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Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 [Hardcover]

Michael McCormick
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

17 Jan 2002
For fifty years debate has raged about early European commerce during the period between antiquity and the middle ages. Was there trade? If so, in what - and with whom? New evidence and new ways of looking at old evidence are now breaking the stalemate. Analysis of communications - the movements of people, ideas and things - is transforming our vision of Europe and the Mediterranean in the age of Charlemagne and Harun al Rashid. This is the first comprehensive analysis of the economic transition during this period for over sixty years. Using new materials and new methodology, it will attract all social and economic historians of antiquity and the middle ages, and anyone concerned with the origins of Europe, the history of the slave trade, medicine and disease, cross-cultural contacts, and the Muslim and Byzantine worlds.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 1130 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (17 Jan 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521661021
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521661027
  • Product Dimensions: 24.9 x 18.3 x 6.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 552,097 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'Cambridge University Press is to be congratulated on a polished and well-edited production … This is a noble addition to the school inspired by Pirenne, and will no doubt still be around in another sixty years' time.' Economic History Services

'Michael McCormick has written a Decline and Fall for the twenty-first century … his brilliant book will shatter most people's conceptions of the Dark Ages.' Ross Balzaretti, The Times Literary Supplement

'… an awesome book … The results are little short of extraordinary. McCormick has established a benchmark for what, as he rightly points out, has been a virtual world lost between those studying East and West, and North and South. Time will show what a massively useful work this.' Richard Hodges, Agrarian History Review

'The motor of the economic surge which appears in the increase of Mediterranean communications…was the linking of Europe to the more advanced economy of the Middle East. The Mediterranean was thus no barrier, but a bridge between two economic worlds. The significance of this clear and persuasively polished book lies in its method of observing economic development and in the convincing results …'. Neue Zürcher Zeitung

'… a product of arduous, ambitious, serious historical scholarship … a noble addition to the school inspired by Pireene, and will no doubt still be around in another sixty years' time.' EH.Net Reviews

'… this is a thorough and refeshing discussion of what documentary and artefactual sources tell us about economy and communcation in this period.' History

'The book is a remarkable compendium of information about travel. McCormick is an exceptional scholar, blessed with the linguistic gifts that allow him to range through an extraordinary number of texts … am certain it will be productively mined, as a comprehensive work of reference, for a long time to come.' The Times Higher Education Supplement

'McCormick's book is a masterpiece of craft … McCormick, like Bloch and Pirenne, is writing a different kind of economic history: 'economic history as cultural history' … McCormick has carried the best work of the early twentieth century on into the twenty-first - not just by adding more lanes, but by carving out a whole new route.' New Republic

Book Description

This is the first comprehensive analysis of the economic transition from the time of the later Roman empire to the reign of Charlemagne and beyond for over sixty years, bringing exciting new evidence to bear on the fall of the Roman empire and the origins of the medieval economy.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
THE MEDITERRANEAN world that appears in the pages that follow may sometimes seem a different place from the one that historians have imagined until now. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Book by a Brilliant man 25 Nov 2006
McCormick, Michael, Origins of the European Econmy: AD 300-900

The economic machinery of Europe during the Early Middle Ages is a topic that on the surface at least, has left very little evidence for us to be able to deduce any conclusions from. While politically, there was undoubtedly great change in Western Europe, particularly with the rise of the Carolingians and the expansion of Frankish power into Spain, Germany and Italy. However, the economic development that was happening during the years from 700-900 AD have never really been explored in the depth with which McCormick approaches them.

McCormick's brilliant book changes all this. The brilliance of the study comes from the way it re-interprets old pieces of evidence as well as uncovering new material. MCormick asks serious questions on a consistent basis of lots of old evidence. Items such as hagiographical novels and even works of fiction suddenly begin to have whole new meanings and much deeper historical resonance.

McCormick is far too good a historian to allow his new, re-interpreted evidence to stand alone. In the pages of his book we also see the correlating patterns between his own, largely textual research and the findings of archaeology. The results are surprising.

