My light reading for about a month has been An economic history of medieval Europe, by N.J.G. Pounds. I recommend it half-heartedly.
What do we know about medieval economics? Frustratingly little, it turns out. Every few pages Pounds has to remind us that there just isn’t much data. He goes over what we have, but it’s really impossible to build up the sort of overall statistics that we take for granted today. It’s almost impossible to get estimates of production of goods, or even to definitively answer questions like when the moldboard plow was actually adopted, or whether the 1400s were a period of depression or a time of productive improvement.
The book is from 1974, so it’s possible that nearly 30 years have produced a slightly clearer picture. E.g. I don’t quite buy his statements that medieval technology was stagnant, not after reading Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine. Pounds even mentions some of the same inventions, such as the blossoming of mill technology and the later focus on mining.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is in the first few chapters, on the late Roman Empire. We have a picture of a flourishing, sophisticated, rich urban civilization, but in many ways this is an illusion. Most of the Empire was at a barely subsistent level; the western half was “an uninhabited wilderness, broken by islands of cultivation”; trade was minimal; large-scale enterprises were undertaken only by the state; Rome itself basically produced nothing. The East was of course richer and more urbanized.
The book also emphasizes that the lot of the peasant, from Roman times till well into the modern age, frankly sucked. At the subsistence level, the peasant couldn’t afford much in the way of urban wares, so the cities remained small and trade was largely in luxury goods. The empty spaces on the map filled in, and new towns appeared, but that just meant there were more and more peasants and on more marginal land. The only real improvement in living conditions were a) in colonizing new lands, especially in Eastern Europe; and b) after the Black Death, when depopulation temporarily created a labor shortage.
And as Eastern Europe filled up, the feudal lords exerted more and more control and turned most of the peasants into serfs. In Western Europe the tendency was for the king to rein in the nobles, which was a little better for the peasants.
There’s a discussion of the guilds; Pounds seems to think that they never amounted to much. They always tried for monopoly power, which in theory could restrain the economy; but in most places it was the merchants, not the craftsmen, who really ran the economy. (Often they supplied the raw materials and even the tools.) In any case, when the urban cloth workers grew too expensive, the merchants simply outsourced the work to the rural areas.
One surprising assertion is that the cities had trouble feeding themselves– the northern Italian cities had to import grain from as far as Sicily. This seems a bit odd when none of them exceeded 50,000 residents. But perhaps the surplus of the European farmer really was that low– or perhaps the situation illustrates the price differential of wagons vs. ships.
There’s quite a bit about how the early fairs developed into permanent commercial markets, and how the early traders operated. Currency was scarce, so things were arranged such that little money had to actually change hands. You’d bring your alum to Bruges, take home a shipment of woolens, and payments were mostly handled by moving numbers within the bankers’ ledgers. (The last few days of a fair were devoted to the settling of accounts.) At first the big merchants actually traveled across the continent; later on they simply employed local agents.
Kings and other lords were constantly interfering in the market. Landowners, including the king, were generally able stewards of their own estates. Their powers of enforcement over the rest of society were limited, which led to interesting compromises. Close control was impossible, but on the other hand focusses of wealth could be seized. Thus cities were given a large measure of autonomy, but were also easily taxed. In many countries the king had the right to all mineral resources– but as he could hardly mine everywhere, what this came down to was that anyone could mine, but owed a tax to the king. Most states were highly in debt to the banks, but didn’t scruple at confiscating a local bank or defaulting to a foreign one.
Another lesson is just how miscellaneous Europe was. Generalizations at the national level are almost useless; you have to look at each region and even each town. The Elder Scrolls continent of Tamriel, with its ragged multiplicity of races and regions, is actually not a bad model, certainly much better than the usual fantasy expedient of one uniform country with perhaps one exotic neighbor.