Hero worship: “Commerce in the Dark Ages”

Or, I can just write about the Middle Ages and its historians of course.

One of the papers I have always remembered reading after I first came across it, unlike so many which I’ve subsequently re-read, made notes on and gone to my notes catalogue to find I’d read before years ago, was one of Philip Grierson‘s, “Commerce in the Dark Ages” (which is available through JSTOR for those with access from that link).1 At the time it struck me as one of the clearest, most common-sensical pieces of historiography I’d ever read, and not that much has challenged it since then (though the sense of understanding you get when reading someone who really does get his or her material is still wonderful).

Philip Grierson at work in the Coin Room for which he paid, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge

When I, through various routes, wound up copy-editing Medieval European Coinage 6, one of the exciting things about that was that I would thus be working on one of Professor Grierson’s projects. Also, as I rapidly discovered that he was somewhat less well these days (as in, less well at 95 than he had been at 90, when he was still producing scholarly work, and than at 80 when he’d still been beating undergraduates at squash) one of my hopes was that we’d be able to cheer him by seeing another of the volumes of this long series to press before too long. In the end, in fact, there wasn’t that much time: he was already too ill to come into the Department, and I wound up checking the last few footnotes and references from his personal library with him not there because he’d been installed in a nursing home for what would be the last two months of his life. I never actually got to meet him. (And the book still isn’t out, but that’s another story.)

Very recently I had cause to pick up the first of his volumes of collected papers, Dark Age Numismatics, for another paper, and was reminded afresh of the existence of “Commerce in the Dark Ages” because it immediately precedes the one I needed in the volume. So I read it again, and then I decided I needed to encourage you to.

It is basically a warning to people who use coin evidence and other goods ‘out of their place’ as evidence for trade, and I can summarise the whole attack of the paper in one extract:

The most recent work on the economic life of the Dark Ages… takes it for granted that trade, and trade alone, was responsible for the distribution of goods and coins in the centuries with which [it] deals.

Such a view is altogether too narrow, and prejudges too many issues. There are other means whereby goods can pass from hand to hand, means which must have played a more conspicuous part in the society of the Dark Ages than they would in more settled and advanced periods. They can be characterized most briefly as ‘theft’ and ‘gift’, using ‘theft’ to include all unilateral transfers of property which take place involuntarily—plunder in war would be the commonest type—and ‘gift’ to cover all those which take place with the free consent of the donor. Somewhere between the two would be a varied series of payments, such as ransoms, compensations, and fines, while such payments as dowries, the wages of mercenaries, property carried to and fro by political exiles, would all form part of the picture.

He went on to give an amplitude of examples of such alternative forms of transfer, and finished by reckoning that really for a lot of the Dark Ages2 those forms were a good deal more important than trade.

Now since he wrote Peter Sawyer’s work on the Vikings has led to a fairly large-scale revision of the way those particular ‘alternative exchangers’ did their work, and the whole raider/trader controversy has opened up around them, and this sort of evidence is key, if only because such vast amounts of English coin is known from eleventh-century Scandinavia as to require explanation in one or other terms. Meanwhile there is some argument over the importance of long-distance trade in the European economy as a whole,3 but that debate is at least half-aware of Philip’s article. In the Viking studies world, however, the tendency to play down the violence and plunder has reached a level where this kind of caution can be forgotten, and this is wrong. Myself I lean towards the idea that the Vikings are best understood as unrestrained capitalists with political ambitions, trying to amass the capital with which to mount hostile takeover bids, whether those be of a homestead in Norway or of a freshly-carved kingdom in England or Francia. But even if you violently (or non-violently!) disagree with me, if you’re working on this stuff you have, please, to have an answer to Philip ready one way or the other. Okay? Thankyou. Here endeth the lesson.


1. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-140, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.

2. I’ve been laughed at for using that phrase, but relatively speaking we do have far less knowledge of the centuries it describes than those around, and I have no problem with it as such. The joke about “ended with the discovery of the candle/lightbulb/etc.” does get a bit tired though.

3. Referring to Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy: communications and commerce A. D. 300-900 (Cambridge 2003), which sees such structures as fundamental to the development of the later economic orientations of Europe, and Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2006), which argues among a great many other things that such trade was always only marginal in the period and of no long-term effect beyond the aristocratic level. With that one might argue (and I have, with him indeed) that effects on the people who represent society’s controlling interests are not to be discounted, and with McCormick’s thesis there are a whole range of arguments (mostly expressed in a debate with him in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 no. 3 (Oxford 2005), pp. 259-324, linked up above). Wickham has read and cites Dark Age Numismatics however, and McCormick may though I have no copy to hand to check. They are at least aware.

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5 responses to “Hero worship: “Commerce in the Dark Ages”

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