Thursday, October 15, 2009

Origins of the European Economy: a decline and rise

Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD300-900 is like reading a rolling, scholarly detective story. McCormick marshals a wide range of evidence to give a picture of the decline and then the upward turn of trade in the period. I was particularly taken by the systematic examination of references to travellers in texts of the period. Though the use of ice-core data to provide evidence on levels of (mostly declining) metal production was notable as well.

What the book doesn’t do is provide a full picture of the European economy in the period. The study is very specifically about trade and communications.

It is clear that trade (and population) began to decline under the Roman empire from the third century onwards, well before the major barbarian incursions. The decline started in the western provinces, particularly the Atlantic littoral. (At first, the eastern economy improved, but then decline hit it as well.) The decline continued until about 750AD. A revival then sets in, but one flowing from western merchants. Indeed, the North Sea arc seems to show increasing trade from about 650AD. But the Carolingian revival is a revival from a low base. Trade never entirely disappeared, but was at a notably low level. (On the shipwreck-count evidence assembled by Hopkins, trade in the Western Mediterranean in the period 400-650AD was about 20% of the level it was in the 200BC-200AD period.)

There seems to be effectively a four-way interaction: the pagan/Christian North Sea arc, continental Latin Christendom, the Eastern Romans and Arab Islamic empire. Islam was, on balance, a stimulus to trade rather than, as Pirenne hypothesised, a barrier to it. The study brings out quite clearly the importance of the European slave trade – slaves were probably Europe’s main export: the Church regularly denounced the sale of Christians to infidels and the redemption of such Christians was a standard noble act. Low population meant that labour was in demand: labour-as-property that is.

The decline in trade and population is much more noted than explained. McCormick clearly regards the analysis as a work in progress. But it is striking the way it is very much post-Roman factors that lead the revival. The Northern Arc, Venice (which did not exist in the Roman era), Islam. Continental Europe revives when the Arnulfings (or, as the historians call them in honour of the greatest scion, the Carolingians) supplant the last of the Roman-successor Merovingian monarchs. The Eastern Romans sat athwart trade routes, and benefited from the upsurge, but conspicuously failed to participate outside their own boundaries. (Indeed, they were later to become dependant on Italian merchant cities for their seaborne trade.) McCormick certainly implies the Roman state itself may have been a significant factor in the economic decline, but does not assemble evidence to enable him to assert that confidently.

Origins of the European Economy is an engaging and informative study.

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