Monday, May 21, 2012

Foodprints of feudalism

Over the ages, food and agriculture have always left indelible impacts on politics, cultures and even the ecosystems. As we are about to enter a new age of fractured living, a look back at the age of feudalism can help us prepare for the bleak days ahead. In the days prior to the Agricultural Revolution, which was a precursor to the Industrial Revolution, upwards of 80% of the population had been engaged in food production, specifically in agriculture. So a knowledge of past food production would provide us with the ability to understand why political systems or cultures evolved the way they did.

A major impact of food production on the environment, as detected by the anomalous increase in CO2, began way back 8,000 years ago when humans began clearing European forests on a large scale for agriculture. This was followed by an increase in methane 3,000 years later when the Chinese grew wetland rice. Fast forward another 2,500 years, Ancient Athens ushered in democracy, not in a small way a consequence of its smallholding farmlands. Their owners, with important stakes in the wealth generation and accumulation of the economy, esteemed freedom and property rights. In the same vein, Ancient Rome had started off as a democratic republic, only gradually turning into an emperorship after its small farmlands were acquired by the big land owners who consolidated them into latifundia.

On the opposite extreme of the Eurasia land mass, the need to cultivate rice in a cooperative manner but under the direction of a strongman has resulted till today in the prevalence of social constraints in the East Asian societies though each with its own unique character. The Chinese valued a strong central authority while the Japanese, decentralised authority residing in a few chiefs, a carryover from the daimyō of its feudal days. South Korea has the added twist of regional factionalism reflective of its rule under the Three Kingdoms that lasted around 600 years while its sibling North has always been under strong authoritarian rule bolstered by pervasive neighbour-on-neighbour snooping. In all cases, the people rally around personalities rather than issues. Till today you can observe these in their respective politics despite the veneer of democracy slapped on some of them. For the West to preach its version of democracy reflects a poor understanding of regional history.

The Athens and Greek models involving individual farming led to the increasing concentration of wealth by a minority few. It is not a recent phenomenon; it's a pattern that always unfolds towards the end cycle of an economic wave. Ancient Rome could sustain itself for so long despite the skewing wealth accumulation was due to its continual conquests. And of course, events in the ancient era moved at a snail's pace.

However to link Ancient Athens and Rome with the democracy prevailing in the western world is a bit far-fetched. Democracy was resurrected in the western world because it had early exposure to the Industrial Revolution. The link between the democracies of the ancients and the moderns only exists in the figment of those have always wanted to imagine it so since more than 1,900 years had passed before democracy made a comeback.

The collapse of the Western Roman empire greatly devastated Western Europe that it took more than three centuries before Charlemagne ascended the throne in AD 768 and began the task of reconsolidating the region. The interregnum was aptly known as the Dark Ages. No much literature exists to document the agriculture of this period.

Much of what is known about this period is that agriculture gave in to reforestation. The fall in agricultural yields was attributed to the cold period lasting from AD 300 to AD 700 (we should be careful with what we wish for with regards to global warming.) What was left of agriculture was just subsistence level farming. Rural life replaced urban life. Trade disappeared and Roman roads fell into disuse. Invasions from the Germanic tribes destroyed trade routes and town centres. With the absence of a hegemonic power and the existence of many barbarian kingdoms, violence was endemic (now you know why we still need a superpower regardless of which side it is on.) Simple artifacts of civilisation, such as bricks, glass and pottery stopped being produced.

It is hard to tell which is the root cause but the most plausible would have been the cold period with agriculture in a strong supporting role. As agriculture yields fell, it became difficult for the formation of a strong government, which always needed surpluses from agriculture to support itself. Also there was no necessity for trade without surpluses. So overland trade routes, which needed funds for upkeep, were left to decay. Even sea trade was minimal as evidenced by the small number of shipwrecks dated around this period. Cities, which had always depended on the countryside to supply them food and migrants up until the 18th century, fell into ruin when their lifeline stopped.

Almost as the final nail in the coffin, a bubonic plague struck Europe, North Africa, Persia and Arabia in 542, raging intermittently for 200 years. About half of the population in the affected regions perished. In that vacuum, Islam rose at the most opportune time. In time, it has become one of the most powerful religions but the literature on the military strategies and political and economic administration of the Prophet and his successors has been woefully lacking in the details in contrast to those of the western leaders. Whatever has been written does not do justice since it does not square with the spread of Islam in so short a time and so large an area.

The rise of Charlemagne coincided with the end of the Dark Ages Cold Period. That made possible Charlemagne's reconsolidation of Western Europe after a lapse of more than 300 years dating from the collapse of the Roman empire. Charlemagne was a brilliant statesman who understood the keys to running successful military campaigns as well as administering an empire. He was one of the rare few who grasped the essentials of the 4Cs of capacity, consumption, communication and currency. His legacies should have been required reading for the current crop of flustered euro leaders.

As regards the agricultural innovations during Charlemagne's reign, two worthy of note are the heavy mould-board plough and the use of the three-field rotating system, that is, in a year one field left fallow for every two planted. The plough was suitable for the northern Europe heavy wet clay and loam soils. By improving drainage, the plough enabled the farmers to reclaim previously unusable water-logged areas for farming. However the plough was expensive and pulling it required at least six oxen. It also required sufficient space for turning. So the farmers had to pool their resources together and cultivated in common.

The three-field rotation which replaced the Roman two-field rotation reduced the fallow period from a half to a third. Combined with increased fertility as a result of legume planting, productivity increased by 50%. The risk of crop failure was reduced as the two planted fields had different planting and harvesting seasons: wheat sown in fall and harvested in summer, and oat or barley interspersed with legumes sown in spring and harvested in fall.

After Charlemagne's death, his empire was split into three among his progeny. During his reign, Charlemagne had sown the seed of feudalism. He had rewarded his nobles with land grants. The nobles in turn redistributed them to knights under their keep so that they could generate the needed economic output to equip them with spare horses, attendants, trainee knights and iron armour. All in all, 500 people were required to support a knight. The knights on horsebacks were the key to Charlemagne's battlefield successes, they were the equivalent of modern day battletanks.

Charlemagne's successors couldn't hold the empire intact as Charlemagne hadn't relied heavily on taxes to finance his empire-building, instead depending on his substantial crown properties to generate his income. The lack of tax income combined with the splitting empire to produce weak rulers.

Knights took advantage of the weak power at the centre to create their own fiefdoms, living in well secured castles, in an arrangement known as feudalism. Power now was diffuse. It shouldn't have been a peaceful time as the absence of a central power meant that everybody was fair game for depredation. But it didn't happen. Instead the papacy launched the crusades against the Muslims in the Holy Land. One of the benefits of the the crusades was to divert the fighting inclinations of the knights to foreign lands. Western Europe also benefited from the medieval warming period from AD 900 to AD 1300 in which Europe produced larger harvests. The building of Europe's great cathedrals bore witness to the prosperity of this period.

Innovations in agriculture continued with the introduction of the nailed horseshoe, the necklace harness and the harnessing arrangement. The horseshoe minimised foot rot and wear and tear of the hooves. The necklace harness no longer restricted the horse's breathing when pulling a load. These two innovations enabled horses to replace oxen as draught animals. The new harnessing arrangement which changed from the side-by-side for ox-teams to one behind the other for horse-teams, amplified the pulling power of the horse-teams. A pair of horses could replace two pairs of ox-teams despite the fact that the horse's strength was less than that of the ox. In addition, the horse could perform the task with greater speed and endurance.

The horse however was one of the catalysts that would see to the end of feudalism. As horses became more prevalent, people became more mobile. So markets and towns expanded as peasants surplus to the manors' needs could find employment in towns. The agricultural surpluses enabled them to become specialised artisans, such as spinners, weavers, butchers, smiths, builders and so on. Improvements in transportation in the 12th century comprising moveable front axles for carts, four-wheel wagons, better brakes and the new harnessing as that used in agriculture sextupled the load that can be pulled by the horses.

The population of the medieval ages was also on the increase; from 1000 to 1340, Western Europe's population almost tripled, from 12 million to 35.5 million. Initially, the increase was absorbed by the expanding agricultural land. The crusades also absorbed part of the population increase. However it was the growth of town and cities that eventually accommodated the burgeoning population. From the 11th to the 13th century, the amount of agricultural land in northwest Europe more than doubled.

The trading of the surplus agriculture and craft production presupposed the availability of money. Prior to the rise of trade, life in a lord's manor did not require money, and not even barter. There simply was no trading within the manor. The serfs paid their dues to their lord in kind, wheat in the case of Western Europe, rice in the case of Japan. The lord used the surplus to trade for salt and iron. Otherwise the manor produced all the things that it needed. However, as trade grew, large silver strikes in Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and Sardinia in the 12th and 13th century provided the raw material for coin minting. But note that the silver content in the coins was never consistent. It wasn't the silver that provided the credence to money but the sovereign strength backing the coin.

Sovereign states were in ascendant with the growth of towns. Townsmen contributed tax monies to the king in return for guarantees of protection against the feudal lords. It was taxation that gave value to money. Some towns became prosperous on the back of trade fairs. To obviate the need to carry large sums of money, traders at the fairs exchanged letters of credit or bills of exchange. This then led to the imposition of usury in the 13th century. It was a logical progression. Interest, that is, the price of money, is needed to ensure that money is used profitably. Zero interest rate is self defeating as it encourages wasteful utilisation of fund.

Despite the prosperity experienced, dark clouds began to gather over the horizon. The crusades ended in the 13th century after the last Christian invaders had been evicted from the Holy Land. Western Europe had also reached the limits of population growth as no more new lands could be cleared for agriculture, and technological achievements in agriculture had reached saturation point. Overpopulation began to outstrip food production. The Little Ice Age, lasting from 1315 to 1720, reduced large areas of formerly fertile land. Again, like the affliction that struck Europe in the 6th century, the bubonic plague came back, this time leaving a third of Europe's population dead. Lacking manpower, the lords, faced with increasing labour costs rented out their lands to the serfs. The serfs, now able to sell their agricultural produce, had the financial incentive to produce more.

The knights were increasingly marginalised as more of the newly created wealth went to the merchants. Those that held out were eventually forced to give up their old ways with the coming of two new military technologies - the long bow and gunpowder - in the 15th century. The French sovereign, for example, towards the end of the 100-year war with the English king forced the submission of the occupants of 60 castles in northern France in four days with the help of cannons.

Meanwhile, in Japan, secure with the Sea of Japan as a natural barrier, feudalism continued until the second half of the 19th century. The growth of towns enticed the peasants from the lord's estate (han) and the growth of money economy shifted wealth to the merchants. Taxes paid to the imperial government enabled the restoration of the Meiji emperor and the downfall of the shogun. The coup de grâce was delivered in 1877 when the conscript army defeated a rebellion by the samurai, the Japanese equivalent of the medieval knights. Although Japan has modernised greatly since then, Japanese mindsets and social relations still bear traces of feudalism.

There are many useful lessons that we can glean from the feudalistic way of life. Authoritarian rulers who wish to maintain continuous rule must keep restricting the mobility of their subjects which also means that money supply must be limited. North Korea has managed this well while China which has transgressed this rule is likely to suffer from an extreme internal implosion. Once, the economy is liberalised, politics is at the beck and call of the economy. As it is, every successive wave of China's new leaders appears to be weaker and weaker compared to their predecessors. Of course, North Korea has been suffering from economic deprivation but their leaders are in a stronger position relative to those of China.

Second, innovations that affect the 4Cs, however innocuous they may appear initially, are destined to shake at the core of politics and economics. In the medieval ages, it took ages but in our current Kondratieff Wave, 60 years is the lifespan of one wave.

Third, in an era before the Age of Exploration, climate played a crucial role in determining the economic fortune of a nation-state, the more so because climate took hundreds of years before it reversed course. In fact climate qualifies to be a sub-component of the 4Cs capacity leg. Only in our post-Industrial Revolution age, was climate a non-issue because all the while we've been benefiting from the warming climate except from the 1980s onwards when Lady Thatcher began foisting the global warming scare on us.

The coming of age of nanotechnology and biotechnology in the Fifth Kondratieff Wave will see to the breakup of the US and most nation-states. As a major superpower collapses, tribes will start forming. Each tribe can attain self-sufficiency with the help of the two emergent technologies. Do we still need money when nation-states have ceased to exist? Probably not except for small sums for trifling exchange. Money without sovereign backing will not have the cachet that will stand it in good stead regardless of how much silver or gold backing it.

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