We find an Italy in the 8th century, where a Pope is using coins inscribed with the Arabic for 'there is no God but Allah'. We also find a harrowing scene where Christians are herded down onto beaches by other Christians to be sold into slavery in Arabic lands of North Africa and the Middle East. The overwhelming picture MCormick tries to paint is that far from being isolated, Europe, and especially Italy, was involved in heavy economic interaction with the Arab world by the 8th century.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating analysis 20 Mar 2012
Masterful, thorough, and insightful, this lengthy work may look daunting but is so beautifully written that it is an easy read. The chapter headings are also clear, making the book simple to navigate.
Not just worth reading but worth buying as a permanent source of pleasure.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The most brilliant work of medieval scholarship in years! 9 Dec 2003
By Glenn McDorman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
First, before you proceed any further with this book, you ought to know that it is not abou the origins of the European economy. If you are looking for a book about economic life and change in Europe between 300 and 900, this is not really the book for you. McCormick's book is specifically about trade, and largely "international" trade, between these years.
Having said that, McCormick's book is the most brilliant work on medieval history in years. He sets out to examine the patterns of Mediterranean commerce during the early middle ages, focusing on different aspects of the Pirenne thesis. This, of course, has been done repeatedly over the eight decades since Pirenne's famous publications, but McCormick's approach is startlingly new. Rather than simply argue over the same tired scraps of evidence, McCormick works hard to incorporate old, non-economic, data into his argument, and also brings in entirely new evidence. To begin with, McCormick focuses on the accounts of non-commercial travellers -- pilgrims, envoys, missionaries, etc. -- to see how they travelled, when they travelled, and whom they travelled with. By looking at these accounts McCormick puts together a picture of frequent Mediterranean travel, demonstrates the frequency of specific routes, and, the interaction of travelling merchants and other travellers. McCormick uses these accounts as evidence of a vibrant shipping network in the Mediterranean in the eight and ninth centuries. He then backs this inferrence up with "hard" data from recent undersea archaeology, numismatics, and the study of relic hordes.
In the end, McCormick discusses the export of Europeans as slaves to the Caliphate, and, to a limited extenct, Byzantium. McCormick's final argument is that this slave trade was massive, and provided the fuel for the growth of European commerce, growth that was sustained even after the decline of the slave trade.
When all is said and done, McCormick's book is amazing. His arguments and evidence are controversial, and it is easy to predict that this book will be the focal point for scholarly debate for the next generation. Well written, engrossing, and thought provoking, this book is a must for anyone interested in medieval studies or good scholarly debate. The beuatiful maps, charts, and graphs, and the detailed accounts of travellers in the appendices simply add to the value of this book.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book on early European Economy 18 July 2008
By John E. Mack - Published on Amazon.com
This is a genuinely great book. It it basically an economic history of the Mediterranean regions of Western Europe from the last centuries of the Roman Empire to the time when the Roman traces of Western Europe had all but vanished. The author make the intriguing claim that the economic "collapse" of the Southern part of what had been Rome's Western provinces did not decline as much as many historians believed (though it was still very bad) and, more importantly, began their recovery far earlier than is usually credited. The book follows methods made justly famous by, say, Pirene and Braudel, and relies heavily on archeology. But the author goes beyond his model to focus on the accounts of merchants, churchmen and other travelers to demonstrate what the world of the Southern dark ages seemed like to its more literate denizens. The author is particularly enlightening (and, to me, original) in pointing out the pivotal role of the slave trade with Islam in laying the foundations of European recovery and preventing overpopulation in a time of economic contraction. In the end, the author comes to the intriguing and well-founded claim that it was the Islamic Caliphate which played the decisive role in forcing Europe down the path to a modern economy. The book is magnificently researched and magisterially written. I know -- I gush. But this is a great book.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Resurrecting Rome's Fall: the view from the early 21st century 20 Feb 2007
By Arnold Lelis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
No one who is seriously interested in the transition from the Roman Empire to the Early Medieval West should pass up the opportunity to own this volume--in hardcover!--for only $52. Michael McCormick analyses the economic transformation of the Mediterranean world ca. A.D. 300 - 900. In doing so, he presents a nearly compendious wealth of data (including a vast and multi-faceted bibliography) on various aspects of the question.

"Origins of the European Economy" joins works by Chris Wickham, Charles McClendon, and Peter Heather (among others of like quality) that re-analyze questions concerning the fall of Rome and the rise of Latin Christendom from various angles, including the economic, architectural, and military-political. In this first decade of the 21st century, the old debates between the catastrophist and continuist views on the Roman-Medieval transition are being informed by a fresh influx of data and analysis. The new studies, including "Origins of the European Economy," promise to bring about a quantum step-up in our understanding of this ancient issue.

Arnold Lelis
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a real must for scholars 28 Nov 2003
By Carlo Citter - Published on Amazon.com
To write a history of the changing patterns in economy between the slow end of ancient world and the slow birth of middle ages is a great challenge for any scholar who tried, but I do recommend this "Bible" to all who are interested in this subject. It's clear, wide-range, full of good ideas and comparisons between different type of sources.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impressive Scholarship 28 Oct 2011
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
This thick and very enjoyable book is a description of changes in the European economy, particularly the Mediterranean economy, from the end of western Roman Empire to 10th century. To a large extent, McCormick has written a extended response to the work of the great Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne. The latter suggested that the Arab-Muslim conquest of the eastern Mediterrenean, North Africa, and Spain severed Western Europe from the Middle East and turned the Mediterranean into a commercial desert. McCormick reaches very different conclusions based on use of markedly different data and analytic approaches.

McCormick uses datasets and methods largely unavailable to or not used by prior scholars. He relies extensively on archaeological results to characterize large scale patterns of commerce. Changes in the distribution, for example, of late Roman ceramics mass produced in North Africa are used to infer patterns of trade. McCormick also uses some novel approaches to traditional textual sources. He makes considerable use of prosography, essentially a compilation of what is known from documents about travelers in the early medieval period. By compiling a roster of these travelers and a careful analysis of features of their voyages, McCormick is able to infer considerable information about travel and communications in the early medieval Mediterranean. Combined with archeological data, particularly distribution of coin finds, and careful use of other existing textual data, McCormick provides a reasonable reconstruction of major changes.

McCormick describes the large scale of Mediterranean commerce, apparently dominated by marine shipment of staples and state organized fleets, in the age of late antiquity. He then describes its decline, with some discussion of the corollary demographic decline characteristic of this period. This is followed by description of the revival of travel and commerce in the early medieval period. Much of the text is a careful description of his analysis, including description of the archaeological data and prosographical data used. There are extensive appendices summarizing the data. This sounds like it would be dry reading, but it isn't. McCormick is a very good writer and does an exceptionally good job of balancing his analysis with revealing anecdotal descriptions drawn from his sources.

McCormick's conclusion is that the Carolingian period was a period of considerable economic vigor. His conclusion is that there was significant, and for much of this period, rapidly expanding trade with the Muslim Near East and the Byzantine Empire. The patterns of trade differed significantly from those of late antiquity. It was dominated by private trade, focused more on smaller, high value goods, and trade routes changed signficantly. McCormick suggests that trade into western Europe under the Romans was dominated by a Rhone route. Under the Carolingians, land routes across the Alps became more important and there was a revival of land routes across the Balkans. Trade via Italy and particularly through the Adriatic became more important. This is the beginning of the major role of Venice in international trade. McCormick points also to another important aspect of trade discussed previously by other scholars. This period also sees considerable commercial growth in the Baltic and the growing importance of trade from the eastern Baltic down to the Black Sea and Central Asia. Expanding European trade is clearly a function of vigorous Near Eastern economies that were connected strongly to the Indian Ocean and beyond. In one of the most interesting sections of the book, McCormick discusses what the Europeans had to offer the more sophisticated economies of the Near East. The answer is a bit surprising. Given that only relatively high value and portable goods were profitable, McCormick argues that slaves were probably the most important European export. This would make chattel slavery a central feature of the expansion of the early Medieval economy.

The major focus of the book is description of travel, communication, and trade. McCormick's goal is a reasonable description of major changes over time. He does not offer much analysis of why these changes occurred. Accurate description, however, is a necessary precursor for analysis of causation, and McCormick's reconstructions are quite convincing and interesting. Subsequent work may have clarified some aspects of causation. McCormick is part of a group (Buntgen et al., Science 2011) presenting evidence that the period from 250 to 600 CE was characterized by a relatively adverse climate in the Northern Hemisphere. These climate changes are likely to have directly and indirectly (induced migrations of steppe peoples; increased suseptibility to plague) had adverse effects on the late Roman state and a more favorable climate emerging around 600 CE probably contributed to the economic reinvigoration of Europe.
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