Tag Archives: medieval agriculture

Really, I expect better of these guys

There was no blog post yesterday because I was largely on the road back from seeing Hawkwind’s 50th anniversary tour, which practically counts as medieval history itself. Today, however, like quite a lot of the UK academy, I am on strike, and so I have time to make up for that omission. Indeed, if I do it right, I should have time to do some serious blog catch-up work, though if you are in the Leeds area, you may be interested to know that, with my colleague Dr Francesca Petrizzo, I am participating in the local University and College Union’s teach-out at the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane on the 28th November, at 14:00-15:00, and that is open to the public, so you could come along and learn from us about ‘The Medieval Mediterranean: Race and Religion’. Maybe see you there! But if not, here is a blog post of a more normal kind, and more will hopefully follow.

UCU pickets during the 2018 strikes at Leeds

UCU pickets during the 2018 strikes at Leeds

So this post got stubbed while I was redrafting the article which became ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’ back in May 2016.1 I have written here before about the footnote that you have slaved over, that has grown far too big because it is really a tangent from the article or chapter and, in the final redraft, even as you edit it you know will, in the end, have to be cut. This is one of those. In the end, it did survive in a form, but much truncated.2 The problem of the article, as you may already have seen, is that people have generally misapplied the few numbers we have for agricultural productivity in the early Middle Ages, and that the person who did this with most success, in as much as he has been replicated all over the place, was Georges Duby. But he was not alone in doing bad maths with agricultural figures, and that’s where we come in… (The footnotes I have added; I don’t go quite as far as having footnotes in my footnotes. Not yet.)

“Of course, not everything that has been badly calculated about early medieval crop yields can be placed at the door of Georges Duby. Just as there is good reason to doubt his figures on the basis of experiments in Catalonia, so also there are Catalan attempts at such arithmetic that likewise fail to be justifiable.3 In a study of the ninth-century foundation and refoundation of the Pyrenean monastery of Sant Andreu d’Eixalada and then Sant Miquel de Cuixà, Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals noticed in the will of the monastery’s major patron, Protasi, a bequest of all the cereals in the monastery compound, enumerated as 365 modios.4 Courageously, he assumed that this was close to or actually the yield from the probably-recent harvest, and then combined these figures with an earlier donation of an estate by Protasi where annual renders are given, ‘4 houses and a courtyard and 6 orchards and 12 vineyards, and the 30 quinales of wine that go out from there and there are 8 tonnae and 30 modii of corn’. Using this to establish a basic render figure of 7.5 modii of corn per house, Abadal then used the monastery total figure to estimate the house’s total landed endowment. This ingenious operation involved not just the assumption about proximity to the harvest and a myriad of other assumptions, some silent and some supplied in a lengthy footnote, about how much grain was needed to sow a modiata of land and the yield a modiata should produce, all supplied by late nineteenth-century figures from the same area based on a modern calculation of the area of a modiata (‘a little less than half a hectare’). Even if one cared to accept all these assumptions and patches, the essential uselessness of the figures thus obtained should have been apparent to Abadal’s readers when he explained, halfway through the sums, ‘Since we must think, however, that an important part of the harvest relating to these 365 modios of wheat should have corresponded to the direct cultivation of the monastery and not to that of its tenants, if we compute that part at a half…’ For this guess, immediately halving Abadal’s result, there is not even an anonymous nineteenth-century basis and it shows us, again, quite how much needs to be known, when performing such arithmetic, but is not.

Map of the estate of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 1812

Map of the estate of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 1812, probably closer to the situation that Abadal described than the ninth-century one. Image by ClaudefàTreball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Abadal, however, did not use these numbers to achieve a crop yield ratio: how could he have, when he had already supplied that part of the sum from his unnamed nineteenth-century source? This did not, however, stop Manuel Riu i Riu, in an article about metrology and terms for units, referring to this study as if it contained ninth-century figures for both seed sown and crop yielded.5 The former he based on the equation between the land unit modiata and the modius supposedly required to sow it; the latter he got from Abadal’s own figures, not apparently noticing that these were modern patches for the data lacking in the documents. As it happens, the figures that he gave provide a healthy yield figure of 6.25:1, but they are, of course, founded on absolutely nothing of meaning.”

Now, this is not the first time that we have caught Manuel Riu, superb archaeologist and excellent builder of the scholarly community of medievalists in Catalonia but not always quite as critical in his reading of texts as he needed to be, in a slip, but he was famous for his quantitative work and study of medieval units and measures, and he knew Abadal well, and I’d have hoped that he would read him more carefully; but then I’d also have hoped that Abadal wouldn’t have been quite so creative in his invention of his own data. The whole thing is further proof that if you invent numbers in historiography, people will quote them whatever they rest upon, even when they really shouldn’t. I don’t hope to change that as a whole trend, but it would be nice if I could make people more careful about it in this specific area…

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

2. Ibid., pp. 20-21 n. 77.

3. For the Catalan reasons to doubt Duby, see my older blog post or indeed Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”, pp. 22-25.

4. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “Com neix i creix un gran monestir pirinenc abans de l’any mil: Eixalada-Cuixà” in Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 8 (Montserrat 1954), pp. 125–337 at pp. 160-161, is the relevant source; the reprint in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I, pp. 377–484, doesn’t have the documentary appendix so lacks this bit.

5. Manuel Riu, “Pesos, mides i mesures a la Catalunya del segle XIII: Aportació al seu estudi” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1996), pp. 825–37, reprinted in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera and Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació arqueològica sobre conreus medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994: arqueològia experimental. Aplicació a l’agricultura medieval mediterrània (DGICYT PB90-0430) (Barcelona 1998), pp. 77–82.

Two fields, three fields, four fields, five…

Today is one of those occasions when I need to correct, or at least update, something I wrote here years ago, and this time the subject is that ever-enthralling one, crop rotation. Don’t hide it, I know you’ve all been waiting for more on this… That said, last time I wrote on it there followed quite the conversation and people still wind up there from search engines, so I guess there may be interest there, in which case it’s quite important that they know that the research for (ahem) my recent article on early medieval agricultural productivity revealed that that post was badly behind the times. Thus, an update.

Organic winter wheat growing with red clover in an experiment by the Moses Organic Project

Organic winter wheat experimentally growing with red clover, image from Katja Koehler-Cole, “Research evaluates green manures as fertilizer in organic soybean-winter wheat-corn rotation” in Organic Broadcaster Vol. 23 no. 5 (Spring Valley WI 2015), pp. 9 and 12, online here, p. 9

So, firstly, what am I even talking about? Well, you may be aware that when you’re growing stuff in the ground for food, the earth only gives of her best for a short time before the land needs refreshing with the various nutrients that make stuff grow well. Historically, there have been two basic ways of dealing with this decline of productivity in the soil: either you give up on it and go and clear somewhere else to farm (slash-and-burn agriculture), or you let the land lie for a bit till it’s built up the things you need again, possibly encouraging that process by growing something different (like legumes) that fix nitrogen in the soil. This practice we call fallow. Now, in the traditional kind of literature that last time I was writing about, it used to be considered that in Iron Age and ‘primitive’ agricultures, if fallow was done at all, it was done one-year-on-one-year-off, so that if you had two fields, one of them was growing and one of them was lying fallow and then next year you switched them over, a two-field system. The alternative, to which European civilisation at large slowly supposedly switched, is a three-field one in which one field is growing a crop that needs all year to grow, such as wheat, one is growing a less exhausting spring crop such as barley or oats, and the third is lying fallow, which means that each year you’re getting two crops not one and are thus more productive and less dependent on a single harvest.1 And in that long-ago post I was wondering if that change might have underlain the apparent increase in economic power that seems itself to have underlain the various social changes of tenth- and eleventh-century Europe that we still sometimes see called ‘the Feudal Transformation‘. OK? Now read on…

So, predictably, deeper reading told me two things. Firstly, I was by no means the first person to think of that causation, something which really I knew and should have remembered (but sometimes, of course, one learns these things so deeply that you forget that you ever had to be taught them—this is how patriotism and stereotypes usually work…).2 Secondly, and inevitably, things were more complicated than that. In order to write my article, as I think I mentioned already, since it was principally aimed at destroying an argument of Georges Duby’s (an argument, mark you, which rested on arithmetic that completely ignored the need to fallow growing land even though that was the immediately previous thing he had written about in the relevant book…), I wanted to make sure that what he’d written in the 1960s he’d never in fact gone back on before his death in 1996.3 In fact he hadn’t, really, but this led me onto a special issue of a journal he’d helped to found, Études rurales, celebrating, reprinting parts of, but also updating his work.4 And there I found two articles that changed my picture.5

What does the new picture look like, then? Well, firstly, the basic progress from two-field to three-field is, predictably, deeply questionable. Our information is more limited the further back one goes, obviously, but it doesn’t look as if there was ever a time when you can’t find people doing either or even both, depending on what they were growing where.6 This comforted me in a way, since unlike the equally lame argument about the heavy plough, this one wasn’t even technological determinism, where once the right invention had been made the world changed but without it could not; for the two-field/three-field progress to be made a whole world of people whose lives rested on the fields had to have collectively been too stupid to think of this different way of managing them, despite all the work we have on the later Middle Ages that is obsessed with medieval peasants as rational economic actors planning for survival…7 Even now, in some areas of the world, with some crops, two-field systems yield better than three-field ones that can just exhaust the land more, and of course the imperatives of the market can alter everything, so that old argument also basically relies on the absence of market forces. All of this belongs to the world of Lopez’s so-called Commercial Revolution, in which capitalism was effectively born in the cities of high medieval Italy and Flanders and before that no-one had ever thought of doing anything for profit, and it’s time we managed to think outside that teleological box in which, like the heavy plough or indeed money, once capitalism’s invented no-one can possibly not do it.8

Ruins of the TEmplar Commandery of Ruou

Ruins of the Templar Commandery of Ruou, image by Edouard-RainautTravail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But the other thing I now understand is that a two-field/three-field binary was never going to be enough. For a start, it ignores the supposedly ‘primitive’ slash-and-burn method, which is effectively a one-field system that moves, and where the land is always fresh and at its most productive. If you have the space and don’t mind being a bit nomadic, this is the most productive system there is, so why wouldn’t you? But equally, some land just needs more time to recover from agriculture. Fourteenth-century render lists from mountain estates that paid into various Templar commanderies whose records survive—records that Duby himself first put to use, so he did know—show some farmers running a four- or even five-field system across their scattered and marginal lands, with most of their land fallow most of the time. Other examples also exist, but these are the one that made me stub this post.9

And, of course, there is and was nothing to stop someone using several of these systems at once. Only the other day, for reasons I won’t bother you with, I was being towed around a farm in a tractor’s trailer with the owner explaining to the assembled gathering how he was, effectively, running part of a four-field system in the middle third of this large field to maximise vegetable crops, while running a two-field one in the field next door for different vegetables and growing cereals on a decent part of the rest of the farm, presumably on a two- or three-field rotation. Those weren’t the terms he used, but it’s what they amounted to. This was an organic farm, too, so not using modern chemical means of boosting soil productivity.

Modern polyculture in a single field

Another example of such modern polyculture, from “Crop Rotation”, Farm and City Centre, 15th September 2016, online here

In short, farmers can vary their practice a lot. The fact that really big Church estates of the early and high Middle Ages preferred things more uniform than that probably tells us more about their desire to be able to count their dues properly than of their keen eye on market productivity, therefore; as so many top-down states have discovered over time, if your first goal is for your farmers to grow a lot, rather than to organise how they grow it, then the best thing to do is to let them decide how to do it themselves. Of course, that probably means you have less idea of what they’re growing and how much of it you are owed; the estate managers, too, make their own choices, but once again, they aren’t necessarily capitalistic ones. This shouldn’t surprise us; but it did me, perhaps it will also you, and maybe that surprise explains the historiography that meant my article needed to be written in the first place. I continue to think that might be an important piece of writing…10

1. This traditional narrative can still be found all over the Internet (I’ve linked an example above), but in the posts I’m referring to I was getting it from Helmut Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275–290. You could also get a more introductory version from, say, Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd ed. (London 1994), which is about as up to date as such textbooks get even now.

2. In fact, the obvious person to whom to draw back the idea was none other than he whose work my article was written to oppose, Georges Duby, at first in his “La révolution agricole médiévale” in Revue de géographie de Lyon Vol. 29 (Lyon 1954), pp. 361–366, but more systematically and accessibly first in idem, “Le problème des techniques agricoles” in Agricoltura e mondo rurale in Occidente nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 13 (Spoleto 1966), pp. 267–284 and in the book that was subsequently translated as idem, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, transl. Cynthia Postan (London 1968).

3. As close as he came was a note in his engaging little academic autobiography, Georges Duby, L’histoire continue (Paris 1991), p. 97, that he now accepted that he had not known enough about agricultural systems when he wrote the above works, but he stopped short of saying what he’d then have changed.

4. Philippe Braunstein (ed.), Georges Duby, Études rurales 145-146 (Paris 1997), online here.

5. Those being Benoît Beaucage, “Les Alpes du Sud en 1338 : Sur les traces de Georges Duby”, ibid. pp. 113–132, online here and Mathieu Arnoux, “Paysage avec cultures et animaux : Variations autour du thème des pratiques agraires”, ibid. pp. 133–145, online here, though Maria Ocaña i Subirana, El m&ocute;n agrari i els cicles agrícoles a la Catalunya vella (s. IX-XIII) Documenta 1 (Barcelona 1998) and Bruce M. S. Campbell and David Hardy, “The Data” in Three Centuries of English Crop Yields, 1211-1491, online here, subsequently helped confirm it and I was subsequently pointed to Jean-Pierre Devroey and Anne Nissen, “Early Middle Ages, 500‒1000” in Erik Thoen, Tim Soens, Laurent Herment, Michael Kopsidis, Per Grau Møller, Jankh Myrdahl, Alexandra Saebznik and Yves Segers (edd.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500‒2000, 4 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 11–68, which might now be the best place to start for the few who can afford the book.

6. On this, to Devroey & Nissen, “Early Middle Ages”, add Alexis Wilkin and Jean-Pierre Devroey, “Diversité des formes domaniales en Europe Occidentale” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 90 (Bruxelles 2012), pp. 249–260, online here, or Marie-Pierre Ruas, “Aspects of early medieval farming from sites in Mediterranean France” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 14 (New York City 2012), pp. 400–415.

.7 Most obviously now David Stone, Decision-Making in Medieval Agriculture (Oxford 2005), but long-term readers may also remember me having a go at 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.

8. Referring to Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950‒1350 (New York City 1971); as for money, for examples of cultures where it might not be much use see Dagfinn Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell & Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek 2007), pp. 67–92. Basically, money needs to be easily available, or the transactional costs of actually getting the means of payment render it uneconomical.

9. Beaucage, “Les Alpes du Sud”, modifying both Duby, Rural Economy and Georges Duby, “La seigneurie et l’économie paysanne : Alpes du Sud, 1338” in Études rurales Vol. 2 (Paris 1961), pp. 5–36, online here.

10. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (2019), pp. 1–28.

Name in Print XX: crop yields at last

Spelt growing ready for harvest

Spelt growing ready for harvest, by böhringer friedrichOwn work, CC BY-SA 2.5

This post has been a long time coming! It’s been a while since my last announcement of work in print, but there is a bunch coming and the first piece out this year is one that has a history going a very long way back and starting, dear readers, with this blog. For in late 2007, already, after having done a lecture on the medieval economy at Kings College London for Jinty Nelson and having had the good fortune to talk it over with her a while afterwards, I first got the idea that there might be something wrong with the standard literature on the productivity of the agricultural economy of the early Middle Ages. It wasn’t my field, but something in what I’d read didn’t add up. Then in late 2009 I was reviewing a textbook of medieval history and found the same clichés again, so wondered where they’d come from, and the answer turned out to be the work of Georges Duby.1 But at about the same time I also read some exciting experimental archaeology about crop yields done at my favourite Catalan fortress site, l’Esquerda, that seemed to show that he should have been completely wrong.2 So then I went digging into the sources for Duby’s claim, and the first one turned out to have been seriously misread. And I posted about it here, had a very helpful debate with Magistra (to whom many thanks, if she’s still reading, and I owe you an offprint) and thought that’s where it would end.

British Academy logo

But then later that year I decided, for reasons I now forget—quite possibly professional desperation after my fifth year of job-hunting—that I needed to go to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, which I basically can’t do these days because of teaching. I had nothing else ready and thought that maybe this idea deserved a better outing, and because I was on a small wage back then I put in for a Foreign Travel Grant from the British Academy, a thing they still did then, and got it, which paid for most of my plane fare and made the whole thing possible (wherefore their logo above). And I gave that paper in May 2011, had a splendid time and got some good advice from the Medieval History Geek (to whom I also now owe an offprint I think) and began to wonder if this should actually get written up.

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance, by OzeyeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The trouble with that was firstly, that I was by now very busy because I had a teaching job, and secondly, that the source I’d already rubbished Duby’s treatment of wasn’t the only one he had used, and the others were largely Italian, plus which there was a decent amount of up-to-date French work I hadn’t used about the first one. I seemed to have Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque vol. I (did vol. II ever emerge?) on reserve in the Bodleian Library for a very long time, and I’m not sure I actually started on the Italian material till I got to Birmingham in late 2013; it was just never my first priority.3 By then, however, I’d shown an early draft to Chris Wickham, who knows that kind of thing (and is definitely also owed an offprint) and he’d come up with several other things I ought to think about and read, and the result was that this was one of the articles I agreed to complete for my probation when I arrived at Leeds, by now late 2015. How the time did rush past! Now, the story of my probation can probably some day be told but today is not that day; suffice to say that finally, finally, and with significant help just in being comprehensible from Rebecca Darley, to whom even more thanks and an offprint already in her possession, the article went in with all sources dealt with, to the venerable and honourable Agricultural History Review. And, although their reviewers (whose identity is still a mystery to me) had some useful but laborious suggestions for modification (which needed a day in the Institute of Historical Research reading Yoshiki Morimoto and a day in the British Library reading I forget whom, also no longer easy4, it was finally accepted. And that was in October 2018, and now it is in print.5

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

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

In case you would like to know what it says, here is at least the abstract:

Despite numerous studies that stand against it, there remains a textbook consensus that agriculture in the early Middle Ages was unusually low in productive capacity compared to the Roman and high medieval periods. The persistence of this view of early medieval agriculture can in part be explained by the requirement of a progress narrative in medieval economic history for a before to its after, but is also attributable to the ongoing effect of the 1960s work of Georges Duby. Duby’s view rested on repeated incorrect or inadequate readings of his source materials, however, which this article deconstructs. Better figures for early medieval crop yields are available which remove any evidential basis for a belief that early medieval agriculture was poorer in yield than that of later eras. The cliché of low early medieval yields must therefore be abandoned and a different basis for later economic development be sought.

Not small claims, you may say, and this is true. If I’m right—and of course I think I am—this may be the most important thing I’ve ever written, and though I hope I will beat it I’m not yet sure how. So how do you read the rest? Well, in two years it will be online for free, gods bless the Society, but in the meantime, it can be got through Ingenta Connect as a PDF if you have subscription access, and I guess it’s possible just to buy the journal as a thing made of paper if you so desire! These are mostly your options, because I seem to have given out or promised most of my offprints already…

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

Here’s one now!

So statistics, we always like the statistics here, yes, this has had a really long gestation but that’s not the press’s fault, that’s all me and my employment. There were six drafts in all, seven if you count the blog post: Kalamazoo, a 2016 version incorporating the Italian material, a 2017 one adding in what Chris Wickham suggested, and a 2018 one I finished under probational shadow, almost immediately revised into another thanks to Rebecca. Then the last one dealt with the journal comments in December 2018, and from there to print has been more or less six months, which is really not bad at all and involved one of the best copy-editors I’ve so far worked with in such circumstances. It’s certainly much better than my average. But the same is also true of the article, I think, and so I hope you want to know about it, because I certainly want you to! And so, now you do…

1. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz and Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history, 300-1492 (Boston 2004), pp. 162 & 223, with Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974), in the bibliography, and of which pp. 26-29 carry the relevant material.

2. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona and María 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 City 2007), pp. 85–92, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0.

3. Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque : VIe – IXe siècles, 2 vols (Paris: Belin, 2003), I, though Jean-Pierre Devroey and Anne Nissen, “Early Middle Ages, 500‒1000” in Erik Thoen, Tim Soens, Laurent Herment, Michael Kopsidis, Per Grau Møller, Jankh Myrdal, Alexandra Saebznik and Yves Segers (edd.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500‒2000, 4 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 11–68, DOI: 10.1484/M.RES-EB.5.108034, now gets you a lot of the same stuff shorter, in English and updated.

4. Yoshiki Morimoto, Études sur l’économie rurale du haut Moyen Âge : historiographie, régime domanial, polyptyques carolingiens, Bibliothèque du Moyen Âge 25 (Bruxelles 2008) is his collected papers, and very useful if you can locate a copy.

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


Busy-day links

Today is a day with no time in it, where the morning goes on training and the afternoon goes on meetings and in the evening I am celebrating someone’s viva, and there’a about half an hour all told to complete daily tasks such as updating the blog. Happily, I have a stash of links saved against just such an eventuality! Let me therefore distract you with things that others have put on the web, with headings!

Discoveries of stuff

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey

You would think that Byzantine churches had little in common with London buses, but there is at least this, that as the saying goes, you wait ages for one then two come along at once, one in Turkey for which grand claims are being made (for which link a hat tip to Georgia Michael of the University of Birmingham) and one off Turkey which is just really cool to look at.
Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey

Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey

And then there’s an especially shiny hoard of Roman and non-Roman silver from Scotland which people are using to draw conclusions about the Picts in a period before all of us would be comfortable using the word, for which link I owe a tip of that same hat to the Crofter.1
Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Sad News

While writing the long-delayed post on the Bíblia de Danila, I noted briefly that to my sadness John Williams, a scholar of the art of the medieval Iberian peninsula whom I did not know but whose work has been very useful to me, had died; here’s a memorial of the sort he richly deserved.

Interesting Research

We have here a pedigree (as it were) of looking at work on genetics with a critical eye; this new study looks better than usual and I’ll have to give it its own post. The hat is here tipped to James Palmer at Merovingianworld.

Quality medievalism

If you’re going to try to relive the Middle Ages then your soundtrack needs to be right, amirite? Here’s an example of how to do it. Resuming my metaphorical hat, I now tip it to Z the Cold-Hearted Scientist for passing this my way.


A museum in Japan has some old maps. Perhaps not surprising, even if they have obligingly put them on the web? But medieval maps don’t usually work the way we expect, and it turns out that there are eighth-century maps of field systems in here which kind of do. Obviously this is Japan so links to what I do not at all except that here are people using the kind of tools we would use for the kind of jobs that our study population must too have had but for which they used… well, we don’t know. But it’s one in the eye for all those who suggest that representational cartography has to postdate some major Western intellectual development innit? Maybe you don’t care as much as I do about this but Rebecca Darley, who provided me with the link and to whom the hat is now tipped, probably does so I bet there are others too.

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Then, fellow frontiers and charters enthusiast Igor Santos Salazar has let me know about this monumental task on which he has been engaged, a database of the judicial records from medieval Tuscany which is now online. Lavoro erculaneo, Igor!

And lastly in this section, they said it would never happen; several people died in the course of trying to do it; it has been complicated by two world wars, international tension and the Iron Curtain, to say nothing of funding and staffing troubles, but it is done: the charters of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840) are published at last.2 Here not a tip of the hat but sincere congratulations to Herr Professor Theo Kölzer for making it to the end of such an inauspicious task!

This is cool

Lastly, much more in my regular line, firstly just a really cool Spanish church site, well written up and photographed, for which thanks to José Manuel Serrano Esperanza for introducing it to me, and now to you.

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

And then last of all, heard of only today, an exhibition opening on Monday at the Yorkshire Museum (in York), entitled Constantius: York’s Forgotten Emperor, curated by an old colleague of mine, Andy Woods, which exhibition has been brought about by the discovery of a huge hoard of Constantius I’s coins that the Museum hopes to acquire. Do have a look!

1. There’s an actual article behind this one, which a quick websearch reveals as Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg, Alistair McPherson and Oskar Sveinbjarnarson, “(Re)Discovering the Gaulcross Hoard” in Antiquity Vol. 90 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 726-741.

2. On the troubles of the project up to 1990 see Peter Johanek, “Probleme einer zukünftigen Edition der Urkunden Ludwigs der Frommen” in Roger Collins & Peter Godman (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 409-424.

