Keen readers may have noticed I’ve been talking with an anthropologist about their stuff and parallels from my stuff. This is after all what the humanities are supposed to be about, isn’t it, or at least wouldn’t it be nice if, and so on. In case you don’t believe me, here is a small revelation such a conversation brought me, which may be terribly obvious to you but I give it just in case not.
In your standard treatment of the early medieval economy, say Duby’s Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, you get a fairly bald list of products of the early medieval agricultural system, mainly cereals and booze because that’s what renders were usually taken in and therefore what’s best recorded. And then we’re asked to believe that because the economy is hardly monetised, and because silver coin is so high-value that it can’t really be used for produce except in considerable bulk, most exchange of these products is done by barter. And I’ve always had a problem with this because if everyone in an area is growing more or less the same things what are they exchanging for? Produce for services, or manufactures, even if it’s only water-skins from the local tanner in exchange for half a bag of grain or similar, I can see. And if your child needs attention from the herbalist, you might well pay with a chicken, because we know this still goes on in some places, even if they’re not closely related places. But simple produce? “I’ve got some wheat.” “So have I.” “Oh. Huh.” “Wine?” “Got some, thanks.” “Er…”
Now of course I’m just not being imaginative enough. Said anthropologist works on contemporary Bolivia, and was able to show me photographs (of which the above is one, cut down a bit; thank you Emma, for this and much else) of how this actually works. You see here a busy market with the people on mats with various specialised foodstuffs, eggs, peppers, tomatoes, all kinds of things. And, for an agreed number of tomatoes or peppers or whatever you can get a container full of maize or whatever back out of those sacks, or if you prefer, you can offer such a container of grain or bulk stuff for those vegetables. At the end of the day the vegetable sellers will be hoping to go home with a full sack of grain themselves, and the grain sellers will have enough veg to make a week’s worth of meals more interesting, or anyway it’s broadly like that.
What this meant to me is that the standard treatments of the medieval peasant economy aren’t giving me enough of a picture of diversity. There will have been an extent to which they were growing the same stuff, because as discussed before there are some things that are grown primarily for payments, not for consumption. But when they grew for consumption, unless they were genuinely aiming to be autarkic, which they may well have been in places, they’ll surely have grown to specialise. If you have little good growing ground, but can find space for a big chicken run, then the eggs may well keep you in seed for the hens and a range of other stuff too; you won’t be growing peppers and potatoes like these Bolivianos, but you may well have a thick-growing herb garden, cabbages, carrots, lettuces, horseradish, olives in the Mediterranean, chestnuts if your land is forested, wool or milk if you basically farm upland that’s only good for sheep, really all kinds of stuff to bring to market and bargain with the people who do have good arable and cattle and don’t bother taking time on a vegetable garden too because they know you’ll be down the market with your stuff. Especially if the market is your main social activity, as with these campesinos who will spend all day there chatting over their slowly-changing food stores, you may well grow specifically so as to have something to exchange there. And the result would be a bit like this, maybe, except in most places, smaller:
And, also, without Pilate displaying Jesus to the crowd in the distant background, I admit, but I love the way the sacks of produce and the mats on the ground all match up from sixteenth-century Flanders and twenty-first century Bolivia. Now, without having talked to someone who’d actually bought stuff in these markets, or, I am told, occasionally not been allowed to buy stuff because they only had money and the producer was looking for some specific goods in return, I would not have had much of an idea what was going on in the foreground, but now I can imagine being there. That’s why we need these conversations.
On the other hand, there are some further-reaching implications that ought to remind us that these things can be taken too far. At Tapacarí, I am told, a lot of the vegetables are being brought in by traders who’ve picked them up in the relatively nearby tropical zones where they grow better. Likewise, at the big market in Cochabamba, nearest city, you can get anything, including for example children’s toys made in China. I pick on them because they highlight the difference; although Tapacarí looks pretty rural and isolated, some of the stuff they’re bartering has come a long way. Note the bright packets here; there are goods on offer here that were not grown locally, you know?
Even here, globalisation, or at least long-range trade, has its roots in the soil. We are frequently asked to believe that the same was not true of the early Middle Ages, at least not after the Romans stopped shipping grain across the Mediterranean. The long-range routes were there, we know, but their traffic is supposed to have been economically marginal, apart possibly from salt, on which there simply hasn’t been enough work done to guess, but really should be. Maybe for my retirement project… So we need to remember, as so often with anthropological parallels in history, that just because it looks the same doesn’t mean that a thousand years of global development hasn’t changed the context rather.
That said, we’re not necessarily talking that long-range. Let me resort, as I do so often, to the area I know best. The earliest market I know of in my zone of study, apart from the very complicated situation of Barcelona which is a milling seaport even in its darkest ages, is at Vic d’Osona. Round there it is, apart from weird geological protrusions, pretty flat. It’s good arable land, but nowadays they mainly run pigs out there, because of Spain’s massive ham consumption basically; also, because of pig-skin being available close by, it supports a fairly big shoe manufacture industry which means that every second shop in Vic seems to be a shoe-shop. But even when Vic was new and tentative in the 880s, that land was not, I’m sure, being used for sheep, or even vines really. Vines were much more common in the Ripollès out to the north, and wool and the like would have come from further, the Pyrenees, Urgell and Cerdanya, quite possibly via the big monasteries in the Ripollès but not just through them. A lot of the documents preserved around Vic show a fairly mixed bunch of witnesses; it’s often hard to explain why such and such a person, who mostly turns up dealing with land forty miles away in, say, Riuprimer, should now occur with these people basically concerned with Tona or wherever, and the easiest answer usually seems to be that they were all in Vic on market day or similar and the business was done before the cathedral where the market probably was. And if I picture them with their bags of grain and little barrels and weights, and people sat on mats bargaining while the officiating priest read out the charter somewhere nearby, maybe I don’t go so far wrong.
Edit: a further little point occurs to me, which is that wills of my period occasionally make bequests of whatever bread and wine is in the testator’s possession at his time of death. This of course contributes to the monoculture impression; why not any of this other stuff I’m arguing that they must eat? But the answer is, as Graham Swift put it, in the nature of the goods, “which is perishable”; Spanish bread, especially the grey peasant stuff, lasts for a while in the dry climate, and wine for rather longer, but eggs and vegetables go off pretty quickly in the heat. There’s not a lot of point in bequeathing stuff that will be no good by the time the will’s been read, you see? That’s why we just don’t see this stuff in charters; charters, when they’re not basically about land, but instead about rents, are all about goods that can be transported between estates and still be useful. Eggs are not really suitable for this…
This post was originally meant to be short, and then the stuff about trade networks occurred to me… As I’ve said before, Georges Duby’s take on things is very readable but one might want to contrast it with the more stolid and detailed An Economic History of Medieval Europe by Norman Pounds, 2nd edn. (London 1994). On the collapse of the late Roman grain shipments and its effects, see classically Chris Wickham, “The Other Transition: from the ancient to feudalism” in Past and Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-36, or his “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193; both rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 7-42 & 77-98 respectively. On long-range trade in the early Middle Ages see Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300-900 (Cambridge 2002), but cf. the various reactions to it and McCormick’s reply, ed. Edward James, in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 no. 3 (Oxford 2004), pp. 259-323. And on Vic, and the market there (the Quintana), if you want, there is Paul Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: tradition and regeneration in medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick 1983), online here. The Graham Swift quote is from Last Orders (London 1986), p. 285.