Patrick Wormald

  • Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade, AD 600-1000 by Richard Hodges
    Duckworth, 230 pp, £24.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1531 9
  • Londinium: London in the Roman Empire by John Morris
    Weidenfeld, 384 pp, £15.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 297 78093 X

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.

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