2:1 against: the misconception about Carolingian cereal yields

Let me try this non-aggressive corrective thing again. I posted a little while ago to the effect that I had one piece of bad history I’d like to contribute to the pile of zombie argument effigies that we would like an ideal version of the History and Policy Institute ‘Bad History’ series to be burning. That’s not very non-aggressive, I grant you, but wait, this is the new dispensation. As Magistra et Mater soberly pointed out, what the History and Policy team really want are mistakes that are misinforming public policy, and this is not one of those, so, I guess I’ll have to do it here. It’s not important to anyone now except historians, but it keeps getting repeated. Yet it’s not really sustainable, and smells suspiciously like the same contempt for the medieval that leads to stereotypes of benighted lack of hygiene or eating rotten meat. What is it? It is the idea that in the Carolingian period yields on cereal crops were scarcely twice what was sown. It would be very hard to explain how that particular super-state managed to field such large armies for so long if this were really so, and several people have disputed it, but it keeps lurching back and when I found it in a textbook I am currently evaluating (which is otherwise very good) I felt I had to set something down about why it almost certainly isn’t true.1

Georges Duby

Georges Duby

Where did these authors get the idea from? I could already guess the answer to this: it’s where I first met it, the work of this man, Georges Duby. And, sure enough, in Moran & Gerberding’s chapter bibliography (I told you this was a good textbook) we find Georges Duby’s Early Growth of the European Economy and if you have at that, you will find the basis for this claim detailed there, although it stemmed from his awareness of much older work that made similar points.2 However, he actually set it out in rather more detail in his earlier Rural Economy and Country Life, and I’ll use that to show you where he was getting it from, since I own a copy to, er, copy:

One document only for northern Gaul provides some figures. The surveyors who visited the the royal estates attached to Annapes in the winter recorded both the quantity of the previous harvest and the amount which had just been subtracted for the sowing – they certified that the remainder was actually in the barns at the time of their visit. These figures are very baffling. Here are those for the estate of Annapes, for which the inventory gives the most complete details. It is not possible to compare seed with harvest for oats, peas or beans since the spring sowings had not been made. But of the 1,320 muids of spelt harvested 720 had to be returned to the land as seed; of 100 muids of wheat, 60; of 1,800 muids of barley, 1,100; and finally the new sowing absorbed the whole of the rye harvest, that is, 98 muids. The available surplus of the harvest did not therefore appear that year to exceed 46 per cent for spelt, 40 per cent for wheat, 38 per cent for barley, that is an output of 1·8, 1·7 and 1·6 to one respectively. There appeared to be no surplus for rye. The fragmentary evidence given for other estates agrees; an output of 2:1 for spelt and of 1·6:1 for rye at Cysoing; for barley 2·2:1 at Vitry, 1·5:1 at Cysoing, 2:1 at Somain.42 Taken altogether the consumable surplus is revealed as markedly less, in the year of the inventory, than the quantity which had to be reserved for sowing. Could output really have been at such a derisory level?

The text, however, is categorical. It prevents us from assuming that, apart from seed corn, grain had already been taken away between harvest time and the visit of the compilers of the inventory for domestic consumption or for despatch outside the estate…. The only reasonable hypothesis to explain the astonishingly low figures for output is to assume that the inventory was compiled after an exceptionally bad harvest. In fact, when it was drawn up grain harvested the previous year was still stored in the barns of these estates in quantities much greater than the insignificant surplus of the current year. The surveyors found at Annapes 1,081 muids of old spelt, as against 600 of new, and 1,200 muids of old barley, as against 700 of new. These important savings prove that the output of seed was clearly much higher the previous year, We can deduce from this unique document that the productivity of the fields varied enormously from one season to another and further that it could be devastatingly low.

We must not, of course, generalize from one set of figures obtained from a single source. But it is possible to find elsewhere some other traces of output, somewhat higher than that which can be derived from the Annapes inventory, but even so representing a low yield and a derisory rate of profit when compared with the value of the capital in land and seed corn….

    42 Grierson, 247. Slicher von Bath, 31, p. 66, does not seem to interpret correctly the figures in the text.3

Well, that’s pretty damning, but how about that source? In fact it’s online, thanks to the efforts of Paul Halsall at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook all those years ago, although the extract they used doesn’t have the equally damning comparative data. Indeed, neither does the translation in Duby’s book itself (Rural Economy‘s particular staying power is at least partly because it’s half-sourcebook), but it does at least direct us to an original.4 So of course does the IMSB, we would expect no less, and strangely the two originals are not the same though their translation very nearly is: Duby’s original was Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales, for which he cites MGH Cap. I pp. 254-255 whereas the IMSB’s source translation, Ogg’s Source Book of Mediaeval History, pp. 127-129, gives MGH LL I pp. 178-179.5 It’s noticeable that neither of these translations actually provide all the material that Duby cites, in particular they skip silently over any reference to last year’s barley without indicating any missing text. Hmph. So we ought to go to the Latin. Now of course these days the MGH is online, which is a thing of great joy, and makes this comparatively easy. I’ll use the MGH Cap. edition since it is newer by fifty years and as the title page proclaims, ‘denuo edito‘:

Invenimus in Asnapio fisco dominico salam regalem ex lapide factam optime, cameras III; solariis totam casam circumdatam, cum pisilibus XI; infra cellarium I; porticus II, alias casas infra curtem ex ligno factas XVII cum totidem cameris et ceteris appendiciis bene conpositis; stabolum I, coquinam I, pistrinum I, spicaria II, scuras III. Curtem tunimo strenue munitam, cum porta lapidea, et desuper solarium ad dispensandum. Curticulam similiter tunimo interclausam, ordinabiliter dispositam, diversique generis plantatam arborum. Vestimenta: lectum parandum I, drappos ad discum I parandum; toaclam I. Utensilia: concas aereas II, poculares II, calderas aereas II, ferrea I, sartaginem I, gramalium I, andedam I, farum I, secures II, dolatoriam I, terebros II, asciam I, scalprum I, runcinam I, planam I, falces II, falciculas II, palas ferro paratas II. Utensilia lignea ad ministrandum sufficienter. De conlaboratu: spelta vetus de anno praeterito corbes LXXXX, quae possunt fieri de farina pensas CCCCL, ordeum modios C. Presenti anno fuerunt speltae corbes CX: seminavit ex ipsis corbes LX, reliqua repperimus; frumenti modii C: seminavit LX, reliqua repperimus; sigilis modii LXXXXVIII, seminavit totidem; ordeo modii MDCCC: seminavit MC, reliqua repperimus. Avena modios CCCCXXX, faba modium I, pisos modios XII. De molinis V: modios DCCC ad minorem mensuram; dedito prebendariis modios CCXXXX, reliqua repperimus. De cambis IV: modios DCL ad minorem mensuram. De pontibus II: sale modios LX, et solidos II. De ortis IV: solidos XI, mel modios III. De censu: butyrum modium I; lartum de praeterito anno baccones X, novos baccones CC cum minucia et unctis; formaticos de anno presenti pensas XXXXIII. De peculio: iumenta maiora capita LI, de anno tertio V, de preterito VII, de presenti VII; poledros bimos X, annotinos VIII; emissarios III, boves XVI, asinos II, vaccas cum vitulis L, iuvencos XX, vitulos annotinos XXXVIII, tauros III, porcos maiores CCLX, porcellos C, verres V, vervices cum agnis CL, agnos annotinos CC, arietes CXX, capras cum hedis XXX, hedos annotinos XXX, hircos III, aucas XXX, pullos LXXX, pavones XXII.

Forty-three maybe-pound-weights of the present year’s cheese! Ahem! I’m sorry. I won’t give a new translation when there’s a perfectly good one out there, other than to confirm as far as I can see, that translation is in fact perfectly good. So, beyond basic Carolingian-puffing, why do I have any basis to think this isn’t correctly interpreted? Well, because of a man called Peter Reynolds whom I’ve mentioned before, and who by his very appearance seems to doom blogposts to a lack of commentary but, dammit, his work was important. He ran an experimental Iron Age farm in the UK, growing historical crops with historical methods, but he also participated in a parallel set of experiments about medieval farming there and in Catalonia. This, unfortunately, means that his most important work on the subject of crop yields, an article called “Medieval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge”, came out in a Barcelona journal that is very difficult to get hold of anywhere else: I can’t find anywhere in the UK that has the relevant volume.6 But, the same team minus the late Dr Reynolds has done further work with this stuff in the paper I first blogged about Reynolds because of, which was in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany and which is therefore online through SpringerLink and from that (fair use!) I can scrounge this table of their crop yield results, 1992 to 1995, on two different field-rotation systems.7

