Tag Archives: Peter Reynolds

In Marca Hispanica XIV: l’Esquerda, city of helpful archæologists

L'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

L’Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia, from above

You’ve heard quite a lot about the site of l’Esquerda here by now, and more if you braved the numbers at the Kalamazoo paper indeed. I haven’t finished, however, as I was there a couple of months back as part of this trip whose telling I am still unwinding, and firstly it is one of the best-displayed archæological sites I’ve ever seen, secondly it is highly photogenic and thirdly and most importantly it has given me a heartening story, which I will now share. But first! The obligatory scenery photo!

The end of the l'Esquerda peninsula, with the River Ter visible on both sides

The end of the l’Esquerda peninsula, with the River Ter visible on both sides

I won’t try and explain once more why this place is important, I’ve done it before.1 So, just the travelogue here. The first thing is to explain that I hadn’t even planned to go to Roda de Ter, where it is, next. I had been meaning to go to Sant Pere de Casserres, but couldn’t face planning it at the end of the previous day’s labours and so woke up next day to find, on inspection, that there was no public transport there at all. I could have got halfway out on the bus back to Folgueroles from market, but it wasn’t market day in Vic and even had it been I’d still have had to walk the rest and would have arrived late and then had to walk all the way back too. Really, the only way out was a hiking route, which despite the previous day’s experience I would have been prepared to chance if I’d had time to do it; but by the time I’d made sure of this, I would have arrived just as the museum shut and had to come back in the dark. No. So instead I took the next day’s plan instead, which was to Roda de Ter and l’Esquerda, and because Roda is quite big and new-industrial, I could just hop on a bus to it and be there and back in half a day. So I did.

Outskirts of Roda de Ter, and trucks, viewed from la Muntanyeta

Outskirts of Roda de Ter, and trucks, viewed from la Muntanyeta

Excavations at la Muntanyeta, Roda de Ter, 1973

Excavations at la Muntanyeta, 1973, which I must have walked straight over

The view on the left, which I got by hauling up onto a hill to see if I could work out what direction I needed to go in, didn’t impress me much with the town. It seemed a lot as if the most important thing in it might be the trucks. This just goes to show what lies hidden though. You will observe that I have been able to find an older photo of exactly the same vantage, and this is because although all I could see up on this hill was a reservoir and a pylon, when they put that reservoir in in 1973, they found a set of stone-lined tombs that probably dated back to the seventh or eighth centuries. I must have been standing practically on them; I got quite a shock when I downloaded the article from which that picture comes a few days later apropos of something else I’d read by complete coincidence.2 So, as has been remarked elsewhere lately too, people do go on living where the archæology is. But anyway. I saw nothing useful from here, as I then thought, but when I got into the town I found the archæological site well signposted, and furthermore that the route to it led me over this:

Roman and Romanesque bridge over the River Ter at Roda de Ter

Roman and Romanesque bridge over the River Ter at Roda de Ter

The River Ter, viewed from the Pont Romà, Roda de Ter

The River Ter, viewed from the Pont Romà, Roda de Ter

The lower course of this bridge is Roman; the upper is Romanesque, but how would you tell? They just wanted a bridge that worked, and they wanted this because this road is on one of the main routes north through the Pyrenees, the strata francisca.3 There may have been several routes called this, but the one through Roda is predictably mentioned in a lot of its charters; this may be the only place left where I could be sure I was actually standing on that route, and I walked up into the town with a certain kind of connected smugness going on, crossing the river…

The Riu de Ter in spate, viewed from l'Esquerda

The Riu de Ter in spate, viewed from l’Esquerda the same afternoon

… which was extremely high this spring…

… and eventually arrived. This was one of several moments of recognition this trip gave me where I realised I was looking at something for real that I knew only from pictures in books, and you too have seen the wreck of a church just visible there on the blog. But up close it is more impressive even if it is only half there:

