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
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…
… 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.
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…