Collections: Bread, How Did They Make It? Part II: Big Farms

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

This is the second part (I, II, III, IV, A) of our look at the basic structure of food production (particularly grains to make bread) in the pre-modern world. Last week, we began by looking at the great majority of our rural population, the little farmers. Now I know everyone is eager to get to the mechanics of planting, harvesting, threshing, milling, baking and so on, but we have one more group of people in the countryside to talk about: the much smaller group of larger landholders, or as they are often generally referred to, the ‘big men.’

Now I should begin by noting that not all of our ‘big men’ are, in fact, men – though most were. Exactly how many large rural landholders are women varies from one pre-modern society to the next (though it is almost always a minority), but it was generally not zero, save in a relative handful of societies which specifically completely barred women from independent landholdings by law (some Greek poleis did this, for instance); even in sharply patriarchal societies like Rome, there would always be a handful of great estates run by women, particularly widows. Nevertheless ‘big man’ (or ‘big person’) is a fairly common way to refer to these fellows across languages (for instance, magnates from Latin magnati, literally ‘big men,’ mirrored by the Greek μεγιστᾶνες (‘big men’) which has the same meaning; ‘grandees’ has the same sense, coming from Portuguese). I don’t want to use many of the language-specific terms because they often come with additional meaning – we could call these fellows ‘nobles’ or ‘aristocrats’ or ‘the gentry’ in various times and places, but these terms often imply rigid social classes which don’t apply cross-culturally (and in many cases might have no real equivalent in societies which still have recognizable rural ‘big men’). Almost all of these traditional terms for the ‘big men’ (who again, are not all men) are loaded with some sort of meaning which won’t do for our very general look at the basic structures of pre-modern cereal agriculture.

So instead, I am going to go with the somewhat clinical and bland “large landholders” most of whom are men (but some of whom are women), but all of whom hold lots of land. But what I want to stress is that these fellows were understood as being ‘big’ in the sense that they held a lot of agricultural capital but also generally ‘big’ in the sense that they dominated, socially and politically, their societies (notice though how the words used to describe them above often also imply ‘bigness’ of ability or character – like ‘noble’ – they certainly believed this about themselves and they write most of our sources; one assumes the peasantry viewed the matter quite differently, though they only infrequently get a chance to say it to us). Now I know that capital is a scary word in some quarters, worry not. We are going to use it in a fairly simple, direct way just to mean all of the things – land, animals, equipment, infrastructure – which make farming productive. While these large landholders almost always represent a legally or socially privileged class, what matters for us is how their large landholdings and capital reshaped farming in the countryside. I am not going to get too deep into the landholders themselves beyond these effects – they already get quite enough attention in their role as military, political and cultural elites as it is (even elsewhere on this blog).

So how do these large landholders function in a countryside mostly composed of small subsistence farmers? Let’s walk out of the village and up to the manor and find out.

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(Also as a reminder, the selected bibliography for all of this is back in the first post.)

Via the British Museum (inv. 1858,0626.227), a c. 1720 drawing of Italian farmers working their fields outside of the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla at Rome.

Farming Capital

What generally defines our large landholders is their greater access to capital. Now we don’t want to think of capital in the sort of money-denominated, fungible sense of modern finance, but in a very concrete sense: land, infrastructure, animals, and equipment. As we’ll see, it isn’t just that the big men hold more of this capital, but that they hold fundamentally different sorts of capital and often use it very differently.

Of course this begins with land. The thing to keep in mind is that prior to the modern period (really, later still – we might equally say prior to the industrial revolution; c. 1760 instead of c. 1500) the vast majority of economic activity was the production of the land. That meant that land was both the primary form of holding wealth but also the main income-producing asset. Consequently, larger land holdings are the assets that enable the accumulation of all of the other kinds of capital we’re discussing. By having more land – typically much more land – than is required to feed a single household, these larger farmers can (as we’ll discuss in a bit) produce for markets and trade, enabling them to afford to acquire labor, animals, equipment and so on. Our subsistence farmers of the last post, focused on producing for survival, would be hard-pressed to acquire much further in the way of substantial capital.

The next most important category is generally animals, particularly a plow team (typically two oxen, but sometimes draft horses and sometimes four instead of two). I realize I didn’t spell this out explicitly in the previous piece, but while our small subsistence farmers may keep chickens or pigs on some small part of the pasture they have access to, they probably do not have a complete plow-team for their own farm (but I should note there is a lot of variability in this; my impression is that moving forward chronologically, you tend to see more plow-teams in the middle ages compared to the ancient world, and more in the early modern compared to the middle ages, occasionally held in common by villages). Oxen and horses are hideously expensive, both to acquire but also to feed and for a family barely surviving one year to the next, they simply cannot afford them. They also do not have herds of animals (because their small farms absolutely cannot support acres of pasturage) and they probably have limited access to herdsmen generally (that is, transhumant pastoralists moving around the countryside) because those fellows will tend to want to interact with the community leaders who are, as noted above, the large landholders. All of which is to say that while the small farmers may keep a few animals, they do not have access to significantly large numbers of animals (or humans), which matters, as we’ll see.

From the ‘Tomb of Sennedjem” in Deir el-Medina, Egypt, a mural showing a farmer plowing his field with a pair of oxen as a plow-team, with his wife sowing behind him, 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.

The first impact of having a plow-team is fairly obvious: a plow drawn by a couple of oxen is more effective than a plow pushed by a single human. That means that a plow-team lets the same amount of farming labor sow a larger area of land (and if your thought is, “ok, but what about the harvest” – good, keep a pin in that, we’ll come back to it). It also allows for a larger, deeper plow, which in turn plows at a greater depth, which can improve yields (we’ll get into why and how plowing works next week). You can easily see why, for a landholder with a large farm, having a plow-team is so useful: whereas the subsistence farmer struggles by having too much labor (and too many mouths to feed) and too little land, the big landholder has a lot of land they are trying to get farmed with as little labor as possible. And of course, more to the point, the large landholder has the wealth and acreage necessary to buy and then pasture the animals in the plow-team.

The second major impact is manure. Remember that our farmers live before the time of artificial fertilizer. Crops, especially bulk cereal crops, wear out the nutrients in the soil quite rapidly after repeated harvests, which leaves the farmer two options. The first, standard option, is that the farmer can fallow the field (which also has the advantage of disrupting certain pest life-cycles); depending on the farming method, fallowing may mean planting specific plants to renew the soil’s nutrients when those plants are uprooted and left to return to the soil in the field or it may mean simply turning the field over to wild plants with a similar effect. The second option is using fertilizer, which in this case means manure. Quite a lot of it. Aggressive manuring, particularly on rich soils which have good access to moisture (because cropping also dries out the soil; fallowing can restore that moisture) allows the field to be fallowed less frequently and thus farmed more intensively. In some cases it allowed rich farmland to be continuously cropped, with fairly dramatic increases in returns-to-acreage as a result. And by increasing the nutrients in the soil, it also produces higher yields in a given season.

Now the humans in a farming household aren’t going to generate enough manure on their own to make a meaningful contribution to soil fertility. But the larger landholders generally have two advantages in this sense. First, because their landholdings are large, they can afford to turn over marginal farming ground to pasture for horses, cattle, sheep and so on; these animals not only generate animal products (or prestige, in the case of horses), they also eat the grass and generate manure which can be used on the main farm. The second way to get manure is cities; unlike farming households, cities do produce sufficient quantities of human waste for manuring fields. And where small subsistence farmers are unlikely to be able to buy that supply, large landholders are likely to be politically well-connected enough and wealthy enough to arrange for human waste to be used on their lands, especially for market oriented farms close to cities. And if you just stopped and said, “wait – these guys were paying for human waste?”…yes, yes they sometimes did (and not just for farming! Check out how saltpeter was made, or what a fuller did!).

Via the British Museum (inv. 1929,0611,0.2) a Ming dynasty (14th-16th cent.) painting of a rural household, with farm animals (mostly oxen). You can see women engaged in textile production inside the house as well.

Finally, there’s the question of infrastructure: tools, machines and storage. The large landholder is the one likely to be able to afford to build things like granaries, mills and so on. Now there is, I want to note, a lot of variation from place to place about exactly how this sort of infrastructure is handled. It might be privately owned, it might be owned by the village, but frequently, the ‘village mill’ was actually owned by the large landholder whose big manor overlooked the village (who may also be the local political authority). And while we’re looking at grain, other agricultural products which don’t store as well or as easily might need to be aggregated for transport to market and sale, a process where the large landholder’s storage facilities, political standing and market contacts are likely to make him the ideal middleman. I don’t want to get too in the weeds (pardon the pun) on all the different kinds of infrastructure (mills for grains, presses for olives, casks for wine) except to note that in many cases the large landholder is the one likely to be able to afford these investments and that smaller farmers growing the same crops nearby might well want to use them. We’ll cover the processing for grains (wheat and barley) next week.

(I should note that exactly what counts as agricultural capital can vary quite a bit. One striking thing I came across was in C. Toulmin, “Staying Together: Household Responses to Risk and Market Malfunction in Mali” in Rural Households in Emerging Societies, eds. M Haswell and D. Hunt (1991). Apart from land – which was actually not a major limiting factor in the village – the main forms of agricultural capital were ox plow-teams (something I’d expect) and wells (something I did not expect). Until the 1960s, the village chief had a monopoly on the digging of new wells, cementing his hold on the agricultural capital; subsequently other families could dig wells, but assembling the equipment and labor meant that those wells were mostly dug by the wealthiest families, with poorer families restricted to a handful of older public wells (though some of these were also restricted, by tradition, to only the oldest families). Wells were used to water crops, but actually the chief value in holding wells was the ability to make water-for-manure trades with herdsmen from outside the village, with the manure used as fertilizer to realize greater yields.)

Big Farms and Little Farmers

All of this is to set up the answer to a question we posed briefly last week but haven’t yet answered: the mechanics of vertical relationships between our small subsistence farmers and our large landholders.

What our little farmers generally have, as we talked about last time, is labor – they have excess household labor because the household is generally ‘too large’ for its farm. Now keep in mind, they’re not looking to maximize the usage of that labor – farming work is hard and one wants to do as little of it as possible. But a family that is too large for the land (a frequent occurrence) is going to be looking at ways to either get more out of their farmland or out of their labor, or both, especially because they otherwise exist on a razor’s edge of subsistence.

And then just over the way, you have the large manor estate, or the Roman villa, or the lands owned by a monastery (because yes, large landholders were sometimes organizations; in medieval Europe, monasteries filled this function in some places) or even just a very rich, successful peasant household. Something of that sort. They have the capital (plow-teams, manure, storage, processing) to more intensively farm the little land our small farmers have, but also, where the small farmer has more labor than land, the large landholder has more land than labor.

The other basic reality that is going to shape our large farmers is their different goals. By and large our small farmers were subsistence farmers – they were trying to farm enough to survive. Subsistence and a little bit more. But most large landholders are looking to use the surplus from their large holdings to support some other activity – typically the lifestyle of wealthy elites, which in turn require supporting many non-farmers as domestic servants, retainers (including military retainers), merchants and craftsmen (who provide the status-signalling luxuries). They may even need the surplus to support political activities (warfare, electioneering, royal patronage, and so on). Consequently, our large landholders want a lot of surplus, which can be readily converted into other things.

The space for a transactional relationship is pretty obvious, though as we will see, the power imbalances here are extreme, so this relationship tends to be quite exploitative in most cases. Let’s start with the labor component. But the fact that our large landholders are looking mainly to produce a large surplus (they are still not, as a rule, profit maximizing, by the by, because often social status and political ends are more important than raw economic profit for maintaining their position in society) means that instead of having a farm to support a family unit, they are seeking labor to support the farm, trying to tailor their labor to the minimum requirements of their holdings.

Working on the Big Farm

As we’ve noted, the ‘problem’ a large landholder has is that they have more land than their own household can farm (in practice, many of these households do no farming at all, being instead a leisured elite). How exactly those laborers are organized and their status varies tremendously from society to society. A discussion of any of these institutions (Roman coloni, European serfs, slave-labor and debt-peonage systems, free labor, tenants, sharecroppers and on and on) could be its own full post. We’re just here covering the basics mostly to see how these systems interact with our small farmers.

