Economic Growth and Social Development

As regional states increasingly provided effective political organization, dramatic economic growth and social development took place in Medieval Europe. Much of Europe’s economic revival resembled that which had occurred earlier in China, India and the Islamic World and had strengthened those societies. Europe was transformed largely as a result of an agricultural revolution, urbanization, and the growth of manufacturing and trade. The result was a powerful society that once again involved itself outside its own borders.

The Agricultural Revolution: As local lords put an end to invasions, the population of Europe grew, and population pressure resulted. Serfs and monks cleared forests, drained swamps, and increased the amount of arable land. These moves were opposed at first by the lords, as it reduced the amount of land for hunting; but they soon realized that increased agricultural production meant higher taxes which increased their own wealth. They soon began to encourage the expansion of cultivation.

Improved techniques of cultivation led to higher productivity. Serfs and Monks experimented with new crops such as beans and also practiced crop rotation through the three-field system. Bean production not only increased protein in the average European’s diet but also fixed nitrogen in the soil. Domestic animals served as draft animals and sources of food but also enriched the soil with their droppings. Ponds were dug which held fish which also supplemented the average diet. Europeans also began to build watermills to grind grain into flour which was much more efficient than animal drawn milling machines.

The agricultural revolution of the middle ages was largely the result of the use of horses to pull heavy-wheeled plows. The horse was capable of exerting the same pull as an ox, but worked at twice the speed and could thereby till twice the amount of soil as an ox-drawn plow in a day. During earlier times, horses had proven unsuitable for farm work as they were harnessed in a fashion similar to oxen. The resulting pull placed weight on the horse’s jugular vein and windpipe which caused it to rear backward violently. As a result, only small weights could dependably be pulled by them, in fact the Theodosian Code of 438 prohibited harnessing a horse to a load greater than 500 kilograms.

The horse became a more suitable draft animal with the introduction of a padded harness which fit across the horse’s shoulders rather than its neck. This allowed the horse to pull more efficiently. Additionally, increased iron production led to the introduction of horse shoes which reduced the risk of serious injury. Horseshoes prevented softened and split hooves on horses which pulled the plows.

By far the most important innovation was the heavy-wheeled plow near the end of the tenth century. Its two wheels helped the plowman move easily from field to field and also to regulate the depth of furrows. Since it typically cut a deep furrow, more than one draft animal was often needed; hence teams of two, four or six horses or oxen might be used. Large teams required substantial space to turn around, and as a result, fields become more elongated and longitudinal, rather than the square pattern practiced earlier. Additionally, since few people could afford the cost of a team and plow, cooperative farming developed. The use of the plow and draft horses doubled the return on seed planted; from a ratio of 1 to 2.5 to an improved 1 to 4. This effectively doubled the crop which the farmer had available for disposal after reserving seed for the next harvest.

Increased agricultural production led to the introduction of meat, dairy products, fish, vegetables, beans and peas to the average European diet (except for noblemen who ate only meat.) Previously the average serf’s diet had consisted of grain products such as bread and gruel, (boiled grains with a little salt, similar to oatmeal.) Even so, grain products remained the staple food of Europe. In Spain and some other areas, products introduced by the Muslims such as durum wheat, rice, spinach, artichokes, eggplant, lemons, limes, oranges and melons became popular.

Increased agricultural production led to rapid population growth. Population grew thirty per cent between 1100 and 1200; and by thirty six percent between 1200 and 1300. The population of Europe was estimated at twenty nine million during the Carolingian Era, but expanded to more than fifty eight million by 1300. This rapid growth led to the development of towns and trade. Later, in the fourteenth century, the introduction of the Black Death (bubonic plague) severely reduced the population of Europe.

The Revival of Towns and Trade: With invasions from the Vikings and Magyars, cites in Europe had largely withered, but had not completely disappeared. Remnants of cities remained near ruins of old Roman cities; hence Rome and London managed to survive. By the eleventh century, many medieval lords had encouraged land tenants to become craftsmen. These craftsmen often produced a surplus which could be offered for sale. New cities were formed by colonies of merchants near a castle or other appropriate stronghold whence they could be protected from invaders. Most developed near trade routes. Interestingly, peasants in Gaul had actually sold farm produce and other surplus items to Viking raiders who were over-wintering in the area. Since they generated money income for the lord, their importance grew.

The typical city was not large; population was seldom greater than 5,000 people. Some few cities, such as London and Milan, had populations in excess of 100,000. Since their wealth was typically measured in money rather than land, medieval cities exercised influence out of proportion to their populations.

Although the origins of the merchant class are somewhat in dispute, it is clear that merchants enjoyed a degree of freedom not shared with serfs. The very nature of the trade required one to move from place to place, which could not be done if one were tied to the land. By the end of the eleventh century, merchants often obtained charters from landlords which allowed them certain privileges, normally in exchange for payment in cash.

A typical charter contained three important provisions:

Anyone living in the city was a free man. City inhabitants who were not born free could claim freedom after they had lived in the city for a year and a day, leading to the phrase used by German historians: Stadtluft macht frei. (The air of the city makes a man free.)

Tenants held their land from the landlord by Burbage tenure—they paid money rents rather than performing manual labor on the landlord’s estates.

Tenants were protected from seizure of their property by the landlord. Since no one would risk an investment subject to seizure, the landlord was thereby encouraged to provide some guarantee to his tenants.

The growth of towns and cities led to an increasing specialization of labor (the craftsmen noted above) and the expansion of manufacturing and trade. Manufacturing consisted primarily of the production of woolen textiles. The cities of Italy and Flanders became important centers for spinning, weaving and dying woolen cloth. The trade in wool products in turn spurred economic development. By the twelfth century, the counts of Champagne, France sponsored year round fairs where merchants from various parts of Europe traded goods.

