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Georges Duby: The Early Growth of the European Economy:
warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century
(Cornell University Press: 1974)


“At the end of the sixth century, Europe was a profoundly uncivilized place....Amid this widespread cultural depression, however, there were certainly variations. On her southern boundaries, Latin Christendom was brought face to face with areas that were appreciably more advanced than herself.... On the other hand, two kinds of cultural deficiency confronted each other within Europe herself.... Between these two faces, the one turned towards the north and east, the other towards the Mediterranean, sprawled an area along the shores of the English Channel, in the Paris basin, in Burgundy, Alamannia and Bavaria, where contacts between the youthful forces of barbarism and the remnants of Rome were made more actively than elsewhere.... It is important not to lose sight of this geographical diversity; it was fundamental and in a large measure governed the early stages of European economic growth.”
(Duby, pp.3-4)

Too often, we lazily assume that European “exceptionalism” must be a simple thing. Whether it’s supposed to be delivered by blood, or culture, understandings here tend to be far too foreshortened by historical specialization...and, by the failure of economic records as we descend further into the past. Of  all the works relevant to this issue, however, George Duby’s The Early Growth of the European Economy to my mind best explains it, even though the question is never explicitly raised throughout the book.


“During the period with which we are concerned, the forest seems to have held sway over the whole natural landscape.... Down to the end of the twelfth century, the proximity of a vast forest reserve was reflected in all aspects of civilization....[But, even] in the seventh century, the European forest seems to have been dotted with innumerable clearings. Some were recent and small, like those providing the first monks of St Bavon of Ghent with food. Others were more ample, as where fields and scrubland had intermingled for centuries on the loamy plateaux of Picardy...[Overall, though,] in this human void, space was plentiful. What constituted the real basis of wealth at that time was not ownership over land but power over men, however wretched their condition, and over their rudimentary equipment.”
(Duby, pp.5-13)

This picture of extreme fragmentation of power combined with proximity to highly civilized regions, without being overly vulnerable to conquest - the lucky result of peripheral location and a strongly fragmented topography - was noted by Jared Diamond as the reason for Europe’s modernism at the end of his Guns, Germs, and Steel. Drawing together all the relevant information 25 years earlier, however, Duby analyzed the perverse processes by which a hyper-competitive warrior aristocracy, driven to economic means by the forces they had no control over, nurtured the markets which would first destroy their raison d’etre, and then their power and society...thus setting the stage for the unanticipated rise of the modern world.

But all that was a long way off. Metal of all sorts was incredibly scarce, and almost never used for peaceful pursuits, the climate had only just begun to improve after a long, cold spell lasting centuries, livestock was too rare for adequate fertilization of the fields, leading to beggarly yields and long unproductive fallowing periods, and most peasants needed to make substantial use of wild foods if they were not to starve. Welcome to the Dark Ages...


“Among the contrast still distinguishing regions impregrated with Latin culture from those where the barbarian elements predominated in the eighth century, one of the sharpest was in attitudes to war. The Germanic invasions had made reverence for the warriors’s virtues penetrate the aristocratic mentality even in the most Romanized districts. But long after the peasants of Aquitaine, Auvergne or Provence has been disarmed, those of Thuringia or Northumbria continued to regard the seasonal pillaging expedition as a normal means of obtaining supplies.... In the most barbarous communities of the West, weaponry seems to have been the earliest and most profitable of investments. It was certainly with an eye to greater effectiveness in battle that technical innovations in iron-working, horse-breeding and ship-building were first promoted, innovations that later on were to serve to increase the peaceable production of wealth....[As well,] military enterprises brought about the destruction of tribal structures and the strengthening of the aristocracy’s economic position as the victors stepped in and perfected the system of seigneurial exploitation. The establishment of internal peace [then] promoted capital accumulation, the formation of contacts between different regions led to the opening up of vast areas of exchange, Thus war hastened the march of progress. Two principal stages in this slow process stand out, corresponding to the two most important political and military adventures of the period: the Carolingian and the Viking.”
(Duby, pp.75-6)

Here is the pattern in all its perversity. Dispersed power made for constant war - which, particularly when in contact with more civilized areas, drove technological change. However, win or lose, the tribal units were doomed, as their productivity could not compete with a fully agrarian order run for the benefit of warrior aristocrats, who colonized those areas which did not convert to this model. But, similarly, the “natural” pattern for this society (serfdom) could not itself compete with a superficially “similar” one in which labour services were transformed into money rents, and market principles started to dominate social arrangements. This pattern had been seen before in history, but typically broke off as the aristocracy became fully domesticated by some imperial power. But here the forces of consolidation were broken by external attack, the military reoriented externally by ideology, and merchants themselves became martial, so that the emerging autocracies following feudalism’s prime then struck bargains with the market for their crucial military forces, uniting technological innovation and force in a self-perpetuating cycle highly unusual at such a civilized level. But we get ahead of ourselves, for the pattern at the start of our period was a very different one:


“Society as a whole was shot through with an infinitely varied network for circulating the wealth and services occasioned by what I have called ‘necessary generosity’: gifts of dependants to their protectors, of kinfolk to brides, of friends to party-givers, of magnates to kings, of kings to aristocrats, of all the rich to all the poor, and lastly of all mankind to athe dead and to God. True, we are here dealing with exchanges, and there are plenty of them. But it is not a question of Trade. ”
(Duby, p.56)

“In actual fact, the expansion of trade in medieval Europe...was only the gradual and always incomplete dovetailing of an economy of pillage, gift and largess into a framework of monetary circulation. And that framework was already in existence; it was the legacy of Rome.”
(Duby, p.57)

But it was badly run down, and there was so little money in circulation north of the Alps that when rulers started minting again, they minted - essentially - first for largess, creating gold coins with their faces on, to broadcast their splendour in princely gifts. As Duby stresses, this was not a market economy.


“By leading their comrades and vassals on annual pillaging expeditions, Charles Martel, Pepin and Charlemagne had amassed wealth from all quarters. They had also given away a good deal of it. This necessary generosity through distributions of movable goods had added added appreciably to the resources the aristocracy were able to dedicate to self-indulgence. Such an increment in spending-power, in a culture growing accustomed to the use of money, had the effect of stimulating the real trade in expensive items. Second, immersed in this affluence, magnates made little personal effort to exploit their landed wealth.... When surveys lay bare their structure after the year 800, the great estates look like fossilized organisms whose unwieldiness tended to stand in the way of demographic expansion. Thirdly, in the course of the ninth century, two developments forced these organisms to become less rigid and to adapt themselves. These were the gradual influence of money circulation, and the sudden end to [internal] wars of conquest. To preserve their way of life, the diminishing returns from booty and tribute led magnates magnates to stir up enthusiasm on the part of their farm managers: manors had to be made to yield more.”
(Duby, pp.110-11)

The initial means to this were to be serfdom, and technical innovation in agriculture. But the role of force in the equation was to be considerably complicated by external attack - which commenced about the same time as (relative) peace within Christendom was achieved through the intermediary of the Church. The confluence of all of these factors, with all their micro-regional variants in competition with each other, is bewilderingly complex...yet essential to the future that was to come:


“Feudalism was characterized in the first instance by the decay of royal authority, and...the inability of Carolingian kings to contain attacks by outsiders hastened the dispersion of their power in the ninth century. Defense of the land - the original function of kingship - passed rapidly and irreversibly into the hands of local princes.... Afterwards, most of the great principalities themselves disintegrated little by little...[until] towards the year 1000, commanders of individual strongholds won their independence from the princes.... [This] constituted an adjustment to the concrete possibilities of exercising effective authority in a rural and barbaric world where it was difficult to communicate over any distance.... But it is important to stress that this change was accomplished just when the memory of seasonal wars of pillage, formerly conducted by the whole body of free men against external tribal enemies, was fading from the peasant mentality. It also coincided with the adoption of a new type of warfare, and with the creation of a new concept of peace.... It would no longer be permissible to fight - any more than to handle money or to indulge in sexual intercourse - except within precise limits.... Europe’s fragmentation into countless political units might have created conditions for military confrontations to increase, for new strength to be lent to tribal warfare, and for economic organization based largely on incessant plundering to be restored in the European heartland.... [Instead,] the crusading spirit, emanating directly from the new peace ideology, guided them towards external war-fronts, towards the prosperous border-lands, where fighting acted as a powerful stimulant to the circulation of wealth.”
(Duby, pp.162-4)

The results were complex and seemingly contradictory. For example, serfdom sunk those peasants previously free into a network of legal liabilities and labour obligations that verged upon slavery, yet the reliance upon (profoundly inefficient) forced labour was in conflict with the emerging money economy - wherein the most desirable objects were located - leading rapidly to the replacement of serfdom proper with the payment of quitrents...and hence the peasantry to market rather than autarky and feudal subjugation in the narrow sense...although this was to be a highly variable process that stalled in the east.

As to the Vikings, by re-mobilizing gold and silver locked in ecclesiastical treasuries, they actually speeded the growth of the money economy - and, hence, the peasants’ ability to mitigate the conditions of serfdom - all the sooner. Moreover, as Duby notes, there was a direct comparison which could be drawn between these heathens and the founders of the European order - and one which became even more obvious once Norsemen had become Normans:


“Most of the invaders in fact were motivated by the same ambitions as the conquering war-bands that had sprung from the Frankish nobility during the seventh and eighth centuries: they were seeking adventures by which to earn their reputation, treasure from which to replenish their hospitality, slaves with whom to furnish their homes, and lands upon which to quarter their weapons.”
(Duby, p.114)

Still, whilst I can sketch the overall process well enough here, much of the richness of Duby’s account lies in the details peculiar to individual regions and towns. This is where the crucial import of European variety genuinely comes to the fore, as we can see how  adaptations spread from a whole plethora of localities so as to gradually forge a “world beating” system that no united Europe could have delivered.


“The commercial development of Pisa and Genoa was...violently bound up with...the idea of a holy war, then slowly coming to maturity on the ‘frontiers’ of the Iberian peninsula.... Venetians and Amalfians had based on peaceful trading agreements their activities in entrepots on Moslem territory, their warehouses protected like those of the Jews. But sailors from the northern part of the Tyrrhenian Sea built their ships primarily for privateering.... When the First Crusade was launched, seafaring warriors from the two towns had just sacked Mahdia; they were already in control of the ports of the lower Rhone and the Narbonnaise; now they were ready to pursue their depredations as far as the prosperous shores of the eastern Mediterranean. It would not be long before they were transmitting through the medium of peaceable commercial practices the greed for gain, the taste for rapine, the assumption that the principal forms of wealth were moveable and could be reckoned up in cash. These mental traits were quite foreign to the rustic civilization of western Europe, but would henceforth characterize the outlook of merchants. Such mental attitudes had nevertheless been formed in an environment imbued with the adventurous spirit of warfare exhibited by the Vikings and their successors, whose aggressiveness their raids had roused.”
(Duby, pp.147-8)

But perhaps the clearest examples of perverse long-term outcomes can be found in the troubled intersections between religion and money, albeit the culminating irony is definitely that of chivalry: literally enthroned as it doomed its champions to bankruptcy. This is the real story of the Middle Ages...


“At a time when no one else in the rest of Latin Christendom was yet denying the Church the right to display her worldly power, and accumulate precious metals in her sanctuaries to magnify the glory of God, Italian townsmen were first in wishing to despoil her. Becuase to them, money had become an instrument, and wealth was no longer simply a reward for heroic deeds but had lost its moral virtue, these townsmen could instead see perfection in destitution.”
(Duby, p.150)

“In order to start off on their travels, pilgrims had to raise cash, use it and distribute it. People of any rank might take advantage of free board and lodging at religious houses, but they could not so benefit at every stopping-place. And whilst on pilgrimage they did not as a rule secure their food supplies by pillaging, so long as they remained on Christian soil. They would thus leave behind them a trail of denarii, to be picked up by producers and middlemen, which acted as a stimulus from every cross-roads right into the countryside. In addition, these journeys often took them to the turbulent borderlands of Christendom, where there would be many opportunities for profitable looting.”
(Duby, p.160)

“Chivalry...exemplified as the sole outlook worthy of the perfect man characteristic forms of behaviour with regard to wealth: not to produce but to destroy; to live in a lordly fashion from the ownership of land and authority over people, the only sources of income not held ignoble; and to spend on entertainment without thought for the cost. When in the second half of the twelfth century the financial difficulties of the upper ranks of the lay aristocracy worsened, when the debts of great lords to townsmen accumulated, when the art of governing with money inclined princes to chose their best servant no longer from the nobility, but from mercenary warriors and numerate merchants, this model or cult of cavalierish indolence and extravagance became even more entrenched.... It formed the sinews of class consciousness.”
(Duby, p.257)

Georges Duby’s The Early Growth of the European Economy is hardly a typical economic history. For a start, it contains hardly any numbers, due to the paucity of sources for this period. Instead, it explores how a fragmented and backward region, dominated by the patterns of force and display (characteristic of Peter J. Wilson’s “domesticated” societies) gradually became “marketized” through a highly complex process of differentiation and competition, driven by the very display characteristics that were in the process of being marginalized.

By starting at  the lowest point in European history - following upon the demographic shocks of war, famine and plague - Duby shows the deep roots of European “exceptionalism” in fact lay precisely in its fragmentation of power and position on the very edge of the Eurasian continent, adjacent to much more civilized regions. To students of ancient Greece, this pattern will prove startlingly familiar, albeit radically different in the details. And it is for the details that we should read this history. Following in the great Annales tradition of Marc Bloch (and Fernand Braudel), Duby has synthesized data from geography, demography, climatology, agricultural, military, political, and economic history to trace the emergence of the economy that would one day birth ours. It is a fascinating tale...

“In the seventh century...a movement of growth had commenced. Progress in agricultural production had sustained it and met the requirements of a military aristocracy who owned the land, terrorized those who laboured on it, and had as their prime concern to make their munificence ever more ostentatious. Before the first millennium output from farming had remained very low; growth had been mainly that of a war economy, with slavery and pillage forming its twin foundations. In the feudal peace that had then been established, the determining conquests had gradually become those of the peasantry, goaded by siegneurial constraints to keep producing more, increasingly numerous and therefore increasingly free to manage their labour in their own way and to sell its fruits.... Until now, agriculture had been the driving force behind all development; henceforth it became an auxiliary. During the late twelfth century we can discern the first symptoms of landhunger, which before long was to bring about a lasting deterioration in peasant circumstances.... After 1180, the profit motive steadily undermined the spirit of largess. Nostalgia for this virtue still lingered, yet it adorned none but mythical heroes, at once symbols and guardians of values that medieval people had long extolled as living and supreme.”
(Duby, pp.269-70)


John Henry Calvinist