The question of how Europe overcame the collapse
of the Roman state in the West has been the subject of popular and
academic debate for more than a century. The ‘fall of Rome’ and its
societal consequences in the West are often perceived as one of the
continent’s most severe crises. Academic interest in the collapse and
recovery of ‘the West’ has been remarkably ‘top-down’. Debates are
often still conducted in terms of dichotomies such as ‘transformation
vs collapse’ and ‘self-sufficiency vs an open economy’. Often the focus
is on perceived ‘prime movers’ for growth (e.g. trade, agrarian
production or crafts) or the nature of the social organisation of
production (slavery vs tenancy, the nature of the estate, the role of
free peasants). However, there is one thing that most modern authors
(both historians and archaeologists) do agree on: that the post-Roman
economic development was the result of initiatives and demand from the
king, aristocrats and the church.
The role of the rural population in the transformation from ‘Late Roman’ to ‘Medieval Europe’ has been given little consideration, however. Were the rural inhabitants of 5th- to 7th-century northwestern Europe merely passive economic agents, or did they have an active and important role in economic development, not only as producers but also as consumers? This question is especially relevant in view of the vast quantities of exquisitely worked objects, often imported from the eastern Mediterranean or regions even further afield, that have been recovered from graves of the rural population in the 5th to 7th centuries. The presence of these precious and often exotic objects in the cemeteries of even the smallest local communities seems to be at odds with the established paradigm of elite control of agricultural production and (long-distance) trade. Instead, it appears that in the so-called Dark Ages, objects circulating in global exchange networks were available to ordinary rural dwellers far from the established centres of elite control. Thousands of these richly furnished local cemeteries have been discovered in northwestern Europe, suggesting that the rural population may have had a far more conspicuous role in the economic development of post-Roman Europe than has hitherto been thought.
In my paper I will present my ideas about the role of the rural population in the economic recovery of Northwestern Europe (Northern France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and the western part of Germany). I will also explain why life-cycle rituals were of great importance in this and why the existing models of historians obscured the view on the role of rural dwellers in a process of economic growth.
Professor Frans Theuws studied History and Provincial Roman Archaeology at the University of Nijmegen and Medieval Archaeology at the University of Amsterdam (1983 cum laude). His PhD research dealt with the characteristics of early medieval society in the southern Netherlands and northern Belgium (1988 cum laude). As an initiator and a team leader he was involved in the organisation of the European Science Foundation project ‘The Transformation of the Roman world’. He has directed several projects financed by the National Science foundation on the archaeology of the Late Roman and Early medieval period of Northern Gaul. He is author of numerous books, book chapters, and journal articles including Rituals of power : from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages (2000) and "Grave goods, ethnicity, and the rhetoric of burial rites in Late Antique Northern Gaul" in Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity. He is currently professor of medieval archaeology at the University of Leiden.
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