Seminar CCLXXI: feudalism beats capitalism for most of history

Chris Wickham setting up for the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, 14 May 2019

Chris Wickham setting up for the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, 14 May 2019, photograph by your author

Well, I am back and I made a promise, and so here is the post which was promised, in which as has happened here a few times before I sing Chris Wickham’s praises. This is not musing on the his classic works of the 1980s or even 1990s, however, because this post is reporting on the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, on 14th May 2019, which was given by Chris and which had the title, “How did Feudalism Work? The Economic Logic of Medieval Societies”. I was there—and it was a little odd to be back in my alma mater as a guest rather than as a student—and I took extensive and enthusiastic notes, but the lecture has since emerged as an article, under a slightly different title, in Past & Present for May 2021.1 So I’ve checked the article against my notes on the lecture, but I think having done so that a report on the lecture gets you the substance of the article without misrepresenting it; so, here goes.

To start with we have (of course) to define what we mean by ‘feudal’. Chris was addressing the term in the strictly Marxist sense, as an economic ‘mode’, in which the productive class, for the Middle Ages the peasantry, have more or less full direction of their own labour, but do not get to keep the proceeds, or at least are subjected to rent, levy, tribute, pre-emption or whatever else one might call it by the governing class, whose lifestyle and endeavours, including of course all government, are made possible by their right or ability to appropriate that peasant surplus. We’re not talking feudalism as in knight service, fiefs and vassals, arbitrary violence and private justice or anything like that, though those things might also have been present in some of the societies concerned, but just the economic relationship between producers and governors.2 Now, for most commentators this is a restrictive system, with no room for growth, because it rests fundamentally on the basis of peasant farming, and that can only be ratcheted up so far and only so much surplus extracted from it before peasants can’t survive; other than extract more from them, the only obvious means of growth for such an economy is to farm more land with more people, and there are usually effective limits on that too. For those same commentators, Marx was right that the game-changing phenomenon was industrialisation, which enabled the development of capitalism, in which the ruling class control the productive class’s labour directly, take all the proceeds and then pay the proletariat thus created for that labour. Marxist dialectic sees the end of the Ancien Régime and the Age of Revolutions as the messy and difficult transition of European society from the ‘feudal’ to the ‘capitalist’ mode, and from aristocratic land-owning ruling classes to bourgeois, commercial ones.

OK, so far, so much Marxism 101. But despite the Middle Ages usually being characterised as ‘feudal’ in this sense, it’s pretty easy to point to things like factory-scale industrial production of textiles in Flanders and Florence, plantation sugar cultivation in Sicily, day-labourers in England and many other places, extensive peasant access to markets and commercial goods, banking and credit and of course the rise of the middle class, a phenomenon which as someone I didn’t know once said at a paper I was at is one of those that seems to have happened in every age that anyone studies, and which then propelled the development of self-governing towns and so on. Quite a lot of this looks capitalistic, even if it really only seems to be visible after 1100, and it has led to angry if sterile debates about whether the profit motive was known in the Middle Ages, how rational an economic actor the medieval peasant was, and so on.3 And, whatever its mysterious cause, the medieval economy did manage a quite substantial amount of growth, punctuated by some dramatic but not total collapses. Probably no-one would disagree that the number of people and average standard of living, if what we mean by that is availability of market goods, was vastly higher in 1450 than in 550 despite the Black Death intervening (though, to be fair, 550 was also a plague period).4 So if this was a feudal economy, how did it contain all that?

Chris Wickham's Eric Hobsbawm Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, May 2019

To this, a question which Chris himself had raised, his answer was brilliant and simple. Firstly, probably no society ever has been entirely formed around a single Marxian mode of production; we’re only ever talking about the dominant one. England didn’t become instantly capitalist the minute the first factory started operation, and the Middle Ages could accommodate a few textile manufactories without needing reclassifying, because so much more of the overall economy than that, even than Florence, was economically constructed on the ‘feudal’ basis. But the second part of the argument was for me the winner: actually, historically speaking, feudal economies could be very complex, could expand, and could do so quite a lot. Indeed, since the Middle Ages show that they could, by Chris’s argument, the real question is not ‘whether’ but ‘how’, and to that Chris said firstly that evidently, normally, peasants could amass a surplus of their own and were thus consumers and an economic force on the market alongside the lords who had the first claim on their stuff; the proportionally less the lords took, the more peasant action on the market there could be and the more market-based the economy could get. But peasants were not themselves dependent on that access to the market, because they were in control of production; if they didn’t get to keep enough to feed themselves, the whole economy stopped, but if there was difficulty, obviously the first thing peasants would do was look after themselves and withdraw from the wider economy. These capitalist-looking super-phenomena would then shrink or disappear. Because of this basic safety valve in a feudal system, it would never reach conversion point and become capitalist without some other factor developing. Such an economy could be stable, large and complex, even slightly industrialised, and remain feudal.

