Tag Archives: economics

Paying the pipe-maker

Here’s a probably-unfinished thought arising from something I read very quickly a while ago, always a good basis for a blog post surely. The thing was a book chapter by C. A. Bayly on the symbolism of cloth in British India and why it could and did never become a simple commodity due to its numerous layers of cultural meaning.1 That bit’s all interesting but the bit that set me thinking was an explanation of the political economy of the Mughal court. All I really know about the Mughal court is its money, for old professional reasons, and so its ideology is strange to me, and may also seem so to you if you are as I am an Occidental capitalist running-dog:

The major institution that mediated between commoditzation and singularization was the office of the king, whether this be construed as the dominant caste brotherhood within the village or the emperor of all India. The duty of the king was to consume the wares of his subjects and to make his court the great engine of redistribution. In this way, the needs of the particularistic local community producing a good could be balanced with the needs of the polity as a whole. The propagation of diversity in patterns of consumption – of cloths, fruits, spices, grains – was the physical manifestation of the King’s classic role as arbiter between the castes. And it was changes in royal consumption, or the consumption of those aspiring to local political dominance, that provided the Indian economy with the dynamism Bouglé thought it lacked.2

The implications of this are quite interesting if you pull them out from a westerly direction. The idea that nobody owes anyone else a living is explicitly contraverted here: in a properly-ordered polity by this scheme, everybody should have a living and so it’s the responsibility of the ruler to provide the demands that people are equipped to supply, by reason of their skills or the natural resources of their communities and so on. There must be a farther edge at which it ceases to apply, a commodity one could produce that even despite the Mughal court’s love of novelties (which Bayly explains as assisting to demonstrate the infinite variety of the emperor’s dominions,3 an argument to which my own of earlier about Charles the Bald and Judas makes me sympathetic) the emperors would find too silly or trivial to establish a demand for, and as them so much more so the local élites (them again). But in its basic form this balanced set-up has a certain logic to it that is neither socialist nor capitalist (though the idea that the state should find employment for people when no-one else can is obviously not unrelated).

A diplomatic guest being received at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar

A diplomatic guest being received at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, amid some pretty snazzy fabrics. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Naturally enough, perhaps, I then thought of early medieval courts, which we are also now taught to see as centres of consumption and patronage for craftsmen and merchants.4 This is usually fairly pragmatic: by aggregating to itself the monopoly on the distribution of luxuries and prestige goods, the ruling class make themselves indispensable to those who wish to acquire the kind of status that those goods bring. (That is of course not the only kind of status at these courts, as Bede’s stories about bishops giving away precious-metal gifts to the poor or Columbanus’s harangues of profligate and polygamous Frankish monarchs amply demonstrate.) One gets this status because one can spend it, it’s Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic capital. And even with Bayly’s picture on India that’s not missing: the king gets great status from being able to make gifts, especially in cloth since in that inheres the royal persona, with which the recipient can join for a while.5 But what’s also sticking with me is the idea that the patron is obligated to support the producer. It puts me in mind of the Anglo-Saxon laws that gather the legal protection of merchants to the king, usually assumed to be because no-one else will do it since, as travellers, they lack a nearby source of support from kindred and clientage groups.6 And of course the king needs the merchants, for all the reasons above, and he also needs the craftsmen, and it’s advantageous to him to have some reason to get them to court where he can control what they make for whom.

Wayland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket

One craftsman who did not get his due from the royal court, Wayland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket

So that system has its own logic and it doesn’t need this social ethic to make it run. But I am, all the same, wondering if it has room for that ethic anyway. Once the king acknowledges that these people are his responsibility in some way, it’s obviously to be expected that they would appeal to him. But had that been the case for longer? If one learnt to make really intricate brooches or whatever, was one not already making one’s support the business of the kind of élites who could get the stuff with which you could work? Is not, then, to learn such a skill to expect élite support? Is a ruler of this period obliged to maintain crafstmen and other sorts of specialist (ritual, military…) not just because he needs them and can use them but because, once they have specialised, he is the only support they have?

Swadeshi khadi cloth

Swadeshi khadi cloth, now available online! (What does that do to its ethics?)

There’s several reasons why this comparison fails in places, I think. Firstly the goldsmiths and whatever don’t easily fit next to Indian weavers, because ultimately (one of the points of Bayly’s article, which is centrally about the swadeshi campaign to revert to home-made cloths in the face of British imports) any household with access to the raw material, which you can grow or raise, could make cloth, albeit not necessarily fine cloth (silk weaving might therefore still work) but not everyone could get enough gold to make a sword pommel. Secondly, Mughal India was socially more articulated and was running at least two competing religions and there were lots more ringfenced zones in its market economy where specialism could flourish than in early medieval Britain, for example, where élite households and big churches were most of it. The idea of being a professional weaver in Anglo-Saxon England is already pretty odd, let alone there being extensive caste prescriptions about their status. There are also places I don’t want to take it, one being that many an early medieval ruler also had similar obligations of protection to Jews, who do not contribute to his prestige and importance in so direct an economic way,7 and the other being the modern parallel invoked by the title, that of the higher education ‘industry’ in which because we can produce something, whose significance is not solely or even basically economic, and wish to continue doing so, we strongly assert (but struggle to demonstrate) the necessity of the goods we can provide to society.8 As with many an anthropological comparison thinking with other people’s assumptions invites us to check our own. But as I say, those would be thoughts for another post and I find the medieval relevance, even if I had to struggle to get it, interesting enough.


1. C. A. Bayly, “The origins of swadeshi (home industry): cloth and Indian society, 1700-1930″ in Arjun A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), pp. 285-321.

2. Ibid. p. 298; see also p. 302.

3. Ibid. p. 305.

4. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38, provides a punchy system statement; more broadly see Catherine Cubitt (ed.), Court Culture in the Early Middle Ages: the Proceedings of the first Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 3 (Turnhout 2003).

5. Bayly, “Origins”, pp. 297-300.

6. This is actually harder to instance than I expected: none of the cites used by Henry Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd edn. (London 1991), pp. 101-103, actually deal with royal protection of traders, rather than what happens to traders who don’t follow procedure, except III Edgar, available in Agnes Jane Robertson (transl.), The Laws of the Kings of England From Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge 1925), and some would tell us that Edgar’s world was a different one (though see the next post!) All the same, I hope this is a defensible thing to say…

7. I’ve not really found anything good on the position of Jews in early medieval society; the literature about Jews tends to get going once society starts persecuting them and they start to appear in their own sources. Before the eleventh century this is hard to find, and the opposite easier. We’ve already seen that Jews were not so mistrusted that they couldn’t be used as envoys to a king, and I can also point you to a charter in which two Jewish landowners (yes) come to Louis the Pious to complain that they can’t get justice at the local mallus; it is Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, aug. É. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach, A. Molinier, ed. M. E. Dulaurier (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), 12 vols, II, Preuves : chartes et documents, no. 97.

8. Necessity is of course the wrong metric; we should be arguing for desirability, which is why the powers-that-be have stuck us with the former in the form of ‘impact’; we can’t prove it so they don’t have to pay us for it… More on this in due course.

On the economics of tenth-century mills

Every now and then I write a post for this blog that is probably really a paper. Occasionally this is deliberate, because I’m having trouble working something out and I try and explain it to an imagined audience. All of those posts are still in the queue, which is now so long that the paper may be finished before they are… but this one, like one or two others, I started writing merely to get something off my chest that I hoped might be interesting and then by the end it’s nearly three thousand words and has enough footnotes for a centipede. Were it not that a lot of these posts start as me trying to show someone wrong about something, it’d be a great way to carry out scholarship. But maybe that doesn’t stop it being a viable paper, and it’s been some time since I wrote about my actual research area, so, hey: let’s ask a Marxist question about mills in early medieval Catalonia! That question is, of course: who controls the means of production? There is an accepted answer about this and I’m not sure it’s quite right. Interest piqued? The rest is behind the cut below. If not, here is that really cool mill location I wrote about before once more, why not look at that instead?

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Continue reading

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.


1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a better basis for being right about what he says than I do except on a very few topics. But, if while chomping avidly through Framing The Early Middle Ages I had stumbled on such things where I know enough to wonder about alternatives, you understand, and had thought about it a bit and still not quite resolved them, they would be these.

Supply and Demand

This has been on my mind a bit lately because of arguing with both Guy Halsall and Chris about the effect of climate change on the medieval economy. I, seeing as has Fredric Cheyette (so I have good company) that the new climate data on the Medieval Climatic Anomaly makes the rise in temperature up to and beyond the year 1000 ever more evident, have assumed that this must have meant more surplus, thus more resource for those able to appropriate surplus, and thus simultaneously more options on how to spend for those people and also more competition for them, as suddenly extra people can get into the game. I actually think this still floats, but there is an important point which Chris’s work should have warned me about, that being that this surplus only grows if someone wants it; otherwise, as Chris has legendarily put it, the peasants would just eat more and work less.1 I think we could find entrepreneurial peasants, here and there, but the point needs defending at least. I have been thinking purely in terms of supply; Chris, arguably, has considered demand far far more important.

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, Chris puts quite a lot of weight in Framing on the breakdown of economic systems based on the Roman market economy; with no supply, the demand for either basic substances (or, if you’re instead Guy Halsall, for example, and consider luxury trade anything more than marginal, luxuries that you as local leader deploy to maintain your position) can’t be met, and anyone with importance who wants to keep it has to reconfigure it hugely.2 The collapse, for both Chris and Guy, is supply-driven. On the other hand, when the economy recovers and complex polities are built again, it’s not because of a change in supply, for Chris, it’s because the polities themselves drive the economy. He can do this without being inconsistent because for him the Roman economy was also driven by the state, so the supply that collapses was created by a previous demand, and I see the point but nonetheless there’s a chicken-and-egg problem at the recovery end of the process; do the aristocrats see that the land could grow more, and work out how to make peasants do that, or do they see rich peasants and think, how can I use that? Surely the latter, since Chris himself argues that agronomy was not the pursuit of more than a slightly odd subset of the Roman élite.3 So, surely that’s supply-led not demand-led. I think there may be scope for argument here.

Warleadership as a non-material resource

More briefly, because it implicates less of my own thinking: in Chapter 6 of Framing, Chris discusses the resources available to rulers of a ‘tribal’ polity, or rather, of tribal polities in the process of becoming what he terms states.4 (Magistra has covered all this terminology-chopping, which is necessary and substantive but which I don’t want to repeat, better than I am therefore going to.) These include trade tolls, for some, tribute of course, a marginal amount of judicial income and revenue from landownership. He also mentions booty taken in war but thinks this too is marginal. Well, OK, yes, it probably is, but there was something important about being able to get hundreds of men to come on campaign with you anyway, especially if they fed themselves; one could even say that since they were then using their surplus to your greater cause, this is a material income, but I’m more interested in the non-material side, the authority that ruler could claim and deploy. I think this is important because it distinguishes between polities that Chris classes as similar, Wales, Ireland, Norway or Frisia, Denmark and the non-Mercian English kingdoms. It’s always hard to measure army sizes, we know this (again it is useful to put Chris and Guy together here, as they are once again mostly in agreement but interested in different things), but Norway seems to have had quite a lot of its population militarised at some points, and sometimes Wales could raise armies that can take on Northumbria, and then ever after it could not.5 Frisia didn’t really have any army at all that we know of; that seems to be something its kings didn’t get to do, perhaps because wealth was so distributed there via trade. Denmark absolutely did, however. And I would also add in the Picts, and in fact any militarised group from outside the Empire; they didn’t have much political complexity, they may not even have had any kind of stable rulership, but they could raise enough men in arms to take on the Roman Empire’s local manifestations. I don’t think this was economically important, myself, but I think that a king who could lead an army of maybe a thousand or even five thousand men in times of real need, and even more so if not times of real need, was playing in a different league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger areas (because he presumably called troops from them). It’s not negligible just because he didn’t increase his personal resources from it. (And after all, the Carolingians found a way to turn that obligation into money.6) That’s an argument I could have, too.

