Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
15.10.28, Curtis, Coping with Crisis

The Medieval Review

15.10.28, Curtis, Coping with Crisis

In 2005 Jared Diamond released the follow-up to his highly profitable Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies--it is a gloomier affair called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Collapse plucks mostly ill-fated groups from around the globe and studies their response to catastrophe. Inspired by Diamond's verve (and evidently his comparative methodology), Daniel Curtis traces a similar thread of inquiry. He asks why some pre-industrial European communities succumbed to sudden exogenous forces, while others lived to fight another day. Unlike Diamond, who identifies environmental sensibility as the necessary condition for survival, Curtis hypothesizes that property arrangements determined a settlement's response to crisis. To test his claim he examines five regions in Europe--Tuscany (Italy), Cambridgeshire (England), the Betuwe (the Netherlands), the Oldambt (the Netherlands), and Apulia (Italy)--with town and village-level case studies from between 1300 and 1900 CE.

The first two chapters establish Curtis' vocabulary, historiography, and framework for assessing his settlements. His approach has its foundations in economic (namely Neo-Marxist) and disaster studies. Resilience, the key term here, is defined as a function of a society's ability to maintain its population, its agricultural productivity, and condition of its homes and other significant material goods. The conceptual novelty of this book lies in Curtis' attempt to create a set of quantifiable criteria for characterizing property arrangements. Measuring distribution of property and power (assessed on a scale from "egalitarian" to "polarized") and institutional change over time (assessed on a scale from "dynamic" to "persistent"), there are four possible "types" of pre-industrial societies: egalitarian-dynamic, egalitarian-persistent, polarized-dynamic, and polarized-persistent. He hypothesizes that certain "types" of societies responded to crisis with great resilience (egalitarian-persistent and egalitarian-dynamic), while others were vulnerable to collapse (polarized-dynamic and polarized-persistent).

In chapter 3, Curtis analyzes the impact of Florence's rapacious attitude toward surrounding settlements from 1300-1580. He compares the Florentine contado, the belt of plains and hills directly outside of the city, with the Casentino Valley, an Apennine region about 40 kilometers east of Florence. The two regions handled Florence's hegemonic aspirations differently. Judging from available charters, the contado shed its population and devolved into sharecropping farms owned by an urban elite, who pressured desperate rural folk into miserable mezzadria contracts. Meanwhile, the Casentino Valley experienced an uptick in population and witnessed the aggregation of villages with strong, local ownership that sold a percentage of its products to Florentine consumers. The contado's vulnerability, Curtis argues, was a consequence of a property-owning class that lived mostly in the city, a place that inclined its residents to envision a periphery in the service of the center. In the Casentino Valley, property remained divided among different kinds of owners--peasant farmers, local traders, ecclesiastical institutions, rural nobles, and a few urbanites--with strong communal institutions.

Chapter 4 leaps northward to analyze two regions in central England, the Bourn Valley and East Chilford between 1200 and 1340. Famines and bovine pestilences riddled this region and most of Europe between 1315 and 1322. Deploying evidence largely from the Domesday Book (1086), the Hundred Rolls (1279/80), and the Lay Subsidy (1327), Curtis draws the jagged graph representing the boom and then famine and plague-induced decline of the two regions. However, East Chilford suffered about twice as much population loss as the Bourn Valley, a disparity representative of their property arrangements, Curtis avers. In East Chilford, non-economic means of coercion failed in conjunction with the decline of the manorial system, which led to the early adoption of wage-labor after 1279. Most land owners, unable to pay a suitable wage, adopted sheep farming, a productive strategy requiring fewer laborers. In the Bourn Valley, on the other hand, the manorial system remained vigorous, so traditional forms of exploitation prevailed, including open field systems. Curtis argues that the transition in East Chilford to a pastoral economy dissolved some of the traditional safety nets of agricultural communities, like common fields, which in turn squeezed out the poorest tenants. The exploitative, but stable manorial system in the Bourn Valley sheltered it from some of the economic displacement of the miasmatic fourteenth century.

A shifting economy represents the crisis in chapter 5, with a focus on the Betuwe region in the Central Dutch River Area between 1300 and 1600. Intense commercialization and market integration during this period created social stratifications that denuded lowland, rural settlements. Interpreting the property deeds collected and stored by the Abbey Mariënweerd, Curtis shows that over three centuries land-ownership narrowed into the hands a few aristocrats, who consolidated lands into much larger farms than previous versions and refocused production with an eye to market-oriented animal products. These changes underpinned the stagnant demographic situation, where villages failed to rebound from fourteenth-century plagues. To better understand the Betuwe's decline, Curtis takes up another lowland region in chapter 6, the Oldampt, a place near Groningen in the Netherlands, between 1700 and 1900. Like the Betuwe, aristocrats from the Oldampt consolidated their landholdings during this period; unlike the Betuwe, more people moved to Oldampt than left between the eighteenth and twentieth century. The principal difference in outcomes, Curtis argues, can be explained by the "dual economy" that emerged in the Oldampt, whereby land-deprived laborers worked their own polders for part of the day and aristocratic fields for the remainder. Laborers also supported themselves by digging peat in the offseason just south of Groningen, in addition to various industrial and artisanal works directed to the market. This "dual economy" causes troubles for Curtis' model. Even though the Oldampt was a deeply polarized place between 1700 and 1900, it repelled encroachment from Groningen and grew its population steadily--his categories cannot accommodate a "society within a society," he says, admitting their limitations.

In chapter 6, Curtis moves back to Italy, to the region of Apulia, in order to analyze the fates of two agro-towns, Ascoli Satriano and Locorotondo between 1600 and 1900. The former reached its demographic apex in the eighteenth century, profiting from the communal-pastoral networks managed by the Royal Customhouse in Naples, which privileged a handful of large landowners in the immediate vicinity of the town. Ascoli Satriano's reliance on the trading and commercial sectors associated with this system proved catastrophic, as the Royal Customhouse collapsed in 1806 eviscerating the markets necessary to support the extensive non-agricultural population. Meanwhile, Locorotondo developed on marginal land reclaimed in the sixteenth century, from which a weak aristocracy emerged. The town's toothless elite proved unable to reel-in long term, improvement-based (emphyteutic) leases, which led to diversified real estate market with dispersed, small-time owners. As the wave of latifundist practices swelled in the nineteenth century, Ascoli Satriano was submerged and drowned, while Locorotondo survived on dry, viticultural land that sent wine into wider markets.

Coping with Crisis is an ambitious book. Broad in chronological and geographic scope, Curtis tries to find historical patterns in vastly different sets of people and places. Doing so requires him to compare data from Italian charters, English tax records, Dutch property documents, as well as figures derived in secondary works (from Bas van Bavel for the Dutch areas and Anthony Galt for Apulia). The sentiment is laudable, but Curtis must gloss over the varied discursive aims of the source material in order to generate absolute numbers for his graphic analysis (i.e. plotting on a two-dimensional graph a settlement's property distribution and institutional change, the final section in each chapter). In other words, the homogenizing approach seems mismatched to its expansive subject. Curtis' framework also blinds him to non-economic factors that seem to better explain the resilience or vulnerability of his settlements. For instance, Florence's inability to dominate the Casentino Valley can be read as a function of the latter's difficult topography and distance from urban center--places that states always have problems controlling (James Scott remains uncited). And Locorotondo's vine-friendly soils and access to the Adriatic and wider Mediterranean networks surely boosted its fate as much as its egalitarian ethos (Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell are also uncited). Given Curtis' admiration of Jared Diamond and the prevailing ecological orientation of disaster studies, it is surprising that environmental contexts receive scant attention in this monograph.

Despite these misgivings, Coping with Crisis is a valuable book. In particular, scholars of common holdings and open fields will find a rich text neatly comparing different manifestations of these phenomena. In fact, the principal lesson of Curtis' book is the profound significance of common fields and pastures for pre-industrial people. In the places that succumbed to crisis in this book, it was the erosion of communal property that triggered more pernicious forms of exploitation. Finally, the comparative nature of this book is refreshing; "thinking big" allows Curtis to engage with scholars studying subjects outside of Europe and the Middle Ages, a feature that enlivens and enriches his book, much like the work of Jared Diamond.