This didn’t meet much opposition in questions; instead, there was a small slew of people asking ‘do you think such-and-such-a-place fits or doesn’t?’, to which Chris naturally enough said that they all fitted if you looked at it right; someone asking about wage labour, which Chris thought was never very important, since seasonal labourers must still also have fitted into the economy some other way the rest of the year; and Caroline Goodson, suggesting the importance of at least Islamic states as economic drivers, to which Chris argued that as long as it was taxing peasants without telling them how and what to farm, the state was just a big lord in economic terms and his classification was safe. I didn’t get to ask my question in the session, but did get to catch Chris a bit later, and what I wanted to know was, what doesn’t fit into a feudal classification like this? Wouldn’t the whole ancient world, except the very few bits and times of it which really did run on plantation slavery, be ‘feudal’ in these terms? And if so, what did this mean for Chris’s early work, still much cited, on the transition from the ancient to feudal modes in late antiquity?5 And Chris said, yes, it pretty much would, and what this meant was that he’d been wrong. This actually rocked my thought-world a bit, not just because of someone with Chris’s stature disavowing some of his most influential writing but also because I still find ‘The Other Transition’ and ‘Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce’ intellectually compelling and explanatory. But so did I this. It has taken me some effort to prune the old work from my reading lists since then, and I’m still not sure it’s pruned from my own picture of fourth- to eighth-century European and Mediterranean change, despite the pretty major mounting block presented by Chris’s work in between.6 So for me at least, the way I used to understand about a thousand years of European history and indeed focus on about five hundred of them has changed because of this lecture, which is the power a really brilliant bit of work can have. But since the print version is very much the same paper, that is an experience you too can have, and I do recommend it!

1. Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present No. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40. It probably is worth mentioning that Chris reckons this article a partner to his earlier “Productive Forces and the Economic Logic of the Feudal Mode of Production” in Historical Materialism Vol. 16 (Leiden 2008), pp. 3–22, which I haven’t read, and should therefore mention so that you can.

2. My checkpoint for these distinctions remains Chris Wickham, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 47 (Spoleto 2000), 2 vols, I, pp. 15–51, but there is a quick run-through in Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work?”, pp. 8-10.

3. For the latter, see Cliff T. Bekar and Clyde G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308–325, ridiculed at the post linked. We might also note the weird branch of this scholarship which sees the Church as the only capitalist force of the Middle Ages, and thus essentially assumes, as do all those who like to bash the corruption and cynicism of the medieval Church, that everyone who believed was actually outside the organisation which mediated belief; for the one see Robert B. Ekelund, Robert D. Tollison, Gary M. Anderson, Robert F. Hébert and Audrey B. Davidson, Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm (Oxford 1996) and for the latter Alan Ereira, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (London 2005).

4. On the plague of c. 550 see Peter Sarris, “The Justinianic Plague: origins and effects” in Continuity and Change Vol. 17 (Cambridge 2002), pp. 169–182, though just lately a rook of exciting new work on it and its consequences has emerged that I haven’t yet followed up, beginning with Merle Eisenberg and Lee Mordechai, “The Justinianic Plague: an interdisciplinary review” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 43 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 156–180. We still lack a general economic history of the medieval period that I’d trust: Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn, (London 1994) is OK in a traditional mould, but that’s kind of it. However, the last time I spoke to Chris Wickham, only a few weeks ago, he referred to an ‘economy book’ that he’d just sent to the press, and I wonder if that will prove to be the thing we need…

5. This work is collected and revised in Chris Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400–1200 (London 1994), but includes especially idem, “The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism” in Past & Present No. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3–36, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 7-42, and idem, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 183–193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Of course John Haldon, a long-ago colleague of Chris, was arguing even then that ancient and medieval states worked in fundamentally the same way in Marxist terms, and wanted rid of both ‘ancient’ and ‘feudal’ modes in favour of a more capacious ‘tributary’ mode: see John Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (London 1993).

6. Most obviously Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), to which cf. Historical Materialism Vol. 19 no. 1, Symposium on Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (Leiden 2011).

16 responses to “Seminar CCLXXI: feudalism beats capitalism for most of history

  1. I have mixed thoughts on Chris Wickham’s article. On the one hand, I think it was an incredibly nuanced and compelling defence of Marxist feudalism that successfully integrates what we know about the sophistication of the high and late medieval economy, which wasn’t really known to Rodney Hilton and Perry Anderson, and certainly not Marx and Engels. I’m not sure if I’ve said this before, but I’m a huge fan of Chris’ work and he’s one of the few Marxists, along with Pierre Bonnassie, who I have admiration for and owe intellectual debts to. One also can’t help but feel anything other than impressed by the breadth and depth of reading that went into this paper – given that it’s focus is basically 1000 – 1700, which is mostly later than Chris Wickham normally works, and a lot of it is about regions he doesn’t normally work on (India and China) it’s just incredible. It is definitely one of the most stimulating articles I’ve read in the last year.

    On the negative side, I think Chris Wickham makes the mistake of passing over culture, yet I think that would give him his answer for why eighteenth century Britain was able to do what the second century Roman Empire, ninth century Iraq, eleventh century Egypt and China, fourteenth century Italy and Flanders and the gunpowder empires of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had all failed to do – achieve the industrial capitalist breakthrough. I think someone like Deidre McCloskey is probably actually right in that respect, that it’s the shift in attitudes towards the bourgeoisie – a sort of modified version of Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic” – is a real game changer, as it explains why the merchants, bankers and manufacturers of England and Holland didn’t just go the way of the Medici and Fugger. And for a holistic explanation of why that industrial capitalist breakthrough happened, Walter Scheidel’s “Escape from Rome” is pretty successful.

    I’m also really sad that he’s abandoned the idea of a transition from the ancient world to feudalism. I’m not satisfied with his redefining of feudalism to basically mean “pre-industrial agrarian societies which have bigwigs that dont have to work because other people will farm the food for them.” It’s just too vague and imprecise for my liking, but maybe that’s just me being difficult. Indeed the idea that there was a transition from the ancient world to feudalism in the third to eleventh centuries, ending in a revolutionary transformation around 1000, is something I’m willing to defend to the last. A day may come when the other transition debate fails, but it is not this day.

    • Well, to that I can think of three things to say, apart from thanks for the prompt to read more Scheidel: he has inevitably come across my radar in recent years but I haven’t yet made time to check his work out in detail. But, on topic, firstly you are not wrong about the incredible breadth of reading and knowledge the article involves, but I wish Chris were the only person of whom it could be said that they include India for about thirty seconds on the basis of one book. Since he’s already comparing in extenso to the ‘Abbāsids and every now and then to China, I almost wish he didn’t pretend to include India on such a token basis, not least because India has this huge Marxist scholarly tradition with which this article doesn’t engage at all.7

      Secondly, I think it’s a bit unfair to tax Chris for not explaining the transition to capitalism when the whole point of the article is to tangle with a historiography that sees the Middle Ages in the light of a belief that that was inevitable, thus making all medieval history a feudal anomaly. It’s not an article about the Great Divergence, and if you want those he cites them; but he’s writing about the stability and capacity of the medieval economy, not its notional replacement.

      Thirdly, though, I don’t think he’s refuting the idea of the Other Transition in the total way you think. That would mean abandoning not just ‘The Other Transition’ itself but also Framing the Early Middle Ages, which makes it pretty clear that Chris thinks some major things changed over 400-800. I think this article is just saying that, contrary to Wickham 1984, those changes didn’t include one of Marxist economic mode, because the ancient world was effectively feudal in Marxist terms already. The transition is henceforth confined to matters of demography, material culture, religion, settlement focus, political organisation and identities, among other things probably. But that’s still quite a lot!

      7. For some good examples see D. N. Jha (ed.), The Feudal Order: state, society, and ideology in early medieval India (New Delhi 2002).

      • These are all really good points. I’d agree that I was definitely was being unfair about the Great Divergence. While Chris isn’t exactly avoiding that, he is, as you suggest, in effect reverse engineering it. Rather than asking “how close was premodern society X to achieving the industrial capitalist breakthrough and why did it not quite make it?” he instead asks “how was the feudal economy able to accommodate so much by way of commercial exchange, industrial production and early capitalist enterprises without them threatening to overturn and replace the system anywhere until the eighteenth century?” Or more concisely, not “why did capitalism rise/ fail to rise here”, but “why did the feudal economy survive for so long?” But what I was trying to make a stab at there, though I awkwardly phrased it, is that maybe Chris needed to consider the significance of cultural (or as he would call them, superstructural) factors in making the feudal economy so enduring. In terms of the literature on the Great Divergence, I’m pretty familiar with most of it, ever since I read Alan MacFarlane’s “The Origins of English Individualism” at the impressionable age of 17.

        I’ll admit that I probably was being too generous to him r.e. India. That point about how those who do global medieval history either ignore the Subcontinent or give it very superficial coverage is very insightful. Indeed, some of the advocates for global medieval comparative history have started to notice that India is getting left out for some reason – R.I Moore expressed regret for doing so in his seminal article on the eleventh century as a turning point in world history, on an episode of the eleventh century podcast with Charles West. Of course its not the only society that gets left out, to wit Byzantium, and here Chris has thankfully deviated from trend (he’s one of the few western medievalists to have earned praise in Anthony Kaldellis’ “Byzantium Unbound”, which is otherwise a pretty damning indictment of how we refuse to engage with our near neighbours).

        As for the third point, again you’re right that I’ve mischaracterised his position. Wickham’s clearly gone from thinking in terms of a transition in base and superstructure to a transition in just superstructure (plus demography and material culture) but the base being broadly the same. And I’m glad to be of service for the prompt to read more Scheidel. “Escape from Rome” really is super-stimulating, first rate macrohistorical scholarship, and Scheidel is definitely all for the other transition as a genuinely world-changing historical event.

  2. A simple-minded query: once upon a time much of England (maybe 30% of the land area?) was farmed using the Open Field system. So perhaps 70% was not – much of that countryside was managed as individual farms.

    Were both systems of farming equally “feudal”? Why is it axiomatic that the similarities outweighed the manifest differences?

    A second: do we know enough about what actually happened – rather than was said to have happened, or in law was intended to have happened – to be sure of our categorisations?

    An example: in Scotland coal miners were legally serfs until remarkably late in the day – late 18th century. I can remember the first time I read about it – I was appalled. But after a trot through the ‘orrible impositions on those poor souls the author remarked that the redeeming feature of the system was that it evidently didn’t work as advertised. Plenty of examples had been found of mining families leaving one employer without permission and joining another without being pursued. So were they serfs de facto, or was it – in part, at least – an example of blood-curdling tales from history which exaggerate the reality?

    It reminds me of Oliver Rackham’s point that the Forest Law in mediaeval England meant that the poacher would have his head or his hands chopped off – or whatever dire penalty it was that he alluded to. But the answer to that is to cry “name the victims!” According to Rackham (writing I guess in the 1980s) nobody has ever found a recorded case where it was done.

    • As usual, DM, those are anything but simple queries. My sense (and please note that this is not my expert area at all) is that the Open Field System is a bit of an article of English faith on which historians of other countries look in confusion, and that work in recent years has gone to reduce the estimate of its totality. It’s very much framed as an opposite to enclosure, in the seventeenth-century sense, but that is to look down the telescope from the big end and to dismiss the question of origins as now looking too small. This is not to say it didn’t exist, though, so the question is still valid. My answer to it would be that, if we’re being fully Marxian about it, the direction of labour is closer after enclosure, but beforehand the difference is not a hierarchical one, but one of whether the collective get to decide on the disposal and aim of labour or the individuals who’re labouring on a given farm do, and even the former is a negotiation not a diktat. Those are both peasant-directed in class terms, so for Marx they’re both feudal. If, however, you want an English lawyer’s answer, then I’d say that it depends to what customs either group is subjected and by whom. The nature of feudal relationships is that they’re individually arranged and then sometimes collectivised; a village could have a single lord/seigneur or each individual could have different ones. I don’t think the structure of the actual farming is determinant for either answer, though.

