Rural economy in late Μedieval and Ottoman Boeotia

1. Rural economy in late Medieval/Frankish Boeotia

After the conquest of Boeotia by the Western knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, central Greece saw the imposition of a feudal nobility onto a pre-existing settlement system, and a process of relative demographic and economic growth that lasted until the middle 14th century. Plentiful archaeological evidence in the countryside of Boeotia suggests an infill of the rural areas throughout the Frankish era. Petty feudal lords, who were allotted particular regions in Boeotia after 1204, built towers within an already existing village community or in association with it. The towers do not seem to have had a particular role in the defence of the feudal estate; rather, they were located so as to firmly control and exploit the allotted land around them, providing storage for feudal dues, as well as markers and symbols of the feudal status of their proprietors. Such a case has been observed at the site of Panaya (Fig. 1) in the Valley of the Muses, where the 13th-century tower on the top of a rocky outcrop (Fig. 2) acted as a nucleus for the new Frankish village that was intended to attract the inhabitants of the pre-existing Byzantine settlement of Askra/Zaratoba, a kilometre away. Similarly, the pre-existing Byzantine community at the site of Agios Thomas, 1.5 kilometres east of the ancient city of Tanagra (Fig. 3), was overtaken by an incoming minor feudal lord, while the church itself was converted into a feudal tower with chapel.

Obviously, agricultural land continued to constitute the economic base and the uttermost income source of the rural regions that kept feeding the urban populations during the Frankish period. Boeotia had been an agriculturally rich region since Antiquity, while its dense network of rural settlements throughout the Middle Byzantine and Frankish periods confirm the policy of agricultural intensification. Intensive archaeological survey in the region of Tanagra (Fig. 3) has identified a large number of rural settlements (interpreted as nucleated hamlets and villages) at close intervals to each other that reached their heyday between the 12th and middle 14th centuries (Fig. 4). It seems, therefore, that intensification of agricultural production and cultivation of every portion of available arable land throughout this period, as also evidenced in the 11th-century fiscal register of Eastern Boeotia, known as the Cadaster of Thebes, constituted the main economic policy of the incoming feudal lords of the 13th century. The intensified production of grains and silk resulted in the monetisation and trade advancement of Boeotia, making the region “a land of prosperity and felicity” to the eyes of Western observers.

According to Angeliki Laiou and Cécile Morrisson, agrarian economy during the 13th-15th centuries was quite productive. Monasteries and landlords (extracting taxes from the peasant majorities) grew wealthier from agriculture. In their turn, peasants seem to have been able to sell their produce to local and Western merchants, and in some cases, to supplement their income, not only from cash crops but also from artisanal production. Small rural fairs dotted the Late Byzantine and Frankish countryside until the 1340s, where peasants marketed their production. Thebes has been suggested as a possible production centre of decorated glazed pottery. In addition, archaeological evidence (in the form of ceramic wasters with glassy residues) from rural areas of Boeotia (e.g. the village-site of Panaya) indicates that rural communities may have been engaged in the production of glazed pottery, which must have been promoted to neighbouring rural communities and the town of Thebes through local fairs in exchange for other goods. Meanwhile, imported glazed decorated wares from Corinth, Thessaloniki, Lemnos, and Italy identified at village-sites, suggest trade contacts between rural Boeotia and other parts of the central and eastern Mediterranean.

2. 14th-c. turmoil and the first centuries under Ottoman rule

The devastating effects of the Black Death in combination with growing warfare between Byzantine, Frankish and Ottoman forces, in addition to pirate-attacks along the coasts of Eastern Boeotia, led to village-desertion and to a dramatic loss of population during the middle-late 14th century. The Frankish Dukes of Athens and Thebes invited populations of semi-nomadic Albanian clans in order to resettle and re-cultivate a deserted and devastated land (a policy that the Ottomans also put in force during the second half of the 15th century). Greek-speaking villages (before the Albanian colonisation) were transferred to Western Boeotia and were clustered around Mount Helicon, closer to naturally defended sites (more secure against enemy raids), places that happened to have a thin and unfertile soil. Albanians settled mainly on fertile plains and rolling upland valleys in Eastern Boeotia, while their new villages were usually named after the tribal chieftain who founded them, such as Gjin Spata, Gjon Bura, Nikola Kukli in Attica, and Gjin Vendre or Pavlo Muzak in Boeotia.

Analysis of related tax registers (tahrir defterleri) in the Ottoman archives by Machiel Kiel has revealed that the main urban foci of Thebes (the urban centre of Eastern Boeotia) and Livadeia (the urban centre of Western Boeotia) were predominantly Greek; rural Greek populations founded a few extended villages in more secure upland sites. More specifically, 70% of the rural settlements in the kaza of Thebes (excluding the town of Thebes) and 36% in the kaza of Livadeia (excluding the town of Livadeia) were Albanian (Kiel 1997, 323). Consequently, the large scale of Greek-speaking villages and their particular location left very little land or good land for the cultivation of wheat; in contrast, Albanian katuns or semi-permanent settlements were in possession of very fertile lands that had lain fallow for 50-100 years.

