A peasantry in search of a lord and protector

Framing the Early Middle Ages
July 7, 2006

The disintegration of central authority and the emergence of 'feudal' society is not simply a history of coercion. David Abulafia delves into its subtleties

Writing an economic history of Europe and the Mediterranean in what used to be called the Dark Ages (c 400-c 800) is an enormous challenge, not because there is no evidence but because the evidence is so uneven. Two of the most influential books on the period, Henri Pirenne's classic Mahomet et Charlemagne (1937) and the riposte to Pirenne by Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse in 1983, are mere pamphlets by comparison with Chris Wickham's vast and massively learned book, which shared the Wolfson Prize in 2005.

The book is constructed around a series of case studies: Spanish, southern French, Italian, Egyptian, Levantine, northern French, English, Irish and Danish. Wickham also pays attention to the Greek and Anatolian regions, but these sections are generally thinner and succeed most when he is looking at the Aegean and at the wider connections of Constantinople.

Unhesitatingly, he crosses familiar boundaries in time and space. Spain falls under Arab and Berber domination a century before his period ends; Egypt, so often ignored by historians with primarily European interests, is lost by Byzantium more than halfway through his period. But one should not assume that these conquests in themselves effected an economic transformation. To use a familiar phrase, the Roman world is transformed, but to understand its transformation one also needs to consider some of those places that lay beyond its boundaries or, like Britannia, rapidly lost their ties to Rome. And the result is that one sees a great variety of responses - collapse and regeneration in some areas, surprising stability in others. In particular, the collapse of the old Roman tax regime and of the state-organised grain supplies linking Rome and Constantinople to their possessions in North Africa and Egypt had major repercussions for the development of local economies. The Vandal seizure of North Africa and the conversion of the grain fleet to an armed navy changed at a stroke the relationship between the region and the imperial capital.

So after four centuries we are left with a picture of increasing diversity. Wickham admits that the only real conclusion is that there are many conclusions. Regional variation was accentuated over time. But one theme that does provide unity is a different sort of commerce from that stressed by most historians of the early Middle Ages (although historians of the later Middle Ages have certainly got here first): regional bulk trade in necessities did far more to mould local economies than the high-value, low-bulk trade in luxury goods such as the papyrus, pepper and silk on which Pirenne based his analysis. As for Pirenne's emphasis on gold, this is an area where Wickham might have paused. "Gold", rather than "goldwork", does not appear in his index, and silver barely at all. But a cursory look at early Islamic or Byzantine coinage suggests that the monetary side of the economy demands much more attention.

Wickham brilliantly shows that there is a great deal more usable evidence for economic and social change in these centuries than has been assumed even by scholars who specialise in the period. Michael McCormick's equally vast Origins of the European Economy (2001) was, in fact, largely based on documentary sources. Finds of inscribed slate tablets from Visigothic Spain, for instance, are certainly exciting, but their value is significantly reduced when many remain unpublished, and there is little corroboration from other written sources.

Wickham's use of archaeological evidence also enables him to look at some societies, such as those of early medieval Ireland and Denmark, for which written sources are negligible or non-existent. More important, the evidence of material finds fills many gaps in the written record.

The strange failure by the publisher to provide illustrations is compensated for by the richness of the bibliography. This goes on for 112 pages. In his footnotes, Wickham apologises for having been unable to obtain one obscure Danish publication, but it is obvious that he has read and digested all the rest. Whether or not one believes that this period lacks primary sources, there is no lack of modern opinions about it.

Attentive readers will note that the bibliography includes three items by Karl Marx, and to a significant extent the theoretical framework of the book depends on assumptions about historical change, class and social and economic relations derived from Marx.

Oddly, Wickham concludes his book by referring to "teleological interpretations of history, which are always misleading". Yet he also confesses where his sympathies lie: "Much has been written about early medieval aristocrats, perhaps too much, but one does not have to like them to recognise their importance." Rather, he seeks, in some areas of Europe, to conjure up an idyllic "peasant-mode of production", in which the peasant community absorbed its own surpluses. It was something short-lived but, he seems to be saying, morally preferable to the tax regimes that existed under late Roman rule or the imposition of authority by aristocrats in areas such as Gaul or Tuscany - aristocrats who are always, it seems, out for themselves. And he has a series of "bad examples" to prove this. So, allowing for an enormous variation between regions and even micro-regions, we see in some areas of Europe and the Middle East the ascendancy of noble landowners who establish by good title or by land grabbing their dominion over estates and a labour force.

That, certainly, is one way of reading the bad examples. Yet Wickham also needs to confront another harsh reality. The disintegration of central authority and the ascendancy of a local nobility, whether of ancient origin or parvenu, prompted even free peasants to seek protection. The "peasant mode" could function only in relatively remote parts.

The emergence of what used to be called a feudal society is not simply a history of coercion. It is also a history of attempts to escape coercion by finding a lord who could offer protection against other predators. As a non-Marxist historian, I wonder about Wickham's own understanding of how Marxist historians have interpreted coercive relationships between those who controlled the labour force and those who provided labour. Although the relationship has sometimes been crudely explained as one based on main force - brutalising, repressive, in a certain sense immoral - another reading of Marxist historiography would not assign a strong ethical charge to this relationship, seeing it as objectively repressive only in the sense that it was a highly unequal "hegemonic" relationship without, however, generating a strong consciousness of subjection and humiliation.

"Alienation" is a state of being rather than an attitude of mind.

If one follows this reading, one has less inclination to seek out hard evidence for peasant unrest. Wickham is convinced that some small scraps of evidence prove the existence of frequent small-scale resistance, even if it was not widespread; moreover, "one could propose that even if peasants often assented to aristocratic domination for fear of worse, they did not necessarily accept its legitimacy". He admits that we should not make too much of such evidence, but later on in the book peasant unrest and indeed class conflict are taken for granted.

Nor can one ignore aristocratic demand for luxury goods quite as insistently as Wickham does. He convincingly downplays the significance of Marseilles as a port that is supposed to have survived the collapse of trade across the western Mediterranean, setting the bleak archaeological evidence against the more fulsome literary sources.

He may be right that the economies of early medieval Europe and the Mediterranean were moulded by local demand and regional trade, but disparities in wealth and living conditions between lords and peasants, and lordly expenditure on objets de luxe, deserve some attention as well, along with cultural patronage in those areas such as southern France, where the study of Latin letters persisted, or in Spain, Egypt and the Maghreb, where Arab conquerors introduced new cultural fashions. One could also go further back and look at the spectacular Coptic textiles, whose production continued beyond the Arab conquest of Egypt, and consider what evidence these provide for aristocratic lifestyles in early Egypt; here, he concentrates instead on the evidence for textile traffic up and down the Nile, thinking of rather more modest linen goods.

On the other hand, he makes excellent points, based on archaeological evidence, about the continuity between the Spain of the Visigoths and of the Muslims. The 8th-century ceramic evidence does not reveal that a conquest took place. Archaeology appears to tell a different story from the narrative sources; and yet we can weave the two sets of sources together to see how a new society was gradually created out of native Iberians, Goths, Arabs, Berbers and Jews.

The book is a tremendous achievement, demonstrating mastery over half a dozen fields of scholarship. Wickham's world contains plenty of long-suffering peasants and unpleasant aristocrats, but beyond this rather facile generalisation lies an extraordinary series of images of social and economic life during the most radical period of transformation in the history of Europe and the Mediterranean.

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history, Cambridge University.

Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800

Author - Chris Wickham
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 990
Price - £85.00
ISBN - 0 19 926449 X

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments