Friday, May 12, 2017

God Speed the Plough: Swords Into Ploughshares

Because Superman is based on Moses, and Thor is based on, well, Thor. 
At his Temple of A Million Years at Medinet Habu, Ramesses III (r. 1186--1155 BC) celebrates his victory over an enemy who comes from the midst of the sea. No further details are necessary here, since this isn't a discussion of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. What matters here is that some of them appear to be wearing horned helmets.

This isn't a post about Vikings, either. It isn't even about Gaston Maspero, the Paris-born son of Jews of Italian origin, who, after a youth spend assisting a wealthy dilettante seeking the Aryan roots of Peruvian Indian languages, went on to be the long-lasting Director of Antiquities in Egypt and the author of multi-volume histories of the ancient Near East, as well as of an 1881 article that popularised the idea that there existed such a thing as the "Sea Peoples." It's not even about the regional conflicts in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century France about which Maspero was so clearly actually writing. ("Vikings" are "Normans," and there's a big to-do about there being Normans in northern France and not southern France, which shows that the south's relative economic backwardness isn't about policy favouring the north, but rather about race.)

It's about ploughs.

They  had image scraping in 1947, too! I'm sure that this is the Country Life in question. The image comes from F. G. Payne's 1947 article in The Archaeological Journal, "The Plough in Ancient Britain," which is widely available on the Interwebs as a pdf, not that has helped in the slightest.

I am going to quote Dr. Payne a bit more to make it clear where this is going. The article linked in the caption above is a 1947 article was inspired by E. Cecil Curwin's 1927 Antiquity paper, "Prehistoric Agriculture in Britain." You're on your own for non-Payne inspired takes on Curwin's work, although here's a two-paragraph 1955 review of his 1949 synoptic monograph.

Payne's summary of Curwin is admirably succinct:

1. The type of plough used determines the shape and characteristics of the field.
2. The type of plough is itself determined by, and can be inferred from the share type.
3. Pre-Saxon shares found in Britain simply scratched a groove instead of cutting a furrow-slice; the ploughs to which they were fitted did not turn the slice and clear the furrow.
4. Saxon ploughs used only broad-bladed shares which undercut the slice, the slice being turned.
5. The Celts used only two-ox teams and light ploughs.
6. The Saxons used only eight-ox teams and heavy ploughs.
The broad implication is that lazy Celts with their light ploughs worked similarly light soils in square fields (which are bad), and were replaced by the incoming Anglo-Saxons as much because the Anglo-Saxons had the tools to work the low-lying clay lands of the river valleys of eastern England as because of that little spot of anti-Celtic genocide with which the incoming Teutons lightened the mood of a pretty dark era of human history.

Payne's summary is succinct because this was old news by 1927. That's why there's a link to Houston Chamberlain's Foundations of the Nineteenth Century above. Curwin isn't some abominable, old style racist, but the racial element is pretty clear. In the end, Payne does himself no favours by positioning himself as the defender of the honour of the Welsh people against "English" racists. (Anti-Welsh racism was a thing in the Nineteenth Century United Kingdom, just as northern French writers were not averse to portraying the people of Occitan as being a (((typically Mediterranean race.))) Just four years after Curwen, the French historian, Marc Bloch, would write an entire book devoted largely to the idea that it was the soil that determined the choice of plough, so that northern French farmers, with their heavy iron ploughs, were not racially superior to work-averse (((southern French farmers))), but, rather, were blessed with the kind of heavy soils that required heavy ploughs. From this accident of geography, then, flowed the different cultures of north and south, the different village organisations, even the different economic fates of the two regions. (Heavy soils make for "high trust societies," in the current jargon.)

You can tell that they live in a village society organised into communes, on account of the wheel.

Fighting in both world wars,and then joining the Resistance, Bloch defended his decision not to go into exile by saying that "I was born in France, I have drunk the waters of her culture. I have made her past my own. I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests." 

F. G. Payne would have applauded, even if his detailed work on ploughs, old and new, was pretty devastating to this deterministic narrative. 

Then, in 1962, Lynn White, a professor at UCLA, and the supervisor of my PhD supervisor, published a book based on these ideas, and others that he had been tossing off in lectures for decades. You've probably heard most of  them, and perhaps seen some of them refuted. Last week, however, a 2013 study "confirming" White's thesis that the invention of the heavy plough at just the right moment, changed everything, floated to the top of the Internet. (At least, my top, by which I mean Brad Delong featured it over at Grasping Reality.) The study, by a team of Danish archaeologists demonstrated an intensification of agricultural use of clayey "luvisols" at the turn of the last millennium could be correlated with an increase in population density and settlement size. The invention of the "heavy plough" really did make a difference, after all.

Well, uhm, actually. . .  This is old news for archaeologists of soil, but the anthropogenic soils of the Northern Isles are pretty much the opposite of interesting. While the deep soils of the Isles were created by systematic soil enriching with maritime refuse, most "dark earth" is produced by shifting cultivation. Evidence for shifting cultivation in the north would seem to imply that early Scandinavian history is about low-impact, mobile swidden farmers who burned forest, cultivated with "scratch ploughs" and moved on. ("Swidden" is the most plausible etymology for "Sweden," for example.) We don't like that theory, because it gets in the way of our vigorous Teutons bringing new technology to the soils of northwestern Europe.
Roman coulter. 

What? You say. I'm lost, you say. Anglo-Saxons aren't Vikings, you say. And I say, shut up. Blonde, big, burly beasts full of Nordic vigour. What's the difference? A few centuries? Pff.

The problem with this is, in the strong Curwin thesis, we can tell what kind of plough people used from the remains before us, and there are some pretty darn honking big Roman ploughs in (presumed) blacksmith hoards from Roman Britain. Also, we have some descriptions from the Roman agronomists which make it clear that some Roman ploughs had wheels. Checkmate, technological determinists!

So in the revised theory, the Romans had heavy ploughs and . . . people. . . in the high Middle Ages (900? 1000? 1100? Somewhere in there) had heavy ploughs, and, in between, there was this mysterious period that I'm going to call a dark age, on account of us not having any data, in which period everyone gave up on heavy ploughs because they were too much work and stuff. Maybe because no taxes? Or because rampaging Anglo-Saxons were taking everybody's stuff? I dunno. It's dark.

Well, now there's archaeology come to save us:

Source: I think that this is an Antiquity advance post, and so might be taken down later.

Lyminge, Kent, is a pretty famous place, as the history of Anglo-Saxon England goes.

By JTA at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Drilnoth using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,
a little town on a crossing of the Elham river about five miles from Folkestone in southeastern Kent, it was the site of an abbey built for Ethelburgha of Kent, daughter of Aethelberht, first Christian king of Kent, and wife of Edwin of Northumbria. Whether and to what extent Lyminge Abbey was the a pioneering Christian establishment in Anglo-Saxon England is a bit controversial, but Ethelburgha's prominence in Bede's narrative is as good as reality in this case; besides, firsts are a lot less important than the prominence of queen and dynasty. Archaeology has been looking for important Anglo-Saxon remains at Lyminge for a while, and has, in general, found them.

The coulter is not as dramatic as the presumptive first royal feasting hall in England (remember that the existence of such edifices has been called into question), but it is certainly a big deal for the history of ploughs. The Lyminge coulter weighes 6.5kg, is 680mm long, only slightly smaller than the largest Roman coulter blade found in Britain, and not much smaller than the typical high medieval blade. Examination with modern techniques helps illuminate why this is so, showing that the blade was forged of three billets in a three-smith operation. Having three smiths at hand (and some very good iron smelters, so as to produce >2kg billets) isn't much by modern industrial standards, but they speak to a pretty high level of organisation for a "dark age" farm.

Also, it kind of throws the technological determinism angle for a loop. If there's one thing we can safely say about the social and economic changes that took place at the turn of the millennium, it is that it was not caused by disrupting tech bros innovating by moving fast and breaking stuff.

Or to put it in the spirit of the exasperated "Marxists" who responded to White: For fuck's sake, inventors aren't real!

What is going on with the Lyminge coulter? First, some neat graphics:

This graphic is taken from Michael Fulford and Martyn Allen, "Introduction: Population and the Dynamics of Change in Roman South-Eastern England," 1--14 in Agriculture and Industry in South-Easttern Roman Britain, ed. David Bird. Oxford: Oxbow, 2017. Their point is to show that there was extensive settlement buildup in southeastern England in the first century of Roman occupation that went into remission after about 150AD, and that it is best explained by immigration of Romans into England, and then their departure, presumably as the Roman army was drawn down. This is reflected by changes in settlement density; and, just perhaps, a change in usage of the Wealden forests from iron-making to coppice-forest for saltmaking.

Kent is not just a name. It is a wedge of good agricultural land between the high forests of the Weald and the Thames Valley. The Weald has extensive minor iron deposits and lots of wood for charcoal-making, so it is a natural location for a folk iron industry; while Kent is a good place both to farm and to send goods across the Channel, which requires boats, which require iron nails and stuff. Kent's openness to trade with France is why Christianity spread there in the first place. I don't know that the story of this giant coulter is as simple as one of having access to materials, skills and the motivation to use them to make a big plough, but that's what I'm going to go with.

At this point, I'm going to turn the blog over to a scholar I all-too briefly considered and dismissed two years ago. As is my way, and the UBC library's way, I've held Thomas Bisson's The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship and the Origins of European Government (2009) in my "to be returned" pile ever since. If anyone has wanted to see it, they've been too polite to recall it. Then I hauled it out to read while out at breakfast (medieval history impresses the chicks!), as I do, and found that, after a pussyfooting and tractionless introduction, Bisson has something pretty damn solid to say.

The basic point here is that Carolingian Europe seems pretty damned organised and stable. There's a reason that there was a vogue for a "Carolingian Renaissance" a generation agio. There then followed the "Feudal anarchy of the year 1000," before, finally, a recovery of government and order in the twelfth century. The paradox has always been that the "feudal anarchy" period is one in which dramatic changes took place in the visible record of northwestern European society. Many of the towns, parishes and place names that can be historically traced seem to have been founded during the "anarchy." As long as we focussed on the racial argument, this could be plausibly explained as an invasion by Nordics who then divided the land between themselves. It wasn't a good explanation, since the trend extended well beyond Norman territories, but it was an explanation.

A better one, as it turns out, is that there was rapid economic growth in this period. Both the deep anthropogenic soils of the Isles and the intensification of the use of "luvisoils" points to this, although there is  much other evidence as well.

Bisson's explanation is that evidence of "anarchy" that we use is actually evidence of conflict over the right way of taxing (exploiting) the rapidly increasing production of the land. This isn't, strictly speaking, an explanation for the rapidly growing economy of c. 850--1200, although Bisson does come down strongly in favour of the idea that the accounts and audits that begin to show up in the archives after about 1120 or so are evidence of better management as well as of a new and stabilised modus vivendi for local government. What he is saying is that Carolingian ideologies of rulership, and the kind of estate-management documents we have from this period (culminating in the Domesday Book) were adequate to a static economy. Whether they would have failed in the face of gradual growth, or whether they failed because growth took off, is beyond Bisson to say.

What I hope can be said, and is long past saying, is that we can get rid of the racialised, Vikingised history along with the technological determinism, in favour of a deeper explanation of this episode of growth, one that takes administrative institutions into account.

Which, by the way, a bit of technological determinism aside, is what Lynn White was trying to say before people jumped in on "They invented horsecollars and then everything changed, yo!"

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