From about the year 1000 another fundamental change was under way in Europe: it began to get richer. As a result, more men slowly acquired a freedom of choice almost unknown in earlier times; society became more varied and complicated. Slow though it was, this was a revolution; society’s wealth at last began to grow a little faster than population. This was by no means obvious everywhere to the same degree and was punctuated by a bad setback in the fourteenth century. Yet the change was decisive and launched Europe on a trajectory of economic growth lasting to our own day.
One crude but by no means misleading index is the growth of population. Only approximate estimates can be made but they are based on better evidence than is available for any earlier period. The errors they contain are unlikely much to distort the overall trend. They suggest that a Europe of about forty million people in 1000 rose to sixty million or so in the next two centuries. Growth then seems to have further accelerated to reach a peak of about seventy-three million around 1300, after which there is indisputable evidence of decline. The total population is said to have gone down to about fifty million by 1360 and only to have begun to rise in the fifteenth century. Then it began to go up again, and overall growth has been uninterrupted ever since.
Of course, the rate of increase varied even from village to village. The Mediterranean and Balkan lands did not succeed in doubling their population in five centuries and by 1450 had relapsed to levels only a little above those of 1000. The same appears to be true of Russia, Poland and Hungary. Yet France, England, Germany and Scandinavia probably trebled their populations before 1300 and after bad setbacks in the next hundred years still had twice the population of the year 1000. Contrasts within countries could be made, too, sometimes between areas very close to one another, but the general effect is indisputable: population grew overall as never before, but unevenly, the north and west gaining more than the Mediterranean, Balkan and eastern Europe.
The explanation lies in food supply, and therefore in agriculture. It was for a long time the only possible major source of new wealth. More food was obtained by bringing more land under cultivation and by increasing its productivity. Thus began the rise in food production which has gone on ever since. Europe had great natural advantages (which she has retained) in her moderate temperatures and good rainfall and these, combined with a physical relief whose predominant characteristic is a broad northern plain, have always given her a large area of potentially productive agricultural land. Huge areas of it still wild and forested in 1000 were brought into cultivation in the next few centuries.
Land was not short in medieval Europe and a growing population provided the labour to clear and till it. Though slowly, the landscape changed. The huge forests were gradually cut into as villages pushed out their fields. In some places, new colonies were deliberately established by landlords and rulers. The building of a monastery in a remote spot - as many were built - was often the beginning of a new nucleus of cultivation or stock-raising in an almost empty desert of scrub and trees. Some new land was reclaimed from sea or marsh. In the east, much was won in the colonization of the first German Drang nach Osten. Settlement there was promoted as consciously as it was later to be promoted in Elizabethan England in the first age of North American colonization.
By about 1300, the breaking-in of new land slowed down. There were even signs of over-population. Smaller holdings, shortage of livestock and manure, pressure on pasture - symptoms of rural dislocation such as are now associated with Third World countries - became more obvious. The first big increase in Europe’s cultivated and grazed areas was over after underpinning an indispensable increase in production. Some have argued that in some parts of western Europe output had doubled. Besides having more land brought under cultivation, this also owed something to better husbandry; it showed the effect of increased use of regular fallows and cropping, the gradual enrichment of the soil, and even the introduction of some new crops. Although grain-growing was still the main business of the cultivator in northern Europe, the appearance of beans and peas of various sorts in larger quantities from the tenth century onwards meant that more nitrogen was being returned to the soil. Cause and effect are difficult to disentangle in economic history; other suggestive signs of change go along with these. In the thirteenth century the first manuals of agricultural practice appear and the first agricultural bookkeeping, a monastic innovation. More specialized cultivation brought a tendency to employ wage labourers instead of serfs carrying out obligatory work. By 1300 it is likely that most household servants in England were recruited and paid as free labour and probably a third or so of the peasants as well. The bonds of servitude were relaxing and a money economy was spreading slowly into the countryside.