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

The sections of Framing on sub-Roman Britain are probably the most provocative bits, because it is certainly true that often the outsider sees most of the game; few people are better-placed than Chris to spot what looks odd and, well, insular, about a national scholarship.7 Using this perspective as leverage, he argues for a rapid and almost total breakdown of political organisation in Britain, down to tiny levels, 100-hide and 300-hide units, that then recombine. I am fine with this for the becoming-English lowlands, and Chris argues therefore that British polities there must have been equally tiny or the English could have never got established, and that by extension this must apply to the more outlying British polities. I don’t like this quite so well. The outlying ones, profiting from the fact that they still had a Roman-facing seaboard in some sense, were for a while richer than the lowland zones, most would agree; Tintagel and Dinas Powys and Dumbarton may have been tiny-grade compared to a Continental aristocracy, but in their context they were major players (Dinas less so, but stay with me).8 Surely these should have started large (if not sophisticated) and broken down, not collapsed into fragments and been reassembled? They were far enough from the eastern seaboard that changes there and next-door to Neustria would be beyond their reach, but the same is also true in reverse, the tiny polities of the incipient North Sea zone are far from the Atlantic trade-routes and the polities that profit from them. It’s only once the English kingdoms had built up a bit, at which point they had the North Sea working for them and could thus start to become rich themselves while the Mediterranean links were finally dying out for the British, that the once-big-kingdoms of the now-Welsh were directly opposed to the English.9 Once that began, too, it’s not clear in all cases that the English were superior; Urien of Rheged managed to pen the king of Bernicia up on an island off the coast, for example, that Anglian kingdom effectively reduced briefly to a few acres. Bernicia was no match for the hegemony Rheged briefly had. Was it a stable unit, no, but neither was Bernicia. Rheged there marched with several other kingdoms, so there was assemblage going on, but do the blocks here have to have been tiny? It retained a bishopric, after all.10 I see no need for the tiny-then-bigger pattern to be true for the whole island.

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent; note the big divisions west versus the small chopped-up ones east

I would go further, and say that one model won’t do here anyway, even in the lowland zones. Every piece of local comparative work that gets done in England seems to stress variation. East Kent did not form like West Kent; one hundred in Suffolk is not like another… it goes on and on.11 Some of these places do seem to see new settlement that becomes determinant of their identity, but we can think of other ways too. The written sources even nudge at them a little bit. Mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that such and such a royal line arrived in three ships and defeated the Britons who resisted their arrival at a place that’s now named after them. This is self-evidently a trope but it at least tells us that the royal line later on had a tradition that they’d come from outside. The sources, such as they are, don’t do this for Bernicia, just saying that Ida took the kingdom, and I’m not the first person to use this and the archæology to suggest that Bernicia, which after all is an Anglian kingdom with a Celtic name, was more of a takeover by its own military (who presumably identified as Anglians, however many things that might actually have meant in terms of extraction or origin) than a settlement.12 Not exactly lowland, you may say, and fair enough but there are similar things that can be said about London and maybe Lincoln. With Lincoln it’s just an argument based on a series of kings of Lindsey with apparently-British names but with London, where there is confusing archæology and no textual evidence of any kind between 457 and 600, the argument is based on a ring of early place-names, all at places that were never very large (Braughing, Bengeo, Mimms, Yeading, Tottenham, Twickenham, Ealing, Harrow and so on), more or less circling the town, which the person who was making this argument, Keith Bailey, suggested might show an orchestrated establishment of settlers as a kind of perimeter defence. That then implies some unit of a considerable size, presumably centred on the old Roman city, but then so does the term Middlesex, which was already not a kingdom or a recognisable people (at least not one that Bede thought worth mentioning) by 600, because by then London was in Essex and the King of Kent held property in it.13 But it obviously had been, or there’d be no name.

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period, from Keith Bailey's "The Middle Angles"

So, in this paradigm, small-scale settlement and large political units might go together, albeit, I will admit, not for very long. But that’s what I’m talking about: British breakdown and Anglo-Saxon build-up at the same time. I use those ethnicity terms as if they meant something, but with this kind of process going on I doubt any outsider would have been able to tell the difference between British and English in areas like this; it would be a political affiliation, based perhaps on what king you did military service for, something which you might be able to change a few times if you were clever. I suspect that concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders, who would need it to justify their position, than the rank and file, until one such ethnicity became clearly dominant in an area and it was necessary to belong. Anyway: this is anything but socio-economic analysis, I realise, and perhaps to make such comment is only to recognise that Chris wasn’t, despite the size of the book, trying to solve the entire problem of the Transformation of the Roman World (as you might call it) in one go. He also invites the reader to consider, before really getting going, whether any quarrels they might have would damage the argument of the book.14 I don’t pretend that I’ve raised any such issues (and if I thought I had such issues to raise, I wouldn’t do it via blog-posts). It’s just some extra possibilities that might add a few spots of seasoning to a thoroughly nourishing book. Some dessert will follow in another post.


1. In his “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, at p. 224 of the reprint.

2. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 72-80 but also passim; as with any comparative work this one is difficult to cite well because the same themes come up again and again. A clearer statement of this point could be found in Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Cf. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 112-137 & esp. p. 124.

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 268-272.

4. Ibid., pp. 303-379, definitions addressed at pp. 303-306.

5. Here the Halsall comparison would better come from Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barnarian West 450-900 (London 2003), pp. 119-133. For Norway I’m thinking of the First Viking Age (classically described in Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London 1971)) and for Wales I’m thinking of when King Cædwallon of Gwynedd killed King Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

6. Described very well, albeit with the ideological bent you’d expect from sixties East Berlin scholarship (or rather, that the establishment demanded from it) in Eckhard M¨ller-Mertens, Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches, Forschungen zur Mittelalterlichen Geschichte 10 (Berlin 1963).

7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 306-333 & 339-364 (to which cf. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 311-319 & 357-368); see also the sweeping but careful description of national historiographies in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 1-5.

8. Halsall as above and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

9. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38.

10. M. R. McCarthy, “Thomas, Chadwick and post-Roman Carlisle” in Susan M. Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 241-256.

11. Kent: Nicholas Brooks, “The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester 1989), pp. 56-74 esp. pp. 67-74, and now Stuart Brookes, “The lathes of Kent: a review of the evidence” in Brookes, S. Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 527 (Oxford 2011), pp. 156-170 (non vidi, but I saw a Leeds paper using some of what I assume is the same research that pointed this way). Suffolk: Peter Warner, “Pre-Conquest Territorial and Administrative Organization in East Suffolk” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 9-34.

12. That person, as far as I know, would be Brian Hope-Taylor in his Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), pp. 276-324; cf. David N. Dumville, “The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 213-222.

13. London’s archæology is ever-changing but the best recent synthesis I know is Alan Vince, Saxon London: an archaeological investigation (London 1990). This argument, however, and the following graphic, are more or less lifted entire from Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons”, in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 108-122, the map being fig. 8.2. I’m slightly disturbed to see that his cite for the idea of orchestrated settlement is John Morris, to wit Londonium: London in the Roman Empire (London 1982, rev. edn. 1998), p. 334 of the 1st edn., cit. Bailey. “Middle Saxons”, pp. 112-113 n. 52, but despite Morris’s well-known oddity this seems to be a bit that makes sense, to me. On Lindsey, since you already have the volume out by now, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 202-212.

14. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 9.

Seminary LXVII: don’t call it corruption, call it a cash-rich political system

I am falling behind with blogging generally and with seminars particularly, though I’ve also started falling behind with going to the things so this may yet balance out. I am also in two minds about whether to blog the Oxford Medieval History seminars, as while they’re looking likely to continue being interesting, some of the people presenting are quite junior and at least one of the papers (mine) has been somewhat rapidly-prepared. I think I can safely get away however with talking about the first one of the term, because Chris Wickham has featured here before and knows this, and so when on the 11th October he attracted an audience of eighty people to hear him talk to the title, “The Financing of Roman Politics, 1050-1150″, he probably expected that fact to end up here.

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

The tenth- and eleventh-century papal court is famous for two things, really, isn’t it? Gregorian reform and at the other extreme, corruption on a massive scale. Chris was talking about the latter, and trying to take a non-judgmental look at the systems that were operating that left this impression on our sources. Certainly, as he admitted and found many examples to prove, money was vital to political campaigning in Rome and deployed in huge amounts, while candidates for papal office or other high dignity who ran out of money also ran out of backing very quickly. This is clear in the sources and deplored by many across Europe, perhaps most noticeably John of Salisbury, who said as much in a letter to a pope, indeed, Hadrian IV, a fellow Englishman. Hadrian refused to take offence but preferred to point out how much good the money could achieve when correctly directed. It’s tempting just to stop the judgement there, but Chris, as an economic historian, wanted to know how this all actually worked. What he came up with for us was a picture of a medieval economy where, unusually, very little land was in play. The popes were big landowners in Rome and thereabouts but they weren’t big on an international scale; much of what they claimed was also sometimes claimed by the Empire and a great deal of it (as I’d heard from Chris before) was tied up in fairly binding leases to the nobility. On the other hand, their cash income was huge, from pilgrim gifts especially but also the rents from those leases, various other ground-rents in the city, international token payments from far-off monasteries that mounted up all together… This means that money was the primary available form of patronage. None of our sources have a problem with gifts of land in exchange for support, after all, so what’s the problem with cash? Well, it gets spent. Land is permanent, and can’t really be used up, which makes obligations pertaining to it long-term things, but not so with money. This means that people don’t stay bought; also, people don’t stay wealthy, whereas a lot of land keeps you that way rather better. That’s not available in this game, and so the players at the top of the table rotate a lot more. The result is something that our sources feel is corrupt, and which even the participants sometimes did, but which is explicable in its own terms at least, and when there are strong morals in play in our sources of course it’s very necessary to carry out this kind of enquiry.

