Tag Archives: Karl Marx

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

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I should have read this the minute I bought it, part I

Cover of Davis & McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe

Cover of Davis & McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe

Yes, I know I was writing about something else but this is important. If you’re working on the early Middle Ages, especially the Continental early Middle Ages, you need to get hold of a copy of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe.1 I got it mainly because I was citing something in that my erstwhile supervisor had written from a pre-print and needed up-to-date page numbers (and also knew that that was good, and that the other stuff in it looked interesting). But only this last week have I got round to actually reading the rest. I’m a fool. While it acknowledgedly doesn’t cover the whole field, and the editors say that they don’t think this could be done by a single volume, they have nonetheless done their utmost to provide a genuine state-of-the-field discourse for each of the themes they do cover.2 So, for example, the section on the economy has an intro by McCormick, then twelve absolutely crystal pages by Chris Wickham (who, as that link shows, has finally let himself be pictured on the Internet) explaining how he now sees the European economic system of the early Middle Ages having written his Framing the Early Middle Ages, then Joachim Henning explaining economy at the village level, and so on, and after reading all the essays you’d be set not just to answer an essay question but possibly to teach one. And it’s all sharp and up to date and written by some of the top experts in the field and it reads a lot like a quick way to get up to date on a lot of important thinking.

So I should have read it immediately, but I didn’t realise. As a consequence I’ve sounded off about Michael McCormick’s particular bee in the science-in-history bonnet here on the basis of a magazine article when there’s an actual scholarly discussion of it by him here.3 And someone has mailed me for help with the early medieval economy asking the very pertinent question, ‘if all these big estates are generating so much stuff for market, who’s buying it?’ to which I made some suggestions about poor relief and the correspondent wisely said something about feeding armies. Well, Chris asks the same question a few pages in and gives an answer to it, although characteristically he blames aristocrats: “I am not fond of aristocrats, but one does not have to like them to recognise their importance.”4 The argument is that by having the buying power to drive networks over which long-distance luxury trade could operate, and by needing to buy in bulk for followers and households, the big nobility caused the construction of complex exchange systems for those luxuries that other lower-level, bigger bulk forms of exchange could also use. Where the aristocrats were poor, exchange was short-range; where they were rich, all kinds of things travelled a long way. The chronologies of decline and recovery should be seen, firstly as plural and regional (and powered by politics), and secondly as actually being chronologies of simplification and recovery of complexity. We may not all agree (I still blame the weather, but then there’s a paper in here about that too) but he’s asking the crucial question about demand, whereas we have usually before only tried to answer ones about supply and distribution.

Now one can argue with details. I think for example that my correspondent’s suggestion about military provisioning and indeed mine about poor relief need to be in the demand picture as well. I think that saying that what the limited evidence for long-distance exchange of salt mainly tells us is that there was nothing more interesting being traded and moving on is, well, shying at a fence that needs jumping; there’s almost no work on this. And one can wonder whether Chris’s Marxism leads him to discount peasant initiative too early (because, dammit, workers controlling their fates comes later in the dialectic!) given pioneers, migrant labourers, and the special problem of the artisan class, who may have been few but occupy an ambiguous place with regard to the means of production in this period, and perhaps in any. OK, adding value through work to raw materials is something any factory hand does, but is manufacture of luxuries for an élite really a working class activity? Smiths are important men. What class is a swordsmith? Moneyers are important too, though there is argument over how important; but then they don’t actually hammer the coins out themselves. And so on. But basically, arguing these points is how to progress from here; I’m talking refinements, not revisionism. So do yourself a favour and keep up with the top-flight by having a look at this here, I reckon. Meanwhile, it will be blogged


1. Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008).

2. Eidem, “Introduction. The Early Middle Ages: Europe’s long morning”, ibid. pp. 1-10 at p. 7: “Echoing slow transformation and abrupt change, the studies in this book include close readings of particular moments such as Charlemagne’s empire or King Wamba’s triumph, as well as analyses of gradual shifts underlying economic systems or the perception of weather. Such a dynamic field of investigation defies the compass of a single volume.”

3. Michael McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages: early medieval economic history in the twenty-first century”, ibid. pp. 83-98.

4. Chris Wickham, “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy”, ibid. pp. 18-31 at pp. 20-24, quote from p. 30.

Marx for effort

This is just a rapid reflection on the concepts we carry around with us, brought on by what I suppose I can call some recent interdisciplinary conversation with an anthropologist friend.1 When I was teaching in KCL last year, the first thing my students saw me put on a screen was this image:

Karl Marx

It was a lecture about the economy, and I threw him up there because fundamentally the economy in the Middle Ages is best approached from the bottom, with the basis of production. I was claiming that this is one thing that brother Karl got right. (See, I avoid with great difficulty a lame Marx bros. gag. Just.) But I don’t identify as a Marxist, I’ve never read Capital or any other Marx, my main reference to him is the old and revered “proper tea is theft” gag. Even though my erstwhile supervisor has been known to call himself a neo-Marxist, even though my Ph.D. marker and one of my greater influences does identify as a Marxist (only not like those other idiots who have it all wrong), I’m much too interested in micro-history and the capacity of human agency to change things, largely for the worse, to be uplifted by a grand dialectic like the Marxist class-war story.

On the other hand, I do quite happily talk about class, and although I have a badly-formed definition of it that I need to work on, I have at least thought about it; it seems obvious to me that one can explain some social phenomena in terms of a clash of class interests, though I tend to try and reformulate class membership into group membership at that level; and, as I say, analysing the economy in terms of the means of production, and who controls it, makes a lot of sense to me. I’m probably also with Chris Wickham and John Haldon that we need a new mode, that Marx didn’t have, to describe the economy of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the ‘tributary mode’, but it doesn’t seem useless to me to try and describe it so even though I know full well that the medieval economy was immensely varied. This is the great use of the Marxist view of political economy, is that it can accommodate so many different forms of produce growth under this single analytical umbrella of cui bono. It helps you think.

Now, I recognise that this stuff I use is Marxist, because I have had teachers who consider that an important thing to mark; but I just like it because it seems to work, and I’m not therefore agitating for socialism or trying to breed radical students. It seems to me that some people using these concepts are less self-aware, and don’t realise quite how far we’ve all internalised the useful bits of what brother Karl had to say, while binning the bits that now look like over-cooked preaching of historical inevitability or, worse, Communism… To an extent, I think most of us are part-Marxist by now, and I wonder how many people are happy acknowledging this…


1. That should make one or two people laugh…