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The Carolingian Economy

Author(s):Verhulst, Adriaan E.
Reviewer(s):Squatriti, Paolo

Published by EH.NET (May 2003)

Adriaan E. Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 160 pp. $50 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-80869-3; $18 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-00474-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paolo Squatriti, Department of History, University of Michigan.

With The Carolingian Economy Adriaan Verhulst, emeritus professor of medieval economic history at the University of Ghent, offers readers a slim, agile overview of eighth- and ninth-century European economics. His book summarizes generations of research into the “origins of the European economy,” a peculiar passion of medieval historians from the Low Countries ever since Pirenne, and a subject to which recent European politics have conferred new importance. This is a Cambridge Medieval Textbook, aimed at British undergraduates, yet unlike some textbooks, The Carolingian Economy is readable, as well as instructive. It is neither anodyne nor soulless, for behind the tidy organization into ten chapters and four sections (“Land and People,” “Production,” “Commerce,” and “The Dynamics of the Carolingian Economy”), Verhulst has inserted many personal evaluations, has candidly outlined scholarly polemics, and has not shied from taking sides on debated issues. The book’s optimistic conception of Carolingian economics, which reflects the late twentieth century consensus and revision of Pirenne’s more dour view, is matched by Verhulst’s minimization of the “revolution” other historians have located around the year 1000. Carolingian Europe’s buoyancy, despite a dip 830-850, is thus “part of a nearly continuous upward movement” (p. 135) of the continent’s economy after the definitive collapse of the Roman order in the seventh century.

In The Carolingian Economy, two important themes are the new ways of ordering agrarian production, and the vigor of commerce, behind both of which Verhulst divines the catalytic presence of the Carolingian family. To Verhulst, the prime mover of Carolingian economic expansion was the manor. He traces the inception, and to some extent the dissemination, of the bipartite rural estate to the designs of the Carolingians. Indeed, this type of “optimization of efficiency” (p. 59) in agricultural production appears earliest in the Carolingian heartlands between the Seine, Meuse, and Rhine rivers; often its emergence elsewhere can be linked to Carolingian influence or domination. And it was the surplus from the new-style, market-oriented manors that drove the demographic and commercial upswing Verhulst describes in this book. Giving such centrality to the manor helps confirm that part of the “Pirenne thesis” according to which the “axis of history” decisively shifted northward in the 700s. But whether it was a Carolingian creature or not, the manor is a lordly creation, and to focus on it (and its characteristic documents, the polytptychs) suggests that what mattered in the Carolingian economy were the choices and strategies of the elite. Verhulst recognizes that small-scale peasant production existed, but dismisses the subject because “so little is known about” it (p. 31). The study of charters, abundant for south European regions like Catalonia or the Lucchesia, might permit a less Nordic and less “supply side” reconstruction of economic relations in the Carolingian period.

In The Carolingian Economy trade, luxury objects transported over long distances and more basic products exchanged within a region or among contiguous regions, also receive much space. Verhulst demonstrates the extent to which the Carolingian empire formed a commonwealth by calling attention to similarities in regional patterns of exchange (monetarization, urbanization, synchronized booms and busts across Carolingian Europe). In his discussion Verhulst advances corrections to Pirenne’s explanation of why trade in the Mediterranean ports of Francia withered during the eighth century. Rather than the Arabs, Verhulst blames Carolingian enhancement of alternative routes for Mediterranean goods to reach northern Europe, and the lack of fine ceramics suitable for export (but what of “Forum ware”?) to leave archaeological traces.

The re-emergence of economically vibrant towns in north Europe, a Pirennian subject on which Verhulst has published extensively, is another theme in The Carolingian Economy. Diverging somewhat from the archaeologist Richard Hodges’s interpretation, Verhulst sees in emporia’s ephemeral nature (a result of being bound to Carolingian political power) the salient characteristic of these large commercial centers on the fringes of the Carolingian empire. Emporia and other, more long-lasting towns became the places of exchange for agricultural surplus, crafts, and raw materials produced in rural, and to Verhulst overwhelmingly manorial, contexts. They also housed mints and toll stations and facilitated the extractive activities of the rulers.

In several instances, the author gives proof of a nimble historical approach to texts, as when he suggests that the main incentive for Carolingian rulers to produce good, stable coinage was prestige (p. 129), or in his insistence that any “economic policies” rulers adopted were subordinated to theological goals (p. 118, 125). But in other cases Verhulst’s treatment of Carolingian texts is less nuanced. Carolingian authors’ terrifying accounts of famines fit inside moralizing discourses, and should be treated gingerly as evidence of cereal dearth: chroniclers were just as likely to mention famine as proof of divine displeasure with aristocratic politics as they were to describe actual penury. Likewise the polyptychs, detailed inventories of rents and obligations owed to ecclesiastical landowners, have limitations. While Verhulst recognizes that polyptychs remove any dynamism from the past they represent (p. 40), he still tends to accept them as snapshots of history “as it actually was” rather than as texts emerging from contested, messy realities, as efforts to frame the present, and the past, according to the interests of the compilers and preservers of these documents.

The Carolingian Economy is an extremely useful compendium, orderly and deft in its presentation of a remote period’s economics. In this book the author has synthesized enormous amounts of research in many languages, performing a service to specialists in Carolingian and economic history. Verhulst has also achieved his goal (p. 8) of contributing to the ongoing debate on Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne and the question of how to interpret the first postclassical European empire. With so much having been achieved, it is perhaps churlish to ask for still more, but some omissions are noteworthy. For instance, greater integration of the last decades’ early medieval Mediterranean archaeology might have enabled Verhulst to take the “Pirenne debate” even further than he does: the Crypta Balbi site in Rome receives no mention. Slavery is repeatedly touched upon, without its relevance being assessed; its economic weight is probably underestimated. Furthermore, The Carolingian Economy takes a very landlubberish approach to economic activity, overlooking fishing and irrigation, and presenting clearances as deforestation rather than also as drainage. Had Verhulst considered ecological variables more carefully, he could have deepened his discussion of Carolingian regionalism and (through climatology) discussed the Carolingian economic moment without ascribing so much agency to Carolingian elites. But such carping aside, in The Carolingian Economy Verhulst furnishes a concise and judicious synthesis, full of information and insight, that is actually fun to read.

Paolo Squatriti teaches medieval European history at the University of Michigan. His research centers on postclassical social and environmental history. In Past and Present 176 (2002) he published an article about “Digging Ditches in Early Medieval Europe.”

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval