Tag Archives: medieval agriculture

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 XV: 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).

At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part IV

(Written offline on trains between Oxford and London, 17-18/09/2011)

On the morning of the last day of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, as habitués know, the civilized start time of the previous days is put aside for one that beats even Leeds, presumably in the hope that people will come and see at least something before setting out homewards. That was our hope last year when my collaborators and I appeared in the Sunday morning slot, and then it more or less worked; this time was not quite so well-attended, which is a pity because I thought my paper this year was rather better. On the other hand, one of our presenters had failed to show up, so it was perhaps understandable that people went elsewhere. Thankyou, then, to those who did come and see, one of whom was the Medieval History Geek whose write-up is here.

Session 531. The Court and the Courts in the Carolingian World

    Iron-Age-style emmer wheat growing at Butser Historic Farm

    Iron-Age-style emmer wheat growing at Butser Historic Farm, from ukagriculture.com

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “2:1 Against: cereal yields in Carolingian Europe and the Brevium exempla“. You have of course read the core of this here, but I’m glad to say that it seems to make a fairly decent little paper and that the feedback, which was mainly of the form, “yes, OK, we believe you about Annapes but does your argument also deal with the low crop yields Duby reported from Italy?”, very helpful in determining what needs doing to this paper to get it submissible. I do, despite the rather flaily plan of last post, have plans to do something about this.
  • Allegorical portrait of St Luke from the Ste-Croix Gospels

    You'll be telling me next you didn't know bovine evangelists got black wings

  • Lynley Anne Herbert, “A Bishop and an Abbot Walk into a Scriptorium: uncovering the clerical courtiers behind the Gospel of Ste-Croix“, was a great thing to share a session with, an excellent paper about something almost entirely different to one’s own topic. This was an art history paper of the best kind, containing lots of pictures, very clever explanations of them that no-one’s so far come up with and even the likely solution to whodunnit, though I’ll not give that away. I can prove the point about the pictures, however, because Ms Herbert ran her presentation off this very same laptop where I first typed this and it’s still there, muahaha etc., so for those of you who didn’t come, this sort of thing is why you should have. Suffice it to say that this one was so interesting I more or less escaped without questions.
  • Cruciform tetragrams of the early Middle Ages compared

    This was an artistic parallel I can believe in

That still left the last session, though, and this turned out to be one of those joyful coincidences that can only happen when there are this many scholars present on one campus, the session where you more or less wander in off the street and can help someone you didn’t even know about minutes before.

Session 578. Images of Medieval Kingship

This session too had lost a speaker, but I didn’t see anything more interesting that wasn’t similarly hampered, whereas in this one… well, you’ll see. I was here for the second paper, really, but the first one was also interesting. We got:

    A royal Maundy ceremony in 1867

    A royal Maundy ceremony in 1867

  • Ellie E. Fullerton, “Kings of Beggars: royal almsgiving in medieval Europe”, which discussed, mainly in French and German contexts, royal ceremonial handouts to the poor, in which kings, or at least writers about kings, seem to have seen a basic royal responsibility that also offered the chance to pay off sins. Is that how Elizabeth II sees it when she gives out the annual Maundy money? Well, who knows…
  • King Alfons I and Queen Sancha of Castile, from the Liber Feudorum Maior (via Wikimedia Commons)

    King Alfons I and Queen Sancha of Castile, from the Liber Feudorum Maior (via Wikimedia Commons)

  • Shannon L. Wearing, “Representing Kings and Queens in the Iberian Cartulary: the Liber feudorum maior” was however what had drawn me in, because the relevant Liber is the cartulary of the counts of Barcelona.1 I would have loved a copy of Ms Wearing’s presentation as well, but at least in this case most of the images are already online. This was an iconographic study but done from the scribes up, which I have not seen before with this manuscript; Ms Wearing detected two clearly different artists at work, presumably at different stages, and they had different ideas about how kings and queens should look, broadly the first going for a generic portrayal and the latter much more individualised. Since it was this latter who also painted the picture I love so much of King Alfons I of Aragón and his chancellor Ramon de Caldes with a pile of charters in the archive, and who therefore gave Caldes more prominence in that illustration than the king, there’s some obvious conclusions to be jumped to about responsibility here but Ms Wearing was commendably careful. One set of questions she couldn’t answer as yet were ones about gender, however, because there are a lot of women in the manuscript, and here I was able to set some context by pointing out that the documents of which the Liber feudorum maior is mainly composed are already quite gender-odd. It is mainly, you see, the feudal oaths of which we have seen a couple here, by which the counts of Barcelona reorganised their territory into networks of sworn dependence in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (and also inherited the crown of Aragón). As you will have maybe noticed, in these documents the swearing parties are identified by their mothers, and this is the only documentary context in Catalonia where this happens. A certain amount of ink has gone on why this should be but not to any great effect; it remains a problem to be solved.2 By raising it, however, I was able to relate images and text in a way that might not otherwise have been possible, because of knowing other texts to which this is different. I hope it helped and anyway it made me feel clever.
  • King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

    King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

    Also by hanging about to the bitter end like this I met Jordi Camps, whose name has been in the `Currently reading’ part of the sidebar here for, let’s say, a very long time, and who was a gentleman and encouraging to both Ms Wearing and myself. I’d known he was around but hadn’t yet managed to catch him so this was a pleasant coincidence.

But that really was the end; after that it was sitting around talking with Australians (which has become one of my favourite pastimes this summer), failing to make it to lunch with Another Damned Medievalist and Notorious Ph. D. to my chagrin, getting on a bus and then setting out homeward. So, looking back on the whole thing, what else is there to say about this Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo non-academical

First things first: my accommodation was better this year than last. Partly, I suppose, I was just prepared for the horror this time but this dorm room had been swept, there was an adequate supply of bedding and soap and there was not a goose standing on top of the block shouting its heart out at six every morning, so I slept better and thus felt better. On the other hand, out in the world I remember being periodically enraged by people who ambled slowly up the middle of corridors without any apparent conception that others might want to get past, not just at the conference but the airports as well; I don’t remember ever meeting this so badly but it seemed as if I was always trying to get past people who had no thought that they might be blocking a thoroughfare. Anyway, that’s my personal road-rage I suspect.

