Demotic Religiosity and Economic Growth

Given the storm of controversy surrounding the Romney remarks on the culture of economic development, I’m reproducing below the beginning of an essay I wrote on demotic economic growth which outlines what I think are the crucial issues which either foster or suppress economic growth.

Economic Development and Demotic Religiosity: Reflections on the Eleventh-Century Takeoff

Richard Landes

History in the Comic Mode: The New Medieval Cultural History, ed. Rachel Fulton and Bruce Holsinger (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 101-16. 

Introduction: On Not Assuming Economic Growth

Historians have difficulty understanding economic growth in the Middle Ages largely because we take it for granted.  When it’s not there, as in the early middle ages, we either find reasons why it didn’t happen or imagine that, contrary to impressions, it did happen.  But generally, we assume that economic growth is natural, and that as soon as conditions permit, it appears.  This is the basic view of the great economic historian Henri Pirenne, who postulated that, in the newly peaceful conditions of the 11th century, the dusty-footed merchants naturally began to ply their trade and markets sprang up.[1]   More recently, in a massively impressive volume, Michael McCormick, having located an unexpected number of mentions of markets and exchanges in earlier centuries, has presented us with an already thriving economy in periods of the earlier Middle Ages.[2]

Let me suggest two points, both of which argue a fundamentally different approach.  First, that economic activity, even if it is natural to some people – Pirenne’s pieds poudreux – is not “natural” to some societies, and that when merchants and other entrepreneurs sail against these heavy cultural headwinds, growth is minimal despite their heroic efforts.  Indeed, economic historians studying today’s world, where both the technology and the example of economic growth exist in far more abundance than they did in the 11th century, have discovered not only the existence of “cultures of poverty” or, I would suggest, “cultures of impoverishment,” but that far more cultures follow this pattern than anyone expected.[3]  And second, that the cultural conditions for economic growth, at least in Western Europe, have a great deal to do with religious transformations

Let me begin with the question of cultures of impoverishment.  As you may be able to tell from my adjustment of the term that economic historians have recently discovered about the cultural dimension of poverty, that it is the culture that impoverishes.[4]  By this I mean that the political and social values of the culture, even where they may – indeed must – encourage some economic activity, have a very low ceiling of tolerance for extended economic growth.  They actually prefer poverty for most of the members of the society, and here I attribute agency – if not conscious agency – not only to the elites, but also to the laboring commoners.   The key lies in the psychological dimensions of zero-sum thinking and the structures of what I’d like to call Prime Divider Societies.

The Logic and Emotions of Zero-Sum

Let us begin with zero-sum thinking.  I win, you lose; or, you win, I lose.  In modern society, these interactions get played out in sports.  When played out in economic life, however, zero-sum assumes a fixed set of resources (no economic growth), and that, therefore whatever has worked to the advantage of the other has diminished the self.  In its harshest forms, zero-sum holds that not only does one person win and the other lose, but in order for one to win, the other must lose.

In order to understand this mentality, however, we have to put aside what psychologists call cognitive egocentrism.  We are raised in a culture that places heavy emphasis on positive-sum relations, that is the notion of win-win.  Indeed, we consider them so obviously appropriate that positive-sum is virtually synonymous with rationality.[5]  When our economists assume rationality as their axiomatic understanding of individual decision-making, they reflect this widespread cultural assumption which, at least formally, dates back to Adam Smith.[6]  And not surprisingly.  The mentality of zero-sum – one wins, one loses – strikes us – appropriately, I’d venture to say, as self-destructive.

There is a joke about a peasant who unearths a magic lamp, rubs it, and out comes a genie who offers him anything, but warns him that his neighbor will get whatever he requests twofold.  His answer, “poke out one of my eyes.”  Now if this were a chess move rather than a joke, you’d put two exclamation points after it.  Why?  Because in one deft move – a queen sacrifice – this man has turned the situation into a spectacular “win” for himself: in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed is king.  He has bought his dominion, however, at the price of his self-mutilation.

Let us consider more closely the nature, dare I say, the logic of zero-sum interactions, especially in terms of the emotional pay-offs for such supposedly irrational behavior.  The basic rule of human interaction in such cultures is what Eli Sagan has termed the “dominating imperative”, that is “rule or be ruled.”[7]  If I don’t rule over you, you will rule over me.  I must therefore try to dominate you lest you dominate me.  If you win, I lose; in order for me to win, you must lose.  This produces what Mao used to call “pre-emptive retaliation strikes.”  They happen all the time, from international relations to familial ones.  The classic expression of this attitude comes in two forms, the more basic “honor-shame” culture of the tribal warrior, where honor comes from dominion (that is, the Germanic and Celtic subterranean levels of European culture), and the “civilized empires” in which a certain degree of restraint in the exercise of immediate dominion has opened up both a space for an expanding “middle class”, largely urban, and for a much wider range of conquest and dominion.  As the Romans liked to tell themselves, the first Romans quickly understood that they could either be masters or slaves, so they chose to be masters, and did it so well that they conquered the world.  Rome is the poster boy for libido dominandi.  They illustrate the accuracy of the Greek remark to the Melians that it had been a law long before their time and would be long after, “that those who can do what they will and those who can’t suffer what they must.”[8]

Prime Divider Societies: The Results of Zero-Sum

This logic produces what I would like to call “Prime Divider Societies.”  These are cultures in which a small elite uses its power to dominate the rest of the population on the presumption that if they don’t dominate, someone else will.  In such societies – which constitute the vast majority of “civilized” cultures since the advent of agriculture (Neolithic revolution ca. 10,000 BCE), of metal weapons and writing (ca. 3000 BCE) – we find a characteristic social organization in which a small dominating elite monopolizes most of the technology of power (writing and weapons), creating a vast divide between their own culture and those of the mass of peasants who live more or less at subsistence levels.[9]

According to Sagan, democracy (or what I would prefer to call “civil societies”) comes from overcoming the dominating imperative.  Here, rather than the zero-sum logic of honor shame, we find the positive-sum logic of guilt-integrity, where the golden rule is not “Do onto others before they do onto you,” but rather, “do not do onto others what you do not want them to do onto you.”  In such cultures, people can count on their neighbors to play by positive-sum rules.  They can count on their fellow citizens not to take advantage of greater wealth to undermine them.  In such a culture, the peasant can afford to say, “so what if my neighbor gets more, at least I also come out ahead.  So much the better for both of us.”

Now let me make something clear right away.  I don’t mean, by my contrast between Primed Divider societies and civil societies to suggest that the former operates only according to the zero-sum, dominating imperative, and the latter fully renounces such behavior.  All societies, all people, engage in both zero-sum and positive-sum behavior; everyone cooperates some of the time and fights some of the time.  The issue, it seems to me, concerns the degree and quality of these varying interactions.  I shall return later to this, but it seems to me that we should be able to identify some kind of critical mass of positive-sum interactions at which a society can make the fundamental shift.

But in Prime Divider Societies, the dominant form of wealth accumulation is though politics: you take, not make.[10]  One of the most critical dimensions of the prime divider, one might even argue its fault line, is the stigmatization of manual labor.  Elites (the takers), have contempt for manual labor and the vast majority of mankind forced to engage in it (the makers).[11]  In its simplest forms we find the notion that anyone who is smart gets other people to do the dirty work; in its starkest, anyone who works is a fool.   Makers, that is stigmatized manual laborers, have a thick ceiling above which they cannot, dare not rise – the prime divider.  Indeed, one might go so far as to say that the aristocracy of most Prime Divider Societies prefers to kill the goose that lays the golden egg rather than have him become a player.  That is, they would rather have a poor and subject commoner population than a rich and competitive one.  Or, as Adam Smith noted so tellingly, slavery is extremely inefficient, but people so like dominion over others that they are willing to pay the price. [12]

Nor is it merely a matter of libido dominandi as pure pleasure.  It is also a matter of fear of losing face.  When geese become people and throw off the yoke of the aristocrat’s dominion, they threaten the very existence of the elite – victory for commoners is defeat for elites.  As the Athenians explained to the Melians, whose men they were about to slaughter and whose women and children they were about to sell into slavery:

One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power which rules over others [i.e. other elites] as Sparta does, as one is frightened of what would happen if a ruling power is attacked and defeated by its own subjects.  If we were on friendly terms with an autonomous people who should be subject, our other subjects would regard it as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power.[13]

The lord who loses face is a dead man, as Aidan saw so clearly in the true Christian behavior of Oswin, whose readiness to admit fault and to beg forgiveness marked him for elimination in the struggles between warlords in Anglo-Saxon England.[14]

The historian who does not understand these issues, does not understand how astonishing a development it was in the 11th century, that the aristocracy gave so many franchises to economically productive commoners, that these commoners eventually –- by century’s end – had become competitors with the aristocracy.[15]  Those who “made” began to assert an autonomy when they should have been subject to those who “take.”  Adding to our astonishment comes the reaction of the king of France, who favored these commoner rebellions.[16]  Any Roman emperor would have gone in and massacred the population.[17]  In a nutshell, I wish to argue that these new conditions that become notable in the course of the 11th century are quite extraordinary, and need to be explained, not merely described and taken for granted.

To use a different image, elites work hard to keep the oxygen supplies low to the population below the prime divider.  They prefer a depressed and meagerly productive labor force that is subservient and submissive to one that has energy and autonomy.  The estate manager in the fabliau about the feast the count of Champagne held for his peasants, who feels rage at the sight of peasants eating to their fill, illustrates the humiliation that zero-sum people feel when the losers win, no matter how temporary their happiness.[18]  In 15th century Germany, the aristocracy advanced the argument that private war is good for public peace because when lords fought, they massacred each others’ peasants and burned their fields, thereby pruning them back, and keeping them from taking over the garden.  They saw these as “returning the peasants to their place”, and urged that every 50 years there be a widespread attack on peasants in honor of the Jubilee, a year when each man returns to his own place.[19]

The Germans refer to the feeling of joy one feels at the suffering of another as Schadenfreude, an emotion that flourishes in a world where the other’s damage is your advantage.  In cultures where elites thrive on the Schadenfreude of keeping peasants wretched, the oxygen supply is low.  Peasants must suffer what they must.  They must learn that they do not have agency.  As Madame de Sévigné put it, “The humbling of inferiors is necessary to the maintenance of social order.”[20]

