Continuing my ‘history of the world’ series (a fully referenced version of which is available here), I finished last time by saying we should take a peek at what came after the ‘Axial Age’ states…

…Well, that would be the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ – ‘dark’ if only because of a relative paucity of historical evidence to illuminate them in comparison with what went before. The successor states to the great Axial Age empires were smaller geopolitical units, but the idea that this constituted some kind of civilizational collapse has been subject to considerable debate and revision in recent years, for example in post-Maurya India and in post-Roman Europe. Let me say a little about the latter in particular, as a kind of case study for our times of what a putative ‘collapse’ and a return to more local polities and more agrarian production might look like. Of course, it’s a dodgy business making inferences about the possible future fall of modern London or Washington on the basis of the fall of ancient Rome. But it’s ground we’ve been traversing a little of late in discussions on this site, and when people are confronted with the idea of a ‘return’ to small-scale farming they commonly reach for medieval notions either in order to critique the idea or to express foreboding: a small farm future would be like a small farm past, a return to ‘feudalism’ or to ‘serfdom’.

So let’s start with some terminology. ‘Feudalism’ strictly speaking refers to a situation of so-called ‘parcellized sovereignty’ in which a ruler – typically a politically weak king of a tributary rather than a tax-raising state – grants land (a fief) to a subject, over which the subject has complete jurisdiction, as part of a reciprocal if often unequal bond of loyalty. It was never a common way of organising things in the medieval world, being restricted largely to parts of western Europe and also perhaps to Japan – in both cases where weak successor polities tried to extend their rule within the ruins of a larger empire. ‘Serfdom’ is a type of labour coercion in which a rural cultivator is juridically tied to a particular estate – a widespread but far from ubiquitous arrangement in (mostly European) medieval history. I guess what people really mean by a ‘return to feudalism’ is the possible end of a brief capitalist-industrial modern interlude in global history when landownership and/or direct control of people wasn’t an especially important route to economic or political power (though even in modern societies economic power usually finds its way back to landownership). That may turn out to be the case, but control of land and control of people played out in innumerable ways across medieval history. If there’s to be a ‘new medievalism’ in the future, how that’ll feel will depend an awful lot on what kind of medievalism it is. There have been extensive debates among historians about whether powerful pre-modern states outside Europe – in China, India and the Islamic world, for example – were ‘feudal’, and if not what exactly they were. Some writers talk about ‘the tributary mode of production’ to encompass all pre-modern states built upon agrarian labour, though perhaps this conflates the ideas of tax states and tributary (land rent) states I introduced earlier. So others prefer the idea of a ‘feudal mode of production’ – but this risks in turn making all the rest of the world seem like mere variants of the peculiar fief-based post-Roman successor states of medieval Europe.

Well, I’ll leave that difficulty hanging for a moment and try to make some progress by saying a little more about those European successor states, building on the discussion we had on this site recently about the precariously non-resilient and interdependent nature of civilisations past, present and future. That discussion encompassed an essay by eco-prophet John Michael Greer invoking the loss of wheel-thrown pots in post-Roman Britain as exemplary of the precipitous collapses that can occur when the interdependencies of civilisations unravel. I’ll invoke that example as a motif in the paragraphs below.

The best known grand narrative for the demise of the Roman Empire is that it was weakened from within by the kind of fiscal crises I described earlier and then assassinated from without through invasions by ‘barbarian’ Germanic tribes. More recent revisionist history emphasises the continuity of the Empire into the early middle ages. Partly, it depends on where we’re talking about because the decline of Rome wasn’t monolithic. In Britain – a frontier region, only ever weakly Romanised – the collapse was sudden and dramatic, leaving the country in the hands of warring petty kings and indeed without its wheel-crafted pots (the artisanal products available to the average household declined with the departure of the Romans – I stand corrected on this point relative to my comments some time ago). In Gaul, the Romano-German Franks exercised a strong, imperial, tax-state hegemony, which nonetheless gradually declined in its geopolitical reach as the first millennium wore on, despite rallying points such as the Carolingian period when Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor in 800AD. In Italy, Spain and North Africa, Romano-German rule under groups such as the Lombards, Visigoths and Vandals was weaker and more regionalised – but despite the fracturing effect of events such as the Vandal withdrawal of grain exports to Rome (a situation that was soon reversed), a circum-Mediterranean trading world long persisted into the middle ages as a kind of shadow empire of Rome.

In the east, the Byzantine Empire succeeded the Eastern Roman Empire relatively smoothly, maintaining a strongly centralised imperial tax-state rule despite various ups and downs long into medieval times – probably, as I argued above, because of the peasant-citizen structure emphasised by the likes of Anderson and Wood. In summary, Britain’s post-Roman meltdown is certainly a thought-provoking example for anyone concerned about a contemporary collapse, but a rounded consideration ought to include such places as Gaul, Byzantium and Spain as well. On the other hand, the demise of Rome was largely a political and fiscal crisis – not a crisis of agrarian production, energy economics or climatic change. So there are grounds for thinking that the clouds on the horizon of contemporary civilisation may greatly overtop those that gathered over late imperial Rome. Greer’s general point that people are often almost wilfully oblivious to the contradictions threatening their civilisations seems wise, and has also been made by historians of civilizational collapse like Joseph Tainter – though in general Tainter emphasises collapse in ancient civilisations as an active strategy pursued by people who no longer found large-scale centralised political organisation expedient, in circumstances where it was possible for them to go elsewhere or do something different. “Collapse occurs,” he writes, “and can only occur in a power vacuum. Collapse is possible only where there is no competitor strong enough to fill the political vacuum of disintegration”. In contemplating the future of the 21st century global economy, some may find that a reassuring thought. Others may not.

Certainly there were some ‘vacuums’ around the margins of Europe’s post-Roman successor states in the early middle ages, and they were often filled with what Chris Wickham calls ‘the peasant mode of production’. By this, he means not the stereotypical medieval peasant doing service for a lord but, on the contrary, petty cultivators working on their own account beyond the reach of more-or-less centralised successor states or local lords. Wickham suggests that the early middle ages was a time when such peasants were relatively ascendant, and others have argued along similar lines that after the heavy fiscal burdens placed upon cultivators by Axial Age states such as Rome, the early middle ages was a good time to be a peasant. This idea that the rural working class does better in the absence of lords has recurred often enough through agrarian history in England and elsewhere – as for example in William Cobbett, writing in the early 19th century, of an inverse relation between “rich land and poor labourers” since “Where the mighty grasper has all under his eye, [the labouring people] can get but little”.

Wickham is more cautious – we know almost nothing about what the peasants in his ‘peasant mode of production’ actually thought about their lives. The decline of centralised (Roman) power was generally slow, to the extent that it probably didn’t present itself as an obvious gain (or loss) across individual lives. The discussion on this blog recently about what the lack of specialist wheel-made pots meant to the average English cultivator after the departure of the Romans is a case in point. Was it really a ‘loss’, or did living in a free peasant village come as a liberation, local hand-made pots and all? I think Wickham is right that it’s impossible to say. Still, the point remains that as well as the stereotypically captive serf or villein toiling on the master’s estate in the medieval period there were numerous categories of free peasant – sometimes beyond the reach of seigneurial control in towns, mountains, forests or remote edgelands and sometimes acknowledged as free petty landowners. In this sense, the ‘peasant’ category lacks internal coherence, stretching from people who were virtually slaves to people who were virtually kings, even if their kingdom wasn’t much bigger than a village (to complicate matters, perhaps I should note that in some medieval Islamic polities certain slaves virtually were kings, and also that there was a widespread notion across the medieval world that the ‘social death’ involved in both kingship and slavery brought commonalities to the two roles). And, throughout the middle ages and on into the modern world, peasants contested the terms of their relationships with their social superiors using every means available from crafty wheeler-dealing to pitched battles between standing armies.

I’d like to amplify some of the preceding points by turning my gaze all too briefly away from Europe and towards India – a culture-area that, more than most, has explicitly elaborated the status distinctions of agrarian life as an ideological basis for society at large, in the form of caste thinking. Much has been made of the varna distinctions that first emerged in ancient times, as famously enumerated in this origin myth from the Rig Veda:

When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman[priest]; his arms were made into the rajanya [king/warrior]; his thighs the vaishyas[farmers], and from his feet the shudras [servants] were born

This warrior-priest-farmer division found an echo in medieval European notions of ‘the three orders’. Less translatable into European terms was the priestly concern over ritual purity, though it’s often argued that this gained a major boost when British colonialism in India sawed off aristocratic rule and created the appearance of a timeless, textually-based Brahmanic ritual dominance over local affairs in which the caste divisions of the self-sufficient village are projected back into immemorial time. But often enough the village is neither self-sufficient nor timeless, representing something akin to Wickham’s ‘peasant mode of production’ in a similar situation of weak state power, in which a ‘dominant caste’ of peasant landowners monopolises local political power, despite lowly ritual status in Brahmanic/varna terms. In a classic article, the anthropologist M.N. Srinivas emphasises the lowly caste status of the ‘dominant caste’ along with their political notability locally. He also notes the commonalities bringing villagers together across caste lines as well as the substantial inequalities dividing them. Without wanting to make over-facile comparisons with Europe, a similar dynamic doubtless occurred within Wickham’s ‘peasant mode of production’ and certainly within the wider ‘tributary mode of production’ within which peasants were to a greater or lesser extent enmeshed. Equality-minded modern people like me tend to think in terms of bald categories like ‘lord and peasant’ or ‘high and low caste’ and see the relationship as entirely antagonistic. There certainly was antagonism, but there was also cooperation, shifting alliances, complex gradations of status across the larger distinctions and different ways of construing the nature of social identity. I plan to develop this point further in another post. I think it’s important.

In early medieval Europe, Georges Duby emphasises the way that the economy was rather statically oriented to household provisioning rather than to the obsession with economic growth of more recent times – which perhaps isn’t surprising since it essentially was a household economy, built around the great manors:

“Wherever economic planning existed, it was seen in the context of needs to be satisfied….It was not a question of maximizing output from the land, but rather of maintaining it as such a level that it could respond to any request at a moment’s notice”

However, the ‘needs’ of the manor could be prodigious in the context of a competitively status-oriented aristocratic society and often enough a powerful pressure on magnates to attract and keep retainers. This moved the economy – not, I would say, necessarily ‘forwards’ but at least ‘onwards’ inasmuch as peasant cultivators, working both within and against the grain of seigneurial power, extended the margins of cultivation and the throughput of local markets.

In ideological terms, these developments eventually resulted in an impressive intellectual and political culture of the high middle ages involving notions of corporate identity and religious transcendence – one that was rigidly inegalitarian, albeit admitting to various critiques of the established hierarchy. Much the same was true in India, although kingship was much less ideologically stabilised there, which provides one key for understanding caste and other aspects of Indian history. There are some contemporary writers who see possibilities in medieval religious ideas of transcendence for a modern religious practice able to tame the furies of our capitalist materialism – certainly a thought-provoking, if troublesome, idea.


Teaser photo credit: By Alokprasad84 – Own work, CC BY 3.0,