Look over there! A free article!

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been a bit absent of recent days, nay, weeks, and I’m sorry. Even this is just a placeholder, to say that despite Action Short of Strike somehow I don’t seem to have more time but rather the reverse, that this semester was in theory lightly loaded but has still nearly done me in, and that the week before last I had the partial excuse of actually having been out picketing – I’m in that trail above somewhere, but I still don’t have my pension back somehow – and then this week we’ve had no home internet for a lot of the time, which now seems to be fixed – just in time for the work internet to break down, in fact! But I still haven’t actually written you a proper blog post (and I warn you, when I do, it will be gloomy, sorry; events have again taken over my program).

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

But, one small slice of good news first! You may remember I wrote an article a little while back about how all the scholarship that says early medieval crop yields were dismal is unfounded, that the maths on which that assessment rests was always meaninglessly bad but we can do better, and that all this means that founding a medieval progress narrative on technical progress in agriculture just doesn’t work and we need a better reason for any progress narratives we still want for the period? But perhaps you didn’t then immediately snap it up because it was only available behind a paywall? Well, it has emerged, and you can now download it for free by the good graces of the British Agricultural History Society, here:

Click to access 67_1_Jarrett.pdf

So, you know, by all means do that! It is probably still the most important thing I’ve written…

You don’t need the citation, probably, but just in case, it is: Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

8 responses to “Look over there! A free article!

  1. Thank you for this and further confirmation that “free” is not a 4-letter word. :)

    Way back when – talking mid-90’s here – when I was just getting started one of the early overviews I read was Duby’s, “France in the Middle Ages: 987-1460.” It didn’t take much further reading to realize that his use of evidence differed from that of others’, and was something that gave me some discomfort. I don’t recall the details today but remember when raising it there were some responses along the lines of, “He came from a different era where the ‘story’ part of history was more important and authors tended to fill in the blanks.”

    Not to say that what he did here was exactly blank-filling but as you demonstrate, inferences that are not completely defensible were arrived at.

    • I will speak in the defence of Duby to an extent. Duby is one of those figures we probably can’t have any more – Chris Wickham might be one, but I’m not sure who else – whose work was so fundamentally important, across several fields, that by the middle of his life he was the acknowledged master of most of them, and by the time he died he was the obstacle which had to be removed for any progress to be made. He really knew his materials and had spent his early career compelling everyone who read him to look at their own differently. However, in this particular area, he had a thesis, and he saw how to read his data in ways that supported it, and they don’t. I think he got that wrong; lots of people think he got his gender history, if not wrong, at least right only in unhelpful ways; and we’re still fighting down his idea of the feudal revolution; but I’d still be glad to be a tenth as influential as he was by being what we now think was wrong… What am I getting at? I guess it’s the thing about filling in blanks; I don’t think he did that, as you also perceive (though for all I know the France book is a counter-example; he did write some less good stuff*), and in fact I think his influence was at least in part that he showed people new ways of filling gaps with evidence; but he was led by his big ideas. At least he had some, though!

      * One story I heard about this, third-hand, was some trade book of his that annoyed a Castilian historian of peasant revolts named Reyna Pastor to the extent that, the next time she was in Paris, she sought Duby out in his office at the Collège de France and harangued him about it how it had set the field back ten years. And apparently Duby sat uncomfortably through her address and then said, “But Reyna: they gave me so much money to write that book…” Again, a failing I could cope with!

  2. Excellent news: this is a really important article that I have already cited several times, and that I steer students towards. Less excellent on the other stuff, though.

  3. “a Carolingian farmer could expect from about two to four”

    It’s terribly conceited of me to say so but if as a schoolboy I could see that such a claim had to be bollocks how on earth did the history profession fail to see it too? Did none of the buggers grow up in farming country? Are historians instinctively innumerate?

    • I have, on careless occasions, suggested the last as the best explanation to this. The amount of stuff I critique on the grounds of bad maths – and I no mathematician, really, but numerate at least – suggests to me that most historians just switch off when numbers are brought out and assume they must be right because they’re somehow science. A good drinking buddy of mine once introduced me to a group I’d just joined at a Kalamazoo wine reception with the phrase, “But Jon is not like other historians, because Jon… can count!” But honestly, I think it’s less that others can’t than that they don’t. All the which said: it’s difficult to imagine an empire running on Duby’s imagined yields, but it’s not impossible, as long as there actually was a surplus, and even he didn’t deny that (except, sorta kinda, at St-Germain des Prés, which is the worst argued of his examples). It would just have been benighted – which brings me to your other comment…

  4. Now I’ve read it: congratulations.

    I suppose the key point you make is the question of what the purpose of the record-keeping was. If it’s to calculate and record the annual surplus above that necessary to “keep the show on the road” then there’s no point recording the grain used to reward the peasants, which would presumably include grain for their own consumption plus that for part of the feeding of their/the estate’s oxen, horses, and chooks, nor the grain needed for the year’s sowing.

    Suppose you propose your 2.76 as a lower bound. Your upper bound presumably comes from the experimentalists: “yields of [up to] 27:1”. So you have a range that spans an order of magnitude. Aye, and my annual income lies between £10,000 and £100,000, a range unlikely to satisfy the reporting requirements of the gougers at His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

    It may violate the pieties of historians but that’s surely the sort of result that justifies the term Dark Ages. So little has survived in writing to record their lives that we are left largely in the dark. The scraps of writing available give less illumination than a flickering fluorescent tube.

    • I actually object less to the term ‘Dark Ages’ than do some of my generation of scholars, because I do accept the above point: it is a period about which we know much less than we do later periods (though not necessarily, contrary to what the Classicists often seem to suppose, earlier ones). But the two important responses are, firstly, that still, we don’t know nothing and history of this period is possible to do; and secondly, that just because we can’t see the subjects of study very well doesn’t mean that they themselves struggled along in darkness. The problem with the term ‘Dark Ages’ is that pretty much since it was invented it’s been used to decry the period as backward, fallen and, yes, benighted, literally in the dark. But it is only we who see through a glass darkly, not the people of the era. This is why many people, especially those who want to stress continuities with the Empire, prefer ‘Late Antique’ as a term for the period. As for me, the only period descriptor for the age in question I really object to is ‘Völkerwanderung’ or ‘Age of Migrations’, because migrations were by no means confined to that period…

      My stock corrective reference here is J. L. Nelson, “The Dark Ages” in History Workshop Journal Vol. 63 (Oxford 2007), pp. 191–201.

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