Framing the Early Middle Ages 7: peasants going Galt?

As regular readers will know, my attempts at blogging my way chapter by chapter through Chris Wickham’s monumental Framing the Early Middle Ages got bogged down when it got to the chapters on peasants. However, since I have now spent almost a year reading charters, I am feeling more interested in peasants (or at least peasants doing memorable things), so I thought it was time to go back and tackle Chris’ chapter 9, “Peasant society and its problems”.

The chapter’s slightly odd in that, unlike most of the book, it focuses very largely at the West, and doesn’t compare it with the East. The exception is one very useful section (pp. 551-569 on “Peasant social structures in the post-Roman world”) which might be better placed elsewhere in the book, probably in chapter 7, where Chris is describing peasant societies. I’ve been known to complain that Framing has very little on women, but Chris’s brief comments here on peasant women and families in particular are an extremely useful, if very brief, synthesis of a lot of research.

This part doesn’t fit particularly well, however, with the rest of the chapter, which is essentially about the decline and later re-establishment of aristocratic control over peasants in the post-Roman west. This has a lot of interesting detail about attempts at aristocratic domination and peasant resistance to this, but seems to me to be flawed by Chris’s neglect of a distinction between relative and absolute poverty and the odd decision to focus on a “peasant mode of production” (pp. 536-538).

I’ll start with the “peasant mode of production” first. In one sense it’s a fairly logical term to talk about an autonomous peasantry, who are essentially independent landowners producing for themselves, without having aristocrats skimming off surpluses either via regular rent or intermittent tribute-taking. The problem is that Chris introduces what he sees as a distinctive “economic logic”. In peasant mode societies, according to him, surpluses are usually given away to kin, friends or neighbours, or consumed communally rather than accumulated, peasants don’t work so hard and populations are deliberately restricted. Leisure time rather than surplus is privileged. Such societies have relatively little hierarchy and there’s little productive specialisation, so the material culture is very simple.

There is an immediate problem with applying this model: it doesn’t fit the early medieval evidence that well. Chris himself admits (p. 542) that there are few examples of it in a “pure” state – there are aristocrats almost everywhere, and social ranking within peasant communities is more stable than in his ideal-type. And some of the best evidence for population decline (which this model allows) are in the Île-de-France (p. 550), which is the area where aristocratic domination is most clearly seen throughout the period.

That in itself doesn’t invalidate using the peasant mode as an ideal type, but the big problem comes in the place where Chris sees the model as most appropriate: in immediately post-Roman England. Chris asks (p. 549) “Could demographic decline be associated with the logic of the peasant mode? Peasants in eastern Britain in the fifth century generally found themselves having to pay out substantially less in rent and tax before…How would peasants react?” It’s here that it becomes clear that the “economic logic” of the peasant mode that Chris talks about is an attempt to get round the big problem for him: if the state and the aristocrats have largely gone, why are the peasants so poor? The peasants have the chance to go Galt, now that the aristocratic moochers are no longer leeching off them. So why aren’t they better off?

The “working less and consuming more” economic logic of Chris’s mode is essentially there to explain away why the peasants don’t look any more prosperous in the material record (which Chris rightly takes very seriously). They have less access to well-made artisanal goods (p. 534). Their forms of agriculture don’t get any simpler, instead they maintain relatively intensive agricultural practices (pp. 547-548). Chris wants to argue (p. 539) that the early middle ages isn’t marked by “failure” or “inferiority” to the Roman world, as signs of an “economic logic”. But even if Bryan Ward-Perkins is from Oxford that doesn’t in itself mean he’s wrong about fifth-century Britain being a disaster. Robin Fleming has similarly argued that fifth- and sixth-century Britain was a desperately poor society.

And it’s in terms of the population decline that Chris’s economic logic takes its biggest hit. His abruptly liberated eastern British peasants suddenly eat more (p. 549). They can’t spend more on artisanal products because the market’s collapsed. Chris suggests that they work less and that this explains why they abandon the more marginal lands. They also (p. 550) choose “to restrict births”. So, we have people who are working less, eating (and drinking) more and have no opportunity to buy anything, yet mysteriously they are either not having any more sex in their increased leisure, or they have suddenly got considerably more reliable birth control. I’m not buying that.

If you look at the evidence without trying to impose peasant “choice” on it, a more plausible model would be that this economic behaviour is the result of desperate poverty. We can see communities today in which no-one accumulates wealth and any money that is acquired is given out to family, friends and neighbours. It happens in the poorest and most marginalised communities, where it’s almost impossible to accumulate enough to make an individual difference to your life, but someone else may help you later if you help them now. Declining population also suggests a community on the edge, that has little resilience to natural disasters or attacks from outside.

There’s also a question to be raised here of how conducive to happy peasant life a collapsed state actually is. Chris has earlier (pp. 330-331) described how a Romano-British landowner might turn into a tribal leader in post-Roman Britain, by arming himself and his most reliable servants, and then controlling the local territory. Chris argues that such men would have to make more concessions to their “tribe”, in order to gain their support and prevent them defecting, but it’s at least possible that a lot of low-level skirmishing/raiding between different warlords could lead to overall impoverishment (as happens in most modern failed states).

Yet another argument against peasant economic logic is that even some of the peasants clearly aren’t holding to it. The peasant household isn’t egalitarian (p. 537): women and the unfree are subordinated. Peasant communities aren’t egalitarian (p. 538): “People who aim at that local status [of community leadership] may indeed choose to work harder, or to develop their productive technology, for the rewards of status are sufficient for them to do so.” Status was more sharply defined legally in societies such as England and Ireland where there was less material distinction between elites and peasants (p. 542). “Peasant mode” aristocracies are also visible – the fortunate and ruthless peasants at the top of the village heap who eventually became lords of whole villages (p. 572); many milites may also have come from the peasant strata.

The final argument against the existence of “peasant economic logic” is that early medieval elites aren’t complaining about it. Rustici get accused of all sorts of bad behaviour, but specific claims of them being lazy aren’t very common that I know of, which is the obvious negative view of such behaviour.

This isn’t to say that such an economic logic isn’t possible in some societies, or even in medieval dreams: Cockaigne is a medieval invention. But I would say that the early medieval evidence suggests that the feudal mode of production remained dominant in peasants’ imaginations even after the end of the Roman Empire. What they mostly wanted (even if they had no hope of getting it) was to become rich enough to get someone else to do their work for them.

The concept of the “peasant mode” isn’t strictly necessary to characterise the basic change discussed in this chapter: the balance between autonomous peasant communities and villages of dependent tenants shifted twice in the west. As Chris puts it (p. 570): “The simple fact that peasants lost ground to aristocrats in the second half of the early middle ages is doubted by almost no one.” But that is an ambiguous statement. It could mean that peasants lost out in absolute terms: they became poorer as aristocrats became richer. But it could also mean that peasants became relatively poorer: as the economy grew between the sixth and eleventh century, the aristocrats captured proportionately more of the surplus. Peasants became richer, but not as fast as aristocrats did.

I think the evidence is that peasants did become richer in absolute terms – their material culture certainly looks superior in 1000 than in 500 AD. And population increases again suggest that the peasants are keeping some of their surplus. This is where the “peasant mode” comes back in, as an ideological tool. Chris wants to argue for the feudal mode of production as being bad for peasants and therefore he needs to show that peasants don’t want to be wealthier. They’d rather have long boozy parties to celebrate being part of a free collective.

The real economic paradox of the early Middle Ages is that peasants can be more materially prosperous in times and places where the aristocracy and the state are relatively strong and taking increased surplus from them. As Chris himself says (p. 536), nobles as consumers were necessary for the creation of markets. The moochers do have a use after all, by helping stimulate the economy.

Chris is right, however, about the disadvantages for the peasants in increased noble domination – in the Carolingian period we can see them losing their freedom and having heavier labour services imposed on their tenancies: they are having to work harder then. And Robin Fleming, “Bones for Historians: Putting the Body Back in Biography,” in Writing Medieval Biography: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow, ed. David Bates (Woodbridge, 2006), 29-48, suggests that the health of Anglo-Saxon peasants worsened in tenth- and eleventh-century nucleated villages. But in what Chris describes (p. 546) as “the leopard-spots of peasant autonomy in the Romano-Germanic kingdoms”, the free peasants were probably better off than they’d be in a more purely peasant-dominated economy – with their improved fortune, of course, partly derived from the misfortune of more subjected peasants in neighbouring areas.

All this means that Chris’s view (p. 573) that “being domineering was simply one of the things that being aristocratic was about” needs modifying. Lords did try to use the opportunities offered to them to increase their control over others, but so did peasants as well. There probably wasn’t that much class solidarity in most western peasant communities and that may well have helped aristocrats to increase their control over their neighbours in regions where relatively large-scale landowners lived near to autonomous peasants.

What it doesn’t explain is how aristocrats came to dominate in Britain, starting from a much lower basis. Chris rather underplays this, by seeing the early fifth to ninth century as marked by low aristocratic domination there (p. 570). I think this is where an exclusive concentration on ceramics as a marker of complex exchange systems lets him down – there are still parts of eighth-century Mercia that are aceramic. If you use coinage as a marker, markets probably reappeared in the late seventh century, and the best suggestion I’ve so far seen for why aristocrats came to dominate again is that they had far better quality swords than anyone else. I probably still need to read Robin Fleming’s book though, to get more details – but as I’m demonstrating, my track record on working my way through long books heavy on socio-economic history is not good. Still, even if Chris didn’t convince me in this chapter, he still gave me a whole new set of questions to think about, and that in itself remains one of the most important uses of Framing.

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