For all that, most people remained miserably poor. Some peasants benefited, but increased wealth usually went to the landlord who took most of the profits. Most still lived poor and cramped lives, eating coarse bread and various grain-based porridges, seasoned with vegetables and only occasionally fish or meat. Calculations suggest the peasant consumed about two thousand calories daily (very much what was the average daily intake of a Sudanese in the late twentieth century), and this had to sustain him for very laborious work. If he grew wheat he did not eat its flour, but sold it to the better-off, keeping barley or rye for his own food. He had little elbow-room to better himself. Even when his lord’s legal grip through bond labour became less firm, the lord still had practical monopolies of mills and carts, which the peasants needed to work the land. ‘Customs’, or taxes for protection, were levied without regard to distinctions between freeholders and tenants and could hardly be resisted.
More cash crops for growing markets gradually changed the selfsufficient manor into a unit producing for sale. Its markets were to be found in towns which grew steadily between 1100 and 1300; urban population increased faster than rural. This is a complicated phenomenon. The new town life was in part a revival going hand in hand with the revival of trade, in part a reflection of growing population. It is a chicken-and-egg business to decide which came first. A few new towns grew up around a castle or a monastery. Sometimes this led to the establishment of a market. Many new towns, especially in Germany, were deliberately settled as colonies. On the whole, long-established towns grew bigger - Paris may have had about 80,000 inhabitants in 1340 and Venice, Florence and Genoa were probably comparable - but few were so big. Fourteenth-century Germany had only fifteen towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants, and London, with about 35,000 was then by far the biggest English city. Of the great medieval towns, only those in the south had been important Roman centres (though many in the north, of course, had like London, Roman nuclei). New cities tended to be linked distinctively to economic possibilities. They were markets, or lay on great trade routes such as the Meuse and Rhine, or were grouped in an area of specialized production such as Flanders, where already in the late twelfth century Ypres, Arras and Ghent were famous as textile towns, or Tuscany, another cloth-producing, cloth-finishing region. Wine was one of the first agricultural commodities to loom large in international trade and this underpinned the early growth of Bordeaux. Ports often became the metropolitan centres of maritime regions, as did Genoa and Bruges.
The commercial revival was most conspicuous in Italy, where trade with the outside world was resumed, above all, by Venice. In that great commercial centre banking for the first time separated itself from the changing of money. By the middle of the twelfth century, whatever the current state of politics, Europeans enjoyed continuing trade not only with Byzantium but with the Arab Mediterranean. Beyond those limits, an even wider world was involved. In the early fourteenth century trans-Saharan gold from Mali relieved a bullion shortage in Europe. By then, Italian merchants had long been at work in central Asia and China. They sold slaves from Germany and central Europe to the Arabs of Africa and the Levant. They bought Flemish and English cloth and took it to Constantinople and the Black Sea. In the thirteenth century the first voyage was made from Italy to Bruges; before this the Rhine, Rhone and overland routes had been used. Roads were built across Alpine passes. Trade fed on trade and the northern European fairs drew other merchants from the north-east. The German towns of the Hanse, the league which controlled the Baltic, provided a new outlet for the textiles of the West and the spices of the East. But transport costs on land were always high; to move goods from Cracow to Venice quadroupled their price.
In such ways, European economic geography was revolutionized. In Flanders and the Low Countries economic revival soon began to generate a population big enough to stimulate new agricultural innovation. Everywhere, towns which could escape from the cramping monopolies of the earliest manufacturing centres enjoyed the most rapid new prosperity. One visible result was a great wave of building. It was not only a matter of the houses and guildhalls of newly prosperous cities; it left a glorious legacy in Europe’s churches, not just in the great cathedrals, but in scores of magnificent parish churches of little English towns.