Ruins of Sant Pere de Roda, l'Esquerda

Ruins of Sant Pere de Roda, l’Esquerda

More below the cut… Continue reading

2:1 against: the misconception about Carolingian cereal yields

Let me try this non-aggressive corrective thing again. I posted a little while ago to the effect that I had one piece of bad history I’d like to contribute to the pile of zombie argument effigies that we would like an ideal version of the History and Policy Institute ‘Bad History’ series to be burning. That’s not very non-aggressive, I grant you, but wait, this is the new dispensation. As Magistra et Mater soberly pointed out, what the History and Policy team really want are mistakes that are misinforming public policy, and this is not one of those, so, I guess I’ll have to do it here. It’s not important to anyone now except historians, but it keeps getting repeated. Yet it’s not really sustainable, and smells suspiciously like the same contempt for the medieval that leads to stereotypes of benighted lack of hygiene or eating rotten meat. What is it? It is the idea that in the Carolingian period yields on cereal crops were scarcely twice what was sown. It would be very hard to explain how that particular super-state managed to field such large armies for so long if this were really so, and several people have disputed it, but it keeps lurching back and when I found it in a textbook I am currently evaluating (which is otherwise very good) I felt I had to set something down about why it almost certainly isn’t true.1

Georges Duby

Georges Duby

Where did these authors get the idea from? I could already guess the answer to this: it’s where I first met it, the work of this man, Georges Duby. And, sure enough, in Moran & Gerberding’s chapter bibliography (I told you this was a good textbook) we find Georges Duby’s Early Growth of the European Economy and if you have at that, you will find the basis for this claim detailed there, although it stemmed from his awareness of much older work that made similar points.2 However, he actually set it out in rather more detail in his earlier Rural Economy and Country Life, and I’ll use that to show you where he was getting it from, since I own a copy to, er, copy:

One document only for northern Gaul provides some figures. The surveyors who visited the the royal estates attached to Annapes in the winter recorded both the quantity of the previous harvest and the amount which had just been subtracted for the sowing – they certified that the remainder was actually in the barns at the time of their visit. These figures are very baffling. Here are those for the estate of Annapes, for which the inventory gives the most complete details. It is not possible to compare seed with harvest for oats, peas or beans since the spring sowings had not been made. But of the 1,320 muids of spelt harvested 720 had to be returned to the land as seed; of 100 muids of wheat, 60; of 1,800 muids of barley, 1,100; and finally the new sowing absorbed the whole of the rye harvest, that is, 98 muids. The available surplus of the harvest did not therefore appear that year to exceed 46 per cent for spelt, 40 per cent for wheat, 38 per cent for barley, that is an output of 1·8, 1·7 and 1·6 to one respectively. There appeared to be no surplus for rye. The fragmentary evidence given for other estates agrees; an output of 2:1 for spelt and of 1·6:1 for rye at Cysoing; for barley 2·2:1 at Vitry, 1·5:1 at Cysoing, 2:1 at Somain.42 Taken altogether the consumable surplus is revealed as markedly less, in the year of the inventory, than the quantity which had to be reserved for sowing. Could output really have been at such a derisory level?

The text, however, is categorical. It prevents us from assuming that, apart from seed corn, grain had already been taken away between harvest time and the visit of the compilers of the inventory for domestic consumption or for despatch outside the estate…. The only reasonable hypothesis to explain the astonishingly low figures for output is to assume that the inventory was compiled after an exceptionally bad harvest. In fact, when it was drawn up grain harvested the previous year was still stored in the barns of these estates in quantities much greater than the insignificant surplus of the current year. The surveyors found at Annapes 1,081 muids of old spelt, as against 600 of new, and 1,200 muids of old barley, as against 700 of new. These important savings prove that the output of seed was clearly much higher the previous year, We can deduce from this unique document that the productivity of the fields varied enormously from one season to another and further that it could be devastatingly low.

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….

    42 Grierson, 247. Slicher von Bath, 31, p. 66, does not seem to interpret correctly the figures in the text.3

Well, that’s pretty damning, but how about that source? In fact it’s online, thanks to the efforts of Paul Halsall at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook all those years ago, although the extract they used doesn’t have the equally damning comparative data. Indeed, neither does the translation in Duby’s book itself (Rural Economy‘s particular staying power is at least partly because it’s half-sourcebook), but it does at least direct us to an original.4 So of course does the IMSB, we would expect no less, and strangely the two originals are not the same though their translation very nearly is: Duby’s original was Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales, for which he cites MGH Cap. I pp. 254-255 whereas the IMSB’s source translation, Ogg’s Source Book of Mediaeval History, pp. 127-129, gives MGH LL I pp. 178-179.5 It’s noticeable that neither of these translations actually provide all the material that Duby cites, in particular they skip silently over any reference to last year’s barley without indicating any missing text. Hmph. So we ought to go to the Latin. Now of course these days the MGH is online, which is a thing of great joy, and makes this comparatively easy. I’ll use the MGH Cap. edition since it is newer by fifty years and as the title page proclaims, ‘denuo edito‘:

