Category Archives: Economy

Rome’s Fifth Century Grain Supply

I took a break from reading about Christianity to catch up on some things that have been laying around here a while and came across several good articles in last fall’s issue of the Journal of Late Antiquity. Among these is an analysis by Jason Linn of the city of Rome’s grain supply between the signing of a treaty between Rome and the Vandals in 442 and the resumption of hostilities in 455 after Valentinian III’s death.

Genseric_sacking_Rome_45519th century painting of Geiseric’s sack of Rome in 455 by Karl Briullov. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For background, Roman cities were something of an anomaly, or at least appear that way to those of us who are interested in the Middle Ages. The Medieval city was relatively modest in size through most of the period and its population appears to have been largely supported by local agricultural production. A Medieval city with a population of 10,000 was large, one with a population of 50,000 was huge, and possibly unknown in Western Europe before about the millennium. In contrast, the Roman Empire possessed several cities with populations of over 100,000 and Rome, Alexandria(probably), and – later – Constantinople over 500,000 and, in the case of Rome at least, possibly approaching a million. These cities could not have been supported by local agricultural production, except for Alexandria due to Egypt’s fertility, but must have been part of more extensive trade networks. 1

I’ve been interested in discussions of trade networks for several reasons. Among these are as indicators of economic wealth, particularly among elites, how involved medieval people were in the wider world compared with their immediate environment, and what types (and the extent) of networks existed. In the case of Roman cities, one purpose for these networks was to provide a more basic need; to feed the population.

Some of the theories that have been proposed include that with the loss of Roman North Africa, the city also lost the annona which was basically a taxation paid in kind by agricultural areas. Instead Rome had to pay the Vandals for its grain. A related theory is that this supply was less reliable than the taxation system and resulted in food shortages in the city. Linn sets out to disprove both of these concepts.

Linn believes that the treaty of 442 was not some sort of watershed as it has often been viewed. While he believes the grain supply from North Africa did decrease, the western empire possessed enough agricultural land to make up this shortage.(298-9) He discusses this using a combination of reasoned argument, evidence related to grain production, and coinage. There are multiple sub-arguments within his overriding thesis and I’ll try to touch on some of these as I go along.

He opens by discussing the provisions of the treaty. The treaty itself does not survive, just reports of it from various sources. Without going into too much detail, Linn believes that this treaty was signed from a relative position of Roman strength. He accepts Procopius’ report that one of the terms of the treaty involved Geiseric handing over his son, Huneric, as hostage, something which would be doubtful if the Vandals were completely dictating the terms.(301) 2

The terms of the treaty have been debated with some believing that the grain shipments from North Africa represent an economic transaction and that Rome paid for what it received. Linn believes this is not supportable and that the grain was sent to Rome free of charge. He discusses Roman coin finds in North Africa and says, “Hardly any Roman coins from the mid-fifth century have been found in Carthage.”(309) Linn believes that this indicates that Geiseric possessed the ability to compel North African farmers to produce grain for Rome without financial return, possibly continuing a taxation in kind system. 3

Linn is careful to note that it is almost certain that less grain was sent to Rome than had been prior to the Vandal conquest.(306-309) Procopius indicates that much of the land allocated to Geiseric’s Vandal subjects was granted tax-free. Some land went out of production. Meanwhile, the local population level did not change substantially so a higher proportion of grain would have been required to meet local needs.

While the grain supply from North Africa would have been reduced, Linn believes that local regions such as Sicily, parts of Gaul, and Italy would have been able to make up the difference.(315-6) He also spends a fair amount of time discussing how by this time Rome had fewer mouths to feed.(317-21) I won’t go into detail on this but his two main points are that the size of the standing army was radically reduced by this time and that the population of Rome was, at most, about 500,000, substantially reduced from its height. In addition, much of the army that remained received their pay in coinage rather than in grain. 4

One additional piece of evidence which I think deserves mention is that, based on contemporary sources, it appears that Rome had enough grain to feed its population during the period. Between 442 and 455 there is evidence for a single famine, from 450-2, and this affected all of Italy, not just Rome, indicating a broader event, either due to weather or some other factor, and not a failure of the annona payment.

