Collections: Bread, How Did They Make It? Part IV: Markets, Merchants and the Tax Man

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

As the fourth and final part (I, II, III) of our look at the basic structure of food production in the pre-modern world (particularly farming grain to make bread), this week we’re going to look at how at least some of the delicious food we made in the last post might make its way into the hands of people who are not farmers or even farm owners.

In the previous three posts, I have mostly just used the magic word ‘markets’ to describe how the food produced in the countryside gets to the cities and people who are not farmers. As we’ll see in this post, that is a bit of an oversimplifying fib, both in that the phrase ‘markets’ covers a lot of complexity, but also (as we’ll see) some of the major drivers of moving that food from the countryside into towns doesn’t involve money or market interactions. That said, we’re going to start with market transactions, because while they are actually the minority-type in many of these societies, they are more readily familiar and understandable, I suspect, to modern readers. Then we’ll move to extraction as the other category.

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Point of Sale

I want to start by leaning on (with small modifications for clarity) Paul Erdkamp’s taxonomy of the various options by which food might get into the stream of commerce. A small farmer might sell their grain (I) directly to city-dwellers, (II) indirectly, via urban middlemen and grain merchants, either in the market or (III) ‘at the gate’ (meaning selling to merchants who come out to the farm in order to buy; the difference being who transports the food to the city), (IV) to itinerant traders at periodic rural markets or (V) to other local small farmers. As we’ll see, large landholders have a somewhat larger range of options within this taxonomy, but the fundamentals are the same.

While all of these sale methods certainly happened, in every society I have looked at, Option I – selling directly to city-dwellers – is fairly rare for grains and other bulk agricultural goods. Market gardeners, selling fruits, vegetables (and sometimes flowers) often do sell this way, maintaining a high-intensity garden near town and a shop or stall in the town market. Likewise, while Option V – small-scale trade between farmers – absolutely happens, it is typically non-monetary: the banqueting of neighbors discussed in the first post. Where it is monetary, it is typically quite small scale and very short distance. By and large, small and mid-sized farmers hadn’t the time, expertise or infrastructure to sell their goods directly. They needed to be farming, not manning a market stall or trying to figure out how to store their goods close to the point of sale. And of course large landowners, being rich, aren’t going to stand in the market square either (and in many cases don’t want their obvious representative doing so either, see below). So while I and V happen, they’re not too common or too large a portion of total trade and we may lay them aside for this discussion.

That leaves Options II, III and IV, all of which involve selling grain to a middle-man merchant of some sort. The main difference is the location of sale (in town, at the gate, or at periodic rural markets). Outside of large cities and major ports, markets were likely to be periodic, occurring only on certain days (typically around once per week). In Roman Italy, these were the nundinae (‘ninth days,’ although it was an 8-day cycle as the Romans count inclusively); the nundinae were minor festivals, days of rest and merrymaking, but they were also the days when the rural markets would be open – the rest-day from agricultural labor enabled farmers to head into local towns to buy or sell whatever they needed (interestingly, at Rome, the nundinae were dies nefasti – state business couldn’t generally be conducted on them – so poor farmers hoping to use their day off to participate politically were out of luck). Similar periodic markets are common in the Middle Ages (and even today; most ‘farmer’s markets’ in the United States are periodic, including my town’s). The periodic nature of these markets is an adaptation to agricultural rhythms; for a market to function there need to be a lot of people together all at once and the small towns that dotted the countryside simply didn’t have the density to do that all of the time.

Via Wikipedia, a fresco showing market activity, with merchants showing off wares of fabric (left) and goods in pots (center) from the House of Julia Felix at Pompeii, first century CE. Please note: the importance of pottery in modern archaeology has given many students and the general public the idea that the ancients were always shipping pots around for sale, as if there was a vast market in pottery. Generally, people were buying what was in the pot, not the pot itself.

But as noted, our farmers are unlikely to be selling their grain directly to customers. Instead, they are likely to be using some sort of middle-man merchant, which brings us to:


Merchants are a bit of a break from the people we have so far discussed in that they, by definition, live in the realm of the market (in the economic sense, although often also in a physical sense). As we’ve seen so much of the world of our farmers and even our millers and bakers was governed by non-market interactions: horizontal and vertical social ties that carried expectations that weren’t quite transactional and certainly not monetized. By contrast, merchants work with transactions and tend to be the first group in any society to attempt to monetize their operations once money becomes available. I find students are often quick to feel identity with the merchant class, because these folks are more likely to travel, more likely to use money, more likely to employ or be employed in wage-labor; they feel more like modern people.

It thus tends to come as something of a surprise that with stunning consistency, the merchant class tended to be at best cordially disliked and at worst despised by the broader community (although not typically to the point of suffering legal disability, as did some other jobs; see S. Bond, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean (2016) for this in Rome). This often strikes students as strange, both because we tend to think rather better of our own modern merchants but also because the image they have of the merchant class certainly looks elite.

Via Wikipedia, a manuscript illustration showing the Horseman of Famine depicted as a grain merchant (from Revalations 6:5-6), holding the scales he would use to measure out grain.

For the farmers who need to sell their crops (for reasons we will get to in a moment) and purchase the things they need that they cannot produce, the merchant feels like an adversary: always pushing his prices to his best advantage. We expect this, but remember that our pre-modern farmers are just not that exposed to market interactions; most of their relationships are reciprocal, not transactional – the horizontal relationships we discussed before. The merchant’s ‘money-grubbing’ feels like a betrayal of trust in a society where you banquet your neighbors in the good years so they’ll help you in the bad years. The necessary function of a merchant is to transgress the ‘rules’ of village interactions which – and this resounds from the sources – the farmers tend to understand as being ‘cheated.’

At the same time, while most merchant types are humble, the high-risk and potentially high-reward involved in trade meant that some merchants (again, a small number) could become very rich. That, as you might imagine, did not go over well for the traditionally wealthy in these societies, the large landholders. Again, the values here often strike modern readers as topsy-turvy compared to our own, but to the elite large landholders (who dominate the literary and political culture of their societies), the morally correct way to earn great wealth is to inherit it (or capture it in war). The morally correct way to hold that wealth is with large landed estates. Anything else is morally suspect, and so the idea that a successful merchant could – by a process that again, strikes the large landholder, just like the small farmer, as ‘cheating’ – leap-frog the social pyramid and skip to the top, without putting in the work at either having distinguished wealthy ancestors or tremendous military success was an open insult to elite values. Often laws were put in place to limit the ability of wealthy non-aristocrats (likely merchants or successful artisans) from displaying their wealth (sumptuary laws) so as to keep them from competing with the aristocrats; at Rome, senators were forbidden from owning ships with much the same logic (Roman senators being clever, they still invested in trade through proxies while at the same time disapproving of the activity in public politics).

Such disdain appears, with varying justification, in the sources of every pre-modern agrarian society I’ve studied, to one degree or another. One commonplace of Greek and Roman thinking – despite these being very active, maritime societies – was that the first production of ships and the first sailing was in some essential way a profanation of the divine realm of the sea, a space humans ought not have ever ventured into – and certainly not for anything as mean as profit (e.g. Euripides, Medea 1-6; Catullus. 64.1-20; Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 627-632; Seneca, Medea 1-12; 301-379, inter alia – thanks to my old grad school pals Buddy Hedrick and Michael Hoffman for helping with some of the references which had long atrophied away in my historian’s mind). Alternately merchants, especially small scale merchants who do short-distance, small volume trade as opposed to long-distance sea trade (e.g. Cic. De Off. 1.150-1), was mean and unbecoming (e.g. Plb. 6.56.1; Liv. 21.63). As far as elites were concerned, merchants didn’t seem to produce anything (the theory of comparative advantage which explains how merchants produce value without producing things by moving things to where they are most valued would have to wait until 1776 to be mentioned and the early 1800s to be properly explained) and so the only explanation for their wealth was that they made it by deception and trickery, distorting the ‘real’ value of things (this faulty assumption that the ‘real value’ of things is inherent in them, or a product of their production, rather than their use value to an end user or consumer, does not go away in the modern period).

Merchants also – almost by definition being foreigners in their communities – often suffered as members of ‘middleman minorities,’ where certain tasks, particularly banking, commerce and tax collection are – for the reasons just discussed above – outsourced to foreigners or ethnic minorities who then tend to face violence and discrimination because of the power and prominence those tasks give them in society. Disdain for merchants was thus often packaged with ethnic hatred or racism – anyone exposed to the tropes of European or Near Eastern antisemitism (or more precisely, anti-Jewish sentiment) is familiar with this toxic brew, but the same tropes were applied to other middlemen minorities engaged in trade – Chinese people in much of South East Asia, Armenians in Turkey, Parsis in India and on and on. Violence against these groups was always self-destructive (in addition to being abhorrent on its face) – the economic services they provided were valuable to the broader society in ways that the broader society did not understand.

I am not going to include a picture of any one of the thousands and thousands of hateful, racist images attacking middleman minorities on these terms which litter both the historical record and the current internet. They are not hard to find. Instead, via the British Museum (1958,0712.1397), here is a 19th century hand-colored etching of a cat with kittens:

Now I should stress that the degree of disdain varies quite a lot from one place and condition to the next. Societies that depended heavily on trade, or where merchants occupied positions of authority – trade-oriented medieval Italian city-states, for example – often had a more positive understanding of their merchants. But by and large, agrarian societies viewed merchants with hostility and suspicion, even when it was understood how necessary they were.

All of that said, when we talk about merchants, we ought to be clear that the occupation covers a vast range of individuals, from small-scale land-based merchants moving grain on a single pack animal and making barely enough in profits to survive to the vast wealth of successful merchants encompassed in figures like the (fictional, mind you) Trimalchio, who might own fleets of ships and trading ventures. But of course merchants make their profits typically by moving goods from places where they are common and cheap to places where they are needed and expensive. Which brings us to:

Transport or One if by Sea, Twenty if by Land

This won’t be a complete overview of trade and transport options for bulk goods prior to the industrial revolution – that would be its own series – but just a discussion of some of the key features.

The most basic kind of transport is often small-scale overland transport, either to and from the nearest city, or in small (compared to what we’ll discuss in a moment) caravans moving up and down a region (Erdkamp, op cit has a good roundup of evidence for this). The Talmud, for instance, seems to suggest that much of the overland grain trade in Palestine under the Romans was performed with itinerant donkey-drivers in small caravans – and I do mean small. Egyptian tax evidence suggests that most caravans were small; Erdkamp notes that 90% of donkey caravans and 75% of camel caravans consisted of three or less animals. These sorts of small caravans don’t usually specialize in any particular good but instead function like land-based cabotage traders, buying whatever seems likely to turn a profit at each stop and stopping in each town and market along the way. Some farmers might even do this during the off season; in Spain, peasants often worked as muleteers during the slow farming season, moving rents and taxes into town or to points of export for their wealthy landlords and neighbors.

Truly long-distance bulk grain transport overland wasn’t viable for reasons we’ve actually already discussed. There is simply nothing available in the pre-modern period to carry the grain overland that doesn’t also eat it. While moving grain short distances (especially to simply fill capacity while the main profit is in other, lower-bulk, higher value goods) can be efficient enough, at long distance, all of the grain ends up eaten by the animals or people moving it.

Via Wikipedia, a relief of a corbita, a small Roman-period coastal vessel. Found at Carthage, it was probably made in the region, c. 200 CE. This is te kind of ship we might expect to be used for cabotage trading over short distances.

The seaborne version of this sort of itinerant, short-distance trade is called cabotage. Now today cabotage has a particular, technical legal meaning, but when we use this word in the past, it refers not to the legal status of a ship but a style of shipping using small boats to move mixed cargo up and down the coast. In essence, cabotage works much the same as the small caravans – the merchant buys in each port whatever looks likely to turn a profit and sells whatever in demand. By keeping a mixed cargo of many different sorts of things, he protects against risk – he’s always likely to be able to sell something in his boat for a profit. Such traders generally work on very short distances, often connecting smaller ports which simply cannot accommodate larger, deeper-draft long-distance traders. Such cabotage trading was the background ‘hum’ of commerce on many pre-modern coastlines and might serve to move grain up or down the coast, although not very much of it. Remember that grain is a bulk commodity, and cabotage traders, by definition, are moving small volumes.

Via Stanford’s ORBIS Project, a map of the travel time to Rome for bulk-commodities like grain (progressively darker zones indicate longer travel times. Notice how dramatic the differences can be: Carthage is much ‘closer’ to Rome in bulk-good-transit-time than other parts of Italy. Even far away Alexandria is closer than most of Spain, Gaul or the Balkans!
Note that this only calculates travel time – it doesn’t even consider the cost imposed by pack animals eating the food in transit!

But when it comes to moving large volumes, the sea changes everything. The fundamental problem with transporting food on land is that the energy to transport the food must come from food, either processed into muscle power by porters or animals. But at sea, that energy can come from the wind. So while the crew of a ship eats the food, the ship can be scaled up without scaling up the food requirements of the crew or the crew itself. At the same time, sea-transit is much faster than land transit and that speed is obtained from the wind without further inputs of food. It is hard to overstate how tremendous a change in context this is. Using the figures from the Price Edict of Diocletian, we tend to estimate that river transport was five times cheaper than land transport, and sea-transport was twenty times cheaper than land transport. So while the transport of bulk goods like grain on land was limited to fairly small amounts moving over short distances – say from the farm to the nearest town or port – grain could be moved long distances en masse by sea.

Now the scale and character of long-distance transport is heavily impacted by the political realities of the local waterways. If the seas are politically divided, or full of pirates, it is going to be hard to operate big, slow vulnerable grain-freighters and still make a profit after some of them get seized, pirated or sunk. But when we have periods of political unity and relatively safe seas, we see that this sort of transport can reach quite impressive scale. For instance the port regulations of late Hellenistic and Roman Thasos – itself a decent sized, but by no means massive port – divided its harbor into two areas, one for ships carrying 80-130 tons of cargo and one for ships 130+ tons (those regulations are SEG XVII 417). A brief bit of math indicates that the distribution of free grain in the city of Rome – likely less than a third of the total grain demands of the city – required the import, by sea of some 630 tons of grain per day through the sailing season. The scale of grain shipment in the back half of the Middle Ages (post-1000 or so) was also on a vast scale, with trade-oriented Italian cities exploding in population as they imported grain (Genoa being particularly well known for this, but by no means alone in it); with that came the reemergence of truly large grain-freighters.