Invenimus in Asnapio fisco dominico salam regalem ex lapide factam optime, cameras III; solariis totam casam circumdatam, cum pisilibus XI; infra cellarium I; porticus II, alias casas infra curtem ex ligno factas XVII cum totidem cameris et ceteris appendiciis bene conpositis; stabolum I, coquinam I, pistrinum I, spicaria II, scuras III. Curtem tunimo strenue munitam, cum porta lapidea, et desuper solarium ad dispensandum. Curticulam similiter tunimo interclausam, ordinabiliter dispositam, diversique generis plantatam arborum. Vestimenta: lectum parandum I, drappos ad discum I parandum; toaclam I. Utensilia: concas aereas II, poculares II, calderas aereas II, ferrea I, sartaginem I, gramalium I, andedam I, farum I, secures II, dolatoriam I, terebros II, asciam I, scalprum I, runcinam I, planam I, falces II, falciculas II, palas ferro paratas II. Utensilia lignea ad ministrandum sufficienter. De conlaboratu: spelta vetus de anno praeterito corbes LXXXX, quae possunt fieri de farina pensas CCCCL, ordeum modios C. Presenti anno fuerunt speltae corbes CX: seminavit ex ipsis corbes LX, reliqua repperimus; frumenti modii C: seminavit LX, reliqua repperimus; sigilis modii LXXXXVIII, seminavit totidem; ordeo modii MDCCC: seminavit MC, reliqua repperimus. Avena modios CCCCXXX, faba modium I, pisos modios XII. De molinis V: modios DCCC ad minorem mensuram; dedito prebendariis modios CCXXXX, reliqua repperimus. De cambis IV: modios DCL ad minorem mensuram. De pontibus II: sale modios LX, et solidos II. De ortis IV: solidos XI, mel modios III. De censu: butyrum modium I; lartum de praeterito anno baccones X, novos baccones CC cum minucia et unctis; formaticos de anno presenti pensas XXXXIII. De peculio: iumenta maiora capita LI, de anno tertio V, de preterito VII, de presenti VII; poledros bimos X, annotinos VIII; emissarios III, boves XVI, asinos II, vaccas cum vitulis L, iuvencos XX, vitulos annotinos XXXVIII, tauros III, porcos maiores CCLX, porcellos C, verres V, vervices cum agnis CL, agnos annotinos CC, arietes CXX, capras cum hedis XXX, hedos annotinos XXX, hircos III, aucas XXX, pullos LXXX, pavones XXII.

Forty-three maybe-pound-weights of the present year’s cheese! Ahem! I’m sorry. I won’t give a new translation when there’s a perfectly good one out there, other than to confirm as far as I can see, that translation is in fact perfectly good. So, beyond basic Carolingian-puffing, why do I have any basis to think this isn’t correctly interpreted? Well, because of a man called Peter Reynolds whom I’ve mentioned before, and who by his very appearance seems to doom blogposts to a lack of commentary but, dammit, his work was important. He ran an experimental Iron Age farm in the UK, growing historical crops with historical methods, but he also participated in a parallel set of experiments about medieval farming there and in Catalonia. This, unfortunately, means that his most important work on the subject of crop yields, an article called “Medieval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge”, came out in a Barcelona journal that is very difficult to get hold of anywhere else: I can’t find anywhere in the UK that has the relevant volume.6 But, the same team minus the late Dr Reynolds has done further work with this stuff in the paper I first blogged about Reynolds because of, which was in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany and which is therefore online through SpringerLink and from that (fair use!) I can scrounge this table of their crop yield results, 1992 to 1995, on two different field-rotation systems.7

Harvest year

Cereals

Weight (tons)

