Tuesday, May 3, 2011


This is an excerpt of an excerpt of a review of a book, and the idea I've captured is just a fragment. But I'm going to offer a thought on it, anyway.

From Kedrosky's post on Josh Rothman's review of Daniel Richter's book Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts:

In Europe, meanwhile, during what we often call the Middle Ages, things were changing, too. Agriculture allowed for the accumulation of wealth, and European land started being divided up into parcels, ruled by armed lords, in the system we now call feudalism.

Yes, agriculture allowed for the accumulation of wealth in the Middle Ages. And most definitely yes, wealth and civilization are inextricably linked.

But it's not like people forgot how to do agriculture in the time before the Middle Ages. It is my impression that in the Dark Age, the struggle was more a gathering-up of parcels, often by force of arms in a time when lords were made, a time of disorder.

I do not want to suggest that I think England is the world. But civilization did develop in England, too, and some of it is documented, and a little of that I've read. So I offer here a few notes on the book Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England, by Michael Wood:

p.9: "[The Domesday book] is an account of England drawn up 900 years ago, in 1086...
the book was prepared for a foreign overlord, the Norman William the Conqueror..."

p.18, the author quotes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the idea for the Domesday book and William I's motivation for assembling it -- "Then he sent his men all over England, into every shire, and had them find out how many hundred hides there were in the shire, or what land or cattle the king himself had in the country, or what dues he ought to have each year from the shire."

p.25, why it was called the Domesday book (legal judgements based on it were final, like the Last Judgement)

Now, in the years before William the Conqueror...

Alfred was King of England from 871 to 899. Edgar, from 959 to 975. So the excerpts below consider about a century (871 to 975). Athelstan, grandson of Alfred, ruled from 924 to 939, roughly in the middle of that century. According to TimeRef.com

p.111: "The West Saxon kings from Alfred to Edgar progressively expanded the power and landed wealth of the monarchy and were successful on the one hand in building up several powerful families in what had been the old kingdoms, with a thegnly class below them, and on the other hand in imposing extremely heavy obligations."

p.111: "By about 930, when King Athelstan issued his law code at Grately...."

p.112: "The tenth century, then, was a golden era for royal power, when many of the mechanisms were set up which proved so useful to the Normans when they took over the system in 1066."

p.112: "But no man now could be without a lord--so said Athelstan's Grately code. It was a symbolic moment, for in theory it embodied two central ideas: everybody could be brought to justice, and everybody could be taxed."

Everybody could be brought to justice, and everybody could be taxed. It was this, not agriculture, that allowed feudal society to rise above the Dark Age. It was order.


Jazzbumpa said...

Art -

False choice. With central power came order. What allowed the accumulation of power was wealth, and what enable wealth was agriculture.

There is no dividing them in the context of that place and time.

As it is today. We have different bases for wealth, but wealth and power are fungible, and the lust for power is unbounded.

I, for one, welcome our new trans-national, mega-corporate overlords.

Cheers! (Ha!)

Calgacus said...

I think Arthur is right about his former realm of Britain though. It reached a high level of wealth, civilization and population under Roman rule. It took long periods of relative order, hundreds of years, not agricultural innovation, for it to regain that level after the empire's collapse.