Changing Ways to Read a Graph of Landlordship

A day early and about four years late still, here is this week’s post. While in the very last days of my previous bout of research leave, in late 2017 and early 2018, I was reading my way through the various Italian polyptychs and inventories in a 1979 volume edited by Castagnetti; two of them actually contain crop yields data, only one of which I’d known about, and I wanted to make sure that I found any more.1 Now, there weren’t any more but there were a lot of references to a couple of early articles by David Herlihy. Herlihy was a bit of a legend, mainly for his work on town and women’s life in later medieval Italy but he also did a rook of short articles in the late 1950s to early 1970s on the basis of a huge database of published charter material he’d assembled somehow, and some of those articles are still really big in the literature. If you’ve ever seen a claim that in the Middle Ages the Church owned up to a third of all land, for example, that was Herlihy, and he also stands out as one of the first people to point out that actually female landownership is not uncommon in medieval documents, which gathered him a small raft of students who have become important gender historians, mainly because he was willing to see what was there.2 So I’ve always thought that Herlihy was not a bad model for the kind of historian I’d like to be, and when I catch references like these to work of his I’ve not read, I try and follow them up. And in one of these, there is this graph.3

Graph of types of rents in northern and central Italian charters 751-1200

David Herlihy, “The History of the Rural Seigneury in Italy, 751-1200” in Agricultural History Vol. 33 (Washington DC 1959), pp. 58-71 at p. 60

Now, if there is a weakness in these early articles of Herlihy’s it’s a tendency to proffer a single explanation and then cover no alternatives, which is why he could do in twenty-five pages what would take most people a book, I guess, and this is no different. Here Herlihy argued that money rents were the weak landlord’s option compared to service, since commutation to money deprived him of guaranteed labour and foodstuffs and subject him to the market (Herlihy liked the market, so he didn’t say that last bit, but it’s implicit). They also broke the closeness of a landlord’s connection to his tenants. For all these reasons, for Herlihy what this graph shows was a tightening of landlords’ control under the Carolingians and then its loss as the Italian kingdom disintegrated in the late ninth and early tenth centries, accompanied by an increase in tenurial fragmentation which he thought he’d showed in a previous article, till the economy was in genuine crisis, with which various ‘vigorous’ landholders dealt by consolidating holdings in aggressive campaigns of acquisition and subjection. But we should see those as a good thing! because they revitalised the agrarian economy and allowed the development of towns and government and developed economies and the Renaissance and so on.4 That last bit makes me wish to be Herlihy a bit less, I admit, but it’s an impressive bit of theorisation of massive changes from one graph. But there are times when a graph is not enough…

Ph.D. Comics for 13th February 1998

Ph.D. Comics for 13th February 1998. Admit it, you have seen this done in presentations

… and it’s necessary to ask what else might be going on here. As a self-denying numismatist, for example, one thing struck me straight away which is that you could, if you wanted to be equally careless, read this instead as a graph of monetisation of the Italian economy, by assuming that everyone would have used money if they could have, and so if they weren’t it wasn’t available.5 Certainly, Herlihy never really thought about money supply; he apparently just assumed it could be got if needed, but I’m not sure that was true in this era and in notes occasionally it becomes clear that neither was Herlihy, really.6 But it needs factoring in for his deductions to stand up. That is so not least because he stated an assumption that a shift to money rents automatically meant that the landlords were giving up on farming their manorial lands directly and breaking them up into tenancies because of no longer having labour available, but obviously that need not have been so if they were hiring labour instead, in which case of course they might have wanted money rents, because then they’d have been able to get work done when they needed it and not just when their peasants’ obligations came up.7 I don’t think that’s necessarily what’s happening in Herlihy’s graph but he certainly didn’t show any signs of having considered it.

Silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck at Pavia in 956-73

The kind of money the peasants in question either could or could not get, a silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck at Pavia in 956-973, image by FabioRomanoniown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In the end, therefore, I like this article to think with and I’m always impressed how well Herlihy’s charter stuff holds its worth, largely because of being so directly data-driven, but what is maybe most interesting to me is the difference your starting assumptions make to how you read that graph. Herlihy had already detected what he thought was a break-up of landholding and an economic crisis that fitted this graph’s chronology; but the sadly late Peter Spufford would probably have seen signs of European silver famine here, a number of economic historians might prefer to see a growth of wage labour hindered by big bad feudalism and eventually triumphed over by the dialectical triumph of the capitalist market economy, and I’m not sure where I myself stand but it definitely comes from Pierre Bonnassie‘s and Chris Wickham‘s similar but differently-timed cases for a period of light obligations on the peasantry in the early or central Middle Ages.8 I suppose it’s a reminder that data may be neutral but its interpretation is another matter…

1. Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Gianfranco Pasquali and Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979); see now Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 77 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28 at pp. 16-19 & 25-26.

