'Dark Age Economics' Revisited: The English Fish Bone Evidence AD 600-1600

By Barrett, James H.; Locker, Alison M. et al. | Antiquity, September 2004 | Go to article overview

'Dark Age Economics' Revisited: The English Fish Bone Evidence AD 600-1600


Barrett, James H., Locker, Alison M., Roberts, Callum M., Antiquity


Introduction

Twenty-two years ago--when Richard Hodges (1982) published his influential monograph Dark Age Economics--two observations regarding early medieval economy seemed clear. Firstly, the transition from exchange of high-value prestige goods to low-value staples (and thus, in his view, from gift-exchange to market trade, from proto-urban settlements to true towns and from substantivist to formalist economics) was central to an understanding of European socio-economic change. Secondly, although complex and uneven in detail, this transition could be dated to the tenth and eleventh centuries. Hodges was, of course, not alone in these observations. The growth of trade and urbanism had long played an important role in defining the Viking Age (e.g. Arbmann 1939; Jankuhn 1956; Blindheim 1975; Bencard 1981). Moreover, Dark Age Economics was one contribution to a movement within medieval archaeology that was heavily influenced by economic and neo-evolutionary anthropology (e.g. Grierson 1959; Callmer 1977; Randsborg 1980; Jankuhn 1982). It thus found an audience primed for either reception or resistance (Astill 1985; Sawyer 1989).

Since then, however, archaeology has confirmed the existence of early (particularly eighth century) antecedents to many of North-western Europe's first towns, and of other early markets without urban populations (Cowie & Whytehead 1988; Hill et al. 1990; Ulriksen 1994; Kemp 1996; Feveile & Jensen 2000; Gardiner et al. 2001; see contributions in Hansen & Wickham 2000; Hill & Cowie 2001; Prestell & Ulmschneider 2003). Concurrently, accessible surveys of the relevant historical evidence have emphasised the existence and scale of commercial transactions--including the exchange of basic staple goods--in Carolingian times (e.g. Verhulst 1995; 2002). Wider paradigm shifts within archaeology have also peripheralised the neo-evolutionary basis of Hodges' original argument (Gosden 1999:88-105; Gerrard 2003:172, 217-231). It is thus not surprising to find that interpretations have changed with the times. For example, the economic complexity once associated with the end of the Viking Age is now attributed to the reign of Charlemagne (Hodges 1988; 2000).

These changing perspectives have not, however, forged a consensus regarding when market trade of basic commodities really began on a meaningful scale. There now exist both 'early' (c. eighth century) and 'late' (tenth-eleventh century or later) schools of thought. Many histories of medieval economy continue to espouse the traditional end of the first millennium, or even the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as the period of fundamental economic change--including the growth of trade and urbanism (Andren 1989:593-594; Saunders 1995:42-50; Moore 2000:30-39; Dyer 2002:101; Spufford 2002:12; Griffiths 2003:97-104). Moreover, given the scattered source material, historical studies of market trade in earlier centuries are seldom able to quantify the relative scale of this activity vis-a-vis later developments. This problem is critical. Almost fifty years ago, Grierson (1959) unequivocally demonstrated that market and non-market trade coexisted in early medieval Europe. Answering the question 'when did fundamental economic change really happen?' thus becomes a matter of assessing the degree of market trade, or more realistically, of the relative importance of staple over prestige goods in exchange transactions (Barrett et al. 2000:15).

The present paper addresses this last critical issue. It asks when an unambiguously low-value, high-bulk, product--marine fish--was first harvested and traded on a large scale in medieval England. In doing so, it is possible to provide one measure of the character and chronology of the distinction between 'Dark Age' and high medieval economy. Previous work in Scotland (e.g. Barrett 1997) has demonstrated the potential of fish bone evidence to answer questions of this kind, and here we apply similar methods to the issue of economic change in medieval England and its European context. …

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