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Migration and Development in First Millennium Europe

Peter John Heather, University of Oxford, Fellow 2005/06

During the period of my fellowship I have essentially solved the two remaining major intellectual problems in my book project. The first was how, exactly, to combine the themes of migration and state formation. The breakthrough here came when, finally, I realized that state formation is a code name for development in general. Major political change never occurs in isolation from equally profound social, economic, and cultural transformation. And in the modern world, patterns of migration are always strongly dictated by patterns of unequal development; migrants from less developed zones are always sucked into the more developed unless prevented from doing so by state structures at their points of destination. When I fed this insight back into my research on the first millennium, the linkages between migration and development fell quickly into place.

The second problem was more specific. I have drawn much inspiration from comparative migration studies, since the kind of migration unit often reported in first millennium sources (large numbers of men, women, and children in a compact, organized mass) has never been observed in modern contexts. Again, I think, the explanation is linked to development. Most of the migrants derived from populations whose level of agricultural expertise did not root them solidly to one particular locality. Unable to maintain fertility over the long-term, they were prone to periodic movement. These kinds of agricultural regimes also produced only a small surplus, so that warrior specialists could also be supported in small numbers (200 seem to have been standard for the retinue of a Germanic king of the late Roman period). But since much first-millennium migration involved moving into the territory of an imperial state, migrating groups required much larger military forces. Germanic society did have other sources of military manpower, but these men were also landholders, many of them with wives and children, and recruiting them naturally involved their families as well. In a quite different way, therefore, migration and development emerge as intimately interlocked on the level of the migration unit as well as of the broader patterns of movement.

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