Medieval archaeology and the Campaign for Socio-Economic History

Before Chris Wickham’s lecture on ‘Problems with the dialogue between medieval history and medieval archaeology’ to the joint seminars of the Institute of Historical Research and the Institute of Archaeology, some of us were trying to guess whether he’d irritate the historians or the archaeologists more. I voted for both equally, but Chris said afterwards that he’d been aiming at the historians more, as a historian himself, and he said in the talk itself that he thought historians were better placed to do the kind of synthesis he was after.

The main part of the lecture was a series of case studies of missed opportunities, when dialogues hasn’t taken place, including extreme cases where archaeologists and historians have been working on the same site (like Poggibonsi in Tuscany), but still don’t communicate properly. Chris also made a very good point in passing about how cultural historians ought to be thinking more seriously about material culture and especially the possibility of material culture as being almost the only medium for mass communication in a world of restricted literacy. The point has been made for specific artefacts (e.g. the significance of royal portraits on coins), but not taken up in a wider sense.

The problem I found with the lecture, however, is that underlying a lot of it was what seemed to me too narrow vision of what real history was. Chris has contributed enormously to socio-economic history, and much of the talk was implicitly a call for this to be prioritised, in combination with archaeological expertise. Indeed Chris explicitly contrasted the fruitful relationship of history with archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s (with a historical tendency towards broad-sweep structural analysis, based on socio-economic history) with the historians’ later move away from archaeology with the linguistic turn. This meant that post-processural archaeologists in the late 1980s and 1990s found historical collaborators hard to come by.

It seemed clear to me in the talk that what Chris really wants is the 1970s back, but it’s not just structuralism that now seem as out of date as glam rock (and less likely to be revived). The big problem now is that socio-economic history provides few obvious reasons for studying the Middle Ages, let alone the early Middle Ages. Why should the economic history of the Middle Ages be of interest to anyone but specialists? My sense is that until recently there were two possible broader connections. If you were interested in grand Marxian analyses, then slave and feudal modes of production were an important part of the model to be studied. Meanwhile for an analysis of the roots of industrialisation or capitalism as a whole, late medieval England and its textile trade or late medieval Italy and its banking system were useful places to look.

The problem is that current global capitalism has advanced so far that many of the early steps look entirely irrelevant. Why study what caused industrialisation in a post-industrial Europe? How much of what we learn about urbanisation in the twelfth century can influence our ideas of it in the twenty-first century? Is a person’s relationship to the means of production really the best determinant of their socio-economic position?

In contrast, other aspects of the early Middle Ages do seem to have more obvious contemporary resonance. Early medieval historians exploring theology, the construction of ethnicity, the development of the state, gender roles or the use of history as propaganda can all show connections between then and now in a way that has become difficult for early medieval socio-economic history. Archaeology can contribute to some aspects of these themes (it’s been very important for looking at ethnicity and culture, for example), but it’s not central to these issues in the same way as it is to socio-economic history.

That doesn’t mean that the study of medieval socio-economic history isn’t valuable or important in its own right, but I can’t see it returning to centre stage again. Chris ended by presenting an analysis of historical change in Palestine and Syria in the period 500-900. It was a good example of how much you can deduce from an area with a well-explored archaeological record without going to written sources. However, I’m not sure that many people apart from Chris are going to feel that the most important fact about seventh-century Islam is that it led to little change in the economy of the Levant. Arguing that archaeology should be an equal partner with history rather than its handmaiden may be a sound position, but it isn’t really going to be effective if what is offered is an attenuated vision of history where structural pattern has replaced story.


12 thoughts on “Medieval archaeology and the Campaign for Socio-Economic History

  1. This is a challenging post! I wish I’d had my report of the paper up sooner now, all I shall be able to do is add a paragraph at the end or else I’d have to rebuild it entirely.

    I do very much see your point, and it’s kind of the same thing that I’d be getting at when I would refer to Chris as ‘an old Marxist’, implying superannuation of his dialectical position not him himself you understand. All the same, I think you make a difference between structural change and story that doesn’t necessarily have to be drawn. Take for example one of the things where Chris has made a major contribution, the fall of the Roman Empire. It used to be explained in terms of personalities, often, what with Gibbon and so on, national personalities, and cultural change, and current study is exploring in great and fascinating detail questions of identity and religion as the structures changed. I’m thinking Ralph Mathisen’s most recent stuff here especially, and he a man who understands material culture better than many in the field of letters.

    However, the big story here is a socio-economic one. The breakdown of communications, the collapse of structures, the failure of hierarchies, all have causes which may or may not be socio-economic, but without the socio-economic ‘story’ (and I don’t know why I feel like snigger quotes there, it is a story) none of it makes a lot of sense. Similarly, as Chris (I thought) demonstrated with his Syria-Palestine showcase, you can make the socio-economic version into a story, or at least a narrative. And as with other sorts of narrative, recently discussed, we need them to make the rest of this work that you mention possible… Chris is (still) rebuilding the big contexts of the “other aspects” that you mention; we can’t do without that work even if it’s not fashionable.


    • I want to leave the question of grand narratives to a separate post, because some of the comments on my earlier post on narrative have got me thinking more about that issue. On the more general issues, maybe unfashionable was an unfair term to use: after all, being a medieval historian puts all of us way outside current trends. And I don’t want to denigrate socio-economic history or Chris’ contribution to it. Chris’ comments on castle-building (which you discussed in your post, but I didn’t) provided a really neat illustration of how you could combine historical and archaeological data to solve the question of whether castles were ‘new’ to Norman England or not. (Basically, since the archaeology suggests they’re not really that different from previous structures, but the texts do make much of them, he was arguing that there was a different perception of fortified residences once they were occupied by an alien elite rather than a native aristocracy).

      But I was less happy with other sections of his paper, where it was implied (and sometimes explicitly stated) that Chris’ kind of history is the only sort that really matters. The corollary to Chris’ view that archaeology should be an equal partner to history, not just a handmaiden, is that the kinds of history which don’t draw on archaeology, because they can’t, aren’t really important. (Chris himself had earlier made the distinction that archaeology was best for looking at form and function and documents and history for looking at the conscious understanding of phenomena). My own research only uses archaeology occasionally, because the kind of things I’m interested in (morality and gender) aren’t generally illuminated by material culture. Archaeology just can’t answer the questions I’m interested in, which doesn’t in any way invalidate its use for other purposes. But if I am being told that because my questions can’t be answered by archaeology, they are therefore the wrong sort of questions, that seems unnecessarily dismissive.


  2. Well, you might get something out of evidence for costume and diet, but yes, even so, I take your point. That might even be a weak point for Chris, because you work on aristocrats and quite a lot of Chris’s dialectic hangs on an ideological perception of what aristocrats are like, which therefore may not like examination of that subject too much…

    But there is somewhere in here an argument about the greatest good to the greatest number, I think. I would hazard that Chris thinks his stuff is important because, although extracted from single sites, the syntheses it leads to tell you about life and experience for lots of people all across Europe. I suppose the corollary of that is that in such a perspective what mainly matters is material conditions of life, and not how people feel about their lives. Is this really a question of materiality versus spirituality? Is what’s on the table more important than what’s in the sermon, or not? It’s not a call I’d want to make…


    • The argument about looking at the greatest number is one that I’ve heard explicitly made: for example by Alan Cooper when he gave a talk to the IHR on poverty about 1200 earlier this year and said that more work ought to be done on the 90% at the bottom of society rather than the 10% at the top.

      I can see the point of this argument in the abstract, but it seems to run into two main problems. One is that some ideology does have more historical influence in the long run then any material conditions. (So do some individuals: Bill Clinton’s sex life affected the whole world, however much we might wish it didn’t). The fact that in the fourth century one branch of the Christian church decided that only celibate men could be its leaders is still affecting people today in continents far remote from the Roman Empire. And if the failure of history to ‘end’ in the last few years tells us anything, it’s that economics is not destiny.

      The other more basic problem is that I’m unhappy with anybody telling me what history I ought to be researching, because in my view that leads to poorer scholarship. You can’t do decent research on a subject that doesn’t interest you. My grumble isn’t that Chris does socio-economic history: I’m delighted that he does it and does it so well, because it means I don’t have to do it less well. But if I don’t have the right to research what I damn well please, we’re on the slippery slope to all us historians having to study the Nazis…


  3. As a student of archaeology I have a few comments on your post:
    First let me state that (living in Germany) I did not attend that lecture, all I know about it is from your post and those of Jonathan and gesta. (Do you know if an archaeologist who attended blogged about it? It would be interesting to hear from “our side” in this).
    I also know virtually nothing about historians’ methodology and schools of thought (I guess we really should work together more closely!) so most of my questions are probably pretty basic to you.

    You ask why the economic history of the Middle Ages should be of interest to anyone but specialists.
    I say that it very probably isn’t and that it doesn’t have to. Why does history have to tell me something about the present?
    I study history in order to know how the past was, not in order to learn lessons about the present day.
    I am of course aware that we cannot reconstruct the past and that we have to be critical about our sources (both as historians and as archaeologists) but we can try to come as close to objective truthh as possible.
    And this: finding out about the past (and presenting our research to the public who pay us after all) should be the goal of archaeologists and historians.
    Archaeology and history (in my opinion) are NOT sociology and they are NOT anthropology! Leave the study of the modern world to these scholars.

    (Sorry, that rant was more about the current state of archaeology.)

