Tag Archives: economics

An unobserved model of Byzantine economic development

After reimmersing myself in the literature of frontiers back in summer of 2017, I deduce from the blog stubs I left for myself that I must then have made a proper attempt to read Michael Hendy’s The Byzantine Monetary Economy.1 This is a monster tome which was supposed to be one of three and still contains a vast amount of material whose relevance to the exact topic is hard to see, but which also throws out important points and valuable insights as if they were incidental; it really needed an editor, but the legend goes that Hendy told Cambridge University Press that if they changed a word of it he’d cancel his contract with them, and somehow they wanted the book badly enough that this cowed them. So it went out as he wanted it even though it’s hard to understand, as a reader, why that was. In any case, despite being thirty-plus years old it’s still important and, I guess because I was by now writing up the work that would become my ‘Middle Byzantine Numismatics’, I set out to read it.2

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)

One of the major controversies in which Hendy repeatedly intervened during his rebarbative scholarly life was that of the importance of commerce to the Byzantine Empire, both economically and ideologically. Most people have been at least ready and in some cases downright keen to see the emperors as wanting to grow their commercial economy, even though they are sometimes hard-placed to explain why. For Hendy, however, this was anything but a given, and he saw the primary purpose of the coinage, for example, as to enable the tax system and the payment of the army, not to facilitate market exchange. Without wanting to spoil the book for you, he in fact went on to argue that the Byzantine Empire resisted commercialisation to the point that this became the reason that the Italian city-states with which they reluctantly dealt were able to out-compete them and drain the empire’s resource westwards.3 I do personally find him persuasive on this general score, I admit, but of course he was publishing under Thatcher and no-one was interested in anti-commercial scholarship as the 1980s boomed and academics were settling into how we justify the Great Divergence without having to give up our global predominance.

Nonetheless, he began, or nearly began, with a stab at economic modelling as applied to past societies that I think bears thinking with even now. It should be said that Hendy was just as prepared as his rivals to build elaborate hypotheses on shaky figures—he spent seventy pages here on reconstructing the Byzantine imperial budget, largely on the basis of eighteenth-century Ottoman figures, for example—but he obviously thought his were better, because he liked to attack others’ anyway. As witness, on p. 7 he has a set at someone who had applied Fisher’s Equation to the debasement of the Byzantine coinage in the eleventh century.4

Graphic description of Fisher's Equation of Monetary Quantity

If you’ve not met Fisher’s Equation, here is a summary representation, linked through to a pretty clear explanation; I would try myself, but this post is already pretty long and in-depth economics will not help…

Because he never wrote anything briefly when you would like him to have, I summarise how Hendy dealt with this rather than quote. Firstly he admitted that we probably do now have a decent grip on how that debasement unfolded, in which, ironically, he was probably wrong.5 He then admitted that in an economy where there was effectively no credit, and therefore no elasticity in the money supply, restricted as it was by available precious-metal, the application of Fisher ought if anything to be simpler than in a modern economy. But because the coinage was not, as he saw it, a commercial instrument and not made in quantities intended for it to be one, and was thus distributed not where trade required it but where soldiers and state operatives spent it; because transport was slow and its costs away from water very high, with consequent limits on what could be traded and how far; because, “the producer was almost invariably the distributor and/or the seller”; and because a really substantial part of the empire’s wealth was owned by the emperor, a few landed magnates and the Church, and thus immobilised…

“In the light of all these circumstances separately or in combination, and despite wide-ranging claims to the contrary, it is at least questionable whether the application of Fisher’s Equation has much, if any, relevance to the situation, and whether the pre-conditions necessary for its operation in any chronologically and geographically uniform, and in any detailed, fashion existed.”6

And you can see from that both why Hendy is little quoted, if much cited, and how his book ran to 773 pages. Even so, there are still bits one wants to quote on themes like this…

“These observations… are intended to suggest that it is on the one hand unacceptable for the numismatist, in accounting for some monetary phenomenon, to connect it with a contemporary ‘economic crisis’ (for the basic distinction between a financial and an economic crisis is one that is scarcely ever made), the existence of which is asserted through reference to another such assertion, which turns out to be based on a statement in George Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State – however distinguished that author, and however valuable that work. But they are also intended to suggest that it is on the other hand equally dangerous, that is dangerous enough to be unacceptable, for the numismatist, in accounting for some other monetary phenomenon, to insert it into a precise mathematical interrelationship evolved in the light of modern monetary theories and conditions. In general, if in no other sense, the result is thereby lent an entirely spurious air of precision and authority, and the nature and mode of operation of the ancient or mediaeval monetary economy involved is effectively never questioned.”7

You see what I mean by now, I guess. Part of me wants to yell “hurrah” and the rest is saying, “Wait, where was all this going again?” and “Could that maybe have been shorter, with fewer subclauses, or else in more than three sentences?” and unhelpfully unsympathetic things like that. I suppose that the general point here is that a model that is never tested against data or accurately set into context can never be proven or disproven.8 Of course, as I say, that didn’t stop Hendy coming up with his own, and what I want to do with the rest of this post is extend one of them for fun. You see, having got to that bit quoted above where he concluded that Fisher’s Equation wasn’t going to work here, he tries to explain the state’s resort to debasement by other means, for which the chief reason was its inability to extract very much money from its leading aristocrats. (He elsewhere argues that the wealthiest Byzantine magnates could severally possess enough to come close to equalling, in their total worth at least, the entire state budget, and while the comparison relies on the accuracy of his reconstructed budget, the figures for aristocratic wealth, at least, are contemporary ones.9) To their wealth, however, there was little alternative, given the probable insufficiency to make up the gap of what could be got from overtaxing the peasantry—which anyway tended simply to drive them into dependency upon those untouchable aristocrats instead.10 Sorry: once you start trying to think with Hendy it’s apparently difficult not to write like him. I’ll fight it.

This got me thinking, anyway, and what I thought is that it has implications which Hendy did not draw out. The tenth century was a time of recovery for the Byzantine Empire, territorially and militarily speaking, but by the end of it, nonetheless, the state was nearly bankrupt. (That is usually put down to Alexios Komnenos’s loss of Anatolia, but he inherited the financial situation, he didn’t create it.11) This would be exactly that distinction between economic and financial crisis Hendy was griping about, I guess. So, OK, let us suppose, as part of another of these untestable models, that, say, the top 5% of the Empire’s population was effectively immune from serious taxation, but that the rest was not. In that case, wealth that accrues to those possessors was effectively amortised from the state’s resources. If the economy grows in such a way that the aristocrats do well out of it, as it seems to have done in the Byzantine tenth century, the figures might work out in such a way that the population overall got richer but the state still got poorer. Now, obviously, one solution might indeed be to try and boost the commercial side of the economy and make up the difference on tolls and sales tax, but since the big aristocrats were essentially autarkic, or could be, that would not liquefy their wealth back to where the state could siphon it off again. So instead, the solution that probably works best for the state is actually to slow the economy down, to encourage deflation and to generally attack the value of wealth until the status differential between the aristocracy and the state has been restored. In that case, overtaxing would not be a desperate tactic to which a bankrupt government was forced despite the damage it must cause to the productive sector; that damage would actually be the point and overtaxing the whole strategy.

Base-silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5532

The expedient to which the state had been reduced: a supposedly silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B5532

In all of that case, then, it could be very much in the interests of a state constructed as we’ve just imagined to hurt its own economy, in order to be able to appropriate more of what was left. Perhaps that is in fact what Alexios I was doing when he reformed, causing what must have been great expense and considerable monetary shortage, that duff coinage!12 It’s obviously not a very capitalism-compatible model, but I think it’s where Hendy was pointing. That he didn’t get there may have as much to do with the arrangement of the book—in which, within six pages from here, he was having to say, “It may be thought that I have wandered far from the customary or even proper preserve of the numismatist, in discussing such questions as erosion, predominant forms of land-use, and twelfth- and thirteenth-century frontiers – and so, perhaps, I have…”—as any capitalist sympathies of his own.13 I’m not even sure it matters what he was ideologically, because what concerned him was how this other society had worked. The political climate of the age may be why no-one else picked up this idea, and maybe I would not have spotted it lurking before 2008 either. But what are we doing this study of the past for, if not to find alternate ways for human societies to do things? I’m not saying this one’s an obvious winner—though I often have to remind my students when they write about the inevitability of the Empire’s decline that it lasted more than a millennium, however variable its health in that time, so its ways of managing politics and change might still work out better than ours—but at least it is one of those alternatives that we are now, maybe, able to see and think with.


1. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985).

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2017), pp. 514–535, which uses Hendy quite a lot.

