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Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300-900

Author(s):McCormick, Michael
Reviewer(s):Griffiths, David

Published by EH.NET (July 2002)

Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and

Commerce, AD 300-900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xxviii +

1101 pp. $60 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-66102-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Griffiths, Oxford University.

Much water has passed down the Rh?ne, Danube and Nile since Henri Pirenne’s

seminal masterpiece Mohammed and Charlemagne was published on the eve of

the Second World War. Much of Pirenne’s premise has been shown by subsequent

work to be faulty: certainly the idea that north-western Europe was cut off

from the newly-Islamic Mediterranean from the seventh century AD (thereby

causing it to develop a dynamic economic focus within the Frankish realm of

Charlemagne) has been comprehensively disproved not only by archaeology but

also by a more inquisitive reading of the contemporary documents. The test of

greatness of historical theses, however, is not that they remain as a permanent

orthodoxy, for few ever do, but that they become a permanent inspiration to

further work.

In this Pirenne has his claim to intellectual immortality. Michael McCormick’s

vast contribution is couched explicitly and implicitly in terms which Pirenne

would have recognised instantly as his own parameters: the search for

explanation of the origins of Medieval European culture, economic behavior and

urbanization in the aftermath of the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the

motor of trade and travel, and the centrality of the reign and personality of

Charlemagne. Where Sture Bolin and Maurice Lombard led the way in revising

Pirenne’s thesis — by making the Christian and Arab Mediterranean a

motivating, not an inhibiting influence on Carolingian Europe — McCormick has

followed with a heavy freight of supportive detail.

The book sets out its stall as covering the period AD 300-900, but the heart of

its message is really the latter two centuries from 700 to 900: the Carolingian

Age. Eleven hundred and one pages (including appendices and bibliography)

provide a narrative of thematic coverage (trade, pilgrimage, diplomacy,

manufacturing) set within an extensive and complex record of contemporary

individual experience.

Origins of the European Economy is a product of arduous, ambitious,

serious historical scholarship. It quite simply could not have been written in

this form ten years ago, let alone when Pirenne was alive, since it depends for

its analytical powers on the use of computerized word recognition on digitized

texts, and on databases for marshalling, quantifying and synthesizing the

disparate documentary and numismatic information available in a diverse range

of sources. McCormick’s signal achievement is to have trawled the relevant

literature, much of which has now been digitized, and brought together 669

references to travelers in the post-Roman Mediterranean world, many of which

had languished in primary obscurity until this illuminating synthesis. These

are supplemented with far-reaching studies of the relic trade, amber and coin

movements and slavery. McCormick’s numismatic antennae have no doubt been

sharpened by his association with Philip Grierson, and his easy familiarity

with the detail of European geography is impressive. The footnotes are rich

with referencing, argument and explanation, tracing the gestation of the book

in miniature and showing the extraordinary extent of the author’s encounter

with the primary and secondary literature in numerous ancient and modern


McCormick’s method of approach to the sources is prosopography — he deals in

life stories (and he is by no means alone in this — a large published

prosopography of Byzantine authors between 641 and 867 has just been completed

in German (F. Winkelmans, 2002)). Most of the historical glimpses assembled

here are principally or ostensibly individual accounts of pilgrimage and

diplomacy, but McCormick encourages us to read between the lines and extract

the hidden information — the incidental becomes the primary: a documented

transit of a pilgrim or Byzantine diplomat through a port such as Marseilles,

Naples or Tartus, or a sea voyage at a certain time of year, activates a search

for historical and archaeological evidence for trading systems, harborage and


The book is rich with practical details of early medieval travel, the storms,

fevers, delays, miracles and pirates. Some of the personalities we follow, such

as St. Willibald, Cyril and Methodius, are well-known to those with an interest

in this period. Others, such as the pilgrims Bernard and Gregory Akritas, or

the envoys Amalarius, Marinus, Michael and Theophylact, are rather less so.

Willibald’s voyage via Naples, Catania and Monemvasia to Ephesus and eventually

to Jerusalem is milked for every scrap of informative incidental detail.

Occasionally the anecdotal style imposes its own momentum and the thematic

content seems to recede, but McCormick is surely right when he states: “This

approach to communications in the Mediterranean Basin suggest that there was

considerably more going on than has hitherto been recognised by research which

focused exclusively on explicitly documented instances of trade” (p. 438).

Unlike some of his European counterparts amongst historians, McCormick is also

archaeologically literate, recognizing the huge advances of the last thirty

years, but accurately hitting upon many of the remaining lacunae, both in

Mediterranean urban archaeology and in northern Europe: his plea for further

investigations of the inland market sites of the Frankish realm such as Cologne

is particularly topical. However, he occasionally displays his credentials as a

resident of the historical end of the interdisciplinary spectrum, for instance

describing the fruits of archaeological labors as “excruciatingly local” (p.

