Collections: Bread, How Did They Make It? Part I: Farmers!

Thanks to our helpful volunteer narrator, this entire post series is now also available in audio format!

This essay will hopefully be the first post in a series (II, III, IV, A) covering some of the basics of how things in the past, particularly in the ancient world, were made. This isn’t a how-to guide (we’re not going to go into that much depth) but instead intended as a window into the many tasks that made a pre-modern society work, tasks that are so often left out of the modern imagination of the past. Throughout, I want to highlight not only the jobs, but also the people who did them and the human landscapes they created.

Each entry in this series is likely to come in multiple parts – as you will soon see, almost everything worth making has to be made in quite a few steps and each step is often complex enough to occupy its own weekly post. I think this series will run in four parts (possibly with a fifth part addendum), but no plan survives contact with my tendency to overwrite. I wanted to start with farming instead of something more flashy and exciting like iron production (where I know there is quite a lot of interest in how one goes from reddish rock to polished sword), for the simple reason that agriculture sits at the foundation of every other form of production. Every person in an agrarian society whose job – mining, smithing, tanning, timber-cutting, trading, tailoring, everything – doesn’t involve primary food production is subsisting off of the food production of others, typically (as we’ll see) many others.

That said, this post is mostly about farmers more than farming (we will talk about the mechanics of farming, just not right away!). One thing I want to highlight in this series are the many different jobs and occupations and the people who did them who tend to lurk in the background of our imagination of the past, where they appear at all. And in the case of farming in much of the pre-modern world, the survival strategies of subsistence farmers exert a very strong shaping influence on the countryside and life for non-farmers (terminology note: ‘subsistence’ farming refers to farming directed primarily towards the survival of the farmers and their families; in much of the pre-modern world, there was a fairly sharp divide between most farmers who farmed on a subsistence basis and the largest market-oriented estates of the wealthy, who will be our focus next week).

As a final caveat before we dive in, I specialize in the economy of the ancient Mediterranean, so my observations here are going to tend (where not otherwise noted) to be most true in the Mediterranean world, in that period (c. 650 BC – 450 AD). Where I know there are major exceptions, I’ll try to note them, but it’s simply not possible to know every production permutation everywhere and at every time. For this series, we’re going to focus on wheat production, with a bit of a Mediterranean bias (but I’ve tried to pull in some evidence from North China as well; by and large I’ve found that wheat cultivation seems to create similar patterns everywhere, but there is local variation).

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Bibliography note at the outset: for the sake of keeping these posts readable, especially since I don’t have an easy footnote function here, I am not going to laboriously cite everything at each point of reference, but I’ll include a bibliography note up front for the whole series. My information for the ancient Mediterranean is drawn from a number of sources, the most important of which are P. Erdkamp, The Grain Market in the Roman Empire (2005); N. Rosenstein, Rome at War: Farms, Families and Death in the Middle Republic (2004); Foxhall and Forbes, “Σιτομετρεία: The Role of Grain as a Staple Food in Classical Antiquity,” Chiron 12 (1982) and Foxhall, “The Dependent Tenant” JRS 80 (1990), and just reading a pile of Greek and Roman agricultural writers (Columella, Cato, Pliny the Elder, Xenophon, etc).
Note also C. Fischer-Bovet, Army and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt (2014), W. Scheidel, Death on the Nile (2001) and R. Bagnall and B. Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt (1994) for the Egyptian demographic modeling. Egypt is an important reference for demographic data because relatively more records survive there due to the arid conditions preserving papyrus.
I am less well read on Medieval European agriculture, but I should note some reliance here on M. Bloch, La Société Féodale (1940; available trans. Manyon, 1962) and E.L.R. Ladurie, Les Paysans de Languedoc (1966; available trans. J. Day, 1976). Also relevant on general features and broad continuity, J. Landers, The Field and the Forge (2003); for the military history minded, Landers (and Rosenstein) are more focused on the connection between agriculture and military activity.
My references to Chinese agriculture are from Cho-yun Hsu, Han Agriculture: The Formation of Early Chinese Agrarian Economy (1980).

Why Bread?

From the outset I want to note that agriculture, especially subsistence agriculture, typically is not planting simple mono-cultures of a single crop. I opted to focus in this series on bread because it is usefully simple for a number of reasons. It lets us focus on wheat and barley, which are relatively simple crops to talk about but also (in the broad sweep of Eurasia where they were the primary crop) provided the majority of calories for the vast majority of people. Vegetables, fruit, meat, other animal products (along with sauces and things derived from them) were in the ancient Mediterranean generally expensive things, used by most normal people (read: the not-super-rich) to flavor a meal that still consisted mostly of bread, when they were available at all. That’s because (as we’ll see) wheat and barley were efficient and cheap to grow at scale.

A silver coin (a drachma, I think, but I am not sure) from Metapontum, a Greek city in Lucania, Italy, c. 530-510 BC, showing an ear of barley, advertising the city’s agricultural productivity.

That doesn’t mean that people only ate bread, to be clear. The Mediterranean diet is built on a triad of grapes, grains and olives; animal products were also in the diet. Grains don’t have a broad enough range of nutrients to really subsist someone forever; you need proteins and vitamins and so on. But when we are looking at the bulk of what was eaten any way we measure it – calories, volume, weight, labor intensity, economic scale – cheap, mass-available grains just dominate, so that’s where we start. When scholars model ancient agriculture and food habits, they build a nutritional model centered on grains and then supplement with other things as necessary (which as an aside is also how the Greeks and Romans actually talk about food – rations that we are quite sure included meat and vegetables are typically given as grain allowances, e.g. Thuc 4.16.1; Plut. Lyc. 12.2; Plb. 6.39.13; Cato, de Agr. 56).

Finally, a terminology note: when I say wheat I mean genus triticum and its subspecies; when I say barley I mean Hordeum vulgare. I am going to use ‘grain’ or ‘grains’ to refer to both crops together (although there are many other grains). The British frequently use the word ‘corn’ to refer to wheat; this causes no end of confusion in Americans, for whom ‘corn’ means maize. I do not know that I will reference maize, but if I do, I will call it maize and to avoid confusion, I am not going to use corn at all as a term. Apologies to my British readers whose usage is, I should note, older but also more confusing.

To start with, we need to start not with our crops, but with our farm and farmers.

The Farming Household

Looking at our peasant household, what we generally have are large families on small farms. The households in these farms were not generally nuclear households, but extended ones. Pre-Han Chinese documents assume a household to include three generations: two elderly parents, their son, his wife, and their four children (eight individuals total). Ptolemaic and Roman census data reveal a bewildering array of composite families, including multi-generational homes, but also households composed of multiple nuclear families of siblings (so a man, his wife, his brother and then brother’s wife and their children, for instance), and so on. Normal family units tended to be around eight individuals, but with wide variation (for comparison, the average household size in the United States for a family is 3.14).

Via Wikipedia, a farmhouse, painted by Johann Ludwing Ernst Morgenstern (1794). Note how many individuals (presumably a mix of neighbors, friends and the extended family) are attached to this dwelling – and also how it is a multi-purpose structure, both a workshop and residence.

At the same time that households were large (by modern standards), the farms they tilled were, by modern standards, very small. The normal size of a Roman household small farm is generally estimated between 5 and 8 iugera (a Roman measurement of land, roughly 3 to 5 acres); in pre-Han Northern China (where wheat and millet, not rice, were the staple crops), the figure was “one hundred mu (4.764 acres)” – essentially the same. In Languedoc, a study of Saint-Thibery in 1460 showed 118 households (out of 189) on farms of less than 20 setérée (12 acres or so; the setérée appears to be an inexact unit of measurement); 96 of them were on less than 10 setérée (about 6 acres). So while there is a lot of variation, by and large it seems like the largest cluster of household farms tend to be around 3 to 8 acres or so; 5 acre farms are a good ‘average’ small farm.

This coincidence of normal farm size and family size is not an accident, but essentially represents multi-generational family units occupying the smallest possible farms which could support them. The pressures that produce this result are not hard to grasp: families with multiple children and a farm large enough to split between them might do so, while families without enough land to split are likely to cluster around the farm they have. Pre-modern societies typically have only limited opportunities for wage labor (which are often lower status and worse in conditions than peasant farming!), so if the extended family unit can cluster on a single farm too small to split up, it will (with exception for the occasional adventurous type who sets off for high-risk occupations like soldier or bandit).

Now to be clear that doesn’t mean the farm sizes are uniform, because they aren’t. There is tremendous variation and obviously the difference between a 10 acre small farm and a 5 acre small farm is half of the farm. Moreover, in most of the communities you will have significant gaps between the poor peasants (whose farms are often very small, even by these measures), the average peasant farmer, and ‘rich peasants’ who might have a somewhat (but often not massively so) larger farm and access to more farming capital (particularly draft animals). We’ll deal with the truly big farmers – the landholding aristocrats and gentry – next week. Nevertheless, what I want to stress is that these fairly small – 3-8 acres of so – farms with an extended family unit on it make up the vast majority of farming households and most of the rural population, even if they do not control most of the land (for instance in that Languedoc village, more than half of the land was held by households with more than 20 setérée a piece, so a handful of those ‘rich peasants’ with larger accumulations effectively dominated the village’s landholding; again, we’ll talk about how a larger farm might differ next week).

This is our workforce and we’re going to spend this entire essay talking about them. Why? Because these folks – these farmers – make up the majority of the population of basically all agrarian societies in the pre-modern period. And when I say ‘the majority’ I mean the vast majority, on the order of 80-90% in many cases (I am including in that number non-free agricultural workers, who we’ll discuss more next time).

There is a second thing to note here with our fairly large families on fairly small farms: these farmers are inefficiently distributed as units of labor. Exactly how you estimate things vary, but as a ballpark figure, a household with two adult males could cultivate close to 20 acres of land (assuming the women and children of the household assisted with the high labor demand period, which is the harvest) – but they are likely to be on a farm a quarter of that size. Now as we’ll get to later in the series, there are still ways for them to use that surplus labor! But as an economic unit, the problem is that they have too many mouths and not enough land – for maximum efficiency, they ought to stretch the same number of people over more land.

Exeter, 1617 from Georg Braun’s Civitates orbis terrarum (1572-1617). Image via the Historic Cities Research Project. This is far from a perfect example (farms so close to a decent-sized city are likely to market-oriented, not subsistence oriented, for reasons we’ve discussed before, but still – note the small fields (compare the size of the houses) both within and outside of the city walls. These farms are small.

Of course our farmers don’t care about maximum efficiency (because that means for maximum efficiency of people who aren’t the farmers eating the surplus). They care about marrying, having families, raising children, keeping friends, staying close to loved ones and so on. Farmers, after all, are people, not mere tools of agricultural production (we will talk about non-free farmers next time) and so they do not serve their farmers, their farms serve the needs of their families.

(I feel the need to note as an aside that in this series we’ll be very focused on these families as units of agricultural production, but that isn’t the whole of their output. In most cases, the majority of the agricultural labor in these households seems to have been done by men, with women coming into the fields mostly only at the periods of highest labor need (planting, harvest) or during periods of labor shortage (war, for instance). That is not to say the women are idle! They are not! In most cases, they are engaged with other essential household tasks, particularly household textile production, a topic that will get its own series a little later down the line. So if you see less of our female peasants than you might like, worry not – we are going to come back to them!)

The Farming Cycle

As you might imagine, time in agriculture is governed by the seasons. Crops must be planted at particular times, harvested at particular times. In most ancient societies, the keeping of the calendar was a religious obligation, a job for educated priests (either a professional priestly class as in the Near East, or local notables serving as amateurs, as in Greece and Rome).

The seasonal patterns vary a bit depending on the conditions and the sort of wheat being sown. In much of the Mediterranean, where the main concern was preserving a full year’s moisture for the crop, planting was done in autumn (November or October) and the crop was harvested in early summer (typically July or August). In contrast, the Han agricultural calendar for wheat planted in the spring, weeded over the summer and harvested in fall. The Romans generally kept to the autumn-planting schedule, except our sources note that on land which was rich enough (and wet enough) to be continuously cropped year after year (without a fallow), the crop was sown in spring; this might also be done in desperation if the autumn crop had failed. In Egypt, sowing was done as the Nile’s flood waters subsided at the beginning of Peret (in January), with the harvest taking place in Shemu (summer or early fall).

(As an aside on the seasons: we think in terms of four seasons, but many Mediterranean peoples thought in terms of three, presumably because Mediterranean winters are so mild. Thus the Greeks have three goddesses of the seasons initially, the Horae (spring, summer and fall) and Demeter’s grief divides the year into thirds not fourths in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. In ancient Egypt, there were three seasons: Akhet (Flood); Peret (Emergence [of fertile lands as the waters recede]) and Shemu (Low Water). The perception of the seasons depended on local climate and local cycles of agriculture.)

From the ‘Tomb of Sennedjem” in Deir el-Medina, Egypt, a mural showing the harvesting of grain (middle) and papyrus (bottom), dating to c. 1200 BC (New Kingdom). Apologies for poor quality of the image, getting a decent picture that is of the painting itself and not a reproduction is difficult; this one is from wikipedia.
Note how the grain is rather taller than our modern varieties of modern dwarf wheat. Regular wheats can collapse when they grow tall under the influence of fertilizer and waste a lot of those nutrients getting tall (to compete for sunlight), so dwarf wheats are mostly used today for their thicker, more resilient stalks and greater efficiency.