I enjoyed this article. Linn uses a lot of evidence, enough for you to see how he arrives at his conclusions. I have some questions about a couple of those (see footnote 4, below) but based on the evidence he provides I think his overall conclusions are on fairly solid ground; Rome was adequately fed between 442-455, grain continued to arrive from North Africa, and this was along the lines of a free payment, not something Rome had to buy.

1 Amazingly, I haven’t read anything which specifically discusses Late Ancient/Late Antique population in detail. The book I’ve seen most frequently referenced is Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G., The Decline and Fall of the Roman City. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-19815-247-7.

2 Other than a brief comment Linn does not discuss the possibility that this arrangement may have been something Geiseric wanted as a precursor to his son’s possible marriage to Valentinian III’s daughter and to become, possibly, Emperor through marriage. Without some sort of textual evidence this is impossible to prove but Geiseric showed himself, throughout his career, to be an able ruler who was able to take a long-term view. I can hypothesize him thinking something along the lines of, If my son marries Eudoxia there’s a good chance he could become Emperor. It would be a good thing if he spent a few years in Rome so if and when the time comes, he’ll have learned the things he needs to so he can handle the job. I could see him thinking along the same lines when it came to making sure the grain got through – that Rome would be more willing to accept a Vandal Emperor if they couldn’t blame his father for not feeding Rome, and that by continuing the custom of free grain from North Africa, Geiseric and Huneric could demonstrate their worthiness to be rulers of the Western Empire if the opportunity arose. There’s also the concept that if Rome continued to receive grain, it would be less motivated to cross the Mediterranean and try to get North Africa back as it tried (and failed) to do in 460 and 468. As you can see from this lengthy note, I can come up with a bunch of reasons why a treaty which included free grain shipments and a “hostage” may have been exactly what Geiseric wanted. Also, I think it’s important to note that many scholars believe Huneric was sent as a hostage in 435, not 442. Linn outlines his reasons for disagreeing with them on page 300.

3 Every time I read more about North Africa in the fifth century I become a little more impressed with Geiseric. He certainly is viewed badly by contemporary sources but even these criticisms point to his ability as a ruler. Even his repression of Orthodox Catholicism in favor of Arianism, despite Victor of Vita’s account, points to an ability to do so without negatively impacting much beyond the type of service conducted at churches. He had the foresight to begin building a fleet of ships well in advance of his crossing into Africa and 25 years later the Vandals, who had just about zero experience with the sea prior to reaching North Africa, were able to assemble a fleet and sack Rome. Under his rule the Vandals went from a nothing grouping to ruling one of the wealthiest areas of the Empire and, evidently, without causing massive local disruptions, at least long-term (other than to Orthodox Christianity).

4 To be honest, Linn’s use of this last piece of evidence puzzles me. Even if the army was paid in cash rather than grain they still would have had to eat, resulting in little or no net change in total grain requirements. This and his lack of emphasis on the possibility that Huneric may have been sent to the Roman court because Geiseric wanted it that way are the two pieces of this article I have my strongest doubts about.

Linn, Jason, “The Roman Grain Supply, 442-455,” Journal of Late Antiquity 5.2 (2013), 298-321.

Victor of Vita, Victor of Vita: History of the Vandal Persecution, John Moorhead, ed. and trans. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1992). ISBN: 978-0-85323-1271-1.


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Book Review: Wind & Water in the Middle Ages

Walton, Steven A., ed, Wind & Water in the Middle Ages: Fluid Technologies from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (2006). Pp. 300, xxviii. ISBN: 9-780866-983679.

This book originated from a conference, Wind & Water: the Medieval Mill, held at Penn State University on April 16 and 17, 2004. It consists of eleven papers and a useful introduction by the editor, Steven A. Walton. It is not a narrative history of the uses of technology powered by natural forces but is, “more interested in how their [technologies] uses, legal status, workforce, depictions, and meanings in essence helped form the modern world.”(xxi) The papers are divided into three general thematic sections with three papers having an archaeological focus, five concentrating on how mills “worked”; not physically but rather how they and their uses were integrated into society. The final three papers discuss how mills and milling were viewed by contemporaries through an examination of art and literature.

