The Birth of Western Economy: Economic Aspects of the Dark Ages

By Robert Latouche | Go to book overview

Conclusion

T HE SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS over which we have ranged have long been regarded as a period of regression interpolated between the economy of the ancient world and that of medieval Europe,1 which began with the great eleventh century. Sociologists and economists have often described them in harsh and unflattering terms as a period of depression and atrophy during which a man counted himself lucky if he managed to remain alive at all 2 and eked out a wretched existence on the meagre produce of his domain. This characteristic pattern of living came to be called the domanial régime. Henri Pirenne, however, upset this over-simplified conception by dating the onset of this period of regression from the mid seventh century, the time of the Saracen conquest. This readjustment put the Merovingian era, traditionally included within the domanial economy because this was regarded as beginning with the Great Invasions, back into the economy of the ancient world, which thus enjoyed a prolonged old age, since it was not difficult to detect in sixth -- and seventh-century documents lingering traces of the old civilization.3

Such theorizing, however fascinating it may be, is in fact more than a little academic. What useful purpose is served by splitting up the human past into such artificial, water-tight compartments? A convenient division into periods, useful for teaching purposes, has had a deplorable effect on the outlook of historians, and the economic history of the Early Middle Ages has been one of its victims. The aim of the preceding pages has been to show that what appeared simple was actually complex,

____________________
1
The phrase is that of M. Maillet, Histoire des faits économiques, Paris, 1953, p. 109.
2
Ibid., p. 95.
3
Pirenne attempted this most ingeniously in Mahomet et Charlemagne.

-301-

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