This brings us to the most fundamental fact of rural life in the pre-modern world: the grain is harvested once a year, but the family eats every day. Of course that means the grain must be stored and only slowly consumed over the entire year (with some left over to be used as seed-grain in the following planting). That creates the first cycle in agricultural life: after the harvest, food is generally plentiful and prices for it are low (we’ll deal with the impact this has on trade and markets a little later). As the year goes on, food becomes scarcer and the prices for it rise as each family ‘eats down’ their stockpile.

That has more than just economic impacts because the family unit becomes more vulnerable as that food stockpile dwindles. Malnutrition brings on a host of other threats: elevated risk of death from injury or disease most notably. Repeated malnutrition also has devastating long-term effects on young children (a point we’ll come back to). Consequently, we see seasonal mortality patterns in agricultural communities which tend to follow harvest cycles; when the harvest is poor, the family starts to run low on food before the next harvest, which leads to rationing the remaining food, which leads to malnutrition. That malnutrition is not evenly distributed though: the working age adults need to be strong enough to bring in the next harvest when it comes (or to be doing additional non-farming labor to supplement the family), so the short rations are going to go to the children and the elderly. Which in turn means that ‘lean’ years are marked by increased mortality especially among the children and the elderly, the former of which is how the rural population ‘regulates’ to its food production in the absence of modern birth control (but, as an aside: this doesn’t lead to pure Malthusian dynamics – a lot more influences the food production ceiling than just available land. You can have low-equilibrium or high-equilibrium systems, especially when looking at the availability of certain sorts of farming capital or access to trade at distance. I cannot stress this enough: Malthus was wrong; yes, interestingly, usefully wrong – but still wrong. The big plagues sometimes pointed to as evidence of Malthusian crises have as much if not more to do with rising trade interconnectedness than declining nutritional standards). This creates yearly cycles of plenty and vulnerability; we’ll talk about the strategies these fellows employ to avoid that problem in just a moment.

Next to that little cycle, we also have a ‘big’ cycle of generations. The ratio of labor-to-food-requirements varies as generations are born, age and die; it isn’t constant. The family is at its peak labor effectiveness at the point when the youngest generation is physically mature but hasn’t yet begun having children (the exact age-range there is going to vary by nuptial patterns, see below) and at its most vulnerable when the youngest generation is immature. By way of example, let’s imagine a family (I’m going to use Roman names because they make gender very clear, but this is a completely made-up family): we have Gaius (M, 45), his wife, Cornelia (39, F), his mother Tullia (64, F) and their children Gaius (21, M), Secundus (19, M), Julia1 (16, F) and Julia2 (14, F). That family has three male laborers, three female laborers (Tullia being in her twilight years, we don’t count), all effectively adults in that sense, against 7 mouths to feed. But let’s fast-forward fifteen years. Gaius is now 60 and slowing down, Cornelia is 54; Tullia, we may assume has passed. But Gaius now 36 is married to Clodia (20, F; welcome to Roman marriage patterns), with two children Gaius (3, M) and Julia3 (1, F); Julia1 and Julia2 are married and now in different households and Secundus, recognizing that the family’s financial situation is never going to allow him to marry and set up a household has left for the Big City. So we now have the labor of two women and a man-and-a-half (since Gaius the Elder is quite old) against six mouths and the situation is likely to get worse in the following years as Gaius-the-Younger and Clodia have more children and Gaius-the-Elder gets older. The point of all of this is to note that just as risk and vulnerability peak and subside on a yearly basis in cycles, they also do this on a generational basis in cycles.

(An aside: the exact structure of these generational patterns follow on marriage patterns which differ somewhat culture to culture. In just about every subsistence farming culture I’ve seen, women marry young (by modern standards) often in their mid-to-late teens, or early twenties; that doesn’t vary much (marriage ages tend to be younger, paradoxically, for wealthier people in these societies, by the by). But marriage-ages for men vary quite a lot, from societies where men’s age at first marriage is in the early 20s to societies like Roman and Greece where it is in the late 20s to mid-thirties. At Rome during the Republic, the expectation seems to have been that a Roman man would complete the bulk of their military service – in their twenties and possibly early thirties – before starting a household; something with implications for Roman household vulnerability. Check out Rosenstein, op. cit. on this).

On top of these cycles of vulnerability, you have truly unpredictable risk. Crops can fail in so many ways. In areas without irrigated rivers, a dry spell at the wrong time is enough; for places with rivers, flooding becomes a concern because the fields have to be set close to the water-table. Pests and crop blights are also a potential risk factor, as of course is conflict.

So instead of imagining a farm with a ‘standard’ yield, imagine a farm with a standard grain consumption. Most years, the farm’s production (bolstered by other activities like sharecropping that we’ll talk about later) exceed that consumption, with the remainder being surplus available for sale, trade or as gifts to neighbors and friends. Some years, the farm’s production falls short, creating that shortfall. Meanwhile families tend to grow to the size the farm can support, rather than to the labor needs the farm has, which tends to mean too many hands (and mouths) and not enough land. Which in turn causes the family to ride a line of fairly high risk in many cases.

All of this is to stress that these farmers are looking to manage risk through cycles of vulnerability. Which leads to:

Risk Control

I led in with all of that risk and vulnerability because without it just about nothing these farmers do makes a lot of sense; once you understand that they are managing risk, everything falls into place.

Most modern folks think in terms of profit maximization; we take for granted that we will still be alive tomorrow and instead ask how we can maximize how much money we have then (this is, admittedly, a lot less true for the least fortunate among us). We thus tend to favor efficient systems, even if they are vulnerable. From this perspective, ancient farmers – as we’ll see – look very silly, but this is a trap, albeit one that even some very august ancient scholars have fallen into. These are not irrational, unthinking people; they are poor, not stupid – those are not the same things.

But because these households wobble on the edge of disaster continually, that changes the calculus. These small subsistence farmers generally seek to minimize risk, rather than maximize profits. After all, improving yields by 5% doesn’t mean much if everyone starves to death in the third year because of a tail-risk that wasn’t mitigated. Moreover, for most of these farmers, working harder and farming more generally doesn’t offer a route out of the small farming class – these societies typically lack that kind of mobility (and also generally lack the massive wealth-creation potential of industrial power which powers that kind of mobility). Consequently, there is little gain to taking risks and much to lose. So as we’ll see, these farmers generally sacrifice efficiency for greater margins of safety, every time.

Avoiding risk for these farmers comes in two main forms: there are strategies to reduce the risk of failure within the annual cycle and then strategies to prepare for failure by ‘banking’ the gains of a good cycle against the losses of a bad cycle.

Via Wikipedia, the plan for a ‘typical’ medieval manor. There’s a lot going on here (and this is a big farm with tenants, rather than a village with free-holding farmers, though note the village in the bottom center – that’s where the actual farm workers live), but what I want to focus on are the many small, narrow plots of land which would have been allotted to different families, so that each family had a little chunk of each ‘zone’ of the farmland.

Let’s start with the first sort of risk mitigation: reducing the risk of failure. We can actually detect a lot of these strategies by looking for deviations in farming patterns from obvious efficiency. Modern farms are built for efficiency – they typically focus on a single major crop (whatever brings the best returns for the land and market situation) because focusing on a single crop lets you maximize the value of equipment and minimize other costs. They rely on other businesses to provide everything else. Such farms tend to be geographically concentrated – all the fields together – to minimize transit time.

Subsistence farmers generally do not do this. Remember, the goal is not to maximize profit, but to avoid family destruction through starvation. If you only farm one crop (the ‘best’ one) and you get too little rain or too much, or the temperature is wrong – that crop fails and the family starves. But if you farm several different crops, that mitigates the risk of any particular crop failing due to climate conditions, or blight (for the Romans, the standard combination seems to have been a mix of wheat, barley and beans, often with grapes or olives besides; there might also be a small garden space. Orchards might double as grazing-space for a small herd of animals, like pigs). By switching up crops like this and farming a bit of everything, the family is less profitable (and less engaged with markets, more on that in a bit), but much safer because the climate conditions that cause one crop to fail may not impact the others. A good example is actually wheat and barley – wheat is more nutritious and more valuable, but barley is more resistant to bad weather and dry-spells; if the rains don’t come, the wheat might be devastated, but the barley should make it and the family survives. On the flip side, if it rains too much, well the barley is likely to be on high-ground (because it likes the drier ground up there anyway) and so survives; that’d make for a hard year for the family, but a survivable one.

Likewise – as that example implies – our small farmers want to spread out their plots. And indeed, when you look at land-use maps of villages of subsistence farmers, what you often find is that each household farms many small plots which are geographically distributed (this is somewhat less true of the Romans, by the by). Farming, especially in the Mediterranean (but more generally as well) is very much a matter of micro-climates, especially when it comes to rainfall and moisture conditions (something that is less true on the vast flat of the American Great Plains, by the by). It is frequently the case that this side of the hill is dry while that side of the hill gets plenty of rain in a year and so on. Consequently, spreading plots out so that each family has say, a little bit of the valley, a little bit of the flat ground, a little bit of the hilly area, and so on shields each family from catastrophe is one of those micro-climates should completely fail (say, the valley floods, or the rain doesn’t fall and the hills are too dry for anything to grow).

Maps from W. Lee, “Pylos Regional Archaeological Project, Part IV: Change and the Human Landscape in a Modern Greek Village in Messenia” Hesperia 70.1 (2001): 49-98. The paths are connecting fields (especially orchards in this region) along with linking up to other local villages. The intensity of the roads in the NE of the map is because this is where most of Maryeli’s village territory is (check out the cited article for a map of the boundaries between Maryeli and neighboring villages). Note how the complexity of the paths signals the non-regular field divisions.

All of this serves to make our farmers less efficient. More travel time to spread out plots means less labor time (and as we’ll see next week, labor is a key input, even on small farms), while splitting between different crops squanders some of any comparative advantage a region may have in any particular crop and prevents efficiencies of scale within the household besides. But, the attentive reader may ask, why not compensate against risk by farming efficiently and then banking the good years to cover the bad years?

Banking the Yields

Of course our pre-modern subsistence farmers do not have access to modern banking systems or really any banking systems. Now debt-lenders exist in many of these societies – quite a lot of them. We even see joint-venture capitalized lending operations (read: banks) in more economically complex ancient societies. But what you do not have is a savings account, which is what our farmers could really use: a place to safely store the value of the good years, against the threat of the bad years (although, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment, money itself is not a perfect vehicle for this). And saving accounts like that simply do not exist for our farmers. More to the point, a government that can mint or print money and is willing to vouchsafe savings accounts does not exist – modern banking didn’t help poor farmers in the crash of 1929 because all of their banks went under (thus, in the United States, the later institution of the FDIC). So savings accounts don’t exist and even if they did exist they wouldn’t work for our farmers who couldn’t count on the bank to still be solvent in a bad year.

Via wikipedia, a late 19th century Italian map which still shows the patterns of Roman Centuriation – the Roman habit of dividing agricultural areas (particularly newly conquered or colonized ones) into neat, equal rectangular plots, especially for veteran settlement. This is unusual in the pre-modern world and in some parts of Europe (especially in parts of Northern Italy), you can still see the impact of Roman centuration on field-divisions and roads from the air.

Why not store the yield itself? The short answer is that our farmers are doing this, to a degree, all the time. After all, the harvest comes in once a year, but must be eaten all year, which demands storage; moreover, some of the harvest must be kept for seed in the following year. But in terms of banking yields against future bad harvests, we run into storage problems. The first is storage space. Grain is a bulk commodity, after all. In my own research, I’ve done some calculations working out the food requirements for a Roman family of five to around 200 modii (a Roman unit of grain measurement by volume) of grain, which comes to 1,746 liters (1.74 cubic meters); once you’ve divided that into containers and put it on shelves, it’s enough to fill a small cellar. Doubling that storage capacity is a significant capital improvement – of course granaries existed in the ancient world, but they tended to serve communities and weren’t designed for storage over multiple years.

But while the storage problems could be surmounted with difficulty, spoilage problems largely cannot. Estimating how long grain can be stored is tricky – much depends on conditions and the rate of loss (called spoilage) is not linear, but rather accelerates over time. In practice, for the first year of storage, assuming the grain is stored in a cool, dry space not exposed to sunlight or accessible to other animals, the spoilage rate is acceptably low. But the longer that grain is stored the more pests and the spoilage process multiplies and accelerates. That puts a cap on how long the grain can be stored under the sort of conditions a pre-modern society could provide; much beyond a year, the usability of the grain was at best a question mark. Attempting to store that much of a surplus over multiple years would be a wasteful non-starter.

Ok, so why not sell the grain and store something less perishable, like money? Sure, you can’t put it in a bank, but you can just keep it. And indeed, our ancients do this – remember the Penates, who guard the family’s storeroom (fun aside: the actual box or basket the family’s valuables were kept in was known by the Romans as the fiscus from where we get our word fiscal; in the first century it came to mean a part of the imperial treasury). But money shares a problem with grain: it can be stolen. While we have mostly focused on the threat of bad harvests, that’s not the only risk farmers are trying to insulate against. Villages might be vulnerable to bandits. Little different, armies moving over the countryside are likely to seize whatever grain (or funds!) they need. And subsistence farmers are generally powerless before state extraction too: money can be taxed – often extortionately so. In short, the very portability of money is a potential detriment here.

