The Sovereign Individual

Ch 3:   East of Eden

by Davidson & Rees-Mogg


The Agricultural Revolution and the Sophistication of Violence

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel, thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brothers' keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brothers' blood crieth unto me from the ground. - Genesis 4:9-10

Five hundred generations ago, the first phase change in the organization of human society began.[1] Our ancestors in several regions reluctantly picked up crude implements, sharpened stakes and makeshift hoes, and went to work. As they sowed the first crops, they also laid a new foundation for power in the world. The Agricultural Revolution was the first great economic and social revolution. It started with the expulsion from Eden and moved so slowly that farming had not completely displaced hunting and gathering in all suitable areas of the globe when the twentieth century opened. Experts believe that even in the Near East, where farming first emerged, it was introduced in "a long incremental process" that "may have taken five thousand years or more."[2]

It may seem an exaggeration to describe a process that stretched out over millennia as a "revolution." Yet that is precisely what the advent of farming was, a slow- motion revolution that transformed human life by altering the logic of violence. Wherever farming took root, violence emerged as a more important feature of social life. Hierarchies adept at manipulating or controlling violence came to dominate society.

Understanding the Agricultural Revolution is a first step toward understanding the Information Revolution. The introduction of tilling and harvesting provides a paradigm example of how an apparently simple shift in the character of work can radically alter the organization of society. Put this past revolution into perspective and you are in a far stronger position to forecast how history may unfold in response to the new logic of violence introduced with microprocessors.

To appreciate the revolutionary character of agriculture, you first need a picture of how the primeval society functioned before farming. We surveyed this in The Great Reckoning and offer a further sketch below. Hunting-and gathering societies were the only forms of social organization through a long, prehistoric slumber when human life changed little or not at all from generation to generation. Anthropologists claim that humans have been hunters and gatherers for 99 percent of the time since we appeared on earth. Crucial to the long success and ultimate failure of hunting-and-gathering bands is the fact that they had to operate on a very small scale over a very wide area.


Foragers could survive only where population densities were light. To see why, think of the problems that larger groups would have posed. For one thing, a thousand hunters parading together across a landscape would have raised such a ruckus as to scare away the game they sought to trap. And even worse, had a small army of hunters occasionally managed to corner a huge herd of game, the food they harvested, including fruits and edible plants found in the wild, could not have remained plentiful for long. A large group of foragers would have laid waste to the countryside through overharvesting like a starving army in the Thirty Years War. Therefore, to minimize overkill, hunting bands had to be small. As Stephen Boyden writes in Western Civilization in Biological Perspective, "Most commonly, hunter-gatherer groups number between twenty-five and fifty individuals."

To live on ten thousand acres in a temperate climate today is a luxury allowed only to the very rich. A family of hunter-gatherers could scarcely have survived on less. They generally required thousands of acres per person, even in areas that were most fertile for foraging. This suggests why the growth of human populations during periods particularly favorable to farming may have created the basis for population crises. Because so much land was required to support a single person, the population densities of hunting-and-gathering societies had to be incredibly sparse. Before farming, humans were about as densely settled as bears.

With minor differences, the human diet resembled that of bears. Foraging societies depended upon food gathered from the open countryside or from nearby bodies of water. Although some gatherers were fishers, most were hunters who depended for a third to a fifth of their food upon protein from large mammals. Other than a few simple tools and objects carried around with them, hunter-gatherers had almost no technology at their disposal. They usually had no way to effectively store quantities of meat or other foods for later use. Most food had to be consumed soon after it was gathered or left to spoil. That is not say, of course, that some hunter-gatherers did not eat spoiled food. Eskimos, as Boyden reports, "are said to have a particular liking for decomposed food."4 He repeats the observations of experts that Eskimos" 'bury fish heads and allow them to decay until the bones become of the same consistency as the flesh. They then knead the reeking mass into a paste and eat it'; they also enjoy the 'fat maggoty larvae of the caribou fly served raw. . deer droppings, munched like berries ... and marrow more than a year old, swarming with maggots' "[5]

Other than such delicacies, foragers developed little surplus food. As anthropologist Gregg notes, "mobile populations generally do not store foodstuffs against seasonal or unexpected lows in resource availability." Consequently, foragers had little to steal. A division of labor that included specialization to employ violence was insupportable in settings where surplus food could not be stored. The logic of the hunt also dictated that violence among hunting-and-foraging bands could never rise above a small scale because the groups themselves had to remain tiny.

The small scale of foraging bands was advantageous in another way. Members of such small groups would have known one another intimately, a factor that made them more effective in working together. Decision-making becomes more difficult as numbers rise, because incentive traps proliferate. You need only think how hard it is to get a dozen people organized to go out to dinner. Imagine how hopeless would have been the task of organizing hundreds or thousands of persons to traipse around on a moveable feast. Lacking any sustained and separate political organization or bureaucracy required by specialization for war, hunting-and-gathering bands had to depend on persuasion and consensus-principles that work best among small groups with relatively easygoing attitudes.

Whether hunting-and-gathering bands were easygoing is open to debate. Sir Henry Maine refers to "the universal belligerency of primitive man." In his words, "It is not peace which is natural and primitive but war." 6 His view has been underlined by the work of evolutionary biologists. R. Paul Shaw and Yuwa Wong comment: "[T]here are strong indications that many of the injuries apparent in remains of Australopithecus, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens of the European fourth and pre-fourth glacial periods resulted from combat." 7 But others doubt this. Experts like Stephen Boyden argue that primitive groups were usually not warlike or prone to violence. Social conventions developed to reduce internal tensions and facilitate the sharing of the hunt. Especially in areas where humans preyed on larger game, which was difficult for a single hunter to fell, religious and social doctrines emerged to facilitate the redistribution of any game that was taken with the whole group. The first priority of sharing of caloric resources was with other hunters. Necessity, rather than sentiment, was the spur. The first claim on the resources was exercised by the most economically competent and militarily strong, not by the sick and the weak. Undoubtedly, a major influence informing this priority was the fact that hunters in the prime of life were also militarily the most potent members of the small band. By assuring them a first claim on the hunt, the group minimized potentially lethal internal squabbling.

