A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By JARRETT A. LOBELL
Friday, April 09, 2021
Which came first, the taxes or the kings? It seems logical that in order for there to be taxes, there has to be some sort of central authority to administer them. But what if it were actually the taxes that were the kingmakers? That, according to zooarchaeologist Pam Crabtree of New York University, is what happened in the Anglo-Saxon period (A.D. 410–1066) in England. The end of Roman Britain and the demise of its towns and cities in the early fifth century A.D. left an administrative vacuum across the island. In the short term, people returned to a more self-supporting Iron Age lifestyle with no central government and focused on consuming the food and goods they produced locally. As the centuries went on, Crabtree explains, farmers began to produce agricultural surpluses, setting England’s inhabitants on a different course—one that included taxes. Soon, local chieftains began to claim these surpluses for their own enrichment. This eventually allowed them to declare themselves royalty. “Taxation is an important way in which this agricultural surplus can be mobilized,” says Crabtree. “The taxes and the kings grew in tandem and this led to the emergence of new kingdoms.”
One tax Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon kings relied on was called feorm in Old English. This was a tax paid to the king and his entourage as he traveled across his kingdom to settlements in royal territories known as vills. The tax consisted of a healthful variety of foodstuffs and animal products, including honey, pigs, and wool. In the Middle Anglo-Saxon period (ca. A.D. 650–850), kings also increasingly came to rely on tolls paid in coin—evidence of a return to a type of monetized economy that hadn’t existed since the Roman period—on goods coming through trading settlements known as wics or emporia. One such spot was Lundenwic, Anglo-Saxon London. These emporia eventually led to the rebirth of towns and cities. The Anglo-Saxons were so successful at collecting taxes that it may have spelled their downfall. “One of the main reasons why England was so attractive to the Vikings, and eventually to the Normans,” says Crabtree, “is because the country had become a very wealthy place.”
By ERIC A. POWELL
Friday, April 09, 2021
Before the Spanish arrived in 1519, the highest officials of the Aztec Empire could count on the provinces they ruled for an annual yield of 40 jaguar skins, 70 gold bars, 2,200 pots of bee honey, 4,000 loaves of salt, 16,000 rubber balls, and two live eagles, among many, many other items. One province alone was responsible for supplying 128,000 textiles. This expansive inventory is enumerated in a lavishly illustrated codex known as the Matrícula de Tributos, a pictographic narrative that details which goods each province owed to the empire. Scholars have traditionally regarded these as a kind of tribute paid by conquered states rather than as taxes, but Arizona State University archaeologist Michael E. Smith disagrees. “Tribute is booty,” he says. “That’s what a pirate takes. What the Aztecs were doing was definitely taxation.” Smith has identified a bewilderingly complex system of at least 11 different types of taxes levied at the Aztec imperial and city-state level.
Taxes paid at the city-state level were probably much more significant to the average Aztec citizen than those recorded in the colorful record seen in the codex. “The empire worked almost like a mafia protection racket between the various city-states,” says Smith, “and the average person would have seen almost no return on imperial taxes.” On the other hand, local land and market taxes, which were often paid in cacao beans or cotton, funded canals and dams, on which all Aztecs relied. The local system was so efficient and entrenched that in 1532, a Spanish official wrote of the Aztecs that “the activity of paying taxes is so well understood, that I expect they will be paying taxes in gold and silver in no time.”
By DANIEL WEISS
Friday, April 09, 2021
During the Tokugawa era (A.D. 1603–1868), much of Japan was ruled by the country’s military governor, called the shogun, or his retainers. The rest was divided up into several hundred semiautonomous domains overseen by powerful samurai known as daimyo. In these domains, the daimyo were free to set tax rates on local peasants as they saw fit. This included the most important tax, nengu, which claimed a portion of each domain’s rice yield. According to records from 1868, nengu rates varied wildly across these domains, from 15 percent to as much as 70 percent. Curious to see whether peasants had any impact on the rates they were subjected to, a team of researchers including Abbey Steele, a University of Amsterdam political scientist, analyzed the relationship between nengu rates and peasant tax rebellions recorded throughout the Tokugawa era. These revolts included hanran, large rebellions typically including thousands of peasants, and chosen, mass desertions in which peasants abandoned their fields and threatened not to return until their demands were met.
Steele and her colleagues found that, after controlling for various factors, the domains that experienced the most intense types of peasant tax resistance had, on average, nengu rates 5 percent lower than domains that did not. “Our work shows that peasants appear to have been able to influence the political development where they lived,” says Steele. While the team found that insurrections and desertions were associated with lower nengu rates, they can’t be certain that peasant resistance by itself caused the tax rate to drop. It is also unclear how recorded nengu rates were implemented in practice. Nevertheless, the researchers’ findings illustrate that even people who may seem to be at the mercy of all-powerful rulers will go to great lengths in search of a tax break.