Tag Archives: medieval agriculture

Feudal Transformations XVIII: what’s behind it all

Cover of Guy Bois's Transformation of the Year 1000

Cover of Guy Bois’s Transformation of the Year 1000

During my first days in Birmingham, while short of online access that wasn’t immediately swallowed by professional e-mail and bibliographical searches, I was making my way through Guy Bois’s little book, The Transformation of the Year 1000. Since, at its core, this represents a more extreme version of the theory of a ‘feudal transformation‘ even than that proposed by the originator of the idea, Georges Duby, I had been expecting to find it basically mad, and certainly it’s fairly opinionated and largely inhabits an intellectual space well beyond the evidence, but still it is more subtle than I had expected, not least because it separates cause and effect in such a way as to get over the awkward constriction of the the chronology the focus on the year 1000 causes.1 Yes, he says, there was huge and violent social change around the year 1000 in this one bit of the Mâconnais (which is to be taken as typical at least of France, even though he often stresses how something else would have happened in other areas), but this was the result of a wide range of other changes going on since the sixth century if not before, while the ruling class tried to shore up the failing ancient society by increasingly removing its surviving foundations and replacing them with more viable ones. And one of these big changes is the growth of agricultural production, which as he rightly says is not very well understood.2 Now, Bois has views on this, in which, it must be said, it is far from alone, but they are worth reading and they go like this:

Before a problem so vast, we should mistrust unilateral interpretations based, in most cases, on an exogenous factor. I am thinking in particular of demography, the most convenient and also the laziest of ‘explanations’. Certainly, the demographic approach is essential and indispensable. The number of persons is the best indicator of agrarian growth, and it is also a factor in this growth, providing that it is located within the chain of causality of which it forms a part; otherwise, we have only an illusory interpretation. How can it be imagined that shortage of food ceased to bear on mortality? What factor could have produced such a situation? Similarly, one certainly cannot deny, a priori and on principle, the possibility that improved climatic conditions might have had some influence. But it is still necessary to demonstrate their impact on grain yields in the temperate zone, and then establish precise correlations between the chronology of climatic fluctuations of grain production over the long term. This is very far from yet having been done. In the actual state of affairs, it is to be feared that this line of research betokens a refusal to confront the complexity of the endogenous factors, that it is essentially a sort of retreat in advance. It remains dangerous, however, in that it appeals to a popular taste, specialised or not, by giving the illusion of opening up new horizons, by investing itself with a scientific aura through its recourse to the exact sciences and, above all, because it is a gesture in the direction of contemporary ecological awareness. In sum, it is easy to ‘sell’, but it will be understood that such a criterion will not be given high priority in the orientation of our discussion.3

You may guess that I am happier here with his slagging off of the demographic explanation than his attack on climate as a factor. Demography is not a good answer, because like so much in the feudal transformation debate, it could be either cause or effect: if you have too many mouths to feed you may open up more land for cultivation, but on the other hand if you are opening up more land for cultivation, you may now be able to have more children, whether beforehand you were practising what passed for contraception in the Middle Ages or whether you were, as some have suggested, resorting to infanticide.4 This kind of problem, and not just with that factor, is exactly why I rather like climate as a primum mobile; it must certainly have had an effect on society, but it’s hard to see society affecting it, in the tenth century at least.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

It’s never not time for my Feudal Transformation teaching diagram!

On the other hand, Bois was not wrong that the case was far from made in 1989, when he wrote. I also do feel that he has some justice in seeing people grabbing on to it as a current bandwagon in order to make their research ‘relevant’, although I would actually find it hard to point to medievalists getting into climate science rather than climate scientists getting into history, where I’ve seen.5 In fact, if the case must be made as he suggests, it may be impossible to close. We already know (I think) that almost all work on grain yields of the Frankish era is basically wrong, based on a misreading of the sources (and yes, I am still working on that for publication, nearly done now actually), and since those are most of the sources there are before the twelfth century, all we can do is demonstrate that yields certainly grew between the second and twelfth century, not really the kind of subtlety we need (though as subtle as many of Bois’s number tricks, it’s gotta be said).6 Archæology helps but the amount of time it would take before enough preserved grain of the right periods came to light and got analysed that we actually had any meaningful numbers, if that could even be done—you’d need some very long-phase settlements with a fixed amount of arable land, wouldn’t you, which in a period of clearance is basically unlikely ever to be possible—still drags a very long way into the future. On the other hand, as our climate continues to warm up, we may be in a position to do the kind of long-term experimental work that’s been done at l’Esquerda on a cycle long enough to actually test the difference that an averagely-higher temparature, and consequently less rain, makes on yields, though I do note already that drought was the problem they experienced most seriously there in the 1990s, not over-watering. You’d expect that on a Catalan hilltop, of course, and some experiments elsewhere would also be nice, but it may technically be feasible. Meanwhile, we do these days know an awful lot more about the climatic fluctuation, and it seems as blinkered to me to ignore the effects which that must have had on agriculture, as it certainly did in the fourteenth century, as it did to Bois in 1989 to ignore the internal factors of social change.7

Vineyards of the Miguel Torres company in the Penedès, Catalonia

Vineyards of the Miguel Torres company in the Penedès, Catalonia, now drying out, grabbed from here

