Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Flatness and Walls: The Fall of Rome, III

Cities have walls. Romance says that they are for defence. A careful study, or lived experience, suggests that they have other purposes as well. The doyens of early modern urban history have said as much, and I've had the pleasure of sitting in Christopher Friedrich's seminar and having it drilled in to me. Walls constitute community; make statements about inclusion and exclusion; and serve very practical financial considerations by providing a convenient place to levy tariffs. (That last thought, while we're talking about intellectual lineages, probably comes from half-remembered readings (here? Or is this just a good book to read?) and discussions directed by Robert Kubicek, Janis Langins, and Bert Hall.) Walls also contain all-too-human life. Without a wall, what's to prevent a person from escaping, as well as their debts, their very identity, and come back with a new one that profits them more, and you less?

So three issues that don't always seem to come together: money, the fussiness of intellectual lineages, the age-old human impulse to run for the hills, to "live off the grid," so quiet and low that they can't find you. And two overwhelming facts: first, in the course of the third century --perhaps in an intense burst of activity lasting no more than 80 years beginning in 200AD-- Roman cities throughout the Empire were given walls, a local imperative, locally financed, probably in part locally motivated. Second, beginning at some point in the fifth century, conventionally after 410AD (even though we are no longer even completely certain that this is when Roman Britain was "abandoned," for which Wikipedia says see this) the cities were, it seems according to some enigmatic archaeological evidence, all but abandoned. At the same time, we stop finding pottery in deposit layers in the Roman countryside.

Two crazy things that happened? Or one thing that follows on another?

I've made fun of Chris Wickham several times on this blog for arguing that the archaeological evidence can best be explained by  some degree of exodus from the cities and depopulation of the countryside because of the collapse of social inequality. I need to fix this. The last thing I want is to be smitten from on high by Dr. Wickham. (That's a complete lie, of course. Any kind of attention is good attention, and a bolt from Wickham would be second best to having Zombie Fernand Braudel posting comments.)

So what am I arguing? I didn't just link to Shapin, Sherratt, Mudrew and Latour last time because I'm off my meds. Rather, it's because I used to frequent used book stores. The idea is that you have lot of paperbacks that you have read, and you want to get rid of them and get new ones. So you take them to your local store. Forty dollars of cover value gets you $20 of store credit, which you spend on books with $30 cover value. Throw in another book bought with cash, and you have another week's reading. Or maybe you end up blowing some real money by buying more books. Or you might get a discounted cash payment. On the contrary, you might carry your store credit over until next time. One of the books you buy, or one that you sold, might be a collector's item, worth far more than it seems. The thing about store credit is that we treat it as money. Sometimes it is money, sometimes it isn't, but how it is or isn't money is situated within your relationship with a specific book store or its owner.

To really savour this example, I'd focus on a hobby store. Too bad that I don't know this milieu so well, because what I love Bruno Latour is that he takes us up into the realms of pure science, and then down into a world where scientists put hands on hands to teach new techniques for extracting a newly discovered endocrine. In a hobby store where you bought and sold painted and unpainted miniatures, I would be able to add manual skills to this nexus and really clarify the relationship between the exchange of goods, cash, and useful skills/knowledge.

How did Roman economic life work? The presentist assumption is that items had prices established by haggling and were exchanged by price or by barter. Craig Muldrew demonstrates that, on the contrary, as late as the 1700s, much exchange was by credit --store money, in effect. For Muldrew (and Karl Polanyi before him), this exchange is socially embedded. What I think Sherratt, Shapin and Latour do is to bring skills and knowledge into this. Sherratt in particular shows, if I am not exaggerating, is that long distance exchange is necessary to the building of social status, while Shapin demonstrates that social inequality is necessary to the creation of valid knowledge. So, in other words, the "Roman" countryside contains an embedded network of exchange of power, knowledge, skills and, of course, goods, all done through "store credit."

We can see that the  Romans built walls around their cities in order to capture exchange within the monetary economy. I mean, that's obvious, right? If you have to pay a tariff in coin to get to the market inside the city walls, then the market is monetarised by that alone. This creates demand for coin as much as it collects it. Because, if the store credit system is extensive enough, it might well be that even major economic actors can do without coin, when the price is wrong.

So I'm imagining a countryside being run on store credit, cities on cash. Is there any evidence of this? We don't even know how heavily and extensively populated the Roman countryside was! After all, it is hard to draw an archaeologically complete picture of a past moment in time. Ideally you'd like to strip a county or a country down to its "Roman" strata all at once, inspect it for postholes, fencelines, ditches and broken pottery, but that's technologically beyond us for now. Potter and Johns point to African archaeological evidence and talk about the boundary between Roman landholding and "tribal" as being about 10 miles out from the centre of each town. At this point we're back at the current state of the art for studies of the Neolithic agricultural revolution. Far from being an economic universe, the Roman economy is an archipelago in an ocean of ..well, "store credit."