Money also has one problem that grain does not, which is bound up in the way prices work in agricultural societies. The risks the farming family most wants to insulate themselves against, whether caused by war or harvest failure, are risks that involve a contracting food supply. The thing is, as the food supply contracts, the price of food rises and the ability to buy it with money shrinks (often accelerated by food hoarding by the wealthy cities, which are often in a position to back that up with force as the administrative centers of states). Consequently, for the family, money is likely to become useless the moment it is needed most. So while keeping some cash around against an emergency (or simply for market transactions – more on that later) might be a good idea, keeping nearly a year’s worth of expenses to make it through a bad harvest was not practical.

So how is a farmer to use good years as a way to cushion bad years?

Banqueting the Yields

The answer was often to invest in relationships rather than in money. There are two key categories here: horizontal relationships (with other subsistence farmers) and vertical relationships (with wealthy large landowners). We’ll finish out this section dealing with the former and turn to the many impacts of the large landowners next week.

The most immediate of these are the horizontal relationships: friends, family, marriage ties and neighbors. While some high-risk disasters are likely to strike an entire village at once (like a large raid or a general drought), most of the disasters that might befall one farming family (an essential worker being conscripted, harvest failure, robbery and so on) would just strike that one household. So farmers tended to build these reciprocal relationships with each other: I help you when things are bad for you, so you help me when things are bad for me. But those relationships don’t stop merely when there is a disaster, because – for the relationship to work – both parties need to spend the good times signalling their commitment to the relationship, so that they can trust that the social safety net will be there when they need it.

So what do our farmers do during a good harvest to prepare for a bad one? They banquet their neighbors, contribute to village festivals, marry off their sons and daughters with the best dowry they can manage, and try to pay back any favors they called in from friends recently. I stress these not merely because they are survival strategies (though they are) but because these sorts of activities end up (along with market days and the seasonal cycles) defining a great deal of life in these villages. But these events also built that social capital which can be ‘cashed out’ in an emergency. And they are a good survival strategy. Grain rots and money can be stolen, but your neighbor is far likelier to still be your neighbor in a year, especially because these relationships are (if maintained) almost always heritable and apply to entire households rather than individuals, making them able to endure deaths and the cycles of generations.

So this strategy of banqueting your neighbor in the good times is essential for our subsistence farmer to survive the unpredictability of agricultural life. But it has some other impacts too. These networks of relationships can – and do – absolutely save these households in a crisis, but they also diffuse capital. This phenomenon is not, by the way, restricted to ancient farmers, but is a well documented pattern among individuals with limited access to financial capital in modern societies. We’ll deal more with farming capital next week, but I want to note this impact now, because it will help explain some things then.


Now there is a lot to unpack here and so much more we could go into. We’re going to deal with the mechanics of farming and how the Big Farmers – the large estate holders – fit in later in this series (and don’t worry, that will bring us back to our subsistence farmers, who are really the stars of our show here). But I want to close out this section by noting one major non-obvious effect of all of this.

There is a ton of food in this countryside (nearly everyone is producing it) but hardly any surplus. There are a number of factors that lead to this outcome. First, our small farmers aren’t producing for maximum efficiency, but for minimum risk (spread out fields, multi-crop strategies) which lowers total production compared to monocropping the most calorie or market-efficient crop. Second, our farming families – lacking effective birth control – tend to grow to the size their farm will support. If the option is available, they may then fission (or members may go to cities in search of jobs), but they’re not likely to do this until the family is decidedly too large for the farm. People like family and families tend to stick together, after all (and leaving that carefully constructed safety net of social capital without much in the way of financial resources or legal protection is terrifying, as you may imagine). Finally, when our farmers do have a surplus, rather than investing it into capital improvements, they’re likely to rapidly spend it on restoring their social capital safety net by gifting it to their neighbors in the forms of marriage dowries, banquets, bailing out a friend in trouble and so on.

Medieval European serfs harvesting grain, c. 1310.

And finally, just to point out the obvious: farming labor is hard. It is back-breaking, uncomfortable stuff. And for these small farmers for whom upward social mobility is often very literally impossible (often prevented as a matter of law and custom, but also – as we’ll get to next week and after – made very difficult by economic and social structures), there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to aim higher than, as Paul Erdkamp puts it, “subsistence – and a little bit more.” Exactly how much more is subject to a lot of social variation though. We’ve met one cause already: the expected cost of maintaining those key social relations is going to be layered on top of subsistence and if that is higher, our farmers will aim higher to reach it in order to remain ‘respectable.’ That said, there is still an upper limit to this and our farmers aren’t likely to work past it. This isn’t because they are ‘lazy’ – the ‘lazy peasant’ (or poor worker generally) is a standard hypocrisy of the literature of the leisured aristocratic class towards poor farmers, today and in the past – but because they have priorities which are simply not served by labor maximization. For these families, the marginal value of working harder to produce a little bit more which they cannot eat and will likely be taken from them anyway is minimal; they focus on the goals they have. Why should these peasants break their backs so that leisured aristocrats can have more economic activity to tax? Remember: these people were poor, not stupid – they are not the same thing.

(You may note so far I have been blurring the line between money that can be spent and agriculture surplus which is not money. Don’t worry – we’ll start drawing that line with more distinction when we get to market interactions. For right now, a pile of wheat and a (much, much smaller) pile of shiny coins represent much the same thing: both accumulated value through labor but also a fungible commodity which can be spent.)

On the one hand, all of this makes the peasantry really resilient to all sorts of shocks, as they are already minimizing the impact of risk and then their social networks naturally tend to redistribute survival resources to heavily impacted households. On the other hand, imagine the situation from the perspective of a tax collector or a merchant looking to acquire surplus food from the countryside (the former by force, the latter by trade). There simply isn’t much surplus to acquire. Now we’ll see, when we get to market interaction, all of the ways that non-farmers, particularly that tax collector, use to try not just to extract surplus from these farmers but to try to force them to produce a surplus that can be extracted, but for now there isn’t much.

Consequently even in cases where farming yields (that is, seed-in to food-out or yield-by-land) seem high enough to produce a robust surplus, the very structure of the households of subsistence farmers will tend to consume and redistribute that surplus, trapping it in the countryside, leaving only a tiny fraction (something like 10% is a normal back-of-the-envelope estimate) for the cities of non-farmers.

We’ll see that problem compound a bit when we look at the distribution of farming capital – valuable things like land, animals, equipment and yes – manure. Next week, we’ll look at the role big farms play in the countryside.

197 thoughts on “Collections: Bread, How Did They Make It? Part I: Farmers!

  1. In Athens, your meal consisted of your drink, your bread, and your opsum — whatever else you had to eat. Bread and opsum were as fundamentally differently as both and drink.

    Courtesans and Fishcakes has some interesting stuff on that.

    1. My friend who grew up in the Philippines in the 90’s and early 2000’s says that people there still talk of eating rice and “ulam,” i.e. whatever else you have to put on top of the rice. (Typically, for his neighbors, it was fish and salt and maybe some veggies.)

      1. Similar in Korea as well. “Food” and “(cooked) rice” are the same word with “anju” being loosely like “ulam” traditionally if my understanding is correct.

      2. Japan is the same. Western patterns of food consumption are much more prevalent, but “gohan” means both meal and rice interchangeably (so breakfast is “morning rice”), and the meat or vegetables that supplement it are “okazu”, usually translated as “side dishes”.

        Historically, this could lead to “Edo disease” (now known as beri beri), because eating solely milled white rice (as poor city dwellers often did) causes vitamin deficiency and malnutrition.

        1. It was the Japanese Navy that proved it was a nutritional deficiency, by sending another ship with more varied rations on the same voyage as another and getting a lot fewer cases.

          Years later, the army still had beri-beri problems. Ah, interservice rivalry.

      3. When I was a kid (1980:s rural Sweden), “sovel” was already a pretty old-timey word, but Dad and his grandparents used it. It meant the part of a hot meal that wasn’t potatoes (or, alternatively, the stuff that wasn’t rice or pasta, if we had that instead of potatoes). You could always eat as many potatoes as you liked, but you couldn’t hog too much of the “sovel”.

    2. Always a fun read but he leans a little heavy on what I what I think is a bit outdated narrative.

      A tendency to compare the Ancient world to horrid diet of the lower class in 17-18th century Europe and make similar poor assumptions about stature based on limited but widely cited study’s from earlier in the 20th century [reflexively Angel who on re-examination appears to have understated height and also age of women].

      The the odd Socratic quote seems to show a heavy grain diet and the tiny bits of luxury opsum. But I think there is something missing is that this was very much the description of Symposiums. With all its many fold luxury – the Courtesans, the wheat bread, and almost certainly the sides were expensive ones. The figs no doubt the same prime grade ones that Athens exported all the way to SIdon and beyond.and not the average ones for example. Certainly Davis does lean a little heavy also on jokes to get the best fish as soon as possible. No doubt indeed a luxury.

      More recent work via bone analysis in Both Attica and Boeotia shows people who a pretty varied diet across a spectrum of graves poor to well off. Also its clear now that some of early publications on the rather famous inland fish market prices at a Hellenistic Boeotia made some serious mistakes. The price cheap fish at an inland town where it had hustled in for miles was well cheap. And that with the fact we are talking price limits.

      Also data from Eleuis shows common olives and figs were quite affordable in Attica as well as oil (auction prices so not some subsidized mandate). Also I pretty sure I came a cross an analysis of the diet of Roman mine workers based on records and the diet is varied (in Egypt and i think second century).

      Its also notable that recently there has been a bit of revolution in coinage history where it turns out if you actually look for small change (and by this I mean silver fractions so small you can fit more than couple on a US penny) in various ways instead of just focusing on the hoards of ‘staters’ you can find a lot of them and early. Thus from the outset coinage likely at least in the places where it adopted probably did free the small farmer household from complete closed self reliant system. Theft may be a problem but is for anything you have. Small jars of small coin are lot easier to hide than a rather large jar of olives. or oil or grain.

      I’m dealing be dealing with a dying storage HDD right now (or maybe some cables hope) so I am little short of being able to source. things but I will do some searching see if I can source my claims maybe by the weekend If resurrect my notes and links.

      1. Dr. Devereaux does indeed make it clear that these peasants’ food is being supplemented by vegetables, grapes, olives, animal products, or what have you.

        But a man working at hard labor in the fields needs a lot of daily calories, and the bulk of those calories are still coming from grain. It’s not that the farmers ONLY eat grain, or even “grain with a few sprigs of vegetables on top.” It’s that their diet consists of “grain plus ____,” with the grain being the crop that consumes the bulk of their time and labor, and in exchange provides the bulk of their sustenance.

        So it’s entirely possible for it to be true, simultaneously, that:

        1) The ancients ate a varied diet, AND
        2) The ancients ate a lot of grain and tended to view other foodstuffs as supplements to that grain.

        1. But thing brings us back to legumes often being planted 1-1 (in land area) with grains. If taxes were largely paid in grain, this suggests the peasant diet was more legume than not.

          And I recall that traditionally the Japanese peasant *didn’t* eat a lot of rice, because it was snatched up the social food chain. So it would seem that “rice is synonymous with meal” is either a later filtering down from elite attitudes when the population got richer, or that reality involved rather token portions of rice.

          I think similarly for wheat in Europe, though here there were lower status grains (barley, rye).

    3. Our ancestors were big on carbs. Of course they ate other things, quite a lot of other things but bread or other grain product was always a big part of a meal.

  2. I’m looking at the Plan of a Medieval Manor and not seeing much of a plan; all the plots are janky and cattywampus. Given how much of what would seem counterintuitive to us is actually a risk-minimization strategy, is this mess of plot allotment simply one of them?

    P.S. By all means, go on and on about pre-industrial logistics; I’m more interested in the machinery of society than “great” battles (which often aren’t even done correctly on-screen!).

    1. I think it might be due to the natural landscape, you’d generally grow along those lines and the contours of the hills.
      it was probably simpler to do this rather than enforcing strict uniform rectangles, besides plots where likely owned or alloted irregularily based on personal prestige rather than strict measurements.

      1. Speaking from experience, I’ve personally farmed land that has been in my family for centuries. The plots exactly follow the topography of the mountain or field where they lay and, like the article describes, the plots are all scattered around the land that surrounds the village so that every family gets a piece of every micro climate that is on offer. When viewed from the air, it does look chaotic and strange to our ideas of what farms “should” look like.

  3. There is an old computer game I love that I kept thinking of here, King Of Dragon Pass. The base game is running a small clan. At the start of the year you consult the omens and adjust your crop ratios. If the omens say the harvest will be bad, grow more rye, which is reliable, and less wheat, which is less so. If the omens say a good harvest is coming, more wheat and less rye.

    If you have a lot of food, your clan ring (council) will advise throwing a feast and inviting neighboring clans. There is also a system of favor trading where you can ask other clans for help, get asked for help, or give them a gift and have them promise you a future favor in return.

  4. Thank you again, I enjoyed reading this.

    One of the things I like about this is it explains where the “young man off to seek his fortune” in folk tales comes from.

    This also reminds me of a question I wonder about. I have seen various stories about how if the harvest is really bad, once the winter sets in old people may announce they are “going hunting” as a pretext when they are actually going out to die in the snow somewhere so there will be more food for the rest. It makes a dramatic story element, but is this a thing that actually happened?

