The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 3. From the ancient to the medieval

Continuing my ‘history of the world’ series (a fully referenced version of which is available here), I finished last time by saying we should take a peek at what came after the ‘Axial Age’ states…

…Well, that would be the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ – ‘dark’ if only because of a relative paucity of historical evidence to illuminate them in comparison with what went before. The successor states to the great Axial Age empires were smaller geopolitical units, but the idea that this constituted some kind of civilizational collapse has been subject to considerable debate and revision in recent years, for example in post-Maurya India and in post-Roman Europe. Let me say a little about the latter in particular, as a kind of case study for our times of what a putative ‘collapse’ and a return to more local polities and more agrarian production might look like. Of course, it’s a dodgy business making inferences about the possible future fall of modern London or Washington on the basis of the fall of ancient Rome. But it’s ground we’ve been traversing a little of late in discussions on this site, and when people are confronted with the idea of a ‘return’ to small-scale farming they commonly reach for medieval notions either in order to critique the idea or to express foreboding: a small farm future would be like a small farm past, a return to ‘feudalism’ or to ‘serfdom’.

So let’s start with some terminology. ‘Feudalism’ strictly speaking refers to a situation of so-called ‘parcellized sovereignty’ in which a ruler – typically a politically weak king of a tributary rather than a tax-raising state – grants land (a fief) to a subject, over which the subject has complete jurisdiction, as part of a reciprocal if often unequal bond of loyalty. It was never a common way of organising things in the medieval world, being restricted largely to parts of western Europe and also perhaps to Japan – in both cases where weak successor polities tried to extend their rule within the ruins of a larger empire. ‘Serfdom’ is a type of labour coercion in which a rural cultivator is juridically tied to a particular estate – a widespread but far from ubiquitous arrangement in (mostly European) medieval history. I guess what people really mean by a ‘return to feudalism’ is the possible end of a brief capitalist-industrial modern interlude in global history when landownership and/or direct control of people wasn’t an especially important route to economic or political power (though even in modern societies economic power usually finds its way back to landownership). That may turn out to be the case, but control of land and control of people played out in innumerable ways across medieval history. If there’s to be a ‘new medievalism’ in the future, how that’ll feel will depend an awful lot on what kind of medievalism it is. There have been extensive debates among historians about whether powerful pre-modern states outside Europe – in China, India and the Islamic world, for example – were ‘feudal’, and if not what exactly they were. Some writers talk about ‘the tributary mode of production’ to encompass all pre-modern states built upon agrarian labour, though perhaps this conflates the ideas of tax states and tributary (land rent) states I introduced earlier. So others prefer the idea of a ‘feudal mode of production’ – but this risks in turn making all the rest of the world seem like mere variants of the peculiar fief-based post-Roman successor states of medieval Europe.

Well, I’ll leave that difficulty hanging for a moment and try to make some progress by saying a little more about those European successor states, building on the discussion we had on this site recently about the precariously non-resilient and interdependent nature of civilisations past, present and future. That discussion encompassed an essay by eco-prophet John Michael Greer invoking the loss of wheel-thrown pots in post-Roman Britain as exemplary of the precipitous collapses that can occur when the interdependencies of civilisations unravel. I’ll invoke that example as a motif in the paragraphs below.

The best known grand narrative for the demise of the Roman Empire is that it was weakened from within by the kind of fiscal crises I described earlier and then assassinated from without through invasions by ‘barbarian’ Germanic tribes. More recent revisionist history emphasises the continuity of the Empire into the early middle ages. Partly, it depends on where we’re talking about because the decline of Rome wasn’t monolithic. In Britain – a frontier region, only ever weakly Romanised – the collapse was sudden and dramatic, leaving the country in the hands of warring petty kings and indeed without its wheel-crafted pots (the artisanal products available to the average household declined with the departure of the Romans – I stand corrected on this point relative to my comments some time ago). In Gaul, the Romano-German Franks exercised a strong, imperial, tax-state hegemony, which nonetheless gradually declined in its geopolitical reach as the first millennium wore on, despite rallying points such as the Carolingian period when Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor in 800AD. In Italy, Spain and North Africa, Romano-German rule under groups such as the Lombards, Visigoths and Vandals was weaker and more regionalised – but despite the fracturing effect of events such as the Vandal withdrawal of grain exports to Rome (a situation that was soon reversed), a circum-Mediterranean trading world long persisted into the middle ages as a kind of shadow empire of Rome.

