Posts Tagged ‘framing the early middle ages’

“The urban development of these emporia (a modern technical term,
although it does have contemporary usage: among others, Bede uses it of
the international market at London, and the Miracula Sancti Wandregisili
of Quentovic) tended to follow two main patterns.  A minority of towns
had seventh-century roots as permanent ports, with a substantial eighth-century expansion: Quentovic, Dorestad, and London are the clearest examples. Quentovic, which has had little study—it was only even located just
over a decade ago—may have been the most important in the seventh
century, as the main Channel port for England. Dorestad, although
known from the 630s for its coins (of the moneyers Rimoald and Madelinus,
who had moved there from Maastricht, some 120 km inland), did not begin
to expand substantially until c.720, although in its high point, up to the
830s, it became remarkably large, covering over 60 hectares of land.
(Its excavators, who have more evidence than usual to work with, estimate
its population cautiously at 1,000–2,000; but some idea of the range of
demographic hypothesis in this area can be gained by the fact that Hamwic,
two-thirds the size of Dorestad, has been ascribed twice this figure, fairly
convincingly, by its excavators.) London’s mercantile centre (Lundenwic), in
the modern Strand area of Westminster (i.e. outside the walls of the Roman
city), has a few early seventh-century coins, and is documented as active in
late seventh-century laws and eighth-century charters; its first quays seem to
date from the 670s, and it took off in the 720s. This early eighth-century
take-off is matched by the date of the origin of the other group of emporia, which seem to have been deliberately founded, on top of occasional harbours or empty land, in the first decades of the century: Hamwic as a
planned site around 700; Ipswich perhaps no earlier than that, although
there was apparently a small harbour there in the seventh century; York in
the same period, just outside the Roman city but probably on open land;
Ribe, again ex novo, in 704–10 (we have dendrochronological dating here).
We must not exaggerate this convergence of dates; all the same, it would be
fair to say that, although in 650 the North Sea and English Channel had a set
of harbours, some temporary, others permanent, none of them would have
laid much claim to urban status; by 750, however, half-a-dozen of them
were large and active economic centres, covering tens of hectares of land

The sorts of towns emporia were needs to be understood…; let us look briefly at Dorestad as an example, drawing
parallels from Hamwic and Ribe, the other centres with well-published
excavation. Dorestad at its height, around 800, consisted of rows of post-built long-houses of a rural northern European type, but on
much smaller plots than would be normal in a village, separated by streets
made out of wooden planks. Closer to the river-harbour on the Kromme
Rijn (Dorestad is set well back in the Rhine delta area, some 60 km east of
Rotterdam) the houses were slightly smaller and denser, and separated by
long causeways running down into the river, which were constantly lengthened (to up to 200 metres) as the river steadily shifted eastwards. Dorestad’s
inhabitants included peasants, but also a wide range of artisans: wood-workers (including for houses, streets, and ships), boneworkers, weavers,
leatherworkers, and smiths. It is unclear whether such artisanal production
was primarily intended for fellow residents or was also exported; what is
clear, however, is that although this activity was substantial, it was dwarfed
by the large quantities of imports on the site. Eighty per cent of the ceramics
were imports, mostly from the Rhineland (the other 20 per cent were hand-made and probably local). There were also basalt querns from the Eifel, wine
in barrels from the middle Rhine (the barrels were reused as wells), glass,
metalwork, weapons, and amber (some of which was worked on site).
Dorestad was, fairly clearly, the main port for the export of Rhineland
products: to other parts of Francia to an extent (though Rhineland ceramics
are rather rarer elsewhere in the region), but above all to other parts of the
North Sea coastland, England and Denmark in particular. If Dorestad had
any form of monumental centre, it has not been found. One probable church, again in wood, has been identified, although there must have been
others; the town was never a bishopric (it is generally called a vicus in our
sources), but at least once housed a missionary bishop to the Frisians,
Suidberht. The mint may possibly have had a designated building (it
would have in southern Europe, although minting technology does not at
all require it); so may the procurator who controlled the port and its tolls for
the king. But the archaeological excavations, which have covered almost
half the site, have only really turned up primary economic activity, and little
sign of differentiations of wealth.