    (I’ve also heard stuff about on overpopulated islands people may take boats to go off “searching for new islands.”)

    1. Not quite the same thing, but as Icelandic soil eroded due to deforestation and poor farming practices there was a lot more fishing. Something that was relatively dangerous and some pretty desperate eating choices when it came to that seafood…

      1. Just adding to this, the pattern of expanding Norse settlement to more marginal areas (Iceland, Greenland, North Norway) in the climatic ‘good bit’ of the Early Middle Ages as the more fertile regions of settlement ( Scotland, Ireland, South Scandinavia) became over-populated, followed by the appalling population crash as the climate got worse again in the C14 is fascinating, but terrifying. Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ is a good starter.

        1. Iceland especially had some very nasty die-off since those problems were compounded by people not knowing how to farm light volcanic soil which lead to some pretty horrible erosion.

    2. Another point from folktales is that there are cultures where the youngest son does inherit — cultures where you marry relatively young, and the farms are all too small to support two families, the father’s and the oldest son’s. (And they were simultaneous. It was perfectly normal for a woman to be pregnant when marrying off her oldest child.)

      1. Ultimogeniture was a widespread custom among unfree peasants in medieval England, particularly in the south-east. It was known as the ‘Borough-English’ custom.

    3. Yes, it indeed happened. And it usually was not even limited to the older adults and elderly. Way too often it was children who were subjected to that. Two of my great grandfather sisters were literally ‘left in the forest’ to die because there was a famine.It happened in 1896 I think and both of them were less than 6 years old. Subsistence farming lifestyle is merciless sometimes.

      1. That’s where the so-called fairytale of “Hansel and Gretl” came from . . . cruel reality.

    4. I’ve heard similar stories about tough times in a wide variety of civilizations. The difference between “taking a risk that would be reckless if times weren’t so desperate” and “noble suicide by environmental hazard” is in how one frames the story rather than the actions taken, so it’s probably impossible to say for sure whether that’s something that happens often.

  5. You say at the end that about 10% of farm produce was available for cities. How much more was skimmed off by local elites etc.? I’m sure that this varied a lot from place to place but what sort of figure are we looking at?

    My dim memories of my undergrad Roman history class tell me that during certain periods Italy wasn’t taxed, just the provinces. Although I’m sure that that didn’t mean that peasants in Italy got to keep everything they produce what kind of social effects would that kind of lower taxation have?

    1. As a follow up to this point, I wonder if this percentage is where the tradition of tithing comes from?

      As a person who was raised in a Roman Catholic home, it always seemed strange to me that there seemed to be a fixed number that was preordained as the “right” number to give to the church, instead of what family could safely part with.

      1. Tithes and taxes are very different things. No-one (to a first approximation) wants to pay taxes.

        Tithes, at least in theory – I’m well aware that religious institutes have often turned into tax collectors in all but name – are voluntary. Via Slate Star Codex, some modern charitable organisations have done more or less scientific studies of how much people are willing to contribute on a regular basis. And they found that the level for most people was … 10 percent.

        1. I work in tax enforcement and you’d be surprised at how much of it involves reassuring people that they aren’t irresponsible/bad citizens/etc. by forgetting to withhold money from early 401K distributions (or whatever). There are an awful lot of people out there who might complain about paying taxes in some senses, but for whom it’s still really important deep down and get very bothered about the idea of not doing it. (Although, yes, there are obviously a bunch of assholes out there too.)

          People complain about paying taxes a lot, but it’s one of those complaints that’s as much cultural-cliche-expression as anything, along the lines of men claiming they always want sex, and people talking about how the post office always loses things (while at the same time using it to pay their most essential bills).

          1. There’s also a deliberately wide-spread misconception that “My taxes are too high because of those lazy welfare bums.” Most people don’t mind paying taxes, it’s the idea that they’re being cheated to benefit the undeserving that makes them mad.

      2. I think you’ll find that the tithing tradition goes back *much* further. According to scriptures, Abram voluntarily gave a tenth of everything he’d gained from a successful battle to the priest Melchizedek. Even if this reference is not an exact historical record, it certainly dates to earlier than the Catholic Church.

        1. I think Herodotus also says that the anti-Persian league of 480 BC promised to tithe the property of medising Greek states to Apollo.

      3. As a person who was raised in a Roman Catholic home, it always seemed strange to me that there seemed to be a fixed number that was preordained as the “right” number to give to the church, instead of what family could safely part with.

        Part of the point of tithing is surely that you pay based on how much you earn, not some fixed amount. So if you’ve experienced a bad year, the amount you actually have to pay will be less in proportion to the diminution in your income.

  6. Regardless of the literal truth or otherwise of the story, what do you think of the Biblical story of Joseph in Egpyt predicting seven plentiful years followed by seven lean years, which was successfully mitigated by storing the surplus from the plentiful years? You’ve stated (reasonably) that long-term storage of grain was difficult; what sort of effort would be required to store enough food to survive seven years of famine, providing enough both to feed the people and to have surplus to sell abroad?

    1. Not sure about other places but in Korea dried fish was traditionally insurance against famine since it kept for a looooooooong time. Houses would always have rows of dried fish on the walls and you would know it was a bad year when the rows of dried fish got short.

    2. It’s been a long time since I read the Biblical story, so this may contradict it, but for this general sort of situation I always figured that it was a stock rotation thing. The big assumption here is that even lean years produce a fairly large amount of food, just less than enough to feed everyone given the thin margins. Let’s say 90% of whats needed avoid starvation. Under this strategy you always eat all of the food you saved from last year, but use the fact that you had a source of food other than this years harvest to put food into long term storage even in lean years. This requires a good bit of discipline and capital investment in storage capacity (hence the importance of having both a prophet and a pharoah on board), but is a lot more viable than trying to store grain for 14 or even 7 years.

      1. Yeah, that sounds right, given that this would have been a Bronze/Iron Age command economy.

        Year 1: Farm during good year, heavily tax peasantry, stick grain in very dry storage warehouses in the desert.

        Year 2: Farm during good year, tax peasantry mercilessly. Take the Year 1 grain out of storage and give it back to the peasants to eat so they don’t starve from being taxed so heavily.

        Years 3-7: Repeat the process. In year N, peasants eat a little of the Year N grain, plus all the Year N-1 grain. Most of the year N grain goes into the storehouses to be eaten in Year N+1.

        If all seven years are good, then you will have a steadily increasing surplus of grain in the storehouses, and no individual grain sack will be more than 1-2 years old at the end of the process. Granted, the maximum amount of grain you can stockpile in this way is only equal to one or two entire annual harvests, *but* that’s still a lot of food to have available in Year 8, when the harvest is bad.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if this was actually just normal practice for these societies to a large extent- the grain tax on the farmers is very heavy but this also serves the functional purpose of “averaging” yields much more efficiently society-wide than any of the farmers could do for themselves. In a good year, more grain goes into the granary than out; in a bad year, the reverse is true. But there aren’t jars of ten year old grain left sitting on the shelves unless someone screws up the inventory management.

        The trick in such a system is to keep the pharaoh from stopping in Year 4, going “hey, my granary’s doing pretty well so I can afford to feed a hundred thousand temp workers to build a new temple complex, so let’s divert some of the grain to that purpose.” *THAT* is when it’s helpful to have a prophet going “nuh-uh, we need to keep building up the grain storage because when the next famine hits it’s going to be a *BIG* famine.”

    3. I was thinking of the Joseph story too. I remember one movie adaptation where when Joseph tells Pharaoh how to avoid the coming famine, and Pharaoh protests that storing seven years of grain is impossible. When Joseph insists it’s the only way, Pharaoh says, “Nothing like this has ever been attempted!” with a bewildered/horrified expression on his face.

        1. The Turner Home Entertainment’s “Joseph” is really good adaptation that humanizes pretty much everybody. If you like scripture movies that’s a good one.

  7. Very interesting, but remember, Grain is Fascist!
    Joking, inspired by Against the Grain, but having mentioned that and the tax collector, will you be writing on why people are cultivating grain in the first place and how the authority in place uses what it can to make sure they keep producing grain so they can tax it?

    1. Well people cultivated grain because it gives you a lot more calories per unit of labor than any other crop (except for potatoes which are ludicrously efficient). If they didn’t farm a lot of grain they’d have problems feeding themselves.

      Of course herding also can bring in a lot of calories but that needs a LOT of land, more than most peasants had but then it could be done on more marginal land.

      A lot of vegetables don’t need so much land but are more labor intensive so not a good idea offarm ONLY them unless you’re right next to a city and can get a good price for them and then buy grain.

      Rice has very high yields per unit of land, but then requires a lot of labor which has affected Asian demographics.

      1. Studies of garden agriculture in New Guinea, Madagascar and other tropical places show very high yields for fairly low labour input – so much so that a lot of food is put on display (wasted), or land left unused because simply not needed. Grains have the advantage of being storable and relatively transportable, and so can support more complex societies.

        BTW, reliance on grain developed very slowly. Forager societies’ practices can select wild grasses for heavier seed heads, lighter husks and higher yields over centuries, which gradually morphs into more reliance on grains and then into proto-agriculture.

  8. Fascinating post! It’s particularly interesting to see the trade-off between productivity and safety in the way the farmers split themselves between different crops and plots.

    On the one hand it could be that states “improving” efficiency might just have been compelling farmers to accept more insecurity, rather than introducing innovations that make things actually better.

    On the other hand it seems that a state where farmers had larger and more uniform plots could potentially pool risk by reallocating resources across the population if one crop fails, but still allow greater productivity overall.

    Not sure what happened in practice…

    1. There’s only so much that social bonds can do. Witness the effect of Communism on agriculture.

      1. Stalinist plans simultaneously attempted to destroy already existing social capital and create new social capital from scratch by top down fiat: the second process had unsurprisingly limited success.
        Kibbutzes in Israel were I think less top down and more successful until caught up in the wider market economy.

        1. I suspect the main problem for the kibbutzim was generational. What worked for a first generation of volunteers didn’t necessarily work for less enthused offspring.

          1. Oops! Yes, that’s what I wrote before I saw you’d already responded.

        2. Knowing someone who was a second generation kibbutz “survivor,” I’d have to say that they only succeeded while they consisted of a committed first generation raising its families. Once some of those children became adults, the whole system started to break down.

      2. Communism does seem to work a little better when it’s from the bottom up rather than from the top down; i.e. a communities working together for the betterment of all rather than Statism. Early Christian communities were sometimes “communist” in that way before the Roman Government took over and made Christianity the state religion.

        1. There have always been Communist groups in Christianity, though they often needed reform. They operated by having members join as adults, and never marry.

    2. “Reallocating resources” needs good transportation of bulk goods, meaning coastal settlements (but being right on the coast raises storm risk), navigable rivers, or lots of investment in canals.

      1. Not necessarily: you could do it within the territory of a single village, for example.

        1. A single village will not have many resources to reallocate, especially since they face all the same issues most of the time.

          1. Surely the whole rationale behind having lots of small fields is that they *don’t* “face all the same issues most of the time”. You have some fields in the valley and some on the hills, so that if there’s a drought the crops on the hills might die but those in the valley will survive, and vice versa if there’s a flood. I took Theophile to be suggesting that farms could be consolidated, and in drought years the valley farmers would help out the hill farmers, and in flood years the hill farmers would help out the valley farmers. Assuming you could get the farmers to help each other out to this degree (and maybe you can’t, or at least can’t without great difficulty — presumably there’s a good reason why the “lots of small farms” model won out), you could get some (small, but probably not negligible) benefits to efficiency, whilst still being able to spread risk across the village as a whole.

          2. (I’m the same person who commented yesterday, BTW, WordPress just shows a different version of my handle depending on whether I post from my PC or my tablet.)

        2. You can reallocate within a single village provided the issue is sufficiently small, as Bret described.
          A lot of issues will clobber everyone: eg an invading army that steals ninety percent or more of the grain and livestock won’t leave enough resources for the majority to survive no matter how they share.
          Our modern industrialised societies can send assistance over long distances and at great speed. Australia routinely sends food aid to countries in Africa and Asia for example. That’s because of our mechanised transport and food storage technology. Way, way, more difficult for pre-industrial societies to do even at local scale.

          1. A lot of issues will clobber everyone: eg an invading army that steals ninety percent or more of the grain and livestock won’t leave enough resources for the majority to survive no matter how they share.

            Sure, but that was a problem anyway, so doesn’t represent an advantage for the “lots of scattered plots for everyone” model over the “consolidate plots, share resources more within the village” model.

          2. theoriginalmrx wrote (for some reason no reply button):
            > Sure, but that was a problem anyway, so doesn’t represent an advantage for
            > the “lots of scattered plots for everyone” model over the “consolidate plots,
            > share resources more within the village” model.

            Because scattering the small plots *does* provide some insurance against smaller problems. The farmers can’t be perfectly safe against everything, they know that. They’re focusing on risk avoidance, and this is something they can do. As Bret explained, being more productive than necessary isn’t as advantageous to subsistence farmers as being more likely to survive small problems.

    3. You may be interested in [Seeing Like a State](, which goes into the attempts by various industrializing nations to “rationalize” agriculture. It usually went terribly, in large part because the American Midwest, where a lot of the research on agricultural techniques is/was done, is rather unique (as Bret pointed out) in ways that are amenable to the relatively simple schemes of the turn of the century rationalists. He documents both their humanitarian and state-building reasons for attempting this project. The examples I remember atm are Tanzania and Soviet Russia.