Interior of St Peter's, Rome

Interior of St Peter's, Rome; must have cost a bit...

Mark Whittow raised in questions an obvious parallel to the court of Constantinople, which also ran on money a great deal and about which Liutprand of Cremona has similar things to say, though only on the embassy when he couldn’t persuade the emperor to include him in the handouts… Other interesting questions were raised about the exchange rate of money for favours—plenty of rulers offer precious goods for support as well, in various places (not least Heorot!) but these are often worth more than what they eventually buy, for the sources at least, a complication that is yet to be explored. It also seemed to Chris that this money did not, except in, well, exceptional cases, serve to recreate this kind of politics at a lower level; there was a super-rich threshold that the popes were, and would-be popes had to be, above, and below that one was too vulnerable to the actions of the super-rich to amass the same sort of patronage clout on a smaller scale. That sounded as if it could also use some testing, to me, but the big system view still makes a lot more sense to me at least than writing the whole thing off as corruption; even if that’s what it was, it was also a working system that needs to be understood as such, and that’s what Chris gave us.

That demmed elusive rational economic medieval actor

While some of the paper-writing pressure was off I punctuated my reading with some of the stored-up PDFs I’ve stashed at various points, having followed web-links and gone, “that looks interesting and potentially relevant!” and one of these was a paper by Cliff Bekar and Clyde Reed called “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility”.1 I’d like to question it, and I imagine the readership at large won’t mind if I do.

This is one of those episodes where someone from outside medieval studies has a theory they want to test and decides that a medieval sample would be cool, though in this instance the papers that did that were some way down the line and this is the return of the son of the heir to the open fields debate that apparently economists have been having for close on forty years. At the beginning of it one D. N. McCloskey seems to have taken issue with an understanding that then existed that consolidating and enclosing agriculturally productive land was economically beneficial, and that peasants in the Middle Ages had instead worked common land or at least open land and so must have been completely benighted. McCloskey argued that actually, scattered land holding was a good insurance strategy because it meant one’s crop was less likely to all fail at once, and the decrease in yield was the ‘premium’ one paid for that.2 This meant that the peasants were making a sound decision for economic reasons and seems therefore to have attracted economists and an argument, as Dr McCloskey doesn’t seem to be or have been one to back down easily. Where Bekar and Reed came into this in 2001 was that they wanted to use simulation to test some of the assumptions, and so tried to estimate the possibility of actually running out of economic resource over a fifty-year period for a peasant population of 300 ‘agents’ each holding 20 acres, given various set-ups of field system. They set the system up so that it more or less approximated McCloskey’s figures and then started changing things, showing that in their system there was a ‘sweet’ range, in which actually scattering landholding was less effective at preventing disaster than either of (i) storing surplus against hard times individually or (ii) pooling it as a village reserve to be redistributed at the end of the year.

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

So instead they suggest that scattering lands instead had other advantages: firstly, it made a pooling system much easier to police because what one was growing each year would be obvious to anyone walking through it so that one couldn’t decide, for example, to grow only flax that year hoping to max out one’s income secure in the knowledge that you could live out of the village reserve. I’m a bit dubious about this because it only works if no-one with scattered holdings ever fenced or hedged them and quite frankly I’d have thought wandering animals, including wolves at this time in England, would have meant that almost everyone did. The core assumption that enclosed and open are opposite along with consolidated and scattered looks very strange to me, though I haven’t read enough Chris Dyer to know if they’re wrong, and from their footnotes they have. Well, I’ll leave it. Secondly, they suggest that scattering meant that lands could easily be sold off as a form of income substitution in bad years, whereas a consolidated enclosed estate couldn’t easily be fragmented and selling big lumps of it would hit productivity permanently. They also note in the works of their chosen medieval historians that a lot of land on the last medieval English market was indeed tiny units and that enclosure did massively increase vulnerability to disaster for the small-holder (here esp. pp. 322-323).

