The Effects of Agriculture on Europe

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Europe In The Middle Ages Was Primarily an Agrarian Society

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. 

Demesne land

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.

Dependent land

Those that lived on dependent land had to give the manor lord labor or a percentage of goods produced on their dependent land.

Free 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.

Social impacts of manorialism: 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.

1. The lord of the manor

Lords of the manor ran the estate and lived in the large manor house. The manor lord and his family often held noble titles like a duke or an earl. Most of the manor's production and wealth went to support the lord and his family.

2. Members of the clergy

Every manor had one or more churches. Some manors were themselves the property of and run by church officials. The priests and monks that ran the churches did not perform labor for the lord of the manor. All manor residents provided for the church by giving the church tithe—turning over a portion of their production to support the church.

3. Artisans and craftspeople

Artisans and craftspeople produced nonagricultural items on the manor. Manors often had cobblers who made shoes or tailors that made clothes.

4.Peasants and serfs

Free peasant labor and coerced serf labor grew and harvested the manor's crops and managed the domesticated animals. Both groups were economically dependent upon the manor lord. Peasants were free people with different responsibilities to the estate and the lord—either working for the lord directly for a required period or giving a required portion of personal production from lands some peasants rented from the lord or owned on the estate. Serfs' situations were more complicated. Unlike peasants, serfs were not free people. They could not leave the manor without the permission of the manor lord. They also generally had to provide more work to the manor lord than peasants.

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.

Demesne land

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.

Dependent land

Those that lived on dependent land had to give the manor lord labor or a percentage of goods produced on their dependent land.

Free 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.

The European Commercial Revolution

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.

Guilds: 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.

Causes of the Commercial Revolution