The tricky thing for the large landholder is that labor needs throughout the year are not constant. The window for the planting season is generally very narrow and fairly labor intensive: a lot needs to get done in a fairly short time. But harvest is even narrower and more labor intensive. In between those, there is still a fair lot of work to do, but it is not so urgent nor does it require so much labor.

You can readily imagine then the ideal labor arrangement would be to have a permanent labor supply that meets only the low-ebb labor demands of the off-seasons and then supplement that labor supply during the peak seasons (harvest and to a lesser extent planting) with just temporary labor for those seasons. Roman latifundia may have actually come close to realizing this theory; enslaved workers (put into bondage as part of Rome’s many wars of conquest) composed the villa’s primary year-round work force, but the owner (or more likely the villa’s overseer, the vilicus, who might himself be an enslaved person) could contract in sharecroppers or wage labor to cover the needs of the peak labor periods. Those temporary laborers are going to come from the surrounding rural population (again, households with too much labor and too little land who need more work to survive). Some Roman estates may have actually leased out land to tenant farmers for the purpose of creating that ‘flexible’ local labor supply on marginal parts of the estate’s own grounds. Consequently, the large estates of the very wealthy required the impoverished many subsistence farmers in order to function.

Via Wikipedia, laborers working on the Gardens of Amun from the Temple at Karnak, 14th century B.C. “Gardens” here should be understood in the sense of horticulture producing vegetables and fruit, not as a pleasure garden. On the right, the chief gardener (essentially the overseer) watches over the laborers in the garden itself. This painting is in the tomb of that chief gardener, named Nakh; one assumes his staff would not have rated such commemoration.

But in most cases (including in much of the Roman world) local social structures placed limits on the options available to the large landholders. After all, while it was in the interests of the large landholders to have a very variable, flexible labor force, it was in the interests of the labor force (especially potential small-farmers who might be part-timing on the big estate) to want permanent, year-round relationships which would entitle them to a greater share of the production of the large landholder’s big estate. As you might imagine, that continual process of negotiation often produced deeply rooted customs and laws delineating the rights of the parties, sometimes expanding them, often sharply limiting them (for examples of both below, note the contrast between Roman laws about debt bondage in the Republic to the laws about coloni tenant farmers in the late Empire; these laws, one expanding rights, the other sharply restricting them, are directed at the basically same group of people, many centuries apart). Again, I can’t get into all of the local variations, but we can break down the three (and a half) most typical sources of labor.

Tenant labor of one form or another may be the single most common form of labor we see on big estates and it could fill both the fixed labor component and the flexible one. Typically tenant labor (also sometimes called sharecropping) meant dividing up some portion of the estate into subsistence-style small farmers (although with the labor perhaps more evenly distributed); while the largest share of the crop would go to the tenant or sharecropper, some of it was extracted by the landlord as rent. How much went each way could vary a lot, depending on which party was providing seed, labor, animals and so on, but 50/50 splits are not uncommon. As you might imagine, that extreme split (compared to the often standard c. 10-20% extraction frequent in taxation or 1/11 or 1/17ths that appear frequently in medieval documents for serfs) compels the tenants to more completely utilize household labor (which is to say ‘farm more land’). At the same time, setting up a bunch of subsistence tenant farms like this creates a rural small-farmer labor pool for the periods of maximum demand, so any spare labor can be soaked up by the main estate (or by other tenant farmers on the same estate). That is, the high rents force the tenants to have to do more labor – more labor that, conveniently, their landlord, charging them the high rents is prepared to profit from by offering them the opportunity to also work on the estate proper.

In many cases, small freeholders might also work as tenants on a nearby large estate as well. There are many good reasons for a small free-holding peasant to want this sort of arrangement (which we’ll come around to in a moment). So a given area of countryside might have free-holding subsistence farmers who do flexible sharecropping labor on the big estate from time to time alongside full-time tenants who worked land entirely or almost entirely owned by the large landholder. Now, as you might imagine, the situation of tenants – open to eviction and owing their landlords considerable rent – makes them very vulnerable to the landlord compared to neighboring freeholders.

That said, tenants in this sense were generally considered free persons who had the right to leave (even if, as a matter of survival, it was rarely an option, leaving them under the control of their landlords), in contrast to non-free laborers, an umbrella-category covering a wide range of individuals and statuses. I should be clear on one point: nearly every pre-modern complex agrarian society had some form of non-free labor, though the specifics of those systems varied significantly from place to place. Slavery of some form tends to be the rule, rather than the exception for these pre-modern agrarian societies. Two of the largest categories of note here are chattel slavery and debt bondage (also called ‘debt-peonage’), which in some cases could also shade into each other, but were often considered separate (many ancient societies abolished debt bondage but not chattel slavery for instance and debt-bondsmen often couldn’t be freely sold, unlike chattel slaves). Chattel slaves could be bought, sold and freely traded by their slave masters. In many societies these people were enslaved through warfare with captured soldiers and civilians alike reduced to bondage; the heritability of that status varies quite a lot from one society to the next, as does the likelihood of manumission (that is, becoming free).

Under debt bondage, people who fell into debt might sell (or be forced to sell) dependent family members (selling children is fairly common) or their own person to repay the debt; that bonded status might be permanent, or might hold only till the debt is repaid. In the later case, as remains true in a depressing amount of the world, it was often trivially easy for powerful landlord/slave-holders to ensure that the debt was never paid and in some systems this debt-peon status was heritable. Needless to say, the situation of both of these groups could be and often was quite terrible. The abolition of debt-bondage in Athens and Rome in the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. respectively is generally taken as a strong marker of the rising importance and political influence of the class of rural, poorer citizens and you can readily see why this is a reform they would press for.

Via Wikipedia, a color illustration of enslaved black workers forced to harvest sugarcane on the island of Antigua, then a British Colony (1823). The free, white overseer can be seen on horseback to the right.
This is a harvest of sugarcane, not wheat, but conditions like this – the use of non-free labor in agriculture – were common in pre-modern farming (though this image comes quite decidedly in the modern period).
The British would abolish slavery in their colonies in 1833, ten years after this image was made; full emancipation took until 1838.

The third complicated category of non-free laborers is that of workers who had legal control of their persons to some degree but who were required by law and custom to work on a given parcel of land and give some of the proceeds to their landlord. By way of example, under the reign of Diocletian (284-305), in a (failed) effort to reform the tax-system, the main class of Roman tenants, called coloni (lit: ’tillers’), were legally prevented from moving off of their estates (so as to ensure that the landlords who were liable for taxes on that land would be in a position to pay). That this change does not seem to have been a massive shift at the time should give some sense of how low the status of these coloni had fallen and just how powerful a landlord might be over their tenants. That system in turn (warning: substantial but necessary simplification incoming) provided the basis for later European serfdom. Serfs were generally tied to the land, being bought and sold with it, with traditional (and hereditary) duties to the owner of the land. They might owe a portion of their produce (like tenants) or a certain amount of labor to be performed on land whose proceeds went directly to the landlord. While serfs generally had more rights (particularly in the protection and self-ownership of their persons) than enslaved persons, they were decidedly non-free (they couldn’t, by law, move away generally) and their condition was often quite poor when compared to even small freeholders. Non-free labor was generally not flexible (the landholder was obliged to support these folks year-round whether they had work to do or not) and so composed the fixed core labor of the large landholder’s holdings.

Finally, at long last, we have wage laborers, who do a set amount of agricultural labor in exchange for payment in cash. And I’ll admit, I am being a bit disingenuous, because I am introducing these fellows in order to dismiss them. Wage laborers were, by far, the least common of these categories and the most marginal. That’s not to say they did not exist – they did (at least in highly monetized societies)! But they were almost never the primary source of labor, but instead used as that flexible labor-supplement during periods of chief demand (thus, for instance, the day-laborers working for cash in the Parable of the Workers, Matthew 20:1-16). Part of this has to do with monetization – as we’ll get to in a couple of weeks, most of the peasantry didn’t have a lot to do with cash anyway, so non-cash working arrangements (like sharecropping) were easier. Highly monetized economies (early imperial Rome being a classic example) were generally the exception, rather than the rule of pre-modern agrarian economies. Moreover, wage labor was unpredictable (the day-laborers of the aforementioned parable are typical; consider how limited economic security is on that basis); it was also typically very low in social status – barely above non-free laborers (and in some cases below them, cf. Ody. 11.489-491). Consequently in many of these societies, for a freeholding farmer to do wage labor might even be shameful in a way that doing a bit of sharecropping on the side was not (though I should again stress – attitudes about this sort of thing vary a lot; consult your neighborhood primary source before making sweeping generalizations about the social acceptability of wage labor).

Via the British Museum (inv. 1981,U.459), a European’s impression of a Qing-period Chinese estate with the wealthy estate house shown in the upper right and workers in the field to the left, c. 1823-1863.

Vertical Ties

So we’ve established what the big landlord gets out of working with the smaller subsistence farmers around them – they get labor to put more of their large holdings under cultivation and even a degree of labor flexibility with wage laborers and sharecroppers drawn from the existing rural population. In this sense – and I want to stress this – the large estates need the rural small farmers to survive. This is why, even in periods of rapid growth among large landholding estates (like the steady expansion of latifundia in the Roman late Republic and early Empire), there remained lots of these smaller farmers. But what do the small farmers get?

There are two answers to this. The first is access to capital, coming in two forms. First, for households with too many mouths and too much labor for their tiny farms, they can barter at the large landholder’s door for access to his land. There’s a cost to doing so, of course – the landholder is going to keep some of the proceeds (often quite a lot of them) while providing none of the labor, but it is better than starving.

For other subsistence farmers, they want access to the plow teams, manure, or other infrastructure (storage, processing) that the large landholder has control over. While in some cases a group of households or a village might share something like a single plow team, in many cases the only way was through the local large landholder. Of course the subsistence farmer can still farm without these things, but less efficiently, with lower yields. And of course lower yields mean more labor and a thinner margin of error between survival and disaster.

At the same time, we can see that this is hardly a fair arrangement. Of course the big farm’s plow team is going to plow its own fields first. That actually matters quite a lot; as noted, the planting season is relatively narrow and the best days for planting are going to be the days when renting the plow team isn’t an option. On the flip side, while harvest is a narrow period, the large landholder, with his superior resources and political pull is often in a position to make sure his harvest gets pulled in first (after all, if he says he’s hiring for this week – but not next week – he can put rural laborers in a terrible bind; he can afford to absorb a bad year or a late harvest, they cannot).

Via the British museum (inv. 1924,0415.31) an etching by John Clerk of a country estate. In the foreground (bottom center) a peasant man and woman work in a field, while the manor house with its lavish gardens sits in center frame. Date 1770-1782.

But because our small subsistence farmers are mostly focused on controlling and mitigating risk rather than enhancing raw yields, often the most important thing they could get from the large landholder was not a tangible thing at all: access to vertical patronage ties. Just like the smallholders could establish horizontal ties with fellow small farmers, they could also try to establish those ties with the big fellow in the big house. Of course the mechanisms for establishing the ties were different: few peasants could banquet an aristocrat and most aristocrats would be insulted by a suggestion of an alliance through marriage. Instead the ties were strictly vertical – that is they were unequal. They often began with the farmer working at least a bit as a tenant on the big farm, but also typically included political support, sometimes military support (that is, coming out to fight when the large landholder did, often as common troops in his retinue) and no small amount of social deference.

In exchange, in theory, the large landholder could provide the ultimate backstop against catastrophe – even a catastrophe that might ruin an entire village or rural area all at once. Because unlike the small farmers, the large landholder has access to significant financial resources – property which can be sold, political influence which can be bartered away, hard cash and the muscle to protect it, and business interests in non-agricultural ventures. The exact expected terms of these vertical ties differ from place to place and time to time, but the broad outlines were that, in exchange for labor, deference and some support, the small farmers got protection (military or political; a Roman bigwig was mostly promising to defend his clients at court, not fight for them, whereas a medieval lord in theory was promising to defend them on the field of combat), some access to farming capital and most importantly the implied promise that in a catastrophe the big landholder would come to the ‘rescue.’

