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Postan thesis

  A theoretical explanation of economic and social change in medieval England, formulated and developed by the medievalist and economic historian Michael Postan (1966, 1973; Postan and Hatcher, 1978). Postan sought to replace earlier linear models of western medieval economy based on the growth of international trade, arguing instead that medieval European societies needed to be analysed first and foremost in terms of their agrarian bases. He took the critical component of the agrarian base to be the ability of peasant households to produce sufficient to support themselves and their social superiors, in the case of the latter through rents, tithes and taxes (see land tenure).

While Postan\'s work involved comparative analysis of England and the continent, he drew mainly on empirical material from southern England, especially from large ecclesiastically owned estates such as those of the Bishop of Winchester, for which extensive records survive. His chief inferences were based on evidence of population trends, land use, new colonization or abandonment of arable land, prices, wages, rents, grain yields, and livestock numbers.

The Postan thesis holds that medieval England moved inexorably towards an agrarian crisis. Population growth during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries put increasing strain on the ecological base of peasant production. Pastures, woodlands and wastes were converted to arable use, but scope for such expansion was finite, and peasant family land-holdings became increasingly sub-divided. The rate at which this impoverishment occurred varied between areas according to their resource base, settlement history, and population density. Eventually, population growth outstripped both the availability of new land to bring under arable cultivation, and the ability of farmers to maintain or increase productivity per cropped acre. Much arable land was abandoned (Baker, 1973). Land abandonment and falling yields precipitated chronic food crises, causing population to fall, with a significant demographic turning point in the early fourteenth century (Kershaw, 1973). Compared with earlier arguments, Postan played down the significance of the Black Death as a turning point, arguing that it accelerated a population decline already underway.

For Postan, the tendency towards ecological crisis built into medieval agrarian society was twofold: \'People found that they had reached the limits of the land\'s productivity; not only because they were reclaiming new, poor soils but also because they had been cultivating old land for too long\' (Postan, 1973, p. 15). Thus medieval husbandmen faced a double bind. Yields were falling on old-cultivated land (Titow, 1972), because the emphasis on arable was so extreme that diminished livestock populations could no longer provide sufficient dung to maintain soil fertility. On newly colonized areas of marginal land, yields were initially high but could not be maintained as accumulations of soil nutrient stores became depleted. (For analysis of the Postan thesis in terms of soil productivity, see Shiel, 1991; Clark, 1992; Newman and Harvey, 1997).

Among many areas of critical debate, five are of particular significance to historical geographers. First, many have argued that Postan underestimates the significance of feudal social relations as a cause of peasant hardship, and a constraint on agricultural technology (see feudalism; Brenner debate). What is at issue here is not so much whether there was a general medieval agrarian crisis, as whether its ultimate causes were social rather than techno-ecological. Secondly, others dispute the notion that the crisis was general and sustained (Hallam, 1989; Harvey, 1991), crediting at least some regional agrarian economies with a greater capacity to make technical innovations and increase productivity than does Postan (Langdon, 1986; Campbell, 1991, 1995a and b; Campbell and Overton, 1995). In part, it appears that the Postan thesis draws too heavily on evidence from atypically conservatively managed estates. However, even within the Winchester estates, later work has ascribed geographical variations in land productivity to differing levels of labour inputs (Thornton, 1991). Third, peasant agriculture may have been generally more dynamic than the seigneurial cultivation which provides most of the available evidence; this seems to be the case, for example, in the use of horses and the cultivation of legumes (Langdon, 1986). Postan\'s focus on arable production also marginalizes pastoral agriculture, which Biddick (1989) sees as a dynamic sector. Debates on all these topics highlight geographical variations in rural life. So too, fourthly, has the growing realization of the extent of commercialization on patterns of agricultural production, especially around London. Whereas Glasscock wrote in 1973 that \'technology and exchange had not progressed far enough by the early fourteenth century to allow much regional [agricultural] specialisation\', recent work identifies substantial spatial differentiation in agricultural systems, and ascribes this to widespread processes of commercialization (Campbell and Power, 1989; Britnell, 1996).

Finally, Postan\'s concept of the geographical margin has been extended and refined. There were several senses in which land might be marginal: soil quality, climate, location, topography, tenure (Bailey, 1989a and b; Dyer, 1989). Postan conflated these senses, thereby oversimplifying the geography of expansion and contraction in settlement and cultivation. As Bailey observes with respect to the Norfolk and Suffolk Brecklands, \'the profitability of land depended as much upon its location, and upon institutional factors, as it did upon its quality\' (1989b, p. 320). The relationships between different dimensions of marginality were contingent rather than necessary, and the classic Postanian marginal decline was largely restricted to areas which were marginal in several respects simultaneously.

