Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Aerial of a small stronghold in Tykocin, Poland.

The early Slavic self-sufficient agricultural economy could not supply much of a surplus, which determined a relatively flat power structure. Apart from economic constraints, there were also geopolitical reasons for political retardation of the Slavs. The most important was the extensive control exerted by the Avars—Asiatic nomadic warriors who settled in the Carpathian Basin in 568 and militarily dominated all of central Europe. It was only after their defeat by Charlemagne in 799 that dynamic changes began to be seen among the Slavs. The collapse of the Avar “empire” and contacts with the mighty Frankish state, which expanded its tributary zone toward the east, initiated a lively process of social hierarchization among the Slavs.

The Polish lowlands had no direct contact with their mighty eastern Frankish neighbor until the mid-tenth century. For this reason, the territory north of the Carpathians did not attract the attention of early medieval chroniclers. The oldest source, written c. 848 by the so-called Bavarian Geographer at the court of the emperor Louis the German, offers very vague information, which reflects little knowledge of the area lying far from the empire’s direct tributary zone. Notes on some mighty tribes suggest, however, that centralization of political power took place there as well. It can be assumed that experience of the long-lasting cooperation with the Avars, the establishment of long-distance commercial relations, and development of agrotechnology led, around the mid-ninth century, to the appearance of local chiefdom organizations based on redistribution economy. There are various archaeological indications of such a process.

Great mounds raised in the southeastern Polish highland in the eighth and ninth centuries (in Sandomierz, Kraków, and Przemys´l) are good indications of such a process. These monumental earthworks may be viewed as evidence of attempts to ease the tensions provoked by growing stratification. None of these mounds contains a grave, which may imply that their main function was to materially manifest the ability to mobilize massive labor input. The aim was to “hide” the proliferating social differentiation behind the traditional symbolism of a burial mound. Such actions can be seen as a form of “propaganda” aimed at social integration despite the progressive stratification. Big mounds also display competition for power by men of status who used them to demonstrate their capacity to mobilize large groups to act collectively. Thus, they indicate periods when new elites symbolically marked their domination.

Arabic written sources address the development of trade relations with the Muslim world, as does the inflow of oriental coins that appeared north of the Carpathian Mountains in three waves during the course of the ninth and tenth centuries. Slaves were probably the main export in that period, although Arabian sources also mention honey, wax, furs, and amber. These commodities left northern central Europe either with Scandinavian merchants via the numerous Baltic trading emporia (e.g., Wolin and Truso), and later along the eastern European river system, or by the transcontinental route (from Spain to Verdun, Mainz, Regensburg, Prague, Kraków, Kiev, the middle Volga, and Khazaria at the Caspian Sea coast) served directly by Arab and Jewish merchants.

Apart from the erection of big mounds and the hiding of silver deposits, archaeological evidence of a new process of power centralization includes the building of earth-and-wood strongholds that began around the mid-ninth century. The strongholds indicate a reorganization of the social space because settlements were concentrated around fortified centers, breaking the older network of agricultural settlement into centralized “cells.” As physical and symbolic centers, they fulfilled an important role as nodes of social geography. The strongholds served military functions and were evidence of the wealth of the ruling elite and its capability to execute extensive labor expense. Their construction indicated the economic and demographic potential of the area and might have fulfilled the socially important function of uniting a population around a common goal.

The economic base of a ruling power was supported by attempts to institutionalize ideology, which resulted in the organization of cult centers. Control over these centers was important in sustaining power, because it strengthened political domination by the sacral legitimization of authority. In this respect, large regional cult centers located on “holy” mountains (e.g., Ślęża in Silesia and Łysa Góra in Little Poland) should be viewed, first of all, in terms of political struggle.


From such a perspective one must view not only the military but also the political and psychological importance of long wars that mobilized and unified whole societies around victorious chiefs. Wars also had economic importance because booty supported the system of redistribution and gift exchange. War mobilization (against an enemy or for booty) was the best way to maintain the social order. Most important, however, war gains (horses, cattle, weapons, slaves, precious metals, and so on) made it possible to maintain a retinue. Military leadership, even if temporary, offered very efficient, although short-term, possibilities of strengthening one’s status. It also helped limit access to paramount positions to one privileged family.

Apart from the strategy of reinforcing political power by military means, it was also necessary to increase the base of economic power by supplementing war income through trade and systematic coercive exploitation of one’s own territory. Thus, the hundreds of strongholds built by the western Slavs from the late ninth century onward did not simply serve military purposes but also were safe places for staple produce. Those staples came from agricultural surpluses collected from the inhabitants of the ruler’s own territory. Surpluses were made possible through the agricultural progress achieved in optimal climatic conditions. The growing role of agriculture caused the land to develop into a “commodity” and to become the most important element in determining the power structure. A class of people at first controlling and then possessing the land soon became the main supporters of the state.

Ideological power was strengthened by control over the ceremonial centers and the rituals celebrated there as well as by creating an ethnogenetic tradition. Such a largely legendary tradition was promoted by the privileged elites who, referring to the Indo-European stereotypes, equaled their genealogy with the origins of their peoples in order to legitimize their dominant position. This was aimed at increasing their power over the people and not over territory. In the beginning, those people could have been of many ethnic groups. For this reason, the monarch needed ideological reinforcement that would give his people a feeling of unity. Thus, “ethnic” identity resulted mainly from relationships with a specific leader and his family and not from the fact of living within the same territory or from some commonly experienced past.


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