Bodies as commodities: the medieval trade in Christian saints’ relics

by Elizabeth Wiedenheft (University of Nottingham)

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There has long been a tension in Christianity between economic concerns and providing a way to commune with the sacred. Nowhere was this more apparent in medieval Europe than with the bodies of holy persons (saints’ relics).

These bodies provided pilgrims with a focus, allowing them to direct their devotion to heaven by praying over the relics. But these bodies were not only sacred objects: they were also bought and sold for profit by enterprising merchants and monks who created vast trading networks throughout Western Europe to exchange them.

Because they were human bodies, relics held a special position in the medieval economy. Their value was based in part on their connection to the spirit that had once inhabited the body, or the personality of the saint. But because they were objects (and often highly mobile objects too), relics were commoditised by medieval society – traded, bought and sold for profit by the communities that held them.

This research seeks to improve our understanding of the exchange of Christian relics in France, Belgium and England in the period between 800 and 1200. It uses medieval hagiographies (accounts of saints’ lives) to show that saints’ bodies were moved frequently in medieval Europe.

Monks used existing trade routes and networks to move these relics. They also used merchant connections to maximise the speed of the acquisition, which consequently allowed them to promote their new relics quickly and efficiently. While they did not have a strict monetary value, relics did have value that was based on their usefulness in performing miracles and as a tool to acquire and manage the church’s property.

The research uses the exchange of relics as social tools in return for land and social power to illustrate their value to the Church. When a community acquired an extremely valuable set of relics (such as St Cuthbert in Durham, St Aethelthryth at Ely, St Edmund at Bury St Edmunds or St Thomas Becket at Canterbury), they promoted their new acquisition by touring the relics throughout the region, moving them into sumptuous reliquaries (highly decorated boxes or statues that held the relics) or tombs, and by inviting ecclesiastical and secular dignitaries to watch these movements.

Over time, the relics could become inextricably tied to the place that held them, rendering them useless outside of that society. If that happened, the relics became ‘inalienable’, or could not be traded or exchanged for other items because they could not effectively be valued by the other society.

This research, therefore, argues that relics are best understood as ‘inalienable commodities’, or economic objects that could be traded but which were only valuable in a specific location.

Looking at the economic status of relics in studies such as this gives us valuable insights into the rise of markets in the era before the modern industrial and consumer economy. The medieval economy was not entirely based on a monetary system of exchange, but it was diverse and the objects that circulated within that economy were conceived of by their contemporaries in a myriad of ways.

Research into the status of relics, how they were exchanged, and the economic benefits accrued through their acquisition can have some bearing on modern conceptions of the worth of the human body, as well as the tension between creating capital and promoting the sacred in modern Christianity.

The Travelling Kingdom during Medieval Period in England, France and the Holy Roman Empire: An Economic Interpretation

by Daniel Gottal (University of Bayreuth)

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Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa on his Third Crusade

 Noblemen, knights and kings had always been on tour in Medieval Period. Weather on campaign, pilgrimage or on itinerant court – mobility was unexpected high to this specific aristocratic peer group. When capital cities had not emerged yet, the king as the political centre was on continuously travelling through his kingdom. This travelling kingdom had a political and an often missed out economic dimension.

At a time without newspapers, television or other mass media, dealing ‘oral contracts’ in personal relationships with his vessels, was essential. In the 13th century written documentation re-emerged and contributed to a slowdown of the royal itinerant court. Hence travelling kingdom was part of most mediaeval societies to a specific point of their cultural and institutional evolution.

The first modest beginnings originated from Merovingian dynasty on ox carts. Centuries later, Italian campaigns since Charles the Great (742-814) till the Ottonian dynasty, had a specific itinerant court character with their long stays in the three Italian capital cities: Pavia, Ravenna and Rome. Henry II (973-1024) – starting after his crowning in 1002 – bethinks on these older traditions and established the travelling kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire for centuries. Until the mid of the 15th century under Frederick III (1415-1493), where Late Middle Ages, Early Renaissance and Early Modern Period overlapped, the travelling kingdom survived, until it fossilised at the end of the century.

Besides of the fragility of the political system solely relying on personal relationships, the travelling kingdom had also an economic dimension. At the time food was rare in Europe in the Middle Ages and the king did not travel alone. He was accompanied by his royal court, including nobility, knights, bodyguards, and servants. This entourage could make up thousands of people. Because the transportation facilities were poor, the agricultural resources to provide the itinerant court food and shelter were scarce. Thus there was economic pressure for travelling around.

Unsurprising, that more frequented routes and stops were highly correlated with the most prosperous regions in Europe. In the Holy Roman Empire regional focus was on Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia and along the Rhine, the Franco-German border. The king and the king’s follower’s hostage were an enormous economic burden for cities and monastics they visited. Royal accommodation, the servitia regis, was an expensive duty for all his vassals. The average visit lasted three days but could be as long as two weeks. As prestigious as the king’s hostage might have been for a city, from a budgetary perspective his hoosts were relieved when he left for his next destination.

In contrast to continental Europe, England was once more special. A travelling kingdom was not common under Norman regimen. Power was less challenged than on the continent and Westminster early emerged as capital city. But John Lackland (1167-1216), king and heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), had done longer travels to secure his power, as well as his brother did before. But the tradition of a travelling kingdom was much more common to the north of the island, to the Scottish, than to the English.

Meanwhile, in the transition from the High to the Late Middle Ages the duty for king’s hostage was replaced by a financial grant – in France, Flanders and Bourgogne. Records from the French droit de gîte revealed, that most cities from 1223 to 1225 payed something in between 100 and 200 pound sterling silver a year. The combined income for the French crown was 3,000 pound sterling silver a year, covering 1% of Louis VIII of France (1187-1226) total expenses. The cities and monastics made a good deal in transforming the servitude into money. Fixing the amount via privilege, unadjusted by high inflation in the Late Middle Ages, the financial grant completely vanished over time – as well as the travelling kingdom.

 

 

Economic roots of Jewish persecutions in Medieval Europe

by Robert Warren Anderson (University of Michigan-Dearborn), Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama (George Mason University).

 

 

Jewish communities in pre-industrial European societies were more likely to be vulnerable to persecutions during periods of economic hardship.

The authors’ study finds that colder springs and summers, which led to reduced food supply, were associated with a higher probability of Jewish persecutions. What’s more, the effect of colder weather on the probability of Jewish persecutions was larger in cities with poor quality soil and in states that were weaker.

Throughout most of history, religious minorities were the victims of persecution. Violence against religious and ethnic minorities remains a major problem in many developing countries today. This study investigates why some societies persecute minorities.

To answer these questions, the researchers focus on the persecution of Jews in medieval and early modern Europe. Violence against Jews was caused by a complex set of factors that have been studied intensively by historians. These include religiously motivated anti-semitism, the need to blame outsider groups and the economic role that Jews played in pre-industrial European societies.

The new study focuses on the hypothesis that Jews were more likely to be vulnerable during periods of economic hardship. The researchers test this hypothesis by combining two novel datasets.

The first dataset is drawn from the 26-volume Encyclopaedia Judaica and contains yearly information on 1,366 city-level persecutions of Jews from 936 European cities between 1100 and 1800. The location of these cities as well as the intensity with which they persecuted Jews is illustrated in Figure 1.

 

Figure 1: The distribution of cities with Jewish persecutions and total persecutions, 1100-1800

 

 

The second source contains data on yearly growing season temperature (April to September), which have been reconstructed from proxies including tree rings, ice cores and pollen counts (Guiot and Corona, 2010).

The first result is that colder springs and summers are indeed associated with a higher probability of persecution. A one standard deviation decrease in average growing season temperature in the previous five-year period (about one-third of a degree Celsius) raised the probability that a community would be persecuted from a baseline of about 2% to between 3% and 3.5% in the subsequent five-year period or a 50% to 75% increase in persecution probability.

To explain this effect, the researchers develop a conceptual framework that outlines the political equilibrium under which pre-modern rulers would tolerate the presence of a Jewish community. They argue that this equilibrium was vulnerable to shocks to agricultural output and why this vulnerability may have been greater in locations with poor quality soil and in polities where sovereignty was divided or which were more susceptible to unrest.

Consistent with their conceptual framework, the researchers find that the effect of colder weather on persecution probability was larger in cities with poor quality soil and in states that were weaker. Moreover, the relationship between colder weather and persecution probability was strongest in the late Middle Ages.

Furthermore, as Figure 2 illustrates, the relationship disappeared after 1600, which the researchers attribute to various factors: the rise of stronger states (which were better able to protect minorities); increased agricultural productivity; and the development of more integrated markets, which reduced the impact of local weather shocks on the food supply.

 

Figure 2: The effect of cold weather shocks on persecution probability over time

 

 

The researchers support their results with extensive narrative evidence consistent with these claims and with further evidence that the relationship between colder weather and higher wheat prices also diminished after 1600.

‘Jewish Persecutions and Weather Shocks: 1100-1800’ by Robert Warren Anderson, Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama is published in the June 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

A blog article also appeared on the media briefings of the Royal Economic Society.

 

 

From The Conversation: No, the Black Death did not create more jobs for women

by Jane Humphries, Professor of Economic History, University of Oxford
Published on 8 April 2014

The plague known as the Black Death which tore through 14th century Europe is traditionally held to have had at least one upside. Women, the theory runs, were able to exploit the labour shortages of post-plague England to find themselves in a richer and more stable position than before. However the idea that women of the era were forerunners of the post World War I generation doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, as new research shows.

Medievalists have long debated the extent to which women shared in the “golden age” of the English peasantry that followed the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death. The plague killed between 30% and 45% of the population in its first wave 1348-59. Recurrences meant that by the 1370s England’s population had been halved.

The silver lining, for the peasantry at least, was the dramatic increase in workers’ remuneration as landowners struggled to recruit and retain labourers. The results are apparent in a rapid increase in male casual (nominal and real) wages from about 1349.

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Some historians have argued that women’s gains were even more marked as they could find employment in hitherto male-dominated jobs, or migrate to towns to work in the growing textile industries and commercial services and so enjoy “economic independence”.

Others however have suggested that whatever the implications of the Black Death for male workers, the sexual division of labour prevented women from seizing the opportunities created by the labour shortage. As one account puts it: “Women tended to work in low-skilled, low-paid jobs … This was true in 1300 and it remained true in 1700”.

The debate has significant implications as optimists have gone further in arguing that women’s improved wages changed demographic behaviour by delaying marriage, promoting celibacy and reducing fertility, with the resulting so-called north-west European Marriage Pattern raising incomes and promoting further growth.

READ FULL ARTICLE HERE