Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!

1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!

4 responses to “Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

  1. Allan McKinley

    I am coming round to a point of view that town and city are rather pointless definitions as they tell us nothing important when applied other than the site meets an arbitrary set of criteria. It is far more useful to define sites by the functions they possessed (or might possess – no historical science has that level of accuracy all the time). I can’t help but think this would be a better approach for global history as well, as at least then you are comparing functions rather than probably differently-assessed bundles of criteria. It wouldn’t do anything to provide a useful hanger for studying the global middle ages (compare the different purposes and trajectories of Mayan temple sites, Italian trading centres and Chinese imperial centres) but then other than comparing different places at the same time (a valid method I’d have thought) I’m not sure what would after this series of posts.

    • My scepticism is either infectious or corrosive, I see! But I agree, and I think this was also the opinion of some of the participants. ‘What people do at settlements’ might in fact be a workable comparison! ‘What people do in cities’ just leads into a definition battle, as above…

  2. Pingback: Musing on connectivity and world systems apropos of T’ang China | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Problems of comparative global history | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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