In the east, the Byzantine Empire succeeded the Eastern Roman Empire relatively smoothly, maintaining a strongly centralised imperial tax-state rule despite various ups and downs long into medieval times – probably, as I argued above, because of the peasant-citizen structure emphasised by the likes of Anderson and Wood. In summary, Britain’s post-Roman meltdown is certainly a thought-provoking example for anyone concerned about a contemporary collapse, but a rounded consideration ought to include such places as Gaul, Byzantium and Spain as well. On the other hand, the demise of Rome was largely a political and fiscal crisis – not a crisis of agrarian production, energy economics or climatic change. So there are grounds for thinking that the clouds on the horizon of contemporary civilisation may greatly overtop those that gathered over late imperial Rome. Greer’s general point that people are often almost wilfully oblivious to the contradictions threatening their civilisations seems wise, and has also been made by historians of civilizational collapse like Joseph Tainter – though in general Tainter emphasises collapse in ancient civilisations as an active strategy pursued by people who no longer found large-scale centralised political organisation expedient, in circumstances where it was possible for them to go elsewhere or do something different. “Collapse occurs,” he writes, “and can only occur in a power vacuum. Collapse is possible only where there is no competitor strong enough to fill the political vacuum of disintegration”. In contemplating the future of the 21st century global economy, some may find that a reassuring thought. Others may not.

Certainly there were some ‘vacuums’ around the margins of Europe’s post-Roman successor states in the early middle ages, and they were often filled with what Chris Wickham calls ‘the peasant mode of production’. By this, he means not the stereotypical medieval peasant doing service for a lord but, on the contrary, petty cultivators working on their own account beyond the reach of more-or-less centralised successor states or local lords. Wickham suggests that the early middle ages was a time when such peasants were relatively ascendant, and others have argued along similar lines that after the heavy fiscal burdens placed upon cultivators by Axial Age states such as Rome, the early middle ages was a good time to be a peasant. This idea that the rural working class does better in the absence of lords has recurred often enough through agrarian history in England and elsewhere – as for example in William Cobbett, writing in the early 19th century, of an inverse relation between “rich land and poor labourers” since “Where the mighty grasper has all under his eye, [the labouring people] can get but little”.

Wickham is more cautious – we know almost nothing about what the peasants in his ‘peasant mode of production’ actually thought about their lives. The decline of centralised (Roman) power was generally slow, to the extent that it probably didn’t present itself as an obvious gain (or loss) across individual lives. The discussion on this blog recently about what the lack of specialist wheel-made pots meant to the average English cultivator after the departure of the Romans is a case in point. Was it really a ‘loss’, or did living in a free peasant village come as a liberation, local hand-made pots and all? I think Wickham is right that it’s impossible to say. Still, the point remains that as well as the stereotypically captive serf or villein toiling on the master’s estate in the medieval period there were numerous categories of free peasant – sometimes beyond the reach of seigneurial control in towns, mountains, forests or remote edgelands and sometimes acknowledged as free petty landowners. In this sense, the ‘peasant’ category lacks internal coherence, stretching from people who were virtually slaves to people who were virtually kings, even if their kingdom wasn’t much bigger than a village (to complicate matters, perhaps I should note that in some medieval Islamic polities certain slaves virtually were kings, and also that there was a widespread notion across the medieval world that the ‘social death’ involved in both kingship and slavery brought commonalities to the two roles). And, throughout the middle ages and on into the modern world, peasants contested the terms of their relationships with their social superiors using every means available from crafty wheeler-dealing to pitched battles between standing armies.

I’d like to amplify some of the preceding points by turning my gaze all too briefly away from Europe and towards India – a culture-area that, more than most, has explicitly elaborated the status distinctions of agrarian life as an ideological basis for society at large, in the form of caste thinking. Much has been made of the varna distinctions that first emerged in ancient times, as famously enumerated in this origin myth from the Rig Veda:

When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman [priest]; his arms were made into the rajanya [king/warrior]; his thighs the vaishyas [farmers], and from his feet the shudras [servants] were born

This warrior-priest-farmer division found an echo in medieval European notions of ‘the three orders’. Less translatable into European terms was the priestly concern over ritual purity, though it’s often argued that this gained a major boost when British colonialism in India sawed off aristocratic rule and created the appearance of a timeless, textually-based Brahmanic ritual dominance over local affairs in which the caste divisions of the self-sufficient village are projected back into immemorial time. But often enough the village is neither self-sufficient nor timeless, representing something akin to Wickham’s ‘peasant mode of production’ in a similar situation of weak state power, in which a ‘dominant caste’ of peasant landowners monopolises local political power, despite lowly ritual status in Brahmanic/varna terms. In a classic article, the anthropologist M.N. Srinivas emphasises the lowly caste status of the ‘dominant caste’ along with their political notability locally. He also notes the commonalities bringing villagers together across caste lines as well as the substantial inequalities dividing them. Without wanting to make over-facile comparisons with Europe, a similar dynamic doubtless occurred within Wickham’s ‘peasant mode of production’ and certainly within the wider ‘tributary mode of production’ within which peasants were to a greater or lesser extent enmeshed. Equality-minded modern people like me tend to think in terms of bald categories like ‘lord and peasant’ or ‘high and low caste’ and see the relationship as entirely antagonistic. There certainly was antagonism, but there was also cooperation, shifting alliances, complex gradations of status across the larger distinctions and different ways of construing the nature of social identity. I plan to develop this point further in another post. I think it’s important.

In early medieval Europe, Georges Duby emphasises the way that the economy was rather statically oriented to household provisioning rather than to the obsession with economic growth of more recent times – which perhaps isn’t surprising since it essentially was a household economy, built around the great manors:

“Wherever economic planning existed, it was seen in the context of needs to be satisfied….It was not a question of maximizing output from the land, but rather of maintaining it as such a level that it could respond to any request at a moment’s notice”

However, the ‘needs’ of the manor could be prodigious in the context of a competitively status-oriented aristocratic society and often enough a powerful pressure on magnates to attract and keep retainers. This moved the economy – not, I would say, necessarily ‘forwards’ but at least ‘onwards’ inasmuch as peasant cultivators, working both within and against the grain of seigneurial power, extended the margins of cultivation and the throughput of local markets.

In ideological terms, these developments eventually resulted in an impressive intellectual and political culture of the high middle ages involving notions of corporate identity and religious transcendence – one that was rigidly inegalitarian, albeit admitting to various critiques of the established hierarchy. Much the same was true in India, although kingship was much less ideologically stabilised there, which provides one key for understanding caste and other aspects of Indian history. There are some contemporary writers who see possibilities in medieval religious ideas of transcendence for a modern religious practice able to tame the furies of our capitalist materialism – certainly a thought-provoking, if troublesome, idea.

18 thoughts on “The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 3. From the ancient to the medieval

  1. So there are grounds for thinking that the clouds on the horizon of contemporary civilisation may greatly overtop those that gathered over late imperial Rome.

    I think the size of the “clouds on the horizon” will depend on the extent to which a civilization has overshot the carrying capacity of its environment. Our contemporary civilization has been in an exponentially increasing ‘drawdown’ mode since the industrial revolution, whereas Rome and other similar empires were built using the far less extreme ‘takeover’ method of expanding carrying capacity (I’m using William Catton’s terminology here).

    Catton also makes a good case that North American and European civilizations started overshooting their long term carrying capacity in the 19th century, which means that our civilization is destined for a population reduction of 85-95%, depending on how much damage has been done to carrying capacity by industrial agriculture and the other environmental depredations of modernity. I know that you disagree with this amount of overshoot and think that in the future more people can be kept alive through agrarian peasantry, but the gathering cloud tops are still unprecedentedly towering.

    I don’t know if any particular kind of social structure can survive the storm to come, but after it dissipates I suspect that every type of agrarian society will be developed somewhere. I certainly would prefer to be a free peasant, but if I, or my descendants, are lucky enough to still be alive, I am sure we would adapt to any of them. To anti-paraphrase Patrick Henry, “Give me anything, but give me life!”

    • Thanks for that Joe. I don’t necessarily disagree with your presentiments – I’m fairly agnostic about the character of the changes in store for humanity. You’re probably right that there will be many different kinds of agrarian society in the future – though they’ll all have their internal tensions, which will doubtless provide fuel for future Patrick Henrys to argue for liberty (however they understand the term) over the status quo at all costs. The only thing I’d want to add is that to my mind ‘carrying capacity’ implies a quantitative exactitude that doesn’t really exist in view of changing social and technological factors. That said, the problem with much contemporary human boosterism is that it proceeds from the premise that carrying capacity is indefinable to the sadly mistaken conclusion that it doesn’t exist.

      • You’re right, carrying capacity is hard to pin down, since it fluctuates constantly as individuals of any species interact with each other and multiple species interact and compete for the resources of their habitat, all resulting in changes to the habitat, the process of succession and relatively long term changes in carrying capacity for many of those species.

        Eco-modernists and techno-cornucopians admit the existence of carrying capacity and the ecological forces that affect all other species, but deny that any of it applies to humans. But as Catton put it 35 years ago, “The principles of ecology apply to all living things. By supposing that our humanity exempts us, we delude ourselves”.

        In the last few hundred years, we have become one of the earth’s species of detritovores; we live off the detritus of the carboniferous period. Our population and ecological footprint have each increased by at least an order of magnitude since we started using that detritus in earnest. The typical detritovore population dynamic is bloom and crash. We’ve seen the bloom part, we’re now waiting for the sequel. You’re right that we can’t quantify it exactly, but it’s going to be YUGE.

  2. “In early medieval Europe, Georges Duby emphasises the way that the economy was rather statically oriented to household provisioning rather than to the obsession with economic growth of more recent times”

    It’s difficult for me to imagine any future where this dynamic does not once again become central to the existence of many, perhaps most, humans. Maybe that’s just a lack of imagination on my part, but I do think that we’re already seeing basic needs go increasingly unmet in the cultures addicted to growth, and there is an ‘invisible hand’ of sorts at work beginning to create systems and structures outside the mainstream capable of at least attempting to meet those needs. Permaculture, for example. Fleming’s notions about Lean Logic, for another, along with Transition, Green Wizardry, etc.

    And of course, the vision of a peasant agrarian society that you’ve been building Chris, brick by conceptual brick.

    All of these overlapping in some ways, and divergent in others. Dissensus, to use Greer’s borrowed term.

    So many choices when it comes to the question of how to invest oneself in potentially useful and meaningful ways, with an eye on the looming storm clouds. And I expect this will accelerate going forward. Never a time of greater challenge – never a time of greater opportunity.

    Thanks for your efforts in this regard Chris, including with this latest series – like an old timey cliffhanger, I can’t wait for the next installment!

  3. Thanks, Oz. Agreed on the future importance of household provisioning, though it’s an uncomfortable fact of medieval history that so often it was the households of the gentry that prompted innovative solutions to agrarian problems – essentially because they had the accumulated capital (at the expense of the peasantry) to invest boldly in uncertain ventures. My feeling is that it may be possible for agrarian societies of the future to avoid that kind of structure by building from present capitals of various kinds…but only if the work of transformation starts now and the descent isn’t too steep – otherwise something like Joe’s scenario starts looking probable.

    • Where are the modern ‘gentry’ in all this? I keep expecting to read about a philanthropic effort by some rich person to develop a large cluster of farms and villages that would anticipate the failure of industrial civilization by being a self-contained and much less technically dependent society. There is certainly plenty of capital available for such a project.

      I broached the same question to Nate Hagans a few years ago after a talk of his in Hilo. He comes from a background in finance, so I thought he might know about the attitudes of the very wealthy. He said that he knew of wealthy people who were well aware of our overshoot and that some of them were considering their best response. He also said they knew that intentional communities were an option.

      So far, I have seen nothing of consequence, except that we do read of wealthy folks preparing their ‘retreat estates’ to flee to in case things break down and life gets dangerous. Have you heard of any efforts to jump start a viable post-collapse community by the wealthy?

      • Nope, I’ve not heard anything – I’m sure there’ll be some contingency planning going on among various private yachts and islands, but it’s not for the likes of me to know about.