Nor do prime divider societies exist only because the elite insists on it, when necessary with ruthless violence.  The commoners play their share in sustaining the zero-sum rules.  Here we move from terrain well covered by subaltern studies – how elites dominate commoners – to terrain somewhat less well explored, what we might call the sub-altern sub-field of resssentiment studies.  For Nietzsche, the man of ressentiment was the loser who wished he were a winner so he could do precisely to others, what others were doing to him.[21]  This is precisely what the Athenians accused the Melians of doing – complaining about fairness only because they were weak.  Were they in the Athenians’ position, they would do precisely the same.[22]  Such subalterns are distrustful, untrustworthy, resentful, envious.[23]

We can see better the zero-sum logic – the rationality – of the peasant who chose to lose an eye when we realize that, were his neighbor to get twice what he got, the neighbor would become twice as powerful, and would surely use this to get the upper hand on him.  But this “rationality” also has a profound emotional component.  Like the estate manager in the fabliau, it eats away at him to see his neighbor thrive.  His neighbor’s gain was his loss, despite whatever he might have “won.”  What counts here is not what Adam Smith and our economists focus on: “real” or “concrete” gain; the critical matter comes down to invidious comparisons.[24]

This leads us to the psychology of resentment summed up in the expression “crabs in a basket.”  Apparently, if you go crabbing, you  need not put a cover on the basket into which you throw the crabs because, whichever tries to escape, the others will pull it back down.  Now with crabs one can understand: when they feel threatened, they burrow, and once they feel their cover moving away, they try to bring it back over them.  Similarly with people, those who take cover in a sense that they are destined to their lot, that they have no choice but to suffer what they must, find that when one of their own begins to succeed, he or she threatens their world.  Autonomy, agency, success are dangerous.  If we are all stuck, we cannot be blamed; indeed we find a certain compensatory solidarity in our collective misery.  If you succeed, then you make me look bad, lazy.

Where economic growth is concerned, perhaps the most important place where this zero-sum mentality has a negative effect is the market place.  Here is the world of open-ended, positive-sum interactions par excellence.  “We all play by the same rules, we voluntarily engage in economic transactions, and we have to learn to live with the consequences.  If you win more than I do, that’s life.  There will always be another transaction.”  But the zero-sum minded have exceptionally low tolerance for loss, even gain that is also relative loss.  Markets dominated by zero-sum behavior will not thrive.  Entrepreneurs who can expect to get undermined by their peers and plundered by their superiors will not undertake projects.[25]

How much of this hostility to economic success on the part of a neighbor is envy, and what part justified anxiety about the behavior of the newly empowered neighbor?  Hard to say, but worth thinking about, as Keith Thomas showed in his study of the origins of the witchcraft accusations motivated by those successful commoners who, having removed themselves from the community, feel and fear the hostility of those they have left behind.[26]  Indeed, with an exceptional regularity, commoners in Prime Divider Societies who manage to acquire substantial amounts of wealth or power try to move above the prime divider, to join the elite and leave behind the dirt, drudgery, and humiliation of labor.  And although the documented examples are less numerous, our texts certainly support any conjectures on the establishment of peasant hierarchies within the village.  The estate manager in the fabliau, like the servientes in Germany, came from below the prime divider.[27]  Bad blood is not limited to class relations above and below the prime divider.  We need to become familiar with the mutual sabotage that marks much of the behavior of subaltern cultures.[28]

In this sense, Prime Divider Societies enforce poverty for the masses from both above and below the prime divider.  While all elites take most of the wealth produced in the territories they control, some encourage initiative from below – to use my metaphor, will occasionally increase the oxygen supply to the commoners.  But they all have, by our modern standards, very low levels of tolerance for such growth, and move fairly rapidly to expropriate – to take – the wealth that the productive classes produce.  As historians have noted about the fate of the Jews in European culture, kings and lords used them as sponges, dipping them into the community and, when they had generated sufficient wealth, wringing out the wealth into their own coffers.[29]  A similar crisis affected the growth of the cities of Western Europe at the end of the 11th and beginning of the 12th centuries, when growth previously encouraged by aristocrats (bishops, counts) reached a critical point and the urban populations began to chafe under their lords’ tutelage.[30]  Think of it as the trip-switch, the point at which the aristocratic elites – who do not work – chose, to kill the commoner that lays the golden eggs lest he become too influential, too autonomous.

Eleventh Century Economic Growth

When we realize the kinds of cultural and psychological headwinds into which economic growth sails, we can begin to appreciate how extraordinary the period of sustained and cumulative economic development that went from the 11th to the 13th centuries, some three hundred years of unprecedented economic activity.  It transformed western Europe from being a third-world economy that exported primary goods including people, to one of the most dynamic economies in the world.

Here is where I disagree with Michael McCormick’s economic history of the period from 300-900.  It seems like wherever he finds the mention of a market, he reads “thriving market,” where he finds travel, he sees robust networks.[31]  Now such a supposition may be accurate sometimes, and probably is true at some low level that threatens no elite, triggers no trip-switch.  But I would not call that a thriving or robust system.  Reading this study of the early medieval economy reminded me of a determinedly optimistic exhibition about the Franks in Paris which spoke about the “villes florissantes” of the early middle ages, but whose objects of display illustrated primarily the impressive continuum of warrior culture with its swords and fibulas much the same in 800 CE as they were in 300.[32]

On the contrary, I submit that the nature of economic activity in the period before 1000, even when it went though moments of substantial growth (late 8th, early 9th century, for example), never really challenged some relatively low thresholds of commoner success. In 859 we have stark evidence that the warrior aristocracy ruthlessly put down any sign of autonomy among the commoners.[33]  However, between 1000 and 1300 – and really right up to the present day – we find the emergence of exceptional economic behavior resulting in periods during which cultural trip-switches were repeatedly turned into tipping points, and Malthusian ceilings were repeatedly elevated with new technology, most of which came from below the prime divider.  This is the period that many medievalists have characterized as revolutionary – agricultural,[34] commercial,[35] technological,[36] literate,[37] urban,[38] legal,[39] religious,[40] etc. etc.

