Wickham on “feudalism”

Chris Wickham is perhaps Britain’s leading historian of European history between the end of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. His two books, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 (2009) and Medieval Europe (2016), are rich and intriguing accounts of the heterogeneous and diverse histories that the period encompasses.

One topic in particular that is of interest to anyone with even a passing interest in medieval social history is the question of “feudalism”. Marx treated feudalism as the central social formation, the mode of production, of the Middle Ages. In the following century Marc Bloch’s historical writings were primarily focused on “feudalism”, including both the political arrangements of the system and the agrarian relations that the period embraced. Here is Bloch’s 1940 characterization of feudalism:

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e. the fief) instead of a salary, which was out of the question; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and, within the warrior class, assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority—leading inevitably to dis-order; and, in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State, of which the latter, during the second feudal age, was to acquire renewed strength—such then seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism. (Bloch, Feudal Society v. II: Social Classes and Political Organisation, kl 4413)

And here is Perry Anderson’s neo-Marxist summary description of the “feudal mode of production” in his 1974 Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism:

The feudal mode of production that emerged in Western Europe was characterized by a complex unity. Traditional definitions of it have often rendered this partially, with the result that it has become difficult to construct any account of the dynamic of feudal development. It was a mode of production dominated by the land and a natural economy, in which neither labour nor the products of labour were commodities. The immediate producer – the peasant – was united to the means of production – the soil – by a specific social relationship. The literal formula of this relationship was provided by the legal definition of serfdom glebae adscripti or bound to the earth: serfs had juridically restricted mobility. The peasants who occupied and tilled the land were not its owners. Agrarian property was privately controlled by a class of feudal lords, who extracted a surplus from the peasants by politico-legal relations of compulsion. This extra-economic coercion, taking the form of labour services, rents in kind or customary dues owed to the individual lord by the peasant, was exercised both on the manorial demesne attached directly to the person of the lord, and on the strip tenancies or virgates cultivated by the peasant. Its necessary result was a juridical amalgamation of economic exploitation with political authority. The peasant was subject to the jurisdiction of his lord. At the same time, the property rights of the lord over his land were typically of degree only: he was invested in them by a superior or noble (or nobles), to whom he would owe knight-service – provision of a military effective in time of war. His estates were, in other words, held as a fief. The liege lord in his turn would often be the vassal of a feudal superior, and the chain of such dependent tenures linked to military service would extend upwards to the highest peak of the system – in most cases, a monarch – of whom all land could in the ultimate instance be in principle the eminent domain. Typical intermediary links of such a feudal hierarchy in the early mediaeval epoch, between simple lordship and suzerain monarchy, were the castellany, barony, county or principality. The consequence of such a system was that political sovereignty was never focused in a single centre. The functions of the State were disintegrated in a vertical allocation downwards, at each level of which political and economic relations were, on the other hand, integrated. This parcellization of sovereignty was constitutive of the whole feudal mode of production. (147-148)

This tradition, from Marx through Bloch and Anderson, describes feudalism as a system that pervaded western Europe and depended upon bonded labor and a system of disaggregated political and military power. It is very interesting, therefore, that Wickham is reluctant about the concept of “feudalism” altogether. In The Inheritance of Rome he refers to the “feudal revolution”, but always in quotation marks and usually in reference to the academic debate with that label. (Bisson’s “Feudal Revolution” is a landmark for this debate; link.) Markham is somewhat more willing to use the term “feudal” in Medieval Europe without quote marks, but retains his skepticism about the concept. He distinctly does not regard the “European socio-economic-political world” as a unified system at all; rather, he sees a great deal of variation, local varieties, and different dynamics. Here is the idea that provides the key foundation of his skepticism: he insists on the heterogeneity of historical experience, social arrangements, and political regimes that existed across the expanse of territory encompassed by the map of western Eurasia.

Rather than looking for a single all-embracing concept of the “social and political system of the medieval period”, Markham insists on recognizing the diversity of arrangements found throughout the period, and the parallel importance of detailed historical investigation of various sub-regions. Franks, Magyars, Bulgars, Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards, Danes, Khazars, Anglo-Saxons, and Andalusian Muslims — the populations of various regions of Europe possessed their own histories and social arrangements, with influences flowing in all directions over time. Attempting to capture the social system of much of this map in terms of an abstract concept of “feudalism” is an error of historiography. There are commonalities across the regions and populations of the face of Europe, created by the fundamental existential circumstances of life in an environment with limited technology, communication, and travel. But the problems of material life, and the political and coercive arrangements through which groups of people were coordinated and controlled, varied across time and space. This critique can be put in terms of Weber’s idea of ideal types as well (link): the concept of feudalism is an ideal type, that accentuates some features of the social order and minimizes others, in order to capture a broad social reality in a compact description. But for Wickham the historian, this attempt is wrong-headed. We do not gain anything of intellectual value by asserting that rural England, Saxony, and the territory of the Khazars were all “feudal” in their fundamental social relations. 

Let’s look a little more closely at Markham’s account in the two books. A key idea in traditional conceptions of feudalism is the idea of “infeudation”, or the dispersal of authority, power, landed property, and military authority. Wickham introduces a number of novel ideas for describing the structure of medieval society, including especially cellularization, capillarization, and networks. In The Inheritance of Rome he introduced the idea of “cellularization” as a way of describing the social, economic, and political structure of medieval Europe. He attributes the concept to historian Robert Fossier (Enfance de l’Europe. Aspects économiques et sociaux. Tome 1: L’homme et son espace). The vocabulary of cellurization is used only twice in Inheritance, but it is used frequently in Medieval Europe. Here are a few examples from the latter book:

It [decentralized social life] marks a fundamental difference between the political systems of the early middle ages and those of later centuries, in which the public sphere had to be recreated, and always coexisted with a cellular structure of locally based powers, as we shall see in later chapters. (pp. 145-146). 

The French peasantry were increasingly caged inside the cellular structure of local power, and subjected, on top of rents, to lordly exactions which were often heavy, sometimes arbitrary, and always designed to underpin direct domination. (p. 180). 

Conversely, the weakening of the public framing for politics forced local powers to become better defined, creating the cellular structure of the future. And both of these developments fit what Marc Bloch meant by the ‘fragmentation of powers’: they were an always-possible consequence of the politics of land, in a world where the state was not separately supported by taxation. (pp. 180-181)

State-building was by now based on different, cellular, units: the newly legal, although of course highly exploitative, local lordships, large or small, of the eleventh century – to which we can now add the urban and rural communities of the twelfth, which gained their own autonomy, where they could, inside and against these lordships; and also dioceses, the cells of the international papal network. (p. 248)

The key implication of the language of “cellularization” in application to medieval society is the idea of extreme localization of most social, political, and economic activities. A cellular organism (in biology) is one that accomplishes its key metabolic activities based on processes under its immediate control — bacteria, fungi, and molds, for example. A complex multicellular organism is one that embodies a functional system of interdependence between different parts of the organism; a division of labor between different organs; and a complex system through which the metabolic needs of each cell in the organism are satisfied as a result of the activities and products of distant parts of the organism. Analogously for the social case: a large-scale non-cellular distributed social system depends upon a regional division of labor, a more or less well developed system of trade, communication, and transport, and a degree of central coordination of activities. By describing large swaths of medieval society as “cellular”, Markham is asserting autarky, self-sufficiency, and extremely limited trade for large parts of the territory of the region. Subsistence farming and handicraft production define the fundamental material terms of existence in such a world. The “cells” in this construction are not households or hamlets, but may be as large as minor lordships controlling a radius of a few dozen kilometers. But the structure is cellular nonetheless, because there is little connection among these units within the broader region.

Another term that Markham uses frequently is the idea of “capillarization” of revenues and power. For example —

The Lombard kings did not tax, after the first couple of generations of their rule at least. They operated entirely in the framework of a political practice based on land. But inside that framework, their hegemony was very great, and unusually detailed: their capillary power arguably extended to much more modest levels of society than the Frankish or Visigothic kings achieved. (146)

The state was much weaker in the post-Roman world, and one would not expect much of a tax-based movement of goods; an equivalent might be the movement of rents from one estate-centre to another, to feed landowners and kings who were located elsewhere, but the evidence we have for exchange, even in the relatively localized early Middle Ages, seems more capillary than that for the most part. (222)

That local lords in some cases were rising, militarized, families from the same community, former village-level medium owners or even former rich peasants (above, Chapter 21), did not make things any better; such families had a local knowledge that made domination easier, and also often had capillary hierarchical links with their neighbours or former neighbours, in the form of patron and client as well as landlord and tenant. (540)

This is a suggestive metaphor that evokes the minute subdivision of relationships through the social landscape. Capillarization in biology refers to the circulatory system of mammals and other orders; the capillaries are the very small blood vessels that proliferate through tissue and lungs to deliver nutrients and oxygen and remove waste products. So the key idea is “proliferation of a broadening network of channels”. In the circulatory context, the fluid moves in a complete circuit — traveling from the heart to tissue and returning. Here is a diagram:

In applying the idea of capillarization to the medieval social world, it is not entirely clear that the processes in question are circulatory (out-bound and in-bound). Rather, it seems that Wickham has in mind an extractive capillary system, in which a central fiscal power has established channels through which taxes or labor services flow from periphery to center. (This description does not imply that the power in question is “king”; it may be a regional lord controlling an extended territory.) On this view, the system will look more like the branching network of the roots of a tree:

On either scenario, the meaning of capillarization is reasonably clear: it involves the proliferation of channels of influence permitting the flow of taxes and products from local to regional places (the tree-root system) or possibly a roundtrip flow of services from the center to periphery and a return trip conveying taxes and labor services from periphery to center. We might say, then, that a “capillarized” rural society is no longer cellular; rather, it is interpenetrated by a system of circulation or extraction that succeeds in delivering products, ideas, or commands from a “center” to “periphery” and return.

Finally, Wickham often analyzes rural society — and occasionally town and city society — in terms of the networks of activity that can be discerned at the distance of a thousand years. Sometimes he applies this idea in terms of “social networks” — groups of individuals connected by family, loyalty, friendship, etc. — who are then able to call upon each other in times of need for collaboration or completion. Sometimes the networks that he describes are defined in terms of information flows — the flow of ideas through the Christian church establishment across a territory. A third application has to do with trade and market relationships, both nearby and distant.

