Meet the People: Peasants and Farmers

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Rural Byzantium: The Engine of Empire

Constantinople, that great city at the heart of the Byzantine Empire, naturally dominates the historical record as a political centre and cultural power-house. However, like all medieval societies, Byzantium was overwhelmingly agrarian in nature; the Empire's sophisticated state apparatus and cultural production was dependent upon the labour of millions of rural people across the Empire. A high proportion of Byzantine soldiers were also part-timers, reliant upon land holdings which they held in return for military service.

Perceptive Byzantine rulers recognised this dependence and attempted through legislation and sometimes direct intervention to protect the state's direct relationship with peasant farmers and small-holders against competing demands of the Dynatoi (the 'powerful') - the provincial land-holding aristocracy which became a major feature of Byzantine society from the 10th century on. The struggle between central government and provincial aristocracy for control of rural labour and the fruits of surplus agricultural production is one of the major background stories of middle-Byzantine history.

Patterns of settlement

Rural people in Byzantium tended to live in small settlements of up to a few hundred people, rather than isolated farmhouses. The poorer houses of a typical village, or Chorion, would generally consist of two or three rooms, with a hammered earth floor and thatched roof. More well-off villagers would perhaps live in a two-storey house, with the ground floor given over to storage, housing for animals, or an animal-driven mill. Around these houses would be land given over to vineyards, vegetable gardens, orchards, or olive groves. A belt of generally small fields,scattered between different owners, would be sown with wheat, barley, or rye. Further away from the village, flocks of sheep or goats or cattle herds would be pastured.

Types of farming and other agricultural production

The degree of emphasis between different types of farming would vary depending upon location within the empire: inland areas, especially the interior of Asia Minor, would tend to favour livestock farming, especially upon the large estates and ranches of the dynatoi; whilst grain, vine and olive production were more important in more well-watered and fertile coastal areas. Other forms of agricultural production came the fore as circumstances permitted: fishing formed an important part of the rural economy in coastal and lakeside areas; flax was processed for oil, rope and textile production; cotton was grown, mulberry trees raised to support production from silk-worms, and beekeeping seems to have been an important speciality, for production of candle-wax as well as honey.

Also depending upon circumstances, rural Byantines may have had a varied diet, especially in times of stability and prosperity. Bread was a less dominant part of the diet than in classical times, but still very important, and was supplemented by olives and olive oil, beans; fish, where available; vegetables such as cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, garlic, cucumbers and squash; a variety of fruits including apples, pears, cherrys and plums, as well as honey and nuts. Animals were important for milk and, especially in terms of its portability and keeping qualities, cheese production as well as for their meat. Hens eggs were also a valued part of almost all Byzantine diets, from peasant to aristocrat.

Financial pressures, taxation, and alienation of land

The rural economy was heavily influenced by the need to participate in the Empire's cash economy, if only for the purpose of paying taxes. It is no surprise that all Byzantines complained about taxation. However, the burden of taxation fell most heavily upon the peasantry.

Failure to raise enough money for tax features as one of the chief catastrophes to befall a Byzantine small-farmer. Tax default, or default upon cash loans raised to pay tax could mean loss of livelihood and land, which was usually the only form of collateral against which loans could be raised.

The position of small farmers in Byzantium, appears to have been relatively stable, and even prosperous in good times, but vulnerable when under pressure from the effects of warfare, unfavourable climatic conditions, acquisitive action from larger landlords, or tax pressure from central government. From the tenth-century onwards a process of land sale and alienation from small holders to large scale monastic or aristocratic estates appears to have gathered pace, despite sporadic attempts by central government to grant financial relief or to legislate against the sale of land to dynatoi. People who once were land owners and tax payers in their own right found themselves dependent and obliged to local lords, abbots and and other notables.

The Byzantine peasantry were never reduced to serfdom in the same sense as in the medieval west, but by the 12th century the state had largely lost its direct relationship with the main body of people who had hitherto paid the bulk of its taxes, produced its food and other other agricultural goods, and served in its armed forces. Whether this was a uniformly negative development for the people involved is a moot point: freedom from the obligation to pay a heavy tax burden, even at the cost of loss of land and independence, may have been a trade worth making. There is no doubt though that this process led to a loss of strength for the Byzantine state and compromised its survival.

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