Most economic historians have paid scant attention to religion.
The shift from the years 300 to 600 has been the subject of numerous recent studies, and it has been presented in radically different terms, which have variously encompassed continuity,1 total discontinuity,2 and transformation.3 These differing interpretations of course involve some downright disagreement, but to an extent the differences are also a reflection of the general line of investigation taken by individual studies, whether political, social, economic, cultural, or religious, with the political and economic readings being more likely to stress breakdown or radical change, and the religious to emphasize transformation.
Most of the major readings have privileged one aspect or other of the story, although social and economic issues have often been considered together,4 as have cultural and religious. Peter Brown has consistently combined social and religious history, most recently in his surveys of the spiritual economy in The Ransom of the Soul, Treasure in Heaven, and Through the Eye of a Needle.5 Related in approach is Daniel Caner’s elaboration of Vincent Déroche’s concept of a “miraculous economy.”6 Raising similar questions there is Valentina Toneatto’s Les banquiers du Seigneur.7 In all of these, the spiritual economy tends to be interpreted symbolically, rather than in hard economic terms. Paul Fouracre, however, has located what he calls “the moral economy” (making use of the French concept of l’économie morale) very firmly in the realities of financial renders in his study of the history of Church lighting.8
There is also a longstanding tradition in Italian scholarship which has looked at the Church and the economy in tandem. Most obviously there is Lellia Cracco Ruggini’s study of Italia Annonaria,9 followed by Rita Lizzi Testa’s examination of Vescovi e strutture ecclesiastiche nella città tardoantica in the same region.10 The tradition is, of course, not limited to Italian scholarship. Bishops and patronage feature strongly in a volume of Antiquité Tardive devoted to Économie et religion.11 There is a short but vital article by A.H.M. Jones.12 The economy of the Egyptian Church, for which there is incomparable material, has been examined by Ewa Wipszycka.13 The Church’s approach to poverty is central to Valerio Neri’s discussion of the poor and the marginal (in the West),14 and to Évelyne Patlagean’s ground-breaking analysis (in the East).15
But whereas some historians of religion have investigated what has been termed the spiritual economy (a concept which tends to privilege the spiritual rather than the economic), most economic historians have paid scant attention to religion. Jairus Banaji, for instance, presents the Church as if it were no more than a representative section of the elite.16 Yet, I would argue that the early medieval economy cannot be understood without paying proper attention to the Church as an institution in its own right, nor indeed can the Church be understood without recognition of its economic infrastructure. As Jean-Michel Carrié has noted, “superimposing a transcendent, eschatological discourse on top of economics […] had practical implications by calling to behave in given ways in everyday economic life.”17
It is the relationship between religion and the economy that I wish to explore in what follows. Although I am clearly indebted to Peter Brown’s recent work, I wish to examine what he and others have seen as the spiritual economy in terms of hard numbers, and I wish to do so along lines indicated by John Haldon, who has directed attention to models of temple societies in his exploration of the “tributary mode of production,”18 although he himself has not applied these models directly to the early medieval West, using them rather as points of comparison.
The term “tributary mode of production” is sometimes used as a synonym for the “feudal mode” in Marxist analysis of economic development.19 But it has also been presented as a more appropriate term than “Asiatic mode of production,”20 although for Haldon this latter expression “tends to be used negatively of all those social formations which cannot be fitted into one of the other established modes.”21 Both terms, “tributary” and “Asiatic,” have been brought into play by Gerald West in his analysis of the Temple State of the Old and New Testaments, which takes as its point of departure the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 8, together with the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12.22 For West, the account of the political reorganization of the tribes of Israel described in the Book of Samuel is a classic statement of the creation of a temple state, in which the funding of the temple is central to the political and economic development of the Kingdom of Israel.
It is important to recognize that the notion of a “temple state” is itself the subject of debate. Benjamin Foster in a study of “the Sumerian Temple State” has stated that “the temple-state hypothesis holds that most or all of the agricultural land in mid-third millennium Sumer belonged to temples which thereby controlled the economy of southern Mesopotamia. Cities and states functioned as theocentric manors in which political leaders derived their authority from management of the gods’ households.”23 However, Foster’s detailed examination of some of the central documentation for the thesis shows the existence of land which was not in the control of the temples or the state, and he concludes that “the temple-state hypothesis on internal grounds alone must be abandoned or drastically modified; for external reasons it has been shown to be an inadequate and oversimplified reconstruction of Sumerian economy and society.”24
Clearly an economic model which assumed that the whole of the economy of the immediately post-Roman West was dominated by the Church would equally be in direct conflict with the surviving evidence. As we will see, the Church may have acquired up to a third of the cultivable land of Western Europe between 300 and 750. In other words, it was a major, probably the major landowner, but it was by no means the only one. Even so, it is worth keeping the notion of “temple societies” in mind while considering the economic development of the late- and post-Roman world.25 As Chris Wickham has stressed, modes of production are not exclusive, but in any given period one among them tends to be dominant.26 Moreover, despite Foster’s critical approach to the application of the concept of a temple-state to the economy of Sumerian Mesopotamia, other scholars have applied the concept of the temple society not only to ancient Israel, but also to medieval states in southeast Asia, where religious institutions did not constitute the only landowners, and where kings and merchants were major players — as, for instance, in twelfth-century Andhra Pradesh, and more generally in the Hindu world, where “the temple or the religion was used as an integrating force. In other words, the temple became the centrifugal or centripetal force in regulating various cultural entities.”27
In the early medieval West (and indeed in Byzantium) a large percentage of the land and wealth of the region was directed towards the needs and socio-religious strategies of Christian institutions, which were not exactly those of ordinary landowners. Of course, the Church was not a single institution. Peter Brown has talked of micro-Christendoms,28 geographical subdivisions of the Christian world, with their own religious character and traditions: “competing regional churches,” and “‘little Romes’ available on their home ground.”29 And not only is there regional variation, but there are distinctions to be drawn between episcopal, local, and proprietary churches, as well as monasteries. Different types of ecclesiastical institutions had different economic concerns. But they all supposedly contributed to the formation of a single populus Christianus.30
Whereas the central socioeconomic role of the Temple has been much analyzed for southeast Asian and indeed pre-Columbian American societies, the same has not been true of the churches of the early medieval West. And yet, in each case religious institutions undoubtedly played a central social, economic, and political role. Awareness of the notion of the temple society when considering the post-Roman West has the advantage of alerting the scholar to the fact that Christianity had a socioeconomic and political impact well beyond its obvious religious importance. It also helps us distinguish the post-Roman period from that of the Roman Empire, in which religion played a structurally different role — above all with regard to the accumulation and distribution of wealth.
There is, of course, more than one model for temple society. There are differences between the endowment and functioning of religion institutions in different parts of India, Cambodia, China, and Japan, but in all of them temples were extremely richly funded.31 However, David Webster, in his discussion of “the fall of the ancient Maya,” sets out the characteristics of what he defined as “ancient states”: “common (but far from universal) features of early states included complex occupational specialization, widespread trade, market exchange, concentration of physical coercion in the form of professional armies, or police forces, judicial institutions and legal codes, and organised state religion.” And he goes on to remark: “All classifications, of course, suppress variety, and not every ancient state exhibited all these organizational characteristics to the same degree.”32 Webster does not define the Maya as a “temple society” here, but he might have done. His warning that classifications sup-press variety is, of course, salutary. At the same time, however, the most general classifications can be the most useful in helping us to shift our perspectives. Thus, for all their differences, the Maya will bear some comparison with Anglosaxon England (and other early medieval western societies) in terms of the religious organization of time according to solar and lunar cycles.33
I take as a starting point a definition of temple societies set out by Arjun Appadurai and Carol Appadurai Breckenridge. Although their work has not gone unchallenged,34 and although more recent and more specific analyses provide additional lines of interpretation, the advantage of the Appadurai/Appadurai Breckenridge model is its simplicity, and therefore its adaptability. Their criteria are as follows:
- That temple ritual makes little sense unless it is viewed as the expression of homage to the reigning deity who is conceived as a sovereign.