Production ratio

3-year, autumn sowing

 1992

Triticum dicoccum

2.40

1:34

Hordeum vulgare

3.67

1:53

 1993

Triticum dicoccum

3.58

1:51

Hordeum vulgare

2.18

1:31

 1994

Triticum dicoccum

1.56

1:22

Hordeum vulgare

1.15

1:16

 1995

Triticum dicoccum

1.35

1:19

Hordeum vulgare

0.36

1:0.5

3-year, spring sowing

 1992

Panicum miliaceum

3.82

1:54

Hordeum vulgare

2.47

1:35

 1993

Triticum dicoccum

2.45

1:35

Hordeum vulgare

2.40

1:34

 1994

Triticum dicoccum

Hordeum vulgare

 1995

Triticum dicoccum

1.53

1:21

Hordeum vulgare

0.82

1:12

2-year, autumn sowing

 1993

Triticum dicoccum

2.66

1:38

Hordeum vulgare

2.06

1:29

 1994

Triticum dicoccum

1.18

1:17

Hordeum vulgare

1.05

1:15

 1995

Triticum dicoccum

0.11

1:1.5

Hordeum vulgare

1.11

1:1.5

My goodness I’m glad I didn’t have to code that myself. But you get the point. There are some gaps and drop-outs, which are down to weather. They say: “A dry spring (as happened in 1994, 2005 and 2006) causes a total crop failure, and creates many problems for the following season’s seed corn.”8 Otherwise, though, their typical yields, for crop varieties and with techniques at least notionally similar to our peasants at Annapes, or at least peasants in Catalonia who were presumably not massively advanced compared to the Carolingians’ big estates, were in the range of twelve to fifty times seed sown, that is, a whole order of magnitude higher than the Annapes record. Now, if it were just two or three times higher I might wonder, and indeed I do, whether the genotype of these crops could really have remained totally unchanged over those centuries and whether the guys at l’Esquerda may not just have been sowing better crops (for all that they probably aren’t as dedicated farmers as the ninth-century guys whose lives depended on it, which might counter-balance such trends). But this is more than that. This is the point at which we have to ask if we’ve really read the source right.

Test fields at l'Esquerda, Osona, Catalunya

The test fields at l'Esquerda, Osona, Catalunya, where the trials here cited were carried out

I should say before I go any further that I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to quarrel with these figures. I don’t remember originating the following counter-argument. It’s in one of my old lectures, too, so I’ve had it for at least two years, but it doesn’t seem to be in anything that I know I read in order to write that lecture.9 So if you’ve seen this before, would you like to let us know where? Anyway, all that I am doing here that is original, as far as I know, is linking the documentary scholarship up with the experimental archæology to show that there is good reason to think this old reading of the source is bunk.

What I think is the answer is quite simply that these were not stores for consumption, at Annapes or in the other documents that Duby went on to cite, but reserves. Duby said, you’ll recall: “The text, however, is categorical. It prevents us from assuming that, apart from seed corn, grain had already been taken away between harvest time and the visit of the compilers of the inventory for domestic consumption or for despatch outside the estate.” But if you look at the Latin, actually, there’s no basis for this, the text isn’t categorical at all. It tells us that seed corn had been taken away, but it certainly doesn’t tell us that nothing else had and, even more, it doesn’t tell us the unspoken assumption, that everything harvested from this estate wound up in these barns. And in fact, if we go further into the text, we can see that that’s false. There are five mills listed there, you notice? And it says:

From the five mills: 80 modios of the lesser measure; there had been 240 modios given to the prebendaries, the rest we found.

That’s more grain that’s not in the stores, right there. Categorical my foot: this harvest had already been divided, mostly milled and handed out. Then, following up the reference that Duby gives to Philip Grierson’s work adds still another possible qualification, as Grierson said: “… the account of the stock and produce given by the Brevium exempla applies only to the lord’s demesne, the mansus dominicatus ; it leaves us quite in the dark as to the land in each villa which lay outside the demesne and was held by the serfs”.10 Now, you could argue that the stuff at the mills would have been brought in from those estates, but if so, it surely shouldn’t count in the survey totals and even if, cruelly, all the serfs’ produce was assumed to be the king’s (in which case, what did they eat?), it still knocks the seedcorn ratio sideways. So, I honestly think that has too many holes in to float.

If you think about the text, and what it actually is, the explanation that we’re counting reserves makes sense. Although as we have it it is preserved as an example of how to do an estate survey (exempla, you see) what this bit clearly was was a stock-take of what was in store at the estate centre. Now, why did Carolingian royal estates collect food? Partly to feed the army, we now suspect, partly for emergency famine relief, and apparently also for a seed bank, but mainly to feed the court if it should come there. If this figure was to be worth reporting, then, it was kind of inherent that the stuff would be there if the king come a-calling, modulo perishability of baccones and so on. If it had all been eaten that wouldn’t be much use. And if it was there to be eaten, it would be hard to explain why there was so much left from the previous year as well. So, what were people eating? Presumably, the produce straight out of the fields as divided at harvest. Now admittedly there’s no evidence for that that I know of, but there’s also no evidence for queues of peasants arriving at the estate centre for a dole of grain from the store every week either, except in time of famine. Why would you organise storage like that? You’d lose so much labour. As long as the renders are correctly coming in, you’d leave the rest to the peasants to sort out, wouldn’t you?

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

So I think that’s how we reconcile these estate survey figures and the radical difference in yields from the archæological experiments. At Annapes and elsewhere, what was being inventoried was what was available to the king and his men after the usual provision for feeding the estates’ inhabitants had been taken. (Otherwise, these surveys would need to contain a population census and a dietary allowance for each person. Which would be fabulous data! But they don’t.) This in turn means, of course, that we have no idea how much of the crop the seedcorn represents, or even how much of the estate it was expected to be seedcorn for. It would probably be good to store seedcorn centrally, not least because sowing the same plants’ seed in the same ground year on year causes crop deterioration so this would mix it up a bit, but also because it means there would be some help available if someone’s fields were washed out and so on. But I don’t see this storage as being for food at all.

So, in summary. These figures give us some idea of what was felt like a good quantity of food to keep in a royal store on a big royal estate. They also tell us that one use of those stores, apparently, was to act as a sort of seed-bank, though we don’t know for how much of the estate they were supposed to provide seedcorn. They do not tell us how much was originally harvested in either year, or how much of the harvest was dispersed before storage and inventory, though they do tell us that there was some so dispersed. And they certainly don’t tell us that the yield of the crops of the time is computable from these figures, and experiments elsewhere suggest that such computations are probably out by a factor of ten. So, OK. Let’s give Georges Duby his due for doing this kind of work at all, but admit that the texts don’t say what he read in them, and had been taught to read of course. Most of early medieval historiography for the last fifty years could be understood as arguments with George Duby in one way or another, after all, which is some tribute to his greatness. But the peasants of Carolingian Francia are unlikely, by any means we can test, to have been that awful as farmers, and the history of that empire makes a good deal more sense if there was a substantial surplus available and worth controlling. The old 2:1 figure can, I think, be safely disposed of.


1. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz & Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history, 300-1492 (Boston 2004), pp. 162 (yields of between two to four times seed sown) & 223 (yield ratios of “1·5 to 2:1”).

2. Georges Duby, Guerriers et paysans, VII-XIIe siècle : premier essor de l’économie européenne (Paris 1973), transl. Howard B. Clarke as The early growth of the European economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century (London 1974), pp. 26-29.

3. Georges Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’occident médiéval (France, Angleterre, Empire, IX-XV siècles) (Paris 1964), 2 vols, transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural economy and country life in the medieval West (London 1968), pp. 25-26 of the which quoted here. His footnote references these works: “GRIERSON, P., ‘The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs in the Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales‘ in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire [Vol. 18], 1939[, pp. 437-461]” and “SLICHER VON BATH, B. H., The Agrarian History of Western Europe (A.D. 500-1850) (trans. O. Ordish), London, 1963.” The Grierson article, which is characteristically good, finds one or two of the estates described in later charters, attempts to map the areas concerned, and in doing so discusses the yields and gives references to six older works also engaging with these figures, with similarly dismal and debated conclusions (Grierson, ‘The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs’, yields discussion and references at pp. 452-456).

4. Duby, Rural Economy, ap. 2 (p. 364).

5. Alfred Boretius (ed.), Capitularia regum francorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Legum sectio II: Capitularia regum francorum) I (Hannover 1883, repr. Berlin 1984), no. 128. The IMSB’s text is Frederic Austin Ogg (ed./transl.), A Source Book of Mediæval History (New York City 1908), pp. 127-129, spelt with the ash contra IMSB and citing Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Legum) I (Hannover 1835, repr. Berlin 1991), pp. 176-181.

6. Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507.

7. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/j418g4qt35038806/fulltext.html, last modified 19 June 2007 as of 4 January 2009, following table on p. 90 (Table 3).

8. Ibid. p. 90.

9. I assumed it was in Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn. (London 1994), for which I have a lot of time as a textbook, but it turns out that he also repeats the Duby figures, p. 198.

10. Grierson, ‘The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs’, p. 455, citing L. Halphen, Études critiques sur la règne de Charlemagne (Paris 1921), p. 252.

Fourth harvest in medieval Catalonia?

Things that I should know: according to Deirdre Larkin at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the people who runs the marvellous blog there on their medieval garden, in Spain and Portugal the acorns of the holm oak, which are sweeter than regular acorns, are still sometimes used to make meal for bread, and presumably have been for a long long time. Given that a lot of the scenery in my much-beloved subject area looks like this…

Scenery around the hills south-west of Sant Hilari Sacalm

Scenery around the hills south-west of Sant Hilari Sacalm

… which is basically holm oaks and the little local pines, that’s probably not a bad extra source of food in times of poor harvest or poor lords.

The reasons I should know this are twofold: firstly, you know, I’ve been there a bit and have family and friends who live there. Secondly, one of the most interesting articles I ever read about early medieval Catalonia, and by extension about medieval life generally, was one that I’ve talked about before by a man called Peter Reynolds who did reconstructive medieval farming, about what else than the main cereal crops there was that grew which medieval people could have eaten, what he called the ‘third harvest’. He was pretty cynical about lords and renders, and figured that almost all the wheat and oats that the average peasant could grow, in his autumn and spring harvests respectively, would go to the lords as renders, for human and for horse feed respectively. I think that probably they did get to eat wheat bread usually and oaten bread in the slack times, even if I’m sure that they did have to give a lot of it up. But Reynolds really came into his own pointing out how many other plants that grow in hedges and so on were known to early modern peasants, especially a thing called Fat Hen or goosefoot, which grows leaves that are not unlike cabbage and seeds that can be ground for a reasonable bread, but many others too, and would presumably have been known to their forebears too.

Goosefoot, or fat hen, growing in the wild

Goosefoot, or fat hen, growing in the wild

I had just become aware of the whole ‘weapons of the weak‘ school of thought about lord and peasant relations at that point, and was quite taken with the extra independence in the face of a dogmatic oppression this gave my poor pre-Catalans, even if I didn’t agree that these alternatives probably made up most of the actual diet. I guess only phytolith analysis and so on would settle this, and it’s sadly now too late for Dr Reynolds to care. But, now I have a copy of this article in PDF, I can say: it’s right there in his text, along with the sweet chestnut that I do remember him mentioning it. Just didn’t stick for some reason. I should have known this because I’ve read it before. Dammit, brain.


Referring here to Peter J. Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada 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 with English abstract p. 352, esp. pp. 345-346; it’s online unpaginated here, from where also much more about Dr Reynolds’s work in both Catalonia and England.

Blogroll policy, and some more archaeological experiments

I appear, over the nearly-two years this blog has been running, to have developed a blogroll policy. Given that, it seemed like a good idea to explain it, especially as I’ve just pruned it and I suppose the prunees might be wondering why. Basically it comes to the two things this blog is, at its core, intended to be, which is (a) academic and (b) advertising. Then there is also the idea that what I link to reflects my judgement in some way, so that in combination, I want the blogroll to show that I know that there are other medievalist bloggers out there trying to communicate their field to the general public. What this all means is that I want what I link to to be current, academically-inclined and more-or-less medieval. In practical terms, I seem to have wound up defining these criteria as “updated within the last quarter”, “having academic content on the front page” and “medieval, well, all right, ancient is also cool and archaeology is relevant almost without period”. Now I think that everyone I have linked to here satisfies those criteria, even if in a few cases I have linked to their categories so as to filter out non-relevant material. On the other hand, I’ve just removed The Punch Die, not because its focus is ancient and numismatic but simply because it hasn’t been updated in a quarter, and one highly erudite medieval blog currently featured on the blogroll was for a while removed because its entire front page was then squeeing about dogs, and I didn’t think that anyone following that link would think I was trying to tell them anything very useful about the medieval blogosphere. And I by and large don’t link to Livejournals, because they function rather differently as social networking and even where their content is largely medieval it’s often drowned by life, love and the pursuit of drunkehappiness. (I don’t link to the Medieval Studies community LJ for a different reason, which is that it’s locked to LJ users only; open it up to OpenID so I can comment some of the places I’ve been mentioned, and I’ll reconsider. Huh.)

