Tag Archives: peasants

Feudal Transformations XVIII: who wants that third field?

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

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

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book just mentioned

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

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

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

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

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

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

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

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

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


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

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

3. C. Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226; idem “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32; P. Reynolds & C. E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351. Devroey’s analysis is in Économie et société, I pp. 108-111.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building states on the Iberian frontier, II: clearing the land

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Continuing as promised, or threatened, the rethink of my picture of frontier development in Catalonia spurred by the recent chapter by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes on the same themes in tenth-century Castile… let’s talk about peasants.1 At some level, after all, the expansion of settlement, social structures and government into an unorganised zone requires the basic work of somebody taking tools to the soil, felling unhelpful trees, clearing scrub, putting it to the plough or planting helpful trees and generally turning the land to use. This is implicit in any story of territorial expansion that isn’t simple annexation of territory where someone else has already done that. The question is thus not whether this is happening, but rather who is controlling it. Now, I have worked on this for Catalonia, partly because it’s just inherent in an expanding frontier situation as I say but also because of an early article by Cullen Chandler that I disagreed with and which gave me a fair bit of work to figure out what my alternative picture was (and even longer to publish it).2 This does mean that I could simply direct you to that work but because it’s part of the argument that I’m developing here in reaction to the Escalona & Reyes chapter, it needs to be out where it can be seen. I will reuse some text, though, and the first bit I will reuse is that from my book which attempts to describe how other historians have answered this question of control. Given that what follows is quite a lot of quotation, and that the whole post is plural thousands of words, a cut seems moot here… Continue reading

Building states on the Iberian frontier, I: putting the peasants up front

This is going to be a long and thinky post, and short of illustrations, so let's have something scenic to start with. This is the mountains of Montserrat seen from the Riu Llobregat, the far frontier in my period, an image from Wikimedia Commons

This is going to be a long and thinky post, and short of illustrations, so let’s have something scenic to start with. This is the mountains of Montserrat seen from the Riu Llobregat, the far frontier in my period, an image from Wikimedia Commons

As I sat down to write this I was having trouble thinking something out, and by now my favourite strategy when this happens, assuming that I can’t trap someone at a pub table and thrash it out at them verbally, is to try and write about it. So this is the first of a number of posts messing with questions of agency and, well, credit or blame I suppose, in the creation of medieval society at the Muslim-Christian frontier in medieval Iberia. It comes out of reading a genuinely excellent account of that for Castile in the tenth century (the most important of European centuries, as I’m sure you realise) by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes.1 It gets right down into the mechanisms by which lords got themselves into positions of power on the frontier and then used those to make themselves more important wherever else they turned up, creating extensive lordships which would only be converted to intensive ones much later. This is a really clear chapter, informed by a lively and interesting new theoretical base, and is important not just for the tenth century and debates about state formation on frontiers anywhere, but also about the delay in what comes after, the intensification, which of course plays into the feudal transformation debate of which everyone is so tired and so on.2 It really made me think but one thing that it made me think was that it’s only about lords. This has made me write a great deal, and out of general mercy for the audience I put the rest behind a cut, but if you feel up to it I would be very interested in feedback and corrections, not least because I tread on several nationalisms in the course of it and need to know what bits may make people angry… Continue reading

Feudal Transformations XVI: two fields or three?

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system


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

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

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

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

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

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


1. Helmut Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290. You can see why it was an unexpected find given that it’s about neither Anglo-Saxons nor settlement.

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

3. Nowhere witnessed so thoroughly as in the regulations on bread in the Statutes of Adalhard Abbot of Corbie, translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32.

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

5. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “La pagesia i els béns comunals” in Els grans espais baronials a l’Edat Mitjana: desenvolupament socioeconòmic. Reunió científica. I Curs d’Estiu Comtat d’Urgell (Balaguer, 10, 11 i 12 de juliol de 1996) (Lleida 2002), pp. 23-40; cf. C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5, about which as you may remember I had views.

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

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

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

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

10. Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, and his “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32, the last of which is where I read it.