      It also talks about Prussian forestry, French and Brazillian city planning, quaker prison design, and other early attempts to apply scientific methods to humans and ecosystems. Turns out, complex systems are really hard.

    4. The Bronze Age Near East seems to have featured societies that were to a large extent command economies, with large amounts of the grain produced by subsistence farmers being taken into and out of centralized granaries under the control of the temples, the kings, or the pharoahs in Egypt.

      This could, in practice, serve as a way to modulate production and reallocate resources as you describe. The problem is that such a system is very bureaucratically complicated; such systems didn’t bounce back quickly or gracefully after the Bronze Age Collapse.

  9. This is really interesting and will be go-to for whenever I need to point people towards an introduction of the subject.

    The bit about fragmented land ownership to mitigate risk, at the cost of efficiency, suddenly makes a whole lot of sense. I have to wonder about the flipside of that pattern, especially in wet-rice societies like southeastern China. Wet-rice farming is very labor-intensive and doesn’t leave much room to grow anything else, but has incredible yields per acre compared to other options; this encourages monocropping with all the scaling benefits that entails, which explains the sheer population and wealthiness of pre-industrial Chinese societies…but it also means relatively little ability to mitigate the risk of disasters, natural or otherwise.

  10. Great post. It does leave me with one question though (for now, anyway). I’m hardly an expert on classical and archaic Greece, but I have done some reading and one concept I always come across is “Xenia”, or guest-friendship. That certainly seems to be an outgrowth of the lateral social support structure you mentioned, except of course the stories that feature this all seem to focus on warrior aristocracy. They might have some overlap with the richer sort of farming families, but it very much seems like a similar interaction in a very different social class.

    Do you have anything you can recommend to illustrate how these interactions might or might not be related?

  11. Related to your point about peasants spreading their plots, when a field was inherited by two or more children in my grandfather’s village it was almost always divided longitudinally, so that everyone would get the same mix of soil. Part of the fortune of my great-great-great-grandfather was a plot of land 15 metres wide that went from one village border to the opposite one, maybe 5 km or more. At the beginning of the 20th century the village had grown and the central part of this strip was divided into housing plots for the children so that even today there are seven or eight related families that live on a line, front to front and garden to garden.

  12. Thank you Brett, this article was brilliant, and I wish i had read it, or something similar, at the start of my (long-ago) studies as a historian.

    I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series!

  13. Coming from a background of Greek mythology and of RPG treatments of pantheons, it used to seem strange to me that the Egyptians had an important goddess of cats of all things. Then someone pointed out than in a society built around a high-yield annual grain harvest mice constitute a serious problem.

    1. Oh, yes. The evidence is that cats domesticated themselves because — LOTS OF FOOD! But you do have to put up with the other cats and the two-legged ones.

      1. Cats domesticated US and don’t you forget it!
        It started with; what’re this little wildcats doing around the granary? Leave them alone! They’re killing the mice and rats.
        Next thing you know; what is that cat doing in the house? Leave it alone! It’s not hurting anything!

  14. Great post. This really reflects with my own experience visiting my fathers country of origin,where most farmworker was done manually, even simple plough tractors were uncommon untill the 1980s. My family were basically subsistence farmers in northern Punjab until 2 generations ago.

    They have small plots of land scattered around the village. The land closest to the village is the most expensive and productive, the water table being closest to the surface. Its here were more prosperous farmers have ‘Wells’. Great oxen drawn wells to irrigate the predominantly orchards or more valuable crop. And these have only recently been motorised in the last 30 years or so.

    Further afield theres more arid land, difficult to work and predominantly wheat crop. When the lands are divided between heirs everyone wants there share of the better land closer to the village for crops but also to build houses for an extending family. This is why people end up with small plots of scattered land.
    Regarding women and farmyard labour,they did the bulk of looking after livestock, milking cows, and making butter, chopping firewood, hauling water from wells, cleaning and storing grain, legumes and other crops, on top of all other household tasks.

    I understand their values and culture in terms of social ties and generosity better when seen through the lens of risk management. Neighbourly bonds are sacred and also extremely rewarding. Women finish their chores and go to visit with neighbours or sit in the doorways while working and talking to each other. These social bonds bring a lot of joy to difficult lives.

    Adding a question to Bret here. How will farms and society change in fantasy setting such as Tolkiens Numenor, where generational risk is decreased due to long lives? Looking at the royal family tree, there seems to be a 10 year age gap between children. Yhis coupled with longer healthier lives means there will mostly be more adult workers to dependents. Effectively stretching out considerably the low risk part of generational risk. Possibly a reason why numenor became so wealthy and powerful. I’d love a post on this topic.

    1. Very long lives (200+ years for ordinary Numenoreans, 400 for the royal family.) No disease. No old age, at least in the good days — you’d have a long run, then give up the ghost when you felt your time come, like Aragorn in Appendix A. Low birth rates. Divinely benign weather, especially for ships — Numenorean ships simply didn’t fear storms. Based on location should be subtropical if not tropical, though his description of the northern part sounds decidedly ‘temperate’, with fir and larch trees.

      Plus unspecified magical ‘high tech’. The refugees of early Gondor could create seamless unbreakable stone (Orthanc, walls of Minas Tirith — super concrete?) and capture moonlight in the walls of Minas Ithil. Faramir gave Sam and Frodo walking staves with a ‘virtue’ of finding and returning, and the healers of Gondor could cure anything but old age. (And the Great Plague, or else there weren’t enough healers to go around.)

      At least Tolkien talks about Numenor’s food, as he did for human/hobbit populations: fishing, grain, sheep. With elves we’re in “non-commital shrug” territory.

      1. Yes we know a fair bit about the food practises and other peacetime customs of Numenor, thanks to the The Mariners Wife tale. That’s why it would be an interesting idea for a post to extrapolate how the common people lived and worked.
        On a side note, I can never find a fanfiction that portrays numenor or even the long lived Gondorians as anything other than typical fantasy fiction esque medieval era peasants which is disappointing.

        1. Chapter before Aldarion and Erendis is “A DESCRIPTION OF THE ISLAND OF NÚMENOR” with lots of infodump details, including beast telepathy:

          > it is said in old tales that where there was great love between men and women and their favourite steeds they could be summoned at need by thought alone.

      2. I was more concerned with the population issues, especially in middle earth. The shire alone has a high birth rate, if the family trees are to be believed. With a lack of war, pestilence and famine – and no shortage of land in the North, a founder population of 10,000 hobbits with a fertility rate of 2.4 will becomes nearly 1 million after 1000 years (40 year generations). Given the timelines of the LOTR, it should be standing room only by the end of the 3rd age.

        1. That’s always bugged me. Eriador seems to have at least reasonably fertile soil and a temperate climate, but it’s almost completely depopulated (in Book I, the hobbits don’t encounter any settlement between Bree and Rivendell), and apparently has been for several centuries, since the fall of Arnor. Even as a kid I wondered why people didn’t just move in to take up the available space. I mean, the Wildlings get driven out of Rohan, and then just spend the next five centuries sitting in the mountains feeling bitter, when there’s a huge stretch of fertile, temperate, uninhabited land to their north? Come on!

          And of course, that’s not taking into account the fact that Hobbits, Dwarves, and Men of Numenor all seem to have very long lifespans even compared to modern people, which ought to make their population grow even faster.

          1. Well, Dunland didn’t seem overpopulated itself, and there’s the whole of Minhiriath and Enedwaith; the Dunlendings weren’t “stuck in mountains”.

            But yeah, Middle-earth is full of large demographic voids in a way that hasn’t been true on Earth for at least 13,000 years apart from the occasional island. Closest would be the Americas in between the arrival of plague and arrival of bulk European colonists.

            Middle-earth had the Great Plague, but that was a while back; it also has genocidal raiders, which might account for picking off small settlements in Eriador, but doesn’t seem to have slowed down the Shire.

            Dwarves and Numenoreans at least explicitly have low birth rates; dwarves have a bizarre design where 2/3 of them are male. Hobbts, though…

            Some fans think Sauron was keeping the western fertility rate down; partly supported by the boom after his fall, though Galadriel’s dust can explain the Shire baby boom too.

          2. dwarves have a bizarre design where 2/3 of them are male.

            I guess there was a good reason why Eru didn’t want Aule designing Middle Earth’s creatures.

          3. Regarding population size theres a easily missed section in the Kings or Arnor section of the appendix where it says the climate became colder and more hostile. To me the idea seemed inspired by the littlenice age of Europe where scotlands population decreased by half.

            Also I suspect the population is simply more concentrated in certain defensible or hidden areas. The Dunedain may have a sizable hidden population, after all I doublt they are wandering around protecting prosperous areas like Bree while their own families are in decline and poverty. Aragorn has to revive the Kingdom with something after all. In the vale of Anduin overpopulation plus Dol Goldur are causing issues.

          4. Even during the height of the Little Ice Age, though, Europe was never anywhere near as depopulated as Eriador seems to be. Even on the main east-west road, there don’t seem to be any permanent settlements between Bree and Rivendell. And since it’s mentioned either in The Hobbit or TLOTR that snowfall in the Shire is a rare occurrence, it seems that the region’s temperature is back to normal again by the end of the Third Age.

            About the only half-way plausible explanation I can think of is that the Dunedain adopted some sort of nomadism after the fall of Arnor, so the land is at much less than its maximum carrying capacity. In such circumstances, of course, we’d normally expect to see friction as the Shirefolk and Breelanders sought to ease overpopulation problems by occupying land currently roamed by the Dunedain, but since both societies are pretty demilitarised maybe they just choose not to risk it.

      3. He barely mentioned what the Dwarves ate. There’s one brief handwave in The Hobbit where Thorin says that the humans living near Erebor paid them so handsomely in food supplies for their handiwork and for apprenticeships for their sons that they never bothered to grow or find any for themselves. What Dwarves did for food in Moria, or what food they grew or ‘found’ in Erebor before it became so rich, he doesn’t say.

        1. “Of Dwarves and Men” says the symbiosis with humans goes back to the Second Age, which doesn’t answer all the questions.

          The Petty-dwarf Mim digs up “earth bread” which is some sort of root/tuber like potatoes, though he seems to be foraging.

          I like to imagine that Aule planted his dwarf-fathers along with potatoes and that you see lots of Andes-style potato terraces on dwarf mountains but that’s purely my ideas.

          Balin’s little colony certainly didn’t have anyone in trading distance of Moria. Well, Lorien, but I don’t think so!

    2. Neighbourly bonds are sacred and also extremely rewarding. Women finish their chores and go to visit with neighbours or sit in the doorways while working and talking to each other. These social bonds bring a lot of joy to difficult lives.

      Reminds me of a case I heard of where an NGO tried digging a well for an African village, so that the women wouldn’t have to make the several-mile round trip to fetch water from the river every day. When they came back a few months later, they discovered that their nice new well was virtually abandoned. It turned out that, for the women of the village, going to and from the river was the social highlight of their day, giving them an opportunity to catch up with all their girlfriends.

      1. Can’t remember the name of the movie, but it was used to illustrate the value of a female officer who could communicate with the local women in Afghanistan. The Americans built a well in the village so the women didn’t have to go all the way to the river for water. They came back and discovered the the well destroyed, and accused the local men of working with the Taliban. The men swore they knew nothing about it. Turns out the local women had done it, because the trips to get water from the river were the only time they could get out from under their husbands’ thumbs.

  15. I guess you didn’t feel like leaning too explicitly into the obvious point that modern efficiency-obsessed capitalism represents a massive economic strategy of forcing everyone on Earth to collectively abandon these effective risk-mitigation strategies all at once, with the implication that the coming “lean years” of e.g. global climate change are going to catastrophically negate all the benefits of capitalism’s vaunted extra efficiency and then some.

    1. Depending on how bad climate change gets, we might see people all over the world returning to subsistence farming and risk-mitigation strategies like the ones described in the article over the next hundred, two hundred years. At least in areas that still have arable land after everything’s said and done.

      1. No way that works. There’s too many people on Earth to even consider switching back to subsistence methods, it would require 95% of the world’s population to die off first before we dropped back to the pre-agrarian revolution’s carrying capacity. More likely humanity will have to double down on industrial farming, putting millions of acres under glass and managing water usage to the umpteenth degree.

    2. Well, in theory, we compensate by using welfare systems to spread risk across whole countries (and countries can borrow from each other). If done well, it would spread risk across the entire planet, only failing in the event of nuclear war or asteroid strike.

    3. Modern capitalism has entirely different risk-mitigation strategies in play. Global trade means that we balance the risk across the world for most commodities, and do so with a wide variety of different foodstuffs as well. If a crop fails in one place, it can likely be imported from somewhere else, or replaced by another foodstuff from somewhere else. Individual farmers have insurance and state-provided safety nets in place, at least in the most wealthy states, so they won’t starve either. For less wealthy countries, there are systems of international aid (both governmental and NGO) that attempt to avert starvation as well. We also have much better storage and preservation techniques, and a functioning, safe monetary system that generally doesn’t normally go into panic when farmers need to use it. We also have technological ways to counter a lot of common environmental failures (irrigation, fertilizers, scientific breeding and GMOs for hardier crops, etc, though those all cause their own issues when overused). All in all, for the last ~150 years of modern capitalism it’s done a pretty good job of mitigating risk on a global scale.