Socially I enjoyed this year more than last year, and last year was pretty fun. I had several groups of friends established on arrival this time, and so I could be sure of being invited to things and having people about me if I wanted, whereas last year that had been a bit more touch-and-go; on the other hand it may also have been that the discontinuation of the shuttle buses into the town made it more difficult for people to leave campus en masse in the evenings. I was annoyed by this when I wanted to travel thither, obviously, but now I suspect it was probably helping the conference vibe to have people under more pressure to stay on site and socialise.

Anyway. It was fun. It also cost a lot, but less than last year and I have, eventually, been able to reclaim the travel and registration, so the only real cost has been in time and interest on my overdraft, plus, you know, a few books… All the same the time cost was quite high; this year I could do it, next year I expect to be teaching more and it may well be that this means I cannot go again. There is also my resolve to stop coming up with useless papers so as to go to things to reckon with; I think that this means that next year I am probably only presenting about Picts at least for a while, and that not so often. But who knows how things will look by then? So we’ll see. For now, anyway, the write-up is done and it’s onto other things more English once more.


1. Edited with some illustrations (monochrome) by F. Miquel Rosell as Liber feudorum maior: cartulario real que se conserva en el Archivo de la Corona de Aragón. Reconstitución y edición (Barcelona 1945); discussed in English by Adam Kosto in “The Liber Feudorum Maior of the Counts of Barcelona: the cartulary as an expression of power” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 27 (Amsterdam 2001), pp. 1-21.

2. Not least by Michel Zimmermann, not just his “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i expansió del feudalisme català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with English summary p. 557, that I usually cite and which is now online here for free, but also “‘Et je t’empouvoirerai’ Potestativum te farei). À propos des relations entre fidélité et pouvoir au onzième siècle” in Médiévales Vol. 10 (St-Denis 1986), pp. 17-36, and “Le serment vassalique en Catalogne : écriture de la fidélité ou invention d’un ordre politique?” in Françoise Laurent (ed.), Serment, promesse et engagement : rituels et modalités au Moyen Âge, Cahiers du CRISIMA 6 (Montpellier 2008), pp. 585ff, the last of which I have not yet met.

“Studying history stops people believing rubbish”, and other Internet gems

I’m actually catching up on backlog here, assisted by the fact that both Oxford Medieval History seminar and Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar have had to cancel their first week’s event this term. There is of course the little matter of imminent Kalamazoo and a few other more local deadlines, so things are still a bit pressed. In that spirit, I hope you won’t mind if once more I link you to a bunch of things that other people have written while I get on with mine.

  • First up, I was genuinely delighted to see that someone (who has so far remained anonymous) has done a wonderful and sympathetic photo-tour of my old workplace, the Department of Coins and Medals in the Fitzwilliam Museum. He has captured both its industry and its habitual near-chaos, and it probably also qualifies as bookshelf porn; do have a look, it’s great, and cheered me a great deal as I did and do like the place. (A tip of the hat goes to my erstwhile colleague Andy Woods, who mentioned this on Academia.edu.)
  • Secondly, do you remember Francis Fukuyama, the man who declared that history was basically coming to a kind of entropic close as liberal democracy won out everywhere? I could sort of understand his point of view when I first met this, as I live in an allegedly-liberal democracy myself and didn’t get out of it much then, but you might have expected him to backpedal a bit these days. Instead, he now has a book called The Origins of Political Order in which, if this review and interview in the New York Times is a fair account, he basically goes straight from tribalism to feudalism without pause or consideration. “He explicitly assumes that human social nature is universal and is built around certain evolved behaviors like favoring relatives, reciprocal altruism, creating and following rules, and a propensity for warfare”, says the reviewer, which will give you an idea. There is much praise quoted from political scientists, but dear gods, this is no kind of `science’ I wish to recognise, and I think it will make most historians feel slightly ill. Consider yourself warned for when your students have read it…
  • More authentically medieval, you may have met in old work on medieval Europe, occasionally still parroted in textbooks, the idea that the transition in Europe from post-Roman to high medieval society was based, among other things, around the recovery of the ability to make and use the `heavy plough‘, a wheeled plural-beast-drawn thing capable of turning thick, clayey, fertile soils, with consequent benefits in crop yield, harvest size, surplus and bang! feudal transformation! etc. Since the Romans had heavy ploughs, and they’re not exactly mystical high-tech., this has always looked like rubbish to some people, or at least, more to do with social choice and structure than with the actual technology, and occasionally we find bits of the things that help fill in the picture. The latest of these is also, I think, the furthest west anything like this early, and has come out of the very interesting excavations at Lyminge led by Dr Gabor Thomas that I’ve mentioned here before. It is inarguably seventh-century and should hopefully bury this ghost of technological determinism plus Dark-Age benightedness in the hole whence it came. (I learn this from David Beard’s Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog, to which a hat tip.)
  • Borrowed from the webcomic Least I Could Do

    But the cream of the crop is indubitably the one I’ve borrowed for the title, which may become my new motto, and which comes from a report in The Guardian, itself reporting on a report by the English school inspectorate, OFSTED, which, ah, reports that in too many schools, pupils are not being taught to go beyond the textbooks, which are often themselves constructed for the A-Level examinations and not beyond, resulting in a `stultification’ of history and children not being prepared for further study in the subject. Well, yes, we have many of us met stuff that looks as if this could be its explanation, I’m sure. But the interesting bit is where OFSTED set out their stall for what they’d hope the teaching of history in schools would achieve. Although this refers to and sits alongside the current government’s insistence on a connected narrative, rather than an episodic drop-in on supposedly-important eras (and the article is accordingly headed with an icon of the government’s current history god Simon Schama), it carefully ignores the bit that comes with that about an excessive emphasis on skills.

    Instead they conclude that: “… history is well placed to enhance pupils’ sense of social responsibility, teaching about diversity, migration and national identity”. And when they say, “teaching about,” they seem to mean “teaching to question,” as they quote an unnamed pupil (unnamed even in the actual report, not that the Guardian links to it of course, but it’s easy enough to find here) who said, as per the title, “Studying history stops people believing rubbish“. That’s it! I mean, damn, print the t-shirt, start the marches! The trouble is, I grow to suspect more and more, is that the powers-that-be would rather have voting populations who do believe rubbish, and I don’t know how we win that fight (though some thoughts will eventually emerge here in the next few weeks). This one I also got via David Beard, this time at his Archaeology on Europe blog, so a hat tip there. And that’s it for now, see you shortly!

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.

Feudal Transformations XIII: storing more and working less

Somehow I am staying ahead this semester. Having known for more than a week that I’d be teaching this time, I had lectures prepared a full fortnight ahead at the time of writing, lectures that are simpler and hopefully more effective than last semester’s, and therefore quicker to build; and consequently I am also finding time to do some actual work (as well as, as you will have noticed, blog a load of stuff).1 Specifically, I have started the background work for my Kalamazoo paper, for which I foolishly promised something that would actually require research, and by now I have an idea what shape it will be and what two of its jokes are, which is, surely, half the battle. I may not have read any of the substantive information I need to do it properly, but I know that if I absolutely had to I could already pull something together and this is very encouraging. (Incidentally, could someone who has my e-mail address and a digital copy of the Kalamazoo programme mail it me? I’ve tried from work and from home and I can’t download it, the operation hangs or fails with an error. Thanks in advance.)

Professeur Pierre Bonnassie (d. 2003) at the Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona, 1993

It has also led me to be reading Pierre Bonnassie’s Festschrift, which I mentioned a while ago, and consequently to be thinking (even more) about peasants and the good ol’ feudal transformation. If you’ve met Bonnassie’s work at all you’ve probably met it where he argued that between the end of large-scale agricultural slavery in late Antiquity and the development of serfdom in the years just after 1000 (for him) there was a sort of sweet spot, briefly enjoyed, where the majority of peasants were basically free, even if under public lordship.2 Obviously this only really works in South-Western Europe (‘du Rhône à Galice’) and buckets of cold doubt have been cast on it even there, but as with many of Bonnassie’s theories it still looks basically defensible in Catalonia, where the open frontier gives peasants somewhere to run to and lords, therefore, a reason to be nicer than they might otherwise be so that the peasants don’t run there.3 The debate there swirls around the effects of this. Does the peasant freedom to seek their own fortune in new lands on the frontier account for economic dynamism, increased land clearance and all that unfolds therefrom? Or is that instead driven by the pressures of lordship on the peasants once newly subjected? Chris Wickham finds an ingenious halfway house, arguing that to see peasants as venture capitalists starting small businesses is woefully anachronistic, that left to themselves peasants would not work to raise their lands’ output (“peasants had two alternatives, to eat more or to work less, and I suspect that they did both”) and that although the pressure to improve therefore comes from the renewal of oppressive lordship the peasantry still deserve credit as the innovators who had to work out how to come up with, quite literally, the goods.4

Excavation of the Molí d'en Valeri o de la Sal, Malgrat, Maresme, Catalonia

Excavation of the Molí d'en Valeri o de la Sal, Malgrat, Maresme, Catalonia

The other debate that springs from this is on the rôle of technique and technology. Bonnassie argued, on the basis largely of Lynn White’s book, that in the run up to 1000 peasant equipment was getting better: the heavy plough had finally made it to the area, iron tools were more and more common and watermills were newly prevalent.5 Subsequent work, however, has suggested that the heavy plough is basically irrelevant to the average Catalan homestead, where there wasn’t really room to turn it round and the soil is light anyway; that there’s no reason why iron tools should have been more available, since the techniques of smelting don’t change for a few centuries more, so this must actually be effect not cause, the cause being richer peasants; and that watermills are common much earlier, but don’t then seem to have this effect.6 (Also, of course, when most of your documentation comes from a recently-reorganised and expanding frontier zone, almost all infrastructure takes a while to set up, so it’s the wrong place to look for the agricultural state of the art as it will be late; but it’s where most of the documents come from.) The counter-argument, therefore, is that rather than being propelled by innovation or better techniques, the agricultural growth here was a slow buildup of the occupation of newly-cleared land, which was worked in the same way as ever but slowly increased, therefore fed more people who would occupy more land and so on till, boom, exponential growth.7 And if that’s so, then in my opinion the change has to start with the climate, but you’ve read me on that score already.

Village of Laurac, largely fourteenth century as stands

Village of Laurac, largely fourteenth century as stands, fortified during the Albigensian Crusade

Two of Bonnassie’s contributors engaged with this question in the best way, that is, from the archæology, and produced almost opposite nuances of his approach. Firstly, Jean-Paul Cazes tells the readers about underground grain silos at what appears to be his pet area, the Lauragais in Southern France.8 The thing here is that these perfectly unremarkable dug-out spaces in the ground, which stand out really well as crop-marks, only show up there associated with Roman-period settlement or sites of the ninth century or later. Identifying sites in that gap is of course tricky, tricker than Cazes allows in the small space the contributors seem to have been allowed, but all the same the association is pretty striking, and he argues that it means that the agricultural growth here was local, that is, the peasants were newly able to keep their surplus locally rather than having to render it up to the royal vill or similar as we are told they would have done in the Carolingian era. That is, there may or may not be growth testified in this but there is certainly a relaxation of exploitative authority. It’s a fascinating way of demonstrating what the master who was being fêted had asserted from documents alone.

Medieval peasant at work with a hand plough, from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque National de France

Medieval peasant at work with a hand plough, from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque National de France

Then, in the immediately following article, Aline Durand tackles the question of how these peasants actually set about working the land.9 In an article that covers a huge amount of ground in a very short space, Durand inventories the tools that later Toulousain documents suggest a peasant was expected to turn up to do his labour service with, and that wills and so forth suggest that they owned, and argues that whereas big estates calling on large labour pools would have ox-teams and heavy ploughs the peasant working his own land would have used an ard or a hoe for most of the work and a hand-plough like the one above, probably not even with wheels, to till his small and light-soiled fields. Durand thinks these tools would have had iron blades, which is where Bonnassie saw the change; Durand’s sources are later so Bonnassie could still be right (and Durand was hardly going to choose this venue to say otherwise). I don’t know where we are with this now: if there is an Owlfish reading, they may be able to add perspective. However, Durand, not content with this short tour de force, observes that while the tools don’t seem to change as some paradigms would argue, field use does: she notes that seigneurial labour levies operate on three ploughings a year, one to break up the sod, one immediately preceding the sowing and another to bury the stubble. This third one, she says, was largely skipped by people working their own land, as far as we can tell; this is after all back-breakingly hard work, especially if you’re doing it as above rather than with an ox-team. However, she suggests that once the model and its superior productivity (because it refreshes the soil) was widely observable people would start to use it on their own lands.

This part of the argument is to say the least unproven, because of course her primary sources are documents of lordship so showing what’s going on on land that aren’t under lordship, at least that directly, is hard to do. Also, it conflicts with her own reason why this wasn’t happening earlier, viz. that peasants didn’t want to do the work. They would rather eat more and work less, as Chris has it. But a more subtle metric of competition might explain a new pressure to produce surplus for both groups, I suppose. Either way, these papers match each other quite well, Cazes showing that apparently peasants were keeping more of their crop than before and Durand showing that crops are being made larger than before by technique, and not just extra land being used. In this respect they fortify their master well, and show his own impressive ability to bring unexpected forms of evidence to bear in support of his initially charter-based claims.10 Whether the causation should run surplus, therefore increased extraction, therefore pressure to grow more, as Wickham would want it, or increased extraction therefore surplus, as I think Bonnassie would have, however, I’m less sure. I might, in the end, side with Gaspar Feliu and others like him and gloomily conclude that the option in which the peasants lose out is probably the more likely.11


1. Of course, all this progress comes at the cost of anything that might be mistaken for a life, but since that was also the case last semester when I was hanging onto my deadlines by the skin of my teeth, I’m still winning.

2. Classically in Pierre Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59.

3. So maintained, for example, in Paul H. Freedman, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991).

4. 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. Quote is near the end as I recall.

5. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 435-475, esp. 459-475, largely on the basis of Lynn T. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

6. For the plough arguments, not made explicitly for Catalonia but clearly applicable, see Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn. (London 1994); on iron-smelting I admit my understanding has been recently updated by the comments on this blog-post at Armarium Magnus, which contain references, at least the ones I was interested in did; and on earlier mills you might be best advised to see, if you only could, if I only could, etc., Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London forthcoming), Chapter probably-3 about Roda de Ter. Also some useful perspectives in C. Arbùcies & J. Oliver, “Vinyes que ja no hi són. Per una arqueològia agrària del domini feudal del treball pagès: les vinyes de Sorre, Montardit (el Pallars Sobirà) i Musser (la Cerdanya)” 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. 321-337.

7. For a range of views on this issue, and others, mainly focussing on whether or not Robert Fossier was wrong about it, try Georges Duby (coord.), “Table Ronde” 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. 181-203. Fossier argues that he wasn’t, as you’d expect. Contrast Bonnassie’s contribution to the volume, “La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge dans la Gaule du Midi et le nord-est de la péninsule ibérique : chronologie, modalités, limites”, ibid. pp. 13-35.

8. J.-P. Cazes, “Les silos et leur significance dans le haut moyen âge. L’exemple du Lauragais” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.). Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 45-50.

9. A. Durand, “La labour de céréaliculture en Languedoc méditerranéen (Xe-XIIe siècles) : quelques points de repères”, ibid. pp. 51-56.

10. For example, see his reply to Dominique Barthélemy in Bonnassie, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

11. Referring to Gaspar Feliu, “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41, partly addressed by another of the Festschrift contributors, Pere Benito i Monclús, in his “El plet dels homes francs de Sarrià (1258). Crisi i pervivència de l’alou pagès a la Catalunya medieval” in Débax, Sociétés Méridionales, pp. 71-79.

2:1 against: the misconception about Carolingian cereal yields

Let me try this non-aggressive corrective thing again. I posted a little while ago to the effect that I had one piece of bad history I’d like to contribute to the pile of zombie argument effigies that we would like an ideal version of the History and Policy Institute ‘Bad History’ series to be burning. That’s not very non-aggressive, I grant you, but wait, this is the new dispensation. As Magistra et Mater soberly pointed out, what the History and Policy team really want are mistakes that are misinforming public policy, and this is not one of those, so, I guess I’ll have to do it here. It’s not important to anyone now except historians, but it keeps getting repeated. Yet it’s not really sustainable, and smells suspiciously like the same contempt for the medieval that leads to stereotypes of benighted lack of hygiene or eating rotten meat. What is it? It is the idea that in the Carolingian period yields on cereal crops were scarcely twice what was sown. It would be very hard to explain how that particular super-state managed to field such large armies for so long if this were really so, and several people have disputed it, but it keeps lurching back and when I found it in a textbook I am currently evaluating (which is otherwise very good) I felt I had to set something down about why it almost certainly isn’t true.1

Georges Duby

Georges Duby

Where did these authors get the idea from? I could already guess the answer to this: it’s where I first met it, the work of this man, Georges Duby. And, sure enough, in Moran & Gerberding’s chapter bibliography (I told you this was a good textbook) we find Georges Duby’s Early Growth of the European Economy and if you have at that, you will find the basis for this claim detailed there, although it stemmed from his awareness of much older work that made similar points.2 However, he actually set it out in rather more detail in his earlier Rural Economy and Country Life, and I’ll use that to show you where he was getting it from, since I own a copy to, er, copy:

One document only for northern Gaul provides some figures. The surveyors who visited the the royal estates attached to Annapes in the winter recorded both the quantity of the previous harvest and the amount which had just been subtracted for the sowing – they certified that the remainder was actually in the barns at the time of their visit. These figures are very baffling. Here are those for the estate of Annapes, for which the inventory gives the most complete details. It is not possible to compare seed with harvest for oats, peas or beans since the spring sowings had not been made. But of the 1,320 muids of spelt harvested 720 had to be returned to the land as seed; of 100 muids of wheat, 60; of 1,800 muids of barley, 1,100; and finally the new sowing absorbed the whole of the rye harvest, that is, 98 muids. The available surplus of the harvest did not therefore appear that year to exceed 46 per cent for spelt, 40 per cent for wheat, 38 per cent for barley, that is an output of 1·8, 1·7 and 1·6 to one respectively. There appeared to be no surplus for rye. The fragmentary evidence given for other estates agrees; an output of 2:1 for spelt and of 1·6:1 for rye at Cysoing; for barley 2·2:1 at Vitry, 1·5:1 at Cysoing, 2:1 at Somain.42 Taken altogether the consumable surplus is revealed as markedly less, in the year of the inventory, than the quantity which had to be reserved for sowing. Could output really have been at such a derisory level?

