The Long Eighth Century

By Inge Lyse Hansen; Chris Wickham | Go to book overview

CONCEPTS OF THE EARLY MEDIEVAL ECONOMY
John Moreland

economic wants are… culturally determined, and it is only some form of anthropology which holds out the hope of providing that sociological explanation of economic life which the economic interpretation of social life has come to require.1


Introduction

The title of working group 3—Production, Distribution and Demand—of the European Science Foundation's Transformation of the Roman World Project, highlights those “processes” which most archaeologists and historians would agree are central to the economy of societies, past and present.2 Study of the precise ways in which these processes functioned, and of the specific nature of the interactions between them, should in theory provide an understanding of specific economies. Comparison of such moments should, in theory, enable us to construct an overview of infrastructural transformation across time.3 However, several factors, apart from the problem of recovering the relevant data, have prevented historians and archaeologists from reaching a real understanding of how specific economies functioned in the past, and from appreciating the significance of their transformation.

____________________
1
K. Thomas, “History and anthropology”, Past and Present 24 (1963), pp. 3–27, at p. 7.
2
Several members of the group (myself included) believed that the theme title should have been “Production, Distribution and Consumption”, both to reflect past reality, and to avoid the “economistic” implications of the word “demand”.
3
This is leaving aside the question of whether the “economy” can ever be understood apart from the other structures of society. This matter has been much debated within archaeology-see for example, I. Hodder, Reading the Past. Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 18–33-but here I would like to summarise the feelings of many by continuing the quotation from Sir Keith Thomas with which this chapter opens-“One of the great anthropological lessons is that the study of economics cannot be isolated from the study of society. 'In a primitive society there is no relationship which is of a purely economic character'” (“History and Anthropology”, p. 7).

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