Medieval origins of Spain’s economic geography

The frontier of medieval warfare between Christian and Muslim armies in southern Spain provides a surprisingly powerful explanation of current low-density settlement patterns in those regions. This is the central finding of research by Daniel Oto-Peralías (University of Saint-Andrews), recently presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference in March 2018.

 His study notes that Southern Spain is one of the most deserted areas in Europe in terms of population density, only surpassed by parts of Iceland and the northern part of Scandinavia. It turns out that this outcome has roots going back to medieval times when Spain’s southern plateau was a battlefield between Christian and Muslim armies.

The study documents that Spain stands out in Europe with an anomalous settlement pattern characterised by a very low density in its southern half. Among the ten European regions with the lowest settlement density, six are from southern Spain (while the other four are from Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland).

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On average only 29.8% of 10km2 grid cells are inhabited in southern Spain, which is a much lower percentage than in the rest of Europe (with an average of 74.4%). Extreme geographical and climatic conditions do not seem to be the reason for this low settlement density, which the author refers to as ‘Spanish anomaly’.

After ruling out geography as the main explanatory factor for the ‘Spanish anomaly’, the research investigates its historical roots by focusing on the Middle Ages, when the territory was retaken by the Christian kingdoms from Muslim rule.

The hypothesis is that the region’s character as a militarily insecure frontier conditioned the colonisation of the territory, which is tested by taking advantage of the geographical discontinuity in military insecurity created by the Tagus River in central Spain. Historical ‘accidents’ made the colonisation of the area south of the Tagus River very different from colonisation north of it.

The invasions of North Africa’s Almoravid and Almohad empires converted the territory south of the Tagus into a battlefield for a century and a half, this river being a natural defensive border. Continuous warfare and insecurity heavily conditioned the nature of the colonisation process in this frontier region, which was characterised by the leading role of the military orders as agents of colonisation, scarcity of population and a livestock-oriented economy. It resulted in the prominence of castles and the absence of villages, and consequently, a spatial distribution of the population characterised by a very low density of settlements.

The empirical analysis reveals a large difference in settlement density across the River Tagus, whereas there are no differences in geographical and climatic variables across it. In addition, it is shown that the discontinuity in settlement density already existed in the 16th and 18th centuries, and is not therefore the result of migration movements and urban developments taking place recently. Preliminary evidence also indicates that the territory exposed to the medieval ranching frontier is relatively poorer today.

Thus, the study shows that historical frontiers can decisively shape the economic geography of countries. Using Medieval Spain as a case study, it illustrates how the exposure to warfare and insecurity – typical in medieval frontiers– creates incentives for a militarised colonisation based on a few fortified settlements and a livestock-oriented economy, conditioning the occupation of a territory to such an extent to convert it into one of the most deserted areas in Europe. Given the ubiquity of frontiers in history, the mechanisms underlined in the analysis are of general interest and may operate in other contexts.

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.