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

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The skin and bones of history

Chris Wickham
Chris Wickham a number of years pre-retirement

Last month I was at a conference on political culture in the earlier Middle Ages. I’ll talk about that in future posts, but for now I want to think about it in combination with another event I went to recently: a celebration of Chris Wickham’s work to mark his retirement. Rachel Moss has written appreciatively  of Chris as a colleague; the short papers on the day had much to say about different aspects of his research. One recurrent theme was Chris’ determination to get inside national historiographies and understand them fully, rather than merely cherry-pick from them. (His review-article, Marx, Sherlock Holmes and Late Roman Culture got particular mention).

I want to talk about the most important insight I got from Chris’ work, especially from Framing the Early Middle Ages. This was his use of explicit models and ideal types to pin down specific components of what we are trying to compare over time and space. Such a move may be seen as reductionist or too schematic, but it’s a powerful tool if well-used. Several of my more recent projects have started from this idea of comparing underlying structures, even if they’ve been on topics a long way from Chris’ own interests.

Chris’ focus has been on underlying social and economic structures, what you might call the bones of history. A review of The Inheritance of Rome complained it didn’t have enough about kings in it. It was quite a mental stretch to go from that to the conference that Katy Dutton organised in Manchester on “Political Culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins”. That was full of kings, as well as dukes, counts and countesses and a surprising number of archdeacons. Ever since I read Mayke de Jong’s Penitential State I’ve become interested in Carolingian political culture, because Mayke emphasized its dynamic nature. Many previous studies of Carolingian ideology had focused on royal image-making as relatively untroubled process, whether it’s Charlemagne’s followers sneering at the Merovingians or Charles the Bald’s creation of an imperial image. Penitential State, in contrast, showed political tactics being contested and how metaphors and discourses allowed actions (such as deposing a king) that were unthinkable otherwise.

How does this political culture relate to the kind of structural history that Chris favours? I’m starting to see it as the skin over the bones. In the keynote speech at the Manchester conference, Martin Aurell talked about the conflicts of Henry II and his sons in 1173. Although there were important underlying economic and social issues beneath the conflict, the chroniclers discussed it largely in terms of personalities and individuals.

In the same way, the Brexit result, which inevitably haunted the conference, combined deep underlying structural issues (such as the depressed state of the economy in some regions) with important roles for spectacular personalities, such as Boris Johnson and a campaign marked by the successful use of sometimes horrifying propaganda. To understand what happened, here, as with other political events, you need skin and bones – political culture combined with socio-economic structures.

How we carry out that combination varies. Much of my historical work has tended towards the ‘skin’ side, focusing on specific cultural moments, but Chris’ work keeps on reminding me that I need to look at wider patterns as well, see how all the pieces of a society fit together. That’s the impact, often indirect but important, that he’s had on my own research.


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.

Framing the Clerical Cosmos 1: the view on the ground

I didn’t get to the first Clerical Cosmos conference in Oxford in 2010, though Jonathan Jarrett did and reported on it, but I made it to “The Clerical Cosmos II: Ecclesiastical power, culture, and society, c. 900 to c. 1075” organised by Bernard Gowers, Hannah Williams and Kathrin Korn.

The programme was as follows:

  • Tom Pickles (York): The Church in Yorkshire during the long tenth century
  • Wendy Davies (UCL/Oxford): Local Priests in Northern Iberia
  • Henry Parkes (Cambridge): Liturgy and law: the Pontifical Romano-Germanique in an eleventh-century intellectual context
  • Helena Carr (Sheffield): An Alpine bishopric in the tenth century
  • Bernard Gowers (KCL): Comparing metropolitan authority in the long tenth century
  • Conrad Leyser and John Nightingale (Oxford): Bishops on the edge: the view from tenth century Merseburg

