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The middle Byzantine economy: growth or stagnation?

  • Alan Harvey (a1)


In recent years there have been significant advances in our understanding of the Byzantine rural economy. While work on such problems as the legal status of the peasantry, the fiscal procedures by which the state extracted revenues from the peasantry and the nature of the fiscal concessions which the state made to landowners remains central to our understanding of the Byzantine social structure, greater attention has been paid recently to the history of settlements, agricultural production and the influence of the climate and environment on the rural economy. Recent work has been greatly facilitated by two developments, the publication of more material from the archives of Mount Athos and the upsurge in intensive surveys and other archaeological work which is already providing us with information about regions for which our documentary material is either inadequate or non-existant. This paper will not attempt a comprehensive discussion of all recent work on the subject, but will focus on some of the most significant problems affecting our understanding of the Byzantine rural economy.



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1. Bryer, A.A.M., ‘Byzantine Agricultural Implements: the Evidence of Medieval Illustrations of Hesiod’s Works and Days’, ABSA 81 (1986)4580 ; Kaplan, M., Les hommes et la terre à Byzance du Vie au Xle siècle. Propriété et exploitation du sol (Paris 1992) 46f .; Harvey, A., Economie Expansion in the Byzantine Empire 900-1200 (Cambridge 1990) 12225 . For an assessment of the Geoponika, see White, K.D., Roman Farming (London 1970) 32, 4546 .

2. Kaplan, , Les hommes, 68-69, 8587 .

3. Watson, A.M., Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World. The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques 700-1100 (Cambridge 1983) 103-11, 140 . See also Ashtor, E., A Social and Economic History of the Near East in the Middle Ages (London 1976) 45-48, 171 . For Byzantine irrigation projects, see Harvey, , Economic Expansion, 13435 .

4. Harvey, , Economic Expansion, 12223 . For a discussion of the social and economic reasons for the continued use of less efficient types of water-mill, ibid., 128-33.

5. Kaplan, , Les hommes, 54449 .

6. Ibid., 500-20. One problem with Kaplan’s tables is his interpretation of the demosiarios as aparoikos of the state, ibid., 264-68. For the argument that the demosiarios was simply a peasant who owed the demosion (land-tax) to the state, see most recently Harvey, A., ‘Peasant Categories in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries’, BMGS 14 (1990) 25056 . If this latter view is correct, then Kaplan’s calculations will need revision.

7. For this range of obligations, see Harvey, , Economic Expansion, 1029 .

8. Ibid., 147, 158-59. Laiou-Thomadakis, A.E., Peasant Society in the Late Byzantine Empire. A Social and Demographic Study (Princeton 1977) 12027 .

9. Dunn, A., ‘The Exploitation and Control of Woodland and Scrubland in the Byzantine World’, BMGS 16 (1992) 25457 .

10. Harvey, , Economic Expansion, 64 ; for instances where the paroikoi of landowners encroached on other properties, ibid. 62.

11. Kaplan, , Les hommes, 304-6, 493, 56566 . See also Zivojinovic, M., ‘The Trade of Mount Athos Monasteries’, ZRV1 29-30 (1991) 10115 .

12. Kaplan, , Les hommes, 8687 .

13. Hendy, M.F., Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c.300-1450 (Cambridge 1985) 57090 ; idem, ‘Byzantium, 1081-1204: an Economic Reappraisal’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series 20 (1970) 31-52; ‘“Byzantium, 1081-1204’: The Economy Revisited, Twenty Years On’, in The Economy, Fiscal Administration and Coinage of Byzantium (Northampton 1989) 1-48; A.P. Kazhdan, Epstein, A.W., Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (California 1985) 2539 .

14. Lemerle, P., The Agrarian History of Byzantium from the Origins to the Twelfth Century (Galway 1979) 48-51, 188 ; Kaplan, , Les hommes, 52930 .

15. Haldon, J.F., Byzantium in the Seventh Century. The Transformation of a Culture (Cambridge 1990) 14346 .

16. Kaplan, , Les hommes, 52930 .

17. Runnels, C., Andel, T. van, ‘The Evolution of Settlement in the Southern Argolid, Greece: An Economic Explanation’, Hesperia 56 (1987) 3049 . See also Bintliff, J.L., Snodgrass, A.M., ‘The Cambridge/Bradford Boeotian Expedition: The First Four Years’, Journal of Field Archaeology, 12 (1985) 12361 ; Wright, J.C., Cherry, J.F. et al, ‘The Nemea Valley Archaeological Project: A Preliminary Report’, Hesperia, 59 (1990) 617 ; Blackman, D., Branagan, K., ‘An Archaeological Survey of the Lower Catchment of the Ayiofarango Valley’, ABSA 72 (1977) 1384 .

18. Malamut, E., Les îles de l’empire byzantin (VlIIe-XIIe siècles) (Paris 1988) 12840 ; Tsougarakis, D., Byzantine Crete from the 5th Century to the Venetian Conquest (Athens 1988) 13254 .

19. Kaplan, , Les hommes, 53140 . Morris, R., ‘The Powerful and the Poor in Tenth-Century Byzantium: Law and Reality’, Past and Present 73 (1976) 27 .

20. Lefort, J., Oikonomides, N., Papachryssanthou, D., Metreveli, H., Actes d’lviron I: Des origines au milieu du Xle siècle (Archives de l’Athos 14) (Paris 1985) no. 10 .

21. Angold, M., ‘The Shaping of the Medieval Byzantine “City”’, BF 10 (1985) 137 ; Harvey, , Economic Expansion, 198243 ; Foss, C., Byzantine and Turkish Sardis (Harvard, 1976); idem, Ephesus after Antiquity. A Late Antique, Byzantine and Turkish City (Cambridge 1979); idem, ‘Archaeology and the “Twenty Cities” of Byzantine Asia’, American Journal of Archaeology, 81 (1977) 469-86. For evidence of peasant prosperity in western Asia Minor until the thirteenth century, see M. Angold, A Byzantine Government in Exile. Government and Society under the Laskarids of Nicaea (1204-61) (Oxford 1975) 103, 131.

22. Hendy, , Studies, 104 .

23. Lefort, J., ‘Population et peuplement en Macédoine orientale IXe-XVe siècle’, in Kravari, V., Lefort, J., Morrisson, C., eds., Hommes et richesses dans l’Empire byzantin II VHIe-XVe siècle (Paris 1991) 6382 ; idem, ‘Rural Economy and Social Relations in the Countryside’, DOP 47 (1993) 101-13; Harvey, , Economie Expansion, 47f .

24. In addition to the references cited above in n.17, see Dunn, , ‘The Exploitation and Control of Woodland’, 24253 .

25. For a recent survey of Byzantine monetary history, see Morrisson, C., ‘Monnaie et finances dans l’empire byzantin, Xe-XIVe siècle’, in Kravari, Lefort, Morrisson, eds., Hommes et richesses, 291315 .

26. Haldon, J.F., ‘Military Administration and Bureaucracy: State Demands and Private Interests’, BF 19 (1993) 5254 ; idem. ‘Military Service, Military Lands, and the Status of Soldiers: Current Problems and Interpretations’, DOP Al (1993) 63; Dunn, , ‘The Exploitation and Control of Woodland’, 26672 .

27. Harvey, , Economic Expansion, 113 .

28. Jacoby, D., “The Venetian Presence in the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-1261): the Challenge of Feudalism and the Byzantine Inheritance’, JOB 43 (1993) 175 .

29. See Angold, , ‘The Shaping of the Medieval Byzantine “City”’, 1-37 and Harvey, Economic Expansion, 21424 for further references.

30. Hendy, , Studies, 157 ; Morrisson, , ‘Monnaie et finances’, 29798 .

31. Although the upsurge in commerce in the eleventh and telfth centuries is generally accepted, there is disagreement about the importance of trade in the economy and of merchants in Byzantine society. For contrasting recent work, see Hendy, , Studies, 570602 ; idem. ‘Byzantium 1081-1204: The Economy Revisited’, 26; P. Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel 1 Komnenos 1143-1180 (Cambridge 1993) 142-50. Although Magdalino produces a good deal of evidence relating to commerce and lays great emphasis on the activities of western merchants, he does not directly confront Hendy’s discussion of the size of the western investment in Byzantium. Magdalino’s argument that the Theban silk industry was largely a response to Italian demand, ibid. 144-45, has been very persuasively challenged by Jacoby, D., ‘Silk in Western Byzantium Before the Fourth Crusade’, BZ 84/85 (1991-92) 452500 , who argues that the shift from providing raw materials to manufacturing finished products occurred in Thebes, Corinth and other smaller centres during the later eleventh century at the initiative of the local landowning elite, largely in response to a growing internal market which resulted from a general economic expansion. He also stresses the advantage which Thebes had over Constantinople in access to raw silk and purple dye.

32. Haldon, , ‘Military Administration’, 5759 .

33. Magdalino, P., The Empire of Manuel I. Komnenos 1143-1180, 16470 .

34. Harvey, , Economic Expansion, 68 .

35. Harvey, A., ‘Financial Crisis and the Rural Economy’, in Mullett, M., Smythe, D., eds., Alexios I Komnenos (Belfast 1995) 16784 ; idem, ‘The Land and Taxation in the Reign of Alexios I Komnenos: the Evidence of Theophylakt of Ochrid’, REB 51 (1993) 139-54.

The middle Byzantine economy: growth or stagnation?

  • Alan Harvey (a1)


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