Tag Archives: Joachim Henning

The Carolingian Frontier III: points north and east

Picking up the now-legendary backlog once more we find me still in Cambridge in early July 2014 for the third day of the Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours conference already described. This was the morning only, and so there were only four papers, in two pairs as follows.

  • Robert Smith, “Hedeby after Ansgar: the continued contacts with Carolingian Christianity in the border emporia of Hedeby”.
  • As you can see we started in Denmark, and indeed we were not wholly to leave it for the rest of the day. We started in Hedeby, founded by an aggressive transplantation of traders from the Baltic seaport of Reric by King Godefrid of Denmark in 808, and the last paper would come back to it. Mr Smith’s paper was however about how deep the impact of the Carolingian mission to Denmark in the 820s and 840s-850s was, and in fact there is thin evidence for continuing Christianity in the town into the 880s and beyond. It’s always hard to assert religion from material culture, especially when one’s main evidence is burials because the dead don’t bury themselves, but one surprising piece of evidence is a pair of church-bells that have been recovered from the harbour, one cracked as if the other might have been its replacement. I’m not sure how we date them, mind…

    The unbroken church bell recovered from Hedeby harbour

    The unbroken church bell recovered from Hedeby harbour, dated by the website where I found it (linked through) to 850, but seriously, how?

    Mr Smith’s point was that conversion did not bring any kind of political control, but that cultural exchange and mixing happened all the same. This raised the question of whether we were in fact on a frontier here or just at a port, but I think it’s probably arguable that a port of entry is a frontier of sorts… There were also arguments about whether coin finds necessarily demonstrate trade, which of course they do not, but that took us into the next paper.

  • Jens Christian Moesgaard, “Carolingian coins in Denmark: commerce and prestige”.
  • For Dr Moesgaard, his initial scepticism about that question had now somewhat reluctantly turned to acceptance; for him sites like Hausmarken, which has so far thrown up twenty single-finds of Louis the Pious deniers, are approaching the inarguable, so we have to accept that there was trade between Denmark and the Carolingian Empire coming through the Danish emporia, but he also noted that it very much died off in the 840s, and coin finds then become rarer as well as more international (and also less: Hedeby and Ribe start minting their own in the later ninth century, and Ribe seems never to have kept Carolingian coins so as to deposit them). That doesn’t however mean that all Carolingian coin finds are relics of trade, not least because as the discussion drew out, they seem often to have been recovered from relatively wealthy dwellings and also treated differently, being very rarely cut, unlike Islamic dirhams. That might be because they were largely arriving earlier, or it might be, well… Many possibilities remain but here there is at least the chance of a continuing increase in evidence to make patterns clearer.

Then there was coffee and then we resumed with what turned out to be quite the longest haul of the conference.

  • Joachim Henning, “The Fortified Carolingian Border Line with the Slavs along the Elbe and Saale: military defense and cultural exchange”.
  • I am quite conflicted about this paper, because it was extremely interesting and you can see how it would be vital comparative data for some of my interests, but on the other hand it was also twenty minutes longer than it was supposed to have been. It also raised some quite important questions that somehow never got asked, onto which I will come. We were introduced to a series of problems that have dogged the interpretation of fortress archæology on the German-Slavic border of the Carolingian Empire as was which modern archæological techniques, especially scientific dating, are beginning to solve. One has been even finding very many Slavic fortresses, which as we were told began to unstick once it was realised that they were probably small and earthen-ramparted rather than being big stone structures. The second has then been dating them, but with enough animal bone and radio-carbon tests that is also now being done and the problem is now that there are almost none to be dated before about 900. This apparent sudden fortress boom could be a reaction to campaigning by the Ottonians, as some would indeed have it, but raises some questions about what this frontier was like before then which are now harder to answer.1

    The Weinberg at Hohenwarthe

    The Weinberg at Hohenwarthe, where the fortress dug by Professor Henning has now gone under the Autobahn, if I understand the German article linked through correctly. Photo by Sigrun Tausche.

