Feudal Transformations XVIII: who wants that third field?

My academic endeavours seem to come round in cycles. I spent a good chunk of later 2012 working my way through Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque I in pursuit of the latest learnings about crop yields in order to finish writing up my paper on crop yields.1 Now that I am finally doing that writing up, with the addition of Italian evidence about which you will in due course hear much more, I find that I have now reached in the queue the posts I stubbed to write up later while reading it, and so even though I left this stuff to sit idle fifteen months ago it’s now topical again just as I come back to it! Hallelujah! or something. Anyway, what I want to talk about here was just a throwaway to Devroey, so much so that it’s not even actually in my notes on the book, and not really new with him, and yet it has quite big implications I think, and this topic is the possible reasons why we seem to see a switch from two-field to three-field agriculture between the eighth and tenth centuries in Europe.

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l'Europe franque

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book just mentioned

You may remember that I’ve written about this before, and back then it was because of a piece written by one Helmut Hildebrand who argued that the pressure to shift from a system in which one grew crops in half your land and let the other half lie fallow in any given year to one in which you divided your land in three, grew a winter crop like wheat in one, a spring crop like rye in another and left only the third to lie fallow, thus doing important things to your overall yield, was mainly down to demographic pressure.2 I then suggested, largely because of Chris Wickham but also, I now realise, to Peter Reynolds and Christine Shaw, that pressure from lords to render more was probably also a factor, and to my relative delight this turns out to be the position that Devroey also takes, turning the shift in systems back into something that might be a causal driver rather than an effect of a change we have to explain by other means, that is, the apparent rise in European population from c. 900 onwards.3

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

All the same, this cannot just be accepted, because every bit of any explanation that might bear on the changes and growth in European society that we see over the tenth and eleventh centuries which have come to be characterised as the ‘feudal transformation’ need attaching to the scheme of change at both ends. If, in fact, lords were causing this shift in production methods, why? Such things are usually put down to lords’ essential interest in getting as much revenue as possible from their estates, but this is actually a very twentieth-century concern, a capitalist think-back to people whose priorities were really otherwise constructed. Someone like Chris Wickham, for example, is very sceptical that most lords would have been this involved in the details of agriculture, rather than just demanding a non-specific more that the peasants had somehow to come up with.4 This allows us to leave at least some initiative with the peasants, but when it comes down to second crops, it’s hard immediately to see how that could work out: if what an average lord is mostly concerned with was maintaining himself and his family in the style to which they were accustomed, turning up with rye instead of the wheat that was demanded is unlikely to have cut the mustard, I’d say. Peter Reynolds would have said that the peasants were growing something else to eat themselves, relinquishing all hope of holding onto a wheat crop that was fundamentally grown for their lords, but cases like big monastic estates that wanted ‘poor’ bread as well as good stuff to meet the demand they faced from workers and the poor suggest that that is either insufficiently or excessively cynical: the lords probably wanted the rough stuff too.5

Peasants at work with a light plough, from a manuscript image in the Biblioteca de l'Escorial

Not necessarily Catalan peasants, but at least from a manuscript in the Escorial in Madrid, rather than the usual French or English ones

Well, Devroey is more or less ready for this, as he suggests specifically that the driver of change might be the need of an increasingly equestrian nobility to feed its newly-numerous horses, leading to them requiring oats in a new way from a peasantry who would not previously have grown them. This, I think, he largely gets from Pierre Bonnassie, who concluded similarly for Catalonia after noting a rise in oats being rendered at about the same time as a boom in the mention of horses in the eleventh-century charters, not unreasonably supposing that these were associated.6 This gets us a bit further on, because it expresses lordly demand in terms that aren’t purely economic. The problem with the profit motive, you see, is that it should be a universal, were everyone in history a rational economic actor anyway. Lords in the seventh century should really have been just as interested in making themselves more wealthy as lords in the eleventh, so if we only see the latter doing it there’s something here about the difference between the two societies that still needs explaining. For Bonnassie that difference was the new possibility of military endeavour against Muslim Spain, leading to a new demand for horses to participate in the endeavours of the aristocracy and consequently a new demand for their feed from the peasantry those aristocrats controlled. But how could this have worked out in an area such as those in which Devroey is interested where there was no gold-rich open frontier?

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

For want of a render of oats a horse was lost, for want a horse the rider was lost…

