SEMINAR I: The Economic and Social Crisis of the Sixth Century (Michaelmas, Week 3)

In this seminar we need to carry out two crucial tasks, tasks which have to be undertaken before we can begin to discuss the political and cultural life of the period. The first task is to build up a general overview of the economic and social history of the early Middle Ages. The second is to explain how things got as bad as they did. The key fundamental questions may be grouped under three headings, those under number three being the most crucial:

  1. How good (or bad) were standards of living in the early Middle Ages? How was the production of the physical necessities and luxuries of life (food, shelter, clothing, and so on) organised and sustained?
  2. What are the historical contours of the early medieval economy? That is, to what extent did the economic and material well-being of the population of Gaul decline in the fifth and sixth centuries? When exactly did the collapse take place? Was it sudden or gradual? When and at what rate did the economy recover?
  3. What were the forces driving these changes? That is, how did things get as bad as they did? Was trade the key factor? Was the political disruption caused by the barbarian invasions and the fragmentation of the Empire the key factor? (i.e. Was economic decline a product of the 'withdrawal' of the Roman State rather than a cause of its decline?) Was the outbreak of plague that began in the 540s the key factor, and if so, what were its causes? Was climatic change a key factor? These questions are very controversial since they go to the heart of modern understandings of how economies actually work.

Strongly Recommended Reading for All Students

  1. Ward-Perkins, B., The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005). LVS.* Has important things to say about the vulnerabilities of the Roman economy and the causes of its collapse. Chapters five, 'The Disappearance of Comfort', six, 'Why the Demise of Comfort?', and seven, 'The Death of a Civilization?', are pretty much essential reading for this topic. There are several copies of the book in the library, two on short loan.
  2. Little, L. K., 'Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic', in idem (ed.), Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750 (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 3-32. HQZA3.B. An introduction which takes in the entire Mediterranean world.
  3. Devroey, J.-P., 'The Economy', in R. McKitterick (ed.), The Early Middle Ages: Europe, 400-1000 (Oxford, 2001), pp. 97-129. Short loan: MB.* A light introduction to the early medieval economy.

Other Reading

  • Banaji, J., Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labor and Aristocratic Dominance (Oxford, 2001). LVL.E.
  • Biraben, J. N., and J. LeGoff, 'The Plague in the Early Middle Ages', in R. Forster and O. Ranum (eds), Biology of Man in History: Selections from the Annales: economiques, societes, civilisations, trs. E. Forster and P. M. Ranum (Baltimore, MD, 1975), pp. 48-80. 7HM3. Ask Enquiries.
  • Blackburn, M., 'Money and Coinage', in P. Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 1, c.500-c.700 (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 660-74. MB.*
  • Bloch, M., Feudal Society, trs. L. A. Manyon (London, 1961). MBT.
  • Brown, P. R. L., The Rise of Western Christendom, Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000 (2nd edn, Oxford, 2003). PO.A.* Though primarily concerned with religious and cultural history, this volume contains useful summaries of recent research in this area.
  • Christie, N., and S. T. Loseby (eds.), Towns in Transition: Urban Evolution in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Aldershot, 1996). LTC.
  • Fossier, R. (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages, trs. J. Sondheimer, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 1986-97). Vol. 1 covers 350 to 950. MB.
  • Geary, P. J., Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of Merovingian Gaul (Oxford, 1988), chp. 3. MSC.*
  • Hamerow, H., Early Medieval Settlements: The Archaeology of Rural Communities in North-West Europe, 400-900, Medieval History and Archaeology 1 (Oxford, 2002). MBD4.
  • Hodges, R. C., and D. Whitehouse, Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis (London, 1983). Important, but with relatively little about Gaul itself. OQH.
  • Hodges, R. C., and W. Bowden (eds), The Sixth Century: Production, Distribution and Demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 3 (Leiden and Boston, 2003). MBB.E. Contains many useful articles, including a an account of the Port of Marseilles by Simon Loseby and good analysis of the theories of Henri Pirenne by Richard Hodges, which is rpt. in R. C. Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London, 2006), pp. 19-27. MB4.
  • Hodges, R. C., Dark Age Economics: A New Audit (London, 2009). On order.
  • Hodges, R. C., Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade AD 600-1000 (London, 1982). MBH. See also R. C. Hodges, 'Dark Age Economics Revisited', in his Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London, 2006), pp. 63-71. MB4.
  • James, E., The Franks, The Peoples of Europe (Oxford, 1988), esp. chp 6. MSBF.* There is one copy in the 3hr short loan area; two are on popular loan.
  • Loseby, S., 'The Mediterranean Economy', in P. Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 1, c.500-c.700 (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 605-38. MB.*
  • McCormick, M., 'Rats, Communications, and Plague: Toward an Ecological History', Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 34 (2003), 1-25. Journals L6; also available online at Academic Search Premier.
  • McCormick, M., Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300-900 (Cambridge, 2001). MBD.E. See also R. C. Hodges,'Pirenne after McCormick', in his Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London, 2006), pp. 176-86. MB4.
  • McCormick, M., 'Toward a Molecular History of the Justinianic Plague', in L. K. Little (ed.), Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750 (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 290-312. HQZA3.B.
  • McCormick, M., P. E. Dutton and P. A. Mayewski, 'Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750-950', Speculum, 82 (2007), 865-95. Journals L6. Has some material about long-term climate trends during the last two millennia, but is mostly concerned with the latter half of the period covered by the course and with short-term cold ‘snaps’ and their causes, which are identified as volcanic erruptions. Useful on how Europe’s climate works.
  • Pearson, K. L., 'Nutrition and Early Medieval Diet', Speculum, 72 (1997), 1-32. Journals L6; JSTOR.
  • Reff, D. T., Plagues, Priests and Demons: Sacred Narratives and the Rise of Christianity in the Old World and the New (Cambridge, 2005). PO.A. Though concerned with a larger topic, this book includes a useful overview of the incidence of epidemics in the history of the Roman world between 150 and 800 at pp. 43-63.
  • Russell, J. C., That Earlier Plague', Demography, 5 (1968), 174-84. JSTOR.
  • Rösener, W., Peasants in the Middle Ages, trs. A. Stützer (Cambridge, 1992). MBM.
  • Sallares, R., 'Ecology, Evolution, and Epidemiology of Plague', in L. K. Little (ed.), Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750 (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 231-89. HQZA3.B.
  • Sarris, P., Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian (Cambridge, 2006). LWG.E. Focuses on Byzantine Egypt, one of the few places for which there is good documentary evidence for the sixth-century economy.
  • Sarris, P., ‘The Origins of the Manorial Economy: New Insights from Late Antiquity’, English Historical Review, 119 (2004), 279-311. Journals L6. Oxford Journals Online.
  • Smith, J. M. H., Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History, 500-1000 (Oxford, 2005), chp. 5, 'Labour and Lordship'. MBD.H.*
  • Stoclet, A. J., 'Consilia humana, ops divina, superstitio: Seeking Succor and Solace in Times of Plague, with Particular Reference to Gaul in the Early Middle Ages', in L. K. Little (ed.), Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750 (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 135-49. HQZA3.B.
  • Stothers, R. B., 'Mystery Cloud of AD 536', Nature, 307 (1984), 344-45. Journals AK6.
  • Stothers, R. B., 'Volcanic Dry Fogs, Climate Cooling, and Plague Pandemics in Europe and the Middle East', Climatic Change, 42 (1999), 713-23. Available online from SpringerLink.
  • Verhulst, A. E., The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe (Cambridge, 1999), chps. 1-2. MPA.H.
  • Wickham, C. J., Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford, 2005). MBD.*

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