Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade, AD 600-1000 
by Richard Hodges.
Duckworth, 230 pp., £24, March 1982, 0 7156 1531 9
Show More
Londinium: London in the Roman Empire 
by John Morris.
Weidenfeld, 384 pp., £15, March 1982, 9780297780939
Show More
Show More

Even to speak of Dark Age economics must raise the eyebrows of a general reader who is accustomed (not unreasonably) to think that the age is called dark because we hardly know about its politics, let alone its economics. Yet the nature and extent of trade and industry in the early Medieval West has been a lively subject of debate for a century. Central to this debate has been the stubbornly immortal ‘Pirenne thesis’. Henri Pirenne, one of the great historians of the 20th century, first formulated his thesis in a German prison-camp during the First World War. Pirenne believed that the ancient world was brought to an end, not by the Germanic invasions of the West in the fifth century, but by the Arab invasions of the Mediterranean in the seventh. A Belgian, whose first major work was a history of his native country, Pirenne saw the maritime commerce of the Mediterranean as the key determinant of ancient civilisation. Because, in his view, it survived the Germanic invasions, the barbarian kings of sixth-century Europe were able to maintain the essential style of Roman life and government. When it collapsed, as a result of the Arab conquest of the sea’s eastern, southern and western shores, they could no longer do so. The economy of western Europe was reduced to ‘natural’ levels, its political and cultural centre of gravity shifted northwards into more emphatically ‘barbarian’ areas, and the result was the emergence of an unashamedly Germanic Roman Emperor in Charlemagne.

Pirenne’s thesis was about much more than trade. His concern was, simply, the end of the ancient world, and his thesis germinated in attempts to persuade his prison commandant of the essentially Roman, rather than Teutonic, roots of German culture. His emphasis on continuity in the West throughout the period of the Germanic invasions was by no means new, and has, to a considerable extent, been upheld by more recent research. But his focus on economics as the central factor in continuity and change during this period, and still more his emphasis on the Arabs as the main agents of economic change in the West (not for the last time!), were essentially new; and it is here that controversy has raged. Arabists have denied that the Arabs wished to disrupt Mediterranean trade (it was not their fault that there was no mosque at Marseilles); Byzantinists have denied that they could (the Byzantine fleet dominated the Mediterranean until the early ninth century, much too late for Pirenne). One stream of Western historical opinion has failed to detect any marked decline of Western imports from the East after the Arab conquests. A second asserts that trade was never significant enough, either in the Roman Empire or in the early Medieval West, for its vicissitudes to have had the portentous effects ascribed to them by Pirenne. A third, starting an argument not just with Pirenne but also with this second school, sees not recession to a ‘natural’ economy but new levels of economic growth in northern Europe during and after the eighth century: Pirenne, for example, had a typical inter-war obsession with the Gold Standard, and decried the virtual disappearance of gold from Charlemagne’s Europe, whereas this third school rightly points out that the lively silver coinage which replaced it was a great deal more use in everyday market transactions.

By the time all these academic beasts of prey have had their fill, it has to be admitted that there is not much left of the carcase of Pirenne’s thesis. Yet, as Richard Hodges says, it obstinately refuses to disappear. If one reason for this is that economists never agree, another, as he also says, is that the very sparseness of the evidence leaves almost infinite room for argument: we have, for example, no early Medieval customs accounts. A corollary is that archaeologists, who can still, unlike historians, expect to accumulate important new evidence all the time, may play a decisive role in the resolution of the debate. Already, it is archaeologists who have contributed most to the third, economic growth, school of thought, with their dramatic discoveries in the towns and ports of eighth and ninth-century Europe. Now Richard Hodges, himself a brilliant young English archaeologist and an acknowledged expert on the English and Continental pottery of the period, has written a book in which he seeks to establish the fact of early Medieval economic growth in northern Europe by means of archaeological evidence, and to explain its course and its political effects in terms of the models of economic anthropology. Hodges appears to believe that a ‘dendritic’ system of long-distance trade along routes which terminated in undefended coastal ‘emporia’, and which mainly fed the ‘prestige culture’ of Germanic society in the north, developed under external pressures and political inspiration into ‘interlocking central-place systems’, based on fortified urban markets which were less dependent on imports, and which more fully exploited their own rural hinterlands. Associated with these economic changes was the emergence of the ‘states’ in place of the ‘cyclical chiefdoms’, which were all that ‘dendritic’ exchange could support.

