Framing the Early Middle Ages 4: the fall and rise of Northern states

(For previous posts discussing Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages, see here, here and here).

In Chapter 6 of Framing the Early Middle Ages, Chris looks at ‘northern’ societies (here taken to be England, Wales, Ireland and Denmark) in the post-Roman world and asks two important questions, both of which have comparative aspects. Why did Britain lose all traces of Romanness after 400 (while Francia didn’t)? And why did England (and to a lesser extent Denmark) develop large and complex kingdoms in the period (while Wales and particularly Ireland didn’t)? To answer these questions, he sets up a contrast of ideal types again. One is the (weak) state which he first discussed in Chapter 3. In this he sees the state as characterised by 5 factors (p 57, 303-304):

the centralization of legitimate enforceable authority (justice and the army); the specialization of governmental roles, with an official hierarchy which outlasted the people who held official position at any one time; the concept of a public power, that is, of a ruling system ideologically separable from the ruled population and from the individual rulers themselves; independent and stable resources for rulers; and a class-based system of surplus extraction and stratification.

In contrast, he characterizes the ‘tribal society’ (p 305):

one in which a ruler or local lord is less the owner of land than of a free people, who are often at least in theory his distant relatives, but who are above all tied to him by tight bonds of mutual obligation and loyalty, of common identity. The dependents of such a ruler are, in settled societies, mostly free peasants; they owe military obligations, and/or (often intermittent) tribute, but on an economic level they are largely autonomous, and indeed rulers often have to give to them in return, for example by means of elaborate hospitality and feasting. the land both ruler and people live on may be the same, but if so, rights to it are frequently overlapping, without the exclusivity of feudal-mode land tenure, in which one person is an owner and the other tenants.

Chris’ two questions then become why and how England went from being part of a Roman state to a tribal society in the earlier part of the period and why and how it alone went from being a tribal society to a state in the later part of the period. A lot of his suggestions for how things happened are inevitably hypothetical, given the poor documentation common in most tribal societies, but they’re plausible. His suggestions of why things happened seem to be a bit less convincing in places.

I hadn’t really grasped before reading Chris the extent to which the British economy collapsed in the fifth century. I think that’s because the traditional view of the Anglo-Saxons as barbarian destroyers was based mainly on written sources, whereas the archaeological sources, which show drastic material decline, have been interpreted against a more recent historical view which stresses continuity between Roman and Anglo-Saxon England. Chris is unconvinced about most Roman/Anglo-Saxon continuity and sees a relatively large number of Anglo-Saxons migrants coming, rather than just an aristocratic elite (p 311-312). But to him the Anglo-Saxons aren’t the driver of change. What he sees as crucial is the withdrawal of the Roman state in c 410 (p 309), which led to an economic collapse within a generation.

Chris provides a convincing, if hypothetical idea of how a Roman aristocrat under these circumstances might end up as a tribal leader (p 330-331), which he sees as a common pattern wherever civil society breaks down (I was reminded of lots of ‘after the apocalypse’ movies, with the hero controlling a bunch of supporters and dependents, but not necessarily worried about whether they ‘owned’ the land they worked). Chris also sees parallels with Berber North Africa, where a Roman society ‘went tribal’ (p 333-339) amid political and economic crisis and in an area where there were cultural links to societies that were still largely tribal.

Chris’ parallels to the Berbers, however, while indicating again his extraordinarily broad frame of references, are also a little problematic, because the Roman economic system didn’t collapse there: they still kept some form of market exchange (p 337). Chris follows Simon Esmonde-Cleary, The Ending of Roman Britain (which I haven’t read) in seeing the economy of Britain in being too closely tied to the Roman fiscal system and so collapsing with the withdrawal of the state and the end of taxation (p 308-309). But I’m not clear on why he thinks that ended economic exchange within Britain, as well as across the Channel. It seems churlish to demand that a long book should be even longer, but a paragraph or two explaining more of Esmonde-Cleary’s theory would have been useful.

We then move to the ‘rise’ bit, with Chris now having four areas to compare: England, Wales, Ireland and Denmark, all of which look pretty tribal around 500. Chris reckons the most plausible explanation for how the English state developed from post-apocalypse, Saxonised micro-kingdoms is Stephen Bassett’s ‘FA Cup model’ of the accumulation of political power and the formation of larger kingdoms by conquering and absorbing smaller ones (p 345). Chris’ comparative twist, however, is to point out that the same process didn’t happen in Wales, Ireland or Denmark, and to ask why. He says (p 345-346):

State-building in northern Europe seems to me to be linked to four main variables: one external, the influence of outside political structures that is to say; and three internal, the tightness of the links between kings and aristocrats, the growth of economic differentiation, and the establishment of aristocratic landed power.

On these factors (p 377-378), outside political influence is strongest in England, then in Denmark, very limited in Ireland and Wales (with a local rather than imported church). England had relatively tight links between kings and aristocrats/petty kings, Ireland looser ones (judging by the law-codes), Wales may have had a breakdown in ties from the eighth century, with kings and aristocrats competing rather than collaborating (p 352-353), and Denmark’s situation is unknown. Economic differentiation developed early in Denmark, but didn’t lead to a stable state (although it’s debatable whether calling the Jutland based kingdom which dominated Denmark from around 700-860s unstable isn’t imposing an excessive timespan). Economic differentiation developed steadily in England, less so in Wales and least in Ireland.

This implies that outside political influence may have been key, but Chris’ argument is that actually the establishment of aristocratic landed power (feudalism in its Marxist sense) is the most important factor for a stable state, rather than institutional and ideological factors (p 304, 377-378). The key change is between shared rights in land and fairly small-scale and occasional tribute paid by peasants, and exclusive aristocratic ownership and systematic payment of heavier rents. The first problem here is how you get the evidence for this: for Denmark, for example, all we can do is guess that ‘magnate farms’ (presumed to be the residences of chieftains) being separate from relatively homogeneous villages implies there’s not much direct control (p 373). For Ireland, the law-codes show relatively loose relationships with clients, with gifts of cattle in exchange for hospitality renders (p 360-362) and land relations not involved at all.

For England (and to some extent Wales) we have charter evidence from the late C7, but Chris thinks this can’t be read in a straightforward way. Although the charters right from the start talk about transfers of full property, Chris thinks what they actually transfer is rights to take tribute from lands. He bases this on the view that there are very large blocks of land getting transferred in England (and moderately sized ones even in Wales) and that if aristocrats really did get given whole villages as full property, they would be so rich that it would show up in the material culture, which it doesn’t (p 314-322, 328-329). By the ninth century in England, however, there do seem to be rich aristocrats around, judging by the archaeology, and you can also see buying up of land and leases and other evidence of full property rights, and even labour services by 900 (at Hurstbourne Priors) (p 348-350). All this suggests what Chris calls a ‘slow internal crystallization process’ (p 350) towards more oppressive forms of surplus extraction.

My knowledge of Anglo-Saxon land tenure is sketchy in the extreme (I hear ‘sokeman’ or ‘farm of one night’ and my mind automatically cuts out), but Chris’s explanation doesn’t intrinsically sound impossible. But there’s a further problem. Why did land rights crystallize in England but probably not in Wales? Chris contrasts the two societies (p 353):

these [English] aristocracies came to prefer the wealth and political hierarchy of a small kingdom to the tight, small-scale local bonds, and also the relative economic equalities, of autonomous tribal leadership. If this is right, it would follow that in Wales aristocracies preferred to stay tribal; and that this also means that the aristocratic victory over peasant economic autonomies probably did not occur, or was restricted to the unfree

It’s here that Chris’ commitment to economic/Marxist explanations seems to me to come aground. He’s reluctant to allow cultural factors much weight, and comes up with the second best dismissal of early medieval cultural influence I’ve heard in 2009 (p. 358): ‘the ceremonial force of local kingship, or the legal right of kings to change overlords, would be convincing to any subordinate tuath [people], no doubt, but would not soften the heart of an incipient Irish Clovis or Offa’. But once you eliminate culture, then why didn’t Welsh aristocrats want to exploit their peasants more and get rich like the English? After all, that, in Chris’ terms, is what aristocrats do. He doesn’t really provide material reasons for why aristocrats elsewhere didn’t do what the English aristocracy did, other than a passing mention of Wales’ geography as encouraging separate microregions (p 352). Given that he doesn’t think market relations played a role in the North in this period (p 378), I think the other non-cultural reasons available are rather limited – I don’t know whether you can make ecological arguments for small-scale rather than large-scale kingdoms in Ireland, but I’m not sure you can for Denmark. Maybe you can do something with military technology or organisation? But overall, I think that Chris’ explanations here seem to peter out one level of analysis before they should. Still it’s only because he’s making the comparisons that I’m even questioning his answers, rather than just assume the English experience was ‘inevitable, desirable, and therefore logical’ (p 345) so I can hardly complain.

Having now tackled the aristocracies and states/non-states of all ten of his regions, Chris moves onto part 3 of his book and we get three chapters of peasants. I will try and keep up with the reading and blogging, but I must admit that I’m not as fascinated by peasants as I probably should be…


3 thoughts on “Framing the Early Middle Ages 4: the fall and rise of Northern states

  1. I think ecological factors probably explain the difference in Welsh-English competition at least; large-scale agrarian landholding just isn’t very possible in Wales, there are too many defensible hills and too few plains, whereas in England you can make it big so that becomes a sensible thing to aim for (and to get really big you have to endorse big power structures). However, I think Chris’s models are probably clearer about which way round cause and effect go than mine are…

    I would also agree that really, Denmark has to qualify as a strong state even if it’s not very developed. The Danevirke and the army to take Aachen both testify to the king being able to mobilise large numbers of men, at least at times. The fact that he doesn’t control his nobility very tightly, to judge from how many of them go a-Viking, doesn’t seem to prevent him having something to offer them that induces their cooperation. (This is where that Ferguson character should be working his evil-Carolingians mojo.) I think the place just doesn’t fit Chris’s ideal types, to be honest (though I wonder whether, if we knew more about Pictland, it wouldn’t look systemically similar).


  2. Just to say that I think these posts are really good. I read this a while back and it’s interesting to see another perspective, and where it fits with and differs from mine. Keep up the good work!


  3. If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a bette…


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