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Early medieval history

On this page:
5. Frank Kingdom - introduction to feudalism
1. Some economic consequences of Christianity
6. Crisis of the Byzantine Empire, Arabic Expansion
2. Barbarian invasions - German tribes
7. Iconoclasm in Byzantine Empire and Muslim science
3. Collapse of the West Empire
8. Empire of Charlemagne, another wave of barbarian raids
4. Why Byzantine Empire did not fall?
9. New feudal states in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia

Here are maps to medieval history:
As usual Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd plus a medieval supplement.
And Periodical Historical Atlas of Europe with maps in intervals of 100-years (good maps of Central and East Europe).  
And the collection of medieval maps at History Sourcebook

The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire
By Edward Gibbon - online Book or alternate Web site.

If you want some basic information about fact or term look at Wikipedia (Attila)

This page describes the medieval history of Europe and Middle East till the end of XIth century AD - it means till Crusades and appearance of populistic city-states in Italy. Again it is not the complete compendium of medieval history (although you may find here some useful links), but a pretext to introduce a bunch of History Mechanics tools.

A reservation: although History Mechanics concentrates on economic factors that direct the history, you had to remember that a decisions of individuals also may have serious impact on history (especially in feudal states). Simple example: feudal Great Britain had (estimate 1350 AD) population of 3.5 million people. In feudal state political privileges had about 5% of population (we get 175 000), minus women and children (divide previous number by 3 or 4), and we discover that in medieval ages political elites of England were comparable with population of a small city today.

Again: early feudal state resembles a big corporation, so decisions of  monarch and his court (the same way as board of directors) or some random events or even non-important plebeians (like Joan d’Arc) may sometimes drastically change the route of history. Powerful states could rise and fall because of strange coincidences or  because of mistakes of individual people. My favorite example about the importance of individual decisions  is the story of Russian Tsar (emperor) Peter IIIrd.

Case study: Look at the history of 100-years war and try to guess (using the Mechanics of History tools), what was the impact of such coincidences like of madness of French and British kings (or dynastic politics of house of Burgundy) for the history of England, France and Netherlands in next centuries. What would happen if Netherlands was conquered by France or England? Would the Great Britain become democratic in 1689 without profitable exports to Netherlands in XVI and XVII centuries? What impact this might have on the evolution of USA political system in XIXth century? Hint: see my pages about Rome (early history) and Pre-Columbian America (conclusions).

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Some economic consequences of Christianity

Feudal system usually needs some strong ideology like religion to justify social hierarchy. One of the basic reasons why Christianity but not the other religions (like ex. Mithraism) prevailed in Roman Empire, were its social aspects. Early Christian communes offered some social security and self-help system for its members, very important for poorer people, when the economy of  the Empire was in decline. More or less the same way Muslim communities gain popularity offering poor people social help today (i.e. first years of XXIth century). Again, scenery may change, but political processes launched by economic processes — crisis of free-market economy  — are the same.

For the history of medieval ages, is important to note that Christianity not only protected feudal social hierarchy but also gave some social protections for poor ones:

  • From the legal point of view feudal-dependent was no longer treated like a “pure merchandise” (as slaves were), and had some privileges due to them as human beings.
  • Sunday was guaranteed free day (so relative costs of labour in medieval Europe increased which was some positive impact on technology development rate).
  • The church introduced some institutions that helped the very poor people: hospitals, charity, etc.
This pattern repeat itself in every non-democratic country with government‑driven economy: labour workers are exploited, but country’s institutions - government or religious institutions - also offers extensive social protections for the poors. (Communist regimes of XXth century are another good example here.) Plus safety from unpredictable economic fluctuations typical to free market economy, of course.

Technology, exploitation and ideology
Also note that human, social and political rights of poor people continually grow over time, because of technology development. New technologies continually increase the relative profitability of economic activities that do not involve the exploitation of poor people. Of course there are economic cycles and periods of crisis or very high demand for capital, when this long term tendency may reverse.

Good illustration are changes in the position of monarch:
1.    In primitive, despotic societies monarch was believed to be a god
2.    Then a monarch was called “a son of god” (Egypt)
3.    Then monarch was only “godlike” (populistic states of Ancient Greece and Rome until the Christianity)
4.    In medieval ages monarch rule came from God
5.    Then rebellion against monarch was against the God’s laws (XVIth-XVIIIth Europe)
6.    And nowadays monarchy is only a tradition
Religious support for monarchy weakens over time, because level of exploitation decrease over time, and ideologies which justify exploitations become weaker (more rationale).

Generally with technology development more and more economic activities became a positive-sum games (and the number of zero-sum games or even negative-sum games gradually decrease). “Cake to divide” grows faster, so conflicts become relatively less profitable, and opposite: the cooperation becomes relative more profitable.

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Barbarian invasions - German tribes

Economic crisis of the Roman Empire was the reason for the expansion of barbaric German tribes, which finally invaded and conquered the West Empire. Because expansion of democratic Rome, then populistic Rome was incredible, the migrations launched, by its fall also had a great scale.

I have written before (see history page) that the basic schema of barbarian invasion is:
  1. First in the times of economic prosperity middle-income barbarian tribes grew in number and strength (acquiring military technologies of civilized countries).
  2. Then, the crisis comes, and civilized country starts to trade with other (low-income) barbarian tribes. Therefore wars become more profitable than trade for middle-income barbarian tribes, and they invade civilized lands.
But in real world this schema is little more complicated. First, a long ago before the final invasion, middle-income barbarian tribes start an expansion on territories of other, less developed barbarian nations. They wander to get control over natural resources that can be sold to the civilized countries: metal ores, slaves, horses, furs (compare for example with the expansion of the Iroquois League in Northern America).

This expansion often begins a few hundreds years before the actual invasion. For example first migrations of German tribes (Cimbri and Teutons) had place at the end of II-nd century B.C. - more than 500 years before the final fall of Rome! I hope you now understand, why I have written that migration of Indo-Eropean tribes (which started more or less 2100 B.C.) was probably launched by the fall of Minoan Empire (destroyed more or less 1500 B.C.).