The revival of towns and cities was most pronounced in Italy, which was situated well to participate in Mediterranean trade. Italian city states such as Venice, Genoa, and Naples traded salt, olive oil, wine, wool and leather products, and glass for gems, spices, silk, and other goods from India, Asia and China. They managed this by trading with Byzantine and Muslim traders in the eastern Mediterranean. As their trade networks expanded, Italian merchants set up colonies and commercial centers in areas in which they traded. Constantinople, Alexandria, Cairo, Damascus, etc. all had foreign quarters where European merchants maintained headquarters. In these areas, they traded with Muslim merchants who themselves traded in the Indian Ocean basin. Later the Europeans themselves ventured into central Asia, India and China to seek economic opportunities.

In northern Europe on the Baltic and North Seas, a well developed trade network developed known as the Hanseatic League, commonly known as the Hansa. It consisted of all the major trading cities from Novgorod, Russia to London, and covered all commercial centers in Poland, northern Germany and Scandinavia. The league controlled the trade in fish, furs, timber and pitch which were traded in the Mediterranean basin.

With the increase of trade, as in China and the Islamic World, the development of credit and banking as well as new forms of business organizations came about. Bankers issued letters of credit to merchants traveling to distant markets so they need not carry large amounts of precious bullion or cash. They could exchange the letters of credit for merchandise of cash in local currency. This made possible trade which otherwise could not have been conducted. Merchants also began forming partnerships as a means of spreading the risk of commercial investment, and also created limited liability for partners, the forerunner of modern corporations. This development encouraged commercial partnerships and further stimulated the European economy.

Social Change: Medieval commentators typically divided society into three classes:

"Those who Pray" – The Clergy

"Those who Fight" – The Nobility

"Those who Work" – The Serfs and Peasants

These distinctions indicate a society based on social inequality. The Nobility enjoyed certain rights and honors denied to those who worked. Members of the clergy also enjoyed special privileges, including the right to be tried in Church courts rather than secular courts if they were accused of a crime. Serfs were little more than slaves who could not leave the land without the consent of the lord, and who were required to pay a certain amount of their produce to the lord as rent, which provided food for his table.

The nobility were held to high standards of ethical and courtly behavior, a practice known as Chivalry. It had originated with Churchmen who promoted the code to prevent fighting among knights. It became so important that, by the twelfth century, a young man who became a knight typically placed his sword upon the altar of a church, and pledged his service to God. Those who observed the code of Chivalry were to devote themselves to noble causes and to promotion of Christian values. The Code was also embraced by women of the nobility, who promoted refined behavior and tender relationships between the sexes rather than Christian values. The influence of women in this "courtly behavior" is often reflected in the songs of troubadours, traveling poets, minstrels, and entertainers who often recited poems and songs of a romantic nature. Many of their songs spoke of a passionate love which typically could not be fulfilled. The male lover often was forced to "love from afar," never having the opportunity to meet or profess his love directly to his beloved. This was known as Courtly Love. Troubadours were welcomed and encouraged at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II of England who used her influence to promote the cultivation of good manners, refinement, and romantic love. Although society did not change quickly, over time the promotion of chivalric values transformed the nobility into a refined and gentle class.

Changes in Medieval Cities: With invasions from the Vikings and Magyars, cites in Europe had largely withered, but had not completely disappeared. Remnants of cities remained near ruins of old Roman cities; hence Rome, and London managed to survive. By the eleventh century, many medieval lords had encouraged land tenants to become craftsmen. These craftsmen often produced a surplus which could be offered for sale. New cities were formed by colonies of merchants near a castle or other appropriate stronghold whence they could be protected from invaders. Most developed near trade routes. Interestingly, peasants in Gaul had actually sold farm produce and other surplus items to Viking raiders who were over-wintering in the area. Since they generated money income for the lord, their importance grew.

The typical city was not large; population was seldom greater than 5,000 people. Some few cities, such as London and Milan, had populations in excess of 100,000. Since their wealth was typically measured in money rather than land, medieval cities exercised influence out of proportion to their populations.

. Although the origins of the merchant class are somewhat in dispute, it is clear that merchants enjoyed a degree of freedom not shared with serfs. The very nature of the trade required one to move from place to place, which could not be done if one were tied to the land. By the end of the eleventh century, merchants often obtained charters from landlords which allowed them certain privileges, normally in exchange for payment in cash.

Even though cities and towns became important centers of commerce and trade, the economy of the surrounding area remained agricultural. Many people who lived in Medieval cities worked in fields or pastured farm animals on the land in the immediate vicinity.

Merchants and workers in Medieval cities often organized guilds which regulated the production and sale of goods within their jurisdiction. Guilds established standards of quality for manufactured goods, in some instances even requiring members to adopt certain techniques of production. They also regulated prices at which goods might be sold to balance supply and demand, and regulated the entry of new members into the guild. The guilds provided a social organization as well as a working force. Guild members often socialized together in large halls built for them. Many times these became boisterous drinking parties. They came to the aid of members in distress, provided for the families of those who became ill, and arranged funeral services and survivor benefits for those who died.

While women in the countryside performed their traditional tasks of weaving, care of animals, and housekeeping, women in cities often worked alongside men as butchers, brewers, fishmongers, candle makers, and bakers, etc. They dominated industries such as textiles, and the making of wigs and fur garments. Women could be admitted to most guilds, in fact many were exclusively female.