I am, of course, coming to this as an outsider, since I don’t work on the tenth century or predominantly on clerics, but I wanted to start, not at the beginning, but with two important points made later in the day. One was in Bernard’s paper, where he was arguing that too often the “long tenth century” (which he put from 888-1048) gets treated either as an after or a before, and not seen on its own terms. It gets seen either as “post-Carolingian” or as “pre-reform/pre-Gregorian”. Bernard objected to the first label because only 26/27 out of the 40 provinces in Latin Christendom at the time had previously been under Carolingian rule. He objected to the second both because of its teleological aspects and because “Reform” is such an amorphous concept. Almost every known bishop in the tenth century, he reckoned, could be seen as a reformer in some sense, whether in anti-simony activities, church building, an interest in canon law, etc. He was also unhappy with the way that research often focuses on one region as either typical/normal or else as exceptional (and hence showing, as by a mirror image, what is normal). He was arguing therefore for some serious attempts at comparative studies of regions across Latin Christendom, akin to what Chris Wickham has done for earlier medieval secular societies.
I’ll go back to discussing Bernard’s example of how we might do this kind of comparative study later on, but I wanted to add in here a very useful comment made by Theo Riches during the round table discussion: Did the tenth century actually come up with anything new and if not, does it matter? (One thing that does seem to be new in the tenth century is the political use of sodomy accusations, but I decided not to lower the tone of the discussion by mentioning this).

The interesting thing about the papers was not only their geographical spread (the organisers had deliberately tried to avoid just talking about “Francia”), but also the different levels of clerics they covered. The first two papers looked at priests in areas for which we have very different types and quantities of evidence. Tom Pickles was looking at an area (Yorkshire) for which we have almost no contemporary written sources; in contrast, Wendy Davies had thousands of charters available from northern Spain, even excluding Catalonia, as she did.

Tom pointed out that there were clearly some clerics in Yorkshire after the conquest of York by the Vikings in 876: For example, we can see repeated alliances of Scandinavian rulers with bishops via the coinage. Looking at place names derived from the Old Norse, such as Kirkby, we can also see a church presence. Tom was arguing that such names might refer to a place at which the church held land rather than “a farm with a church”, as had previously been argued. A lot of the names certainly occur in places where church estates existed earlier, e.g. Kirkby Overblow.

The question then becomes: who are the people connected with such churches? John Blair looked at clerical endowments in Domesday and found very little evidence for anything except archiepiscopal estates. Specifically there’s not much evidence for endowed priests (presumably what’s implied here is the minster pattern characteristic of early Anglo-Saxon England). But given that the Scandinavians in the area were converted, it’s likely that there was some clerical activity in the area.

The rest of Tom’s paper was then using one of the sources of evidence we do have: a considerable corpus of stone sculpture. He cited statistics of 185 sites in Yorkshire between the seventh and eleventh century. More than 80% of these are on modern church sites, and though some of them may be material that has been moved there later, geologically, a lot of the stone looks very local. On more than half of the sites, there are fragments from multiple periods, making it look like repeated re-use of the site. For at least some of the material there’s stratigraphical evidence, which Richard Bailey has combined with art-historical techniques to separate out pre C9 material.

Some of the sculpture seems to be associated with archiepiscopal estates, such as at Otley. This was the centre of a large estate by the early C11, and may have been granted to Wilfred in the C7. There are similar signs of stone sculpture at Ripon, Nunburnholme and Sherburn, all places which belonged to the Archbishops of York at some point in the C10.

Some of these sculptures have specifically clerical imagery e.g. scenes of priests at mass, others have more general religious imagery. But Tom argued that some North mythological scenes may also be evidence of clerical activity: there appear to be a few very specific scenes that are frequently repeated and which in C12 and C13 Scandinavian contexts have Christian referents/parallels: Weland being bound into a flying machine, Sigurd slaying a dragon, Ragnarok.

There are also what look like some local identities developing, where you have sites stylistically linked together, over a fairly small area (such as Ryedale sculptures influenced by Sinnington) without links further afield, such as to York sculpture. As discussed in the questions, this possibly indicates some clerics not connected to the archbishopric, but independently active.

For hard evidence of local priests, however, we needed to move thousands of miles away to northern Spain, where Wendy Davies has loads of them. Her definition of “local priest” was also useful: a priest not in an episcopal or royal household or in a monastery. She was also looking for men connected to a named church, although not a named parish (parish organisations only came to this area in the late C11). She found 350 probable individual local priests, who fell into three categories:

1) priests in lay religious households (i.e. headed by the laity). These are very small-scale groups, unlike the monasteries that are visible.
2) small groups of priests connected with a specific church.
3) priests in aristocratic households (Wendy didn’t discuss these further, since they weren’t necessarily providing local services).

It’s very hard to distinguish between categories 1 and 2 in practice, because “church” and “monastery” are often used interchangeably, but what you have is small groups of committed religious, very different from the monasteries of thirty or more men that are also visible.

Some of these 350 men also looked local on other criteria: they are named in boundary clauses, they carry out transactions only in a small area, they’re called the priest of a particular place, or they’re carrying out small-scale joint transactions with peasants. For example, one priest called Daniel sold two-thirds of a mill to a monastery, while a layman sold the other third.

Men became priests in different ways: some were appointed by the church’s lay proprietor, others by a monastery. Bishops rarely control churches and appointments, and when they do so it’s more as proprietors than as diocesans. Often hereditary rights of the priests also seem to be involved: priests gave or sold churches, or there was inheritance from relatives. Interestingly, although there were some married priests, they weren’t that common. More frequent was uncle-nephew or cousin-cousin transfer.

Priests were always associated with literacy, so they must presumably have been trained somewhere: probably some went to monastic or episcopal schools. However, some locations were so isolated that local churches were probably training people as well, and Wendy even wondered if absolutely all these priests had been ordained. The main resources of these men, meanwhile, were income from landed property, especially family property. They may also have got some money from fees for carrying out church services, but this was before the institutionalisation of tithes, which are rarely mentioned.

By the second half of the tenth century local identities are very clear, although there’s evidence of collective action even before this. In particular, rural community groups called “concilia” are mentioned, sometimes defined by the name of a particular church. The members of such groups (clerics and laymen) often act as witnesses and sometimes the priest records the transaction, implying he is the incumbent of that community.

We also have some hints of pastoral care being provided – although there are no references to baptism, one local community asked for someone to preach to them. There are several big C11 liturgical collections from the area that may have C10 models, but more importantly, we know that some of the priests themselves had books. There are a series of examples where endowments of books (typically a collection of 4-5 books) went with a particular churches, as well as donations of specific books to churches.

We can therefore presume that the priests could provide basic rites, and we can also see them carrying out other local roles: as de facto notaries, as sureties and oath-helpers. Some were saiones, one of the lower-level judicial functionaries.

One of the most interesting aspects of these Spanish priests, as was brought out in the discussion, was how independent they were. Wendy was saying that you couldn’t see many bishops in the area at all (apart from the Bishop of León) and you don’t even get them turning up in dating clauses (unlike with the Breton charters she worked on before).

In my next post, I’ll talk more about some of the other papers from the day, which were dealing with more high-ranking clerics, but what Wendy and Tom’s papers together already showed is that a couple of the variables we need to be looking at for Bernard’s comparative studies is the existence of these kinds of local, rural priests and the degree of control that bishops have over them. Whether we have got the kind of evidence from most regions that would actually enable us to answer these questions is a different and difficult problem, but any analysis of the tenth-century church does need to start thinking about how that church was experienced at the ground level, and how such local connections were or were not linked into wider hierarchies.

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.

Masculinity and impressing the plebs

I am back once again to wrestling with Chris Wickham’s fascinating but huge Framing the Early Middle Ages, but have yet again got distracted from thinking about peasants, even though that’s what the current section I’m reading is focused on. My distraction is, though, due to one particular strand of Chris’ argument (in Chapter 8, especially pp. 476-478), in which he argues for a militarisation of the western Roman aristocracy that occurred before widespread barbarian settlement within the empire, particularly in the north of Gaul. (Here he is building on the work of C.R. Whittaker, which I haven’t yet read). Chris associates this with a move away from a villa-based lifestyle of cultured leisure and the bringing of urban values into the countryside. Instead, this militarised aristocracy had a simpler material culture, at least in terms of buildings – aristocratic residences are harder to tell from peasant ones. But this development seems to have happened at a time of relative peace in northern Gaul (the fourth century), and exchange patterns were largely maintained. In other words, this is a cultural shift, rather than a reaction to a crisis.

When I hear the word ‘culture’ of course, I immediately reach not for my gun, but for my theories of gender. The life of rural ‘otium’ and the militarised lifestyle are both essentially pursuits of elite men, even if aristocratic women did play a supporting role in both. The question then becomes why did the western senatorial elite abandon one form of aristocratic masculinity for another one? I think this ties into wider questions about the ways in which a male elite can achieve and then maintain dominance over ‘other’ men, whether it’s peasants, urban plebs or aspiring social climbers.

As a very broad-brush statement, most preindustrial societies have male elites who are militarised, whether it’s the Aztecs, the Hindu Kshatriyas, Zulu chieftains or Homeric kings. This isn’t so much because men, or even elite males, are intrinsically violent, brutal, etc. It’s the fact that military success is heavily dependent on better training than others (which means you can’t spend too much of your time doing other kind of work), better equipment than others (expensive) and a larger army than others (exceptionally expensive). And if you’re part of this military elite, in one sense, it’s easy to maintain your social position against your inferiors: if they don’t do what you say, or are slow paying tax/tribute/protection money, you beat them up, either personally or with your handy following.

On the other hand, this is hard work, and not invariably successful: even a fully-armoured knight can be defeated if you have enough bloody-minded and ingenious peasants. It’s also expensive, especially if you have an army or a following to maintain, because the one thing an emperor/male aristocrat/chieftain etc cannot afford to do is piss off close followers (or a whole legion) who happen to be rather handy with the weapons he’s so carefully supplied them with.

Therefore, another part of elite male dominance tends to be producing cultural superiority: creating and maintaining the belief that the top men are simply better, so that those below know their place, do what they’re told, and don’t need to be coerced physically (or only occasionally). In a sense, the form this cultural superiority takes doesn’t really matter, whether it’s being able to compose Latin hexameters, or tracing one’s ancestry back a hundred generations, or having been to Harvard, or understanding a balance sheet. All that matters is that the elite have some skills/knowledge/experiences that only they can easily gain, and that they are able to convince others that these skills/knowledge/experiences prove their superiority.

A third alternative is simple economic dominance by the male elite, where those who are richest are best. But my impression is that there aren’t many societies where elite masculinity is marked just by wealth, rather than wealth plus military dominance or wealth plus cultural dominance. This is probably because it’s easier to maintain your wealth if you’ve got hairy men with big swords to protect you (in a world without effective law and order) or if you’ve got the political system set up so that enough people believe it’s wrong to confiscate your wealth (in a more ordered and democratic world).

So the question then becomes the balance between military and cultural factors in elite masculinity in a particular society. The masculinity of the imperial Roman senatorial elite is unusual for most preindustrial societies precisely because it’s not militarised. The nearest parallels are probably the traditional Chinese exaltation of the scholar and the Talmud’s model of rabbinic masculinity (though there may be other examples elsewhere). In all of these, you’ve got societies where military activity and its control has essentially been delegated or transposed elsewhere, and you have an exalted masculinity that’s more or less purely based on civilian cultural activities, which are so time-consuming that only a favoured few can excel in them.

The move from a militarised ideal of masculinity to a more culturally-based one, as I’ve already suggested, makes sense if you want to maintain an existing dominance, while cutting down on your expenses, and the amount of coercion involved. It’s worth noting the argument by Myles McDonnell in Roman manliness: ‘virtus’ and the Roman republic that earlier Roman ideas of masculinity (till the later second century BC) focused heavily on martial prowess (although his ideas have been criticised). But why make the other move: from a civilian form of elite masculinity to a more militarised one?

One of the obvious answers is that it’s a response to a time of crisis: you can’t afford to stay a peaceful civilian Roman once there are hoards of hairy barbarians coming to destroy your central heating and bring on the Dark Ages. But if Chris’ suggestions about timing are right, this isn’t what is happening in the late antique example. Even in northern Italy, where villa culture seems to collapse just before the Gothic Wars in the mid C6, when the area is under Ostrogothic control, this isn’t a time of particular barbarian violence against Romans, as Cassiodorus’ experience shows.

But what Cassiodorus also shows is the limits of cultural dominance. Such dominance only works if those competing for dominance (and those who are being dominated) are prepared to be impressed. Cultural dominance requires an appreciative audience for its effect, and this audience cannot be taken for granted. There is nothing intrinsically ‘better’ in being able to speak Latin, or ride a horse, or know the right kind of wine to drink, than being able to speak Welsh, or milk a cow, or know the difference between a blue tit and a great tit. Cultural dominance relies on certain kinds of knowledge and skill being defined, more or less arbitrarily, as valuable and certain kinds being less so. In contrast, it is always relatively easy to impress someone if you have the ability to kill or hurt them, even if not in a very refined way.

In a frontier zone, where there is an increased large-scale mixing of Romanised and Germanised populations, cultural dominance becomes harder than in the earlier days of the Roman empire, when a relatively small barbarian elite had to be Romanised. Military prowess becomes a simpler and more direct way to maintaining elite dominance, and at some part would have a snowball effect, when the audience for traditional Roman culture simply collapses. The Roman empire’s new clothes are revealed to be a sham, and a purely militarised elite re-emerges. Under the Carolingians, of course, this military elite is once again encouraged to become cultured, but that’s a different story…

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.