Nice extraction of surplus if you can get it

Dominus Corleone

Chris Wickham has a new article out on the feudal economy (10.1093/pastj/gtaa018), which has got me thinking about the topic from a different angle (though probably not the angle Chris was expecting). First of all, I’ll say that since I haven’t read a lot of Marx, let alone all the ins and outs of the Brenner debate, I’m not in a position to say whether Chris’ view of the feudal mode of production accords with traditional Marxist accounts of the medieval period. He does, however, specifically point out (p. 5) that Marx’s views aren’t really relevant, since:

no one working in the 1850s and 1860s knew enough about feudal societies to be able to make any kind of systematic analysis of their underlying economic logic. Probably, I regret to say, this is still true today.

Chris also gives a clear definition of his ideal-type feudal mode of production (pp.  9-10):

it is a socio-economic system based on the exploitative relations of production between peasants, that is to say subsistence cultivators, and lords. At its core are peasant family units, who work the land and raise animals, usually do some subsistence artisanal work such as weaving, and also, in regions where they are available, mine metals…The main relationship of dominance and system of surplus expropriation here consists of peasants giving surplus, often but not only in rent and services, to lords, in various forms, under the at least implicit threat of violence. The surplus that lords take thus depends on actual or potential class struggle, and is not based directly on the market. Lords can affect the production process by demanding different types of rent, and they frequently do. But they do not have a structural role in production, and their attempts to exercise forms of direct control over it, although these are certainly documented (indeed, quite well documented, as our records tend to be the work of lords), have seldom lasted all that long… Such external powers, which I am here generically calling ‘lords’, can be landlords extracting rent, or states and other political powers exacting tax or tribute, or both.

The feudal mode of production is thus fundamentally based on class struggle and Chris argues that a lot of economic “development” was just lords getting more out of peasants (p. 14). But he also goes on to discuss the fact that peasants in some areas (such as thirteenth-century England) were actually keeping quite a lot of their surplus themselves and finding ways to make extra money, such as the wage-labour from the young people in a peasant household.

What Chris focuses on (pp. 19-20) is the “high-equilibrium” feudal-mode economy in which lords are dominant, markets and towns develop, and peasants are also increasingly able to use these markets. What doesn’t happen, even in areas with proto-industry, is a move to industrial capitalism (pp. 28-29). Instead, Chris discusses the “economic logic of feudalism” which was (p. 35)

based on the fact that the peasant majority was necessary to the basic production process, and lords were not; this continued steadily to bring down rents and taxes, except when lords (and by now states) put the effort into increasing them, which meant that peasants tended to maintain their participation in this commercialized world.

So a general tendency of the economic logic of feudalism was to establish, eventually, reasonably high-functioning production and exchange systems, which in some cases showed considerable dynamism.

Chris’ concern here is with economics and particularly the role of peasants, who could always withdraw demand from the market and revert to more production for subsistence, and in this way sustain the feudal economy. But I want to add in, from a cultural history perspective, the lords’ logic. Since capitalism would have made them richer, why were they so slow to move towards it? As the title of my post implies, I think there’s one obvious reason; the feudal mode of production was an easier way of living well than the alternatives.

Leaving aide any moral scruples, if you’re going to extract surplus from agricultural workers, it’s easier being a lord than either a slave-driver or a capitalist. There were undoubtedly sadistic slaveowners who enjoyed forcing their slaves to do hard work, but it required sustained, routine effort by such owners to prevent resistance. (Of course, such enforcement could be delegated to others, but then there’s the principal-agent problem of your representative skimming off the profits). Running a capitalist enterprise also requires sustained effort by the business owner to ensure that you have a supply of wage labourers and that they are doing their work productively. Again, if that supervision is delegated, you have to do a lot of checking of the supervisors.

On the other hand, the most basic form of rent/tribute taking is you and a bunch of heavies going round once a year to a village to collect a chunk of the harvest. Even when you get more sophisticated forms of rent/tax, which is collected by a headman/steward, they don’t have to monitor the peasants every day, and if you have more or less customary rents/dues, you don’t have to do that much checking up on your agent. It all takes a lot less time, which means that you could spend more of your life living like a lord, which is, after all, what most people want.

It also probably required less of a state infrastructure than either capitalism or (most) slave-owning societies. The need for effective state-backed institutions to provide effective markets and capitalism has been frequently stressed by the new institutional economists. Karl Persson, “Markets and coercion in medieval Europe,” in The Cambridge history of capitalism. Volume 1, The rise of capitalism: from ancient origins to 1848, edited by Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson (2014) (10.1017/CHO9781139095099.009 9) claims that the state was essential for enforcing medieval serfdom and slavery (p. 229):

The policy of the Crown, the central authority, was essential for the possibility of maintaining an agreement among landlords not to compete for labor from other estates, what we can call the “employ no fugitive” rule.

I think he’s mostly right about slavery. It’s possible for a stateless society to maintain slavery based on war-captives (as some hunter-gather societies do), but most large-scale slave societies have needed an elaborate legal system to enforce slavery: the southern US experience shows that maintaining a slave system without centralised support is very difficult.

But I don’t think Persson is right about the feudal mode of production more generally needing the state. He assumes that peasants can just relocate if the local lord is oppressive but ignores the sunk costs of their farm. Once you’ve got buildings, cleared land, animals, neighbours etc, only a very pressing reason is going to make you move. And in the absence of a state and at least some legal institutions, you’re not likely either to know about or trust the promise of another lord that they’ll treat you better. One of the reasons the feudal/tributary production mode is so successful is that while it can make use of the state, it doesn’t need the state to thrive in the way that capitalism and most forms of slavery do. Mafia protection rackets are run on the same economic logic: after all, what is a don, but a dominus?

The feudal economy, therefore, may not have been the most efficient form of surplus extraction, but as a quick and dirty solution it wasn’t bad. Even in the early modern period, capitalism may well not have looked terribly attractive to a lot of the gentry. Would you rather be Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, all of whose ships may have sunk, or the provincial squire watching the play, with an estate which even a bad harvest won’t ruin? Economists extoling the “creative destruction” of unfettered capitalism need to remember that lots of people don’t particularly want financial risk, especially long-term.

This ties into what’s been suggested as one of the key differences between the modern UK and the US attitudes to work, the Old Rectory syndrome:

Americans, said the author, want to be rich. The British, on the other hand, want to be comfortably off. The Old Rectory, he said, was the pinnacle of British middle-class ambition. The Americans would work until they were rich but the British would stop working once they had achieved the lifestyle epitomised by owning an old rectory in a village or country town.

Speaking as someone who grew up in small villages which had a “big house” or two, the family who owns one of those (or even more so an estate) is a big fish in a small pond, who gets local deference even from those who aren’t directly dependent on them. Being gentry, being the local landowner gets you social status that wealth alone doesn’t bring. The economic logic of feudalism helped it survive for a long time. But we also shouldn’t forget the psychological and affective side of it, which is even more persistent. 

Patriarchy Project 2a: exclusion/limitation of school-age education

Note: This is another preliminary analysis of an aspect of my patriarchy project.

I’ve broken up my discussion of patriarchal structures in education and training into three parts: school-age education, training and apprenticeships, and advanced education (e.g. universities and academies). In reality, the three categories overlap, especially the first two. Even young children might primarily be being trained for a specific role or career rather than given an elementary general education. Progress between stages of education wasn’t strictly regulated by age, but attainment. And those women who were able to obtain an advanced education were likely to do so via the same institutions that they had used to obtain their more basic education (tutors or convents). But there are differences in patriarchal structures and logic between these forms of education, which I hope this division will illuminate.

Logo of Hitchin Girls’ School

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Patriarchy project 1f: differential patterns of unfreedom/slavery

Note: This is another preliminary analysis of an aspect of my patriarchy project.

I’ll also add that while I’ve researched a fair amount on early medieval slavery, I’m much less well-informed on early modern slavery, so if anything I say on that is completely wrong, please let me know.


Looking at gendered aspects of slavery is one of the most difficult aspects of patriarchal structures to discuss. Firstly, because slavery and unfreedom encompass so many different forms of subjection: in fact, early medievalists have tended to prefer the term “unfreedom” because the people they study often don’t look like the slaves of classical Rome or New World plantations. Secondly, there’s the question of whether “patriarchy” is really an adequate term to describe the complex interactions of gender, race, religion and legal status in producing the oppression and dominance of slavery.

But I’m not trying to write a general history of kyriarchal structures, so in keeping with my definitions I’m focusing here on three aspects of slavery where you can see sex-based discrimination against women: societies in western Europe and its colonies where there were more enslaved women than men, ones where unfree women were systematically treated worse than unfree men, and circumstances in which female slaveowners were treated less favourably than male slaveowners.

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Individualistic cavalrymen seeking renown

I’ve finally finished Dominic Barthélemy, La chevalerie (2012), which has been a very long read. It’s 600+ pages of detail; it also didn’t help that I started off reading the original edition and then switched to the revised version, which is even longer, and been rearranged, so I had to go back and find which passages had disappeared or been altered. This post is basically just me trying to sort out the major themes within the book and work out to what extent I agree with him about chivalry.

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Patriarchy project 1d: Unequal transfers of family wealth

Note: This is another preliminary analysis of an aspect of my patriarchy project.

The Dashwood sisters, Sense and Sensibility (1995)

One reason for the historical economic predominance of men is that they not only have more opportunities to gain wealth by employment but have often been able to gain a larger than equal share of the family property at moments when this is transferred. What I’m thinking of here are the institutions of dowries, divorce settlements and inheritance. Though my initial schema separated them out, I now think it makes more sense to consider them together, because they’re often linked together in complex ways. For example, the dowry could be considered as the “widow’s portion”, intended to support her after her husband’s death. In some legal systems which allowed divorce, a wife might also sometimes have her dowry returned to her on the divorce. In some Western European cultures, a girl’s dowry might also be considered as her premortem inheritance, so that she had no further rights to inherit from her parents.

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Virtue signalling, the Mafia and Christianity

In a previous post I used the term “virtue signalling” and when I showed a draft to my husband, he was unhappy with the phrase, which he thought was a meaningless right-wing slogan. Certainly, that’s how it now tends to be used, as part of the culture wars.

What I was trying to do, however, was use “signalling” in one of its academic senses, as a sociological  concept. A classic explanation is given by Diego Gambetta, Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate (Princeton University Press, 2009) p. x: “Signals are any observable features of an agent that are intentionally displayed for the purpose of altering the probability the receiver assigns to a certain state of affairs or “event””.

Gambetta goes on (p. xi) to explain the biggest problem with such signalling:

signals can be fraudulently manipulated. By lying, imitating, forging, or stealing certain signs, a signaller can mimic the state of affairs one associates with these signs. What is ultimately being mimicked is a certain unobservable property, k, that the mimic does not really possess. What is being lied about, imitated, copied or forged along the way are the signs associated with k, which leave the impression of possessing k.

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When the robots came to librarianship

There is continued talk about how robots and other forms of automation, such as artificial intelligence, may be going to take most of our jobs. Some more informed observers, however, are sceptical, pointing out the enduring limits of AI.  I want to add to this scepticism by talking about an employment sector where automation and IT have already drastically changed the content of jobs, but without eliminating the profession: librarianship.

I went to library school over thirty years ago (I studied at CLW in 1987-1988) , at a point when the cutting edge storage technology was the CD-ROM and to access remote databases, you used a dial-up modem, running at 300 bps (as opposed to modern broadband rates in the UK in the tens of megabytes per second). As for the internet, I was very proud of myself when I worked out how to use JANET (the Joint Academic Network) to search a library catalogue elsewhere in the UK, but it was far too complicated a procedure to think of doing regularly.

I started as a librarian, therefore, about ten years BG (before Google) and indeed even before the World Wide Web was invented. By the time I’d been a librarian for around fifteen years, the changes were drastic. In 2001, my job was managing the University of Hertfordshire’s electronic journals, a form of communication that was still only in the experimental stage when I was at library school. And several other traditional library roles and tasks had already pretty much vanished.

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A brief history of Anglo-American virtue politics

Why hypocrisy matters

A while ago I read an interesting article in the New Statesman by the novelist Jonathan Coe entitled The Brexit referendum tells the story of the radicalisation of Middle England. This argues for the importance of two incidents during Gordon Brown’s premiership on undermining voters’ trust in Parliament and MPs generally. One was the Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, the other was Gordon Brown’s reference in the General Election campaign of 2010 to a Labour voter called Gillian Duffy as a “bigot” after her making comments about immigration.

In both cases, Coe argues, the key reason these events resonated beyond their actual significance was because of the hypocrisy involved: of a “political class professing virtue in public while privately milking the system for all it was worth” and of Gordon Brown saying one thing to the woman’s face and another behind her back (his gaffe was caught by a live microphone he’s forgotten about). These became part of a narrative for “Middle England” about rottenness at the heart of England.

It’s tempting at this point just to see this as part of a wider attempt by powerful right-wing media interests to discredit the Labour Party or liberalism more generally (including more centrist Tories). But I don’t think it’s just because of that that Gordon Brown was more vulnerable to a gaffe than Boris Johnson is. I think it’s also the difference between a political party led by the virtuous and a political party for the virtuous and the contrasting dangers of hypocrisy for such parties.

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Understanding economic research 1: Braunstein, “Patriarchy versus Islam” (2014)

One of the new skills I’m going to need for my Patriarchy Project is understanding and critiquing research in economic history and economics, which often uses a very different methodology, far more quantitative and model-based than I’m used to. I want to do some blogging to see what I can get out of such papers at my current state of knowledge. I also want to see what I still need to work on understanding, because some critique is only possible once I understand the models and their limitations better. This post is therefore mainly for clarifying my own thoughts, though I’d welcome anybody pointing out any egregious misunderstandings on my part.

I’m going to start with an economics paper that looks very relevant to the project: Elissa Braunstein, “Patriarchy versus Islam: gender and religion in economic growth“, Feminist Economics 20 (2014):58-86. DOI: 10.1080/13545701.2014.934265.

Abstract: This contribution evaluates whether affiliation with Islam is a theoretically and statistically robust proxy for patriarchal preferences when studying the relationship between gender inequality and economic growth. A cross-country endogenous growth analysis shows that direct measures of patriarchal institutions dominate a variety of religious affiliation variables and model specifications in explaining country growth rates, and that using religious affiliation, particularly Islam, as a control for culture produces misleading conclusions. This result is robust to the inclusion of measures of gender inequality in education and income, indicating that establishing and maintaining patriarchal institutions (a process this study calls “patriarchal rent-seeking”) exact economic growth costs over and above those measured by standard gender inequality variables. One of the key contributions of this study is to draw on unique institutional data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Gender, Institutions and Development (GID) database to better understand the gendered dynamics of growth.

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The Carolingian preudomme?

I haven’t yet had a chance to read David Crouch’s new book  The Chivalric Turn: Conduct and Hegemony in Europe before 1300, but his The Birth of Nobility: Constructing Aristocracy in England and France: 900-1300 (2005) contains a long discussion of the preudomme, a figure whom Crouch believes exemplified noble male conduct before chivalry. Crouch argues that this model is already visible in texts such as the Chanson de Roland from  c.1100, and that some eleventh century texts, such as the lives of the knights turned saints Herluin of Bec, Count Bouchard I of Vendôme and Simon de Crépy show similar behaviour.

Crouch states (Birth of Nobility, pp. 40-41):

That is perhaps as far as we can go in antedating his [the preudomme‘s] appearance as an ideal social type in French lay culture, although historians of Carolingian culture might have an opinion on this.

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