When regarding much of the ancient or medieval past in many parts of the world, nearly all of our sources are written by these aristocratic landholders and so they present their vision of this relationship in the ideal. These accounts are filled with noblesse oblige – the large landholder selflessly riding to the rescue of his tenants or small farmers overcome by some disaster or another (e.g. Pliny, Epist. 8.2, where Pliny bails out everyone, his merchants, his tenants, oh so selflessly); often this is presented in the contrast between the noble big farmers and the shiftless, deceptive small farmer (for instance, the Greek phrase καλὸς κἀγαθός (kalos kagathos) literally means ‘beautiful and noble [in the moral sense]’ but effectively means ‘rich person’ in practice; for elite Greeks, the two ideas were synonymous; likewise our friend Bertran, in some of his other poems, is quite scathing in his opinions of the farmers). It is sometimes all too easy, reading these sources, to fall into the world of the large landholder – which was not the world of most of the rural population!

Where we can observe more clearly, we see a rather different pattern: the large landholder may bail out the beleaguered small farmers in a disaster, but it is usually with loans rather than with gifts. Since subsistence farmers are unlikely to ever be able to fully discharge in the good years the loans taken in desperation in the bad years, the real advantage of this to the large landholder is to keep those small farmers in subordinate relationships, often leveraging that debt to buy out their farms and/or reduce the farmers to debt bondage. Certainly being in debt is better than being dead from starvation and so one might argue that even by offering access to credit the large landholder was providing a service. That said, the fact that outlawing debt-bondage at both Athens and Rome was regarded as a crucial legal victory for the poor farmers (and one forced by a near-revolt of the rural lower classes in both cases) suggests that more often than not, the large landholders lent in a predatory manner. In practice, they used that debt to increase their control over the countryside, by indebting labor to them and expanding estates by gobbling up the small farms of indebted freeholders. A relationship with the large landholder was a double-edged sword, but an unavoidable one, since the political power of these large landholders was typically more than sufficient to crush any local peasant (even freeholders) who refused to play ball and anyway, that ultimate backstop against lethal failure was too important to give up.

Conclusions: Production on the Big Farm

We’ve actually covered a number of interactions, so I want to recap them all here. Large landholders interacted with the larger number of small farmers (who make up the vast majority of the population, rural or otherwise) by looking to trade access to their capital for the small farmers’ labor. Rather than being structured by market transactions (read: wage labor), this exchange was more commonly shaped by cultural and political forces into a grossly unequal exchange whereby the small farmers gathered around the large estate were essentially the large landholder’s to exploit. Nevertheless, that exploitation and even just the existence of the large landholder served to reorient production away from subsistence and towards surplus, through several different mechanisms.

Remember: in most pre-modern societies, the small farmers are largely self-sufficient. They don’t need very many of the products of the big cities and so – at least initially – the market is a poor mechanism to induce them to produce more. There simply aren’t many things at the market worth the hours of labor necessary to get them – not no things, but just not very many (I do want to stress that; the self-sufficiency of subsistence farmers is often overstated in older scholarship; Erdkamp (2005) is a valuable corrective here). Consequently, doing anything that isn’t farming means somehow forcing subsistence farmers to work more and harder in order to generate the surplus to provide for those people who do the activities which in turn the subsistence farmers might benefit from not at all. But of course we are most often interested in exactly all of those tasks which are not farming (they include, among other things, literacy and the writing of history, along with functionally all of the events that history will commemorate until quite recently) and so the mechanisms by which that surplus is generated matter a great deal.

First, the large landholder’s farm itself existed to support the landholder’s lifestyle rather than his actual subsistence, which meant its production had to be directed towards what we might broadly call ‘markets’ (very broadly understood). Now many ancient and even medieval agricultural writers will extol the value of a big farm that is still self-supporting, with enough basic cereal crops to subsist the labor force, enough grazing area for animals to provide manure and then the rest of the land turned over to intensive cash-cropping. But this was as much for limiting expenses to maximize profits (a sort of mercantilistic maximum-exports/minimum-imports style of thinking) as it was for developing self-sufficiency in a crisis. Note that we (particularly in the United States) tend to think of cash crops as being things other than food – poppies, cotton, tobacco especially. But in many cases, wheat might be the cash crop for a region, especially for societies with lots of urbanism; good wheat land could bring in solid returns (Columella‘s griping notwithstanding). The ‘cash’ crop might be grapes (for wine) or olives (mostly for olive oil) or any number of other necessities, depending on what the local conditions best supported (and in some cases, it could be a cash herd too, particularly in areas well-suited to wool production, like parts of medieval Britain).

Second, the exploitation by the large landholder forces the smaller farmers around him to make more intensive use of their labor. Because they are almost always in debt to the fellow with the big farm and because they need to do labor to get access to plow teams, manure, tools, or mills and because the large landholder’s land-ready-for-sharecropping is right there, the large landholder both creates the conditions that impel small farmers to work more land (and thus work more days) than their own small farms do and also creates the conditions where they can farm more intensively (both their own lands and the big farm’s lands, via plow teams, manure, etc.). Of course the large landholder then generally immediately extracts that extra production for his own purposes. We’ll see when we get to the last post in this series on market interactions that this will be a theme: all of the folks who aren’t small farmers looking to try to get small farmers to work harder than is in their interest in order to generate surplus. In this case, all of that activity funnels back into sustaining the large landholder’s lifestyle (which often takes place in town rather than in the countryside), which in turn supports all sorts of artisans, domestics, crafters and so on.

And so the large landholder needs the small subsistence farmers to provide flexible labor and the small subsistence farmers (to a lesser but still quite real degree) need the large landholder to provide flexibility in capital and work availability and the interaction of both of these groups serves to direct more surplus into activities which are not farming.

But of course, both groups need to do some farming and so that is where we’ll finally turn next week: how does one actually grow some grain and turn it into delicious bread?

158 thoughts on “Collections: Bread, How Did They Make It? Part II: Big Farms

  1. The bit about how labor needs vary a lot by season feeds into the discussion we were having last week about why there wasn’t more monocropping. Well, if you farm only one crop then you have to plant it all and harvest it all at the same time, which can often be overwhelming. If you farm a bunch of crops then planting and harvesting can be staggered about a bit. These days in America we get itinerant farm labor that moves around the country harvesting etc. different kinds of crops in different places in different months but generally in pre-modern societies that wasn’t possible.

    For the bit about wage labor being shameful it’s often hard for modern people to wrap out heads around that because wage labor is so prevalent these days. But you get people talking about how demeaning wage labor is in all kinds of sources. For example it’s a big theme with early Marxist texts. The idea that a worker alienates their time to their employer and that that is WRONG is something that often modern readers don’t quite get and instead focus on stuff like employers taking lots of money. But as someone who’s moved from wage labor to owning a (very) small business it’s just hard to describe how much wage labor digs its claws into your brain until you don’t have to deal with it anymore. For example I’m at work right now writing this and not having that nagging feeling of “what if the boss got pissed me slacking off at work reading blogs… what if… what if…” is just worth so much for my peace of mind.

    1. One way around that is, of course, to make it something the youngsters do. When you are young, you work for wages, live in someone else’s home, and are unmarried. When you are fully adult, you work for yourself, live in your own home, and are married.

      1. Not sure there’s anything to get “around.” I’ve come to agree with these pre-modern people about wage labor. Of course it often helps economic efficiency, but having huge chunks of time not your own is deeply unpleasant.

        1. For what it’s worth, preindustrial wage labor does seem to have been more common for young unmarried people; I’ve even seen it argued that this is (part of) why wage labor was seen as demeaning. It’s like asking a professor to do grad student work. (Or, if you buy into the idea that burger-flipping is work for high schoolers to do after school, it’s like asking an adult with kids to support to flip burgers.)

          1. In the early days of the United States, it was taken from granted that wage labor was for the young — adults got married, lived in their own households, and lived off the fruits of their labor either by selling the products or directly using them.

            So thoroughly was this accepted that it was regarded as a serious question whether wage laborers had the necessary independence of character or were a danger to the republic.

  2. It’s difficult for me to understand why serfdom is in a different category than slavery. Both are not free and forced to work for the owner, both conditions are hereditary. In some cases, slavery might actually be better: slave owner has the incentive to give slaves sufficient food because otherwise he looses capital. It is not so for the serfs – in case of overpopulation it makes economical sense to just starve them. I argue that both conditions are equivalently cruel and have the same results.

    1. The main difference is that if you’re a serf you can’t be auctioned off and sold down the river. Which is a big deal if you care about your family.

      1. Well, you can in Russia. Also, medieval English, French and Italian serfs had rights – including access to courts.

        One element missing here is the state. Where this relied on the masses for military support, it had a strong interest in maintaining the small farmer and limiting landlord exactions. So in early and mid Republican Rome, in democratic Athens, in some Byzantine periods, some regimes in India and in China we see a constant battle between the landlords, the peasantry and the state. There’s a reason almost all Chinese dynasties are based in the small-farmer north rather than the richer, but landlord-dominated south: the north generates a lot more military muscle (and is critical for any regime that wishes not to go down to nomads).

        1. Well, in Russian serfdom of 17-19 centuries was more or less a final evolution step of it, an ultimate form that arose on very specific set of conditions:

          Russia at that time suffered from a severe lack of arable farmland (which is surprising as Russia is so large in popular consciousness) as continuous expansion southward and eastward was unable to rectify the problem because of logistical issues. It was hard to extract value from peasant communities in the newly conquered territories because they were too far away from the administrative centers of the country. Russia’s size was not an advantage, it was a nearly fatal flaw.

          Because of that colonization of these new expanses was both slow and heavily regulated as mass migration of peasants to new lands would cripple the tax base in the heartland. The topical essay aptly points out that subsistence farmers weren’t interested in generating surplus to the state, they wanted to live and work enough to support their lives and not much more.

          As the result Russian frontier was always underpopulated while heartland was overpopulated which allowed Russian nobility to slowly erode serf rights – labor was plentiful and there was always enough desperate people to coerce into plowing the fields.

          1. Russia had a serious problem in that the agricultural season was so short. The crucial planting had to be done MUCH faster to have any hope of success, needing a much large labor supply for that time.

            This, of course, was more mouths to feed.

          2. I have a 19th century account of life in Russia, written by an English man, who emphasizes how everybody from the landowner down has to work frantically during Russia’s short planting season, and again to get in the harvest.

          3. I read a bunch of Soviet defector autobiographies in the 80s, and one thing that kept recurring was mentions of non-rural people getting shipped out to the country for the “battle of the harvest.”

        2. And this right here is why I think there’s a few grains of truth in what this blog called the Fremen mirage.

          In pre-modern societies areas with lots of small farmers generally did better militarily than areas with huge estates, just like what you’re talking about. You can find scores of examples of this across history. Often military deterioration goes hand in hand with the growth of large estates and the decline of small farmers.

          How this connects to the Fremen mirage is that a lot of harsh places are just too marginal for large estates so you get a lot of small farmers (or herders or what have you) by default. This often lets them punch above their weight military (they often still lost because small populations in marginal land are going to have a hard time beating large states with huge populations no matter what).

          Also you sometimes get states expanding on the backs of small farmer-based militaries, then ossifying as the elite take over more land, then having a period of chaos in which a lot of large estates are broken up. Of course sometimes local elites grab even more power when the central government breaks down but rich people generally have an easier time saving money than more people so in a lot of periods of peace and prosperity inequality grows which is generally bad for the military performance of pre-modern states.

          1. I keep being stunned about the amount of military manpower Republican Rome had access to. Not just how again and again they could raise brand new armies after some horrible defeat, but sometimes it seems that every petty rebel could just raise six legions for the rebellion like it was nothing. This deteriorates to an incredible extent over time.

          2. Yup, large freeholding populations can result in huge reserves of military manpower, that you just don’t get with unfree labor. The fact that again and again powerful countries cut the legs out from under their own military power by not doing everything they could to maintain large freeholding populations tells you everything you need to know about how much many elites cared about their own countries.

          3. Why would an area with lots of small farmers have more soldiers than an area controlled by large landowners? I understand that an area where the large landowners’ laborers were mostly slaves would work this way, both because there would probably be legal protections against the state taking people’s slaves and because the relationship between slave and master would be adversarial enough that the slaves wouldn’t want to fight for their masters and masters wouldn’t trust their slaves to do so. (This might be less so for the few slaves whose work required trust and therefore better treatment, e.g. vilici or some personal servants, but it would remain true for the agricultural workers who would probably compose most of an estate’s slave population.) However, I thought that feudal lords could make their serfs fight with them in a crisis, and I don’t see why tenant farmers, wage laborers, or smallholders interacting with large landowners would not be the targets of either a recruitment campaign or outright conscription by the state.

          4. “I don’t see why tenant farmers, wage laborers, or smallholders interacting with large landowners would not be the targets of either a recruitment campaign or outright conscription by the state.”

            The problem here is that if your economic system is based on repression, you will have both a problem with morale – your oppressed masses likely aren’t eager to fight for their oppressors – and the problem that if you arm and train them, future oppression might be trickier. You can put your serfs on the battlefield, but it will mostly be a case of “take this spear, stand over there, get slaughtered”. Meanwhile, independent farmers have a stake in the system, and may well want to fight for their country if it means protecting their farms.

            There’s a reason revolutionary France could perform the levée en masse and beat the tar out of its neighbours, and it’s also no coincidence that in much of Europe in the 19th century, questions of citizenship, voting and conscription went hand in hand.

          5. Well you can make a standing army out of the poor but that’s expensive. It’s very very hard to make a militia or feudal levies out of them since they don’t have the resources to arm themselves and they’re not going to want to fight. Also they’ll be treated like crap due to the social system they’re in which is horrible for morale. If we look at the Spartan example arming people who’d love to “eat you raw” and sending them at your enemies have obvious drawbacks.

          6. What you’re seeing isn’t the presence of certain lifestyles leading to military achievements, you’re seeing the absence of deep income inequalities that inevitably lead to disaster. A Big Man makes numerable multiples of what a smallholder makes in a harvest, but a Big Man makes IN-numerable multiples of what a serf does. Likewise a Khan to a man with three sheep or a slave. Mongol conquests of feudal societies don’t look that unbelievable when you see how bad the inequalities had gotten in those places.

    2. The differentiation between serfdom and slavery has actually been a pretty contentious one, even in academia, in big part because it’s not very clear if our medieval actors themselves actually saw any difference between the two (our latin text use the same vocabulary for both situations). That said, I feel there is a real difference in the fact that, while definitely non-free, serfs aren’t actual property to be sold at will by their master, and do tend to have access to more rights (like marriage for instance, usually conditioned by a fee/bribe to pay the master to consent) than slaves.
      As to the protection this condition provides, it’s hard to tell. I’m not sure the economic incentive to keep them alive is that much worse than that of an “unqualified slave” (god that felt wrong to type), especially in times where they aren’t in low supply (XVIIth-XIXth century plantations being a horrific offender in that regard) and there is a social motivation, as they are part of your clientele network as a nobleman. Now, this protection was probably not nearly as effective as our noble sources like to brag about, but considering you have, in the early middle ages, cases of freemen farmer choosing (and how distressing it is to think of the situation that gets you to burn all social standing left to keep your family alive for another winter) to become serfs seems to points towards this protection being real, albeit maybe only for a limited time and place.

      I do agree it’s just as morally abject a practice as slavery though, 100%.

      1. Then again, we are no longer accustomed to the notion of having one’s life and status dictated by lifelong hereditary obligations; but people in earlier societies were. There was a whole class of nobility in medieval Germany, the ‘ministeriales’, who were technically serfs and were bound by the same kind of restrictions that peasant serfs were; they couldn’t marry without permission, for example.

      2. I can clearly see why it was contentious. There are many similarities. Serfdom is not a medieval practice, in Russia it was mostly abolished in 1861 so almost at the same time as slavery in US. Many landowners claimed that serfs, who looked the same and spoke the same language, belonged to a different race which was inherently stupid and lazy. There are plenty of sources of landowners making such arguments in XIX and even XX century.

        1. Some UK politicians on record as declaring the UK workers ‘the laziest in the world’. Seems to be a common attitude among the higher classes.

          1. Reminds me of a claim by Frank Grimes of The Simpsons that Homer Simpson would have starved in any country other than America, despite the fact that the USA’s social safety nets are pretty crummy compared to the rest of the global north.

      3. marriage for instance, usually conditioned by a fee/bribe to pay the master to consent

        You have to pay for a marriage license. Does that make you a slave?

        1. I would think no, though it’s an unjust state of affairs.

          You also have to pay to eat, which is a lot less optional than marriage, and we don’t think that makes a person a slave.

        2. I think the key distinction there is “consent” — needing someone to actually allow your marriage is an additional layer of unfreedom on top of needing to pay for it, even if the consent is generally pro forma after the fee is paid.

        3. The price of a marriage license in modern societies is broadly commensurate with the bureaucratic costs associated with doing the legal paperwork, making it rather less burdensome. We COULD have the clerk responsible for filing marriage certificates be entirely supported by universal taxation instead, but it wouldn’t really make things obviously more just than having the married couples themselves pay the fee.

          That’s a pretty different order of problem than needing to pay the landlord a month’s wages for permission to start a family.

  3. Typos, although in some cases I may be wrong, it is just some usage I am unfamiliar with:

    may keep a view animals, -> may keep a few animals,

    and that smaller farmings growing the same crops -> and that smaller farms growing the same crops

    Consequently, the large estates of the very wealthy required the impoverished many subsistence farmers in order to function. -> Consequently, the large estates of the very wealthy required the impoverishment of many subsistence farmers in order to function.

    While serfs generally had more rights (particularly to person) than enslaved persons, -> Not sure, but maybe personal security?

    1. Couple more:
      “how their large landholdings and capital reshapes” -> “reshape”
      “the main income producing asset” -> “income-producing”
      “some small part of pasture” -> “of their pasture”/”small piece of pasture” (though as my colleague above said, low certainty)
      “having too much labor (and mouths to feed)” -> “(and too many mouths to feed)”
      “and and wells (something I did not expect)” -> “and wells”
      “That is, the high rents forces the tenants” -> “rents force”/”rent forces”
      “They oftne began with the farmer working” -> “often”

      1. And I’ll chime in with a few more:
        impoverished many subsistence farmers -> many impoverished subsistence farmers (as you can see, I thought it was merely a case of transposing the order of words)
        Caption for illustration of “Antigua”: seen on horseback to the left -> seen on horseback to the right
        vertical ties different from place -> vertical ties differ from place
        a Roman big-wig -> a Roman bigwig
        exploitation of the large landholder -> exploitation by the large landholder

    2. Fixed most. ‘Impoverished’ is an adjective, modifying ‘many subsistence farmers.’ I suppose a fancy way of saying “they needed many poor subsistence farmers.”

      “Personality security” has a similar sense, but the phrase “right to one’s own person” here shortened to “right of/to person” is the ‘right of self-ownership.’ I’ve clarified the phrase.

      1. One more:

        “the vast majority of economic activity was the production of the land.”

        Land’s one of those things they aren’t making (much) more of. The produce of the land was the aim.

  4. This seems a good place to ask about something I’ve wondered about, the “horse collars eliminated slavery” thing. How much, if any, truth is there to that? Obviously it is a oversimplified generalization at best.

    (The gist is that before horse collars you couldn’t get that much more work out of a horse than a person because the older harness cut off the horse’s wind, so a horse did 5 times as much work as slave, but ate 5 times as much. Horse collars let a horse do 10 times the work of a slave, for 5 times the food.)

    I first saw it in a science fiction novel and assumed it was true because it sounded plausible, but I’ve seen a few other things like that where I get the feeling that some author tossed it in and it got accepted uncritically by the SF reading community.

    (One of the others is “hydraulic empires never fall from internal problems.”)

    1. Horse collars arrived in Europe around 900, and were in general use by 1200 (they came from China, where they date back to 500). Agricultural slavery was replaced by proto-serfdom before 400 (house slavery went on until 1400 or so). Slaves require lots of oversight, are always plotting, run away…Unless you are farming a cash crop, serfs are much less bother.

      In any event, the main work animal in Europe was the ox. It is slower than a horse, but steadier, and exerts constant traction. A bullock team will lean into a load and keep pulling where a horse team will give up.

      1. Serfs also require lots of oversight, are plotting and run away a lot. Those complaints are all over the sources. In Russia some remote areas had independent societies of serfs who escaped.

        1. True, But C16 serfdom in eastern Europe is a different beast to early/mid medieval western European serfdom. Not that serfs in western Europe did not kick against the system, but they had a small but definite stake in it, and outlets other than hopeless revolt – mostly (jacqueries did happen).

          1. Serfs in Western Europe had also less places to run and hide to than those in Eastern Europe or remote parts of Russia. Western Europe was, relatively, heavily inhabited where it could be inhabited, the newcomer was seen with suspect and likely investigated by the local landlord who could be in fact a relative of the guy the serf had ran away from and, despite Robin Hood, woods weren’t that welcoming, especially in winter.

          2. Because of Robin Hood, among other things.

            He stole from the rich to give to the poor was a Tudor era thing. In the medieval ballads, he would regularly try to rob the poor, and if the poor man put up a good fight, induct him into the band. And if the man couldn’t — well, that never made it into a ballad.

  5. Itinerant Wage-Labour ?

    Some source seems say that population of this group can be quite large ? Often bringing trouble to villages they visit. Fransiscans apparently mainly composed of them. Gypsies, Assart team, and pilgrims also part of this group.

  6. I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest this to you, but I would love it if somewhere down the road, you gathered these kinds of essays into ebooks. My own Patreon is about worldbuilding, but it’s more about exploring the variety of approaches different cultures have taken to different aspects of society, rather than the nitty-gritty dynamics of how stuff works that you cover. It would be wonderful if I could point my readers and my writing students at titles they could pick up to learn more about the mechanics behind agricultural production and so forth. (Obviously books on such topics do exist already, but your posts have the virtue of being very accessible and engaging overviews, rather than deep dives into a specific place and time.)

    1. Seconded. Also, would be great if you could incorporate the comments you find insightful into the books.

  7. In case of fields that are divided in small plots of land which would have been allotted to different families (like in the map of last week post), how did the division worked? Did all the families that had a plot in a field worked the field together then the harvest was divided between them or the boundaries were visible and each family worked their plot independently?

    1. Yeah you can just see the sort of margin between “survive” and “live a decent life” in some places. For example where I live in Korea the older generations are visibly much much shorter on average than the younger generations. Just clear evidence of massive and persistent levels of malnutrition that made that sort of “agricultural surplus” possible.

      1. And the whole “raise a few more crops to pay taxes / rent / buy things on the market / prepare for a sacrifice and feast” thing can happen, but so can the “stop eating meat and go hungry some days to pay rent” and I think its really important to consider both possibilities. In Roman archaeology these days we have really exciting work on human remains and sewage and animal bones which lets us see how healthy and well-fed people near the middle of society were.

        1. IIRC the heights of various people rose and fell in different times in history, which is a rough proxy of nutrition. Korean peasants tended to not be well off, even compared to their Japanese and Chinese neighbors until very recently. After independence there was plenty of Japanese owned land to distribute to farms and create a huge class of small farmers that hadn’t been there before. It’s starting to fade away now (the average age of farmers is sky high) but it allowed for a few things for a while:

          1. The government (during the dictatorship) could get away with no investing much in the countryside without creating too much unrest since the farmers had their own land.

          2. While the farmers weren’t rich import controls on rice gave them enough money to, say, sell a cow and send a kid to college. Which helped create the modern Korean middle class.

          1. Oh I like that essay. It is going into the Fireside recommendation list. Skepticism about McEvedy and Jones! Be still my heart! I have a footnote in my dissertation pointing out that McEvedy and Jones’ regional population figures – from which the rest comes – seem never to match the estimates made by regional specialists.