The answer is, of course, that we need both: everywhere in Europe got a climate change leading up to 1000, probably, but not everywhere manifested the kind of rapid change that Duby, Bonnassie, Bois and others dubbed the ‘transformation’. That is exactly where Bois’s internal factors are important, and not least among them the eventual collapse or fragmentation of the Carolingian state of course; as our learned commentator Carl Anderson has observed here, the feudal transformation is really a post-Carolingian phenomenon (as long as we can wriggle Castile-León out of it somehow).8 We have a number of big social or economic pressures (if there’s a difference) acting on a whole range of areas from 900-1100, and it’s what those areas were like in themselves, including such micro-level differences as who was in charge, how effective they were and what they could see of the problems (which is where I really get interested), that probably determined how it all played out. The struggle will be, if I ever do crystallise all this, to write this up in a way that makes sense but still says more than, “well, it differed from place to place, basically”…


1. The fiercely critical review by Barbara Rosenwein linked above, in Speculum Vol. 69 (Cambridge 1994), pp. 749-751, doesn’t get as far as dealing with such matters as whether the book actually has a case or not, so upset is she with Bois’s use of evidence and general slapdash chronology (including picking up on the unfounded dating of Saint-Laurent de Collonges mentioned a couple of posts ago). All that is of course very problematic; if his case rests on anecdata and thery’re all misread, he probably doesn’t have a case. But I feel that that point could have been made explicitly if she was confident in it.

2. Although a very good crop of studies on it arose from a conference in 1988, published as La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), in which Bois himself took part.

3. Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. J. Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992), p. 99.

4. I struggle with references for early medieval contraception, I’ll admit, but Julia Smith has some neat remarks on it in her Europe After Rome: a new cultural history 500-1000 (Oxford 2005), pp. 70-71, and in the Further Reading pp. 321-322 recommends John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge 1992). For infanticide I go back to Emily Coleman, “Infanticide in the Early Middle Ages” in Susan Mosher Stuard (ed.), Women in Medieval Society (Philadelphia 1976), pp. 47-70, which is also referenced by Smith p. 321 with a useful list of reactions to its controversial argument.

5. A rapid websearch suggests that our new cite of reference for the so-called medieval climatic anomaly is now N. E. Graham, C. M. Ammann, D. Fleitmann, K. M. Cobb & J. Luterbacher, “Support for global climate reorganization during the ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly'” in Climate Dynamics Vol. 37 (Berlin 2010), pp. 1217-1245, DOI: 10.1007/s00382-010-0914-z.

6. P. F. Brandon, “Cereal Yields on the Sussex Estates of Battle Abbey during the later Middle Ages” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 25 (London 1972), pp. 403-420, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.1972.tb02184.x; Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, last modified 4th December 2010 as of 8th April 2011, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), mostly online via Google Bookslast modified not available as of 8th May 2011, pp. 121-128.

6. Bruce M. S. Campbell, “Physical Shocks, Biological Hazards, and Human Impacts: The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Revisited” in Simonetta Cavaciocchi (ed.), Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europe preindustriale, secc. XIII-XVIII. Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Atti della ‘Quarantunesima Settimana di Studi’ 26-30 aprile 2009 (Firenze 2010), pp. 13-32, online here.

7. Cf. José Ángel García de Cortázar, “Estructuras sociales y relaciones de poder en León y Castilla en los siglos VIII a XII: la formación de una sociedad feudal” in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 497-563 with discussion pp. 565-568.

Volcanoes probably don’t explain everything

I have mirrored on my various computers a huge directory called ‘toread’, in which get stuffed willy-nilly the various PDFs of academic writing that I come across while out and about the net, and every now and then I make a short-lived assault on it. At the time of writing this had just brought me into contact with an unusual article from Speculum of 2007, in which notable medievalists Michael McCormick and Paul Edward Dutton team up with a climate scientist by the name of Paul Mayewski and ask, more or less, can we achieve anything like precision in assessing how the weather and changes in it affected the societies of the early Middle Ages?1 And this is a thing I care about, sort of, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I read this with a sharp eye and have an opinion about it.

The Icelandic volcano of Eldgjá

The Icelandic volcano of Eldgjá, blamed here for an eruption c. 939 on the basis of tephra analysis. “Eldgja” by Andreas TilleOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly it needs to be stressed that this is not an article about climate change, per se, though there is a certain amount of that in it as background. Cautious work I’ve seen on climate change has stressed that while it deals in overall trends of up or down a degree or two, the actual experience of this would have been far less comprehensible because of a huge range of local and chronological variation. If, for example, the winter temperatures where you are range from -18° Celsius to 13° Celsius over ten years, when a century earlier it had been -13 to 18, then yes, the median drop is already pretty severe but perceiving the actual pattern in any of those ten-year slots is going to have been pretty difficult given that maybe one January all the rivers froze and then maybe four years later your vines grew a second harvest because it was so sunny.2 And this article is interested in that short-range variation, the experience of individual years.

Ice core SO4+ and Cl- time series covering the period A. D. 650–1050 and historically documented multiregional climate anomalies between 750 and 950

“Ice core SO44+ and Cl- time series covering the period A.D. 650–1050 and historically documented multiregional climate anomalies between 750 and 950″, they say on p. 877

The way they take this on is relatively simple, though it must have required a lot of work: McCormick and Dutton, both of whom have pedigree in this kind of question, separately compiled lists from documents of especially extreme winters in the years 750-1000, while Mayewski pulled a huge dataset from a Greenland ice core extracted in the 1980s and went through it looking for spikes in the deposition of chemicals associated with volcanic eruptions, whose aerosol effects in blocking out sunlight and lowering temparatures the authors work hard to show are widely accepted in meteorology.3 Then they compared their findings, chucked out anything that wasn’t certain and still had nine episodes where the dates for bad winters in the documents married up closely with dates for volcanic deposits.

For me, a historian, the best parts of this article are the documentary extracts that make it clear what kind of consequences such weather could have and just how bad it could be. For example, read this, their summary of two probably-related chronicles from Constantinople about the winter of 763 to 764:4

“Some 2,000 kilometers to the southeast, a well-informed observer at Constantinople recorded that great and extremely bitter cold settled on the Byzantine Empire and the lands to the north, west… and east. The north coast of the Black Sea froze solid 100 Byzantine miles out from shore (157.4 km). The ice was reported to be 30 Byzantine ‘cubits’ deep, and people and animals could walk on it as on dry land. Drawing on the same lost written source, another contemporary, the patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus I, emphasized that it particularly affected the ‘hyperborean and northerly regions,’ as well as the many great rivers that lay north of the Black Sea. Twenty cubits of snow accumulated on top of the ice, making it very difficult to discern where land stopped and sea began, and the Black Sea became unnavigable. In February the ice began to break up and flow into the Bosporus, entirely blocking it. Theophanes’ account recalls how, as a child, the author (or his source’s author) went out on the ice with thirty other children and played on it and that some of his pets and other animals died. It was possible to walk all over the Bosporus around Constantinople and even cross to Asia on the ice. One huge iceberg crushed the wharf at the Acropolis, close to the tip of Constantinople’s peninsula, and another extremely large one hit the city wall, shaking it and the houses on the other side, before breaking into three large pieces; it was higher than the city walls. The terrified Constantinopolitans wondered what it could possibly portend.”

As well they might! And of course, all this matters a very great deal in a society where the principal source of wealth and indeed subsistence is agriculture. Firewood can’t be gathered, new crops can’t be planted or are blighted by the temperature, animals die, wine freezes in barrels and is ruined, famine is grimly sure to follow.5 There certainly should have been big consequences of this kind of climatic variation.

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style ‘miles christi’, by Hraban Maur, not visibly taking any responsibility for the climate. “Ludwik I Pobożny“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The first problem, though, is that it’s very hard to determine these consequences in any consistent way. The article opens with the suggestion that the harsh winter of 763 caused King Pippin III of the Franks to suspend his campaign against Aquitaine; it very nearly closes by suggesting that the run of bad winters and harvests from 821 to 824 helped plunge the Frankish Empire into war. So hang on: are wars more or less likely when the winter’s bad? Presumably it depends on other factors. And so on. The one thing that seems pretty certain is that people would have read the bad weather as divine punishment for someone’s misdeeds, but recent work on Louis the Pious makes it more than clear that that could be seized on and used to political advantage; we just can’t agree on whose advantage it was to…6

Causation is one of the problems I have with this article, and in fact I sense that the authors did too. There are a lot of ideas put forth then qualified in the concluding section, as if one or other author was happier to hypothesize than their counterparts. They note that the Roman Empire suffered very few of these events till its closing centuries, but then immediately say, “few would maintain that volcanically caused climate anomalies determined the course of empires and civilization”. Much larger jumps out and back are visible here:7

“A child born in 765 could die at the ripe old age of fifty-five without having lived through such a winter. One born in 820 would experience five such crises in the same span. Charlemagne was more than vigorous and smart: he was, with respect to volcanic aerosols and rapid climate change, a very lucky ruler.  Not so his son Louis the Pious, who, perhaps not entirely  coincidentally, in August 822, after the terrible winter of 821–22, ostentatiously expiated before his assembled magnates his and his father’s sins. Unfortunately, his act of public  penance would have little effect on the volcanic aerosol that produced yet another terrible winter, famine, and disruption but a year later. The reigns of his sons Louis the German and Charles the Bald would suffer from three such bad climate years each; in between two of them, Louis invaded Charles’s kingdom.”

If I’d submitted that to a journal like this I’d almost have expected it to come back stamped with “CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION” and indeed, if this had gone to a science journal I feel sure this would have been redacted. “Perhaps not entirely coincidentally”? Come on… This doesn’t diminish the factuality of their observations, but it certainly does need to be carefully considered just what this data explains.

The paragraph quoted also exposes another problem with the method adopted. In terms of volcanic aerosols, yes, Charlemagne may have been lucky, but the ruler who lived through the famines of 792-793 and 806 might have been surprised to be told so.8 If volcanoes caused bad weather, they certainly didn’t cause all of it, nor even perhaps the worst of it. This is something the authors of this article willingly admit, not least because their proxy for volcanic activity is located to the west of the most likely volcanoes, in Iceland, and the area they’re studying is to the east, though the Gulf Stream makes that much less of an objection than it sounds.9 Nonetheless, when the recent ash-cloud closed the Atlantic to air travel, I personally didn’t notice any shortfall in local autumn apples in the UK, did you? And so on.

Map of volcanically-linked climate anomalies of the Frankish period with dates

Map of relevant events with dates from their p. 875

When one looks more closely at the chronology, in fact, this gets rather odder. There are acknowledged problems with the chronology here; the texts, though subjective, are at least reasonably chronologically precise, and it’s useful to see it all together, because it means that even when things with chronology as shaky as the Irish Annals are being deployed, they’re being correlated with unconnected texts that give one some confidence in the dates. Not so the ice-core, unfortunately; that was sampled every two and a half years and the possible error of each sample is somewhere between one and six years.10 When one notices, then, that the volcanic deposition evidence that correlates with the 763-4 ‘event’ came from the slice for 767, obviously that possible error is important; either the sample’s dating must be emended, or the bad weather was well in force before the volcano did its stuff. The authors seem too comfortable about this for my liking and I agree with them very much that it would be nice to get a new core with the more precise dating that is now possible.11 That would also refine cases like bad winters in 855-856 and 859-860 which correlate with deposition spikes in 854, 856 and 858. It does fit quite nicely but whether or not, as the authors prefer, this was one long volcanic event, the fact that it apparently got better in the middle again monkeys with any simple causation from volcanic eruption to economic and climatic distress. I do think this article shows that something was going on here that deserves to be considered, and I am myself still very much of the persuasion that such factors do need to be considered as explanations for social change, but despite the extra precision attempted here I still don’t think we have anything as simple as A causes B causes C here, and I don’t honestly see how we get it, however much the technology may improve.


1. Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton & Paul A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750–950″ in Speculum Vol. 84 (Cambridge MA 2007), pp. 865-895.

2. There’s lots of examples of freezing rivers (and occasionally seas!) in the article; the second harvest of grapes is something that repeatedly comes up in Gregory of Tours’s Histories, though it’s never good: see Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints), VII.11 or IX.5.

3. McCormick’s and Dutton’s work on such matters is in fact encapsulated in the same volume, in the forms of M. McCormick, “Molecular Middle ages: early medieval economic history in the twenty-first century” and Paul Edward Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather in General, Bloody Rain in Particular”, both in Jennifer R. Davis & McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 83-97 & 167-180 respectively. On the methodology, see McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, pp. 867-878 and esp. 876-878.

4. Ibid. pp. 880-881, citing “The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History, A.D. 284–813, trans. Cyril A. Mango, Roger Scott, and Geoffrey Greatrex (Oxford, 1997), pp. 600–601″ and “Nikephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople, Short History 74, ed. and trans. Cyril Mango, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 13 (Washington, D.C., 1990), pp. 144–49, here pp. 144, lines 1–16, and 147″, along with full edition refs for Theophanes and some discussion of the connection between the sources.

5. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, and their refs at e. g. pp. 879 (blight), 882 (impossibility of planting), 883 (death of beasts), 885 (more blight and death of beasts, also freezing wine).

6. Ibid. p. 867 (“that surely explains the suspension of the major effort by the king to conquer Aquitaine the following summer”) cf. p. 892, quoted below; on debate over Louis the Pious see Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium. Soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire (New York City 1954), Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingien (Paris 1968), transl. as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977) or François-Louis Ganshof, “Louis the Pious reconsidered” in his The Carolingian Empire and the Frankish Monarchy (London 1971), pp. 261-272, versus the various studies in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on Louis the Pious (London 1990), especially Stuart Airlie’s and Janet Nelson’s.

7. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, p. 892.

8. Adriaan Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy (Cambridge 2002), pp. 123-124.

9. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, p. 869:
“Those same complexities mean that not every volcanic deposit in Greenland will translate directly into climate impact on the European continent, for instance, if an eruption occurred on Iceland at a moment when atypical atmospheric circulation conditions carried the aerosol westward toward Greenland.”

10. Ibid. pp. 869-870, inc. p. 869, authors’ emphasis:

“The maximum possible absolute dating error for our period in this core is approximately six years. However, within any section of the core, say 100–200 years, the relative internal error is much less, since absolute error accumulates with depth. The closer the annual layer is to a securely identified volcanic event, the more likely the error is zero.”

11. Expressed ibid. p. 891. I discovered after first drafting this a newer paper by one of the same authors and a bunch of others, Francis Ludlow, Alexander R. Stine, Paul Leahy, Enda Murphy, Paul A. Mayewski, David Taylor, James Killen, Michael G. L. Baillie, Mark Hennessy and Gerard Kiely, “Medieval Irish chronicles reveal persistent volcanic forcing of severe winter cold events, 431–1649 CE”, in Environment Research Letters Vol. 8 (Bristol 2013), pp. 24-35, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024035, which takes the same essential data over a longer range, using however only the Irish Annals, excluding ‘unreliable’ events but not engaging at all with the difficulties of their year-by-year chronologies, and winds up essentially using those to add precision to dating of events from the same Greenland ice-core sample. I haven’t read this in detail, nor have I read much of the recent work by McCarthy on the Annals that they cite, but their approach to the texts makes me wince pre-emptively even so. Anyway, the article is Open access and can be found here, and it is picked up by the BBC here, bless them linking to the actual article unlike some, whence it was reported by via David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe where I read it, and to whom therefore a tip of the hat!

Seminar CLXXVIII: comparing post-Roman European uplands

May 2013 seems to have been a busy month in Oxford for seminars and the like, despite my attempt at daily posting I seem still to be fourteen months behind and possibly even falling back. Though this is alarming what is to be done but press on, and on this occasion hot from the press is the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar of the 15th of that month, at which Nicholas Schroeder presented a paper entitled “From Roman to Medieval Landscapes: settlement, society and economy in Belgian, English and German uplands”.

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region. There are less hospitable-looking study areas, for sure… “Vue de Malmedy en mai 2012” by CathLegrandOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve already described Dr Schroeder as one of the brighter sparks of the transient Oxford firmament, and it was noticeable how much progress he’d made since his previous paper here recounted, a progress primarily of breadth as his title may imply to you. In an attempt to gather what was going on in the Ardennes region in the fourth to the sixth centuries he had embraced the power of wide-ranging comparison and also studied the old British kingdom of Dumnonia (modern Devon and Cornwall) and the German side of the Jura region, the ‘Swabian Alps’. The first part of the paper was thus a comparison of the areas’ scholarships — lots more actual dug archæology and aerial photography in Britain, lots more economic history writing and more pollen data in Belgium, much stronger structures of interpretation in Germany but largely focussed on centres not landscapes, among other things — and then turned to a detailed comparison of the former two areas, Britain versus Belgium.

I don’t want to recapitulate Dr Schroeder’s summary of the two areas as he had learned to see them, but the elements of comparison are worth drawing out: these were, more or less, villas, hillforts, the balance of cereal and pastoral agriculture and the rôle of new centres of lordship. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given for example that Devon and Cornwall are coastal and the Ardennes/Eifel region is not, there seem to have been more points of difference than comparison: Belgium has far more villa sites generally while Dumnonia’s Roman-period settlement was largely in what are called ’rounds’, the Ardennes had a noticeable return to woodland (though the same work with pollen doesn’t exist elsewhere, which may make this a weaker comparison) whereas in Britain what we have noticed is hillforts, the Ardennes’s culture remained at least slightly monetised and ceramic while Dumnonia lost both, Belgium’s shifting settlements associate with cemeteries of firstly a German-Roman military character and then what’s identified as ‘Merovingian’ in new locations whereas the sub-Roman population is famously invisible in funerary archæological terms, and each area grows different crop complexes at all points, though not without change, but there are also points of comparison.

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall, a hillfort with two ’rounds’ fairly clearly visible on the side nearest the viewer and strip fields corrugating the far side of the hill. Photo copyright Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service so only hotlinked here from their site.

The first important one of these, in as much as neither this nor the following point are what we would necessarily expect from the historiographies, is that both areas seem to have made heavy use of a form of agriculture that Dr Schroeder called ‘convertible husbandry‘, in which one grows crops on a field for 3-4 years then turns it over to pasture from 6-7, rather than switching dramatically between agrarian and pastoral models. (Rosamond Faith argued in questions that mixed agriculture must have been the general pattern almost everywhere before economies were developed enough to permit specialisation, but the question is when and where was that? I have more to say on this, I think.) The second point was that in both areas the durable changes happened not in the wake of the Roman collapse in the fourth and fifth centuries but in the seventh. It was then that in Dumnonia ceramics return to view, that rounds began to die out and longhouses appeared, and what seem often to have been royal estates developed in valley bottoms that became the new foci of the rural economy, while in the Ardennes it was not least then that the major monastery of Stavelot-Malmédy that dominates the evidence here got itself established, but also that burial moved into churchyards and again, that royal vills start showing up as, along with monastic estates, the articulations of the new economy. This I find intriguing: I think I would have expected the eighth century, as the climate began to improve and, in Dumnonia at least, as the kings of Wessex took over there. As it is it might be that the collapse of Rome was more survivable in these areas than in some others less marginal to that system, but that these survival mechanisms themselves ran into a kind of crisis that permitted reorganisation in favour of the new powerful later on. Dr Schroeder doesn’t seem to have published anything between now and then and I imagine he has been well occupied by writing up this project, but when he does it will be very interesting to see what his interpretations of what he has found look like.


I didn’t get down many of Dr Schroeder’s references, which were not all full cites rather than namechecks, but they certainly included (among the former) S. J. Rippon, R. M. Fyfe & A. G. Brown, “Beyond Villages and Open Fields: The Origins and Development of a Historic Landscape Characterised by Dispersed Settlement in South-West England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 50 (Leeds 2006), pp. 31-70, DOI:10.5284/1000320 and (among the latter) Adriaan Verhulst and Chris Wickham. From the former I suppose a good reference points would be his Le paysage rural : les structures parcellaires de l’Europe du Nord-Ouest, Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental 73 (Turnhout 1995) and from the latter the obviously relevant works here are Wickham, “Pastoralism and Under-Development in the Early Middle Ages” in L’Uomo di fronto al mondo animale nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studi del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 31 (Spoleto 1985), pp. 401-455, and 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, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, both rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 121-154 & 201-226 respectively.

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.

Seminar CLXIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, IV

Continuing to tackle the seminar write-up backlog, I must reluctantly skip over the next paper I went to, Zubin Mistry’s “Tradition in Practice: thinking about abortion under the Carolingians” at the IHR, because it has already been well-covered at Magistra et Mater, which means that five in six of the last posts will have been about Anglo-Saxon England one way or another. Looking back at this, it does become a bit clearer why I was finding it so hard to make progress on things Catalan in Oxford… Anyway, after Zubin’s paper came school half-term, which meant that I unfortunately had to miss one of John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “From Central Clusters to Complex Centres: economic reorientation and the making of urban landscapes”, and whatever was following it the next week in various places, and resume seminar attendance with the fifth of those lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape (5): landscapes of rural settlement”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The subject of this lecture was basically the village, and how and when it moved from being a relatively loose association of linear enclosures to the houses-all-facing-one-road croft-and-toft layout that the English now think of as being typical for an old village. One way at this is via boundary ditches, and there are lots of these known, but eighty per cent of them date from after 1050, and the remainder from the seventh to ninth centuries, with nothing in between! If you buy John’s idea that use of grids and standard measurements bespeaks monastic involvement in laying out the land, even if they just provided consultant expertise when divisions were needed or something (as John thinks detectable at Stotfold in Bedfordshire), then there is presumably rather a lot of less orchestrated settlement that we are simply not seeing here, and in the ninth to eleventh century gap it’s almost all of it.

