Here’s a probably-unfinished thought arising from something I read very quickly a while ago, always a good basis for a blog post surely. The thing was a book chapter by C. A. Bayly on the symbolism of cloth in British India and why it could and did never become a simple commodity due to its numerous layers of cultural meaning.1 That bit’s all interesting but the bit that set me thinking was an explanation of the political economy of the Mughal court. All I really know about the Mughal court is its money, for old professional reasons, and so its ideology is strange to me, and may also seem so to you if you are as I am an Occidental capitalist running-dog:
The major institution that mediated between commoditzation and singularization was the office of the king, whether this be construed as the dominant caste brotherhood within the village or the emperor of all India. The duty of the king was to consume the wares of his subjects and to make his court the great engine of redistribution. In this way, the needs of the particularistic local community producing a good could be balanced with the needs of the polity as a whole. The propagation of diversity in patterns of consumption – of cloths, fruits, spices, grains – was the physical manifestation of the King’s classic role as arbiter between the castes. And it was changes in royal consumption, or the consumption of those aspiring to local political dominance, that provided the Indian economy with the dynamism Bouglé thought it lacked.2
The implications of this are quite interesting if you pull them out from a westerly direction. The idea that nobody owes anyone else a living is explicitly contraverted here: in a properly-ordered polity by this scheme, everybody should have a living and so it’s the responsibility of the ruler to provide the demands that people are equipped to supply, by reason of their skills or the natural resources of their communities and so on. There must be a farther edge at which it ceases to apply, a commodity one could produce that even despite the Mughal court’s love of novelties (which Bayly explains as assisting to demonstrate the infinite variety of the emperor’s dominions,3 an argument to which my own of earlier about Charles the Bald and Judas makes me sympathetic) the emperors would find too silly or trivial to establish a demand for, and as them so much more so the local élites (them again). But in its basic form this balanced set-up has a certain logic to it that is neither socialist nor capitalist (though the idea that the state should find employment for people when no-one else can is obviously not unrelated).
Naturally enough, perhaps, I then thought of early medieval courts, which we are also now taught to see as centres of consumption and patronage for craftsmen and merchants.4 This is usually fairly pragmatic: by aggregating to itself the monopoly on the distribution of luxuries and prestige goods, the ruling class make themselves indispensable to those who wish to acquire the kind of status that those goods bring. (That is of course not the only kind of status at these courts, as Bede’s stories about bishops giving away precious-metal gifts to the poor or Columbanus’s harangues of profligate and polygamous Frankish monarchs amply demonstrate.) One gets this status because one can spend it, it’s Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic capital. And even with Bayly’s picture on India that’s not missing: the king gets great status from being able to make gifts, especially in cloth since in that inheres the royal persona, with which the recipient can join for a while.5 But what’s also sticking with me is the idea that the patron is obligated to support the producer. It puts me in mind of the Anglo-Saxon laws that gather the legal protection of merchants to the king, usually assumed to be because no-one else will do it since, as travellers, they lack a nearby source of support from kindred and clientage groups.6 And of course the king needs the merchants, for all the reasons above, and he also needs the craftsmen, and it’s advantageous to him to have some reason to get them to court where he can control what they make for whom.
So that system has its own logic and it doesn’t need this social ethic to make it run. But I am, all the same, wondering if it has room for that ethic anyway. Once the king acknowledges that these people are his responsibility in some way, it’s obviously to be expected that they would appeal to him. But had that been the case for longer? If one learnt to make really intricate brooches or whatever, was one not already making one’s support the business of the kind of élites who could get the stuff with which you could work? Is not, then, to learn such a skill to expect élite support? Is a ruler of this period obliged to maintain crafstmen and other sorts of specialist (ritual, military…) not just because he needs them and can use them but because, once they have specialised, he is the only support they have?
There’s several reasons why this comparison fails in places, I think. Firstly the goldsmiths and whatever don’t easily fit next to Indian weavers, because ultimately (one of the points of Bayly’s article, which is centrally about the swadeshi campaign to revert to home-made cloths in the face of British imports) any household with access to the raw material, which you can grow or raise, could make cloth, albeit not necessarily fine cloth (silk weaving might therefore still work) but not everyone could get enough gold to make a sword pommel. Secondly, Mughal India was socially more articulated and was running at least two competing religions and there were lots more ringfenced zones in its market economy where specialism could flourish than in early medieval Britain, for example, where élite households and big churches were most of it. The idea of being a professional weaver in Anglo-Saxon England is already pretty odd, let alone there being extensive caste prescriptions about their status. There are also places I don’t want to take it, one being that many an early medieval ruler also had similar obligations of protection to Jews, who do not contribute to his prestige and importance in so direct an economic way,7 and the other being the modern parallel invoked by the title, that of the higher education ‘industry’ in which because we can produce something, whose significance is not solely or even basically economic, and wish to continue doing so, we strongly assert (but struggle to demonstrate) the necessity of the goods we can provide to society.8 As with many an anthropological comparison thinking with other people’s assumptions invites us to check our own. But as I say, those would be thoughts for another post and I find the medieval relevance, even if I had to struggle to get it, interesting enough.
1. C. A. Bayly, “The origins of swadeshi (home industry): cloth and Indian society, 1700-1930” in Arjun A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), pp. 285-321.
2. Ibid. p. 298; see also p. 302.
3. Ibid. p. 305.
4. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38, provides a punchy system statement; more broadly see Catherine Cubitt (ed.), Court Culture in the Early Middle Ages: the Proceedings of the first Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 3 (Turnhout 2003).
5. Bayly, “Origins”, pp. 297-300.
6. This is actually harder to instance than I expected: none of the cites used by Henry Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd edn. (London 1991), pp. 101-103, actually deal with royal protection of traders, rather than what happens to traders who don’t follow procedure, except III Edgar, available in Agnes Jane Robertson (transl.), The Laws of the Kings of England From Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge 1925), and some would tell us that Edgar’s world was a different one (though see the next post!) All the same, I hope this is a defensible thing to say…
7. I’ve not really found anything good on the position of Jews in early medieval society; the literature about Jews tends to get going once society starts persecuting them and they start to appear in their own sources. Before the eleventh century this is hard to find, and the opposite easier. We’ve already seen that Jews were not so mistrusted that they couldn’t be used as envoys to a king, and I can also point you to a charter in which two Jewish landowners (yes) come to Louis the Pious to complain that they can’t get justice at the local mallus; it is Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, aug. É. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach, A. Molinier, ed. M. E. Dulaurier (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), 12 vols, II, Preuves : chartes et documents, no. 97.
8. Necessity is of course the wrong metric; we should be arguing for desirability, which is why the powers-that-be have stuck us with the former in the form of ‘impact’; we can’t prove it so they don’t have to pay us for it… More on this in due course.