Tag Archives: medieval economy

Seminar CCXXVII: towards a more relaxed and flexible late Anglo-Saxon monetary system

My mainline posts may be diverging increasingly from my seminar reports in terms of date covered, but you will have to admit that the subject material is fairly coherent as I move onto the next seminar report, because it’s all about money here on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe for a while. For lo, on 4th February 2015 my old colleague Rory Naismith, now of Kings College London, was presenting to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and so of course I was there.

A silver penny of Cnut, struck by Godman at London, in 1025-1036 from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

A silver penny of King Cnut, struck by Godman at London in 1025-1036, from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

Rory is, as those who know his work will appreciate, a man who gets stuff done, and accordingly when the Committee of the Medieval European Coinage Project (on which, full disclosure for those that don’t know, I sit) needed someone to write volume 8, which will cover the British Isles from circa 600 to 1066, it was to Rory we turned, and now it is in press, so chalk one more of many up to Rory on that one. At the point of this seminar he had just about submitted that text, and so was able to give us some preliminary conclusions under the title, “Coinage and the Late Anglo-Saxon State”, and having thus elected to focus on the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system he was necessarily led to address the legacy of this man.

Portrait of Michael Dolley

The late Reginald Hugh Michael Dolley

Thankfully this was not quite literal, as Rory informed us that Michael Dolley (for it is he) had produced not just 860 research outputs in his career but 6 children, but nonetheless there is a particular vision of the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system that we owe to Dolley, which has become fixed into a view of what James Campbell called the ‘maximum hypothesis’ of what he also called the Anglo-Saxon state.1 According to Dolley, extensive study of the coinage revealed that from 973, in the reign of King Edgar, a system of sexennial recoinage operated in which the whole kingdom’s money was called in, melted down and reissued in a new type at any of a large number of mints scattered across the country for this purpose. This allowed very tight dating of the sequence of what were, then, necessarily single nationwide issues, and from this really quite elaborate hypotheses have been hatched about how the weights of these coins were managed to encourage people to bring them in at the end of the run despite the cut that moneyers took at recoinage, and many other aspects of fine detail management.2 It’s been thought for quite a long time that this must be too rigid but only now has someone been forced to write a replacement account, and of course here he was talking to us.

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, found at Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, late 2014, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, also found at Lenborough, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

So, in the Naismith dispensation, not everything has changed but a good deal has. In the first place, since we have 1300+ finds of coins of this period, we can start to say something about relative frequency of types with some basis, and this shows us that not every type was struck in equal numbers. Some, indeed, especially the Lamb of God issue of Æthelred the Unready as above, were apparently struck in very small numbers—if you find one, be careful with it—and while some hoards have only one type in, others do mix, often containing several types at once, all of which puts serious holes in the idea of consistent and total type-by-type recoinage. Instead, it seems ineluctable that some types were only experimental and ran alongside others, that recoinage was not always total and that people did save up over several reigns even when the coins in their hoards should have been legally useless. In discussion, in fact, I suggested that they were still exchangeable for new coins and so people waited until they had to do so rather than pay the moneyer’s cut several times over, which I think still works. The coinage winds up looking like a much less tightly-regulated fiscal apparatus as Rory sees it, anyway, and acquires an aspect of simple moral broadcasting and the performance of royal power, all of which is very much in keeping with how we now view that kingship in certain other aspects too.3

Silver Agnus Dei penny of Æthelred II struck by Sæwine at Salisbury

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge also has one of Æthelred’s Lamb of God pennies, which has suffered a different set of misfortunes but which is described in the article linked through the image. The coin is Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1-2009, and it was struck at Salisbury by Sæwine.

This is not necessarily to diminish the power of that kingship, one should say, lest hearts in Oxford start to quail, but rather to change its aims. Starting with James Campbell but picked up by many others, a good deal of work has gone into establishing the late Anglo-Saxon kingdom as unusually closely and effectively administered, and the coinage has been a big part of that because of the kind of micro-management arguments I’ve mentioned, which would require a very modern-looking grasp of fiscal economics to dream up.4 If the kingship’s aims were actually more ideological than fiscal, that doesn’t remove the fact that apparently it could, on a fairly frequent basis, call in almost all of the coinage and replace it, a thing that almost no other medieval state could hope to do or even see any point in. Indeed, one could follow Rory all the way and see the flexibility of this system, minting coins as needed in places that only sprang into life as mints occasionally and meeting demand where the demand mainly was (London, Lincoln, Stamford, York and Winchester struck between half and three-quarters of any given type, Rory had told us), as a strength, indicating a responsive and adaptable system rather than a rigid and dictatorial one. What it begins no longer to look like, however, is a prototype for English modernity, and that is probably good to make clear.


1. Dolley didn’t really compile a monographic statement of his theory, and the closest one can get to a summary of it is probably R. H. M. Dolley and D. Michael Metcalf, “The Reform of the English Coinage under Edgar” in Dolley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Coins: studies presented to F. M. Stenton on the occasion of his 80th birthday, 17 May 1960 (London 1961), pp. 136-168, though one (and by one I suppose I really mean Rory) has also to take account of updates like Dolley & C. Stewart Lyon, “Additional evidence for the sequence of types early in the reign of Edward the Confessor” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 39 (1967), pp. 59-61 or Dolley, “Some neglected Scandinavian evidence for the ordering of the early types of Edward the Confessor”, Seaby’s Coin and Medal Bulletin no. 693 (London 1976), pp. 154-158. Probably the best place to find the significant references is in fact shortly to be Rory Naismith, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 8: Britain and Ireland, c. 400-1066 (Cambridge forthcoming)! As for the Campbell theory, the starting point is J. Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a maximum view” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1994), pp. 39-65, repr. in idem, The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 1-30, along with several other relevant papers, including at pp. 201-225 idem, “Some Agents and Agencies of the Late Anglo-Saxon State” in James C. Holt (ed.), Domesday Studies: Papers read at the Novocentenary Conference of the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of British Geographers, Winchester, 1986 (Woodbridge 1986), pp. 201-218, and one could also point back to Campbell, “Observations on English Government from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 25 (London 1975), pp. 39-54, repr. in idem, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London 1986), pp. 155-170.

2. The extent to which Dolley carried the numismatists of his generation with him is to some extent evident in the number of things about his system that he co-wrote, as witness the cites above, but even in 1976 some disquiet was emerging, evident in Stewart Lyon, “Some Problems in Interpreting Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 5 (Cambridge 1976), pp. 173-224, while on the other hand people who liked to think in systems were having a ball with it, most memorably for me S. R. H. Jones, “Devaluation and the Balance of Payments in Eleventh-Century England: an exercise in Dark Age economics” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 45 (London 1991), pp. 594-607, which is really special thinking.

3. This new perspective seems to be due not least to Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. Volume 1: legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001), though some influence from the German scholarship focussed on ritual must also be involved, visible for example in Levi Roach, “Public rites and public wrongs: ritual aspects of diplomas in tenth- and eleventh-century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182-203. The Lamb of God coinage is especially useful for emphasising this ideological broadcasting, as it seems to have had no real economic rôle: see Rory Naismith & Simon Keynes, “The Agnus Dei pennies of King Æthelred the Unready” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 40 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 175-223, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675111000093.

4. In which respect it’s interesting to compare the works in n. 1 above with Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257, about which I wrote here a long time ago but now seems more prophetic than I then realised.

Seminar CCXXIII: hackweights, cut coins and secret knowledge in Viking England

Sing hallelujah, for I have brought my seminar reporting backlog under a year again at last! Witness: the date of the seminar involved in this post is 13th January 2015, when my old colleague and Viking metal expert Jane Kershaw came to Birmingham to tell the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages about “The Bullion Economy of Viking England”, and I was there.

Part of the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

Part of the classic example of hack metal from the British Isles, the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

The starting premise here is a duality long accepted by scholars of early medieval Scandinavia between monetary economies, where value can be measured, stored and exchanged in coin that is guaranteed to some extent by an outside agency like the state, and a bullion economy in which precious metal (or other metal) is dealt with by weight to perform the same functions. This is a concern of Scandinavianists because Viking Age Scandinavia operated on the latter terms whereas the places it was preying on usually had money, so whereas a ninth-century hoard in, say, the Paris basin would usually be coins, a ninth-century hoard in Sweden is classically many many Samanid dirhams, coins yes but often cut into non-arithmetic fragments, along with bits of jewellery, ingots and other lumps and bits of cut-up metal, or hacksilver as it’s usually called. Even the intact coins in such a hoard will very often bear peck marks from where their metal content was not taken on trust but tested with a knife-point or similar.

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing 'peck' marks in the upper right quarter

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing ‘peck’ marks in the upper right quarter. The coin is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Now of course, sometimes you get ‘Viking’ hoards in ‘victim’ areas, and this is especially the case in the areas of England that were subject to Viking settlement. But these were money-using areas, so what happened when people who worked a different way moved in? This was the subject of Jane’s paper, because while hoards have told us mainly that settlers seem quickly to have adopted coin, to the point of making their own proper-standard stuff in the name of locally-culted saints, the single-finds that are continually being recovered by metal-detector users these days, the bits and pieces that people dropped or lost and which therefore presumably represent the everyday better than an emergency deposit like a hoard, tell a different story, because what they dropped and lost looks much more like the kind of cut-up bullion we expect from a non-monetary situation. In other words, people were doing both.

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum; photograph by Jane Kershaw

To an extent, this shouldn’t surprise us, as several people opined in questions. When your smallest available monetary unit is a penny cut in half or quarter, quite a rare thing to find but still in the realm of, say, five or ten pounds sterling as of 2015—total fudge figures because we can buy so much more and get money so much more easily, but an approximation for thinking with—some smaller ways of handling value must have been desirable, for the basic everyday level of exchange that we mostly can’t see but assume was usually done with produce. But Jane gave us two other important things to consider.

Viking silver ingot

A smooth, ‘regular’ ingot with rounded ends and test marks (PAS ‘Find-ID’ SF-144CA2, photo: PAS), says Jane on her blog

Firstly, many of the lumps of metal we find are much bigger than this, including ingots of around 50 grams, with a buying power on the same scale of more like three to five hundred pounds. So the bullion economy could supplement the top end of the monetary one as well as the bottom one, and perhaps better since really tiny pieces of silver and gold such as might make for low denomination currency would be awfully easy to lose!

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200. Photograph by Klaus Göken/Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte/Berlin State Museums.

Secondly, operating in a bullion economy requires learned skills that a monetary one displaces: you as trader, on whatever scale, need to be able to weigh, test, evaluate and value all kinds of metal object or fragment to be sure that you are receiving what you think fair and paying no more than you have to. Coin which you can trust gets rid of those problems and leaves you only haggling over a fair price, without needing to work out how to express that, demand it or ensure that you’ve really received it. Small wonder that many graves of people from this period with strong Scandinavian connections include small sets of weights and balances!

An assemblage of Viking metalwork finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A carefully-sorted assemblage of finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Obviously they didn’t come in looking as tidy as this!

This all sounds somewhat chaotic, and assemblages like the above, pulled together from twenty-five years of metal detecting over the area of a short-lived Viking fortified harbour, tend to corroborate that impression: how could anyone manage all this stuff? Well, among all the stuff above that seemed clear and sensible and somewhat like someone pointing out the floor under a carpet I had got very used to walking on, Jane also had some hints of a system being used to manage the chaos, by possibly setting weight standards in some metals. The hints here are cubo-octohedral weights, square lumps with the corners cut off, which are found in various sizes from just above a gram to just below four, and are numbered with spots, like dice with only one face. They are found numbered all the way from one to six, and their weights are roughly in proportion to those numbers but so far no example has been found with five spots.

A Viking cuboctohedral weight with four dots on it

A number four weight of the type Jane was discussing, photographed by her and discussed on her blog (click through)

It’s hard not to see a system there, and Allan McKinley bravely suggested that a dirham might be about the right weight to be the five-spot unit, though I checked this later and dirhams seem usually to have been too heavy. But the problem is variation and regulation: the weights aren’t exactly consistent, and how could they be? What reference could there have been except someone else’s weights? That need not preclude an aim to be consistent, but it makes it impossible for us to verify: the error margins of the weights of something so small could very easily exceed a step in the scheme. If a high-weight two-spot one weighs more than someone else’s light three-spot one, we have to ask not only how could this work but how can we be sure they really should be the other way round? I’m not saying Jane’s not right about this, but early medieval metrology is notoriously unverifiable except by constructing models that then guide your sense of what the objects ‘should’ weigh, and given that, I’m not sure what she will have to do to convince me we can really know that one of the models is sustainable…


Jane’s cite for the bullion economy system was Dagfinn Skre (ed.), Means of exchange dealing with silver in the Viking Age, Norske Oldfunn 23 (Århus 2008), and it’s a good one, though I feel that we have to mention Mark Blackburn, Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles, British Numismatic Society Special Publication 7 (London 2011) too; for more local examples, see now Jane Kershaw, “Viking-Age Silver in North-West England: hoards and single finds” in Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths & Elizabeth Royles (edd.), In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (Florence KY 2014), pp. 149-164.

Name in Print XVI

[This was originally posted on 22nd November 2014, when its news was hot off the press, but I’ve now reached that point in my legendary backlog, so I unstick this post to allow it to join the flow in the place it should originally have occupied. Besides, I bet you haven’t all bought the book yet…]

The teaching reading is still swamping me, I’m afraid, what with having so little spare time in which to find the hours for it, but, raising my head briefly, what do I find but that the third of my 2014 outputs has now emerged, taking the form of a paper in this rather handsome-looking volume.

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

When Mark Blackburn told us at the Fitzwilliam in 2009 that his long-running battle with lymphoma was now in its final stages, many plans emerged from the initial shock and sadness. One of them was this, a volume of essays which we knew, even then, short of a miracle he would not live to see but with which the editors, Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen, along with many others all wanted, nonetheless, to express somehow our personal debts and the great debt of the field of early medieval monetary and economic history to Mark’s vast energy, encouragement and scholarship. Now it exists, and while one obviously wishes he could have seen it, it more than fulfils its task: there are essays here by people in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and France and by people at all stages of their academic careers inside and outside the Academy (because that last is allowed in numismatics), twenty-five essays in all, covering Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Viking, Scandinavian, Carolingian, Byzantine and Spanish coinages, and there’s also me.

fsmasbbovo

No, for once I am not just being self-deprecating in my announcement of a publication, I’ve just totted the contents up and I really am the only person in this volume not writing about coins, except in their absence, which is of course my numismatic speciality: instead my paper is about the supposed use of livestock as a currency equivalent in Northern Iberia in the early Middle Ages. I will admit that coins do get mentioned, but only to emphasise their absence. Still, this was a subject I came across during working on Medieval European Coinage 6 for Mark, I ranted about it in his office to his amusement and I think it would have amused him further to see it in print. I’m really pleased to be in this volume. I’ve only got two things forthcoming now, I need to pile more stuff into the queue! Happily there is an article in final revision on my active pile right now

Statistics, for the record: one draft only with two rounds of revisions, that draft submitted November 2012 for a final emergence in print October 2014, just short of two years. This is about average and it was a complex book to assemble considering how various the contributors’ employments and backgrounds are: I’ve changed jobs twice during its preparation and I’m not the only one either!


Full cite: Jonathan Jarrett, “Bovo Soldare: a sacred cow of Spanish economic history re-evaluated” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 187-204.

Seminar CLIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures I

Turning to the pile of unreported seminars, lectures and so on that I have for you leaves me keenly aware of how far behind I am but also of how much I don’t, in some sense, need to cover. The last seminar I went to in 2012 and the first in 2013 were covered at Magistra et Mater long ago already, and so was the second, and thus I find myself leaping forward to 18th January 2013 and back to Professor John Blair, who on that afternoon gave the first of his lectures as Ford Lecturer for 2013.1

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The Ford Lectures are an annual series of public lectures in history that have been running in Oxford since 1896. They are given by a historian elected by a board that administers the relevant bequest, and they are what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’. They are attended by a whole range of people, by no means all historians, and they consequently have to be pitched for an intelligent but non-expert audience. Probably as a result of this some fairly important books have resulted from them that hold their value even today.2 Given this audience and opportunity, Professor Blair opted to showcase his latest work, the early outcomes of the project that had left yours truly holding the fort for him while he was on leave, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, and the first lecture was called “Defining Anglo-Saxon Landscapes”.

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

One recent high-profile excavation, the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The starting position here was basically that the massive availability of new archæological data accumulated since digging became a normal part of building and development work permits a new survey of what we know about settlement in the Anglo-Saxon period, but very little has been done to take this chance, not least because of the sheer volume of material.3 But John evidently likes a challenge and has read really quite a lot of it, and talked to a great many people in various places. Not all these people had talked to each other, of course, so sometimes there was work from places very near to each other which no-one but John had seen all of; even where this wasn’t the case, the construction of a national framework offered new meanings for it all at a higher level. In the lectures John focused most notably on Mercia, but the book will apparently offer more (and he has already covered some of the gaps by publishing his recent Chadwick lecture).4

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Even what we had involved considerable diversity, however, of settlement and of evidence and investigation: coins, sunken-featured buildings, post-built houses, portable artefacts and grave-goods have all been found and indeed been sought differently over the years and from place to place. John also laid considerable stress on what we cannot see, of which the most obvious thing is wooden artefacts, tools and possessions and indeed in some cases buildings; he used examples from modern Karelia, here among many other places, to make the point that, “fugitive things can be very elaborate”. Not just wood, of course: my notes also mention tapestries and tents as examples of things that we know could be very splendid in the Middle Ages but which almost never survive archæologically. On top of this, but consequently hard to detect, are genuine regional differences in Anglo-Saxon-period practice, which might be matters of fashion or identity but might also in any given case also or instead be environmental as much as anything, and lying around the landscape are things that are very evident but impossible to date, like earthworks, which lately have been getting more and more likely to be Anglo-Saxon in date in at least some cases but usually only might be.

A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

Last signs of an identity crisis? A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

The purely environmental factors can be differentiated from more cultural ones because the latter change, however. For much of this period, for example, the South Coast was apparently not as important an area in trading and settlement terms as the North Sea coast, despite the former’s greater proximity to the Continent.5 Trade is one thing, however, and settlement is another and harder to get at; it doesn’t seem to reliably coincide with coin finds or cemetery evidence, for example, so that a complex model of culture and materiality is needed. John hypothesized that for the earliest part of the period, where furnished burial seems to be the main cultural expression we can recover archæologically, Anglo-Saxon society was going through a crisis of identity that makes the very phrase `Anglo-Saxon society’ problematic, but that once it was through that things like buildings, coins and ceramics became a a more likely sphere for material investment. Filling out that suggestion had to wait a week for the next lecture, however, and so I shall leave it to another post having hopefully whetted your appetites for more!


1. The ones I’m not covering, just for completeness, are: Edward James, “Visualising the Merovingians in Nineteenth-Century France”, paper presented to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 12th December 2012; Éienne Rénaud, “From Merovech to Clovis: what can we really know?”, ibid., 9th January 2013; and Rob Houghton, “The Vocabulary of Groups in Eleventh-Century Mantua”, ibid. 16th January 2013.

2. I suppose the ones that matter most to what I do are J. Armitage Robinson, The Times of St. Dunstan: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1922 (Oxford 1923); Frank Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066–1166: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1929 (Oxford 1932, repr. 1961); Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1943 (Oxford 1946, repr. 1998); J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1970 (Oxford 1971); Donald A. Bullough, Alcuin: Achievement and Reputation. Being Part of the Ford Lectures Delivered in Oxford in the Hilary Term 1980, Education and Society and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance 16 (Leiden 2004); and Peter Sawyer, The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2013), but there are lots of others covering other periods.

3. An Oxford determination to address this is already evident in Helena Hamerow, Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2012).

4. John Blair, The British Culture of Anglo-Saxon Settlement, H. M. Chadwick Lecture 24 (Cambridge 2013).

5. John here made considerable play of distribution maps emphasising the relative wealth of an area he described as “the Wash catchment area”, a sort of Greater Great Ouse reaching down to the Chilterns, but in terms of the coastal areas the importance of the North Sea compared to the Channel is a conclusion one could also find in Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982) and Chris Loveluck, “Problems of the definition and conceptualisation of early medieval elites, AD 450-900: the dynamics of the archaeological evidence” in François Bougard, Hans-Werner Goetz & Régine le Jan (edd.), Théorie et pratiques des élites au Haut Moyen Âge : Conception, perception et réalisation sociale. Theorie und Praxis frühmittelalterlicher Eliten: Konzepte, Wahrnehmung und soziale Umsetzung, Haut Moyen Âge 13 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 21-68.

Feudal Transformations XVI: two fields or three?

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system


As with so many of the best bits of learning, a while ago I came up against something in a book that I was reading, for completely different reasons, that made me think anew about the fabled old feudal transformation (and you might think I’d thought enough about that, these days). This thing was a chapter by one Helmut Hildebrandt about the spread of the three-field system in Central Europe, by which he turned out to mean substantially Germany with a glance at the Paris basin.1 Over that area he argued that over the eighth to tenth centuries the system of using three fields in rotation, one for sowing a winter crop to be harvested in spring, one for a summer crop to be harvested in the autumn and one lying fallow to get the next winter crop, became fairly widely established, whereas it had been largely missing before that. I wasn’t thinking much of this till the date 1000 crossed the text and I suddenly wondered about the effects of increased yield on the economy, since as you may recall as much of an answer as I have to the whole transformation question is that, “it’s the economy, stupid”. So, does all this add up to anything I should have thought about by now?

Well, the evidence Hildebrandt had for the phenomenon is kind of horrible: he’s very largely arguing from the ways that rents were collected by ecclesiastical landowners over the period, as revealed in sources like polyptychs and leases. That makes sense in so far as they’re kind of all we have (though in England I don’t think anyone would try and argue about this without using survey evidence too2) but it has all kinds of issues. Churches had long-term land strategies in ways that lay landowners didn’t necessarily: they could be supporting a lot more unproductive mouths than the average lay household, not just in the community but in terms of poor relief and hospitality, and of course their land was never divided by inheritance so they could plan in a longer term.3 Their rents might therefore be exactly the place we’d expect to see systematisation but we can’t really argue from that that it got any further into the community. Of course, the churches were a lot of landownership, so it’s still significant. But since Hildebrandt was very happy here to argue against deducing significant change from such evidence where it would take away from his overall picture, on the grounds that underneath a rent structure the land can be organised any way that pays it, there are still problems.4 In fairness, there he was mainly talking about common fields, and the more work I see about common fields in the earlier Middle Ages the more I think the debate is basically anachronistic in the hands of everyone but Gaspar Feliu.5 No, I am cautious about accepting this phenomenon as anything like universal, but then so was Hildebrandt, emphasising variation and alternatives and making a complex picture of a tendency towards a three-field system that in some areas with special conditions worked out differently.6 But even if we say that it’s only a trend and that the ecclesiastical landowners we see doing it may be leading that trend, it ought to make some kind of difference to how much wealth is in the system and that is kind of the motor of change either side of 1000 as far as I’m concerned. So is this where that change is coming from?

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Well, as we’ve seen before and will doubtless see again, there’s a problem with most ’causes’ of broad social change in the Middle Ages, which is that they tend to happen together and so one can usually argue that any one is causing all the others. This is the point of my famous diagram, above, after all. The biggest problem I have with this change in agriculture being such a driver is that it was new to me, because in Catalonia the situation is a lot more varied, with three-field going back to an uncertain date but two-field arable and grassland rotation equally common and vines messing up the picture by being a cash crop. People here at the right time tended to have land in a variety of small plots good for only one thing and a system is hard to construct for it.7 Hildebrandt’s picture really only covers Germany, the Low Countries and North-Eastern France, and the problem is that only the last of these really undergoes something that is easily recognisable as part of the feudal transformation model, and even there there’s a degree of top-down collapse of authority for other reasons that might be enough all by itself.8 Meanwhile, where this change is most marked is where there’s least other change. So if it’s a motor it isn’t much of one.

The other problem is one of the chicken and the egg. Here this is especially important. Hildebrandt did consider why this change that he saw was happening, and his belief was that the change towards common fields, at least, which is later than the change of field rotation as he saw it, is down to the increase of population requiring a greater yield from existing land and so idle land in awkward locations being brought into cultivation where before individual ownership had not been able to work it usefully.9 I think that seigneurial renders should probably also be considered as a driver there but we can easily guess where I got that from.10 Either way, the shift of systems is a consequence here of other things that have their place in the debate as causes. Even though it’s earlier than most of the big social changes embroiled in the feudal transformation model, a partial change in crop rotation seems likely to be an effect, not a cause, part of the bigger take-off run of the European economy in this era.11

So at the end I don’t think this gets me any new answers. But I am suddenly very conscious that to the best of my knowledge this kind of work has not been done for my area, and I’m not sure that sources exist from which it could, as yet. And that bothers me, because if I’m going to discount this there I’d like to do so from more than silence.


1. 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 can see why it was an unexpected find given that it’s about neither Anglo-Saxons nor settlement.

2. I suppose I think of Christopher Taylor, Village and Farmstead: rural settlement in medieval England (London 1983) but his “The Anglo-Saxon Countryside” in Trevor Rowley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlement and Landscape. Papers Presented to a Symposium, Oxford 1973, British Archaeological Reports (British series) 6 (Oxford 1974), pp. 5-15, might be a better parallel.

3. Nowhere witnessed so thoroughly as in the regulations on bread in the Statutes of Adalhard Abbot of Corbie, translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32.

4. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 284-287.

5. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “La pagesia i els béns comunals” in Els grans espais baronials a l’Edat Mitjana: desenvolupament socioeconòmic. Reunió científica. I Curs d’Estiu Comtat d’Urgell (Balaguer, 10, 11 i 12 de juliol de 1996) (Lleida 2002), pp. 23-40; cf. 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, about which as you may remember I had views.

6. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 279-284 (esp. 282-283) and 287-290.

7. Working from Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507, and further work collected in Immaculada Ollich, Maria Ocañ & Montserrat Rocafiguera (edd.), Experimentació arqueològica sobre conreus medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), online at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sK1ptZDwfV8C as of 28 July 2011, where they really don’t have an archaeological basis for separating the early and high medieval field systems; Reynolds’s initial paper describes them using both two-field and three-field in their tests precisely for this reason.

8. Classically described in Jean-François Lemarignier, “La dislocation du « pagus » et le problème des « consuetudines », Xe-XIe siècles” in Charles-Edmond Perrin (ed.), Mélanges d’histoire du moyen âge dédiés à la mémoire de Louis Halphen (Paris 1951), pp. 401-410, repr. in Lemarignier, Structures politiques et religieuses dans la France du haut Moyen Âge, ed. Dominique Barthélemy, Publications de l’Université de Rouen 206 (Rouen 1995), pp. 245-254.

9. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 286-287.

10. Chris Wickham, “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, and his “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32, the last of which is where I read it.

11. On which see La croissance agricole du haut Moyen Âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

Seminars CXXV & CXXVI: differing data from the East

In the continuing attempt to clear some of my ridiculous blogging backlog before the new academic year starts in the UK, I am sadly going to pass over James Palmer‘s paper at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar in London in February this year, not because it wasn’t interesting but because Magistra has already covered it, and this brings me back to Oxford. As we saw with the last of these posts, on a Monday when it seems to be required, it’s possible to attend both the Medieval Archaeology Seminar and the Medieval History Seminar here as there’s half an hour’s grace between them, and the 27th of February was such a day, as a remarkably complementary pair of papers were being given across the two. The first was “Between the Carolingian West and the Byzantine East: fortified élite settlements of the 9th and 10th centuries AD in Central Europe”, by Dr Hajnalka Herold and the second was “Dirhams for Slaves: investigating the Slavic slave trade in the tenth century” by Dr Marek Jankowiak.

The hilltop over which stretches the site of the Gars Thunau hillfort complex, on what seems to have been a horrible day when whatever satellite Google gets its pictures from flew by

I first heard Hajnalka speak at the Kalamazoo of 2010, as is duly recorded here indeed, and this meant that some of what she was presenting was not new to me, as in order to set things up she had to talk us quickly through a number of sites which are not exactly household names in the West. (I sympathise with this: it frightens me how few people have any clear idea where Girona is and no-one but me and by now you has heard of Vic or Urgell but at least, bar the latter perhaps, people can usually spell the names from my area once they’ve heard them.) The sites are scattered across a zone shared between what is now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the state of publication and excavation is very various but, starting especially from Gars Thunau in Austria, Hajnalka is trying to fit these various, and variously-sized, power centres into wider frameworks, and as you can tell from the title of her talk is willing to look quite widely to find out what the builders thought they were doing and what kind of position they’d achieved that meant they could do it. The zone lay between empires, Frankish, Byzantine and at times Bulgarian, and any of these might be found pushing their influence into it at a given point in the period. The two former especially competed in the mission field, and had done for some time of course, which makes it particularly tantalising that many of these sites contained churches, in fact in the case of Mikulčice, in Moravia, nine churches, and in Zalavár in Hungary, a huge one which seems to have been of a size and complexity to rival pretty much anything in the West of the time, and a number of smaller ones on neighbouring patches of sandy ground. A Salzburg text called the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum claims that this was the work of the Archbishops of Salzburg, but it would be nice to know which phases and when, if that’s even true…1 (I note that further south, in Croatia, there is dispute over whether the Aachen-like complex at Zadar was put there in emulation of or in reaction against Carolingian ecclesiastical pressure.2)

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár,  Hungary

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár, Hungary, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy initially to see what unites these complexes: firstly, they’re all fortified settlements and secondly, where there is good dating evidence, they seem to have all got new ramparts at the close of the ninth century. That’s more or less where the similarities end, however: the technologies of building, the size and focality of the complexes and likely, therefore, their apparent purposes all differ site to site. Furthermore, with only archæology to go on (the few written sources here, Conversio included, don’t help very much at all putting together a big picture) it’s hard to guess at who was in charge of any of these places or how they were supported.3 There are aspects that look familiar from the West: all these sites showed evidence of craft manufacture (though glass and precious metal were confined to the biggest ones), of space for Christian worship and for burial (not obviously non-Christian, if there is in fact any such thing archæologically-speaking) and of social stratification. On the other hand, these sites were not emporia, their trade links as so far testified in the material culture were thin and almost incidental, although quite farflung, there’re almost no coins and so forth. (More digging could change this in almost all cases, however.) The links that we do see, however, run both east and west, and this is clearest in the dress hinted at by the burial evidence: broadly, Hajnalka sketched, we’re looking at a set of sites at which the men dressed Frankish and the women dressed Byzantine, high-status persons in both cases of course and not without exceptions. The rank and file (and indeed the slaves who must have been there) are less distinctive. So the big message that Hajnalka had was that, although it is very easy for Westerners to look at a scenario like this (or that at Zadar, as noted above) and see a reaction to the Carolingian and Ottonian Drang nach Osten, in which local élites funnel luxury goods from the pressuring western empire and use that wealth to build up structures against it, when you’re on, and indeed in, the ground at these places the Franks were very far from being the only players for these people’s attention and imitation.4 But there is much more to be done to work out what the people in question were actually up to, in political or other terms, and we can hopefully look to Hajnalka to do some of it!5

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

The Medieval Archaeology seminar has lately taken to laying on tea and cake afterwards, which is very welcome and made it much more possible to pay attention to Marek Jankowiak after the brief trot to All Soul’s College. My notes indicate that he had an excellent set of visuals to back up his argument, about which sadly I can remember nothing, but those of you who may be setting up to see what must be a related paper at this term’s Institute of Historical Research seminar are in for a treat, at least. Here I can only recreate from my notes alas, and they tell me that what was principally at issue here was the absolutely huge preservation of Islamic silver coinage in Northern Europe. Dr Jankowiak wanted to get us thinking about how they had wound up there and what was moving in exchange. This first entailed a more detailed analysis of the finds than I’ve seen before, noting that particular areas receiving dirhams seem to have blipped in and out of the record at different times (except in Gotland where deposition was pretty continuous), and that the area providing them seems to have shifted from Iran to the Samanid Emirate at Khorasan over the tenth century, with Iraq hardly showing up and Spain not there at all. These were supplemented by imitations of such coins from the Khazar and Bulgar areas, again shifting from one to the other over the tenth century. By a series of rather unlikely calculations, Dr Jankowiak hypothesized that, if 75%-80% of this exchange was being paid for with slaves (a figure whose basis he did not explain) then we might be thinking of an export of 30,000-60,000 human beings over the century, a few hundred every year, but that that would not include exports to the West which, however they were going, were obviously not being paid for in a medium so readily hoarded. Identifying the slaves archæologically, given that they were exported and acculturated, is basically impossible but just because of the numbers involved Dr Jankowiak wound up developing a picture in which entire peoples, small tribes or whatever, were basically hoovered up and fed into this market by their more powerful neighbours, and thus suggested that the reason for the sudden boom in fortification in Central Europe in this era is because those who could be wanted to be on the rich side of this process, not the poor side! He saw in this the origins of settlement nucleation in Poland, especially, and suggested that we should perhaps see the lesser hillforts not so much as fortifications but as slave corrals with garrisons via a chain of which the unfortunate human goods were convoyed eastwards, a system out of whose profits new states might bloodily grow.

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air, rebuilt 989 after destruction by fire of unknown previous date

At that point, of course, these two papers came directly into conflict. For example, in Dr Jankowiak’s Southern Poland, apparently, many of the forts (and there are many there, but of course only a few have been dug well enough to provide dating evidence) show destruction layers. Is this because Poland was developing a central power that had to suppress these places? In that case, one might equally expect the Polish forts to be refuges, something that Dr Jankowiak ruled out due to the very small number of finds there that suggests to him only temporary occupation. But, many of these sites were dug (when they have been) a long time ago and it’s debatable what would have been found in such excavations and whether occupation, rather than just ‘artefacts’, would have been recognised. Anyway, the point of refuges surely is that they’re only temporarily occupied. And so on. These are issues I’ve brought out myself, but plenty of other people also had objections, about the neglected contribution of the fur trade (better seen in animal bone evidence further east than here, according to Dr Jankowiak), about the effects on prices of this influx of money that likely make a constant figure for the tenth-century slave economy problematic and (of course) about the hypothetical mathematics, it wasn’t even me for once. I did, however, ask about the hoards in Scandinavia, to wit: why on earth is there deposition on such a scale here without retrieval? Because if you have a hoard, one thing you can say for sure is that the owner didn’t come back for it. Was Scandinavia then even less stable than Central Europe’s slave-grounds? Dr Jankowiak thought that the hoards might be sort of treasure banks that were accessed on a small scale only, an increasingly fashionable idea, but if so, what the finds evidence seems to be showing us is an Eastern Scandinavian economy that brought in a great deal of coin but seems then to have considerable difficulty doing anything with it, which must make it worth rethinking whether this was in fact about getting rich. So there was a lot of debate. All the same, there is this much that cannot be gainsaid here: we know there was a slave trade, some of this money that we have found must have been paid for slaves, the changes in its deposition probably do reflect a variation in the availability of goods that Islamic merchants would pay for and so there’s a certain horrible plausibility about some of the mechanisms Dr Jankowiak laid out here, even if not whether the forts are part of those mechanisms or not. With that much accepted, if I can bring George Bernard Shaw back in again, we may just be haggling over how much was involved…


1. This intriguing but allusive text was edited by Herwig Wolfram as Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum: das Weissbuch der Salzburger Kirche über die erfolgreiche Mission in Karantanien und Pannonien (Wien 1979) and he seems to have spent a long time since then trying to figure it out, resulting in idem, Salzburg, Bayern, Österreich: die Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum und die Quellen ihrer Zeit, Mitteilungen des Instituts Österreichs für Geschichtsforschung Ergänzungsband 31 (Wien 1995). This is not my area and I’m not going to pretend to have read either of these (I’ve seen quotes from the former), but they exist should you want to.

2. Here I know what I know from Miljenko Jurkovic and Ante Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

3. One possibility, which I understand from Hajnalka may indeed be feasible at some of these sites, could be the kind of analysis of animal bone that Leslie Alcock was able to get done at the very early medieval Welsh site of Dinas Powys, and which showed that the cattle they were getting there were all young animals, not the spread of ages or mostly mature beasts that you’d get from a natural herd, thus showing that the occupiers of the site were probably receiving tribute: see his Dinas Powys: An Iron Age, Dark Age and Early Medieval Settlement in Glamorgan (Cardiff 1963), reprised and updated in his Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987), pp. 5-150 where the animal bones are discussed pp. 67-82.

4. For a round-up of the post-Carolingian view of this general area see Matthew Innes, “Franks and Slavs c. 700-1000: the problem of European expansion before the millennium” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 6 (Oxford 1997), pp. 201-216.

5. And indeed since this paper took place she has done, in the form of “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries AD in Central Europe: Structure, Function and Symbolism” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.0000000003. I’m not quite clear if this is actually out yet: the journal’s website says the current issue is Vol. 57 (2013) but only gives indices for up to Vol. 55 (2011). In either case I must thank Hajnalka for sending me a preprint version ahead of publication.

Seminar CIX: where’s the money in early Anglo-Saxon England?

I think I’ve decided to run with this theme for the moment, though some things may get shifted around for greater elegance. I’ll advertise any major changes, though. Thankyou all for comments. Now, back to the backlog! It probably won’t surprise you, now that you know that the Winton Institute for Monetary History were being medieval in their seminar series last year, that I was back there before long, on this occasion because Michael Metcalf was speaking, and he is a man whose work I’d read quite a bit of as an undergraduate and heard much of during my time at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but never actually met. He could best be described as Mark Blackburn‘s opposite number in Oxford, but started rather earlier and has perhaps said some more, um, adventurous things, so I was interested to see what would transpire.1 His paper, presented on the 16th November 2011, was entitled, “Thrymsas and sceattas and the balance of payments”.

Reverse of a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

A sceatta (pronounced 'she-att-er'), to wit, a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection. This is the reverse; it's really about a centimetre across.

It used, as Professor Metcalf began by saying, to be thought that the monetary economy began in the High Middle Ages, but ever since metal-detecting got big this has got steadily harder and harder to maintain. The take-off point keeps getting earlier and earlier as more coin is discovered. Especially prevalent have been finds of the earliest coinages of early medieval England and its neighbours, the coins usually known as sceattas (though Mark preferred ‘early pennies’) and their rarer gold predecessors, thrymsas. These have multiplied to such an extent that everyone is now agreed that the old classification of them makes no more sense but very few people have dared to risk putting a foundation down in the ongoing flow of evidence to start a new one, so the coins remain somewhat poorly understood.2 Once it was clear that the high medieval proponents were wrong, anyway, the next paradigm came from none other than Richard Hodges, who in the early 1980s suggested that these coins were in use only by élites and that the average peasant never saw them.3 This was defensible at the time of writing but is an especially hard-hit casualty of the increase in evidence; there’s just too much now, too widely-spread, for any sensible reconstruction of how much there once was to fit such an idea. So, it’s necessary to rethink what coinage in early Anglo-Saxon England was actually doing.

Reverse of Anglo-Saxon gold shilling of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002

A thrymsa, or shilling, in this instance of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002, the reverse again, and even tinier than the previous

This paper had a go, then, at doing this by analysing the distribution of finds of these coinages. We are especially able to get at these now because of electronic resources like the venerable Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam and the rather newer NUMIS in the Netherlands. Playing with these quickly reveals the one-sidedness of finds of the (probably) earliest sceattas, of which many were made in both the Netherlands and England but English ones of which are only found in the latter, whereas the Low Countries ones get everywhere.4 This suggests to Professor Metcalf a balance of payments, and he suggested therefore that wool was a key export even this early, since the coins are in fact found most thickly in the Cotswolds and Yorkshire Wolds, wool-producing areas of note. That also suggests that the goods were shipped direct with no trade on the way! So, that might be élite, if that’s how you see English wool production even as early as the seventh century,5 though it might also not, but the distribution of finds of locally-minted gold coins of the seventh century is basically uniform, so it seems quite unlikely that the good stuff was being concentrated by any such interest. The élite hypothesis does, therefore, seem to have to go.