Other emporia have similar structures. At Hamwic, where the port was
not excavated, the houses were again of rural type, on an apparently roughly
orthogonal plan with metalled roads, and were, in the areas studied, largely
devoted to artisanal production, with the same range as found at Dorestad
but also including glass, pottery, and copper; here the richest imports were
from abroad (mostly the Seine valley, judging by the ceramics, although the
Frankish coins imply a wider range), rather than from Wessex, the hinterland of the town, although here over 80 per cent of the pottery was local,
and this at least was either made in Hamwic or in its hinterland. Conversely,
Hamwic seems not to have had an agrarian element; its food was brought in
from outside, arguably in quite a systematic way. Hamwic’s macroeconomic
role is less clear than that of Dorestad, for it had fewer imports, thus putting
more stress on the economic importance of its own crafts, but, conversely, its
own crafts and its locally minted coins have rarely been found in its hinterland.  Richard Hodges twenty years ago argued strongly that it was
founded by King Ine of Wessex (ruling 688–726) as a gateway port, in
order to channel goods directly to the royal court, rather than as a standard
town providing its hinterland with goods and services. Recent excavators,
more struck by Hamwic’s own artisanal activities and the relative absence of
kingly luxuries, have tried to play down this model, but the absence of its
products elsewhere is a limit to any critique of Hodges (see below, p. 809).
The town was anyway clearly a planned foundation and closely associated
with the kings (it is called a villa regalis in 840, and it gave its name to
Hampshire by the ninth century at the latest); it must have had a gateway
function as well as a local economic role, and was probably more controlled
than was Dorestad.  In Denmark, Ribe was probably a seasonal market at
first, based on planned plots, but had permanent housing in its market and port area, and the residential area behind it, by the mid-eighth century.
Again, we find textile production and bone- and metalwork on site, with
glass bead-making and pottery production (here, an even smaller percentage
of ceramics than at Hamwic was imported, only 5–7 per cent, largely from
the Rhine); imports included coins, glass, Eifel quernstones, wood from the
Elbe, and whetstones from Norway. The patterns resemble Hamwic rather
than Dorestad, and Danish archaeologists have no doubt that this was a
gateway centre founded by and for kings. Ribe was rather
smaller than some other emporia, at 10 hectares, and the intensity of its
activity was probably less, fitting the still-restricted levels of Danish royal

Emporia were classic examples of new towns. It will be noted that the
criteria I have used to discuss them are exclusively commercial and artisanal;
they were not centres of political or ecclesiastical power (although they were
directly controlled by rulers), and, importantly, they are never described as
the residences of the wealthy. London and York were, it is true, episcopal
centres (inside the old Roman walls—the emporia, as we have seen, were
outside), but no contemporary urban activity has yet been found in the
vicinity of the cathedrals, which were anyway recent, seventh-century, foundations in England. It is also true that kings kept tight control over the
emporia and their tolls, as even the poor documentation for England and
Denmark makes clear (the same is true for Birka in Sweden, as we can see in
the ninth-century Vita Anskarii); but only Hamwic and maybe York seem
to have been administrative centres for a rural territory. Monumentally, they
were far from impressive; Dorestad would have looked very utilitarian to a
visitor from Cologne, or even maybe one from Tours, though it was more
active an urban centre than the latter by far. Emporia were mostly politically
marginal centres, and kings were happy that they should remain such.
(Dorestad, on the borders with Frisia, actually changed hands politically
several times, and was under Frisian control for much of the period
670–720, after which Frisia was conquered by the Franks; London, too,
was a border town, with East Saxon, Kentish, and Mercian influence until
the Mercians became dominant in the eighth century.) Their raison d’eˆtre
was as foci for import-export, and this explains why they resemble each
other, despite the huge socio-economic differences between Francia on the
one side and England and Denmark on the other. It also explains why they
flourished so much in the eighth century, and also the ninth, a high point for
the North Sea exchange system as that period was; their general lack of
regalia and territorial hinterlands further explains why so many of them failed as
economic centres when the trade-routes shifted in the wake of Viking
expansion. But they were not simply harbours for that trade; all of them
were artisanal production centres too, often of considerable elaboration.
The exchange they commanded was sufficiently complex to allow for that.”

– Chris Wickham, Framing The Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (London: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 682-686


Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »

“Two points…The first concerns our understanding of the concept of ‘decline’, a much-used but unpleasantly value-laden word. We have seen several different versions of the weakening of the
material forms of cities, and they do not at all have the same significance: (i)
the demonumentalization (or abandonment) of forum areas; (ii) the lessening of monumental building in general; (iii) the fragmentation or destructuration of the spatial coherence of cities, potentially creating isole of
settlement with unoccupied land between them; (iv) the division of large
buildings into smaller houses; (v) the use of simpler construction techniques
in building (perhaps including reused material, although this can simply be
an aesthetic choice, or else less permanent materials); (vi) the end of the
maintenance of public amenities such as roads or sewers; (vii) the beginning
of intramural burial; (viii) the straightforward abandonment of urban areas
or their conversion to agricultural use. Except for the last named, none of
these need indicate urban weakness in itself: (i), as we have seen, does not
indicate anything other than a change in city government—although maybe it sometimes involves a new ruling elite who are less interested in ‘civic’
responsibility, resulting in (vi), as sometimes in the East; (ii) may only
indicate changes in the rhetoric of display, with interior decorations replacing external fitments and physical size as rhetorical gestures; (iii) may
only indicate a fragmentation in the patterns of urban identity and leadership; (iv) indicates, usually, that the rich are less rich (as (ii) may do as well),
but not necessarily that fewer people live in the city; (v) indicates, usually,
that there are fewer specialized construction-workers, but this too may only
be a marker of the weakening of aristocratic patronage, not of the vitality of
urban activity; as for (vii), the least discussed here, it certainly does not mean
more than an ideological change, the end of the Roman fear of the dead in
settled areas, rather than being a sign of the end of settlement in any given
area. There are, it must be remembered, plenty of notably unpublic, un-
monumental, indeed chaotic, but highly active cities in the modern Third
World, which might not be the preferred residential choices for academics
(the heirs in some respects of the senatorial elite of the fourth century), but
which nonetheless fit all economic criteria for urbanism.

It seems to me that we must recognize both the polyvalency of changes of
this kind, and, at the same time, the implications of their accumulation. We
have usually found several of them present in any individual urban case
study; put together, they may represent different sorts of cultural change, but
they do also mean a steady weakening of the fabric of a city. Indeed, as cities
fly apart spatially and lose both their wealthy patrons and their artisanal
expertise, they might lose the characteristics that might allow us to call them
urban at all. …there are examples of Roman
cities in northern Gaul that, for a time at least, crossed the boundary
between the urbanized and the deurbanized; and the failed cities of Spain
or Britain probably broke down in exactly that sort of way, steadily losing
their characteristics one by one, until…a relative
population density and economic activities that were different from those of
the countryside, ceased to apply. Even where this did not occur, a city with
several of these changes was, in most cases, less prosperous than a city
without them: the urban values of the Roman world had not changed so
much that people no longer respected impressive public monuments, for
example, and patrons still built them when they could, as did Charlemagne
at Aachen or the Umayyad emirs at Cordoba. In this framework, it does
seem to me legitimate to see the eighth century as clearly urbanistically
weaker than the fourth in the western Mediterranean, even in the cities
that had survived as urban centres in an economic sense. The indicators
were still pointing downwards in the eighth century; how they may have
been later reversed we shall see in the next chapter.

The final point:…Non-agrarian activities, such as markets and artisans, are something we
have evidence for… But how we assess demographic density in the early middle ages is much more
difficult. There have been many figures offered for the population of early
medieval towns; they have all been fabricated. There are no reliable figures
for any population centre between the reasonably well-founded (but all the
same widely divergent) calculations for late imperial Rome and Constantinople and those for England in Domesday Book in 1086.
Contemporary figures are otherwise entirely rhetorical; modern calculations
have been made up out of wholecloth, and can either be ludicrously optimistic or implausibly pessimistic. I shall abstain from offering examples, and
will restrict myself to an order of magnitude of my own. If Pisa, after a
century and more of rapid growth, had around 25,000 inhabitants in 1228,
then it probably had only some 10,000 inhabitants in the eleventh century,
and in previous centuries it, and probably every single other western city
outside Rome (and, after 900, Cordoba), will have had less. But how
much less? We simply cannot say. What we have to recognize at least,
however, is the force of relative rises, relative declines. Overall, the increasingly restricted wealth of urban elites in the early middle ages everywhere
meant that their buying-power was less, and that the numbers of their
dependants and suppliers will have dropped: this represents a demographic
decline relative to the late Roman world, even if we cannot calculate its
dimensions. One significant catastrophe-flip in the sequence of that decline
will have been when the demographic weight of cities was insufficient to
prevent their spatial fragmentation. The next catastrophe-flip would be
when the demographic weight was insufficient to support urban crafts,
and the minimum criteria for urbanism as a whole no longer held.”

– Chris Wickham, Framing The Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (London: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 672-674

Read Full Post »

“Merida is the best example in Spain of the sort of standard, low-key urban continuity that is increasingly regarded as characteristic of Italy, and indeed
some of the signs of it are materially more complex than have usually been
found in Italy. Merida is another city that has largely kept its street plan.
Judging by the Vitas patrum Emeritensium, the seventh-century history of its
bishops, the cathedral complex and adjoining ducal palace were its focal
point in the sixth century, not the forum area, though they were probably
only a block away, still in the centre of the city; some solid post-Roman
buildings have been found on the forum, however. An alternative ritual
centre was the extramural martyrial complex of S. Eulalia, built in the fifth
century and recently excavated, by far the most important out of several
extramural churches. Even so, the emphasis on S. Eulalia in the Vitas patrum
gives the clear impression that it was integrated into the community of a
coherent and populated city, full among other things of urban aristocrats, and not in any sense contributing to its destructuration. As
in other important but rebellious cities of al-Andalus, the Arab emirs in 835
built an Alcazaba, an intramural fortification, in Merida; although such
constructions could risk, as in Byzantine Africa, the further fragmentation
of the spatial structures of cities, this one largely respected the Roman street
plan. As for private housing, there are some archaeological signs of fifth-century destructions (Hydatius implies that the city was attacked by Suevi in
429); more important, however, is the recent excavation in the Morerı ́a in the
south-west corner of the city, which shows a substantial Roman peristyle
house divided up into single-room residences, each with its own hearth, in
the Visigothic period. This was razed in the late seventh or early eighth
century and turned into a dump, before the rebuilding there in the ninth
century of a series of notably high-quality houses, which have regular plans,
but partially break the Roman street alignment. Merida was clearly always
occupied (even the eighth-century evidence fits that, as the dump shows
there was occupation elsewhere)…”

– Chris Wickham, Framing The Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (London: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 661.

Read Full Post »

“It is clear that, universally, after c.550 (the rough date recurs consistently,
marking the generalized crisis of the Gothic war) early medieval cities in
Italy were poorer than Roman ones. Some indeed vanished altogether, and
others lost their urban functions (Luni is the clearest instance among the
excavated sites). But even those where urban activities survived, which
include every city mentioned in the immediately preceding pages, were very
much poorer, with most urban administrative functions (such as street-
cleaning) reduced to a minimum, and with often very simple buildings, or
Roman buildings fairly crudely reused. Were their populations also reduced?

The open fields and internal courtyards might imply so, although one must
also note that here, as in the East, one-roomed houses could often imply
denser settlement than the generously constructed peristyle houses and
extensive temple precincts of the empire. Aristocrats themselves probably
occupied fairly simple two-storeyed buildings. Even the houses of the Forum Nervae, by far the most impressive yet found, do not match the mosaic-
floored town houses found regularly in imperial-period levels. If one extends
one’s sights away from residential building and looks at churches, such as
S. Salvatore/S. Giulia in Brescia, or the prestige foundations of Pavia, Cividale, and Spoleto, or any number of eighth- and ninth-century churches in
Rome, it is true that one immediately finds good-quality brick- and stone-
work, sometimes newly fired or quarried, and also the marble and mosaic
traditions of the ancient world. These show a continuity of patronage of
skilled artisans, as also do those buildings surviving from the Roman empire
up to the present day, for artisans must always have been on hand to make
sure their roofs were repaired. The existence of such specialist artisans is
further confirmed in documents, such as the eighth-century price-list in the
Memoratorium de mercedibus commacinorum. We must
conclude, however, that there was not sufficient demand for their services to
support enough artisans, in any one city, to transform residential housing as
well as church architecture. The very richest aristocrats, ducal families for
example, may have had houses in new brick, stone, and marble, probably
resembling more elaborate versions of the two-storeyed houses of Ravenna
and Rome; but they were probably few in number. The rest settled for
buildings like those in the Via Dante of Verona or the Piazza Dante of Pisa,
and maybe put rich hangings or frescos on the walls to cover the simplicity of
the construction. Overall, the aristocracy of early medieval Italy—Byzantine
and Lombard alike—although they still lived in cities, were far poorer than
their predecessors, or their eleventh-century successors in their tower
houses. And their neighbours, artisans or shopkeepers or servants, were
poorer still.


It has become common in Italy to argue for a temporal division inside the
early middle ages, between roughly the period 550–750 and the period
750–950, the first one of urban crisis, the second one of tentative revival.
It is true that the documents for cities would support this, as would the
global evidence for greater aristocratic wealth in the Carolingian period. One could read parts of the archaeology that way too, in
particular the greater number of churches, built with good construction
techniques, in the second period, and the finding of buildings such as the
Forum Nervae houses. Recent excavations in Siena, too, show good-quality
stone buildings beginning to be built from the ninth century onwards.
I would be cautious, all the same. Rome, at least, is a very atypical city;
and church-building follows its own rhythms, independent of any simple


correlation with economic prosperity. It could equally well be said that
sites like the Via Dante point to much longer continuities of poor construction, and it is also fair to note that the ninth and tenth centuries are as yet less
well known archaeologically in most Italian cities than is the seventh.
Unhelpfully, the single most unambiguous sign of renewed economic
activity after 750 is the huge wealth and artisanal sophistication found in
S. Vincenzo al Volturno in the early ninth century; but S. Vincenzo was one
of the remotest rural monasteries in Italy.142 If this is the kind of prosperity
that the ninth century could generate, then it needs to be stressed that it has
not yet been recognized in most Italian cities. There may very well have been
an urban revival in Italy after c.750; but this is a sector of the debate for
which we must await more excavation. 

With these observations about the changing nature and quality of urban
building in mind, let us look again at the issue of the overall structure of
Italian cities. An important question that came up in the context of our
discussions of Syria and of Africa was the fate of the old forum/agora areas
of cities. Italian archaeology does not allow the generation of easy parallels
to those debates, for relatively few fora have been subjected to systematic
analysis, given the chancy patterning of urban excavations in still-occupied
towns. Some have been studied, however, and these tend to situate Italian
developments with those of Africa rather than those found in the East, even
in the case of major cities. At Verona, there are signs of monumental
destructuration (the systematic demolition of the Capitolium) already in
the 510s, and sixth-century encroachment on the open square. At Brescia,
the ruined Capitolium was reused for ceramic production by 600, indicating
an earlier monumental decay. At Milan, sketchier interventions indicate a
fifth-century date for the same process. We should also add to this list Luni,
whose forum was losing its classical appearance in the fifth century, when it
was stripped of marble and underwent a period of formation of silt deposits,
before wooden houses were built there in c.550. Luni is different from these
other sites, because the city’s economy was equally clearly already in trouble
(it was the main outlet for Carrara—then Luni—marble, so the stripping of
the forum paving is particularly indicative), and it was eventually abandoned; all the same, the early demonumentalization of the forum is significant, for the city’s bishops were capable of spending substantial sums on the
cathedral up to the ninth century. The forum of Florence, by contrast, seems
to have been repaved in the mid-sixth.

