Hay, flax, chickens and cash

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day, managing to pursue both causes at once, from the Leeds UCU Twitter feed

Despite our still being on strike, it has been oddly hard for me to block out time for blogging these last few days, partly because of well-timed family celebrations but also because I have been taking the chance to fulfil promises that work had prevented me from answering. This means, for example, that I spent almost all of yesterday rewriting and editing numismatic scholarship for people in China, all of which would make my managers despair if I did it on work time rather than marking assessments or finishing one of the two articles I’m supposed to be prioritising just now in the time I can’t protect. This writing has actually involved some of my better work, I think, and I look forward to sharing it with you when it comes to fruition. Today, however, I want to go back to late October 2016, before the workload mentioned a few posts ago had completely smothered me, when I was apparently still reading Italian estate surveys in preparation for the supposedly-final version of my eventual article on early medieval crop yields.1 The aim here was simply to make sure that I wasn’t missing any data from which such yields might be derived—Georges Duby did, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake while setting out why he was wrong—but one can’t help noticing things as one reads, even if they don’t end up being especially useful…2

View of the medieval centre of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

View of the medieval centre of modern-day Verona, by Jakub Hałunown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus it was that I was reading a partially-preserved list of renders and dues once belonging to the bishopric of fair Verona.3 You may remember, if you go far enough back with this blog, me getting all excited about the potential of the similar records from San Salvatore di Brescia to reveal not just local peculiarity and human interest stories (though plenty of them) but also the actual recording process—they were using a form, which otherwise we suppose Charles Babbage to have invented!4 The level of standardisation was surprisingly high, though it could accommodate personal variation all the same. At Verona, we have a different situation. The record, which probably dates to the mid-tenth century and survives on four-of-we-don’t-know-how-many pieces of parchment sewn together, is actually quite variable and doesn’t have the kind of formulaic language. It’s not that it’s not all by the same people, but just that they didn’t have the same kind of desire to keep it exactly consistent, and who’s to say they weren’t happier for that? But patterns do emerge, all the same, perhaps because certain areas of the bishopric’s property had arrived in lumps, with different terms for each batch.

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

The overall picture looks roughly as you’d expect: the normal estate rendered a third of its wine production, a quarter of its grain, paid a few deniers on Saint Zeno’s day and owed some other stuff, flax, linen, hay, beans, chickens and eggs, fish or whatever, depending on the estate and what it had, presumably. In many cases the tenants did a few days’ labour on the bishopric’s own land too. Certain bits stand out for oddity: some estates had to render particular sorts of cereal, for example—millet and sorghum in San Vito di Castilione, wheat, rye and millet in Bonerigo and wheat, fava beans, rye, millet, panic and sorghum in Arcila, since you ask—whereas most of the rest just rendered “grain”.5 A very few places rendered partly in hay, presumably only at some times of the year; the interesting thing there is that they all render to the same place, not the cathedral but an estate centre at Legnago. Did the bishopric have a stock-raising operation there which needed a lot of animal feed?6 A lot of places rendered in flax, but the state it arrived in varied: raw flax was acceptable from some places, but others had to render prepared flax and some actual woven linen.7

Flax fields near Bergamo

Modern flax growing near Bergamo

Apart from the delightfully variegated texture of human endeavour across the Veronese landscape which this gives us, it also makes it clear that the bishopric of Verona was a commercial operation in a commercial world, whatever the historiography would wish to tell you about the dates we can use such words.8 Much of what they were getting in was provisions, for sure, and they might have had a lot of people to feed even beyond the cathedral canons; the urban Church was what there was in the tenth century by way of poor relief, after all.9 But I don’t think they can genuinely have needed quite that much linen all by themselves, which implies that they were selling it as material for the textile industry for which the area would be famous later on. There’s nothing surprising about that, either, because the number of renders in cash show that there was obviously a money economy of some sort in operation and if they could in fact spend those coins, then others must have been able to buy as well, or what would the good of the coins have been to them?10 None of this seems very odd, perhaps, but it is nice to be able to show it for definite.

Ottonian denaro from an Italian mint, perhaps Verona

Some of that same cash, a silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck perhaps at Verona in 962-973, Münzen Sänn, 3731900816, now in a private collection

Furthermore, the overall pattern was not controlled; the cathedral wasn’t turning certain parts of its property into specialist provision, or I think the picture would be very much more differentiated. What they mainly wanted was wine, grain, chicken and eggs and money, and those were probably also partly for sale (because yes, you can sell cash, it’s something banks do, we just don’t call it that when they do it). Where there are signs of specialisation, therefore, it’s probably fair to guess that they had been set up by the people who’d owned the land before it came to the cathedral, which is to say that this kind of economic optimisation had been a lay pursuit too for a little while by circa 950. I’d have to work harder to prove this, and I suspect it’s already been done, but with this kind of material, it can be, you see.

Medieval statue of Saint Zeno of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

Saint Zeno, as depicted in a later medieval form still on display in Verona. (He was from modern-day Morocco, according to legend anyway.) Image by Mattanaown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The goods may have been for sale, then, but they were also for show. Remember that a lot of this stuff was to be brought to the cathedral on the feast day of its patron saint, Zeno (12 April, apparently). I imagine there was a feast, too, and perhaps the tenants got to eat some of what they had brought, but mainly, I imagine, they all saw each other paying up and were inescapably reminded who their lord was, how powerful he was and how much help he could draw on if he needed to (or you needed him to). A very few places also rendered single lambs, and just as I did at Brescia I wonder if those were to be delivered at Easter, but I can’t prove that whereas the big gathering on Saint Zeno’s Day looks pretty undeniable. It’s not quite conspicuous consumption, but one could call it conspicuous stockpiling, I guess, and the audience may have been the city population who might need the bishop’s charity in the tough months before the harvest as much as the tenants who had, presumably, still kept most of what they’d grown or raised. One could link this to the ancient role of bishops as civic patrons or remember that the English word for ‘lord’ comes from an Old English word hlaford meaning ‘loaf-giver’, but either way the person who can feed the poor when the poor need him is in a powerful position, and that’s what this ceremony must have set up in Verona.11

I can’t do anything especially novel with any of this, and the document didn’t have the smoking guns of crop yields for which I was searching. If I’d been one hundred per cent focused on the research outcome, I’d regret having read this estate survey. As it is, though, even though I will probably never really need to know anything about how tenth-century Verona hung together and what its citizens for sale saw in their marketplace, I have a quite lively mental picture of another corner of tenth-century Europe all the same, and that will do nicely for me, thankyou!

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. The yields he missed were in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), “S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi (Roma 1979), pp. 193–198, discussed even before publication in Vito Fumagalli, “Rapporto fra grano seminato e grano raccolto nel politico del monastero di S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Rivista di storia dell’agricoltura Vol. 6 (Firenze 1966), pp. 360–362, just too late for Duby’s big works. See Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”, p. 25 for discussion.

3. Castagnetti (ed.), “Vescovato di Verona” in Castagnetti, <u<Inventari altomedievali di terre, pp. 95–111.

4. The Brescia materials are printed in Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia”, ibid., pp. 41–94. As for Babbage, the claim rests upon Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (London 1832), pp. 114-118, online here.

5. Castagnetti, “Verona”, pp. 107, 106-107 and 108 for the specific cases.

6. Ibid., pp. 103-104.

7. For example, linen from a half-colonica held by Atto in Cennserava and one colonica belonging to Tonono in Castolisine (ibid., pp. 104 and 106), prepared flax from another of Atto’s colonicae in Cennserava (ibid. p. 104), but raw flax from one of Legnago’s dependencies (ibid. p. 101), with many more examples available.

8. I refer of course to Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950‒1350 (New York City 1971), for whose narrative we seem here to be slightly early.

9. On poor relief you could see Peregrine Horden, “Poverty, Charity, and the Invention of the Hospital” in Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford 2012), pp. 715–743.

10. This isn’t even that new an idea: the best cite I can immediately pick up for it is Gino Luzzatto, “Changes in Italian Agrarian Economy (from the Fall of the Carolingians to the Beginning of the 11th Century)”, trans. Sylvia L. Thrupp, in Thrupp (ed.), Early Medieval Society (New York City 1967), pp. 206–218.

11. On bishops and cities, try Claudia Rapp, “Bishops in Late Antiquity: A New Social and Urban Elite?” in John H. Haldon and Lawrence I. Conrad (edd.), Elites Old and New in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East: Papers of the sixth Workshop on Late Antiquity and Early Islam, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Near East 6 (Princeton 2004), pp. 149-178.

8 responses to “Hay, flax, chickens and cash

  1. We military historians tend to say that printed forms were first used in Europe to organize the Spanish Armada (so many ships, each of which needs to be issued masts and cables and sailcloth and ordonance and roundshot and kegs of biscuit and tuns of wine: I think it’s in Geoffrey Parker’s The Military Revolution). But we could be wrong too.

    • Well, the Brescia ones can’t have been printed, but as I say in the linked post, there obviously was one in use because their returns are completely standardised, to the extent that not only are particular features of each estate always listed in the same order, but also when a given estate has a zero return in something so it’s not listed, the next estate to have some of that thing lists it in the same place in the order as the last one did. I suppose it’s possible that the scribes were standardising like robots as they wrote it up, but the returns can still have had very little variation.

  2. There’s potential reward in learning about context. Intellectual reward, I mean, not bureaucratic reward.

    • Oh yes, I agree wholeheartedly. For that reason, long ago, I used to try and read everything in any volume I had out for just one chapter. That was before digital download, but it was also before employment, and the two together did for that habit, but the extra knowledge I picked up still occasionally comes in useful even if it’s horribly out of date. Not a luxury that the profession really permits any more…

      • Its hard because intellectually we can know that the broad book (or translated source) from a university press on a society you don’t focus on will probably be more rewarding than yet another monograph in our sub-discipline, but its hard to predict how it will be rewarding and harder to integrate that new knowledge.

        • This is actually one of the benefits I get from blogging, I think, as perhaps you do also; because I don’t feel I have to give a blog post the time to be ‘properly’ researched, I can actually use them to rapidly skim round a topic, dig up references and so on, and then in some sense I have a sense of what the use of that knowledge might be. Still no time to acquire it, though!

  3. Pingback: Changing Ways to Read a Graph of Landlordship | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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