The text, however, is categorical. It prevents us from assuming that, apart from seed corn, grain had already been taken away between harvest time and the visit of the compilers of the inventory for domestic consumption or for despatch outside the estate…. The only reasonable hypothesis to explain the astonishingly low figures for output is to assume that the inventory was compiled after an exceptionally bad harvest. In fact, when it was drawn up grain harvested the previous year was still stored in the barns of these estates in quantities much greater than the insignificant surplus of the current year. The surveyors found at Annapes 1,081 muids of old spelt, as against 600 of new, and 1,200 muids of old barley, as against 700 of new. These important savings prove that the output of seed was clearly much higher the previous year, We can deduce from this unique document that the productivity of the fields varied enormously from one season to another and further that it could be devastatingly low.

We must not, of course, generalize from one set of figures obtained from a single source. But it is possible to find elsewhere some other traces of output, somewhat higher than that which can be derived from the Annapes inventory, but even so representing a low yield and a derisory rate of profit when compared with the value of the capital in land and seed corn….

    42 Grierson, 247. Slicher von Bath, 31, p. 66, does not seem to interpret correctly the figures in the text.3

Well, that’s pretty damning, but how about that source? In fact it’s online, thanks to the efforts of Paul Halsall at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook all those years ago, although the extract they used doesn’t have the equally damning comparative data. Indeed, neither does the translation in Duby’s book itself (Rural Economy‘s particular staying power is at least partly because it’s half-sourcebook), but it does at least direct us to an original.4 So of course does the IMSB, we would expect no less, and strangely the two originals are not the same though their translation very nearly is: Duby’s original was Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales, for which he cites MGH Cap. I pp. 254-255 whereas the IMSB’s source translation, Ogg’s Source Book of Mediaeval History, pp. 127-129, gives MGH LL I pp. 178-179.5 It’s noticeable that neither of these translations actually provide all the material that Duby cites, in particular they skip silently over any reference to last year’s barley without indicating any missing text. Hmph. So we ought to go to the Latin. Now of course these days the MGH is online, which is a thing of great joy, and makes this comparatively easy. I’ll use the MGH Cap. edition since it is newer by fifty years and as the title page proclaims, ‘denuo edito‘:

Invenimus in Asnapio fisco dominico salam regalem ex lapide factam optime, cameras III; solariis totam casam circumdatam, cum pisilibus XI; infra cellarium I; porticus II, alias casas infra curtem ex ligno factas XVII cum totidem cameris et ceteris appendiciis bene conpositis; stabolum I, coquinam I, pistrinum I, spicaria II, scuras III. Curtem tunimo strenue munitam, cum porta lapidea, et desuper solarium ad dispensandum. Curticulam similiter tunimo interclausam, ordinabiliter dispositam, diversique generis plantatam arborum. Vestimenta: lectum parandum I, drappos ad discum I parandum; toaclam I. Utensilia: concas aereas II, poculares II, calderas aereas II, ferrea I, sartaginem I, gramalium I, andedam I, farum I, secures II, dolatoriam I, terebros II, asciam I, scalprum I, runcinam I, planam I, falces II, falciculas II, palas ferro paratas II. Utensilia lignea ad ministrandum sufficienter. De conlaboratu: spelta vetus de anno praeterito corbes LXXXX, quae possunt fieri de farina pensas CCCCL, ordeum modios C. Presenti anno fuerunt speltae corbes CX: seminavit ex ipsis corbes LX, reliqua repperimus; frumenti modii C: seminavit LX, reliqua repperimus; sigilis modii LXXXXVIII, seminavit totidem; ordeo modii MDCCC: seminavit MC, reliqua repperimus. Avena modios CCCCXXX, faba modium I, pisos modios XII. De molinis V: modios DCCC ad minorem mensuram; dedito prebendariis modios CCXXXX, reliqua repperimus. De cambis IV: modios DCL ad minorem mensuram. De pontibus II: sale modios LX, et solidos II. De ortis IV: solidos XI, mel modios III. De censu: butyrum modium I; lartum de praeterito anno baccones X, novos baccones CC cum minucia et unctis; formaticos de anno presenti pensas XXXXIII. De peculio: iumenta maiora capita LI, de anno tertio V, de preterito VII, de presenti VII; poledros bimos X, annotinos VIII; emissarios III, boves XVI, asinos II, vaccas cum vitulis L, iuvencos XX, vitulos annotinos XXXVIII, tauros III, porcos maiores CCLX, porcellos C, verres V, vervices cum agnis CL, agnos annotinos CC, arietes CXX, capras cum hedis XXX, hedos annotinos XXX, hircos III, aucas XXX, pullos LXXX, pavones XXII.

Forty-three maybe-pound-weights of the present year’s cheese! Ahem! I’m sorry. I won’t give a new translation when there’s a perfectly good one out there, other than to confirm as far as I can see, that translation is in fact perfectly good. So, beyond basic Carolingian-puffing, why do I have any basis to think this isn’t correctly interpreted? Well, because of a man called Peter Reynolds whom I’ve mentioned before, and who by his very appearance seems to doom blogposts to a lack of commentary but, dammit, his work was important. He ran an experimental Iron Age farm in the UK, growing historical crops with historical methods, but he also participated in a parallel set of experiments about medieval farming there and in Catalonia. This, unfortunately, means that his most important work on the subject of crop yields, an article called “Medieval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge”, came out in a Barcelona journal that is very difficult to get hold of anywhere else: I can’t find anywhere in the UK that has the relevant volume.6 But, the same team minus the late Dr Reynolds has done further work with this stuff in the paper I first blogged about Reynolds because of, which was in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany and which is therefore online through SpringerLink and from that (fair use!) I can scrounge this table of their crop yield results, 1992 to 1995, on two different field-rotation systems.7

Harvest year

Cereals

Weight (tons)

Production ratio

3-year, autumn sowing

 1992

Triticum dicoccum

2.40

1:34

Hordeum vulgare

3.67

1:53

 1993

Triticum dicoccum

3.58

1:51

Hordeum vulgare

2.18

1:31

 1994

Triticum dicoccum

1.56

1:22

Hordeum vulgare

1.15

1:16

 1995

Triticum dicoccum

1.35

1:19

Hordeum vulgare

0.36

1:0.5

3-year, spring sowing

 1992

Panicum miliaceum

3.82

1:54

Hordeum vulgare

2.47

1:35

 1993

Triticum dicoccum

2.45

1:35

Hordeum vulgare

2.40

1:34

 1994

Triticum dicoccum

Hordeum vulgare

 1995

Triticum dicoccum

1.53

1:21

Hordeum vulgare

0.82

1:12

2-year, autumn sowing

 1993

Triticum dicoccum

2.66

1:38

Hordeum vulgare

2.06

1:29

 1994

Triticum dicoccum

1.18

1:17

Hordeum vulgare

1.05

1:15

 1995

Triticum dicoccum

0.11

1:1.5

Hordeum vulgare

1.11

1:1.5

My goodness I’m glad I didn’t have to code that myself. But you get the point. There are some gaps and drop-outs, which are down to weather. They say: “A dry spring (as happened in 1994, 2005 and 2006) causes a total crop failure, and creates many problems for the following season’s seed corn.”8 Otherwise, though, their typical yields, for crop varieties and with techniques at least notionally similar to our peasants at Annapes, or at least peasants in Catalonia who were presumably not massively advanced compared to the Carolingians’ big estates, were in the range of twelve to fifty times seed sown, that is, a whole order of magnitude higher than the Annapes record. Now, if it were just two or three times higher I might wonder, and indeed I do, whether the genotype of these crops could really have remained totally unchanged over those centuries and whether the guys at l’Esquerda may not just have been sowing better crops (for all that they probably aren’t as dedicated farmers as the ninth-century guys whose lives depended on it, which might counter-balance such trends). But this is more than that. This is the point at which we have to ask if we’ve really read the source right.

Test fields at l'Esquerda, Osona, Catalunya

The test fields at l'Esquerda, Osona, Catalunya, where the trials here cited were carried out

I should say before I go any further that I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to quarrel with these figures. I don’t remember originating the following counter-argument. It’s in one of my old lectures, too, so I’ve had it for at least two years, but it doesn’t seem to be in anything that I know I read in order to write that lecture.9 So if you’ve seen this before, would you like to let us know where? Anyway, all that I am doing here that is original, as far as I know, is linking the documentary scholarship up with the experimental archæology to show that there is good reason to think this old reading of the source is bunk.

What I think is the answer is quite simply that these were not stores for consumption, at Annapes or in the other documents that Duby went on to cite, but reserves. Duby said, you’ll recall: “The text, however, is categorical. It prevents us from assuming that, apart from seed corn, grain had already been taken away between harvest time and the visit of the compilers of the inventory for domestic consumption or for despatch outside the estate.” But if you look at the Latin, actually, there’s no basis for this, the text isn’t categorical at all. It tells us that seed corn had been taken away, but it certainly doesn’t tell us that nothing else had and, even more, it doesn’t tell us the unspoken assumption, that everything harvested from this estate wound up in these barns. And in fact, if we go further into the text, we can see that that’s false. There are five mills listed there, you notice? And it says:

From the five mills: 80 modios of the lesser measure; there had been 240 modios given to the prebendaries, the rest we found.

That’s more grain that’s not in the stores, right there. Categorical my foot: this harvest had already been divided, mostly milled and handed out. Then, following up the reference that Duby gives to Philip Grierson’s work adds still another possible qualification, as Grierson said: “… the account of the stock and produce given by the Brevium exempla applies only to the lord’s demesne, the mansus dominicatus ; it leaves us quite in the dark as to the land in each villa which lay outside the demesne and was held by the serfs”.10 Now, you could argue that the stuff at the mills would have been brought in from those estates, but if so, it surely shouldn’t count in the survey totals and even if, cruelly, all the serfs’ produce was assumed to be the king’s (in which case, what did they eat?), it still knocks the seedcorn ratio sideways. So, I honestly think that has too many holes in to float.

If you think about the text, and what it actually is, the explanation that we’re counting reserves makes sense. Although as we have it it is preserved as an example of how to do an estate survey (exempla, you see) what this bit clearly was was a stock-take of what was in store at the estate centre. Now, why did Carolingian royal estates collect food? Partly to feed the army, we now suspect, partly for emergency famine relief, and apparently also for a seed bank, but mainly to feed the court if it should come there. If this figure was to be worth reporting, then, it was kind of inherent that the stuff would be there if the king come a-calling, modulo perishability of baccones and so on. If it had all been eaten that wouldn’t be much use. And if it was there to be eaten, it would be hard to explain why there was so much left from the previous year as well. So, what were people eating? Presumably, the produce straight out of the fields as divided at harvest. Now admittedly there’s no evidence for that that I know of, but there’s also no evidence for queues of peasants arriving at the estate centre for a dole of grain from the store every week either, except in time of famine. Why would you organise storage like that? You’d lose so much labour. As long as the renders are correctly coming in, you’d leave the rest to the peasants to sort out, wouldn’t you?

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

So I think that’s how we reconcile these estate survey figures and the radical difference in yields from the archæological experiments. At Annapes and elsewhere, what was being inventoried was what was available to the king and his men after the usual provision for feeding the estates’ inhabitants had been taken. (Otherwise, these surveys would need to contain a population census and a dietary allowance for each person. Which would be fabulous data! But they don’t.) This in turn means, of course, that we have no idea how much of the crop the seedcorn represents, or even how much of the estate it was expected to be seedcorn for. It would probably be good to store seedcorn centrally, not least because sowing the same plants’ seed in the same ground year on year causes crop deterioration so this would mix it up a bit, but also because it means there would be some help available if someone’s fields were washed out and so on. But I don’t see this storage as being for food at all.

So, in summary. These figures give us some idea of what was felt like a good quantity of food to keep in a royal store on a big royal estate. They also tell us that one use of those stores, apparently, was to act as a sort of seed-bank, though we don’t know for how much of the estate they were supposed to provide seedcorn. They do not tell us how much was originally harvested in either year, or how much of the harvest was dispersed before storage and inventory, though they do tell us that there was some so dispersed. And they certainly don’t tell us that the yield of the crops of the time is computable from these figures, and experiments elsewhere suggest that such computations are probably out by a factor of ten. So, OK. Let’s give Georges Duby his due for doing this kind of work at all, but admit that the texts don’t say what he read in them, and had been taught to read of course. Most of early medieval historiography for the last fifty years could be understood as arguments with George Duby in one way or another, after all, which is some tribute to his greatness. But the peasants of Carolingian Francia are unlikely, by any means we can test, to have been that awful as farmers, and the history of that empire makes a good deal more sense if there was a substantial surplus available and worth controlling. The old 2:1 figure can, I think, be safely disposed of.


1. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz & Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history, 300-1492 (Boston 2004), pp. 162 (yields of between two to four times seed sown) & 223 (yield ratios of “1·5 to 2:1″).

2. Georges Duby, Guerriers et paysans, VII-XIIe siècle : premier essor de l’économie européenne (Paris 1973), transl. Howard B. Clarke as The early growth of the European economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century (London 1974), pp. [?].

3. Georges Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’occident médiéval (France, Angleterre, Empire, IX-XV siècles) (Paris 1964), 2 vols, transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural economy and country life in the medieval West (London 1968), pp. 25-26 of the which quoted here. His footnote references these works: “GRIERSON, P., ‘The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs in the Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales‘ in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire [Vol. 18], 1939[, pp. 437-461]” and “SLICHER VON BATH, B. H., The Agrarian History of Western Europe (A.D. 500-1850) (trans. O. Ordish), London, 1963.” The Grierson article, which is characteristically good, finds one or two of the estates described in later charters, attempts to map the areas concerned, and in doing so discusses the yields and gives references to six older works also engaging with these figures, with similarly dismal and debated conclusions (Grierson, ‘The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs’, yields discussion and references at pp. 452-456).

4. Duby, Rural Economy, ap. 2 (p. 364).

5. Alfred Boretius (ed.), Capitularia regum francorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Legum sectio II: Capitularia regum francorum) I (Hannover 1883, repr. Berlin 1984), no. 128. The IMSB’s text is Frederic Austin Ogg (ed./transl.), A Source Book of Mediæval History (New York City 1908), pp. 127-129, spelt with the ash contra IMSB and citing Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Legum) I (Hannover 1835, repr. Berlin 1991), pp. 176-181.

6. Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507.

7. 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, following table on p. 90 (Table 3).

8. Ibid. p. 90.

9. I assumed it was in Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn. (London 1994), for which I have a lot of time as a textbook, but it turns out that he also repeats the Duby figures, p. 198.

10. Grierson, ‘The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs’, p. 455, citing L. Halphen, Études critiques sur la règne de Charlemagne (Paris 1921), p. 252.

Fourth harvest in medieval Catalonia?

Things that I should know: according to Deirdre Larkin at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the people who runs the marvellous blog there on their medieval garden, in Spain and Portugal the acorns of the holm oak, which are sweeter than regular acorns, are still sometimes used to make meal for bread, and presumably have been for a long long time. Given that a lot of the scenery in my much-beloved subject area looks like this…

Scenery around the hills south-west of Sant Hilari Sacalm

Scenery around the hills south-west of Sant Hilari Sacalm

… which is basically holm oaks and the little local pines, that’s probably not a bad extra source of food in times of poor harvest or poor lords.

The reasons I should know this are twofold: firstly, you know, I’ve been there a bit and have family and friends who live there. Secondly, one of the most interesting articles I ever read about early medieval Catalonia, and by extension about medieval life generally, was one that I’ve talked about before by a man called Peter Reynolds who did reconstructive medieval farming, about what else than the main cereal crops there was that grew which medieval people could have eaten, what he called the ‘third harvest’. He was pretty cynical about lords and renders, and figured that almost all the wheat and oats that the average peasant could grow, in his autumn and spring harvests respectively, would go to the lords as renders, for human and for horse feed respectively. I think that probably they did get to eat wheat bread usually and oaten bread in the slack times, even if I’m sure that they did have to give a lot of it up. But Reynolds really came into his own pointing out how many other plants that grow in hedges and so on were known to early modern peasants, especially a thing called Fat Hen or goosefoot, which grows leaves that are not unlike cabbage and seeds that can be ground for a reasonable bread, but many others too, and would presumably have been known to their forebears too.

Goosefoot, or fat hen, growing in the wild

Goosefoot, or fat hen, growing in the wild

I had just become aware of the whole ‘weapons of the weak‘ school of thought about lord and peasant relations at that point, and was quite taken with the extra independence in the face of a dogmatic oppression this gave my poor pre-Catalans, even if I didn’t agree that these alternatives probably made up most of the actual diet. I guess only phytolith analysis and so on would settle this, and it’s sadly now too late for Dr Reynolds to care. But, now I have a copy of this article in PDF, I can say: it’s right there in his text, along with the sweet chestnut that I do remember him mentioning it. Just didn’t stick for some reason. I should have known this because I’ve read it before. Dammit, brain.


Referring here to Peter J. Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich (ed.), Actes del Congrès 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 with English abstract p. 352, esp. pp. 345-346; it’s online unpaginated here, from where also much more about Dr Reynolds’s work in both Catalonia and England.

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

9780754662549

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Seminary L: analytical caution and 42,000 ringforts

Cambridge is, whether it fully realises this or not, going to miss Dr Alice Rio when she transfers to London at the end of this academic year, and the main reason should probably be the truly excellent series of speakers she managed to gather for the first year’s programme of the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar at the Centre for Research in the Arts and Social Sciences, which provided the first truly cross-faculty forum for the early Middle Ages that I have attended in Cambridge, with historians, archæologists, classicists and ASNaCs (Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) all regulars in the audience. Her successors will have to work to maintain or equal its standard. I mention this because 26th May saw the last of that programme, and because it was Wendy Davies speaking I was there to hear. Her topic, unusually for her especially in recent years, was “Economic Change in Early Medieval Ireland: the case for growth?”

The Tara Brooch, made in Ireland c. 700

The Tara Brooch, made in Ireland c. 700, probably worth more than the ounce of silver allowed for the brooch of a minor nobleman in the Irish lawcode Crith Gablach

Wendy, though she is famous for work on Celtic regions, has never worked primarily on Ireland I think, and so was provoked to this mainly by being invited to give a paper at this year’s Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo at Spoleto, which was on Ireland. She was asked to look at Ireland’s social and economic articulation, and so has been doing so. This involves wrestling with a contradiction betwen the fabulously developed society depicted in the Irish law-codes, almost all from a window of about fifty years at the turn of seventh and eight centuries, and the absence of urban sites or much visible economic stratification. In the past fifteen years or so, a substantial road-building programme has been providing vast amounts of properly-funded archæological digging, however, and the picture has changed a great deal. Wendy spent part of the paper trying to give some account of this, and the part trying to synthesize what the new finds did to the debates and where in this she stood.

The site of Drummaskibole under excavation by the Moore Group prior to road developments

The site of Drummaskibole under excavation by the Moore Group prior to road developments

One of the things that this recent work has done is to tighten up the dating of a large number of sites, and this has greatly increased the early medieval sample. It’s not that vast numbers of sites have been discovered, though many have; it’s that now that they are dated by something more than typology (and you know what I think about that by now) many more are early medieval than was thought. For example, there are apparently 41,916 ringforts known from survey in Ireland. The ringfort has classically been thought to be an Iron Age structure, and when I was first reading up on Ireland in the late 90s that was certainly what I was told, and I wondered then where on earth the early medieval fortifications were. Turns out that of the 200-odd that have now been dug the vast majority were early medieval, which certainly does help explain that. Moreover, one that has been completely dug yielded evidence of a fence across the middle and internal structures only on one side. The implication seems to be that it was in use partly as habitation and partly as livestock corral, which ties up really well with the lawcodes’ well-known harping about cattle, which also served as the main medium of exchange in a society with no money and precious little precious metal, at least as exchange medium. This is the sort of leap of comprehension that the last fifteen years of Irish archæology have made possible.

The ringfort at Rochefort Demesne, whose inner ramparts proved to be seventh- or eighth-century when excavated

The ringfort at Rochefort Demesne, whose inner ramparts proved to be seventh- or eighth-century when excavated

This explosion of data has to be seen in relative terms, however. Firstly, what with the economic contraction of the current moment, the road-building has pretty much stopped, meaning that for now we’ve had all we’re getting. Secondly, there was really not a lot before, so we still have some way to go. In particular what’s missing is sites with long sequences, or at least proven sequences. Some of the ringforts seem to go on a long time but whether that’s continuous is very hard to say; they may be reoccupied later. Quantitative questions are still very hard to answer from a relatively tiny sample of known sites excavated, and that complicates the question that Wendy was asking, to wit, is there economic growth in early medieval Ireland and when? Particular sites that show economical complexity, especially mill complexes like the marvellous tidal mill at Nendrum, may not be representative; and if they are, one might wind up blaming the Church for all development as that’s a monastic site. On the other hand other indexes, like precious metal, towns, and so on, are often attributed to the Vikings; in either case, Ireland is held to have needed external stimuli to get its economy doing something different. These cases could be questioned, and indeed question each other.

Sandstone millwheel and structure under excavation at Nendrum tidal mill, later dated to 619X21 by dendrochronology

Sandstone millwheel and structure under excavation at Nendrum tidal mill, later dated to 619X21 by dendrochronology

All the same there is enough of this snapshot sort of evidence that it can be married with the few broader sorts of survey that there are, most especially pollen analysis. The broad picture that Wendy therefore presented us with by way of her interpretation was that we can accept from pollen that Ireland was undergoing a transformation of cultivation and a lot of land clearance from as early as the third century, but that this stops and forest cover makes a bit of a recovery in the sixth, before clearance resumes in the eighth. At the same time, animal bone assemblages recovered from sites show an increase in non-bovine remains from the eighth century onwards, suggesting that what had been a cattle-dependent economy was then diversifying. At the same time, in the south and east at least, a lot of ringforts seem to go out of use, again suggesting a change in pastoral practice away from large bodies of livestock. On the other hand, many forts continue in other areas and cattle is still most of what comes up in bone assemblages, just not all. And then finally in the ninth and tenth century silver starts making itself known as a medium of exchange, foreign coin begins to appear in hoards (metal detecting is illegal in Ireland so there are only hoards to go on, what doesn’t help assess circulation) and shortly before 1000 Dublin begins striking its own. Also, y’know, Dublin, towns have finally arrived, rather than just the overdeveloped monastic complexes that have to do for Irish urban historians in the early Middle Ages. The interesting things about this are one that Wendy pointed out, and one that a commentator in the audience whom I couldn’t identify added. The first is that this makes the bulk of change pre-Viking, and more interestingly for me, before the supposed agricultural take-off that we’ve mentioned here before, though the particularly bad climatic patch of the sixth and seventh centuries matches the retrocession of clearance quite well. Wendy did say that she distrusts monocausal explanations, but that it’s hard not to give the economic specialisation and professional class required by the Church a substantial rôle in this. The second point however is that there is a definite change when the Vikings do arrive, and it may not be in the actual economy but in the expression of wealth; there’s a surplus all along but they convert a lot of it into metal, whereas before, well, in so far as it was converted and not consumed, it was probably being turned into things like this…

A section of illumination from the Book of Kells

A section of illumination from the Book of Kells


Wendy is unusually good about giving references in such a way that you can find them, whereas many speakers refer to books that they’ve internalised and so assume that you know them too. Particularly useful sounded to be M. Comber, The Economy of the Ringfort and Contemporary Settlement in Early Medieval Ireland, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 1773 (Oxford 2008), F. McCormick & E. V. Murray, Knowth and the zooarchaeology of Early Christian Ireland (Dublin 2007) and T. McErlean & N. Crothers, Harnessing the Tides. The Early Medieval Tide Mills at Nendrum Monastery, Strangford Lough (Dublin 2007).