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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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.
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!).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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?