The economy of the Middle Ages The economy has long been a major force in the development of societies for centuries. It often changes and fluctuates, consequentially resulting in the success or failure of civilizations. The economy of medieval Europe originated as that of a feudal systemdue to the dangerous and chaotic conditions of the continent at the time. By the end of the Middle Ages, the feudal system no longer being used due to its newfound inefficiency with the new situations emerging.
Towns and trade began to get more popular, but society was still agriculturally based and comparatively less developed than the societies of Asia. The early Middle Ages are characterized by the Church and the feudal and manorial systems; systems in which every European’s life were centered around. In this arrangement there were kings, lords, vassals, knights, peasants and serfs. The hierarchy was that of a property owning basis. It was a land exchange for protection. During early medieval times, Europe was in a state of chaos.
Muslim, Magyar, and Viking invaders devastated the continent and surrounded it from all sides. With no true government in place, people were susceptible to invasions, and then came the feudal system. When kings gave men plots of land, those men would have to provide protection for the king and the land given through knights. The system was actually extremely complex because a lord was a vassal and he could also be a knight. In addition to that, a vassal could be a vassal to multiple people and they often fought over land.
After the knights were peasants, people who worked the land of their lord. Some peasants were serfs, who were legally bound to the land they were born on, but they were not slaves. The wealth of every lord came from the work of his peasants. The manorial system branched out of the feudal system and was the more economic side of feudalism. The manor was the estate of the lord and there was an agreement between the lord and the peasants who worked the land. In exchange for housing, some farmland, and protection from bandits, the peasants would maintain the estate.
A manor was like a small community in the way that is was self-sufficient and had all the necessities for someone living in that time. The manor normally consisted of the lord’s house, a church, workshops, fields, pastures, and a small village for the peasants. The serfs and peasants were also able to produce most of the goods needed for everyday life. The downside of living on the manor, for peasants at least was the taxes. There were taxes on the grain from the lord’s mill, a marriage tax, and a tithe, a church tax, to the village priest.
Both of these systems were rigid and social mobility was essentially nonexistent. There was much change in medieval society; some of the causes for these changes even started some domino effects. For example, there was a huge population increase around the 1000s because more efficient farming. Peasants began to rely on horses more than oxen, resulting in a faster plow. The three-field system was also being used, allowing more land to be farmed and more diversity in the medieval diet. Not only was the population increasing, but people were also living longer.
Additionally, the worry of being robbed by bandits or invaded by foreigners was gone, so people could now be more independent and could travel without as much fear. Through these factors, there is a growth of towns and the decline of the feudal and manorial systems begins. The expanding towns mainly consisted of peasants and runaway serfs and weren’t as reliant on farming as they were before. This led to other professions reemerging. Local manufacturing was part of town life and the managing of the training of apprentices, the quality of products, and the prices for the goods were all controlled by a guild.
Guilds had a monopoly for their trade in their town. Although guilds and towns did help, what truly had a substantial effect on society were wars and diseases. The Crusades, the Bubonic Plague, and the Hundred Years’ War caused a variety of events and eventually led to the end of the Middle Ages. Although it was technically a failed expedition, the Crusades, a series of wars for the reconquering of the holy land fed by religious zeal, had quite a good effect on Europe’s future. After the Crusades, Christians’ relationship with Muslims was severed, but trade routes to Asia opened up everywhere.
The trade between the two regions led to new technologies being introduced to Europeans. Furthermore, the power of nobles decreased and the feudal system began to slowly decline over the next 200 years. An example of a flourishing city is Venice that expanded and grew rich. Despite the slightly less unpromising time after the Crusades, the Black Death devastated Europe and made it digress some. The bubonic Plague originated in Asia and had already rampaged through Asia and Africa. Entering Europe in 1347 through a fleet of Genoese merchant ships that arrived in Sicily, the plague spread all throughout Europe quickly.
Over one-third of Europe’s population died because of the plague and medieval society was shattered. The population drop led to a scarce amount of workers and increased prices. Farms were abandoned and peasants living in manors demanded higher wages. The nobles refusing to the peasant demands resulted in many revolts. The plague would come in waves, so recovering and surviving more than once was difficult. While the plague struck Europe, England and France were in a war that would come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War. During the war, England used cheaper foot soldiers that used longbows to decimate the French.
Knights were being defeated by lowly foot soldiers that were most likely peasants at home, making many people question the functionality of the feudal system. Ultimately the basis of the economy was moving towards trade and the success of towns and cities, ending the system that used to hold medieval society together. Like most past and modern societies, Europe remained dependent on agriculture, the class system was still similar to that of its predecessor, and when compared to other places of the time, Europe isn’t as active in trade and gaining land.
A change in economic factors didn’t deviate from the need to feed the growing population. An agricultural based economy was necessary for the survival of Europeans, so that towns could grow and trade could expand. Moreover, the class system still had the king and religious leader on top because of the new sense of nationality and the fact that Europe was primarily Catholic. The class one was born into continued to define the lives of many and social mobility was still nonexistent.
Whereas Europe’s trade was beginning to flourish, the trade in Asia and Africa were far beyond that. Just like in the 800s, Europe remained fairly isolated when paralleled to other civilizations. This is partly due to the strong religious intolerance. Namely, the Spanish Reconquista and Inquisition are examples of prejudice against non-Christians, implying a sense of superiority among Christians. The continent was also recently hit with a catastrophic plague, killing one-third of the population, making trade less of a priority.
In the 650 years that were the Middle Ages, the economy of the time changed drastically. Europe went from having a strict hierarchy of property owning aristocrats to the growth of merchant-led towns. Nobles lost immense power and the population wavered at the mercy of new agricultural techniques and deadly plagues. Trade became an important component of the European economy, but it still remained very agricultural and not as adept in trade as its peers. The economical change would lead the continent to become on of the principal contributors to history today.