The opening paper, “The ‘Vitruvian’ Mill in Roman and Medieval Europe” by George Brooks discusses the uses of watermills during the days of the Roman Empire and the transmission of its use to the early Medieval period. He focuses his discussion on the vertical watermill described by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in his De Architectura. Based on the architectural evidence, Brooks does not believe that the theory first proposed by Marc Bloch and later adopted by others that “. . . after a slow crawl through the ancient world, watermilling took hold during the decline of the empire and took off in the Middle Ages.”(21) Instead he believes that while literary references were rare, the frequency of archaeological finds indicates that, “Watermills were known throughout the entirety of the Roman Empire and treated as common devices which accomplished a basic and necessary task.”(24) Brooks credits the medieval period with the development of the horizontal watermill, a simpler design(27). Ultimately he believes that it is likely there were more mills during the early Medieval period than during the Roman, however this should not indicate that the Romans were unaware of the usefulness of mills or that they were hesitant to use them. 1

Niall Brady in “Mills in Medieval Ireland: Looking Beyond Design” discusses what archaeological evidence of mills may have to tell us about Ireland. Unlike the situation in Britain, numerous mills have been found in early Medieval Ireland. Brady discusses where mills have been found and has several charts and maps where these are identified by type (vertical, horizontal, etc.) and construction date. Brady believes this mill evidence may have important consequences for how the economy of early Ireland should be viewed, most notably that it may not have been a subsistence economy but was able to support market-based economic activity. He believes the evidence for mills should “. . . prompt us to reassess the essential economic paradigm that has been formulated to characterize Ireland in the early middle ages.”(62)

D. Fairchild Ruggles turns to a little-studied topic with her paper, “Waterwheels and Garden Gizmos: Technology and Illusion in Islamic Gardens.” Here she studies evidence for the use of waterwheels and water technology in Islamic gardens. These were used both for irrigation and aesthetic purposes. As little archaeology has been done on this in the Islamic world, she focuses on literary evidence such as contained in the Bayad was Riyad manuscript and The 1001[Arabian] Nights. More archaeology is available from Spain and she discusses several finds including the Court of the Lions at Alhambra Palace in Granada and the Monzòn Lion which was part of an eleventh-century fountain near Palencia. This was an interesting paper which, in addition to pointing out the extensive use of water technology in Medieval Islam, helps illustrate the importance of gardens to that culture.

Another of Marc Bloch’s theses was that monasteries were critically important to the expanded use of mills in Medieval Europe. The Bloch thesis proposes that, as part of the class of great landowners, monasteries promoted the use of watermills as a way to increase their economic control over the lower classes. Lewis Mumford, writing at about the same time, also believed that monks were vital to the adoption of watermill technology but credits them with being very inventive, rather than seeking economic dominance. These concepts have persisted for a long time and have influenced several more recent authors. 2 In “The Role of the Monasteries in the Development of Medieval Milling,” Adam Lucas takes a new look at this.

Lucas utilizes a combination of archaeological and textual evidence. By looking at finds, tax rolls, court cases and dispute resolution he provides a picture of Medieval milling which is very different from that of Bloch and Mumford. He finds that while the Benedictines played a substantial role in the development of mills, particularly in the ninth through eleventh centuries, they were not the only factor. Even the concept of mills being almost exclusively controlled by the elite fails to hold up under scrutiny. Instead Lucas finds that many mills were owned and operated by those of the lower classes, particularly from the thirteenth century on, and that while the elite had much control over mills and milling, this falls short of what could be considered a monopoly. Lucas provides a detailed examination of the evidence in this paper. Despite an unfortunate misstatement, he provides considerable evidence that the development and control of Medieval milling was not as simple as it was once believed. 3

Another very interesting paper is provided by Janet S. Loengard. She examines litigation involving mills in “Lords’ Rights and Neighbors’ Nuisances: Mills and Medieval English Law.” Mills were a money-maker but they were also dirty, noisy, sometimes smelly, could divert water from other uses and the operators might use a variety of means to cheat their customers. Loengard samples the extensive evidence from disputes involving mills and uses it to examine various aspects of mill ownership including; the obligation of peasants to grind at a mill; power relationships between the nobility, mill-owners and mill customers; how mills and millers were viewed by most elements of society and; property rights. This paper uses sources extensively and provides an intriguing look at mills through the lens of litigation and dispute resolution.