Rather than see this 11th century takeoff as part of the economic patterns of the earlier period,[41] I think it differs dramatically.  The earlier period resembles that of some of the most primitive “economies of impoverishment”, where demographic growth outruns food production,[42] where the main exports of the economy are primary materials – fur, timber, slaves.[43]  Let me briefly touch on the elements I find most unusual about the 11th-13th century economy:

  • Exceptional and sustained growth of produce and of population

Typically our cognitive egocentrism leads us to assume that increased population brings on increased production, a version of “necessity is the mother of invention.”  On the contrary, population growth often leads to overpopulation and immiseration (as we see in so many places around the world today, and some have argued, one sees in the later Carolingian period).[44]  It takes a good deal of social creativity to handle increased populations, a creativity that western Europe shows in profusion in the period in question  for the first time.  And the most exceptional examples of this creativity were the communes, both rural and urban.[45]

  • Cumulative technological innovation from bottom-up

What distinguished the technological revolution of the 11th century, according Lynn White, its foremost historian, was its widespread, bottom-up, cumulative nature.  In particular, the heavy plow provoked a wide range of small but cumulatively potent innovations that enhanced the power unleashed by this major innovation.  Not only do many of these innovations come from below, from manual laborers, even peasants at work in the fields, but they demand a high level of social collaboration and mutual trust, indeed a major overhaul of lifestyles from relatively isolated hamlets in a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding forest, to nucleated villages, redistributed property (the famous strips) and collectively owned means of production (the team of oxen).  To imagine that these changes could take place top-down, that it was at the initiative of the lords, is to make the same mistake that the Stalinists made when they imagined they could force the collectivization of farms in Ukraine.  What distinguishes western technology from all others, including Chinese, is how diffused throughout the culture it became.  What most cultures keep “above” the prime divider – clocks, gunpowder, book production – in the west spreads to, and helps create, an empowered commoner class.

  • Urban growth integrated with rural exploitation of soil

Weber pointed out long ago, that the towns of the 11th and 12th centuries differed from most towns historically in that they were relatively small, scattered throughout the landscape, unusually independent of a central political administration, and they lived in a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding and productive countryside.  Unlike the administrative capitals that lived, as Marx would say, in a state of permanent war with the countryside that they systematically taxed, western European towns produced goods with which they exchanged for the produce of the countryside.  The center of this unusual relationship between town and country was the market, and in order to sustain this relationship for as long as it did, these markets needed a heavy dose of positive-sum behavior.

  • Widespread networking that seems to outstrip its formal framework

The evidence for the vigor of these unusual relationship comes from the international fairs that sprung up in the course of the 12th century, especially in Champagne, where a combination of good location and fair-minded lords – the count of Champagne, Henry the Liberal, was the hero of the fabliau to which I have referred – produced an extraordinary cycle of yearly fairs to which people came from all over Europe.  These testaments to the strength of international trade – in Carolingian times, international trade was done only at the level of courts, and then in luxury products, not primary and secondary basic items like wool and cloth – show an economic expansion far ahead of the institutional structures to contain it.

  • Symbiotic relationship between Lords and Commoners

As Patricia Crone pointed out in her incisive book on Pre-Industrial Societies, commoners stay away from aristocrats in most cultures.[46]  In other words the prime divider isolates each side from the other.  What marks the peculiarity of the West lies in the high degree to which commoners and elites collaborated, engaged in productive and mutually beneficial – positive-sum – projects. Rob Bartlett, in his book on The Making of Europe locates some of the earliest evidence for this behavior in the 12th century aristocracy.[47]  Here, in particular, we find a trade-off to which we have become accustomed, but which we must learn to appreciate as quite rare, in which the lords gave up rights of dominion, that is, they granted franchises to commoners, in exchange for greater wealth.  Autonomous commoners produce more; aristocrats willing to increase oxygen supplies to the commoners, get more.  If they are not yet making, at least they are exchanging, rather than simply taking.  This is precisely what Adam Smith meant when he described the medieval nobility as selling their birthright (dominion) for a mess of baubles (personal wealth).[48]  This may make sense, but, I wish to argue, from the perspective of about 10 millennia of prime divider society, not to most people.  Freedom, as Eric Fromm might put it, is an acquired taste.[49]

Demotic Religiosity and Economic Growth

Having, I hope, convinced you that what is happening in the 11th century constitutes something of note, worth explaining, let me now try and point to where we might find an explanation.  In order to get the kind of economic and social activity that marks these centuries, you need a heavy injection of what I would call a culture of positive-sum.  By this I mean a culture that emphasizes good will towards one’s neighbor, that is one wishes him well; that urges people to trust each other and be trustworthy in playing by the rules of isonomia, i.e., everyone plays by the same rules and does not resort to violence when it suits him; that considers manual labor dignified, and grants to manual laborers moral agency and autonomy.  Only then do you get markets that thrive, technology that comes from below (that is intelligent people engage in labor and think about shortcuts), and the ability to reorganize and restructure social relations to deploy new technology (heavy plow) and to accommodate increased population (cities).

