Rural population in the Early Middle Ages: again historians vs archaeologists!

On 24th February 2012 I attended a lecture by Frans Theuws (Faculteit der Archeologie – Universiteit Leiden) about The Free and Unfree of the Historians and the Rural Population of the Archaeologists. It was part of a day-long conference held at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, but all other lectures were in Dutch, so it’s possible that I missed some of the wider topics under discussion.

The following is a summary of the talk. Some parts are more elaborate, some others are patchy.

Theuws started recalling the common view by historians of peasants in the Early Middle Ages as either free or un-free, this being the major if not the only characterisation possible on the grounds of textual sources. The leader of this position is Chris Wickham, especially in his recent Framing the Early Middle Ages book. However, archaeologists have access to different types of evidence, and see different things. Theuws argues in first place that “rural population” is a better naming from the point of view of archaeology.

An example was made, from a charter of the early 8th century mentioned in the Liber Aureus, regarding a transfer of land properties by a rich woman named Bertilindis to Willibrord, abbot of Echternach and first bishop of Utrecht. The meeting where the charter was signed took place in Chalon-sur-Saone (Burgundy), but such places as Hapert in Brabant are mentioned. Among other things, there is an explicit reference to the rural population of those lands in the charter, being transferred together with the land:

mancipiis V et uxoribus et infantibus eorum

These people were not necessarily un-free, but only tied and dependent to the casata, according to Theuws. Should we call them house-tenants? Mancipia were certainly clearing land as part of their due obligations, but apparently there was nobody enforcing these obligations. Bertilindis herself refers to the lands in Hapert in a very generic fashion (“the lands I think I own”), and she probably never paid a visit to them.

Is freedom vs un-freedom a useful status indicator? We sure know a lot about tenants from such textual sources, but almost nothing about the rest of the population. And probably ‒ goes on Theuws ‒ the others were the majority, both because not all children could keep the same status as their parents, and because we know from archaeology that there was a large number of villages without any trace of what could have been the place where these mancipia dwelt.

Other common status indicators are e.g. weapons in male burials, but there has been a too easy association between weapons and freedom. How can we know that all armed men were actually free, asks Theuws.

Devroey’s Puissants et misérables (a review here) follows the same “dualist” social structure as Wickham’s book, starting from the title. even though in the book this concept is more nuanced.

There can be at least 3 differents points of view:

  1. status: objective and subjective right, Roman law, common law
  2. social condition
  3. economic condition

These 3 “variables” should be regarded as (roughly) independent, but they are not always recognised as being so.

In Dommelen, a female grave dating more or less to the same years of the Bertilindis charter (early 8th century). In Dommelen, graves are mostly female and children (only 1 man). Contemporary graves in nearby sites are almost devoid of grave goods. Here the village looks very poor and is made of very simple huts, but the burials in contrast are rich. A similar situation holds also in Geldrop, with male graves containing weapons. Without looking at the graves, these settlements would look very poor.

It should be stressed that these are normal rural settlements. There may be a social stratification internal to these groups of population, but they are as a whole the lower stratum of the population in the region.

Theuws proposed a three-fold social pyramid, refusing to call “peasants” the rural dwellers for whom archaeology provides evidence:

  1. aristocrats (textual sources)
  2. dependant peasants (textual sources)
  3. dwellers (archaeological evidence)

In later periods, there are large estates (manorial system) that comprise these settlements, but it may be that such settlements were independent before the establishing of such estates. A crucial point is that most textual evidence dates from the 9th century and not earlier.

Dwellers within an estate might be free or not, dependent or nor, but archaeology is not able to see these differences. Instead, it’s the economic condition that can be understood from archaeological evidence.

Wickham argues that the rural population was not sufficient to sustain an economy of scale (like the Roman one). Steuer (1997) describes a model of top-down and peer-to-peer exchange, and they can coexist in the same world system.

Grave goods are not local products: they include objects like rings, fibulae and belt fittings. What or who moved these objects? Were they traded or were people carrying them? Whatever the case, these rural populations had access to distribution networks ranging as far as the Alps, as is shown by the example of a specific type of belt buckle.

In a very short period, these belt sets spread all across north-western Europe. Why? Abundant production is not sufficient as an explanation, because people also have to accept, buy and use a certain model. This is especially true for jewellery and belts.

Pottery and other goods need to be part of this exchange model: rural population had a key role in economy as consumers, and this role was not limited to the elites. There was a complex European distribution network: no economy is exclusively international or regional.

Rural population did lots of activities that are artificially thought as separate like trade, fishing, agriculture, etc. We should move towards models of an eclectic economy of the Early Middle Ages, asks Theuws.

There is little archaeological evidence (especially when it comes to grave goods) for the 8th and 9th century.

Rural society was important for demand. Estates were probably created to exploit the existing and flourishing rural production, and not the other way. The creation of estates took away surplus and blocked the flow of goods to the lower levels of society.

I liked this lecture, because in many ways this debate is familiar with other things I’ve studied, so it was not entirely terra incognita. But my knowledge about this part of Europe is scarce if anything.

However, what I would have liked even more was a more detailed examination of the archaeological evidence.

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Stefano Costa

Archaeologist, I study the Late Antique and Early Medieval/Byzantine period on the northern side of the Mediterranean, focusing on pottery usage patterns. I'm also involved in open source and open knowledge communities, like OSGeo, the IOSA project and the Open Knowledge Foundation.

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