3. Hendy, Studies, pp. 221-251 on the economic bases and 554-602 for the trade situation.

4. Ibid., pp. 157-220 for the budgetary reconstruction and pp. 613-618 for a worked-out comparison to the Ottomans, on the basis of the same figures he used to construct the Byzantine budget, a circularity he doesn’t seem to have considered. The person who had misapplied Fisher’s Equation is not named by Hendy, but it’s pretty likely that he was referring to Cécile Morrisson, “La dévaluation de la monnaie byzantine au XIe siècle : essai d’interpretation” in Recherches sur le XIe siècle, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance 6 (Paris 1976), pp. 3–47, reprinted in eadem, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter IX, which does indeed apply Fisher to the eleventh-century valuation and which Morrisson was still defending as such an application in eadem, “Money, Coins and the Economy” in Paul Stephenson (ed.), The Byzantine World (London 2012), pp. 34–46 at p. 41 n. 33.

5. Hendy, Studies, p. 3; but Cécile Morrisson, J.-N. Barrandon and Jacques Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Jean-Pierre Callu, Barrandon, Poirier and R. Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris 1985), pp. 113–187, the same year demonstrated that the debasement had in fact begun at a lower level in the late tenth century and that the eleventh-century tipping point was an illusion presented by the written sources.

6. Hendy, Studies, p. 5.

7. Ibid. p. 7.

8. For me, the archetypal case of this is Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400)” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 70 (London 1980), pp. 101–125, which is so obviously and openly founded on no evidence except the author’s own expressed preconceptions that I don’t understand how it got published, let alone became a standard reference.

9. Hendy, Studies, pp. 201-220.

10. See Peter Frankopan, “Land and Power in the Middle and Late Period” in John F. Haldon (ed.), The Social History of Byzantium (Chichester 2009), pp. 112-142.

11. The politics are best retold in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-70, but on the finances specifically, see, with care, Cécile Morrisson, “La Logarikè : réforme monétaire et réforme fiscale sous Alexis Ier Comnène” in Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance Vol. 7 (Paris 1979), pp. 419-464, repr. in eadem, Monnaie et finances, chapter VI.

12. The more normal position on this is summarised, with references, by Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2011), pp. 56–71, online here, good work for an undergraduate journal. However, I disagree with him (and indeed Morrisson, “La Logarikè”, on which he rests here) that Alexios’s coin and tax reforms increased state revenue fourfold; I’ve run those numbers as best I can and I’m pretty sure that they come out meaning that he managed to return the levels of taxation to roughly pre-debasement levels by shifting them onto originally supplementary levies that were now paid in the new coin, rather than the debased valuations of the old core taxes; but the roughly thousand-fold increase in notional tax liability that resulted probably amounted to a slight decrease in overall revenue, that’s how bad things had got. So the reform’s purpose can’t have been just that, or you wouldn’t bother, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been deflationary as well as stabilising.

13. Hendy, Studies, p. 13.

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 3

A weekend full of reading lists and finishing small things didn’t leave time for blog, but this week I am back on it with the third part of the report from last year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. A great deal of this day was connected with the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, the same circumstance which led me to be taking up a post in his absence next year, which left me feeling simultaneously as if it would be tactless of me to be at those sessions and as if it would be rude of me not to. In the end, therefore, I let reverence of the greats and relevance to my interests guide me, and so the day began like this.

1014. The Merovingian Kingdoms: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, I

  • Yitzhak Hen, “Introduction”
  • Danuta Shanzer, “Avitus of Vienne: onwards and upwards”
  • Régine Le Jan, “Merovingian Elite in the 7th Century: competitive and cooperative logics”
  • Paul Fouracre, “Town and Country in Merovingian and Early Carolingian Hagiography”
  • Yitzhak Hen, “Response”
  • Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Professor Shanzer brought to the feast some findings from the work of the ninth-century bishop Agobard of Lyons, who was one of the very few people to use the work of Professor Shanzer’s and Professor Wood’s shared interest, the sixth-century Bishop Avitus of Vienne. Specifically, he uses a dialogue between Avitus and King Gundobad of Burgundy (473-516), a heretic (as Agobard saw it) for his Arian Christianity, and he uses it as part of an argument against the provisions of Burgundian law still being used in court in his day but it obviously existed, and would be fascinating to rediscover.1 Professor Le Jan used Dado of Rouen’s Life of Eligius to show what happened when seventh-century Frankish court politics booted people out to the provinces, where the oppositions often continued under the cladding of Church disputes.2 Eligius, a ‘Roman’, contended with the local Irish monastic Church supported by the Mayor of the Palace, but unlike some he was a good enough middleman to be able to maintain relations with the Mayor anyway, and Professor Le Jan suggested that people like this who could use friendship to bridge political gaps might be the ones to study to understand why the faction-riven Merovingian kingdoms didn’t just disintegrate in the seventh century. Lastly Paul drew attention to what he saw as a shift in the scenes of action in these very politicised Merovingian saints’ lives, in the early ones of which most significant things happen in towns and it’s when bishops leave the towns that they are vulnerable without their loyal flock, like so many mitred Red Riding Hoods except that the woodcutter is the one to watch out for, but in the later ones of which we move to an inhabitation of the landscape, with foundations in the wilderness, driving off of wild beasts (always male) and rural devils (often female), whether in South-West Germany, West Germany or Frisia.3 Christianity moved out to the countryside in the seventh century, if these texts are to be taken as reflective. I might also note that it apparently starts ignoring bishops in favour of monks, and obviously the phenomena are complex; Paul suggested they were the roots of a colonizing culture, but the old one that the Irish penitential exiles change the face of the early medieval Church could still emerge from this unbeaten, I think.4 Lastly, in his response Professor Hen went back to Professor Shanzer’s paper and noted firstly that Avitus doesn’t seem actually to call Gundobad himself an Arian, whether or not Agobard does, and secondly that unlike with most heretics, the Church almost always responded to Arians with debate, not suppression, which might be worth exploring.

After this, whether from embarrassment or not I don’t know, I reverted to my numismatic background for a session.

1143. Conceptualizing Value in Early Medieval Europe

  • Dagfinn Skre, “To Value and To Trade: two sides of the same coin”
  • Alessia Rovelli, “La monnaie comme mesure de la valeur et moyen d’échange dans l’Italie du haut moyen âge”, with “Summary” by Chris Wickham
  • Rory Naismith, “Pecuniary Profanities? Money, Ritual, and Value in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was probably something I had to go to anyway, wasn’t it? The value systems that support early medieval coinage are increasingly something I worry about, since it is used so differently to modern money that assumptions are too easily transported. Here were three other people worrying about it too. There is a sort of orthodoxy that money came into being as a means to make trade easier; Dr Skre had lately met the work of David Graeber that questions this and suggests that pre-monetary societies work differently, with exchange structured by obligations, not by value; as soon as you have value as an independent concept, as a quantity that can be owed, a line has been crossed that the introduction of money doesn’t alter.5 I’ve been agnostic about this so far but Dr Skre’s looking at the earliest Norwegian lawcodes for compensation tariffs, measured in coin-terms but obviously untradeable (since you can’t pass on someone’s eye, etc.) had me readier to believe it than I had been before. Dr Rovelli looked at late-eighth-century Italy, where a system based on Lombard gold was rapidly (as far as documents mentioning the things indicate) replaced by a system based on Carolingian silver but where, as she explained, finds of Carolingian coinage are really very rare compared to silver of other periods. Of the finds that there are, only Milan’s and Venice’s coinages seem to have travelled very far but even then there’s not much.6 As Chris Wickham put it in summary, this makes it seem like the Carolingian denier was much more a unit of account than anything people actually used. Rory then followed this up by looking at the question of hoards of coins used as ritual deposits, not just in pagan contexts but specifically as Christian alms in the context of the Forum Hoard which he and others have been investigating.7 Obviously these are not a priori economic uses, and Rory matched this with XRF analysis of the contemporary papal silver, whose content is pretty unvarying and often higher than its contemporaries. There’s no sign that stuff given to the Holy See was being melted down to make more coin, therefore, the spheres were kept separate. I have my reservations about XRF for trace elements even when done really well, to which we’ll return in a few posts’ time, but this had been done well and by this time what Rory was suggesting seemed to make sense anyway.

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010, a very special coin not just because of the price it made but because it is also an early medieval rebus. Can anyone see it?

    There was lots of discussion in this session. To my delight this included an orthodox Marxist (Señor de Carvalho Pachá of the previous day) insisting that value was capitalist and that Marx himself showed that Graeber is wrong, to which Dr Skre replied that in his materials value was created by comparison, not production, and when you’re dealing with compensation for offences against the person, that is a strong position I think. I suggested that precious-metal coin was all too high-value for us to talk about monetisation in any market sense anyway and that it must have all been ‘special’ in some way, to which Dr Skre again reasonably replied that coin is a lot lower-value than the masses of bullion people in his research area sometimes stashed or transacted. Morn Capper argued with Rory about whether the Forum Hoard could really be part of the English annual donation to the Holy See known as Peter’s Pence, since there isn’t that much of it from that point of view, and I don’t think this got settled. I then wound up arguing privately with Morn about the use of bronze coin; as she said, it does sometimes happen in Northern Europe, such as eighth-century Northumbria, but as I said it also happens anywhere Byzantine but, importantly, that doesn’t lead to the non-Byzantine areas in contact with those ones seeing low-value coin as solving a trade problem they’ve always had and adopting it straight away. The utility argument for money actually falls over badly when you place it in the early Middle Ages. This is one of the reasons I now contend for the value of the study of this period; it often breaks other people’s general theories quite badly!

