A partial ninth century crisis 1: economies and polities

A few weeks ago I went to a conference organised by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge. This was the second in a series of four linked conferences on the theme of crisis, which look at fifth, ninth and fourteenth century Europe and finally at the concept of ‘crisis’ itself. The title of this one was ‘Crisis, what crisis? The long ninth century’.

When I say I went to the conference, I actually mean I went to half of it, because I was fitting it in round childcare. (This is the typical world of Magistra et Mater: a morning spent hearing about the archaeological evidence for Scandinavian expansion, an afternoon discussing My Little Ponies). So my report will be distinctly patchy, but I hope still of interest to those who couldn’t get there. The conference included both those working on material culture and those primarily working with texts. Although most of the papers included at least some of both kinds of evidence, the ways in which they thought about crisis tended to be rather different, so this post will be mostly about the archaeological papers with a second one on more textual evidence.

We started with an introduction by James Barrett on Vikings and collapse. He summarised the continuing debate about the Vikings: ‘minimalist’ views that saw them as having a relatively small impact and being a normal part of the ninth century world, as opposed to a more ‘traditional’ view that saw them as having a large and disruptive effect. Some of this, of course, as he pointed out, depends on where you’re looking at: studies of Viking ancestry in the Wirral have found a lot more evidence for it than for Ireland for example. He also cited Robert Dentan [Recent studies in violence: What’s in and what’s out. Reviews in Anthropology 37 (2008): 41-67] pointing out that scholars are only studying representations of violence and that the actual experience of it is horrific. So even if Viking violence isn’t as widespread or as distinctive as been previously thought, that was no comfort to its actual victims. (I’ll talk more about such issues of perception in the next post).

Barrett then went on talk about theoretical models of collapse, and considered how you might create typologies of this, along with the linked concepts of conquest and colonisation. He defined ‘collapse’ as ‘a qualitative shift between hegemonic, hierarchical and heterarchical power’, whether voluntary or involuntary. He also pointed out how politically charged such concepts were in the modern world, e.g. suggesting that environmental factors might have played a factor in the collapse of particular societies. Similarly, discussions about early medieval societies tend to connect too closely to the modern states located in the same regions: there is a shadow haunting Viking studies of racism and genocide.
What interested me most in his talk is about how the term ‘crisis’ to him, could be almost automatically converted into discussions of ‘collapse’. An archaeologist can look at collapse, probably more effectively than a historian can. Crisis, with its emotional, mental element, is trickier to see in material remains. So what can archaeology tell us about the ninth century?

I heard a couple of papers on economic aspects of the ninth century, both arguing that it was a time of expansion rather than crisis. First of all we had Richard Hodges on ‘Charlemagne minus Mohammed’. I’ve heard Richard Hodges before and found him difficult to follow, and this paper was the same, so if I’m mis-explaining his views and anyone more knowledgeable wants to correct me, feel free to. His overall take on the early Middle Ages is that there’s an agrarian take-off in the post-Roman world, starting in NW Europe and then only later getting to southern Europe. (I think he may have got this from bits of Chris Wickham’s research that I haven’t read yet). He then combines this with Michael McCormick’s ideas about continuing Mediterranean trade and Venice as the linch-pin between Birka and the Carolingian courts.

Getting onto the archaeological evidence, and how sites are now being redated, Hodges sees the North Sea emporia as largely declining pre-Viking – even the type B emporia are already in decline by the mid eighth century. But there are also other places appearing, it’s not simply about collapse. Ribe ends around 850, but Kaupang is taking off just then. (It was later mentioned by another speaker that dendrochronology at Hedeby shows a lot of new building work there at the end of the ninth century).

Hodges then moved onto Mediterranean evidence, which is now his main area of research. Italian cities in the seventh and early eighth centuries look largely abandoned. On the other hand, an emporium has now been found at Comacchio at the mouth of the Po, started around 675 and continuing until the late ninth century (it was possibly destroyed in 881) and with a sequence like the North Sea emporia. It seems to have been linked to monasteries in the Po valley, and there’s trade of good quality soapstone visible. All this suggests some kind of Adriatic trade system, and although Venice is small at the start of the ninth century, there’s a major church building programme in the ninth century, implying increased wealth.

There’s also evidence of a ‘rural renaissance’ in the Italian countryside after the collapse of the sixth and seventh centuries. Hodges mentioned the reoccupation of the littoral, places such as Cugnano in western Tuscany, where there seems to be rapid regrowth. He then went on to talk about the monastery of St Vincenzo al Volturno, which he’s excavated extensively. In the eighth century it’s a small monastery, then c792-808 it’s suddenly massively enlarged, with a palace and workshops and a big church. In the 830s-840s both the church and the workshops again gets enlarged and reworked, then the site is static for around 30-40 years and gets sacked in 881. Hodges paired this data with information on land donations to show a move from consumption to minor production. In the late eighth century the monastery is dependent on 1 big donor (the Beneventan royal family), then from around 800 starts having a large number of small donations (with a hiatus in the 820s and 830s). Hodges was suggesting that part of the reaching out to new donors was producing counter-gifts for them (hence some of the needs for workshops). In 881 the monastery was sacked by a Saracen emir. The emir seems to have been in cahoots with Bishop Athenasias of Naples – judging by a (much-later) chronicle, the sack was very carefully targeted to drive out the monks, while the servants changed sides. Athenasias subsequently got control of the monastery. In the questions afterwards, Hodges was suggesting parallels with San Vincenzo to other ‘monastic cities’ such as Fulda (which haven’t had their rural hinterland excavated). What we didn’t get this time was Hodges ideas’ about the direct responsibility of the Carolingians for all this – in fact, despite the title, I don’t think Charlemagne got mentioned at all.

Finally, he talked a bit about his excavations at Butrint, in Albania at the Straits of Corfu. It had evaporated as a town by the early C7, but then got redeveloped. 2 towers which have been found and which were sacked around 800 (the time Birka was taking off) had a lot of cullet (scrap glass) plus a few South Italian pots, suggesting it was being used as a storehouse. A new centre was built in a different location in Butrint in the ninth century and texts suggest an archon was based there.
Overall, Hodges was arguing for two phases of trade. At the start of the ninth century there’s trade of prestige goods – including Chinese jade found at San Vincenzo. By the end of the ninth there’s been a shift away from this small-scale presige trading to larger scale trade and the beginnings of real sustainability. This was also reflected in more stratified buildings in C9 AS England, the multiplication of Frankish silos (for grain storage) and the development of fortified small manors in Italy. Hodges saw this large-scale economy developing from the 840s onwards and powered by the Vikings and Arabs. In a slightly bizarre analogy, he saw these as the hedge fund managers of the early Middle Ages, demonized, but essential for paying the taxes keeping us going. (Surely it wasn’t the Vikings paying the taxes?)

The second paper on economic themes was by Søren Sindbæk on ‘Routes for crisis? Early medieval networks and the ninth-century ‘re-linking’’. He was arguing that a supposed economic crisis in C9 NW Europe didn’t actually happen. The crisis has supposedly been marked by a ‘silver famine’, the demise of emporia and Viking raids, all of which are linked together. Klavs Randsborg argued (“Les activites internationales des vikings: raids ou commerce?” Annales Economies Societes Civilisations 5, Septembre-Octobre 1981. 862ff) that a decline in the amount of silver in Scandinavia in the late C8 led to the Viking raids on England and Francia.

