Framing the Early Middle Ages 5: portraits of peasants

(This is part of a series blogging about Chris Wickham’s book Framing the early Middle Ages)

In Part III of Framing the Early Middle Ages Chris moves on to discussing peasants (having previously discussed states and aristocrats) and his first chapter gets even me (not very interested in peasants) intrigued. Chapter 7 starts and ends with analysis, including a very useful definition of a peasant in economic terms (p 386):

“a settled cultivator (or, more rarely, pastoralist), cultivating largely for subsistence, who does at least some agricultural work personally, and who controls his or her labour on the land.”

Such peasants could be landowners (‘small owners’) or tenants, part-time artisans and they could also have tenants or wage labourers working some of their land. But if they stop working any of the land themselves, they cease to be peasants and become ‘medium landowners’ (which means that peasants can never prosper too much or they cease being peasants).

The bulk of chapter 7, however, is case studies of 6 or 7 peasant societies: the 8th century territory of Lucca in northern Italy, the 8th century middle Rhine, the Île de France around Paris in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Anatolian plateau around 600, and two Egyptian villages: 6th century Aphrodito and Jeme in the 7th and 8th centuries. (Chris also discusses a fictitious 7th century English village ‘Malling’, but though that’s an interesting insight into how you might ‘humanise’ peasant life for your readers when you lack concrete evidence, it’s not really relevant to the main analysis).

The case studies provide very vivid glimpses into the distinctive ways in which particular peasant societies are structured and operate, with a lot of fascinating contrasts. The Lucchesia barely has villages: they didn’t even have fixed settlement boundaries (p. 390); in contrast, the eastern villages had stronger and more structured village communities. The discussion of Jeme was particularly interesting (including a reference to a female moneylender there) and left me wanting to read more about the region. (Had I but shelf space enough and time…).

The chapter is superb at giving you a real sense of the different kinds of society possible in the period. However I’m less convinced by some of the analysis that Chris does, trying to fit these different patterns within particular models. His main argument (p. 418) is: ‘At the village level…the history of land tenure was in the last resort more central for the articulation and autonomy of peasant social action than was the history of the state, and of the fiscal system which supported it.’ This fits with one of the key points in his book, about aristocratic power as crucially dependent on the extent of land-holding, but I don’t think the evidence of this chapter really supports it. Of the six (real) societies he discusses, only the Paris basin has aristocrats with large blocks of land-holdings; in the other five there is fragmented tenure, even if outside aristocrats do hold land within a village. But these five societies actually look very different from one another, and the variation within them seems to me at least as great as between, say, the Ile de France region and the middle Rhine.

Chris himself goes on to draw other contrasts. The eastern villages are institutionally more organised than the western ones (p. 436), with regular references to community action and to village officials with formal titles. The west is marked either by more informal village leadership or none at all. He also ranks the villages in terms of their ‘strength’ or ‘weakness’ (pp. 436-437). Ignoring the Ile de France, where there’s no direct evidence, the weakest villages are those around Lucca, then the Rhine villages, then the Anatolian region villages and Aphrodito, with Jeme as the most politically developed village and with greatest solidarity.

Chris also contrasts patronage relationships (p 440): the Paris and Rhineland areas have the strongest aristocracies, who can simply dominate the area. The aristocrats in the Lucchesia and Aphrodito don’t seem to have been as powerful, but still seem to be important patrons, and thus seem to have ideological hegemony over the peasants. In contrast, Jeme and the villages of the Anatolian plateau are areas where aristocrats have neither overwhelming local dominance nor hegemony: peasants there mainly looked to other villagers for support, not outsiders.

Since this is the first of three chapters on peasants, there’s more of Chris’ analysis to come, but it’s surprising to see ideological hegemony suddenly appearing, rather than an analysis based largely on material factors. In addition, it’s also peculiar how much Chris downplays the role of the state in this chapter, when it’s been so fundamental earlier on. He claims (p 418): ‘from the peasant standpoint, participation in the local framework of the Roman state only served to make social relations more complex, not to make them structurally different.’ Yet his case studies strongly suggest that there was a noticeable difference between eastern villages, within a strong state with taxation and western areas, in a weak state without it. The eastern villages look both stronger and more formally organised. The obvious difference is surely between a tax collected territorially, in which it is vital to ascertain exactly who belongs to what tax unit (and where resistance to tax collectors is an obvious focal point for collective action) and a western position in which renders and dues are paid individually on the basis of particular land-holding, so that it doesn’t matter whether a peasant in the Lucchesia lives in village X or village Y as long as he pays his landlord.

The different experiences of patronage also suggest another continuum, from absent aristocrats to aristocrats as patrons to aristocrats as dominant. The Anatolian region and Jeme seem not to have had much outside aristocratic influence on them. The Anatolian plateau was a relatively poor region of the Byzantine Empire, even though it ended up as the heartland of the empire after the early seventh century crises (p 31). Jeme, as a Coptic speaking village in an area newly controlled by the Islamic state, may have been quite isolated from the possibilities of patronage. The village was abandoned at the end of the eighth century, possibly as a result of the repression of tax revolts (p 421).

In areas where there was aristocratic patronage, in contrast, the question becomes whether peasants can benefit from that or end up losing out. In both Aphrodito and the Lucchesia, it looks like there were enough different sources of patronage to play them off against one another. In contrast, Chris shows the eighth century Rhine as an area where aristocrats were more threatening to peasants and there was less benefit from patronage. (One of the problems for the West, however, is that we don’t really have the documentation to see how patrons could actually help peasants – Einhard’s letters, which are the best evidence for how Carolingian patronage works at a local level, is mainly concerned with those just above the peasant level).

One of Chris’ later chapters is on ‘Peasant society and its problems’, so he may have more to say there about the mechanisms by which aristocrats could attempt to increase their control over peasants, whether through patronage or domination. I think that’s going to be crucial for his overall explanation of the early medieval trajectory, because if he’s working with a model in which aristocrats are automatically rapacious and oppressive, he needs some complex mechanisms to show why there are variations in the actual status of different peasant societies. (So far, most of what we’ve got is differences between size and coherence of land-owning and a general sense that ‘the peasants united, will never be defeated’). Before we get to that, however, we have a second look at regional and local differences, via the archaeological evidence, with a chapter on rural settlement.

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