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Early Medieval Agriculture

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 villa system collapsed in Britain within the first few decades of the fifth century, with even the palatial villas being occupied on a 'squatter' basis.

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, Ashgate.

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.

Post-Roman Britain


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  • After Rome

    Arthur and the Kings of Britain: The Historical Truth Behind the Myths

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    The chapters in this volume, each written by a leading scholar of the period, analyse in turn the different nationalities and kingdoms that existed in the British Isles from the end of the Roman empire to the coming of the Vikings, the process of conversion to Christianity, the development of art and of a written culture, and the interaction between this written culture and the societies of the day. Available from: - British pounds - US dollars - Canadian dollars - Euros - Euros

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