Given what I have described as the default mode of most prime divider societies, this, were it to occur, would represent something of a cultural revolution.  And that is precisely what I think happened.  In order to understand what happened and why, let me introduce you to demotic religiosity.

I use the term demotic rather than popular because while both forms of religiosity are aimed at and adopted by the people, demotic elevates while popular condescends.  The most obvious example of the difference lies in attitudes towards scripture.  Elites the world over tend to keep a monopoly on the sacred texts, limiting access and controlling exegesis.  In the Middle Ages, this manifested itself in a clerical class that tried – sometimes quite brutally – to keep the Bible only in Latin (itself a translation), and for the masses, whom it assumed were too stupid to learn to read, it had the “Bible of the illiterates,” or the picture Bible.  The tales that the clerics told, based on these images, and the kinds of religious responses of the lay commoners to whom they told them I would then consider manifestations of popular religiosity.

Demotic religiosity, on the other hand, seeks to empower commoners in general, and in this case to educate them so they can have a direct access to the texts as possible.  Hence it favors translations (as had early Christians in translating the Hebrew and Greek into the then-living Latin), and encourages hearing and even reading the text.  Thus the history of Bible translations and their diffusion among the commoner population, as well as the kinds of responses such diffusion produced I would then consider manifestations of demotic religiosity.  People being as complex as they are, and social and cultural systems as lively, multivalent, and dynamic as they are, I am under no illusion that most of the time these two forms of religiosity appear in what, to borrow Augustine’s phrase, we might call a corpus permixtum.  But I think distinguishing between them offers us important insights, as I would like to argue for the economy below.

As far as I can make out, demotic religiosity seems to take shape around a constellation of basic traits.

  • equality before the law
  • dignity of manual labor
  • direct access to text and to God
  • iconoclasm
  • voluntarism
  • repentance

I include iconoclasm in my general theory because I have examples from non-monotheist cultures, but unquestionably, in the West, iconoclasm represents, if not an immediately obvious, nonetheless an exceptionally consistent trait of demotic religiosity.

In any case, let us turn to a particular form of demotic religiosity that the commoners of western Europe were clearly exposed to and also, at least in some commoner circles, clearly enthusiastic about, biblical monotheism.  Now biblical monotheism is not necessarily demotic – in fact most of us, introduced to it via our own historiography, tend to think of monotheism as quite hierarchical (rule of the priests – literally hierarchy), as the “opiate of the masses.”  But there is a particular exegesis of the biblical text that emphasizes the demotic dimension, that seizes upon iconoclasm or the hostility to monarchy, rather than explaining them away.  I call this, the commoner’s bible, and I would argue that at times when the biblical text, in vernacular translation, diffuses among commoners, it produces both a demotic exegesis and attendant religious manifestations that I call demotic religiosity.

Let’s take the most famous example and unpack it.  From the 12th century on at least – there is indirect evidence for the early 11th – we find that translations of the Bible lead to peasant revolts that invoke some version of the famous ditty “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”  The formula encapsulates the first two principles while illustrating the third: when Adam and Eve were manual laborers (dignity of manual labor), there was not aristocracy (no legal inequality).  And how do we know this?  Because the Bible, to which we, lay Christian commoners now have autonomous access, tells us so.

Such a reading represents a close reconfiguration of the law of the Sabbath laid out in the text: Six days you shall work and do all your labor and on the seventh day it shall be a day of rest to the Lord your God, for you, your family, your servants, your beasts of burden, the stranger in your midst.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and on the seventh he rested.  [variant: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord God took you out from there…”]  Here again we have the two key elements: dignity of manual labor – everyone is to do it for six days; as did God, whose first actions were labor; and equality before the law – everyone has the privilege to rest.

Such readings then accord with the demotic messianic so prominent in the Hebrew prophets, and whose resonance Jesus’ ethical teachings pick up and intensify.

For they shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks,

Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor study war anymore.

For each one shall sit under his fig and vine and none shall make them afraid.[50]

The aristocracy takes the very weapons with which they frighten and dispossess the peasants of their labor’s produce, and turn them into tools of manual labor.  The messianic kingdom on earth is one of honest laborers eating to their fill from the sweat of their own brow.  All these themes – egalitarianism, dignity of manual labor, messianic community – come together in the early medieval tradition that God and his angels sent letters from heaven promising that when everyone observes the Sabbath, a perfect peace will descend upon Christendom.[51]

Such readings are not necessitated by the text; one can read them differently, hierarchically.  And this is the reading most modern, secular readers think of when they consider the biblical text, a trend still more pronounced among medievalists whose major literary sources have an institutional dedication to hierarchy.[52]  This hierarchical tradition continued long after the printing press has given powerful voice to demotic readings, for example in Robert Filmore’s Patriarcha.[53]  But by then such hierarchical readings only triggered still more articulate demotic readings of the Bible, like John Locke First Treatise on Government, a particularly influential example of demotic monotheism and its contribution to a modern, tolerant, productive culture.[54]

My argument is not that the text causes change, but rather that change comes from the way that people read the text, and how those around them respond to that reading.  And among other things, I think that people who read the text demotically are likely to engage in the kinds of economic activity we find so common in the period in question.  Take the technological changes, so notable for the constant, cumulative, and bottom-up character.  When manual labor is seen as a divine command for all men, then intelligent people engage in it, and when intelligent people engage in manual labor, they will find short-cuts (technology), and when they see new technology, they adopt and adapt it.  The extraordinary depictions of God as an architect that we find, for example at Chartres – itself a monument to the cumulative technological development of the period in question – illustrate precisely this close association of manual labor and the divine.[55]  Similarly, it is in the 12th centuries that we begin to get the kinds of millennial speculations that will, in the early modern period, produce the notion that if only man could regain the knowledge lost at the expulsion, he could perfect the world.[56]

The moral world of the commoner’s Bible was full of advice for the autonomous moral agent, in addition to that of working while others worked and allowing others to rest when he did.  Above all, it treats commoners as agents who make decisions voluntarily, and as such fosters “voluntary organizations”.

It demanded a host of positive-sum commitments that seem designed to make an isonomic system of justice work: to keep fair weights and measures, not to bear false witness, not to bear grudges or take vengeance, to judge fairly, favoring neither the powerful nor the weak, not to oppress the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger; to treat manual labor fairly, paying them on time, not keeping pledges overnight; to help one’s neighbor, even when one hated him, to leave the corners of the field and the unharvested hay as gleaning for those who had no property.

Indeed, one might sum up a good deal of the demotic message of the bible as replacing the dominating imperative – rule or be ruled – with the empathic imperative: do not do onto others what you do not want done to you.  The biblical language is quite explicit: “do not oppress others because you know what it is like to be oppressed.”  Similarly, “Love your neighbor/stranger as yourself,” demands, at the very least, that you consider him as you consider yourself.  Now the paranoid imperative does that much, but then projects evil intent onto the other and treats him or her accordingly.  Here the injunction calls for the opposite: feel the same positive feelings for your neighbor as you do for yourself.  Indeed it extends to the (powerless) stranger in your midst, whom one loves why? Because you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.  Empathy, or sympathetic, not hostile projection.

People committed to emphasizing such values, however short of perfection they might fall – remember, all one needs is a critical mass, not 100% — contribute to thriving economies.  They work; they buy and sell fairly; they keep their word; they cooperate with others well; they respond to critical feedback constructively rather than violently; they work hard to avoid envy and Schadenfreude.  If you want a good description of such people, read Ben Franklin on the immeasurable value of a reputation for honesty.[57]  These are the people who set in motion a bottom-up transformation of the economy, in Weber’s famous phrase, so often missed by economic historians, it comes from the “backwoods of Pennsylvania,” not from Florentine corporations.[58]   My argument will be that the “High Middle Ages” of 1000-1350 started not in Paris, Padua, and Rome, but in the open fields of Aquitaine and Burgundy, where the Peace movement activated a demotic religiosity previously unparalleled in its vigor and creativity.

Demotic religiosity treats commoners as autonomous moral agents, capable of making commitments and keeping them.  In doing so it treats them as worthy to take collective oaths.  This differs markedly from the more common aristocratic attitude that views any collective oaths by commoners as something dangerous.[59]  It seems to me that we cannot understand the sudden and widespread rise of voluntary societies, especially of the urban and rural communes, without appreciating how dramatically attitudes towards commoner agency had to change – both from above and below the prime divider – in order for them to occur so frequently and so successfully.  And many of these new organizations adopted an egalitarian law code for those who joined: as Southern put it so nicely in his Making of the Middle Ages, “the outline of liberty was traced by the bewildering variety of law which slowly emerged during our period [11th–12th centuries].”[60]

The extraordinary social creativity of the period in question, when so many voluntary associations formed, some clerical,[61] some lay,[62] all religious, helps explain how western Europe could move the Malthusian ceiling upwards for so long.  And at the heart of many of these new associations lay a particular relationship to the religious texts which Brian Stock dubbed “textual communities.”[63]  Social creativity at once made embracing new technology possible.  The adoption of the heavy plow demanded immense social reorganization, with its large team of collectively owned oxen, and its reorganization of landed property into strips. And such social creativity accommodated a much higher population density both rural and urban.

Sustained production, thriving markets, technological invention and diffusion comes easiest when the labor force is treated as autonomous moral agents – i.e., trusted with an elevated oxygen supply – rather than when commoners are treated as dumb oxen to be whipped into line.

Read the rest: Landes, Demotic Religiosity

[1] Pirenne, A History of Europe from the Invasions to the XVI Century (New York: University Books, 1956), Book V; this view is taken up in a whole range of books on European economic growth in the Middle Ages, e.g., Carlo Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700 (New York: Norton, 1994), Robert Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages: 950-1350 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1971); Robert Herni Bautier, The Economic Development of Medieval Europe (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971) etc.

[2] McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300-900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. **

[3] Landes, Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998)

[4] Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington eds., Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New York: Basic Books, 2000); see critique of Richard Schweder, “Moral Maps, First World ‘Conceits’ and the New Evangelists,” ibid, pp. 158-77.

[5] At some point, I hope to explore the idea that “Enlightenment” notions of “rationality” are actually philosophical articulations of positive sum thinking.