I suppose that the answer must be that in the earlier period, competition between aristocrats for importance and influence must have been waged in different areas. The obvious one of these, and one which I get very much from the work of Jinty Nelson and Stuart Airlie, is the Carolingian court.7 As long as that functioned and had a decent range of appeal, an ambitious member of the aristocracy could make himself (or herself) far more important more quickly by obtaining office or honores from the king than he could by becoming slightly richer than his local rivals, in a game which they could obviously play too. Access to that royal patronage was the thing worth competing for that could decide such contests for status. But once the king ceased to be able to control his far-flung properties or to afford to grant his nearby ones, anyone outside the core was forced back into the local game.8 Without the ability to leverage a court connection to get someone a leg-up into the privileged classes or get (or deliver) royal officers’ intervention in a local matter, such a person’s wealth and how readily they spent it could be the reason men commended themselves to them, rather than to the castellan down the road who’d just put new solars in at his main residence and was gunning to have his son made the next bishop, for example. Magistra and I have debated here before how this newly-constrained competition for status might have made the overall increase in agricultural productivity of the period hard either to perceive or to enjoy for its appropriators, but if Devroey should happen to be right and this sequence of development be how we might explain it, then that competition might be more cause than effect, and the continuing importance of a court and its patronage explain the much less obvious existence of such phenomena in Ottonian Germany, for example.9 Theo Riches has observed in comments here before now that the ‘feudal transformation’ is essentially a post-Carolingian phenomenon, which is uncomfortably true, but this refocussing of aristocrats on the land might be why.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. H. Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290.

3. C. Wickham, “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, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226; idem “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32; P. Reynolds & C. E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351. Devroey’s analysis is in Économie et société, I pp. 108-111.

4. Wickham, The Framing of the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 268-272.

5. Reynolds & Shaw, “Third Harvest”, but cf. the different grades of bread being demanded in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie, for example, ed. Léon Levillain as “Les statuts d’Adalhard pour l’abbaye de Corbie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 13 (Bruxelles 1900), pp. 233-386, repr. separatim (Paris 1900), relevant parts translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32, or the huge variety of grains in which the estates of Santa Giulia di Brescia rendered to the monastery in their polyptych of c. 906, Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia” in Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Pasquali & Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979), pp. 41-94, also printed in Ezio Barbieri, Irene Rapisarda & Gianmarco Cossandi (edd.), Le carte del monastero di S. Giulia di Brescia (Pavia 2008), I no. 46 whence online here.

6. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 470-471.

7. Combining Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” and Stuart Airlie, “The Aristocracy”, both in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 338-430 and 431-450 respectively.

8. Here I am sort of nostalgically pleased to see that I am still following Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 223-234.

9. See Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195 at pp. 188-193.

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19 responses to “Feudal Transformations XVIII: who wants that third field?

  1. In north-western Europe dramatic changes occurred between 919 and 936. In 919 the Loire Vikings overran Brittany, turning the peninsula into one large base for their raids on the rest of western Europe. The Breton court fled to Edward the Elder’s England. The Seine Vikings (Normans), hitherto based around Rouen, used this situation as an opportunity to expand into what thus became Lower Normandy.

    But in 936, Athelstan sent Duke Alan II back to Brittany, and Alan spent the next year eliminating the Loire Vikings. Evidently there was a major impact on the emerging state of Normandy, because the second Count of Rouen, William “Longsword”, sought allies in Flanders, but at a diplomatic meeting he was assassinated, leaving his infant son Richard at the mercy of the recently returned French King Louis IV. The Vikings were at a low ebb, and their raids decreased dramatically, enabling rural and monastic communities to rebuild in peace and allowing governments to concentrate on internal affairs and on protecting and expanding their land borders: e.g. in 937 Athelstan was able to concentrate his forces on defeating a combined Scottish, Irish, Norse and Cumbrian force at Brunanburh, thus consolidating England.

    As to the profit motive, it was very much to the fore in Norman England, as the Domesday survey’s emphasis on rents to the tenant-in-chief and geld (tax) to the King shows. To increase revenues, there was intensive investment in trade, including the promotion of local markets and regional trade fairs, and, spectacularly, the development of the large port complex around the Wash, with centres at Boston, Kings Lynn and nearby towns.

    Conceivably, Canute’s empire may have had a similar financial inclination, as there was continuity of administration through Edward the Confessor’s reign. These were times of extensive international trade, and the mercantile motive was always very strong in principally maritime economies such as Scandinavia and Brittany.

    Indeed, was the English government and economy essentially different in its needs and methods in the times of Alfred, Edward the Elder and Athelstan?

  2. The tenth-century history is all very accurate and too little known, though readers here may have met it before. The link to your points about Anglo-Saxon England is escaping me, however. As to those, there’s some room for argument about what makes for a profit motive I suppose. I have no problem supposing that the demands of the Anglo-Norman government upon its tax base went back to Cnut, indeed, it would make as much sense to push them back to Æthelred II and the pressures of the war against the Danes. The question is then whether subsequent rulers tried to get more out of the system or just to maintain it. William the Conqueror’s government let several aspects of their administration, including the periodic renewal of the coinage, collapse into disuse, which inclines me not to take as seriously as I might the complaints of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Orderic Vitalis about William’s tax demands. I wonder if they weren’t mostly caused by a government maintaining taxation at war levels when there was only the threat of war to justify it; Edward the Confessor had had to pay off his fleet under that kind of criticism.

