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


The third main paper in Davis’s and McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe presents two problems.1 One is that to critique it is to speak ill of the dead, because its author Riccardo Francovich died in an accident while the book was in its long press process. The other is that of balancing the fact that what he said is important and deserves notice but was also really quite exaggerated. The basic case that he was making is that although one of the many things we tie up with the much-vaunted ‘feudal transformation’ is that medieval settlement seems from its documents to have become much more nucleated in the tenth and eleventh centuries—for reasons that may include castles, development of the trading economy, violence and insecurity, and so on, the usual problem with causation when so many factors are in play at once—in actual fact, when we do the digging, nucleation often turns out to have been much older than that, often predating the castles or whatever by a few centuries.

The Tuscan hilltown of Monteriggioni; photo by Michael Ferris

The Tuscan hilltown of Monteriggioni; photo by Michael Ferris

Well, OK. Actually I think we knew this in England, where rather than the ‘nucleation of the year 1000’ or whatever we have the mid-Saxon settlement shift.2 This is just that for a while Anglo-Saxon settlement archæology was the field leader, I think, and it’s not surprising to me that other areas show similar things. The problem is with how similar. Although Francovich cited some work from France and Germany too, his evidence is mainly from Tuscany, where he worked most of his life and where indeed he died. There, there is a definite pattern where settlement moves onto the hilltops and indeed after a while fortifies itself, and then later the towns in question develop castles.3 But the Tuscan hilltop towns are not like very many other places! Not least, in good ol’ Catalonia, which is geographically and agriculturally not so different in this period and which may even have seen a small amount of Italian settlement, this doesn’t happen. In fact the nucleation doesn’t even seem to occur till the transformation period, and unlike elsewhere here we have both early enough documents to see the difference and some digging. There certainly are hilltop sites with early medieval phases, but they’re almost always much older than that, and far more often cemeteries and burial grounds than settlements. In England, settlement stays low and by rivers for the most part: that’s largely because cereal agriculture is more important than pastoral there and that obviously implies staying close to the fields, rather than the fascinating multi-level mountainside plots that Francovich described.4 Angeliki Laiou wonders in his summary paper whether the things that Francovich saw are really more than Tuscan phenomena, and his dissonant examples come from Byzantium, where of course a different and older tax system might be expected not to have permitted such a change if previous contributor Joachim Henning be right.5

Figure 3.1b from Francovich, "Beginnings of Hilltop Villages"

But it’s not just that the data is regional. His title recognises that, even if the text forgets it in places. It’s that some of the data is misleadingly handled. Never mind the use of percentages from less than a hundred data points. See this graph.6 It’s lovely and clear but first, you can’t reason back from the graph to the data and secondly, its axis is not steadily spaced. (I know there are some graphs where that can’t be done, logarithmic scales and so on, but really, this isn’t one.) What do I mean? Well, count it up. We’re dealing with a range of what, 800 years? It’s hard to be sure because the categories overlap.7 Are the fourth-century sites at the first graph point with the first-century stuff or are they with the sixth-century stuff halfway along? Similarly with the sixth century indeed. So let’s be generous and assume that the categories don’t overlap, and that really we’re running from years 1-350, 351-550 and 551-700. Those are still periods of 350, 200 and 150 years respectively, so putting them equidistant along the axis is cheating. It makes the figures a lot less surprising too. 2521 divided by 350 is 7·20, 506 divided by 200 2·53 and the last ratio is 1·34, so overall the change is by a factor of 5, not more than 12 as his percentages suggest. How did this get through review? As many times before, I am frustrated by historians’ inability or unwillingness to apply the mathematics they presumably learnt at school.

The castle and church of Montarrenti, Tuscany, centre of one of Francovichs most important projects

The castle and church of Montarrenti, Tuscany, centre of one of Francovich's most important projects

Of course a factor of five is still a factor of five even if it’s not a factor of twelve. That is still a massive drop in settlement density. A big change did happen here, I’m not denying that, and it needs explaining: Francovich’s paper goes a very long way to do that and contains innumerable references of work that proves his local points, as well as interesting tendrils to other places. The analysis of building change and of settlement formation is really valuable and also well illustrated, as is the example that a purely documentary view is doomed to missing things. But not only is this, as with any other explanation of social change in that period, not going to explain everywhere, but we have to read it as if we were marking it in order to know what’s really being presented, and that annoys me. It doesn’t serve his memory well.