        There was a book I saw reviewed a year or two ago – I forget the author and title – about his own experiment with setting up an intentional prepper community. I don’t think it turned out too well. I guess the trouble is these things do tend to attract some strange folks. At least we still have the venerable and more or less fossil fuel free Tinkers Bubble community here in Somerset as an exemplar…

        But where are the modern gentry is a good question indeed. Historically, there’ve been many philanthropic industrialists who I’d argue fit the bill. Their efforts were somewhat overtaken by the rise of the modern capitalist welfare state in the early 20th century, but after the crisis of this state in the 1970s the nature of the capitalist beast seems to be reverting to the robber baron/plutocrat model of capitalism, with Hayek as its god. That leaves us with the likes of Bill Gates as our latter-day gentry, carrying the torch for the new noblesse oblige. God help us.

        • There was a book I saw reviewed a year or two ago – I forget the author and title – about his own experiment with setting up an intentional prepper community. I don’t think it turned out too well.

          iirc I think this might have been Dylan Evans. Very smart and polymathic chap, but actually a bit of a ‘strange folk’ himself. Started in languages (I think?), Re-trained as a lacanian psychoanalyst, swung one hundred and eighty degrees around and managed to blag an academic job in a robotics lab, then swung around again – to be convinced that (a) we’re all doooooomed and (b) actually we’d be happier living a paleolithic life anyway. This leading to the “utopia” project, which was the community you refer to. When that crumbled (and how naive not to forsee the kind of things that would go wrong), it convinced him that we’d be better off in a super-high-tech future after all.

          He surfaced again with a rather odd twitter scandal which I won’t refererence because I kind of warm to the guy. I’m actually rather jealous for someone whose done so many things – and I’m fascinated by the psychology of conversion. I mean, I shift my opinions, they don’t go into full-speed reverse! What one earth must that be like?

          • Ah yes, I think you’re right. Thanks for the further info about him – I had no idea. I agree on the fascinating psychology of conversion. So many of the ecomodernists, for example, seem to be converts from more critical environmentalist positions. I guess there’s a certain kind of mindset, which I share to a degree, of wanting to find ‘the answer’ and/or of wanting to belong, and perhaps it’s more susceptible than others to flipping between dissonant positions. But, like you, I can’t really understand the wholesale jettisoning of prior positions – especially when it involves tendentious and skin-deep critique of the prior position unbecoming to it.

        • One US based “latter-day” gentry that could be worth considering is Warren Buffett’s son Howard. Howard has written 40 Chances, and last May was the subject of a piece in The Atlantic:

          By Howard’s own reckoning his approach(es) are not the only way to go in helping alleviate hunger, but as this is a very complex issue at least they are doing something. And some of the ideas have garnered fascinating insights.

          • Howard Buffett’s work in Africa is close to the kind of project I was wondering about, except that the areas he is trying to help are already fairly isolated regions of agrarian peasants. He’s trying to enable maximum food production without much in the way of outside inputs and thereby improve the resilience of small farmers and the communities they live in. I have a hard time imagining a better project for a wealthy philanthropist. We need more like it.

            I wonder how his attitude to US agriculture would change if he realized that all the industrial inputs it depends on are going away sooner or later? If and when he does, he might realize that the self-sufficient small-farm techniques he is promoting in Africa will be desperately needed in the US and other industrial-agriculture countries. On the other hand, I’m sure his money goes much further in Africa. Perhaps it’s better to just keep spending it there.

            And in one regard African farmers have a head start on farmers in richer countries; they already have lots of people distributed among many thousands of small farms. That kind of distribution will happen again everywhere, including rich countries, but it would be nice to see it happen ahead of time and not wait until a crisis of industrial agriculture happens.

        • Thanks for the link, Clem. I’m not too sure what to make of Mr Buffet and his ‘study in contrasts’. My first thought was that if he’s planted 1,500 acres of soybeans on a 400 acre farm then he’s maybe got the problem of world hunger licked right there, but a closer reading revealed a more disappointing reality. Certainly an interesting read…

          On Oz’s point about a few of the 0.1% doing something sensible – well yes, you’d like to think… But I suppose their wealth is built on economic models which are the antithesis of small-scale, self-sustaining agrarianism, which perhaps makes it relatively unlikely and channels their philanthropy more in the direction of making it easier for others to follow the same path they’ve trodden.