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

Replica of a (much later) Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

A lot of the paper rested on estimates of the sizes of coinage, an area in which Professor Metcalf has become famous.6 For example: we can now identify nine hundred dies used in the striking of the surviving corpus of seventh-century thrymsas. There are various well-established means for multiplying these figures up towards an estimate of the whole coinage, which when applied here reasoned for three million plus coins total, on a multiplier of five thousand coins per total extrapolated dies, and more probably something like a million in circulation at once.7 Of the gold. If we use modern parishes as a guide to how many villages there were (and you see here what I meant by ‘adventurous’), we might then expect there to be 300-odd gold coins in any given village at once! Now, I am pretty dubious about this kind of arithmetic, as you will know, although even if you halve these figures and double the number of ‘villages’ (a thing that didn’t really exist in the seventh century but let’s just assume it means ‘district’ or ‘area’ and that’s fine8—and one point that came up in questions that I’d never considered is that one thing that must be missing from distribution maps of coin finds is settlements, at least where they have continued, because you can’t metal-detect in towns!) that is still quite a lot of gold to spread out. All the same, even if the actual numbers are rubbish, one point is still true: doing the same maths with the same multipliers for later Anglo-Saxon England nets you much much less. Unless there was something specifically weird about the way money was produced in one or other period (and there certainly was about the later period, given how widely and in what small quantities it might be minted, but that ought to exaggerate the later figures, not shrink them), England was more monetised in the seventh century than it was even in the eleventh.

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent, from Archaeology in Europe (linked through) not one used by Professor Metcalf, whose maps' detail was rather finer, but I somehow find scrounging other people's handouts onto the web without their okay a step too far

So, you know, what, why and how? The answers are yet to come, but the questions are getting louder and louder. Some answers that did get suggested in questions were, the obvious one perhaps, a consumer class in the peasantry (John Blair), monasteries (also John Blair, you will be shocked to learn) both as consumers and as industrial drivers of the economy, salt and meat being bought in bulk (the latter of which was also John’s suggestion, in fact) and, back from the dead, the élite (Anthony Hotson, though here obviously channelling Chris Wickham, sadly absent), in as much as by promoting commerce and appropriating surplus that people are thus made to produce they are causing production and a market economy… And any of these might be the right answer, or indeed all of them, but none of this is coming from texts, or Henri Pirenne would likely have had the answer eighty years ago. This is one of those instances where the answer really does lie in the soil.


1. Most famously, perhaps unfairly, in one of his earliest papers, “How Large Was the Anglo-Saxon Currency?” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 18 (London 1965), pp. 475-482, where he used an estimate of 30,000 coins produced by each hypothetical die to produce a maximum figure that somehow immediately became orthodoxy…

2. The basic classification goes back to Stuart Rigold, if I understand rightly—and I really may not!—in his “The principal series of English sceattas” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 47 (London 1977), pp. 21-30, but this rapidly got liberally beaten about, not least in David Hill and Michael Metcalf (edd.), Sceattas in England and on the continent: The Seventh Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 128 (Oxford 1984) and subsequently in D. M. Metcalf, Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford 1993), 3 vols. Lately Tony Abramson has proposed a new classification in his Sceattas – An Illustrated Guide (London 2006), but the profession doesn’t seem to be happy with this and I believe we can expect more work on this soon, fostered not least by Tony’s readiness to get people together and talking about these coins as witnessed in the volume he’s edited, Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 1: Two Decades of Discovery (Woodbridge 2008), which came out of Leeds sessions (a lesson to me in prompt publication).

3. Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn 1989).

4. Presumably this is all available in W. Op den Velde & D. M. Metcalf, The Monetary Economy of the Netherlands, c. 690-c. 715 and the Trade with England: A study of the Sceattas of Series D, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 90 (Utrecht 2003) and eidem, The monetary economy of the Netherlands, c. 690 – c. 760 and the trade with England: a study of the “Porcupine” Sceattas of series E, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 96 (Utrecht 2010 for 2009), but I confess I only just now found out about those so I can’t say for sure.

5. My ill-disguised Grierson fandom obliges me to mention Philip Grierson, “The Relations Between England and Flanders Before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4th Series Vol. 23 (London 1941), pp. 71-112, repr. in Richard W. Southern (ed.), Essays in Medieval History: selected from the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society on its centenary (London 1968), pp. 61-92, though even he didn’t try to push the wool link back this many centuries, not then having the last seventy years’ finds to work from.

6. Not just his “How Large was the Anglo-Saxon Currency” above, to which one might like to compare Philip Grierson’s reply, “The Volume of Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 20 (London 1967), pp. 153-160, repr. in Grierson, Dark Age Numismatics: selected studies, Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), XXXVIII, but more recently Metcalf, “Some Speculations on the Volume of the German Coinage in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Thomas Fischer & Peter Ilisch (edd.), Lagom. Festschrift für Peter Berghaus zum 60. Geburtstag am 20. November 1979 (Münster 1981), pp. 185-193, another one I know of rather than know, and Metcalf, “Can We Believe the Very Large Figure of £72, 000 for the Geld Levied by Cnut in 1018” in K. Jonsson (ed.), Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage: in memory of Bror Emil Hildebrand (Stockholm 1990), pp. 165-176, which I have actually read, although a very long time ago…

7. Since these methods involve at crucial points making up figures, I don’t myself put much trust in them and in this I’m guided not least by Ted Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production: facts and fantasies”, Presidential Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335–351, but also by the careful compromise suggested by Martin Allen, “The volume of the English currency, c. 973–1158″ in Barrie Cook & Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and history in the North Sea world, c. AD 500–1200. Essays in honour of Marion Archibald (Leiden 2006), pp. 487-523. There’s a computer simulation test of the various statistical estimators in use published by Warren Esty, “Estimation of the size of a coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, which gives some reason for credence in such methods, but ultimately I’m with Ted on this: even if it might just be right, it’s inherent to the method that you can’t know that… That doesn’t invalidate Professor Metcalf’s relative conclusions, however!

8. See Helena Hamerow, “Settlement Mobility and the ‘Middle Saxon’ Shift: rural settlements and settlement patterns in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 1-17.