Building was a major expression of medieval technology. The architecture of a cathedral posed engineering problems as complex as those of a Roman aqueduct; in solving them, the engineer was slowly to emerge from the medieval craftsman. Medieval technology was not in a modern sense science-based, but achieved much by the accumulation of experience and reflection on it. Possibly its most important achievement was the harnessing of other forms of energy to do the work of muscles and, therefore, to deploy muscle-power more effectively and productively. Winches, pulleys and inclined planes thus eased the shifting of heavy loads, but change was most obvious in agriculture, where metal tools had been becoming more common since the tenth century. The iron plough had made available the heavier soils of valley lands; since it required oxen to pull it the evolution of a more efficient yoke followed and with it more efficient traction. The whipple-tree and the shoulder collar for the horse also made possible bigger loads. There were not many such innovations, but they were sufficient to effect a considerable increase in the cultivators’ control of the land. They also imposed new demands. Using horses meant that more grain had to be grown to feed them, and this led to new crop rotations.
Another innovation was the spread of milling; both windmills and watermills, first known in Asia, were widely spread in Europe even by 1000. In the centuries to come they were put to more and more uses. Wind often replaced muscle-power in milling foodstuffs, as it had already done in the evolution of better ships; water was used when possible to provide power for other industrial operations. It drove hammers both for cloth-fulling and for forging (here the invention of the crank was of the greatest importance), an essential element in a great expansion of Europe’s metallurgical industry in the fifteenth century, and one closely connected with rising demand for an earlier technological innovation of the previous century, artillery. Water-driven hammers were also used in paper-making. The invention of printing soon gave this industry an importance which may even have surpassed that of the new metal-working of Germany and Flanders. Print and paper had their own revolutionary potential for technology, too, because books made the diffusion of techniques faster and easier in the growing pool of craftsmen and artificers able to use such knowledge. Some innovations were simply taken over from other cultures; the spinning-wheel came to medieval Europe from India (though the application of a treadle to it to provide drive with the foot seems to have been a European invention of the sixteenth century).
Whatever qualifications are needed, it is clear that by 1500 a technology was available which was already embodied in a large capital investment. It was making the accumulation of further capital for manufacturing enterprises easier than ever before. The availability of this capital must have been greater, moreover, as new devices eased business. Medieval Italians invented much of modern accountancy as well as new credit instruments for the financing of international trade. The bill of exchange appears in the thirteenth century and with it and the first true bankers we are at the edge of modern capitalism. Limited liability appears at Florence in 1408. Yet though such a change from the past was by implication colossal, it is easy to get it out of proportion if we do not recall its scale. For all the magnificence of its palaces, the goods shipped by medieval Venice in a year could all have fitted comfortably into one large modern ship.
None the less the ground won over long, slow improvement and growth was precarious. For centuries, economic life was fragile, never far from the edge of collapse. Medieval agriculture, in spite of such progress as had been made, was appallingly inefficient. It abused the land and exhausted it. Little was consciously put back into it except manure. As population rose and new land became harder to find, family holdings got smaller; probably most European households farmed less than eight acres in 1300. Only in a few places (the Po valley was one) were there big investments in collective irrigation or improvement. Above all, agriculture was vulnerable to weather; two successive bad harvests in the early fourteenth century reduced the population of Ypres by a tenth. Local famine could rarely be offset by imports. Roads had broken down since Roman times, carts were crude and for the most part goods had to be carried by packhorse or mule. Water transport was cheaper and swifter, but could rarely meet the need. Commerce could have its political difficulties, too; the Ottoman onslaught brought a gradual recession in eastern trade in the fifteenth century. Demand was small enough for a very little change to determine the fate of cities; cloth production at Florence and Ypres fell by two-thirds in the fourteenth century.
It is very difficult to generalize but about one thing there is no doubt: a great and cumulative setback occurred at that time. There was a sudden rise in mortality, not occurring everywhere at the same time, but notable in many places after a series of bad harvests around 1320. This started a slow decline of population which suddenly became a disaster with the onset of attacks of epidemic disease. These are often called by the name of one of them, the ‘Black Death’ of 1348-50 and the worst single attack. It was of bubonic plague, but no doubt it masked many other killing diseases which swept Europe with it and in its wake. Europeans died of typhus, influenza and smallpox, too; all contributed to a great demographic disaster. In some areas a half or a third of the population may have died; over Europe as a whole the total loss has been calculated as a quarter. A papal enquiry put the figure at more than forty million. Toulouse was a city of 30,000 in 1335 and a century later only 8000 lived there; 1400 died in three days at Avignon.
