Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, I: Geography

The Roman Empire in the west was built overland within an economic geography that, as far as we know, pointed inland and south towards the Mediterranean. Oh, there are exceptions. All the smart guys are saying that there's an Atlantic community embracing the western coast of the Island of Britain, Ireland, Brittany, the Basque country, and south along the coast of Galicia and Portugal. That's actually an older idea than the DNA studies that underpin it nowadays, and I'm certainly in no position to argue.

That said, starting in the European Iron Age, say, about 500BC, the archaeologists start reporting a pattern of new and renovated "hill forts," now conceived as oppida in Caesar's phrase, littered with vast quantities of the kind of pottery amphorae that we know in other contexts were used to ship wine overland. Concentrations of the pottery (and, presumably, the remains of ancient drunks) indicate  that the trade entered the south of France through the river mouths of Provence and from there either ascended the Rhone and descended the Moselle via the portage at Nancy, or crossed the narrower isthmus to the south watershed to the river Garonne, reaching the sea at Bordeaux. Either way, the inference is that it mostly entered Britain via Hampshire (ie, Southampton port) and Kent. Far be it from me to overargue claims that I base in admiring consumption of secondary literature, but it seems as though London may not have seen much use at all. At the extreme, we could say something sprawlingly Braudellian, such as "Europe turned its back on the North Sea."

I'd like to make up a story: that in the great Mediterranean-wide wars of the Diadochi, Rome, and Carthage, wine fetched mercenary cavalry from the north and in the process began the millennium-long process of creating a European equine civlisation, that the new vitality of the oppidae reflects the power of wartime deficit financing (anachronism alert!) to reorganise peripheral societies to meed the demands of the centre.

I'd like to, but it's a story, not well-tethered to evidence; the kind that world historians offer in all seriousness, aware that their grandchildren will cringe at the silliness of it all. And I don't need to overexplain. It isn't terribly surprising to find heavy Roman goods reaching the Czech lands overland; Bohemia doesn't have a sea coast.

But Britain? That's just weird. To borrow once again from a youth misspent playing fun but silly games, everyone knows that your civilisation can spread across all-water areas of the game map once you buy the the Astronomy advance. You can't win without Astronomy, and it is plain as day that the Roman side won. Britain's an island. Everything imported there has to go by boat, anyway. What's going on?

Scrupulously accurate simulation! Two Salt for a  Gem?

Geography. Winds. Climate. That sort of thing.

I'm tempted to talk about overland transport here, because I have a point to make about river travel. But that would be a distraction from this series. Here I have to make the point that our intuitive takeaway is wrong. It's not that Rome is a long way from London by ship, or that olden day people hadn't a clue about ships. It's what those transportation historians say. It's break of bulk that matters.

First, about ships. We don't know as much about Medieval shipping as we'd like, but I was blown away by Christopher Tyerman's report of the Italian, Danish, and English fleets that showed up off the Levantine coast in the spring of 1099 to support and sustain the armies of the First Crusade. What the heck? The current stand is that since neither ship captains nor the town councils employed court historians, we can hardly say more than that it happened. Generalisations about who can sail from England to the far end of the Mediterranean and back, and when, had best be fairly cautiously offered. This is, after all, something that even much later could be both much easier, and much more difficult, than contemporaries could judge, because so much depended on the weather.

About that, this: 

Source: Wikipedia

And also this:

Thanks to the BBC
On their face, British winds want you to go to London. In practice, the prevailing westerlies hit the continentals in the eastern Channel, and your winds give out somewhere around Hampshire. Since you're blown straight there from Brittany, Normandy and the mouth of the Seine, there's a reason that this region (and Bristol) used to be the main entry port of the island of Britain --at least for Atlantic shipping. Conversely, heading west from London means waiting for a break in the weather some place where you can take advantage of it quickly. Which is why so many voyages to the west start with a ship waiting in the protected anchorage of the Downs, just off the mouth of the Thames. Mayflower, for example, exhausted its original store of provisions while anchored in the Downs, and had to revictual down the Channel.

The picture here is one of two circulations. One embraces the West Country ports of Devon and Cornwall with the ports on the far side of Biscay and the Channel. Quick to exploit breaks in the westerlies, they are open to the Atlantic. The other is confined to the North Sea. There might even be an economic line that you can draw all the way from Rome to its British province where it is cheaper to get to London via the Rhine (or the Meuse?), while cargoes for the west of England are better sent by sea. And so it might not be entirely accidental that sub-Roman Britain became "Britain" in the west, and "England" in the east.

But, as I said, break of bulk, not the journey. It might be that we need to attend to ports. For me, this started out as a World War IIish revelation, that in the midwar years, landing craft designers worried that vessels designed for Mediterranean operations might have serious problems in the Atlantic. Why? The Mediterranean has a dry and mild climate, no great coastal shelf, a lack of tidal action, and no history of glacial action. Its coast is thus short of natural ports, while its river mouths are not tide-scoured. In compensation for the relative lack of sheltered harbours and navigable rivers, it has plenty of gradually shelving beaches. That's why the natural cargo vessel of the Mediterranean is a galley (or, to refurbish the design for modern needs, the LST),  sea travel is relatively anarchic, being mostly beach-to-beach cabotage, and fishing tends to be an intermittent activity integrated into the everyday life of human communities living in the sea's coastal marshes. (Besides Corrupting Sea and Braudel, I'm having a hard time putting a finger on the sources from which I'm generating these claims. But I'll point to the Conway's History of the Ship series as deserving of being better known. And books like this, of course.)

The North Sea is different. The European peninsula is the product of two (three?) orogenies that have created an extended, subsiding plain of washed-down silt and gravel extending between the newer mountains (the Alps) and the older. The lowest portion has been invaded by the sea in post-glacial times and today receives massive influxes of fresh river from numerous rivers. Regular tides and storms have alternately scoured and deposited this downwashed silt while the conflicting forces of isostatic crustal rebound and eustatic sea level rise have cancelled each other out, keeping a static but chaotic coastline. The eastern shore is chocked with sand dunes, while eastern England has vast coastal marshes. The rivers, by and large, fail to clear their way to the sea. The Rhine peters out in a braidplain, with a generally navigable channel starting roughly at the Dutch border. The Meuse/Maaß and Escaut/Scheldt merge in a wet and soggy estuarine landscape. Antwerp has been an important river port, but it only emerges from obscurity in post-Roman times, so far as I know, due to the need for flood defences. Even the Elbe far to the north, in spite of possessing two classic  commercial free cities near its outlet, is marked in its lower course by vast marshes. In immediate post-Roman times, the typical merchants of the eastern shore of the North Sea lived on barrier islands rather than in river ports, the Frisians, as the Romans and Carolingians called them.

Here's the thing: today, the Frisians are the people who live on the barrier islands between the North Sea and the intertidal mudflats of the Wadden Sea. There is no intimation in the Classical and Medieval texts that they were so restricted. Nor do we see any reference to the lands of Holland, Flanders, Zealand or even Normandy where their presence is intimated. This is, to me, a sign that what is taken as ethnological data is in fact, some kind of indication of social change. "Frisian" signifies a way of life that persisted on those islands until dikes and canals gradually restricted the usefulness of that identity to the regions where it endures today. On the landward side of those defences, where flood gave way to dry land, there emerged state entities, and, with them, new identities. If I'm going to generalise wildly enough, I am going to see this as something already begun in Roman times and only ending with the first references to Holland and Zealand in the 1100s.

On the English side, London may even have been a port before the Romans. And certainly the Romans had no trouble with the engineering issues that their version of the port of London presented them with. (That's a solecism, right?) York, the second city of Roman Britain, is also a North Sea river port. But it's a distinctly stranger one. The Ouse, the river of York, joins the Trent at Trent Falls to form the Humber estuary, which has enough water to constitute one of the United Kingdom's major port areas, and yet, at least theoretically, can be waded! I checked out the Port Authority for photos. Given how controlled the British hydraulic landscape is these days, the utter flatness and glint of water that you see here suggests just how this landscape must have looked in the days when an iron shovel was a possession worth mentioning in a will.

Flat equals flooding

Indeed, I've heard it said that at one time, the north-flowing Trent river was the road of choice north from England to York, because the trouble of taking your goods and chattels and packing them on a boat, and then off again at York, was less trouble than floundering through the marshes. (I think this was, again, in Rollason, but no guarantees.) If it's true, though, I suspect that it was seasonally true, and that in the dry seasons, such as England has them, the roads would have been more passable --if dusty.

So what pattern does this all put together for me? Simple: I've been talking about humans "using" the North Sea as though this were a transparent process, when, in fact, to use the sea you have to get through the landscape between dry land and open water. The way has to be opened with tools and work of the hand, and it has to be kept open with taxes. It was once suggested and strongly defended by Richard Hodges, that the sub-Roman period begins with the final collapse of the post-Roman order (at least in those places where that happened, i.e. Britain) c. 450, reaches a denoument sometime in the darkest of dark times, about 550AD, and is then gradually reversed. The mechanism that Hodges saw as key to this reversal is the "emporium," a species of perhaps extraterritorial, perhaps monarchical long-range exchange hub. Not quite a city as we would understand it, emporiums allowed coalescing territorial monarchies to take control of, and extend, prestige building long-distance trade in exotics. At least in my fevered mind, I see a web of connections between long-distance trade and the creation of credit, skills, and knowledge. So this is a big deal.

 If the dark ages are such because Wickhamian flattening causes the end of large social structures (and the hierarchy that makes them possible), then we have an era without, as some are now saying, "production." That is, there is no specialisation, and every household, or at least autonomous collective, makes what it needs. The emporia do not change this so much as they restore hierarchy, which then intervenes to restore specialisation of labour. At this point we reach the final stage in the rise of the territorial monarchy, the creation of royal fortress/cities, or "burghs," which become the ancestors of the medieval cities. The emporia are (mostly) abandoned, and new cities appear, albeit often on the site of former Roman cities. There are guilds to monopolise industry, markets where taxes can be levied, and the medieval feudal state is off to the races.

But this model is under assault, and not just from my unhelpful Monty Python and the Holy Grail call-outs, either. Here's John Moreland (this guy, I assume), with the traditional historian's battle cry against grand explanatory structures: "it's more complicated then that!" For Moreland, signs of increased rural productivity precede the formation of the emporia. Production than moves onto the emporia sites in the years before they were abruptly abandoned. After that, not only to the burghs emerge, often in the course of strife between kings and monasteries over prime locations, but the landscape is drastically reorganised as people abandon old cemeteries, with all their implications as sociocultural anchors, in favour of new burial sites, notably including but not limited to, churchyards.

 But consider the nature of the North Sea littoral. There's water on both sides: on the one side, the kind of water that carries your ship away to every land. On the other, the kind that might support marsh grass, eels, and geese, but constrains the production of grain, cheese and wool. Between them are mud flats, sand dunes, and the like. Nothing that cannot, from place to place, be conquered with a little elbow grease. Now there's landscape reorganisation! It has, of course, to be kept conquered once that is done, but that's not impossible with taxes and parliaments and such, although say good bye to your anarcho-syndicalist commune.

The people who pass from one side to the other, though, they can be a problem. Some are merchants who have, on occasion and through history, objected to paying taxes, sometimes not without effect.

More interestingly, others are fisherfolk. I say interestingly because eventually, quite a number of people passed down the sewers cut with those tax dollars and never came back. Not nearly so many as is sometimes supposed, but quite a number all the same. I'm just going to make a case that this was an incremental process. With all of the fresh water and silt and organic matter pouring into the North Sea, there is a bountiful fishery to be exploited, and if passing from land to water becomes a major production, why not plant oneself on the sea side? The sites where this can be done might not be ideal homes for raising a family, mere sandspits or rocks in the waves,  but you aren't, at first, planning to stay at this "plantation." It might not be the kind of place you can live. And, anyway, the whole logic of your enterprise is that you will be back one day to sell your fish in the market.

How far, and how profitably, can this enterprise of "plantation" be carried? How will the planters interact with the kings and bishops and their markets as they become richer?  Cod and herring and kings and whales. It's going to lead to Vikings if things keep on the way they're going.

The local brand. Why do Europeans add so much sugar?

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