EARLIER scholars, in consequence of their conception of the so-called folk- migration and of the German conquest of the West Roman Empire, found themselves in a position of constraint when they came to describe German material civilization. For if the ancient and lofty civilization of the Romans had succumbed to the destructive inundations of the migration, and if all that Rome stood for had been swept away by the German barbarians during the conquest, the immediate consequence would be an interruption of civilization--a devastation in Voltaire's sense--which necessitated the assumption that afterwards everything would have to be built up again from the beginning. These utterly uncivilized German conquerors would have gradually and painfully to rediscover and work out all that had once existed on the far side of that great burial ground of civilization. This would be true both in the economic and in the social sphere. If the Germans were depicted during the land occupation of the sixth century as free and equal peasants, so far without any political organization and if, therefore, they settled in communities of families, it would seem a plausible theory that their whole agrarian economy rested on associations which had a common right to the settled land, "the Mark," without any private ownership of arable. Within the framework of this picture there was as little room in early German society for the great estate as for a stronger social organization.
Those who promulgated this earlier theory do not seem to have asked themselves seriously how, given these hypotheses, the complete economic isolation, which had logically to be ascribed to this primitive development, could possibly have been overcome in such a short time, and that by barbarians who had so recently shown themselves completely hostile to culture. The expedient by which they sought to support their theory does not give any satisfactory answer to this question. The distinction usually made between the Roman provincial regions (such as Gaul, Spain, and Italy) and the purely German districts, is essentially at variance with the theory itself, which holds that in these Roman provinces the Roman towns and settlements were burnt and destroyed and the population massacred or led away into slavery, while a scanty remnant was reduced to serfdom, and its lands expropriated. It is difficult to believe that uncultured conquerors so quickly lost their savagery under the influence of a few serfs, and that after a single century (only the seventh is left for the purpose) they are in a position to build up what had been so thoroughly overthrown and trampled under foot for at least three (the fourth to the sixth). Indeed, from the sociological point of view, it is impossible to find any plausible reason why these German landowners, living only for war and the chase and never labouring in the fields themselves, should have condescended so quickly to do the despised servile work of their Roman subjects. It was certainly easier to live upon rent than to wrest a scanty livelihood from the soil by their own labour.