Changes in Medieval
Commerce and Production
|The following represent some
of the important economic changes that took place in Medieval
civilization, especially in the High Medieval period (10th-14th
I. Monastic Time and Corporation Law
A. Time Consciousness
Monastic communities that followed the Benedictine
rule prayed six to eight times a day, depending on the system. This lead
to an overarching theological and temporal mentality of omnia horis
competetibus compleantur ("all things in their proper
time"). Because the system of prayers included night prayers and a
more exacting sense of the hours of the day, the need for punctuality and
time-consciousness eventually lead to the regular use of time pieces, then
clocks. Along with ordering prayer, this approach with a stress on hard
work and avoiding idleness also gave a new meaning to the importance of
ordered work. In the 10th and 11th centuries, this monastic stress carried
over into town and commercial life.
Medieval ecclesiastical, or canon, law refined early
on the notion of the corporation (Lt. universitas, corpus, or collegium)
as a distinct entity from the state or the family. A corporation was a
social and legal entity that could both act and limit actions and that had
a limited decision making ability regarding its members and property. Such
ideas became settled law by the 13th century and would influence all later
business models concerning economic models of business cooperation.
II. Burghs, Towns, & Trade
A. Growth of Commercial Districts
While the old administrative centers of the Western
Roman Empire continued to form the nucleus of urban existence, they mostly
existed as small towns attached to cathedrals. In the 10th and 11th
centuries, as trade began to expand between the West and the Byzantium and the
Islamic worlds and new wealth poured in, true cities began to arise.
Attached to these cities were the burghs or commercial districts,
whose class of people eventually was called bourgeoisie. Important
trade cities included Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Milan, Florence, Flanders, and
Ypres. Important goods included wool, salt, timber, beer and wine. At the
same time, trade with the East was mostly in imports since these regions
had their own native agricultural classes. The real impact of the new
trade routes were to increase trade across Europe.
B. Town charters & Urban leagues
In the 12th century and following, towns often
organized to force aristocratic lords to grant charters that
guaranteed a district's property rights, taxation and toll controls, local
legal codes and judicial courts, as well as limited political rule. These
were not true democracies in any sense of the word, since they tended to
be headed by networks of wealthy merchants, yet they were steps toward
local control that helped promote a healthy economy.
Some towns began to form leagues to suppress piracy,
police roads, or raise armies to oppose predatory rulers and aristocrats.
Some eventually formed their own political leagues. The Hanse is a good
example. A federation of German towns, they controlled the North and
Baltic Sea regions until 1300.
III. Guilds, Banks, and Lenders
Merchant and craft guilds arose for similar reasons
though with differing structures. Merchants formed guilds as economic
negotiating blocks to force concessions from local leaders for tariff
controls or safe-passage agreements. Craft guilds, on the other hand,
established a system of apprentices, journeymen, and masters as a way of
both learning a trade and controlling the product. Guilds
developed systems of "law merchants" to handle matters of
moneychanging, credit and debt, bankruptcy, billing and invoicing, and
contracts. Craft masters often met together to set prices and discuss
market needs, as well as enforce standards of quality. Many journeymen
never reached master-status, and increasingly, masters maintained
quasi-monopolies, not allowing others to set up shop.
|Merchants also found ways to
organize labor. They set up "putting out" systems in which an
agent would contract with a large number of producers, purchasing raw
materials, such as wool, then having garments stitched by other rural
families in order to then take the finished product to far away markets.
Eventually merchants also pioneered proto-factory production sites,
locating all the materials and work needed at one site. This trend was
heavily resisted by the craft gilds, though eventually over the centuries
it won out.
B. Usury, Credit, Banking
For much of the early and middle medieval period
loans, especially loans with interest, were considered "usury"
by church and society, and such loans were either considered immoral, or
at least suspect. As a result, Christians could not engage in the
practice, which left it open for Jewish families. Jews were considered and
treated as second-class citizens, but Jewish lenders and merchants were
prosperous and generally protected by royal and papal forces until the
14th century when Italian credit replaced the earlier Jewish families;
kingdoms, then, began to expel them and/or gather them into ghettos.
Changes in canon law made Christian credit and interest possible. This was
in part due to the Crusades of the 13th century. The need to transfer
quickly large sums of money to finance the long-distance wars lead to new
methods of checking and accounting, as well as making credit more
respectable. Florence eventually became
the largest European center of banking. By the 1320's, the Bardi and
Peruzzi families became the largest banking families with branches
as far away as England.
IV. Luxury & Gentility in the
A. New Noble Relations
With the new money economy, rulers
could now obtain at times paid staff or mercenaries to populate their
armies as opposed to their former dependence upon noble gifts and military
support, though these traditional relationships continued for several more
centuries in most places. Likewise, the distinction between nights and
nobility began to blur, so that knights were increasingly wealthy, and
nobles were willing to be considered knights.
B. New Trade Goods
With the growth in trade, the wealthy
were now able to obtain new spices for their kitchen staff (e.g. pepper,
cinnamon, ginger), new items for their homes (carpets, tapestries,
costlier furniture), and better clothing and jewelry. The quality of
castle quarters improved, and with the new luxuries, a more courtly
gentility arose among the upper-classes. Recreations, such as hunting,
falconry, and maying became popular. Kings often became indebted due to
such luxuries, but they also commonly defaulted on their loans, dissolving
banking families as a result.
V. Changes to Family Life
||One should keep in mind that the mostly
20th century division of public work and private family life into two
separate spaces is a modern invention and one that medieval people would
not have recognized at any level of society, from aristocrats to the
peasantry. This meant that as changes to labor and trade took place, they
tended to be picked up by all members of the family. Women in trade homes often learned the
craft or the family business along with the men in the household, and in
times of duress wives might be called on to manage the family business,
though they typically could not assign themselves to guilds or own
Chimneys lead to improved heat
regulation and cleaner homes for the better off; this in turn, lead to the
rise of private quarters for members of the family, as well as the
servants. Before this change, aristocratic families tended to live in
close proximity to their servants and livestock.
Improved diet and health
also resulted from the growth and prosperity. In particular, more protein
and iron, from peas, beans, eggs, fish, and cheese. This increased the
overall population, especially women, placing pressure on existing
VI. Changes to Agriculture
and Peasant Life
|A. New Technologies
Technologies arose after the year 1000 that improved
agricultural yield. A heavier metal plow made possible deeper furrows for
better irrigation; windmills improved and sped up the processing of grain;
the horse collar replaced the yoke, allowing for better and longer work by
animals; the axle on wagons improved foodstuff transportation.
About this time as well, the
three-field system of crop rotation replaced the two-field system,
allowing a field to be fallow every third year, thus improving overall
soil fertility. This often resulted in surplus crops.
As trade increased and a money-based
economy became more wide-spread, specialization in certain crops became
possible. While certainly the majority of farming was still far-removed
from the large single cash crops of 20th century agriculture, a system
began to develop where certain regions in Europe were noted for their
wool, wine, or lumber.
B. New Social Systems
Likewise, large forests that acted as
boundaries between villages began to disappear as more clearing of fields
and establishment of new villages was undertaken. This lead to the waning
of serf systems, as villages became more informed about the life of nearby
communities that has previously been separated. With agricultural growth,
serfs were motivated to produce beyond the amount owed their landlord and
thus increase their own standing wealth. Yet at the same time, lords began
employing landless laborers who had less negotiating power than serfs.
Taxation also increased on the grinding of grain and the transportation of
it to markets.
Additional primary sources on economic life can
be found at Medieval