- That this sovereign figure stands at the center of a set of moral and economic transactions which constitute, in a specific ethno-sociological sense, a redistributive process.
- That temple endowments provide the organizational framework within which individuals and corporate groups participate in this redistributive process, and acquire distinct autonomous shares in its ritual and economic benefits.
- That conflicts generated by this process, between various such shareholders, are resolved by an outside agency, whose mandate is to “protect” the temple, thus fulfilling one of the primary requirements for human claims to royal status.35
Clearly this model has its limitations, especially when it comes to questions relating to religion and the state in its military capacity, where other studies of temple societies are more suggestive.36 But it provides a very useful starting point. It allows us to de-familiarize the landed Church of the late-antique and early medieval world, and to develop a sharper view of its economic importance. Awareness of anthropology has played a crucial role in the developing understanding of early medieval kinship,37 dispute settlement,38 gift-giving,39 and the workings of the holy;40 it is of similar value when assessing the early medieval economy. Although this is often assessed without regard for religion, much of the economy came to be geared to the requirements of the Church, which laid down a set of social and economic as well as religious aspirations.
The criteria set out by Appadurai and Appadurai Breckenridge are strikingly applicable to the post-Roman West, where there was certainly recognition of a reigning deity who was regarded as central to a set of moral and economic transactions. Some of those economic transactions (the endowment of the Church and its use of the wealth received) can be described as a redistributive process. The Church amassed vast quantities of wealth, a good proportion of which was then deployed in the service of religious cult and for charitable purposes. And the legislation of emperors and kings certainly paid lip-service to the need to protect the Church, its property, and certain aspects of the distribution of its income.
In talking about the scale of ecclesiastical wealth, I am thinking primarily about landed property and not about moveable goods. The distinction is an important one, as historians of the Celtic and Anglosaxon worlds have long noted (and I think primarily of Thomas Charles-Edwards’s paper on land and moveable wealth, from 1976).41 But it has attracted less attention from scholars of the Church of the Mediterranean and the continental West. Most modern comments on the wealth of the late-antique Church have taken together what is known of the donation of treasure and of the donation of land. Although the donation of treasure was often very considerable (as is clear from the record of the Liber Pontificalis)42 and was fundamental to the erection of ecclesiastical buildings (as can also be seen, for instance, throughout Agnellus’s History of the Church of Ravenna),43 it differed from the donation of land in that, while a gift of treasure might constitute an economic windfall, unless it was instantly invested in land it did not provide a steady income, something which became increasingly significant as the numbers of clergy and as the social commitments of the Church rose. In addition, there could be a distinction from the donor’s point of view — a donation of gold and silver to a church, while preserving control of the estates which had produced the treasure in the first place, allowed the benefactor to retain his or her ability to amass wealth, although there were figures to whom we will return, like Melania and Pinian, who sold their estates in order to provide vast donations of solidi to churches.44 Indeed, there is a cluster of pious aristocrats in the last years of the fourth and early years of the fifth century who deliberately impoverished themselves by selling property and distributing the proceeds. But the transfer of property not only removed the opportunity for the donor to replenish his or her treasure, it also conveyed power, alongside resources, to the Church.
Donation to the Church was seen first and foremost as an insurance for the afterlife: storing up “treasure in heaven,” as has been well noted.45 But of course, the donor of land often expected more than spiritual benefits from giving property to the Church. Donors surely expected their gifts to enhance their standing in the community, as was the case in the temple societies of south India.46 Scholars have noted the use of property donations in the Early Middle Ages as a method of preserving family wealth and influence, especially through the creation of monasteries, in which leading members of the kin-group might take up positions of authority and from which they could further the interests of their relatives.47 Moreover, even after alienating an estate a family might continue to have an interest in it, as was also the case in Islam, where the tradition of waqf allowed a family to retain interest in a property after it had been permanently transferred to a mosque.48 But it is striking how rarely one can trace the workings of such a strategy over a period of more than three generations.49 Ultimately, the Church (like the mosque) gained more than did the donor’s family — and it is with the Church as the recipient of donations of land, rather than donations of treasure, that I am concerned.
Although the early medieval West never became a temple society as defined in the stringent terms laid down by Benjamin Foster, I suggest that the economy of the sixth and seventh centuries cannot be understood unless one recognizes the centrality of the Church to its mode of production.
- Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, Aux origines de la fiscalité modern: le système fiscal et sa gestion dans le royaume des Francs à l’épreuve des sources (Ve–XIe siècles) (Geneve: Droz, 2012); Jean Durliat, De l’Antiquité au Moyen-Âge: L’Occident de 313 à 800(Lyon: Ellipses, 2002).
- Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200–1000, 10th Anniversary Revised Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Ian Wood, The Transformation of the Roman West (Leeds: ARC Humanities Press, 2018).
- Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400–800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Peter Brown, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); Peter Brown, Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2016); and Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
- Daniel Caner, “Towards a Miraculous Economy: Christian Gifts and Mate-rial ‘Blessings’ in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 14, no. 3 (2006): 329–77.
- Valentina Toneatto, Les banquiers du Seigneur: Évêques et moines face à la richesse (IVe–début IXe siècle) (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2012).
- Paul Fouracre, “Lights, Power and the Moral Economy of Early Medieval Europe ,” Early Medieval Europe 28, no. 3 (2020): 367–87, esp. 368. See now Paul Fouracre, Eternal Light and Earthly Concerns: Belief and the Shaping of Medieval Society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).
- Lellia Cracco Ruggini, Economia e socièta nell’ “Italia annonaria”: Rapporti fra agricoltura e commercio dal IV al VI secolo d.C. (Milan: A. Giuffre, 1961).
- Rita Lizzi Testa, Vescovi e strutture ecclesiastiche nella città tardoantica: l’Italia Annonaria nel IV–V secolo d.C. (Como: Edizioni New Press, 1989).
- Antiquité Tardive 14, Économie et religion dans l’Antiquité tardive (2006).
- A.H.M. Jones, “Church Finance in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries,” Journal of Theological Studies 11, no. 1 (1960): 84–94.
- Ewa Wipszycka, Les ressources et les activités économiques des églises en Égypte du IVe au VIIIe siècle (Brussels: Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 1972).
- Valerio Neri, I marginali nell’Occidente tardoantico: poveri, “infames” e cri-minali nella nascente società cristiana (Bari: Edipuglia, 1996).
- Évelyne Patlagean, Pauvreté économique et pauvreté sociale à Byzance, IVe–VIIe siècles (Paris: Mouton, 1977).
- E.g., Jairus Banaji, Exploring the Economy of Late Antiquity: Selected Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 152, 156.
- Jean-Michel Carrié, “Pratique et idéologie chrétiennes de l’économique (IVe–VIe siècles),” Antiquité Tardive 14 (2006): 17–26, at 17.
- John Haldon, “Mode of Production, Social Action, and Historical Change: Some Questions and Issues,” in Studies on Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production, ed. Laura da Graca and Andrea Zingarelli (Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2015), 204–36.
- Haldon, “Mode of Production,” 210, 212; John Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (London: Verso, 1993), 70–139, esp. 76.
- Gerald West, “Tracking an Ancient Near Eastern Economic System: The Tributary Mode of Production and the Temple-State,” Old Testament Essays (OTE) 24, no. 2 (2011): 511–32, at 512.
- Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production, 54. For a historiographical analysis of the term “Asiatic Mode,” see Kimio Shiozawa, “Marx’s View of Asian Society and his ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’,” The Developing Economies 4, no. 3 (1966): 299–315, and Joshua A. Fogel, “The Debates over the Asiatic Mode of Production in Soviet Russia, China, and Japan,” The American Historical Review 93, no. 1 (1988): 56–79.
- West, “Tracking an Ancient Near Eastern Economic System.”
- Benjamin Foster, “A New Look at the Sumerian Temple State,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 24, no. 3 (1981): 225–41, at 225–26.
- Foster, “A New Look at the Sumerian Temple State,” 241.