A different type of mill is explored in Tim Sistrunk’s “The Right to the Wind in the Later Middle Ages.” In this paper he examines twelfth through fifteenth century attitudes toward the wind and how these attitudes were manifested through regulations regarding windmills. Air was considered free, belonging to no one. How then could windmills be taxed or tithed? Through the examination of this question Sistrunk provides substantial information on the evolution of European land rights and the concept that something may be owed to the Church or government based on its value as property, not its use of resources.

Less about mills and more about water is Roberta Magnusson’s “Public and Private Urban Hydrology: Water Management in Medieval London.” This paper covers a lot of ground. It looks at the Thames and tributaries and how construction of the city of London impacted it and how authorities worked to mitigate some of these impacts. Of particular interest is how the original London Bridge, constructed beginning in 1176, altered the flow of the river.

Moving back to litigation, Thomas F. Glick and Luis Pablo Martinez use disputes and court records in “Mills and Millers in Medieval Valencia” to examine the economic structure of what they term the wheat-flour-bread cycle. While the description of the disputes is interesting, what is of most value is their conclusion that the trade in buying grain from the farm and bringing it to the mill to be ground into flour was carried out by middlemen, “. . . large numbers of impoverished agents and dealers, operating on scant profit margins of only one to six percent, and who were constantly in debt.”(189) These middlemen operated in other areas as well, such as in the wool market. (205)

The final three essays turn to how mills were portrayed in art and literature. In “John Ball’s Revolutionary Windmill: ‘The Letter of Jakke Mylner’ in the English Rising of 1381.” During the peasant revolt five letters were written, attributed to John Ball. In the Jakke Mylner letter, a four-sailed windmill is invoked. This paper examines the meanings which Ball may have intended to convey through his use of the windmill, including messages of hard work, insight, the corruptness of the state, etc.

Kirk Ambrose examines the meanings in Romanesque sculpture in “The ‘Mystic Mill’ Capital at Vézelay.” The columns of the Vézelay Church have numerous sculptures, including one of a windmill. Ambrose selects seven of these to assess late Medieval meanings which, unsurprisingly, are religious in nature.

The final paper, Shana Worthen’s, “Of Mills and Meaning,” examines a broad range of representations in text and images in the late Medieval period. Artists and writers have variously depicted mills in ways ranging from evil, when Dante depicts Satan’s three heads as the sails of a windmill, to symbols of salvation where the sails are used to depict an image of the crucifixion.

This is a very good book. All of the papers are of high quality and offer interesting perspectives which have implications for more than just, “this is a mill and how it worked.” They are rigorously sourced and well written, enough so that I found all of them to be of interest, even those addressing areas I have not previously been drawn to such as Islamic gardens and art history. The papers cover a broad range of subjects from city government to broader themes of mills and millers frequently being the object of scorn in literature and based on dispute evidence. You will note that the length of my assessment of the papers will represent how much the particular topic interested me as well as my familiarity with the topic. In particular, the papers by Brooks, Niall, Lucas, Loengard, Magnusson and Glick and Martinez were very interesting and enlightening for me.

While it is impossible to cover everything in a single volume, I believe an assessment of how the use of mills spread across Medieval Europe would have been extremely valuable. George Brooks provides excellent information on how this occurred during the Roman period. A paper with a similar focus for the early Medieval period would have made an excellent companion piece and provided a nice framework for the other essays. A few other more comprehensive studies may also have been useful, such as a comparative examination of characteristics of communities that had and those that lacked mills, however one cannot cover everything.

Wind & Water in the Middle Ages is a very good book. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the development of technology in the Middle Ages.

1 For Bloch, Brooks references; Marc Bloch, “Avènement et conquêtes du moulin à eau,” Annales d’histoire économique et sociale 7 (1935): 538-63. For more recent authors adopting the Bloch thesis see; Lynn White Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1964), p. 82; Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine, New York: Penguin Books (1976), pp. 6-10; Frances and Joseph Gies, Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel, New York: HarperCollins Publishers (1994) p. 35 and; N.J.G. Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edition, New York: Longman Publishing (1994), p. 198. Gimpel and Gies & Gies both offer the concept that the Romans eschewed the use of the watermill because they had plenty of slaves to do the work.

2 For Bloch, see note 1, above. For Mumford, Lucas references; Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934; rpt. Orlando: Harcourt & Brace, 1963).

3 I have to admit I did a double-take when I read, “Around 500, Gregory of Tours wrote a detailed description of the construction of a watermill complex at Loches, as well as the watermills installed in the defensive walls of Dijon.”(93) In this instance Gregory wrote of events that occurred in and around 500 but he died in 594 and his writings date from around 570 to his death. I’d guess this was a translation error from the source he used but I still wish Lucas would have found and corrected it. Lucas references; Örjan Wikander, Exploitation of Water-Power or Technological Stagnation? A Reappraisal of the Productive Forces in the Roman Empire, Scripta Minora Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis (Lund:1984), p. 31 and; Paul Benoit and Joséphine Rouillard, “Medieval Hydraulics in France,” in Paolo Squatriti, ed., Working with Water in Medieval Europe: Technology and Resource-Use (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 169-70.

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Posted by on March 27, 2011 in Books, Economy, Technology


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What Happened to Watermills in Britain?

I’m currently reading Wind & Water in the Middle Ages: Fluid Technologies from Antiquity to the Renaissance edited by Steven A. Walton. An essay by Adam Lucas includes this statement, “Following the withdrawal of Roman governance in the early fifth century, there is neither archaeological nor manuscript evidence for the existence of watermills up until the late seventh century.” 1

So the Romans brought watermills to Britain where they found at least a fair degree of use, but once the Romans left Britain didn’t have them, according to the evidence, for over 250 years. This despite the fact that they were very numerous on the continent during the same period. This is not the first time I’ve come across this and every time I have the same response – but every other time I said, “Huh?” and wrinkled my brow I didn’t have a blog.

While there have been assaults upon it from time to time, the belief that the Romans leaving devastated Britain (from an economic/social complexity perspective) still carries a lot of weight. I lean that way myself – they quit using the wheel to spin pottery, society really fragmented in ways you don’t see in Gaul, Hispania or Italy, written sources are even sparser than for 7th century Gaul, etc. Heck, the end of the Empire everywhere else didn’t exactly result in an economic revitalization though it doesn’t seem to have been as bad as in Britain.

Even so, this complete absence of powered mills bothers me. I don’t want to say I don’t believe the evidence – but I keep wondering why they’d give up the mills. I can see the pottery wheel – the export market was gone and handspun does fine as simple tableware. But people needed to grind grain. Was society so fragmented that enough grain wouldn’t show up to make a mill economically viable? I don’t believe they couldn’t have built them if they’d wanted to. There were plenty of mills in Ireland at the same time and they had working models to design from. Beyond that, there was a decent amount of travel between Britain and the continent.

Anyway, this is the question currently on my mind. I have five Anglo-Saxon books here to read, and Walton to finish (Lucas didn’t offer a “why” to this observation) and hope to find out more as I go through them. But I’d welcome any comments or reading suggestions.

1 Adam Lucas, “The Role of Monasteries in the Development of Medieval Milling,” in Steven A. Walton, ed, Wind & Water in the Middle Ages: Fluid Technologies from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 94. ISBN: 9-780866-983679.


Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Economy, Technology


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Trade or Gift Exchange

Ever since my recent rant I’ve been trying to gear myself up to write a review of Paradigms and Methods in Early Medieval Studies. To be honest, I don’t consider that a rant or off-base. This approach still concerns me.