The motor of exchange before 800 was, broadly, aristocratic wealth and buying-power; the richer élites were, the more they were able to sustain large-scale networks of production and distribution. (550)

These ideas are suggestive. But do they enable a significantly different view of the economic and political structure of feudal society — or do these terms simply provide a different vocabulary for describing the system that is familiar from Bloch? We might say that these concepts differ from traditional concepts of feudalism — even as they aim to capture similar social characteristics — in virtue of their abstraction. The concept of “infeudation” used by Marx and Bloch is inseparable from other specific assumptions about military subordination among lords, the lack of power of rural producers, and the nature of central political or monarchical power. The concepts of cellularization, capillarization, and a networked regional society are neutral about the nature of the power relations that sustain these social relations among individuals and communities. They serve to describe the “topology” of economics and power in the circumstances of the natural and technological environment of the period in Eurasia between 500 CE and 1500 CE without making specific assumptions about the legal instantiations of these relationships. 

In an unexpected way, Wickham’s use of these concepts might be seen as a more abstract theoretical application of the most fundamental ideas of historical materialism articulated by Marx. The argument goes something like this: Human beings in X region in the eighth century find themselves in small nucleated settlements with very little ability to communicate or transport goods or people to places more than 25 kilometers distant. They satisfy their needs by farming and handicraft, and they cultivate for the purpose of consumption. (They are thus “cellularized”.) More distant powerful figures (“lords in waiting”) have an interest in gaining access to some of their crops. These figures gain coercive ability (armed groups) capable of extracting tribute (rent, taxes, tribute, gifts) from peasant communities. The hamlets become “cellularized”: multiple hamlets are drawn into extractive relationships with more distant bosses who dominate them. Land and peasant labor are the primary sources of wealth; so the lords compete over territory and the right to extract from their “dominions”. Cellularization and the growth of capillaries and networks are then comprehensible results rather than simply being the embodiments of “infeudation”. 

(It would be very interesting to consider the passage from Perry Anderson quoted above and construct a sentence-by-sentence analysis and critique based on Wickham’s historical accounts of Eurasian developments during the centuries considered. This would establish fairly precisely the ways in which Wickham’s account differs from traditional accounts of “feudalism”.)

Frankish kings and Mynyddog’s gold …

Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 is a fascinating book to read, if you are interested in how various strands of culture, politics, and economy developed in Europe between the fifth century and the beginning of the eleventh century — that is, between the end of the Roman Empire and the high medieval period. Wickham is an evangelist when it comes to understanding medieval history; he believes that our intellectual culture has seriously misunderstood the nature of society, politics, culture, and religion in the millennium between the fifth century and the fifteenth century. The opening words of the book capture this conviction:

Early medieval Europe has, over and over, been misunderstood. It has fallen victim above all to two grand narratives, both highly influential in the history and history-writing of the last two centuries, and both of which have led to a false image of this period: the narrative of nationalism and the narrative of modernity. Before we consider a different sort of approach, we need to look at both of these, briefly but critically, to see what is wrong with each; for most readers of this book who have not already studied the period will have one or both in the front of their minds as a guiding image. (3)

His point against “ontological nationalism” is straightforward and entirely accurate: there was no “France” or “Belgium” in the fifth century, and there was no precursor to those national identities either. Rather, the “France” that emerged as a nation a thousand years later was the product of a myriad of contingencies — military, climatic, religious, global, and internal — and, in fact, France even in the twentieth century was not a single unified nation. Alsace and Breton retain regional identities to the present that diverge to various degrees from the notion of “unified French identity”. (See discussions of Emmanuel Todd (link) and Theodor Zeldin (link) on these points.) Wickham is entirely right, then, to object to the teleological idea that various European nations were in the oven in the early medieval period, and just waiting to be born. 

But likewise, Wickham rejects the teleology of inevitable economic and political development as well — the idea that the continent was making its way towards modernity, extensive trade, and modern production techniques. As readers of the blog have seen in discussions of the “breakthrough debate”, it is evident that European economic development was both more heterogeneous than this conception would permit, and also much more subject to contingency and path-dependency than the modernization paradigm would suggest (linklinklink). Against these teleological frameworks for historical understanding, Wickham insists on something different:

I am in favour of most of these final ends myself; but to me as a historian the storyline still seems ridiculous, for every period in history has its own identity and legitimacy, which must be seen without hindsight. The long stretch of time between 400 and 1000 has its own validity as a field of study, which is in no way determined by what went before or came after. To attribute values to it (or to parts of it, as with those who, with the image of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, want to attach the ninth and perhaps tenth centuries to the grand narrative of ‘real’ history, at the expense, presumably, of the sixth to eighth) is a pointless operation. And to me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, the ‘othering’ of the period simply seems meaningless. The wealth of recent scholarship on the period gives the lie to this whole approach to seeing history; and this book will have failed if it appears to support it in any way. (6)

Or in other words, we need to treat the developments that unfolded between the boot of Italy and the north of Scotland in their own terms, recognizing heterogeneity, multiple actors, path-dependency, surprising events, and the deep and persistent fact of contingency. “The third aim has been to look at the period 400–1000, and all the sub-periods inside that long stretch of time, in their own terms, without considering too much their relationship with what came before or after, so as to sidestep the grand narratives criticized above” (p. 11). Wickham refers to a new emerging paradigm for medieval history:

That paradigm sees many aspects of late Antiquity (itself substantially revalued: the late Roman empire is now often seen as the Roman high point, not an inferior and totalitarian copy of the second-century pax romana) continuing into the early Middle Ages without a break. More specifically: the violence of the barbarian invaders of the empire is a literary trope; there were few if any aspects of post-Roman society and culture that did not have Roman antecedents; the seventh century in the West, although the low point for medieval evidence, produced more surviving writings than any Roman century except the fourth and sixth, showing that a literate culture had by no means vanished in some regions; in short, one can continue to study the early medieval world, east or west, as if it were late Rome. This position is explicit in much recent work on the fifth-century invasions, but it affects the study of later centuries, into the ninth century and beyond, in much more indirect ways. It is rare to find historians actually writing that Charlemagne, say, was essentially operating in a late Roman political-cultural framework, even when they are implying it by the ways they present him. This is a problem, however; for, whether or not one believes that Charlemagne was actually operating in such a framework, the issue cannot properly be confronted and argued about until it is brought out into the open. And it can be added that historians have, overall, been much more aware that catastrophe is a literary cliché in the early Middle Ages than that continuity – accommodation – is one as well. (8-9)

An important part of the historiography of Wickham’s work is his recognition that archaeology and the documentation of material culture is progressing rapidly, even as the available texts from the period have come close to exhaustion. Moreover, he recognizes that the study of material culture — the architecture of manors, rural homes, and fortifications, for example — provides a different kind of insight into the history of the period than do the available documents. This isn’t a new idea in history; Mommsen recognized the importance of material artifacts and inscriptions in his History of Rome in 1871. but it continues to be an important reminder for historians who tend to continue to be primarily interested in texts and archives. His treatment of architecture during the period — great and small — is especially interesting and revealing, and the photographs that accompany the exposition are outstanding.

The intervisuality of architectural style is one of the most powerful conveyors of meaning and visual effect. As remarked at the start of this book, archaeology, and the study of material culture in its widest sense in art history and architectural history, tends to tell us different sorts of things from the study of narrative and documentary texts. Material culture tells us more about the use of space, the function of spatial relationships, as well as, of course, stylistic and technological changes; written culture tells us more about human relationships, choices, conscious representations of the world around us. But the construction of visual meaning, by emperors and peasants alike, links these two worlds: it is material culture, not words, which tells us about the choices of al-Walid, or Paschal, or Julian and Domna in Serjilla. That is why this chapter is the central one in this book; it offers a way to compare the strategies of every actor in the early Middle Ages, rich or poor, and not – for once – just those who had access to the written word. And the audiences of buildings such as these were also far wider than those of any written text, save of the sections of the Bible and Qur’an most often read out in religious ceremonies, and these latter tended not to change much across time and space. The whole population of Europe was thus involved in the communication discussed in this chapter, and could even, if they chose, participate as communicators, not just as audiences. Indeed, as archaeology makes its inevitable advances in the future, this is a sector of historical knowledge which, for a change, we shall know progressively more about. (250-251)

Another noteworthy aspect of Wickham’s approach to the history of this millennium of change is that he is interested in considering the actors’ points of view — including at least occasionally the points of view of peasants, women, traders, and other non-elite participants in medieval society. Here is a complicated story involving legal institutions, the daughter of a lesser landowner, and an exercise of the woman’s creative agency to achieve her goals:

In 721 Anstruda of Piacenza in northern Italy made an unusual charter. She sold her own legal independence to the brothers Sigirad and Arochis, because she had married their unfree dependant (servus). She and they agreed that her future sons should remain the brothers’ dependants in perpetuity, but her daughters could buy their independence at marriage for the same money, 3 solidi, that Anstruda herself had received. Although Lombard Italy was a relatively legally aware country (and Piacenza is not far from the capital), this charter breaks at least three laws: the law forbidding free–slave marriages; the law, or at least assumption, that the unfree were not legal persons, so Anstruda’s daughters could not be assigned future rights; and the law prohibiting female legal autonomy. Anstruda’s father Authari, a vir honestus or small landowner, consented to the document, but the money for Anstruda’s legal rights went to her directly, and she is the actor throughout. There is an ironic sense in which this account of a young peasant woman, even though she was selling her own freedom, shows how she could make her own rules, create her own social context, even in as restrictive a society for female autonomy as Lombard Italy. This may say something about Anstruda as a person; it also says something about the fluidity of peasant society in Italy. (203)

Consistently with Wickham’s emphasis on contingency and heterogeneity across space, many of the regions he discussions from the sixth and later centuries display an extreme degree of political fragmentation. “Kings” were often monarchs of very limited domains indeed, and especially so in Britain:

The post-Roman British in the lowlands probably operated on a smaller scale still. The only lowland powers who can be traced in any detail are the kings of Ergyng, Gwent, the Cardiff region and Gower, all in lowland south-east Wales, some documents for whom, land-grants to churches, survive from the late sixth century onwards: these kings ruled perhaps a third of a modern county each, and sometimes less. This was the Romanized section of Wales, and this sort of scale may well have been normal in the whole of lowland Britain. It probably derived from the first generations after the end of Roman rule, in which local landowners had to look to their own self-defence, and even the Roman city territories, the traditional units of government in lowland Britain as elsewhere, soon fragmented into rather smaller de-facto units. (152-53)

It is not easy to tell what Welsh kings did. They evidently fought a lot, and their military entourage is one of their best-documented features. They were generous and hospitable to their dependants, and (at least in literature) got loyalty to the death in return, although where they got their resources from is not so clear. They took tribute from subject and defeated rulers, and also tribute or rent from their own people, but the little we know of the latter implies that only fairly small quantities were owed by the peasant population to their lords; Mynyddog’s gold, silver and glass were a literary image, too. (154)

Frankish kings operated on a vastly larger scale. They controlled more territory, they gathered more significant armies, and they gathered taxes and resources on a much larger scale.

