Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Carolingian Economy

I have done some reading on the Pirenne thesis, because I am particularly interested in the transition from late Antiquity to medieval Europe. This led me to simultaneously read Pirenne’s original (posthumous) work, the Hodges and Whitehouse re-examination in the light of archaeological evidence, Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy and Roger Collins' Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, having recently finished Keith Hopkins' 1980 article "Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire 200BC-400AD" and Adriaan Verhulst’s The Carolingian Economy. The Hopkins article includes a very revealing graph of ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, which clearly indicates what much other evidence supports – Roman economic decline preceded the major barbarian incursions: a pattern repeated later in the Eastern Empire prior to the Arab invasions.

Found Verhulst’s book informative but a tad frustrating. He follows the modern analytical divide between ‘economic’ activity and ‘political/military’ activity. Which is not to say he ignores state action, far from it, but he does not tie in the central activity of the state/rulership – the organisation of coercive power – with economic activity. I constantly felt that I was reading the historiographical equivalent of Hamlet without the Prince. He is very concerned to show that there was trade in the Carolingian economy and that it managed, under Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious (at least prior to the outbreak of war between Louis and his sons), a period of notable economic expansion.

It is clear from reading Verhulst that most production was local. It would perhaps be too strong to say trade was merely an economic effervesce in a predominantly locally self-sufficient economy but it is still clear enough that the dominant sources of wealth were land-to-which-labour-was-applied and violence (whether overtly protective – controlling those who worked the land – or overtly predatory – stealing from those who worked the land). The (by modern standards) premature death of Mancur Olson looks more and more like an intellectual tragedy, since his attempt to incorporate force within mainstream economic analysis seems to have not yet acquired any strong proponent(s). Particularly in pre-Industrial Revolution societies, rulership was essentially a process of coercion and so that has to be central to effective analysis. Still, an informative work.

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