In any case, there are two kinds of books which, on finishing, I’m excited enough about to review. One is the book I found very useful and the other is the book that sucked and/or ticked me off. I have a hard time reviewing books which I think were “just OK.” Paradigms is one of these.

It had some very good articles. Genevra Kornbluth uses a single luxury item to demonstrate why people should be cautious in assigning ethnic linkages to objects. Constance Brittain Bouchard provided a very interesting discussion of how she believes the patrilineal model can be largely attributed to the Carolingians. I also enjoyed a discussion of Michael Kulikowski’s in assessing archaeology to determine if urban centers really declined or changed. I once criticized Kulikowski for what I felt was his trying to fit something with insufficient evidence, at least as stated in Late Roman Spain and Its Cities, into an overall model however there’s no evidence of that in this quite good, IMO, essay.

Then there were some articles I’m less fond of. I can’t say any were terrible but some repeated arguments which were quite well worn; not new paradigms at all. Others appeared to have some axe-grinding going on.

I’d like to mention one essay I particularly enjoyed. Florin Curta discusses the exchange of Baltic Sea goods with Eastern Europe in, “The Amber Trail in Early Medieval Eastern Europe.” I’ve quite enjoyed hearing him speak and attending sessions he’s organized over the years at Kalamazoo and I thought his Making of the Slavs was quite good.

During the 6th century numerous finds of amber originating from the Baltic Sea region have been found in the Middle Danube, near the present Hungarian-Romanian border and on the northern shore of the Black Sea on the Crimean peninsula.1 Most commonly this is in the form of disk- or barrel-shaped beads however raw amber is also found. Historians have tended to view this as evidence of an active trade network between southeastern Europe and the Baltic. Curta believes that while this is evidence of an exchange network, it is more indicative of gift-giving than trade.

During the 6th century, amber finds take on a curious pattern. Curta displays both a map and a table showing that there are a few finds near the Baltic Coast, then virtually nothing for a distance of up to 750 km from the coast with substantial amber finds at a distance of 750-1500 km. Of 2,254 beads found, 2,199 are found at this distance from the coast. (64)

Curta believes this distribution pattern is inconsistent with a trade network and should be viewed as evidence of elite gift exchange between the Baltic and present-day Hungary and Crimea. He believes that, “A commercial network for the distribution of amber south- and eastward from the Baltic Sea would have produced a much more dispersed distribution, not unlike that of the early Roman period.” (68) He believes that the amber was given, often in raw form with beads then manufactured locally. This amber was then used as a means of status display, particularly for women as the Middle Danube began to undergo social differentiation. (68-9) He further enhances this concept by stating that, “The association of amber with elites is amply confirmed by excavations in Crimea and the Caucasus region, where amber is restricted to a few, high-status sites.” (69)

Amber is found through the 7th century, including in bronze hoards in Ukraine. (71) Around the year 700 amber disappears from both the Middle Danube and Crimea. Curta believes this should be interpreted as an interruption of contact between these areas and the Baltic Coast elites. Once amber begins to be distributed again during the Carolingian period, the Middle Danube is not part of the picture. (71-2) In essence, Curta believes historians have been looking for a revival of something that didn’t exist prior to the 9th century and that the Amber Trail in the 6th and 7th centuries wasn’t a trail at all, but that the concentrated nature of depositions at substantial distances from the point of origin of the product should be considered evidence of another form of contact and exchange; one of gift-giving between elites.

Obviously, I found this article very interesting. My one regret is that it isn’t longer. It consists of about 11 pages of text (the first and last are half pages) including two maps and a table; likely 3,500-4,000 words. There are many details I’m interested in finding more about. I would have been interested in finding out if Curta felt these were simple two-way Baltic-Danubian and Baltic-Crimean exchange systems, or if there were contacts between the Danube and Crimea as well, creating something of a triangle. I would also have liked more detail on the finds themselves and on the evolution of a social hierarchy which Curta only mentions briefly. The presence of raw amber is also interesting and not something I would have expected to be exchanged as a gift. I suspect this is a failing on my part; after all, even today we often trade raw timber internationally rather than sending finished lumber (there are sound reasons for this, including the susceptibility of finished lumber to salt water damage when compared with timber). I think it’s important to note that though Curta’s explanation accounts for high-level elite contact rather than lower level contact through trade, it is contact and evidence that early medieval culture groups maintained communication and networks with one another. Interesting stuff and something I hope I have the chance to find him going into in more depth elsewhere.

