Framing the Early Middle Ages 6: Peasants, patterns and prosperity

As long-term readers of this blog will know, my attempts to read and blog my way through Chris Wickham’s monumental book Framing the Early Middle Ages ground to a halt some time ago when I hit the second of his chapters about peasants. I’d freely admit that a lot of the problem is that I simply don’t find early medieval peasants particularly interesting. The topic of settlement archaeology is also one where the book’s absence of maps and pictures is unhelpful, especially for those of us who don’t have a good sense of what a ‘central place’ looks like, or how you tell an ‘articulated’ village from a less articulated one.

But as I finally went back and worked my way through Chapter 8 ‘Rural settlement and village societies’, I realised that part of my problem is also the limits of what such evidence can tell you. Chris sees settlement patterns as ‘peasant artefacts’, and ‘the clearest imprint of the peasantry on the landscape’ (p. 495). Such settlement patterns can help confirm broad social and economic contrasts. For example the continuity of prosperous village collectives of eastern Roman empire, such as the Limestone Massif villages of Syria and Palestine (pp. 443-449) and of Anatolia (pp. 460-464) contrasts with the early medieval collapse of the villa pattern in the West and considerable regional and microregional variation after that.

The problem is that looking at the patterns of rural settlement doesn’t tell you that much about the wider issues of power and society that the book is so interested in, as appears from some of the examples. Settlement patterns, for example, don’t relate directly either to economic relationships, or the extent of aristocratic control (p. 472, 494): Chris points out that aristocrats could dominate either a concentrated or dispersed landscape. Settlement patterns also don’t relate directly to people’s identification with villages: Chris has some interesting discussions (p. 487) of how ways of identifying locations in documents changed in some parts of the West, from a focus on ‘fundi’ (named estates) to lands in a particular ‘vicus’ or ‘locus’, but such villages weren’t necessarily either concentrated settlements or socially active.

Chris also argues (pp 476-477, 481, 514) that one of the biggest changes of all, the Western abandonment of the villa, was a cultural change rather than a sign of economic or political weakness (though I’m unconvinced by that argument). Similarly, he sees the move to building in wood in Italy, and the phenomenon of ‘perchement’ (moving to hilltop sites) ascultural as much as economic changes (pp. 485-486). More convincingly he says that shifts in settlement hierarchy or patterns aren’t necessarily signs of immigration in Spain or France (p. 492, 505).

Rural settlement archaeology can give us clues about social differentiation or its absence (pp. 493-494) via a lack of any settlement hierarchy, but this can also be deduced from the end of urban life and the breakdown of ceramic complexity. And in the sub-region of western Europe where we’ve got the best sense of the spatial framework of settlement, northern France, the settlement hierarchy evidence directly contradicts what we know about social differentiation from other sources, and has to be regarded as missing key sites (pp. 506-507).

So what, if anything can looking at rural settlements tell us? It’s noticeable how often in this chapter the most detailed descriptions of village society turn out to be based on textual evidence, such as the Byzantine text Nomos georgikos (Farmers’ law). The archaeological evidence does give a good way of assessing the broad chronology of economic booms and busts, for example, showing the continued prosperity of many eastern sites until C7 crises (pp 457-459), as contrasted with what looks like economic collapse in C5 England (pp. 502-503). And they’re also an important way of assessing peasant prosperity, distinct from looking at imported goods, and sometimes contradicting their evidence (e.g. at Vorbasse in Denmark, p. 496).

But what this evidence on peasant prosperity suggests is that a lot of the obvious economic models for early medieval societies don’t work. The evidence of housing, for example, suggests relatively prosperous peasants in Vorbasse in Denmark (pp. 496-497), Lauchheim in eastern Alemannia (pp. 500-502) and Goudelancourt-les-Pierrepont in the Île-de-France (pp. 504-505), as well as in a number of eastern villages. So prosperous peasants can be associated with stateless societies, the weak states of northern Europe and the strong state of Byzantium. They can appear both in areas of large-scale aristocratic dominance (which Chris argued in the previous chapter existed in the Île-de-France), in Alemannia, with its emerging aristocratic power, and in Denmark, where Chris sees aristocratic power as weaker (p. 502). That goes against models in which increasing aristocratic dominance is automatically at the expense of peasants, but also against views that either the state is the motor of prosperity or aristocratic demand for consumer goods is. I’ll freely admit to not having a better general model at the moment (one which would also need to explain how poor and horrible life for the early Anglo-Saxons was), and I’d be interested to hear any theories in the comments, as usual. But for now, it’s onto ‘Peasant society and its problems’, which I hope is going to give me material I find rather easier to digest.


One thought on “Framing the Early Middle Ages 6: Peasants, patterns and prosperity

  1. I have just read this chapter myself, and would have to say that I see the force of your argument here. I think I had overlooked this because, of course, I am interested in peasants, so this many models of how they might operate are very interesting to me. But the lack of correlation between that and the types of aristocratic and state structures is a worrying one. I think that the point of the chapter consists in demonstrating that direct control and domination of a peasantry was not necessary for powerful aristocrats to exist, but it does thus leave hanging the question of what, in fact, those aristocrats did that made any difference.

    Of course, there may be a resolution of genius coming where all this is made to fit…


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