This is the ‘New Archaeology’ with a vengeance. Hodges writes in a style of catatonic obscurity. In the interests of the sanity of all concerned, one example must suffice: ‘The power of morphogenesis, so apparent in the past, is invoked largely because human culture is a homoeostatic device in which change will be minimised. Wherever possible, existing activity patterns will react to counteract innovation. The “multiplier effect”, where sub-systems enter into a mutual deviation amplifying relationship, is needed to overcome the innate conservative homoeostasis of culture.’ I take this to mean that human societies take a lot of changing except when mutually and positively influenced by (more civilised?) neighbours. If so, why could this not especially profound point not be so put? It would no doubt be unjust to suppose that such esoteric language is deliberately designed to mystify the ignorant multitude as to the arcane yet ultimately banal secrets of the New Archaeology, but it remains the case that it is useless when preaching the New Archaeology to any but the initiated. Hodges has a dozen ‘paradigms’, half a dozen ‘parameters’, and more ‘models’ than Cliveden in its early Sixties heyday. And when he is not obscure he is sometimes sloppy. On page two alone we have Germanic settlers whose ‘goal’ was a ‘rich web’, whose kings were ‘internally divided’, and who sought to conquer ‘socio-economic institutions’.

The problems of the New Archaeology are not merely stylistic. Its patent method is the ‘hypothetico-deductive’: that is (I think), one begins with a predicted model (mostly derived from anthropological observation) and then digs for the facts which fit it. Now even historians (or at any rate early Medieval historians) do sometimes have to be model-builders, and those who consider themselves objectively inductive in their reasoning are too often unaware of their debt to models constructed in the past. The trouble with the models of the New Archaeology is that, like those of some Marxist historians, they are apt to become Frankenstein’s monsters, trampling the facts that do not suit them, and pathetically deprived of the love they seek from the facts that do. Frequently, Hodges’s logic seems, to the outsider, to involve bewildering non-sequiturs: we are, for example, told that, if Hamwih (Southampton) had been fed by local farmers, ‘the emergence of Southampton ought to feature in the historical documentation,’ because they ‘would have been the very first to urge that their right to land-tenure was secure and documented’: yet charters for laymen are not common until the tenth century, and the archives of Winchester (the relevant repository in this instance) are very sparse before the later ninth.

Hodges is often apparently unaware of the obvious limitations of archaeological evidence. As regards both London and York, he observes that the archaeology contradicts the impression that one would get from literary sources and elsewhere of their importance as commercial settlements. But it is not impossible that the market at London (as at Hamwih) was outside the Roman city, while at York archaeologists have not even found Alcuin’s cathedral yet. His analysis of the key trade-routes in the pre-Viking period, which is central to his ‘dendritic’ model, depends inevitably on the objects which have so far been discovered in the places where they have so far been looked for. Yet some objects which were very important indeed in Dark Age trade, like slaves, will never show up in the archaeological record, and it scarcely needs saying that innumerable possible sites have never been investigated. Following Toynbee (seldom a good idea in such matters), Hodges writes off Dark Age Ireland as an ‘abortive civilisation’. But it has recently been shown from written evidence alone that its economy was much more developed than archaeology has hitherto suggested; and what happens to his postulated ‘dendritic’ model if an earth-mover suddenly exposes a major settlement in, say, Bristol, well off his beaten tracks? Precisely because archaeological evidence is infinite, it seems, at least to the outsider, a most precarious basis for model-building: the Marxist historian of the Dark Ages is much better off. Historians, this one included, are much more sympathetic to archaeology than Hodges believes, but he expects them to take an awful lot on trust. To paraphrase Flanders and Swann, ‘models of thinking are precious and rare, but thinking of models ... IS NOT!’

As if this were not enough, historians will find a quite gratuitous number of outright factual mistakes in this book. Anyone who thinks that the compensation for the murder of a king in the early Middle Ages was 120 shillings (600 silver pennies) has not got much of a grasp of the social realities of the period (it was actually the compensation for the invasion of his property).

All this is said more in sorrow than in anger. Hodges’s book could have been an important eye-opener. For one thing, historians have long conducted the debate over Dark Age trade in the second-hand terminology of early 20th-century anthropology, virtually unaware of how the discipline has moved on since the seminal work of Malinowski and Mauss. Even historians have now jettisoned the utterly discredited ‘natural economy’, but they are still too ready to talk of loot, gift-exchange and trade as economically exclusive categories, with the further implication that only the third of these is really economic activity. We do need much more sophisticated models of the many and various mechanisms of exchange, and of the complex relationships between them: but this is no way to learn. Again, Hodges knows a very great deal about pottery. Pottery is a key indicator of Medieval economic activity, because it is easily broken, and so often discarded soon after its (usually datable) manufacture, because it is almost indestructible, and so easily detected by the archaeologist’s trained eye, and because it is relatively cheap, and so less likely to have been looted or given rather than traded in the (to modern eyes) recognisable sense of that word. The circulation of pottery over short and long distances almost certainly does have a great deal to tell us about the fluctuating economics of early Medieval Europe, and it is fair to say that its importance has not always been acknowledged hitherto. But though Hodges does of course say a lot about pottery in various parts of his book, his chapter on ‘The Objects of Trade’ has one 18-line paragraph on the subject. He takes at least a certain knowledge of early Medieval ceramics for granted.