In all these debates, much revision has taken the form of refining or elaborating the Postan thesis, rather than rejecting it outright. There is no current uniformity of opinion as to whether geographical differences in agrarian systems are better understood as exceptions to (or disproofs of) the Postan thesis, or as different regional development trajectories within the same fundamental set of constraints. Likewise, debate continues about the peak level of medieval population (Campbell, 1995a, argues for not more than 5 million, rather than the more widely accepted 6 to 6.5 million), and about whether undoubtedly severe crisis conditions in the early fourteenth century persisted in the 1330s and 1340s (Jordan, 1997; Bailey, 1998). But whether the Postan thesis is seen as crumbling or as becoming more complicated, Langdon\'s (1991, p. 209) view \'that a more comprehensive view of the medieval English economy is being developed\' remains apposite. (PDG)

References Bailey, M. 1989a: A marginal economy? East Anglian Breckland in the later middle ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Bailey, M. 1989b: The concept of the margin in the medieval English economy. Economic History Review 42: 1-18. Bailey, M. 1998: Peasant welfare in England, 1290-1348. Economic History Review 51: 223-51. Baker, A.R.H. 1973: Evidence in the \'Nonarum Inquisitiones\' of contracting arable land in England during the fourteenth century. Economic History Review 2nd series 19: 518-32. Biddick, K. 1989: The other economy: pastoral husbandry on a medieval estate. Berkeley: University of California Press. Brenner, R. 1976: Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe. Past and Present 70: 30-75. Britnell, R. 1996: Commercialisation in Medieval England, 2nd edn. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Campbell, B.M.S. 1991: Land, labour, livestock, and productivity trends in English seignorial agriculture, 1208-1450. In B.M.S. Campbell and M. Overton, eds, Land, labour and livestock: historical studies in European agricultural productivity. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 144-82. Campbell, B.M.S. 1995a: Ecology versus economics in late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth century English agriculture. In D. Sweeney, ed., Agriculture in the Middle Ages: technology, practice and representation, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 75-108. Campbell, B.M.S. 1995b: Progressiveness and backwardness in thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century English agriculture: the verdict of recent research. In J.-M. Duvosquel and E. Thoen, eds, Peasants and townsmen in medieval Europe. Gent: Snoeck-Docaju and Zoon, 541-59. Campbell, B.M.S. and Overton, M. 1995: A new perspective on medieval and early modern farming: six centuries of Norfolk farming c.1250-c.1850. Past and Present 141: 38-105. Campbell, B.M.S. and Power, J. 1989: Mapping the agricultural geography of medieval England. Journal of Historical Geography 15: 24-39. Clark, G. 1992: The economics of exhaustion, the Postan thesis, and the agricultural revolution. Journal of Economic History 52: 61-84. Dyer, C. 1993: Standards of living in the later middle ages, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dyer, C. 1989: The retreat from marginal land: the growth and decline of medieval rural settlements. In M. Aston et al., eds, The rural settlements of medieval England: studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 45-57. Hallam, H.E., ed., 1989: The agrarian history of England and Wales, volume II, 1042-1350. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Harvey, B. 1991: Introduction: the \'crisis\' of the early fourteenth century. In B.M.S. Campbell, ed., Before the Black Death: studies in the \'crisis\' of the early fourteenth century. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1-24. Jordan, W.C. 1997: The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the early fourteenth century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Kershaw, I. 1973: The agrarian crisis in England 1315-1322. Past and Present 59. Langdon, J. 1986: Horses, oxen and technological innovation: the use of draught animals in English farming from 1066-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Langdon, J. 1991: Bringing it all together: medieval English economic history in transition. Journal of British Studies 30: 209-16. Newman, E. and Harvey, P. 1997: Did soil fertility decline in medieval English farms? Evidence from Cuxham, Oxfordshire, 1320-1340. Agricultural History Review 46: 119-36. Postan, M.M. 1966: Medieval agrarian society in its prime: England. In M.M. Postan, ed., Cambridge economic history of Europe, volume 1: The agrarian life of the middle ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 549-632. Postan, M.M. 1973: Essays on medieval agriculture and general problems of the medieval economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Postan, M.M. and Hatcher, J. 1978: Population and class relations in feudal society. Past and Present 78: 24-37. Shiel, R.S. 1991: Improving soil productivity in the pre-fertilizer era. In B.M.S. Campbell and M. Overton, eds, Land, labour and livestock: historical studies in European agricultural productivity. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 51-77. Smith, R.M. 1991: Demographic developments in rural England, 1300-1348: a survey. In B.M.S. Campbell, ed., Before the Black Death: studies in the \'crisis\' of the early fourteenth century. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 25-78. Thornton, C. 1991: The determinants of land productivity on the Bishop of Winchester\'s demesne of Rimpton, 1208-1403. In B.M.S. Campbell and M. Overton, eds, Land, labour and livestock: historical studies in European agricultural productivity. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 183-210. Titow, J.Z. 1972: Winchester yields: a study in medieval agricultural productivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suggested Reading Bailey (1998). Campbell and Overton (1995). Clark (1992). Newman and Harvey (1997). Postan (1966). Smith (1991).



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