    Professor Henning did have some suggestions, however, including that Hohenwarthe, upriver from Magdeburg in Saxony, may be one such early Slav fortress in some sense. It was raised during Frankish campaigns of 806 according to the Chronicle of Moissac but according to the finds evidence is much older, going back to the second century. Other such fortresses built by others and thus hard to identify as Slavic typologically can be added to such a list: Professor Henning named Höhbeck and Potzlow, where there was also a battle grave including men, women and children, some killed with what seemed to be Viking arrowheads. All of this would indicate how dangerous an area and how many players there might be in it (and the next paper would also work to this effect), if I was only sure that identifying the users of a site by a culture remained viable now that archæology accepts that material culture was a choice made from what was available for many reasons that don’t have to be to do with ethnicity, and that doing so by the shape of buildings (since Professor Henning was ruling some sites out of being Slavic, whatever that would actually mean, because they were “too rectangular”) can survive in a context in which fortified settlements were being reused by forces other those that had built them, and could very easily change hands in quite short timeframes. As it was, while I’m intrigued by the empirical quality of this data—there’s lots of it, it’s been very well recovered and thoroughly analysed—this paper made me more, not less, suspicious that we cannot, in fact, say who was in any of these sites without resorting to textual evidence that we already had…

  • Daniel Melleno, “Between Borders: the place of the Slavs in the northern politics of the Danes and Frabks in the ninth century”.
  • In the little time that was left him, Dr Melleno then took us succintly through the various testimonies of the narrative sources for the groups we think of as Slavic who were part of the political contest between the two kingdoms of Franks and Danes in the long ninth century. His basic contention was that the Obodrites, a difficult group to pin down as we have discussed, were the most successful of several such groups in profiting from Carolingian support as a buffer state to get into a position where they were actually coherent and united enough as a polity to start interacting with the Carolingians, and indeed the Danes, on their own terms. Unfortunately for them, this left them much more obvious targets than the Franks once the Danish kingdom descended into Frankish-backed civil war in the 820s and they more or less ceased to be that coherent polity in the subsequent warfare. My only complaint about this paper was that it took everything in any source used as absolutely straightforward, and I did wonder what might have come out of trying to read the Carolingian presentation of these groups as either faithful or faithless allies as a product of the annalists’ political stances, rather than the Obodrites’.

Still, it was reasonable to close with a reminder that we had almost all, coins, Christianity and trade not withstanding, seen the Carolingian frontier as a warzone first and foremost. Dr Melleno was right to end with the famous line from Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne: “have a Frank for a friend, not for a neighbour”!2


1. This is a conclusion warmly adopted by, for example, David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012), where see pp. 24 & 151.

2. Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1960), online here, transl. David Ganz in idem (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 2008), pp. 17-44, cap. 16.

I should have read this the moment I bought it, II

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The second article in this book I’m reading, not counting the introduction and the mises-au-point that Michael McCormick supplies for each section, is as I said by Joachim Henning and it’s a bit less limpid.1 The argument is basically that finds of slave-chains match up with settlement patterns to suggest that:

  1. The Romans didn’t allow Germanic-style village farmstead sort of affairs with individual enclosures, but the barbarians on their borders farmed like that normally
  2. Once the Germans are on the inside Merovingian Francia is full of that sort of settlement, agricultural slavery inside the old imperial limes is basically over and slavery becomes something you only see on the military frontier
  3. Under the Carolingians however some of the Roman unification of settlements into grand estates resumes and this is bad for the economy

What we have here is basically two patterns, of slave-chain finds and of settlement nucleation, on which is being hung an awful lot, as well as some problematic stuff about the spread of the heavy plough that I thought we’d got over by now. An awful lot is hanging from those chains but they self-evidently don’t reliably index the whole slavery complex; they only show that someone had to be constrained. These could be military captives, their absence still wouldn’t prove that the people who worked an estate weren’t bound to it by fear, threat and the law.

Metalwork hoard from Lyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales, Pre-Roman Iron Age, including slave-chains

Metalwork hoard from Lyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales, Pre-Roman Iron Age, including slave-chains

Then, an awful lot hangs from the belief that the evidence shows that bipartite estates were less efficient agriculturally than decentralised farming because of the need for coercion. Philosophically this seems likely to be right, and one could cite the collective farms of the Soviet Union as well as studies of plantation slavery in the USA to show that people work harder when they work for themselves (and Henning has a nice example to counter Chris Wickham’s belief that where there are no lords the peasants eat more and work less).2 All the same, there is an issue here: we are asked to believe that the Carolingian nobility, or the US planters, must have been status-hungry megalomaniacs, otherwise they’d have realised that ‘slavery does not pay’.3 But think about it: the question is not about how much their estates produced, at least in the Frankish case, it’s about how much of that production they could appropriate. If labour on your estate is 10% less effective for being combined and worked as a demesne compared to hutted coloni working their own plots, but you can get 5% more labour out of the slaves for having them right there and that also means you can impose renders with 7% greater efficiency (or other made-up figures that would work, if these don’t), then you as lord are in profit and it does make economic sense. But Henning has a basic ‘slavery is bad mkay’ assumption here that makes it difficult for him to see this. I mean, I agree with that statement, but the estate managers in any of those periods obviously didn’t hold that conviction, that doesn’t make them stupid. And then it doesn’t help that, as Angeliki Laiou points out in the response at the end of the section, that the slave-chain finds for the Carolingian period don’t occur in the areas where there were bipartite estates.4 That is, unlike the Roman slave estates apparently the Carolingian ones didn’t use chain-gangs but got their labour more willingly. So, er, hang on, where did that paradigm go? There are some points here but they aren’t all the ones the author feels that he’s made.

Plan of a generic medieval manor taken from William Shepherd, Historical Atlas (New York 1923) for Wikimedia Commons

Plan of a generic medieval manor taken from William Shepherd, Historical Atlas (New York 1923) for Wikimedia Commons

On the whole what I take from this is that being part of the Roman fiscal complex tended to produce a different kind of estate organisation, and that the Carolingians also did some of that. I take with more salt the idea that the Carolingian period might have been less well off than the Merovingian period, and if I accept it I would again want to blame the weather for most of that and wonder if the conversion to bipartite estates in places where that can be done isn’t more of a response, both to diminishing yields and also to newly huge scales of estate ownership.5 (In other words, Chris’s ‘aristocrats make complexity’ argument tied up with my own macro-economic ones.) I don’t think slave-chains prove what Henning thinks they do, though the distribution is interesting (if, as he admits, potentially faulty).6 But most of all I wonder whether the horse of cause is not before the cart of effect here. Even if we accept the correlations Henning proposes, correlation is not causation, and the causation is still to be sorted out I think.

We’ll get back to my orphan papers at some point: I’m going to have a lot to blog over the next few days.


1. Joachim Henning, “Strong rulers—weak economy? Rome, the Carolingians, and the archaeology of slavery in the 1st millennium AD” in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 33-53.

2. His argument here is based on the fact that lots of Roman goods are found in villages beyond the limes, what implies that they had enough surplus to buy stuff, and presumably, wanted to produce surplus so as to be able to buy stuff: Henning, “Strong rulers?”, pp. 41-42, citing Chris Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), p. 224, whose original printing was in idem, “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, repr. in idem, Land and Power pp. 201-226.

3. Though it should be noted that, according to the work there linked, the US studies actually tended to show that it did pay: Robert William Fogel, “Coming to Terms with the Economic Viability of Slavery” in idem, The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: a retrospective, Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History (Baton Rouge 2003), pp. 24-48. For the application of older work in this line to the medieval question, see Pierre Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59. One of Bonnassie’s more appealing features to a modern reader is his humanist outrage at coercion, oppression and brutality but here, I think, it prejudiced his ability to analyse the sources clearly.

4. Angeliki E. Laiou, “The Early Medieval Economy: Data, Production, Exchange and Demand” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, pp. 99-104. One of the best things about this book is that they did the peer review internally, but the authors get to keep their original conclusions. It’s like the discussion at the Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo being published, but more worked-out, and I think we should do this all the time so that people can tell more easily where more consideration is needed and where there was a genuinely good point made.

4. Henning does leave room for climatic factors, in fact, at “Strong Kings?” p. 42.

5. Distribution maps Henning, “Strong kings?”, pp. 38-39; expectation of more data from unanalysed French finds, p. 47.