Seminar CCXXXIV: ground-level archaeology in early medieval northern Spain

Despite my usual policy of alternating them with what I think of as local-content posts, I’m going to crack straight on with another seminar report. This is mainly because if I had been doing this contemporaneously this is where the post announcing the upload of Justinian II’s coins would have fallen, and on my own blog I can be compulsive about chronology if I like darn it, and partly because the next local-content post requires me to read sixty pages of Italian to do it properly so will take time, but it also gets us back to the Iberian Peninsula, because on 17th March 2015 there had come direct from there no less a figure than Professor Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, to speak at the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Seminar with the title, “Agrarian Archaeology in Northern Iberia: a general overview of medieval landscapes”, and I felt I should be there and take part.

Archaeologists at work at Lantarón in Castile

One of Professor Quirós’s teams at work at Lantarón in Castile, not the right area but a good picture!

Although in some ways I catch the worst of it in Catalonia, where scientific archæology and money to do it both seem rare, actually Northern Spain has been doing really well in the field of ‘new archæology’ in recent years, especially as cheaper techniques than radio-carbon dating have begun to proliferate, and up until the market crashes of 2008 there was also quite a lot of work being funded. Professor Quirós has been at the forefront of a lot of that work, and so is remarkably well-placed to give a synthesis.1 Here he was focused especially on the Basque country (which is after all where he works) and started his comparisons from there, but I know very little about that area so that was fine with me.

The castle and aldea of Treviño, Basque Country

The castle of Treviño, Basque Country, dug by Professor Quirós and crew some time ago

The paper basically consisted of a series of short ‘state of knowledge’ round-ups of various sorts of evidence and then an overall summary and speculation on the remaining unknowns. The geographical focus also meant that a lot of that knowledge was about farming and peasant settlement, because there simply isn’t much else that’s so far been located until quite late on, except one outlier site of which we will say more in a moment. So we had material from field survey, the archæology of structures, zooarchæology, artefactual evidence, field systems, manufacturing and palæobotany, all taken thematically and joining up at particular questions. All this has been going on with quite some energy in the last decade or so, and the points it’s bringing up are probably best discussed in the overall chronology that Professor Quirós was now able to put forward. This went something like this.

    1. In the fifth and sixth centuries we start to see new villages forming, in the first real change since the collapse of the Roman Empire, which never had much business up here anyway, but the landscape is decentralised and disarticulated, with very low levels of material culture not being transported for any distances. Silos, previously built big, are now built small, suggesting accumulation has dropped to a household level from a community one. Land use seems, from pollen and so forth, to be going up over the period but there’s little sign of increase at the settlements.
    2. In the seventh century, however, field systems begin to show up and so does long-range transhumance (visible in the huts of the travelling herdsmen), and the one estate centre they’ve managed to locate, at Aistra, starts up in this period as well, with enough command of labour to get terraces built, not a small job. This all suggests the beginnings of some hierarchy.
    3. In the eighth century, in what seems to be a much wider phenomenon, settlements here begin to nucleate and cluster but the vestigial links between them visible in the previous century drop off again, even as the social strata in them begin to pile up higher, especially at Aistra where there are now granaries and selective consumption of animals. This is also the period when we start to get rural churches, which also suggests an available surplus being cornered by one particular interest group, and we know from elsewhere in northern Iberia that these groups are probably the same ones as showing up at the top of the secular hierarchies, they’re not separate.2 It is probably not unconnected with these as wider phenomena that there were peasant revolts in Asturias at this sort of time…3
The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa

The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa, which though itself not early medieval apparently sits over an early medieval cemetery and thus the closest I can quickly find to this phenomenon in standing fabric

  1. In the ninth century there starts to be documentation, mostly from the monastery of Valpuesta at the very western edge of the zone, but the archæology also speaks of more field system organisation and a return to transhumance, while the ways that animals are being slaughtered suggest a system of renders; there are communities which seem never to dispose of particular cuts of pork, for example, even though they have the rest.4 Cattle also start to turn up in the west, suggesting people doing things differently, but on the other hand, animals seem to have begun to shrink in this period, and their diets (which can be got at via isotopic remains in their bones) became more restricted. Those two things are obviously probably linked but they may suggest a shift to home husbandry and therefore enclosure of what had previously been commonly-available pasturing.
  2. Finally for this paper, in the tenth century these trends continue but organisation by the powerful also becomes more obvious: bishoprics are set up for the area, fortification becomes common-place, agriculture intensifies (as we can tell from silos at some fortresses) and the area is in general participating in the economic take-off run and (I think) consequent seigneurialisation that Georges Duby or Pierre Bonnassie would have been happy to see.5

There’re also a couple of general phenomena that struck me as interesting, because they seemed unusual to me. In the first place, the area never seems to have been very short of metal tools; we don’t find very many of them (though some) but right through the period we do, apparently, find shaft furnaces for ironworking, even at fairly humble sites. In the second place, cerealiculture was really diverse: although when we have renders specified in documentation they are almost always in wheat or barley, peasants were also growing millet, particularly, and several others too as well as fruit, legumes and flax for linen and rope. Meat was probably rarely on the menu but when you compare it to high medieval Catalonia (my only comparator) it looks as if the Basque peasants had a rather better ‘third harvest’ than their south-eastern neighbours later on.6

Excavation under way at Aistra, Basque Country

Excavation under way at Aistra, on one of what seem to have been a good many dismal days in 2009

All in all this was a fairly impressive sweep through what archæology can actually tell us about societies in a period where documentation is scant or lacking, and one wants of course to go and chase up half the data and see for oneself. One would also wish—and Professor Quirós would be with that one—for another estate centre, because although Aistra sounds like a marvellous and rewarding place to investigate (as long as you like rain), the fact that it got going so much earlier than its investigators were expecting and than a documentary picture would have made likely means that a comparator is dearly necessary to make sure that this place wasn’t just weird in some way.7 It would still need explaining even if it was, of course, but as we know some places just did get special attention. Nonetheless, to have a decent basis for being able to assert anything about change on this kind of scale is amazing, and as Andrew Reynolds, chairing, said at the beginning of discussion, whereas Professor Quirós had been kind enough to say that English archæology of this period was the necessary comparator because of its quality, what has been done recently in Spain might well be thought to reverse the situation, and as you will see from the footnotes, he should know. And since I generally aim to bring the Iberian Peninsula back into people’s pictures from the margins where it too often sits, I am fine with that, as long as I can get the site reports…

1. As well as the various project blogs linked in the post above, see (just to pick the most comprehensive things on this post’s themes from his last few years of publications) J. A. Quirós Castillo, “1911-2011: un siglo de excavaciones arqueológicas en los castillos medievales del País Vasco” in idem & José María Tejado Sebastián (edd.), Los castillos altomedievales en el noroeste de la Península Ibérica, Documentos de arqueología medieval 4 (Bilbao 2012), pp. 123-143; Quirós, “Los comportamientos alimentarios del campesinado medieval en el País Vasco y su entorno (siglos VIII-XIV)” in Historia agraria Vol. 59 (València 2013), pp. 13-41; Quirós & Giovanni Bianchi, “From archaeology of storage systems to agricultural archaeology” in Alfonso Vigil-Escalera Guirado, Quirós & Bianchi (edd.), Horrea, barns and silos: storage and incomes in Early Medieval Europe, Documentos de Arqueología 5 (Bilbao 2013), pp. 17-22; Quirós, “Archaeology of power and hierarchies in early medieval villages in Northern of Spain” in Ján Klápšte (ed.), Hierarchies in rural settlements, Ruralia 9 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 199-212; and Quirós (ed.), Agrarian archaeology in early medieval Europe, Quaternary International 346 (Amsterdam 2014).

2. I’m thinking here of work like Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of Local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West” in Julio Escalona & 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. 87-117, and especially Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

3. That is, if it really was a peasants’ revolt; on the misinterpretations of this episode, which has served many historiographical agendas, see this old post.

4. The Valpuesta documents are edited in Desamparados Pérez Soler (ed.), Cartulario de Valpuesta (Valéncia 1970). On peasant diet in the area see Quirós, “Comportamientos alimentarios”.

5. I’m sure you know the works I mean, but for completeness let’s get them in: Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974) and Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, but see also La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), a conference in which both took part.

6. I’m thinking of the studies that have come out of the experimental archæology done at l’Esquerda in Catalonia, particularly Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 121-128, and Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Ollich, Rocafiguera & Ocaña, “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, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0, but here also especially Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Ollich (ed.), Actes del Congrès Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351.

7. There seem to be only interim reports and some specialist publications on Aistra so far, the reports being: A. Reynolds & Quirós, “Aistra (Zalduondo): I Campaña” in Arkeoikuska 2006 (Vitoria 2006), pp. 94-100; eidem, “Despoblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2007 (2007), pp. 159-167; Quirós, “Poblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2008 (2008), pp. 209-211; & Quirós & Reynolds, “Despoblado de Aistra: IV Campaña”, ibid. 2009 (2009), pp. 176-180.

Seminar CCIII: working on and out the North Italian landscape

It’s seminar report time again, and this time it was back down to London for the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research where, on 7th May 2014, Professor Ross Balzaretti was presenting with the title, “Early Medieval Charters and Landscapes: Genoa and Milan compared“. This is of course meat and drink to me as if there’s anywhere that has nearly as many charters left from the early Middle Ages as does Catalonia it’s Italy and the Mediterranean climate and mountainous landscapes the areas share made a lot of what Ross was saying seem comfortingly familiar.1 Insofar as Ross was out to make converts, therefore, he was not preaching to me, but I can at least join in with the hymns.

Terraces at at Corniglia

A Ligurian landscape of the sort that Ross has written about, this one being terraces at at Corniglia, man-made and nature overlaid and intercutting

The basic contention of the paper was that we can use charters as sources for landscape use and economic activity in a north Italian context, which is just as well as we don’t have a lot else left with which to do it given how intensely those landscapes have mostly been worked since the Middle Ages.2 The argument against such use of charter evidence has usually been that the documents are so formulaic that their detail can’t be trusted, to which the counter is that they vary a very great deal, and Ross was able by his comparison to show that the formulae, if that’s what they are, vary so much between Milan and Genoa that even if they’re formulae they must reflect considerable local differences in what formulae apply, so that in fact the level of choice would have to be such that it’s simpler to assume that what is making the variation is the actual landscapes concerned.3

Olive-groves at Castello Rosso, near Genoa

Olive-groves at Castello Rosso, near Genoa

As to that variation, it is quite marked. Genoese charters make much more of trees and Milanese ones more of fields for cereals. Both were producing in a specialised fashion, implying a market presumably dominated by the big towns whose hinterlands we were hearing about, but in Genoa the specialist product was olive oil and Milan it was much less focused (though that may be not least that at this point Milan was rather bigger). But the specialisation was also partly geographic: there are more mentions of terracing around Genoa not just because the charter scribess round there liked that formula but because the land requires it, being much more sloped than around Milan. Around Genoa the work to make the land yield food is very evident in terms of work contracted or expected and boundaries revealing it already done. Milan looks more domestic, as if less co-dependence was necessary to make a living here. And so on.

Parco Agricolo di Milano

There is now an agricultural park outside Milan, apparently, which lets me show you the other kind of landscape in play here as well

All of this rang very familiar with me because of the similar, if lesser, variations I’d been seeing between the lands owned by San Salvatore di Brescia in the Santa Giulia polyptych, so much discussed a little while ago. Here as there, of course, another way to see the variation is as between people, making different decisions about how to make their living, and charters do have that advantage that the polyptych does not, that you can usually put names to these individuals. But that doesn’t mean at all that I thought Ross’s focus on the landscape was misplaced; the countryside these people worked was the silent partner in all their actions, and the charters let you get at something of that too.

Working for San Salvatore III: what they got out of it

I have now gone on at great length about the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia without really talking about my actual purpose in reading it, so it’s time to do that.1 You may remember a long time back that I had a go at the idea, repeated in textbook after textbook, that agriculture in the Carolingian period ran at yields hardly more than the grain that was sown.2 This is self-evidently ridiculous if you are familiar either with actual growing of crops (which I am only second-hand) or can do basic maths, but it persists, and the reason it persists, like many another medieval cliché, is Georges Duby.3

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby

This is not entirely Duby’s fault. He wrote a couple of textbooks in the 1960s and 1970s that somehow remain the world standard for any history of the early medieval economy that actually contains agriculture, and he used the best thinking available and sources known at the time.4 He did a pretty good job of synthesis on that, and though one might wish he’d thought about it a bit harder, it’s really not just him who’s failed to do so, and those that have thought about it haven’t really looked hard enough at his evidence.5 That was, in large part, the Carolingian estate survey of the fiscal centre at Annapes preserved in the text known as the Brevium Exempla, and some time ago already now I gave a paper at Kalamazoo in which I showed that Duby had in fact read the text wrong, or rather failed to read all of its data, as had all those he used, even, I’m sorry to say, Philip Grierson, and I considered that dispatched and proceeded to writing it up.6 But Annapes was not Duby’s only source that seemed to support these awfully low yields, and so I needed to see if the same tricks could be performed with the others too, and you will by now have guessed or maybe already know that one of them was the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia.

Santia Giulia di Brescia from the air

Santa Giulia di Brescia as it now stands, from the air

Duby dealt with the figures from Santa Giulia only in summary fashion. In Rural Economy and Country Life he works Annapes over extensively, coming up with output figures of between 1·5:1 and 2·2:1, and then goes on:

“We must not, of course, generalize from one set of figures obtained from a single source. But it is possible to find elsewhere some other traces of output, somewhat higher than that which can be derived from the Annapes inventory, but even so representing a low yield and a derisory rate of profit when compared with the value of the capital in land and seed corn. One significant fact is that compilers who visited the farms (cours [apparently left in French from Latin ‘curtes’]) of the abbey of San Giulia of Brescia in 905-906 to compile a polyptych found there reserves of grain in the barns which were barely higher and sometimes lower than the quantity needed for sowing. Thus at Prozano where the fields could take 300 muids of seed corn, the stocks in the estate barn amounted to only 360 muids of which 140 were of millet (mil). At Canella 90 muids were needed for sowing and 51 were in the barns; at Temulina 32 and 37.”

And with that he moved onto Saint-Germain-des-Prés near Paris and pulled a similar trick there.7 And in the slightly later and much shorter Early Growth of the European Economy he didn’t even give that much detail (or a reference to the primary source), limiting himself to dealing again with Annapes and then adding:

“The Lombard monastery of St Giulia of Bréscia [sic], which consumed some 6,600 measures of grain annually, would have 9,000 sown to cover its needs, which means that the return normally available to the lord was being estimated at 1·7 to 1.”8

The best way to see what is wrong with this is to look closely at how the compilers of Santa Giulia’s polyptych were using their figures, figures that I’ve already argued here they were receiving in a standard format. And doing so shows firstly that Duby, and Luzzatto before him, were again wrong in assuming that these figures mean what they wanted to mean, and in fact that using them to calculate yield is impossible except in one single case where the formula was bent, and in that case it comes out at at least 4·25:1 and probably rather higher. Don’t believe me? Watch this! Continue reading