Dark Age giants?

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From Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered:

Measurements taken on skeletal remains in cemeteries in southwestern Germany indicate that the average height for men was about five feet eight inches, for women about five feet four inches, statures well above those of late medieval and early modern times. Measurements taken on skeletons in other regions are comparable. In Denmark, for example, the average height for men was about five feet nine inches-just above those for southwestern Germany-and for women about five feet four inches. These average heights were not achieved again until the twentieth century. Compared with earlier and later populations in the same regions, these average measurements show that most people had adequate nutrition during most of their lives and their living conditions were generally good

This is in line with the charts I posted below. With the introduction of the three-field system, mouldboard plow and horse collar northwest Europe, in particular the regions of northern France, the Low Countries and the Rhineland, surpassed the Mediterranean as the population center of the continent (at least its western half). During the expansionary phase, i.e., 500-800, the span covered by Barbarians to Angels, the Malthusian pressures would have been relatively modest. The screws would have been tightened up to the medieval demographic peak before 1300.

In any case, remember my focus on morbidity vs. mortality? It might be apropos in this case. The uncertainty and political instabilities due to the collapse of the Pax Romana could plausibly have increased mortality as peasants were exposed to the erratic depredations of barbarian warrior bands. But as depopulation occurred, in part because of withdrawal from the frontiers in places like Gaul (France) an western Germany of most farmers, those who opted to remain and take on the risks would be relieved of some Malthusian pressures. I think the chart of European heights does point to this as well, you can discern a slight upward trend after the Black Death due to a radical population reduction. I’ve reedited one of the charts for clarity:

As for Barbarians to Angels, the author doesn’t really make me reconsider. I’ve talked about my skepticism of the idea of revisionism in regards to the decline of Rome. The author argues that technological advances occurred during the Dark Ages, and that many cities remained active nodes in trade networks. But the author’s treatment is highly qualitative where he had concrete examples of how complex society persisted after the collapse of the Pax Romana, and he repeatedly scolds the readers to not judge Dark Age societies by modern standards which would tend to align more with the priorities of Roman civilization (e.g., reading, writing, arithmetic, public architecture, basically what we might term civilization). If the author wants to strip the term “civilization” of any normative biases brought to bear due to the prejudice of moderns, the argument is won, amassing a large collection of ornate weapons with which one might be buried is just as Cultured as writing letters to your friends laced with literary references. A good cup of mead is at the same level as a Falernian.

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16 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. 
     
    Rome was a Mediterranean empire rather than a European one, and there were significant parts of northern Europe which Roman influence never reached (Scandinavia, Ireland, Poland, Russia). There are places which are on the outer periphery of the Med, but at the heart of Europe. Is it possible there were some northern places which actually got richer and more civilized as a consequence of this European reorientation – if only in the long term?

  2. Hi Razib, 
     
    I just wanted to say that I had to add the e-mail address you see here to my spam filter. Which means somehow, some spammer got ahold of the e-mail addresses people were using to comment on your blog. 
     
    I haven’t commented here in at least a year, so if you think you’ve solved such a problem, you probably did. 
     
    Otherwise, just thought you should know.

  3. Is it possible there were some northern places which actually got richer and more civilized as a consequence of this European reorientation – if only in the long term? 
     
    which areas? which time span? 
     
    katie, thanks for telling me that. this comment system is run by haloscan, so i can’t really do too much. if anyone is worried, i recommend them not to enter their email address.

  4. btw, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence the “wealthiest” period in scandinavia over the interval 0-1500 was 300 to 700. archaeologists often assert this based on the relative surfeit of expensive trade items from as far away as india, and economic historians suggest that there was a lot of specie going back and forth around the caspian from west, central and south asia to northern europe. it’s a nice historical correlation that the viking era coincides with the period when this plentitude was abating.

  5. “A good cup of mead is at the same level as a Falernian.” 
     
    Making mead or wine is pretty straightforward. Making *good* mead or wine is another matter entirely … Having said that, have you *had* a good cup of mead? Do you know what it takes to make? It sounds a little like wine snobbery opposed to beer. Fine beer can require a lot of sophisticated instruments of civilization, detailed knowledge, and so on to bring it forth …

  6. Perhaps there’s nothing like an abating plenitude to turn a young man’s thoughts to rape and pillage.

  7. Seems strange considering that 500 to 900 AD was a fairly cold period and adversely affected agriculture and pastures.

  8. Hm. Inventing the Dark Ages? Interesting.

  9. Seems strange considering that 500 to 900 AD was a fairly cold period and adversely affected agriculture and pastures. 
     
    it isn’t strange if you think population levels are a major parameter when considering per capita wealth. e.g., 
     
    time A (warm) 
    agricultural output = 1000 
    # of people = 1000 
     
    so, output per person = 1 
     
    time B (cold) 
    agricultural output = 700 
    # of people = 500 
     
    so, out per person = 1.4

  10. Admittedly my studies stop around 700 AD. 
     
    But from my reading of the 600s: the Ecclesiastic History of Bede, the Ulster Chronicle, Bar Penkaye, the Life of Saint Eligius, and various Syriac chronicles are all in agreement that life as a Christian was violent, plague-ridden, and short. The plague of 664 AD in England and (maybe) France was particularly awful. And that’s not even getting into the constant warfare and oppression among the Merovingians or, for that matter, Umar and Uthman and cetera. 
     
    Most of these sources I cited also mention famines. Famine is a supply / demand issue. If the balance is so precarious that a long winter can starve out a population, then the population (I would expect) should have been close to capacity even in years of plenty. 
     
    Were the Christian sources hyping the problem?

  11. Were the Christian sources hyping the problem 
     
     
    two issues that spring to mind 
     
    1) the elite might have been less buffered from famine in a more decentralized world (e.g., consider the grain harvests from egypt which fed first rome, then constantinople, until the arab conquest). 
     
    2) famine is quite often an issue of distribution, dislocation and disruption.

  12. p.s., and obviously short intense famines and epidemics which result in high mortality is not contradictory with greater average health when famines do not occur.

  13. More a question than a comment: Fewer people living in urban environments per capita should reduce the severity of things like plagues, no? If in fact there was less urbanization, this should lead to a more healthy populace …

  14. More a question than a comment: Fewer people living in urban environments per capita should reduce the severity of things like plagues, no? If in fact there was less urbanization, this should lead to a more healthy populace … 
     
    here’s a thought: urban populations are economic parasites. 15% of the roman empire’s population was urban.

  15. “economic” parasites”? 
     
    What do you mean by that term? For what type fo economy? 
     
    The servies that allow for distribution, and prevent dislocation and disrpution, are usually services provided by town dwellers.

  16. The servies that allow for distribution, and prevent dislocation and disrpution, are usually services provided by town dwellers. 
     
    yeah. but a lot of town dwellers (e.g., urban proletariat) were just hungry mouths (bread ration in both rome and constantinople). and many of the aristocrats were probably rentiers. i’m thinking that cities to more or less on the net possibly luxury goods (not sure of this, but just a thought).

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