Framing the Early Middle Ages 3: the passage from feudalism to feudalism

Chapter 5 of Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (which I am blogging chapter by chapter) is on ‘Managing the land’ and sits somewhat uneasily just after his discussions of the state and aristocracies. Although it tackles patterns of land use in an innovative way and includes some important insights, this is the chapter so far which works least well, and I’m still trying to work out why.

Initially I thought that the problem was that Chris was trying to squeeze changes into an inappropriate Marxian framework, but I’m now less certain. Chris does start out with a conceptual analysis that resembles modified Marxism. For example, he comments (p. 260-261):

Slave plantations, peasant farming, and wage labour are in empirical terms the only major ways in which settled agriculture has ever been practised, and they are fundamentally different in the way labour power is organized. Marx distinguished between them as ‘modes of production’, stressing above all that the relations of dominance and expropriation, which themselves underpinned the whole of society, were structured differently if a master fed and directed his slaves, or if a lord took surplus from a subsistence peasant, or if an employer paid and directed a worker who then used the money to pay for food and shelter independently – in the slave mode, the feudal mode and the (agrarian) capitalist mode respectively. In each case, a dominant class lived off the labour of others, but the relations of production were entirely different, and, crucially, had a different economic logic….they have always seemed fundamental distinctions to me.

This distinction, however, is promptly undercut by Chris arguing (p 262-263) that the slave mode of production was unimportant in the period concerned (400-800). Given that wage labour is also fairly marginal in the period (apart from in Egypt), we are left with the feudal mode of production as dominant throughout the period (hence my title). Marxist theory isn’t useful here, even in Chris’ terms, and I don’t entirely know why he’s introduced it.

Instead, what the chapter is really about is an intervention in the debate on the ‘transition from slavery to serfdom’ in the post-Roman west (as discussed by Pierre Bonnassie and others) from an economic system point of view. (This chapter is less comparative than others, presumably because the evidence just isn’t there for several regions, like Spain). Chris’ argument is that the economic autonomy of even unfree tenants means that they should not be seen as ‘slaves’ (p 261-262). But he also argues against the unfree being serfs, seeing the key combination of legal unfreedom, seigneuire banale (private justice of lords) and labour service as visible only in the late tenth century (p 263-264).

So what did drive the changes in agricultural management that are visible in the post-Roman west, particularly manoralization? Chris’ main argument (p 264-265) is that the motor for change is intensification of landlords’ control over agricultural production and that this corresponds to the importance of exchange networks: if it’s possible to sell agricultural surpluses (or the landlord has to pay taxes), there’s more of an incentive to put in the hard and sometimes expensive work of more intensive management of agricultural workers. This linkage between markets and management does seem intuitively plausible and Chris then has a nice section (p 265-268) on how the presence or absence of accounting documents can suggest how intensively landlords are managing. The maintenance of accounting techniques throughout the period in Egypt (as contrasted to their disappearance elsewhere) is good evidence for his hypothesis, given that, as he’s pointed out elsewhere, Egypt looks the most ‘Roman’ portion of the post-Roman world.

The problem is in areas other than Egypt, however, where we’ve got much less documentation on land management. Here, Chris has to argue that particular forms of agricultural production are associated with intensification of management, and that’s a lot harder to show. Chris’ main focus is on ‘demesne’ land, but he defines that in an idiosyncratic way that’s broader than normal. To him demesnes are any areas of land ‘where owners directly controlled labour and the details of agricultural exploitation’ (p 272), whether they are worked by plantation slaves, the labour service of tenants or wage labour (p 273).

This rather collapses the emphasis on modes of production Chris has had before in the chapter, but does allow a plausible argument that not all forms of ‘demesnes’ are necessarily related to one another and derived from one another: (p 273) ‘demesnes are most likely to have been invented more than once, not just in history, but even in the Roman empire.’ The bigger problem is that it’s not clear that demesnes/direct management emerge because landlords are trying to intensify their control over agriculture. As Chris himself points out, there are lots of different ways of intensifying control and responding to a growth in markets (p 264-265, 291): these include the slave mode, wage labour, demesne agriculture, but also simple tenure with very high rents.

Chris sees a systemic break between late Roman and early medieval agricultural management strategies, which is plausible, but his model doesn’t really provide it. The late Roman world, in his view (p. 265-280), has peasant tenants, some wage labour and some ‘demesne’ but not much use of plantation slaves. The early medieval world he describes (p. 280-301) in Francia (and Italy) has peasant tenants, increasing amounts of ‘demesne’ in the form of manorialization and not much wage labour or use of plantation slaves. What is actually different?

One key problem is that ‘tenants’ is being used to cover very varying relationships. At one end you have (in Egypt) short-term contracts, sometimes with share-cropping: tenancies which look pretty much like commercial operations, responding to markets. At the other end, you have customary tenants with inherited tenancies, payment in several different forms of kind, where the landlord may also have the right to whip you and to decide who you marry, and an economy that’s largely self-sufficient at the landowner level, if not the estate level. There’s still an awful lot of landlord control either way, but its different kinds of control and for different reasons.

A move from commercial type tenures to simplified customary/non-commercial forms is plausible for the immediately post-Roman west, when exchange networks are in decline. But customary tenancies are also probably the default result for the breakdown of plantation slavery modes: rather than the expense and danger of feeding and housing your slaves themselves, you ‘hut’ them in family groups (which may not exclude continuing control of their life-cycle). Chris also argues that a decline in markets may have lead to the leasing out of demesnes to their existing workforce (p 280). In other words, most lands may have ended up from very different starting-points with customary tenants, in an agricultural world that is no longer intensely managed.

Chris’ second problem is what drove the manorialization of Francia and Italy, which he sees as emerging in the eighth century (again, as in other chapters, we get a fair bit of post-800 stuff). In Italy, he argues that demanding labour services from tenants is mainly about symbolic markers of subordinate status rather than any practical economic benefits, because demesnes are often so small and fragmented (p 298-299). In contrast, he thinks the Frankish development of manorialization was an intensification for profit (p. 299).

The difficulty this poses for Chris is that he doesn’t think (p 291) that there was much of a market for agricultural produce in ninth century Francia (with the exception of wine); if all the large estates were selling grain, who was buying it? One of his suggestions (p 292), which is very interesting, but hard to prove, is that the Carolingian army needed a lot of rations, and that large estates were either using their surpluses for their own men or selling them off to others summoned to the host. I think another possibility is that surplus grain may have been a very useful way for estates to profit from local shortages in nearby areas. There’s a lot in Carolingian capitularies about ‘usurers’ and grain speculators profiting in times of general famine – it’s possible that a lot of that was going on at a lower level all the time with very local harvest failures, and that it was a way of gradually ‘sucking in’ peasants into dependency.

But there’s also another possible way of considering the Carolingian economy that’s useful. Matthew Innes, in a paper that’s partly a response to Chris’ book (‘Framing the Carolingian economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58, argues that much estate production was orientated towards gift exchange rather than commerce. The big disadvantage of labour service as compared to rent is coercing labour effectively. But the advantage that it has over rents in kind is more control over quality of produce: if you are having to pay your lord in sheep and shingles, the aim is to get away with handing over the mangiest animal and the shoddiest workmanship you can. If a landowner is using much of their produce to impress their peers and superiors, direct management potentially helps with this.

All this is speculation, but there’s one interesting anecdote from Notker the Stammerer (1-15). Charlemagne visits a bishop on a fast day, who has no fish to offer, but only cheese. Charlemagne is so impressed by the cheese that he demands two cartloads yearly. The bishop panics and says he can’t be sure it’ll be good cheese. Charlemagne says to check by cutting it in half and resealing it later. (To Notker, unlike Chris (p 290), it’s plausible that Charlemagne might have this level of interest in agriculture details). After the bishop has provided the cheese for three years, he’s rewarded with a large estate. If the right kind of hospitality could win favour to this extent, it makes sense for landlords to try and exercise tight control over at least some agricultural production on their lands.

As my comments suggest, I don’t think Chris’ explanations entirely work for the changes in this period, but his ideas about intensification do seem to me to be potentially a very useful framework. I will wait to see how this ties up with his detailed discussion of peasants later in the book. For now, it’s a long chapter on ‘the North’ (British isles and Denmark) I have to try and get to grips with.


One thought on “Framing the Early Middle Ages 3: the passage from feudalism to feudalism

  1. This is really interesting and I’ll have to read it myself before I can opine much. I will say though that there is in fact reasonable evidence from Spain for changes in slavery, in as much as charters slowly cease to mention slaves, but of course almost all those charters are a lot later than Chris’s framework, and before that you’re either in Visigothic Spain, where basically the evidence is lawcodes against fugitive slaves in ever-increasing stringency, or you’re in al-Andalus, where the attitude to slavery is (supposedly) quite different and where the current state of the literature is that, other than new crops, peasant agriculture changes very little. I realise that’s not a lot to go on but it didn’t stop Bonnassie, so I’m faintly surprised that Chris doesn’t take that on. Makes me realise how little I know, though,


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