Good illustration may be the migration of Goths. Dates are rough (approximate):

  1. They set off from southern Scandianvia,
  2. Went to the southern coast of Baltic Sea, where probably controlled the export of Amber to the Roman Empire (Ist-IInd centuries AD),
  3. Then moved South to Central-East Poland (Masovia) where probably started a mass manufacturing of iron weaponry, probably equipping other barbarian tribes that raided Roman borders (IInd-IIIrd centuries AD).
  4. Then moved to the territory of today’s Ukraine, where they could trade with Byzantine Empire (IIIrd century AD).
  5. Then (end of IVth century AD) Goth “states” were destroyed by migration of Huns, an both main tribes of Goths: Visigoths (West-Goths) and Ostrogoths (East-Goths) had to fled to the Balkan peninsula.
  6. Visigoths first fought with Byzantine Empire (battle of Adrianopole 378 AD), but then moved West and finally end in Spain (beginning of the Vth century AD),
  7. While Ostrogoths stopped in Pannonia (more or less today’s Hungary) from where invaded Italy destroying last remnants of (West) Roman Empire (second half of Vth century AD).
This migration more or less coincides with the changes in economic relation between barbarians and the Roman Empire: profitable trade with the Empire (2), Rome-barbarian wars at the turn of IInd and IIIrd century AD (3), economic fall of the West and prosperity of the East (4), and finally the crisis of the whole Empire and the fall of the West (5-7).

Basic introduction to barbarian tribes of Dark Ages.

Because at the turn of IInd and IIIrd century AD (more or less at the times of wars with German Marcomans) political system of Roman Empire changed from populistic to feudal, the fall of the Empire proceeded in stages. Feudal system has lower ability to expansion than populistic system, but some provinces that had a status of colonies in populistic Empire got the status of core-empire provinces (and the number of citizens increased - Edict of Caracalla, 212 AD), so the Empire was strenghted for a short time.

Before German tribes invaded the Roman Empire, they for some time migrated thorough the border searching for a work and better future in civilized lands. German immigrants generally took the worst “dirty” jobs - the same as immigrants today - become peasants (ex. Franks in northern France), or soldiers. Rich citizens of Empire generally tried to avoid army careers involved with death and blood (and barbarian warriors were cheaper!), so finally Roman army became dominated by barbarian mercenaries. Unfortunately with the decomposition of the civil administration of the Empire, political power of army increased and barbarian mercenaries dominated the internal politics.

Political power of barbarian mercenaries
You may observe the same pattern (barbarian mercenaries dominating the politics of feudal country) many times in history. For example Slavian mercenaries in medieval Muslim Spain, Turkish mercenaries (Mamelucs) in medieval Egypt, nomad mercenaries in China, etc., etc.

So, finally the West Empire had:
  1. Large population of German immigrants (peasants).
  2. Large share of barbarian (German) warriors in new feudal elites of the country.
  3. Great mass of poor country people who hated the bureaucratic machine of Empire because of high taxes, and prefered barbarian occupation over the Empire administration.
Only city inhabitants supported the Empire but population of cities (comparing with the population of rural areas) had shrunk because of the decline of long-range trade.

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Collapse of the West Empire

In Vth century Huns arrived to the Central Europe. Fleeing from Hun raids German tribes broke through the border, and invaded the West Empire. Italy was raided several times. One of the raiders were Huns leaded by Attila. Still having strong economy East Empire could avoid Huns raids paying tribute to the Attila. Finally in VIth century Italy itself was conquered by German tribes.

Collapse was spectacular, but not so terrible as we used to think about it. German invaders were small in number, so very quickly started to assimilate with local populations and melted with old Roman elites. Crisis of the economy, downfall of the trade and regress in technology was rather the effect of the crisis inside the Empire than the invasion itself. Centuries of diffusion processes equalized the civilization levels of Empire and close barbarian lands, so the Empire had fallen but large part of Europe joined the civilized lands.

Moreover, technology regress affected mainly the high-end (high-level) technologies, while in many low-end technologies widespread, and there was also some important advances here. For example:
  1. Cheap military technologies like: stirrup (introduced by Huns), chainmail, long swords, saddles, etc.
  2. Many agricultural and every day technologies (like for example plough, watermills, iron tools) - which made peasants work easier
Reassuming: Roman technologies diffused from declining cities and reach rural areas.

On the other hand many high-level technologies (like concrete, advanced construction techniques and scientific discoveries) were forgotten. Long-range trade of West Empire downfallen, because technology gaps between different provinces shrank, and thus vertical trade (capital-intensive goods for labour-intensive goods) became unprofitable. There were no longer economic reasons for large trade market, and smaller, local, protectionist markets gained importance. And there were no longer economic base for merchant and bureaucratic elites of large empire - shrinking economy could support only warrior elites of smaller countries.

Therefore there was no longer need for infrastructure that supported this trade: large cities, bureaucratic machine, highly-qualified specialists, etc. The “sad image” of the fall we had, come from chronicles written by the members of elites that were major victims the crisis, not from common people.

Of course invasion of German tribes also had some negative impact on economy. For example Vandals sea piracy (from Northern Africa) almost completely destroyed the sea trade in West Mediterranean region. But at the end of VIth century European economy reached its lowest level, so the strategy of robbery became ineffective, and new barbarian rulers of post-roman kingdoms started to prefer the strategy of feudal conquest (expanding their new states which became stable bases for their military operations). And since then European economy started to recover.

Mechanisms of primitive feudal economy
Talking about the economy of feudal states we should remember that it was extremely primitive. Exchange method was often barter (goods for gods without money) or there was no noticeable trade exchange at all. Taxes were collected in goods, or in form of involuntary work (serfdom) for feudals or for state. There were no such tools and institutions of trade like credit, banks, etc.

But nature don’t like a vacuum, and thus there were some institutions and mechanisms that had the same economic effect like more advanced institutions. For example there was no such a thing like “virtual money” in times of barbarian migrations, but there were ideologies that had exactly the same function and worked the same way as “virtual money”:

A fortunate, brave and skillful barbarian leader (chieftain) attracted more and more followers hoping for successful war raids and many loots, stirred up with his fame (ideology of conquest). When the leader died or lost his war luck, value of ideology usually disappeared (the same way as the value of virtual money), and barbarian nation or primitive feudal state decomposed. It was one of the reasons for immediate fall of Hun Empire after the death of Attila.     

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Why Byzantine Empire did not fall?

Generally there was three basic reasons:
  1. Byzantine (or East) Empire neighboured not only with barbarian lands but also with quite rich states of Persia, Armenia, Georgia and remnants of West Empire, so the diffusion processes were not so strong here (except northern territories of Balkan peninsula).
  2. While city of Rome lost its economic importance when income levels between provinces of West Empire equalized, city of Byzantium (Constantinople) still prospered because was located on a crossroads of important trade routes (one of the reasons were profitable vertical trade with barbarian lands on the north coast of Black Sea), so Byzantine Empire still had strong economic core.
  3. For some period of time (because of trade position of its capital city Constantinople) Byzantine Empire was populistic, and thus was all the advantages and strengths of populistic country (ex. very effective diplomacy, more effective economy).
Therefore Byzantine Empire survived the first wave of barbarian invasions in Vth-VIth centuries and the fall of West Empire, more or less the same way as city of Troy survived the fall of Minoan Civilization.

