The Medieval Review 10.09.14

Arnoux, Matheiu and Anne-Marie Flambard Héricher, eds. La Normandie dans l'économie européenne (XIIe-XVIIe siècle). Caen: Peblications du CRAHM, 2010. Pp. 224. . $55 ISBN 978-2-902685-69-1.

Reviewed by:

Rick Keyser
Western Kentucky University

This compact volume comprises a dozen essays from a conference of 2006, plus an introduction and a conclusion. Although this collection's focus on the economy of Normandy between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries endows it with obvious geographical and chronological coherence, thematically and methodologically its contents are richly diverse. This variety derives both from the range of topics explored, which include taxation, markets, animal husbandry, industry, and foreign trade and exploration, and from the interdisciplinary methods of many of the authors, whose discussions integrate textual analysis with the insights of numismatics, archeology, geology, and other fields. The reader also comes to appreciate the difficulties of research into these topics because of the methodologically self-reflective approach taken by the authors, most of whom are recent Ph.D.'s or are otherwise actively involved in cutting-edge research. Thus while the Norman focus helps to delimit a vast field, this collection has more than regional significance, as a sampling of the topics, methods, and challenges of current work in economic history.

The introduction and conclusion set the tone for the volume's reflective style, asking probing questions about what it means to investigate a region's economy. Mathieu Arnoux's introduction points out that historians have rarely studied the economic history of entire regions like Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, etc., preferring instead to focus either on such smaller units as bishoprics or counties, or on specialized sectors, like maritime trade, textiles, or mining. Yet, as he notes, Normandy and other French provinces had distinct histories between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, when they took part in a larger French economic space, but without being fully integrated into a single national market that was just emerging towards the end of this period. Arnoux argues that Normandy shows several particularities, including precocious monetarization, productive industries, and dynamic networks of exchange, that linked localities with wider currents of exchange. Along with an advantageous location between Paris and the English Channel, these factors helped make Normandy a net exporter of goods.

Jacques Bottin's conclusion is more critical of a regional approach to economic history. Reminding us that the idea of a "regional economy" is just an analytical tool, he points out that the leading suppliers of such trade goods as textiles, metals, and animal products were usually based in local areas smaller than an entire region, and yet these zones of intensive production were linked among themselves in ways that crossed administrative boundaries. Similarly, trade networks reflected relations among towns whose roles were shaped less by regional boundaries than by their geographic location and their rank within local and supra-regional urban hierarchies. Bottin also notes that many of the administrative sources on which the contributors to this volume depend are more informative about institutions that sought to organize and exploit the economy than about economic practices themselves. Their normative character, based on "an internal logic of formal reproduction," often masks conjunctural change and misrepresents the quantitative aspects of the "real" economy (213-14). The inability of scholars to quantify reliably many of the activities they describe, a problem that applies to most of the period before the eighteenth century, renders economic analysis difficult indeed. Finally, he points out that although archeology allows us to go beyond written sources for activities that leave behind durable artifacts, such as pottery and metallurgy, it is of less help for analyzing others, such as the textile industry.

While I find all of Bottin's points valuable, it is important to note (as he does in passing), that the problem of administratively-biased sources to which he refers derives from the choices of this volume's contributors, many of whom use these top-down texts to present succinct overviews of a particular activity or institution. Five essays focus heavily on such sources, including two that examine local markets or fairs and three that study taxes. But even in these cases the authors are aware of their sources' limitations and usually supplement them with other approaches. Moreover, for most of the authors normative sources are less central, whether because they emphasize archeology or because they rely more on other kinds of texts, such as contracts of sale, lease, or mortgage, which offer evidence closer to economic practice. Although contracts themselves do not bulk large in this volume, several authors exploit them to show, for example, that merchants of Caen used leases of dairy cows as short-term investments (Christophe Maneuvrier), or that an iron smelter had fallen into debt to a merchant of Rouen (Danielle Arribet-Deroin).

This collection is oriented towards the medieval period, privileging above all the late Middle Ages (ca. 1300-1500): seven of the twelve essays concentrate on the pre-1500 period, five of which are explicitly late-medieval in focus. While none of the twelve essays are exclusively modern, the remaining five span both the medieval and modern periods to explore monetary or industrial history. Topically, the volume does not pretend to encyclopedic completeness, but rather focuses on industry, trade, money, and taxation. Although these emphases are not explicitly discussed within the book, its title suggests that they reflect a decision to concentrate on aspects of Normandy's history that linked it to, or allow comparisons with, the wider European economy. From this perspective more might be done, as Bottin remarks (212-16), with maritime trade and the role of Rouen as Normandy's biggest port, but Philippe Cailleux's essay, which seems to have been added after the conference, partly fills these gaps. Perhaps more significant is the book's neglect of settlement patterns, agriculture, village artisanal production, and other aspects of the rural economy, topics which are vital for any full view of a region's economy. Contemporary French historians, however, often examine such matters as discrete subjects in their own right. [1]

As the availability of abstracts of these essays on the University of Caen's website ( dispenses me from having to provide detailed summaries here, in what follows I briefly note some of their most salient conclusions, particularly those with methodological implications. The first two essays take up fiscal or monetary problems. Élisabeth Lalou's essay reviews earlier work to emphasize Normandy's wealth and efficient taxation: over the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it usually provided about one- fourth of the French monarchy's income, and this notwithstanding recurrent resistance. In his analysis of the circulation of foreign coins, Jérôme Jambu notes that both coin finds and written sources have their biases as evidence of actual circulation. For example, while foreign coins circulated very freely in Normandy, this fact was often hidden in the tax revenues sent to Paris, since foreign bullion was normally first recoined as French money. Particularly after the mid-sixteenth century, Normandy's openness to the outside world helped enable the royal government, which lacked its own sources of gold, to supply its needs by melting down Iberian coins that arrived on French shores through trade.

The next two essays turn to rural markets and fairs. Isabelle Theiller's overview of weekly markets stresses that from at least the thirteenth century market regulations formed part of royal or public law, but were set apart by their own type of jurisdiction and set of procedures in a way that was analogous to feudal law. She argues that though the Norman market system may have developed sooner than in other parts of France, it operated in ways that fit the patterns observed by scholars in England and other western countries: seigneurial or royal oversight, local, customary regulation, and similar temporal and spatial distribution. Denise Angers' essay helps to flesh out some of these ideas with a case study of a single, fourteenth-century rural bourg, or small town (Tilly-sur-Seulles), and its weekly market and two annual fairs. In an appendix she edits texts that describe the lord's rights and the customs due on transactions on these occasions.

The fifth and sixth contributions also examine trade, but from an urban vantage point. Philippe Cailleux structures his analysis of Rouen's Vicomté de l'Eau, which had jurisdiction over the city's riverine and--notwithstanding its name--terrestrial trade with the outside world, around a comparison of two different kinds of late medieval account book. One type records the total revenues and expenses of the three-year "farms" of taxes on the movement of ships and goods, while another much more detailed one registers day-by-day the fees paid by named individuals or companies for bringing specific types and quantities of merchandise into Rouen. Cailleux's discussion highlights the interpretive challenges these sources pose, noting for example the difficulty of determining the total amount of taxes paid on specific kinds of trade because the tax farmers often left out or reported inconsistently the sums they received from judicial fines and those they paid out to ecclesiastical and other beneficiaries of royal largesse.

Laurence Jean-Marie's essay uses documents that record the "customs" due on market transactions to compare and contrast commerce in three cities in western or Lower Normandy (Basse-Normandie): Caen, Failaise, and Lisieux. She argues that evidence of complementary specializations, e.g. that the cattle and beef market was most developed in Caen, the leather market in Lisieux, and the fur trade in Falaise, suggests that at least western Normandy constituted an integrated economic region. Maritime trade with England, western France, and elsewhere was also significant, apparently more so than exchange with Rouen or other places in eastern or Upper Normandy (Haute-Normandie) or Paris. Jean-Marie is careful, however, to note the limits of these normative texts. Thus the names and categories of merchandise vary from one text to another, and tax revenues leave out many parties who enjoyed exemptions for what they acquired for their own needs.

Christophe Maneuvrier's piece on commercial livestock raising ("l'élevage spéculatif") is the first of five that examine specific types of production, and the one most focused on the agrarian economy. It also provides the strongest evidence for the existence, at least in some sectors, of an integrated Norman economy. He uncovers documentary evidence of specialized cattle-raising in parts of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century western Normandy, where large tracts of land were put to the plow only intermittently, leaving them as pasture for fifteen out of every eighteen years or so. Many of these cattle were destined for urban markets as far away as Rouen, in eastern Normandy. Other, more wooded areas of western Normandy specialized in pasturing pigs, which likewise supplied distant urban markets. Human pressure on eastern Norman woodlands effectively removed them from competing in this market. As Maneuvrier argues, these specializations and commercial flows, along with the urban investment in dairy cows mentioned earlier, demonstrate that the livestock sector of the rural economy was much more dynamic than the traditional, pessimistic view would have it.

The next four essays each tackle one type of industry. Danielle Arribet-Deroin investigates the iron industry in the pays of Bray in eastern Normandy, where in the mid-fifteenth century iron masters from Belgium introduced new blast furnace technology. This local industry's modest efflorescence lasted only about a century, however, because rising firewood prices and perhaps a lower quality ore made Bray less competitive than, for example, southeast England's Weald, where many of the workers migrated. Arribet-Deroin draws on documents to identify workers, date iron mills, and to note a few of their local markets and financial difficulties. But she also uses excavations and chemical analyses to reconstruct industrial techniques and other matters overlooked in the written sources, such as the layout, dimensions, and materials used in foundries and hydraulic refining mills, and even the quality and approximate volume of production. Further research utilizing the "chemical signature" of Bray iron may be able to track the distribution and latter uses of its iron bars and rods.

Laurent Dujardin's study of the trade in Caen's building stone similarly combines documentary sources with other research tools, but here these come from the somewhat less technical fields of geography and geology. This essay surveys a vast period, beginning with the limited evidence for a modest use of Caen stone in antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Exports boomed with the economic revival of the eleventh century, especially after the Norman Conquest made this stone more available to English builders, and it is still used widely today. Its use over long periods means, however, that caution is required in dating Caen stone found in buildings today.

Jean-Louis Roch explores a transformation of Rouen's cloth industry at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the spread of fulling mills and demand for lighter, cheaper textiles threatened the city's traditional emphasis on heavy, high-priced, foot-fulled cloth. His analysis is based on municipal deliberations, which record fascinating debates among workers, merchants, town counselors, and royal agents. Allowing him "to get behind normative sources and access actors' economic consciousness" (154), these debates show that new regulations emerged from a series of compromises and gradual, back-and-forth adjustments, as various interest groups made their voices heard and were accommodated. In the end, the city center held on to its high-end production, while suburban and rural cloth making focused on the newer, cheaper styles.

Anne-Marie Flambard-Héricher and Anne Bocquet-Liénard use both texts and archeology to tackle a fourth industry, the late medieval development of stoneware pottery in the pays of Isigny and Cotentin in western Normandy. This kind of pottery, which fires sandy clays at high temperature to produce vessels that are impermeable even to bacteria, first spread to Normandy over the fourteenth century, but it did not really take off until the early fifteenth century, when it became essential to the export of fresh butter and other dairy products to meet rising demand in Paris and elsewhere. These associated exports reveal the close links between new technology and wider economic change.

Finally, Alain Sadourny examines the chronicle written by Jean de Béthencourt to record his voyage to the Canary Islands in about 1405, as well as his call to bring settlers there from Normandy. His hopes for profit centered on the export of orchid lichen, which contains a valuable red dye, but his project also entailed conversion of the natives and promised settlers land and economic opportunity. Although Béthencourt's adventure left no lasting settlement, it shows how deeply rooted were the motives that inspired later efforts of colonization.

This collection testifies both to the dynamism of the preindustrial economy and to the vibrancy of its study in France. The book's wide range of topics and approaches should offer something of interest to many scholars.



1. To mention just three recent collections that are cited in the book's footnotes, see: Alain Becchia, ed., La draperie en Normandie du XIIIe au XXe siècle (Rouen, 2003); Bernard Bodinier, ed., Des bois dont on fait la Normandie (Louviers, 2009); and Jean-Marie Yante, ed., À l'approche d'une autre ruralité. Campagnes et travail non-agricole du bas Moyen Âge À 1914 (Brussels, 2004).