So that was all really useful and left me with much to discuss with people over lunch, but for the rest of the day I was called back to the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre and the lauding and magnification of Ian Wood. The first of these sessions combined several loyalties, though, and I might have had to go anyway.

1214. Material Culture and Early Medieval History: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, III

  • Leslie Brubaker, “The Earliest Images of the Virgin Mary, East and West”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “Between Past and Future: Roman History in the Merovingian Kingdoms”
  • Richard Morris, “Landscape, Archaeology and the Coming of Christianity to Northern England”
  • Alan Thacker, “Response”
  • Leslie, at this point still in my chain of command, detected a difference between the way that the Virgin Mary was depicted in the early Christian world between Rome, where the popes were her biggest champions and between the fifth and eighth centuries settled into depicting her as the Queen of Heaven, in full golden royal attire. Perhaps naturally, in the East the emperors did not do this; Mary appeared enthroned with the Son, yes, but the royal attire stayed firmly on the imperial patrons. Helmut’s paper, despite his title, was more about the use of Roman law in the Merovingian kingdoms, focusing especially on the trial of Bishop Praetextatus by King Chilperic, because Chilperic condemned him according to the canon law of the Roman Church.8 Admittedly, Gregory of Tours claims that the king had added these laws to the canons himself, but the relevant law is in eleven manuscripts of the Theodosian Code and copied into five of the Breviary of Alaric and one of the Salic Law. The Roman past was still in use here, but not always by its self-appointed custodians. Richard Morris, picking up on another strand of Professor Wood’s work, looked at a group of Northumbrian monasteries of which several are only known through archæology, arguing that they were usually on previously-sacred sites but also represent a fair degree of royal initiative to establish Christianity so widely across a landscape so fast.9 The identity of the founders seems to me hard to demonstrate from archæology alone and the group didn’t seem to me to be too unified on a map, but the pagan precursors were well demonstrated. Lastly Alan drew the papers together with the thread of the Empire, one of the papal Marian churches being an imperial foundation in origin and these churches being the inspiration for at least some of the Northumbrian foundations like the (non-royal) Wearmouth-Jarrow. This session also achieved its purpose to an extent in that it provoked Professor Wood to draw further links between the papers, because as Alan had said, his work had enabled the spread of the session and its range of comparison in the first place.

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, showing where Leslie’s materials are coming from

Then tea and back to the theatre once more for the papers in this group which, for me at least, had promised the most fun of all.

1314. The Transformation of the Roman World: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, IV

  • Ralph Mathisen, “Pacu and his Brother: a Romano-Alamannic family from post-Roman Heidelberg”
  • Chris Wickham, “Information Exchange on the Papal Estates of Sicily, c. 600″
  • Ann Christys, “Was Spain Different in the Eighth Century?”
  • Stuart Airlie, “Response”
  • Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein

    Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein, not showing a great deal of Roman influence but of course also rather later than we’re talking about. Photo by Schristian Bickel – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3078209


    Professor Mathisen focused on a single monument from the Agri Decumates, an area supposedly utterly lost to Roman control thanks to the Alemans in the third-century crisis; the names on the monument seem to show an Aleman with Roman children and invokes Roman gods but does so in a way that no other monument Professor Mathisen knew does, with a double field across which the text runs in continuous lines. I remember this and it looks weird—sadly I can’t find an image [Edit: but Mark H. can, as witness his comment, thankyou!]—but it’s obviously not a rejection of Rome, and there are apparently plenty of other signs of continuity in this area once one accepts that as possible. Conquest obviously wasn’t simple here. Chris then looked at the letters of Pope Gregory I, and I will probably remember nothing from this conference as warmly as his five-minute précis of the kinds of things Gregory was writing to his distant estate managers on Sicily about (“Give me back the onyx vase I lent you”), but the point was the level of micro-management Gregory was attempting by letter, chasing up cases and missed payments, making appointments, policing rent levels and answering pleas from his people against his own officials. It seems difficult to believe that this could have worked, given his removal from actual events, but he obviously thought it could, and this should perhaps make us think about other people whose letters didn’t happen to be preserved because of being pope.10 Ann Christys then reminded us of the awkwardly large gap we have between the conquest of al-Andalus by Muslim forces in 711 and the first texts that talk about it, from the ninth and tenth centuries; the archæology doesn’t show very much break until then either, but the texts are very uninterested in the Spanish past except as it had led to their conquest, even though it was still the environment in which their co-religionists and even they lived.11 Stuart Airlie, in closing, firstly wished that Bede could have done the response instead of him, secondly wondered why we even still try to divide the medieval from the ancient worlds and thirdly pointed out quite how many different agents we have to envisage in the transformation of the session’s title, working perhaps not as disconnectedly as is often imagined but all in their own local contexts and to purposes that cannot have been very much aligned. Whether the detail can ever be resynthesized is an open question but he encouraged everybody to keep working on it anyway. In discussion, it was Chris’s paper that drew the most questions, not least Professor Wood sagely pointing out that for some reason Gregory doesn’t try to manage his estates in Provence the same way, and Chris pointing out to someone else I didn’t know that tax can’t have been be the supporting infrastructure because it wasn’t to Rome that tax went any more. There was certainly a lot to think about now that we had been presented with a mechanic of governance in such detail.

Now, this was the night of the dance, but as is sadly becoming a tradition I didn’t go; I don’t like the Students Union’s club space in which it is held, or the drink they are willing to supply to help you endure it. I hope I’m not just too old now. I think I reverted instead to an ancient Leeds tradition of drinking beer in the bar with every intent of going along to the dance ‘to look’ until it was late enough that it made no sense to do so. After all, the next day was show-time, as I will report in a couple of posts’ time.


1. The text is his Adversus legem Gundobadi, printed in L. van Acker (ed.), Agobardi Lugdunensis opera omnia Corpus Christianorum Continuatio mediaevalis 52 (Leuven 1981), pp. 19-28 (no. 2). As far as I know there’s no translation yet.

2. Here the text is the Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis, ed. by Wilhelm Levison in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (II), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902), pp. 663-742, transl. JoAnn McNamara in Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/eligius.asp, last modified October 1998 as of 1 September 2016.

3. Paul’s examples were the Passio Praeecti, well-known to him of course and full of buildings, the Lives of the Jura Fathers, with the landscape out to get the exiles, Jonas’s Vita Columbani, where the rustics are the saint’s biggest fans, and the Vita Sturmi, Vita Galli and Gesta Abbati Sancti Wandregisili for clearance and colonisation. You can find these respectively as Bruno Krusch (ed.), “Passio Praeiecti episcopi et martyris Arverni”, in Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (III), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) V (Hannover 1910), pp. 225-248, transl. in Paul Fouracre & Richad Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720 (Manchester 1996), pp. 254-300; François Martine (ed./transl.), Vita patrum jurensium : Vie des Pères du Jura. Introduction, texte critique, lexique, traduction et notes, Sources chrétiennes 142 (Paris 1968), English in Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian, Jeffrey Burton Russell and Charles Cummings (edd./transl.), The Lives of the Jura Fathers: The Life and Rule of the Holy Fathers Romanus, Lupicinus, and Eugendus, Abbots of the Monasteries in the Jura Mountains, with appendices, Avitus of Vienne, Letter XVIII to Viventiolus, and Eucherius of Lyon, The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaune, Saint Maurice and His Companions, and In Praise of the Desert, Cistercian Studies 178 (Kalamazoo 1999) or as Vivian, Vivian & Russell (transl.), Lives of the Jura Fathers (Collegeville MN 2000); Krusch (ed.), “Vitae Columbani abbatus et discipulorumque eius libri duo auctore Iona” in idem (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) III (Hannover 1902), pp. 1-156 at pp. 64-108, English in Dana C. Munro (transl.). “Life of St Columban, by the Monk Jonas” in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History Vol. II no. 7 (Philadelphia PA 1895); Eigil, Vita Sancti Sturmi, in Goegr Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) II (Hannover 1829), pp. 365-377, transl. C. H. Talbot in idem, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London 1954), pp. 181-204, repr. in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: saints and saints’ lives from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (University Park 1995), pp. 165-188; Maud Joynt (ed./transl.), The Life of St Gall (Burnham-on-Sea 1927); and F. Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1931), as far as I know no English version.

4. On which see for example Marie-Thérèse Flanagan, “The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity” in Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (edd.), Christianity in Ireland: revisiting the story (Blackrock 2002), pp. 30-43 (non vidi).

5. The book of Graeber’s I was told to read, long ago, is his Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York City 2001), but it seems that his Debt: the first 5000 years (Brooklyn NY 2011) is now the go-to. On this exact subject, though, compare William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge 2005), pp. 160-179.

6. This kind of detail of circulation can be got from Clemens Maria Haertle, Karolingische Münzfunde aus dem 9. Jahrhundert (Wien 1997), 2 vols.

7. See already R. Naismith, “Peter’s Pence and Before: Numismatic Links between Anglo-Saxon England and Rome” in Francesca Tinti (ed.), England and Rome in the early Middle Ages: pilgrimage, art, and politics (Turnhout 2014), pp. 217-254.

8. Described in Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1968), V.18; I’m sure you can find the Latin yourselves if you are such as need it.

9. Cited, and for good reason, was Ian N. Wood, “Monasteries and the Geography Of Power in the Age of Bede” in Northern History 45 (2008), pp. 11-26.

10. The letters are translated in John Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great, translated with an introduction and notes (Toronto 2004), 2 vols. There’re lots!

11. See now Nicola Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives (Abingdon: Routledge 2012).

Musing on connectivity and world systems apropos of T’ang China

[This post is one of two I wrote in November 2014 and then queued, expecting to be cutting down my backlog sooner than I actually have. I still think they’re worth posting, but they have ‘legacy issues’. I’ve gone through to try and update the references to what was then my current work and teaching but may have missed a few. Try to read it in the past!]

Birmingham, as you already know by now, is very keen on its global history. Even its medievalist historians are as many or more non-European in focus than European, so that while I was there I was essentially the only pre-900 European teaching cover outside of English, Drama and American and Canadian Studies and Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, where the Late Antique and Byzantine people hang out. What this means, apart from anything else, is that the medieval outline courses have quite a spread, and thus it was that in November and December I found myself teaching China and the Silk Roads for the first time. As you can imagine this took a bit of a run-up, and in that run-up I was reading, among other things, Samuel Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history. Now this is a book that would make many a historian fairly sceptical about world history, although it was apparently written as a riposte to another book even more of that kind.1 It is also, however, very clever, and it made me think.

Cover of Samuel Adshead's T'ang China: the rise of the East in World History (London 2004)

Cover of Samuel Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in World History (London 2004)

First the scepticism, just to get that out of the way. Using what seems to be a quite old-fashioned narrative of political coups and the successes and failures of the succession of Chinese rulers with achieving peace or reform,2 the book attempts to make the case that T’ang China was the leading world power in its day, and it is deliberately and extensively comparative (including, in the introduction, to the modern USA). The terms of this assessment are unapologetically Whiggish: the ultimate goal is a developed state apparatus and national consciousness and this is assumed good for so much of the book that it makes my hippy protestor personality quite cross; the whole thing is an assessment of various states against an unquestioned standard of patriotic liberal bureaucracy and commendation of their progress towards that or condemnation for their inability to do so. And yet even within this the cleverness: why is that the good? Because it enabled peace, Adshead at one point implies as if it’s self-evident, and to maintain that peace required a well-resourced and flexible state.3 Well, we could argue about that, but it’s a case, and he doesn’t require this state to be unified: as he sees it some decentralised configurations of both China and the comparators worked better.4 His criteria for comparison are very carefully chosen, though possibly also too broad to be useful and much narrower ones seem mainly to be deployed for most of the detailed analysis. I will write more about this, but just now it’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to question the idea of a world system on which the whole thing rests.

Map of the 8th-century world from Wikimedia Commons

The world we’re considering as a system, in a not-too-bad map of the 8th-century situation from Wikimedia Commons; click through to their big version. The Maori probably shouldn’t be in New Zealand yet, everything in Africa or the Caucasus really massively overstates our knowledge, but it gets the general idea across. Mostly, note how far even this expanded China is from everything else…

Again, this is certainly something Adshead has thought about; in fact, the whole first chapter is a point-by-point takedown of the idea of world system as propounded by his opponent and its substitution with a subtler, better-featured one that accommodates more variety and different causal factors. But it still rests on the idea that everywhere was connected; otherwise, we are just holding these various powers up to an artificial standard, since how can their competition be historical if the competitors knew nothing about each other? To get round this, Adshead firstly makes great use of the power of coincidence, rises and falls and ideas whose time comes in two or more places in roughly the same era, and indeed invokes Kondratieff-like ideas of cyclical social development without ever explicitly identifying his thoughts with them (and indeed lampooning his opponent for doing so too much).5 But he also ramps up every possible mention of contact and connection, often to a quite improbable degree: whether or not the various Christian communities that left the Byzantine Empire eastwards after Chalcedon can all be classed as Nestorian (hint: they cannot) they can only really have constituted a persistent cultural network if they remained connected, which there is no hint that they did. And so on. (I don’t honestly see why Adshead uses the term ‘Nestorian’ at all, except that it is widely done; he would get as much mileage and more accuracy just from ‘Christian’.)

The famous 'Nestorian Stele', a Christian monument of 781 found in the seventeenth century at Daqin

For example, here is the famous ‘Nestorian Stele’, a Christian monument of A. D. 781 found in the sixteenth century at Daqin. Christian it plainly is, albeit customised to be understandable in Buddhist or Taoist and even Manichæan terms; but what makes it Nestorian? It doesn’t actually mention, you know, Nestorius, and the Trinity is not discussed in the kind of detail that would let one assign its author to a Christological position. It is obviously linked to Syria: not only does it say that’s where its ‘Illustrious Religion’ came from (though excitingly it references Xuanzang for details of what and where Syria actually was, quite fantastic) but it is also lettered down the sides in Syriac. But it’s not like Nestorians was the only Christians ever to leave Syria…

Adshead is far from alone in this, of course; it’s the core assumption of global history that there is a world in the first place, rather than many different areas joined only by mostly-uncrossed oceans, and it’s one of the problems in conceptualising a Global Middle Ages, as we’ve seen, that the Middle Ages doesn’t easily fit that requirement. But the problem of exaggerating contact goes on at a smaller level: it is for example the core of the argument between scholars like Michael McCormick, arguing that the early medieval economy was articulated by long-distance trade and its development, and Chris Wickham arguing that long-distance trade was always economically marginal and that long-range connections are not historically causative in the early Middle Ages.6 McCormick arguably ignores agriculture, Chris arguably downplays plague to non-existence, but the problem is still at the point of quantifying connection, because arguably we can’t.

The sixth-century sarcophagus of Yu Hong from Jinyuan in Shanxi province

An example of connection which many would find inarguable, the sixth-century sarcophagus of Yu Hong from Jinyuan in Shanxi province, evidence because of how extremely Persian its hunting scenes look. But we’ve seen that somewhere else, no? And so what is the connection, what was moving? People, carpets, metalwork? And how far, and over how long? Had anyone involved in this actually been to Persia? It is not established

When I find myself in these arguments, which given my collaboration with Rebecca Darley I tend to, I am mostly ready to accept the minimalist point of view, though I will sometimes attempt the saving argument that long-distance trade may have been marginal but it really mattered to those in political charge.7 The trouble with that is that it only works where those rulers are very small-scale, otherwise landed revenue and the proceeds of office far escape whatever political leverage the monopoly on shiny things from abroad can give such people, and it’s telling that I mainly instance sixth-century Western Britain because nothing larger would work.8 But occasionally I remember an argument that Mark Blackburn, may he rest kindly, used to use about tenth-century England and Scandinavia.

Anglo-Saxon coins on display in Stockholm Royal Armouries Museum

Anglo-Saxon coins on display in Stockholm Royal Armouries Museum, including a really lovely Æthelred II ‘Lamb of God’ type, but I digress, dear reader, I digress…

You may know that there are vast amounts of Anglo-Saxon coin of the reigns of Æthelred the Unready and Cnut in Scandinavia, which is traditionally associated with the fantastic amount of Danegeld paid to Viking seamen during those reigns.9 You may also know that by that time the English coinage was periodically renewed, so that we have quite a tight chronology for its various issues. That means that we ought to expect that the preservation in Scandinavia would privilege the issues in circulation when the Danegelds were taken but actually they don’t, there is no difference in those years’ coins’ presence in the hoards. Mark saw no other explanation than that there was enough other traffic of coin across the North Sea, despite the political climate, that the huge Danegelds, which it used to be argued must have stretched the country’s resources to its limit, don’t even register in the greater flood.10 And presumably it wasn’t either one-way or just Scandinavia, but anywhere else that Anglo-Saxon coins wound up coming into kingdoms, they would have been melted down and restruck as local issues so we just don’t see it. And sometimes I wonder how true that could be in other spheres, with perishable or consumable goods, labour rather than goods travelling, and so on.