Why did this happen?  Potter and Johns notice that early evidence for the beginning of the abandonment of the Roman cities begins fairly immediately after the surge in wall-building activity. Simultaneously, we see the rise of a "villa"culture. Since the English country house is beloved, and the role of the villa in the life of the Roman senatorial elite is well known, this phenomena often goes unremarked, except for the central heating and beautiful mosaics worshiped by mad snake-worshipping cultists. Everyone likes to talk about how comfortable the villas must have been. I personally wonder if even within the limits of the period, we're not making too much of things. Why did British builders give up on  hypocausts? (They're apparently well known in Inuit architecture, so it is not as though it's a matter of technological decay. I note that the "Anglo-Saxon" presence in Britain is often diagnosed by the appearance of basements --er, "pit houses." Maybe we're even seeing --dare I say it-- technological progress?) More broadly, did the villas make sense as part of a new, integrated Roman lifestyle in Britain? The fact that they disappeared here, and not elsewhere, might be symptomatic, rather than diagnostic, of the transition to sub-Roman times that we're trying to get a handle on.

The flip side of this sudden burgeoning of villas and abrupt subsequent decline is the apparent first signs of decay in Roman cities, and the final collapse. Here, again, comparison is helpful. Both French and British Roman cities acquired, in order, walls, bishops, shrunken enceintes, and "barbarian" overlords. But the upshot is that the British Roman cities failed, while the continental ones did not. We have continuous lists of the bishops of K├Âln, Trier and Aachen going back to Roman times. By way of contrast, the archbishop of York and  Bishop of London never even invented such continuities at times when it might have served their political purpose. In some ways the discontinuities between Roman and sub-Roman times seems as complete in Britain as it does in post-Islamic Africa.

Now, maybe we're going too far. This is to take the "Dark Earth"  that intervenes between Roman and Anglo-Saxon times as diagnostic as a period of complete urban neglect not found on the continent, and there's any number of reasons for being more careful with this conceptual resource than some people have been. Continental archaeologists haven't been looking for it, and it is defined as not containing datable elements, even though we can hardly be certain that every dig has screened it seriously for datable elements. Conversely, we also find a collapse in the number of objectively datable elements in countryside field surveys: no pottery, no coins.

As I have said before, that is explicable in three ways as far as I can see it. First, people were living more lightly on the land, and in particular using fewer coins and pots. Second, they've all gone elsewhere. Somewhere. Perhaps somewhere naturally convenient for stock raising, in which case we'd be hooped looking for evidence of them unless we could find some kind of manure layer on an unexpected archaeological horizon. Third, we're looking at a demographic decline. Wickham comes out for demographic decline. The withdrawal of taxation not only causes the collapse of local hierarchy (no state extracting surplus production, no need for local bigwigs to collect it), and the end of the demand for more production, hence more labour, means that people have fewer children, and population declines.

The root explanation for the demographic decline I find persuasive --as I never fail to point out, I find much of what Wickham says persuasive--. It's the failure of hierarchy that I doubt on the grounds that I fail to see how knowledge and skills can exist without it. Get away from my airy-fairy concerns, and I'll point to the survival of transhumant cycles that draw together regions twenty miles and more apart. That means local government, to my mind.  

Take it another way, and consider seriously that the Roman problem might be as much one of forcing coinage on a local economy that might not want to use it as it was to extract it after it had gone into circulation. Are the villas not, above all, a radical extension of Romanitas into the countryside? I'm saying that there is a wrong way to do that, a way that just threatens to undermine the social context of skills/knowledge/social hierarchy accumulation and transmission embedded in the "store credit" society. There's room here to see a gradual demographic decline (as opportunity for paid labour is foreclosed?), which is why I've put that in my hypothesis. But mainly the scenario I am envisaging here is more the emergence of an at least passively insurgent civil society. It doesn't pay to cooperate with the Romans, so you do it to the minimum extent necessary.

So why is the collapse of Rome so much more complete in some places than in others? Uhm, horses. Also, the Archbishop of York thing. But first I want to look at the fifth century hoards (and some fourth century evidence), because the big hole that I see in this arguments still is the question of why Roman coins might not pass.

Well, yes, inflation. But it's a little more complicated than that. At least, this Early Modernist thinks so.

Then I can blather about when the cities came back, and how that might have caused Vikings.


  1. Total Information Awareness, otherwise known as Taxpayer Income Assessment.

  2. Obviously, only fools hoard coin in an inflation.