      Global climate issues are global. If we were facing the same issues on subsistence farming, we’d still have major widespread crop failures, we’d just have no way of harnessing whatever areas benefit from a warmer and wetter planet for areas that are no longer as productive. There wouldn’t be sufficient infrastructure to move any surplus, and little to no surplus to move. We have more risk that the non-agricultural failures caused by climate change and the like (flooding of coastal cities, disruptive migrations, conflicts, loss of resources, etc) will break the global supply chains that the modern agrarian system relies on than that the system itself collapsing under climate change.

      1. Well yeah, it’s definitely fair to say that the brittleness of modern global-scale supply chain logistics (on which pretty much all modern agricultural and industrial production depends) would be tested by any remotely serious world political crisis, whether or not it has anything to do with the geopolitical fallout from climate change, mainly because those logistics depend on the absolute supremacy of a military hegemon like the US capable of protecting shipping lanes around the world from any serious physical threat more substantial than, say, Somali pirates in rubber dinghies.

        Unless one wants to adopt a vulgar Fukuyamaist stance that US military hegemony is an eternal background condition of the modern world and could never possibly be overturned or even challenged, surely this only accentuates the point about modern capitalism sacrificing long- to medium-term risk aversion for short-term efficiency, no?

        1. I think the more basic point is that modern capitalist society is almost certainly, when you sum up its advantages and disadvantages as compared to the societies Bret is describing, more resilient and less fragile. It is definitely true that it has vulnerabilities and could collapse in the face of climate change or global political turmoil, but it also brings the capacity to access vast resources of cooperation and technology. U.S. military and economic hegemony is slowly imploding, but the powers that it is ceding that ground to (e.g. Europe and China) are no less interested in maintaining international supply lines, so I doubt the decline in the U.S. position will seriously endanger the economic system.

          Climate change may break our current civilization, or it may not, but climate change (the normal kind involving variation across centuries, not the current kind caused by CO2 emissions) has destroyed dozens if not hundreds of civilizations of the type that Bret describes here. The phenomenal productive power of our current mode gives us potential outs that were simply not available to subsistence farmers. We might fail to use the tools we have to access those outs (and the primacy we place on economic efficiency might be part of the reason for that failure, due to how it shapes our politics), but in the same circumstances the subsistence farmers probably would never have had a chance.

          1. It’s more resilient at the macro level (ability to move resources around to compensate for local shortfalls) – with the major caveat that the ability to do so does not mean the will to do so (see recurrent famines in Africa, or the Irish or Bengali experiences). The downside is that it erodes local control in favour of maximising exportable surplus, leading to lots of small environmental collapses. An example is the steady growth of larger and larger farms in the American mid-west, with larger fields, less windbreaks, more intensive fertiliser and pesticide application: more topsoil loss, dead zones in rivers and the Gulf, loss of habitat, loss of insect numbers. At present rates, Kansas will be trying to till rocks in a century or so – not that long as civilisations go. Cycles of land degradation, population decline, social decline, gradual recovery, are observable in the Mediterranean and China over several millennia.

  16. Very interesting, Bret. Thanks for writing out this series!

    Here’s a few proofreading corrections, if you’d like to make use of them:
    This bring us to the most > This brings us to the most
    barley is more resistance to bad > barley is more resistant to bad
    a government . . . do not exist – > a government . . . does not exist –
    designed to storage over multiple years > designed for storage over multiple years
    for the our subsistence farmer > for the? our? subsistence farmer (delete article or pronoun)
    – made very difficulty by > – made very difficult by
    but also a fungible commodity > but also werea fungible commodity

  17. “(Tullia being in her twilight years, we don’t count)”

    Not to dispute the main point (kids and elderly produce less than adults), but I think there is a lot more complexity to this. As I write this comment, I am visiting my grandmother-in-law and her daughter (aged 90 and 70-ish), still tending to part of the land that used to subsist the family in eastern Slovakia. And those two elderly women are able to create significant amount of agricultural output in the best vegetables, fruits and potatoes I’ve ever eaten (without any big mechanization and only a tad of chemistry).

    Similarly – from the stories of my grandparents – modern farmers had clever structures in place to make the best use of labor available from the elderly and kids (e.g. three year olds handling geese etc.) and I assume ancient farmers

    I guess you left those bits out for the sake of brevity – do we know something about the roles young and elderly had on pre-modern farms?

    P.S.: It is also cool to still see echoes of the ancient village social structure in action – a neighbour dropped by and gave us 10kg of oh-so-sweet and tasty apricots (which we spent a better part of the night turning into kompot and jam).

    1. Regarding a women ( and men ) in their twilight years they do a lot of childcare. As anyone with an infant knows someone to rock the baby, to talk and sing to a toddler is tremendous help.
      Traditionally in many places Grandma’s looked after babies while younger women the children’s mothers did heavier work.
      You can’t overlook this contribution. I’ve seen mothers of infants run haggard without this support.

      1. It’s been speculated that that is why men die younger- women are more valuable in caring for the next-next generation. Only five species of mammals go through menstruation- belugas, narwhals, pilot whales, orcas, and humans. Orca calves with grandmothers have been observed to survive better than others. It’s thought that the need to keep the young whale coming to the surface to breathe while the mother hunts for food (or just rests!) might be the reason.

      2. There are also loads of jobs like spinning – in any such society there would always be wool needing to be spun – or splitting reeds for baskets or peeling rushes for rushlights, that can be done sitting down and don’t require strength or even good eyesight, just decades of practice. And you can teach the little girls those skills and mind the baby at the same time! No, I agree with you: Tullia is worth her rations.

        1. Yes! And I don’t want to shortchange or undervalue these tasks. They’re just not the focus of this post.

          More on textile production (including spinning) in a future series. I promise!

          1. I’m eagerly looking forward to the textiles post. “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World” by Virginia Postrel is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to learn more about textile production over time.

  18. Another interesting point of comparison re: investing in relationships as a form of risk-mitigation is the (often counterintuitive by modern standards) logic of premodern interpersonal debt as described in David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the idea that being in constant cycles of loosely tabulated debtor/debtee relationships with your neighbors is a good and essential thing, because it gives them a consistent interest in helping make sure you stay solvent, sort of a smaller-scale equivalent of the old saw that “if you owe the bank $10,000 the bank owns you, if you owe the bank $10,000,000 you own the bank.”

    Coming from his background in anthropology, Graeber pulls out a number of anecdotes where confusion results from Western visitors receiving unsolicited favors and generosity from non-Western locals and assuming that the courteous thing to do would be to immediately try to “pay them back” in kind, without realizing that this style of direct short-term transactionalism often comes across as deeply antisocial, because it implies that you’re trying to “zero out the ledger” and thus negate any obligation to concern yourself with them or their well-being in the future.

    1. Study of the records of witchcraft trials in late Elizabethan England has shown a consistent pattern to the accusations: very commonly the person or persons accused were somewhat poorer neighbours of their accusers, who had in the past been accustomed to help them out but, because the old bonds were weakening with the modernisation of English agriculture,were no longer willing to do so. So Goody Thatcher goes to her better-off neighbours’ door and asks them to lend her their scythe or let her have some eggs, but this time they say no. She goes off very peeved and says some nasty things, because she feels it’s part of the whole traditional social deal that they ought to, and they feel uncomfortable because deep down they feel that way too. Next week the head of the household slices his leg with the scythe in question, or the best-laying hen dies, and straight away they jump to the conclusion that Goody Thatcher has ill-wished them.

  19. Fun fact: Polish Nobel-winning classic “The Peasants” (1904-1909) depicts the old woman of the family leaving the village for the lean months to beg in the city. Quite a comment for “minimizing risk”. So implicitly, this is not exactly ancient times.

    Fun fact 2: one of the Chinese emperors, quite socially-minded, tried to introduce state banks in place of indepentent money-lenders. Apparently his idea was to cut down on leeching on down-on-their-luck peasants that was all too common among the money lenders. He was opposed by the Confucian officials on the grounds of “it’s something new, if it was a good idea the Master would have recommended it”. Ultimately his plan failed due to this opposition.

    1. Generally trying to cut out the money-lenders discovers that those high-interest rates are the only way to avoid taking a bath. Pre-modern farmers are horrible risks.

    2. Generally, economic reforms in pre-modern China failed because of the fickleness of Imperial court, and the inherent conservationism of Confucian scholars. Any reform attempts were typically rolled back or reversed as soon as a new emperor took the throne, or a new faction gained his ear. The exception was the Song Dynasty, when they needed economic reform in order to survive.

    1. Scott’s influence looks to me to be pervasive on this blog. Isn’t the latter part of this post essentially what Scott’s Moral Economy of the Peasant was about?

  20. I just spent a few years in rural Zambia and this doesn’t seem too far off. There’s corn/maize/amataba instead of wheat and barley so you get nshima instead of bread every meal of the day but it otherwise seems pretty similar. My host family wasn’t too far from that size with a few family members coming from and returning to the city every once in a while.

    1. Is amataba another word for maize? Google was deeply unhelpful when I tried searching for that word.

      1. My apparently superior Google-fu leads me to understand that it is indeed. Specifically, it is the word for maize in Bemba, a Bantu language with about 4 million native speakers, most of them in north-eastern Zambia.

  21. This was very interesting and informative. A few things I had questions about:

    “[T]hese fairly small – 3-8 acres of so – farms with an extended family unit on it make up the vast majority of farming households and most of the rural population, even if they do not control most of the land”.
    If wealthy people with large estates owned most of the land, wouldn’t most of the rural population have been workers on these estates (probably slaves or serfs depending on the time period) rather than independent small farmers, or was the difference between the efficient and the maximum permanently supportable population big enough that there were more independent farmers just because they had much bigger families?

    The discussion of money and the risk of taxation, robbery, etc. makes it seem as though much of the problem was short-sighted decisions by the rulers, such as excessive and arbitrary taxes and lack of protection from theft, and if the rulers had kept taxes lower and predictable and aggressively tried to catch bandits and prevent invasion then farmers would have been incentivized to produce more of a surplus. Would this have worked? If so, was there some reason it wasn’t tried? For instance, preventing theft and invasion requires that all the rulers in an area work together, and that coordination problem would have been difficult to overcome. Historically, did farmers produce and sell greater surpluses in periods when a large area was ruled by a single stable state rather than a lot of smaller states that occasionally fought with each other? (Roman Italy between the Second Punic War and the Social War or between the reigns of Augustus and Marcus Aurelius seems like it might be a good example, especially because for much of its history Rome didn’t tax Italy.)

    1. Based on Walter Scheidel’s book, The Escape From Rome, that gives you a local optimum. You had situations like that during the Pax Romanum, or the stable periods of Chines Dynasties.
      But it was the high taxes, constant warfare and heavy state involvement in the economy that characterized the Fiscal-Military states of Early Modern Europe that allowed economic conditions to truly boom.

      1. Note the the heavy state involvement had to notice what worked and what didn’t, because if you meddled for the sake of it and worsened things, you had to roll it back, or another country would steal a march on you.

    2. More often then not, my impression is that pre-modern landowning elites tended to lease most of their estates to tenant farmers rather than operate more directly administered plantation/latifundia/agro-business type farming arrangements. tenant farmers could be free or unfree, but usually have managed their own small farms and paid rent or share-cropped outside a few particular exceptions.

  22. Possible typo: “so they do not serve their farmers, their farms serve the needs of their families.” I think that ‘farmers’ was meant to be ‘farms’.

  23. For an intimate and detailed look at how “subsistence” (family self-support) farming works and can continue to work today, see that classic of the 1970s self-sufficiency movement, John Seymour’s “The Fat of the Land”. Based on personal experience feeding a family from a small (5 acre as I recall!) Welsh farm, Seymour portrays the farm as an integrated system, with the animals fertilizing the soil that grows the fodder for the animals, and a wide variety of crops ensuring against total loss.

  24. Regarding Secundus,how easy was it in the pre-modern days for a country whelp to find his fortune in the city? Would he be relatively sure to find work as a crafting apprentice, household servant, or joining the military, or would he be expected to have some kind of pre-existing connection for one or more of those options?

    I’m also curious about pre-modern “crew” jobs, like mining, construction, sailing, etc. How were those organized, and how much upward mobility was there in those professions?

    1. As I recall from Plagues and Peoples cities couldn’t maintain their own populations before the last two centuries, because the greater concentration of people meant more disease. People could and did have and raise children in the cities, but statistically not enough to keep up with the death rate. So to maintain or grow their population, cities have always been importing people from the countryside.

      That said, I was listening to a lecture on early modern Britain, and they said that people moving to the city often had some kind of connection there.

      1. Very true. London’s baptism records show that it had the number of births you would expect for its percentage of the population. But its death rates were through the roof.

        One also notes that connections were a lot more extended before modern times. You might send your son off to your cousin’s nephew, for instance.

      2. Well, of course the people moving to the city had a connection there- there was a constant stream of people from the country moving to the city! The city-dwellers weren’t a discrete population demographically walled off from the countryside, so there were inevitably going to be a lot of people from the countryside who had a second cousin or a friend’s nephew already living there.

    2. A lot of migration traditionally is chain migration, so people going to a city where s family friend or a cousin or someone is and later being a link for new people. Probably a lot of chances to know someone in the city especially if seasonal labor is a thing.

      1. In Taiwan during the boom, a lot of the construction was done by aborigines from the villages in the mountains, who were hired through a network of family and friends. Would drive the labour contractors crazy, as they would all head home together for harvest season, fishing season, festivals, weddings, to build a family house etc.

  25. On sources, Pliny the Younger occasionally dips into agriculture related stuff – In book five, letter 6 of my penguin classics version, he goes into great detail about the country estate he owns, mostly detailing the house, but mentioning the farmland too. (And for some reason he mentions ‘myrtle’ and ‘laurel’ as if they were important agricultural things, too. Firewood? Cooking or medical properties???? I’m not clear why he thinks these worth mentioning.)
    In the UK we have a ‘snapshot’ of 11th century life in the shape of the ‘Domesday Book’, although I guess this is more geared towards feudal agriculture than subsistence farming.

    On geography, generally, as well as matters of possible ‘rain shadow’ hill slopes determine how much sun and of what sort a field on them gets when it comes to facing.

    On risk management, it’s still important today in some farming. I used to have relatives on the coast of East Anglia, and the local farmers, if they had any sense, always ploughed their fields along a particular axis, even if that was not the easiest way to do so. Then one year when we were visiting, some idiot had taken over a farm and ploughed their newly acquired fields along a different axis. Note that this was on the COAST of East Anglia. Along came heavy rain, and those fancy new ploughing grooves done perpendicular to the coast instead of parallel to it helped a sizeable portion of a field to disappear down towards the beach as a whopping great ravine developed.
    Plough it right or lose it when it rains, when you’re right next to the sea, at least on soft glacial deposits.

    1. Studies of garden agriculture in New Guinea, Madagascar and other tropical places show very high yields for fairly low labour input – so much so that a lot of food is put on display (wasted), or land left unused because simply not needed. Grains have the advantage of being storable and relatively transportable, and so can support more complex societies.

      BTW, reliance on grain developed very slowly. Forager societies’ practices can select wild grasses for heavier seed heads, lighter husks and higher yields over centuries, which gradually morphs into more reliance on grains and then into proto-agriculture.

    2. Coronal flowers, such as roses, were important agricultural products. Yes, they were luxuries, but by that token they carried a high price. Laurel and myrtle could also have been used for crowns of flowers.

  26. I’ll add that, from medieval history and time spent in Nepal, relations between households were crucial to managing village-wide resources – typically woods, but also water, fisheries and commons. There was an intricate network of rights and regulations that worked to keep these from being over-exploited, to the ruin of all.

  27. The part of this essay about relationships was excellent. It ought to be read by that segment of the American political class that complains about how poor people seem to buy an expensive phone before they’ve paid the light bill.

      1. Phones are how we maintain relationships now. Spend $500 on rent and you could be homeless next month. Spend $500 on a phone, and you can keep in touch with a network of friends, one of whom can probably put you up, another of whom wants to get rid of something you need… And if next month turns out OK, you invite them all over for a cookout.

          1. I’ve seen people complain about poor people having cell phones at all, as if they’re a disposable luxury in the modern day. The fact that you can get a phone, even a smartphone (especially used or old generation) cheaply doesn’t stop them. I’ve seen Americans complain about poor people having luxury at all, like a TV.

        1. Shops selling long-distance and cell phone minutes are everywhere in the poorer sections of the metropolitan area I live in. Apparently connectivity is highly prized.

    1. Which one?

      I tend to see more people complaining that people buy designer sneakers over paying their hospital bills.

      1. Urban poor tend to be government dependent and so spend whatever cash they have on luxuries rather than basics. This is not new, the Romans similarly subsidized an urban underclass that over time grew into a serious political threat to stable government as urban riots and unrest became common fueled by frustration and lack of opportunity.
        At least that’s what it looks like to me. Brett will no doubt set me straight 😁

        1. “Urban poor tend to be government dependent and so spend whatever cash they have on luxuries rather than basics.”

          That’s a baseless non-sequitur. If they’re dependent on government cash, they spend that cash *on basics*. Food, rent, utilities.

          “a serious political threat to stable government”

          I’m pretty sure having a massive army with no stake in the system was a much bigger threat to stable government.

          1. I’m pretty sure having a massive army with no stake in the system was a much bigger threat to stable government.

            During the Late Republic, the ability of political leaders to recruit gangs to assault/intimidate opponents was in fact a major threat to stable government. Absent a large underclass with no real prospects of advancing through lawful work, there would presumably have been fewer potential recruits for such gangs, and hence they’d be less of a problem.

            Even during the Empire, when Emperors were generally able to buy off the plebs with bread and circuses, the fact that they had to do so represented a significant item on the budget. I haven’t looked into how big a percentage of the imperial budget this represented, but given that the bigger games could involve thousands of gladiators, plus exotic animals, naval battles in artificial lakes, etc., I’m guessing it was pretty large. That’s money that couldn’t be spent on defending the Empire, infrastructure projects to boost the Empire’s long-term financial health, and so on.

          2. It certainly would have been but since pay comes from the government they had a stake in the system the problem was government turnover was profitable as the new emperor paid out cash to buy military support

          3. It is relevant to consider HOW the Roman Republic wound up with a large unemployed underclass living in the city of Rome. This didn’t ‘just happen.’

            Unless I am mistaken, it was a consequence of the way agricultural policy and the senatorial class’s land ownership pushed freeholding Roman citizens off their land and into the city. Once this happens, *of course* you have a large class of Roman citizens living in the city who are dependent on the generosity of the government, or of whatever magnate needs a goon squad.

            If you want the lower classes to be gainfully employed in your society, you literally cannot afford to take all their property and give it to the elite. If the peasants are one step ahead of debt slavery, then they will support whoever promises to put them TWO steps from debt slavery.

            The only way to avoid the problem is to find a way for the underclass to be comfortable *without* overthrowing the state. If the state enforces elite ownership of all the property, and a life of debt servicing for the underclass, the underclass will eventually notice the trap and work to disrupt the system.

            Because, again, “poor, not stupid.”

        2. At least in the United States, the government doesn’t actually give the urban poor very much money. Welfare payouts, and the ease of accessing same, have been shriveling up for decades. A large fraction of the welfare money available cannot be spent on anything other than food, too, which complicates the calculation.

      2. I think this is a related but different phenomena that people just tend to value their social standing _a lot_. Some of it can be traced to being actually beneficial to other life goals (like to social safety net mentioned in the post), but not all – and to me that’s OK, if you treat social standing as goal in and of itself, preferring sneakers over food/hospital bills/… can be rational. Similarly I’ve seen quite a lot of people in poor countries investing in nice phones/TVs before securing stable food supply. I had a (very minor) period of lost income when studying and I didn’t quite manage to lower my living standard to match (even though I still wasn’t poor by any sensible definition), especially in expenses related to social life (going out for beer, …). This blog mentioned multiple times that for many people severe social shaming can be considered worse than death. It’s just a think people do.

        And I think many (most?) people that would claim that they don’t care about their social standing are actually having a measure of social standing that they still care about a lot, but that manifests in less obvious ways (I certainly do)

      3. In the United States, hospital bills have been subject to massive inflation and costs paid by the uninsured consumer are vastly disproportionate to what would be paid elsewhere in the developed world.

        As a result, for the typical poor person who goes to the hospital, the ensuing hospital bills can easily become effectively unpayable. Expecting a peasant woman to forgo the very few luxuries that exist in her life for the sake of paying, over the course of a year, $500 more against a $20,000 debt *seems* very appropriate… as long as one identifies entirely with the lender and not a whit with the debtor.


        Part of the problem is that it’s much easier for the providers of an essential service to raise the prices to the point where they effectively constitute “put the debtor into indentured servitude for most of their remaining life,” than it is for the debtors to scrimp and save and pay the hospital bills. The hospitals have their reasons for doing this, but the people who leave the hospitals have their own reasons for recognizing the trap and refusing to step into it.

        G. K. Chesterton’s argument about leonine contracts comes to mind:

        “”I should not agree with your young friends,” said Marcus curtly, “I am so old-fashioned as to believe in free contract.”

        “I, being older, perhaps believe in it even more,” answered M. Louis smiling. “But surely it is a very old principle of law that a leonine contract is not a free contract. And it is hypocrisy to pretend that a bargain between a starving man and a man with all the food is anything but a leonine contract.”

        He glanced up at the fire-escape, a ladder leading up to the balcony of a very high attic above. “I live in that garret; or rather on that balcony. If I fell off the balcony and hung on a spike, so far from the steps that somebody with a ladder could offer to rescue me if I gave him a hundred million francs, I should be quite morally justified in using his ladder and then telling him to go to hell for his hundred million. Hell, indeed, is not out of the picture; for it is a sin of injustice to force an advantage against the desperate.” “

        1. So your argument is that if you claim that someone’s price is inflated, you are allowed to stiff the person entirely?

          1. I do not believe that this is a good faith effort to summarize my argument.

            Firstly, the fact that American health care prices are inflated is not some spurious claim made for personal gain by me, or by our hypothetical poor person (call him Al). It is cold, hard fact that American health care prices are inflated. We pay more per capita than other nations to receive comparable services. The uninsured (mostly poor) pay more than the insured, thus pushing their bills up above the average cost of the same amount of health care in their society… which was already an inflated amount!

            Secondly, your choice of terms is clearly intended to present this as a moral issue- an opportunistic act of theft. But that’s beside the point. This kind of ‘theft,’ the fact that a person who has exorbitant medical bills nonetheless occasionally buys a luxury item, is precisely what you’d expect from a society configured this way, whether it’s moral or not.

            You can say “the peasants are morally obligated to pay their taxes to the baron” as many times as you like, after all! But that doesn’t change what’s going to happen if the baron jacks up the taxes until the peasants are forced into indentured servitude and desperation in a barely-sustainable attempt to pay them. They may do it, for a while, in the full knowledge that in the first famine year it’ll all collapse anyway and that they’ll never be free of the debt burden anyway. For a while.

            But in the end… what the heck do you expect? Of course they’re going to start evading their taxes any way they can. They’re *poor, not stupid. They’re certainly not gullible enough to work themselves to death in a constant state of misery and exhaustion just for the sake of the baron’s tax receipts. It requires an enormous amount of coercive force to make people work hard when they can’t expect it to improve their life perceptibly.

            No kind of societal moral code is going to stop someone who has been forced against their will to participate in a rigged game from eventually noticing that the game is rigged. And once the players notice that the game is rigged, some of them will stop playing by the rules.

            Stopping to bewail the fact that the poor are lazy, lawless, shiftless, or heedless because they *don’t* work maximally hard in a rigged game is precisely the kind of mindset we should be cautious of.

          2. It is a cold, hard fact that we get the best medical care in the world. This can easily be seen by looking at those who claim we don’t and notice they count things where medical care has minimal impact such as life expectancy and infant mortality, or even none at all, such as those who ding our system for not being socialist. Actual measures, such as cancer survival rates, easily show us to be the best.

            Furthermore, YOU regard it as a moral issue, and openly condemn the people who have opinions on such behavior. Such opinions are also precisely what you expect.

          3. It is a cold, hard fact that we get the best medical care in the world. This can easily be seen by looking at those who claim we don’t and notice they count things where medical care has minimal impact such as life expectancy and infant mortality, or even none at all, such as those who ding our system for not being socialist. Actual measures, such as cancer survival rates, easily show us to be the best.

            Wikipedia provides a list of survival rates for three kinds of cancer; the US is top for one, top quartile for another, and bottom quartile for the third, so I don’t think it’s evident that the US is “the best”, much less “easily”.


            Note as well that the US survival rates are “comparable” (as Simon_Jester said) to those of other countries. Just looking at the breast cancer chart (since that’s the one the US tops), American patients have a five-year survival rate of 88.7%, whereas the next-best, the Australians, have a rate of… 87.7%. Indeed, 15 out of the 24 nations listed have survival rates at or above 85%; all but one have a survival rate above 80%. So at least with this disease, I think that “[Americans] pay more per capita than other nations to receive comparable services” is a fair summary of the situation.

            And finally, I think the claim that quality of medical care has “minimal” influence on life expectancy and child mortality needs to be defended, because it isn’t obvious, at least not to me.

  28. A lot of this fits with what I learned in a course on underdevelopment in the modern world – the countryside in India works much the same way today. Our lecturer commented that there’s little point in attempting to increase your yield if you don’t own the land, because that just means the landowner will extract it. Much better to play things maximally safe instead.

  29. “I cannot stress this enough: Malthus was wrong; yes, interestingly, usefully wrong – but still wrong”

    Why is it wrong? Seems like a perfect example of population growth being limited by available land, although on the microscale of a family farm.

    1. First answer:

      Because Malthus’ prediction was about populations as a whole; it’s macroeconomics, not microeconomics. The underlying assumption was that available land would all be taken under cultivation at a fixed level of productivity, and that overpopulation in any given household would simply result in more land being taken under cultivation.

      This line of reasoning simply does not apply on the scale of an individual family farm. Furthermore, it has no way of addressing the issue Dr. Devereaux points out about generational vulnerability- a family farm with a population of seven, whose ages are 14, 16, 19, 21, 39, 45, and 64, is far more able to feed itself than a family farm, population six, with an age distribution of 1, 3, 20, 36, 54, and 60. And yet no amount of responsible population control can prevent this generational cycle, since it is a necessary aspect of human biology.

  30. “Because scattering the small plots *does* provide some insurance against smaller problems.”

