Some Remarks on the Economic Development of the Komnenian Byzantium
By Jan Brandejs
West Bohemian Historical Review, No.1 (2013)
Abstract: The purpose of this article is to present various socioeconomic developments which occurred during the era of the Komnenian dynasty in Byzantium (1081–1185). The work follows the most basic concepts of economy and introduces modern interpretation of recent historical research focused on this period. The themes include the development of trade, taxation, social composition of the countryside and analysis of the status of non-proprietary peasants, paroikoi.
Introduction: The Komnenian period of Byzantium (1081–1185) constitutes a curious era of social and economic development. Often regarded as the period of the socalled feudalization, the regime of Komnenoi was often blamed for creating a social situation which was prone to internal destabilization. An era of diminishing resources and unfulfilled hopes, the 12th century was presented as the last chance for revival, which ultimately turned to naught with the sack of Constantinople in 1204. In recent decades, however, a new approach based on expanding archaeological evidence suggests quite a different picture – the expanding cities and once again burgeoning trade certainly brought a new era of prosperity into Byzantium. Put into contrast with the eventually triumphing western civilization, the logic of continuous decline suited well the meta-narratives trying to explain the so denominated ‘special’ way of western historical development.
The purpose of this article is to identify some of the factors which contributed to this economic revival and rectify the image of Byzantium in the 12th century (although much of this work is nearly finished and as far as modern Byzantinology is concerned, the currently projected concepts of Komnenian Byzantium are already fundamentally different from those imagined by great historians of the older era, such as Georgij Ostrogorsky). Although most of the topics concerned with social development in this époque were widely described in various works, a modern comprehensive analysis containing the findings and imbuing this knowledge with political development is still absent. The author does not intend to fill this, albeit increasingly reduced, void with an article of such humble proportions – the main aim is to identify certain factors in the socioeconomic development of Komnenian period which were often a major source of confusion in older literature and point out various interesting developments which render Byzantium a unique social system among its peers, so as to prepare grounds for a future comparison between the Byzantine Empire and state formations of various other ‘civilizations’.
With the death of Basil II in 1025, during whose reign Byzantium achieved notional peak of its middle époque, comes an era of rapidly changing emperors. Often regarded as the time of weakening of the state, this approach might be rectified. In a sense, the administration still worked, though many times it became pawn of both local and higher political elites which used riches accumulated by state or their position for their own benefits. Nevertheless, the edicts and political decisions decided by emperors were still widely implemented.