Constance Berman

title.none: Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy (Constance Berman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0404.004 04.04.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constance Berman, University of Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Verhulst, Adriaan. The Carolingian Economy. Series: Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 160. $50.00 0-521-80869-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.04.04

Verhulst, Adriaan. The Carolingian Economy. Series: Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 160. $50.00 0-521-80869-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Constance Berman
University of Iowa

This is a provocative book published in the series Cambridge Medieval Textbooks, a series that often both under-rates the difficulty of its books' content and the importance of its titles for those of us teaching undergraduates and graduate students. Verhulst's is a book that my undergraduates would hate because impenetrable and I know of few graduate students not working directly on the subject who would be patient with it either. Yet it is an absolute must for anyone teaching or researching medieval economic history. Verhulst covers, as he says on page one "the economy of the Carolingian empire", and comes to the conclusion on page 135 that "the Carolingian period as part of a nearly continuous upward movement from the seventh century onwards, at last as far as the northern half of Carolingian Europe is concerned." Given its small size and what appear its generalities, one might be tempted to dismiss it as not very important or to note that one looks in vain for tie-ins to the stunning erudition of Michael McCormick's thousand pages on the Origins of the European Economy. Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 (Cambridge, CUP, 2001). McCormick is pretty obviously not for classroom use--and I really wonder about using Verhulst either. In being overwhelmed perhaps by the ability of McCormick to reintegrate the Mediterranean, we have perhaps missed the considerable new research and debates on the agrarian history of the early Middle Ages which constitutes the work of Verhulst and others on the agrarian history of that other larger than life expanse, the Carolingian, and its unique documents of estate management which nonetheless, as Guy Bois does make clear in an otherwise very irritating little book, constitute only part of the agrarian history of the period.

Yet this may well be even more important, for in its 135 pages of text it provides an introduction in English to the research and debate that has been ongoing since 1965 on the early medieval economy and in particular on just what its estate surveys tell us about economic take-off in the period up to and just beyond the year 1000 AD. In that debate the work of Verhulst has been central. He and other historians working on the evidence from the great Carolingian polyptychs seem now to be in accord in seeing those records as reflecting an evolving system of estate management, an economy which was far from 'enclosed' or 'natural', one in which peasants of whatever legal status had considerable access to money, and in which trade, at least on a local level, was considerable. That this was not an economy that was wholly a subsistence one may come to many of us as a surprise for it is claiming as well that parts of the agricultural revolution usually assigned to the period after the year 1000 had origins in the Carolingian period.

Its difficulties for me undoubtedly come from preconceived ideas drawn from long years of reading and teaching a version of the history of this period that begins with Pirenne and ends too often with Duby, Lopez, and Herlihy, a version that sees little change in the early Middle Ages and that of the Carolingian era abruptly disrupted by new Viking and other raids. Verhulst has by and large converted me to his viewpoint, but only upon my second and third readings and after considerable delving into the citations. This, of course, makes for difficulties in the way we teach--particularly if we split up our courses into Early Medieval and Late Medieval-- but most of us have known for some time that such a periodization no longer works for our particular regions and topics of research. For instance, there is now great debate about the 'feudal revolution' of circa 1000 AD and the European economic take-off has for some time become detached from the efforts of twelfth-century groups like the Cistercians. Economic growth from the viewpoint of the twelfth-century historian can be traced to the eleventh century, but Verhulst's work suggests a beginning even earlier.

Verhulst's book is modest, subtle, non-political--often simply referring to complex debates, such as that at Flaran in 1988 in which the ideas of Robert Fossier, Georges Duby, Guy Bois, Verhulst, and Pierre Toubert were put on display. According to Verhulst, much was resolved at Flaran, by the non-extremist conclusions which Toubert put forward at that conference, published as La Croissance Agricole du Haut Moyen Age: Chronologie, modalites, geographie (Auch, 1990), but in fact, the contributions at that juncture of Verhulst himself were probably also essential to the development of a new moderate view, and it is not clear that there was much consensus at the end of two days. Moreover, would I have understood this except because I could pull the Flaran volume off my shelf? And because I'd given a recent reading to Guy Bois's book on Lournand, which whatever its faults, introduces some of the earlier studies in its notes. Such notions as those of Verhulst and other social and economic historians of the early Middle Ages, however, have difficulty disrupting the earlier discourse because of their subtlty. It is too easy perhaps because of the very technical nature of much of the article, not to understand that a paradigm shift is happening in studies like "Aspects of the Early Medieval Peasant Economy as revealed in the Polyptych of Prum," found in The Medieval World, ed. Peter Linehan and Janet T. Nelson (London, Routledge, 2001) pp. 605-20, where the author says, Historians for a long time viewed the economy and society of the early Middle Ages as static. The peasantry, in particular, were thought to have been not only poor but more or less immobile. Living in a self-sufficient way, they were allegedly sedentary, handing on their plots from father to son with little change. One great achievement of the social-economic historiography of the Middle Ages--a field where enormous progress has been made in recent years--consists in the shattering of this image.

Among those who have shattered it is Verhulst, whose contribution to Morimoto's bibliography here is his chapter in the New Cambridge Medieval History, volume 2, edited by Rosamund McKitterick.

The more one thinks about the work of Verhulst and the scholars he represents in The Carolingian Economy, the more one realizes that if McCormick in his emphasis on Mediterranean trade has totally revised our opinion of Pirenne, so have Verhulst and associates in their concentration on the agrarian economy.