    Even if we do accept that the state was keen to raise its revenues, the state is not quite the same as the aristocracy. While its wealth would have been certainly be spent for prestige purposes here and there, there were reasons of community need lying behind its demands that the nobility could not lean on as easily; they also largely did not have access to the kind of revenues you mention, tolls on activities that were definitively mercantile, rather than subsistence-plus-lordly-demand. While mercantile activity can really only rest on a profit motive, farming is more essential! And to turn its surplus into wealth the produce has to go to market, rather than simply be consumed; there are upper limits to even the most generous aristocrat’s eating capacity! Of course, he may be feeding increasingly many people – but in that case, profit, rather than personal standing, is not the primary motive… This is why I say: an increase in lordly demand needs explaining in its context. Why does a lord want more wealth? Not usually to be able to hoard it and increase his rank in the Anglo-Norman Fortune 500, we may suppose; the wealth would be put to use, and so it’s what the lords wanted to do with their wealth that meant they needed more of it and why that is where the explanation really lies, I think.

  3. Regarding AS England, I had in mind the leading Earls who held sway in former kingdoms of the Heptarchy, such as Northumbria which was semi-autonomous even in Harold II’s time. For logistic reasons, Tostig, Edwin and Morcar would have needed to take on some of the functions that the King had in the south.
    If the activities of the next lower rank of aristocrats were more constrained, there is nonetheless evidence, at least in the Norman era, that a diversified local economy was encouraged and exploited. For example, Walter d’Aincourt, whom PASE Domesday records as holding land in Derby in 1065, was found as a minor magnate in 1086 mining lead and shipping it downstream to Lincoln and Boston. At Boston, wool, salt and grains were also traded.
    To market, to market: farmers benefit greatly from places to sell their produce, and local lords would have been able to enrich both themselves and farmers by establishing promoting marketplaces.
    It wasn’t only the King who exacted tolls: in the Norman era, Count Alan Rufus also placed tolls on barges, and much of the trade of eastern England passed through his hands. Whether the Earls and lesser aristocrats in Anglo-Saxon times had this privilege, I don’t know.

    • I’m not sure we know either! But Steven Baxter’s book The Earls of Mercia is probably where I would start to look, since I believe that he argues that much of a late Anglo-Saxon earl’s landholding was devolved fiscal responsbilities. He also stresses the way that those earls were swapped from area to area, however, which suggests that maintaining and building up a core could have been difficult. Nonetheless, such strategies have been detected with respect to personal followings, but again, there we have with that and economic exploitation two things of which either could be cart or horse. Of course, one might argue that it makes little enough difference to merchant or peasant why the lords want to get rich off their backs; but in so far as these were escalating developments there’s still a question to ask about why markets for farmers’ surplus were not encouraged earlier, or why if they were they apparently did not succeed.

  4. Jean-Pierre Devroey

    Great to be read and discussed with such finesse. On some points that you discuss here, my 2006 book could, I think, be interesting for you : Puissants et misérables. Système social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VIe-IXe siècles), Bruxelles, Académie royale de Belgique, 2006, 727 p. (available on line).

  5. Pingback: Any Old Iron (in which I am behind the times on medieval technical change) | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. “the need of an increasingly equestrian nobility to feed its newly-numerous horses, leading to them requiring oats in a new way from a peasantry who would not previously have grown them.” Aha! A useful by-product from growing oats is oat straw, which makes very decent fodder for cattle (by contrast wheat straw is pretty useless). So you might expect the peasant to deliver the oat grain to the nobleman and keep the straw for his beasts. Do you see any evidence of reduced slaughter of cattle in the autumn, with greater survival through to the spring?

    (Years ago I saw a wonderfully ignorant comment by an 18th century English traveller in Scotland, reported with equal ignorance by a 20th century historian. The traveller complained that the Scots fed their cattle on straw. He hadn’t twigged that the sort of straw mattered. You’d have thought that the fact that the cattle were often bedded on bracken or heather might have given him a clue.)

    • How interesting! I would have been as ignorant as either 18th- or 20th-century commentator on that. I have no idea about slaughter patterns, or really how we’d measure that. If we had a long-lived enough settlement that there was somehow a midden sequence that ran over the crucial period, and it turned out that the later deposits showed less animal bone, firstly we still wouldn’t be able to tell what time of the year slaughter had taken place (radio-carbon being good to within maybe thirty years at this sort of period!) and we’d need an awful lot of other indices to rule out what would otherwise seem the obvious explanation, that the settlement population had gone down… This is one for the time machine, I fear.

  7. You may be able to tell whether the slaughter took place in Autumn rather than during the succeeding winter and spring, by the youth of the bones. There’s a PhD in that, by golly.

  8. Are there no vets reading here? Shame!

    • I don’t know of any vets, but there are usually one or two osteoarchaeologists… Now that I’ve chanced my arm on a technical matter in the comment above I expect one of them will turn up to set me right :-)

      • Allan McKinley

        Not an osteoarchaeologist but I’ve seen and read enough to know they can estimate the slaughter season for young animals at least by bone size and shape. If I remember accurately all domestic mammals mature in a year or more so if slaughtered in their first year it’s possible to estimate when. So long as we know when said animals would be born anyway…

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