The lasting importance of the Merovingian royal courts was in large part due to the huge wealth that every king or maior could dispose of. Kings owned very large tracts of land; they had access to commercial tolls and judicial fines. They also for long controlled the surviving elements of the Roman land tax. These are described (and complained about) by Gregory of Tours, and they seem to have been most firmly rooted in the south-west, the Loire valley and Aquitaine. Even in Gregory’s time, as noted in Chapter 4, the tax system was not very systematically maintained: registers could go without updating for a generation, tax levels were far lower than under Rome, and royal cessions of tax immunity to whole city territories were beginning. Indeed, an organic fiscal structure of a Roman type could not still have existed if kings moved cities between each other so easily. By the mid-seventh century tax liabilities seem to have become fixed tributes, taken from smaller and smaller areas. In the north, this process may well have started earlier, and Chlotar II formally renounced the right to new taxes in 614; by 626–7 a church council at Clichy near Paris regarded taxpayers as an inferior category, to be excluded from the ranks of the clergy. It is likely that the tax system had already decayed so much that Chlotar could regard it as worth abandoning, for political effect; it only survived regionally after that (it is documented in the Loire valley into the 720s at least). (120)

Of particular interest is Wickham’s treatment of the nature and extent of trade during the sixth and seventh centuries. This is interesting because of the light it sheds on the question of the degree of social integration that existed across regions. But it is also interesting in light of Henri Pirenne’s assessment of the dynamics of trade in those centuries (link). Significantly, Wickham goes into a fair amount of detail in addressing Pirenne’s account, which he finds to be incorrect in several important ways.

Wickham concurs with Pirenne that trade became substantially more limited and localized in the early medieval period (fifth century) than during the Roman Empire. (He also notes that there is evidence of population decline in absolute numbers and density, though he suggests that the reasons for this decline are not yet well understood.) 

The early medieval period was also one in which exchange became much more localized. We have already observed that the fifth century saw the weakening of the great Mediterranean routes when the Vandals broke the Carthage–Rome tax spine in 439. These routes by no means vanished overnight, however. (218)

The evidence that Wickham believes to be most important today — though not available to Pirenne at the beginning of the twentieth century — is archaeological: excavations that have uncovered pottery, metal goods, and other routine and ordinary products used in everyday life and that permit historians to document trading networks with some exactness. Pirenne’s account depends on written records that mention items such as spices, precious metals, and papyrus. But as Wickham points out, these are luxury goods, and are poor “markers” for the networks of trade that existed in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. And this is a crucial problem for an account that attempts to provide an accurate economic history of the period.

Early Anglo-Saxon England is the best-documented example of a really simple exchange system. Its archaeology shows us that all English pottery before around 720 was handmade, and mostly very locally produced, not necessarily by professional potters, and not even in kilns. Nor did the Anglo-Saxons import much wheel-turned pottery from the Continent (most of it is found in Kent). The frequent presence of weaving tools in house-compounds and female graves shows that cloth was made inside individual households, as well…. It would be difficult, however, to say that England had much of a market economy before the eighth century; the huge bulk of production of artisanal goods was at the level of the single village. England can here stand for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where much the same was true. (218)

England was at the low end of economic activity in the early medieval period; the most extensive trading systems existed across the English Channel:

The largest-scale economy in the early medieval West was the Frankish heartland. Here the networks of late Roman ceramic productions, based on supplying the Rhine army but extending across the whole of northern Gaul, in the Argonne forest above Verdun for terra sigillata tableware, in the Mayen industrial kiln complex near Trier for coarse-ware containers and tableware, continued after the army vanished, a little reduced in scale but still available over wide areas. Argonne ware had gone by 600, and Merovingian carinated fine wares were generally made on a rather smaller scale, but the Badorf ware of the kiln sites near Cologne, which replaced them after 700, was a new centralized production which could be found throughout the middle and lower Rhine valley, and further afield, and Mayen ware continued to be available over similar areas without a break. (220)

Here the archaeological evidence is extensive, and most so in the case of ceramics (plateware). The system of manufacturing and trade that Wickham describes is certainly large in scope and implies developed systems of traders, markets, and money.

