Login *:
Password *:


7-08-2015, 22:06

Interpreting the evidence: doubts and disagreements

So far, so uncontroversial, for most scholars at least. To go beyond what has been said above is to run into problems, but it is also to open up the debates that make the economic history of Byzantium a lively, and intellectually vibrant, area of research. The problems are essentially two: our lack of documents and the underdeveloped state of middle Byzantine archaeology. The first point is less true of the period up to the early seventh century when to some extent the ancient practice of inscribing texts on stone continued, and when Egypt remained part of the empire and hence the mass of Egyptian evidence preserved on papyrus is still relevant. But after that date there is no avoiding the fact that Byzantium is an ill-documented world. The same could be said of seventh- and eighth-century western Europe, but thereafter monastic and cathedral documents survive in increasing quantities, making possible the sort of detailed regional studies of the agrarian economy that cannot be written for Byzantium. From the twelfth century onwards additional types of evidence become available in the west: fiscal records, rent rolls, notarial registers. None of these are available for Byzantium in anything more than a few fragments. The second problem, the condition of middle Byzantine archaeology, is more remediable, in fact already changing, but this is still an under-exploited source. Throughout the territories of the former Byzantine world urban development too often goes ahead with inadequate archaeological record, the less glamorous deposits attracting least attention. Considering how much of our knowledge of the western medieval economy comes from rubbish dumps, it is clear how much we have lost and are still losing for Byzantium. Furthermore, until recently, survey projects tended to neglect the middle Byzantine period, with very few of them looking at Turkey. Even in Greece the coverage was patchy. Things are now changing. Current survey projects in Boeotia in central Greece, the Sagalassos region and the Ikonion plain in Turkey are among those taking the middle Byzantine period seriously and using the full range of available techniques to explore the past landscape.34 But there is a great deal to be done and archaeology is a cumulative discipline. Patterns emerge in one project that can be tested in another; questions are asked that lead to the collection of data that would otherwise have been destroyed. The outlook is hopeful, but the fact remains that archaeological evidence which has the potential to transform our picture of the middle Byzantine economy is still to a large extent untapped. That said, going beyond the bounds of consensus is what makes the subject interesting and important. The study of any medieval economy gains from being an exercise in economic anthropology, with the potential to ask fundamental questions about the nature of production, growth, access to resources and their relationship to forms of society and culture. The study of the middle Byzantine economy raises particular questions because of the contrast with the west. Above all, how is a pre-modern economy shaped by the existence of a powerful state? Was Byzantium a rich society, ultimately plundered by Latin and Turkish predators? Or was it a comparatively poor world, where the distribution and exploitation of resources was skewed by its political superstructure?