieval Europe.  I don't know a whole lot about medieval Europe, but I am increasingly fascinated by that period, especially the "Early Middle Ages," that mysterious and seemingly chaotic period of history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the year 1,000 or so.  So, I have actually been feeling thrills as I read Michel Mollat's The Poor in the Middle Ages.  Mollat leaps around between centuries and uses some pretty crazy vocabulary words (decretal, diaconia, gyrovagues?) not to mention the Latin everywhere, but then he gives us these awesome glimpses into this hazy world of the early middle ages.  I love it!  But I digress.
     We've learned a lot about gift-giving both in the distant past and in the present.  It seems to me that gift-giving was more prominent as a top-down exercise in the Middle Ages, in which kings and aristocrats would give gifts to the people under them as a way of keeping those people loyal.  Now, in an age that prizes equality of people much more, gift-giving is usually considered something that equals do for one another, especially for close family and friends.  But is gift-giving really more equal?  I sometimes give my equals gifts (people in my own generation, usually close family members.)  And I give my parents and parents-in-law gifts.  But most often I give gifts to children, my own and their friends and cousins.  Moreover, my parents, in-laws, and other relatives a generation or more older than me give more gifts and more substantial gifts to me, my wife, our siblings, and our children, than vice versa.  In some families, it seems that older relatives feel it almost a duty to give big gifts to their children and grandchildren.  I am, of course, overlooking major philanthropy: the large grants that wealthy people and families give to the public to use.  But even just within families, is gift-giving really more equal than it used to be?

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