The core of the evidence presented here is the production and distribution of pottery, always the best evidenced product in archaeological excavations. Metal and also glass seem to have had similar patterns, generally showing distribution networks a little wider than those of ceramics, though they are less clearly visible (one can often tell from petrological analysis of potsherds where they came from; metal and glass are too often melted down for this to be possible, and we are reliant on stylistic analysis, which can be misleading, as there was much local copying of successful styles in our period). Cloth, the most important of all, is the great unknown out of such artisanal productions, for it so seldom survives on sites, but it would be reasonable to argue that the scale of its production often matched that of ceramics, and this seems relatively clear in England at least. These were the major artisanal products of the early Middle Ages, and they are the essential markers of economic complexity, along with more occasional agricultural specializations for sale, like the vineyards of northern Francia and also of parts of the south Italian coast. It is reasonably clear from this evidence that northern Francia had a much more complex and active exchange system than anywhere else in the West before 800, that the Mediterranean lands were more fragmented, with pockets of greater complexity and greater simplicity; and that Britain and the rest of the North was as a whole far simpler in exchange terms than almost anywhere further south. The difference between the two sides of the English Channel was particularly acute, and certainly not overcome by imports into England, which were anyway not so very numerous. (pp. 221-222)

This reconstruction of medieval trade differs from that provided by other historians, and differs from Pirenne’s account in particular. In addition to the fact that the archaeological evidence now available was not available to Pirenne, Wickham believes that Pirenne’s analysis made two large mistakes of historical interpretation:

The first was that it laid far too much stress on long-distance exchange, between the East (sometimes the Far East) and the West, which was always marginal to the main lines of trade; these latter operate above all inside regions or between neighbouring regions, and only very exceptionally extend beyond them (as with the African hegemony over the late Roman Mediterranean, which was, precisely, a product of the needs of an exceptionally powerful state). The second was that most of Pirenne’s arguments concerned luxuries: the availability of gold, spices, silk and papyrus in the West (the last of these was certainly not a luxury in Egypt – it was an industrial product – but arguably had become so in the West by the seventh century). This was perhaps forgivable, as luxuries are almost all the examples of traded goods that are mentioned in early medieval written sources. But luxuries, too, are marginal to economic systems; they are defined by their high price and restricted availability, so that only the rich can possess them, and they therefore represent wealth, power and status. (p. 223)

And just in case the reader is wondering about King Mynyddog of Gododdin, here’s a snippet:

Our earliest poetic texts in Welsh date from the seventh century to the ninth, and these contain a number of laments on dead kings, including Marwnad Cynddylan, the earliest, for King Cynddylan, based in or near modern Shropshire, who died in the mid-seventh century, and Y Gododdin, the longest, for King Mynyddog of Gododdin, who supposedly took his army from his capital at Edinburgh to Catraeth, perhaps modern Catterick, where they all died around 600. These show a homogeneous set of ‘heroic’ values, which were clearly those of the Welsh aristocracy by 800 at the latest: ‘The warrior . . . would take up his spear just as if it were sparkling wine from glass vessels. His mead was contained in silver, but he deserved gold.’ Or: ‘The men went to Catraeth, swift was their host. Pale mead was their feast, and it was their poison.’ It is not unreasonable to suppose that these values were already shared in the sixth century. Whenever they developed, however, they were a world away from those of Rome. This is important as a reflection of the political crisis we began with, for these military élites were lineal descendants of British Romans, unconquered by invaders; all the same, all their points of reference were by now different. They were quite parallel, however, to those of the Anglo-Saxons. (p. 154)

Is medieval history cumulative? Do contemporary historians build on the tracks laid down by the historians of the period who came before? That is a complicated question, and one can justify “no” as well as “yes”. It is of course true that earlier historians of the early medieval period have discovered and presented much that is accurate and interesting about the period. But it is also true that history changes over time: historians come to see the blindspots of their predecessors, they come to conceptualize the past differently, and they come to understand that some aspects of the story have not been investigated at all. Wickham’s history does some of all of that: reconceptualization, highlighting of new questions, and discovery of ways in which distinguished historians in the past century or so have both discovered their own important insights into the material, and made substantial errors of interpretation or reconstruction.

There is much more to Wickham’s book than has been mentioned here. In a later post I expect to treat his reconstruction of the Muslim conquests of these same territories.


As I’ve felt many times in reading complex histories, I wish that authors and publishers would catch up to the basic possibilities of computer animation as companion materials for a history book like this one. It would be enormously helpful to have a handful of animated maps the reader could follow as he or she reads the text, watching (for example) the spread of Arab conquerers over a fifty-year period from Spain into France and Italy, or the rise and fall of small and medium-sized kingships around the Rhine, or the advance and retreat of the armed power of the pope and bishops. These are historical dynamics that are difficult to express or grasp fully in text, but would be visible at a glance with a well-constructed animation showing stages of change in 25-year increments. A resource that provides some of this capability is the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations, maintained at Harvard University (link), which allows the user to locate places and a number of relevant historical events on a single ESRI digital base map. Here is a screenshot of a display including medieval towns across the continent.

And once we are thinking about computer graphics to accompany a work of historical exposition, it would also make sense to have a large number of reproductions of the existing paintings, sculptures, buildings, fortifications, roads, fields, ploughs, and granaries that are still available. This is one reason I collected a number of basic maps in a recent post on new thinking about the medieval period (link). (I made a similar suggestion in my discussion of Steve Pincus’s new history of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688: The First Modern Revolution (link).)

The late Roman Empire and what came next …

There is a great deal of drama in the fairly limited ideas we have today about the passing of the Roman Empire, the consolidation of “barbarian” kingdoms, and the rise of the Islamic presence in Europe. In particular, there is the drama of the sacking of Rome and the end of Roman civilization; an extended period of ignorance and economic collapse across the continent of Europe; and the rapid spread of an intolerant Christianity. 