791): how could they be anything else?

The book is divided into five sections, each dealing with a major sub-theme

under the main title: the end of the Roman Empire, the personalities and

objects which traveled; the means and patterns of overland and maritime

communication, and finally the implications for trade. There are clear chapters

dealing with regions, industries and commodities, which are supported by 40

maps and 82 tables (but only 16 pictorial figures) in the main text alone. The

maps are consistent, clear and accurate, and oblique perspectives give some of

them additional impact. Where deployed, this optical trick is almost always

Mediterranean-centered, but Map 20.4 of the ‘northern arc’ shows some

willingness to experiment with standard geographic conventions by turning the

map on its head. Almost completely missing from this book, however, is what

might be termed the ‘western arc.’ Europe’s Atlantic seaboard is far more than

a periphery beyond a periphery, and what is loosely termed the ‘Celtic West’

played as dynamic and well-traveled a role, particularly in European religious

affairs, as the people of many a southern or central European region. An Irish

reviewer, for instance, might well feel justifiably aggrieved about this.

Occupying 171 pages towards the end of the book are appendices listing

Mediterranean travelers and communications, 700-900; mentions of mancosi

to 850; and catalogues of Arab and Byzantine coins in the west. The appendices

alone are a considerable achievement, although McCormick is clearly aware that

they will have a fairly limited shelf-life, as the research continues. In this

context, there is a curious disjuncture between the methodology of the book and

its style of presentation: a mass of detail has been sorted, analyzed and

synthesized digitally, yet it is presented in immutable form, frozen in print

and impervious to manipulation by the reader and fellow-researcher. One is left

wishing that a CD or DVD.ROM, or possibly an invitation to visit a designated

website could have been found tucked into the back cover to unlock the

possibility of self-motivated exploration — at least of the raw data presented

here in the appendices if not the texts themselves — which the author himself

has described in such exciting terms.

Despite grappling with the uncertainties of what are still sometimes referred

to as the ‘dark ages,’ this book is written in the style of straightforward

economic history. Argument based on statistical flow-charts, histograms and

percentages looms large: this book will be a lesson to anyone who still thinks

the documentary sources for the post-Roman Mediterranean defy a quantitative

approach by their sparseness. The number of references to voyages by year and

season, or the value of slaves in different areas of the Mediterranean, for

instance are presented in graphic form. There is a relentless empirical logic

to McCormick’s approach — this is history-writing by frontal assault with

plenty of logistical support rather than by deft footwork or mere good luck. As

any military historian will confirm, luck and quick thinking might win battles,

but strategy, endurance, organization and resources win wars. McCormick has all

of these things, and this is indeed a monumental and inspiring achievement.

Cambridge University Press is to be congratulated on a polished and well-edited


In a new century when Dublin or Helsinki have as good a claim to be the

economic dynamos of Europe as Paris or the Rhineland (the Franco-German ‘axis’

which created the European Union in the 1950s — choosing Charlemagne as its

hero — now looks not a little tired), the historical meaning of ‘Europe’

itself needs re-visiting. McCormick is rightly skeptical about the ‘Roman

Economy’ as a single normative historical construct, but what of the ‘[early]

European Economy’? — surely an even more diffuse and varied concept. We need

to continue disentangling what ‘an economy’ can mean realistically in the

pre-modern period, where new and old religions, pilgrimage, war, despotism,

weather, trade, diplomacy, piracy, slavery and disease all add up a complex

brew of factors in growth and contraction, seen through the cloudy lens of over

a hundred decades. The detail of this book will help greatly to identify and

illuminate the workings of these forces.

McCormick concludes as he set out to show: that the post-Roman Mediterranean,

together with the Arab Middle East and the Viking North, were indeed alive with

traffic and trade, and that Charlemagne and his contemporaries looked south and

east for their inspiration in powerful and fundamental ways. When picking up

the book for the first time, it seemed overly massive — more like a doctoral

thesis of old. Any fears of unnecessary verbosity and turgidity are misplaced,

however: the book has actually quite a spare style — and 1101 pages ultimately

seem hardly adequate to serve this root-and-branch review of a core theme in

European history. This is a noble addition to the school inspired by Pirenne,

and will no doubt still be around in another sixty years’ time.

David Griffiths, PhD, FSA Scot., teaches Archaeology at Oxford University,

where he is a Fellow of Kellogg College. A specialist in the social and

economic archaeology of Early Medieval Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, he is

currently researching non-urban coastal market sites. His book The Making of

Kingdoms (with T. Dickinson, Oxford, 1999) has reached a worldwide

audience, and his chapter “Exchange, Trade and Urbanisation” will soon appear

in the Short Oxford History of the British Isles (Volume: AD 800-1100,

edited by Wendy Davies).

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval