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Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles)

Author(s):Devroey, Jean-Pierre
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Jean-Pierre Devroey, ?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles). Paris: Belin, 2003. 381 pp. ?22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 2-7011-2618-5.


Jean-Pierre Devroey, Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles). Brussels: Academie Royale de Belgique, 2006. 725 pp. ?60.50 (cloth), ISBN: 2-8031-0227-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

Most economic historians who do not specialize in the medieval period draw their understanding of its economic and social evolution directly or indirectly from the work of historians inspired by Henri Pirenne and Marc Bloch, both of whom viewed it as a decisive turning point in Western history. As set out by Georges Duby in his essay on the early growth of the European economy, the half millennium following the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West marks the crucial discontinuity in Western Europe’s economic and social history.[1] The notion was, of course, not new. Originating in the humanist philological critique of early medieval Latin, the notion of a decisive break in social, political, and economic institutions was extended to other domains in the debate between Abb? Du Bos and Montesquieu over whether the Franks were subject to royal taxation, and by early nineteenth-century efforts to construct historical typologies from the surviving diplomatic and legal texts as part of the project to place the French Revolution in historical perspective. That effort led to a consensus that the West experienced a major economic and institutional collapse in the sixth and seventh centuries, and that from the wreckage there emerged a more decentralized economic and political system based on the exploitation of the rural population by lords connected politically in hierarchies constructed from bilateral ties of mutual obligation and fidelity. That institutional space left little room for agricultural innovation and hardly any for economic organization founded on the legal egalitarianism of voluntary exchange. The historiography thus posed three questions: the first concerned the process by which the old world was transformed into a new one; the second concerned the nature of that new world as an economic and social type; the third was how it in turn gave birth to modern western capitalism. Since the dissolution of Roman civilization was an uncontested fact, most attention was devoted to the second and third questions. It is only in the past thirty years that the first has received the attention it deserves, with devastating consequences for the conventional wisdom.

The present works by the eminent Belgian historian Jean-Pierre Devroey represent a vigorous defense of the conventional view that the early medieval society and economy was a distinct social type fundamentally different from the societies that preceded and succeeded it. Explicitly inspired by the theories of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi, this vision is idealistic rather than causal or mechanistic, to use an old-fashioned dichotomy. It aims to explain “why” things worked in terms of their relation to a pre-existing whole rather than “how” they worked in terms of ordinary connections between cause and effect. For Devroey, the true history is sociology. The historian’s task is to show how relations between different elements of a society formed a coherent “whole” or type. The theoretical foundation of this approach to the past is Durkheim’s tenet that social cohesion is a necessary condition for the temporal persistence of a society. This makes the central task of the historian the identification of the sources and mechanisms of that cohesion. Since every society is unique, the mechanisms will differ, providing a basis for comparative analysis of societies. The project of these two works, then, is to construct an ideal type for that analysis. As Teggart pointed out long ago, this approach to history is essentially teleological, since it presumes the whole used to explain the meaning of the parts.[2] In the present case the “whole” is Frankish society. The books thus fall in the category of “stages” history, to which may be added work on the same period by the English historian Chris Wickham, whose approach is also inspired by Polanyi notions of reciprocity and redistribution as essential means of securing social solidarity in primitive societies.[3] Both authors read the early medieval record through the eyes of social anthropologists, and are thus blind to what the eyes of Machiavelli and Adam Smith detect in it.

Devroey’s work thus poses a direct challenge to the alternative vision of early medieval society proposed by Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Jean Durliat and Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, who view the early Middle Ages from the perspective of the two great theorists of self-interested human behavior. That perspective reveals significant continuity with late Roman civilization in Frankish institutions of public administration and landholding.[4] The findings rest on a re-reading of the polemical and chronological texts, on prosographical studies of the leading Frankish families in the degree the evidence supports it, and on close analysis of the contemporary legal texts. It starts from the premise that the dissolution of the Roman state in the West was essentially an appropriation of its levers of power by German military leaders to whom the Roman state had unwisely subcontracted the defense of the Empire. Given that premise, the central historical questions turn on how the change in administration affected existing governmental apparatus and the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and how political legitimacy ? the ability to command and the willingness to obey ? was maintained in the presence of new and foreign rulers. Of the day-to-day life we know virtually nothing; but it seems plausible that in the core of the Frankish kingdom, things went on pretty much as before, except that, as would be the case down to the middle of the seventeenth century, there was fighting among elites for control of the state and its fiscal resources, and that for this and other reasons that part of the economy based on exchange imploded. On the sources of political legitimacy and the apparatus of administration, the texts are more loquacious, and everything thing they say supports the notion of continuity rather than the creation of a new society by force.[5] If so, the early medieval past was not a different country, but a place and time where men (and women) behaved in ways that are familiar to us. It did not constitute a “whole” whose meaning is accessible only through an exposition of its inner logic, but a congeries of institutions, practices, and attitudes evolving at different rates under the pressure of particular events.

From the perspective of economic history the main issues concern the nature of landholding and the organization of the state. Was land effectively “owned” by the elite and farmed by tenants on tenures determined by asymmetric bargaining, or was it mostly in the hands of small holders subject to their paying a property tax? To some that may be a distinction without a difference: taxes mainly went to support soldiers who the conventional historiography holds were granted land and rights of peasants in payment for their services. In either case the agricultural surplus went to the same people. But from the perspective of agrarian history the distinction is crucial. Taxes were based on assessments not easily altered, since they were regulated by law. On the assumption that they continued to be collected by tax farmers, the proceeds, or more commonly the tax base that generated them, could be securitized and alienated like any other asset, which would explain the exceptionally complex pattern of claims revealed by the sources. The issue turns on the continuity of law. The “primitivist” view of early medieval society espoused by Devroey considers the early medieval era to be fundamentally lawless and governed by relations of force in which the strong expropriated the weak. The “Romanist” view holds for legal continuity; the strong appropriated the tax base but within what must have been fairly wide bounds maintained the rule of law with respect to collection. The issue bears directly on the interpretation of terms relating to agricultural organization, which can be read alternatively as describing estates and farms or as units of fiscal assessment. According to Devroey, the “fiscalist” view is in his words “formalist,” because it rests on the explicit meaning of the legal texts rather than their presumed “real” meaning. He denies that view at great length and in great detail. The denial represents the core of both volumes.

Neither book is an easy read. ?conomie rurale is intended as a textbook for students preparing the aggr?gation, or state doctoral examinations in medieval history. Puissants et mis?rables is a treatise constructed on Weberian principles modified by late twentieth-century French sociology. Both deploy immense erudition to support the conventional view of a discontinuity and social primitivism against the hypothesis of continuity. Since the technical debate turns on etymological issues bearing on individual terms, it would be fruitless to attempt to summarize the argument in a short review. I am not persuaded by it, but as I am not a specialist in late Roman and early medieval Latin my judgment carries no special weight in the debate. Nevertheless, many of his arguments strike me as dogmatic assertions and special pleading. Heavy reliance on Polanyi as a source of theoretical insight raises further danger flags, as do abstract sociological arguments used to motivate description and analysis of institutions. One longs for a simple explanation of how things worked rather than why they worked. In terms of the issues raised, both books would have been better served by a clear exposition of the alternative points of view followed by analysis of facts bearing on them. They contain a lot of useful matter, but it is hard work to release them from their matrix of verbiage. The bibliography is magnificent. To cite the review of Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the books give the impression that “there is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.”[6] There is, of course, much more to be said.

Of the two works, the textbook is more accessible to non-specialists, despite being disfigured by “boxes” containing further information of the kind familiar to users of elementary textbooks in economics. The other covers more ground and provides a splendid introduction to the huge explosion in scholarship since the 1960s. Neither book can be ignored. Though clearly not the last word in early medieval economic and social history, they represent a major contribution that no one pretending to an opinion on the period can afford to dismiss. They are, however, highly opinionated, and must be read in conjunction with the literature they criticize. This is hard work, but there are no short-cuts to mastering the secondary literature on early medieval economic history. The divisions among its main practitioners are important and deep. The best account in English is a recent survey by Goldsmith, who gives a clear exposition of the “fiscalist” hypothesis, and follows up its implications for the subsequent evolution of land tenure in France to the end of the Middle Ages.[7] This is the best place for beginners to start.

The early middle ages are a fascinating and central segment of the history of western civilization. Like all extended periods, they were a time of transition. The explosion of scholarship since the 1960s and the renewal of interest in classical antiquity have given new life to a subject whose general contours seemed to have been set in stone in the magnificent syntheses proposed by Pirenne and Bloch. It is time for a new synthesis that encompasses the new findings and interpretations in a plausible narrative account of the transformation of a society and economy over five centuries. That synthesis is within reach, but to attain it will require confronting these two large volumes that, like the Roman army in its latter days, defend the conventional wisdom on the several fronts of attack.


1. Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, London (1974).

2. Frederick J. Teggart, Theory of History, New Haven (1925).

3. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400 – 800, Oxford (2005).

4. Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Naissance de la noblesse: L’essor des ?lites politiques en Europe, Paris (1998); Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, Aux sources de la gestion publique. 1. Enqu?te lexicographique sur le fundus, villa, domus, mansus, Lille (1993); Jean Durliat, Les finances publiques de Diocl?tien aux Carolingiens, 284-889, Sigmaringen (1990).

5. Bernard Bachrach, Early Medieval Warfare: Prelude to Empire, Philadelphia (2001).

6. Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, London (2003).

7. James Lowth Goldsmith, Lordship in France, 500-1500, New York (2003).

George Grantham is Professor of Economics at McGill University, where he teaches economic history and the history of economic thought. His work on the present topic includes “The Early Medieval Transition: On the Origins of the Manor and the Early Medieval Transition,” presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Economic Association, Nashville, 2003. He is currently revising papers on “What’s Space Got to Do with It? Distance and Agricultural Productivity before the Railway Age” and “The Prehistoric Origins of European Economic Integration.”

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval