The Long Eighth Century

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

OVERVIEW:
PRODUCTION, DISTRIBUTION AND DEMAND, II
Chris Wickham

In the conclusion to our companion volume, I described the sixth century as “the last of the Roman centuries”.1 The eighth century takes us fully into the post-Roman world; attempts to prove the contrary have never succeeded. But this poses a new set of problems. In the sixth century, most of the lands of the former Roman empire maintained a certain homogeneity owing to the survival of at least some Roman institutions, whether political, religious or even economic. It was necessary to separate out some elements of divergent development in northern and southern Europe, but it was also possible to give an overview of the whole: the sixth century was a period of economic involution, of regionalisation, from Denmark to Syria, even if the speed of this development was very different from place to place. By the eighth century, however, the regionalisation of economies was so complete that in some cases little linked them at all. The eighth-century economy looks very different from the standpoint of each major area. In the North Sea economic zone, we find active exchange, new trade routes and ports of trade, the beginnings of the new economic world of the central middle ages and beyond. In the western Mediterranean, we find relative stagnation, as the final collapse around 700 of the late Roman international exchange system, focused on North Africa, makes clear how localised the next levels of exchange had by now become. In the eastern Mediterranean, by contrast, two coherent state systems, one weaker (Byzantium), one stronger (the Caliphate), maintained or underwrote relatively largescale exchange networks that had often changed relatively little— indeed in some provinces, notably Egypt, hardly at all—from the late Roman period.2 It is impossible to encompass such difference

____________________
1
C. Wickham, “Overview: production, distribution and demand”, in R. Hodges and W. Bowden eds., The sixth century (Leiden, 1998), pp. 279–92, at p. 279. I am grateful in this conclusion for the critical comments of the other authors of this book, and of the other members of ESF TRW Group 3.
2
See, for the first two zones, the basic surveys of D. Claude, largely based on literary and documentary sources, “Der Handel im westlichen Mittelmeer während des Frühmittelalters”and “Aspekte des Binnenhandels im Merovingerreich auf Grund der Schriftquellen”, in Untersuchungen zu Handel und Verkehr der vor-und frühgeschichtlichen Zeit in Mittel-und Nordeuropa (Göttingen, 1985), vols. 2, and 3 pp. 9–99. For the second two, the indispensible archaeological starting point is C. Panella, “Merci e scambi nel Mediterraneo tardoantico”, in A. Carandini et al. eds., Storia di Roma 3.2 (Turin, 1993), pp. 613–97, focussed on the period up to 700.

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