Rich Peasant/Poor Peasant

08 Apr

I like reading about peasants – don’t ask me why. I’d much rather learn about them than the nobility/aristocracy any day. Who cares whether Lord whassisface went hawking each Wednesday, or whether Lady so-and-so got it on with the hired help? Instead, talk to me about the poor guy and girl digging in the dirt. Could they get ahead, if things worked out for them? Could they read – even a few words of a psalter? If they got in a legal argument with someone more powerful did they stand a chance and would their fellow dirt-grubbers band together, possibly at the village level and help them out? Problem is, we don’t know much about peasants but it’s getting a little better. Archaeology’s starting to tell us – something. It’s a matter of trying to figure out what. 1

After the end of the Roman Empire in the West (I’m opposed to the term “fall” because it was more of a stumbling, staggering, tottering march toward a post-Roman reality) the general theory has been that those in the lower economic classes (I’ll refer to these as peasants from this point though even this term can be problematic) fared a bit better than they had under the Empire. Several reasons have been put forward for this including; the end of Roman taxation; the end of the Roman Great Estates; the end of large, complicated exchange networks that led to production specialization and their transition to smaller, regional networks and; the transition of rule from Romans with a long tradition of a hierarchical, relatively static society to that of Germanics (sorry Goffart) with far less of a hierarchical tradition enhancing the opportunities for social mobility. And the role of the Church in discouraging slavery, particularly of other Christians, also contributed.

I’m pretty comfortable with this basic concept and I’m also comfortable with the idea that the lot of the peasant began to decline again as we venture further into the period, post-Carolingian, prior to it improving again in the late Middle Ages. But there are a ton of details within these broad concepts which intrigue me.

My current “Favorite Book on the Middle Ages” is Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages. My only gripe (though I disagree with him on a couple of things) is I need the hardcover – I refer to it so much that the Pb edition’s beginning to show a lot of wear. Peasants are a favored topic of his and he goes into a fair level of detail in this book about how they fit within the social and economic environment of the early middle ages. Wickham himself would likely slap me for how general I have to make this for a blog post but for the Merovingian territories, while peasants could still find themselves at the mercy of a large landowner, these large landowners were far less imposing than during the empire. Peasants are portrayed as very much a landowning class themselves. They are able to accumulate additional wealth and lands. At the village level, peasants are often found engaged in all levels of society, including as elites. And there’s no evidence of what we find later in the medieval period – the “once a peasant, always a peasant no matter how much you’re worth” mindset that inspired so much literature as I’ve previously mentioned.

But there are a few cracks appearing in this (massively oversimplified as I’ve described it) model. One crack I’m aware of comes from Joachim Henning (2008). He uses archaeological finds of shackles to argue that Carolingian society caused a significant setback to peasant society by resulting in “. . . an accidental rebirth of Rome that was imposed on a previously flourishing peasant society.” (p 52) For him, the combination of shackle finds with the rise of the bipartite estates indicates a loss of village and, therefore, peasant society by bringing back two aspects of the Empire – slavery and The Great Estate. 2

I very much enjoyed Henning’s article and appreciate the detail he went into explaining his findings and hypothesis however his theory has some holes. While I am convinced that the lack of shackle finds during the Merovingian period coupled with an increase of finds in the Carolingian period likely points to a regrowth of slavery in places and under some circumstances, the geographic distribution of said shackle finds is a huge issue. These shackles were found in three regions of Carolingian control or influence – Jutland and nearby islands, near the mouth of the Somme(northeast Neustria), and just west of Bavaria – Avar country. (p 39, fig 2.3). These were regions the Carolingians were involved in conflicts with or, in the case of the Somme, may have been trading centers. Shackle finds may indicate the temporary imprisonment of those taken in war, more permanent enslavement of those taken in war who would be taken to the Mediterranean for trade, or even the shackling of hostages who would be taken and placed with various Carolingian notables to help insure “good behavior” on the part of Carolingian neighbors. What’s most problematic is that there are no shackle finds from the center of Carolingian territory – it doesn’t seem that slavery was very widespread, and Henning may be over-extrapolating here. For me, this theory came down to, “Interesting – but not enough evidence for me to buy into this.”