Map of the various Silk Routes

The trouble with mapping disconnection is that it looks so much like connection until you realise how few people if any we can show ever went the full length of that long red line

For my immediate purposes, however, the question is probably one of scale. (Isn’t everything?11) England to Denmark is not very far. Byzantium to China was. If lots travelled the short distance, it does not magically make those long distances shorter. Given that we now pluralise Silk Roads precisely because what was once seen as an arterial routeway is now seen as a mostly-contiguous series of shorter-range connections along the whole of which almost no-one probably ever travelled, this seems a very germane concern. But it does great damage to the idea of a world system (or, in Adshead’s initially preferred terminology, a world order) if contact over that distance was attenuated. You can go and say things like:

“Though ongoing world institutions, and with them world history, only began in the thirteenth century, they were preceded by temporary, non-enduring world institutions whose coexistence created world orders… One such institution was T’ang cosmopolitanism: the intense interest in things and people foreign exhibited by the court at Chang’an, which, along with the attractions of China, brought an unprecedented influx of non-Chinese to the Middle Kingdom, both from other parts of East Asia and from Western Eurasia…. It was rooted in the intellectual register but it had repercussions in politics, economics and society. It was accompanied by military interventions by Chinese forces in territories beyond East Asia: in northern India, Persia, Transoxiana, the Himalayan interface, and parts of Southeast Asia still more Indianized than Sinified. Chinese consumer goods, notably ceramics, reached the eastern coast of Black Africa [sic!]. Chinese accidental voyagers may have travelled along the Kurosiwo current via the Aleutians and the north Pacific drift to the pre-Columbian America, though no Chinese Columbus returned to report on the Inside Passage from Juneau to Seattle. T’ang cosmopolitanism reached out to the world to an extent only paralleled in Chinese history by what has been happening in post-Maoist China….”12

… it does mean that the critical historian is entitled to ask, “Maybe, but what difference did it make?” I am already getting the idea here that China being outward-looking was quite a big deal when viewed with Sinological hindsight, not least because of the implication that if the centre could cross its own national borders then, like al-Andalus, it was probably in good enough shape to actually exert itself there for once, but because so much of its subsequent history has been seen as a defence of Chineseness against any suggestion that anything foreign could be as good or beneficial, an assumption which when challenged by the colonial powers finally brought down much of what such historians recognise as China.13 But really, if all but a tiny fraction of populations in any of the polities involved did not know that these other places and peoples existed, had never seen goods or people from them and would certainly never go there, then the places that they had heard of and did know from such travel of persons or objects must be a whole order of magnitude more likely to have any impact upon them. Adshead’s claim for the T’ang, once explored, is no more than that, for a very short time during their wider ascendancy, they pushed Chinese influence out far enough to actually touch several parts of the rest of the world. I don’t dispute (all of) the contacts, but those contacts were nonetheless very weak, surely too weak to bear the weight of a world order in which what any one part did might affect some or all of the others. What Adshead seems to mean by world order is actually precedence, but again, although this may be European isolation from the East speaking, the implied competition seems like one that the competitors hardly knew existed, let alone put any interest into.


1. S. A. M. Adshead, T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history (London 2004), written mostly vs. Andre Gunder Frank, Re-Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley 1998).

2. My first reading for this course was Bodo Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History: from ancient times to the Revolution of 1912, transl. Mary Whittall (London 1975), because I happened to have bought it on sight in 2008 because of suspecting I might some day have to teach China and now that day had come, and although obviously since Adshead has more detail since he is covering in a book what Wiethoff covered in part of a chapter, the basic narrative of rise, contacts, barbarian pressure and civil disconnection, fall and coups is not substantially different. I don’t know if a newer story is told by anyone else, however.

3. Adshead, T’ang China, p. 51:

“Ennin portrays a well-ordered bureaucratic state: permits and permissions were required, but officials were reasonable and courteous if hidebound by red tape. China was definitely one country, though the northeast enjoyed devolution. There was little endemic social violence from bandits or local bosses and, until the transient persecution of Buddhism and foreign religions in 845, no state-induced totalitarian violence… China was still a superpower. All in all, by the middle of the ninth century the political system had reached a new equilibrium. Contracted in space but expanded in sophistication, it still provided the most advanced government in the world.”

4. Ibid., pp. 52-55, culminating in p. 55:

“Here, though the comparison is with China, it is not thereby assumed that the Chinese ideal of a single, bureaucratic imperial state is the criterion of political progress in all circumstances. More pluralistic paths of development may be more in accordance with the propensities of other milieus or with the imperatives of modernity.”

5. Ibid., p. 19: “Here, it may be observed that Frank goes beyond the views of Kondratieff himself….”

6. Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy: communications and commerce AD 300-900; Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005).

7. This is a very Western materialist perspective of course, basing kingship’s power on its ability to control a flow of shiny things to its followers, but better scholars than me have used it, including Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 311-319 & 357-368 or Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

8. Tintagel is the key here: huge by sub-Roman British standards, with connections stretched over hundreds of miles, and about the size and importance of any ruinous caravanserai in Arabia or hillfort in Eastern Europe. Still cool though; see Charles Thomas, Tintagel, Arthur and Archaeology (London 1993) and now Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey & Christopher Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (London 2007).

9. See D. M. Metcalf, “Large Danegelds in Relation to War and Kingship: their implications for monetary history, and some numismatic evidence” in Sonia Chadwick Hawkes (ed.), Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1989), pp. 179-189.

10. Annoyingly, I don’t think Mark actually published this, but some hints towards it can be found in D. M. Metcalf, “The Fall and Rise of the Danelaw Connection, the Export of English Coins to the Northern Lands, and the Tributes of 991 and 994” in Kenneth Jonsson and Britta Malmer (edd.), Sigtuna Papers (Stockholm 1990), pp. 213–223.

11. Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

12. Adshead, T’ang China, p. xiii.

13. I get my perspective on al-Andalus here from Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991); for China I’m still working with Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History, esp. pp. 71-167.

Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!


1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!

Paying the pipe-maker

Here’s a probably-unfinished thought arising from something I read very quickly a while ago, always a good basis for a blog post surely. The thing was a book chapter by C. A. Bayly on the symbolism of cloth in British India and why it could and did never become a simple commodity due to its numerous layers of cultural meaning.1 That bit’s all interesting but the bit that set me thinking was an explanation of the political economy of the Mughal court. All I really know about the Mughal court is its money, for old professional reasons, and so its ideology is strange to me, and may also seem so to you if you are as I am an Occidental capitalist running-dog:

The major institution that mediated between commoditzation and singularization was the office of the king, whether this be construed as the dominant caste brotherhood within the village or the emperor of all India. The duty of the king was to consume the wares of his subjects and to make his court the great engine of redistribution. In this way, the needs of the particularistic local community producing a good could be balanced with the needs of the polity as a whole. The propagation of diversity in patterns of consumption – of cloths, fruits, spices, grains – was the physical manifestation of the King’s classic role as arbiter between the castes. And it was changes in royal consumption, or the consumption of those aspiring to local political dominance, that provided the Indian economy with the dynamism Bouglé thought it lacked.2

The implications of this are quite interesting if you pull them out from a westerly direction. The idea that nobody owes anyone else a living is explicitly contraverted here: in a properly-ordered polity by this scheme, everybody should have a living and so it’s the responsibility of the ruler to provide the demands that people are equipped to supply, by reason of their skills or the natural resources of their communities and so on. There must be a farther edge at which it ceases to apply, a commodity one could produce that even despite the Mughal court’s love of novelties (which Bayly explains as assisting to demonstrate the infinite variety of the emperor’s dominions,3 an argument to which my own of earlier about Charles the Bald and Judas makes me sympathetic) the emperors would find too silly or trivial to establish a demand for, and as them so much more so the local élites (them again). But in its basic form this balanced set-up has a certain logic to it that is neither socialist nor capitalist (though the idea that the state should find employment for people when no-one else can is obviously not unrelated).

A diplomatic guest being received at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar

A diplomatic guest being received at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, amid some pretty snazzy fabrics. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Naturally enough, perhaps, I then thought of early medieval courts, which we are also now taught to see as centres of consumption and patronage for craftsmen and merchants.4 This is usually fairly pragmatic: by aggregating to itself the monopoly on the distribution of luxuries and prestige goods, the ruling class make themselves indispensable to those who wish to acquire the kind of status that those goods bring. (That is of course not the only kind of status at these courts, as Bede’s stories about bishops giving away precious-metal gifts to the poor or Columbanus’s harangues of profligate and polygamous Frankish monarchs amply demonstrate.) One gets this status because one can spend it, it’s Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic capital. And even with Bayly’s picture on India that’s not missing: the king gets great status from being able to make gifts, especially in cloth since in that inheres the royal persona, with which the recipient can join for a while.5 But what’s also sticking with me is the idea that the patron is obligated to support the producer. It puts me in mind of the Anglo-Saxon laws that gather the legal protection of merchants to the king, usually assumed to be because no-one else will do it since, as travellers, they lack a nearby source of support from kindred and clientage groups.6 And of course the king needs the merchants, for all the reasons above, and he also needs the craftsmen, and it’s advantageous to him to have some reason to get them to court where he can control what they make for whom.

