Seminar CCLI: I guess sometimes even Michael Hendy was wrong

Pickets at the University of Leeds, December 2021

Pickets at the University of Leeds on Monday

It’s day three and last of the current UK higher education strikes—and the BBC has a report specifically from Leeds about them, indeed—and so also day three and last-for-now of daily blogging here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. Today’s post is a seminar report. I don’t often do these posts on a single seminar any more, although given how many fewer I go to now than I used to perhaps I could again; but in this case the paper forced me to rebuild some of my structure for how I work on the Byzantine Empire when that happens, and so it seems worth a post by itself.

We’re back in May 2018 here, when as part of a project being run through the White Rose University Consortium, of which Leeds is part, called Marginalisation and the Law, there was a public lecture series rotating around the three universities involved. I was, I’m sure, swamped in marking as I usually am in May, and so I might not have come out even for the Leeds ones except that one of them was being given by Peter Sarris. I tend to feel that I have to come out for early papers when they’re laid on—if the Lecturer in Early Medieval History won’t, who will?—but I also tend to feel that when Peter speaks I want to hear it, so on the 17th May I was there (in physical space! Remember doing that?) to hear him talk to the title, “Merchants and Bankers in Byzantium”.

Cover of The Novels of Justinian, translated by David Miller and Peter Sarris

Cover of Peter Sarris (ed.) & David J. D. Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: A Complete Annotated English Translation (Cambridge 2018)

At the time of this paper, you see, Peter was in the throes of translating the laws that the Emperor Justinian I (527-565 CE) issued after his monumental compilation of Roman law, the Codex Justinianus, had been issued.1 Obviously, despite its definitive intent, its issue did not end the requirement for legislation, particularly for an emperor who wanted to change as much as did Justinian I, and so these new laws, known for that novelty as the Novellae or Novels, are a fat volume just by themselves. This put him in that enviable position of temporarily being probably the most expert person in a body of source material in the world, which (as I know from my charters, though there I am only the most expert English-speaker) means that you can basically answer any request for a paper or conference presentation by taking their theme and simply adding ‘… in my particular body of evidence’ and come up with something no-one knew before. And so it was on this occasion.

Peter started by emphasising that for Justinian I legislation was a tool for moral reform of the empire, not (primarily) civil, and so policed what it policed because they were moral failings of the citizenry which not only had bad consequences for others but also prejudiced the standing of the Empire before God. As a result, his Novels did some things that might look to us quite progressive, like protecting wives’ rights to their inheritance and dowry from the claims of a husband’s family, like entitling the disabled to charity and prohibiting their expulsion from families for being disabled, like freeing the orphaned children of slaves and indeed all slaves enslaved in the last decade, like declaring contracts for sexual trafficking void and like banning the ‘production’ of eunuchs in at least some places. On the other hand, Justinian I’s morals were not those of a twenty-first-century liberal either, so the laws also made divorce harder, forbade heretics from access to the courts, prevented Jews, Samaritans and pagans from being able to inherit property, closed brothels throughout the Empire and singled out male homosexuality as a cause of plagues and earthquakes on an Old-Testament Biblical basis. Of course, we might justly ask how far any of this was actually carried out, as opposed to demanded by the state, but it does at least tell us what the régime wished to be declared as its public priorities.

But because Peter is primarily an economic historian, if it hadn’t eventually come around to the economy and tax I would probably have been surprised, and the way we got there was that, while these new laws cracked down on many marginal and questionable occupations, one they largely left alone despite the strong Christian animus against it was moneylending.2 Ceilings were set for permissible interest (such as total interest payable not to be greater than the capital), but on the other hand it was made easier to pursue debtors and bankers were exempted from some laws which would have applied to their creditors. One might well ask why this half-blind eye was being turned, and for Peter the answer was that the state needed the banking sector to keep the tax system working, using loans to cover shortfalls and delays in collection that might otherwise have meant the state couldn’t make its own payments. There are, indeed, places in the Novels where tax priorities overrode the other priorities already mentioned: the Jews of Tyre, the Samaritans of Galilee and the pagans of Haran all got to keep their right to make wills because of the important contributions they made to state income of various kinds. The message for Peter was that even for Justinian I, finance still beat faith as a state priority.

Cover of Michael Hendy's Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

Cover of Michael Hendy’s Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

Now, this might not seem very revolutionary, but actually there was something in this I really had to strain to swallow, and the reason was Michael Hendy. I have written before here about reading the masterwork of my predecessor as Coin Curator at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, and it may be that having slogged through its nearly-800 pages gives you a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where you don’t want to let any of it go, but nevertheless I always found myself fairly persuaded by its explanation of the Byzantine state’s tax priorities as basically being ‘pay the army, pay the civil servants, do what is needed to make that possible and nothing more’, especially as opposed to arguments that the Byzantine coinage was created to facilitate trade which just smell like twentieth-century monetarism.3 But accepting Hendy’s argument implicitly means accepting his premises, and one of those was that there was basically no credit available to the Byzantine state, that this banking sector which Peter was describing was negligible to the point of insignificance.4 This, of course, made Hendy’s models that much simpler: if the coinage was in fact the sole medium of state revenue and expenditure, then while that’s complicated enough to arithmetise at least it is a single domain of hypothesis. Once you let private wealth and credit into the picture, it becomes effectively impossible to guess how much wealth the state could in fact draw on (in so far as it was possible without doing so—but Hendy, of course, thought it just about was).5 So I quizzed Peter about this in discussion, and he said that, while Justinian I did run up some state debt at the very end of his reign which Justin II (565-585 CE) then paid off by somewhat disastrous austerity measures, the actual value of the banking sector to the tax system was in keeping taxpayers afloat, not the state. Now, that raises questions of scale: we’re not there talking a Bank of Byzantium or a national debt, we’re talking a person in a village being able to get a loan from the local money-changer to tide them over till harvest and that being true tens of thousands of times over, perhaps, but the individual sums never being very large.6 When Justinian I did run up state debt, the loans didn’t come from bankers, but from the various trade guilds of Constantinople who were doing it as relief for the consequences of the plague, and that presumably explains why Justin II had to pay them back; the capital city might have stopped working without it. So I think Hendy, were he still around, have said that he was still right and that these small-scale or very-one-off instances didn’t overthrow his basic contention of the inelasticity of Byzantine state finances; but at the same time, I now find those finances a lot easier to imagine for the limited elasticity that Peter’s perspective gives it.


1. That being, as said in the caption above, Peter Sarris (ed.) & David J. D. Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: A Complete Annotated English Translation (Cambridge 2018). On the legal reforms and the reign more generally, see Caroline Humfress, “Law and Legal Practice in the Age of Justinian” in Michael Maas (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (Cambridge 2005), pp. 161–184, and the rest of the essays in that volume.

2. Let’s not forget that Peter’s first book was the excellent Peter Sarris, Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian (Cambridge 2006), but for banking specifically (other than Hendy as in n. 4. below) you might have to go back to S. J. B. Barnish, “The Wealth of Julianus Argentarius: Late Antique Banking and the Mediterranean Economy” in Byzantion Vol. 55 (Leuven 1985), pp. 5–38.

3. Hendy’s normal opponent here, deservedly or not, was Cécile Morrisson, of whose work Morrisson and Jean-Pierre Sodini, “The Sixth-Century Economy”, transl. Charles Dibble in Angeliki E. Laiou (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century (Washington D.C. 2002), 3 vols, vol. I pp. 171–220, might demonstrate where Hendy’s problems came from but whose more recent “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in Morrisson, Georg-D. Schaaf and Jean-Michel Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par Cécile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104, would be a fairer reflection of where she now stands, including a good deal of adaptation to Hendy.

4. Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 228-253, dealing with state credit under the heading ‘Unavailable Options’, pp. 237-242, and banking more widely pp. 242-253.

5. Ibid. pp. 157-201 are a lengthy attempt at a reconstruction of the Byzantine budget, with pp. 201-253, including the bit on banking, being a kind of annexe on other pockets of wealth in the empire and how they compared, themselves equipped with an annexe on the law on banking in the ninth century. Now that I reflect on this, it is noticeable how in terms of focus Hendy liked to hang out in the third, ninth-to-tenth and twelfth centuries and not many others, so I guess there was always a danger that someone like Peter who basically inhabits the sixth would, if they ever got to grips with its voluminous evidence, be able to drive a short-term truck through Hendy’s century-spanning overview, and maybe this is what has happened.

6. We can most easily see this happening in Egypt, of course, because the massive survival of papyri there gives us access to a level of documentation we just don’t have from elsewhere in the Empire (on which, indeed, see Peter Sarris, “Lay Archives in the Late Antique and Byzantine East: the implications of the documentary papyri” in Warren C. Brown, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes and Adam J. Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013), pp. 17–35), but we do see it there. An example I lately came across would be in James G. Keenan, “Soldier and Civilian in Byzantine Hermopolis” in Adam Bülow-Jacobsen (ed.), Proceedings of the 20th International Congress of Papyrologists, Copenhagen, 23-29 August, 1992 (Copenhagen, 1994), pp. 444–451 at pp. 448-449, but I’m afraid I didn’t take down the papyrus reference and have given the volume back to the library, sorry.

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