Posts Tagged ‘early middle ages’

“The general point I wish to make is that the post-Roman/early medieval
world was characterized by a great deal more complexity in the structuring and
composition of its rural labour force than suggested by [Chris] Wickham’s simplified
image of ‘tenants who controlled their own holding and could keep its fruits
after rents were paid’. The best generic description, [drawn from as I
suggested earlier, might be a ‘mixed servile labour force’, as described by Ros Faith, where
families themselves might be of mixed legal status, and where the great
movement of manumission was creating reserves of labour still integrated into
centralized estates rather than the independent farm complexes called hubae, also
known, confusingly, as mansi when the latter term acquired its more expansive
sense in the central middle ages. That a more substantial or autonomous
peasantry existed or was emerging is incontrovertible (the feudal reaction would
be incomprehensible without it), but to understand its emergence we have to
describe the context of the relations of production within which it developed
with less abstraction and certainly less schematically than either Wickham or an
earlier generation of Marxists have tended to do. The metanarrative of the
transition from slavery to serfdom which Wickham rejects cannot be replaced by
the equally abstract idea that ‘When the Romans abandoned the slave mode, they
went straight over to rent-paying tenants’ (Wickham 1984, 31), or by the notion
that the ‘economic shift from the slave to the feudal mode had already taken
place well before 400’ (Wickham 2005, 262). It is bizarre to call the Roman
empire ‘feudal’ unless one is determined to deplete the category of all historical
content. And slavery didn’t simply disappear. It would be altogether more
correct to refer to its ‘mutation’, as Georges Duby does. Wickham’s simple
dichotomy between legal condition and economic form (slavery persisting at the
first level, ‘tenancy’ widespread at the second) lacks the subtlety needed to characterize
the transition, even if legal status mattered less and less and, as Innes says, ‘there
was no real social gulf between free and unfree’ by the Carolingian period.

Now, viewed teleologically, in terms of some inexorable evolution towards
the  manor and its eventual triumph, the allotment holders of the post-Roman/early medieval countryside may seem like a transitional type, a sort of station
between two terminals, one called Antiquity, the other Feudalism; or if you
prefer, between Slavery and Serfdom. But this, I suggest, is absolutely the
wrong way of approaching the issue. Between the ‘demesne slave’ or servi
and the peasant families in possession of substantial tenements (viz.
10-acre holdings at the lower end) lay a whole series of intermediate categories
who are surely better defined as farm workers than as peasants: the Tageschalken
in Germany, the geburs, bordars and cottars in Anglo-Saxon England, and so
on. They were ‘a substantial proportion of the rural population of Anglo-Saxon
England’ (Ros Faith) and doubtless the same is true of most countries on the
Continent. If we choose to call them tenants, then worker-tenants is a better
description of these groups than the tenants that Wickham seems to have in
mind. Wickham discusses their legal status as largely irrelevant on the grounds
that the distinction between free and unfree was typically and increasingly fuzzy.
This is true, but the diminished legal condition of most or all of these groups
was surely not unrelated to the fact that taken as a whole they formed a tied
labour force on a model familiar to late Roman landowners and their free but
tied coloni. Indeed, the laws on the colonate were themselves a major influence
on the social condition of the medieval peasantry, insofar as the successor
kingdoms absorbed them selectively and enforced them against their own
dependent populations. The mancipia who appear in Merovingian charters were
certainly not slaves in the strict Roman sense, but the fact that
they were described in this way was not unrelated to the way large estates saw
themselves using the labour of these workers.”

–  Jairus Banaji, “Aristocracies, Peasantries and the Framing of the Early Middle Ages.”  Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 9 No. 1, January 2009, pp. 76-77.