Wayland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket

One craftsman who did not get his due from the royal court, Wayland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket

So that system has its own logic and it doesn’t need this social ethic to make it run. But I am, all the same, wondering if it has room for that ethic anyway. Once the king acknowledges that these people are his responsibility in some way, it’s obviously to be expected that they would appeal to him. But had that been the case for longer? If one learnt to make really intricate brooches or whatever, was one not already making one’s support the business of the kind of élites who could get the stuff with which you could work? Is not, then, to learn such a skill to expect élite support? Is a ruler of this period obliged to maintain crafstmen and other sorts of specialist (ritual, military…) not just because he needs them and can use them but because, once they have specialised, he is the only support they have?

Swadeshi khadi cloth

Swadeshi khadi cloth, now available online! (What does that do to its ethics?)

There’s several reasons why this comparison fails in places, I think. Firstly the goldsmiths and whatever don’t easily fit next to Indian weavers, because ultimately (one of the points of Bayly’s article, which is centrally about the swadeshi campaign to revert to home-made cloths in the face of British imports) any household with access to the raw material, which you can grow or raise, could make cloth, albeit not necessarily fine cloth (silk weaving might therefore still work) but not everyone could get enough gold to make a sword pommel. Secondly, Mughal India was socially more articulated and was running at least two competing religions and there were lots more ringfenced zones in its market economy where specialism could flourish than in early medieval Britain, for example, where élite households and big churches were most of it. The idea of being a professional weaver in Anglo-Saxon England is already pretty odd, let alone there being extensive caste prescriptions about their status. There are also places I don’t want to take it, one being that many an early medieval ruler also had similar obligations of protection to Jews, who do not contribute to his prestige and importance in so direct an economic way,7 and the other being the modern parallel invoked by the title, that of the higher education ‘industry’ in which because we can produce something, whose significance is not solely or even basically economic, and wish to continue doing so, we strongly assert (but struggle to demonstrate) the necessity of the goods we can provide to society.8 As with many an anthropological comparison thinking with other people’s assumptions invites us to check our own. But as I say, those would be thoughts for another post and I find the medieval relevance, even if I had to struggle to get it, interesting enough.


1. C. A. Bayly, “The origins of swadeshi (home industry): cloth and Indian society, 1700-1930” in Arjun A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), pp. 285-321.

2. Ibid. p. 298; see also p. 302.

3. Ibid. p. 305.

4. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38, provides a punchy system statement; more broadly see Catherine Cubitt (ed.), Court Culture in the Early Middle Ages: the Proceedings of the first Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 3 (Turnhout 2003).

5. Bayly, “Origins”, pp. 297-300.

6. This is actually harder to instance than I expected: none of the cites used by Henry Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd edn. (London 1991), pp. 101-103, actually deal with royal protection of traders, rather than what happens to traders who don’t follow procedure, except III Edgar, available in Agnes Jane Robertson (transl.), The Laws of the Kings of England From Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge 1925), and some would tell us that Edgar’s world was a different one (though see the next post!) All the same, I hope this is a defensible thing to say…

7. I’ve not really found anything good on the position of Jews in early medieval society; the literature about Jews tends to get going once society starts persecuting them and they start to appear in their own sources. Before the eleventh century this is hard to find, and the opposite easier. We’ve already seen that Jews were not so mistrusted that they couldn’t be used as envoys to a king, and I can also point you to a charter in which two Jewish landowners (yes) come to Louis the Pious to complain that they can’t get justice at the local mallus; it is Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, aug. É. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach, A. Molinier, ed. M. E. Dulaurier (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), 12 vols, II, Preuves : chartes et documents, no. 97.

8. Necessity is of course the wrong metric; we should be arguing for desirability, which is why the powers-that-be have stuck us with the former in the form of ‘impact’; we can’t prove it so they don’t have to pay us for it… More on this in due course.

On the economics of tenth-century mills

Every now and then I write a post for this blog that is probably really a paper. Occasionally this is deliberate, because I’m having trouble working something out and I try and explain it to an imagined audience. All of those posts are still in the queue, which is now so long that the paper may be finished before they are… but this one, like one or two others, I started writing merely to get something off my chest that I hoped might be interesting and then by the end it’s nearly three thousand words and has enough footnotes for a centipede. Were it not that a lot of these posts start as me trying to show someone wrong about something, it’d be a great way to carry out scholarship. But maybe that doesn’t stop it being a viable paper, and it’s been some time since I wrote about my actual research area, so, hey: let’s ask a Marxist question about mills in early medieval Catalonia! That question is, of course: who controls the means of production? There is an accepted answer about this and I’m not sure it’s quite right. Interest piqued? The rest is behind the cut below. If not, here is that really cool mill location I wrote about before once more, why not look at that instead?

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Continue reading

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.


1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a better basis for being right about what he says than I do except on a very few topics. But, if while chomping avidly through Framing The Early Middle Ages I had stumbled on such things where I know enough to wonder about alternatives, you understand, and had thought about it a bit and still not quite resolved them, they would be these.

Supply and Demand

This has been on my mind a bit lately because of arguing with both Guy Halsall and Chris about the effect of climate change on the medieval economy. I, seeing as has Fredric Cheyette (so I have good company) that the new climate data on the Medieval Climatic Anomaly makes the rise in temperature up to and beyond the year 1000 ever more evident, have assumed that this must have meant more surplus, thus more resource for those able to appropriate surplus, and thus simultaneously more options on how to spend for those people and also more competition for them, as suddenly extra people can get into the game. I actually think this still floats, but there is an important point which Chris’s work should have warned me about, that being that this surplus only grows if someone wants it; otherwise, as Chris has legendarily put it, the peasants would just eat more and work less.1 I think we could find entrepreneurial peasants, here and there, but the point needs defending at least. I have been thinking purely in terms of supply; Chris, arguably, has considered demand far far more important.

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, Chris puts quite a lot of weight in Framing on the breakdown of economic systems based on the Roman market economy; with no supply, the demand for either basic substances (or, if you’re instead Guy Halsall, for example, and consider luxury trade anything more than marginal, luxuries that you as local leader deploy to maintain your position) can’t be met, and anyone with importance who wants to keep it has to reconfigure it hugely.2 The collapse, for both Chris and Guy, is supply-driven. On the other hand, when the economy recovers and complex polities are built again, it’s not because of a change in supply, for Chris, it’s because the polities themselves drive the economy. He can do this without being inconsistent because for him the Roman economy was also driven by the state, so the supply that collapses was created by a previous demand, and I see the point but nonetheless there’s a chicken-and-egg problem at the recovery end of the process; do the aristocrats see that the land could grow more, and work out how to make peasants do that, or do they see rich peasants and think, how can I use that? Surely the latter, since Chris himself argues that agronomy was not the pursuit of more than a slightly odd subset of the Roman élite.3 So, surely that’s supply-led not demand-led. I think there may be scope for argument here.

Warleadership as a non-material resource

More briefly, because it implicates less of my own thinking: in Chapter 6 of Framing, Chris discusses the resources available to rulers of a ‘tribal’ polity, or rather, of tribal polities in the process of becoming what he terms states.4 (Magistra has covered all this terminology-chopping, which is necessary and substantive but which I don’t want to repeat, better than I am therefore going to.) These include trade tolls, for some, tribute of course, a marginal amount of judicial income and revenue from landownership. He also mentions booty taken in war but thinks this too is marginal. Well, OK, yes, it probably is, but there was something important about being able to get hundreds of men to come on campaign with you anyway, especially if they fed themselves; one could even say that since they were then using their surplus to your greater cause, this is a material income, but I’m more interested in the non-material side, the authority that ruler could claim and deploy. I think this is important because it distinguishes between polities that Chris classes as similar, Wales, Ireland, Norway or Frisia, Denmark and the non-Mercian English kingdoms. It’s always hard to measure army sizes, we know this (again it is useful to put Chris and Guy together here, as they are once again mostly in agreement but interested in different things), but Norway seems to have had quite a lot of its population militarised at some points, and sometimes Wales could raise armies that can take on Northumbria, and then ever after it could not.5 Frisia didn’t really have any army at all that we know of; that seems to be something its kings didn’t get to do, perhaps because wealth was so distributed there via trade. Denmark absolutely did, however. And I would also add in the Picts, and in fact any militarised group from outside the Empire; they didn’t have much political complexity, they may not even have had any kind of stable rulership, but they could raise enough men in arms to take on the Roman Empire’s local manifestations. I don’t think this was economically important, myself, but I think that a king who could lead an army of maybe a thousand or even five thousand men in times of real need, and even more so if not times of real need, was playing in a different league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger areas (because he presumably called troops from them). It’s not negligible just because he didn’t increase his personal resources from it. (And after all, the Carolingians found a way to turn that obligation into money.6) That’s an argument I could have, too.

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

The sections of Framing on sub-Roman Britain are probably the most provocative bits, because it is certainly true that often the outsider sees most of the game; few people are better-placed than Chris to spot what looks odd and, well, insular, about a national scholarship.7 Using this perspective as leverage, he argues for a rapid and almost total breakdown of political organisation in Britain, down to tiny levels, 100-hide and 300-hide units, that then recombine. I am fine with this for the becoming-English lowlands, and Chris argues therefore that British polities there must have been equally tiny or the English could have never got established, and that by extension this must apply to the more outlying British polities. I don’t like this quite so well. The outlying ones, profiting from the fact that they still had a Roman-facing seaboard in some sense, were for a while richer than the lowland zones, most would agree; Tintagel and Dinas Powys and Dumbarton may have been tiny-grade compared to a Continental aristocracy, but in their context they were major players (Dinas less so, but stay with me).8 Surely these should have started large (if not sophisticated) and broken down, not collapsed into fragments and been reassembled? They were far enough from the eastern seaboard that changes there and next-door to Neustria would be beyond their reach, but the same is also true in reverse, the tiny polities of the incipient North Sea zone are far from the Atlantic trade-routes and the polities that profit from them. It’s only once the English kingdoms had built up a bit, at which point they had the North Sea working for them and could thus start to become rich themselves while the Mediterranean links were finally dying out for the British, that the once-big-kingdoms of the now-Welsh were directly opposed to the English.9 Once that began, too, it’s not clear in all cases that the English were superior; Urien of Rheged managed to pen the king of Bernicia up on an island off the coast, for example, that Anglian kingdom effectively reduced briefly to a few acres. Bernicia was no match for the hegemony Rheged briefly had. Was it a stable unit, no, but neither was Bernicia. Rheged there marched with several other kingdoms, so there was assemblage going on, but do the blocks here have to have been tiny? It retained a bishopric, after all.10 I see no need for the tiny-then-bigger pattern to be true for the whole island.

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent; note the big divisions west versus the small chopped-up ones east

I would go further, and say that one model won’t do here anyway, even in the lowland zones. Every piece of local comparative work that gets done in England seems to stress variation. East Kent did not form like West Kent; one hundred in Suffolk is not like another… it goes on and on.11 Some of these places do seem to see new settlement that becomes determinant of their identity, but we can think of other ways too. The written sources even nudge at them a little bit. Mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that such and such a royal line arrived in three ships and defeated the Britons who resisted their arrival at a place that’s now named after them. This is self-evidently a trope but it at least tells us that the royal line later on had a tradition that they’d come from outside. The sources, such as they are, don’t do this for Bernicia, just saying that Ida took the kingdom, and I’m not the first person to use this and the archæology to suggest that Bernicia, which after all is an Anglian kingdom with a Celtic name, was more of a takeover by its own military (who presumably identified as Anglians, however many things that might actually have meant in terms of extraction or origin) than a settlement.12 Not exactly lowland, you may say, and fair enough but there are similar things that can be said about London and maybe Lincoln. With Lincoln it’s just an argument based on a series of kings of Lindsey with apparently-British names but with London, where there is confusing archæology and no textual evidence of any kind between 457 and 600, the argument is based on a ring of early place-names, all at places that were never very large (Braughing, Bengeo, Mimms, Yeading, Tottenham, Twickenham, Ealing, Harrow and so on), more or less circling the town, which the person who was making this argument, Keith Bailey, suggested might show an orchestrated establishment of settlers as a kind of perimeter defence. That then implies some unit of a considerable size, presumably centred on the old Roman city, but then so does the term Middlesex, which was already not a kingdom or a recognisable people (at least not one that Bede thought worth mentioning) by 600, because by then London was in Essex and the King of Kent held property in it.13 But it obviously had been, or there’d be no name.

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period, from Keith Bailey's "The Middle Angles"

So, in this paradigm, small-scale settlement and large political units might go together, albeit, I will admit, not for very long. But that’s what I’m talking about: British breakdown and Anglo-Saxon build-up at the same time. I use those ethnicity terms as if they meant something, but with this kind of process going on I doubt any outsider would have been able to tell the difference between British and English in areas like this; it would be a political affiliation, based perhaps on what king you did military service for, something which you might be able to change a few times if you were clever. I suspect that concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders, who would need it to justify their position, than the rank and file, until one such ethnicity became clearly dominant in an area and it was necessary to belong. Anyway: this is anything but socio-economic analysis, I realise, and perhaps to make such comment is only to recognise that Chris wasn’t, despite the size of the book, trying to solve the entire problem of the Transformation of the Roman World (as you might call it) in one go. He also invites the reader to consider, before really getting going, whether any quarrels they might have would damage the argument of the book.14 I don’t pretend that I’ve raised any such issues (and if I thought I had such issues to raise, I wouldn’t do it via blog-posts). It’s just some extra possibilities that might add a few spots of seasoning to a thoroughly nourishing book. Some dessert will follow in another post.


1. In his “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

2. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 72-80 but also passim; as with any comparative work this one is difficult to cite well because the same themes come up again and again. A clearer statement of this point could be found in Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Cf. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 112-137 & esp. p. 124.

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 268-272.

4. Ibid., pp. 303-379, definitions addressed at pp. 303-306.

5. Here the Halsall comparison would better come from Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barnarian West 450-900 (London 2003), pp. 119-133. For Norway I’m thinking of the First Viking Age (classically described in Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London 1971)) and for Wales I’m thinking of when King Cædwallon of Gwynedd killed King Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

6. Described very well, albeit with the ideological bent you’d expect from sixties East Berlin scholarship (or rather, that the establishment demanded from it) in Eckhard M¨ller-Mertens, Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches, Forschungen zur Mittelalterlichen Geschichte 10 (Berlin 1963).

7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 306-333 & 339-364 (to which cf. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 311-319 & 357-368); see also the sweeping but careful description of national historiographies in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 1-5.

8. Halsall as above and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

9. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38.

10. M. R. McCarthy, “Thomas, Chadwick and post-Roman Carlisle” in Susan M. Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 241-256.

11. Kent: Nicholas Brooks, “The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester 1989), pp. 56-74 esp. pp. 67-74, and now Stuart Brookes, “The lathes of Kent: a review of the evidence” in Brookes, S. Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 527 (Oxford 2011), pp. 156-170 (non vidi, but I saw a Leeds paper using some of what I assume is the same research that pointed this way). Suffolk: Peter Warner, “Pre-Conquest Territorial and Administrative Organization in East Suffolk” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 9-34.

12. That person, as far as I know, would be Brian Hope-Taylor in his Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), pp. 276-324; cf. David N. Dumville, “The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 213-222.

13. London’s archæology is ever-changing but the best recent synthesis I know is Alan Vince, Saxon London: an archaeological investigation (London 1990). This argument, however, and the following graphic, are more or less lifted entire from Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons”, in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 108-122, the map being fig. 8.2. I’m slightly disturbed to see that his cite for the idea of orchestrated settlement is John Morris, to wit Londonium: London in the Roman Empire (London 1982, rev. edn. 1998), p. 334 of the 1st edn., cit. Bailey. “Middle Saxons”, pp. 112-113 n. 52, but despite Morris’s well-known oddity this seems to be a bit that makes sense, to me. On Lindsey, since you already have the volume out by now, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 202-212.

14. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 9.

Seminary LXVII: don’t call it corruption, call it a cash-rich political system

I am falling behind with blogging generally and with seminars particularly, though I’ve also started falling behind with going to the things so this may yet balance out. I am also in two minds about whether to blog the Oxford Medieval History seminars, as while they’re looking likely to continue being interesting, some of the people presenting are quite junior and at least one of the papers (mine) has been somewhat rapidly-prepared. I think I can safely get away however with talking about the first one of the term, because Chris Wickham has featured here before and knows this, and so when on the 11th October he attracted an audience of eighty people to hear him talk to the title, “The Financing of Roman Politics, 1050-1150”, he probably expected that fact to end up here.

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

The tenth- and eleventh-century papal court is famous for two things, really, isn’t it? Gregorian reform and at the other extreme, corruption on a massive scale. Chris was talking about the latter, and trying to take a non-judgmental look at the systems that were operating that left this impression on our sources. Certainly, as he admitted and found many examples to prove, money was vital to political campaigning in Rome and deployed in huge amounts, while candidates for papal office or other high dignity who ran out of money also ran out of backing very quickly. This is clear in the sources and deplored by many across Europe, perhaps most noticeably John of Salisbury, who said as much in a letter to a pope, indeed, Hadrian IV, a fellow Englishman. Hadrian refused to take offence but preferred to point out how much good the money could achieve when correctly directed. It’s tempting just to stop the judgement there, but Chris, as an economic historian, wanted to know how this all actually worked. What he came up with for us was a picture of a medieval economy where, unusually, very little land was in play. The popes were big landowners in Rome and thereabouts but they weren’t big on an international scale; much of what they claimed was also sometimes claimed by the Empire and a great deal of it (as I’d heard from Chris before) was tied up in fairly binding leases to the nobility. On the other hand, their cash income was huge, from pilgrim gifts especially but also the rents from those leases, various other ground-rents in the city, international token payments from far-off monasteries that mounted up all together… This means that money was the primary available form of patronage. None of our sources have a problem with gifts of land in exchange for support, after all, so what’s the problem with cash? Well, it gets spent. Land is permanent, and can’t really be used up, which makes obligations pertaining to it long-term things, but not so with money. This means that people don’t stay bought; also, people don’t stay wealthy, whereas a lot of land keeps you that way rather better. That’s not available in this game, and so the players at the top of the table rotate a lot more. The result is something that our sources feel is corrupt, and which even the participants sometimes did, but which is explicable in its own terms at least, and when there are strong morals in play in our sources of course it’s very necessary to carry out this kind of enquiry.

Interior of St Peter's, Rome

Interior of St Peter's, Rome; must have cost a bit...

Mark Whittow raised in questions an obvious parallel to the court of Constantinople, which also ran on money a great deal and about which Liutprand of Cremona has similar things to say, though only on the embassy when he couldn’t persuade the emperor to include him in the handouts… Other interesting questions were raised about the exchange rate of money for favours—plenty of rulers offer precious goods for support as well, in various places (not least Heorot!) but these are often worth more than what they eventually buy, for the sources at least, a complication that is yet to be explored. It also seemed to Chris that this money did not, except in, well, exceptional cases, serve to recreate this kind of politics at a lower level; there was a super-rich threshold that the popes were, and would-be popes had to be, above, and below that one was too vulnerable to the actions of the super-rich to amass the same sort of patronage clout on a smaller scale. That sounded as if it could also use some testing, to me, but the big system view still makes a lot more sense to me at least than writing the whole thing off as corruption; even if that’s what it was, it was also a working system that needs to be understood as such, and that’s what Chris gave us.

That demmed elusive rational economic medieval actor

While some of the paper-writing pressure was off I punctuated my reading with some of the stored-up PDFs I’ve stashed at various points, having followed web-links and gone, “that looks interesting and potentially relevant!” and one of these was a paper by Cliff Bekar and Clyde Reed called “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility”.1 I’d like to question it, and I imagine the readership at large won’t mind if I do.

This is one of those episodes where someone from outside medieval studies has a theory they want to test and decides that a medieval sample would be cool, though in this instance the papers that did that were some way down the line and this is the return of the son of the heir to the open fields debate that apparently economists have been having for close on forty years. At the beginning of it one D. N. McCloskey seems to have taken issue with an understanding that then existed that consolidating and enclosing agriculturally productive land was economically beneficial, and that peasants in the Middle Ages had instead worked common land or at least open land and so must have been completely benighted. McCloskey argued that actually, scattered land holding was a good insurance strategy because it meant one’s crop was less likely to all fail at once, and the decrease in yield was the ‘premium’ one paid for that.2 This meant that the peasants were making a sound decision for economic reasons and seems therefore to have attracted economists and an argument, as Dr McCloskey doesn’t seem to be or have been one to back down easily. Where Bekar and Reed came into this in 2001 was that they wanted to use simulation to test some of the assumptions, and so tried to estimate the possibility of actually running out of economic resource over a fifty-year period for a peasant population of 300 ‘agents’ each holding 20 acres, given various set-ups of field system. They set the system up so that it more or less approximated McCloskey’s figures and then started changing things, showing that in their system there was a ‘sweet’ range, in which actually scattering landholding was less effective at preventing disaster than either of (i) storing surplus against hard times individually or (ii) pooling it as a village reserve to be redistributed at the end of the year.

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

So instead they suggest that scattering lands instead had other advantages: firstly, it made a pooling system much easier to police because what one was growing each year would be obvious to anyone walking through it so that one couldn’t decide, for example, to grow only flax that year hoping to max out one’s income secure in the knowledge that you could live out of the village reserve. I’m a bit dubious about this because it only works if no-one with scattered holdings ever fenced or hedged them and quite frankly I’d have thought wandering animals, including wolves at this time in England, would have meant that almost everyone did. The core assumption that enclosed and open are opposite along with consolidated and scattered looks very strange to me, though I haven’t read enough Chris Dyer to know if they’re wrong, and from their footnotes they have. Well, I’ll leave it. Secondly, they suggest that scattering meant that lands could easily be sold off as a form of income substitution in bad years, whereas a consolidated enclosed estate couldn’t easily be fragmented and selling big lumps of it would hit productivity permanently. They also note in the works of their chosen medieval historians that a lot of land on the last medieval English market was indeed tiny units and that enclosure did massively increase vulnerability to disaster for the small-holder (here esp. pp. 322-323).

So, OK, there are so many problems that I am about with the assumptions here that one hardly knows where to begin. At the beginning I suppose; here are the ones I marked while reading this in a café in Oxford.

  1. They assume that harvest quality follows a normal distribution (p. 310), but we know (you and I, dear readers, we know) that actually harvests are usually either poor, adequate, good or really disastrous, and people have done real simulation, with crops and work and stuff, showing this.3 So it’s garbage-in right from the get-go.
  2. A small thing, but they compensate for the fact that a pooling system would take administrating by effectively charging the system for it, deducting 20% of the yield as running costs (p. 317 & n. 20). Actually, though, the impact of this cost would not be on the final product, but on the availability of labour to generate it, and they have already said that effects on labour are disproportionately heavy on yield (p. 316).
  3. Most importantly of all, McCloskey’s figures were derived from nineteenth-century information. By that stage, in England at least, agriculture was at least part mechanised, in mills and threshing at least, and certainly far better tooled up than anywhen in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages themselves are problematic because towards the late end blast furnace manufacture of iron makes large-scale production of iron tools more practical and so late medieval agriculture is probably more effective than early. Also, there’s the climate, but let’s not do that again, let’s just note that since an estimate of likely yield range is fairly vital to their simulation, if it should actually be a lot lower I think that ‘sweet range’ may disappear. They need medieval figures very badly, though as they say there aren’t any. All the same, there is earlier stuff than this they could have used I’m sure.
  4. At all stages there is no money factored into the system. Land is converted to grain direct (p. 316), yield is never monetised or invested as capital for improvements or sold at market, agriculture is stationary, autarkic and closed of distribution. And this is just not how it was, anywhere really. People took yield out of the system for a range of reasons, not just their self-protection against disaster.
  5. Most of all, the simulation ignores lords. It does this firstly by forgetting that surplus left the medieval food system, as we’ve just said, although it does talk about tithes as a form of pooling (p. 321), which is only partly the case—doesn’t factor for that though—and thus ignores any form of taxation, but it also assumes that the peasantry are free economic agents unconstrained by outside factors. The idea that the local lord might make them grow oats that year because he was experimenting with horse-breeding, or tax all the wheat and nothing else, or whatever, doesn’t appear here at all; even though they talk about different patterns of land exchange on demesne land the authors don’t allow for other rules to enter the system. BUT THEY OUGHT. And the idea of any extra-economic factors, tradition, religion and so on is completely lacking.

So what we have here is that elusive creature, the free rational economic actor. He or she is fully informed about the consequences of their decisions and operates unconstrained with perfect foresight. Yet the practices that the authors are describing would have had to have been observed, and observed correctly, over a lifetime and then accurately passed down to the next generation. So actually, at the beginning of our simulation the actors shouldn’t have the knowledge required to behave as the simulation needs them to. Likewise, medieval peasant villages were of course not all made up of 20-acre landholders: once the authors allow land sale into the model, indeed, change occurs rapidly and much more variation exists at its end than at its start. That’s when they should have started: I’d be much more interested in what the results were if one continued the model for the next fifty years.

Now, I don’t want to imply that this was a completely useless paper. It certainly makes explicit the economics of peasant-scale land management in some ways that most early medievalists would just ignore: one does get a sense of options and consequences from it. Secondly, because the same problems exist with all the simulations, they do at least have some comparative value. If the nineteenth-century figures can be accepted for what they are then the idea that scattering one’s landholdings might still make sense is interesting. One would, as I say, prefer to know whether it still held when many of the values were altered, and since we’re looking for a cross-over point where wealth and probability of disaster meet, if that shifted violently one way or the other then any economic viability for storage, pooling or land scattering might immediately disappear from the figures. But in its own terms it does show something. As long as it’s showing an isolated population sample who didn’t use money or barter with outside interests, who didn’t pay tax or spend on non-subsistence goods and all of whom were nicely-landed and knew what the results of a fifty-year survey would be when it started, though, what it shows isn’t going to have much to do with the Middle Ages as people lived them, and lived (and died) by such decisions.


1. C. .T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5.

2. D. N. McCloskey, “English open fields as behavior towards risk” in P. Useldine (ed.), Research in Economic History Vol. 1 (Greenwich 1976), pp. 124-170.

3. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/j418g4qt35038806/fulltext.html, last modified 19 June 2007 as of 4 January 2009, citing Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507.