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Exploring the Late Byzantine rural landscape: setting the record straight

July 12, 2010

At a seminar held on 2 February 2010 (yep, I am way behind in my reports!) at Kings’ College London, Dr Fotini Kondyli (Birmingham University) discussed with us her current studies into the situation and development of the rural landscape in the Empire between the 12th and 15th centuries.

Her starting point was that the common view is that the rural areas are often thought of as static, unchanging, even gloomy places where the poor peasantry toiled hard, were attacked and raided by invaders and pirates, and lived with the yoke of heavy taxation. Dr Fotini believes that during this period rural areas prospered both economically and demographically, in was essentially an agrarian society.

Prior to her studies she, like many, held the view that rural societies faced the following challenges:

  • Major depopulation in the 14C during the Black Death
  • The removal of land from the peasantry to give to the monasteries
  • Economic decline due to the domination of Italian cities in military power and trade.
  • Experiencing constant attacks by pirates and indiscriminate attacks during the regular Byzantine civil wars, which led to depopulation and abandonment of coastal areas, and even the complete disappearance of some towns.

Her studies focused on the islands of Lemnos and Thasos. The advantage of this was that these islands remained under the control of the Empire until the Fall, and they are near Mount Athos which contain many primary source archives which have been used for her studies.

Looking at Lemnos

Map of Lemnos

The island displayed three typical types of settlement; monastic estates; towns and villages; and fortifications including castles, forts and watchtowers. These were generally well spaced with an even distribution. The more significant towns were on the coast and were often near major defences. Most of these settlement types were in fairly close proximity (an average of between 5-10 km) allowing easy communications – a day’s return walk at most to market etc. They were all close to water, between 100-400 metres and no more than 6 km from a fort. Lemnos had a significant number of monasteries.

Thasos was Different

Map of Thasos

It is a much smaller island and has fewer settlements of which most were in the interior in two clusters in the north east and north west. Thasos has a mountainous landscape which clearly affects settlement location and prevents an even distribution. All settlements were close to arable land. Excavations show pottery from Italy, Syria, Thessalonica, the Balkans and the Danube area. Forts were only found on the coast. [Ed: This fits with Judith Herrin’s discussion in ‘Women in Purple’ that in Greece in the early middle ages, the Byzantine Empire was principally interested in control of the coastline and had little direct control over the hinterland]. Despite the rich mineral wealth of the island (which was known in Byzantine times) of silver, base metals and marble there was no exploitation of these materials which is difficult to explain, particularly as the Empire experienced severe economic problems after the loss of land in the Levant to the Arabs from the late 8th Century.

Fortifications

The approach in Lemnos was to build new forts and renovate and improve older fortifications. The protection offered permitted the safe use of all land for agriculture and settlement, as the threat from pirates and other enemies was diminished. Typically the forts were built in locations to achieve line of site so that signal fires could be used for effective communication. Lemnos was, and remains, a fertile island, and its production of wheat would have generated significant wealth for the landowners and was therefore also of strategic value. The importance of fishing to these communities is shown by the absence of settlements in particularly rocky coastlines, where it was not possible to beach a fishing boat.

The situation in Thasos was quite different.  The north-eastern harbour of Limenas was protected but the absence of coastal fortifications meant that settlements were to be found further inland. Although the island was possibly part of a defensive network stretching along the Macedonian and Thracian coastline, the lower levels of protection would have meant a much more uncertain life for the inhabitants. In addition the absence of forts resulted in a lack of significant monastic interest.

Social Structure of Late Byzantine Lemnos

Dr Fotini observed that the wealth of Lemnos created a typical early medieval social hierarchy. The ruling elite would have included military officers, and state and monastic officials.

Amongst the peasants would have been the Paroikoi (non-proprietary peasants, hereditary holders of their land, irremovable as long as they paid their rent)  who were tied to the land and had to perform services for the landowner (a feudal approach); they were not slaves and could own property. The next class were peasant-soldiers (free peasants) who held land and property, but had an obligation to serve in the military; some as soldiers and others as rowers for the navy. They would man the watch towers and had a higher social class than the Paroikoi. Byzantine tax reforms associated with the Thematic reforms of the period would have meant that the families of peasant-soldiers would have paid lower taxes in recognition of the need to arm the soldier and would have had the taxes further reduced to compensate for the loss of labour when the soldier was called for duty.

The Paroikoi of Lemnos

Although these peasants are described as dependent, the evidence shows that they could accumulate considerable property. Monastic records (in particular from Mount Athos) show that some may have owned two or even three houses in villages which were often associated with a particular monastery (which may have equated to the landowner in many cases). The proximity of the monastery seems to have encouraged economic activity. It is my belief that the general level of education would have been higher around the monastic communities which may have also been a contributing factor; contrast with Thasos with few monasteries and much lower economic output.

Records show that the Paroikoi grew wheat, vegetables, vines and olives and kept bees. They made charcoal, resins and dyes. Herds of sheep and goats were common. Pigs were kept, as were oxen, mules, horses and donkeys as working animals. They certainly generated a cash surplus by growing cash crops; the herds were of significant size sometimes as large as 100 animals. A few peasants owned a share in water or windmills which may have generated further profit through the process of adding economic value. Other peasants owned or had shares in fishing boats. This share ownership indicated a sophisticated economic hierarchy and organization.

Population

Dr Fotini discussed the evidence for population growth during the 13th Century. However, the coming of the Black Death in the 14th Century saw rapid population decline during the 14th and 15th centuries. This often resulted in abandonment of some areas of land. I find this interesting as what we do know about the effects of plague is that (after the initial impact) economic conditions for the survivors generally improved with higher wages and crop values due to the shortage of labour and less crops available due to a drop in the agricultural workforce (which needs to be balanced with the obvious drop in demand). One could guess that in some areas population decline was so severe that some communities became unviable, or perhaps that military manpower for the network of forts was so reduced that some settlements were no longer defended and the diminished populations sought safety elsewhere.

In order to improve matters, deserted land was given to the monasteries who were tasked or incentivized (?) to repopulate the land and to restart agriculture. The effect of the Black Death upon these two islands must have been quite severe for these measures to have been taken.

Conclusions

Dr Fotini’s work is not yet complete but her argument was that regional studies such as hers were important to understand the detailed workings of the districts and Themata of the Empire during the period being studied. The interaction of political and military decisions, landscape, land productivity and socio-economic factors had significant effects on the development of different areas. Contrasting Thasos and Lemnos as island communities and economies, helps to focus and demonstrate these effects in a way that would possibly not be so marked in continental areas such as mainland Greece or Anatolia.

This seminar was part of the series that runs at Kings College London in the Autumn and Spring terms. Watch for updates on the blog when the dates for this coming Autumn term are announced.

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