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Villa 1. De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus (ive-xie siècle)

Philippe Sénac

Size matters: new light on the Italian Dark Ages

Richard Hodges

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1The traditional view of early Medieval Europe is of a binary opposite between civilised Romans and barbarian migrants. Europe bears the imprint of classical Greece and, in particular, the Emperor Augustus. Through the prism of the great monuments and their trophy art, it is hard to conceive of the Romans, for example, as anything but immensely civilised. Inevitably, then, the collapse of the Roman world must have seemed like the end of history to contemporaries, much as Edward Gibbon’s colourful 18th century language suggests. This binary opposite fed the archaeological approaches taken in the 20th century. Classical sites were subjected to clearance excavations so that the immense architectural scope of a city or villa might be re-visited. By contrast, the lumps and bumps of green-field "barbarian" sites were subjected to trenching – small incisions – in order to verify their existence. More than this seemed unnecessary as these early Medieval sites could never be conserved and visited.

2The result of these approaches is twofold. First, even today we view Roman society through an optically distorted lens: we envisage it in terms of the Roman Forum in Rome, or Pompeii, or extensive villas. The dwellings belonging to the 80 to 90 per cent of the population who lived in the countryside and worked on the land are largely unknown to us. Second, until very recently, the settlements of "barbarian" Europe were considered to be almost aboriginal. Indeed, in 1958, in the first volume of the periodical, Medieval Archaeology, C. A. R. Radford speculated that most Anglo-Saxons lived in pit dwellings (Radford 1958). Of course, in the last 50 years much has changed. While our knowledge of the Roman peasantry and its living standards remain limited, our appreciation of comparable standards in post-Roman Europe has grown immeasurably. Starting with the great excavations of north Germany and Denmark – where entire settlements of post-built structures were discovered in ’open-area’ excavations – we have developed methods that reveal not only the architectural complexity of the era but also, interestingly, how, with the shaping of Europe’s new states, house forms evolved accordingly (Hamerow 2002; 2004). In this sense, the archaeology of early Medieval Europe has lost its innocence. Today, early Medieval archaeologists are aware that the written texts described living conditions in terms that made sense to their original audiences. However, the texts are very often, inconsistent with the actual reality discovered in excavations (Zadora-Rio 2003, esp. 6-9).

3As we survey this historiography we begin to understand that size does matter – the size of excavations. The full-scale stripping of hectares of land revealed Feddersen Wierde, the Migration-Period village in north Germany. Generations of buildings were disentangled from the palimpsest of post-holes left after each structural phase. Imitating this practice, Brian Hope-Taylor in the 1950s excavated the Northumbrian royal 7th century palace at Yeavering (1977). The scale of the palatial buildings as well as the detailing were intricately analysed by Hope-Taylor to reveal the culture that was familiar to the Venerable Bede, writing a generation afterwards. Similarly, the immense excavations of the village to the royal centre of Vorbasse in Denmark, showed not only how generation by generation the community embarked upon rebuilding programmes, but how by the mid 9th century, when Danes were invading Anglo-Saxon England and raiding the Carolingian coastal centres, estates as grand as anything in those countries – furnished with a classic Frankish water-mill – existed in their homeland (Hamerow 2002). South of the Alps, however, as archaeologists have been pursuing a similar methodology since the 1980s. Here, where ample written sources exist, the archaeological discoveries have proved uncomfortable for many historians and therefore they remain the subject of contention.

4Italy at c.1000 AD was undoubtedly a prosperous land with burgeoning towns connected to the revival of the Mediterranean. Around these towns were large numbers of nucleated villages, many on hilltops, which emerge historically thanks to so-called foundation charters in the 10th century. This process of nucleation, at the explicit direction of the seigneurial class, has been colourfully described as incastellamento. The charters describe the relations between a lord and the inhabitants of a village, and often, as in the classic cases of the charters of the Benedictine abbeys of Farfa (in the Sabine Hills east of Rome) and San Vincenzo al Volturno, in Molise, indicate details of property and payments. Since the French historian Pierre Toubert published his seminal study of villages in the region of Latium in 1972, incastellamento has been a major theme for Italy’s medieval archaeologists (Toubert 1973; 1995). Modern villages, keen to establish their age and genesis, have funded many archaeological investigations in effect to give tangible proof of their histories. Yet, in some respects, these excavations have been pursued in the shadow of the great welter of written sources deployed by Toubert in his classic study. Significantly, archaeologists (like historians) have often assumed that the indelible imprint of Roman imperialism around 0 AD and the equally civilised character of Italy around AD 1000 make it difficult to imagine that the peninsula suffered a radical transformation between the 6th and 9th centuries.

5New excavations on an immense scale completely challenge this familiar historical trajectory. Let me give three illustrations.

6First, 25 years of excavations at the Benedictine monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno, located at the source of the river Volturno immediately below the Abruzzi Mountains, provide one telling illustration of using the appropriate archaeological methodology to challenge historical paradigms. At San Vincenzo the Beneventan Lombard 8th century monastery, covering no more than half a hectare in area with its modest abbey-church (San Vincenzo Minore), was transformed into a monastic city with Carolingian patronage late in the 8th century. The new abbey-church, being 63.5 m long – three times the length of San Vincenzo Minore, was almost certainly envisioned as a St. Peter’s of the south. Notably it had a grandly painted annular crypt and a formidable eastwork leading into an enclosed atrium. Without doubt, San Vincenzo Maggiore ranked alongside the greatest ecclesiastical ventures of the Carolingian Renaissance (Hodges 1997).

7Surprising as this appeared, the real indices of San Vincenzo are on the one hand, the tiers of buildings ranked into an interlocking set of sacred modules – each ornamented with paintings, stained glass and paved floors – and on the other, the sprawling community, a borgo, of timber (post-built) structures housing the servants, slaves and assistants needed to sustain as many as 500 monks in their daily routine (Bowes, Francis and Hodges 2006).

8The monastery’s chronicle, the Chronicon Vulturnense, a 12th century compilation of mostly earlier manuscripts, tells us that the 9th century monastery had numerous churches but gives us little hint of the scale and complexity of the place. The archaeology, furthermore, shows that the villages of its surrounding territory, well-described in 10th century foundation charters incorporated in the Chronicon, were modest, surprisingly primitive when the monastery was at its zenith Bowes, Francis and Hodges 2006; Hodges 1997). In short, the workforce needed to construct and administer the monastery must have mostly been brought from estates outside the immediate territory, and, in addition, the very existence of the borgo presumably drew the greater majority of local peasants to the monastery. Only when, after a cataclysmic sack in AD 881 by a combination of Arab mercenaries in alliance with the avaricious Bishop of Naples, was San Vincenzo re-configured. In the 10th century the much reduced monastic community, occupying the ruins of the 9th century Carolingian Renaissance monastery, chose to invest in the creation of new villages to furnish it with foodstuffs and labour rather than re-build the ruined monastery. In sum, the archaeology captures the rhythms of the place over historically indexed generations which, unsurprisingly, experienced dramatic vicissitudes. Like the post-built Migration-Period structures in the village of Feddersen Wierde, the dialectic between massive investment and the continual renovation, rebuilding and refurbishment becomes clear. So, for a maximum of 50 years between c. 790-840, the monks and peasants of San Vincenzo were harnessed to a programme of investment echoed in most great European centres of the era.

9The second illustration examines the extent of that echo. Modern Tuscany is known for its hilltop villages. The most familiar places like San Gimignano, occupy prominent hills on which lean, ashlar towers dominate the skyline, almost Manhattans in miniature. The process of village foundation, incastellamento, was until recently presumed to follow Toubert’s model (Francovich and Hodges 2003; Valenti 2004). Like the villages around San Vincenzo, many of these Tuscan places possessed charters from the 10th century. This model, though, obscures a much more complex history now resolved through the large-scale programme of excavations led by Riccardo Francovich for the University of Siena. More than a dozen village hilltops have been subjected to the kind of open-area excavation familiar from northern Europe. The result is a compelling pattern.

10To begin, with it seems that most lowland Roman sites in Tuscany were abandoned during the 6th century AD. The tumultuous combination of the Emperor Justinian’s ferocious war against the Ostrogoths in the middle decades of the 6th century combined with the declining economic bases of the later Roman Mediterranean appears to have had a catastrophic impact upon rural settlement in regions like Tuscany. Hilltops like Poggibonsi (near San Gimignano), for example, were now considered secure niches in a world that was undergoing dramatic political fragmentation. Many more hilltop villages appear to date from this period as small groups of modest post-built dwellings. The peasantry, in short, found their own sustainable solutions to the combination of socio-economic change and insecurity. All of the sites show a remarkable transformation not in the 10th century, as Toubert’s incastellamento thesis might have led us to expect, but in the 9th century. At this point, in a village like Montarrenti, east of Siena, the large excavation of the hilltop shows not only the creation of a manorial complex with, amongst other functions, a granary, but also the making of a fortified borgo below it (Cantini 2003). A more compelling illustration emerges from the massive dig led by Marco Valenti at Poggibonsi (Francovich and Valenti 1996; Valenti 1996). Here, the prominent manorial complex takes shape at the same time with a long-house as its architectural centrepiece. Plainly, the early feudal character of Carolingian villages with their conspicuous manors was taking root in Tuscany, as peasant communities accepted new local political frameworks (Francovich and Hodges 2003). These new arrangements – with the transformation from peasant communities to the manorial curtis, as it was known – plainly pre-figures the accentuation of manorial power embodied in the foundation charters of the 10th century. In sum, the foundation charters in many, though not all, Tuscan cases, affirm arrangements that had at least existed for more than a century, in places that often owed their origins to the Ostrogothic war.

11The new excavations reveal an evolving pattern of villages, like the Carolingian Renaissance apogee of San Vincenzo al Volturno, which conforms to the trajectory of early Medieval Europe. In other words, the later Roman period in Italy was not marked by decline so much as far-reaching transformation with small nucleated centres occupying islands in landscapes that had been intensively settled and cultivated since Etruscan times. The excavations provide another measure of this sharp rhythm of change in the form of the use of coinage, or rather its absence.

12Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Frisian and Danish archaeological sites from the later 7th century onwards produce prominent numbers of silver coins and, invariably, metal jewellery as well. In the UK the numbers of these finds have been hugely enlarged by metal-detectorists taking advantage of the British government’s 1997 portable antiquities scheme in which the objects are catalogued by a British Museum team, and invariably purchased by either national or local government museums (Pestell and Ulmschneider 2003). The prominent amounts of finds from both kinds of investigation – scientific and amateur detectorists – shows that the moveable wealth of early Medieval Europe was simply staggering. By contrast, at San Vincenzo al Volturno where more than a hectare of the site was uncovered, several hundred mostly illegible, later Roman simple bronze nummi were discovered but only three 9th century silver deniers. All three of these coins belonged to an enamel-worker who was evidently melting them down to make silver beadwork and cells for plaques and portable shrines. In short, notwithstanding the immense investment in the grandiose monastery and its palpable involvement as a central-place in regional marketing, coins are absent.

13The absence of coins at San Vincenzo is not unique. Lombard and Carolingian coins on archaeological sites in Italy are extremely rare (Rovelli 2000; 2004). Coins are conspicuously absent on the huge excavations of villages in Tuscany, for example. By contrast, later 9th century Byzantine bronze folles occur in large numbers in the heel of Italy, Byzantine territory at the time. The absence, then, is not because Italian archaeologists are overlooking the coins; it is because low-value coinage did not exist in much of peninsula Italy in contrast to Byzantium, the Carolingian territories north of the Alps, Denmark, Frisia and Anglo-Saxon England.

14These three conclusions tell us much about early Medieval rural settlement in Italy. The startling expansion of San Vincenzo al Volturno from a backwater monastery to a monastic city covering many hectares and involving the support of a large servile community directly stemmed from Charlemagne’s intervention in central Italy. Here, plainly, the Carolingian Renaissance necessitated the re-configuration of rural life. Second, this re-configuration is equally evident in the evolution of Tuscan villages. Places that had been shaped in the aftermath of the Ostrogothic wars were now appropriated by local lords, conscious of the new Carolingian ethos. In the case of Poggibonsi, the lords expressed themselves architecturally in a long-house – a form which had widespread currency in Latin Christendom. Yet, the conspicuous absence of coins and moveable wealth generally on these excavated sites shows that the rhythm of transformation in Italy was following a very different trajectory to that north of the Alps. It seems likely that until the 9th century the aristocracy occupied largely abandoned urban centres (as recent excavations in Brescia and the Forum of Rome have shown) and only engaged belatedly, by Anglo-Saxon and Frankish standards, in developing a countryside which had collapsed in the 6th century. The pressing significance of their intervention is apparent in the 10th century village foundation charters when the lords correctly recognized the rural investment opportunities. Thereafter, as village excavations at places like Montarrenti in Tuscany clearly illustrate, the castelli expanded rapidly. From the 11th century, local lords were erecting grand towerhouses, such as the three still surviving at Montarrenti, echoing urban living standards. On the upper slopes below, lines of well-appointed peasant dwellings were also constructed (Cantini 2004). The palpable wealth of such places underpinned the Renaissance.

15This new interpretation of early Medieval Italy is based upon large-scale excavations which uncover whole communities, and, given the size revealed, facilitate a new history. It reveals clearly the extraordinary rhythms of change from the imposing early Imperial remains through time to the ubiquitous collapse of the Roman town- and landscape by the later 6th century, to the burgeoning of a new era with its particular hilltop character.



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Director of Institute of World Archaeology, Norwich.

© Presses universitaires du Midi, 2006

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