The Medieval Review 15.06.10

Bourin, Monique, François Menant, and Lluís To Figueras, eds. Dynamiques du monde rural dans la conjoncture de 1300: Échanges, prélèvements et consommation en Méditerranée occidentale. Collection de l'École française de Rome, 490. Rome: École française de Rome, 2014. pp. 735. €59.00 (paperback). ISBN: 9782728309719 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Paul Freedman
Yale University

This collection of articles is the result of conferences held in 2005 and 2007 at the Casa de Velázquez, the French cultural center in Madrid. The twenty-one papers assembled here are grouped into two thematic areas: the commercialization of the western Mediterranean countryside around 1300, and the circulation of money in the same regions and period. The latter category is divided among treatments of money, credit, and state fiscality (taxes and levies).

Large and ambitious though this book and the conferences that proceeded are, they form merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A long introduction to this volume provides a context as well as summary of a grand project to explore society and the economy in southern France, Spain and Italy during the years leading up to 1300. This meticulous, detailed and broadly comparative investigation was started more than ten years ago under the leadership of Monique Bourin of the University of Paris with the collaboration of the co-authors listed here (Menant at the École Normale Supérieure, and To Figueras at the University of Girona) as well as Sandro Carocci (University of Rome) and John Drendel (University of Québec at Montréal). A synthesis of the research agenda and preliminary findings appeared in Annales HSS (2011), part 3, pp. 663-704. Two other books of conference papers related to this project have been published by the École Française de Rome, one on social mobility around 1300 (2010) and the other on food shortages (2011).

Among other things, the Conjunture 1300 undertaking shows the benefits of international collaboration, long-term agendas, and state funding to sponsor research. French governmental subventions have allowed the organizers to split the problem into multiple conferences on separate aspects of the overall problematic, and to obtain the patronage of cultural institutes (notably the École in Rome and the Casa de Velázquez in Madrid), and availability of publication series. Medievalists in what is here constantly referred to as the Anglo-Saxon world can only envy a society and intellectual climate that makes such research possible and see with distress the decline of European state interest in advancing humanistic knowledge.

There is no doubt that Conjuncture 1300 results represent a significant advance. The investigation began by questioning the notion, promoted by M. M. Postan in Britain and Georges Duby in France, that the Black Death of 1347-9 and the devastation of the Hundred Years' War, dramatic disasters of the fourteenth century, were anticipated by a structural crisis of the medieval economy already underway in the late thirteenth century. Beginning in the 1940s, a Malthusian interpretation of the relation between population growth and agricultural productivity became a generally-accepted historical paradigm. In the absence of technological progress, the increased population taxed the resources of the land, producing famines and a stagnation that deepened rural impoverishment, economic decline and social instability, all of which manifested themselves long before the war and epidemic. Rodney Hilton and other Marxist historians questioned the impersonal Malthusian model, but far from denying the long-term pre-plague crisis, attributed it to seigneurial extraction rather than overpopulation.

Two other international conferences in Montréal and Cadaquès (Catalonia) involving the same équipe (2002 and 2003) looked at Postan, Duby, and their followers and questioned the Malthusian model and its applicability to the Mediterranean lands. At these conferences the continental historians first engaged with aspects of Anglo-American-Canadian historiography, including Richard Britnell and James Masschaele on the commercialization of the countryside, Rodney Hilton on the importance of small towns, the Toronto School of medieval peasant studies on peasant autonomy and social differentiation, Barbara Harvey on demography, and Larry Epstein on peasants' ability to use coinage, commerce and the market to their advantage. Among the emerging concepts that can be traced in the series of conference volumes about the conjuncture of 1300 is an appreciation for peasant choice and agency, the ability of peasants to assess and strategize their situation rather than being the helpless and ignorant victims of immiseration.

Some of the results of the conjuncture 1300 investigation before the conferences whose papers are published in this volume: 1) food shortages and food crises were the result of war, politics, bad weather (short-term rather than related to climate change), and other exogenous events, aggravated by speculation and government policy errors. Food scares and hunger were not related to overpopulation or environmental degradation. 2) There was substantial technological innovation in areas such as the refinement of efficiency of water-mills, and new techniques of steel-making, weaving and ceramic production. 3) Overall standards of living, material culture and the built environment were not affected by any sort of economic stagnation.

The present volume concentrates on other findings that further undermine the notion of a generalized crisis at the beginning of the fourteenth century: the continuing increase in peasant commercial transactions, the development of economically important rural artisanal production, the rapid circulation of money as well as credit and the peasants' ability to use these to their advantage, and the importance of small towns and glorified villages as centers of exchange, production and distribution. The peasants are shown to have been far from autochthonous subsistence farmers, or involved in economic transactions simply in order to pay seigneurial exactions. They were consumers of grain, but also of tools, construction materials, cloth, and even modest luxury or at least discretionary goods. They were in turn producers of wine, wool, the products of mining, tanning, and wood-turning as well as agricultural crops. They bought and sold not as marginal players in large urban markets but as participants in permanent commercial installations in individually modest but collectively important towns. Contrary to widespread assumptions, coins were not scarce and were accumulated and spent by rural people of no great status. Also going against conventional wisdom, the availability of credit did not ruin peasant holdings but was used as a tool of peasant enterprise and aggrandizement.

A series of five articles in the present book deal with the commercialization of rural societies, the peasant as both producer and consumer. For Provence, Philippe Bernardi concentrates on the export of stone, wood, and other construction materials, an activity undertaken by even very small communities and not an occasional, localized or centralized trade. Giulino Pinto shows the sale of commercialized agricultural products in various small market towns in Abruzzi and Puglia. Far from being remote sites for the exchange of exiguous surplus, the markets attracted buyers from (relatively) industrial Tuscany. Even a rather poor region such as Friuli, with few urban centers, saw a vigorous trade, according to Donata Degrassi, organized around seigneurial farms and fortresses, especially in this case in iron. Tuscans appear again as intermediaries, lenders and buyers. Cloth, wine and wheat figure in fairs and markets in Languedoc (Kay Reyerson and Monique Bourin), and a brisk business in buying and selling imported textiles, shown by Lluís To Figueras, took place in Amer and Besalù, small towns in Catalan mountain valleys quite off the major commercial pathways.

A further five articles consider more explicitly the phenomenon of networks of small towns and over-sized villages that served as local and regional commercial centers: in Provence (John Drendel), the Toulousain (Judicaël Pétrowiste), Old Castile (Pascual Martínez Sopena), Old Catalonia (Victor Farías Zurita), and the Maestrazgo de Castellón in the northern part of the Kingdom of Valencia (Enric Guinot).

The rest of the articles are concerned with money, credit, and state fiscality. The actual production of silver and copper for money is the subject of Philippe Braunstein's study of mining, from the opening up of new sites in Saxony, Bohemia and the Alps to the role of Italian cities and Barcelona in the transit and redistribution of precious metals. Gaspar Feliu Montfort discusses the different kinds of money and circulation of coins within the constituent parts of the Crown of Aragon. The circulation of small coins and the introduction of gold coinage by 1300 attest to a degree of economic vigor, but the realm had a shortage of precious-metal coinage in comparison with neighboring states. Xavier Soldevila demonstrates the rise of credit in northeastern Catalonia (Empordà). Some peasants, through desperation, adversity or lack of foresight, borrowed beyond their means, but debtors were not without recourse or options short of flight or ruin, and the availability of credit was an opportunity, not just a form of exploitation. Another contribution by John Drendel demonstrates the brisk circulation of coinage in Provence whose economy showed no sign of trouble or diminution throughout the entire first half of the fourteenth century. Antoni Furió and Vicente García Marsilla take a similarly optimistic view about both coinage and credit in Valencia. Far from being an alternative to a shortage of coins, credit flourished as an option in tandem with the expansion of coinage.

A final group of five articles deals with the increased fiscal demands of the state and the impact this had on money, its circulation, and the peasantry. Miguel Ángel Ladero Quesada depicts the policies of Alfonso X el Sabio as both reformist (eliminating of internal tariffs, standardization of weights and measures, establishment of fairs), and grasping (measures to finance his grandiose political ambitions). Coinage and taxation in Valencia and the Crown of Aragon are the subject of a contribution by Josep Torró. The demands of the kings of Aragon are highlighted by Carlos Laliena Corbera in a study of the taxes on salt and livestock as well as military levies. These grew during the brief and (officially) glorious reign of Peter III "the Great" (1276-1283), whose ambitions in Sicily provoked rebellion in Aragon.

Pere Benito i Monclús investigates the fiscal system of the fourteenth-century kings of Aragon-Catalonia with particular attention to the investors in financial instruments related to the taxation and other beneficiaries of what was otherwise an onerous obligation for rural society. Finally Thierry Pécout looks at the bailiwick of Moustiers in Haute Provence through the information provided by an enquête of 1331-4. This source suggests both the level of royal (Angevin) demands and a still prosperous countryside that could satisfy them.

State fiscality is one of a number of difficulties that show that the situation before 1347 was far from optimal. Along with the famine of 1315-7 and the outbreak of the first phase of the Hundred Years' War, the rapacity of rulers created adversity and even poverty in much of Europe, including the Mediterranean regions, unaffected by either the Great Famine or the initial phase of the English-French conflict. Without denying these adversities, the picture that emerges from this volume and its predecessors forming the Conjuncture 1300 collaboration is one of promise and expansion before 1300, and something rather short of a crisis in the first half of the fourteenth century.

The overall result is that the year 1300 does not represent the beginning of the economic disasters and social upheaval of the late Middle Ages but rather the apogee of the development of medieval rural society in the Mediterranean. A region often seen in terms of rich cities and impoverished, arid countryside is here shown to be considerably more complicated. Parts of Navarre or the Alpine parts of Provence were indeed poor and depopulated, but for most of the area being considered there is no evidence of persistent drought or other climate adversities, no archaeological evidence of a declining standard of living, little overall population decline or abandonment of tenancies, and a consistent technological intensification and economic diversification.

In their introduction to the present volume and in the aforementioned Annales article the authors make no claims for northern Europe and their agnosticism about generalizing beyond the western Mediterranean includes the observation that part of the problem for historians of France, Italy and the Iberian peninsula has been the domination of models more applicable to the North. Nevertheless, the influence of British medieval historians' revision of the crisis paradigm shows the need for a complete reassessment of what we think was going on at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century. Revision hardly detracts from the terrible reputation of the fourteenth century--no one is denying the impact of the plague or the disastrous wars that wrecked the French countryside and both the English and French economies. But the crisis was the result of certain contingencies, even accidents, rather than attributable to impersonal forces operating over a longue durée. The project undertaken by Bourin and her colleagues has done more than merely restoring approximately a half century, 1300-47, to historical respectability: it has altered how we assess medieval society and its resilience.

Copyright (c) 2015 Paul Freedman

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