    You write “However, I’m not sure that many people apart from Chris are going to feel that the most important fact about seventh-century Islam is that it led to little change in the economy of the Levant.”

    That’s not true. The statement should go “I’m not sure that many HISTORIANS apart from Chris are going to feel that the most important fact about seventh-century Islam is that it led to little change in the economy of the Levant.”
    I for one find that that’s a fasinating fact with possible repercussions (or rather lack thereof) even in early medieval Europe. I’d also be interested in changes in architecture or in clothing and diet.
    I know my views will look extremely antiquated to you but that is the way (at least part) of the archaeological community thinks (especially in the non English-speaking world).

    I think historians and archaeologists don’t work closely together because ultimately they’re interested in completely different things.
    While you think that archaeology can’t help you in your research (which is only partly true, in archaeology there’s been a lot of interest in gender since the 60s) what I want to know when I talk to a historian is if there’s any evidence in the texts that a particular kind of brooch was worn in a particular way. While you might be able to help me there you won’t put a lot of effort into the search because, understandably, you’re just not interested in that.

    Of course I’m exaggerating but it remains true that archaeologists and historians want to answer different questions about the past.
    And frankly I don’t think that that’s going to change in the near future.


  4. For Magistra to answer that more than me, perhaps, but I will make a few quick observations. Firstly, for reference, Gesta has been digging archaeology longer than they’ve been studying history and I think can fairly be called an archaeologist as well as a historian, so there is your archaeologist’s perspective.

    Secondly, though you critique Magistra for presenting what historians are interested in as if it were what the general public be interested in, I’m not sure that your interest in diet and so on in the Levant is any less a result of you being in the other discipline. Do you think archaeology is closer to popular interest in the past than text-based history?

    Thirdly, we all know I think that there’s been a lot of interest in gender in archaeology lately. The problem with it is that it’s been largely reasoned from costume like brooches and combs which skeletal evidence has more recently often proved were also deposited with the ‘wrong’ gender. Historians have spent much of the time that archaeology has been developing these theories going, “But material culture is portable! Anyone can pick it up!” though we’ve mostly been doing it with ethnicity not gender. It’s taken a while for archaeologists to actually start questioning these assumptions from inside the discipline and this is why historians have to read other disciplines’ work carefully.

    But fourthly, we should certainly be reading them, and this is basically what Chris was saying, in fact a lot of what you write is like what Chris was saying. But his conclusion was that although the disciplines don’t really do the same things the potential where they overlap is sufficient that we should keep talking. And I think he’s right. Don’t you?


  5. Matt B

    I think Jon is right that Gesta is the only archaeologist (or at least archaeologist cum historian) who’s blogged on the lecture. I don’t know exactly who blogs on early medieval archaeology, but quick searches on Google and Technorati for recent posts about Chris Wickham was only turning up relevant posts by us three.

    Of course historical/archaeological research doesn’t have to be relevant to the modern world (though if you’re getting public funding, it’s probably fair you should at least try to interest the public). But the questions that both historians and archaeologists ask about the past are inevitably influenced by present concerns. That’s why there’s been such an increased interest in gender, for example, and more subtle questions being asked about how pre-modern material culture and ethnicity are related now we live in a world where American-style jeans can be worn from China to Iceland. My problem with Chris’ talk is the sense that he thinks that only the questions from the 1960s/1970s are valid.

    It’s not just historians who have other concerns about seventh-century Islam than its economic effects. That was a period when Islamic theology and practice was developed, the Quran was (probably) standardised), the Sunni/Shia split developed and large parts of the Mediterranean came under Muslim control. These events have implications for people today who couldn’t locate Syria on a map, let alone know the first thing about its medieval economy. There are lots of periods of medieval history that aren’t of widespread public interest, but Chris happened to touch on one that is.

    On the question of gender and archaeology, I know there’s some good stuff that’s been done, particularly on gendered space in medieval buildings. But the studies I’ve looked at haven’t helped me in my work, because I can’t integrate them with my other material. I can’t fit the evidence of grave goods into my would-be grand narrative of early medieval gender, because the material evidence doesn’t tell me intention. If gender is being signalled more strongly in the sixth than the seventh century I don’t know what the significance of this is.

    So I quite often find that the archaeological evidence doesn’t give me what I want, just as the historical evidence doesn’t give you what you want about the use of specific pieces of equipment. But maybe the first thing that early medieval archaeologists and historians ought to remember is that our own evidence doesn’t tell us what we want to know half the time anyway: we can’t get at the sites we want, the written sources are scanty etc, etc. I don’t think that archaeology is going to answer my questions very often, but then I don’t expect many of my questions to be answered at all (early medieval history is always at least 25% speculation). Maybe early medieval archaeologists and historians ought to start bonding by admitting our ignorance of so much of our period. Then we could go on to sneering at the better documented/excavated periods. Does that sound like a constructive way forward?


  6. Jonathan and Magistra, thank you for your answers.

    Jon, I don’t say that the general public is more interested in what archaeology has to say about the 7th century Levant. I say that they’re equally uninterested in both but that it’s still wrong to say not many people will share Chris Wickham’s views because of the few people who are interested in that period some, like me, will be interested in just that and some, like you, in other things.

    I don’t think archaeology is inherently closer to the public interest than written history. We do, however, have it easier generating such interest in our work.
    While you can pretty much only publish books and give lectures or produce the odd TV programme (and let’s be honest here: books and lectures won’t reach a large part of today’s populace) we can actually, physically present the fruits of our work in a museum or even through reenactment/living history (which has it’s own problems but we’re not here to discuss these). (You’re an exception to the rule, of course, because you do present your current work in a museum and on the web).

    Furthermore (and that applies especially to Britain with its tradition both of archaeological societies and of popular TV programmes such as Time Team) the process of doing archaeology (or rather the small part of archaeological work that is often thought to be the main one, i.e. digging) is more interesting to watch and perhaps easier to identify with than the work of the historian (Mind you, that’s not my opinion but what I believe is that of the public.)
    So perhaps archaeology isn’t more interesting to the public but it’s probably more accesible.

    I can’t answer more of your post or Magistra’s for now because I have to attend a course but I promise to do it later.


  7. Matt, sadly my museum work is nothing to do with my actual research, but my actual research is such that I can quite happily find the economic development of the Levant more interesting than its theology.

    I’m not sure I’d agree that books reach fewer people than museum displays. The place where I work gets a lot of visitors, but I bet they’ve mostly read something at least about the stuff they’re interested in. I’d be quite surprised if we were getting many people who didn’t read non-fiction for fun. The question then becomes, are we telling stories they want to read? Which is kind of back to my first comment in response to Magistra…


  8. I’m afraid I’m dropping in and out of the blogopshere intermittently at the moment due to writing lectures on, appropriately, urbanism in northwest Europe, so I can only briefly add my views here.

    I mainly want to reiterate Chris Wickham’s plea to talk and by extension, listen to each other. I have similar qualms to Magistra in regard to his privileging the economic over anything else, but we should remember that his was a lecture based very much on personal experience. Each of us is a specialist in other ways beyond identification as an historian or archaeologist. Jonathan and Magistra have abilities in Latin, diplomatic, etc. that far outstrip mine, whereas I may well have greater confidence in the handling of material evidence and interpretation of buildings. Other archaeologists have greater knowledge of different artefacts etc. We all need to work together and be aware of each other’s approaches and conclusions. I could not do my work with out theories developed by archaeologists nor the hard work of the historians who edit texts.

    As for Magistra’s point about the archaeology of morality, I am now determined to find some! This may take a while.

    On the question of whether archaeology is more or less accessible to the public, I would tend towards Matt’s position on this. We used to get huge numbers of visitors on site open days when I was working in field archaeology who were both interested in looking at and handling the actual finds and also the process of excavation. However, in conversation they would almost always say that they were ‘very interested in history’, suggesting the public as a whole may not be so hung-up on disciplinary boundaries and niceties in the differences between sources as we are.

    Ok, not so brief after all – sorry.


  9. On the accessibility issue, I’ve done my fair share of taking people to museums who can’t read yet! (In fact, least week I was in Inverness Museum with a couple of five year-olds). But thinking about the many museums and historic buildings I’ve been to over the years, there is a problem for early medieval archaeologists. Objects that are going to appeal to the public almost always need to be a) big, b) beautiful or c) wierd. Postholes and pots frankly do not inspire many people. How many early medieval sites/collections (excluding manuscripts) are there in the UK that really wow laypeople? The Sutton Hoo treasure in the British Museum, the Pictish stuff in the National Museum of Scotland, Jorvik, and what else? Lindisfarne, Iona and Tintagel have spectacular sites, but there’s not much early medieval stuff visible. If you compare that to the prehistoric and Roman sites/artefacts in the UK or all the Norman castles/cathedrals here, the early medieval period is always going to come off looking rather second-rate. (I’m not sure if the same is true for Germany, but even there, I doubt there’s much that would compare with Roman Trier, or C12 Cologne, for example).


  10. Have you ever taken your children to the Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow? That seems to be the Marmite of archaeological display: people are either enthralled or completely bored by it. I suppose it’s like low-fat Jorvik. But both sites are trying to do something to make ‘ordinary’ archaeology interesting to the public. The downside of such displays is usually that people like us who understand a bit of the actual archaeology are dismayed by the, er, freedom of vision in the reconstruction because we know how much is actually known…


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