So, OK, there are so many problems that I am about with the assumptions here that one hardly knows where to begin. At the beginning I suppose; here are the ones I marked while reading this in a café in Oxford.

  1. They assume that harvest quality follows a normal distribution (p. 310), but we know (you and I, dear readers, we know) that actually harvests are usually either poor, adequate, good or really disastrous, and people have done real simulation, with crops and work and stuff, showing this.3 So it’s garbage-in right from the get-go.
  2. A small thing, but they compensate for the fact that a pooling system would take administrating by effectively charging the system for it, deducting 20% of the yield as running costs (p. 317 & n. 20). Actually, though, the impact of this cost would not be on the final product, but on the availability of labour to generate it, and they have already said that effects on labour are disproportionately heavy on yield (p. 316).
  3. Most importantly of all, McCloskey’s figures were derived from nineteenth-century information. By that stage, in England at least, agriculture was at least part mechanised, in mills and threshing at least, and certainly far better tooled up than anywhen in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages themselves are problematic because towards the late end blast furnace manufacture of iron makes large-scale production of iron tools more practical and so late medieval agriculture is probably more effective than early. Also, there’s the climate, but let’s not do that again, let’s just note that since an estimate of likely yield range is fairly vital to their simulation, if it should actually be a lot lower I think that ‘sweet range’ may disappear. They need medieval figures very badly, though as they say there aren’t any. All the same, there is earlier stuff than this they could have used I’m sure.
  4. At all stages there is no money factored into the system. Land is converted to grain direct (p. 316), yield is never monetised or invested as capital for improvements or sold at market, agriculture is stationary, autarkic and closed of distribution. And this is just not how it was, anywhere really. People took yield out of the system for a range of reasons, not just their self-protection against disaster.
  5. Most of all, the simulation ignores lords. It does this firstly by forgetting that surplus left the medieval food system, as we’ve just said, although it does talk about tithes as a form of pooling (p. 321), which is only partly the case—doesn’t factor for that though—and thus ignores any form of taxation, but it also assumes that the peasantry are free economic agents unconstrained by outside factors. The idea that the local lord might make them grow oats that year because he was experimenting with horse-breeding, or tax all the wheat and nothing else, or whatever, doesn’t appear here at all; even though they talk about different patterns of land exchange on demesne land the authors don’t allow for other rules to enter the system. BUT THEY OUGHT. And the idea of any extra-economic factors, tradition, religion and so on is completely lacking.

So what we have here is that elusive creature, the free rational economic actor. He or she is fully informed about the consequences of their decisions and operates unconstrained with perfect foresight. Yet the practices that the authors are describing would have had to have been observed, and observed correctly, over a lifetime and then accurately passed down to the next generation. So actually, at the beginning of our simulation the actors shouldn’t have the knowledge required to behave as the simulation needs them to. Likewise, medieval peasant villages were of course not all made up of 20-acre landholders: once the authors allow land sale into the model, indeed, change occurs rapidly and much more variation exists at its end than at its start. That’s when they should have started: I’d be much more interested in what the results were if one continued the model for the next fifty years.

Now, I don’t want to imply that this was a completely useless paper. It certainly makes explicit the economics of peasant-scale land management in some ways that most early medievalists would just ignore: one does get a sense of options and consequences from it. Secondly, because the same problems exist with all the simulations, they do at least have some comparative value. If the nineteenth-century figures can be accepted for what they are then the idea that scattering one’s landholdings might still make sense is interesting. One would, as I say, prefer to know whether it still held when many of the values were altered, and since we’re looking for a cross-over point where wealth and probability of disaster meet, if that shifted violently one way or the other then any economic viability for storage, pooling or land scattering might immediately disappear from the figures. But in its own terms it does show something. As long as it’s showing an isolated population sample who didn’t use money or barter with outside interests, who didn’t pay tax or spend on non-subsistence goods and all of whom were nicely-landed and knew what the results of a fifty-year survey would be when it started, though, what it shows isn’t going to have much to do with the Middle Ages as people lived them, and lived (and died) by such decisions.


1. C. .T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5.

2. D. N. McCloskey, “English open fields as behavior towards risk” in P. Useldine (ed.), Research in Economic History Vol. 1 (Greenwich 1976), pp. 124-170.

3. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/j418g4qt35038806/fulltext.html, last modified 19 June 2007 as of 4 January 2009, citing Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507.