Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

2. Continuity and Discontinuity of Roman Agricultural Knowledge in the Early Middle Ages

Karl Brunner

Almost exactly one hundred years ago, in 1897, a large hoard of iron tools was found in a safe retreat inside the rampart ditch of a Roman fort in Osterburken, situated on the Roman limes between Würzburg and Heilbronn. It was assumed that a Roman blacksmith had hidden it in the third century in connection with raids by Alamannic tribes. In a recent reinvestigation of these finds it has been found that the tools are at least a hundred years later than had been assumed, perhaps fifth century, and have to be looked upon as part of the inventory of an Alamannic estate.1 The implications of this discovery are not to be underestimated, as they will change part of our picture of the transition from Roman antiquity to the early Middle Ages.

Lynn White book The Transformation of the Roman World generated a change in our overall view of history. Its title signaled the final overthrow of the "catastrophe theories" as promoted, for example, in Edward Gibbon's classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.2 Since then, two important theses have been advanced. The first is that the initial stage of the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages is to be sought in various changes that took place within the Roman world. The second thesis is that the socalled "barbarians" made use of classical institutions in the course of their invasions and their subsequent ethnogenesis, the process in which a group of people becomes a tribe.3 The first thesis has been covered from many points of view, but has focused primarily on law, politics, and intellectual life. The differences between antiquity and the Middle Ages in everyday life seemed to be too pronounced and obvious to researchers to be called into question. But this is true only for certain aspects of civilization: those connected with the lifestyles of a relatively small leading group.

In any period, agrarian and social historians need to have a clear idea about the process of creative assimilation of technology if their subject is

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