Two books shake up those narratives — one fairly recent and the other almost a century old. Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 appeared in 2010, while Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne appeared in Belgium in 1922. But both books challenge the most basic assumptions of common narratives of the transition from Roman civilization to the Renaissance. The “dark ages” weren’t dark, and the “Middle Ages” weren’t just a thousand-year ellipsis between Roman civilization and the Renaissance. Here I’ll examine Pirenne’s arguments, and in a later post I will look at Wickham’s recent contributions.

Henri Pirenne was one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished medieval historians and a teacher of Marc Bloch (linklink). The most surprising finding in his book is that the sack of Rome in 411 was a non-event; the “barbarian” invasions of Rome, including the Germanic wars, were almost equally inconsequential; and that it was the military threat and invasion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries that fundamentally altered the Roman order. The hinge, according to Pirenne, was control of the Mediterranean Sea. When Rome and its allies lost maritime control of the Mediterranean to Islamic fleets, its power, economic system, and cultural hegemony were finished. A major part of this crucial role for sea-born commerce was the fact that the Roman Empire depended upon cheap grain from Africa for its survival. Losing control of the Mediterranean meant losing its lifeline to bread and chocolate (or bread anyway).

Thanks to the Mediterranean, then, the Empire constituted, in the most obvious fashion, an economic unity. It was one great territory, with tolls but no custom houses. And it enjoyed the enormous advantage of a common monetary unit, the gold solidus of Constantine, containing 4˙55 grammes of fine gold, which was current everywhere. (5)

But Roman power failed to hold the Mediterranean, and Vandal king Genseric succeeded in seizing Carthage:

Succeeding where the Goths had failed, Genseric, in 427, with the aid of the Carthaginian ships, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and landed 50,000 men upon the African coast. For the Empire this was the decisive blow. The very soul of the Republic—says Salvian—was destroyed. When in 439 Genseric captured Carthage —that is, the great naval base of the West—and then, shortly afterwards, took possession of Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics, the position of the Empire in the West was completely shaken. It had lost the Mediterranean, which had hitherto been its great weapon of defence. (14)

The barbarian tribes prevailed in the West; but the structures, political institutions, and culture of Rome survived. The tribal victors were Romanized.

Thus, at the beginning of the 6th century there was not an inch of soil in the West still subject to the Emperor. At first sight the catastrophe seems enormous; so enormous that the fall of Romulus has been regarded as beginning a second act of the world-drama. But if we examine it more closely it seems less important. (For the Emperor still had a legal existence. He had abdicated nothing of his sovereignty. The old fiction of the allies was maintained. And the new upstarts themselves acknowledged his primacy. (18)

There could be no greater mistake than to suppose that the idea of the Empire disappeared after the dismemberment of the Western Provinces by the Barbarians. There is no justification for doubting that the βασιλεὺς who reigned in Constantinople still extended his theoretical authority over the whole Empire. He no longer governed, but he still reigned. And it was toward him that all men’s eyes were turned. (41)

So the replacement of direct rule by Roman governors by barbarian kings fulfilling much the same functions in much the same way presented little drama for the societies in the west in which this transformation occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries. Pirenne provides a short outline of the structure of society, which as he notes, includes the embryo of feudalism:

As for the social classes, they were the same as before. The upper class consisted of freemen (ingenui), and it included an aristocracy of great landowners (senatores). The class of free citizens properly so-called probably constituted a minority. Beneath them were the colonists, especially numerous among the Visigoths, and the liberated slaves. There were still plenty of slaves. As we shall presently see, they were mostly alien Barbarians, Anglo-Saxon or others, prisoners of war. There was also an urban population of which we shall say something presently. On the large estates there were workshops in which the women spun yarn, and in which other workers, slaves or domainal serfs, practised various crafts. But these workshops had already existed during the later centuries of the Empire. The population had retained the form which had been impressed upon it by the fiscal organization, although this had been greatly diminished by the almost complete curtailment of the military and administrative expenditure. (54)

And so — little change as a result of the “fall of the Roman Empire”:

From whatever standpoint we regard it, then, the period inaugurated by the establishment of the Barbarians within the Empire introduced no absolute historical innovation. What the Germans destroyed was not the Empire, but the Imperial government in partibus occidentis. They themselves acknowledged as much by installing themselves as foederati. Far from seeking to replace the Empire by anything new, they established themselves within it, and although their settlement was accompanied by a process of serious degradation, they did not introduce a new scheme of government; the ancient palazzo, so to speak, was divided up into apartments, but it still survived as a building. In short, the essential character of “Romania” still remained Mediterranean. (p. 104)

By contrast, Pirenne believes the Islamic assault on the Western Roman Empire in the seventh century was transformative, catastrophic, and entirely unexpected. “The Empire had never regarded this as one of its vulnerable points, nor had it ever massed there any large proportion of its military forces” (110). And: “The Arab conquest, which brought confusion upon both Europe and Asia, was without precedent. The swiftness of its victory is comparable only with that by which the Mongol Empires of Attila, Jenghiz Khan and Tamerlane were established. But these Empires were as ephemeral as the conquest of Islam was lasting” (p. 112).

Pirenne is first and foremost an economic historian, and the evidence he finds most compelling is the material evidence of trade. In particular, he takes note of evidence of the availability of spices and papyrus at various times in late antiquity, and draws a crucial conclusion: trade routes between western ports and eastern sources were severed, leading to a complete disappearance of these valuable products in cities and monasteries in the west. In the sixth century these products were widely available in the West:

Papyrus was another thing that came from the East, and of which great quantities were consumed. Egypt had the monopoly of furnishing the whole Empire with the writing material in general use, parchment being reserved for special purposes. Now, both after and before the invasions the art of writing was practised throughout the West. It was a necessary constituent of social life. The juridical and administrative life of the Empire, the very functioning of the State, necessitated the practice of the art, and the same may be said of social relations. The merchants had their clerks, mercenarii litterati. Masses of papyrus must have been required by those who kept the registers of the fisc, by the notaries of the tribunals, by private correspondents, and by the monasteries. (pp. 65-66)

From the middle of the seventh century (about 650 AD) onwards the major trade between the west and the east was broken. The evidence is clear for Pirenne, beginning with papyrus:

Papyrus was the first to disappear. All the works written in the West on papyrus of which we have knowledge are of the 6th or the 7th century. Until 659–677 nothing but papyrus was used in the royal Merovingian chancellery. Then parchment made its appearance.592 A few private documents were still written on papyrus, doubtless obtained from old stocks of this material, until nearly the end of the 8th century. There is no sign of it after that. And the explanation cannot be that it was no longer manufactured, for this supposition is disproved by the beautiful papyrus documents of the 7th century in the Arab Museum of Cairo. The disappearance of papyrus in Gaul can only have been due to the fact that commerce first declined and then ceased. Parchment does not seem to have been widely used at first. Gregory of Tours, who calls it membrana, mentions it only once,593 and seems to indicate that it was manufactured by the monks for their own use. Now, we know that the habits of a chancellery are extremely tenacious. If at the close of the 7th century the royal offices had ceased to make use of papyrus it was because it was becoming very difficult to obtain any. (129)

And along with trade, the largescale traders disappeared as well:

One consequence of the suppression of the Oriental trade and maritime traffic was the disappearance of professional merchants in the interior of the country. Henceforth merchants are hardly ever mentioned in the documents of the period; any references that do occur may be understood as applying to occasional merchants. I can find no mention at this period of a single negotiator of the Merovingian type: that is, a merchant who lent money at interest, was buried in a sarcophagus, and gave of his goods to the churches and the poor. (132)

Pirenne believes that two factors explained the successes of the Islamic invasion. The first was ideological, and the second was naval. The religious ideas and values of Islam sustained a separate identity for Islamic occupiers in previously held territory; unlike the Franks or the Goths, they were not “romanized”. And the naval power of Islamic forces proved to be formidable.

That Charlemagne was able to derive so little advantage from the taking of Barcelona was due to the fact that he had no fleet. He could do nothing against the Saracens, who were in possession of Tunis, dominated the Spanish coast, and held the islands. He attempted to defend the Balearics, and won some ephemeral victories there. In 798 these islands were ravaged by the Musulmans. (120)

And with maritime and naval supremacy came the ability to dominate the Mediterranean:

So long as the Mediterranean remained Christian, it was the Oriental navigation that maintained commercial intercourse with the Occident. Syria and Egypt were its two principal centres; and these two wealthy provinces were the very first to fall under the domination of Islam. It would obviously be an error to believe that this domination put an end to all economic activity. Although there was great confusion and disorder, and although many Syrians migrated to the Occident, we must not suppose that the economic machinery collapsed. Damascus had become the first capital of the Caliphate. Spices were still imported, papyrus was still manufactured, the seaports were still active. Once they paid taxes to the conquerors, the Christians were not molested. Commerce, therefore, continued, but its direction was changed. (124)

Pirenne draws two central conclusions — the persistence of “Mediterranean” civilization for centuries following the barbarian onslaughts of the 5th century, and the crucial historical role played in the transformation of this system by the advance of Islam.

1. The Germanic invasions destroyed neither the Mediterranean unity of the ancient world, nor what may be regarded as the truly essential features of the Roman culture as it still existed in the 5th century, at a time when there was no longer an Emperor in the West. Despite the resulting turmoil and destruction, no new principles made their appearance; neither in the economic or social order, nor in the linguistic situation, nor in the existing institutions. What civilization survived was Mediterranean. It was in the regions by the sea that culture was preserved, and it was from them that the innovations of the age proceeded: monasticism, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the ars Barbarica, etc. The Orient was the fertilizing factor: Constantinople, the centre of the world. In 600 the physiognomy of the world was not different in quality from that which it had revealed in 400. 

2. The cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam. The result of this advance was the final separation of East from West, and the end of the Mediterranean unity. Countries like Africa and Spain, which had always been parts of the Western community, gravitated henceforth in the orbit of Baghdad. In these countries another religion made its appearance, and an entirely different culture. The Western Mediterranean, having become a Musulman lake, was no longer the thoroughfare of commerce and of thought which it had always been. (228)

What is fascinating about this work for the philosophy of history is the support it provides for the idea that the past is not “given”, and the history of an epoch is never finished and complete. Instead, the practice of historical research and writing has the continuing possibility of discovering new truths about a past that we thought we understood. 

(Discussions of late Roman history have appeared elsewhere in the blog over the years (linklinklinklinklink). Here are a few useful maps ranging over the centuries of change described by Pirenne.)

AD 117
AD 300 (Emperor Diocletian)
AD 411 (Alaric sacks Rome)

AD 526
AD 815
AD 900