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

By Chris Wickham | Go to book overview

5
Managing the land

1. Metanarratives

THIS CHAPTER FOCUSES on the organization of agricultural production, as seen from the standpoint of landowners. (Some peasant reactions will be discussed in Chapters 7 and 9.) We will only look at agriculture here, not artisan production. The late Roman and post-Roman world was, of course, overwhelmingly an agrarian society; artisanal work was only a small proportion of the total productive activity of any of our regions, even in Egypt, where it was probably most extensive. Furthermore, we know even less about the social organization of artisan production than we know about agriculture—the little that can be said (again, mostly about Egypt) will be set out in Chapter 11. Agriculture is thus our essential concern for the moment.

The organization of agriculture has not been neglected by late Roman and early medieval historians. Far from it; it lies at the heart of almost all economic analyses of our period, and one of the major images of the way Antiquity changed into the middle ages was, traditionally, the account of how a society based on slavery was replaced by a society based on serfdom. This was an image already strong at the start of the nineteenth century, and was developed, among others, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; it still exercises a strong hold in the field as an underlying metanarrative. There certainly were slave plantations in, say, the Italy of the first century ad, just as there were unfree tenants (serfs), and also free tenants who were dominated by the legal coercion of their lords, in much of Europe in the twelfth century; that contrast can still, if one chooses, be elevated into an ideal-type opposition between 'ancient' and 'medieval' economies. But the path between them was by no means a straight one, and in the period 400–800, the actual period of the shift between ancient and medieval, the contrast is considerably less useful. Given the hold of the traditional narrative, we need to see why it is problematic before we move on.

First, slavery. Both ancient and medieval societies were full of people who had few or no legal rights, called servi and ancillae in Latin (with mancipia as an alternative neuter noun that covered both sexes, though see below, pp. 562–4, for complications)—every other language had its own terminology too, of course. They were substantially commoner in the West than in

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