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12.01.23, Escalona, Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages

12.01.23, Escalona, Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages

In 2004 the Spanish government awarded Julio Escalona and some colleagues a grant to facilitate their projected study of early medieval "European space." A series of meetings resulted (2004-2008) among archaeologists and historians from Britain and Spain at which they discussed various aspects of territorial, economic, and political change during the first millennium. Such discussion permitted the refinement and recalibration of individual papers. Thus, unlike so many other "thematic" collections of academic essays, Scale and Scale Change, "the principal output" (2) of these discussions, is quite coherent. Contributors knew what other contributors had contributed, refer to their findings, and thank each other for corrections and insights. Numerous grateful references to a companionable and stimulating "Foundations of the European Space group" suggest how the scholarly interaction enabled by the Spanish education ministry created a real dialogue between specialists from different corners of Europe and thereby a volume that actually deals with a defined theme.

Still, the contours of this theme are blurred. Scale and (since historians have difficulty dealing with changelessness) scale change are amorphous concepts in any age, doubly so in notoriously "dark" ones. Neither the editors' short introduction to the book, nor Escalona's "theory-focussed opening chapter" (3) succeed in clarifying just what scale and scale change are, beyond the obvious, and just how they advance early medieval studies. In the end the "scale-based approach" (9) seems to be what one might have suspected, namely a way of wondering about the past whose analysis of power, cultural connections, and economic circulation includes those fundamental human tools for ordering reality: the ideas of big, bigger, small, and smaller. It is legitimate to doubt the revolutionary effects of adopting such an approach. Indeed, the papers gathered in Scale and Scale Change do not shake the foundations of early medieval orthodoxies, and deal with traditional issues like the nature of post- Roman political forms and post-imperial economic exchanges. In accord with the standard narratives, the "scale-based approach" finds downsizing in the fifth-seventh centuries and expansion from the 700s of political and economic networks.

Most contributions (6 of 9 chapters) in this volume are about Iberia, specifically about northwestern Iberia, two are about England, and in an outlier Alexandra Chavarrìa Arnau reiterates arguments and data about northern Italian settlement types from her 2005 collaborative monograph Aristocrazie e campagne nell'Occidente da Costantino a Carlomagno. This odd geographical distribution reflects the academic circles behind the project on the "Foundations of the European Space." The Iberian tilt is very useful to Anglophone audiences: Scale and Scale Change works wonderfully well as synthesis of much (northwest) Iberian archaeological and historical data for English readers unaccustomed to perusing Spanish publications. Spain's last 15 years of vigorous economic expansion coincided with much building and thus with much salvage archaeology that is here noted, catalogued, and analyzed. Also thanks to the Spanish archaeologists' willingness to integrate written sources in their discussions here, previously obscure provincial landscapes of the late Roman western empire, and of some of its less celebrated successor states, emerge into the limelight nicely fleshed out. The chapters on how the "transformation of the Roman world" looked in the Asturias, the Duero basin, the Basque country, old Castile, or north Lusitania are very valuable mises à point even if they will not shock anyone familiar with the transformations elsewhere in Europe. Throughout, the doings of "local" aristocracies and elites, and the degree of their integration into trans-regional systems of power, receive the most attention. Recent historical research has led to the discovery of unsuspected reserves of subaltern "agency" in the most recondite places, but in Scale and Scale Change the verdict tends to be that the "agency" of the powerful, of regional and subregional aristocrats (it is not clear if individuals or collectivities exercised this "agency"), drove the several shifts in the location and type of rural occupation and land use of the first millennium. In these processes, building and controlling churches had great importance and large terracing projects represent increasing aristocratic power (à la Wittfogel). Chris Wickham's "golden age of the peasantry," that surfaces here repeatedly under the comical name "bottom-up agency" (e.g. 183), has a marginal role in Fernández Mier's Asturias (110), but otherwise is not a major force in most case studies constituting this volume.

Two of the most absorbing and persuasive studies in Scale and Scale Change discuss very small things. Yet both Iñaki Martín Viso and Grenville Astill attempt to connect early medieval coins to broad processes of political and social change, whether in northwest Iberia or Anglo-Saxon England. To achieve their goals, both numismatists adopt a broad chronology, roughly 400-750 for Iberia and 650-950 for England. Comparing their findings is instructive, as it highlights the use of coins for purposes modern people would not consider economic, namely to register political affiliations or signal authority. Center-periphery relations and hierarchies are a theme underlying the entire volume, but Martín Viso and Astill's numismatically-based discussions of center-periphery relations have a special sharpness. Both authors use mint location and coin circulation patterns to show that early medieval peripheries had considerable "agency" or ability to shape outcomes or manipulate the political energies emanating from the centers, even during periods like the one after 589 in the Visigothic kingdom, or around 900 in England, when central surplus extraction from and control of peripheries was growing.

This book proposes that making fluctuations in the size of political, cultural, and economic things "explicit" will transform early medieval studies. Yet many discussions of postclassical societies already deal with issues of bigness and smallness, in analyses of cultural change and social or economic complexity (22). Indeed, it is difficult to talk about any society without invoking scale and variations in it. The traditional debates between continuitists and rupturists about the nature of change in postclassical societies, here dismissed as "pseudo-debates" (26), are perfectly attuned to how the size of authority, or of markets, might matter. Ironically these "pseudo- debates" are vibrant enough that several contributors to Scale and Scale Change engage in them (36, 121, 187), precisely because the issues pondered a century ago by Pirenne and Dopsch are not so very different from the "scale-based approach" advocated here.

The editors of this book suggest two main benefits might emerge from adopting a scale-y theoretical framework. They hope that scaled scholarship will make postclassical studies "relevant" (25, 30) to other fields, principally those that tackle contemporary hegemonies (like the Soviet or American "empires," 22) and economic systems (globalization). It seems likelier that any raised relevance for early medievalism in current policy debates will derive from the high quality of early medievalists' original work, suggesting novel approaches to students of the contemporary, not from passive adoption of models and concepts developed in other disciplinary contexts, like political science or ecology, for other chronologies and geographies. Secondly, a "scale-based approach" is supposed to unify the intellectually "extremely fragmented field" (30) of early medieval studies. Yet whether greater conformity of approach would enrich or impoverish early medieval scholarship is uncertain. In sum, Scale and Scale Change is a gallant attempt to squeeze a diverse set of local studies of landscape, settlement, and aristocracy under a prefabricated theoretical framework. The studies offer much to any who are not versed in the social landscapes they investigate. But adopting scale theory does not necessarily leave one in the enviable position of Saul (Acts, 9:18), who suddenly saw everything in a new way.