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

Seminar CIII: in which I document the end of an era

Sorry about the gap; this term is burying me somewhat. Matters should improve in a fortnight. Meanwhile, I am so behind with seminar write-ups that I must reluctantly skip those about which I am qualified to say little, and this leaves me moving on, to my complete surprise I assure you, to ME.1 Because, in fact, the presentation to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London on 15th June this year was by your sometimes-humble correspondent, talking with the title “Managing power in the post-Carolingian era: rulers and ruled in frontier Catalonia, 880-1010″.

Jonathan Jarrett presenting his research at the Institut of Historical Research

The cunning and alert reader will notice a suspicious similarity between paper subtitle and the title of my book (which, I seem not to have said for a while, you can buy here), and that would be a fair cop. I was not quite presenting new research here, although there was some towards the end; if you happened to have and have read my book, have heard me at Leeds in 2010 and also read this blog post, I’m afraid you would have learnt nothing from this presentation except by linking it all up. I don’t think anyone there present fell into all those groups, however, so I hope it was diverting for them, and there were at least some pretty pictures. What the paper did, essentially, was to give the overall thesis of the book, with some cherry-picked examples, synthesize my conclusions there, and then as a kind of epilogue talk about my next major project, and the comparisons in the way that Borrell II and his contemporaries presented their power in their documents that I have been able to make as part of the early work on that project. As such, there might be some point for the person who hasn’t read my book, but is wondering if they should, in reading this paper first, and if it leaves you wanting more, well, it’s out there. For that reason, and also just out of vanity, I uploaded the text I wrote for this to Academia.edu here. I have no plans to do anything further with it, so I imagine it will stay there unless Academia.edu melts down or disappears. You should be aware that I didn’t have time to put notes on it, so all my claims are unreferenced, but most of them are in the book and the rest will shortly appear.2

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research

Alice Rio invites an audience member to make their point, if they dare (I kid, I kid...)

Vain though I undoubtedly am, however, I am not actually the point of this post. The era whose end I’m documenting is not, in fact, the Carolingian one in the lands of its most loyally disconnected supporters, but one in the history of the actual seminar. Again, long-term readers will know I have been going to this seminar a long time, and it’s a lot longer than the blog too, but it goes back far further than me; it was, I believe, started by none other than R. Allen Brown, and taken over subsequently by John Gillingham and then/also Jinty Nelson. In other words, its second set of convenors have now retired. (Susan Reynolds includes some of these details in her reminiscences here; like her, I have found this seminar a lifeline, albeit for different reasons given our respective statuses.) And in that time, it has almost always been held in the Ecclesiastical History Room of the Library of the Institute of Historical Research, in the Senate House of the University of London. This, by ancient precedent, allowed those attending to haul volumes of the Patrologia Latina (or occasionally even the Græca) off shelves to check references during discussion and on the other hand by equally ancient precedent prevented anyone else using the books in there during the seminar. The other ancient custom, which had to be explained with embarrassment to every new speaker, is that the audience did not applaud, a rule which I only very rarely saw broken.

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research

Professor Reynolds herself, centre of photo, among other worthies of the seminar

This has now all stopped. The Senate House is being extensively rebuilt internally, the entire IHR is being refurbished in a two-year project, and the Library has therefore been moved to the other side of Senate House. Once it reopens, the seminars and the books will be housed separately and basically it will all be different. Whatever that room is to be used for in future, it seems unlikely that it will ever again house this seminar (though the seminar itself continues meanwhile, in new accommodation). And for that reason, once I’d wound up, Jinty Nelson had the typically excellent idea of getting people to photograph the room, the gathering, the proceedings and the surroundings, so that it could be somehow recorded for posterity. And Jinty and Alice Rio, both of whom I can never disappoint, asked me to put it up on the blog, and so now I have. And when it moves off the front page I shall set it up as its own page and link it from my Seminars page in the top menu bar there, and so, I hope, it will be documented as long as I have the blog, which is something I have no plans to stop doing soon. If it lasts as long as the seminar has, though, that’ll be something…

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research

Jinty herself, centre back, explaining; not sure what the others are looking at, probably a camera by this stage!


1. It was actually a surprise, because I had to look up the date I presented before I realised I was next. I thought I’d be writing up a conference at this point, which is instead next. The paper I’ve elided was Aleksandra McClain, “Commemoration, Landscape, and Identity in Medieval Northern England”, presented to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 13th June 2011, which displayed great command of her material, was very clear and seemed likely to be right in stressing that Northumbria was no cultural backwater even in the thirteenth century but did hold to conservative forms of funereal display as part of a local complex of identity; I just have no basis on which to critique this at all or anything to add of my own, so I’m afraid I cruelly relegate it to this footnote.

