Yes, I know I was writing about something else but this is important. If you’re working on the early Middle Ages, especially the Continental early Middle Ages, you need to get hold of a copy of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe.1 I got it mainly because I was citing something in that my erstwhile supervisor had written from a pre-print and needed up-to-date page numbers (and also knew that that was good, and that the other stuff in it looked interesting). But only this last week have I got round to actually reading the rest. I’m a fool. While it acknowledgedly doesn’t cover the whole field, and the editors say that they don’t think this could be done by a single volume, they have nonetheless done their utmost to provide a genuine state-of-the-field discourse for each of the themes they do cover.2 So, for example, the section on the economy has an intro by McCormick, then twelve absolutely crystal pages by Chris Wickham (who, as that link shows, has finally let himself be pictured on the Internet) explaining how he now sees the European economic system of the early Middle Ages having written his Framing the Early Middle Ages, then Joachim Henning explaining economy at the village level, and so on, and after reading all the essays you’d be set not just to answer an essay question but possibly to teach one. And it’s all sharp and up to date and written by some of the top experts in the field and it reads a lot like a quick way to get up to date on a lot of important thinking.
So I should have read it immediately, but I didn’t realise. As a consequence I’ve sounded off about Michael McCormick’s particular bee in the science-in-history bonnet here on the basis of a magazine article when there’s an actual scholarly discussion of it by him here.3 And someone has mailed me for help with the early medieval economy asking the very pertinent question, ‘if all these big estates are generating so much stuff for market, who’s buying it?’ to which I made some suggestions about poor relief and the correspondent wisely said something about feeding armies. Well, Chris asks the same question a few pages in and gives an answer to it, although characteristically he blames aristocrats: “I am not fond of aristocrats, but one does not have to like them to recognise their importance.”4 The argument is that by having the buying power to drive networks over which long-distance luxury trade could operate, and by needing to buy in bulk for followers and households, the big nobility caused the construction of complex exchange systems for those luxuries that other lower-level, bigger bulk forms of exchange could also use. Where the aristocrats were poor, exchange was short-range; where they were rich, all kinds of things travelled a long way. The chronologies of decline and recovery should be seen, firstly as plural and regional (and powered by politics), and secondly as actually being chronologies of simplification and recovery of complexity. We may not all agree (I still blame the weather, but then there’s a paper in here about that too) but he’s asking the crucial question about demand, whereas we have usually before only tried to answer ones about supply and distribution.
Now one can argue with details. I think for example that my correspondent’s suggestion about military provisioning and indeed mine about poor relief need to be in the demand picture as well. I think that saying that what the limited evidence for long-distance exchange of salt mainly tells us is that there was nothing more interesting being traded and moving on is, well, shying at a fence that needs jumping; there’s almost no work on this. And one can wonder whether Chris’s Marxism leads him to discount peasant initiative too early (because, dammit, workers controlling their fates comes later in the dialectic!) given pioneers, migrant labourers, and the special problem of the artisan class, who may have been few but occupy an ambiguous place with regard to the means of production in this period, and perhaps in any. OK, adding value through work to raw materials is something any factory hand does, but is manufacture of luxuries for an élite really a working class activity? Smiths are important men. What class is a swordsmith? Moneyers are important too, though there is argument over how important; but then they don’t actually hammer the coins out themselves. And so on. But basically, arguing these points is how to progress from here; I’m talking refinements, not revisionism. So do yourself a favour and keep up with the top-flight by having a look at this here, I reckon. Meanwhile, it will be blogged…
1. Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008).
2. Eidem, “Introduction. The Early Middle Ages: Europe’s long morning”, ibid. pp. 1-10 at p. 7: “Echoing slow transformation and abrupt change, the studies in this book include close readings of particular moments such as Charlemagne’s empire or King Wamba’s triumph, as well as analyses of gradual shifts underlying economic systems or the perception of weather. Such a dynamic field of investigation defies the compass of a single volume.”
3. Michael McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages: early medieval economic history in the twenty-first century”, ibid. pp. 83-98.
4. Chris Wickham, “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy”, ibid. pp. 18-31 at pp. 20-24, quote from p. 30.