We should finally add Rome, where the forum area was huge and complex; here, the main forum (the Foro
Romano as it is now called) was still the focus of monumental building
into the seventh century, with the column of Phocas of 608, and the Fora of
Nerva and Trajan were still being maintained as late as the ninth century (the
start of the century for the former, the end for the latter). As already stressed,
Rome was always highly atypical, however. Its curia building, on the Foro
Romano, was still used by the Senate into the late sixth century (it was
converted into a church after 625), and its monuments maintained for a long
time an intensity of symbolic meaning and state-supported protection,
which those of other cities could never match. All the same, many were in
decay by 500—there were simply too many to maintain—and one of the
fora, that of Augustus, even though it adjoined those of Nerva and Trajan,
was already a quarry in the sixth century.  

Fora in Italy maintained a spatial centrality. Many had become markets by
the ninth or tenth centuries at the latest, as with Brescia, Milan, Pavia,
Florence; others may have done (we do not have the documents elsewhere),
and most remained at least open spaces, although these were usually rather
smaller than in classical times, that is, substantially encroached on (even if
this did not necessarily occur in our period). But it is likely that they began
to lose their monumentality by or before the Gothic war, sometimes substantially earlier, much as in Africa. Interestingly, Italian curiae seem to have
survived longer than in Africa; although they had long since vanished from
building inscriptions, they are regarded as normal in the Variae, and some
(as at Ravenna, Rieti, or Naples) are referred to after 550 in documents and
letters. We cannot, that is to say, conclude that a demonumentalized
forum automatically means that a curia no longer existed. But it is likely,
all the same, that the latter were much less important; by 550 practical
power in cities was in the hands of bishops, local senators, and other
notables, whether or not there was still a curia.  

Italian archaeologists invented the term citta ad isole already cited, and
there are some cities in the peninsula where some spatial destructuring
undoubtedly occurred, following on from the monumental weakening of
forum areas. Brescia may be one example, with a cathedral-curtis ducalis
area in the south-west of the city separated from the public (later monastic)
area in the north-east by a decaying and underpopulated forum area. Lucca
has been canvassed as another, given the apparently early weakening of the
forum area (in the second and third centuries), with a late Roman refocusing of the city in the cathedral area in its south-east corner, and, by the eighth
century, a wide array of churches in the city’s suburbs as alternative settlement foci, with open areas between them. 

A third example of fragmentation is
certainly Rome, whose third-century walls included after c.600 only perhaps
a twentieth of its late Roman population, grouped, as it would appear from
recent work, in a set of what could be called urban villages, maybe as many
as a dozen, held together by a common politics and, probably, a continuing
ritual of processions across the old classical centre. Brescia and Rome are
parallels to the fragmented tendencies of some of the African cities, and
indeed Rome is a better example than any of them, although a dangerous
one to generalize from, given the huge space inside its walls. How typical
they were is, all the same, not clear. Cities fragment because their centres
have become less powerful, because new foci, like churches on the edge of
town and outside city walls, become more important, and, crucially, because
their demography and urban economic activities become too weak to root
all these foci in the same urban fabric. My sense of the evidence for Italian
cities is that in the case of those which maintained their political importance—as in almost all of the examples cited above—they maintained that
essential level of coherence in their urban structure. We have the surviving
street plans; we have no cases in Italy of the closed-off urban fortresses
documented for some cities in Africa. We have eighth-century evidence of
urban artisans (goldsmiths, cauldron-makers, and others) for Lucca,
of urban subdivisions for Lucca and Ravenna. And, of course, we have
the evidence of the urban aristocrats—the source of demand for the artisans—which fits with what else we know
about Italian cities. All of these mark a tendency towards the maintenance
of a considerable degree of urban vitality, at least in the successful cities of
the peninsula; hence, probably, their continued spatial coherence. The survival of fora as market areas probably reflects that economic vitality, but
would have further reinforced the continuing coherence of the urban fabric.

Conversely, it must be repeated that the material poverty of Italian cities
cannot be denied. Italy’s new two-storeyed buildings simply mark changes in
the way prosperous town-dwellers wished to live, and represent themselves
to others, in the same way that the fortified houses of Sbeıtla and Belalis
Maior do; they are signs of vitality, not weakness. But they are a minority.
The subdivided houses and the wooden buildings built precariously on
Roman foundations show a clear technological involution, which is greater
than that visible in Africa. Italian cities, one can propose, maintained a
greater density of settlement and structural coherence than did those of
Africa, but that density by now consisted of buildings that were very different from those normal in cities elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and indeed
much poorer. It has been argued elsewhere in this book that Italy was
substantially damaged by the Gothic and Lombard wars, more seriously
than any other region was harmed by war in our period apart from, perhaps,
the seventh-century Byzantine heartland. After c.600 Italian
aristocracies, although still city-dwelling, were also much less rich in their
landed property than those of, in particular, Francia. Italy’s cities
maintained their classical spatial structure, but were unusually poor, in the
same way that Italy’s political and territorial structures changed rather less
than those of elsewhere, and its aristocrats changed their habits less than
elsewhere, but were all much poorer.

The seventh-century crisis in the Byzantine heartland produced a process
in which the continuing force of the state, and the attraction of its hierarchies, accelerated the abandonment of most of its classical cities, with urban
elites concentrating in a smaller number of centres. This process did not
occur in Italy, whether Byzantine or Lombard; here, by contrast, cities
tended only to fail in economically marginal areas like the southern Appennines, the Alps, or the underpopulated coast of southern Tuscany. In richer
areas they persisted in, at times, quite dense networks, as with the southern
Exarchate and Pentapolis in the Byzantine lands, or northern Tuscany in the
Lombard lands. The reorganization of the Byzantine state in its heartland
was much more centralized than in Italy; the
various sectors of Byzantine power in the peninsula were arguably more
conservative than in the Aegean and Anatolian areas, and also steadily
drifted away from imperial control. The local state was weaker as well;
tax-raising slowly broke down even in Byzantine areas, as it had done in the
Lombard kingdom by 600, thus further decreasing the economic
hegemony of even local power centres, Rome or Ravenna or Naples. There
was thus no obvious reason for a notable from (say) Senigallia to be tempted
to relocate to (say) Ravenna, and even less for any such ‘rationalization’ to take place in the Lombard lands. 

City elites, whether rich or poor, stayed in
their own cities, and their heirs would eventually act as the core of the
autonomous city-based polities of later centuries, urban polities which had
no parallel either in the states of the southern and eastern Mediterranean or
in the fragmented rural lordships of tenth-century Francia.
Urban Italy was thus both materially poor and culturally conservative in
the early middle ages. Signs of this are the praise-poems for Milan (739) and
Verona (c.800), which are highly unusual in the centuries after 600 as
specific panegyrics of the fabric of cities, with few parallels anywhere in
the former empire. (Constantinople and Rome both have them, although
in each case they are peculiar texts, with no generic parallels. Alcuin’s poem
on York spends most of its space on the qualities of local bishops, and very
little on the urban fabric. The only other example known to me is the Anglo-
Saxon poem The Ruin, a nostalgic evolution of barely comprehensible
glory.) They praise the walls, the forum, the streets, an aqueduct
(in Milan), the amphitheatre (in Verona), and the network of churches in
both, in the same way that late Roman panegyrists like Ausonius and
Sidonius had—the only novelty was the churches, generally ignored in the
late Roman tradition. But, as we have seen, they lied about the state of
the fora: the classical image they sought to present evidently did not have to
have be directly reflected on the ground. Whether this was simply self-deception, or else, more specifically, the tunnel vision of a rich minority,
does not really matter; the fact is that, in cities of mud and poor wooden
buildings, it was possible to talk as if the buildings of imperial Rome were
still standing. 

Paul the Deacon at the end of the eighth century, too, expressed the devastation of a seventh-century epidemic at Pavia in terms of
vegetation being allowed to grow on the forum and plateae of the city: an
image of the country invading the city which has exact parallels in the later
Roman empire, but which was still resonant in the very different material
world of the early middle ages in Italy. Italian conservatism maintained
classical civic ideals, and thus, by extension, the concept of urban living
for its elites, through the greatest economic crisis in the history of the
peninsula. These ideals were still operative in the period of economic revival, and acute political decentralization, which can be clearly seen in the
eleventh century at the latest.”

– Chris Wickham, Framing The Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (London: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 649-656

Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »