I should have read this the moment I bought it, II


The second article in this book I’m reading, not counting the introduction and the mises-au-point that Michael McCormick supplies for each section, is as I said by Joachim Henning and it’s a bit less limpid.1 The argument is basically that finds of slave-chains match up with settlement patterns to suggest that:

  1. The Romans didn’t allow Germanic-style village farmstead sort of affairs with individual enclosures, but the barbarians on their borders farmed like that normally
  2. Once the Germans are on the inside Merovingian Francia is full of that sort of settlement, agricultural slavery inside the old imperial limes is basically over and slavery becomes something you only see on the military frontier
  3. Under the Carolingians however some of the Roman unification of settlements into grand estates resumes and this is bad for the economy

What we have here is basically two patterns, of slave-chain finds and of settlement nucleation, on which is being hung an awful lot, as well as some problematic stuff about the spread of the heavy plough that I thought we’d got over by now. An awful lot is hanging from those chains but they self-evidently don’t reliably index the whole slavery complex; they only show that someone had to be constrained. These could be military captives, their absence still wouldn’t prove that the people who worked an estate weren’t bound to it by fear, threat and the law.

Metalwork hoard from Lyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales, Pre-Roman Iron Age, including slave-chains

Metalwork hoard from Lyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales, Pre-Roman Iron Age, including slave-chains

Then, an awful lot hangs from the belief that the evidence shows that bipartite estates were less efficient agriculturally than decentralised farming because of the need for coercion. Philosophically this seems likely to be right, and one could cite the collective farms of the Soviet Union as well as studies of plantation slavery in the USA to show that people work harder when they work for themselves (and Henning has a nice example to counter Chris Wickham’s belief that where there are no lords the peasants eat more and work less).2 All the same, there is an issue here: we are asked to believe that the Carolingian nobility, or the US planters, must have been status-hungry megalomaniacs, otherwise they’d have realised that ‘slavery does not pay’.3 But think about it: the question is not about how much their estates produced, at least in the Frankish case, it’s about how much of that production they could appropriate. If labour on your estate is 10% less effective for being combined and worked as a demesne compared to hutted coloni working their own plots, but you can get 5% more labour out of the slaves for having them right there and that also means you can impose renders with 7% greater efficiency (or other made-up figures that would work, if these don’t), then you as lord are in profit and it does make economic sense. But Henning has a basic ‘slavery is bad mkay’ assumption here that makes it difficult for him to see this. I mean, I agree with that statement, but the estate managers in any of those periods obviously didn’t hold that conviction, that doesn’t make them stupid. And then it doesn’t help that, as Angeliki Laiou points out in the response at the end of the section, that the slave-chain finds for the Carolingian period don’t occur in the areas where there were bipartite estates.4 That is, unlike the Roman slave estates apparently the Carolingian ones didn’t use chain-gangs but got their labour more willingly. So, er, hang on, where did that paradigm go? There are some points here but they aren’t all the ones the author feels that he’s made.

Plan of a generic medieval manor taken from William Shepherd, Historical Atlas (New York 1923) for Wikimedia Commons

Plan of a generic medieval manor taken from William Shepherd, Historical Atlas (New York 1923) for Wikimedia Commons

On the whole what I take from this is that being part of the Roman fiscal complex tended to produce a different kind of estate organisation, and that the Carolingians also did some of that. I take with more salt the idea that the Carolingian period might have been less well off than the Merovingian period, and if I accept it I would again want to blame the weather for most of that and wonder if the conversion to bipartite estates in places where that can be done isn’t more of a response, both to diminishing yields and also to newly huge scales of estate ownership.5 (In other words, Chris’s ‘aristocrats make complexity’ argument tied up with my own macro-economic ones.) I don’t think slave-chains prove what Henning thinks they do, though the distribution is interesting (if, as he admits, potentially faulty).6 But most of all I wonder whether the horse of cause is not before the cart of effect here. Even if we accept the correlations Henning proposes, correlation is not causation, and the causation is still to be sorted out I think.

We’ll get back to my orphan papers at some point: I’m going to have a lot to blog over the next few days.

1. Joachim Henning, “Strong rulers—weak economy? Rome, the Carolingians, and the archaeology of slavery in the 1st millennium AD” in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 33-53.

2. His argument here is based on the fact that lots of Roman goods are found in villages beyond the limes, what implies that they had enough surplus to buy stuff, and presumably, wanted to produce surplus so as to be able to buy stuff: Henning, “Strong rulers?”, pp. 41-42, citing Chris Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), p. 224, whose original printing was in idem, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, repr. in idem, Land and Power pp. 201-226.

3. Though it should be noted that, according to the work there linked, the US studies actually tended to show that it did pay: Robert William Fogel, “Coming to Terms with the Economic Viability of Slavery” in idem, The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: a retrospective, Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History (Baton Rouge 2003), pp. 24-48. For the application of older work in this line to the medieval question, see Pierre Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59. One of Bonnassie’s more appealing features to a modern reader is his humanist outrage at coercion, oppression and brutality but here, I think, it prejudiced his ability to analyse the sources clearly.

4. Angeliki E. Laiou, “The Early Medieval Economy: Data, Production, Exchange and Demand” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, pp. 99-104. One of the best things about this book is that they did the peer review internally, but the authors get to keep their original conclusions. It’s like the discussion at the Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo being published, but more worked-out, and I think we should do this all the time so that people can tell more easily where more consideration is needed and where there was a genuinely good point made.

4. Henning does leave room for climatic factors, in fact, at “Strong Kings?” p. 42.

5. Distribution maps Henning, “Strong kings?”, pp. 38-39; expectation of more data from unanalysed French finds, p. 47.

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9 responses to “I should have read this the moment I bought it, II

  1. Nice post, although I disagree with you on one point.

    Of course, saying that slave-owners were no idiots and that had their production system based on forced labour been inefficient they would have dropped it makes perfect sense but… A quick look around shows that people don’t necessarily go for the most efficient option every day of the week.

    Sometimes, when circumstances change they are pretty fast on their feet and they adapt. Sometimes, they don’t. There are plenty of examples of innovations that were imperfectly implemented to satisfy such or such bias from a given group or even the whole society.

    Financial economists have been going crazy trying to understand why investors tend to shy away from relatively novel classes of assets or why they consistently refuse to diversify beyond their home market.

    So, theoretically on the one hand slavery could be both morally wrong and economically inefficient and on the other hand slave owners could still go for it. Fear of change, risk-aversion (free labour is more volatile) and a host of other reasons I cannot think of can be at play here not only status.

    • Well, yes to most if not all of that but these are just further reasons why the “slavery doesn’t pay” argument needs work. It clearly paid enough to be sustainable, but that doesn’t mean that management consultants wouldn’t have advised the abbey of St-Bertin to use hutted coloni instead; as you imply, it’s not all about the yield. So yes, “theoretically on the one hand slavery could be both morally wrong and economically inefficient and on the other hand slave owners could still go for it”, but we have reasonable basis for believing that it wasn’t cripplingly uneconomical, and that even if freeing slaves was encouraged by the Church in this era, the Church itself still owned many. So there is plenty of space to be curious about how this all actually worked, and my question here was, has Henning actually found something out about this or is his contribution actually about something else? I think the latter, and so slavery as institution didn’t really occupy me in this post longer than it took to point to some contradictions in the historiography.

    • Good points. In real world scientific innovation, even today, sometimes the most efficient new technology, be it physical or simple a system or process, is not always adopted and implemented because the cost to do so would still out weigh the costs associated with just continuing on with things the way are.

      This was usually the case when talking about slavery in particular.

      • Certainly with technological costs that’s true, but here the classic model is that you set the slave family up with a hut and a division of land to farm on a share-cropping agreement, and perhaps a set amount of labour on the central estate too. The costs there are essentially administrative, bar building a hut (which you as owner might hope that the family will do in their spare time…); the labour remains available throughout, it’s not like repurposing a factory line. So I think the disincentives to change here are primarily social.

  2. Your horse-and-cart analogy is faulty. Horses should indeed be before carts, but causes should precede effects.

  3. If I understand your summary of Henning correctly, he’s not saying that Carolingian lords stuck to an inefficient system of agriculture, he saying they reintroduced an inefficient system of agriculture that had previously been abandoned. I don’t see how you can use economic inertia as a reason then: they would know pretty quickly if they were getting less from the new system. Absent massive ideological pressures (such as with collective farming) most people don’t choose to worsen their economic position.

    Your suggestion of getting more of the pie even if it’s a smaller pie is convincing. I’d add to that issues of food security. A market economy tends to break down at times of extreme scarcity. It’s not much good having a regular supply of denarii from the peasants if the price you have to pay for grain rockets in a bad year (or you can’t buy it at any price). And even if you’re getting paid in kind, it’s still easier for peasants not to hand over what’s demanded if it’s on their land rather than yours. If you control at least some of the fields, in contrast, you may get less in good years, but you’re less likely to have nothing in bad years.

  4. Pingback: I should have read this the moment I bought it, III | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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