2.1. Rural prosperity of the 16th c.

As is evidenced in the tahrir defterleri, Greek villages were mainly engaged in olive oil, wine, textile and honey production; the Albanians produced mainly cereal grains such as wheat and barley, while stock-breeding (mainly sheep and goats) was an equally profitable business. It is noteworthy that the olive oil and textile producing Greek towns of Athens (in Attica) and Thebes (in Boeotia) developed soap and dye industries. The Ottoman tax records for both Greek and Albanian rural settlements in Boeotia show a remarkable population increase and agricultural recovery throughout the 16th century. On the basis of these records, it is now possible to reconstruct village life and economy in the Ottoman provinces. We know that two of the villages systematically studied by the Leiden Ancient Cities of Boeotia Project, such as Guinosati and Bardzi in the region of Tanagra (Fig. 3) and other Albanian settlements in the province of Boeotia (Fig. 1), recorded in detail for the years 1506, 1540 and 1570 grew enough grain (surely beyond subsistence level) to be able to sell (per household) approximately 2.000-3.000 kg of wheat and barley in the market annually. At Guinosati in 1506, the average equivalent of grain per year was 730 kg per person; the model of consumption for grain per individual was 300 kg per annum (200 kg was needed for mere consumption per capita, 60 kg for seed and 40 kg for tithes = total of 300 kg per head). In 1540, Guinosati was producing grains equivalent to 916 kg per individual, while at the Greek-speaking village of Panaya the amount of wheat and barley per person was solely 403 kg in 1506 and 301 kg in 1540, giving greater emphasis to wine (grape-must) and silk production. Population figures for Guinosati from 1466-1570 indicate a population rise and recovery throughout the 16th century, while this is the case with other Boeotian villages of the period, most of them having reached their peak in 1570. Surface finds of local and imported ceramic wares from deserted villages of the Ottoman period provide evidence for occupation continuity, rural prosperity and rise from the middle 15th to the early 16th centuries and then from the middle 16th to the early 17th centuries.

3. Economic turnover and decline in rural Boeotia

The 17th-century decline in rural Boeotia and the Ottoman provinces in general, has been the result of a number of factors, the main one being the political and economic crisis that started affecting the Ottoman Empire from the 1580s onwards. This general economic crisis subsequently led to fiscal exploitation of the peasantry; pirate activities along the coasts of Eastern Boeotia with the decline of the Ottoman naval power interrupted rural life once more; the so-called “Little Ice Age” with temperatures falling some degrees caused shortening of the growing season, too. The result was that villages were broken up into a number of small çiftlik or serf-estates with the rise of tax-farming during the 17th century. With the so-called çiftlik-system, which seems to have made its appearance since the early 17th century, the Ottoman State leased out abandoned plots of land to individual holders, substituting the state itself as lords/landowners/tax-farmers of small farms or çiftlik estates, initially very small in size. This pattern fits perfectly well with Boeotian villages such as Guinosati, Bardzi, Harmena and others, according to archaeological evidence dated to the 17th century. The establishment of the çiftlik-estates and the çiftlik-system in Greece are chronologically placed in the Middle Ottoman period, around the early or middle 17th century. The pure aim of these farming estates was commercial agricultural produce, mainly of cash crops intended to feed the growing demand for raw materials by rising industrial and capitalist states in Western Europe.

Although the sites of Bardzi within the walls of the ancient city of Tanagra, and Harmena in central Boeotia preserve ruins of the humble longhouse-type of the period, surface ceramic finds suggest continuous growth, reaching its peak during the middle 17th to early 18th centuries. In several çiftlik-sites of Boeotia, both archaeological evidence and a Late Ottoman tax record of the 18th century confirm continuity of habitation and suggest a rather populous and flourishing community.

This economic turnover in rural Boeotia can be compared to the Late Renaissance period in Italy, where one recognises the breakup of the traditional community farming village into two contrasted settlement types: larger farm estates of a wealthier “yeoman class” and new villages of a “labourer class”. The Albanian colonisation of deserted lands in central Greece between the late 14th and middle 15th centuries resulted in a period of recovery on the basis of the communal village farming model. The 16th-17th century Albanian çiftlik estates of Boeotia must have been doing quite well (according to the Ottoman tahrir defterleri), exporting their grain production to large towns such as Athens and Thebes, or even to Western Europe.

This breakup of Ottoman “community farming villages” in Greece during the 17th century, however, must have resulted in the creation of two distinct types of farm estates (çiftlik estates), similar to the Italian case. According to the material culture from deserted villages in Boeotia, it seems that the village of Guinosati, for instance, was inhabited by a rather marginal “labourer-community” and eventually became deserted due to wider economic forces and local factors. The village of Harmena, on the other hand, appearing in the tax register of 1642 with 300 inhabitants, grew further and became much more prosperous than Guinosati; a Late Ottoman tax record from the 18th century lists Harmena as a substantial çiftlik with several hundred inhabitants and even some “visiting workers”. Thus, Harmena is probably a good example of a “yeoman class” farming estate.