Sarris (2004) draws on knowledge about agricultural systems in the Eastern
(Byzantine) Roman Empire to provide insight into developments in the 'barbarian' West as
the Empire collapsed and new political structures emerged. He observes that 'Historians
have a general sense of what medieval rural society looked like in the west - or at least
in the central Carolingian lands - in the eighth and ninth centuries, but they have not been
able to compare or contrast this picture with what went before.'
In that later period, Sarris contends that, despite some regional diversity, royal governments, church and
secular lords received most of their income from a system described by Verhulst as 'the classic
bipartite manor'. According to Verhulst (2002, p.30), on the continent, 'The most widely
diffused form of agricultural activity (...) particularly in the Carolingian period,
was that of dependent peasants, not totally free and not totally unfree, within what we
call a manor (Lat. villa or fiscus when in royal hands).
Verhulst argues (pp. 34-35) that the origin of this system lies in a 'type of
exploitation that, in the Merovingian period, must have been present in almost all parts of
western Europe. This consisted of an estate or agricultural enterprise of from about 40
to 150 hectares of arable land, directly cultivated by slaves, who had no holding and lived on or
near the centre of the estate.' Such systems were extended by allotting adjacent or boundary land to
free or unfreed slaves to work their own holdings of estate land in return for services or a
portion of their produce. The bipartite system worked by establishing an equilibrium
between the managed and unmanaged elements of the estate.
Sarris states that we do not know how old such a system might have been but Verhulst
says that the first reference to 'services' comes from the sixth century. It has been surmised that that
system may have evolved from the later Roman empire but modern commentators have tended to
disagree. Sarris looks at agricultural references in Egyptian papyri of the period, conceding that
it is dangerous to extrapolate too much from an eastern source. He finds intriguing parallels to the
bipartite manor system dating from the late third century.
Following Diocletian's reorganization of the imperial bureaucracy in Egypt during the early
fourth century, a concentration of wealth occurred in the hands of an elite who controlled
the imperial service in the province. Such a transformation was not limited to Egypt - other
parts of the eastern empire showed similar developments. According to Sarris: 'The fourth
century saw the emergence in the eastern Mediterranean of a new imperial aristocracy of service,
the leaders of which were enrolled in the senatorial order.' These new aristocrats
concentrated local power in their hands, reorganizing agriculture and increasing their power of
patronage. Sarris summarizes: 'Members of this new elite, by virtue of their dual social
identity as both representatives of central imperial government, and figures of authority
and prestige in local and landed society in their own right, played a pivotal role in the administration
of the empire.' Among other things, they were involved in tax rating and collection.
Land tax was the main source of imperial income and the involvement of the
new elite meant that they could intercede in a peasant's rating and payment. Peasants could
escape a land tax by the patron and peasant conspiring 'to pretend that the local potentate,
rather than the lesser landowner, was the legal possessor of the land' on which taxes were levied.
What happened next is not difficult to imagine. There were other reasons why peasants might
migrate to a potentate's land for protection and security. The end process was a massive
concentration of land in the hands of the elite.
The balance of power between the empire and its local bureaucrats fluctuated, as did
the status of the workers on that land. But what of the west? Sarris argues that similar
developments probably occurred and that these survived the political developments of the fifth and sixth
centuries, at least in some areas. In Britain, while 'ordinary' villas declined, the larger
ones ('palatial villas') were still being extended in the later fourth century, suggesting a
concentration of agricultural ownership (Dark, 2004, p. 285). As Dark states: 'The palatial
villas of later fourth-century Britain might reasonably be supposed to be the centres of great
estates, requiring vast resources to construct and furnish with lavish architecture and
sculpture. Wealth and, in particular, land ownership were coming to be concentrated in fewer
hands.' Dark contends that smaller villas and native rural sites declined due to competition from
the palatial villas. Yet, according to current evidence, unlike continental equivalents, the
collapsed in Britain within the
first few decades of the fifth century, with even the palatial villas being occupied on a
Dark goes on to consider evidence that what has been interpreted as 'squatting' is actually
continued occupation on a different basis, perhaps Christian rather than pagan values, and that the artefacts they used were frozen in
development at the stage of later fourth century fashion until the sixth century.
Ken Dark (2004) 'Landscapes of Change' in Neil Christie (ed.)
Landscapes of Change: The Evolution of the Countryside in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages,
Peter Sarris (2004) 'The Origins of the Manorial Economy: New Insights
from Late Antiquity', The English Historical Review. Apr 2004; 119, 481 (33 pages).
Adriaan Verhulst (2002) The Carolingian Economy, Cambridge University Press.