Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Rural Riches

The bottom-up development of post-Roman northwestern Europe

2017 - 2023
Frans Theuws
ERC Advanced Grant ERC Advanced Grant

The question as to how Europe emerged from the collapse of the Roman state in the West has been the subject of academic debate for over a century. The role of the rural population in this development, however, has insufficiently been considered. Judging by the mass of objects found in their graves they must have been consumers with access to local, regional and global exchange networks. In a quantitative sense their demand could have outweighed that of the aristocracy.   It is our hypothesis that it is rather the rural population than the elite who trigger economic growth.

It is our goal to analyze the wealth in the countryside, the exchange systems rural dwellers were part of, the production of goods and the changing ritual repertoires that seem to trigger the rise in demand of the rural population. Moreover, we will analyze the role of the elite in the economy, ‘the lay of land’ in northern Gaul, and the mobility of members of local groups.

The Rural Riches team at the 14C laboratory of Oxford University. Left to right: Mette Langbroek, David Schaper, Line van Wersch, Femke Lippok, Martine van Haperen, Roeland Emaus, Jip Barreveld, Frans Theuws.


Our methods will be: collecting data on a large number of sites, material culture and burial rites in northern Gaul, analyzing distribution patterns using GIS, carry out a contextual analysis of finds, carry out scientific research of various categories of objects to understand production and distribution, study ancient DNA and Isotopes to understand the dynamics of local groups.

We aim at formulating new models on structural and dynamic aspects of the early medieval economy, linking ritual, production and exchange and considering the nature of demand, the nature of material culture the relations between production and the imaginary world and the role of subaltern groups.

With this project we not only hope to contribute to understanding the economic development of early Europe but also to contribute to an awareness on the role of subaltern groups and the role of non-economic factors such as ritual behavior in economic development today.

The bulk of the material we use for analyses originates from the thousands of graves with their rich ensembles of grave goods excavated since the 19th century in northern Gaul (the north of France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the German Rhineland and the Netherlands).

For the first time a database will be created with a comprehensive overview of sites and material culture of the Merovingian world in northern Gaul. This database will be an important instrument for our own as well as future research. It will be made available towards the end of the project.

See for more information the project website.

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