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire; the Anglo-Saxon settlement was located south of the roundabout at bottom right

Stotfold actually makes a good example of how such a community might develop. The place-name derives from a very large cattle corral (a stud-fold) that seems to underlie the early settlement; in this was later built a church and three farmsteads, with one more outside, two of the farmsteads inside having been divided on a grid plan. Each of the farms seems to have had a circle of ‘inland‘ around it, but the old corral puts them all in the same gathering somehow. Was this a village? Is it nucleated? Is it dispersed? Are these even real categories? What it’s not, anyway, is toft-and-croft down a road with common fields: that all seems to be eleventh-century or later, here around the Norman church, and then to have endured until the ninenteeth!1 Before that, however, we’re not looking at anything that would be sensibly called a ‘manor’ or similar; John prefers Rosamond Faith’s terms warland and inland, free warrior tenancies versus slave-farmed reserves, the latter of which have no documentary presence of course.2

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar again, because it’s good

The revival of planning in settlement layout is also almost entirely within the area John had earlier noticed as significant, the catchment of the Wash understood in broad terms, or in other words the east and south Midlands and northern Home Counties extending towards the Thames Valley. In this area we have plenty of what might be warland settlements, but what is oddly lacking is much sign of very large estates such as might belong to major aristocrats. Even the supposed palace sites we have are in relatively minor estates as far as can be told, leading to Cheddar’s description as a hunting lodge.3 As had been discussed in one of the earlier lectures, early and middle Anglo-Saxon high status just doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of immovable expression of hierarchy.

Reconstruction drawing of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho

Reconstruction drawing (and a highly fanciful one) of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho as proposed by its excavator

In settlements like Stotfold and the more famous Goltho, with whose dating John has strongly-expressed issues, he sees then the housing of the rising low-grade nobility, the thegns vying for social promotion, and sees this as a fairly late phenomenon. What we have here is the burhs that the tenth-century laws required such men to have if they were to claim thegnly status, which raises the question of whether there are fortified examples of such houses.4 To this John’s answer was so characteristic that I wrote it down verbatim: “The answer seems to be, yes there are and they’re egg-shaped!” You may blink somewhat at this but Goltho, and also Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire, another and perhaps better candidate for a late Anglo-Saxon ‘castle’, and Sulgrave, Northamptonshire, all show ovoid ramparts around relatively small halls that fit this expectation, and there are probably more under later Norman motte-and-bailey overlays. That however takes the lectures into something quite like a new society, and this was left for the last one the next week.


1. John had a clutch of references that kept coming up for later medieval villages and settlement, and this time I wrote them down. They were: B. K. Roberts & S. Wrathmell, Region and Place: a study of English rural settlement (London 2002); A. Lambourne, Patterning within the Historic Landscape and its Possible Causes: a study of the incidence and origins of regional variation in Southern England, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 509 (Oxford 2010); and Tom Williamson, Environment, Society and Landscape in Early Medieval England: time and topography (Woodbridge 2013), the last of which he must have had in draft I assume!

2. I’ve linked to Rosamond Faith’s The English Peasantry and the Growth of Lordship (London 1999), which covers this formulation in great detail pp. 15-136, but another work of hers that kept coming up was eadem & Debby Banham, Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming (Oxford forthcoming) which is obviously going to be pretty good news for those who are interested in such things when it finally emerges.

3. See once more J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100001964.

4. The source here is a tract associated with Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (which puts it in that most dangerous category, draft moral legislation) called Geþyncðo, translated by Dorothy Whitelock as “Concerning Wergilds and Dignities” in her (trans.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 51(a). On it in this sense see Ann Williams, “A bell-house and a burh-geat: lordly residences in England before the Norman Conquest” in C. Harper-Bill & R. Harvey (edd.), Medieval Knighthood IV: papers from the fifth Strawberry Hill Conference 1990 (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 221-240, repr. in Robert Liddiard (ed.), Anglo-Norman Castles (Woodbridge 2003), pp. 23-40, and more generally W. G. Runciman, “Accelerating Social Mobility: the case of Anglo-Saxon England” in Past and Present no. 104 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-30.

Seminar CLXI: how to dig up Anglo-Saxon farming

I wrote this offline while WordPress continued not to have visibly done anything that made me prepared to log in, so I feel slightly less bad about the consistent fourteen-month-backlog with my seminar reports than I might do. Slightly. But with that expressed, let’s immediately turn to it in the person of fellow blogger Mark McKerracher, who on 4th February 2013 addressed the Oxford Medieval Archaeology seminar with the title “Mid-Saxon Agriculture Reconsidered”. I got to this one slightly late but I think I got most of it, and very interesting what I got was, also.

Historic field systems visible in the landscape on Burderop Down, Wiltshire

Historic field systems visible in the landscape on Burderop Down, Wiltshire, image used under Crown Copyright

I suppose it is worth first making the case that we really do need to know about farming in the Middle ages: it was the source of almost all wealth and the main activity of the vast majority of the population. If we don’t understand it, we don’t understand what is really the first thing about what the people we study did and cared about and how any of the other stuff they did was possible. Nonetheless, there is much here that we don’t understand, and for England this has actually got worse in the last few generations as archæology has improved, because old models, in which after a near-total reversion to pastoralism in the wake of the Roman withdrawal and the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the heavy plough arrived from the Continent in the ninth century and water-mills shortly after and in general set things up for an Agricultural Revolution that would explain England’s subsequent economic punch, have collapsed as we have found, for example, seventh-century heavy ploughs, eighth-century tidal mills, massive levels of seventh- and eighth-century monetisation compared to the later periods of supposed ‘take-off’ and so forth, and failed to find very much sign of fifth-century agricultural land going out of use in any case.1 Almost all the studies trying to deal with this have been economically-focussed, however, and very often on trade and proto-industry, whereas the base of the economy must have been and remained agricultural.2 So it is arguably in farming that change is most important, but also where it is hardest to actually find.

The Lyminge seventh-century plough coulter in situ

The Lyminge seventh-century plough coulter in situ

This, and the relatively early stages of Mr McKerracher’s doctoral work, meant that what we got here was largely a discussion of ways in which this lack of knowledge might be addressed, but that in itself was illuminating. Technology change, for example, would be a thing you’d hope to be able to see archæologically, but so far we just don’t have enough tools to do a chronology with, not least because the vast bulk of them were probably wood or bone; what then do ones that aren’t tell you about what was normal? Buildings are easier, at least mills are; barns, however, which should be good signs of the kind of productivity that necessitated storage, are basically shaped like houses, so unless they happen to have enough grain in their remains that you can reliably distinguish storage from, say, cookery, there’s still a problem. Grain-drying ovens, which do seem to be a Middle Saxon (i. e. late-seventh to ninth centuries) redevelopment, are still hard to date in use, especially in terms of how long they might go on being used, which obviously matters. Since they can be anything from huts to big stone-built affairs (the two of these known, interestingly, being on the probable border between Mercia and East Anglia which left me thinking that they could have roles in military provisioning3) form does not lead us to function as we might wish. There also arises a problem here that crops up still more with the general phenomenon of wool production which some are now seeing as important much earlier than used to be thought, which is: since any large-scale production of any kind in this period must still have effectively been cottage industry, how can you tell it archæologically from ordinary domestic manufacture? What’s an industrial number of loom-weights? Bear in mind that we can’t date loom-weights with any precision in your answer…

Analysis of cereal remains from the Anglo-Saxon site at Lyminge by Mark McKerracher

Analysis of cereal remains from Lyminge by Mr McKerracher himself and shamelessly hotlinked from his blog

Mr McKerracher’s thoughts as to how to deal with this revolved principally around bones and grains. Neither have been well-studied in all but the most recent digs of Anglo-Saxon settlements, but it still looks like the way forward (or even back, where the remains have actually been preserved). An area that was running sheep primarily for wool would slaughter them only late, whereas one where the wool was a nice side benefit of lamb chops would prefer younger meat: that would be reflected in bone preservation.4 Even if quantities of grain preserved (for which to have happened it usually needs to have been in a fire and charred) are hard to do much with, actually identifying grains can show you shifts in favoured crops from wheat to barley or more importantly to things that are probably fodder crops like rye and oats, suggesting a concentration on horses rather than people, or new growing on land where wheat wasn’t happy, suggesting growing demand, and so on. For these possibilities Mr McKerracher had some sites and information that suggested positive results could be expected, and which allowed him to suggest that his work would show a Middle Saxon farming culture in which we can show that the crops that were being grown were changing, that specialised wool production in the Cotswolds was perhaps the main economic concentration of the period (which might do much to help ground the way that the period becomes a contest for dominance between Wessex and Mercia rather than the kingdoms with an eastern seaboard) and that all of this was only to be found on a few big sites, suggesting that it was innovation from above rather than a general shift beneath the élites. It all needed more testing, he emphasised, but nonetheless this could be some very big things grown from tiny seeds here. I look forward to finally catching up with the blog to find out how things are coming up…


1. It seems unfair to target older books for what their authors couldn’t have known; there’s a reasonable round-up of the literature on the take-off of the tenth century (which is to say, more or less a take-off in the preservation of our sources on economic matters) in Christopher Dyer, “Les problèmes de la croissance agricole du haut moyen âge en Angleterre” in La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990), pp. 117-130. I’m sure there must be one in English as well, but remember I don’t actually work on this stuff, that’s the one I’ve read. The most aggressive statement of a case for a revolutionary change is indubitably Richard Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989).

2. Especially Hodges, Anglo-Saxon Achievement, or his “Society, Power and the First English Revolution” in Il Secolo di Ferro: mito e realtà del secolo X, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 38 (Spoleto 1991), pp. 125-157, repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 163-175.

3. Here I’m obviously influenced by Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008).

4. Two good early examples of how this kind of work can underpin historical conclusions are Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys: an Iron Age, Dark Age and Early Medieval Settlement in Glamorgan (Cardiff 1963), reprised and updated in his Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987), pp. 5-150 where the animal bones are discussed pp. 67-82, and Jennifer Bourdillon, “Countryside and town: the animal resources of Saxon Southampton” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 177-195.

Feudal Transformations XVI: two fields or three?

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system


As with so many of the best bits of learning, a while ago I came up against something in a book that I was reading, for completely different reasons, that made me think anew about the fabled old feudal transformation (and you might think I’d thought enough about that, these days). This thing was a chapter by one Helmut Hildebrandt about the spread of the three-field system in Central Europe, by which he turned out to mean substantially Germany with a glance at the Paris basin.1 Over that area he argued that over the eighth to tenth centuries the system of using three fields in rotation, one for sowing a winter crop to be harvested in spring, one for a summer crop to be harvested in the autumn and one lying fallow to get the next winter crop, became fairly widely established, whereas it had been largely missing before that. I wasn’t thinking much of this till the date 1000 crossed the text and I suddenly wondered about the effects of increased yield on the economy, since as you may recall as much of an answer as I have to the whole transformation question is that, “it’s the economy, stupid”. So, does all this add up to anything I should have thought about by now?