Finally, and not least, there is the serious possibility that Hodges may be broadly right in his central thesis. Historians are increasingly aware that parts of tenth-century Europe were much richer and more monetarised than was suspected even twenty years ago. By the end of what are conventionally seen as the Dark Ages, these parts were already experiencing what Sir Richard Southern has referred to as ‘that moment of self-generating expansion for which economists now look so anxiously in underdeveloped countries’. Equally, it is highly likely that in England, Germany, perhaps Denmark, and even Ireland (though Hodges would hardly admit as much), this process was intimately connected with the growth of precociously powerful hegemonies, which, if they were not secure enough in the long term (except in England) to merit the label ‘state’, were nevertheless a great deal more secure and permanent than previous hegemonies. There must be an extent to which the economic developments ‘caused’ the political. There may also be a sense in which the political developments ‘caused’ the economic, and this is certainly Hodges’s view. This particular chicken-and-egg argument is perhaps ultimately irresolvable. King Alfred surrounded his kingdom with a chain of fortified settlements whose interiors were systematically planned (as we now know) to accommodate not just refugees but also traders and craftsmen. Did this remarkable initative set off the English boom? Or was Alfred able to capitalise on pre-existent economic development for which there is at least some ninth-century evidence? The French monarchy in the tenth century was weak and its economy slow to develop, which supports the politico-economic equation from both ends. But then what of Italy, already the most economically-developed part of Europe, where royal power was almost entirely evanescent? Hodges claims to see a decisive role for the ‘great men’ of the age in the otherwise ineluctable processes of its history, but he does not commit himself, in the last resort, either to the royal chicken or to the economic egg. He was perhaps wise: there is certainly no ground for criticism here. On the contrary, the extreme interest and importance of the problem, which he is not the first to raise, means that the challenge must be taken up again soon. If it is, however, let it be done on a rather broader cultural front than this: finding room for the world of gift and treasure revealed by Beowulf (unmentioned here) and allowing for the possibility that the enlargement of Winchester Cathedral in the 970s was carried out in honour of St Swithun, as the texts suggest, and not merely ‘to maintain pace either with urban demography or urban wealth, or possibly both’.

An important element in the critique of the Pirenne thesis, as already observed, is the argument that trade was much less important in the Roman Empire, its cities much less commercially-orientated, than Pirenne necessarily supposed. It is to the history of one of the greatest of these cities, London no less, that John Morris addressed himself. Morris was a brilliant, if idiosyncratic scholar, best-known for an ambitious and highly controversial interpretation of the Age of Arthur. Londinium has been published posthumously, like Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne; unlike Pirenne’s work, it has been carefully revised and updated (by Sarah Macready). It is, remarkably, the first full-length historical treatment that Roman London has received.

Morris’s book itself shows why this should have been so. If Roman Britain as a whole is a proto-historic part of a very historical world, Roman London is almost prehistoric. It features in bureaucratic and numismatic evidence, but was mentioned by only two Roman historians, respectively at the very beginning and in the twilight of its existence. It was, it appears, a Roman creation, quite literally from scratch. Though its key strategic and commercial position seems so obvious in retrospect, its pre-Roman terrain was uninviting, and only Roman engineering skills could bridge the Thames so far down river. It was founded as the capital of one of the most heavily garrisoned provinces of the Roman Empire, and always retained that status. Direct and archaeological observation gives some awareness of its size and importance. Morris points out that it was one of the very largest cities of the Empire, bigger than Lyons, the ‘capital’ of the Gauls, and either one-tenth or one-sixth (Morris appears to offer both proportions) of the size of Rome itself. On this basis, and by comparison with 16th-century London, one might reckon its population at 100,000. Its basilica (‘City Hall’) was a little bigger than St Paul’s Cathedral, and twice the size of the basilica at Trier, which was ultimately the biggest Gallic city and the capital of many later Western emperors. Its ‘Government House’, the headquarters of the province, was slightly larger than the British Museum. Huge quantities of industrial debris found around the Upper Walbrook (east of Moorgate) suggest that London was the most important general manufacturing centre in Britain, if not north of the Alps. And yet, beyond what the archaeologists can prove or reasonably guess, plus a fairly small number of inscriptions, we know extraordinarily little about life in this metropolis. Archaeologists haven’t even found the race-track, the theatre and the amphitheatre yet, though we can be virtually certain that they existed.