This is not, please understand, a quality judgement! All of these exceptions have stuff in I like to read and think is well-written. I was glad when Highly Eccentric hived off her academic thought to The Naked Philologist, but precisely because I was already reading and enjoying Atol is Þin Unseon and was forever in a quandary about whether to link it. I’d love to link to several blogs that spark up about once a year, I’ll mention Westmynstre Blues and Recent Finds in particular, but it makes it look as if I’m not paying attention to my own site. And even the squeeing about dogs was well-written, though I freely admit that dogs are not a great interest of mine. So please, if you find yourself excluded, don’t think of it as snobbery, but mission focus. Or, of course, should your case be appropriate, bloody well update :-)

Now for those of you not following my blogroll, and why the heck should you after all, you may just be missing out. In particular David Beard is doing sterling work keeping us abreast of what I’d call Recent Finds had that name not gone, with his posts to Archaeology in Europe, and it’s about one of those I want to write for the rest of this post.

L\'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

L'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

You may just have heard of Dr Peter Reynolds, who died in 2001 but had until then been in charge of the thirty-year research project at Butser Ancient Farm, which is a site founded to farm and build as the Pre-Roman Celts and Romans did, with authentic crops and methods, by way of finding out how that worked, how much the original farmers knew about what they were doing, and of course try and rediscover some of what they knew that we don’t.1 What you may not know is that he was also part of a project doing similar reconstructive work for the medieval period in Catalonia, which is of course how I know about it though even then only by the sketchiest of chances.2 And I was reminded of this by a recent post by David Beard, you see, and thus find out (because his link leads to the whole paper, which is in English) that this work has carried on since 2001, in one of the most interesting sites in Catalonia, l’Esquerda.3

L’Esquerda’s principally notable for being a Carolingian refortification of a Celtic oppidum that time basically forgot as the frontier moved outwards. Most of the existing building is twelfth-century but a burial sequence goes back to the Carolingian era, and there seems to be a reference in Astronomer’s Life of Louis the Pious to orders that would have seen it rebuilt.4 That’s by the by, however, as what they’ve been doing that’s described here is, Reynolds-style, constructing a replica of a granary that was found on the site some time ago. This has told them a lot about the storage capacity and techniques of the building, but the real meat of the project, and the bit that got Reynolds involved, was an attempt to recreate the agronomic range of the medieval site using the seed remains in the granary as a guide. This is essentially what the paper that David has linked to is about, and it’s all good stuff and tells us lots about what grew and what didn’t, and in particular suggests that the miserable cereal yields we are often told to think of medieval agriculture as producing are in fact so miserable as to be difficult to replicate without deliberately screwing it up, which medieval folk presumably weren’t doing, so we should probably call those sources into question (as has indeed been done).5

Chenopodium album, or Fat Hen

But I’m more pleased about the work it reminded me of, which was in a way more interesting although based on a very old-fashioned idea of the relationships between lord and peasant in medieval times. It is pretty clear from various sources that where in Catalonia wheat could be grown, it was. It was Reynolds’s contention that the lords would have taken most of this as tax, and certainly that wheaten bread or porridge couldn’t have been the peasant diet very much of the year. The same also applied to the second, spring, harvest of barley or millet, much of which would have gone for fodder. What did the peasants eat once all this was gone? And Reynolds’s article that I remembered was about this ‘third harvest’, the unlikely crops we no longer think about except at really fancy bakeries like spelt or the above-pictured vegetable and grain-source, Fat Hen or white goosefoot, which as well as having edible cabbage-like leaves also has seeds out of which a passable bread flour can be ground.6 He pointed out that this stuff and other food sources like it grow wild, in the places between cultivation, and that though we might not consider it as food, a starving peasant who knew his plants, as most of them would have done surely, certainly would. The upshot is that the state of the medieval peasant, even in hard times, may not have been as hard as we sometimes think, his diet more varied and seasonal, and less of his ill-being down to lordly exaction than it might be because there were some things lords didn’t exact. The ideology of the paper was a little questionable, to say the least, but the food science was fascinating. So yes: I recommend knowing what peasants ate and here is some good evidence. I don’t know if they have a medieval bakery at the l’Esquerda visitor centre (needs Flash, this one, but a good site) selling you Fat Hen bread but if they did (and I hope to go some time in the coming year) I would totally buy and eat some in Dr Reynolds’s honour.


1. Peter J. Reynolds, Iron Age Farm: the Butser Experiment (London 1979) (non vidi).

2. I found idem & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés 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 with Catalan résumé p. 339, French résumé pp. 351-352, & Provencal résumé & English abstract p. 352. This volume is not easy to find: in fact, if you do, I’ll buy it from you! I’ve been to Vic to look (among other things). But it wasn’t Reynolds’s paper I’d inter-library-loaned it from Madrid for…

3. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/j418g4qt35038806/fulltext.html, last modified 19 June 2008 as of 15 July 2008.

4. There’s a wealth of Catalan work about l’Esquerda, mostly from the team of Imma Ollich who has been leading the excavations there for a good many years now. I think the most thorough thing is Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer & Montserrat Rocafiguera i Espona, L’Esquerda: 2500 anys d’història, 25 anys de recerca (Roda de Ter 2001), which i’m still trying to get hold of, but there’s loads more, and Prof. Ollich is available in English on the subject too, in the translation of her “Roda: l’Esquerda. La ciudad carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la Época Carolingia, pp. 84-88 as “Roda: l’Esquerda. The Carolingian Town”, ibid. pp. 461-463. Now, honestly, I’ll not often say this, but you should buy that volume. It’s an exhibition catalogue, and so it’s full of gorgeous illustrations: all the articles, which cover a good swathe of Carolingian Europe and England even if it focuses on Catalonia, are translated into English from the original Spanish and feature genuine notables (Pierre Riché is the first to spring to mind but that gives you the idea). Plus which, my copy, which I got from Oxbow Books where it is still on sale, albeit at rather more than I paid for it, came in shrink-wrap with a ticket for the exhibition in, which I rather liked even if I don’t have the time machine that would let me make use of it. It’s genuinely worth having for any early medievalist. Anyway. If, instead, you would prefer current English-language scholarship on l’Esquerda, may I ask you to wait a short while and then avail yourself of J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'” in A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (eds), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming), or indeed J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming), both of which have something to say about the area, among lots more.

The refortification reference is Astronomer, Vita Hludowici Imperatoris, ed. E. Tremp in idem (ed.), Thegan: Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris. Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Vita Hludowici Imperatoris. Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) LXIV (Hannover 1995), online at http://www.dmgh.de/dmghband.html?bsbbandname=00000712, last modified 8 November 2004 as of 10 November 2007, pp. 278-558 with introduction pp. 53-153, cap. 8: “… ciuitatem Ausonam, castrum Cardonam, Castaserram, et reliqua oppida olim deserta, munivit…. Now, it’s an oppidum desertum once again… Apart from the archaeologists and tourists!

5. Often hard to know what to cite on this: I would work from Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn. (London 1994) which is solid but thorough and gives you some references that weren’t in the first edition. Much more readable is Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard Clarke (London 1974), but very of its time and quite possibly where Reynolds got his ideological stances mentioned below. Pp. 25-27 of Duby’s book give the minimum figures and their sources, but as Pounds and many others have observed, it seems very unlikely that medieval agriculture could have fed so many on so little surplus. Reynolds’s most focused work on this was “Medieval cereal yields in Catalonia and England. An empirical challenge” in Acta Medievalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 495–509.

6. Reynolds & Shaw, “The Third Harvest”, an unpaginated text of which is online here, last modified 20 February 2008 as of 15 July 2008.