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in: Joachim Henning (ed.), Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium, vol. 1: The Heirs of the Roman West, Berlin/New York: De Gruyter 2007, pp. 3-40.


With few exceptions current research on early medieval town development in Europe holds a consistent view of the decisive social forces that are thought to have stimulated progress in this field of the post-Roman economy. According to this there was a “nadir of urban life” in the Merovingian period as a result of the weakness of aristocratic power from the late fifth to seventh centuries. In particular, this weakness is supposed to have prevented the creation of strict rural organizational structures such as the bipartite manorial complexes of the big Carolingian abbeys and on fiscal land. These had then been established by the eighth century and are thought finally to have led to higher productivity on the part of peasant households. “L’essor urbaine”, the “rebirth of towns” and “new urban beginnings” were consequently attributed to the rising political power of the Carolingian dynasty, to the progress assumed to have resulted from the invention of the curtis system in the Frankish heartlands, and to the rising aristocracies in neighboring regions that were eager to adopt Frankish upper class life style. Thus wics and emporia on both sides of the Channel, and in Scandinavia, have been interpreted as royal or aristocratic creations, ports of trade for luxury goods and “monopolistic centers” that in principle were not so very different from the contemporary settlements of the “planned monastic city” type as exemplified by the famous ninth century plan of St Gall depicting an ideal Benedictine abbey, or by the results of excavation at the abbey of  San Vincenzo al Volturno. Furthermore, all these new features are thought to have been closely related to, or to have profited directly or indirectly from, the rise of Carolingian fiscal and monastic manorial structures in the Frankish lands with their organized compulsory labor.

But while a certain consensus seems to exist about the question, the enigma of the decline of some of these apparently short-lived “mushroom-towns” after the age of Charlemagne is the subject of more intensive debate. Since Viking attacks are an inadequate explanation for scholars dealing with successful town development in areas that were under Viking control, it was suggested that these wics and emporia suffered from a certain economic incompleteness or immaturity. The assumption, however, that such trading settlements relied exclusively on the long-distance exchange of luxurious goods to the exclusion of exchange with their rural hinterland has been almost completely rejected recently in the light of new results from the mapping of detector coin finds around such sites in England. Moreover, studies of the material culture in coastal areas of Frisia have demonstrated that the inhabitants of many rural and small non-rural settlements not only had access to imported goods, but very probably were even involved in exchange between regions on both sides of the Channel. Thus the estimated number of small wic-like settlements not mentioned in written sources could have been considerably higher than previously assumed. It is hard to imagine, therefore, how the central power could have controlled the many activities involved at the level of such “peasant-merchants”. Until recently some Anglo-Saxon rural settlements with imported goods had been connected with “royal manors”, but the important studies of Ulmschneider in England and Tys in West Flanders have now forced a comprehensive review of the situation.

Frans Theuws, on the other hand, has argued for a general lack of craft-relatedactivities in continental emporia such as Quentovic and Dorestad, which in the long run will have resulted in instability. This view takes a similar line: the assumption thatthese trading sites had a one-sided economic profile. However, the excavators of northern wics will not be happy about this approach since the early medieval trading places they have investigated have delivered large numbers of finds which provide archaeological evidence for industrial activities. Although Quentovic is still unexcavated, and digging at Dorestad focused mainly on the ship landing areas, there are nevertheless finds of antler production waste from both sites attesting to comb production, which is highly significant for the economic characterization of such “proto-urban” sites in both the west and the east. Nine pottery kilns dating from the first half of the ninth centurywere found near Montreuil-sur-mer in the vicinity of the village of La Calotterie, where Quentovic has recently been located. Furthermore, two iron anvils for specialized sheet metal working were found in Dorestad, and the emporium on the coast at Walcheren-Domburg, which was abandoned until the end of the first millennium AD and still awaits extended excavation, has delivered finds that attest to fibula production at the site in the Carolingian period. New excavations on early medieval open trading and production sites on continental rivers, which in some cases also declined in post-Carolingian times or at least were relocated then, have produced considerable evidence of local craft activities. So taking all these observations into account, it seems very unlikely that the decline of some of the wics and emporia can be explained by economic defects or abnormalities of some kind related to their supposedly serving onlythe restricted needs of aristocratic luxury consumption.

Since there is only little written information about the relation of wics and emporia to royal power and to church or monastic authority, and what we have is ambiguous, there are good reasons for testing the assumption that it was aristocratic initiation, control and stimulation that led to post-Roman town development by summing up the archaeological data and discussing them anew in the light of the written record. This study therefore will focus mainly on the archaeological evidence for non-alimentary production in the first millennium AD in continental areas north of the Alps, thus including the heartlands of the Frankish empire. We will then have a look at further archaeological data that shed light on the question of what were the decisive productive elements of agricultural production that in the log run might have forced and supported town development, as well as regional and super-regional economic exchange. Last but not least, we must also investigate how far a planned and regular layout can reflect aristocratic foundation and control of such settlements.