Germanic Roots

I return to the period of the Middle Ages, having previously written about kingship and law andsocietal relationships. I will turn now to the economy of the time, based on the book The Birth of Western Economy, by Robert Latouche.

Having described the fall of Rome in the first chapters, Latouche turns to the earliest beginning of medieval society and economy. He describes several aspects of this period of transition.

The Migrations

He begins with the earliest migrations:

The Roman Empire recognized two great Germanic families: the Western Germans who for long centuries had been settled in continental Europe, and the Northern and Eastern Germans who had emerged in more recent times from Scandinavia.

There were mentions of immigration into the Roman Empire by Germanic people as early as the late first / early second century.

…the Germans then gradually and by progressive stages penetrated into the Empire along the entire length of the limes in ever-increasing numbers….

Eventually, the numbers were significant enough that treaties were negotiated with Rome, recognizing the various tribes as “federates.”

…most of the barbarians who penetrated into the Western Empire came not as conquerors, but exactly as in our own day…to look for work.

The conquest was not so much a military one; Rome fell as much due to the apathy of the productive caused by the economic policies of the state as it did from anything else. What did the barbarians conquer? They came to an undeveloped land. The forest was their enemy; the bogs were their subjects:

He had to wrest from virgin forest, from moorland and sometimes from bog, the land on which he settled, and the task of bringing Central Europe into cultivation was a slow and unremitting process of land clearance which went on until late into the Middle Ages.

Private Property

These migrants apparently did not make the same mistake as did the Pilgrims of New England. Counter to the views of some – and built on a faulty reading of historical (but not more contemporary) sources – the cleared land was not held in community ownership, but in private ownership.

The historian Fustel de Coulanges set out to demolish this edifice built on sand….the Franks and other Germanic peoples from very ancient times practiced individual ownership, and that the alodis frequently referred to in barbarian laws is the equivalent of the Latin hereditas, and is none other than the hereditary estate.

There was some land common to the community, primarily forest land. This demonstrates a rather sophisticated view of private property – that of homestead. The cleared land was viewed as private property; the land in an unimproved state was not. This concept of individual ownership was captured, for instance, in the Salic Law:

What a study of the Salic Law does bring out…is the strong preference of the Franks for individual ownership…. One single word, which has had an extraordinary history, symbolizes the sacrosanctity of hereditary property – it is the word ‘alleu’ [freehold] (alodis). In the very beginning this word stood for the ancestral home and its appendages. Subsequently it was extended to include the arable lands.

This freehold of property was an important feature throughout the Middle Ages, first coming up against resistance in England in the time of William the Conqueror in the eleventh century, when he claimed all land as his own, with the nobles as his tenants.


The Birth of the Nobles

The armies of Rome as well as those of the tribes consisted fundamentally of foot soldiers. This came to an end when the tribes were faced with enemy horsemen from the Far East.

A horse cannot be equipped or a horseman armed without money, and the men destined to serve in the king’s host were expected to possess a certain fortune…. One of the most lasting results of this revolution in the art of war was that whilst compulsory military service was not abolished, it no longer applied to everyone…. No longer were all free men soldiers, but only the richest of them….

These horsemen, these new soldiers, were gradually to turn into the nobility.

You Can’t Replace Something with Nothing

Rome was no longer able to govern. The tribes were free from centralized state control, but this does not mean to suggest that there was no organizing body – only that is was not a body of coercive state force.

The Church contributed in large measure to the rescue of town life by fitting her temporal government into the framework bequeathed her by the Roman Empire, and it will soon become evident that the cities survived by what amounted to a process of substitution. On rural life too, though for quite different reasons, her influence made itself felt, and in a manner no less unexpected.

The Church then became a great administrative body, with divisions based closely on those of the state…. The Church became a moral entity endowed with juridical power.

As such, the Church was to reap financial benefit, as this position stimulated the generosity of the faithful. “The goods bequeathed consisted chiefly of country estates,” and such wealth accumulated toward the benefit of monasteries, many founded as poverty-stricken establishments. Yet over the course of time – and in the early Middle Ages – many monasteries had accumulated prodigious wealth.

…kings and nobles lavishly endowed them with huge tracts of cultivable land in a passion of generosity which verged on the reckless….

The wealthy donors previously had received from Rome, as part of the treaties established while Rome still had marginal power, vast swaths of land – land that proved too large to manage. It was from such sources that the donations were made. Often, the land was fallow or forests previously used for hunting. Credit is due the monks for turning such land into productive ground.

The author attributes this generosity to the guilt of the wealthy – a hope to buy salvation, to avoid eternal punishment. Whatever the reason, the payment was voluntary. “Thus the institution of monasticism acquired in less than two centuries a vast number of estates….” With this wealth, and with the infrastructure provided by the Church…

…the bishops [took] on a host of varied responsibilities which in normal times would be assumed by the public services of the state…

This included the building of aqueducts, assistance to the poor, and hospitality to travelers and the sick. Notably, the Church did not provide for a standing army, monopoly over coinage, or monopoly over law and justice.

Religious and ecclesiastical activity saved the lives of a host of Gallo-Roman cities, the existence of which was threatened by Merovingian apathy…. The presence of a religious element ensured the survival of old urban centres threatened with slow decay, and even brought others into existence.

I mentioned previously this author’s favorable view of state institutions. A flavor of this is found in the above statement – regarding the so-called “Merovingian apathy.” It is true that Merovingian society was not centrally controlled and directed via a coercive state. Where the author views this as a detriment, it strikes me as a blessed gift.

That the Church (in the context of the times; else other voluntary institutions) took the place of several state functions should be expected in a land without a state. You can’t replace something with nothing (h/t Dr. North). Individuals within communities will organize towards outcomes that are found to be beneficial. When done in a voluntary manner, this is the most glorious of outcomes.

Towns sprung up adjacent to the monasteries; not surprising given the wealth of the monasteries and the work available to the population. This development was ongoing, continuing even during the time of the Viking invasions and prior to the reopening of Mediterranean trade.

From Slave to Serf

Under the Roman Empire the ground had usually been cultivated by gangs of slaves under the supervision of the master himself or of a bailiff (villicus). In each villa there was a familia rustica or band of slaves responsible for the farm work.

Coincident with the decay of Rome, side by side with these slaves were free workers: some as a result of migration from the failing Roman cities, some as a result of smaller farms forming together one large farm, and some set free by will of the owner.

While in some cases these free men still carried the stigma of the slave, the life was much different – they led a family life, living with wife and children. Of course, the free man will work harder than the slave, and such an example is offered by the author: Saint Martin riding on his donkey, looking for a suitable bishop for the diocese of Le Mans, noticed…

…a clerk named Victor working in his own vineyard (in vinea sua laborans) with great zest and vigour, turning it over with his spade, and covered in dust from head to foot.

In this milieu comprised of freemen and slaves, the transition was occurring:

…all in fact lived on the land they farmed, and without actually owning it thought of it as their land, and handed it down to their children.

Along with the development of the Noble class, there was an increase in small farms and small farm holdings held by relatively free men:

…the Merovingian age saw an increase in the number of small farms and small holdings, and that these fulfilled, though still imperfectly it is true, the secret longing of every peasant – to have a plot of land big enough to support a family and which can be handed down to his descendants.

I have learned that the concept of “ownership” and “property” can mean different things in different times and places. The characteristic of being able to pass along property to heirs certainly is fundamental to the concept of “own.”


The transition from Rome to the Early Middle Ages was not a sudden change, but occurred over time. It was not due solely or even primarily to attacking, warring hordes of barbarians, but driven by the decay of an extended empire, with citizens accustomed to living from the sweat of conquered slaves. The Romans attempted to prolong the Empire via inflation, price controls, work rules, and taxation. As the citizens could – and in order to survive – they left, withdrawing their consent. They found better prospects outside of the protection of the centralized state.

At the same time, individuals from the Germanic tribes were migrating closer to Roman territory, and even within it. Rome negotiated treaties with these tribes in an effort to maintain some control over the territory. Eventually, the decay of Rome overcame the value of the treaties.

Via a firm belief in private property and the role of the Church in a more voluntary form of organization, the roots of the Middle Ages were formed. The so-called apathy of the Merovingians was, in fact, the victory of a decentralized, voluntary society.

We will next see Charlemagne’s attempts to centralize this world. Fortunately, his successes will not last.