The strangeness of the Carolingian rural state

There’s nothing like reading research far outside your field to give you a new perspective on your own work. In my case it’s making my way through Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality that’s brought home to me how strange the Carolingian empire was in one respect.

Flannery and Marcus’ book is an anthropological/archaeological look at a wide range of prehistoric, historical and contemporary societies at varying levels of social complexity. There’s no mention of the Carolingians (or indeed any European societies), but there is a lot on cultures in the Americas, including the Moche, Mayan and Zapotec civilisations.

Panorama of Monte Alban from the South Platform

Panorama of Monte Albán site

What immediately struck me was that these south and central American cultures had central cities far bigger than any towns in the Carolingian empire in the first millennium CE, even though the they controlled much smaller areas. For example, the Zapotec city of Monte Albán (modern day Mexico) had a population of around 15,000 about 200 CE and drew tribute from an area of around 8,000 square miles (Flannery and Marcus, pp. 371-373). The Mayan city of Calakmul (modern day Mexico), in its golden age around 400-700 CE controlled over 10,000 square miles and had a population of around 50,000 (Flannery and Marcus, pp. 386-388). And the city of Chan Chan in the Moche Valley in Peru, which developed from 900 CE onwards, at its peak had 60,000 inhabitants (Flannery and Marcus, p. 527).

In contrast, Chris Wickham (Framing the Early Middle Ages p. 674), states:

There are no reliable figures for any population centre between the reasonably well-founded (but all the same widely divergent) calculations for late imperial Rome and Constantinople…and those for England in Domesday Book in 1086…I shall abstain from offering examples, and will restrict myself to an order of magnitude of my own. If Pisa, after a century and more of rapid growth, had around 25,000 inhabitants in 1228, then it probably had only some 10,000 inhabitants in the eleventh century, and in previous centuries it, and probably every single other western city outside Rome (and, after 900, Córdoba), will have had less.

Early medieval Aachen, in other words, was tiny next to near contemporary New World cities, even though the Carolingian empire at its height covered over 400,000 square miles. And this isn’t some anomaly; as Flannery and Marcus show, the kind of city-state, with the capital having a disproportionately large population and being a centre for elaborate building projects, is common. It’s there in ancient Mesopotamia (which they discuss), as well as China, the Roman empire and various Islamic caliphates, which they don’t.

So where else do we find substantial kingdoms/empires but a capital that’s no larger than a small town? I’m leaving out nomad empires for obvious reasons, but in terms of settled civilisation, unless there are examples from kingdoms in the Indian subcontinent that I don’t know about, the later Merovingian/Carolingian world may provide the first example of a rural state. I’d include the later Merovingian world, because Wickham argues that in northern Gaul, 450-600 is the nadir for urbanism (p. 677) and there’s very little evidence for urban-living aristocrats north of the Loire in Merovingian Francia (p. 607). On the other hand, in southern Gaul there were some urban aristocracies, even into the seventh and eighth centuries.

But even so, that makes the Carolingian state probably the first rural state in the world. I’m calling it a state, by the way, following Wickham’s division of early medieval societies into strong states (which tax and have a standing army), weak land-based states (which don’t tax, but still have a sense of public power) and non-states. This Carolingian state is thus large in scale, but weak in terms of the centre having no direct tax-raising powers. It’s an odd kind of animal.

But there’s a further paradox. The Carolingian state is weak in fiscal terms, so it can’t reach into rural communities in that way, but it’s also peculiarly interested in them, especially their spiritual status. Recent studies have shown how significant local priests were to Carolingian reforms and the important role played by parishes (even if the parish network was far from complete in the period). The importance of the local church is also seen in another way: the determination by Carolingian rulers to impose a locally-based taxation in the form of tithes. This in turn encouraged local aristocrats to take an interest in rural churches (or at least in their property and revenue potential).

I want to ask a question: to what extent are these developments connected to the fact that the Carolingian empire was a rural state? The city-state with its urban-dwelling aristocracy, was, at least in Europe and the Mediterranean area, premised on a contrast between city-dwelling civilisation versus rural simplicity, if not plain ignorance. This continued after the Christianisation of the Roman Empire: paganus originally meant someone from the countryside.

In the thought world of the rulers of city-states, whether in Mesopotamia, central Italy or the Andes, the key thing was that money or other resources came into the city; what happened outside there was insignificant. But what if you were living in Aachen, a “city” of only a few thousand inhabitants? Did a village of 50 inhabitants seem insignificant in the same way that it might have done if you were living in a city of 50,000 inhabitants like Calakmul, which covered an area of over 25 square miles? I think it’s likely that a rurally-based royal family and aristocracy would be more interested in peasants, even if they weren’t necessarily any less brutal to them than the city-focused elites of the Roman Empire and similar civilisations.

But this increased interest in peasants might also connect to another characteristic of Western European empires. Robert Moore at the end of The first European revolution, c. 970-1215 (pp. 193-195) contrasts a sixteenth century Chinese official (Hai Jui) with the clerks of Angevin England. The imperial bureaucracy of which Hai Jui was part was not able to define the rights of individual peasants; in contrast, this kind of behaviour was commonplace from secular and clerical authorities in England from the twelfth century, if not earlier.

I’d argue that even if there was only limited administrative continuity between the Carolingian period and the high Middle Ages that Moore is discussing, several of the key instruments of rural control and surveillance developed during the late Merovingian and Carolingian period, including estate accounts and polyptychs, missi, penance and tariffed penitentials, tithes, episcopal visitations and checks on consanguineous marriage. Paying attention to the distinctively rural nature of the Carolingian empire may give us a different perspective on why Western rulers developed this distinctive and insistent scrutiny of the minutiae of village life.


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