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Weekend Reading: Peter Temin: Land Tenure and Exploitation from the Roman Empire to Lord Peter Wimsey


Peter Temin: The Roman Market Economy Land Ownership: 'For at least four centuries... the Roman Empire preserved peace around the Mediterranean basin and allowed the system of land ownership and taxation to continue. Starting in the fifth century, the ability of the western Empire to preserve peace began to erode. Rome was sacked early in the fifth century, a traumatic event that led Augustine to write the City of God distinguishing belief in the Catholic Church from the defense of any earthly city. More important if less visible to most people living through it was the capture of Africa by the Vandals in 439. This loss deprived the central government of an important component of its tax base and made it impossible for the government to mount effective counterattacks against the various invaders of the Roman Empire. This clearly set up a cumulative process that led in a few decades to the demise of the western Empire (Heather 2005; Wickham 2009). What was the effect of this cataclysmic change on Roman property own- ers? I suggest that many landowners were unaffected as the decline of central authority began. Most of their activities were local, and local authorities continued to guide local economies. Invasions were sporadic and affected only swaths through the vast empire. Landowners in the path of the invaders must have experienced problems with their land ownership, but landowners in other areas probably carried on as they and their fathers had done before. Imported goods to any area became more rare and expensive as travel became more dangerous. “Across the sixth and seventh centuries African goods are less and less visible in the northern Mediterranean; they vanish first from inland sites, and then from minor coastal centres” (Wickham 2009, 218). The process of Roman decline was not one of uniform decline that affected everyone alike. Instead it was a selective process that involved more and more people over time...

...The spread of violence was sporadic and uneven. As more and more areas were affected, land ownership under Roman rules became more and more localized. Land ownership in the form described earlier was confined to Roman islands in a barbaric sea (with apologies to Pirenne 1956). These islands shrank over time as the violence overspread the declining empire until most of them disappeared at some undetermined time (McCormick 2001).

We see remnants of the Roman land system in an account of taxes due from tenants to the Abbey of St. Martin de Tours around 700 listing four-teen hundred tenants and the modii of wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt due (Gasnault 1975, 95ff). There is more detail in a list of tenants of the Abbey of St. Germain-des-Pres a century later. There is a list of more than fifteen hundred farms with “at least” ten thousand residents. Almost all of these farms were were “ingénuilles”, but some were “lidiles” and “serviles.” Most of islands of Roman land tenures must have clustered around abbeys, the most stable landholders in Merovingian and Carolingian times (Longon 1978, Tome I, 243).

The eastern Empire did not collapse, although it lost control of Egypt in 698. The Byzantine state remained strong and land taxation continued to provide a fiscal base to the state. “Indeed, payment of the [land] tax was itself proof of ownership. Since the early eighth century, perhaps earlier, the tax was estimated on the value of the land” (Laiou and Morrisson 2007, 50). High-quality land was worth the most; second-quality land, less; and pasture, even less. The tax rate, which appears to have endured into the twelfth century, was about one quarter of cereal production.... Agricultural production was divided between what can be called estates and village. Estates were the successors to Roman latifundia, and villages were composed of independent proprietors. The latter paid taxes to the state as in Roman times, and their tax rate was only half the dues paid by tenant farmers. This major difference was due partly to the protection offered by the estate and partly to services and capital provided by the lord of the estate..... The Byzantine system of land tenure was taken over by the Ottoman Empire and continued into modern times. In fact, the land tax in modern Israel is known as the arnona, a Hebrew term that goes back to the Talmud, where it denoted a tax on livestock and grain. It is most likely derived from the Latin word, annona, the Roman land tax to finance food distribution in the city of Rome.

In contrast, invasions of Western Europe multiplied and violence spread after the western Empire collapsed, and the Roman organization of society broke down entirely. We know little about the terms of land tenure in the Carolingian period as the terms used disappeared in later centuries.... There was no land tenure in the period of chaos when you only had authority over a plot of land if you were physically present and could fight off other claimants. It was hard even to grow a crop in such a situation as there was no way to ensure you could reap the harvest from seeds you had sown. Population consequently was very small, declining sharply to the extent we know it after the western Roman Empire collapsed. Travel was so hazardous that it was easier to bring people to food than food to people. “The nobleman with his entourage moved round constantly from one of his estates to another; and not only in order to supervise them more effectively. It was necessary for him to consume the produce on the spot, for to transport it to a common center would have been both inconvenient and expensive” (Bloch 1961, 63). Land ownership was exceedingly tenuous.

This chaotic period when central authority disappeared was traumatic in European history. Shakespeare employed the memory of this period many centuries later to set the stage for the tragedy of King Lear.... The king says he will travel with a large armed escort from place to place to consume the local produce. The many knights were to protect him; the traveling was to take him to the food instead of vice versa.... There was no ownership of land in this situation, as control could not be exerted at a distance. There was instead possession by people on the land who could and would defend it. This kind of possession was called a fief.... A fief lasted only as long as the person possessing the land gave service; it was not inherited. It was far different and less stable than land ownership or possession in Rome.... The society changed from one based on taxes to one based on personal service. What does it mean to own land if taxes on the land no longer sustain a government?

Feudalism was the way out of this chaos. It is best seen as a way to organize defense in a violent world. There was not enough security for a central government to collect taxes and field a military force, and all action had to be local. Subject to this constraint, it was natural for families and then close acquaintances to band together for their mutual defense. Adam Smith told us that labor specialization is limited by the extent of the market. Markets in these conditions were local and small, and the labor differential was limited to two classes of people, those who fought and those who farmed—knights and farmers.

A fief allowed a knight to fight for the defense of the farmers in the fief, but isolated knights were not much use against concerted attack. Feudalism was a way for knights to come together through lord and vassal arrangements that constructed a hierarchy of vassals under a lord who could field a group of knights. Vassals then used the resources of their fiefs to support their military activities, which were used in the service of their lords. The farming that underlay all this was done by the lords’ villeins and other serfs. The lords in return for the vassals’ support used their military resources to preserve the vassals’ fiefs. Fiefs were retained as long as vassals fulfilled their part of the bargain, giving rise to elaborate rituals to assure lords that vassals would come forth when needed. The feudal system succeeded in bringing more peaceful conditions to Western Europe, and problems changed from defending from invaders to defending against neighbors. There developed a small arms race in armaments for knights and their horses.... The nonhereditary fief eventually was supplanted by a hereditary model as lords needed a reliable source from which to obtain vassals. The most convenient way to obtain future vassals was by making new acts of homage with the children of current vassals. Once this practice started, the converse situation where children of vassals were denied the fiefs of their fathers made it harder to add more vassals. Fiefs consequently took on a hereditary character....

Society thus was divided into two parts. Knights and clerics did not work and paid no taxes. Peasants worked and paid for the consumption of the upper class as well as their own, a division of society that lasted into the eighteenth century.... There were many restrictions on land and land transfers as the need for service and the desire for inherited land got in each other’s way. There must have been an evolution of these restrictions, but many different approaches appear to have been in use at the same time. This appearance may reflect the scarcity of historical evidence, but it more probably reflects a combination of regional differences in customs and uneven evolution even in local areas. Travel was difficult and transport was expensive; regions were far more isolated than in Roman times. “Regional differences were sharp, even between neighboring regions” (Van Bavel 2008, 14)....

The burden of rents and feudal dues on peasants has been calculated as about 40 percent of their production, although it varied quite a bit between manors (Allen 2005, 36; Van der Beek, 2010a). This is higher than the commonly accepted levels of taxation in the early Roman Empire, which hover around 10 percent of production. If these estimates are even approximately accurate, then one of two things must have happened in the first millennium. Either farming must have become vastly more efficient, or the after-tax income of farmers must have shrunk dramatically.The latter choice appears more likely at our current state of knowledge.

Feudal warfare relied on direct hand-to-hand combat, which established the knight as the primary military unit. Over time, military armies employed greater use of archers, which provided key advantages over knights in battle, and the knight as a military unit decreased in importance and gradually disappeared. With the introduction of firepower, archers made way for musketeers who used muskets as a means of offense. Although early firearms were less accurate and efficient than the bow and arrow, continual technological improvements in guns eventually rendered archers obsolete. Considering that it usually took many years of training to make an archer, while only days were required to train and field a musketeer, it became more efficient to employ musketeers as a military unit. The lower costs and faster production associated with training and fielding musketeers allowed for significant increases in army sizes....

In the feudal age, when chaos was the issue, there were economies of scale for individual fighters, that is, knights. There were few economies of scale after this limited scope. As security increased and warfare changed, archers and musketeers provided economies of scale that extended to larger numbers of soldiers. Economies of scale near the origin were reduced as archers and then musketeers needed less equipment and training than knights, while economies of scale for groups of soldiers increased as the power of firing in volleys became apparent. The new economies of scale came more from military organization than individual training. The new system was clear enough to be described clearly around 1600. “Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus developed a system of organization, tactics, and drill that harked back to the Roman legions” (Boot 2006, 103). The economics of warfare had come full circle.

Land tenures had been advancing as military technology improved, at least in the most urbanized parts of Europe in northern Italy and the Low Countries. Land sales by peasants are recorded as early as the eighth and ninth centuries when northern Europe was in chaos. The clarification of property rights and the introduction of civil courts stimulated land markets in the later twelfth century.The Low Countries caught up by the fourteenth century when voluntary registration of private land transfers by public courts became common. Although these two regions developed differently, the growth of private land ownership and transfer increased in both during the medieval period (Van Bavel 2011).... States achieved a monopoly of violence and carried out varied activities of organized violence: making war, creating states, protection, and extraction of resources through taxes. Independent lords... could not defend themselves from the new states and were subject to capture or submission. Lords stopped being vassals and turned into landowners. The land that they owned, however, had the restrictions that had been imposed when the land had been a fief, when fee tails had evolved into entails. These impediments to market activity were retained by the aristocracy to preserve the integrity of the family estate. Lord Peter Wimsey is a fictional character of the early twentieth century, but his role as the landless younger son of the mythical Duke of Denver was a staple of British aristocracy for many centuries...

#economichistory #weekendreading #2020-02-13