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“…The seventh century, in the West, was crucial in two
ways. First, it saw a reassertion of aristocratic control, and second it involved,
I believe, the beginnings of a new agrarian expansion. These features would of
course be linked if a strong case can be made for the view that the aristocracy
financed much of that expansion. I don’t propose to do that here, but it may be
worth indicating briefly some clear signs that such a connection existed. One of
the most striking features of the Merovingian charters is the sheer frequency of
references to the purchase of land that appears in them. Here is a typical example
from the will of Hadoind, bishop of Le Mans, dated 643. Among numerous
donations listed in the will, Hadoind says he donates to the church of St Victor
of Le Mans ‘the estate (villa) called Aceruco, which I purchased for money,
together with the houses, mancipia, vineyards, forests, meadows and pastures’
(dono tibi villa nuncupante Aceruco, quam dato pretio comparavi, cum domibus, mancipiis,
vineis, silvis, pratis et pascuis
). There are dozens of references of this kind in the
private charters of the Merovingian period and the least this tells us is that the
new aristocracy of the seventh century made substantial investments in the
acquisition of land, usually whole estates (villae). They did the same in the great
movement of land clearance that began in the seventh century, the ‘vaste
mouvement de défrichement’ that Verhulst described as a key feature of the
‘evolution’ from the Merovingian estate to the Carolingian manor; and the same again in the construction of water mills… Here the crucial
point is that the elements of a new organization of labour began to be laid out
as landowners encouraged the expansion of peasant tenures as part of their

reclamation of arable. This process must have thrown up hundreds of new
settlements and I suggest that one term for these settlements was colonica. If the
term colonica could refer both to the ‘“new settlements” located on the fringes,
boundaries, or “appendages” of estates, suggesting an origin in the colonization
of the wasteland’ and to the individual tenures that made
up those settlements, this would explain why the word shows a mystifying
semantic ambiguity, fluctuating between usages that manifestly refer to entire
settlements, as in Bertram’s will, where Margarete Weidemann explains the term
as ‘Ausbausiedlung im Bereich einer villa’, and other uses where colonica is
undoubtedly a designation for farms, as when Abbo refers to various freed people
of his holding colonicae ‘in beneficio’, this in Provence in the early eighth
century. One imagines that these new settlements were the first proper signs
of the emergence or re-emergence of a peasantry in Europe, and that the accolae
who appear with increasing frequency from the later seventh century (they are
there already in Hadoind’s will of 643) were essentially free peasants attracted
to estates as part of their drive to expand cultivation. The ‘colonization of the
wasteland’ was the seventh century’s major contribution to the history of the
countryside in this part of Europe.

By contrast, another key term mansus, which is almost invariably explained in
the same way or referred to the same context, in other words, the creation of
peasant tenures, may well have had a more complex origin, the proper starting point
for which must be our notions of Merovingian estate organization.
New estates for a new aristocracy? The answer, as almost always in history, is
yes and no. In a typically fascinating aside, Marc Bloch once suggested that
the best historical analogy for the early medieval estate is the Latin American
hacienda. What Bloch himself meant by this was that the regime of the hacienda
was never so dense that it completely excluded the presence of ‘small independent
landowners’. The more general point of the analogy, I take it,
is that early medieval estates or let us say the typical Merovingian estate exploited
a landless workforce comparable in this respect to the gañanes in Mexico. This
emphasizes continuity with the Late Roman world, if unlike Wickham and the
ancient historians he follows, we see the Late Roman estate as an enterprise still
based on direct management and not pulverized into semi-autonomous farms or

holdings. And again, that continuity is one of form rather than substance in the
sense that the disappearance of the Roman aristocracy and the rise of new
medieval nobilities signified a major rupture in the social and economic history
of the West. Thus the best context to discuss the meaning of the term mansus
surely has to be the way we visualize the transition from Late Roman to purely
medieval forms of organization in terms of the way landowners structured the
management and use of labour and of the kinds of workforces they deployed.

Again, the Merovingian charters are our best clue to the nature of the rural
labour force in the sixth and seventh centuries. If the will of Remigius dated
c.533 is any indication, slavery was still widespread in Gaul in the early sixth
century. In fact, Remigius’ farms were based on a mixed labour force of servi
and coloni, and the coloni clearly were tied labourers inherited from the late
empire, still called by that name and referring in the will itself to half-free or
unfree rural labourers distinct from slaves; for example, they could be
bequeathed with the land, transferred between owners, manumitted (‘Vitalem
colonum liberum esse iubeo’; ‘Cispiciolum colonum liberum esse precipio’), and
their families could likewise be bequeathed. One of them had even owned a
servus, and at least one of Remigius’ coloni was still called originarius. Moreover,
Remigius’ servi also had families. Again, in 538 and roughly contemporary with
Remigius’ will, a Gallic church council legislates that ‘no person bound by the
condicio of a servus or colonus should be admitted to ecclesiastical office’; the
precise expression used is Nullus servilibus colonariisque conditionibus obligatus.  At
any rate neither slaves nor coloni disappeared with the disintegration of the
Western empire; both were present in large numbers and merged indiscriminately
into the labour force. The integration of these diverse categories of labour into
an increasingly indiscriminate labour force also found a precise expression in
the way Latin terminology evolved. The strict Roman legal term for a slave,

mancipium, became the standard generic description for a labour force now
characterized by looser forms of bondage, where the precise legal condition of
the workers mattered less and less; for example, Remigius’ will is decisive proof
that many families were of mixed legal status, that is, members of the same
family could be of different legal condiciones. These distinctions were not rigid
therefore. Mancipia included both slaves and freedpeople, but post-classical slaves
and freedpeople still subject to domination, and the expression mancipia quae
colonaria appellantur
from the will of Aredius, dated 573 or 591, shows that
former coloni, tied labourers, were included as well.

Now the Merovingian charters refer standardly to domus and mancipia among
the appurtenances of the estate (villa) in formulas such as cum domibus, mancipiis,
agris, etc. In the will of Bishop Bertram, the most substantial document of its
kind from the seventh century, which has a wonderful edition and commentary
by Weidemann, ipsam villam cum domibus, mancipiis, and so on is about the most
common expression used. I may be wrong but it is my strong impression that
in the seventh century charters domus are never mentioned without mancipia,
which suggests that they were the dwellings of the labour force. Bertram had
some 74 estates (villae) and they were almost all equipped in this way, together
with land, of course, and land of various descriptions such as vineyards, arable
and pasture, as well as more substantial constructions called aedificia. There is
also repeated reference to forest land. Occasionally, Bertram refers to colonicae,
but these were on the boundaries of his estates and as Weidemann suggests most
probably the cutting edge of an expanding regime of arable. At one point Bertram refers to buying a villa or a portion of one, the estate
of Brossay, where he ‘constructed homes and settled labour’ (ubi domus aedificavi
et mancipias stabilivi
). There is a fascinating passage in Gregory of Tours which
shows that the drive to expand cultivation in this way was equally true of the
first generation of the new Merovingian aristocracy, for Gregory describes a
certain Chrodin, ‘a man of great virtue and piety’, almost certainly a Frank,
deceased by 582, ‘often creating estates from scratch, laying out vineyards,
building homes, and clearing the land’ (Nam sepe a novo fundans villas, ponens
vinias, aedificans domus, culturas eregens
). About a
century later, Vigilius, bishop of Auxerre, donated vineland to his church cum
mancipiis quos ibidem stabilivi
. The remarkable feature of the will of Vigilius, dated
c.680, is the repeated reference to mansi and servi. Medievalists generally agree that the term mansus is largely an
innovation of the seventh century, but the precise agrarian function they tend
to assign to it is as a kind of peasant tenure, the role it has within the economic

framework of the bilateral estate. But bilateral estates were not a feature of the
seventh century, they were a Carolingian innovation, and we have to explain
the Merovingian mansus differently. One striking clue to its meaning is that
while mansi appear repeatedly in the will just mentioned, there is no reference to
domus! As Tits-Dieuaide suggested in an important paper, ‘mansus est utilisée ici
à la place de domus’. In other words, the Merovingian
mansi were not primarily peasant tenures but allotments created for the mancipia
(= servi in Vigilius’ testament). Unlike the peasant tenures of a later period,
notably the central middle ages, these allotments were still an integral part of the
Merovingian Gutswirtschaft and their occupants a class of workers, both slaves
and freedpeople, endowed with service holdings rather than self-sufficient
farms. The most substantial argument along these lines is, perhaps paradoxically,
Ulrich Weidinger’s excellent analysis of the ninth-century inventory material
from Fulda, the Güterverzeichnisse, whose drafters used vocabulary rather differently
from the people who drew up the purely economic documents. Weidinger shows at length that the mansi which figure in the Fulda
inventories did not include the surrounding fields and meadows. They were
kleine Hofstellenbetriebe that functioned as reserves of labour for a still largely
integrated estate, the Gutswirtschaftssytem, and their holders were a class of farm
workers, still servile of course, who were subject to almost unlimited exploitation. Weidinger also argues that estate owners would have
carved out these plots with a view to preserving or creating some symmetry,
either square or rectangular, in their home farms, which is why the mansi tended
to fluctuate in size. In this sense and all these respects, then,
the mansi were radically different from the peasant farms known as hubae (Bede’s
‘hide’), which of course did include fields, meadows and the like, and were of a
size consciously calculated to yield the normative subsistence of a peasant family,
hence more standardized.

