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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Classical Prologue

Section 3: Climate and Economy outside the Mediterranean Basin

Steven Muhlberger

If we move either north or south of the inland sea we soon discover lands whose climates are drastically different. In A.D. 300, these outer areas differed significantly in methods of food production, which one would expect, but also in social arrangements and cultural tone. It is the northern region that is more important to us, because it much of it was incorporated into the Mediterranean economy during later antiquity. But the area south of the Mediterranean, the Sahara, should be briefly discussed.

The original meaning of the word desert -- meaning a country deserted by humanity -- is quite appropriate to the Sahara. (Today the Sahara has less than 1% of the population density of the United States). The few people who did live in the Sahara were noticed by their civilized neighbors only when they made trouble. But they were a significant problem only when the structures of urban power and defense were too weak to protect civilized wealth from raiders. If the cities were organized and healthy, they had the resources to manage the border. But a border of sorts was inevitable, for the Sahara would never support civilized life.

North of the Mediterranean, past the mountains that ring the sea at almost every point, were two other lightly-populated climatic zones. One was the oceanic climate that reaches inland as far as southern Sweden and the Rhine valley. The other was the continental climate that dominates areas east of the Rhine. In both climates, the winter is cold, though it is much colder in the farther east, and both regions are considerably moister than the Mediterranean basin.

Colder, wetter climates forced a different selection of crops and different agricultural techniques on the inhabitants. Vines would grow in the parts of the north, if introduced; in general wine was rare. The olive could not survive the cold. Wheat was less favored, and the hardier barley, rye and oats were more used. The tougher grains were more suited to making porridge than bread. Grain, especially barley, was the chief ingredient of the northern drink, ale (beer, flavored with hops, had not yet been invented). The basic fats were butter and lard. Also, northerners ate more meat than Mediterranean people did.

In all, the variety of crops available in the north was much less than in south. The number of people supported by northern agriculture was picayune: where cities of thousands were not unusual in the Mediterranean, northern settlements held fewer than 100 souls. Except for a few mining and salt extraction sites, northern settlements did not specialize in craftwork, culture, or administration. Northerners traded, but only on a small scale. They practiced crafts such as metalworking and pottery, but few of them did so full-time. They lived almost entirely on locally obtained resources.

What divided the less populated, unurbanized north from the populous and civilized south? One common answer is that northern farmers had yet to develop a crucial tool, the heavy plow, which would allow them to deal with the wetter soils produced by their climate. Recent scholarship, however, disagrees drastically on the chronology of heavy plows. Some people think they were invented or introduced as late as the 8th or 9th centuries A.D. Others, equally learned, think they were used as long ago as the 2nd century B.C. Thus the technical argument is flawed, or at least incomplete.

The absence of large-scale commerce and specialized trading centers in the north is one factor behind the decentralized settlement pattern that obtained in central and northern Europe. Agricultural techniques were quite sufficient to support the great number of small hamlets that in fact existed. Further advances in technology and methods would not emerge until they could pay for themselves, until there was a demand for the surpluses that new tools, new work routines, new power structures might produce. Until the market dynamic began to work, there was no point in sweating it.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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