Harvest year


Weight (tons)

Production ratio

3-year, autumn sowing


Triticum dicoccum



Hordeum vulgare




Triticum dicoccum



Hordeum vulgare




Triticum dicoccum



Hordeum vulgare




Triticum dicoccum



Hordeum vulgare



3-year, spring sowing


Panicum miliaceum



Hordeum vulgare




Triticum dicoccum



Hordeum vulgare




Triticum dicoccum

Hordeum vulgare


Triticum dicoccum



Hordeum vulgare



2-year, autumn sowing


Triticum dicoccum



Hordeum vulgare




Triticum dicoccum



Hordeum vulgare




Triticum dicoccum



Hordeum vulgare



My goodness I’m glad I didn’t have to code that myself. But you get the point. There are some gaps and drop-outs, which are down to weather. They say: “A dry spring (as happened in 1994, 2005 and 2006) causes a total crop failure, and creates many problems for the following season’s seed corn.”8 Otherwise, though, their typical yields, for crop varieties and with techniques at least notionally similar to our peasants at Annapes, or at least peasants in Catalonia who were presumably not massively advanced compared to the Carolingians’ big estates, were in the range of twelve to fifty times seed sown, that is, a whole order of magnitude higher than the Annapes record. Now, if it were just two or three times higher I might wonder, and indeed I do, whether the genotype of these crops could really have remained totally unchanged over those centuries and whether the guys at l’Esquerda may not just have been sowing better crops (for all that they probably aren’t as dedicated farmers as the ninth-century guys whose lives depended on it, which might counter-balance such trends). But this is more than that. This is the point at which we have to ask if we’ve really read the source right.

Test fields at l'Esquerda, Osona, Catalunya

The test fields at l'Esquerda, Osona, Catalunya, where the trials here cited were carried out

I should say before I go any further that I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to quarrel with these figures. I don’t remember originating the following counter-argument. It’s in one of my old lectures, too, so I’ve had it for at least two years, but it doesn’t seem to be in anything that I know I read in order to write that lecture.9 So if you’ve seen this before, would you like to let us know where? Anyway, all that I am doing here that is original, as far as I know, is linking the documentary scholarship up with the experimental archæology to show that there is good reason to think this old reading of the source is bunk.

What I think is the answer is quite simply that these were not stores for consumption, at Annapes or in the other documents that Duby went on to cite, but reserves. Duby said, you’ll recall: “The text, however, is categorical. It prevents us from assuming that, apart from seed corn, grain had already been taken away between harvest time and the visit of the compilers of the inventory for domestic consumption or for despatch outside the estate.” But if you look at the Latin, actually, there’s no basis for this, the text isn’t categorical at all. It tells us that seed corn had been taken away, but it certainly doesn’t tell us that nothing else had and, even more, it doesn’t tell us the unspoken assumption, that everything harvested from this estate wound up in these barns. And in fact, if we go further into the text, we can see that that’s false. There are five mills listed there, you notice? And it says:

From the five mills: 80 modios of the lesser measure; there had been 240 modios given to the prebendaries, the rest we found.

That’s more grain that’s not in the stores, right there. Categorical my foot: this harvest had already been divided, mostly milled and handed out. Then, following up the reference that Duby gives to Philip Grierson’s work adds still another possible qualification, as Grierson said: “… the account of the stock and produce given by the Brevium exempla applies only to the lord’s demesne, the mansus dominicatus ; it leaves us quite in the dark as to the land in each villa which lay outside the demesne and was held by the serfs”.10 Now, you could argue that the stuff at the mills would have been brought in from those estates, but if so, it surely shouldn’t count in the survey totals and even if, cruelly, all the serfs’ produce was assumed to be the king’s (in which case, what did they eat?), it still knocks the seedcorn ratio sideways. So, I honestly think that has too many holes in to float.

If you think about the text, and what it actually is, the explanation that we’re counting reserves makes sense. Although as we have it it is preserved as an example of how to do an estate survey (exempla, you see) what this bit clearly was was a stock-take of what was in store at the estate centre. Now, why did Carolingian royal estates collect food? Partly to feed the army, we now suspect, partly for emergency famine relief, and apparently also for a seed bank, but mainly to feed the court if it should come there. If this figure was to be worth reporting, then, it was kind of inherent that the stuff would be there if the king come a-calling, modulo perishability of baccones and so on. If it had all been eaten that wouldn’t be much use. And if it was there to be eaten, it would be hard to explain why there was so much left from the previous year as well. So, what were people eating? Presumably, the produce straight out of the fields as divided at harvest. Now admittedly there’s no evidence for that that I know of, but there’s also no evidence for queues of peasants arriving at the estate centre for a dole of grain from the store every week either, except in time of famine. Why would you organise storage like that? You’d lose so much labour. As long as the renders are correctly coming in, you’d leave the rest to the peasants to sort out, wouldn’t you?

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

So I think that’s how we reconcile these estate survey figures and the radical difference in yields from the archæological experiments. At Annapes and elsewhere, what was being inventoried was what was available to the king and his men after the usual provision for feeding the estates’ inhabitants had been taken. (Otherwise, these surveys would need to contain a population census and a dietary allowance for each person. Which would be fabulous data! But they don’t.) This in turn means, of course, that we have no idea how much of the crop the seedcorn represents, or even how much of the estate it was expected to be seedcorn for. It would probably be good to store seedcorn centrally, not least because sowing the same plants’ seed in the same ground year on year causes crop deterioration so this would mix it up a bit, but also because it means there would be some help available if someone’s fields were washed out and so on. But I don’t see this storage as being for food at all.

So, in summary. These figures give us some idea of what was felt like a good quantity of food to keep in a royal store on a big royal estate. They also tell us that one use of those stores, apparently, was to act as a sort of seed-bank, though we don’t know for how much of the estate they were supposed to provide seedcorn. They do not tell us how much was originally harvested in either year, or how much of the harvest was dispersed before storage and inventory, though they do tell us that there was some so dispersed. And they certainly don’t tell us that the yield of the crops of the time is computable from these figures, and experiments elsewhere suggest that such computations are probably out by a factor of ten. So, OK. Let’s give Georges Duby his due for doing this kind of work at all, but admit that the texts don’t say what he read in them, and had been taught to read of course. Most of early medieval historiography for the last fifty years could be understood as arguments with George Duby in one way or another, after all, which is some tribute to his greatness. But the peasants of Carolingian Francia are unlikely, by any means we can test, to have been that awful as farmers, and the history of that empire makes a good deal more sense if there was a substantial surplus available and worth controlling. The old 2:1 figure can, I think, be safely disposed of.

1. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz & Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history, 300-1492 (Boston 2004), pp. 162 (yields of between two to four times seed sown) & 223 (yield ratios of “1·5 to 2:1”).

2. Georges Duby, Guerriers et paysans, VII-XIIe siècle : premier essor de l’économie européenne (Paris 1973), transl. Howard B. Clarke as The early growth of the European economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century (London 1974), pp. 26-29.

3. Georges Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’occident médiéval (France, Angleterre, Empire, IX-XV siècles) (Paris 1964), 2 vols, transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural economy and country life in the medieval West (London 1968), pp. 25-26 of the which quoted here. His footnote references these works: “GRIERSON, P., ‘The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs in the Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales‘ in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire [Vol. 18], 1939[, pp. 437-461]” and “SLICHER VON BATH, B. H., The Agrarian History of Western Europe (A.D. 500-1850) (trans. O. Ordish), London, 1963.” The Grierson article, which is characteristically good, finds one or two of the estates described in later charters, attempts to map the areas concerned, and in doing so discusses the yields and gives references to six older works also engaging with these figures, with similarly dismal and debated conclusions (Grierson, ‘The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs’, yields discussion and references at pp. 452-456).

4. Duby, Rural Economy, ap. 2 (p. 364).

5. Alfred Boretius (ed.), Capitularia regum francorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Legum sectio II: Capitularia regum francorum) I (Hannover 1883, repr. Berlin 1984), no. 128. The IMSB’s text is Frederic Austin Ogg (ed./transl.), A Source Book of Mediæval History (New York City 1908), pp. 127-129, spelt with the ash contra IMSB and citing Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Legum) I (Hannover 1835, repr. Berlin 1991), pp. 176-181.

6. Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507.

7. 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, following table on p. 90 (Table 3).

8. Ibid. p. 90.

9. I assumed it was in Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn. (London 1994), for which I have a lot of time as a textbook, but it turns out that he also repeats the Duby figures, p. 198.

10. Grierson, ‘The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs’, p. 455, citing L. Halphen, Études critiques sur la règne de Charlemagne (Paris 1921), p. 252.

38 responses to “2:1 against: the misconception about Carolingian cereal yields

  1. I see in your next post you were complaining you didn’t have any comments on this, and that was because we weren’t interested in peasants. Which of course, in my case, is true. But I’m not sure even if you are interested in peasants that this gets us much further as historians. If we had some way of assessing long-term changes in crop yields that could let us know about economic growth. If we knew absolute yields we might be able to make guesses/estimates about how much surplus there was potentially to be extracted by aristocrats. But the experimental figures show yields all over the place (including some worse than 2:1), so I don’t think we can get anything helpful from that. I don’t know if it would be possible to work out the calorific value of the crops and try and get some estimates of how many years in 20 the peasants would potentially get enough to eat. But other than that, ‘Carolingian peasants may not have been quite as starved as previously thought’ doesn’t seem to me to tell us much that’s more generally useful.

    • Well, of course there will always be outliers due to particularly uncooperative weather in some years, but I think the point made here that such unsustainably low yields were not the NORM is worth recognizing, simply because it suddenly makes sense of how the Carolingian armies (and society generally) were able to function at all. Also, it gives a more accurate idea of their level of agricultural technology/genetic quality of crops.

      • Thankyou Brian, that was roughly where I was pointing with it.

        The interesting thing about the bad years at l’Esquerda is that they’re much worse than the figures at Annapes and elsewhere. The crop was just wiped out. Over an estate of some size maybe that doesn’t happen, but it does show that the conventional explanation of the `low’ yields in them, that this must have been a famine year, doesn’t really add up either.

    • The other thing that it has quite an import for, of course, is the debate about the economy of slavery. Here we are with a substantial chunk of what we assume to be grand domain; if Duby’s figures were really what we could expect royal estates to render, we would have to assume that they were being run mainly for prestige or as administrative centres, because there could hardly be an economic advantage to them. How much worse could it get? But if we can abandon Duby’s figures, then the bipartite estate might still explain the economic clout of those who held them and those who would like to see it as the motor of the economic growth of the tenth century (though I’m not one of those) can relax a bit.

  2. This post shows how a major scholar can get an uncritical following on a crucial point, without anyone really checking. Something like this particularly affects the understanding of a whole area by influencing the more conscientious teachers of medieval surveys and the use of medieval history made by historians in other specialties, or those writing ambitious world histories. Why should not say, an economic historian, take Duby at face value, and incorporate D’s broader conclusions into the foundation of a work that purports to explain everything from the Old Stone Age on? (Another book on why the “West” runs everything.)

    This post is really quite important.

    • Having written it, I have been wondering if I should have saved it and tried it as a paper somewhere. The problem is that the sole originality is in synthesis, not in presenting data, and I suspect it may be the same synthesis that Reynolds argued with in the 1997 paper I couldn’t yet get. But it looks a lot more like something scholarly now it’s up.

      • Synthesis is a useful and legitimate scholarly activity. And so is criticism (of the constructive kind). You’re doing both here. So what’s stopping you (apart from the universal ‘time’ issue)? Surely there isn’t an embargo on you publishing any idea you’ve ever aired online?

        • Well, most journals I’ve dealt with do have a clause in their submission guidelines refusing anything that’s been published anywhere else already in any form. So there is a problem there, but then the above isn’t a finished paper so a full scholarly version would probably pass that. What it probably wouldn’t pass is the reviewers. I’ve had quite a lot of this sort of thing with charter stuff: one writes a piece to correct the general understanding and of course the recipients send it to a specialist in the area to make sure you’re on top of the scholarship and aren’t talking rubbish. Specialist, who of course knows the stuff already because he or she is a specialist, writes back saying, “this is not news” and so the journal refuses it. Meanwhile the general understanding continues more or less unaltered.

          On the other hand, this would not take too much work to dress up properly, and were I not working on, er, four or five other things… it would be quick enough to at least offer it up to that process. So I may have to have a go after Leeds, which will be when I’ve got no other outstanding paper deadlines. The real question then is, where to send it? It’s not my usual sort of thing at all, and it’s probably a bit weird for Journal of Peasant Studies which is probably where I’d like it. Dammit, Dr No, where’s the Journal of Plow Science?

  3. If you are going to take this further, I think you’ll need to look at the French research, of which there seems to be quite a lot. Jean-Pierre Devroey, in Histoire rurale du VIIe au Xe siècle has several pages summarizing alternative takes on the Annappes figures (though at a quick look, none matches your suggestion), and also refers to a different bit of experimental archaeology on yields, that by Gerard Firmin. So there is more going on than might be apparent, or than I knew about.

    But I think this ties in with my original point – that the research hasn’t filtered into more general Carolingian research (or even that much into Carolingian economic history – Adrian Verhulst’s The Carolingian Economy has a paragraph, still quoting Duby). Lots of people have thought either that Duby must be wrong or the figures must be atypical, but without anything more solid, no-one has tried to build an argument on what the Carolingian economy was like from this kind of data. The arguments about the size of Carolingian armies haven’t been based on this, Bryan Ward-Perkins’ view of agricultural decline is based on the shrinking early medieval cow, and debates on economic growth rely mainly on archaeological or numismatic evidence of trade and urban expansion, markets etc.

    The experimental archaeology does strongly suggest that Duby was being too pessimistic, but I’m not certain whether it will ever give a sound basis for actual yields (as opposed to upper bounds), given uncertainty about climate, species and techniques. And unless someone can pin down dates for changes in agricultural techniques, does it tell us anything about early medieval agriculture that is different from pre-Roman agriculture/Roman agriculture? It’s that kind of evidence of change that we really need if we’re going to make use of it in broader socio-economic history.

    • I don’t want to labour this point because it’s not a point that makes the piece publishable, but your version of socio-economic history here is one that leaves the people out. This matters primarily because it alters what we may think about the living conditions of thousands and thousands of people who were growing these crops. But, sadly, that isn’t the historic interest of it, I agree. The import of it as it stands here was only ever meant to be an attack on a stereotype, albeit one held in the academy. But, dammit, I don’t ask you why your research matters, let these people have their dignity of labour, can’t you?

      There is more work on economic growth than that based on markets or numismatic evidence of trade (which doesn’t prove trade, as I guess you are aware), much of it agriculturally-concerned, and I’ve got a post in draft talking about some of it which will doubtless delight you as it is also about peasants. The work on which it’s based is, as you rightly observe, French. The Devroey reference is of interest and I’ll follow it up, thankyou. But since I have that post under work I’ll forestall answering your other points here except to say that you are right, this won’t change anyone’s mind about anything by itself.

      However, there are several things that could be done with it, one of which at least I ought to try if I do work it up, involving working out as far as one can what proportion of the estate’s likely yield the royal portion was and then assessing it versus capitulary or charter evidence for royal renders. That might give us ballpark figures for the Carolingian tax take from the fisc, and that could be quite important actually. So I think that if you insist there’s nothing to be done with just this sort of work, you’re uncharacteristically wrong.

  4. Pingback: Well, what would you recommend, Dr Jarrett? No. 1 of an indefinite series « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part IV « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. Pingback: Kalamazoo 2011 – Day Four and Home « Medieval History Geek

  7. Pingback: Feudal Transformations XVI: who wants that third field? | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  8. Pingback: Any Old Iron (in which I am behind the times on medieval technical change) | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  9. Pingback: Feudal Transformations XVIII: what’s behind it all | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  10. Pingback: Working for San Salvatore I: making a polyptych | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  11. Pingback: Working for San Salvatore III: what they got out of it | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  12. I don’t​ know if you’ve found out yet, but “Medieval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” is now online: http://www.raco.cat/index.php/ActaHistorica/article/view/193928

    • Thankyou! I had found it, indeed, but it was a kind thought to let me know. The final version of this paper is now slated to be one of the things I actually do get done this year, so I hope I can say more about it before very long…

      • No worries. Your blog has proved very useful, so I thought I’d try and return the favour.

        I look forward to seeing your paper. Have you managed to work out why the yields were so high? They’re often above or on par with 19th century yields.

        • There are lots of possible answers to this, and it was (as you will have seen if you’ve read that Reynolds article) something that he noticed too. Without wanting to recapitulate large chunks of the article, they could be stacked up like this:

          1. Devroey suggests that the test sites were being worked and monitored super-carefully and are very small, both of which probably tends towards more recovery and less loss of plants and grains than in a larger-scale and more normal context (though Reynolds did try to correct for this);
          2. it’s possible that the crop’s genomes are just better bred now, despite attempts to locate wild and ‘historic’ specimens from which to grow these crops—no way to check that, of course!
          3. the climate is possibly better now, though if so only so as to be more like the eleventh and twelfth centuries than the Carolingian era I think;
          4. more seriously, at l’Esquerda they sowed the fallow field with vetch, renutrifying the soil, but Carolingian practice would probably have been to leave it fallow, so that might be a genuine difference;
          5. at l’Esquerda they seem—reports vary—to have planted by seed drill, to make the outcome securely countable, whereas Carolingian sowing would have been by broadcast, but experiments at Butser had shown that probably results in a 45% loss, not the factor of ten that we’re seeing here; still, it’s another big difference.

          Whether all these add up to enough to explain the difference is another question, of course! Reynolds preferred the explanation that we are counting different things, in the modern case the actual count of seeds straight off the field and in Roman and perhaps medieval cases quite possibly the count into the barns after wages and who knows what else had been taken out. That seems very likely but it’s imponderable, and of course it doesn’t deal with why early medieval figures should be so much lower than either Roman or many high medieval ones. But then, the point of this paper is to show that that is a mistaken reading of the early medieval evidence, so that’s one problem we won’t have any more once I publish it! (He says optimistically…) Thanks again for the continuing interest!

  13. Tobin Anderson

    Years after you wrote this post: my mind is blown.

    What does this do to statistical narratives about the impact of agricultural technology in the High Middle Ages (the heavy plow, the horse collar, the three-field system instead of two-field system)?

    Sorry if the answer is obvious; I’m not a medievalist, just an interested noob.


    • Well, this is an extremely timely question! I finally sent off what I hope is the final version of the article arising from this last month; it should appear in January, somewhere where it will be on the open web soon after, and I will certainly be making that known here!

      It’s also a timely question, however, because I think what this work does to those narratives is to bring them back into consideration. As that implies, they have fallen from favour in recent decades, and mostly for good reasons, but the effect of that has been to put explanations like this and land clearance back into primary circulation.

      So, point by point, archaeological evidence of heavy ploughs now goes back as far as the seventh century in some places, and of course the Romans had had them so it’s hard to know why the technology would be lost; the so-called barbarians were hardly resistant to military technology or material culture from Rome, so why farming technology should have been beneath them to adopt is hard to explain. It’s also been pointed out that heavy ploughs are really only useful on heavy clay soils where you can lay out nice long fields, and that the various light plough set-ups that are attested might well be better suited to many landscapes. So that one, I think, is now firmly off the menu as a transformative technology, though its spread can still be seen as an effect of the economic expansion of this period driving people to cultivate previously marginal areas.

      Horse collars, on the other hand, come too late to be explanatory; as best we can tell, horses were primarily bred for noble riding and warfare, and too valuable to use for anything else, until the twelfth century or later, and almost all sources, textual, visual or whatever, before that point, talk of oxen as the default draught animal. So while their use presumably changed things when it started, that change wasn’t this one, it seems.

      As for field systems, this is still sort of in-play. I wrote about that too, but have more coming, the short version of which would be: there are a myriad of field rotation patterns attested when one starts really to look, from ninth through the fourteenth, and certainly no universal switch. One of the problems with evaluating this is that prior to the eleventh or twelfth centuries, we really mostly know about practice from super-big, highly-organised complexes of land-holding that were being heavily managed, so we don’t get that variation so much; by the time we know what individual farmers were doing, it’s much more messy as a picture. Some people would still argue that overall, from say, seventh to tenth centuries, it became much more usual to see, if not three-field rotation, at least two-field rotation with the cultivated area split between autumn and winter sowings, and some of those people would blame Carolingian government for demanding that of many landholders; but the main evidence for that is that there seems to be such a trend and it needs an explanation, not that we handily have any Carolingian orders to do that anywhere. I was going to include a lot of stuff on this in the article and in the end cut it right out, because there’s just no simple answer, but precisely because of that, while such changes might be a partial explanation of the take-off, it doesn’t seem as if they were universal enough to explain it by themselves.

      For the most critical scholarship on these issues, then, that really only leaves land clearance as a motor of growth, which opens up a chicken-and-egg problem about whether clearance drove population growth or population growth necessitated clearance. I’m inclined to agree with the scholars who argue that the not infrequent notices of famine suggest the latter, that the economy couldn’t keep up with the population. If so, however, it doesn’t really suggest that land clearance itself should have brought prosperity…

      So I think it’s all to play for, really; the one thing on which I insist is that bad early medieval farming just can’t be part of the explanation, because the evidence for it just isn’t. Solving the problem that leaves will now, I hope, be someone else’s problem!

  14. Not entirely unrelated: do you know the writings of the landscape historian Oliver Rackham? In his illustrated History of the Countryside he observes on p 14:

    “Pseudo-history is made up of factoids. A factoid looks like a fact, is respected as a fact, and has all the properties of a fact except that it is not true.”

    He lists some much-loved factoids about English history. He also remarks:

    “This is how to write pseudo-history:

    1. Stick to the documents and do no fieldwork.

    2. … “

    • I know of Rackham’s work, but haven’t read very much, and certainly hadn’t found either of those quotes. He got narkier as he got older, I guess? I can sympathise, if so, but I started pretty narky in the first place…

  15. By the way, if the true figures differ from the erroneous figures by about a factor of twenty, do you suppose that the reserves are essentially the lay half of a tithe, the clerical half being elsewhere? Or is that plain silly?

    • It’s not silly, certainly. I assume that Annappes must have paid tithe even though it was a royal estate, and as you surmise the maths would then more or less fit. My problem in accepting that is I am now much more cautious about taking the archaeological results as long-term reproducible in actual practice. Even the l’Esquerda team were noticing declining yields from their little patch of ground over the ten years the project ran, and then there’s all the caveats I expressed above about how their conditions, however well monitored and maintained, were probably anachronistic to a fair degree. So I think that in this instance, while I probably haven’t thought hard enough about tithe, mainly because we don’t know where in the process it was taken—in the thirteenth century the cathedral of Winchester took their ten per cent straight from the field, unthreshed, on the day of the harvest, from most but not all of their estates—the nice if vague fit of the maths is probably, sadly, no more than coincidence.

  16. It couldn’t just be the seed corn for next season, could it?

  17. Schoolboys used to be told of an alleged ancient Scots rhyme about the oats crop, based on the assumption that any three grains would be distributed thus:

    Ane to saw, and ane to gnaw, and ane to pay the Laird witha’.

    I’m proud to say that this schoolboy snorted when it was trotted out as being true through the centuries. Though, on reflection, perhaps it was an exaggeration from “King William’s ill years”, a notorious time of dearth.

    • Oats obviously grow better than wheat, in doggerel terms: that Reynolds article I mention above has a piece of late medieval English verse that counts it thus:

      One for God and one for the crow
      One to die and one to grow.

      Of course, this is about grain sown, not grain reaped, but as a continuity of agricultural gloom it seems to belong with your rhyme…

  18. Put the two versions together and assume a steady state: of each twelve grains from the harvest, four are sown and the one that survives produces 12 grains at the next harvest. Is 12:1 plausible? My memory of fields of oats from childhood is dominated by joyfully whacking at the rats and rabbits that fled the reaper, but I suspect that post-WWII oats had more than 12 grains per stalk.

    • It’s biologically plausible, now, but it isn’t what any Roman or high medieval estate manager expected to be getting from his estates, as far as we can tell (although oats grown on newly cleared land as a pioneer crop seem to have delivered at that level or even higher in the few places where we have that kind of information; but one of the reasons people do slash-and-burn agriculture is that the land doesn’t stay that way). Now there are a lot of potential intermediate factors: grain given to workers and dependents, tithes, seed corn put aside, just loss in the field prior to mechanised harvesting, destruction in threshing… But it’s hard to assume that these are all accounting for half to two-thirds of the total crop. So the gap remains to be explained, and I’m definitely not claiming to have an answer; my article just insists that the evidence does not show that the early Middle Ages had these problems any worse than the periods before or after, and indeed actively suggests it did not.

  19. Pingback: Name in Print XX: crop yields at last | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  20. Pingback: Really, I expect better of these guys | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.