March 08, 2008

Taxation in the Early Middle Ages

I know that this does not sound like the most glamorous of subjects- but actually I think that this is one of the more interesting findings that has recently come out of history. Its central to the way that we understand the evolution of the state. The Early Middle Ages see the creation of modern Europe, the division of the meditereanean between Christianity to the north and Islam to the south. By understanding what happened we can understand the reasons why our history looks the way it does. But more than that by understanding what happened we can see how different reactions to the downfall of imperialisation (the process of the break up of Empire) took effect and we can see how in this case tax effected the way that regimes evolved.

Chris Wickham's magisterial study of the later Roman Empire and early Middle Ages is a multi chapter work, each of whose segments deserve separate analysis. He explores so much that its hard to confine a discussion to a single blog post- so I hope that people do not mind me turning this into an intermittant series- given that it is in my opinion one of the more important books I have read recently, especially with regard to what I think is a neglected subject: the transition from the classical to the medieval. Tax in my view is also a neglected subject: its not sexy, but gritty. Regimes are often defined using the traditional taxonomy used by Aristotle- democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, but seldom do political theorists in the classical tradition turn to analysing the way that they produce revenue and use that revenue. Yet since Harrington (and perhaps Polybius and Machiavelli) the taxation basis of a society has been one of the ways that a social analyst can distinguish and understand a system best.

The early middle ages saw a vast change in the taxation systems across Europe. Basically at the beggining of the period- in say 400- the meditereanean and its European, Asian and African shores were dominated by the Roman Empire. From the Severn to the Euphrates, the Rhine to the Nile, a single political entity or two allied political entities ruled the entire meditereanean basin. That had consequences. Firstly a vast system of taxation was used to supply the two main cities of the Empire. Rome and Constantinople depended on the annona- supplies of grain taken from the agricultural lands of Egypt and Syria. Rome's population at its height was around a million citizens- and they received free handouts of food from the state. But food didn't merely move to the two main imperial capitals. Food and goods moved from Gaul and Britain towards the Rhine frontier, supporting a vast army there. From Egypt and Syria it moved to the Euphrates where a vast Roman army faced the Persians. From the Aegean supplies moved up to the Danube to supply the Roman army that faced the northern world over that river. The Empire denominated all this movement in coin and paid its soldiers a salary- it also channelled that emense wealth to the construction of a civil service which supported the Emperor and controlled and applied this complex system.

Everywhere in the Roman world we see complaints about the levels of taxation and even an Emperor, Valentinian III issued a law in 450 curbing the rapacity of his own taxation assessors. Imperial orders required accounts three times a year to be submitted from rural districts and relied on inspections by local governors. We can see from Egypt, admittedly the most economically developed and politically precocious Roman province, that tax collection was a violent and an insistant pressure on especially rural society. This had consequences for the Roman system of government- coup was the most common form of change of government, soldiers might mutiny for higher pay (as any reader of Tacitus will know) and the city mobs were both large and mutinous. On the other hand it also accounts for the Roman world's stability as an entity, it was centralised and subject to a regular bureacracy. The Roman world did not see, until its crisis, pressures to break up, rather as in the 3rd Century, Emperors rose and fell at the centre. The Roman system was not centrally controlled- but the resources it produced were centrally directed and linked up a vast area, making the defence of the Rhine say reliant upon incomes produced in Provence or the defence of the Euphrates on incomes from the Nile. This picture though becomes very different after the crisis of the 5th Century in the West and the crisis of the 7th Century in the East.

The results of these two crises were to unravel the central acheivement of the Roman Empire- its existance over so much territory. This had consequences in that in all the provinces of the Empire, the state turned more and more inwards and became more and more localised. In Africa after 439 for example no grain fleet sailed north to distribute free grain to the Roman population. The same was true of Egypt after the Arabic conquest in the 7th Century. The great armies for example on the Rhine disappeared completely at some time in the 5th Century, on the Euphrates at some point in the seventh. Defence became local: the provinces of Anatolia had to bear the entire burden of defence against the Arabs- the Byzantines even further localised their defence by basing armies in districts or themes whereby fertile parts of Anatolia were connected to an outer defensive rim. The province of Gaul had to maintain the Merovingian state on its own. Even in Arabic Egypt, it is the constriction of horizon that is most evident. You see that Arabic Egypt does not send income out to the other parts of the Caliphate but rather keeps it within itself. The localisation of the Roman world is a trend that militates against the kind of complex regime that had sat on that world beforehand. Simply put in many parts of the Empire by 800 were supporting themselves in a variety of different ways- variety had replaced uniformity.

All provinces though did not find that their rulers responded in the same way. There is an East-West division here- the Barbarion states of Western Europe, Visigothic Spain, Merovingian France and Vandal Africa were substantially different to the Byzantine Empire and Arabic caliphate which preserved more institutional continuity. In the West, the picture that emerges from Wickham's study is that there was no need for Western states to maintain taxation and consequently it fell away as a method of extracting revenue. The armies of the Barbarions were maintained through grants of land- that afterall was why the Vandals, Visigoths, Franks and others had come into the Roman Empire in the first place and consequently rulers felt no real need for the elaborate taxation systems that the Romans had constructed. In Spain for example such structures fell into disuse because of their unpopularity and the fact that they were not required to support an army whose loyalty was based on grants of land. The same picture is true of Merovingian Gaul. The point though about these regimes is that rather than being vulnerable to coup at the centre, they were vulnerable to revolt at the periphery. Carolingian Frankia was subject to massive splits- as was Visigothic Spain. The splits meant that armies were formed to contest and obtain new rewards and new plunder and the system worked. Once a polity had attained its maximum size it could not do anything save for feed on its own factions.

The situation in the East is different. What happened in the East was that there was more continuity. Institutionally the Roman Empire survived through the early middle ages in the East- and until 630 controlled pretty much the territories that the empire had controlled in the days of Augustus. After the Muslim conquest of Syria and Egypt, the Byzantine Empire was reduced to Anatolia and was forced to support itself from that province alone. The Byzantine method of coping with this change was dual- firstly the empire switched the places that provided it with goods. The city of Constantinople contracted- but still received grain from the Western provinces particularly Sicily until its conquest by the Arabs. It also though localised its military- Anatolia was divided into themes and those themes supported particular units which were recruited and supplied from them. The Emperors did maintain a central force- the tagmata- from the eighth century onwards- and that was supplied centrally by taxation and the army was still paid but we are getting the formation of a system of localisation. The scale of everything was reduced.

It was in Ummayad Egypt, curiously, that the tax system went under the least change. Here tax was still being paid right up till the end of the period that we are dealing with- and there are records which demonstrate the rapacity of governors and local officials in dealing with taxation. In Egypt, the Arabs invaded as a ruling military caste, refusing to be swallowed by the local population it took them a long time to begin to own land and even for the Egyptians to use Egyptian instead of Coptic or Greek. The Arabs segregated off their religion and their language from the Egyptian subject population and lived off the tax revenue that they could extract. Wickham surmises that this was one of the reasons why in Egypt Islam and Arab cultural identity was so strong, whereas in the West by the end of our period, a Frank was someone just born north of the Loire irrespective of their ancestry or language. The point is that the Arab commitment to a large non landed but salaried army meant that they became a separate elite which was supported by the non-Arab tax payer. Its also interesting that in Egypt this meant that there were few ways for the native population to protest effectively- there was no real aristocracy to appeal to and therefore tax rebellions and tax wars are a frequent feature of Egyptian politics running right up until the ninth century. Syria has a similar profile- though here the situation was more stable because of the fact that there were more Arabs who had been there before the conquest and hence were landed and therefore taxed and therefore could appeal to their brethren. Another facet of Ummayad rule was that the taxes collected in Egypt or Syria did not go outside those regions- this leant the provincial governments great wealth with respect to the centre. Whereas in the Roman world, the outer peripharies and the inner circles had been the places where taxes were collected and spent and consequently where power was, in the Ummayad empire there was more centralisation within a province and less without it.

This change in the direction of the tax yield and in the West, in the nature of the tax yield changed politics. It leant politics according to Wickham a much more centrifugal force. In the West maintaining authority was much harder because the business of tax collection had supplied some of the glue keeping the provinces and particularly armies together- the landed army now only wished for plunder and could easily turn into a local force raised for civil war. If the West tended to division and increased warfare, then in the East the old provinces of the Roman empire became more independent of each other. The Arabic empire was less cohesive than what it had succeeded. Curiously in this new localistic world it was smaller states like Byzantium and Lombardy in Italy which maintained more cohesiveness- they were able to because precisely of the move to localising tax revenues. Keeping societies together had become harder because they were no longer fiscal wholes. What we see therefore in the Early Middle Ages is a succession of attempts to maintain cohesion whether through inventing ceremonies- the Visigothic Spanish kingdom used church councils- or maintaining an intrusive legal apparatus as in Lombardy, the state was preoccupied with its own break up and obsessed with regional autonomy instead of local coup. If that autonomy was different in different regions- that related to the different taxation structures and if furthermore the social structure of Ummayad Egypt was different from Frankia that related to the way that its tax was structured.

Tax is obviously not the whole answer nor does it determine a society's complete history- but as I hope this brief survey of Wickham's work indicates it structures the reality to which rulers responded in the early middle ages. One cannot understand say the judicial activity of western Kings or their ceremony without seeing that they were in part attempting to maintain control over kingdoms that threatened to split apart at any point. In the West royal power was increasingly transferred through the aristocracy, in the East every peasant knew who his taxes went to. Simply put in the West the King moved further away from his subjects. Furthermore throughout the Western world, the state became vulnerable to splitting up. The Roman world of coups at the centre gave way to kingdoms who were liable to breaking up into regions. This was less true in the East where the provinces at least had an integrity thanks to the tax system but even there the lack of transfers between provinces created structural cleavages which could lead to regional independence. In the East the most common form of revolt remained the tax revolt, in the West it was a peasant rebellion against a Lord or a Lord's rebellion against his King. Its an interesting subject- and I will return to Wickham's thesis- I am not competent in reality to criticise it but its worth laying out in full, and my views I'm sure on it will evolve as I read more and think more about the issues involved.


fake consultant said...

a great story...and i'm waiting for commentary on the changes in andalucia, which i assume is a bit down the road yet, as we are not quite to the 1300s or beyond.

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Only you could run a post like this, Tiberius. Never stop.