[6] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Edwin Cannan ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976)

[7] Sagan, The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America  (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991)

[8] Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 5:89.

[9] For a useful discussion of the dynamics involved, see Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983); John Hall, Powers and Liberties: The Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West (New York: Penguin Books, 1985); and John Kautsky, The Politics of Aristocratic Empires (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997)

[10] See Bernard Lewis’ remarks on this subject in What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 35-63.  Among Plains Indians, the honorable way to get horses was to steal them; to raise them was a degrading, unmanly activity (see Kenelm Burridge, New Heaven, New Earth: A Study of Millenarian Activities [New York: Schocken Books, 1969], p. 77)

[11] Kautsky, Aristocratic Empires, pp. 177-87

[12] Wealth of Nations, Book III, Chapter 2, p. 412

[13] Thucydides, 5: 91-95

[14] Bede, History of the English Church and People, Leo Sherley-Price ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 3: 14, pp. 163-6

[15] See Pirenne, Early Democracies in the Low Countries: Urban Society and Political Conflict in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, J.V. Saunders trans. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1963); Le Goff, Histoire de la France urbaine: la ville médiévale, des Carolingiens à la Renaissance (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1980).

[16] Louis VII and the revolt of the commune of Laon, in Guibert of Nogent, Autobiography, C.C. Swinton Brand trans. (London: Routeledge, 1925), pp. 153-4, 159-64 in The Middle Ages, Volume I: Sources of Medieval History, Brian Tierney ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1992), pp. 187-90.

[17] See the responses of the imperial authorities to tax revolts in the empire, ***.  For the specific case of the revolt of Antioch in 387, see John Chrysostom’s sermons attempting to limit the damage (“21 Homilies on Statues” in ***).

[18] Fabliau

[19] Gadi Algazi, “The Social Uses of Private War: Some Late Medieval Views Reviewed”, Tel Aviv Jahrbuch für deutsche Geschichte 1993, pp. 253-73

[20] Cited in James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 45.  For an excellent film about both the court culture based on such sentiments and its role in preventing any serious economic reform, see the movie Ridicule (1996), directed by Patrice Leconte.

[21] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals Carol Diethe trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) II.17.

[22] Thucydides, 5: 105.

[23] Schoek, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002) , pp. 57-76; Peter Walcot, Envy and the Greeks: A Study of Human Behaviour (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1978)

[24] Relative deprivation theory.***

[25] From an institutional point of view – i.e., laws that protect property, and hence the profits of entrepreneurs – this point serves as the key argument for the development of the European economy in the Middle Ages according to many historians (e.g., Birdzell and Rosenberg, John Hall)

[26] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971)

[27] Werner Rösener, Peasants in the Middle Ages (Urbaba, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 190-207; Rodney Hilton, Bondmen Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (New York: Viking Press, 1973), pp. 33-40; for a general statement on this see n. 23

[28] Schoek, pp. 57-76

[29] “The Jew increasingly served as the ‘royal usurer,’ whose main function consisted in sucking up the wealth of other classes through high rates of interest, and being in turn squeezed dry by the royal treasury.” Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews,  Volume IV (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), pp. 87-8

[30] See below, n. ***.

[31] McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900 (Cambriddge U. Press, 2001).  Note the use of words like “stupendous… striking… burgeoning… surged… spilled over… everywhere… (pp. 6-12).

[32] Les francs: précurseurs de l’Europe (Paris: Musées, 1997).  The book does not repeat the exhibit’s expression “florissante”, although the section on cities reflects the same attitude (pp. 56-63).

[33] On the 859 incident, see below, ***; note that although McCormick claims in his title to analyze the period until 900, and admits in his conclusion that the economic revival of the Carolingian period ran into serious obstacles in the later 9th century (pp. 794-6), he neither analyzes the nature of that collapse, nor pays much attention to the state of the economy around 900.

[34] Georges Duby, L’economie rurale et la vie campagnes dans l’Occident medieval (Paris: Editions Montaigne, 1962), pp. 311-73

[35] Robert Lopez, The Commercial Revolution in the Middle Ages

[36] Lynn White, Machina ex Deo: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968); Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)

[37] Brian Stock,  Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983)

[38] Pirenne, Early Democracies in the Low Countries

[39] Harold Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983)

[40] Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (London: Basil Blackwell, 1987)

[41] McCormick argues that “the decisive advance of the European commercial economy started in the eighth, not the tenth or eleventh centuries” and therefore that “[t]he run-up to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with their impressive trading fleets, emergent cities, and merchant practices was three times as long as has been conventionally reckoned.  It must have been three times as difficult” (Origins, p. 794).

[42] “Even the episodic famines that hit the Carolingian heartland in Charlemagne’s day can be taken as “accidents of growth,” arising out of the strains between rapid population growth and slower expanion of food production” (McCormick, Origins, p. 10-11.

[43] See McCormick, Origins, pp. 733-58, where he shows no awareness of how much this reveals the primitive nature of the European economy, in which they cannot put available manpower to work producing finished goods.

[44] Duby, L’economie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident medieval, pp. 65-71; Verhulst, “Etude comparative du régime domanial classique à l’ouest du Rhin a l’époque carolingienne,” in Croissance agricole du haut moyen âge (Auch, 1990), 87-101. McCormick, despite covering the period in question addresses the issue only in passingm, and does not treat the question of famines, so abundant in the Carolingian period at all.  On the dramatic difference between the famine-ridden Carolingian period and the 11th century, see Pierre Bonnassie, ***, in From Slavery to Feudalism in South-West Europe (Cambridge, 1991), pp. **-**.

