Paolo Squatriti

title.none: Hodges and Bowden, eds., The Sixth Century: Production, Distribution and Demand (Squatriti)

identifier.other: baj9928.9912.003 99.12.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Paolo Squatriti, University of Michigan,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Hodges, Richard and William Bowden, eds. The Sixth Century: Production, Distribution and Demand. TheTransformation of the Roman World, Vol 3. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Pp. iii, 302. $93.00. ISBN: 9-004-10980-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.12.03

Hodges, Richard and William Bowden, eds. The Sixth Century: Production, Distribution and Demand. TheTransformation of the Roman World, Vol 3. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Pp. iii, 302. $93.00. ISBN: 9-004-10980-3.

Reviewed by:

Paolo Squatriti
University of Michigan

A caricature of Henri Pirenne, apparently thumbing his nose at the rest of us, all twelve contributors to The Sixth Century included, is the mysterious frontispiece to this volume. One wonders why it is there, and perplexity thickens when, across from the first page of text, a second image of the Belgian scholar appears, this one less agitated, a commemorative medallion from the Belgian academy in Rome. This second, redundant but more familiar Pirenne, dignified, bespectacled, his aquiline profile etched in the bronze, intensifies curiosity about the expostulating but tuxedoed cartoon character next to the title page. What were the editors of this book, the archaeologists R. Hodges and W. Bowden, seeking to convey? One of the main purposes of The Sixth Century most certainly was to discuss and re-evaluate Pirennian notions of how the economies of western Europe worked in the century before Islam reached the Mediterranean. As Pirenne is a patron saint of this book his double appearance with different iconographies may be justified. But perhaps the prominence of the first picture, reproduced on glossy paper, is due to the editors' realization that it is always Pirenne who gets the last laugh, even after a whole 300-page tome has been dedicated to deconstructing him and his thesis.

For Pirenne was able to produce a coherent, intellectually satisfying, systematic explanation of what happened to the Roman economy in Europe during late Antiquity. His explanation, as The Sixth Century itself demonstrates and as Hodges recognizes (p. 4), still exercises a magnetic pull on scholars. Pirenne may have deliberately misread written evidence of Merovingian trade (S. Loseby points this out on p. 204); Pirenne may also have blithely "forgotten" the sixth century in his zeal to uncover crucial trends in fifth- and seventh-century production and distribution of goods (so Hodges, p. 6). But surely it was his blissful ignorance of the archaeological record, much of which still enjoyed benign neglect when Pirenne wrote, that, more than anything else, liberated him. Before 1945, in a pre-archaeological Golden Age, it was easier to distinguish order, pattern, and coherence than it is today. The contemporary embarrassment of riches means, as C. Wickham points out in the summarizing final chapter to The Sixth Century (endlessly called upon to write such "overviews," he has mastered this difficult art), that regional diversity, the stark difference between what happened in late antique Lombardy, or Ile-de-France, or southern Denmark, is what gets scholars' attention. This holds true even for books, like this one, which can claim to present a "macroscopic view" (p. 292) of the period. In a cramped forest of studies with restricted, regional horizons Pirenne's work stands tall. It is a visible beacon needed even by those who, like Wickham (p. 292) would prefer to let a thousand flowers of regional micro-analysis bloom. (In fairness, in this book Wickham does advance some general hypotheses comparable in scope to Pirenne's, and seems less discouraged than Hodges about contemporary abilities to achieve "reinterpretation on this scale," which instead is "beyond us" for Hodges [p. 5].) Following in the footsteps of the Byzantinist N. Baynes, Wickham ascribes decisive importance to the Vandal occupation of Africa. To do so he breaks out of the chronological straightjacket of the sixth century to move in a looser, longer duree and, echoing R. Durliat in this same volume, he suggests that the shriveling up of the Roman state's non-commercial infrastructure gradually led during the 500s to a crisis in commercial exchanges, whose full implications became evident in the seventh century).

Thus the obvious limitation of this rich and stimulating collection is the lack of unity among the eleven (plus Wickham's conclusion) studies it contains (list of contents at the end of this review). If P. Delogu places Pirenne squarely in the middle of his investigation, uncovering continuities in Pirenne's historiographic approach from his 1895 Institutions urbaines au moyen age forward (Delogu usefully focuses on Pirenne's theory of discontinuity in history), several of the papers barely mention Pirenne at all, and one actually contradicts what Delogu says about Pirenne's anti-Germanism, proposing a very different outcome for the Belgian POW from "the turbulent multinational circumstances of 1916-18" (p.14). Similarily, if African red slipware sherds crop up very regularly in these pages, and almost everyone cites Cristina Panella's concise evaluation of postclassical Mediterranean trade (in Storia di Roma 3.2 [Turin, 1993], pp. 613-97), neither economic production, nor distribution, and especially not demand get concerted attention in all chapters to The Sixth Century. C. Bertelli's workmanlike account of book production in the period, based mostly on Italian sources, stands out for its disinterest in archaeological data and the exchange of goods; "book ownership and production" (p. 41) are his concern.

Despite such marked heterogeneity in the approaches and subject matter of the twelve chapters in The Sixth Century, there are nevertheless some common denominators. J. Durliat's chapter on "The Conditions of Commerce in the Sixth Century" (which agrees in most respects with D. Claude's 1985 Der Haendel im westlichen Mittelmeer waehrend des Fruehmittelalters), F. Marazzi's on Italy (pp. 119-59--an especially ambitious and interesting chapter whose point is that one should"forget" the sixth century, as Pirenne is said to have, since its developments were predetermined in the fifth century), and S. Gutierrez Lloret's on eastern Spain (pp. 161-84) combine nicely; they bring out the contrast between Mediterranean coastal areas, where long distance trade (i.e. African red slipware sherds) continued, river-served centers, with minimal use of imported pottery, and inland, landlocked areas where long before 600 people used local pottery. Indeed Wickham identifies the coast-inland dichotomy as one of the central "complexities" The Sixth Century unveils (pp. 286-9). Though there is some danger of environmental determinism here, partly because of the assumption that geographical structures shaped distribution patterns in the 500s without any analysis of the workings of water, wind, and earth in the western Mediterranean, this is certainly an insight that eluded Pirenne.

The Merovingian commonwealth is another theme unifying several chapters; K. Randsborg and U. Naesman both describe Scandinavian integration into the world of the Germanic regna, stressing the power of Francia as a creator and distributor of objects and values usable (and modifiable) by south Scandinavian people. I. Wood confirms the centrality of Francia with his neat demonstration that closer to Francia, just east of the Rhine, the diplomatic successes of Merovingian rulers correlate with archaeologically-attested changes in metalwork of the transrhenish areas (as Marazzi treats Ostrogothic diplomacy only tangentially, The Sixth Century offers little on the effort to construct an Ostrogothic alternative to Frankish hegemony). Both S. Lebecq's lucid, well-argued analysis of the mounting weight of regional trade networks in the Loire-to-Rhine fertile crescent, and S. Loseby's enlightening discussion of recent archaeological findings in Marseille further the sense that during the 500s Francia mattered most.

In the end this is a Francio-centric collection, and those desiring to know how production, distribution, and demand might have worked in Britain, or Ireland, or in Visigothic Iberia will have to seek elsewhere. Another victim of the scattershot approach created by a heterogeneous collection of studies is the Slavic world. Actually, the Slavs do get mentioned quite often (there are ten entries under "Slavic societies" in the index). In Naesman's account of Danish involvement in European affairs the Slavs (with the Avars) are a main character, cutting Scandinavia off from the Balkan Mediterranean sources of prestige goods and symbols, and causing Scandinavian societies to swivel westward, re-orienting their culture to become mainstream Europeans (esp. p. 271 and 278). As Wickham warns in his conclusion, the Slavs tend to appear as an alien force in such reconstructions (p. 281). This is particularly true because eastern and Balkan European areas, and their economic systems, are left out by The Sixth Century, remaining mysterious peripheries, useful "bogey men" to explain trends in the metropolitan core of "real" Europe. A further blind spot in the coverage of this book is demography, a subject whose pertinence when addressing questions of production and demand, if not distribution, should be considerable. The Justinianic plague is mentioned on p. 97, but as evidence of commercial contacts and the dichotomy between coast and inland zones. Though readers are assured that "theories of demographic catastrophe popular a decade ago seem to have been abandoned" (p. 291), some more detailed discussion of population levels would have been useful. Naesman (p. 273-4) and Marazzi (p. 123, 147) suggest stability or advise agnosticism, but do not delve deeply in the issue.

The Sixth Century is the third of seventeen projected volumes in the series "The Transformation of the Roman World." The series is supposed to divulge, in select languages like English and French, the findings of a mastodontic research project on western European history between the third and ninth centuries A.D., lavishly funded by the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg. For five years in the mid-nineties scores of European scholars, and a few from elsewhere, interacted under the auspices of the ESF. The ultimate purpose of these encounters was to ascertain "the impact of the Germanic migration and settlement" and whether this "impact caused a major disruption" in the Roman world, in the words of I. Wood, the English scholar with the largest responsibilities in organizing, overseeing, and publishing the findings of the research project (see Early Medieval Europe 6 (1997), 217-27 for his account of the endeavor). Thus an institution with a vested interest in the unification and integration processes under way in Europe today decided to fund an investigation of a period in European history wherein many have sought the origins of Europe's commonality. Ironically the results of this effort suggest that striking differences among Europe's regions were far more prominent than European universalisms or unities, or what Hodges calls "the romance of European collaboration" (p. 4-5). To quote Wood once more, the project showed that there is "not one jigsaw to be reconstructed, but a number of possible jigsaws" ( EME, p. 226), while it was "not in presenting a coherent new interpretation of the period" that the project excelled ( EME, p. 227). Hodges' introduction and Wickham's conclusion to The Sixth Century both echo Wood's observations, and assert the tenaciously regional nature of Europe's economic systems after about 550. Wickham invites future research to focus on regional "microeconomic" analyses. The Sean Conneries, Umberto Bossis, and other regional separatists of Europe might cheer upon learning what so much EU money has obtained. The mischievous Pirenne introducing The Sixth Century might smile too.


Richard Hodges, "Henri Pirenne and the question of demand in the sixth century."

Paolo Delogu, "Reading Pirenne again."

Carlo Bertelli, "The production and distribution of books in Antiquity."

Klavs Randsborg, "The Migration Period: model history and treasure."

Jean Durliat, "Les conditions du commerce au VIe siecle."

Federico Marazzi, "The destinies of the Late Antique Italies: politico-economic developments of the sixth century."

Sonia Gutierrez Lloret, "Eastern Spain in the sixth century in the light of archaeology."

Stephane Lebecq, "Les echanges dans la Gaule du Nord au VIe siecle: une histoire en miettes."

Simon Loseby, "Marseille and the Pirenne Thesis, I: Gregory of Tours, the Merovingian kings and 'un grand port'."

Ian Wood, "The frontiers of western Europe: developments east of the Rhine in the sixth century."

Ulf Nasman, "The Justinianic era of south Scandinavia: an archaeological view."

Chris Wickham, "Overview: production, distribution and demand."