So long as population densities remained low, the foragers' gods were not militant gods but embodiments of natural forces or the animals they hunted. The scantiness of capital and open frontiers made war in most cases unnecessary. There were few neighbors outside one's own small family or clan to pose threats. Because foragers tended to roam in search of food, personal possessions beyond a bare minimum became an encumbrance. Those with few possessions necessarily experienced little property crime. When conflicts arose, the contending parties were often content to walk away because they had little invested in any given locale. Escape was an easy solution to personal feuds or exorbitant demands of other kinds. This does not mean that early humans were peaceful. They may have been violent and unpleasant to a degree we can scarcely imagine. But if they employed violence, it was mostly for personal reasons or, what may be worse, for sport.

The livelihoods of hunter-gatherers depended upon their functioning in small bands that allowed little or no scope for a division of labor other than along gender lines. They had no organized government, usually no permanent settlements, and no possibility for accumulating wealth. Even such basic building blocks of civilization as a written language were unknown in the primeval economy. Without a written language there could be no formal records and no history.


The dynamic of foraging created very different incentives to work than those to which we have become accustomed since the advent of farming. The capital requirements for life as a forager were minimal. A few primitive tools and weapons sufficed. There was no outlet for investment, not even private property in land, except occasionally in quarries where flint or soapstone was mined. 8 As anthropologist Susan Alling Gregg wrote in Foragers and Farmers, "Ownership of and access to resources was "held in common by the group." 9 With rare exceptions, such as fishers living on the shores of lakes, foragers usually had no fixed place of abode. Having no permanent homes, they had little need to work hard to acquire property or maintain it. They had no mortgage or taxes to pay, no furniture to buy. Their few consumer goods were animal skins, and personal adornments made by members of the group themselves. There was little incentive to acquire or accumulate anything that might have passed for money because there was little to buy. Under such conditions, savings for the foragers could have been no more than a rudimentary concept.

With no reason to earn and almost no division of labor, the concept of hard work as a virtue must have been foreign to hunting-and-gathering groups. Except during periods of unusual hardship, when protracted effort was required to find something to eat, little work was done because little was needed. There was literally nothing to be gained by working beyond the bare minimum required for survival. For the members of the typical hunting-and-gathering band, that meant working only about eight to fifteen hours a week. Because a hunter's labor did not augment the food supply but could only reduce it, one who heroically labored overtime to kill more animals or pick more fruit than could be eaten before it spoiled contributed nothing to prosperity. To the contrary, overkill reduced the prospects of finding food in the future, and thus had a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of the group. That is why some foragers, such as Eskimos, punished or ostracized members of the band who engaged in overkill.

The example of the Eskimos punishing overkill is particularly telling, because they, far more than others, might well have been able to store meat by freezing it. Further, it would have been feasible to provide at least some storage for oils rendered from large marine animals. The fact that foragers generally chose not to do so reflects their far more passive interactions with nature. It may also indicate the degree to which cognition and mental processes are biased by culture. Constraints on learning and behavior in complex environments make adoption of some strategies far more difficult than would otherwise appear. As R. Paul Shaw and Yuwa Wong have written, "Because niches differ in many respects, so, too, do biases in learning."

Seen in this perspective, the advent of agriculture entailed more than a change in diet; it also launched a great revolution in the organization of economic life and culture as well as a transformation of the logic of violence. Farming created large-scale capital assets in land and sometimes in irrigation systems. The crops and domesticated animals farmers raised were valuable assets. They could be stored, hoarded, and stolen. Because crops had to be tended over the entire growing season, from planting through harvest,

migration away from threats became less attractive, especially in arid regions where opportunities to grow crops were confined to the small areas of the land with dependable water supplies. As escape became more difficult, opportunities for organized shakedowns and plunder increased. Farmers were subject to raids at harvest time, which gradually raised the scale of warfare.

This tended to increase the size of societies because contests of violence more often than not were won by the larger group. As competition over land and control of its output became more intense, societies became more stationary. A division of labor became more apparent. Employment and slavery arose for the first time. Farmers and herders specialized in producing food. Potters produced containers in which food was stored. Priests prayed for rain and bountiful harvests.

Specialists in violence, the forefathers of government, increasingly devoted themselves to plunder and protection from plunder. Along with the priests, they became the first wealthy persons in history. In the early stages of agricultural societies, these warriors came to control a portion of the annual crop as a price of protection. In places where threats were minimal, yeoman farmers were sometimes able to retain a relatively large degree of autonomy. But as population densities rose, and competition over food intensified, especially in regions around deserts where productive land was at a premium, the warrior group could take a large fraction of total output. These warriors founded the first states with the proceeds of this rake-off, which reached as high as 25 percent of the grain crop and one-half the increase in herds of domesticated animals. Farming, therefore, dramatically increased the importance of coercion. The surge in resources capable of being plundered led to a large surge in plunder.

It took millennia for the full logic of the Agricultural Revolution to play itself out. For a long while, sparse populations of farmers in temperate regions may have lived much as their foraging forebears had done. Where land and rainfall were ample, farmers harvested crops on a small scale without much violent interference. But as populations rose over a period of several thousand years, farmers even in thinly settled regions became subject to erratic plunder that sometimes must have left them with insufficient seed to replant the next year's crop. Competitive plundering, or anarchy, was a possibility at one extreme, as well as unprotected communities living without any specialized organization to monopolize violence.

As time passed, the logic of violence inherent in agriculture imposed itself over an ever-wider terrain. The regions where farming and herding could continue without the predations of government receded to a few truly remote areas. The Kafir regions of Afghanistan, to cite an extreme example, resisted the imposition of government until the last decade of the nineteenth century. But in so doing, they were transformed centuries earlier into a quite militant society, organized along kinship lines. Such arrangements were not capable of mustering force on a large scale. Until the British brought modern weapons to the region, the Kafirs remained independent in their remote Bashgal and Waigal valleys because their redoubts were protected by features topography, high mountains, and deserts that stood between them and conquerors from thc outside.'2

Over time, the basic logic of the Agricultural Revolution impressed itself on the societies where farming took hold. Farming sharply raised the scope at which human communities could form. Beginning about ten thousand years ago, cities began to emerge. Although tiny by today's standards, they were the centers of the first 'civilizations," a word derived from civit which means "citizenship" or "inhabitants of a city" in Latin. Because farming created assets to plunder and to protect, it also created a requirem for inventory accounting. You cannot tax unless you can compile records and issue receipts. The symbols employed in the accountant's ledger became the rudiments of written language, an innovation that had never existed among hunters and gatherers.

Farming also extended the horizon over which humans had to solve problems. Hunting bands lived within an immediate time horizon. They seldom undertook projects that lasted more than a few days. But planting and harvesting a crop took months. Pursuing projects of a longer time frame farmers to train their attentions on the stars. Detailed astronomical observations were a precondition for drawing up almanacs and calendars to serve as guides on when to best plant and reap. With the advent of farming, hunters horizons expanded.


The move to a settled agricultural society resulted in the emergence private property. Obviously, no one would be content to toil through whole growing season to produce a crop just to see someone else war along and harvest what he produced. The idea of property emerged a' inevitable consequence of farming. But the clarity of private property concept was attenuated by the logic of violence that also accompanied introduction of farming. The emergence of property was confused by fact that the megapolitical power of individuals was no longer as equal had been in foraging societies, where every healthy adult male was a hunter as well armed as anyone else. Farming gave rise to specialization in violence. Precisely because it created something to steal, farming made investment in better weaponry profitable. The result was theft, much of it highly organized.

The powerful were now able to organize a new form of predation: a monopoly of violence, or government. This sharply differentiated societies, creating quite different circumstances for those who benefited from plunder, and the mass of poor who tilled the fields. The few who controlled military power could now become rich, along with others who found favor with them. The god-kings and their allies, the various lesser, local potentates who ruled the first Near Eastern states, enjoyed much more nearly modern forms of property than the great mass who toiled beneath them.

Of course, it is anachronistic to think of a distinction between private and public wealth in the early agricultural societies. The ruling god-king had the full resources of the state at his disposal in a way that could hardly be distinguished from ownership of a sprawling estate. Much as in the feudal period of European history, all property was subject to the overlordship of higher potentates. Those down the chain of hierarchy found their property subject to attenuation at the whim of the ruler.

Yet to say that the potentate was not restrained by law does not mean that he could afford to seize anything he pleased. Costs and rewards impinged upon the freedom of the pharaoh as much as they do today upon the prime minister of Canada. And the pharaoh was much more constrained than contemporary leaders by the difficulties of transport and communication. Simply hauling loot from one spot to the next, especially when loot was measured mainly in the form of agricultural produce, involved a lot of loss from spoilage and theft. The proliferation of officials to check on one another reduced the loss due to pilfering but increased the total overhead costs the pharaoh had to bear. Decentralized authority, which optimized output under some circumstances, also gave rise to stronger local powers who sometimes blossomed into full-fledged challengers for dynastic control. Even Oriental despots were by no means free to do as they pleased. They had no choice but to recognize the balance of raw power as they found it.

Although everyone, including the rich, was subject to arbitrary expropriation, some were able to accumulate property of their own. Then as now, the state devoted much of its income to public works. Projects such irrigation systems, religious monuments, and crypts for the kings provided opportunities for architects and artisans to earn income. Some well-situated individuals were able to accumulate considerable private property. In fact, a large portion of the surviving cuneiform tablets from Sumer, an early Mesopotamian civilization, record various acts of trade, most of which involve the transfer of property titles.

There was private property in the early agricultural societies, but seldom at the bottom of the social pyramid. The overwhelming majority of the population were peasants who were too poor to accumulate much wealth. In fact, with a few exceptions, most peasants, up until modern times, were so poor that they stood in constant danger of perishing from starvation any time that a drought or a flood or an infestation reduced crop yields. Hence the peasants were obliged to organize their affairs in a way that minimized the downside risks in bad years. Across the broad and impoverished stratum of society, a more primitive organization of property obtained. It increased the chance of survival at the expense of foreclosing the greater part of the opportunity to accumulate capital and rise in the economic system.

Peasant Insurance

The form that this bargain took was the adoption of what anthropologists and social historians describe as the "closed village." Almost every peasant society in premodern times had, as its main form of economic organization, the "closed village." Unlike more modern forms of economic organization, in which individuals tend to deal with many buyers and sellers in an open market, the households of the closed village joined together to operate like an informal corporation, or a large family, not in an open marketplace but in a closed system where all the economic transactions of the village tended to be struck with a single monopolist-the local landlord, or his agents among the village chiefs. The village as a whole would contract with the landlord, usually for payment in kind, for a high proportion of the crop, rather than a fixed rent. The proportional rent meant that the landlord absorbed part of the downside risk of a bad harvest. Of course, the landlord also took the greater part of the potential profit. Landlords also typically provided seed.

This convention also minimized the danger of starvation. It required that the landlord, rather than the peasant, save a disproportionate share of his part of the harvest. Because agricultural yields were appallingly low in many areas in the past, as many as two seeds had to be planted for every three harvested. Under such conditions, a bad harvest would mean mass starvation. The peasants rationally preferred an arrangement which would require the landlord to invest in their survival. At the cost of buying at monopolized prices, selling cheaply, and providing the landlord with in-kind labor, the peasants increased their chances of survival. A similar impulse led the typical peasant in a closed village economy to forgo the security of freehold property ownership. By putting themselves at the mercy of the village headman, a peasant family improved its chances of benefiting from the regular redistribution of fields. Not infrequently, the headman would take the best fields for himself and his favorites. But that was a risk that peasants had to tolerate in order to enjoy the survival insurance that confused village ownership of fields provided. At times when crop yields were miserably low, a difference in growing conditions of fields a hundred yards apart could make the difference between starvation and survival. Peasants frequently opted for the arrangement that lowered the downside risk, even at the cost of forgoing any hope of increased prosperity.

In general, risk-averse behavior has been common among all groups that operated along the margins of survival. The sheer challenge of survival in premodern societies always constrained the behavior of the poor. An interesting feature of this risk aversion, explored in The Great Reckoning, is that it reduced the range of peaceful economic behavior that individuals were socially permitted to adopt. Taboos and social constraints limited experimentation and innovative behavior, even at the obvious cost of forgoing potentially advantageous improvements in settled ways of doing things.'[3] This was a rational reflection of the fact that experimentation increases the variability of results. Greater variability means not only potentially greater gains but more ominously for those at the very margin of survival-potentially ruinous losses. A great part of the cultural energy of poor farming societies has always been devoted to suppressing experimentation. This repression, in effect, was their substitute for insurance policies. If they had insurance, or sufficient savings to self-insure their experiments, such strong social taboos would not be needed to help ensure survival.

Cultures are not matters of taste but systems of adaptation to specific circumstances that may prove irrelevant or even counterproductive in other settings. Humans live in a wide variety of habitats. The wide number of potential niches in which we live require variations in behavior that are too complex to be informed by instinct. Therefore, behavior is culturally programmed. For the vast majority in many agricultural societies, culture programmed them for survival, but little more than survival in an environment where the luxury of participating in open markets was reserved to others.

Personal ability and personal choice-individual "pursuit of happiness," in the modern sense-were suppressed by taboos and social restrictions that have always been most emphatic among the poor. Such restrictions were superseded only with great difficulty in societies with limited productivity. When and where agricultural productivity was higher, such as in ancient Greece, minor megapolitical revolutions occurred. Property took more modern forms. "Allod," or freehold property, emerged. Lands tended to rent for a fixed fee, and the tenant absorbed the economic risk as well as a higher portion of the profit if the crop was good. Higher savings allow self-insurance of riskier behavior. Under such conditions, yeoman farmers could rise above the rank of peasantry and sometimes even accumulate independent wealth.

The tendency for more market-like property rights and relationships to develop near the top of an economic hierarchy or, in rarer cases, across the whole economy, as societies emerged from poverty, is an important characteristic of social organization. It is equally important to note that the most common organization of agricultural society historically has been essentially feudal, with market relations at the top and the closed village system at the bottom. The great mass of peasants were tied to the land in almost all premodern agricultural societies. So long as agricultural productivity remained low, or higher productivity was dependent upon access to centralized hydraulic systems, the freedom and property rights of individual farmers at the bottom remained minimal. In such conditions, feudal forms of property prevailed. Land was held by tenure rather than through freehold title. Typically, rights of sale, gift, and inheritance were restricted.

Feudalism in its various forms was not only a response to ever-present risks of predatory violence. It also was a reaction to appallingly low rates of productivity. The two have tended to go hand in hand in farming societies. Each frequently contributed to the other. When public authority collapsed, property rights and prosperity tended to recede accordingly. Collapsing productivity also tended to undermine authority. While not every drought or adverse climatic change resulted in the breakdown of public authority, many did.

The Feudal Revolution of the Year 1000

Such was the case with the transformation of the year 1000, which launched the feudal revolution.14 At that time, megapolitical and economic conditions differed in important ways from those we have come to think of as characterizing the Middle Ages. In the first few centuries after the fall of Rome, the economy of Western Europe withered. The Germanic kingdoms that took root in the territories of the former Roman Empire had assumed many functions of the Roman state, but at a much less ambitious level. Infrastructure more or less went untended. As the centuries passed, bridges and aqueducts fell into disrepair and became unusable. Roman coinage was still employed, but it practically disappeared from circulation. Land markets, which had thrived in Roman times, more or less dried up. Towns, which had been centers of Roman administration, virtually vanished along with the taxing power of the state. And so did almost every other accoutrement of civilization.

The "Dark Ages" were so named for a reason. Literacy became so rare that anyone who possessed the ability to read and write could expect immunity from prosecution for almost any crime, including murder. Artistic, scientific, and engineering skills that had been highly developed in Roman times disappeared. From road building to the grafting of vines and fruit trees, Western Europe ceased employing many techniques that had once been well known and practiced to a high standard. Even so ancient a device as the potter's wheel disappeared in many places. Mining operations contracted. Metallurgy receded. Irrigation works in the Mediterranean region disintegrated through neglect.' 15 As historian Georges Duby observed, "At the end of the sixth century, Europe was a profoundly uncivilized place." 16 Although there was a brief renaissance of central authority under the rule of Charlemagne around the year 800, everything soon devolved again after his death.

A surprising corollary to this dreary landscape was the fact that the collapse of the Roman state probably raised the living standards of small farmers for several centuries. The Germanic kingdoms that dominated Western Europe during the Dark Ages incorporated some of the relatively easygoing social features common to their ancestral tribes, such as the legal equality of freeholders. As a consequence, small farmers in the Dark Ages were far freer than they were to be in the feudal centuries. By that we can also infer that they were more prosperous. As we analyzed above in exploring the logic of property forms under different conditions of productivity, freehold property has historically gone hand in hand with the relative prosperity of small farmers. The closed- village and feudal forms of property tended to emerge where the capacity of small farmers to make a living was more doubtful.

To be sure, the virtual collapse of commerce during the Dark Ages cost small farmers the benefits of trade and advantages of wider markets. The demise of the towns undermined the cash economy, but it also meant the rural population was no longer called upon to support the crushing burden of bureaucracy. As Guy Bois has written, the Roman town was a parasitic community, not a center of production: "In the Roman period, the dominant function of a city was of a political order. It lived primarily from the revenues draining into it from its surroundings by the agency of the land tax.... The town, in effect, produced little or nothing for the benefit of the surrounding countryside." 17 The collapse of Roman authority largely freed farmers in the countryside from taxes, which had sucked away "between one quarter to one third of the gross product of the land, without counting the various exactions suffered by small and middling landowners." 18 The taxes were so onerous, sometimes enforced by execution, that desertion of property by owners was widespread. The barbarians mercifully allowed these taxes to lapse.

Agri Deserti

The burdens of government were so greatly reduced by the barbarian conquests that an opening was created for the poor to obtain freehold property and keep it. Some of the agri deserti, or deserted farms abandoned by owners fleeing predatory taxation in the final years of the Roman Empire, were brought back into production. Notwithstanding the rude circumstances of the time and the fact that crop yields were ridiculously low by modern standards, the Dark Ages were a period of relative prosperity for Europe's smallholders. In fact, they were in a stronger position than they would be again until the modern era. For one thing, fewer hands were available to till the fertile land, large tracts of which had gone out of cultivation. Plagues, wars, and abandonment by owners escaping the collapsing Roman Empire had significantly depopulated areas previously under cultivation. Another advantage enjoyed by small farmers in the Dark Ages arose from the adoption in the sixth century of new farming technology: the heavy plow, often mounted on wheels. Used in tandem with an improved harness that allowed peasants to employ multiple oxen, the new technology made it much easier to clear forested land in Northern Europe.' 19

Under such conditions, the market for land contracted almost to the vanishing point. New land for farming could be had merely by clearing it and sharing part of each new parcel with the appropriate local authorities. This process, known as assarting, gave a comfortable outlet for population growth for centuries after Rome fell. Assarting became particularly attractive in thinly populated northern regions after warmer temperatures in the eighth century made farming more productive.

The leaders of the Germanic tribes who conquered former Roman territories had established themselves as large landholders. Most of the rest of the population farmed small plots-but under conditions very different from those that came later under feudalism. Wealthier landowners, or masters represented about 7-10 percent of the population. It appears that before the year 1000, two-thirds of the villagers in a typical area of France wen freehold landowners.21 They owned about half of all the land in cultivation.2 There were few serfs. Coloni, or tenant farmers, amounted to no more than 5 percent of the population. Slavery persisted, but on a much smaller scale than in Roman times.

The Germanic successor kingdoms to Rome were defended militarily by all free men who assembled to bear arms on the call of the king's local representative, the count. Even "small and middling proprietors" were expected to club together and send one of their number to fight with the infantry. 22 In the Edict of Pitres, Charles the Bald ordered all those who could afford to do so to muster for battle on horseback. Pope Gregory II; had attempted to advance this military imperative a century earlier by banning the human consumption of horsemeat in 732. 23 But there was as yet little distinction in status or law between the infantry of freeholders and the cavalry. All free men participated in local judicial assemblies and could petition for dispute settlement to the count, an office that had existed since late Roman times. There was no nobility as such.

"A social phenomenon, new as a mass phenomenon, suddenly appeared on the horizons in the 980s: downward social mobility. Its first victims were the small allod-holders."[24] Guy Bois

As the Dark Ages wore on, however, several things happened to destabilize the relationships that had preserved the independence of the yeoman farmers and freeholders in the Germanic kingdoms that inherited power after Rome's fall:

  1. Populations gradually recovered, placing greater pressures on the use of land. Over several centuries, much of the most fertile of the unclaimed land was brought into production, particularly growth in Northern Europe. The increasing population of farmers relative to the supply of land made the labor of each farmer worth less. Most freehold titles were broken into ever smaller plots through inheritance. During the Dark Ages, children tended to share equally in the estates of their parents. The fragmentation of holdings at a time of rising population tended to place land at a premium once again and led to the re-emergence of active land markets by the mid-tenth century.
  2. In the final decades of the tenth century, temperatures suddenly turned colder, with a devastating impact on farm output. Three successive crop failures led to severe famine from 982 to 984. Famine struck again after another crop failure in 994-95. Then, in 997, the problem of falling crop yields was compounded by a plague, which struck small family holdings with particular force because the smallholders lacked the resources to replace labor supplied by lost family members. These clustered crop failures and disasters at first led the yeoman farmers to sink into debt. When yields failed to recover they could not pay their mortgages.
  3. Power relations were progressively destabilized by the growing importance of heavy cavalry. Medieval historian Frances Gies describes the transformation of the armored cavalryman into the medieval knight:
    Originally a personality of mediocre status raised above the peasant by his expensive horse and armor, the knight slowly improved his position in society until he became part of the nobility. Although knights remained the lowest rank of the upper class, knighthood acquired a unique cachet that made knighting an honor prized by the great nobility and even royalty. The cachet was primarily the product of the Church's policy of Christianizing knighthood by sanctifying the ceremony of knighting and by sponsoring a code of behavior known as chivalry, a code perhaps violated more often than honored, but exercising incontestable influence on the thought and conduct of posterity.[26]

    As we recounted in The Great Reckoning, the invention of the stirrup gave the armed knight on horseback a formidable assault capability. He could now attack at full speed and not be thrown from the saddle by the impact of his lance striking a target. The military value of the heavy cavalry was further enhanced by an Asian invention that penetrated through Western Europe in the tenth century; the nailed iron horseshoe. This further improved the durability of the horse on the road.27 Also adding to the improved effectiveness of the armed knight were the contoured saddle, which made it easier to wield heavy weapons, the spur, and the curb bit, which enabled a rider to control the horse with one hand while fighting. 28 Together, these apparently minor technological innovations dramatically devalued the military importance of the smallholders, who could not afford to maintain war-horses and arm themselves. The cheaper of the horses specially bred for war, the large chargers known as destriers, were worth four oxen or forty sheep. The more expensive warhorses cost ten oxen or one hundred sheep. Armor also cost a sum that no small holder could afford, equivalent to the price of sixty sheep.29

  4. The fact that the colder weather, crop failures, famines, and plagues occurred during the run-up to the year 1000 also played a role in informing behavior Many people were convinced that the end of the world or the Second Coming was at hand. Devout or frightened landowners, large and small, gave their land to the Church in preparation for apocalypse.

"Only a Poor Man Sells Land"

The unsettled conditions of the late tenth century paved the way for the feudal revolution. Clustered crop failures and disasters led the yeoman farmers to sink into debt. When crop yields failed to recover, the freeholders faced a desperate situation. Markets always place the greatest pressures on the weakest holders. Indeed, that is part of their virtue. They promote efficiency by removing assets from weak hands. But in late-tenth- century Europe, subsistence farming was practically the only occupation. Families who lost their land lost their only means of survival. Faced with this unpalatable prospect, many or most of the freehold farmers decided to give away their fields during the feudal revolution. In the words of Guy Bois, "The only sure way for a peasant to hold on to the land he tilled was to concede ownership of it to the Church, so he could retain its usufruct." 30 Others ceded some or all of their land to wealthier farmers in whom they had confidence, either friendly neighbors or relatives.

These property transfers were made on the condition that the farmer, his family, and his descendants were to remain to work the fields. The poor farmers were also to enjoy the reciprocal support of the more substantial holders, now the "nobles" who were able to afford horse and armor, and thus provide protection to the enlarged estates. Such a bargain can be seen from the new serf's point of view as a halfway station between continuing economic ownership and foreclosure. More often than not, it was a bargain he could not refuse.

Falling productivity not only placed poor farmers in a desperate economic dilemma; it also instigated an upsurge in predatory violence that undermined the security of property. Those without the resources to wrest a share of the available and inadequate supply of horses and fodder suddenly found that they and their property were no longer safe. To put their dilemma in contemporary terms, it was as if you were forced to arm yourself today with a new type of weapon, but the cost of doing so was $100,000. If you could not pay that price, you would be at the mercy of those who could.

Within a few years, the capacity of the king and the courts to enforce order collapsed. 31 Anyone with armor and a horse could now become a law unto himself. The result was a late-tenth-century version of Blade Runner, a melee of fighting and plunder that the constituted authorities were powerless to stop. Looting and attacks by armed knights disrupted the countryside. It is by no means obvious, however, that all the victims of this pillage were the poor. To the contrary, the elderly, physically weaker, or ill-prepared among the larger landholders made more attractive targets. They had more to steal.

It was not a coincidence that this happened at the very moment when colder weather, famine, and plague were placing a pinch on resources. The megapolitical conditions conducive to the breakdown of authority had been in place for some time. Their potential for altering the power relations in society was not realized, however, until a crisis was triggered. Crop failures and famines appear to have done just that. While the exact sequence of events is difficult to reconstruct, it appears that the looting was instigated, at least in part, by desperate conditions. Once the violence was unleashed, it became evident that no one could mobilize the force to stop it. The vast majority of

poorly armed farmers certainly could do little. Even dozens of farmers on foot would have been outmatched by a single armed knight on horseback. The freehold farmers, like the constituted authorities, the kings with their counts, were powerless to prevent local land from being seized by armed warriors.

"The Peace of God"

In these desperate conditions, the Church helped to launch feudalism through its efforts to negotiate a truce in the violent countryside. Historian Guy Bois described the situation this way: "The impotence of the political authorities was such that the Church stood in for them in the attempt to restore order, in the movement known as 'The Peace of God.' 'Councils of Peace' proclaimed series of interdictions which were sanctioned by anathemas; vast 'assemblies of peace' received the oaths of the warriors. The movement originated in the French Midi (Council of Charroux in 989, Council of Narbonne in 990), then gradually spread..." 32

The bargain that the Church struck involved acknowledgment of the overlordship of armed knights in local communities in exchange for a cessation or tempering of the violence and looting. Land titles inscribed after the surge of violence in the late tenth century suddenly bore the title "nobilis" or "miles" as an indication of lordship. The nobility as a separate estate was created by the feudal revolution. Property transactions recorded to the same individuals only a few years earlier had listed no such distinction.33 Given falling productivity and the economic insecurity of the smallholders, the megapolitical power of the armed knights led inevitably to property holdings by feudal tenure. By the end of the first quarter of the eleventh century, yeoman farmers had largely disappeared. Their freeholdings had shrunk to a fraction of their previous extent and were now being worked just part-time. The small farmers or their descendants were serfs who spent most of their time laboring on the estates of feudal lords, lay and ecclesiastical.

The breakdown of order that accompanied the feudal revolution led to adjustments in behavior which reinforced feudalism. Among them was a surge in castle building. Castles had first appeared in northwest Europe as primitive wooden structures in the wake of Viking raids in the ninth century. Originally command centers for Carolingian officials, they became hereditary possessions after the feudal revolution. These early redoubts were far more primitive than they would later become, but they were nonetheless difficult to attack. Once erected, castles were razed only with the greatest effort. As they began to dot the countryside, the castles made it ever more implausible that the king or his counts could effectively challenge the local supremacy of the lords.

Contributions of the Church to Productivity

Feudalism was the response of agricultural society to the collapse of order at a time of low productivity. During the early stages of feudalism, the Church played an important and economically productive role. Among the Church's contributions:

  1. In an environment where military power was decentralized, the Church was uniquely placed to maintain peace and develop rules of order that transcended fragmented, local sovereignties. This is a job that no secular power was positioned to do. The observations of the great religious authority A. R. Radcliffe-Brown are directly relevant here. He pointed out that "the social function of a religion is independent of its truth or falsity." Even those that are "absurd and repulsive, such as those of some savage tribes, may be important and effective parts of the social machinery."34 This was certainly the case with the Church in the early stages of feudalism. It helped create rules, as only a religion could, that enabled people to overcome incentive traps and behavioral dilemmas. Some of these were moral dilemmas common to all human life. But others were local dilemmas, unique to the prevailing megapolitical conditions. The medieval Church had a special role to play in restoring order in the countryside in the final years of the tenth century. By providing religious and ceremonial support to local authorities, the Church lowered the costs of establishing at least weak local monopolies of violence. By helping to establish order in this way, the Church contributed to the conditions that ultimately led to more stable configurations of power.

    The Church continued to play a role for a long time thereafter in tempering the private wars and excesses of violence that otherwise could not be contained by civil authorities. The relative importance of the Church as opposed to secular authorities is reflected in the fact that by the eleventh century, the main administrative division of authority in most of Western Europe came to be the parish, rather than the old divisions of civil authority, the ager and pagus (town) that had persisted from Roman times through the Dark Ages.35

  2. The Church was the main source for preserving and transmitting technical knowledge and information. The Church sponsored universities and provided the minimal education that medieval society enjoyed. The Church also provided a mechanism for reproducing books and manuscripts, including almost all contemporary information about farming and husbandry. The scriptoria of the Benedictine monasteries can be understood as an alternate technology to printing presses, which did not yet exist. Costly and inefficient as the scriptoria were, they were practically the only mechanism for reproducing and preserving written knowledge in the feudal period.
  3. Partly because its farm managers were literate, the Church did a great deal to help improve the productivity of European farming, especially in the early stages of feudalism. Before the thirteenth century the farm managers of lay lords were almost all illiterates who kept records through an elaborate set of marks. Shrewd farmers though they may have been, they were in no position to benefit from any improvement in production methods that they could not invent themselves or see with their own eyes. The Church was therefore essential to improving the quality of grains, fruits, and breeding stock. Because of its extensive holdings spread over the entire European continent, the Church could send the most productive seed and breeding stock to areas where output lagged. The demand for sacramental wine in Northern Europe led monks to experiment with hardier varieties of grape that could survive in colder climates. The Church also helped raise the productivity of medieval farming in other ways. Many of the uneconomically small plots donated to the Church during the feudal revolution were reconfigured to make them easier to farm. The Church also provided ancillary services required by small farming communities. In many areas, Church-owned mills ground grain into flour.
  4. The Church undertook many functions that are today absorbed by government, including the provision of public infrastructure. This is part of the way that the Church helped overcome what economists call "public goods dilemmas" in an era of fragmented authority. Specific religious orders of the early-medieval Church devoted themselves to applied engineering tasks, like opening roads, rebuilding fallen bridges, and repairing dilapidated Roman aqueducts They also cleared land, built dams, and drained swamps. A new monastic order, the Carthusians, dug the first "artesian" well in Artois, France. Using percussion drilling, they dug a small hole deep enough to create a well that needed no pump.36 The Cistercian Order undertook to build and maintain precarious seawalls and dikes in the Low Countries of Europe. Farmers deeded land to Cistercian monasteries and then leased it back, while the monks undertook full responsibility for upkeep and repairs. Cistercians also took the lead in developing water-powered machines, which were adopted to such widespread uses as "pounding, lifting, grinding, and pressing."37 The monastery of Clairvaux dug a two-mile-long canal from the River Aube.3x The Church also intervened to build new roads and bridges where population centers had shifted outside the range of the old Roman garrison roads. Bishops granted indulgences to local lords who would build or repair river crossings and maintain hospices for travelers. An order of monks established by St. Benezet, the Freres Pontifes, or "Brothers of the Bridge," built several of the longest bridges then existing, including the Pont d'Avignon, a massive twenty-arch structure over the Rhone with a combination chapel and tollbooth at one end. Even London Bridge, which stood until the nineteenth century, was constructed by a chaplain and financed in part by a contribution of 1,000 marks from the papal legate.39
  5. The Church also helped incubate a more complex market. Cathedral construction, for example, differs in kind from public infrastructure, like bridges and aqueducts. In principle, at least, Church structures were used only for religious services and not as thoroughfares for commerce. Yet it should not be forgotten that construction of churches and cathedrals helped create and deepen markets for many artisanal and engineering skills. In the same way that military spending of the nation-state during the Cold War unintentionally helped incubate the Internet, so the building of medieval cathedrals led to spin-offs of other kinds, the incubation of commerce. The Church was a principal customer of the building trades and artisans. Church purchases of silver for communion services, candelabra, and artworks to decorate churches helped to create a market for luxury goods that otherwise would not have existed.

In many ways, the Church helped to temper the ferocity of violence unleashed by armed knights during and after the "feudal revolution." Especially in the early centuries of feudalism, the Church contributed significantly to improving the productivity of the farming economy. It was an essential institution, well fitted to the needs of agrarian society at the close of the Dark Ages.

Vulnerability to Violence

In "thirty or forty years of violent disturbances, the feudal revolution of the year 1000," 40 like the fall of Rome five centuries earlier, was a unique event, caused by a complex interplay of influences. Yet in one respect, the triumph of mali ham ines (wicked men) and the oppressions they wrought perfectly reflect the essential vulnerability of agricultural society to violence. In contrast to the foraging phase of human existence, farming introduced a quantum leap in organized violence and oppression.

From the very earliest, this was reflected in the more militant cultures of farming peoples. The gods of the early agricultural societies were gods of rainfall and flooding, whose functions reflected the preoccupations of those societies with factors that determined crop yields. The sender of rain or water was also often the god of war, invoked by the earliest kings, who were, above all else, warlords.41 The close connection between farming and warfare was reflected in the religious imagination of people whose lives were transformed by the innovations of the agricultural revolution. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden can be seen as a figurative account of the transformation of society from foraging to farming, from a free life with food picked from nature's bounty with little work to a life of hard labor.

Paradise Lost

Farming set humanity on an entirely new course. The first farmers truly planted the seeds of civilization. From their toil came cities, armies, arithmetic, astronomy, dungeons, wine and whiskey, the written word, kings, slavery, and war. Yet notwithstanding all the drama that farming was to add to life, the shift away from the primeval economy appears to have been roundly unpopular from its earliest days. Witness the account preserved in the Book of Genesis, which tells the story of the expulsion from paradise. The biblical parable of the Garden Of Eden is a fond recollection of the life of ease enjoyed by the forager in the wilderness. Scholars indicate that the word "Eden" appears to be derived from a Sumerian word for "wilderness."[42]

The transition from a free and sparsely settled life in the wild to a sedentary life in a farming village was a matter of deep regret, expressed not only in the Bible but also in humankind's continuing grudge against getting up in the morning and going to work. As Stephen Boyden wrote in Western Civilization in Biological Perspective, the new way of living that accompanied farming was "evodeviant."43 Prior to the advent of farming, thousands of human generations lived as Adam did in Eden, at the invitation of his Maker: "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat." Hunters and gatherers had no crops to tend, no herd to watch, no taxes to pay. Like hoboes, foragers drifted where they pleased, worked little, and answered to no one.

With farming, a new way of life began, and on altogether more pressing terms. "Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." Farming was hard work. The memory of life before farming was that of paradise lost.

More than they could have imagined, farmers created new conditions that drastically altered the logic of violence. It is not a coincidence that the Book of Genesis makes Cain, the first murderer, "a tiller of the ground." Indeed, it is part of the uncanny prophetic power of the Bible that its story was entrusted to shepherds who readily understood how farming gave leverage to violence. In a few verses the biblical account encapsulates logic that took thousands of years to play out. Farming was an incubator of disputes. Farming created stationary capital on an extensive scale, raising the payoff from violence and dramatically increasing the challenge of protecting assets. Farming made both crime and government paying propositions for the first time.


1. Stephen Boyden, Western Civilization in Biological Perspective (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1987), p.4.

2. Susan AIling Gregg, Foragers and Farmers: Population Interaction and Agricultural Expansion in Prehistoric Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), xv.

3. Boyden, op. cit., p.62.

4. Ibid., p.67.

5. Ibid.

6. Quoted in E. J. P Veale, Advance to Barbarism: The Development of

Total Warfore (New York: Devin-Adair, 1968), p.37.

7. R. Paul Shaw and Yuwa Wong, Genetic Seeds of Warfare: Evolution, Nationalism and Patriotism (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), p.4.

8. See Carleton S. Coon, The Hunting Peoples (New York: Nick Lyons Books,

1971), p.275.

9. Gregg, op. cit., p.23.

10. Boyden, op. cit, p.69.

11. Shaw and Wong, op. cit., p.69.

12. For more details about the Kafirs, see Schuyler Jones, Men of

Influence in Nuristan (London: Seminar Press, 1974).

13. See Samuel L. Popkin, The Rational Peasant (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), p.13.

14. See Bois, op. cit

15. See Frances and Joseph Gies, Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel:

Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p.40.

16. Quotedinibid., p.42.

17. Guy Bois, The Transformation 0f the Year One Thousand: The Village ofLournard from Antiquity to Feudalism (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1992), p.78.

18. Ibid., p.118.

19. Gies, op. cit., p.45.

20. Bois, op. cit., p. 116.

21. Ibid., p.26.

22. Ibij, p.64.

23. Gies, op. cit., p.47.

24. Bois, op. cit., p.52.

25. Ibid., p.150

26. Gies, op. cit., p.2.

27. Ibid., p.46.

28. Ibid., pp.56-57.

29. Ibid., p.58.

30. Bois, op. cit., p.87.


31, Ibid. While the precise sequence of events during the feudal revolution is difficult to reconstruct because of the paucity of

records, the broad outline of the thesis suggested by Guy Bois strikes us as likely to be correct. It is not only plausible in itsel1, but it

makes sense of otherwise anomalous facts and fits with our theories as well.

32. Ibid., p.136.

33. Ibid., pp.57 and passim.

34. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Religion and Society," in Structure and

Function in Primitive Society (London: Cohen & West, 1952), pp.153-77.

35. Bois, op. cit., p.36.

36. Gies, op. cit., p. 112.

37. Ibid., p.114.

38. Ibid., p.117.

39. The details about bridges and infrastructure are mainly from

ibid., pp.148-54.

40. Bois, op. cit., p.136.

41. See Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient

Roots of the Apocalyptic Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), chaps. I-3, especially p.60.

42. Bruce Ni. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.178. 43. Boyden, op. ciL, p. 118.


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