2. References for the new stalkers and the search engines: J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010); idem, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout forthcoming).

Peasant group identities: the now-legendary Catalan edge case

Sometimes the best way to realise what you think is to hear or read a view from someone that presents you with difficulties. Once you’ve worked out what the difficulties are, you know more about what you think. (This is like the internal monologue version of the way to get an answer out of Usenet.1) This is another thing that has happened to me as a result of continuing on with Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages.

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Put shortly, ideas of agency are very strong in my work. I’ve worked on authority and power pretty much as long as I’ve been researching but one of the things that comes along with that is the idea that the people who have this property can act in ways that change things. (There are probably good and obvious Freudian reasons for why I have a fascination with the ability to change things, but let’s not go there on this blog. Suffice to say that this is a political fascination now, even if it wasn’t to start with; the state of UK politics has made it incredibly appealing as an idea.) This kind of historical agency is actually not as much of a given as it seems: a deterministic enough view of historical events might make it seem as if it’s hard for even those in power to change the direction of societies sometimes, and various social theories that involve large-scale dialectical processes, most obviously Marxism I suppose, would seem to give humans little choice in their affairs.

My work tends to argue against this. Two books into my hypothetical future career is a proper study of Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, a man who lived at a time when big social forces seem to have been burgeoning.2 He wasn’t going to change the fact that the economy was booming, that the frontier was being settled, that al-Mansur had turned the Caliphal armies of al-Andalus onto all the principalities of Northern Spain (not with Borrell’s war record, anyway) or a great number of other things, but the ways he chose to meet the demands of his time meant that the lives of the people he ruled worked out slightly differently than they might otherwise have done so (with better-educated judges, for example, and a more trustworthy coinage, or if you prefer a negative emphasis, with far more of their relatives captive in Córdoba and a much greater likelihood of an independently-minded castellan ruling their local roost).3 He was not a typical aristocrat.

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400, ironically therefore as a typical aristocrat (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now Chris is quite big on the historical importance of aristocrats (“I am not fond of aristocrats, but one does not have to like them to recognize their importance”, he has written4) but they do tend to appear in his work as a homogenous class, all interested similarly in being and staying wealthy and powerful by whatever means necessary. This is hard to argue with, because people who weren’t so interested didn’t stay in that position versus people who did. Nice, considerate, light-handed aristocrats are hard to evidence. There was Gerald of Aurillac, of course, but if even half of what Odo of Cluny records about this lay saint is true to life, he was so very odd that he represents nothing except the possibilities of acting abnormally (though that is a real iceberg of a point, with huge hidden depths, to which I continually gravitate). I think, however, that Borrell II shows that there is more to aristocratic action than simply a single class ambition; some aristocrats worked to their ends differently from others, and indeed against each other.5

The fact that the third book I’d like to write next would make this point more fully probably has probably arisen in part from the increasing amount of debate I’ve had with Chris over the years. As a result of it, I would like to stress more that people’s differences had historically significant results. Chris knows this, too, of course, as his comparisons of different sorts of landowner in Framing, especially the Apions in the Oxyrynchos region of Egypt versus the slightly later Dioskoros of Aphroditō, makes clear, but to him, it seems to me from reading, they are important because they represent examples of a wider phenomenon, and therefore their differences exemplify disparity in scale of wealth and in their political times, whereas I am much more interested in the ways in which aristocrats deviated from pattern by choice.6 (This of course makes Chris much more able to write 820-page-long syntheses of the development of the entire Western world for four hundred years than I will ever be; he may be more able to do this than anyone, after all. But I persist in the belief that individual agency needs its part in historical explanation too, however much it may vie with generalisation.)

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

All this, albeit less worked out, is an argument I have actually had with Chris, and as you may have noticed from the above I’ve more or less agreed to differ. But what about peasants? This is what has brought it freshly to mind. You would think, initially, that with peasants such generalisations are much more justifiable. Firstly, there were vastly more early medieval peasants than early medieval aristocrats, so the individual dissenter from a phenomenon stands out much less and is statistically less significant. Also, the peasant just has less agency than the aristocrat. How many people’s lives can a peasant affect, without (or even with) going on a homebrew-induced billhook killing spree? Not as many as even the most minor person with power, one might argue, and this is probably true. And yet it seems to me that – perhaps precisely because it matters less to grand arguments? – Chris gives a lot more space to peasant choices than he does to aristocratic ones. In the section of the book where he constructs a fictional Anglo-Saxon village society (‘Malling’), to make up for the lack of adequate records from a single place that can balance his case studies from elsewhere, the rise of one patron family and the fall of another, more established one, are explained solely in terms of their political choices and ability.7 Of course these are not real instances, but that doesn’t make their theoretical importance the less striking. And of course, behind them are a raft of choices about which patron family to associate with on the part of their followers.

You can see, I’m sure, how that scales up easily to aristocrats, and quite a lot of the explanations of the way politics worked in the Carolingian Empire with which I’m most comfortable rely on the aristocrats themselves needing help in getting potential followers to make such choices.8 But there are other ways in which peasant decisions make political differences, even short of revolt, and this is especially clear with Catalonia, or any other society with an open frontier. Now is not the time to get into a massive debate with the ghost of Pierre Bonnassie and the thankfully very-much-alive Gaspar Feliu i Montfort about exactly how true the former’s picture of Catalonia as a zone of mainly-independent free peasants, presumably governing their own labour in much the way that Chris suggests was more possible in his period than later,9 but it is important to note that the reason for that contention, however true it may be, is usually that there was an open frontier, where authority was thin, settlement encouraged (as we shall see in two posts’ time) and opportunity available to make a fresh start. While that remained true, it has been argued (and not just by Bonnassie10), the Catalan peasant could never be entirely oppressed, because he or she might always escape. Such settlement, after all, clearly did happen, even if Gaspar Feliu thinks that it was mainly driven by lords even so.11 It is of course a large-scale social phenomenon, sure, but it is made of a whole patchwork of individual decisions. This is not just because I’m sure (and have written) that not every settler had upped sticks far away, bought all the livestock they could afford and moved on out hoping to make a new life far away—I think many of them were much more local, often ‘field-next-door’ local12—but because whatever was going on here and whatever choices were being made, they obviously weren’t made by the peasantry as a class. If the whole peasantry had wanted to move to the frontier the interior would have become denuded of labour. This didn’t happen, so some people obviously chose to stay put and take it. We could argue about different economic circumstances, but again it would be hard to show that local societies lost a whole socio-economic layer of themselves, and I think I’ve shown that such choices could vary widely even within families out here.13 (I doubt that’s exclusive to ‘out here’ but ‘out here’ is where I can show it.) Such choices, furthermore, varied a lot in methods: save up, sell up, or get support? If so from whom? Does making a new independent start preclude doing so under new lordship? and so on.

Land for sale in Vallfogona del Ripollès

Land awaiting settlement in a Catalan valley, 2011

So this is the edge case, where a class fragments and a general answer has to take into account a lot of individuals making very difficult choices (and some rich proprietors making rather easier ones, of course). But from this edge I can see the space for more such people. I don’t want to accuse myself of being specially ‘open’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘individualist’ here. (After all, what can be more individualist than arguing that almost every other Marxist is wrong?) But I am made freshly conscious by Chris’s magisterial treatment of whole societies in their entire layers, however varied the layers may have been and however much societies differed between each other, that my historiography does not build from class down but from individuals up, and does so because I still want the individuals to be the ones who make the differences.


1. I realise that those old enough to even know what Usenet is/was won’t need the explanation, but the method probably has a more Hellenistic name given how Socratic it almost seems: it is, of course, to ask a question that presupposes something wrong or gets its facts wrong, on the basis that you are more likely to provoke a reaction from someone who can put you right if they can also tell you you’re wrong. On Usenet, classically, this worked far better than simply asking for help.