      2. In the 19th century, a writer talked about the “more virile bearing” among French peasants who had been conscripted into the army even years after their service.

        That is, they were conscripted while technically men, but still young enough that eating soldiers’ rations made them distinctly better nourished.

        1. I read something about how when the British were recruiting for, I think it was the Boer War, they were shocked that the height of the average urban recruit was measurably shorter than for the Crimean War. The was the starting point for various laws to try and make the lives of poor city people somewhat less horrible.

        2. Emily Carr also noticed during her visit to France 1910-1912 that many of the people she met in the countryside were poorer than “our Indians” (and she spent a lot of time wandering around the Salish Sea sketching indigenous art, so she knew of what she spoke).

          1. Fentimore Cooper said the roads in rural France were worse than in America — and remember what sections of America he hung out in.

        3. I would think that even if someone was recruited after they stopped growing, better nutrition would still contribute to better health, fewer aches and pains, and getting a chance to put on more muscle. Hence “a more virile bearing,” even if they’re not physically taller.

  8. Fantastic post as ever, Bret, I just had a couple of questions about finer points.
    Firstly, when you draw the distinction between freeholders doing share-cropping on the side, and wage labour on the side, is the main distinction that in the former they are being compensated with a share of agricultural produce, and in the latter, currency?

    Secondly (and I feel you may have covered this but just wanted to be sure), when you talk about extra labour being required by big farms during high-intensity periods such as planting and harvest, surely those periods arrive at the same time of year for both large and small farmers? So the period of time when most labour is needed on the big farm is the same as when you would have less ‘surplus’ labour on a subsistence farm available to work on the big estate. So how might this work in practice? (I appreciate this would be subject to considerable variation in each society and you are trying to apply broad-brush principles). Presumably, for the reasons you outlined above in the vertical ties section, the big farm takes priority. So do the smallholders completely depopulate their farms on the ‘ideal’ harvest days to get the big estate done quickly, so they have time to get the harvest in on their land before the ideal window of opportunity passes? Or would the head of the household on the small farm stay to continue to work his land, while sending his other family members off to the big farm simultaneously?

    1. I’m not a historian but I am a farmer, so I think I can confirm your first question. Sharecroppers are paid with a portion of their produce, while wage laborers receive a daily cash payment. Note that this makes sharecropping a much easier option to manage – the farmer also has his own incentive to maximize yield, because even though he may be paying much of it in rent, he’d rather get 10 bushels of wheat out of a field than 9. It’s the different between a profit-sharing agreement and a set rate. Of course now the sharecropper joins the crowd of people griping about having to go help out on the big man’s farm instead of taking care of things on his rented ground and his home farm.

    2. I’d assume that was a big part of the reason why small farmers planted a wide variety of crops: to help avoid that kind of crunch as much as possible since different crops were harvested at different times.

    3. well it was mentioned that small farms have more labour then their small farms need, so it’s entirely possible the farmer would send his son to get work done on the share-crop while him and his brother plant whats necessary for their small allotment.

  9. > one assumes the peasantry viewed the matter quite differently,
    > though they only infrequently get a chance to say it to us

    This is a thing that I’d love to hear more about — it’s easy even for a non-historian like me to read lots about history from nobles’ or landlords’ perspective (and I guess it’s very hard to get rid of this bias), which makes me even more interested in what little accounts we maybe do have (which is how I interpret this sentence; that while there are few sources, some do exist).

  10. So far this has looked less at the process of farming and what not and rather more on the historical conditions that create subsistence farming and landowners.
    Feel a maybe different title for these past two articles would have been beneficial, maybe seperating them from the ‘how did they make things’ series and having it as an earlier ‘lifestyle and society’ series?

    Other than that it’s interesting stuff and it’s fascinating to consider how different the mindsets of people from the developed world are to our ancestors.
    However i’m not sure how keen I am on the pseudo Marxist Bourgeoisie and proletariat framing this seems to have.

    1. Like it or not, all those subsistence farmers were *real.* They existed. They were, indeed, working very hard to feed their families.

      Likewise, those leisured magnates who owned the agricultural capital and relied on their ability to get other people to work their estates for them were *real.* They, again, existed.

      Debt slavery was real. It was not a fun condition to be in, to the point where the debt slaves would typically revolt if they thought they could get away with it. Usually they couldn’t, despite superior numbers, which tells you a lot about whose side law enforcement and the military were on in these societies.

      Pointing out that the economy of pre-modern and early industrial times revolved heavily around getting subsistence farmers to work harder than was necessary to support themselves, often against their will by leveraging debts and legal obligations, is just *fact.*

      How we feel about it, or whether it offends us because we instinctively think of the owner-class of ‘big men’ as being in the right there, is beside the point.

      One of the reasons Marxist history took off in the first place is because he was one of the first people to point out that the society of his time objectively was divided into separate classes, one of whom labored and owned little or nothing, and one of whom owned nearly everything performed very little of the labor. In and of itself this is just cold hard fact. Marx’s predictions about how this system would evolve over time were incorrect, but the reality remains that the status quo of pre-industrial farming was harshly exploitative for the vast majority of any given human population.

  11. Great article, as usual. And also as usual, it sparked a question. Putting to one side the obvious immorality of slavery and other forms of non-free labor, I remember in high school being taught that at least by the time of 19th century America, chattel slavery was economically inefficient, and its pervasiveness in one part of the U.S. and not the other is part of the reason why the North economically became so much bigger than the South.

    Over in the periods you’ve been describing in this essay, it seems like non-free labor is efficient and in some ways almost inevitable. But surely pre-mechanized agriculture didn’t change all *that* much, did it? Was it a product of the social systems that incentivized certain economic relationships over others? What made slavery and serfdom losing propositions for the bigger landholders in 19th century U.S. but winners for their interests in an earlier time? Or am I just barking up the wrong tree repeating some sort of pseudohistorical myth here?

    1. My understanding, and i might be totally wrong, is that the slave economy of the antebellum south was much wealthier and more efficient than the traditional view has it. Just, the banks the plantation owners were generally based in the North, giving an illusion that the North was so much richer.

      The North was much more industrialised, but Southern cotton was a huge proportion of the world output, and certainly fed most of the cotton mills of Britain and France as well as of the North: indeed this was why the Rebel leaders were so sure that Britain and France would support them: they believed that if the cotton stopped coming, the crash in the European economies would essentially blackmail them into coming to their aid.

      1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the idea that slavery was less profitable largely comes from Southern slavery apologists such as George Fitzhugh, who harped on the argument that “wage-slavery” in the North was actually more profitable and more exploitative than Southern slavery, the latter of which carried with it implicit obligations and expenses during the off-season for the slave’s maintenance, whereas “wage-slaves” in the North could be fired and cast out into the street at will. However, it is telling that the actions of Southern slave-owners don’t seem to substantiate this idea because they were very interested in maintaining slavery, despite several big disadvantages of slavery:
        1. Oversight of slaves becomes increasingly difficult in anonymous urban environments where they might blend in with free blacks or escape with the help of free blacks or abolitionists. (And many slaves were actually used in skilled urban occupations, even in Southern cities such as Richmond). Hence the increasingly draconian laws against slave literacy, free black congregations, abolitionist propaganda, even discussion of abolitionism on the floor of Congress (“gag rule”), etc.
        2. The more owners make use of expensive equipment and machinery, the more you would prefer it to be handled by someone who is, if not working in your interest, then at least not hellbent against your interests, for fear of either deliberate sabotage or careless damage (and yeah, there’s whippings, but that doesn’t guarantee good morale, and do you really want to institute collective whippings if it is unclear who in your big workshop broke this or that tool? (Remember, these are more complicated and less transparent environments than a field).
        3. The more a society relied on slavery, the more it relied on bolstering the numbers of an implicit enemy in its own midst. There is some evidence that the reason some Northerners supported abolition in the late 1700s in their states was that they didn’t see the “Faustian bargain” as worth it. Sure, you might eke out a slightly larger profit in the short-run, but you are making your society less safe and stable in the long run…especially when the Haitian revolts start to serve as a warning. Notice also that many free-soilers in the North supported abolition with either the expectation, or outright demand, that it would be paired with “colonization” efforts—i.e. encouraging or forcibly shipping ex-slaves back to Africa. The fear was, these ex-slaves would still be an incompatible, dangerous element in society, whether due to their racial difference, their different culture from having been shaped by very different institutions, or the expectation that they would have “scores to settle” after obtaining freedom and…”the horror”…political rights.

        The sense I’ve always gotten was that slavery was somewhat more profitable than wage-slavery, but carried more and more visible *practical* downsides that bolstered the inherent moral arguments against slavery. (The profitability of slaves was especially attractive when you factor in the capital value that Southerners banked on of being able to re-sell slaves at a good price to the Western frontier, which is why most of them were not just content to allow slavery to persist where it already existed (Lincoln’s modest compromise), and why they were hellbent on actively expanding slavery to new states, and eventually even parts of Latin America according to the fever dreams of some arch-Confederates).

      2. Of course that’s not at all what happened.

        Memoirs of both slaves and slave owners show passive resistance was definitely a thing and slaves did not just lie down and let their owners trample them underfoot. Nor, to be fair, were most owners willing to invest in the kind of effort necessary to put down that resistance.
        As near as I can tell from the sources the majority of slaveowners were lousy managers who made no real effort to maximize their labor source. Though severely disadvantaged slaves had some input and most plantations operated along tacitly agreed lines of how much work was to be expected from them. Force was available yes. But it required an investment in time and effort on the part of the owner that most were reluctant to give and again to be fair even former slave Frederick Douglass agreed that there were social sanctions against what the white community would perceived as brutality. Slave testimonies strongly indicate that most of the brutality they were subjected too was the result of temper or whim rather than system. Not that that made it any better but it meant they were not beaten down to numb acquiescence.

    2. I’m not a historian, so take this with a grain of salt, but my understanding is that the inefficiency of slave labour boiled down to the quality and quantity of work you can get out of a slave population.

      Bluntly, slaves don’t want to work, because they get nothing for their labour except a sore back. And to get anything out of them, you need overseers, who are inherently parasitic. So if you have ten slaves and one overseer, you have eleven people doing the work of maybe eight. That’s a huge loss.

      The advantage to the slaveholder is that slaves also take none of the excess, because you don’t give them any. If you can get 8 people’s work out of 11, but you only given them the fruits of the labour of six, you can take the rest for yourself.

      Needless to say, this is a public welfare catastrophe – there’s less productive labour happening, and a huge portion of the people in it are horribly (and quite brutally) impoverished. But if you don’t care about them, you can gain quite a bit for yourself in the process. A 5th percentile Southerner in 1850 was almost certainly wealthier than a 5th percentile Northerner. The 70th percentile was a slave, and the 0.1st percentile was just a bigger plantation owner instead of an industrial magnate, but the upper class did very well for themselves.

      The reason why people say the North overtook the South is the industrial revolution. All of a sudden, innovation starts to look extremely profitable for all involved. But the slaves have little interest in any sort of innovation they might produce as free people, for the same reason they don’t want to work – they get nothing for it. So slaves generally have no reason to innovate, in a society where innovation is what makes a nation rich. You can see the problem here.

      Comes wartime, the North could ask its people for austerity to produce a surplus for military needs. Because they had widespread wealth, they could enact meaningful austerity. How much more can you squeeze out of a slave in 1863 than you did in 1859? Basically, all they could do was use slaves as military labour. (They could in principle have armed them, and I think a few did near the end, but that would basically eliminate their society in practice, both by undercutting their twisted theories of morality, and by giving slaves the power of meaningful resistance.)

      In short, I think the biggest difference is that innovation took over. And what had made slavery good for the slavers up until that point stopped addressing the biggest needs of society. The industrial age was about development, and while extraction still had value, you couldn’t choke off your development if you wanted to remain viable in the long run.

      1. “They could in principle have armed them, and I think a few did near the end, but that would basically eliminate their society in practice, both by undercutting their twisted theories of morality, and by giving slaves the power of meaningful resistance.”

        That was initially proposed by Patrick Cleburne, who, it’s worth noting, was an Irish immigrant who settled in Arkansas and became one of the very few high-ranking Confederates who wasn’t born on American soil. When word got to Jefferson Davis, he ordered all discussion of the topic squelched. The Confederate Congress finally authorized it in early 1865, and a few companies were raised in Richmond just before the end, but never saw combat.

        And, as it happens, your assessment of the basis of opposition to arming the slaves is entirely correct: “If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong. But they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. Better by far to yield to the demands of England and France and abolish slavery and thereby purchase their aid, than resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted; you want more soldiers, and hence the proposition to take negroes into the Army. Before resorting to it, at least try every reasonable mode of getting white soldiers. I do not entertain a doubt that you can, by the volunteering policy, get more men into the service than you can arm. I have more fears about arms than about men, For Heaven’s sake, try it before you fill with gloom and despondency the hearts of many of our truest and most devoted men, by resort to the suicidal policy of arming our slaves.”

        –Howell Cobb, letter to James Seddon

        1. Yup. I’ve read quotes to that effect before. I just couldn’t remember offhand how it had actually worked out (and I was writing it on a tablet that tends to eat my comments if I try to go to a different tab, so I didn’t want to check).

          Thanks for bringing the hard data.

          1. Also, the letter reveals the depths of denial that people will fall into–while Howell Cobb was talking about lack of arms rather than lack of men being the Confederacy’s problem, the Army of Tennessee was consolidating the remnants of forty regiments into four half-strength ones, because they couldn’t get recruits.

      2. I think a key concept here about the difference between slave labour and wage labour (pace Marx) is that wage labourers can be paid daily, they can be dismissed back to the poverty-stricken pool of the unemployed, whereas the slave is a wholly owned resource. The slave (as noted) has no incentive to work – no personal gain – so is likely to be less productive than the wage labourer, dependent on the fickle employer, particularly if there is a pool of potential wage labourers. However, these are more early modern or even 19th century arguments rather than ancient / medieval.

        It’s noticeable that in your post, Brett, you say that wage labourers are a comparatively small proportion of the workforce. What is it that restrains the development of a more capitalist economy in the ancient world, based on the extension of age labour? Is it lack mechanisation, or a greater ingrained consciousness of the vertical and horizontal social relations? Or something else?

        1. Even when you could, legally, punish a slave for shirking, it was often a practice to reward them for good work precisely because you can get them to work harder that way.

      3. One paper I’ve read (“The Economics of Slavery in the Ante Bellum South”, by John Moes, 1960, Journal of Political Economy, accessible for free at ) suggested that the American South’s problem was not slavery as such but slaveowners’ unwillingness to properly motivate their slaves. American slaveowners mostly used the threat of punishment, which has diminishing returns in addition to causing resentment, which leads to various forms of resistance such as intentional carelessness, slowness in working, damage to equipment, etc.; this point is more true for skilled or industrial labor, where more intentional effort is required and there are more opportunities for sabotage, than for simple agricultural labor. On the contrary, if slaves were offered rewards (usually the promise of freedom, but sometimes simply the chance to earn money, as with the ancient Roman peculium), they would be motivated to put in much more effort. In some cases this was done, especially in cities, where slaves, if permitted, could work for wages until they’d accumulated enough money to buy their freedom. However, most Southern slaveowners avoided this strategy. Partly this was because they generally didn’t want to live with many free blacks, and many of them worried that free blacks would make slaves more dissatisfied and might incite a slave rebellion. Partly, also, this was due to social constraints: many states had laws banning manumission or requiring that freed slaves immediately leave the state, and although enforcement of these laws was rather lax, they were enforced often enough that it became common for a slaveowner wanting to free their slave to instead sell them to some free black person whom the slave trusted to let them live as though they were free; moreover, in the period of reaction against abolitionism, when slavery was popularly regarded as a positive good, slaveowners could have faced social sanctions for freeing their slaves. In addition, Moes argues that many slaveowners were too racist to recognize that their slaves would respond to such incentives; he quotes a slaveowner who claimed to be genuinely surprised that his slaves worked much harder when he offered to free them as a reward for hard work. By contrast, in ancient Rome, manumission seems to have been common enough to become an integrated part of Roman laws and customs, judging by the law that made a freed slave their former owner’s client.
        It should be added that even if American slaveowners had used rewards to make their slaves more profitable, slavery might still not have been sustainable: Rome depended on frequent wars (by itself or its trading partners) to maintain its supply of slaves, and with the international slave trade banned from 1808 on, it’s possible that a system of reward-based slavery in America would also have become unsustainable as most slaves earned their freedom, causing the supply of slaves to fall drastically.

        1. In C.S. Lewis’s Studies In Words, he goes on at some length about the “servile” character in classical eyes, because it is very different from the modern usage. Someone is slavish is a shrewd, crafty, and utterly self-interested person. In character rather than legalities — as usual, five seconds after someone uses an upper-class term to mean “good” and a lower-class one to mean “bad,” someone else points out that there are “free” slaves and “servile” freemen.

        2. Precisely because American slavery was a race-based caste system, a fence of cultural customs sprung up around it to dehumanize the slaves in the eyes of the masters.

          In ancient Rome, a master could plausibly imagine a life in which, by some misfortune on their part or their ancestors’ part, they themselves might be a slave. And slaveowners associated with freed slaves and the children of freed slaves; even if those freed were part of the lower classes of society.

          In the antebellum South, no white master could imagine being a slave, because that would involve being black. They did not voluntarily associate with the handful of free blacks present, and discouraged other whites from doing so. The boundary between ‘slave’ and ‘master’ became more rigid, and acquired all the vices of a caste system in addition to the vices of slavery.

          The social institutions required to maintain racial caste slavery became this self-sustaining vortex of cruelty and racism, which in turn made it impossible for the plantation owners to conceive of any way to order their society that *didn’t* revolve around maximal abuse and cruelty towards their slaves.

    3. Caitlin Rosenthal’s book Accounting for Slavery is a good window on some aspects of this question: in essence, the line between chattel-slavery-based and non-chattel-slavery-based labor systems can be a lot blurrier than many people like to imagine, and the ideology of a hard and fast “slave versus free” distinction can function as a way for the elites of a “free” labor system to act shocked (shocked!) by abuses and atrocities that are allegedly exclusive to the slave-based system they disavow, even if as Rosenthal outlines in the American case, many of the practices of “scientific management” we imagine as having begun in the factories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries actually had their roots in the workforce management techniques of early to mid 19th century slave plantations.

      By this token, the abolitionist trajectory of the 1850s through 1870s can be interpreted in a similar context to the pair of Roman reforms Bret mentions, a portion of the labor force fighting to secure some measure of rights and autonomy, before eventually being pushed back into a subservient position similar in many ways to what they’d fought to abolish. (Cf the Reconstruction-era goal of freedmen being granted “forty acres and a mule,” a proposal that was received with abject horror by many elites of the time, who saw it as the creation of an “unproductive” peasant class from which the extraction of large surpluses would be difficult or impossible.)

      1. Heh, that last line resonates with the latest post in the series, as well as my recent reading. All about getting the peasants to do more work than they need.

    4. The traditional idea was that slavery was inefficient but there’s been a lot of pushback against that in academic circles in recent decades. Some reasons why slavery was probably fairly efficient include:

      1. Slaves were EXPENSIVE. Slave owners were evil, not stupid. They wouldn’t have paid huge fortunes for their slaves if they weren’t making a lot of money off of them.

      2. You can make slaves work longer hours than free workers so you can get more work time out of them.

      3. Just because slaves didn’t WANT to work hard didn’t mean it wasn’t possible to wring a lot of effort out of them. I mean people working hourly jobs don’t want to work hard either and their bosses often get a lot of effort out of them without the sorts of horrible physical violence that slave owners had to scare people into putting in effort. Also like WLGR points out, slave plantations had the precursors of “scientific management” techniques that often worked pretty well to get slaves to work hard. Also people don’t necessarily work harder for themselves than for their boss/owner. I know when I’m cooking at home I putter around the kitchen and take my time while when I worked in a kitchen when I was a student I had to keep cranking to get the dishes out on time.

      4. During the heyday of chattel slavery dried cod was dirt cheap, making it possible to get some protein into the diets of slaves without spending much money in a way that generally wasn’t done in the pre-modern world.

      5. Look at the death rates of slaves. They were horrific. Especially in the sugar colonies. People don’t die that much if they’re taking it easy.

      1. Climate and endemic disease had something to do with the mortality too. I dimly remember reading that the North American slave community was unusual in being able to sustain itself by reproduction. The West Indies required constant importation of new slaves. In America slavery survived decades after importation outlawed. Of course there were still smugglers but they didn’t make much difference apparently.

        1. Being less likely to die of malaria certainly helped…

          For the American South, yes the death rate wasn’t so high that it pushed population growth negative without the importation of further slaves but it was bad enough as it was.

          1. After the Atlantic slave trade was banned, the population of slaves in the US increased from 1.1 million in 1810 to over 3.9 million in 1860. In 1850 the life expectancy of Whites was about 40 years and Slaves about 36 years. The slaves were worked hard, but not so hard that owners lost due to exceptional early death.

      2. >They wouldn’t have paid huge fortunes for their slaves if they weren’t making a lot of money off of them.

        slaves could often be acquired relatively cheaply as a result of warfare, debt, etc. And in the relatively fewer places where slave populations reproduced themselves, excess slaves could be a problem.

        >2. You can make slaves work longer hours than free workers so you can get more work time out of them.

        More hours doesn’t necessarily mean more productive. A worker whose only goal is not getting hit isn’t going to be anywhere near as productive as someone who’s actively trying to be productive and get ahead, almost regardless of the numbers of hours worked.

        >People don’t die that much if they’re taking it easy.

        how much of that death was from disease (exacerbated perhaps by malnutrition)? the death rates in those places were pretty terrible for non-slaves too.

        1. I was specifically talking about slaves in the antebellum American South where they were quite expensive and not generally available through warfare etc. The total value of all slaves in the South was astronomical.

          Slavery is of course not always economically rational, but it was making slaveholders a bundle of money before emancipation.

          1. The value put on the slaves was so high that I suspect some of the
            price of the slaves was for prestige/speculative value rather than
            pure economic production. I saw an estimate that the value of the
            slaves in the south was 12 times the value of the annual cotton
            production. If you had to borrow at the prevailing rate of 6% to pay
            for the slaves to run the cotton plantation that wouldn’t be
            profitable. Now of course many of the slaves were not involved with
            cotton production but were domestic servants and performed other tasks
            such as raising tobacco. you also have to purchase land and other
            expenses. So, I think the ratio of slave + other resource/output is
            maintained, and the stated values of the slaves is above the economic

            The cotton plantations were profitable probably because slaves were
            inherited and breed more slaves to work the plantations, so they
            didn’t have to buy most of the slaves on the open market.

          2. If you enslave a baby, they cannot work. You have to feed them for years while they cannot work. That is expensive. Someone must make sure that the baby does not kill themself. That takes time and attention. Et cetera.

    5. Slavery was efficient in the sense of being profitable, whether or not it was optimal.

      But specializing in agriculture, free or unfree, especially extractive plantation agriculture, is going to leave you disadvantaged compared to an industrializing neighbor, especially if you then pick an industrial-era war with them.

      1. Amen. Southerners drastically underestimated the importance of the Norths’s industrial superiority and equally drastically overestimated the importance of King Cotton.

  12. “the fact that outlawing debt-bondage at both Athens and Rome was regarded as a crucial legal victory for the poor farmers (and one forced by a near-revolt of the rural lower classes in both cases) suggests that more often than not, the large landholders lent in a predatory manner.”

    I think you assume too much here. People don’t look at the usual case when they get up in arms to outlaw something, they look at the worst cases. It would not take many predatory lenders here to get people indignant.

    I also wonder – what replaced debt bondage as a disaster backstop after it was outlawed?

    1. As far as we can tell, in both cases ‘debt bondsman’ had become a large class of individuals significant enough to attract the attention of the elites and be a potential source of power for ambitious men looking to overthrow the state. So I think, i both cases, it seems clear that the practice was widespread.

      Certainly this is what is suggested by recourse to modern comparison. Estimates for the number of people in India held in debt bondage, for instance, vary but the figures are put in the millions, despite the practice being illegal. Rates of debt-peonage in colonial South East Asia were also very high.

    2. There don’t have to be many debt bondsmen – merely many people who are afraid of becoming debt bondsmen. Whether they are rightfully afraid or just paranoid over something that’s unlikely to happen to them, is I dare say not a crucial question.

  13. Doesn’t the word “capital” itself come directly from the Latin for “head,” as in “head of cattle”? Seems like that connection would only strengthen your point here.

    I’m sure you’ll be talking a lot in later posts about more historically recent ideas of capitalist development/modernization theory, and it’ll be interesting to see how Panglossian or non-Panglossian your perspective on that stuff runs, but for now I think it’s worth noting somewhat sardonically about the whole modern-day philanthropic discourse of “microfinance” and “microloans” as some kind of new and deeply innovative solution to problems of Third World rural agricultural poverty, as if the altruistic charitable nobility of such a thing was thoroughly indisputable, and as if our modern crop of global capitalist elites were the first people to ever conceive of such an idea.

  14. Very interesting post, it really puts our modern economic situation in perspective. I do have a couple of questions.

    You said for tenants often the produce split was “50/50”, but you mentioned 1/11 as conditions in Medieval serfdom. Is the 50/50 from the Roman era, or the early modern era, or something else?

    Did the typical big man get all of his income from farming his land? Also, how much did other economic activities (i.e. mining, lumber, etc.) contribute? (If the answer is coming in a future post, feel free to answer it then)

    1. One thing to read is Foxhall, “The Dependent Tenant” in the JRS. There is a ton of this. The rates for sharecropping even within single systems vary by how much work the sharecropper does and what they supply (labor? equipment? water? seed?). Foxhall notes in just one Mexican community, rates of the tenant’s share of production that ran from 9% to 80% with various arrangements, all within a single village on a single (in this case government sponsored) system.

      Evidence for the obligations of serfs gets even more complex, with tons of local variation. Sometimes a serf might be obligated to provide a fixed return, sometimes a percentage of the harvest.

      As for the income of big men – also varies *greatly* place to place. Roman aristocrats often had varied business interests; medieval aristocrats were more likely to be pure landowners or nearly so (but were also political elites with tax revenues coming from other economic activity). As a rule, land income dominated the income of these guys, just as it dominated the economies they were in. Being more specific than that would require a directed study of a specific group of aristocrats (and I’m really only qualified to go that in depth on the Roman ones).

      1. Do you have any plans to do a deep dive on the Roman economy on the blog? (Failing that, are there any of your academic publications that a savvy non-expert could enjoy, which could be seen publicly?)

    2. On wikipedia, just in post-Civil War sharecropping the ratio taken could go from 1/3 to 2/3 depending on who was providing seed and animals.

  15. “Second, the exploitation by the large landholder forces the smaller farmers around him to make more intensive use of their labor.”
    Last week, you basically said that free smallholders effectively faced a ~100% marginal tax rate on their own production above subsistence. Here, however, the duties _being set by custom_ means they are very slow to renegotiate, thus as a mechanism, they can create a system with a low(-ish) marginal tax rate and (probably) a negative intercept. I.e. if we worked it out by the rules, a tenant or serf who harvested ~zero grain one year would *owe* quite a lot of grain to the landlord.

    Unrelated: didn’t anyone tell movie-makers that a military CAMPaign is basically a huge camping trip with a bit of extra equipment? Like so many things military, a spear makes for a good analogy: the iron spearhead one tries to stick into the enemy is a small part of the whole weapon which mostly consists of the unglamorous wooden haft; the fighting is a small part of the whole operation. When a spear breaks, it is almost always the wooden haft that breaks; when a large fraction of an army dies, it is almost always a logistics mess-up. A skilled person can even wield the haft without any iron cutlery at the end (a quarterstaff) to good effect; Fabius can defeat Hannibal without much fighting.

    1. Well the tooth-to-tail ratio can vary enormously from society to society. In some pre-modern societies a “war” was often a short march over to your neighbor, fighting one battle and then going home again. Don’t need much tail for that. But later on that changes enormously. But the old old old system still seems to have its teeth sunk into some bits of popular imagination (see a lot of soldiers in movies not even having packs).

  16. Is crop failure / famine loans the main origin of large landholders as far as we can tell, or are there other likely origins (particularly at the very beginning of complex agrarian societies)?

    I was thinking that in early agrarian societies with relatively low inequality bad luck such as crop failures might put some peasant households in debt (in terms of favors if nothing else) to luckier peasant households that by chance have been less affected. Then the initially lucky households turn the favors into capital, land holding, and social status which gives them the capacity to play the same role but on a larger scale in the next famine, further stratifying society as time passes. Outside of a very intense scrambling of the social order as with industrialization, one would expect lots of persistence of large landholding families, with their “falls” being to merely just above the richest peasants rather than enjoying the world-spanning luxuries at an imperial court. Are the families of large landholders particularly durable compared to the families of smallholders that they dominate and the political systems that the large landholders form to coordinate themselves?

    1. If you start with perfectly equal holdings, there are a bunch of ways for inequality to grow without aggressive seizure, some ways being luck, some being choices. How many kids you choose to have, how many kids happen to survive (if you have 4 kids while expecting 2, having all 4 reach adulthood may be an economic tragedy), whether you get hit by pests and need to sell to/borrow from a neighbor, whether you do what’s needed to get by vs. investing effort into improving your land… a couple of only children can produce a kid who inherits 4x the initial lot size in two generations, while someone in a prolific family might end up with 1/16th initial, or nothing.

      I have no idea of the historical ratio between luck/investment choice and aggression causes of inequality. Obviously there’s a lot of the latter, like European colonialism vs. natives, or getting invaded by steppe nomads or the Normans, but for growth of ‘big men’ within e.g. a New Guinea village? Dunno.

      1. Currently reading Marc van de Mieroop’s excellent survey of Mesopotamian civilisation. Extensive debt peonage turns up there in the second millennium BCE, along with a new ruling class. Previously, it had been discouraged by state policy, including periodic debt forgiveness (applied to land loans only – they did not apply to commercial loans). Here we see the concern of rulers to maintain a peasant class they could draw on for service – military or religious or infrastructural. There may have been a change in military technology, or it may accompany a shift to larger states.

        In Mughal India, the state by custom intervened in poor years with loans, debt jubilees and tax holidays. Again, the concern was to maintain a peasant class that would support the civil and military administration (through jagirs – allotments of land revenue to officials). There is a similar picture in the Ottoman empire. East India Company rule neglected the custom in favour of increased extraction, in the case of Bengal, and Ottoman rule weakened as large landowners consolidated local power.

        1. I think there was a Chinese dynasty that tried aggressive land reform? Like peasants received land at majority, and it got reallocated when they died. *Twelve Kingdoms*, a Japanese series about 12 fantasy knockoff Chinas which exist I assume because some god wanted to play god, features this heavily (and more persistent than the real life version would have been.)

          1. Yes, there were schemes by which each peasant family got an allotment. One downside of that was that since it could not be inherited, permanent improvements were discouraged.

      2. a couple of only children can produce a kid who inherits 4x the initial lot size in two generations, while someone in a prolific family might end up with 1/16th initial, or nothing.

        Actually, that’s something I’ve been wondering about… The Bible, and especially the OT, frequently refers to large families as a blessing, whereas it would seem that, for inheritance reasons, the optimal number of children would be one or two. Was the idea just something along the lines of “Most of them are going to die anyway, but by having a lot, you can be confident that at least one will outlive you”? Or did ancient Hebrew inheritance customs prevent farms from being split up like this (and if so, how did all the landless younger sons get their food)?

        1. Well, putting aside the emotional blessings of children or grandchildren, from the parents’ POV more children may mean more chance of being taken care of in old age. As long as the spares can eke by on the farm or sharecropping or in military service, if your main heir dies suddenly, you’ve got backups to inherit and keep supporting you.

          In a sense the ideal life cycle might be to have more land than one family needs, have a bunch of kids, only one son/daughter inherits and reproduces, the others hang on as extra labor and spare heirs. I think wolf packs are said to actually work that way (as opposed to alpha/omega dynamics), minus the farming of course. Sort of proto-termite or -naked mole rat, too.

          For whatever reason my mother’s family was a bit like this. Four siblings. Eldest married a rich man in the film industry, middle two (male and female) never married, youngest did but his acting career was meh and his wife died early of TB. My impression is that eldest (or her husband) basically supported the rest, giving them jobs, and a (not as nice) house next to theirs. Of course, one can extrapolate only so much from a 1930s LA film magnate and his in-laws, but I’d always wondered if the middle two not marrying was chance or policy.

          1. Ireland did actually run like this during the 19th century. One son would marry. One daughter would marry (generally after her sister-in-law brought in the dowry, so they could afford her dowry). And the rest would manage somehow. Often by emigration. (There’s a reason why the Irish were the only immigrants that were majority female.)

        2. I wonder if the fact the Hebrews were originally nomadic pastoralists had anything to do with it? Livestock, the capital of a pastoralist society multiplies in a way land doesn’t.

        3. Having a shit ton of kids might reduce the average welfare of your average kid but it increases your chance of being fed by someone when you’re old.

    2. The traditional Russian peasant village – the Mir – did a decent job of at least stopping runaway inequality. The land was administered by the village (even if it belonged to a landowner, but frequently after the abolition of serfdom, the land was controlled by the village and its peasants, and in turn in debt to the former landowner for the land compensation), and land was redistributed according to population, and could not be freely transferred or sold.

      What made it work is that it was supported from multiple directions – for the peasants, it meant an amount of equality as well as a kind of safety net, while for the state, the arrangement helped ensure social order and dependable taxes. What it didn’t do was promote efficiency, and in the 19th century, this is starting to matter.

      1. Also it didn’t encourage landless peasants to move to the cities to work in factories etc.

  17. “I have a 19th century account of life in Russia, written by an English man, who emphasizes how everybody from the landowner down has to work frantically during Russia’s short planting season, and again to get in the harvest.”

    But unless there had been a notable climate change recently, that had always been true, so why the late change to nearly chattel levels of ‘serfdom’?

      1. Dunno about Canada, but Scandinavian was so short and yielding such poor results that they turned to raiding their neighbors into an industry (with women being used as soldiers as well, altho that’s debated) rather than an occasional way to integrate a farm economy. So much so that “a Viking raid” is still proverbial in several European languages a thousand years later.

    1. I doubt it had anything to do with it. Possibly the open eastern frontier did have something to do with serfs loss of rights. As somebody wrote above it was necessary to keep the labor sources in the heartland not hearing off.

    2. Ukraine and southern Russia are about as far north as France. Why would their agricultural season be shorter? They might have colder winters – further from the sea – but that just helps keep the pests down.

      There is no reason why slavery or serfdom should be needed for year round labour, and good reason why they would be unsuitable for seasonal labour. Which is presumably why early modern England got by perfectly well without them, and perhaps explains why Russia was so poor with them.

      It might be better to look at this the other way around: If most free people are reluctant to move from the family farm and their relationships with their neighbours, slaves might be the only workers you can recruit from any distance. So if you specifically need Russians or Africans as workers, and free ones are tied to their birthplace, you need slaves to settle anywhere new.

      (If you can use English farmhands, and they are not so tied down, you do not need slavery anymore. Certainly, the only British colonies to use slaves were the ones where British emigrants tended to die of something tropical within a few years of arrival. And all such colonies imported African slaves as long as it was legal to do so.)

      IIRC from Kolchin, the most fertile areas of Russia had the most slavery:

      1. The Gulf Stream.

        There are places in England where they grow palm trees in the same parallel as Hudson’s Bay has serious trouble with polar bears.

      2. The ‘second wave’ East European serfdom was tied to raw material exports and open frontiers. In Russia, the state relied on smaller landowners for administration and military service. These relied on peasant labour. As the nomad (Tatar etc) threat diminished, peasants moved to new, better land. The response was to tie them to the landowner. The state and elites also relied for income on export of raw materials – grain, timber, tar, flax (In Hungary, cattle). It needed to maximise production in the face of the peasant preference for self-sufficiency (same pattern as in southern US, Caribbean, Soviet Union in the late 20s/early 30s, colonial regimes in India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and many places in Africa). The policy response was tighter control of labour.

      3. France is mostly oceanic climate, whereas Southern Russia is continental climate, with much higher variations in temperature.

          1. And that was my point? That you can’t compare the agricultural seasons between Russia and France just on the basis of their latitude

  18. “Livestock, the capital of a pastoralist society multiplies in a way land doesn’t.”

    Though capped by how much land you have to graze them on.

    1. True, though if grazing becomes short you can give one of your children a portion of the flocks and send him out to find new pastures (as Abraham and Lot do in Genesis), in a way that isn’t possible for agriculturalists.

  19. “I keep being stunned about the amount of military manpower Republican Rome had access to.”

    I can’t speak for the rebellions, but Mary Beard in *SPQR* seems to say that Rome’s killer app was that it demanded manpower of conquered neighbors, rather than heavy taxes or stealing their land. This both boosted their reserves and gave the conquered a stake in the system (shares in the loot from future wars.) Goes with their relatively generous attitude toward citizenship. Although the government was mostly that of a city-state with an increasingly large empire, the ‘polity’ providing citizen-soldiers was an increasingly large blob within the empire. Thus they could lose whole armies to Hannibal or Pyrrhus and summon up new armies.

  20. I wonder if it might be better to use the word “resource” instead of “capital”? The latter has a lot of baggage. Is there a reason for use of capital?

    1. I am not a specialist in economics or history, just a curious amateur. My understanding is that “resource” is a more general term, in that resources can sometimes become capital but often not. A resource is something often consumable and more finely divisible. Capital is something valuable and probably indivisible that makes a qualitative difference between those who have capital and those who don’t.

      So, by my definition (happy to be corrected!) grain is a resource, usually eaten, sometimes sold. Almost everyone in a farming estate has access to grain resources, from a little to a lot. An iron plough and pair of oxen is capital, either you have it or you don’t. If you have it, you are qualitatively better off in some ways, you get a bigger harvest with less effort, or you can rent it out to others.

      1. This illustrates the problem, I think. There’s no reason why a plow team cannot be considered a resource as well as grain. Resources aren’t necessarily consumed (or not all at once). “Capital” is often defined as “money or assets used for investment”, or in Marx, money or commodities (means of production, labour power) deployed into the production of commodities or sale of commodities in the market; in order to expand the capital. This last bit is critical. The purpose of the plow team, if owned by a “big man” in a pre-capitalist society, is not to expand that person’s capital (money or commodities for investment). It has a very different social and economic function as explained by Brett. “Capital” suggests some form of “capitalist exploitation” – but the type of exploitation here is very far from capitalist, I think.

          1. Thanks. I’ve been immersed in Marx recently, and this is very much at variance from Marx’s definitions. I see where this is coming from though, so thanks for clarifying. As you can see, I’m not an economist.

        1. On the contrary, the plow-team *is* capital. It’s a means of production (a possession that can be used to amplify the productivity of labor), and it is indeed used to produce greater amounts of commodities.

          The landlord benefits from the plow-team because the plow-team assists in the production of goods for sale on the market (because his lifestyle depends on market sale of crops). He can also further increase the rewards he gets from owning this capital by renting it out to others.

          1. It’s not capital in the sense that Marx expressed it – later writers and revisionists maybe might include it. For Marx, you can’t have capital without capitalists, and the effectively feudal or pre-industrial land-owner is not a capitalist; in other words their role is not the advancing of capital in order to create more capital. The plow-team is not converted from the land-owner’s advanced money capital. Neither is the primary purpose of the land-owners production the replacement and growth of capital.

          2. Marx’s definition as you put them here have been functionally abandoned by economic historians as unworkable in basically any pre-modern period. The Marxist model of economic development doesn’t have many defenders left – none of prominence that I know of in English, to be sure – in the medieval or ancient fields.

            There is absolutely evidence that pre-industrial land-owners behave in ways that we might define as ‘capitalist’ despite Marx’s insistence that, being in either the feudal or slave mode of production, they ought not. There was an effort to argue that the ancient world, at least, was insulated from this (most associated with M.I. Finley); the term for it is ‘primitivism’ (as distinct from ‘modernism’). My strong impression is that the primitivists have mostly lost the debate, victims of the radical improvement in the quality and quantity of the archaeological record – even to the point of pushing for the presence (if not by any means dominance) of meaningful and extensive market interactions, particularly in long-distance trade, in the bronze age Near East (as distinct from the older theory of a pure ‘redistribution economy’).

  21. Apologies if I missed this in there somewhere, but when we talk about the size of the “big” estates, how big is big? I assume there is a great deal of variation between place and time, but is the threshold for a “big” estate 10x the size of the average farmer? 100x?

  22. How common was the farming of legumes in the ancient world? From am modern perspective, it looks like a no-brainer – nitrogen fixation AND protein source, what’s not to like? But I don’t see a lot about it in texts.

    1. I assume pretty common, given that they’re as old as agriculture itself in the Old and New Worlds. America had the varieties of common bean but the Old World had lentils, fava beans, chickpeas, soybeans.

      Texts are largely written by elites, who would prefer to eat meat as their protein. Beans are for poor people! Or so I’ve read.

      They wouldn’t know about nitrogen fixation, of course, just at best, observations that it worked well in crop rotation. They wouldn’t know about protein either, though societies seem to have settled on grain-legume dietary mixes, presumably because those who didn’t, didn’t last as long.

      Wiki claims crop rotation goes back at least to 6000 BC, alternating between legumes and cereals. Americas did the Three Sisters thing, with beans climbing up the cornstalk.

      1. Well It also depends on regional climate or even very local micro climate.Pulses of all sorts were popular. Not just the ones humans eat, The Romes for example liked to use a large variety for pasture for cattle. And it could also be used as green manure. Although that works best if you have enough rainfall and or irrigation. Your rotation gets harder in say Attica where you really need a moisture retention rotation (clear field you keep turning over to remove weeds – like Palouse in WA).

    2. Medieval three-field system rotated cereal, legumes, and fallow.

      The first century AD Columella wrote of lupinus (which I’d never heard of before): “…it requires the least labour, costs least, and of all crops that are sown is most beneficial to the land. For it affords an excellent fertilizer for worn out vineyards and ploughlands; it flourishes even in exhausted soil; and it endures age when laid away in the granary. When softened by boiling it is good fodder for cattle during the winter; in the case of humans, too, it serves to warn off famine if years of crop failures come upon them.” (Wiki: Roman Agriculture)

      Note the strikingly explicit labeling of it as a fertilizer. He also called out clover as improving the soil.

    3. Pretty common hence:

      Pease pudding hot
      Pease pudding cold
      Pease pudding in the pot
      Nine days old

    4. Very common. Pliny gives us four rotational schemes (varying on soil type), three of which involve beans or legumes alternating with grains. So the value of rotating in legumes was well understood in Antiquity (though of course, not the science behind it).

  23. Your articles are great, but I wish you avoided interjecting so much of modern politics into the text. I.e. heavily emphasizing how not all “big men” were men or mentioning how farmers “infrequently get a chance to say it to us”. While gender equality and income equality are important in modern times, trying to project them onto events hundreds of years ago is silly.

    1. I find your objection silly. Income equality, or here rather the social equality of different income classes, is hardly modern politics; it was an *explicit* issue in much of Greek and Roman politics. Democrats vs. aristocrats, populares vs. optimates. Gender equality was perhaps less ‘live’ but we have the opinions in their writing of at least a few medieval women. And, whatever the political issues then, it’s a live issue of modern historiography. Reminding us that the people in charge weren’t always men, and that we don’t hear from the bulk of the people, are perfectly legitimate and necessary things to do.

    2. I’m saying these things because they are true things about the past, not because they fit any given political outlook or other.

      It is in fact the case that while most large landholders in the past were men, a meaningful subset of them were women. We’ve met one on the blog already, Dhuoda of Uzes who – because her husband was off at war and her sons were hostages at the king’s court – indicates quite clearly that *she* is the one managing their lands ( There are, in fact, quite a number of women during the European Middle Ages who ruled under their own auspices who would have been the ‘big women’ on their estates (Matilda of Tuscany comes to mind, but there are literally dozens of these figures).

      Numerous Roman examples suggest themselves: Livia Drusilla had her own large villa, with an estate, at Prima Porta which belonged to her and not her husband Augustus. The unnamed woman of the ‘Laudatio Turiae’ is praised for managing the legal affairs of a large estate when all of her male relatives were abroad. Pliny praises the estates of his mother-in-law in a letter (Plin. 1.4) and later arranges to sell one of his estates (Pliny was very wealthy) to a family friend named Corellia at below-market rates (Plin. 7.11), both mark those women as ‘big women.’ To which must of course be added figures like Clodia and Sempronia (Sall. Cat. 25) from the late Republic, both appearing quite financially independent from their husbands.

      Of course it is also true that some societies, women were categorically *never* large landholders. Many Greek poleis where women were legally barred from owning property or land in their own name immediately come to mind. But in the end, I don’t think spending a little under 100 words (in a nearly 7,000 word essay) to briefly make that point is heavy emphasis. Of course now I have spent another 300 words on the topic supplying examples, but if the emphasis now falls heavier, it is the weight of useful clarification.

      Likewise it is simply true that while subsistence farmers made up c. 90% (or more) of the people in antiquity, they supply functionally none of our named authors (maybe, *maybe* Hesiod). That is a true fact about the sources which anyone studying these societies needs to take on board because it should impact how one reads them. I do make use of ‘comparative’ historical evidence – which is to say that I think that observing something about subsistence economies in the nearer past (something which I have little political interest one way or another – ‘what to do about debt peonage and subsistence farmers’ is not a key issue in the United States because the United States lacks both debt peonage and subsistence farmers) can tell us something about more poorly documented subsistence economies in the deeper past. One thing it tells us is that the activities that elites in the past framed as generous and altruistic, when they happen in basically any period where we can observe them from a non-elite perspective, they usually look a lot more predatory.

      Does that mean Pliny was a bad fellow? I tend to think not. The picture of Pliny we get is pretty consistent that he seems to have been quite generous. The terms he made his tenants and merchants were, in fact, far more generous than they needed to be and were not, by his reckoning, loans. But we can also be pretty sure Pliny was unusual in this regard – as indeed he represents himself in his own letters.

      I’ll tell you, I am not interested in veiled political commentaries. if I am going to say something, I am going to say it outright. I am going to give you the past as I think it was, based on the evidence I have. I am uninterested in white-washing the inconvenient or unpleasant bits to make people feel better. I am also uninterested in scourging people long dead for failing to live up to moral systems that wouldn’t be invented for centuries (though I may make passing notice that such systems might appall contemporary sensibilities).

  24. Everybody wanted land, big men and small men alike. Women could own and inherit land. Most often they got it through dower rights or jointure (in the English middle ages that is). The redoubtable Bess of Hardwick was the prime example of successful marital economics but she was far from unique. Women also became heiresses in default of male heirs. This was very much a double edged sword, some heiresses were mercilessly exploited, others were successful in parlaying their wealth into power. A lot depended on the woman herself and evidence suggests there was no lack of ambitious and clever women who knew how to work the system to their advantage.
    It was also possible for small men to grow their holdings and not just by marriage or inheritance. There seems to have been an active land market on the peasant level especially in the late middle ages. Manorial records show the rise and fall of peasant families both free and serf. Some managed to achieve gentry status over generations of clever dealing. The prime example of course being the famous Paston family.
    Opportunities were limited but there was definitely some mobility in some places. In England at least there was little uniformity on the precise economic situation of small landowners. There were relatively affluent, locally powerful villagers and very poor ones on the same manor and the situation was fluid in both directions.

  25. “Where we can observe more clearly, we see a rather different pattern: the large landholder may bail out the beleaguered small farmers in a disaster, but it is usually with loans …”. Hence the sinfulness of usury (whether defined as lending at any or excessive interest.

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