Morris’s solution to this problem is altogether remarkable. He, too, is a model-builder. His book has, all things considered, amazingly little to say about Londinium itself. A great deal of it is about the history of the Roman Empire and of other Roman cities. From this evidence, he extrapolates, and explains what would have happened in London: how and why it would have been founded, what buildings and activities it would have contained, what business and beliefs its citizens would have had. Naturally, he ties this evidence up wherever possible with what we do know about London itself, and he even manages to unearth what is (so far as I know) a hitherto unnoticed reference to Roman Britain in the corpus of Roman jurisprudence. But it very seldom is possible. Morris’s justification of this method is best expressed in his own words, which, reveal the high, sometimes almost Gibbonian quality of his writing:

Next to nothing is known of the social and political history of Roman London ... But much is known of other Roman towns ... That which was common to all western Rome must form the basis of understanding. So it is in modern society. A man does not need to visit Birmingham or Manchester to know that in these cities there are railway stations, churches, football grounds, large stores and small shops, and all the other common furniture of modern society. A good map will tell him where they are; but if his map is torn and incomplete, he knows that they exist, though he does not know their precise location ... But the bare knowledge of such buildings is idle. The town is poorly understood from maps and pictures by a man who has no idea what a church or a football ground is for, who is altogether unacquainted with the function of a public house, a law court or an art gallery ... Roman London, unknown and unseen, mapped and illustrated but not described, can only be interpreted from what is known of Roman society in other Roman towns.

All this is possible because, mutatis mutandis, Roman towns, like Roman army camps or even Medieval Cistercian monasteries, were mass-produced to a standard form – at least in the West, where there were really none before. Morris’s logic does not always work. It is not easy to accept that ‘London plainly followed the practices of the West,’ as regards the turbulent conduct of its elections, or that the tragic incident in which a fourth-century governor tried to kill a vicious Imperial commissar, and then killed himself, ‘doubtless’ happened in London. It becomes especially dubious when Morris reaches the end of his story and enters his own happy hunting-ground of Dark Age Britain, because, as he has himself often and rightly emphasised, the history of Britain after the Romans was strikingly different from that of the rest of the West. (All the same, he makes a most striking and original point when arguing that the absence of Germanic cemeteries around London might mean, not so much the desertion of the city, as its retention in British hands well into the sixth century.) Nevertheless, the overall effect of Morris’s book is one of the most satisfying in the copious literature on Roman Britain. It may one day turn out that he is badly, even hopelessly wrong in his whole idea of Roman London. But it is not likely, and in the meantime he should have ensured that the camps, walls, legions and villas which dominate the historiography of the province will now be accompanied by more attention than hitherto to the greatest and most enduring of Roman legacies to the island.

It is very difficult for the post-industrial mind, especially in England with its obstinate adherence to horizontal rather than vertical urban growth, to conceptualise a concentration of 100,000 people within an area the size of the modern City, or even one of 10,000 within the walls of late Saxon Norwich. It is still more difficult to appreciate how very different Roman cities were, in style and social function, from our own. In the ancient world, the civilised man lived in a city (that is what the word means), but a leading townsman was also, almost by definition, a landed gentleman. Ancient cities had crafts and industries like any modern city, but they were primarily consumers, not creators, of wealth: as Morris says, economic principles in the ancient world, insofar as they existed, were directed towards the maximisation of imports rather than exports. One striking illustration of the economic ‘backwardness’ of the civilisation which western Europe for so long strove to emulate is that its banking system was extraordinarily rudimentary. Those who lived seventeen hundred years ago on the sites of Lombard and Threadneedle Streets might occasionally have issued letters of credit, but only to those they knew personally, and to be cashed only with those they knew personally. This does not mean that trade and urban life had no great importance in the later Roman Empire. The texts may suggest as much, but the archaeology argues otherwise. It does, however, mean that towns and trade meant something very different in the Roman Empire from what they conjure up today. On the other hand, it is likely that the towns and the trade which had developed by the end of the Dark Ages, not only in Italy, but in Flanders, England, Germany, Denmark and Ireland, were much more like what we could today recognise, at least in terms of their function, if not of their scale. This extraordinary, and deeply important, transformation of Western society, coupled as it undoubtedly was with a shift of the political, economic and cultural centre of gravity northwards from the heartlands of ancient civilisation around the Mediterranean, is the true index of the end of the ancient world and the emergence of the Medieval West. That, as has been said, was the essence of Pirenne’s problem. His solution was almost certainly wrong, but what he saw and sought to explain, unlike anyone before him, was fundamentally right. It is one more reason why historians have not seen the last of his thesis yet.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 4 No. 21 · 18 November 1982

SIR: Readers of Patrick Wormald’s review of Dark Age Economics by Richard Hodges (LRB, 21 October) may like to know that the book is available also in paperback at £7. 95.

Colin Haycraft
Duckworth, London NW1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences