Plague, Settlement and Structural Change at the Dawn of the Middle Ages

Plague of Justinian

Plague, Settlement and Structural Change at the Dawn of the Middle Ages

By Dick Harrison

Scandia, Vol 59:1 (1993)

Plague of Justinian

Introduction: Something happened in late antiquity. Several elements in society underwent profound changes. According to many scholars, the most important feature was a demographic crisis. Various symptoms have been discussed: fewer slaves (from the second century AD), depopulation of frontier areas due to the wars (especially in the third century), the abandonment of agricultural areas and the spread of agri deserti (abandoned lands which could no longer yield taxes), the spread of the coloni (tenants attached to their lands by state decree and very dependent upon their landlords), the increasing number of Germanic soldiers in the army, the epibol system, originally a Ptolemaeic system that became widely used in the eastern empire: landowners were forced to take over evacuated lands close to their own and to pay taxes for these), etc. The state wanted to maintain the level of agrarian production, and its failure is interpreted as a consequence of the demographic crisis. The shortage of manpower made it necessary to force people to remain where they were and to perform services needed in the empire, especially with regard to taxation. Professions were made hereditary. Eventually, many towns were ruralized or ceased to exist; the Roman empire in the west disintegrated and fell. Mostly, the research leading to conclusions such as these are based on studies of late Roman laws. Calculations on the number of inhabitants during these centuries are, however, impossible to make. The most famous attempt, by J.C. Russell, is, as will be revealed below, not satisfying. Using results from other studies, like those referred to above, Russell assumed hypothetical population figures without any real empirical evidence. Apart from this, Russell based his hypotheses on, for instance, his own guesses concerning the impact of Germanic migrations and the plague of Justinian. A typical example is his use of the Anglo-Saxon document Tribal Hidage in evaluating British demography from the early phases of Anglo-Saxon settlement; both the method and the results are much too risky, as is easily seen if studying the document more carefully.

The demographic crisis is based on two levels of interpretation:

(1) The sources are interpreted as evidence of shortage of manpower, especially within the agricultural sphere.

(2) Shortage of manpower is interpreted as demographic decline. Both of these interpretations are weak. The laws can easily be misunderstood, and shortage of manpower as such is not equivalent to shortage of people. The empire did suffer from a certain loss of manpower (administrators, soldiers, etc.), but the main reason why the state legislated against the desertion of lands was purely fiscal. The fact that people tried to avoid taxation does not mean that they did not exist, nor that they became fewer. The historical importance of these late Roman laws is the discrepancy between the explicit interests of the state (preserved in writing) and the implicit interests of the people (mostly not preserved in writing).

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