Detailed terracotta model of a merchant ship, made c. 750-500BC in Cyprus, now in the British Museum (1894,1101.182). Like most merchant ships, it is shorter and round, with a wide hull optimized for cargo-space instead of speed (warships tend to be long and narrow to be fast in the water).

The balance between small-scale overland trade, coastal cabotage, and large-scale long-distance bulk shipping varies quite a lot from time-period to time-period and region to region. If you want to get a sense of how much it can change, last week I recommended Abulafia’s The Great Sea (2011), which is an excellent primer.

But so far, we’ve been working on the assumption that, for some reason, farmers want to give up part of their harvest. Except that, as we’ve discussed, our small farmers – and even the large ones – are often largely self-sufficient, or at least desire to be. With an ideal production of “subsistence and just a bit more” their ideal level of market interaction is minimal. So how do we get this vast amount of food sloshing around the trade lanes?


That brings us to taxes and rents, categories which are often less distinct historically than we may suppose. In concept, of course, rents are things you pay to farm on land someone else owns, whereas you pay taxes to the state for farming on land you own. And in some societies, these distinctions are often quite clear; for instance in the Roman Republic, there were rents paid by tenant farmers to large landholders which were quite distinct from the tributum, the standard tax paid to the state (although there were two fuzzy categories even here: the vectigalia were state revenues from things the state owned, mostly mines and such, and often grouped in with taxes while the ager publicus – ‘public land’ owned by the state – could be leased out, such that a farmer on ager publicus would pay rent to the state, rather than an individual).

But to take one of the most ambiguous possible system, the produce given up to the local lord under the medieval system of manorialism is both kind of a tax (in that the individuals paying are subjects of the lord who effectively is the state) and also kind of a rent (in that the lord claims ownership of the lands in question; his serfs are, in effect, semi-non-free tenants). Similar blurry lines emerge in many places where the state or temple (or Church) were major landholders, be it medieval Europe or the Bronze Age Near East.

(Terminology aside: Note that the economic system in much of medieval Europe is better understood under this term, manorialism, rather than ‘feudalism.’ Feudalism, as a term, has been generally going out of style among medievalists for a long time, but it is especially inapt here. In a lot of popular discourse (and high school classrooms), feudalism gets used as a catch-all to mean both the political relationships between aristocrats and other aristocrats, and the economic relationships between peasants and aristocrats, but these were very different relationships. Peasants did not have fiefs, they did not enter into vassalage agreements (the feodum of feudalism). Thus in practice my impression is that the experts in medieval European economics and politics tend to eschew ‘feudalism’ as an unhelpful term, preferring ‘manoralism’ to describe the economic system (including the political subordination of the peasantry) and ‘vassalage’ to describe the system of aristocratic political relationships.)

In most ways, though, we can treat rent and taxes together because their economic impacts are actually pretty similar: they force the farmer to farm more in order to supply some of his production to people who are not the farming household.

There are two major ways this can work: in kind and in coin and they have rather different implications. The oldest – and in pre-modern societies, by far the most common – form of rent/tax extraction is extraction in kind, where the farmer pays their rents and taxes with agricultural products directly. Since grain (threshed and winnowed) is a compact, relatively transportable commodity (that is, one sack of grain is as good as the next, in theory), it is ideal for these sorts of transactions, although perusing medieval manorial contacts shows a bewildering array of payments in all sorts of agricultural goods. In some cases, payment in kind might also come in the form of labor, typically called corvée labor, either on public works or even just farming on lands owned by the state.

The advantage of extraction in kind is that it is simple and the initial overhead is low. The state or large landholders can use the agricultural goods they bring in in rents and taxes to directly sustain specialists: soldiers, craftsmen, servants, and so on. Of course the problem is that this system makes the state (or the large landholder) responsible for moving, storing and cataloging all of those agricultural goods. We get some sense of how much of a burden this can be from the prominence of what seem to be records of these sorts of transactions in the surviving writing from the Bronze Age Near East (although I should note that many archaeologists working on the ancient Near Eastern economy are pushing for a somewhat larger, if not very large, space for market interactions outside of the ‘temple economy’ model which has dominated the field for quite some time). This creates a ‘catch’ we’ll get back to: taxation in kind is easy to set up and easier to maintain when infrastructure and administration is poor, but in the long term it involves heavier administrative burdens and makes it harder to move tax revenues over long distances.

Multiple views of one of approximately 20,000 clay tablets found at Kültepe (ancient Kanesh) from the Assyrian merchant’s quarter, dating to c. 1850 – 1700 B.C.  This one concerns trade in precious metals.

Taxation in coin offers potentially greater efficiency, but requires more particular conditions to set up and maintain. First, of course, you have to have coinage. That is not a given! Much of the social interactions and mechanics of farming I’ve presented here stayed fairly constant (but consult your local primary sources for variations!) from the beginnings of written historical records (c. 3,400 BC in Mesopotamia; varies place to place) down to at least the second agricultural revolution (c. 1700 AD in Europe; later elsewhere) if not the industrial revolution (c. 1800 AD). But money (here meaning coinage) only appears in Anatolia in the seventh century BC (and probably independently invented in China in the fourth century BC). Prior to that, we see that big transactions, like long-distance trade in luxuries, might be done with standard weights of bullion, but that was hardly practical for a farmer to be paying their taxes in.

Coinage actually takes even longer to really influence these systems. The first place coinage gets used is where bullion was used – as exchange for big long-distance trade transactions. Indeed, coinage seemed to have started essentially as pre-measured bullion – “here is a hunk of silver, stamped by the king to affirm that it is exactly one shekel of weight.” Which is why, by the by, so many ‘money words’ (pounds, talents, shekels, drachmae, etc.) are actually units of weight. But if you want to collect taxes in money, you need the small farmers to have money. Which means you need markets for them to sell their grain for money and then those merchants need to be able to sell that grain themselves for money, which means you need urban bread-eaters who are buying bread with money, which means those urban workers need to be paid in money. And you can only get any of these people to use money if they can exchange that money for things they want, which creates a nasty first-mover problem.

We refer to that entire process as monetization – when I talk about economies being ‘monetized’ or ‘incompletely monetized’ that’s what I mean: how completely has the use of money penetrated through this society. It isn’t a one-way street, either. Early and High Imperial Rome seem to have been more completely monetized than the Late Roman Western Empire or the early Middle Ages (though monetization increases rapidly in the later Middle Ages).

Via Wikipedia, a Lydian gold coin, c. 620-564 BCE. The earliest coins really do go to show that was is being produced here is measured and stamped units of precious metals. Little concern is given to having a regular shape because what matters is a regular mass in metal. Later coins would feature innovations like raised edges and more regular circular shapes to deter folks from filing away the edges of the coin in order to cheat their transactions.

Extraction, paradoxically, can solve the first mover problem in monetization, by making the state the first mover. If the state insists on raising taxes in money, it forces the farmers to sell their grain for money to pay the tax-man; the state can then take that money and use it to pay soldiers (almost always the largest budget-item in an ancient or medieval state budget), who then use the money to buy the grain the farmers sold to the merchants, creating that self-sustaining feedback loop which steadily monetizes the society. For instance, Alexander the Great’s armies – who expected to be paid in coin – seem to have played a major role in monetizing many of the areas they marched through (along with breaking things and killing people; the image of Alexander the Great’s conquests in popular imagination tend to be a lot more sanitized).

(Naturally this is a wildly oversimplified description of this process. If you want more information on this, Keith Hopkins’ famous article, “Rome, Taxes, Rents and Trade” Kodai (1995/6) models this effect for the Roman economy. Aperghis, The Seleukid Royal Economy (2004) discusses this effect in the Seleucid empire. I should also note that monetization seems to have been an inherently fragile phenomenon; any disruption to the ability of the state to mint coins or in the trade and market system which ensured there was something to buy with those coins and the countryside would rapidly demonetize. Consequently monetization, especially among the lower classes who are the least exposed to coinage, tends to be an ebb-and-flow phenomenon over time.)

Better Living Through Exploitation

The irony of all of this extraction is that while it is often nasty and predatory, it can have some positive long-term effects, because the extra food that the farmers are being effectively forced to produce moves through either state-redistribution or market mechanisms to an increasing population of specialist non-farmers who in turn provide benefits for the broader society, sometimes including the farmers.

Metal tools, improved plows, large mills and bakeries would all be impossible without specialist smiths, wood-workers, architects, millers and bakers, for instance. And those merchants, moving food around from where it is common to where it is scarce can – if there are enough of them and trade is sufficiently unrestricted by things like wars – serve a valuable stabilizing role on the otherwise wildly destructive volatility of prices for things like food and other essentials. Moreover, specialization and trade encouraged distance travel, which might bring foreign disease, but might also bring new agricultural technologies.

If the extraction is done in coin, then the effects of monetization are layered on top of this. While we talked about the reasons why money provided at best an imperfect store of value for farmers, it was valuable in order ways, but only if the economy was deeply monetized such that even the very small purchases a farmer might make could be handled in cash. The great advantage of coinage is that it tremendously reduces transaction costs and allows for more complex business arrangements, which in turn enhance the overall efficiency of the underlying economy.

Abstract concepts are hard to illustrate in pictures sometimes, so via the British Museum (1831,1212.19), here is a 18th century British print of a girl with a kitten. Though I should note that this kind of artwork of kittens are the sorts of goods made possible by the specialists created by high-equilibrium societies.

Moreover, if a large, interconnected zone of monetized markets should form and stick around long enough (as under the Roman Empire, for instance), long distance sea-trade can cause local economies to reorganize around comparative advantage, specializing in producing cash-crops for other regions, while importing missing essentials. Thus first century CE Roman Italy produced significant amounts of wine for export, while at the same time relying on imports of olives from North Africa and grain from North Africa, Sicily and Egypt. Likewise, parts of England were able to specialize in wool production (processed into textiles and sold in the Low Countries), while importing other agricultural goods. Since certain areas of the world are better suited to some kinds of agriculture over others, the end result of this was increased production efficiency overall.

This actually leads back to a point that has come up in the comments a number of times: why I don’t ascribe to the automatic assumption that there is an inherent Malthusian trap in the pre-modern world. While certainly there is some population figure that would trigger a Malthusian crisis, the normal assumption being made here is that agricultural production is fundamentally static. But it isn’t. What we see instead are agricultural systems capable of operating at multiple equilibria (the plural of equilibrium).

You can imagine a low-equilibrium society, where trade and monetization are minimal. In this environment, it is very hard for small farmers to get access to productive capital (plow-teams, manure, mills) and so agricultural productivity is low. Because agricultural productivity is low, it is hard for the society to support many specialists, which in turn means fewer tools, plow-teams, manure and mills. The system is in a stable equilibrium, but at a relatively low level.

But take the same society and increase trade and monetization. Access to capital gets easier through monetary means and increased trade means increased agricultural specialization, which increases overall out; the trade compensates for the added risk of pushing closer to mono-cropping in each region by evening out prices. Because agricultural productivity is high, the society supports many specialists. Some of those are freeloading aristocrats and large landholders who do little but extract rents and live lavish lifestyles, but many are productive specialists who produce the capital necessary to improve yields, or maintain the trade systems that support everything. This society is operating at a higher, stable equilibrium.

Without changing any farming technology – that is, we haven’t invented anything, although existing technologies are more available in our high-equilibrium society – or the amount of land available, or the quality of the land, the second society is going to support far more people, potentially at a significantly higher standard of health for the decades or centuries it takes for population growth to catch up to the increased production ceiling. Even once the total population pushes against that ceiling, it may benefit from the availability of produced goods (tools, textiles, buildings, infrastructure) which continue to be produced by the specialist non-farmers, even if food once again becomes tight. It is better to live in danger of starvation in a well-made house with decent clothes, good tools, fine poetry and fun civic festivals than it is to live in the same danger of starvation, but alone in a mud-hut with none of those things.

(As an aside, this is the crux of my Grief and Loathing argument against Sparta. Instead of allowing the helot surplus to create a class of specialists who might improve life for everyone, Sparta redirected that surplus to the most unproductive class of individuals ever to live, whose sole product was violence against the helots. Effectively the Spartan system created a uniquely low equilibrium society, even under conditions where every other neighboring Greek polis was moving to a higher equilibrium under the influence of coinage, urbanization and specialization. It is not that the helots were poor – many farmers were poor – but that they were artificially kept poor, by a uniquely exploitative and useless ruling class.)

We can actually see the effects of a society moving from a lower equilibrium to a higher one and then back down again in the Roman world. Because the nature of the Roman economy is such a long-standing debate, a tremendous amount of archaeology and scholarship has gone in to charting it; what they tend to show is that economic activity increased significantly in the Mediterranean from the second century BCE to the first century CE, before holding steady at a relatively high level into the second and possibly even third centuries. Population expands, urbanism increases, evidence suggests that diets, even among the poor, seem to improve. Life appears to have – slowly, fitfully, and in ways that while significant compared to other ancient societies would seem tiny in comparison to modern economic growth – gotten better, in an absolute sense.

And then the fragile systems of trade and monetization that created that prosperity begin to break down as the Empire collapses. Bryan Ward-Perkins documents the archaeological evidence for real decline in living standards (which, by the by, runs counter to what was often supposed – that regular people did better once their imperial masters were out of the picture; in this case, it turns out they did not, though in other cases they may have). Population contracts and the loss of specialist non-farmers leads in some cases to the loss of key productive technologies, perhaps most famously, ceramics – that is, the making of pots (I struggle to communicate how important a technology this is, or how fundamental) – becomes a lost technology in post-Roman Britain, when the cities where the professional potters lived faded away as the trade which sustained them broke down.

(Not that the Middle Ages are all doom and gloom! Indeed, they lead in many places to an even higher equilibrium by the twelfth century, before the singular disruption of the Black Death make it hard to generalize from the evidence)


I should stress here at the end that this entire series has been just an overview of the basic structures of cereal farming. This is a massive topic and there is a lot of regional variation. In particular this last essay on markets and extraction varies wildly from society to society, as these are social institutions constructed by people and so less constant than things like growing seasons and so on, which are more constrained by simple biology. And while this is the end of this series on cereal farming and bread, I do want to note that a lot of you in the comments have raised great questions about other kinds of agriculture and animal husbandry: legumes, pasturage, ranching, olives, fruit, gardens, and so on. And I hope we will get to those topics!

But what I hope this series has done is at least illuminated a little bit the world of the countryside outside of the cities and outside of the tiny elite that some history and almost all of popular culture focuses on when thinking about the past. The veritable legions of small farmers, the handful of larger farmers, the millers, mill-workers, bakers and merchants who form the vast bulk of the human terrain of the pre-modern world and thus the greatest share of human experiences in that world. And at the same time revealed the ways in which those lives are shaped by economic forces rooted in what we might call the organic economy – distinct from our modern economy by the fact that almost all of the energy in it comes through agriculture (or forestry).

While this is the last of the essays on grain production, I also hope it will serve as a useful foundation for discussing other kinds of production in pre-modern societies, because every other kind of production fundamentally relied on food production in order to survive.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat a sandwich.

184 thoughts on “Collections: Bread, How Did They Make It? Part IV: Markets, Merchants and the Tax Man

  1. Note: this last article in the main series lacks a link to the (very useful!) appendix.

  2. I’ve been enjoying your series, but you seem unfamiliar with Marx’s theory. From Capital Vol. I, ch. 1, section 1:

    “The total labour-power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour-power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour-power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour-time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power looms into England probably reduced by one half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The handloom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one half its former value….

    “A thing can be a use-value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, etc. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values. Lastly, nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.”

    1. No, you’re failing to understand the concept. Even in this excerpt, Mark is assessing value in terms of labor – dwelling on “labour-time socially necessary”, which is an economic red herring. “Use-value” is just value – that’s what value means, is something that someone values and is willing to trade something else for. The fact that he tries to draw boundaries between his notional definition of value and “use-value” is damning, because it demonstrates that he was familiar with the useful definition of value and yet rejected it. He looked the truth straight in the face and then turned away deliberately, without
      even substantive justification.

      To the extent Marx was focusing on material conditions as the primary determinant of the goodness or badness of a system, state, or circumstance, he was correct, and this was a productive insight. To the extent that he rated those conditions in terms of labor-based value, he was as wrong as Lamarck. Worse, even, because Lamarck was honestly mistaken and did not have the data needed to correct himself, while Marx had read Adam Smith (and probably older sources like Publius Syrus) and therefore had all the necessary data for the counterargument near to hand. This was not responsible for the worst crimes of people who (notionally, at least) followed his ideas, but it was plenty destructive on its own.

      1. No, you’re the one who misunderstands. The labor theory of value is useful for what what Marx was trying to do with it, which was to explore the relationship between specifically labor and capital. Things, or, ultimately, the labor that produces them, have some direct usefulness that underpins the exchange-value of those inputs when they become commodified. It’s not a complete model but it provides the necessary connection between labor and money (and from there capital) to build the rest of his theory atop.

        It seems that you only care about exchange-values, and so you’re happy to throw up your hands and quote Publilius Syrus. This is all you need to be a participant in the market, and Adam Smith was similarly happy to sit in his powdered wig and blindly assume that everyone pursuing rational self-interest would produce common prosperity. From where Marx sat a century on into the industrial revolution, however, things looked substantially less optimistic. And that’s what Marx was interested in. Not just the prices of things but how actual material forces that are useful to people are connected to broad social relations, and especially social change. From Capital I: “It is, however, [the] money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers.” This “secret” connection between social forces and capital was left unexplained by classical economists and it’s what gives Marx enduring utility. Meanwhile The Wealth of Nations molders and is most often used for smug arguments from authority on the part of liberals and even smugger counter-quotations on the part of Marxists who have actually read Smith’s work.

        Speaking of which, as much as Devereaux and his acolytes relish in dispelling outdated orthodoxy, you all can’t seem to resist genuflecting to it in order to add a little intellectual glitz. We’re at, what, a dozen separate occasions when he’s complained that students and historians ought not make assumptions about things they haven’t closely studied? And yet here we are, that sparkling wit falling on its face.

        1. Lol. You get all huffy about having to properly study and understand Marx, and even “smugger counter-quotations on the part of Marxists who have actually read Smith’s work”, and yet you yourself say silliness like “sit in his powdered wig and blindly assume”.

          Capital molders among people who aren’t Marxists using it as part of smug arguments from authority, slinging turgid quotations out of context as if they’re convincing.

      2. It seems like you’re completely misunderstanding Marx’s value-theory. It is not intended to “rate” material conditions on some scale of good to bad, it’s intended as a theory of how capitalist production of commodities actually functions. Marx and Smith both distinguish between use-value or value-in-use, the concrete utility of a good, and exchange-value or value-in-exchange, which is closer to the price of the good. I believe Smith uses “value-in-exchange” specifically to refer to price, but Marx differs from him here and defines the exchange-value of a good as the equilibrium price resulting from adjustments in supply to match demand; consequently it can differ from the actual or market-clearing prices, but he argues actual prices will tend towards the exchange-value (if a good is priced above its exchange-value and thus especially profitable to produce, more investment will go into producing that good, increasing supply and reducing the price; if priced below its exchange-value, likewise production will shrink and prices rise towards value). When Marx simply says “value”, he refers to exchange-value, as it’s more relevant to his analysis.

        You can certainly disagree with Marx’s assertion that exchange-values (as he defines them) of goods are strictly proportional to the average quantity of labor required to produce those goods, or his implicit assumption that exchange-value as he defines it is the most useful way to understand the economy. But it’s ridiculous to claim he “looked the truth straight in the face and then turned away deliberately” about the use-value/exchange-value distinction. If you want to meaningfully disagree with him, you have to actually engage with his analysis and find it wanting, not just assert there’s some trans-historical “truth” about what the word “value” means and discard him entirely based on his choice of terminology (in favor of Smith, of all people, who makes the same distinction you claim he refutes!).

        (Our host seems to have a similar, though less comprehensive, misunderstanding of Marx. The exchange-value of a good is an inherent property of the good only in the way that price is an inherent property of a good, which is to say only within particular social conditions which can and do change. With regards to merchants specifically, Marx explicitly notes in Vol 2 of Capital somewhere that transportation produces use-value by moving a good from a location where it has less use-value to a location where it has more use-value, and as such is productive labor.)

        1. I came here to say all of this. Marx was fundamentally concerned with a very narrow view of economics, because he saw the plight of workers exploited by capitalist systems and sought to explain why, despite life improving, so many people were powerless.

          It strikes me as incredibly disingenuous that one of the best blogs for understanding the pre-industrial economic factors that led to even *worse* exploitation completely fails to understand Marx’s theories, while simultaneously explaining how labor value, class struggles, and capital exploitation let the rich brutally exploit the poor in pre-industrial times. The blog could be *citing* him, for it reaches the same conclusions. It even notes that a merchant/capitalist economy does provide benefits for the worker over a manorialism one.

          Marx had some big blind spots and points where he has not stood up to scrutiny, but the idea that labor as defined as human time and effort is the fundamental unit of currency exchange that underpins the economy is not one of them.

          (In particular, Marx’s view of Democracies was tainted by the fact that contemporary Democracies were either dominated by slaveholding landowners, imperialist aristocrats, bickering clerks, and massive vote buying political machines. His anti-state anarchy solution is insane, but so was turning to Democracy as a solution for reform in 1850).

  3. ” Peasants […] did not enter into vassalage agreements (the feodum of feudalism). ”

    My reading of Bloch’s La societe Feodale left me the impression that vassalage was extended to peasants: they were considered to be their sire’s “men”: they owed him work, he owed them justice and protection. The relation was unequal and it was hard and rare for them to break the bond if their sire failed them, but the link was still considered feodal (at least for free men).

    Is that simply a divergence in nomenclature, or am I missing something else?

  4. “(the theory of comparative advantage which explains how merchants produce value without producing things by moving things to where they are most valued would have to wait until 1776 to be mentioned and the early 1800s to be properly explained)”

    The allusion here to Wealth of Nations in this aside jumped out at me. It’d be appropriate here, as with many other fields of knowledge as well, to append “… in the West, anyway.”
    I think you’d find Al-Ghazali really interesting, he was a Persian ‘omnidisciplinary scientist’, writing over five centuries earlier. Many of the theories we commonly attribute to Smith are really just independent rediscoveries, as Al-Ghazali had earlier formulated a lot of Wealth of Nations’ greatest hits, including (famously) using almost the exact same examples and anecdotes Smith would later use. He even gets some of the same things wrong like Smith later would, like the ‘barter myth’ origin of money.
    A great detailed summary of his economics writing can be found in “Economic Thought of an Arab Scholastic: Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali” Ghazanfar, S. Mohammad, and Abdul Azim Islahi, King Abdulaziz Univesity (1997).

    It can often seem that Europeans are the first to some particular theory only because a) the writers themselves were unaware or uninterested in theorists from the rest of the world, and b) we continue to teach it that way since that’s the intellectual tradition we’ve inherited. But I think it’s always worth pointing out the rich scientific traditions elsewhere in the world often predate the Western canon we’re familiar with.

    1. “He even gets some of the same things wrong like Smith later would, like the ‘barter myth’ origin of money.”

      The barter myth goes back to Aristotle (Politics Book 1:9[1]), and was repeated by the jurist Paulus before 235 AD (Roman Digest (of law), 18.1.1) Quotes and links:

      So in this case, I doubt either Smith or Al-Ghazali had the idea on their own.

      If they coincided in other examples, then perhaps either Smith read Al-Ghazali, or both were again drawing on classical sources.

  5. There are many modern RPGs focused on being a cabotage merchant, variously in historical, fantasy, and science fiction settings.

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