The growth of industry and commerce, the spread of a money economy, and the rising demand for labor in the towns transformed the agricultural regime. The municipalities, eager to get new “hands,” announced that any person living in a town for 366 days without being claimed, identified, and taken as a serf, became automatically free, and would enjoy the protection of the commune’s laws and power. In 1106 Florence invited all the peasants of the surrounding villages to come and live there as freemen. Bologna andother towns paid feudal lords to let their serfs move into the city. A large number of serfs escaped, or were invited, to open new lands east of the Elbe, where they became automatically free.
Those who remained on the manor showed a troublesome resistance to feudal dues long sanctioned by time. Emulating the town guilds, many serfs formed rural associations—confréries, conjurations—and bound themselves by oath to act together in refusing feudal dues. They stole or destroyed seignorial charters that recorded their bondage or obligations; they burned down the castles of obstinate seigneurs; they threatened to abandon the domain if their demands were not met. In 1100 the villeins of St. Michel-de-Beauvais announced that they would thereafter marry any woman they pleased, and would give their daughters to any man who pleased them. In 1102 the serfs of St. Arnoul-de-Crépy refused their abbot lord the traditional heriot, or death due, or to pay a fine for letting their daughters marry outside the domain. Similar rebellions broke out in a dozen towns from Flanders to Spain. The feudal lords found it increasingly difficult to make a profit out of serf labor; rising resistance required costly superintendence at every turn; villein labor in manorial shops proved more expensive, and less competent, than the free labor that produced like goods in the towns.
To keep the peasants on the land, and make their labor profitable to himself, the baron commuted the old feudal dues for money payments, sold freedom to serfs who could pay for it with their savings, leased more and more of the demesne to free peasants for a money rental, and hired free labor for the workshops on his estate. Year by year, following the lead of the Moslem and Byzantine East, western Europe, from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, passed from payments predominantly in kind to payments predominantly in currency. Feudal landlords, desiring the manufactured products that commerce laid before their eyes, craved money with which to purchase them; going off to the Crusades, they wanted money rather than food and goods; governments demanded taxes in money, not in kind; the landlords yielded to the course of events, and sold their products for cash instead of consuming them by laborious migration from villa to villa. The change to a money economy proved costly for the feudal landlords; the commutations and rents they received acquired the fixity of medieval custom, and could not be raised as rapidly as the value of money fell. Many of the aristocracy had to sell their land—usually to the rising bourgeoisie; some nobles, as early as 1250, died landless or destitute.115 Early in the fourteenth century King Philip the Fair of France freed the serfs on the royal domain, and in 1315 his son Louis X ordered the liberation of all serfs “on fair and suitable conditions.”116 Gradually, from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, at different times in divers countries west of the Elbe, serfdom gave place to peasant proprietorship; the feudal manor broke up into small estates, and the peasantry rose in the thirteenth century to a degree of freedom and prosperity that it had not known for a thousand years. The seignorial courts lost their jurisdiction over the peasants, and the village community elected its own officers, who swore allegiance not to the local lord but only to the crown. The emancipation in western Europe was not quite complete till 1789; many feudal lords still claimed the old rights in law, and would try, in the fourteenth century, to restore them in fact; but the movement toward free and mobile labor could not be stopped so long as commerce and industry grew.
The new stimulus of freedom co-operated with an immense widening of the agricultural market to improve the methods, tools, and products of tillage. The rising population of the towns, the increase of wealth, the new facilities of finance and trade expanded and enriched the rural economy. New industries created a demand for industrial crops—sugar cane, aniseed, cumin, hemp, flax, vegetable oils, and dyes. The nearness of populous towns promoted cattle raising, dairy farming, and market gardening. From thousands of vineyards in the valleys of the Tiber, the Arno, the Po, the Guadalquivir, the Tagus, the Ebro, the Rhone, the Gironde, the Garonne, the Loire, the Seine, the Moselle, the Meuse, the Rhine, and the Danube wine flowed along the rivers and over land and sea to console the toilers of Europe’s fields, workshops, and counting rooms; even England, from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, made wine. To feed the hungry towns, where fast days were numerous and meat was costly, great fleets went out into the Baltic and North Seas to bring in herring and other fish; Yarmouth owed its life to the herring trade; the merchants of Lübeck acknowledged their debt to it by carving herrings on their pews;117 and honest Dutchmen admitted that they had “built upon herrings” the proud city of Amsterdam.118
Agricultural technique slowly improved. The Christians learned from the Arabs in Spain, Sicily, and the East; and the Benedictine and Cistercian monks brought old Roman and new Italian tricks of farming, breeding, and soil preservation to the countries north of the Alps. The strip system was abandoned in laying out new farms, and each farmer was left to his own initiative and enterprise. In Flanders fields reclaimed from swamps the peasants of the thirteenth century practiced a three-field rotation of crops, in which the soil was used each year, but was triennially replenished by fodder or leguminous plants. Powerful teams of oxen drew iron plowshares more deeply into the soil than before. Most plows, however, were still (1300) of wood; only a few regions knew the use of manure; and wagon wheels were seldom shod with iron tires. Cattle raising was difficult because of prolonged droughts; but the thirteenth century saw the first experiments in the crossing and acclimatization of breeds. Dairy farming was unprogressive; the average cow in the thirteenth century gave little milk, and hardly a pound of butter per week. (A well-bred cow now yields ten to thirty pounds of butter per week.)
While their masters fought one another, the peasants of Europe fought the greater battle, more heroic and unsung, of man against nature. Between the eleventh and the thirteenth century the sea had thirty-five times swept over barriers and across the Lowlands, creating new gulfs and bays where once there had been land, and drowning 100,000 persons in a century. From the eleventh to the fourteenth century the peasants of these regions, under their princes and abbots, transported blocks of stone from Scandinavia and Germany, and built the “Golden Wall” behind which the Belgians and the Dutch have developed two of the most civilized states in history. Thousands of acres were rescued from the sea, and by the thirteenth century the Lowlands were latticed with canals. From 1179 to 1257 the Italians cut the famous Naviglio Grande, or Great Canal, between Lake Maggiore and the Po, fertilizing 86,485 acres of land. Between the Elbe and the Oder patient immigrants from Flanders, Frisia, Saxony, and the Rhineland turned the marshyMooren into rich fields. The superabundant forests of France were progressively cleared, and became the farms that through centuries of political turmoil have kept France fed. Perhaps it was this mass heroism of clearance, drainage, irrigation, and cultivation, rather than any victories of war or trade, that provided the foundation on which, in final analysis, rest all the triumphs of European civilization in the last 700 years.