      As to the second point, it’s a really good one. Again, I don’t know the material here (though I could provide starting points for where to search), and it depends where one’s looking, but we do often have dispute records, complaints to higher authorities and agreements that instance sales of persons, dues laid upon them or violence against them that was considered excessive or wrongful, or in the case of the agreements promises not to do those things, which would tend to indicate that they did occur. There must also be documents instances in the English records, I’d say, but only in cases where it got contested, suggesting that there might have been many more. You may say, of course, that as presentations before a court they’re hardly likely to be disinterested and unbiased; but if there was nothing to complain of there’d be no point raising a case. My standard reference for this in Catalonia is Thomas Bisson’s Tormented Voices, which is based on documents called querimoniae presented to the fourteenth-century count-kings of Aragón and Barcelona by groups of peasants, at a time when the kings and lords were taking different sides with respect to the peasantry as part of their own power struggles, but I’ll bet there’s English stuff too and it’s probably been looked at by Christopher Dyer. This is not to argue with Rackham, I should say: I think forest law might be a special case, because of the royal claim on forests and a thus more decentralised structure of enforcement. But where it was lord in a tower and adjacent village, there was just more scope for abuse.

  3. All the same, even though I’m shaken that Chris has abandoned the other transition (one of the things that really got my fascination with the early middle ages going), I do think its highly laudable that he did because it shows that even as one of the most senior medieval historians in the UK, he’s still a dynamic thinker. Because I can think of too many historians who, once they’d progressed far enough in their careers, became stuck in their ways and because they’d put too much sunk capital into a particular thesis wouldn’t budge. Some we’ve already discussed here, but Geoffrey Elton is probably one of the best examples – all the way until his death in 1994 he clung to what he’d argued back in 1953, that the modern English/ British state was created by Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s, despite the fact that medievalists pointed out that he’d misunderstood how medieval government worked (it was a lot more impersonal and bureaucratised than he gave it credit for), later modernists pointed out that he’d ignored fundamental administrative reforms in the 1690s, the 1780s and pretty much every decade after 1830, and his own doctoral students (including David Starkey) argued that the politics of the Tudor court worked differently to how he’d envisioned and that Henry VIII was in the driving seat after all. Chris Wickham is almost as much a pillar of the academic establishment now as Elton was back in the 1980s. Yet he’s still coming up with new things and revising and discarding his old ideas, which is true testament to him as a historian.

  4. Wish I’d been at the lecture, but the article rocked my world too. It’s one of those rare publications that puts individually well-known pieces of an argument together in a straightforward and elegant way, such that the end result is startlingly eye-opening. I suspect historians will be unpacking elements of Chris’s article for years to come (and it’s a shame he didn’t spin aspects of it out to a short book, which I’m sure he could have done). Also agreed that it’s refreshing to see someone so eminent be ready to take bold new steps and recognise progression from their earlier thinking.

    • Well, as briefly mentioned, there is an ‘economy book’, which Chris apparently thought I would already know about, in press, so it is not impossible that he has actually done what you wish!

      • Well that sounds good! I thought the Next Big Thing from Chris was a book about the eleventh-century Mediterranean.

  5. “the productive class, for the Middle Ages the peasantry, have more or less full direction of their own labour”: not in Open Field agriculture they didn’t. The Manor Court (peasants and the Lord of the Manor) decided what to grow where, when to sow, when to harvest. And, presumably decided on which dates the cattle would be admitted to the fallow, and let onto the stubble after the harvest was in or onto the aftermath once the hay was in. It presumably also decided when the hay could be mown: you couldn’t tolerate one peasant trampling another’s hay. After that the individual peasant would then have no say in the matter; the court had spoken. (Or so this amateur supposes.)

    It’s true that my man Rackham alludes to manor courts where the Lord was a notorious tyrant so that the peasants collectively might have little say at all; he also alludes to a Manor Court where the Lord was famously bullied by his peasants. But even in these extreme cases I can’t see how, once the decisions had been made, the individual peasants had “full direction of their own labour”. When your strips are due to be ploughed you’ve got to do it; you have to sow wheat or barley or beans as decided by the court.

    I wonder whether “the peasantry, have more or less full direction of their own labour” reveals a marxist cast of mind – that he means not individual peasants having the power of such direction, but rather that the collective will of the peasants as expressed by their collective power on the Manor Court has power of direction.

    Call me a cynic, but I suspect that would often end up with some small subset of the peasants holding sway – perhaps the richest, the most persuasive, the most competent, the noisiest, the most conniving, the most respected, the biggest and strongest and fittest, the most psychopathic … whatever. (All power tends to corrupt …)

    But in those parts of England farmed “in several” it’s easy to imagine that the peasant knows how many days of labour he owes the Lord, and how many pigs and bushels of oats, say, he must hand over in the autumn, but that otherwise he has discretion over virtually all his farming decisions.

    Farming “in several” also seems to me likely to promote local trading. Your farm has a good stream-side meadow: mine doesn’t. So I buy hay from you (whether with cash or by barter) rather than grow my own in less auspicious circumstances. Whereas in the Open Field system we each mow our designated number of strips in the same meadow. True, if my cows have died I might sell you my hay but that’s a bit different from the idea of routine trading to let each peasant best exploit the features of his land and his own skills.

    • It’s almost always fair to suggest that I approach things in a Marxist cast of mind! Exemplifying that, I do see what you mean, and I think it’s a real and important difference; but from the class structure point of view, the difference between individual landholder and a group of landholders doesn’t matter much as long as the group is also all peasants. I actually think it must have mattered to people’s lives quite a lot, but then one of the things I got into academia for was to have the direction of my own labour… As it is, I guess we have both also seen that ‘subset of peasants’ holding sway in our own Manor Courts.

      As to the last bit, I see the sense in it too. I think dispersal of habitat is the crucial factor here. The further apart a group of farms are from each other, the more autarkic they’ll have to be; the closer their neighbours, the more the scope for exchange and cooperation. But along with that it should be noted that that exchange doesn’t have to be market-based; one of the ways the open field system could work was that surpluses would be collectively banked and shared out according to need, which isn’t really barter – more like village-level National Insurance. Such systems usually had some scope for pressure to be exerted on those who received more than they contributed either to level up or to be excluded; at which point, of course, those families would be thrown either onto the market proper or into dependence on whoever the local lord of reference was.

      • Allan McKinley

        There’s one of the things I never understand about Marxist historical analysis: how can it not be important how much economic autonomy a community has, so long as they are all easily bundled into the category of peasants? Since economic autonomy predicts political autonomy, the reliance on a categorisation that covers everything from bonded labour to farmers with no lord below the king always seems to be a triumph of categorisation over analysis. For a start, it tends to discourage the important question of what these differences signified in favour of a focus on exaction and lordship (in this context I do happily note that Chris Wickham is an obvious exception here).

        • But for your normal Marxist, how much economic autonomy a community has is how you classify them as peasants! And I’m not sure economic autonomy does predict political autonomy in that analysis. The point of the ‘feudal mode’/’tributary mode’ is that the producing class have a high degree of autonomy over their productive process, but do not have (much) control over the disposal of what is produced. ‘Who controls the means of production’ and ‘who controls the producers’ can be questions with different answers. And if the productive class stops producing, the ruling class starve, which suggests that actually they have little or no economic autonomy. I think your complaint here actually shows the strength of the Marxist analysis, not the reverse!

          On the other hand, I would agree with you, as you know because we’ve talked about it in the past, that one of the problems with Chris’s analyses, at least his older ones, is that by setting the division between ‘peasant’ and ‘aristocrat’ at the methodologically reasonable position of actually labouring to produce food or not, firstly we have some very very poor aristocrats and secondly room for quite a large hierarchy of wealth and domination among the peasantry, the wealthiest of whom might be rather more comfortably off than the poorest aristocrats at times. And to that 1980s Chris would presumably have said that it’s the actual class position that matters for economic analysis, and 2000s me would have said, I’m not even sure that’s true (because I’m not actually a Marxist) but even if it be, it’s a useless perspective for social analysis. So maybe what we’re really arguing about, including dearieme, is social autonomy…

  6. I’m such a Chris Wickham fan. Too bad I’m on the wrong side of the ocean. Would absolutely love to hear him.

  7. Pingback: Women’s history in my alma mater | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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