Sindbæk was arguing that there wasn’t actually a silver famine (although some of the evidence he was using, such as the size of hoards, didn’t convince the numismatists in the audience). Some emporia declined, but there were also towns expanding – the Danelaw centres took off in the 870s, the Quentovic mint continued, Dorestadt was replaced by Tiel and Hedeby, Dublin was founded, etc. There was no general crisis, but instead changes to communications networks, based mainly on navigation becoming routine. The Viking trade network which emerged in the mid ninth-century has been underrated, mainly because it didn’t involve ceramics (the Frankish fineware pottery trade actually declined), but instead such materials as ivory, metalwork and soapstone vessels. At the end of the C9 we have the first evidence for specialist cargo ships, which helped contribute to dramatically improved economic integration.

As this paper showed, one of the big problems in discussing whether there’s an economic crisis is distinguishing between a zero-sum game, in which the existing wealth just gets redistributed around Europe and the Middle East, and actual economic growth. In contrast, discussions of C9 political developments normally implicitly work on the basis that it was a good time for Vikings and a bad time for everyone else. A couple of papers about two different polities, however, started complicating this picture. Firstly, we had Jesse Byock on ‘Vikings and Iceland in the Ninth Century: Crisis, what Crisis?’ He is currently working on the Mosfell Archaeological Project which is doing an interdisciplinary study of a corner of SW Iceland, partly because it’s one of these unusual areas where you have literary texts which actually have a lot of specific landscape data.

We didn’t actually get much on the project, however, more general stuff about Iceland, which as he describes it ends up sounding like an early medieval time capsule, where a ninth century social order goes into an uninhabited place and then largely has continuity – no invasions, no Black Death etc. Iceland essentially has a European Iron Age economy of mixed farming and fishing, with the population mostly free farmers and small scale chieftains. One of the most interesting points Byock made is that at the time of the settlement there was a Scandinavian ‘social crisis’, with the growth of elites and states at the expense of farmers and old-style small-scale chieftains. Iceland looks like an offshoot from this, as a place where the losers during state-formation could end up. As a result you get a peculiar combination of a Scandinavian tradition of statehood, but also a ‘headless’ society, because of the class values of the settlers who don’t want a hierarchy of command. Byock suggested that such a polity could be called a ‘Free State’ more accurately than a ‘Commonwealth’, with some aspects of an embryonic state, but also the ‘evolutionary mechanism’ going into reverse, shedding the aristocratic strata.

All this makes Iceland seem like the ideal type of Chris Wickham’s golden age of the peasantry, but there’s a twist. Byock argued that while Scandinavia conformed to the model of Ester Boserup in which population increases led to technological development, Iceland looks very Malthusian. After the initial thrill (which he compared to the Oklahoma Land Rush) the settlers realised that Iceland had almost nothing anyone else wanted. As a result, material wealth was very limited: a longhouse site which reveals 30 buttons is a sign of unusual wealth. And Iceland was extremely prone to natural crises. The single most revealing graph was of Iceland’s population in the eighteenth century. It finished with around the same population as before – periods of growth were interrupted by several collapses, from disease, famine and the effects of volcanic eruptions. If Richard Hodges had given us Vikings as hedge fund managers, I couldn’t help thinking of the Icelandic banking crisis as another example of a failed attempt to prosper in a deeply hostile environment.

We then had a paper by Stephen Driscoll on ‘The archaeology of the Scottish Political Landscape: Viking Age Transformations’, which was talking about rewriting early Scottish archaeology in the light of how Pictish history has been rewritten by Alex Woolf and Dauvit Broun. In the traditional view the Gaels of Dal Riata under Kenneth MacAlpin take over or conquer the Picts in 843 and create a new Picto-Scottish realm, while the Britons of Strathclyde are nearly destroyed by the Vikings in 870, and the kingdom never really recovers – it’s only a sub-kingdom afterwards.

The new view is that the Pictish kingdom continues after Kenneth, but that it was relocated. The original kings of the Picts had been in Fortriu (which Alex Woolf argues is in the far north). This fits with the fact that there’s an awful lot of archaeological evidence there, including the important monastery of Portmahomack and the fort of Burghead. The Fortriu dynasty subjected Dal Rieta between 789-839, but then got destroyed by the Vikings. However the centre of Pictish power then moved south to Forteviot and continued until around 900.

Meanwhile, after the Viking siege of Dumbarton in 870, a new royal centre developed at Govan. There was Norse influence but this was via Gall-Gaidhel (Gaelic-speaking Norse) [They, of course, get everywhere eventually]. The Kingdom of Strathclyde seems to end up being bigger and more expansive than before. Driscoll then went on to discuss briefly the archaeology of a number of places linked with ninth century kings: Forteviot, Scone, Govan. What we didn’t get (perhaps through a lack of time) was any explanation of why the Picts abandoned both their language and their sculpture around 900 (the ninth century apparently wasn’t long in Scotland). That suggests more of a general crisis than earlier on, but it may be the kind of question that archaeology isn’t well-placed to argue. I probably need to settle down and read Alex Woolf for more details. One more thing onto the reading list…

I was initially thinking that the Scottish evidence might fit into a ‘survival of the luckiest’ narrative of the political effect of the Vikings. I think Gareth Williams was arguing this concerning AS England, in a paper I didn’t get to hear. The Vikings, as an outside force, disrupted existing political equilibriums by knocking out some competing kingdoms, allowing those that survived to expand. But in fact, neither the Pictish kingdom nor Strathclyde got finished off by the Vikings. The Vikings did create crises in Scotland: relocations of political centres are fairly major events, but the long-term results weren’t straightforward. Back to the drawing-board with the models.

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2 thoughts on “A partial ninth century crisis 1: economies and polities

  1. Interesting to have perspective on the papers I missed like this, thankyou. I’ll comment on Hodges at my place, because it ties into several things I’ve read with linking arguments, but I shall pick up a few things here. Firstly, when you say:

    Some of this, of course, as he pointed out, depends on where you’re looking at: studies of Viking ancestry in the Wirral have found a lot more evidence for it than for Ireland for example.

    This is because the Wirral project, finding that conventional sampling gave them no useful genetic signal in an area where the population grew by 800% during the industrial revolution, used old Tudor tax registers to profile the sample for ‘old’ surnames. Result, far stronger signal, unsurprisingly. The two surveys aren’t quantitatively comparable, really.

    Iceland’s marginal economy is something I first heard about in a paper by er er hang on, which was about horses. Icelandic horses are tiny sub-pony type creatures, but were fiercely guarded because other means of economic differentiation were so few, he told us. There just isn’t the resource base for much social stratification to arise, and the result is democracy! (Always wondered how that compared to the Greek city-state paradigm, really.)

    Lastly, the trouble with Pictland more than even other places in the Middle Ages is that we only have élite sources. (I should admit here that I haven’t read Alex’s book yet either.) We don’t have any firm dates on Pictish language use: the place-names that prove it was P-Celtic are largely confined to one large area (the East Lowlands and North-East), and undatable for the most part, while the only written Pictish are the names in the Pictish king-list, apparently 9th-century, and Ogam inscriptions on symbol stones, and both of these are of course Pictish words forced into a foreign script. How much of the actual spoke language survived and how late is just basically impossible to say, but since I’ve argued that some parts of what was politically Pictish were Gaelic-speaking and even ruled by Gaelic-origin dynasties (largely imagined out from some dodgy name equations and the fact that Atholl is supposed to be Gaelic Ath Fotla, ‘new Ireland’) you can imagine that I think it might have been ill-to-vanishing long before Kenneth of the Tarmac. That leaves the stone sculpture, and you know what I think about that. When what we have to identify a political identity by is firstly material culture, and therefore not a marker for ethnicity or origin or anything and portable, and secondly élite material culture, a Pictish identity could vanish for us just because of a change in sculptural fashion, even if the kings had never changed capital…

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  2. Seminary LX: sneaking in to hear Richard HodgesI need to write something substantive, but I have very very little time at the moment; three papers need finishing before Kalamazoo, and all need reading (which is the hardest thing to find time for, paradoxically). All the same, I am badly behind with…

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