Europe In The Middle Ages Was Primarily an Agrarian Society
Before the 14th century, Europe was a rural and agricultural society. People lived within a “manorial” economic system that defined their social role and status.
During the middle ages, most economic activity in Western Europe was agriculture which used free peasant labor and coerced serf labor. While Western Europe had some urban centers, before the 14th century, they were usually smaller and less populated when compared to urban centers in other regions. Thirteenth century China, for example, had multiple cities will populations over 1 million. By 1300, the largest cities in Europe were the Italian cities of Venice, Milan, and Florence, each with 100,000 residents. Major Northern European cities of Paris numbered fewer than 50,000 residents.
Notable exceptions: A notable exception to low European urbanization was in Muslim-controlled Cordoba in Southern Spain, which had an urban population of over 400,000 in the 10th century. The capital of the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe had a population of over 800,000 from the 8th to the 10th century. Better economic conditions from trade connections allowed these cities to flourish.
Manorialism was the dominant economic system in many parts of Europe
Manorialism was a part of the feudal system. Manors were self-sustaining economies that produced most of what those who lived on the manors needed for survival. Because manors made most of what they needed, there was little need for commerce in European areas with manorial economies.
How manors functioned
The lord of the manor was the most powerful person on the manor. Everything revolved around the lord and his family.
- Living on the manor meant that you were subject to the rules and will of the lord.
- Manor residents supported the lord by working for him directly, turning over some of their production to the lord, and paying rent or taxes.
- Manor residents also supported the manor’s church by giving a portion of their yearly production to the church.
- Most people on the manors did not use money but bartered with others on the manor for what they needed and could not produce themselves.
- The manor lord was responsible for using his power to protect residents’ legal rights and physical safety.
Types of land on medieval European manors
Manors had several kinds of land used for different purposes.
The lord directly controlled this land and used it for the benefit of his family. The lord’s house was on this land, and peasants and serfs worked the land to produce agriculture for the lord’s family.
Those that lived on dependent land had to give the manor lord labor or a percentage of goods produced on their dependent land.
Those living on free land had the most rights and fewest restrictions on the manor. They did not have to work for the lord directly or provide him with any of their production. However, they did have rental contracts with their lord that required them to pay rent and taxes to the lord.
Economic impacts of manorialism
Manors produced most of what they needed, which limited commerce and economic growth.
- Europe did not have a significant presence of major global trading networks like the Trans-Saharan network, the Silk Roads, and the Indian Ocean commercial network.
- Low economic growth limited the development of European math and sciences.
The social structure of manors
Each manor resident had a clear place in the manor’s labor and social systems. The groups are listed in order of social status from the highest to the lowest.
The end of manorialism
Manorialism ended at different times in different regions of Europe. The first significant decline in manorial manors began in the 11th century in parts of Northern and Western Europe. By the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, most of Europe had commercialized, and only a few manors remained. Russian Czar Alexander II ended the last remaining manor relationships when he abolished Russian serfdom in 1861
The European Commercial Revolution
The European Commercial Revolution began the process of transforming Europe from a society dominated by agriculture to a society based on trade and commerce. This changed the European social structure and class system as merchants and business people gained wealth, status, and influence.
The European Commercial Revolution was the creation of a European economy based on trade and commerce, not manorialism. The re-commercialization of Europe began as early as the 13th century and continued for centuries. By the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 18th century, Europe had become the world’s most commercialized region.
Italy commercialized before the rest of Europe
The location of the Italian city-states in Southern Europe placed them between the rest of Europe and goods coming from the east. What goods Italian merchants could not sell in Italy, they brought to Northern Europe. Merchants sold their goods at trade fairs in large villages and urban areas. Merchants from other parts of Europe would buy and sell the goods back home.
A guild is an association of artisans and merchants who oversee the practice of their craft/trade in a particular area. During the Commercial Revolution, guilds expanded throughout Europe. There were guilds for many different types of work—hatters (hat makers), carpenters (cut and shaped wood to make various large wooden objects like cabinets or window frames, weavers, and cobblers (shoemakers). Merchants also had guilds that managed commerce and trade within a town or region. You could not work in a particular field or engage in business in an area controlled by a guild unless you were a guild member.
- Guilds became politically and economically powerful.
- Guilds had monopolies over production and trade within their regions.
- Guilds set quality standards for products produced by guilds.
- Guilds also set prices for guild-produced goods.
The Hanseatic League
The Hanseatic League was a confederation (a group in an alliance) of towns and merchant guilds in Northern and Central Europe along the coast of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The League dominated commerce in the region between the 13th and 15th centuries. The League stretched from the coast of the Netherlands in the west to the Russian coast in the east. The goal of the League was to promote trade between League members.
- The League promoted information sharing between members.
- The League provided security by fighting pirates and bandits.
- The League promoted new financial practices to make payments between merchants and cities easier.
- The League developed a standard set of trade laws for cities in the League.
- The League allowed merchants and cities in the League to trade their goods without import and export taxes.
The causes of the European Commercial Revolution
The commercial revolution resulted from various political, economic, and social changes that began as early as the 11th century and slowly led to higher amounts of business and commerce.
- Banks: More money required the creation of banks to store money. The earliest banks began in the Italian city-states.
- Bills of exchange: Banks and merchants began using pieces of paper called bills of exchange that had specific values and were exchangeable between merchants and banks. They functioned as a promise of future payment and allowed large transactions without physical money.
- Insurance: Commerce was a risky business. Thieves could attack a merchant caravan, or pirates could raid merchant ships. Insurance helped safeguard merchants from the loss of their goods.
The effects of the European Commercial Revolution
The European Commercial Revolution’s impacts reshaped Europe and the world.