There was no universal pattern, but all Europe shuddered under these blows. In extreme cases a kind of collective madness broke out. Pogroms of Jews were a common expression of a search for scapegoats or those guilty of spreading the plague; the burning of witches and heretics was another. The European psyche bore a scar for the rest of the Middle Ages, which were haunted by the imagery of death and damnation in painting, carving and literature. The fragility of settled order illustrated the precariousness of the balance of food and population. When disease killed enough people, agricultural production would collapse; then the inhabitants of the towns would die of famine if they were not already dying of plague. Probably a plateau of productivity had already been reached by about 1300. Both available techniques and easily accessible new land for cultivation had reached a limit and some have seen signs of population pressure treading close upon resources even by that date. From this flowed the huge setback of the fourteenth century and then the slow recovery in the fifteenth.
It is scarcely surprising that an age of such colossal dislocations and disasters should have been marked by violent social conflicts. Everywhere in Europe the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries brought peasant risings. The French jacquerie of 1358 which led to over 30,000 deaths and the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which for a time captured London, were especially notable. The roots of rebellion lay in the ways in which landlords had increased their demands under the spur of necessity and in the new demands of royal tax collectors. Combined with famine, plague and war they made an always miserable existence intolerable. ‘We are made men in the likeness of Christ, but you treat us like savage beasts,’ was the complaint of English peasants who rebelled in 1381. Significantly, they appealed to the Christian standards of their civilization; the demands of medieval peasants were often well formulated and effective but it is anachronistic to see in them a nascent socialism.
Demographic disaster on such a scale paradoxically made things better for some poor men. One obvious and immediate result was a severe shortage of labour; the pool of permanently underemployed had been brutally dried up. A rise in real wages followed. Once the immediate impact of the fourteenth-century disasters had been absorbed the standard of living of the poor may have risen slightly, for the price of cereals tended to fall. The tendency for the economy, even in the countryside, to move on to a money basis was speeded up by the labour shortage. By the sixteenth century, serf labour and servile status had both receded a long way in western Europe, particularly in England. This weakened the manorial structure and the feudal relationships clustered about it. Landlords were also suddenly confronted with a drop in their rent incomes. In the previous two centuries the habits of consumption of the better-off had become more expensive. Now property-owners suddenly ceased to grow more prosperous. Some landlords could adapt. They could, for example, switch from cultivation, which required much labour, to sheep-running which required little. In Spain there were still even possibilities of taking in more land and living directly off it. Moorish estates were the reward of the soldier of the Reconquest. Elsewhere, many landlords simply let their poorer land go out of cultivation.
The results are very hard to pin down, but they were bound to stimulate further and faster social change. Medieval society changed dramatically, and sometimes in oddly assorted ways, between the tenth century and the sixteenth. Even at the end of that age, though, it seems still almost unimaginably remote. Its obsession with status and hierarchy is one index of this. Medieval European man was defined by his legal status. Instead of being an individual social atom, so to speak, he was the point at which a number of coordinates met. Some of them were set by birth and the most obvious expression of this was the idea of nobility. The noble society, which was to remain a reality in some places until the twentieth century, was already present in its essentials in the thirteenth. Gradually, warriors had turned into landowners. Descent then became important because there were inheritances to argue about. One indicator was the rise of the sciences of heraldry and genealogy, which have since had a profitable life right down to our own day. The first English duke was created in 1337, an expression of the tendency to find ways of singling out the greater magnates from among their peers. Symbolic questions of precedence became of intense interest; rank was at stake. From this rose the dread of disparagement, the loss of status which might follow for a woman from an unequal marriage or for a man from contamination by a lowly occupation. For centuries most noblemen in northern Europe took it for granted that only arms, the Church or the management of their own estates were fit occupations for their like. Trade, above all, was closed to them except through agents. Even when, centuries later, this barrier gave way, hostility to retail trade was the last thing to be abandoned by those who cared about these things. When a sixteenth-century French king called his Portuguese cousin ‘the grocer king’ he was being rude as well as witty and no doubt his courtiers laughed at the sneer.
The values of the nobility were, at bottom, military. Through their gradual refinement there emerged slowly the notions of honour, loyalty and disinterested self-sacrifice, which were to be held up as models for centuries to well-born boys and girls. The ideal of chivalry articulated these values and softened the harshness of a military code. It was blessed by the Church, which provided religious ceremonies to accompany the bestowal of knighthood and the knights’ acceptance of Christian duties. The heroic figure who came supremely to embody the notion was the mythological English King Arthur, whose cult spread to many lands. It was to live on in the ideal of the gentleman and gentlemanly conduct, however qualified in practice.
Of course, it never worked as it should have done. But few great creative myths do; neither did the feudal theory of dependence, nor does democracy. The pressures of war and, more fundamentally, economics, were always at work to fragment and confuse social obligations. The increasing unreality of the feudal concept of lord and vassal was one factor favouring the growth of kingly power. The coming of a money economy made further inroads, service had increasingly to be paid for in cash, and rents became more important than the services that had gone with them. Some sources of feudal income remained fixed in terms made worthless by changes in real prices. Lawyers evolved devices which enabled new aims to be realized within a ‘feudal’ structure more and more unreal and worm-eaten.
Medieval nobility had been for a long time very open to new entrants, but usually this became less and less true as time passed. In some places attempts were actually made to close for ever a ruling caste. Yet European society was all the time generating new kinds of wealth and even of power which could not find a place in the old hierarchies and challenged them. The most obvious example was the emergence of rich merchants. They often bought land; it was not only the supreme economic investment in a world where there were few, but it might open the way to a change of status for which landownership was either a legal or social necessity. In Italy merchants sometimes themselves became the nobility of trading and manufacturing cities. Everywhere, though, they posed a symbolic challenge to a world which had, to begin with, no theoretical place for them. Soon, they evolved their own social forms, guilds, mysteries, corporations, which gave new definitions to their social role.
The rise of the merchant class was almost a function of the growth of towns; the appearance of merchants was inseparably linked with the most dynamic element in medieval European civilization. Unwittingly, at least at first, towns and cities held within their walls much of the future history of Europe. Though their independence varied greatly in law and practice, there were parallels in other countries to the Italian communal movement. Towns in the German east were especially independent, which helps to explain the appearance there of the powerful Hanseatic League of more than a hundred and fifty free cities. The Flemish towns also tended to enjoy a fair degree of freedom: French and English towns usually had less. Yet lords everywhere sought the support of cities against kings, while kings sought the support of townsmen and their wealth against over-mighty subjects. They gave towns charters and privileges. The walls which surrounded the medieval city were the symbol as well as a guarantee of its immunity. The landlords’ writ did not run in them and sometimes their anti-feudal implication was even more explicit: villeins, for example, could acquire their freedom in some towns if they lived in them for a year and a day. ‘The air of the town makes men free’ said a German proverb. The communes and within them the guilds were associations of free men for a long time isolated in a world unfree. The burgher - the bourgeois, the dweller in bourg or borough - was a man who stood up for himself in a universe of dependence.
Much of the history behind this remains obscure because it is for the most part the history of obscure men. The wealthy merchants who became the typically dominant figures of the new town life and fought for their corporate privileges are visible enough, but their humbler predecessors are usually not. In earlier times a merchant can have been little but the pedlar of exotica and luxuries which the medieval European estate could not provide for itself. Ordinary commercial exchange for a long time hardly needed a middleman: craftsmen sold their own goods and cultivators their own crops. Yet somehow in the towns there emerged men who dealt between them and the countryside, and their successors were to be men using capital to order in advance the whole business of production for the market.
In the blossoming of its urban life lies buried much which made European history different from that of other continents. Neither in the ancient world (except, perhaps, classical Greece) nor in Asia or America, did city life develop the political and social power it came to show in Europe. One reason was the absence of destructively parasitic empires of conquest to eat away at the will to betterment; Europe’s enduring political fragmentation made rulers careful of the geese which laid the golden egg they needed to compete with their rivals. A great sack of a city was a noteworthy event in the European Middle Ages; it was the inescapable and recurrent accompaniment of warfare in much of Asia. This, of course, could not be the whole story. It also must have mattered that, for all its obsession with status, Europe had no caste system such as that of India, no ideological homogeneity so intense and stultifying as China’s. Even when rich, the city-dwellers of other cultures seem to have aquiesced in their own inferiority. The merchant, the craftsman, the lawyer and the doctor had roles in Europe, though, which at an early date made them more than simple appendages of landed society. Their society was not closed to change and self-advancement; it offered routes to self-improvement other than the warrior’s or the court favourite’s. Townsmen were equal and free, even if some were more equal than others.
It need not surprise us that practical, legal and personal freedom was much greater for men than for women (though there were still those of both sexes who were legally unfree at the bottom of society). Whether they were of noble or common blood, medieval European women suffered, by comparison with their menfolk, from important legal and social disabilities, just as they have done in every civilization which has ever existed. Their rights of inheritance were often restricted; they could inherit a fief, for example, but could not enjoy personal lordship, and had to appoint men to carry out the obligations that went with it. In all classes below the highest there was much drudgery to be done by women; even in the twentieth century there were European peasant women who worked on the land as women still do in Africa and Asia today.
There were theoretical elements in the subjection of women and a large contribution was made to them by the Church. In part this was a matter of its traditionally hostile stance towards sexuality. Its teaching had never been able to find any justification for sex except for its role in the reproduction of the species. Woman being seen as the origin of Man’s fall and a standing temptation to concupiscence, the Church threw its weight behind the domination of society by men. Yet this is not all there is to be said. Other societies have done more to seclude and oppress women than Christendom, and the Church at least offered women the only respectable alternative to domesticity available until modern times; the history of the female religious is studded with outstanding women of learning, spirituality and administrative gifts. The position of at least a minority of well-born women, too, was marginally bettered by the idealization of women in the chivalric codes of behaviour of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There lay in this a notion of romantic love and an entitlement to service, a stage towards a higher civilization.
At bottom, no Christian Church could ever deny to women so much as was denied them in some other cultures. The deepest roots of what later generations were to think of as the ‘liberation’ of women lie, for this reason, in western culture, whose role in so many places was to be disturbing, exotic and revolutionary. Yet such ideas in the Middle Ages can have had little impact even on the lives of European women. Among themselves, medieval European women were more equal before death than would be rich and poor women in Asia today, but then so were men. Women lived less long than men, it seems, and frequent confinements and a high mortality rate no doubt explain this. Medieval obstetrics remained, as did other branches of medicine, rooted in Aristotle and Galen; there was nothing better available. But men died young, too. Aquinas lived only to forty-seven and philosophy is not nowadays thought to be physically exacting. This was about the age to which a man of twenty in a medieval town might normally expect to survive: he was lucky to have got as far already and to have escaped the ferocious toll of infant mortality which imposed an average life of about thirty-three years and a death rate about twice that of modern industrial countries. Judged by the standards of antiquity, so far as they can be grasped, this was of course by no means bad.
This reminds us of one last novelty in the huge variety of the Middle Ages; they left behind the means for us to measure just a little more of the dimensions of human life. From these centuries come the first collections of facts upon which reasoned estimates can be made. When in 1087 William the Conqueror’s officers rode out into England to interrogate its inhabitants and to record its structure and wealth in the Domesday Book, they were unwittingly pointing the way to a new age. Other collections of data, usually for tax purposes, followed in the next few centuries. Some have survived, together with the first accounts which reduce farming and business to quantities. Thanks to them historians can talk with a little more confidence about late medieval society than about that of any earlier time.