1Curta states that infrared spectrography can determine if amber is Baltic in origin. (61-2)

Curta, Florin, “The Amber Trail in Early Medieval Eastern Europe” in Paradigms and Methods in Early Medieval Studies, ed., Celia Chazelle and Felice Lifshitz. (Palgrave MacMillan: New York, 2007), pp. 61-79. ISBN: 978-1-4039-6942-2


Posted by on November 18, 2010 in Books, Economy


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Rich Peasant/Poor Peasant

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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Salvian – You Cheery Fellow

I’m a bit disappointed today. I was going to head over to Purdue for the Comitatus Annual Conference. Even though my job is in “nothistory” I enjoy hearing the Purdue students and was planning on reporting on the papers here either tonight or tomorrow.

Unfortunately, last night we had 6-8″ (15-20 cm) of snow and continue to have 30 mph (50 kph) winds resulting in a local travel emergency. No travel except for essential services – which basically means the county’s thrown in the towel and won’t be trying to clear the roads until conditions improve. So today I stay home.

I thought maybe I’d throw in a Geek’s opinion of a contemporary Late Antique Source. One of the nice things about not doing this for a living is I can read pretty much what I want. Typically I’ll read several secondary works, take lots of notes, and when I feel the urge I start wading through a bunch of the sources mentioned (this tends to be a very good period for booksellers). This fall I spent a few months reading Halsall, Goffart, Burns, James, Kulikowski, etc., mainly to raise my knowledge about the whole “Why did the Barbarian Cross the Rhine” issue that Peter Heather discusses in the Journal of Late Antiquity (I’d previously read a few other books on the subject) along with the more comprehensive question of why Rome “fell.” Over the last couple of months I’ve been going after the sources – the ones I can get, anyway. I don’t generally comment on primary/contemporary sources but Salvian recalled a memory – rather vividly – from my younger days.

When I was 19 I spent some time working on a ranch in Nebraska to make some money to help me finish my last two years of undergrad. Nebraska does not happen to be filled with a lot of social activities for people in their late teens/early 20’s. As an example of the lengths we were willing to go to find something off-ranch to do, one week during the summer there was a Baptist tent revival a few miles down the road – tents appeared all over some fields and thousands of Baptists converged. We decided to head over there one evening.

I’m not sure what inspired us to do this (there were three of us, the oldest 22 so maybe that explains it) but we certainly overestimated the entertainment factor. We followed a large number of folks into the largest tent on the place. There I had my first experience with a hardcore “hellfire and brimstone” sermon. I don’t know what version of Baptist this was, but I can assure you that a couple of hours later (I was afraid to leave in the middle) I walked out 100% certain that when I died I was going someplace where you don’t need to bring any charcoal for the barbecue. Salvian would have felt right at home in that tent.

Salvian’s message in The Governance of God (De gubernatione Dei) is simple, though he goes into great detail about it. God has not deserted us (the Romans) – he’s still in charge. It’s just that we have sinned so monstrously that God is giving us our just desserts. Why has God favored the barbarians? They are less evil than us. He proceeds to expound on the ways in which Rome has sinned and how, by comparison, even as heretics or pagans, the barbarians have not. This goes one step beyond the typical “God has visited the Barbarians upon us as punishment” to “God has punished us while rewarding them.” This is a significant amendment to the typical punishment by God and the implication is that – from Salvian’s perspective – the Barbarians are not a temporary visitation, present only until the Romans clean up their act, but a permanent affliction that will be the end of the Empire; “For, who can be eloquent about freebooting and crime because the Roman State is dying or already dead or certainly drawing its last breath?” (Salvian 4.6, p 100)

This aspect of Salvian is pretty simple. What’s more interesting is analyzing it for its historical value. Items of interest he discusses include; corruption of public officials (Salvian 3.10, pp 85-86); how taxation is destroying the empire, particularly where the rich are exempt and the poor bear the burden (Salvian 4.6, pp 100-101); how Romans welcome the barbarians as Roman governance is so oppressive (Salvian 5.5, pp 135-136); the creation of the Bagaudae (roaming groups of bandits – they were also prevalent in the third century – see Van Dam, 1985 and Halsall, 2007) being the direct result of people fleeing Roman oppression (Salvian 5.6, pp 136-137); Romans voluntarily becoming coloni to escape the burden of taxation (Salvian 5.8, pp 141-144) and; the overall poverty of the Roman state (Salvian 5.8, pp 165; 5.9, 167-168). Other items are of less critical interest to me such as the Romans craving games and the circus to such an extent that in Carthage citizens were cheering in the circus while Carthage’s walls were breached. Salvian really doesn’t like the Africans.

Salvian is pointed to as an example of how Roman governance broke down as the end approached, and rightly so. However it is important to use him with caution and place what he says in context. Salvian should not be used as an example of earlier innate weaknesses of the Empire, particularly regarding taxation, which would doom it to its end. Salvian likely wrote between 440 and 450. He speaks at length of the loss of Carthage to Geiseric and the Vandals which happened in 439, and does not prominently discuss the Huns, as would be expected if he were writing after 450 when they became a threat to the Western Empire.

Salvian’s perspective is based on a Western Empire which has lost its wealthiest province and its tax revenues thereof, yet, as most societies do, was attempting to maintain itself – through increasing taxes in other regions. There are other sources discussing the disparity in the tax burden during earlier periods, however Salvian cannot be used to discuss a weakness in the Empire that existed prior to the loss of Africa – certainly not to the extent he speaks of. What he can be used for is to illustrate how Rome attempted to respond to the loss of Africa and how devastating this was to the Gallic provinces (though some consideration must be given to exaggeration).

Salvian is a fascinating source to me for two reasons. First, he is one of the few sources who was writing, not before the end of the Empire appeared imminent, or afterwards when sources could use hindsight, but during the period when things were crumbling. He and Sidonius Apollinaris, writing of events two to three decades later, combine to present a picture of the last days of the Empire. Second, his message, at least as presented in O’Sullivan’s translation, is very clear. For me, The Governance of God is a source which helps provide a picture of an Empire in severe crisis, very possibly at or approaching the point of no return. I had braced myself for something which would be tedious, along the lines of Augustine’s City of God, and was pleasantly surprised.

At some point I’d like to get my hands on Prosper of Aquitaine, Hydatius, and the Gallic Chronicle of 452 but the available translations are out of my price range.

NOTE: In the near future I’ll re-learn html and post real footnotes instead of what’s in this post – I promise.

Burns, Thomas S. (2003). Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C. – A.D. 400 (Baltimore, MD).

Goffart, Walter (2006). Barbarian Tides: the Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (Philadelphia, PA).

Halsall, Guy (2007). Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge, UK).

Heather, Peter (2009). “Why Did the Barbarian Cross the Rhine”, Journal of Late Antiquity 2: 3-29.

James, Edward (2009). Europe’s Barbarians, AD 200-600 (Harlow, UK).

Kulikowski, Michael (2004). Late Roman Spain and its Cities (Baltimore, MD).

Salvian the Presbyter, On the Governance of God: The Writings of Salvian the Presbyter, trans. O’Sullivan, J.F. (New York, 1947)

Sidonius Apollinaris, Sidonius I: Poems, Letters, Books I-II, ed. and trans. Anderson, W. B., (London, 1936)

Sidonius Apollinaris, Sidonius II: Letters, Books III-IX, ed. and trans. Anderson, W. B., (London, 1936)

Van Dam, Raymond (1985). Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul (Berkeley, CA).


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