[45]  For urban communes see Le Goff, Histoire de la France urbaine, pp. 164-79; for a study of rural communes in the 11th century see Les libertés urbaines et rurales du XIe au XIVe siècles (Colloque International, Spa, 1966); See also below, n. **

[46] Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies (London: Basil Blackwell, 1989)

[47] Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), Chapter 5.  McCormick opens his concluding chapter with a case of merchants complaining to Louis the Pious in 851 that the Bishop of Cremona was charging illegal fees when their boats docked.  The bishop defended himself by pointing out that these fees were legal and the reason these merchant families had not paid them was that they had no ships.  “Unsurprisingly, the imperial envoys found for the bishop and dismissed the new boatmen’s suit” (Origins, pp. 778-9).  McCormick uses this incident to show the economic growth – families that, a few generations earlier had no boats, now do.  But it also shows how common – unsurprising – it was for the local authorities to strangle this growth with the support of imperial ones.  The same problems hit the urban communes in the later 11th century; this time the urban commercial elites combined with the larger urban population and the king to wrest their economic independence from the bishops.

[48] Smith, Wealth of Nations, “Having sold their birth-right, not like Esau for a mess of pottage in time of hunger and necessity, but in the wantonness of plenty, for trinkets and baubles, fitter to be the playthings of children than serious pursuits of men, they became as insignificant as any substantial burgher or tradesman in a city.” Book 3, Chapter 4, p. 439

[49] Fromm,  Escape from Freedom (New York: Rinehart, 1941)

[50] Micah, 4:3-4.

[51] David Van Meter, “The Peace of Amiens-Corbie and Gerard of Cambrai’s Oration on the Three Functional Orders: The Date, the Contexts, the Rhetoric, Revue Belge de philology et d’histoire 74 (1996), pp. 646-50.

[52] Cf. Buc, L’ambiguité du livre: prince, pouvoir, et peuple dans les commentaires de la Bible au Moyen Age (Paris: Beauchesne, 1994), pp. 246-311; Blickle, Peter, Die Revolution von 1525 (Oldenberg, Munich, 1977) tr. Thomas Brady, Jr., and H.C.E. Midelfort, The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War from a New Perspective (Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, 1981)

[53] Robert Filmer, “Patriarcha, or, the Natural Power of Kings” in Patriarcha and Other Writings, Johann P. Somerville ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

[54] John Locke, First Treatise on Government in Two Treatises on Government, Peter Laslett ed. (Cambridge” Cambridge University Press, 1988)

[55] The divine architect***

[56] David Noble, Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1997).

[57] Weber on Franklin, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, tr. Stephen Kalburg (Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company, 2002), Part I, Ch. 2

[58] Weber, Protestant Ethic

[59] See the discussion of the 859 coniuratio of commoners wiped out by the Frankish aristocracy for having the nerve to defend themselves against the invading Vikings (above, n. **).  More generally on the hostility of stratified cultures like the Carolingian to sworn associations, see ***.

[60] Southern, Making of the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), pp. 107-10.  Southern points out that given Paul’s hostility to law (“the letter kills…”) it is ironic that this period of Christian renewal should be so marked by its legal concerns.

[61] This is the period, beginning with Cluny’s remarkable expansion into an “order” (Iogna-Prat) of extensive monastic reform, especially in the area today known as France as well as the emergence of new secular canonical houses (Augustinian canons, see Dom Becquet, Vie Canoniale en France aux Xe-XIIe siecles [London: Variorum Reprints, 1985)) as well as, by the end of the 11th and beginning of the twelfth centuries, of new canonical and monastic movements (Cistercian, Premonstratensian, etc.).

[62] Lay organizations are less easy to track in the sources, but the growth of the urban communes clearly has behind it the development of guilds within the cities.  More significantly, the emergence of apostolic communities, often appearing in the texts as heresies marks a key turning point in the autonomy of lay religiosity (see below).

[63] Stock, Implications of Literacy, he calls them “laboratories of social organization” (p. 88).


4 Responses to Demotic Religiosity and Economic Growth

  1. Well, I had to print it out (18 pages) to read it. And there is a lot to think about. I have one comment right now.

    The opposite of demotic religion should be hieratic religion. One that belongs to the priests. Such religions are characteristic of pre-modern societies where the priests conduct rituals that the demos cannot conduct because they are not admitted to the guild and not taught the myths and rituals.

    Christianity was demotic before it became a state religion that was supposed to be hieratic. However, there is an inherent tension between hierarchy and the sacred scripture that is the basis of Chiristianty (and Judaism too).

    The protagonists of the Bible stories are almost always “independent-minded, disobedient, even contentious”*. It is hard to tell people to be meek and mild, when the hero types you give them are anything but.


  2. […] Modern notions of fairness – To Kill a Mockingbird – are based on empathy, as is demotic monotheistic religiosity. Some think it is the key to a peaceful planet. It takes empathy to forgive someone… and to […]

  3. […] Demotic religiosity*: dignity of manual labor, egalitarian relations of autonomous moral agents; positive-sum chosenness. No king but God. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *