Interdisciplinary conversation: vegetable barter

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…”

The barter market at Tapacarí; photo by Emma Felber

The barter market at Tapacarí; photo by Emma Felber

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:

Market Scene (Ecce Homo) by Pieter Aertsen, <i>c. </i>1550

Market Scene (Ecce Homo) by Pieter Aertsen, c. 1550

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?

Another part of the Tapacarí barter market, photo by Emma Felber

Another part of the Tapacarí barter market, photo by Emma Felber

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.

11 responses to “Interdisciplinary conversation: vegetable barter

  1. 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.

    You weren’t to know it, but the last photograph you use actually shows doña Modesta seated on the church steps. She’s the woman sifting through a bowl of dried broad beans which the campesina woman, whose name I don’t know, has brought to exchange with her. Her little boy is perched on a sack of potatoes which she will have accumulated over the course of a day of barter. You can see behind them, if you look closely, that the ground is raised and slightly paler – that’s the entrance to the church. Market day is Sunday, so there’s often a service while barter is going on outside, or other kinds of public campaigns going on in the plaza – school inscriptions, voter registration, that kind of thing.

    Thanks for the discussion, anyway. The only minor, very minor quibble is with you description of the coloured packaging in front of doña Modesta as ‘not being grown locally’. Unusually, those are all domestically produced goods, made specifically for a campesino market. They are as follows; green bags of coca leaf, packaged biscuits, domestically produced MSG, little bottles of rubbing alcohol for ritual, medicine and getting drunk on, a bag of pink paper-wrapped k’uyuna cigarettes, for ritual, chili peppers and eggs. Probably, all of those things are Bolivian in origin – clearly not produced locally to Tapacari, what with the plastic bottles and all, but still from fairly close by. There will also be shampoo, little plastic goods like hairclips and mirrors and so forth which do come from much further afield, it’s just that everything in the coloured plastic packets you describe is probably produced in Cochabamba :)

    There is probably more to be said about the limitations/dangers of synchronic comparisons between C10th Catalunya and C21st Bolivia – the people in this picture are very much C21st citizens in lots of ways – but I think for the purposes of this vignette it works quite well. Thanks for the credit.

  2. Very lightly edited to retain both the sense of your comment and a slightly less misleading cast to my original edit… thankyou for the refinement, and credit really no problem.

    I’m tempted, or would be were I not very sleepy and trying to write book conclusion, to draw out the difference you highlight between 10th- and 21st-century peasants here. What do you think makes these people ’21st-century’ particularly? But this might be a different conversation.

  3. I must say, episodes like this are what blogging should be about. Fascinating stuff. Thank you both for a great, informative, and mind-stirring post.

  4. What do you think makes these people ’21st-century’ particularly?

    Well, the fact that I can call them on their mobile phones from my house in London is a bit of a clue. And even if they don’t have mobiles, I could call the Entel public telephone kiosk and ask for someone – that’s another major feature of market day, is the queue at the public telephone, and the secretary periodically sticking his head out of the door to shout, ‘Phone call for ANTONIA MAMANIIIII, from CH’ILLCA GRANDE, ANTONIA MAMANI, your son is calling from Madrid’, and in some corner of the plaza a woman will hitch up her skirt and run to the office to talk on the phone with her kin member who’s washing Spanish dishes and sending money home.

    Technology and communications aside, there are other differences between what an Andean peasantry looks like now and what it looked like pre-1532, of course. The balance of change and continuity in, say, land usage and tenure is a reflection of colonial occupation, of course, and resistance to that occupation. Oh, and also it’s worth noting that I said they were C21st citizens – as you know, a lot of my interest lies in the articulations of their relationship to the State, and that’s markedly different from even the first half of the C20th, let alone the C10th which is even slightly pre-Inca, IIRC.

    There are parts of Tapacari province, of which this town is capital, where land usage and distribution appears to have changed very little over the centuries, and is linked to distinctively Andean (permit me some essentialism) organisational systems like binary moieties and even zoomorphic settlement layouts. So in terms of land usage, language, community organisation and religious practice, there’s a great deal of continuity there in the Aymara-speaking zone. Most of the people in these pictures, though, are from communities which formed parts of haciendas, and will have rendered labour service and payment in kind to landlords. Oh, and of course both they and their Aymara counterparts participate in the cash economy when necessary too, and are increasingly literate. That’s a definite change from pre-1532 society. Yeah, and they have European crops and quadrupeds. I mean, there’s quite a lot of technical post-conquest changes, but some key social things are still rather similar, which is what makes the whole area so fascinating, really.

  5. I will happily grant you the phones :-) The rest of it, though, sounds interestingly as if it could be played with for parallels. Developing cash economy, increasing literacy, dues in kind to landlords, sometimes labour service too… Also, European crops and quadrupeds. I mean, tenth-century Spain, let me show you it, etc. Though Oliba of Vic did not ring the pope up on his mobile when he wanted to have his sister-in-law condemned as a parricide, this is true. But even now, you might do that by letter. Yes anyway!

    At that rate the dissimilarity almost seems to be rooted not in the arguably-feudal Spanish structures in both post-conquest Bolivia (can I use the word ‘conquest’ there?) and Reconquesta Catalonia, but the survival of the stratum before. I mean, when you say `zoomorphic settlements’ I have to choke down immediate scepticism because when people say things like that about European structures, it’s only a short step away from ley-line driven New Ageism. The pre-1532 situation you describe here sounds a good deal less like tenth-century Spain than the medievally-derived social template that was presumably imported with the Spanish and that seems to partly persist here…

  6. The usage of the word ‘conquest’ – well, if you must, but present-day Bolivia is more accurately referred to as ‘postcolonial’.

    As for the potential for comparisons thrown up by social life in general, well…I’m a little more reluctant. It throws up some anti-evolutionist red flags to be asked if they are in some ways equivalent to Europeans who lived a thousand years ago. It makes me wonder about the relationship of historians to the people they write about, because the people in these photos are my friends and neighbours and they unmistakably live in the same world as me – doña Olimpia, the woman in purple standing up in the first photo, has traveled by plane, for example. She might have a lot to talk about with your average tenth-century Catalonian peasant, like wheat cultivation or spinning techniques, but then so would you or I. What I’m getting at is that people in Tapacari are not equivalent to human relics from another age; there are strata of tradition which inform how they live their lives (as there are in ours to a lesser extent), but they’re also engaged with the current liberal democratic state and a great number of NGOs, they travel all over the world, they organise their communities following an Andeanised model of a trade union system allegedly imported from the north of England…Which isn’t to say that there aren’t notable similarities if you look at things fairly close up. But you have to ignore a great deal to make those comparisons work for you.

    I think what’s happened that we can be glad about is the addition of more richly textured detail to your own imaginings of what was going on in your period, facilitated by seeing something contemporary which looks similar. And no doubt there’ll be more ideas sparked off by discussion of different aspects of each side of our work. However, I don’t think these are the peasants you’re looking for.

  7. Oh no, it was just the curiosity of the fact that the tenth century in Tapacarí was more incongruous than the sixteenth from my historian’s perspective which struck me. I’m reluctant enough to compare tenth-century Catalonia with tenth-century France, for example; if I was going to pursue this properly I’d want to start with sixteenth-century Spain to see what the Spanish administration would have imported. And altogether, this is best left to other people. As you say, the value is not in having a structural parallel, but in having a possible reservoir of observable detail from which annoying questions like, “how is this barter market in my area supposed to have worked?” can have answers suggested.

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