Thanks to a recent post from David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe blog there’s a little bit more to add to Henning’s hypothesis in the way of supporting evidence. The linked article intrigued me for a variety of reasons. First, it appears to further debunk the old “the world fell apart post-Roman and naked peasants spent their miserable lives grubbing in the dirt (or eating each other) for food while being indiscriminately killed by roving bands of armed thugs” apocalypse theory. Second, based on the research done, it might provide evidence in support of Henning.

After a fairly simple bit of searching (enter the author’s name in Google) I found an article co-authored by the researcher mentioned in the article. (Koepke and Baten, 2005) This article is from the 1st through 18th centuries AD rather than from the 8th century BC which is fine for what I’m interested in. In it they analyze the heights of people based on skeletal remains in order to evaluate what they term a “biological standard of living” which boils down to nutrition. They evaluated evidence for the height of over 9,000 skeletons for the 18 century period. The simplest summary (p 76, fig 2) shows that average height from skeletal finds in Europe were (male and female combined) around 170 cm for the Roman period, jumped to 171-172 cm for the 5th-7th centuries, and then dropped back to just a tad above Roman era levels in the 8th-10th, back up in the 11th and 12th (though not as high as either the 6th or 7th) and then a precipitous drop in the 13th. They do further analysis by dividing measurements by gender and by three geographic regions – Mediterranean, Central/Western Europe and Northern/Eastern Europe. 3 These measurements generally hold up across gender and geography. 4

The 13th century drop in height is the most surprising to me as I would have guessed the 14th century – this was when all the famines seem to have been reported (well, not all – there were always famines but the early 14th seems to have had more than its share) as well as the Black Death. OTOH, maybe post-plague there was a lot more to eat because there were fewer mouths. You can (and the authors mention this in the article) make the same argument for the post-Roman period as well though I have my doubts just how far the overall population fell as opposed to moving – the “dark earth” indication of settlements built with wood has only relatively recently started to be considered on a large scale.

This seems to be a good point to interject that the authors themselves are uncertain of causation. Income inequality is a factor they consider, as is climate, population density, public health, gender inequality (if women encountered poor nutrition their children would also be smaller), technology and income levels. They make some interesting arguments and some I find flawed. For example, they consider the Romans more technologically advanced than the medievals where I would argue that the technology didn’t change a whole lot – but the number of people who had access to it in urban settings did. OTOH, what percentage of the population of Rome would be admitted to a Roman bath during the days of the Empire? Ultimately, all of the variables the authors tested for come out as statistically insignificant however they argue that population density is economically significant and that climate, social inequality and gender inequality are at the margins of economic significance. However, in their discussion they offer that by breaking the period into smaller time frames, social inequality becomes more significant for the first 6 centuries of the millennium while climate does the same for post-800. But even with these, it’s hard to know if the authors inputted correct values when testing for those variables. Some of their values seem a bit off-the-cuff to me. And receiving some input from medieval or ancient scholars may also help – for example, they discuss attempting “. . . to capture the potentially beneficial effects of the Roman public health system . . .” (p 84). What is that? If your slave was sick there was a hospital to bring him to? I can make a pretty strong argument that between the monastic orders and the Church itself there was a fair amount of public health going on in the medieval period – though I sure wouldn’t want to call it a system.

To conclude this post before it gets laboriously long (maybe it already is – I could write on this for hours – fascinating stuff), initially I thought Henning’s theory interesting, possible, even plausible, but from an evidentiary perspective, definitely just a starting point – not enough there to, at this point, buy into. The Koepke & Baten article changes that dynamic – somewhat. They offer independent supporting evidence, at least somewhat supporting Henning, based on the decline in height from the Merovingian to Carolingian period. In essence, two articles, each with its own holes, that somewhat corroborate one another. Now I’m at a, “Something may have been going on during the Carolingian period” point. It may not have been what Henning theorized – possibly there was a climactic shift I’m not aware of or some other factor. But for some reason(s), the majority of people do not appear to have gotten along quite as well during the Carolingian period as the Merovingian, despite our belief that Carolingian society was substantially wealthier overall with more complex exchange networks and a greater degree of administrative governance. Koepke/Baten have plenty of issues in their article when it comes to demonstrating causality – in fact one of the things I took from reading it is that while their examination of height data for 9,226 skeletons is pretty comprehensive, they very much lack the information they need for the other variables they try to work their study around. But even with that, the height differential is intriguing.

1 When I say, “us” I don’t mean me personally because I’m not some archaeologist digging in the dirt(my colleagues in my real “nothistory” job would yell at me for using the 4-letter “d” word), or even trying to translate a source text – mine is an empathy connection which, if you tell me you’re an archaeologist or medievalist will probably get you a beer and, as a special bonus, quite possibly some tedious conversation.

2 For those a bit newer to the period, a bipartite estate basically means an estate which had two segments – the demesne, which existed solely for the benefit of the Lord of the estate, and the tenancies which were farmed in what’s very much a sharecropping type of system (generally though occasionally a monetary fee was used). As this estate system evolved peasants became increasingly bound to the land though even when it became more oppressive there are cases of peasants taking their share and utilizing it to move up the food chain, at least economically.

3 Table 2(p 64) details the areas and the number of remains for each century covered by these regions; Center/West = Bavarian/Austrian, Northern Rhine, Southern Rhine and UK; Eastern/Northern = Eastern Europe and Northern Europe and; Mediterranean = Mediterranean Region. This gives us something and tells us that the Carolingian areas are likely Center/West except for Southern Gaul and Italy which would be Mediterranean (though how Carolingian was Italy anyway?) however a map depicting this would have been preferable.

4 The gender measurements provide a strong positive correlation. The only exceptions are the 10th century where female height dropped and male did not, and the 15th and 16th when female heights rise sharply (though still not to the 6th century levels) while those for men did not. Geographically they still match up fairly well but, as might be expected when comparing three data sets instead of two, there are a few more points of divergence, in particular the 8th century which is a high point for the North/East and very low for Center/West.

Henning, Joachim, “Strong Rulers – Weak Economy? Rome, the Carolingians and the Archaeology of Slavery in the First Millennium AD”, in Davis and McCormick, (eds.), The Long Morning of Early Medieval Europe, (Burlington, Vt. 2008), 33-53. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6254-9.

Koepke, Nikola and Baten, Joerg, (2005). “The Biological Standard of Living in Europe During the Last Two Millennia”, European Review of Economic History 9, 61-95.

Wickham, Chris, (2005) Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (New York) ISBN: 978-0-19-921296-5.


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3 responses to “Rich Peasant/Poor Peasant

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    April 9, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Interesting and thoughtful as ever. I too had my reservations about Henning's chapter, but you've found even more reasons to worry about it. I think we find the same solid parts in it.The skeletal study was unknown to me, and I'm going to have to look at it in more detail: the variation in such data can be as interesting as the general patterns… Thankyou!

  2. Medieval History Geek

    April 9, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks for the comment. The Henning essay could be summarized by my thought process as I read it – "neat, cool, interesting – er, really?" But I enjoyed it anyway – I can take conclusions I disagree with so long as I feel like the author tells me how he got there, which I think Henning does. Larry Swain has me doing a review of Long Morning for The Heroic Age – hopefully he won't mind if I occasionally reference something from that book and discuss it in more depth than I was able to do in the review.I'm assuming you have JSTOR access and all that. If you have trouble finding that article let me know and I'll get it to you. Koepke & Baten have a more "cow" related article online which you can find here. I didn't read that one all the way through – thought I'd tackle the one where the peer review was probably blind. Though a quick re-scan tells me that may have been an error. If nothing else (assuming they used the same skeletal remains – the graphs look identical) on page 8 they define their geographic regions a bit more.


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