by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

Patrick says that he "doesn't buy" Scott's argument about peasant societies in so-called "Zomia" discarding writing as part of the creation of new forms of social order apart from authoritarian state practice. I haven't read Scott's book yet so can't say what I make of the evidence in his specific case, but Patrick's reaction seems to be based on an implicit theory of the neutral superiority of writing as a functional technology for organizing society. But the history of writing and the state is riddled with examples of writing becoming the location for power struggles. Genghis Khan, for example, as he swept with his illiterate forces across Asia at some point made the decision to introduce certain forms of literacy as the only available technology for coordinating his expanding empire, and as a result a class of scribes from literate tributary states rose to power in his court. He adopted writing because it was the best possible way for him to rule, which is one of Scott's points.
Medieval England after the Conquest provides another historical case that in many ways resembles Scott's claims about Zomia. England's move from unwritten customary law to more codified legal arrangements (Glanvill famously writes in the 12th century, "Although the laws of England are not written, it does not seem absurd to call them laws.") involved a transfer of power from the old martial nobility to a new group of literate state-builders. Often this latter group resisted the demands of the new written social order strongly because writing was not just writing, it was a new basis for power that made their swords and retainers count for less. Clanchy's book "From memory to written record" provides a wonderful history of this transformation, and he relates a nice story from the chronicle of Walter of Guisborough that captures this sense of writing involving the transfer of power:
"The king disturbed some of the great men of the land through his judges wanting to know by what [written, legal] warrant they held their lands, and if they did not have a good warrant, he immediately seized their lands. Among the rest, the Earl Warenne was called before the king's judges. Asked by what warrant he held, he produced in their midst an ancient and rusty sword and said: 'Look at this, my lords, this is my warrant! For my ancestors came with William the Bastard and conquered their lands with the sword, and by the sword I will defend them from anyone intending to seize them. The king did not conquer and subject the land by himself, but our forebears were sharers and partners with him!'"
The point being that these guys also resisted a social order based on writing for very rational reasons. What Scott argues is not that people have chosen to be illiterate, but that they have realized that organizing themselves around writing has important consequences for the consolidation of power and control, that is, of the state. The title of Scott's book is "The Art of Not Being Governed". Whether or not the evidence supports the claim is a different story, but on its face insisting on oral and customary traditions instead of writing is an absolutely plausible element of such an art. Ask Genghis and Henry II.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.