Really, I expect better of these guys

There was no blog post yesterday because I was largely on the road back from seeing Hawkwind’s 50th anniversary tour, which practically counts as medieval history itself. Today, however, like quite a lot of the UK academy, I am on strike, and so I have time to make up for that omission. Indeed, if I do it right, I should have time to do some serious blog catch-up work, though if you are in the Leeds area, you may be interested to know that, with my colleague Dr Francesca Petrizzo, I am participating in the local University and College Union’s teach-out at the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane on the 28th November, at 14:00-15:00, and that is open to the public, so you could come along and learn from us about ‘The Medieval Mediterranean: Race and Religion’. Maybe see you there! But if not, here is a blog post of a more normal kind, and more will hopefully follow.

UCU pickets during the 2018 strikes at Leeds

UCU pickets during the 2018 strikes at Leeds

So this post got stubbed while I was redrafting the article which became ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’ back in May 2016.1 I have written here before about the footnote that you have slaved over, that has grown far too big because it is really a tangent from the article or chapter and, in the final redraft, even as you edit it you know will, in the end, have to be cut. This is one of those. In the end, it did survive in a form, but much truncated.2 The problem of the article, as you may already have seen, is that people have generally misapplied the few numbers we have for agricultural productivity in the early Middle Ages, and that the person who did this with most success, in as much as he has been replicated all over the place, was Georges Duby. But he was not alone in doing bad maths with agricultural figures, and that’s where we come in… (The footnotes I have added; I don’t go quite as far as having footnotes in my footnotes. Not yet.)

“Of course, not everything that has been badly calculated about early medieval crop yields can be placed at the door of Georges Duby. Just as there is good reason to doubt his figures on the basis of experiments in Catalonia, so also there are Catalan attempts at such arithmetic that likewise fail to be justifiable.3 In a study of the ninth-century foundation and refoundation of the Pyrenean monastery of Sant Andreu d’Eixalada and then Sant Miquel de Cuixà, Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals noticed in the will of the monastery’s major patron, Protasi, a bequest of all the cereals in the monastery compound, enumerated as 365 modios.4 Courageously, he assumed that this was close to or actually the yield from the probably-recent harvest, and then combined these figures with an earlier donation of an estate by Protasi where annual renders are given, ‘4 houses and a courtyard and 6 orchards and 12 vineyards, and the 30 quinales of wine that go out from there and there are 8 tonnae and 30 modii of corn’. Using this to establish a basic render figure of 7.5 modii of corn per house, Abadal then used the monastery total figure to estimate the house’s total landed endowment. This ingenious operation involved not just the assumption about proximity to the harvest and a myriad of other assumptions, some silent and some supplied in a lengthy footnote, about how much grain was needed to sow a modiata of land and the yield a modiata should produce, all supplied by late nineteenth-century figures from the same area based on a modern calculation of the area of a modiata (‘a little less than half a hectare’). Even if one cared to accept all these assumptions and patches, the essential uselessness of the figures thus obtained should have been apparent to Abadal’s readers when he explained, halfway through the sums, ‘Since we must think, however, that an important part of the harvest relating to these 365 modios of wheat should have corresponded to the direct cultivation of the monastery and not to that of its tenants, if we compute that part at a half…’ For this guess, immediately halving Abadal’s result, there is not even an anonymous nineteenth-century basis and it shows us, again, quite how much needs to be known, when performing such arithmetic, but is not.

Map of the estate of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 1812

Map of the estate of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 1812, probably closer to the situation that Abadal described than the ninth-century one. Image by ClaudefàTreball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Abadal, however, did not use these numbers to achieve a crop yield ratio: how could he have, when he had already supplied that part of the sum from his unnamed nineteenth-century source? This did not, however, stop Manuel Riu i Riu, in an article about metrology and terms for units, referring to this study as if it contained ninth-century figures for both seed sown and crop yielded.5 The former he based on the equation between the land unit modiata and the modius supposedly required to sow it; the latter he got from Abadal’s own figures, not apparently noticing that these were modern patches for the data lacking in the documents. As it happens, the figures that he gave provide a healthy yield figure of 6.25:1, but they are, of course, founded on absolutely nothing of meaning.”

Now, this is not the first time that we have caught Manuel Riu, superb archaeologist and excellent builder of the scholarly community of medievalists in Catalonia but not always quite as critical in his reading of texts as he needed to be, in a slip, but he was famous for his quantitative work and study of medieval units and measures, and he knew Abadal well, and I’d have hoped that he would read him more carefully; but then I’d also have hoped that Abadal wouldn’t have been quite so creative in his invention of his own data. The whole thing is further proof that if you invent numbers in historiography, people will quote them whatever they rest upon, even when they really shouldn’t. I don’t hope to change that as a whole trend, but it would be nice if I could make people more careful about it in this specific area…

1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

2. Ibid., pp. 20-21 n. 77.

3. For the Catalan reasons to doubt Duby, see my older blog post or indeed Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”, pp. 22-25.

4. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “Com neix i creix un gran monestir pirinenc abans de l’any mil: Eixalada-Cuixà” in Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 8 (Montserrat 1954), pp. 125–337 at pp. 160-161, is the relevant source; the reprint in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I, pp. 377–484, doesn’t have the documentary appendix so lacks this bit.

5. Manuel Riu, “Pesos, mides i mesures a la Catalunya del segle XIII: Aportació al seu estudi” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1996), pp. 825–37, reprinted in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera and Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació arqueològica sobre conreus medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994: arqueològia experimental. Aplicació a l’agricultura medieval mediterrània (DGICYT PB90-0430) (Barcelona 1998), pp. 77–82.

6 responses to “Really, I expect better of these guys

  1. Allan McKinley

    Surely half the fun of an article correcting historiographical misconceptions is the chance to put in long rambling footnotes pointing out the errors of others (sorry, I mean clarifying the historical record)? In which context, I can only wish this was part of an already excellent paper (I especially appreciate the use of “Courageously” and ” This ingenious operation”).

  2. Did monasteries and abbeys and whatnot fail to keep records, or did their records fail to survive? After all, they tended to have a reputation as hard-headed and cold-hearted landlords.

    When I read a historian (of England) say that in such-and-such a period Bishop so-and-so’s woodland gave a financial yield rather higher than arable but not as high as meadow, on what evidence is he likely to be basing his conclusions?

    • Monasteries by and large did pretty well at keeping records, albeit with periodic weeding and disasters and occasional closures, up to the Dissolution, but that did for a lot of archives. Many were gathered into what’s now the National Archives or what’s now the Parker Library, and still others were collected by Sir Robert Cotton, stored by him in Ashburnham House and there either burnt or saved, eventually for the British Library; but by no means all. Bishoprics, however, because they continued during Henry VIII’s reign, tend to have rather better archival survival, and in particular, there are really good records from Winchester and Canterbury from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries detailing crop renders that would be where the sort of information you describe could come from. There’s a project to gather all this information, whose data page is a good description both of what there is and what a beggar it all is to try and do statistics with. The situation outside England, though, is a lot less rosy…

      • Allan McKinley

        Worth noting that English monastic (and indeed other manorial) records have a tendency to give separate values for the different types of land, which can be seen in Domesday Book very nicely. Earlier Frankish records do the same, as do charters, especially where the lands granted are a fraction of a larger unit. This suggests that medieval conceptions of landholding were based around what could be exacted (note this was not necessarily money: meadowland was sometimes measured in cartloads of hay for example) not in terms of returns on investment, which is at root what seems to underlie the questtion of grain yield. It’s perhaps uncharacteristically Marxist for me to observe this, but this looks like a clear example of an exactive society not providing us with the evidence we expect from our capitalist/socialist perspective. To the medieval mind the idea of calculating the yield of grain was pointless: the issue was the amount produced overall. Whilst I suspect (I’ve not read any medieval agricultural texts) there was a knowledge of which grain grew best in certain circumstances, even this is likely to have been expressed in terms of the yield of the field, not the individual grain.

        • From the reading I’ve done, that’s right for the early Middle Ages, but some of the English and Provençal sources I know of for the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries actually do give yield figures, in the sense of grains received for each grain sown, as part of expressing an expectation of how much a given area should render; the idea is apparently to make clear what grade of land it is. You are right, however, that it’s grain received, not necessarily the actual production of the field, and what deductions might lie between the two is very hard to guess.

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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.