    So I think the proposal is ideally you would have less scattered plots, more specialization, and either sharing or trade. Instead of every family having strips in every microclimate, you would have families sticking to a particular microclimate and crop, or at least fewer than “all of them”. Then if Microclimate A fails, those families are supported by more successful families that year, whether via village communism or purchases from savings or loans.

    It seems a valid counter to my “you need good water trade for efficient bulk reallocation”, though of course if whole regions like Cornwall run low on food you would still need that water trade.

    1. Why should the farmers in any of these areas trust that this trade network will work? They got where they were – survived – by not trusting in such things. The people before them who did trust in such things failed and died. Remember that food is a bulk good, difficult to transport at all – especially by land to remote communities. And also that the peasants in question have no reason to suppose that the political authorities will intervene to help them (because they almost never do).

      That’s not to say this never happened. We do see some of this effect – increased agricultural specialization – under the Roman Empire. Not a ton, mind you, but some. But of course when the Pax Romana breaks down, those areas get badly dislocated and have to shift back to subsistence, often with significant population loss in the process.

      The smart choice was to maintain resilience on the household level and rely on interpersonal relationships you could trust over fickle markets that would happily let you starve to death to make a ducat selling your foot to wealthier townsfolk.

      1. The smart choice was to maintain resilience on the household level and rely on interpersonal relationships you could trust over fickle markets that would happily let you starve to death to make a ducat selling your foot to wealthier townsfolk.

        But was there any reason why they couldn’t just consolidate their farms more and rely on those interpersonal relationships for when their own particular microclimate did badly? In theory, the village should be as resilient as before, or even more so, since there’d be extra efficiency gains and hence higher average crop yields. Or was it simply that the social bonds required to make “Farm all your crops in the valley, ask the hill farmer for help every third year when it’s particularly rainy” a viable strategy are just that much more difficult to maintain that the social bonds required to make “Farm half your crops in the valley and half on the hill, and ask your neighbour for help every tenth year when something unexpected happens” viable?

        1. In medieval farming there is several layers of management/exchange. Common rights are allocated (and re-allocated) according to need – so widows or the poor get a bit more. Water rights and use of major capital are managed communally (heavy plow teams, mills, presses). In areas where the ecology allows, there is some specialisation – eg meat and wool from upland grazing for grains and other lowland products, plus labour exchange (the transhuman herders help with harvest). As well as risk management, a scatter of small plots lets each household be more self-sufficient or participate in the village exchange economy. So a patch of vineyard for wine, a vegetable plot, barley to make beer (selling ale was a traditional women’s occupation). There’s the household trying to secure a stable livelihood and the village trying to maintain the community.

          By the way, I think Bret’s estimate of a 10% surplus is an underestimate. In west Asia the king traditionally took a tenth, but then there was the temple and the landlord as well, plus the local craftspersons.

        2. Probably the strength of social bonds required. In theory this would work, but in practice it would put inordinate strain on the social network.The network works better when the transfer ‘payments’ of mutual help and support are, *normally,* relatively small. Especially since random misfortune can strike the same family year after year. If the family is merely *struggling* then the social network is likely to be willing to make up the difference, but if they are totally unable to contribute for multiple years, the willingness and ability of the neighbors to help them may eventually be exhausted.

          Furthermore, scattered plots reduce the power of any single point of failure to hurt the village economy. This includes points of failure that have nothing to do with food production. Suppose the whole village’s supply of vegetables relies on three families that farm Only Vegetables. Then, one of the vegetable-farming families loses two able-bodied adults to a tragic house fire. Suddenly, the whole village has a lot less vegetables.

          This is a subset of the general observation Dr. Devereaux makes:

          Specialization introduces more vulnerability to risk.

      2. > this trade network

        As I said, could also be village scale communism. Done right, it would be more productive *and* safer than everyone having their own multiple strips. Of course, doing it right is probably the hard part. But a village is the size where social mechanisms might make it work, and AFAIK the Hutterites (with strong religious ties, amid a more modern society) actually do do this, and I’ve seen people claim the open field system essentially was communistic though I was not convinced.

  31. “we’d normally expect to see friction as the Shirefolk and Breelanders sought to ease overpopulation problems”

    The Prancing Pony chapter was unusually explicit. Bree is the westernmost human settlement; it is also the only human settlement within 100 leagues of the Shire. That’s 300 miles, and the Shire itself is around 100 miles across, so that’s a demographic void of 350 mile radius. Nearly 400,000 square miles, the area of France and Germany combined.

    Furthermore, Bree-land consists of four villages. The biggest one, Bree itself, has 100 houses of Big Folk (humans). So I figure that’s fewer than 2000 humans in Bree-land, and maybe about as many hobbits.

    Just to be clear: “Bree was the chief village of the Bree-land, a small inhabited region, like an island in the empty lands round about.”

    As for the Dunedain, hard to say. The Rangers per se ‘wander’, but that’s their job. Appendix A does say “When the kingdom ended the Dúnedain passed into the shadows and became a secret and wandering people,” but it also refers to Thorin and other dwarves who ‘wander’ due to dragon-induced homelessness, but they don’t turn into hunter-gatherers.

    There’s an obscure note somewhere suggesting they have a settlement in the Angle, near Rivendell (ironically in Rhudaur, the old enemy); this is just beyond the 100 league exclusion zone. It’s also a river junction, possibly wetland, arguably a good place to be if you want to support a small population without having to work too hard. Plus whatever magic they still have, and/or elf support. But it’s a really obscure note: — the LotR and Silmarillion just say “wandering people”.

    BTW, Lois Bujold’s Sharing Knife series is kind of generalized Rangers vs. dark lords, in an Ohio River inspired geography. Lois does pay attention to Lakewalker food supply: they live by lakes or other wetlands, and have an explicitly magical gourd to serve as their staple, in addition to magic-enhanced foraging. Wetland foraging + zero-effort gourd is food on easy mode. Even so, she’s explicit about there being a bunch of Lakewalkers in camp supporting one patroller in the field.

    But the Lakewalkers actually live a lot like sedentary hunter-gatherers (Native Americans, say) with magic-enhanced leather for armor. The Rangers had a lot of metal, including mail. Though given high-craft mail and weapons that don’t rust, and rummaging among the ruins of the kingdom of Arnor, maybe that’s easy to explain.

    1. In the case of the ‘Rangers’ in Lord of the Rings, it’s possible Elrond figures it’s worth his while to keep them well armed, since they take the pressure off his own people to go out patrolling for trolls, etc. Plus Elrond is actually related to some of them, since they’re the descendants of his brother, and he may feel some kind of obligation to distant kinfolk.
      Aragorn is described by Gandalf as a ‘huntsman’ in ‘The Shadow of the Past’, and Aragorn himself says in ‘A Knife in the Dark’ that he has ‘some skill as a hunter at need’, and can survive (as far as food goes) at least outside the winter months. I’m not sure how far an ability to forage and live off the land would extend to any other of the ‘Rangers’ though.

    2. > in addition to magic-enhanced foraging

      In the interest of accuracy: I checked (skimming the second book), and so-so. Lakewalker cultural identity is mobile, ‘sessile’ is an insult, reminiscent of the “farmers” they protect and look down on, but Lakewalker practice has gotten pretty comfortable: herds of horses and pigs and goats, plunkin farming, log cabins that are missing a wall so the Lakewalkers can pretend they’re still ‘tents’ in a ‘camp’ and not houses in a permanent village.

      Still, point stands that Bujold thought about it, giving them a near-perfect staple crop. Grows on shallow lake bottoms, so pretty indifferent to weather variations like annual rainfall. Nutritionally complete. Provides fibers. Always in glut so I presume it has no pests or diseases. Easy to plant and harvest. Requires a magical nudge to germinate so is justifiably a Lakewalker monopoly.

  32. If this sort of thing is your cup of tea/wheat and you want to get a bit more detail, there is a very good book — The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. 1 — by Fernand Braudel that has a wealth of information and marvelous insights. It is a bit old, having been written in the 1980s, but Braudel was a first-rate scholar and a good writer.

    1. Braudel is, of course, standard reading for historians as one of the most prominent historian of the Annales school.

      One caution – this book is a bit older than you think. The original, Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle, vol. 1: Les structures du quotidien from which the 1979 translation you are referencing was made was itself originally published in 1967.

  33. The way this essay speaks of minimizing risk versus maximizing efficiency, I begin to wonder if famines are mostly the result of politics. Outside of very bad years, a farm ought to have at least a little something to save them — but if they’re forced to create a surplus then they can’t do as much risk-mitigation as they should.

    1. Possibly, but even risk mitigation cannot completely prepare for a region-wide crop failure due to unseasonable weather events or a sudden influx of pests.

    2. “I begin to wonder if famines are mostly the result of politics”

      That’s certainly what economists like Amartya Sen say of modern famines, where ‘modern’ starts at least with the Irish potato famine — Ireland was still producing enough food to feed the Irish, but it wasn’t going to the Irish. He also says it typically got worse with colonialism: in India a native landlord or prince might have sympathy in a bad year, waiving rent or taxes; a colonial extractor didn’t.

      Wouldn’t surprise me if elite extraction caused or exacerbated a bunch of famines; OTOH you also get years where a volcano basically kills Europe for a year or three. And climate change, making some lands more and more marginal.

      1. It’s not just colonialism — anything that ensures that the decisions about agriculture are made by people who know nothing about farming is trouble.

        Hence you get Communism functionaries declaring that seeds of the same species are not class enemies and thus can be sown together without space between them.

  34. Would subsistence farmers ever engage in cooperative labor pooling? I work my little plot over here AND I work my neighbor’s little plot over here while my neighbor works on both of our plots located over on the other side of the hill?

    OR, my neighbor and I both work on our plots over here together & then head off to over on the other side of the hill together to work those plots …

    It seems like that could both mitigate risk AND increase efficiency.

    1. Yes, but there’s the risk that both you and your neighbor will do the bare minimum to keep the deal going.

      There was the famous case where Chinese peasants gathered together in the dead of night and agreed to split up their lands in defiance of the Communists, and every family farmed its own and reaped its harvest, because they would die if they continued this communal farming. Now, given they all obviously trusted each other to not betray the others to the authorities, why could they not trust them to work as hard at communal farming as on their family farm? Because the non-betrayal was merely negative, but the work was positive, and on a sliding scale, too.

  35. Thank you for this great text!

    One small suggestion: invert the way how you introduce measurements, writing the modern standards first.

    For example, instead of:

    * “The normal size of a Roman household small farm is generally estimated between 5 and 8 iugera (a Roman measurement of land, roughly 3 to 5 acres)”
    * “in pre-Han Northern China … the figure was “one hundred mu (4.764 acres)”
    * “The food requirements for a Roman family of five to around 200 modii (a Roman unit of grain measurement by volume) of grain, which comes to 1,746 liters (1.74 cubic meters)”

    It would be better to write:

    * “The normal size of a Roman household small farm is generally estimated between 3 to 5 acres (5 to 8 iugera)”
    * “in pre-Han Northern China … the figure was 4.764 acres (‘one hundred mu’)”
    * “The food requirements for a Roman family of five to around 1.74 cubic meters (200 modii) of grain, which comes to 1,746 liters”

    So the reader can ignore the old units (iugera, mu, modii) and focus on the information: so many acres, so many cubic meters and so on.

  36. I wonder how many poor peasants lived in multi-storey dwellings, to free up more land for agriculture?

    1. An acre is 43 560 square feet; an average modern American home (surely bigger than anything the peasant farmer and his extended family have) has 2500 square feet, and a small Roman farm is around 3 acres, or 130 000 square feet. Suppose you halve the house’s footprint by making it two stories of 1250 square feet each; you’ve just saved less than 1% of your land.

      Which isn’t nothing, but this is a smaller farm and a big house, so realistically your actual farmer will see even less of a proportional return.

      None of which is definitive, of course. But it is suggestive.

    2. I agree with Boobah; if we’re talking about farms, there’s probably little point. Housing is tiny, and multi-story probably tricky with many forms of vernacular architecture. (Not so much the height but making a reliable floor.) You do see a lot of it in history, but in cities, where land inside the walls is scarce and expensive.

      If you did see peasants in multi-story it would probably be in walled villages, to save on wall rather than cropland.

      OTOH stilt houses did exist, to avoid water or insects (and also providing storage under the house), so I shouldn’t oversell the difficulty of making a solid floor with village labor and materials. Still, it seems like more work than just using a dirt floor with or without covering.

  37. Fascinating, and good to have what sounded like an unrelated concept that’s been floating around in my head so clearly articulated.

    I was worried recently about some of the news coverage of behaviour during the covid-19 lockdown in some of our poorest areas here in the UK. There was a quote which caught the public attention which said ‘there’s no lockdown here’, which people railed against. It occurred to me that the people living in these areas are mostly living ‘hand to mouth’, which must require significant social investments in their neighbours in order to mitigate against personal misfortune. You just can’t maintain that level of social capital while you’re stuck inside your house not contacting anyone, meaning these people have no choice but to weight the risk of a largely non-fatal disease against the very real risks of homelessness, malnutrition and increased risk of dying from non-fatal diseases (such as covid-19). Against that, I can see why people didn’t lock themselves away in their homes.

    The fascinating things history can teach us about the present day!

  38. >and so they do not serve their farmers, their farms serve the needs of their families.

    Should be: “they do not serve their farms”

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