          • My first thought was that if he’s planted 1,500 acres of soybeans on a 400 acre farm then he’s maybe got the problem of world hunger licked right there

            I suppose I missed Howard’s claim that he could accomplish such. In the circles I travel a farmer might well plant 1,500 acres of soy – while owning just 400 acres of his own (renting or leasing the rest). Indeed this is a more common situation than one grower holding such a large land base. Tenant farming in the US Midwest is by far the most significant production model (and I’d be happy to dig up a ref if someone is curious). But the enormous scale of early 21st century US Ag. is, for me, more a symptom than a cause. Food is terribly inexpensive and will likely remain so until some force – market or other – changes the paradigm. Talking about it may help, but so long as a bushel of corn costs approximately $3.60 to produce and fetches about $4.00 at market then the need for scale will prevail.

            I agree with Joe’s analysis that Howard Buffet is helping the situation in Africa and that Africa does represent a very different model. One we can all take something away from. And to Joe’s question about Howard’s own production practices here in the States – I won’t go so far as to speak for him – but I would point back to the economic realities of our present production economics outlined above – he is farming in an economic reality today that may well be forced to change at some point in the future. But until those economic realities manifest themselves, what incentive does he or anyone else have to impoverish themselves?

          • Yes, tenant farming is also a common model here – with quite conservative implications, I think, for the way that people farm.

            In terms of the incentives to move out of current mainstream models of low margin, high volume farming I’d say that it’s a pretty insecure business model with high input costs and input prices out of their control, which then have to be matched by very high gross income. My model, by contrast, is based on low input costs, not much fossil fuel, producing many of my domestic needs on site, and security of tenure. Mainstream farmers local to me probably have a bit more money in their pockets out of their enterprises than me, but they’re welcome to it – I wouldn’t want to trade places with them and assume their daily stress of covering their input costs. The trouble is in generalising my small farm owner-occupier model. Small farmers have to focus on high value retail crops, which rules out soy, corn, wheat etc under present economic circumstances, and it’s crops of this latter sort which are keeping bellies full in the present urban-capitalist economy. The only way around this I perceive is for small farms to be oriented mostly towards self-provisioning, and therefore for people generally to be mostly oriented to small farming. That’s pretty much the logic I’m pursuing on this blog these days at any rate. I think it has the potential to solve quite a number of problems. It does, however, also raise a few.

      • Great question, Joe.

        You’d think that enlightened interest would play a role here, and that at least some of those in the elites are not so senile (in Greer’s terminology) yet that they see the need for communities that seek to incorporate some real diversity.

        While I’d expect to see a lot of ecomodernist ‘utopias’ funded by various elites (cough*thevenusproject*cough), perhaps at least a few of the 0.1% will see that something more sensible would be, well, sensible.

  4. I enjoyed this section, and think it does a really good job of highlighting the messiness of the medieval period in Europe and the difficulties with most of the common ways of attempting to force it into some kind of simple set of categories. So what follows are far more comments than critique.

    I think the medieval period in particular suffers from being that immediately preceding the capitalist period, as so many of the ways in which it is understood basically just emphasise this particular difference and therefore imply a false sense of homogeneity over what came before. Marxist ‘modes of production’ are a case in point, as they stem from comparison with the capitalist mode.

    The ‘feudal mode’ has the advantage of representing an enticingly distinctive way of organising labour and hierarchical relations, but the disadvantage, as you point out, of not really representing many places or periods in European history, let alone the rest of the world. It’s also worth pointing out that ‘feudal’ is often used in two distinct ways by different historians that I think you conflate: as a Marxist mode describing production within the classic manor, implying lord-serf relations, and as an elite institution implying a lord’s grant of land for the service of a vassal; the two do not necessarily coincide (Susan Reynolds makes much of this distinction in ‘Fiefs and Vassals’).

    Scholars who highlight the ‘tributary’ mode as an alternative seem to me to fall into the trap of characterising everything as variations on a theme that is only united by being not capitalist (I think you make this point when you mention its conflation of notions of tribute and tax). I think Wickham builds on the work of John Haldon, whose admirably global perspective is undermined by his insistence on seeing the medieval tributary mode almost everywhere (including ‘feudal’ Europe). It’s not that comparisons between places widely separated in space is not valid (and I found your comparison with India very interesting), but that analytically it seems pointless to classify everything in the same category, because then what does it actually tell you?

    Which brings me to Wickham’s ‘peasant mode’. I think it works very much as a mode of the gaps – wherever the evidence makes the identification of coherent power structures styled in more traditional ways difficult – hence your point about the broad range of structures actually included within it. Moreover, it doesn’t really work as a Marxist mode, because these essentially describe expropriative relations between classes, and Wickham’s ‘peasant mode’ seems to be characterised by a distinct lack of specific power relations. Indeed, it has been criticised for underplaying the extent to which production was organised around exploitative relations in the early medieval period, and the continuation of slavery into the eleventh century surely deserves a mention here (Jairus Banaji provides some good critiques of Wickham’s work from a Marxist perspective along these lines). At the same time, Wickham seems to have his mode coexist with a broader tributary mode (following Haldon), which again raises the question of precisely what analytical work the two modes are meant to accomplish.

    I think an interesting way of breaking away from these issues to an extent is to look at the kinds of structures and hierarchies that existed outside the traditional antagonisms of lord and peasant or king and subject, and I think this is a point that you come to with your India comparison. In that vein, you might want to look beyond the bounds of the ‘free peasant village’ (another rather amorphous category!) to the kinds of local and regional assemblies that appear to have existed quite widely across much of early medieval Europe, and which kings and other magnates certainly influenced and used, but which were not entirely within their control. Most importantly they relied on notions of collective legitimacy rather than delegated royal/imperial authority. They were of course heavily articulated around hierarchies of their own, often geared towards defining a class of ‘better men’ of the district, and they were hardly democratic in the ways in which they engineered consensus. But the fact that they were often the primary ‘legal’ fora of many regions means that notions of ‘parcellized sovereignty’ (as Richard Brenner’s school of Marx-inspired history would have it) underplay the sheer heterogeneity of power legitimation during this period. Sovereignty was really a uniform thing that could be parcellized, nor even really nested, as it stemmed from multiple coexisting forms of social organisation.

    Finally a word on households. Again, I think you’re right to insist on the status-driven imperatives of many elite households during this period, so that ‘provisioning’ does not have any kind of neutral sense related to purely economic needs (whatever that might actually mean). But I think the notion of the ‘household’ is perhaps more insidious even than that, and seems to be present in Wickham’s peasant mode, in which peasant households provide the basic unit of production. Aside from ignoring the many ways in which peasants were organised socially and hierarchically beyond this level, this has the effect of analytically sealing off the kind of power relations that existed within such households (often but not always articulated around age and gender) from the broader societies in which they were constituted, and so naturalising then to some extent. I think the notion of the household as some kind of basic unit is as problematic (if not more so) as the various ways of classifying medieval (and other) societies that you’ve been discussing. I’ve got a feeling this issue, or something like it, has come up in this blog before…

    Anyway, thanks for another very rewarding read.

    • Andrew, thanks for another informative and thought-provoking comment. I find the course you chart between the various Marxist and non-Marxist orientations to feudalism as a mode of production and the comparative issues it raises entirely plausible.

      On sovereignty, when you write “sovereignty was really a uniform thing” is that what you actually meant, or did you mean to write ‘rarely’? From a global comparative perspective, my feeling is that sovereignty in European Christendom was quite uniform, certainly in comparison to somewhere like India, though that doesn’t necessarily undermine your point at a more fine-grained level of analysis.

      On your points about households, I wholeheartedly agree – something I touch on later in the essay, and more so in some later follow ups currently in preparation. One of the main problems with agrarian populism or neo-agrarianism – or populism in general – as an alternative to existing mainstream political alternatives is its failure to look within concepts like ‘the household’ or ‘the people’. This is something I’ll come back to.

      • Oops – yes, I meant ‘rarely’. You may be right from the global perspective, but I do feel that some ideas about medieval sovereignties suffer from comparison with the nation states that followed. Those who argue for parcellized sovereignty seem to assume a fairly uniform kind of thing that wax only distinctive because it was broken up into pieces held by lords, rather than considering that the various elements that we may now think of as comprising sovereignty were actually organised in several different ways, overlapping sure, but not completely aligned.

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