See Reign of Justinian at De Imperiatoribus Romanis.
See also Constantinople for short summary of Byzantine Empire history.     

As I said, for some period of time Byzantine Empire was populistic - for example more or less at the times of Emperor Justinian (527-565) - so was more cohesive than feudal lands of West Empire. Byzantine Emperors had to comply with opposition, and influenced political factions (united around four groups of chariot-racing fans), danger of military coup’d etat or civil rebellion (ex. Nika rebellion), but this prevented emperors from uncontained expansion that would exhaust resources of the Empire.

Finally Justinian broke the power of opposition and started series of military campaigns to reclaim the west lands of Roman Empire. Army of his general Belisarius conquered Italy, Northern Africa (Vandals Kingdom) and Southern Spain - thus Byzantine sea trade could regain the markets in West Mediterranean region (economic prosperity of populistic Byzantine Empire largely depended on sea-trade). Unfortunately great logistic cost of defending such a large empire made Byzantium very vulnerable.

Logistic cost of defending the empire
It is a quick and dirty summary of logistic conditions that influence historic processes - as books of Paul Kennedy or Zbigniew Brzezinski describe them.

New conquests and new gained lands lengthens supply lines between the core of the empire and new provinces. Long supply lines (here between Byzantium and for example Southern Spain) made the military operations very costly. Moreover such supply lines are vulnerable to attack, and very long borders are hard to defend, so costs of military expansion grows exponentially.

  • => military faction grows in power because this is the only way to keep the conquered lands,
  • => thus the empire introduces higher taxation to support bigger and bigger army,
  • => what inevitable suffocates the economy of empire,
  • => and is the reason for internal rebellions against oppressive government,
  • => and empire’s enemies relatively (quoting Kennedy) grow in power,
  • => finally empire collapses (or retreats as in case of Byzantium), defeated by citizens upheavals or the coalition of external enemies (or both).

Of course this schema is too simplified. Here are some weakness of this pattern:

  1. Does not take into account diffusion powers, which decompose the political system and institutions of the empire: core lands adopt political customs and institutions of conquered lands (i.e. despotic methods of ruling), while conquered lands import political institutions of empire core => this cause them developing faster than core => and profitability of vertical trade between core and provinces (the glue of the empire) decreases.
  2. Sometimes, especially in feudal empires, there is no one core, but armies are supported from the resources of “local cores”, which may have a great level of independence from the central government, and finally may evolve into independent states (resulting in feudal fragmentation - which happened a few times in 1000 years long history of Byzantium).
  3. Country may do not need to expand when whole region is in phase of economic prosperity. Governments change from “peaceful and liberal” to “militaristic, and expansionistic” usually when prosperity ends, and thus relative profitability of military strategies increases.
  4. Alliance of neighbouring states may “contain” the empire, limiting its possibility to expansion and forcing the modernization, which may prevent the decomposition of empire - as really happened a few times in Byzantine history.
  5. Ironically, large size of empire not necessarily makes it vulnerable - if empire has many but small enemies, distant from each other, they may have problem with coordination of aggressive actions and logistic factors will be in favour for the empire.

As a conclusion, logistic factors may not be only one explanation of the history of empires. We should at least take into account diffusion processes between the core and provinces of the empire.     

I will not present here the exact date of transition from populistic to feudal system, because when populistic system regresses to feudal, a border between political systems is fuzzy (moreover medieval populistic countries were often ruled by monarchs). Populistic political institutions “feudalise” gradually. But here a two basic hints, how to distinguish both systems in medieval ages without thorough analysis of political institutions and legal system:
  • When a country starts spectacular military expansion, which has nothing to do with dynastical politics of its monarchs (like Byzantium under Justinian), high chances, it is populistic.
  • When there are mass political factions of city dwellers (and political life: riots, protests, coups d’etat concentrate in cities not in the rural areas), country is probably populistic. For Byzantine Empire we can check if riots and revolutions happened in capital Constantinople or rather in distant provinces.
In VIth century Slavians started immigration and raids to Balkan provinces of Byzantine Empire. Barbarian nomad tribe of Avars arrived from the East to Pannonia (today’s Hungary). Avars subordinated Balkan Slavians and their state became a serious threat for the European provinces of Byzantine Empire.

Again, as many times before, Byzantium tried to buy peace paying a tribute to Avars. This peaceful, passive strategy of tribute was rational for a rich country that have a big income from taxes and trade, and border so long that no army could effective defend it against many enemies, lihe: Persia (East), Avars (North) and Western kingdoms (West) in case of Byzantine Empire. But this strategy had disadvantage that Avars grew in power because of Byzantine “money transfers”. Disadvantages of  active, military strategy were described in frame above. Compare this for example with political strategies of USA and European Union at the turn of XXth and XXIth centuries.

In VIIth century economic crisis became deeper, trade with Western kingdoms (i.e. with former Western Empire) declined, military strategies became more profitable, and neighbours of Byzantium was growing in power faster than the Empire. The second wave of barbaric invasions started - this time the East Empire was under continuous attack. 

First Slavians and Avars plundered and conquered the Balkan Peninsula, taking the opportunity that Byzantium was involved in serious wars with kingdom of Persia. (We can safely assume that since the reforms of Emperor Heraclius, the empire was feudal). Then in the middle of VIIth century Arabs conquered Byzantine provinces of Syria and Egypt (and weakened kingdom of Persia).

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Frank Kingdom - introduction to feudalism

Gregory of Tours The History of the Franks.

Dynasties of France.

Because of central location of France, reading the history of France is a quite good way to learn the history o Western Europe. Personally I prefer “The history of France”, Perroy, Doucet, Latreille. (But it sometimes lacks important information about institutional reforms and introduced laws.)

See also short History of France from Wikipedia.    

In early VIth century German tribe of Franks united large part of the Western Europe. Under the Merowing dynasty (shortly called Merowings) they first conquered Northern France and Aquitaine (first Merowing king Clovis or Chlodwig), then his descendants conquered Southern France (ex. Burgundy) and large part of Western Germany. Here are a few basic reasons for success of Franks under the Merowing dynasty:
  • Frank kingdom were middle-income state between half-barbarian territories of Germany and rich lands of Spain, Southern Gallia and Italy, therefore was not so intensively plundered as richer regions of former Roman Empire and thus the process of rebirth and military expansion started in Northern France earlier, when kingdoms of south were still in the phase of decline.
  • Merowings were Catholics where Germanic rulers of southern kingdoms were Arians Christians (christianized by Arian missionaries before the fall of Rome) and thus were in conflict with old Roman (Catholic) noble elites. (Except Spain where Visigoths quickly melted with local inhabitants.) Therefore Franks could ally with Roman nobles and conquer southern kingdoms with ease. Sometimes such coincidences have a great importance in history.