There are two points I would like to draw attention to in this analysis. First,
Weidinger offers a model, at least implicitly, of the gradual dissolution of the
post-Roman Gutswirtschaft if the carving out of service holdings for allotment to
the various groups of mancipia can, and it surely can, be construed as a mechanism
that eroded the integrity of the classic late Roman estate…. My second comment is that
Weidinger’s distinction between mansus and huba chimes remarkably well with
the kind of model Ros Faith has developed for the Anglo-Saxon ‘inland’ and her
sharp distinction between worker-tenants and the self-sufficient small peasantry
that came to form the true backbone of serfdom in the great feudal reaction of a
later period. ‘The inland’, Faith writes, ‘was an area likely to have been crowded
with the dwellings of the workers and tenants who lived there’…”

– Jairus Banaji, “Aristocracies, Peasantries and the Framing of the Early Middle Ages.”  Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 9 No. 1, January 2009, pp. 66-71.

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“To begin with the morphological problem; take the Western empire in the
fourth, fifth and early sixth centuries, Egypt or the East Mediterranean more
generally between the later fifth and early seventh centuries, and Sasanian Iran.
Iran under the Sasanids was ruled by powerful regional barons who were firmly
wedded to the Sasanian dynasty but also largely in control of royal succession.
Among late antique aristocracies, they were the least well integrated into something
we might call a state. Their unswerving commitment to dynastic rule is a
striking feature and suggests that this was the key factor of cohesion in a class
defined otherwise by strongly centrifugal tendencies. When Hormozdan, the
powerful aristocrat who dominated southwestern Iran at the time of the Arab
conquest, was asked by ‘Umar, ‘From which territory (‘ard) are you?’, he
replied, ‘I am a Mehrajani’. Regional identities were clearly quite strong even
and perhaps precisely at these levels of Sasanian society. At the opposite end of

the spectrum to them is the early Byzantine East Mediterranean aristocracy that
emerges with some vividness in the Egyptian papyri of the later fifth, sixth and
early seventh centuries. This aristocracy was typically a
Dienstadel, its roots firmly embedded in service to the late Roman state, a concept
for which there is no obvious Sasanian counterpart. Their trajectory runs
from the main part of the fifth century to the early seventh, when they were
destroyed or dispersed in the Sasanian and Arab invasions that followed in quick
succession in the years 610–640. The little we know about the origins of this
group suggests that it was the creature of a coherent, culturally sophisticated and
economically affluent state, the East Roman empire which reached the pinnacle
of its strength under Justinian in the sixth century. Finally, the Western aristocracy
was an intensely traditionalist group or ensemble of groups more loosely
integrated into the imperial state, dominating it as much as it served it and as
subversive of imperial unity as the Iranian


were of rulers they disliked.
An important aspect of this domination was the fact that the leading senatorial
families (or more correctly ‘clans’) established a significant measure of control
over the fiscal system through the offices they monopolized. There is a tradition
of Late Roman historiography that argues that the Italian aristocracy more than
any other sabotaged the coherence of its own state and bears a major share of the
blame for the downfall of the empire in the West. Whatever one thinks of this,
the fact is that ‘western aristocracies long outlived the Imperial government’,
seeking their own accommodation with Barbarian rulers. If the disintegration of the Western
empire sounded the death-knell of an integrated imperial aristocracy of the kind
that had emerged under Constantine, transforming the senate into a purely
Italian body and choking off the sources of renewal of a living senatorial
tradition, it also reflected the dispersive tendencies of
aristocratic networks that had never been more than loosely integrated into a
shifting imperial centre. The rapid consolidation of the Western upper classes in
the fourth century was followed by their gradual but sustained erosion in the
fifth and sixth, as a unified state disintegrated under the pressure of barbarian
migrations, settlement and conquest. This crisis was most obvious in sixth-century
Italy, but reflected of course throughout the Western provinces, to
unequal degrees. For the moment the point I wish to make is that late antique
aristocracies show major differences in the nature of their integration into
the state and that these differences are in some sense more fundamental than
the civilian/military divide that Wickham concentrates on in discussing the
transformation of the aristocracy.

 A quintessential late Roman aristocracy had more or less disappeared by the
turn of the sixth century, but its surviving networks followed very different
paths into limbo. The Italian aristocracy was decimated by the Gothic wars and
the violence of the Lombard invasion that followed. Unlike the Franks and the
Burgundians, the Lombards did not seek the collaboration of the Roman
aristocracy. Thus large estates survived but the aristocracy was eliminated or
fled. By contrast, the Merovingian kingdoms and especially that of Neustria
saw the evolution of an ethnically integrated aristocracy based on a fusion of the
surviving Roman families and their Frankish counterparts. Bertram, bishop of
Le Mans from 586 to 616, is a superb example of the new kind of aristocracy
that would dominate the political history of the seventh century, more powerfully
and obviously in Francia than elsewhere in the West. My own feeling is that if
we want a zone of rupture between late antiquity and the early middle ages, it
must lie here in the formation of the precocious nobilities that dominated the
Frankish Teilreiche already by the first quarter of the seventh century. They were the first purely medieval nobilities of Europe, a
peculiarly Merovingian achievement, thanks largely to the conscious policy of
Chilperic and his son Chlothar II, Neustrian rulers, in seeking the active support
of regional elites throughout Francia, in Austrasia, Burgundy and Aquitaine, and
integrating them into a pan-Merovingian Frankish ruling class. This evolution is important for the agrarian history of the West, because
it was in Francia that a new kind of enterprise and organization of labour
first emerged. The continuity with Rome lay in the survival
of large enterprises; the rupture in the rapid evolution of powerful new
aristocracies by the late sixth century, unlike any previous ruling class that had
dominated the West. In Spain too the old aristocracy passed rapidly into limbo.
A surviving Roman aristocracy is much harder to track than it is in Gaul. But
the Visigothic aristocracy itself was deeply divided and permanently embroiled
in conflict with the Crown. The repeated assassination of Visigothic rulers is
striking testimony to this. The chronicler Fredegar or his seventh-century
source called it the morbum Gothorum, the ‘Visigothic addiction for dethroning

their kings’. Here the Merovingian pattern of a strong dynasty and stable
aristocratic élites could not have been more radically reversed. This raises a final
issue about aristocracies. 

I would like to suggest that the dynastic principle favoured the interests of
the aristocracy. The weaker the monarchy, the less held together it was by the
common bond of a ruling family, the sharper the conflicts within the aristocracy.
Unregulated succession to the throne reflected lack of cohesion among
aristocrats and repeated attempts at usurpation, suggesting unmanageable levels
of conflict and considerable fragmentation. This, as I just said, is best exemplified
in Spain, where royal succession was characterized by chronic and often violent
instability and there was deep factionalism within the aristocracy.”   

– Jairus Banaji, “Aristocracies, Peasantries and the Framing of the Early Middle Ages.” 

Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 9 No. 1, January 2009, pp. 63-65.

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“The Tours of Gregory of Tours’s writings was a bustling place, with
numerous churches, including the large extramural burial complex of St-
Martin, which was one of Gaul’s major pilgrimage sites—Gregory himself
recorded the miracles that took place there in his De virtutibus sancti
Martini episcopi
. Inside the city walls there was the cathedral complex, at
least one aristocratic residence (that of Eberulf, the cubicularius of Chilperic,
d. 585), and presumably the administrative buildings associated with the
count. Around St-Martin, under a kilometre away, there were large atria and
a network of churches and monasteries, which were the constant focus for
pilgrims and mendicants (who had two houses of poor-relief built for them).
Gregory as bishop formally proceeded from the cathedral to St-Martin on
feast-days, with, apparently, a substantial congregation; King Clovis on his
ceremonial visit to Tours in 508, victorious after the battle of Vouille, had
proceeded in the opposite direction, showering money on the populus in
Roman style. The city population are less clearly marked in Gregory’s
writings, it is true; we find that the cives of Tours could as easily live in the
countryside as in the town. But they could also operate collectively (to
oppose bishops, for example), and this sort of aggregation makes most
sense if there was a physical concentration of people as well. How interesting, therefore, to read the interims and syntheses of Henri Galinie’s
extensive Tours excavations, and find that outside the late Roman walled
city, itself small enough (about 9 hectares), almost nothing has been found
from this period at all except the churches and some cemeteries. It is true that
the zone immediately between the cathedral and St-Martin has been less
systematically studied, and that a recent excavation in this area, close to the
city walls, showed some late occupation. But this was materially very simple,
even including hand-made ceramics. Galinie argues that Tours had hardly
been an urban centre in archaeological terms since the third century. If one
looks carefully at Gregory’s words, it is not that he can be proved to tell us otherwise; his references to Turonici, like his cives, could largely be to the
inhabitants of the city territory; his references to large congregations in
churches could include both pilgrims and country-dwellers. Tours is important to him as a religious, rather than economic, centre, and it apparently
lacked the political complexity of Clermont, with its rival urban aristocratic
families. But it is still striking that a city with such constant activity had so
few visible secular inhabitants. This was a citta ad isole which, on the
evidence of the excavations, had gone over the edge into deurbanization;
still, to the eyes of its religious leader (and one, we should recall, from
the south) it was not structurally different from other civitates of Gaul.

Frankish sources talk systematically in terms of civitates, which were the
building blocks for Merovingian government as much as they were for
the Visigoths or the Lombards. But with the example of Tours in mind,
one might legitimately wonder whether any of the other towns of the north
had more material corporality. Gregory, as has been often noted, only really
saw walls and cathedral churches when he sought to describe his cities,
wherever they were in Gaul. So Dijon, a mere castrum, had imposing
walls, and Gregory was thus led to wonder why it was not a civitas. Was there anything more?”

– Chris Wickham, Framing The Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (London: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 675-676

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“Carthage was the capital of Africa, a major political and fiscal centre, and
channel of much of Africa’s wealth overseas in the Roman period. In the
period 350–450 its prosperity peaked, as also did its population, which
might have reached 100,000 people. Its walls, built in the 420s, blocked
some former main access roads, and left some extramural areas to decay. In
the Vandal period, too, there are also some signs of a neglect of public
buildings, such as those in the forum area and the so-called ‘circular monument’; roads often saw encroachment in this period. But the Vandals also
built or rebuilt palaces and baths on a lavish scale (one was near the odeon;
we also have detailed praise-poems about some of them).  Some private
housing continued to be rich, such as the House of the Greek Charioteers;
and commercial activity remained active, with a continuity of import and
export (though this was lessening by 500 and the
circular harbour, one of Carthage’s several harbours, was not fully kept
up). After Belisarios’ conquest there was a massive rebuilding programme,
focusing on public buildings, streets, porticoes, churches, the harbours, and
the walls, as befitted a major centre in Justinian’s empire; this rebuilding
sometimes recognized and systematized former street encroachment. Carthage arguably had a prosperous period up to 600 at least, and maybe even
650, although construction techniques simplified towards the end of this
period, nd some monuments were converted to private houses. The last
known monumental (re-) building dates to c.660, in the southern extramural
church of Bir el Knissia;  thereafter Carthage underwent a monumental
meltdown. Older housing was replaced—and streets even blocked—by numerous poor-quality buildings, the circular harbour and the circus were
abandoned (there was seventh-century occupation, probably housing, in
the latter, however) and burials intruded on several former occupied
areas. Carthage was in the end abandoned, probably in the early eighth
century, and replaced by neighbouring Tunis. But the late seventh-century
levels of the city, despite their material poverty and their lack of control, do
not show terminal population decline; one must conclude that a still-existing
population was deliberately moved by the Arabs at some point after their
conquest of the city in 698.”

– Chris Wickham, Framing The Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (London: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 641

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