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Question:

Were there major places where the economy grew, inversely to wider situation, in the late Roman Empire and dark age Europe, c. 350-950? The examples that I can think of are Venice and the Carolingian kingdoms. I know that economic activity continued to some extent along the major rivers. I think that Moravian Prague was wealthy, and maybe a city corresponding to modern Budapest? What about the Mediterranean coastline- Gascony, Provence?

Response to close votes:

This is not a random list generating question. The places in dark age Europe with prospering societies would be small enough to count on your hands. It obviously would have been cities or ports, but perhaps it could also be argued why the rural economy flourished in places (I don't think so.), or more remote places like Gascony did. It can be properly answered in a textbook fashion, for us regular people.

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    As written, this is a list question that is incapable of having a definitive answer - that makes it an off-topic question. Please edit to remove this attribute, as there is likely a good question hiding inside. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 21 '18 at 9:15
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    For one: every bloody town with a cathedral under construction. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 21 '18 at 9:29
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    -1 for wanting to cherry pick facts. You have two good answers to the original question, and your edit makes both of them obsolete. – Denis de Bernardy Jun 21 '18 at 18:17
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    Please cite evidence for all non-trivial assertions, such as: "The places in dark age Europe with prospering societies would be small enough to count on your hands." – Pieter Geerkens Jun 22 '18 at 15:19
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    @JohnDee Still feels like cherry picking, a more logical conclusion is that there wasn't any “Europe” then. – Relaxed Jun 25 '18 at 22:32
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Since the question is very broad, covering a large geographic and temporal span, here are some general areas of significant economic growth during this period:

  • Al-Andalus in Spain starting at 711
  • The Carolingian Empire (particularly during Charlemagne's reign/the Carolingian Renaissance) and parts of the Merowingian Empire starting around the 450s
  • The Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire at various times, e.g. arguably during the reign of Justinian in the Early Byzantine Period or during the Middle Byzantine Period following the resolution of the Iconoclast controversy
  • The Viking Realms in Scandinavia, Russia, the North Sea etc. The Northern Arc as one of the principal traderoutes brought wealth to Scandinavia as well as to the cities and principalities of the Rus (e.g. Novgorod, Kiev). Large-scale reaving also boosted the local economy.

In general, most of these economic systems were dominated by rural and localised manorialism (including Monastic economies). Trade or money-based market-economies only played a minor role outside of the scattered cities, focusing on the Mediterranean, the North Sea and Baltic as well as large river systems and remnant Roman roads. Suffice to say any of these possible areas of economic opportunities were closed for the majority of the population due to feudal societal structures (serfdom). Plague (e.g. the Justinian Plague), wars that often disturbed trade (e.g. the Arab, Hun or Magyar expansions) and overall cooler climactic conditions (between the Roman Warm Period ending around 400 and the Medieval Warm period starting in around 950) were other main factors for reduced economic activity.

  • I thought about these when I was falling asleep. It's funny how the golden age of al andalus is exactly opposite of Europe, ending around 950; just when things got going in Europe. The Vikings count, but are on the border and in a different zone, IMO. I really want to know about central and Western Europe. – John Dee Jun 21 '18 at 14:35
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Of course there were. Dorestad, for example. This was a prosperous city in Utrecht, The Netherlands - at that time part of the Frankish empire. It grew and prospered from the 7th until the 9th century. For that reason it was sacked several times by the vikings. There are many reasons why the city declined and later was abandoned, but the viking raids played an important role.

There are countless other examples to be found, if you look for it. The dark ages weren't dark. The sun shone every day, after all. The period is called the dark ages because overall it was a economically and scientifically stagnant period with great turmoil and much less progress as we saw before and especially after that period.

Be careful not to look for evidence that proves this period to be diverse, happy and prosperous. Of course there are examples, as with Dorestad. That would be anecdotal evidence. It's quite popular at the moment. Especially the BBC goes overboard with it.

  • The period from ca 350 AD to about 800 AD was pretty nasty by anyone's standards and by 800 practically no place in Europe that had been part of the Roman Empire had a standard of living better than during the top several centuries of the RE. But I don't disagree with your main point at all: The Dark Ages weren't dark -- though they were pretty dim at times... – Mark Olson Jun 21 '18 at 22:28
  • Dorestad was NOT a city in the true sense of the word - it was an emporium. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 22 '18 at 11:07
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Absolutely there were - across most of the continent in fact. Building a massive cathedral requires a strong economy, and in the period from 400 to 900 we have the start of the massive cathedral building program that so enhances European tourism to this day:

Just to highlight some of the most impressive still extant:

Here is a comprehensive list including many more in Spain that I have omitted.

These buildings are indicative of active, healthy economies because it requires a considerable excess economic capacity to sustain such a building program (and the capital expense they represent) over the several years, even decades, that all of these buildings required for construction.

Note also that nearly the entire expanse of Western Europe is covered by this list, with the notable exception of France and England. Their cathedral building phase starts in about 900, so one might infer that these economies took a bit longer to rebound than the rest of the continent.