Advantage of middle-income and isoquant of production
In economics there is a curve called isoquant of production, which shows what combinations of means of production (ex. capital and labour) give us the same level of production.
isoquant of production, curve that shows which combination of means of production give us the same level of production.
Assuming for a moment that costs of capital and labour (prices of one unit) are the same, we can see that when the number of units of capital and labour (means of production) used for production is the same (ex. 20), then average combinations of capital and labour gives us bigger production than non-average combinations (i.e. we reach better isoquant of production). It means 10 peasants cultivating 10 fields are more effective than 1 peasant cultivating 19 fields or 19 peasants cultivating 1 field. In other words: average combinations of means of productions are usually most effective, so in normal conditions middle-income groups of people and middle-income countries are more effective than others (social groups, countries). For example middle-income country can produce army that the best way combines the number of warriors with the quality of their equipment.

Of course there are some assumptions here: similar technology level (the same price for one unit), no law regulations promoting some social groups, no strong protectionist policy in international trade, etc. - therefore some times exceptions from this rule are possible. However the shape of this curve is the consequence of decreasing returns on scale (at some point, further increasing of the number of peasants cultivating a field becomes less and less effective), which are generally the consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, so the law presented here is quite universal.

More about economies of scale.
Wikipedia about Production function.
Wikipedia about Returns to scale.
Wikipedia about Production possibility frontier.
And the second law of thermodynamics.     
In the second half of VIth century Frank Kingdom moved into a phase of feudal fragmentation. However Frank Kingdom still had all advantages of middle income country (mentioned above), and lost only some lands - no external enemy was strong enough to be a real treat for the existence of such large kingdom. (There were also other reasons, but this theory like the Theory of Gravity concentrates only on the strongest historic processes, so please forgive me some simplifications).

Merowing kings thinks about the kingdom as their private property, and divided the country between their sons. Moreover, having no money to pay state officials, rulers rewarded them with land. When king was strong, he could take off his reward (as today when government dismiss officials), but when ruler was weak, land became the private property of official who evolved into a class of feudals. Those feudals usually did the same as monarch, fragmenting country even further - and it was first of the processes that created the feudal fief system.

When king (or their feudal seigneur - land owner that was higher in hierarchy) was weak officials, and local land owners (like the Church) get immunities - they took over administrational, tax andd court competencies of monarch in their domain (i.e. flef).

On the other hand, small land owners (farmers, poorer warriors) need some safety in times of continuous feudal wars and robbery raids, so they searched the protection of richer feudals. Times were so hard that many small land owners pass on tenures of their land to more powerful land owners only to get their protection. This way farmers became peasants, who had to pay for the privilege of cultivating their fields - this was the second process that created the feudal fief system.

The Church, which had educated personnel, developed more sophisticated system of such agreements called precarium (in three basic flavors: data, oblata and renumeratioria).
See also Wikipedia article about feudal system.

Such mechanism of evolution repeats many times in history of feudal countries (not only in Europe). Depending on how deep country’s administration decomposed and how deep the crisis was, peasants had to pay only some rent (in money or in goods) of were forced to work involuntarily for feudals (serfdom) and sometimes had a slave-like status: were sold with fields and cannot emigrate from their master lands.

More generally we can say that the process of “feudalization” is no more than the uncontrolled privatization of formerly government-owned state. So, although mechanism described here is typical for feudal countries, we can see similar economic processes even today: ex. after the collapse of Soviet Union (if we translate feudals to oligarchs and safety from robbery to social safety in general).

Early post-barbarian society with rulers that were chieftains of tribes (with powerful clans and tribal meeting that might control the ruler, where most of the warriors and clans were more or less equal) evolved into mature feudal society with hierarchic, pyramid-like structure.

Pyramid-like feudal social hierarchy
Here are simplified feudal hierarchy in European states (I will try to show today’s functional equivalents for some elements of this hierarchy):
Pyramid-like feudal social hierarchy.
At the very top is monarch (and his court eventually). He is owner (early medieval) or hereditary “general manager” (late medieval) of the state.

Below are nobles, generally only one social class that had political privileges - like “stock owners” in great corporations.

Nobles divide into two sub-classes: warriors (knights, representing army) and priests.
Priests generally are members of various institutions of the Church, and the Church monopolizes the bureaucratic offices of  kingdom, propaganda supporting the system (all important media), education system, and often had some privileges of secret police and courts (haunting for heretics and enemies of the system in general). Because the Church is hierarchical institution, not the assembly of priests, it also includes some non-noble priests.
Also feudal relations between knights (seigneurs and their vassals - patrons and clients) are usually hierarchical, but not so “administrative regulated” as in the Church.

Below are plebeians usually without political privileges: merchants, craftsmen, farmers (which had personal freedom), serfs (peasants bound to the land), other free non-noble people (bards, servants, beggars and many more) and sometimes slaves.

In late medieval when European cities grew in number and size (and when volume of trade increased), plebeians - actually communities of plebeians like cities, commons, guilds - also gained some political privileges.

Remember: this is the political hierarchy, not the income hierarchy. Some nobles may be richer than monarch, some merchant richer than nobles.     

It is useful to note that pyramid-like social structure do not make the feudalism. Social and political structures always resembles a pyramid, even in populistic or in democratic system. When people had similar income, top of the pyramid is occupied by some institution: army, political party (like communist party), state bureaucracy, great financial institutions, big corporations and so on. The same hierarchy we can find elsewhere in nature, ex. biological systems. So it is probably a consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

What makes the feudal system is the stability of hierarchy. Political privileges and position in social hierarchy depends almost exclusively on the social class or family a man was born. Descendants of noble have a guarantee of political privileges, where plebeian will always be plebeian (thus serfs have no chance to get the personal freedom). And all institutions of feudal society preserve this hierarchy.

Political pyramid and political system
Generally, in feudal states political games are played only inside feudal class. Plebeians come into the scene very rare in times of great economic prosperity or great crisis (a peasant rebellions are extremely rare, and happens once a century or two). Inferiors like serfs are economically very weak, and thus had no power to defend their rights. Nobles are like a stable monopoly, which has absolute control over the political market.

In populistic states the number of players increases. Lower-income people may be an important tool used by one of the players in the game. However they are usually political clients of higher-lever players, are brainwashed by populistic ideologies, and their economic and political interest are underrepresented. Political game resembles oligopoly market (two or three strong players) or unstable monopolistic market.

In democratic states, there are so many strong players with balanced power (GPI, groups of political interests) in political game that no one of them can win the monopolistic position. Therefore, they have to learn how to cooperate with each others, and to obey the honest (fair) game rules. Political game resembles a healthy free market (where power of monopolies is contained).

So the real difference here is not the “shape” of social structure but:

  1. Laws and institutions that regulate political games, and methods of struggle used in  these games (bloody and dirty tricks or quite fair).
  2. Percentage of people who are to poor and cannot represent their political interests at all, or only in very limited way (percentage of passive political clients).
  3. Opportunities of social mobility inside the hierarchy (is the social advancement easy or prohibited). 
That said, we should remember that in times of economic prosperity life o plebeians (or inferiors) was not so bad, even for serfs. Well, they were exploited but they usually had to pay no more than a 50% of their income (the same level of taxation as in European Union today - although they had no influence how these duties were spent), often were forced buy products and services from their patrons (ex. had to grind grain in his mill) and had no chance to advance - but had some personal and social safety in exchange.

However when the crisis came, situation of plebeians (especially serfs) become serious or even hopeless, because they had no political tools to defend against exploitation and oppression of feudals, monarch or state. And they often end in a slave-like situation. (This happens even today when labour workers end as serfs dependent from big corporations - generally, every time when a man have to spent more than he/she earns for his/her work.)

Plebeian opposition in feudal countries
Here are a few reasons explaining why plebeians (inferiors, serfs) had no chance to fight effective against the feudal system:

  • Law system was constructed was against the plebeians (most penalties for crimes were higher for plebeians, and laws were written against plebeians).
  • Courts were dominated by nobles, who usually believed that plebeians were a “worse kind of man” and had to be keep down with restrictive punishment.
  • Taxation system were against plebeians - they had to pay higher taxes.
  • All offices and administration were occupied by nobles, and may be used to haunt “enemies of the system”.
  • There was one, dominant ideology (religion) which promoted the stable, hierarchical structure of society, and everybody was brainwashed by this ideology. Plebeians too - they did not protest against exploitation, because they believed this is natural order of the World. When a man from early days hears day, by day from everywhere the same ideology, he can not imagine any other point of view. Thus ideology was even more important for the system than brute military or administrative oppression. Therefore all social movements in medieval ages started as heresies to the official religion.
  • There was no chance to promote a non-religious ideology of freedom and equality, because it was treated as heresy automatically (a kind of  medieval catch 22).
  • Nobles had advantage of better military equipment (peasants have very limited contact with market, so had no money to buy weaponry), sometimes peasants were disallowed to had any weapon.
  • Nobles had organizational advantage (may communicate and coordinate actions much easier than peasants), so local rebellions could be pacified with ease using reinforcements from other regions.

But again: in times of economic prosperity a lack of political representation was not so great problem for plebeians - nobles provide them the necessary military defense from external invasions and raids, and feudal system was a kind of symbiosis (where of course nobles had a privileged position).


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Crisis of the Byzantine Empire, Arabic expansion

Although Byzantium was not conquered by barbarians like West Empire, technology level also declined here, because of diffusion powers which made investments in high-end technologies relatively ineffective (see next section). Moreover the freedom of thinking was dangerous for bureaucratic empire. For example emperor Justinian proscribed mathematicians and took control over the Academy of Plato in Athens (last ancient-style academy).

Crisis of the Byzantine Empire launched social and political conflicts which effected in heresies (ideologies of political opposition) against the official Church. There were many of them in the history of Byzantium (see more) but the most important one was Monophysitism. Theological nuances of doctrine may seem ridiculous from today’s perspective, but were very important in empire where dominant ideology was important tool to rule the people.

Generally Monophysitism doctrine was little more rigorist than the doctrine of official Byzantine Church. Monophysitism was popular in Syria and Egypt lands, because in the times of crisis economic interests of core lands and Constantinople conflicted with the needs of these provinces.

Winning ideologies
It is useful to note that some times is hard to say which ideology (of many opposing doctrines) was actually a “heresy”. Winners usually try to prove that their ideology is only one legal interpretation of doctrine. If Mophysitism had won, we would learn that opposite doctrine was a heresy. Good analogy here may be a history of  communist doctrine in USSR and the “heresies” to this doctrine (ex. trockism). 

Crisis of Byzantium launched the crisis of traditional social structure in lands of Arabia (among other reasons, ex. the destruction of great dam, and irrigation system in Yemen). Because Arabs were not barbarians (they had strong trade connections with Middle East lands for many centuries), the effect of this crisis was not an import of external religion like in case of German tribes, but a development of their own monotheistic religion - Islam (good analogy here might be an development of Zoroastrianism, after the Persian conquest of Babylonia).

In VIIth century Arabian tribes united by the Prophet Muhammad (Mahomet), after his death conquered Persia and Byzantine territories of Palestine, Syria and Egypt (632-661). Then the lands of Central Asia, Northern Africa and finally Spain (in VIIIth century, plus all large Mediterranean islands like Sicily). These conquests although impressive, were actually possible because of internal decomposition of only three states: Byzantine Empire, Persia and Spain.

In years 673-678 Arabs attacked Constantinople. City (and the Byzantine Empire) survived only thanks to the invention of “Greek fire” - a flammable liquid used to burn enemy ships. Although Arabian conquerors were driven by the idea of jihad (holy war) it is useful to note that after the conquest Arabs were very tolerant to other religions (as you can see, nothing stable in history). Much more tolerant than former Byzantine administration. It was one of the reasons of their popularity of their rule among the inhabitants of Syria and Egypt. The main reason for the success of their religion (and religion conversions to Islam) in conquered countries were lower taxes that believers of Islam had to pay.

Arabs formed a great empire called “The Caliphate”, ruled by the religious and military leader called Caliph.

There were two basic economic reasons for the success of the Arabian Empire:
  • Increase of relative profitability of horizontal trade between middle income lands of the Caliphate (as described on India history page), when the profitability of vertical trade between the Constantinople and the rest of Byzantine Empire decreased. Much lower taxes introduced by Arabian conquerors also helped here.
  • Arabian traders monopolized the trade between Europe (inculding Byzantium) and India (plus China).
But the Empire was too large to stay united for long (different provinces had different economic interests). So, in IXth century Caliphate broke up into a few independent countries, and Calif become no more than religious leader with no real political power (although Islam did not developed such a formal institutional structure like the Christian Church).

At the very beginning Islam broke into two basic branches:
  • Sunnites (Sunnis) - the majority, official interpretation of doctrine supported by the state administration.
  • Shi’ites (Shi’is) – minority, opposition often haunted by the state administration.
Generaly speaking, the basic difference between them (from the political history point of view) was that Sunnities in addition to Muslim holy book of Qu’ran (also Quran or Koran) accepts also later interpretations of some religious issues that were not mentioned in Qu’ran, called sunna (tradition). Opposite Shi’ites (simplifing terribly) were calling for a return to the roots of Muslim religion and the rule of the descendants of Caliph Ali, not the new dynasties of Caliphs (Umayyads and later ones).

Tradition versus return to the roots
Very the same were the nature of most religious strives between the official Catholic Church and heresies in Europe. This kind of ideological conflict is typical in feudal societies. Original religion (very often a left-winged ideology) have to be modified or extended to support a feudal hierarchy and the laws and institutions of feudal state (so becomes a right-winged ideology). And these “upgrades” of religion were supported by feudal elities. The same time ideologies of poorer people who want to more honest redistribution of power and income were inevitable against these modifications (postulate “returning to roots” - to original left-winged version of religion).

Shi’itism was esspecially popular in countries like Iran which for a long time had the status of conquered province - religious opposition was ampliffied by national conflict here. But it is useful to note that later when Shi’ities came to power and started to rule some Muslim kingdoms (like Fatimids in Egypt), doctrine was usually modified, and the rulling practices of new elites were much or less the same as former Sunnis elites. As usual, economic conditions and needs of feudal state affected the evolution of ideology. There was no return to idealised times of first Caliphs.     

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Iconoclasm in Byzantine Empire and Muslim science

After the serious crisis, Byzantine Empire reborn under the rule of Isaurian dynasty. Probably these times Byzantium become a populistic state again (military dictatorship). Emperors of Isaurian dynasty based on strong army and rygoristic religious ideology of iconoclasm - destruction of all sacred images of Jesus, Mary and Saints and struggle with the cult of these icons to purify the Christianity. Some other examples of such “militant religion” ideology in populistic states were Puritanism in the times of Cromwell (England XVIIth century) or ideology of Taborities (Bohemia XVth century).

Short summary of Isaurian Dynasty.  

As you can see, history of Byzantine Empire was “pulsative” with several cycles of expansion and rebirth when the political system of Empire changed from feudal to populistic and vice versa. Another sympthom of populistic state were war crimes (killing all men for example) committed by Byzantines these times and mass deportations of whole population of rebelious provinces from Asia Minor to Balkans and vice versa.

Mass political terror and war crimes
Mass political terror was not the invention of XXth century (and dictators like Hitler or Stalin). In many ancient or medieval populistic states terror against political opponents or inhabitants of rebelled provinces was a common practice. Even the army of ancient democratic Rome were responsible for systematic war crimes (ex. in Spain) in the middle of IInd  century B.C., when the democratic system were decomposing. The scale of political terror in feudal states was smaller, but only because the percentage of people involved in politics here was usually lower.    

These times Byzantine Empire waged serious wars with Bulgaria - a Slavian kingdom on Balkan peninsula ruled by the narrow elite of Bulgars. Bulgars were the nomadic Turkish tribe from the steppes between Black Sea and Caspian Sea that was earlier sponsored by Byzantium as allies against Avars. This looks as a mistake of Byzantine diplomacy, but it was not. Empire were attacked because of long border with barbarian lands and periodic crises. If not the Bulgars, some other nomadic tribe was settle down in Balkans. Limited resources sometimes force diplomats to play with cards, they have at hand.

Rulers of Bulgaria and short introduction to history of Bulgaria.
Basic introduction to Byzantine warfare.     

On the other hand Muslim countries of Middle East and Mediterranean, although disunited, experienced the economic prosperity. There were a few reasons for this:
  • Silver mines of Middle East allows Muslim countries to supply money for many neighbouring lands. Large deposits of Arabian coins are found for example in Scandinavia. Simply speaking Arabs gained extra income from supplying a service of international trade currency (the same as USA today).
  • Arabian sailors started a great colonization in the India Ocean Basin, founding colonies and factories from Zanzibar in East Africa to Indonesia and China — dominating sea trade in the whole region.
  • A status of trade intermediary between the Europe and Orient that Muslim countries had, as mentioned above.

Short introduction to the history of silver and gold in Medieval Ages.
See also articles at MuslimHeritage.
Short summary of Arabic explorations.   

Interesting side effect of this sea expansion was an populistic merchant republic on Bahrain island (since 894 till the middle of XIth century), which lead very active politics in the region, even sponsoring revolutions and political opposition in neighbouring states of Persian Gulf coast.

Thanks to the economic prosperity, the centuries of VIII-XII (since the times of legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid who’s capital was Baghdad) were the period of extraordinary development of science in Muslim lands. It was started form translating most of  ancient scientific texts to Arabian language (many times saving these books for Renaissance European thinkers) and from learning the secrets of India science - these times Muslims did not afraid to translate books of other cultures or import discoveries of other nations like compass, gunpowder (China) or decimal counting system (India).

Them Arabian thinkers almost doubled the scientific knowledge of ancient Greek-Roman thinkers - but, as you recall, science develops faster when the volume of accumulated knowledge is higher, so it is nothing strange here. Here some of the most important areas of Muslim science:
  • Math. There were several brilliant Arabian mathematics these times, starting from Al Khwarizmi (father of algorithm). A whole branch of  math called algebra (Arabic word again) - art of solving equations - was actually invented by Muslim mathematicians.
  • Medicine (ex. Ibn Sina or Avicenna).
  • Astronomy (about 2/3 of stars that can be seen with naked eye have Arabian names), navigation and ship constructing technologies (that were then adopted by Portuguese sailors).
  • Basics of chemistry (again, alchemy is an Arabic word).
  • And even the basics of economics and sociology (Ibn Khaldun).

Arabic math.
Some economic and historic ideas of Ibn Khaldun

This age of rational thinking was possible because social conflict in Muslim states were not so strong these times, thanks to economic prosperity. Not so rich (but enterprising) people were not contesting (or questioning) the social hierarchy, because had a chance to get rich and this way improve their material (and social) status or at least could find a freedom or new hope in colonies (the same way as Greeks before or Europeans few centuries later).

It is a simplification, but generally these centuries were the Muslim “age of reason” and the peak of Arabian culture. Arabs were these times much more “liberal” (i.e. freedom-oriented) than Europeans - opposite than today. Moreover, this freedom of thought and more liberal sexual customs were the reasons that many medieval European religious leaders perceived Muslim civilization as “morally corrupted”. Again: ideologies, religions or cultures are not fixed but evolve, shaped by the economic conditions.

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Empire of Charlemagne, another wave of barbarian raids

In the middle of VIIIth century Frankish kingdom was reunited by Carolingians, the family of powerful royal officials (they controlled the function of majordomo - mayor of the palace and chancellor in one). It is nothing unusual when old dynasty is weak, powerful officials, or army generals (ex. shoguns in Japan) often take control over the throne in feudal states sometimes forming a new dynasty. 

Charles Martel defeated a Muslim army invading France (battle of Poitiers 732) which strengthen his political position and reunited the kingdom. His son, Pepin the Short could take the crown, formally ending the rule of old Meroving dynasty. Having the strong and united country, son of the king Peppin, Charlemagne (Charles the Great, ruling 771-814, more or less the same time as Caliph Harun al-Rashid) could start the external expansion. Charlemagne conquered Italy, and some regions of Germany (pagan Saxons for example), borderlands of Northern Spain plus lands of today’s Austria destroying the last remnants of Avar state in Pannonia. And crowned himself as Roman Emperor. At end Charlemagne united most of the West European Christian lands (except England and Ireland). 

Needs of large empire forced Charlemagne to introduce some reforms:
  • Standardized the coinage mincing system (adopted then by most of the European countries), which simplified trade exchange.
  • Introduced an education system - schools called trivium and quadrivium where monks and state officials could broaden their knowledge. Large empire needed educated administrational personnel. 

Reforms of Charlemagne
Quite good page about Charlemagne. Including a short descriptions of his reforms.

Although these reforms were effect of the personal decision of one man, Charlemagne, were also a symptom of an economic process going underneath - decreasing profitability of military conquests, and increasing profitability of non-military enterprises like trade. A careful analysis of economic reasons (and consequences) of new laws or institutional changes introduced let us to make some rationale guessing about economic and social processes that happen in the background, even when we do not have enough statistical data. 

One of the foundations of his power was scara, a standing army paid and equipped by Charlemagne where younger sons of nobles had a chance for a social advance. This kind of “private army” (also used as a police and tax collectors) was a common tool of great rulers in all early medieval countries. Of course a monarch need some stable source of income that allow him to overpower his external and internal opponents. Even genuine ruler like Charlemagne is nothing without resources.    

At the end of his rule Frank Kingdom reached the maximum limits of expansion for feudal country and thus started to decompose. Three decades after his death kingdom were finally divided into three parts by his descendants (Treaty of Verdun, see map). Eastern part of Empire became the Kingdom of France, western part (more or less today’s West Germany, Austria and Netherlands) became the Germany. Southern territories (remnants of Lothar’s domain) divided later into weak kingdoms of Italy and Burgundy.  

More or less these times West European Lands had a negative trade balance. Precious metals flow out to Middle East Arabic states financing the import of eastern luxury goods. Usually negative balance of coins and precious metals in general is an evidence that a country is too rich. However may also happen when a country is poorer, but have lower technology level (as in this case).

Solow Growth Model of growth and the trade balance
Below is a quick-and-dirty summary of Solow’s model - generally also derived from the second law of thermodynamics.

Blue curve represents output possible at given technology level when we invest disposed income (per capita).
Black line represents a percentage of income that have to be spent to renew the means of production. For example medieval peasant had to save about 1/5 of grain to sow the field next year.
Until both lines do not cross, new investments (more people, more land, more capital, greater army) will effect in economic growth. When they cross, economy reach the” steady state” (income per capita Y), and further economic growth is impossible (without inventing a new technologies).
Green line is a new output from investments at new, higher technology level.

Conclusion from this model are:

  1. In the long run (long period of time) only way to achieve economic growth is to invent new technologies and made new discoveries (including geographic discoveries).
  2. Countries with low technology level, face the final barrier of growth sooner.

Solow Growth Model and trade balance, picture
Second picture adds an orange line representing the net trade balance modifying the black line (percentage of income that is lost). It is my personal modification (simplified here), but it comes from well known trade-balance macroeconomic models - poor people/countries tend to export more goods than they are importing and vice versa rich people/countries tend to import more goods than they are exporting.

As you can see, science development may have sometimes a negative economic effect. Outflow of money and wealth (segment between the red point and the yellow point) may be higher that the growth of income, thanks to implementation of a new technology - especially in rich countries with long open border, when the diffusion channels are wide (like Byzantine Empire). As you can see the protectionism could be (sometimes) a rational economic strategy, allowing the higher economic growth - or not so deep recession - in short run (short period of time).

Now should be clear, why the emperors of Byzantium introduced laws against scientific development and preferred state-regulated economy (which supports protectionism). Sometimes ideologies and policies (against science and free-thinkers) that may seem irrational, have important economic rationale (purpose).

Of course technology development rate will be higher in countries that will not introduce protectionism (because of economic pressure and competition). In the other words: life here is harder but development is faster in long run. However if the run is very long, people may not like to wait. So this is a trade-off as usual.

In the IXth and first half of Xth century crisis of the former Frank Empire was responsible for feudal fragmentation of four kingdoms: France Germany, Italy and Burgundy. Military weakness encouraged barbarians to raid civilized lands:
  • Vikings from West Scandinavia (Norway and Danemark, also called Normans) started sea raids. At first they attacked France and England. Then, sailing around the Europe, raided Spain, Italy, and even Byzantine Empire.
  • Hungarians (or Magyars, nomadic tribe that arrived to Pannonia) started horse raids to Germany, Italy, France, and even Spain.
  • Russians united by Varangians (or Waregs, Waregians - Swedish Vikings) tried to attack Constantinople.
Although range may seem impressive, these attacks were generally only robbery raids. Barbarians of the third wave were too small in number to be a serious threat to civilized lands. Therefore Vikings conquests were only temporary (in England, Scotland and Ireland) or small in size (Normandy, Sicily and Kingdom of Naples). From the economics point of view these raids were attempts to open diffusion channels between barbarian lands and civilized lands with brute force. Therefore West Europeans had to invent some defensive (and thus protectionist) policies to close these diffusion channels.

Only Russian-Varangians raids against Byzantine Empire were serious (Greek attack on Troy is a good analogy). But Viking rulers of early Russia were more interested in trade privileges. Trade exchange between Constantinople and Baltic Sea region thorough the rivers of Russia were too profitable. Therefore the main effects of Russian raids in 860 and 911 were the trade agreements that opened a hole in Byzantine protectionism.

Again, as the middle-income country, the Kingdom of Germany was reunited first, under the rule of Saxon Dynasty (silver, copper and lead deposits that was discovered these times in Saxony also helped here, giving rulers of Saxon Dynasty a stable source of income). King Otto I stopped Magyar raids in the Battle of Lechfeld (955). The same as the kingdom of Charlemagne, Germany under the Saxon Dynasty started the expansion in two general directions:
  • Against low-income lands: Slavic tribes in the valley of river Elbe (more or less lands of former East Germany, DDR), who arrived here in the second wave of barbarian invasions, as mentioned earlier.
  • Against high-income lands: disorganized Burgundy and Kingdom of Italy (North Italy without Kingdom of Naples and Venetia.
In 962 Otto I was crowned the Emperor by the pope, starting this way the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation as the continuation of Charlemagne Empire and the tradition of West Roman Empire. The same as Charlemagne, Otto I also financed a private military force that supported his rule. However these warriors (called ministerials) were not true nobles. Very often in the early feudal states there is a social class of warriors, who have only a partial privileges of noble man - not true knights, but also not the plebeians.

Basic introduction to the history and culture of Vikings.
The short introduction to Varangians in Russia.

And the encyclopedia-style sources for the history of medieval Germany:
Chronological overview of history of Germany at The Encyclopedia of World History at
Rule of Otto I the Great at The Catholic Encyclopedia
And as usual, easiest way to get the basics will be History of Germany from Wikipedia. 

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 New feudal states in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia

A side effect of the crisis that launched the third wave of barbarian migrations was formation of new, stable trade routes between the barbarian lands of Central and Eastern Europe plus Scandinavia and thus the emergence of new feudal states here: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Hungary and Russia, more or les in Xth century. Since these times civilized feudal states covered most of the Europe.

Here there are a few economic processes that were responsible for emergency of these new feudal states:
  • When western countries enhanced their defenses, local, barbarian warlords that had grown in power on robbery raids had to find some other source of income. The easiest way were to subordinate other local rulers, becoming the local monopolist in the game of power (exploiting local peasants, and robbery/taxation of local, tribal neighbours became more profitable than to robber civilized lands).
  • An effect of emerging markets: demand for raw resources in Western Europe, Byzantium and Arabian lands (like furs, wood products, slaves, horses, etc.) created profitable trade links between rich lands of West and South and these new states. Profitable long-range trade gave new rulers resources that gave them an advantage over leaders of weaker tribes.
  • Import of new technologies (in construction, writing, administration, agriculture) increased the surplus (extra production that can be sold) from land and made possible the emergency of feudal elites that replaced former tribal communities.
It is useful to note that large part of export from these countries were (at least at the beginning) slaves. Early Slavian princes often waged wars to get slaves that could be sold to the Muslim lands of Middle East and Spain.

Special case was Russia. Great Rivers Easter Europe were easy trade routes between the Baltic Sea and rich Byzantine Empire (the river Dnieper) and Muslim Middle East (the river Volga). These trade were explored by Swedish Vikings (Varangians). At the turn of IXth and Xth century Varangians rulers united Slavic tribal states here. First in the vicinity of Great Novgorod and then lands near the Kiev, creating this way the state of Russia. That was the beginning of Rurik Dynasty. Territory of early Russia was more or less: today’s Belorusia, Northern Ukraine, lands around the city of Great Novgorod (close to lakes Ilmen and Ladoga) and some lands east from them close to the river Volga.

This way Varangians monopolized the trade route between Constantinople and Scandinavia. As I mentioned before, speaking about the history of India, at some point chaotic economic growth needs to be supported by introduction of some institutions that lower the transactional costs, and therefore the centrally-governed state appears. It is useful to note that this is a two-component process:
  • People (i.e. merchants, craftsmen, farmers) need a central government that can protect the trade exchange.
  • Warrior-merchant Varagians and Slavic elites of greatest cities (Great Novgorod, Kijev) had income from taxes and trade that gave them resources to start an expansion.
So, the emergency of Russia was an effect of symbiosis, not the brute conquest. Vikings offered the new technologies: chainmal, swords, ships, war tactics. While Slavians offered the goods to trade, and people who can be recruited and trained as warriors. Without the Varangians technologies Russia probably will be united by some local, Slavic ruler, maybe a several decades later.

In early medieval times there were no nations as today. Therefore for early Russian elites Variagans were allies and neighboring Slavic tribes often enemies or “prey to conquest”. It is useful to note that in history of early Russia there were no serious conflicts between Vikings and Russians (opposite than for example in Bulgaria). Varangians rulers and warriors assimilated very fast, because they were relatively small in number, comparing with their Slavic subordinates.

Trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks
Rurik Dynasty
Map of Europe 1000 AD     

As a conclusion, there were two economic reasons that created this trade route (and Russia):
  • High demand for raw good in civilized lands of south
  • Crisis of West European states that increased the relative profitability of military enterprises for Scandinavians thus promoting the development (and import) of new warfare technologies.
Very similar mechanism launched migration of Goths (described earlier) and the formation of their state in Ukraine. Although this time trade route had two ends and therefore did not disappeared when prosperity ended. Sole demand of Byzantine Empire (even when Byzantium was populistic state) would not be enough to create such a big country like Russia. Byzantine demand could create only smaller half-barbaric states on Ukraine, that would be destroyed by nomad tribes in times of economic crisis (as really happened many times before).

New states were christianized in Xth and early XIth century. In case of states bordering Germany, like Poland or Hungary, this was also protection from German expansion. German knights and rulers lost important ideological argument for “holy expeditions” against pagans. These tribes that were not accepted the new ideology of Christianity were conquered and sometimes completely destroyed.

Acceptance of Christian religion allowed to import new technologies from West Europe and Byzantium. With Christian monks came knowledge about stone architecture, agriculture, many crafts. But maybe the most important was a management and public relations know-how — i.e. feudal social hierarchy, administration procedures, religious ideology that helped to rule over poor people (plebeians), etc. Quite egalitarian tribal societies evolved into hierarchical feudal societies.


This lecture was more comprehensive than I planned, but I want to show three basic points here:
  • Studying the economic processes launched by the (well-documented) fall of the Roman Empire we can made reasonable guesses about other similar crises in history: collapse of the Minoan Empire and migrations of Indo-European tribes, migration of Celtic tribes when Etruscan city-states declined, etc.
  • Most of the processes that drive the history are quite universal, because they derive from the basic laws of thermodynamics. Thus economic mechanisms responsible for barbarian invasions were very the same as for example mechanisms that were responsible for German or Japan expansion in times of World War II.
  • Basic analysis of alternative strategies helps to understand the history (to raid neighbouring lands or to exploit local peasants, that is the question). We can use very the same tools as economists, when they compare relative effectiveness of different economic strategies.
One of the important differences between economic processes today and in early medieval ages was that capital investments these times had to be protected with army. Byzantium had to conquer a country to made safe investments here. In the times of chaos, there is no guarantee that invested money will be repaid (again, the first half of XXth century is a good analogy here).

Warsaw 14 July 2005
last revision: December 2006 - January 2007
Slawomir Dzieniszewski

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