1. †Riccardo Francovich, “The Beginnings of Hilltop Villages in Early Medieval Tuscany” in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 55-82.

2. See Helen Hamerow, “Settlement Mobility and the ‘Middle Saxon’ Shift: rural settlements and settlement patterns in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 1-17.

3. A more moderate version of the same findings can be found in Richard Hodges, “Size matters: new light on the Italian Dark Ages” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 223-229, but given that Francovich originally presented this material in 2004, and so did Hodges his, and that the first footnote of Francovich’s article includes the words, “My habit of thinking in parallel with Richard Hodges, in a dialogue that has developed over twenty years, has inspired gratitude toward my friend that equals the intellectual stimulation that he provides”, I am mainly sad for Hodges rather than suspicious at the coincidence.

4. Francovich, “Beginnings of Hilltop Villages”, pp. 63-64.

5. A. Laiou, “The Early Medieval Economy: Data, Production, Exchange and Demand” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, pp. 99-104 at p. 100; J. Henning, “Strong rulers—weak economy? Rome, the Carolingians, and the archaeology of slavery in the 1st millennium AD”, ibid. pp. 33-53.

6. Francovich, “Beginnings of Hilltop Villages”, p. 65.

7. It should be admitted that the categories may not be his, as the data is coming from a database system via the interpretations of another archæologist, Marco Valenti, L’insediamento altomedievale delle campagne toscane (Florence 2004), acknowledged Francovich, “Beginnings of Hilltop Villages”, p. 64 n. 42. I don’t think that excuses the faults in its presentation.

9 responses to “I should have read this the moment I bought it, III

  1. I wonder if it is partly publisher demand for simple illustrations that still look ‘scientific’ and solidly empirical that fosters this kind of playing fast-and-loose with the numbers? It makes interpretation a real trap for those of us who are less, er, mathematically inclined.

    • This illustration could have been made just as scientific and been fair to the data. Even now, it’s not wrong, just misleading. Another graph in the same book have been picked up for the same failing elsewhere; it’s perhaps the single weakest aspect of the volume, sadly. However, in order to interpret this graph you still have to read the numbers, just as you would have to read a text and wonder what’s not being said. Don’t think of it as invulnerable empirical science!, think of it as a picture of some information and critique accordingly…

  2. I wonder if the equidistant points on the axis came about because the graph was originally a column chart and was later changed to a line graph at the click of a button in Microsoft Excel or similar, without the change being thought about. I’ve seen this happen.

    Agreed also with your comment on the different time periods. It seems obvious that a shorter time period would expect to have fewer sites associated with it than a longer time period. How is the site date defined? Date of founding? Date of last use? Mid-point? What happens to sites that stayed in use from the 1st to the 7th century – are they in all three categories?

    • Would that we were told! I imagine this is explained in Valenti’s monograph, but some account in the article would have been good given that the graph rests on it. But the Excel explanation is very plausible: I’ve fought such foolishness in my own work enough to smypathise with that!

  3. re: Frankovich. The problem is the nature of the graph. As is common with data derived from field surveys, so in this case, “1st-4th c.” means count of all sites occupied at some time during these three+ centuries, and so for other dates. Where 4th and 6th c. divided not clear (though is in Valenti’s article.) Better than a line graph, though less dramatic, would have been a bar graph. Forget the arithmetic, which I never figured out in Valenti’s article. Of course distribution by century would have been more valuable, but perhaps the dating of ceramics does not allow that. For comparison with other field surveys around Europe, compare my article in EME (2008).

    • Thank you for the pointer; lately I have been working on a need-to-read basis and things like that EME article have slipped past me that should not have. I had figured that the problem might be trying to graph archæological periods in terms of strict chronologies, because it looks suspiciously like Roman/ Ostrogothic/ Lombard. What you say makes things clearer, but I think the fact that the periods are of uneven duration should still have been made part of the depiction. Very glad to have your input though! I am childishly flattered when people whom I cite turn up here.

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  5. Having just updated this to fix a link, I have to say that I’m not sure how much of what I say in the first few paragraphs I’d now stand by. My pictures of Anglo-Saxon and Catalan settlement nucleation have both changed since I wrote this. So if it looks ignorant to you, that’s probably because it was, and if it didn’t or doesn’t, well, er, check anyway.

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