Maritime and River Traders, Landing Places, and Emporia Ports in the Merovingian Period in and Around the Low Countries

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The origin, rise, and dynamics of coastal trade and landing places in the North Sea area between the sixth and eighth centuries must be understood in relation to how coastal regions and seascapes acted as arenas of contact, dialogue, and transition. Although the free coastal societies of the early medieval period were involved in regional to interregional or long-distance trade networks, their economic agency must be understood from a bottom-up perspective. That is, their reproduction strategies must be studied in their own right, independent from any teleological construction about the development of trade, markets, or towns for that matter. This means that the early medieval coastal networks of exchange were much more complex and diverse than advocated by the simple emporium network model, which connected the major archaeological sites along the North Sea coast. Instead, coastal and riverine dwellers often possessed some form of free status and large degrees of autonomy, in part due to the specific environmental conditions of the landscapes in which they dwelled. The wide estuarine region of the Low Countries, between coastal Flanders in the south and Friesland in the north, a region with vast hinterlands and a central position in northwestern Europe, makes these developments particularly clear. This chapter thus pushes back against longstanding assumptions in scholarly research, which include overemphasis of the influence of large landowners over peasant economies, and on the prioritization of easily retrievable luxuries over less visible indicators of bulk trade (such as wood, wool, and more), gift exchange, and market trade. The approach used here demonstrates that well-known emporia or larger ports of trade were embedded in the economic activities and networks of their respective hinterlands. Early medieval coastal societies and their dynamics are thus better understood from the perspective of integrated governance and economy (“new institutional economics”) in a regional setting.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of the Merovingian World
EditorsBonnie Effros, Isabel Moreira
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages32
ISBN (Electronic)9780190234188
ISBN (Print)9780190234188
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020

Publication series

NameThe Oxford Handbooks
PublisherOxford University Press


  • Merovingian
  • wool
  • terp sites
  • productive sites
  • peasant economy
  • gift exchange
  • emporia
  • central places
  • trade
  • production


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