Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

By Columbia College | Go to book overview

V
THE MEDIEVAL ECONOMY

Marshall Clagett

There is a great deal of discussion and disagreement as to the conditions of the economy of the early Middle Ages. According to an older view, the barbarian infiltration, invasion, and occupation of the western half of the Roman Empire produced a great catastrophe in the economy of the West. One economic historian of considerable stature thus epitomizes this view:

"Humanity has seldom known miseries so great as those of this period." He goes on to say that Roman institutions either passed away or were greatly modified by the Germanic invaders, that a considerable portion of the land changed hands, that workers were uprooted, that Germanic village and rural organization tended to displace the Roman villa communities. This "catastrophic" view is rarely held today. Research into the origins of medieval insttutions has tended to support the opposite view that there was, on the whole, a surprising continuity of economic institutions from the late Roman Empire to early medieval kingdoms. For example, the basic rural or manorial system so characteristic of the Middle Ages owes much to the Roman organization of rural estates, and is, in fact, its direct heir. Furthermore, forms of land tenures, the cities, and certain municipal organizations and institutions continued to exist under the Merovingian and other Germanic kings in the sixth and seventh centuries. It appears to be little more than a fable that the barbarians shunned the cities and sought rural areas, as the older view taught us, for the greatest of the Roman cities continued their existence during the occupation, even if their population did fall off. Marseilles, Nîmes, Bordeaux -- even Paris and Orléans -- appear to have been flourishing centers and to have had merchant populations during the sixth century. On the whole, there was a sense among the Germans of falling heir to, or rather becoming a part of, the

This is a revision of Professor Clagett's essay in the second edition of Chapters in Western Civilization.

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