Well, the evidence Hildebrandt had for the phenomenon is kind of horrible: he’s very largely arguing from the ways that rents were collected by ecclesiastical landowners over the period, as revealed in sources like polyptychs and leases. That makes sense in so far as they’re kind of all we have (though in England I don’t think anyone would try and argue about this without using survey evidence too2) but it has all kinds of issues. Churches had long-term land strategies in ways that lay landowners didn’t necessarily: they could be supporting a lot more unproductive mouths than the average lay household, not just in the community but in terms of poor relief and hospitality, and of course their land was never divided by inheritance so they could plan in a longer term.3 Their rents might therefore be exactly the place we’d expect to see systematisation but we can’t really argue from that that it got any further into the community. Of course, the churches were a lot of landownership, so it’s still significant. But since Hildebrandt was very happy here to argue against deducing significant change from such evidence where it would take away from his overall picture, on the grounds that underneath a rent structure the land can be organised any way that pays it, there are still problems.4 In fairness, there he was mainly talking about common fields, and the more work I see about common fields in the earlier Middle Ages the more I think the debate is basically anachronistic in the hands of everyone but Gaspar Feliu.5 No, I am cautious about accepting this phenomenon as anything like universal, but then so was Hildebrandt, emphasising variation and alternatives and making a complex picture of a tendency towards a three-field system that in some areas with special conditions worked out differently.6 But even if we say that it’s only a trend and that the ecclesiastical landowners we see doing it may be leading that trend, it ought to make some kind of difference to how much wealth is in the system and that is kind of the motor of change either side of 1000 as far as I’m concerned. So is this where that change is coming from?

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Well, as we’ve seen before and will doubtless see again, there’s a problem with most ’causes’ of broad social change in the Middle Ages, which is that they tend to happen together and so one can usually argue that any one is causing all the others. This is the point of my famous diagram, above, after all. The biggest problem I have with this change in agriculture being such a driver is that it was new to me, because in Catalonia the situation is a lot more varied, with three-field going back to an uncertain date but two-field arable and grassland rotation equally common and vines messing up the picture by being a cash crop. People here at the right time tended to have land in a variety of small plots good for only one thing and a system is hard to construct for it.7 Hildebrandt’s picture really only covers Germany, the Low Countries and North-Eastern France, and the problem is that only the last of these really undergoes something that is easily recognisable as part of the feudal transformation model, and even there there’s a degree of top-down collapse of authority for other reasons that might be enough all by itself.8 Meanwhile, where this change is most marked is where there’s least other change. So if it’s a motor it isn’t much of one.

The other problem is one of the chicken and the egg. Here this is especially important. Hildebrandt did consider why this change that he saw was happening, and his belief was that the change towards common fields, at least, which is later than the change of field rotation as he saw it, is down to the increase of population requiring a greater yield from existing land and so idle land in awkward locations being brought into cultivation where before individual ownership had not been able to work it usefully.9 I think that seigneurial renders should probably also be considered as a driver there but we can easily guess where I got that from.10 Either way, the shift of systems is a consequence here of other things that have their place in the debate as causes. Even though it’s earlier than most of the big social changes embroiled in the feudal transformation model, a partial change in crop rotation seems likely to be an effect, not a cause, part of the bigger take-off run of the European economy in this era.11

So at the end I don’t think this gets me any new answers. But I am suddenly very conscious that to the best of my knowledge this kind of work has not been done for my area, and I’m not sure that sources exist from which it could, as yet. And that bothers me, because if I’m going to discount this there I’d like to do so from more than silence.


1. Helmut 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. You can see why it was an unexpected find given that it’s about neither Anglo-Saxons nor settlement.

2. I suppose I think of Christopher Taylor, Village and Farmstead: rural settlement in medieval England (London 1983) but his “The Anglo-Saxon Countryside” in Trevor Rowley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlement and Landscape. Papers Presented to a Symposium, Oxford 1973, British Archaeological Reports (British series) 6 (Oxford 1974), pp. 5-15, might be a better parallel.

3. Nowhere witnessed so thoroughly as in the regulations on bread in the Statutes of Adalhard Abbot of Corbie, 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.

4. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 284-287.

5. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “La pagesia i els béns comunals” in Els grans espais baronials a l’Edat Mitjana: desenvolupament socioeconòmic. Reunió científica. I Curs d’Estiu Comtat d’Urgell (Balaguer, 10, 11 i 12 de juliol de 1996) (Lleida 2002), pp. 23-40; cf. 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, about which as you may remember I had views.

6. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 279-284 (esp. 282-283) and 287-290.

7. Working from Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507, and further work collected in Immaculada Ollich, Maria Ocañ & Montserrat Rocafiguera (edd.), Experimentació arqueològica sobre conreus medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), online at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sK1ptZDwfV8C as of 28 July 2011, where they really don’t have an archaeological basis for separating the early and high medieval field systems; Reynolds’s initial paper describes them using both two-field and three-field in their tests precisely for this reason.

8. Classically described in Jean-François Lemarignier, “La dislocation du « pagus » et le problème des « consuetudines », Xe-XIe siècles” in Charles-Edmond Perrin (ed.), Mélanges d’histoire du moyen âge dédiés à la mémoire de Louis Halphen (Paris 1951), pp. 401-410, repr. in Lemarignier, Structures politiques et religieuses dans la France du haut Moyen Âge, ed. Dominique Barthélemy, Publications de l’Université de Rouen 206 (Rouen 1995), pp. 245-254.

9. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 286-287.

10. Chris 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, and his “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, the last of which is where I read it.

11. On which see La croissance agricole du haut Moyen Âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).