Framing the Early Middle Ages 1: tax and the barbarians

I got Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages soon after it was published in 2005, but there’s a lot of it I still haven’t read, because it’s big – nearly 1000 pages. I’ve started reading it several times, but each time got distracted after the first few hundred pages, because there was something more urgent I needed to read right now. And then I’d lose track of the argument, because some of the chapters are 100 pages long and end up back where I started. So in this series of posts I’m going to be trying to blog the main part of Chris’ argument a chapter at a time. This isn’t a review, in any sense, just an attempt to try and get to grips with the book’s structure, more for myself than any readers. But if anyone reading this has read Framing and wants to comment on particular areas, please feel free to do so.

The reason for Chris’ book being so long is that it is serious comparative history, looking at 10 different regions of the post-Roman world from Ireland to Egypt. His first chapter is mainly setting out the parameters for his study: why he’s chosen particular regions, how he reads his sources and a bit on change and continuity. He also introduces one of his key images: the ‘catastrophe-flip’, when a slow socio-economic change suddenly reaches a critical point and there’s sudden rapid change (such as the collapse of a market system). There’s then a chapter setting out basic geography and political history, before the first substantial chapter: chapter 3 on ‘The form of the state’.

What Chris does here is effectively set up a three way division of his 10 regions (p. 56-61): strong states, based on taxation and a salaried army (Roman, Byzantine and Umayyads), weak states, with very little taxation and a landed army, but still with a sense of public power inherited from the Roman empire (mainly Merovingian Francia, Lombard Italy and Visigothic Spain) and pre-state areas (British Isles and Denmark). (His definition of a state is at p. 57). This three-way division is probably more useful than the commonly used state/no-state boundary, because it gets beyond perceptions of public power to ask what that public power can actually do. And it also sets up three of Chris’ recurring interests in the book: scale, localisation and ‘capillary’ action.

Chris applies scale both to polities (how big is the region governed) and economic systems (how far away do you get your basic commodities from). And one of his important points is that what happens when external factors lead to the break-up of a state depends on how economically integrated the parts are: the more they are tied into long-range exchange networks, the more catastrophic it is when these suddenly disappear. One example he quotes is the contribution of the loss of the African provinces and their grain supply to the fragmentation of the western Roman empire in the fifth century. (In the introduction (p.10), Chris says his views have also been influenced by the economic effects of the break-up of the Soviet Union).

On the other hand, without such external factors, he reckons tax-based systems are less vulnerable to fragmentation than land-based ones are. If there’s a tax network and resources flowing towards the centre (or at least the provincial centres), then the elite are less likely to break away, because they don’t want to break up a network which benefits them. On the other hand, land-based systems (as in the early medieval west) are prone to individual regions splitting off, because there isn’t the same pull from the centre. Which is where Chris’ concept of ‘capillaries’ come in, I think, though he doesn’t really define it: even if you don’t have the interaction of tax-collectors to pull localities into a connection to the centre, there are other ways of doing this – the attraction of courts, the availability of kings to settle disputes etc.

A large chunk of the chapter is given over to showing how a number of western states (Vandal Africa, Visigothic Spain, Merovingian Francia and Lombard Italy) moved from a tax-based system to a land-based system in the post-Roman takeover. What is clever about Chris’ ideas is that he’s found a plausible explanation for why this happened. If tax-based systems are stronger and more cohesive, as he argues, why move away from them? The traditional answers, implicitly at least, have either been that the invasions so trashed the Roman economy that there was nothing left to tax, or that the barbarians were too ignorant/stupid to work a tax system. These both fall down over the issue that you can still see large Roman landowners and high-ranking Roman officials in areas after barbarian takeovers.

Chris’ answer is that it was very difficult to maintain an effective tax system – you needed both a lot of coercion and very effective record collecting for a land tax. So you only kept it going if it was essential. But given that the main thing tax was spent on was the army, if you had a landed army supporting themselves, it wasn’t really essential. Barbarian kings could still be incredibly rich even without much of a tax take because they had so much land. As a result, there wasn’t the same pressure to keep the tax-system going like before as there was to degrade it, and its revenues became less and less important, so that it was eventually abandoned. The one post-imperial area that did keep taxation was the Umayyad empire, who had kept their Arab armies as salaried garrisons in areas such as Egypt rather than letting them settle on the land. And once you had a salaried foreign army in your province supported by your tax revenues, I’d have thought that was rather an incentive to keep paying at least some of your tax.

One of the advantages of Chris’ Marxism, at least for this chapter, is that he isn’t prone to the normal teological thinking about the state: he doesn’t think that strong states are better than weak states are better than no states. (It may be more of a weakness when he gets on to contemplating happy peasants). So he’s not inclined to romanticise the Roman state as many historians do. In particular, he makes interesting observations about how corruption in the tax system might actually help stabilize the political system (p 146-147): aristocratic patrons could offer to be mediators with the state on their clients’ behalf. In Umayyad Egypt, where this form of patronage largely disappeared for a while, there was a series of tax revolts for more than a century.

As the first part of a framing device for understanding the early Middle Ages, this chapter certainly works for me – now I’ve got to get to grips with the next 100 page chapter, on aristocracies.


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