  • Three places, four churches. Ravenna is good. Were these really big? Because Aachen Cathedral wasn't big. – John Dee Jun 22 '18 at 2:15
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    @JohnDee IIRC, Aachen Cathedral was the largest cathedral north of Italy. Even if you don't accept it to be "big" relative to later structures, that doesn't detract from the answer's point regarding the wealth and prosperity required for such construction projects. – Semaphore Jun 27 '18 at 10:22
  • @Semaphore How big was Canterbury? – John Dee Jun 27 '18 at 11:41
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    @JohnDee Not known for sure because it was destroyed and rebuilt over several times. At the time of the Palatine Chapel, probably no more than ~20m each side. – Semaphore Jun 27 '18 at 12:47
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There is more than one type of economy that societies can have, according to David Graeber's book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. While this book has its faults, he does a good job of distinguishing between different types of economies. I highly recommend reading chapter 10 of his book, The Middle Ages to learn about how the economy of Europe functioned during this time. To quote from a summary in Wikipedia:

He argues that credit systems originally developed as means of account long before the advent of coinage, which appeared around 600 BC. Credit can still be seen operating in non-monetary economies. Barter, on the other hand, seems primarily to have been used for limited exchanges between different societies that had infrequent contact and often were in a context of ritualized warfare.

Graeber suggests that economic life originally related to social currencies. These were closely related to routine non-market interactions within a community. This created an "everyday communism" based on mutual expectations and responsibilities among individuals. This type of economy is contrasted with exchange based on formal equality and reciprocity (but not necessarily leading to market relations) and hierarchy. The hierarchies in turn tended to institutionalize inequalities in customs and castes.

The great Axial Age civilizations (800–200 BC) began to use coins to quantify the economic values of portions of what Graeber calls "human economies". Graeber says these civilizations held a radically different conception of debt and social relations. These were based on the radical incalculability of human life and the constant creation and recreation of social bonds through gifts, marriages, and general sociability. The author postulates the growth of a "military–coinage–slave complex" around this time. These were enforced by mercenary armies that looted cities and cut human beings from their social context to work as slaves in Greece, Rome, and elsewhere. The extreme violence of the period marked by the rise of great empires in China, India, and the Mediterranean was, in this way, connected with the advent of large-scale slavery and the use of coins to pay soldiers. This was combined with obligations to pay taxes in currency: The obligation to pay taxes with money required people to engage in monetary transactions, often with very disadvantageous terms of trade. This typically increased debt and slavery.

And here, about the middle ages re: your question,

When the great empires in Rome and India collapsed, the resulting checkerboard of small kingdoms and republics saw the gradual decline in standing armies and cities. This included the creation of hierarchical caste systems, the retreat of gold and silver to the temples and the abolition of slavery. Although hard currency was no longer used in everyday life, its use as a unit of account and credit continued in medieval Europe. Graeber insists that people in the Middle Ages in Europe continued to use the concept of money, even though they no longer had the physical symbols. This contradicts the popular claims of economists that the Middle Ages saw the economy "revert to barter". During the Middle Ages more sophisticated financial instruments appeared. These included promissory notes and paper money (in China, where the empire managed to survive the collapse observed elsewhere), letters of credit, and cheques (in the Islamic world).

So from this quote, he speaks broadly about how the European economy was transformed by the collapse of a centralized power structure. He also states plainly that this lead to a massive decrease in slavery. But what about "ecnomic growth"? Did the European economy "grow" during this decentralized time?

It is important to note that this data cannot be tracked through modern abstract ideas like "GND growth" or "Average Per capita Income" because of the European economy was structured at this time.

Let me posit some thoughts:

Q1: If the population grows, and the farm output grows, is that economic growth?
A1: I think the answer would definitely be yes, even without monetization of that farm output.

Q2: If the population grows, and but the per-capita farm output stays the same or shrinks, is that economic growth?

Q3: If the population grows, and the per-capita farm output also grows, is that economic growth?
A3: Yes, certainly

Q4: If the population shrinks, and the per-capita farm output grows, but the total new farm output shrinks, is that economic growth?
A4: No, that would be economic contraction, right?

So you are looking at the period 350 to 950. What happened to the population during this time? According to wikipedia the population held steady or grew a little until 530 - 550, when a one-two punch of extreme weather events and disease killed off about half the European population. So you can definitely expect there to be an economic contraction in total economic output for those two decades, right?

Then from 550-950 I don't see too much information out there about population in Europe - seems like the experts speculate that it didn't start growing again until about 1000.

So a rough estimate might be variable low growth from 350-530, then extreme contraction from 530-550, then variable low growth from 550 to 950.

But this is just productivity right? What about standard of living? Seems like the absence of slavery would constitute a huge increase in standard of living for many people with the end of the roman empire, and the rise of manorial serfdom would be a decrease?

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Another way to answer the question is that there weren't any great differences in prosperity before the industrial revolution of the 18-19th century. Before that time, India and China represented the bulk of the world's production, through the sheer size of their population. Agriculture is economic activity (even subsistence agriculture) and it was a large part of total economic activity before modern times, even in the Roman or Byzantine empires (or whatever you count as example of “economic prosperity”).

Places with more trade and access to goods from faraway countries or with more political stability would appear more prosperous to contemporary observers but in reality human societies did not see any significant increase in productivity over this time period. Larger polities like the Roman Empire could concentrate resources to support cities and impressive buildings but were still very poor.

With stagnating productivity, economic “growth“ would mostly track population changes and while it was lower during late antiquity than before, catastrophic events like epidemics can actually spur a few decades or more of relative prosperity as more (good) land becomes available for the remaining population.

Also, the concept of a long “dark age“ has been criticised by modern historiography and even excluding about half of the Middle Ages as traditionally defined, you are talking about a very long period.

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