2. His greatest hits would probably be D. Herlihy, Pisa In The Early Renaissance: A Study Of Urban Growth (New Haven CT 1958); idem, Medieval Households (Cambridge MA 1985); and idem, Opera Muliebria: Women And Work in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia PA 1990); but one also has to list the two ground-breaking articles, idem, “Church Property on the European Continent, 701-1200” in Speculum Vol. 36 (Cambridge MA 1961), pp. 81–105 and idem, “Land, Family and Women in Continental Europe, 701-1200” in Traditio Vol. 18 (Fordham NY 1962), pp. 89–120, repr. in Susan Mosher Stuard (ed.), Women in Medieval Society (Philadelphia PA 1976), pp. 13–45. He also had at least one Variorum volume which must have collected these and others like them.

3. David Herlihy, “The History of the Rural Seigneury in Italy, 751-1200” in Agricultural History Vol. 33 (Washington DC 1959), pp. 58-71 at p. 60.

4. Ibid., pp. 68-69, almost as explicitly as I render it; the previous article was Herlihy, “The Agrarian Revolution in Southern France and Italy, 801–1150” in Speculum Vol. 33 (Cambridge MA 1958), pp. 23–41, again not a small-scale study.

5. For a really sane critique of these kinds of views, see Dagfinn Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell and Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek CA 2007), pp. 67–92, effectively printed again as Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell, Søren M. Sindbæk and Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economies, Monetisation and Society in Scandinavia, AD 800 – 1100: Studies Dedicated to Mark Blackburn (Aarhus 2011), pp. 67–91, whence online here.

6. Herlihy, “Rural Seigneury”, p. 68 n. 53 is a dismissal of an argument by another historian that depreciation of the coinage might explain the drop in rent value, which of course it might; Herlihy argued that the coinage was down by half but the rents went up tenfold, but here and ibid. p. 61 where he suggested that peasants would have struggled to convert all their crop to cash, he showed some awareness that money supply might be a problem, a problem which he otherwise blithely ignored, presumably because that observation was all he needed to support the idea that money rents were necessarily a poor option. We might now think differently about the monetisation levels of the Italian countryside, but admittedly we might also not; see Alessia Rovelli, “Nuove zecche e circolazioni monetaria tra X e XIII secolo: l’esempio del Lazio e della Toscana”, ed. Alessandra Molinari, in Archeologia Medievale Vol. 37 (Firenze 2010), pp. 163–171.

7. Cf. Herlihy, “Rural Seigneury”, p. 61.

8. Pierre Bonnassie, “D’une servitude à l’autre : les paysans du royaume” in Robert Delort (ed.), La France de l’An Mil, Points-Histoires H130 (Paris 1990), pp. 125-141, transl. as Bonnassie, “From one Servitude to Another: the peasantry of the Frankish kingdom at the time of Hugh Capet and Robert the Pious (987-1031)”, in idem, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 288–313; Chris Wickham, “La chute de Rome n’aura pas lieu”, transl. André Joris, in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 99 (Bruxelles 1993), pp. 107–126, published in English as Chris Wickham, “The Fall of Rome Will Not Take Place” in Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 45–57, or Wickham, “Sul mutamento sociale ed economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica: rivista quadrimestrale Vol. 8 (Firenze 2002), pp. 7–28, transl. Igor Santos Salazar and ed. Iñaki Martín Viso as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17–32; but cf. now Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present No. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40, which I haven’t yet had time to internalise but threatens to change really quite a lot…

6 responses to “Changing Ways to Read a Graph of Landlordship

  1. “cases for a period of light obligations on the peasantry in the early or central Middle Ages”: this is the sort of thing it would be fascinating to know more about.

    Do you know this paper?

    Click to access West-Cambridge.-1.-The-Enclosure-of-Cambridge-St-Giles.-Cambridge-University.PCAS-.XCIV_.-2005.-P.-Guillebaud.pdf

    I find it fascinating in itself, but also in the point that the West Fields in Cambridge had no Lord of the Manor: even College records start after the identity of the LotM had been forgotten. He couldn’t have imposed much in the way of obligations on the medieval peasantry if he didn’t really exist, could he?

    Mind you, if all that the LotM got out of the West Fields were mineral rights (there were no minerals) and timber rights (there were no trees) it might be unsurprising that somebody or other just abandoned his rights and duties.

    • I see that we’re talking about common lands, so the lack of a lord doesn’t completely surprise me; if there had been a lord for it all, there’d have been no common there! But how it got that way and when might, of course, be much thornier questions. I assume that the Fields aren’t in Domesday, and after that unless there were dispute records you’d be a bit stuck until the advent of the Land Registry. However, a very quick skim of the paper suggests that at least for some parts of the Fields there was a lord, and somewhat bewilderingly it was Merton College Oxford, at least in the sense that they had tenants there. That seems to me to be what the Corporation of Cambridge challenged them over, and it apparently lost, so I think this was tested and proved even at the time…

  2. Nope. Because there wasn’t an existing Lord of the Manor they appointed Merton as such, presumably because the Act assumed there must be one.

    “if there had been a lord for it all, there’d have been no common there”: but that’s not how large chunks of England, including Cambridgeshire, were organised. It was the Manor Court that managed use of the open fields, common meadows and so forth. The Manor Court punished commoners who put more cattle on the commons than their stint allowed; its duties included punishing odds and sods who tried to use the commons when they weren’t commoners, or to squat on it. As I said, the Lord’s own rights might be limited to minerals and timber. (I know I shouldn’t be arguing about this with you but maybe this is different from the Catalan traditions.)

    How the Cambridge West Field was managed I don’t know. Who investigated and enforced if there were disputes about arable strips? Who sorted things out if a commoner started harvesting someone else’s hay? Who told commoners to take their extra beasts off the fallow? Dunno.

    My own instinct is that the Open Field system was bonkers – I have no idea how the half of the country that used it came to be that way. The other half did perfectly well without it.

    Anyway, the best Cambridge story I know about the common land is the tale of how the Corporation (i.e. town council) robbed the commoners of Midsummer Common of their rights. Shameful, and passed off as a case of Progress, as far as I can see.

    An acquaintance used to own common rights in the New Forest but was too busy to use them. I suppose such things might fade away over time for this sort of reason.

    • You certainly can argue with me about this! Catalan common land did indeed work differently and I’ve only got a very modern grip on how it works in England now (my primary school had a playground on a common and my mum was on the relevant parish council). But Merton was already one of the biggest landowners, that’s clear (table p. 2), and was giving consent to things like this in 1769 (end p. 3), even before the 1805 Act has it standing as representative of the Lord. Furthermore, its right to do that was then contested by the Corporation of Cambridge (pp. 5-6), but the Corporation lost. But the point is: it held a manor in the parish (Merton Manor), as well as a lot of other land; and (top p. 6) there were also three other manors with interests there, and therefore four Manor Courts who might have had jurisdiction there. The problem seems not to have been that there was no lord, but that there were plural possibilities! Now, I grant you that suggests that prior to this no-one had been doing anything with the relevant rights, but I don’t think that implies that the land was ever thought to be without a lord. It sounds as if there were very few commoners, so my guess would be the same as yours, that claims had lapsed between tenancies and not been pursued when those guys took up their plots.

      We also agree on several other things, firstly that the Open Field system was mad (and long ago here I railed against a mad attempt to make sense of it) and that the Midsummer Common story is a blot on Cambridge’s history. But every time I see those red poll bullocks I feel that the Corporation also managed to stick it to the colleges, so it might come out even before an Egyptian-style weighing of its corporate heart…

  3. This is a very good post. And I completely agree about these excellent but incredibly frustrating Herlihy articles from the 50s and 60s: so many important observations, all funnelled so tightly into a single narrative. You are right that he could have written a book about the seigneurial economy of the ninth to eleventh centuries, which might have given more room to develop some of these points.

    • Thankyou, Rory, that’s kind of you. And yes, completely agreed; one might argue that the articles make up a book, but they weren’t written to support each other really, and don’t. This does remind me, however, that I meant to mention and forgot Ian Wood’s attempt at an update of one of the biggest-hitting of the articles in the form of Ian Wood, “Entrusting Western Europe to the Church, 400–750” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 23 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 37–73, DOI: 10.1017/S0080440113000030. So now that’s here as well.

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