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Why Europe?: The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path

Why Europe?: The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path

by Michael Mitterauer

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Why did capitalism and colonialism arise in Europe and not elsewhere? Why were parliamentarian and democratic forms of government founded there? What factors led to Europe’s unique position in shaping the world? Thoroughly researched and persuasively argued, Why Europe? tackles these classic questions with illuminating results.



Why did capitalism and colonialism arise in Europe and not elsewhere? Why were parliamentarian and democratic forms of government founded there? What factors led to Europe’s unique position in shaping the world? Thoroughly researched and persuasively argued, Why Europe? tackles these classic questions with illuminating results.

Michael Mitterauer traces the roots of Europe’s singularity to the medieval era, specifically to developments in agriculture. While most historians have located the beginning of Europe’s special path in the rise of state power in the modern era, Mitterauer establishes its origins in rye and oats. These new crops played a decisive role in remaking the European family, he contends, spurring the rise of individualism and softening the constraints of patriarchy. Mitterauer reaches these conclusions by comparing Europe with other cultures, especially China and the Islamic world, while surveying the most important characteristics of European society as they took shape from the decline of the Roman empire to the invention of the printing press. Along the way, Why Europe? offers up a dazzling series of novel hypotheses to explain the unique evolution of European culture.

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"Every scholar of medieval studies will find something of interest here."

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Why Europe

The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-53253-0

Chapter One

Rye and Oats: The Agrarian Revolution of the Early Middle Ages

A geosocial component is fundamental to any inquiry into the historical roots of Europe's distinctiveness. The peculiarities of the regions where its distinctive phenomena originated are key to discovering the factors that shaped Europe's development. Congruencies between certain regions only reinforce the idea of a defining "concatenation of circumstances" for the continent, a concatenation that is the object of study in this book. Indeed, there is a consensus in historical scholarship that many of the developments typifying Europe's "special path" (Sonderweg) arose in the eighth and ninth centuries in the lands between the Seine and the Rhine, the heartland of the Carolingian Empire. This region was the locus of particular social evolutionary forces throughout the entire Middle Ages, the effects of which can be felt up to the present day. In contrast, in antiquity the marginalized provinces of Belgica and Germanica Superior and Inferior became the cradle of evolutionary dynamics in the imperium Romanum. These provinces were opened up relatively late by Romanization, urbanization, or conversion to Christianity. The most developed provinces, culturally speaking, were on the Mediterranean, where Rome was obviously the center of the western half of the area. A fundamental change took place in this geosocial constellation during the course of the early Middle Ages, when the gravitational center of social evolutionary forces shifted from the southern to the northwestern part of the continent. An elucidation of the factors that determined this shift can unquestionably contribute to our better understanding of why the area that is Europe emerged as it did.

A cross-cultural comparison clearly shows that the rise of new cultural areas was, from earliest historical times, tied closely to agrarian innovations. Newly introduced cultivated plants opened up novel ways of increasing the food supply, making a new developmental dynamic possible. It seems amazing that this rudimentary explanation for the advent of European society is hardly ever advanced, and this is all the more surprising because rather fundamental innovations in agriculture were being implemented in the area between the Rhine and the Seine at precisely the time in question. Might there be a causal relationship between the new agriculture in this region and the particular developmental forces emanating from the Carolingian heartland during the Middle Ages? A comparison with other cultures will show that there is good reason to examine this working hypothesis more closely.

An American historian of technology, Lynn White Jr., is one of the few scholars who have attempted to account for the gravitational shift on the European continent from the South to the Northwest in terms of agrarian factors. His argument appeared in 1962 but certainly not to universal acclaim. Although after forty years it doubtlessly needs modification, it still presents a useful starting point for deliberations about the agrarian foundations of Europe's special path. White and other scholars at the time and afterward wrote about an "agricultural revolution in the early Middle Ages," but only White argued that it had produced a fundamental shift in Europe's center of gravity. The concept of "revolution" means something different, of course, with regard to economic development than it does in the political sphere. We are not talking here of discrete events but of long-term processes, some of them spanning centuries. And so, by analogy with the later "industrial revolution," we can speak of an "agrarian revolution," a concept that with qualification can refer to earlier times as well. It has been applied to the period of European history customarily called the "early Middle Ages" and to developments in two non-European cultures: "the Arab agricultural revolution," referring to the Islamic world from roughly 700 to 1100, has become common coin among scholars, as has China's "green revolution" during the Song dynasty (960–1279). With regard to Europe, we might stick with White's term, "the agricultural revolution of the early Middle Ages," in spite of the drawn-out nature of the process, but we generally prefer the term "agrarian revolution." The temporal overlap with quite different agricultural/agrarian revolutions in other cultures offers excellent points of comparison that will further our understanding of characteristics peculiar to Europe.

White identifies agrarian technology as key to the social-dynamic shift in question. He lists the heavy plow, the use of horses in farming (because of the horse collar and the horseshoe), and the three-field system—the rotation of winter planting, summer planting, and fallow fields—as the crucial agrarian innovations. He ranks the cultivation of recently imported crops lower. A comparison with other cultures, however, shows that the cultivation of introduced crops is the decisive factor in agricultural revolutions. This is clearly evident in the transformations in agriculture simultaneously underway in China and Islamic countries. White's model therefore probably needs to be expanded. The enormous progress in paleobotanical research in recent decades has laid new groundwork for precisely this sort of broadening, from which we can deduce what written sources could not reveal: that the early Middle Ages also marked a phase of radical change in the types of crops cultivated in the Carolingian heartland. Two new grain species take pride of place as a result of this very complex process of change: rye and oats. There is proof that these crops were cultivated before the utilization of the above-mentioned technical innovations. The connections between the two grains and the agricultural innovations becomes more plausible when we take into consideration the whole system of the new agriculture in the Frankish heartland and how it evolved as part of the medieval agrarian revolution.

* * *

Rye and oats do not belong to the "founder crops" of the Old World, such as emmer (Triticum dicoccum, two-grained spelt), einkorn (T. monococcum, one-seeded wheat), barley (Hordeum vulgare), and naked wheat (T. durum/aestivum), all of which came from the Near East, though it took a long time before they were cultivated in Europe. Both grains started as weeds mixed in with the kinds of grain that were intended to be planted. Those traditional crops had likely been cultivated since the Bronze Age or the early Iron Age; then the climate apparently worsened, bringing cooler temperatures and increased rainfall. Given this changing situation, people in central Europe turned to two types of grain not planted until then. Rye is extremely resistant to cold and damp but also to heat and drought. It depletes the soil less than wheat does, which is why it can be grown in consecutive years. It ripens quickly, so that it thrives in cooler regions with a relatively brief growing period. It is not at all fussy as to soil conditions so is well suited for cleared land adjacent to better soils. Oats are also not particularly demanding as to soil quality, prefer a cool, moist climate as well, but are more susceptible to heat, winter cold, and frost. These particular characteristics may well have led to rye and oats becoming "second-generation cultivated plants" in central Europe long after they were brought from the Near East. They opened up whole new possibilities for increasing the scope of the food supply in Europe that were fully realized in the course of the agrarian revolution in the early medieval period.

A third "second-generation" grain, spelt wheat, played a temporary role in the agrarian revolution. Spelt had been cultivated in central Europe even before rye and oats, beginning in the New Stone Age. It was surprisingly widespread during late antiquity and early medieval times, only to go into a rapid decline afterward. It held on in a few out-of-the-way pockets but was by and large replaced by rye. The specific characteristics of the two grains offer good reasons for this fluctuation. Spelt excelled because it kept particularly well in the central European climate. After being harvested, the spikelets were processed and stored. Spelt could be stored longer because, when the seed and harvested crop were cleaned, the ears were easily winnowed and sifted, protecting them from attack by parasites. It appears that in Roman times the border provinces north of the Alps were targeted for spelt cultivation. Grain for the army was stored either in camps (castellae) on the borders (limes) or on farming estates (villae rusticae) throughout the surrounding countryside. And we may assume that the Franks were similarly motivated to cultivate the crop, since they stored grain reserves at the royal courts. The decline in spelt farming was evidently tied to another peculiarity of the grain: processing spelt wheat in water mills involved additional, expensive procedures and incurred greater losses versus the milling of wheat and rye. This is why the rise of water mills pushed spelt farming into a decline. On the whole, the "milling revolution" led to the replacing of older spelt wheats by newer kinds of grain, rye being the most important among them.

Rye and oats were initially planted more intensively in the territory occupied by Germanic tribes beyond the Roman limes, but they were adopted on the other side of the border as well. The increased cultivation of these crops in the border provinces could very well have been related entirely to the needs of the military, as has been assumed in the case of spelt. This prompted a rise in the number of cavalry units stationed in camps on the limes, which combined the demand for fodder with the need for bread. The border areas of the Roman Empire situated across from Germania Magna must have witnessed the first contact between Roman agricultural traditions and the cultivation of rye and oats in Germanic settlements. But it was not until the post-Roman era that these two grains were to boom. Rye first appeared in Frankish northern Gaul at the end of the fifth century. Even in south-central Europe, the diffusion of rye went hand in hand with Frankish expansion. Gregory of Tours provides reliable evidence that oats were used as fodder throughout the Frankish Empire. It was in their imperial heartland between the Rhine and the Seine that the foundations were laid for a thoroughgoing dissemination of rye and oats all over Europe north of the Alps. Beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, cattle raising had enjoyed precedence over agriculture. Now, under Frankish rule, a cerealization process got underway in those regions, with rye and oats playing a vital role.

* * *

The three-field system of crop rotation—with its sequence of winter grain, summer grain, and fallow fields—placed rye (the winter crop) and oats (the summer crop) in a closely structured relationship. Many other combinations were of course possible within the system, for example, wheat in winter and barley in summer. But the act of colonizing that propagated this system also opened up new arable land that was admirably suited to these two grains in particular. And it frequently happened that rye and wheat were grown together in a mixed field. It is a still a moot point how old the three-field system actually is. The earliest documentary evidence confirms that it existed in the second half of the eighth century, but some historians believe that it emerged as early as the sixth or seventh century in the Alemannic region. The assumption is that a merger took place there of the Alemannic structure of fence-and-farmland with the Frankish three-field system based on specifically northern grains: rye, summer barley, and oats.

The three-field system offered many advantages over more ancient forms of the field-and-grass system of rotating grains and pasture. First, the new system greatly increased farm yields, thereby expanding the scope of the food supply. Second, it allowed for a better distribution of farm work over the year—fallow fields would be plowed at a season when the other two fields put to crops would involve no labor. Third, it lowered the risk of losing a harvest to bad weather. Fourth, and most important, the new system of land use was integrated with cattle keeping. The sequence of planting phases left a great deal of time for pasturing animals on harvested or fallow fields, which produced the fertilizer needed for the more intensively exploited land. The keeping of horses and cattle could be substantially maintained in spite of more intensive farming. The link between raising livestock and agriculture enjoyed a very long tradition, mainly in northwestern Europe. The three-field system was to cement this integration, even when cerealization was just being introduced, thereby initiating a special kind of farm economy. Raising livestock led to more work for draft animals: pulling plows and harrows in the field; drawing carts at harvest time, when cleaning out manure in the stables, going to market, or performing services for the lord of the manor. Furthermore, the amalgamation with raising livestock now provided further, special opportunities for dairy farming. Stable and barn—the essential farm buildings in this tradition—characterize this type of diversified farm economy.

* * *

The innovations in the technology of agriculture that emerged in the course of the early medieval agrarian revolution were obviously connected to a combination of newly introduced plants, new systems of land use, and new ways of integrating agriculture with the keeping of livestock. The key innovation was the heavy plow, which made it possible to till more deeply by turning the soil over. Deep tilling was important for the root system of rye. There might also have been a causal connection between the cultivation of oats and the introduction of the heavy plow. This novel plowing technology helped open up the moist, heavy soils of the North that could be put to oats and rye along with other domesticated plants both old and new. The growing of new plants preceded the introduction of the heavy plow, but when and where it came from cannot be determined with certainty. Archeological evidence points to several transitional forms between the older scratch plow (Hakenpflug) and the more recent moldboard plow (Wendepflug). On the other hand, evidence from historical linguistics regarding the various words for plow reveals that the moldboard plow was regarded as a special and novel agricultural implement. The derivation of the word "plow" shows it originated among the Germanic-speaking peoples in Belgica or Germania Inferior, that is, probably among a Frankish people. The word and the thing itself must have reached the Slavic-speaking areas even before the Slavs split into three large linguistic groups in the later sixth century.

The heavy plow required draft animals wherever it was introduced, and this meant having oxen or horses available. The work output of horses in agriculture was higher, and so, in explaining the intensification of farming, great importance must surely be attached to the adoption of the horse harness, which made this output possible. It was probably first used for harrowing, then for plowing later on. The resultant growth in oat planting had a further effect on the keeping of horses. But the required "horsepower" had also been achieved with oxen and still could be. The rising value of the horse collar for the early medieval agrarian revolution is therefore probably not as significant as the emergence of the heavy plow.


Excerpted from Why Europe by MICHAEL MITTERAUER Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Mitterauer is professor emeritus of social history at the University of Vienna and the author of numerous books, including A History of Youth. Before his retirement Gerald Chapple was associate professor of German at McMaster University.

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