- Ian Wood, “Creating a ‘Temple Society’ in the Early Medieval West,” Early Medieval Europe 29, no. 4 (2021): 462–86.
- Chris Wickham, “The Other Transition: From the Ancient World to Feudalism,” in Chris Wickham, Land and Power: Studies in Italian and European Social History, 400–1200 (London: British School at Rome, 1994), 7–42, at 12.
- P.S. Kanaka Durga and Y.A. Sudhakar Reddy, “Kings, Temples and Legitimation of Autochthonous Communities: A Case Study of a South Indian Temple,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 35, no. 2 (1992): 145–66, at 146.
- Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 13–17, 355–79.
- Ibid., 15.
- Ian Wood, “The Early Medieval West as a Temple Society,” Rivista di Storia Antica: Periodico trimestrale di antichità classica 11 (2019): 107–34, at 109.
- Ibid., 116.
- David Webster, The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002), 66.
- Ian Wood, The Priest, the Temple and the Moon in the Eighth Century, The Brixworth Lectures, Second Series, no. 7 (Brixworth: Friends of All Saints’ Church, 2008).
- For an overview, see Isabelle Clark-Decès, “Towards an Anthropology of Exchange in Tamil Nadu,” International Journal of Hindu Studies 22 (2018): 197–215, esp. 200–201, n. 5.
- Arjun Appadurai and Carol Appadurai Breckenridge, “The South Indian Temple: Authority, Honour and Redistribution,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 10, no. 2 (1976): 187–211, at 190. See also Wood, “The Early Medieval West as a Temple Society.”
- See Chapter 4 in this book.
- Donald Bullough, “Early Medieval Social Groupings: The Terminology of Kinship,” Past and Present 45 (1969): 3–18; Karl Leyser, “Maternal Kin in Early Medieval Germany: A Reply,” Past and Present 49 (1970): 126–34; Al-exander C. Murray, Germanic Kinship Structures: Studies in Law and Society in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols, 1983).
- Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre, eds., The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
- Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre, eds., The Languages of Gift in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
- Peter Brown, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (London: Faber and Faber, 1982).
- Thomas Charles-Edwards, “The Distinction Between Land and Moveable Wealth in Anglo-Saxon England,” in Medieval Settlement: Continuity and Change, ed. Peter Sawyer (London: Edward Arnold, 1976), 180–87.
- Raymond Davis, The Book of the Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis): The Ancient Biographies of the First Ninety Roman Bishops to A.D. 715 (Liverpool: Liver-pool University Press, 1989), xix–xxvi; Dominic Janes, God and Gold in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 57; and Ruth Leader-Newby, Silver and Society in Late Antiquity: Functions and Meanings of Silver Plate in the Fourth to Seventh Centuries (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 61–66.
- Agnellus, Liber Pontificalis ecclesiae Ravennatis, ed. Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis 199 (Turn-hout: Brepols, 2006); Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, trans., The Book of the Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna (Washington, dc: Catholic University of America, 2004).
- Richard Goodrich, Contextualizing Cassian: Aristocrats, Asceticism, and Reformation in Fifth-Century Gaul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 157–71.
- E.g., Brown, Treasure in Heaven, and Toneatto, Les banquiers du Seigneur.
- Clark-Decès, “Towards an Anthropology of Exchange in Tamil Nadu,” 200. For Chinese parallels, see Simon Yarrow, “Economic Imaginaries of the Global Middle Ages,” in The Global Middle Ages, ed. Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen, Past and Present 238, Supplement 13 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 214–31, at 224.
- Yaniv Fox, Power and Religion in Merovingian Gaul: Columbanian Monaticism and the Frankish Elites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 195–218.
- On the notion of waqf, see Alejandro García Sanjuán, Till God Inherits the Earth: Islamic Pious Endowments in Al-Andalus (9–15th centuries) (Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2007), 143–48.
- Wood, “The Early Medieval West as a Temple Society,” 18–19.
Chapter 1 (15-26) from The Christian Economy in the Early Medieval West: Towards a Temple Society, by Ian N. Wood (Punctum Books, 02.14.2022), published by Punctum Books under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.