2. There weirdly isn’t one yet, beyond the standard nineteenth-century reference, Prosper de Bofarull y de Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), I pp. 139-196, though there is also Miquel Coll i Alentorn, “Dos comtes de Barcelona germans, Miró i Borrell” in Marie Grau & Olivier Poisson (edd.), Études roussillonnaises offertes à Pierre Ponsich. Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire et d’histoire de l’art du Roussillon et de la Cerdagne (Perpignan 1987), pp. 145-162, but that isn’t very much. There is also a certain amount of stuff by Michel Zimmermann, which is as ever very clever and, I think, also wrong in detail. Till I get the book together, thus, I can best refer you to Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 141-166.

3. On all this the best guide remains 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, though cf. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Societat i econòmia” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 81-115. Specifically, on al-Mansur you could now see Philippe Sénac, Al-Mansûr : le fleau de l’an mil (Paris 2006), on the judges Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 81-99 and on the coinage J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243; on the 985 sack of Barcelona you should now see G. Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here in PDF, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008. On feudalism, well, give me time

4. Chris Wickham, “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy” in Jennifer Davis & Michael McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 19-31, quote at p. 30.

5. I’ve already essayed something along these lines in what I hope will be my next-but-one paper, J. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout forthcoming), pp. 000-00, but it could obviously be done more broadly than that.

6. C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 242-250 & 411-419.

7. Ibid., pp. 428-434.

8. That comfort comes most obviously from Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000).

9. Bonnassie: esp. his Catalogne, II pp. 781-829, handily translated by Jean Birrell as “The Noble and the Ignoble: a new nobility and a new servitude in Catalonia at the end of the eleventh century” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 196-242; Feliu in his “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41 (no, seriously, do, this is a really important article); Chris, classically in “Problems of comparing rural societies in early medieval western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (London 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in his Land and power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226.

10. E. g. also by Josep María Salrach i Marés in El procés de feudalització (segles III–XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987) and Paul Freedman in The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991).

11. Feliu, “Societat i econòmia” & “Pagesia”, and the various works (which include the latter at pp. 93-110) in his first collected papers, La llarga nit feudal: Mil anys de pugna entre senyors i pagesos (València 2010).

12. J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342.

13. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 57-66.

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

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

Supply and Demand

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

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

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

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

Warleadership as a non-material resource

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

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

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

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

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

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

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

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

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


1. In his “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Book bit bullets IV

There being little time for anything else, it’s time for another post of short reflections on reading; I’ve been travelling a lot lately so there has been time on trains for reading to be done. And I’ve come across quite a few interesting things, so here’s the traditional bullets.

Sveti Donata u Zadru

Sveti Donata u Zadru with accompanying Romanesque belltower

  • This is a round church in Croatia, Sveti Donata u Zadru, or San Donato de Zadar if you’re Italian—thankyou Phil for the Serbo-Croat version in comments—which I recently learnt actually predates Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen, but resembles it so closely because basically as soon as the Croats learnt about the one at Aachen they seem to have remodelled this one to look more like that. This was part of an article that successfully set out the weird disconnection of the enthusiastic imitation of Carolingian court culture and architecture by a ruling élite which was otherwise deeply embedded, and indeed partly legitimised, by its political resistance to the Carolingians…1
  • Secondly, I am at last reading Mayke de Jong’s In Samuel’s Image and I just wanted to say, anyone who has met and talked to Mayke will be able to hear
    her at full strength in her preface; rarely have I seen a personality so clearly rendered in print. Also, of course, the book is really interesting and I’m glad I was given an excuse to make it urgent.2
  • I took it to Kalamazoo and back and never quite got round to reading it, but now I have finally read Cullen Chandler’s 2009 piece in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History.3 Detailed comment would be out of place here but it was a really strange experience to see someone else using so many of the examples I know well, and often to a different purpose. It was rather like going to a meeting or similar and finding that the person you’re meeting know half your friends via an entirely different route. Meanwhile, the article as a whole gives me plenty to think about, mostly in the area of why I tend to favour economic over social explanations of transaction and whether I should rebalance that, and on the other hand, when Cullen gets to read my book, he is going to wonder whether I somehow sneaked an advance peek at his paper and then used all his references, because we really have picked up on quite a lot of the same people…
  • As well as my ridiculous to-read pile (pile? nay, bookcase…) I also keep a computer folder of PDFs that looked interesting. I’m less far behind with these than I am with the books, and so just caught up with something that T’anta Wawa shoved in my direction when I first started talking interdisciplinarity with them, an article called “Facing the State, Facing the World” by Michael F. Brown, which is about Amazonian peoples and how their self-identification has changed through their dealings with their various ruling states.4 The amount of stuff that rings out to me from this about identity formation on my tenth-century borders is so huge that I am basically going to pounce on TW as soon as their thesis is finished and brandish plans for a joint paper at them, in which I pontificate and they rein me in. There is plenty of this conversation to have. You may also find the paper interesting…
  • In an ideal world I would have managed to read all of Wolfgang Metz’s Karolingische Reichsgut before I had to give my Kalamazoo paper, or indeed before I finalised the text of “Settling the Kings’ Lands”, but at that point the world was not ideal in that way. He was asking a lot of questions I’ve always wondered about, to do with just how the Carolingians ran their lands and kingdoms, and one of the things he’s principally concerned with towards the end of the book is whether the nobility are given fiscal lands as part of their office, and how much and where, or whether their family lands are more important. Almost in the closing pages he suggests particularly that the Carolingian kings kept the nobility out of their biggest estates, the palace complexes like Ingelheim and Frankfurt, and that the counts of these palaces, while they seem in some cases to have had land associated with their office, had it at dispersed estates in the neighbourhood, rather than actually being in a position to live off the palace lands proper.5 This makes me wonder just how far the Carolingians were aware of the origins of their own rulership and the danger of over-mighty nobles in their lands. It should also serve to remind us of course that what of the fisc the Carolingians gave away is not half as important as what they retained, especially since in charter evidence we only really see the former and the latter remains a kind of fiscal dark matter which, in the case of places like Frankfurt at least, retained considerable gravitational pull.
  • Lastly, we have spoken here before of the erudite scholar and gentleman, Professor Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, and his slightly pessimistic view of the welfare of the peasantry in Catalonia’s feudal period. He deserves a lot more readership than he gets, especially among anyone working on the peasantry. I have also, I hope, mentioned his considerable generosity with time and photocopies, I’d have found the field far harder to work without his ready help, and now he has a new book out, a volume of collected papers including some stuff that’s new to me and which I shall have to get through urgently.6 Happily, and kindly, he has made this much easier by sending me a copy, for which I owe him many thanks—I hope I can reciprocate soon—and this makes me very pleased. It must be said though that he is almost in danger of stereotyping himself as the peasant pessimist, because not only does this collect most of the material in which he makes such arguments, but also the volume bears a title that could hardly be bettered in that line, La llarga nit feudal. Mil anys de conflicte entre senyors i pagesos, or for those reading only in English, The Long Feudal Night: a thousand years of conflict between lords and peasants. I assure you that he is a lot more cheerful in person than this makes him sound…
  • Cover of Gaspar Feliu's new book, La llarga nit feudal

    Cover of Gaspar Feliu's new book, La llarga nit feudal


    1. I learnt about this from M. Jurkovic & A. Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y arquitecture antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

    2. M. de Jong, In Samuel’s Image: child oblation in the early medieval west, Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 12 (Leiden 1996).

    3. C. J. Chandler, “Land and Social Networks in the Carolingian Spanish March” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 3rd Series Vol. 6 (Brooklyn 2009), pp. 19-44.

    4. M. F. Brown, “Facing the State, Facing the World: Amazonia’s native leaders and the new politics of identity” in L’Homme : revue française d’anthropologie Vol. 33, nos 126-128 (Paris 1993), pp. 307-326, online via Persée here.

    5. W. Metz, Das karolingische Reichsgut: eine verfassungs- und verwaltungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Berlin 1960), pp. 187-195.

    6. G. Feliu, La llarga nit feudal: mil anys de conflicte entre senyors i pagesos (Valencia 2010).

Seminary LIX: technically aristocrats and peasants in Byzantium, but, really, mainly aristocrats

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

On the 23rd of February, the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research was given by Peter Sarris, who was speaking to the title “Aristocrats, Peasants and the State in Byzantium c. 600-1100″. This seemed as if it would be worth seeing, so I made it down there despite the teaching preparation. It took a bit of an effort to follow, I will admit: Professor Sarris is a speaker of almost aggressive erudition, and several of the audience agreed with me that we’d had to change up a few gears to avoid being washed away in the flow. The handout included most of a chapter that Professor Sarris has contributed to the Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, without reading the which, presumably, we couldn’t be expected to understand fully. I am, I should therefore say, proceeding ill-prepared, as I still haven’t.

The meat of the paper was a reappraisal of the relation between the three elements of the title in the light of what we now realise (Professor Sarris said, distinguishing himself explicitly from Chris Wickham in this) to have been a far larger survival of rural slavery in the Eastern Empire than used to be thought. His answer was largely that although the breakup and reduction of Byzantium does, naturally, ruin the super-élite whose importance spanned the Empire, and a second level élite, whose riches were rural but whose position was primarily anchored by their operations at Constantinople, was obviously subject to the vagaries of court politics, a third-level élite existed, whose basis of power was much more regional and rural. These operated in structures of power that survived not only the breaking-off of Western and Eastern Empires but the Muslim conquests. When the Empire was big and successful they were linked to it by larger élites, but without that connection, they were independent enough to survive, or indeed to link to new élites like the Emirs. He argued that the disruption of the seventh century has been exaggerated, because it primarily affects the élite who wrote our sources, much as the same argument has been made for the seriousness of Viking attacks in England and Francia, but agreed that there were some fundamental economic changes, a shift to kind instead of coin, a new pastoralism. Even then, he argued, this was worst at the frontier and nothing like as bad closer into the capital, and even at the frontier, more or less the same sorts of people are in charge before and after. The weakest support for the argument, although a very medieval one in its rhetoric, was probably the one that went, “You know how we now accept much more continuity of power and estate structure and so on in the West than we used to? well, imagine how much continuous it must be in the East where none of your barbarian rubbish happens to kill off the state!” but there were lots of others and I was happy to accept his point.

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Indeed, there is no mileage for anyone in arguing with Professor Sarris about evidence for aristocratic power in Byzantium; he has made it all his own. The point where I think he and I do have to part company is where he argued that this élite survival makes a peasant-focused account of events (and here again I think he had Chris Wickham in his sights) useless. He argued that this has been attempted, largely on the basis of the Farmer’s Law, which since it could be dated anywhere between sixth and ninth centuries has been slid around to serve many arguments. I am still not sure that the correct thing to do, however, is to refuse to use it at all, and it did keep coming up, even if mainly to demonstrate how it could mean almost anything. Sarris’s basic pitch was that the aristocracy survive, even in unlikely places (and it was a very fair point well made when he pointed out that several if not all of the so-called cave monasteries (as above) are identified as religious buildings solely because they contain chapels—so, surely, would a secular palace, which is how he would like to see some of these structures), and that this means that slavery survives too, because the social structures that support it are not removed, even if they are updated, including changes of terminology that have helped to obscure its existence (coloni adscripti not being very different from enapographoi georgoi being the same as paroikoi). I admit that to me this last sounded a lot like slaves-to-serfs but with more continuity of law behind it, and I find that in my notes I have marked it as `special pleading’, if only because ‘paroikoi’ appears to have a much broader sense so it’s not as simple as saying that wherever the word comes up we must think of slaves; it’s also ‘parishioner’, if I’ve understood correctly. What I think this tells us is that Byzantine government could accommodate a fair amount of euphemism.

It’s not that I’m not happy to admit that there was a lot of Byzantine rural economic slavery; I’m sure that there was and they did keep leading successful campaigns that must have taken prisoners, every, you know, three emperors or so. It’s just that in all this paper there was no room at all for peasant agency, as if a successful aristocracy could eliminate it. The argument reduced them to chattels, just as does slavery. I don’t want to buy that so totally, and I could mention James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak again if that would help, or just point out that we are here often talking about frontiers, and frontiers are zones of opportunity. Even more so in zones of conquest: don’t like your lord? Have you thought about converting to Islam and taking service with the local governor? and so on. This exploration of the possibilities open to individuals, which makes so much of my own research interesting, was lacking here, as huge system-scale answers jousted in the skies far far above the fields. So I will happily revise my ideas of the Byzantine state and aristocracy according to Professor Sarris’s new standard version, and keep it in mind when I next read up my recent-but-outdated textbooks on the subject for one reason or another. But I do feel that someone could deliver a partner paper in which almost none of what Professor Sarris said here was relevant, because they were actually studying the peasants of his title.

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard