A New Civilization Emerges in Western Europe
Author: Stearns, Peter N.;Adas, Michael;Schwartz, Stuart B.
Date: 1992

Economy And Society In The Postclassical Centuries

While culture provided the clearest cement for Western society during the
medieval centuries, framed of course by the institutional sweep of the
Catholic church, a number of common features also described economic activity
and social structure. Here too, the postclassical West demonstrated impressive
powers of innovation, for the hold of classical patterns was slight. As trade
revived by the 10th century, the West became something of a common commercial
zone. Most regions produced primarily for local consumption, as was true in
agricultural societies generally. But Italian merchants actively sought cloth
manufactured in the Low Countries, and merchants in many areas traded for wool
grown in England or timber supplies and furs brought from Scandinavia and the
Baltic lands. Great ports and trading fairs, particularly in the Low Countries
and northern France, served as centers for Western exchange, as well as
markets for a few exotic products such as spices brought in from other

Furthermore, despite great diversity in local detail, something of a
common spirit and some common institutions developed in medieval social and
economic life, and these in turn expressed important features of the larger
civilization of the postclassical West. Western thinkers of this time liked to
picture their society in rather simple terms, not unlike the metaphors of
classical India. Borrowing from classical Greek and Roman concepts, John of
Salisbury, an English churchman, likened society to the human body: Peasants
were the feet, without which society could not function. Knightly warriors
were the hands, to defend. Priests provided heart and soul, and the king was
the head. Each part was essential, but each fit into a clear hierarchy in
which lower segments were properly ruled by those above. Except for priests,
most people were born into their status, with privileges or limits legally

In fact, postclassical Western society was more complicated, and it
evolved toward ever-greater complexity. The West did not develop a caste
system, despite the emphasis on inherited positions, for there was always some
mobility and creation of new groups. The landlord-serf relationship, which was
both political and economic, remained crucial, but it tended to change
considerably as peasants gained greater freedom of maneuver. Even under
powerful landlords, rural villages regulated agriculture and controlled some
land for common use, giving a strong community flavor to peasant life. Some
peasants began producing for sale to urban markets, thus generating tensions
with village traditions as well as with landlord control.

As in most agricultural societies, economic demands conditioned family
life, as families formed the chief units of agricultural production. Choosing
a spouse who was a good worker and winning an appropriate dowry or inheritance
were vital ingredients of family life - and marriages, typically arranged by
parents, placed economic criteria above all else. Children were expected to
work at an early age, while adult men and women roughly divided labor between
field and household.

Agricultural Change

The improvements in agriculture after A.D. 800 brought important new
ingredients to rural life. Some peasants were able to shake off the most
severe constraints of manorialism, becoming almost free farmers with only a
few obligations to their landlords, though rigid manorialism remained in place
in many areas. Noble landlords still served mainly military functions, for
ownership of a horse and armor were prerequisites for fighting until the end
of the medieval period. But while most nobles shunned the taint of commerce -
like aristocrats in many societies, they found too much money-grubbing
demeaning - they did use trade to improve their standard of living and adopt
more polished habits. The courtly literature of the late Middle Ages reflected
this new style of life.

As many lords sought improved conditions, they were often tempted to
press their serfs to pay higher rents and taxes - even as serfs themselves
were gaining a new sense of freedom and control over their own land. This
tension produced, from the late Middle Ages until the 19th century, a
recurrent series of peasant-landlord battles in Western society. Peasants
sought what they viewed as their natural and traditional right to the land,
free and clear of any exactions. They talked of Christian equality, turning
phrases such as "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman?" A
more complex economy clearly brought new social strains, not totally unlike
the recurrent wave of popular unrest in China or the rural risings in the
Middle East, where religion helped prompt egalitarian sentiments as well.

Yet on the whole the conditions of Western peasants improved during the
most dynamic part of the Middle Ages. Landlord controls were less tight than
they had become in other societies such as the Middle East. Western
agriculture was not yet particularly advanced technologically, compared for
example with East Asia, but it had improved notably over early medieval levels
and also surpassed the productivity of the classical Mediterranean world.

Cities And Commerce

Gains in agriculture of course promoted larger changes in medieval
economic life. Urban growth allowed more specialized manufacturing and
commercial activities, which in turn promoted still greater trade. Banking was
introduced to the West, spearheaded by Italian businessmen, to facilitate
long-distance exchange of money and goods. The use of money spread steadily,
to the diimay of many Christian moralists and many ordinary people who
preferred the more direct, personal ways of traditional society. The largest
trading and banking operations, not only in Italy but in southern Germany, the
Low Countries, France, and Britain, were clearly capitalistic. Big merchants
invested funds in trading ships and the goods they carried, hoping to make
large profits on this capital. Profit making was not judged kindly by
Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, who urged that all prices should be
"just," reflecting only the labor put into the good; but it clearly, sometimes
avidly, occurred.

Rising trade took a number of forms. There were exchanges between western
Europe and other parts of the known world. Wealthy Europeans developed a taste
for some of the spices and luxury goods of Asia; the Crusades played a role in
bringing these products to wider attention. A Mediterranean trade redeveloped,
mainly in the hands of Italian merchants, in which European cloth and some
other products were exchanged for the more polished goods of the East.
Commerce within Europe involved exchanges of timber and grain from the north
for cloth and metal products manufactured in Italy and the Low Countries.
England, at first an exoorter of raw wool, developed some manufactured goods
for exchange by the later Middle Ages. Commercial alliances developed. Cities
in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia grouped together in the Hanseatic
League to encourage trade. With growing banking facilities, it became possible
to organize commercial transactions throughout much of western Europe.
Bankers, including a number of Jewish businessmen, were valued for their
service in lending money to monarchs and the papacy.

The growth of trade and banking in the Middle Ages served as the genesis
of capitalism in Western civilization. The greater Italian and German bankers,
the long-distance merchants of the Hanseatic cities, were clearly capitalistic
in their willingness to invest considerable sums of money in trading ventures
with the expectation of substantial profit. Given the continued dangers of
trade by land and sea, the risks in these investments were substantial, but
profits of up to 100 percent or more were also possible. In many cities, such
as London, groups of powerful merchants banded together to invest in
international trade, each buying shares in the venture and profiting or losing

This was not, by world standards, a totally unprecedented merchant
spirit. European traders were still less venturesome and less wealthy than
some of their Muslim counterparts. Nor was Western society yet as tolerant of
merchants as Muslim or Indian societies. Yet Western commercial endeavors were
clearly gaining in dynamism. Because Western governments were weak, with few
economic functions, merchants had a freer hand than in many other
civilizations. Many of the growing cities, in particular, were ruled by
commercial leagues. Monarchs liked to encourage the cities as a counterbalance
to the power of the landed aristocracy, and, in the later Middle Ages and
beyond, traders and kings were typically allied. However, aside from taxing
merchants and using them as sources of loans, royal governments did not
interfere extensively with trading activities. Merchants even developed their
own codes of commercial law, administered by city courts. Thus the rising
merchant class, though not unusual in strength or venturesomeness, was staking
out an unusually powerful and independent role in European society.

Capitalism was not yet typical of the Western economy, even aside from
the moral qualms fostered by the Christian tradition. Most peasants and
landlords had not become enmeshed in a market system. In the cities, the
dominant economic ethic stressed group protection, not untrammeled profit
seeking. The characteristic institution was not the international trading
firm, but the merchant or artisan guild. Guilds grouped people in the same
business or trade in a single city, sometimes with loose links to similar
guilds in other cities. These organizations were new in western Europe, though
they resembled guilds in various parts of Asia but with greater independence
from the state. They stressed security and mutual control. Merchant guilds
thus sought to assure all members a share in any endeavor. If a ship pulled in
loaded with wool, the clothiers' guild of the city insisted that all members
participate in the purchasing, so that no one member would monopolize the

Artisan guilds were composed of the people in the cities who actually
made cloth, bread, jewelry, or furniture. These guilds tried to limit
membership so that all members would be assured of work. They regulated
apprenticeships, to guarantee good training but also to make sure that no
member would employ too many apprentices and so gain undue wealth. They
discouraged new methods because security and a rough equality, not maximum
individual profit, were the goals; here was their alternative to the
capitalistic approach. Guilds also tried to guarantee good workmanship, so
that consumers would not have to worry about shoddy quality on the part of
some unscrupulous profit seeker. Guilds played an important political and
social role in the cities, assuring their members of recognized status and,
often, a voice in city government. Their statutes were in turn upheld by
municipal law and were often backed by the royal government as well.

Despite the traditionalism and security-mindedness of the guilds,
manufacturing as well as commercial methods did improve in medieval Europe.
Western Europe was not yet as advanced as Asia in iron making or textile
manufacture, but it was beginning to catch up. In a few areas, such as clock
making - which involved both sophisticated technology and an interesting
concern for precise time - European artisans in fact had forged a world lead.
Furthermore, some manufacturing spilled beyond the bounds of guild control.
Particularly in the Low Countries and parts of Italy, groups of manufacturing
workers were employed by capitalists to produce for a wide market. Their
techniques were simple, and they worked in their own homes, often alternating
manufacturing labor with agriculture. Their work was regulated not by the
motives of the guilds but by the inducements of merchant capitalists, who
provided them with raw materials and then paid them for their production.

The simple fact was that, by the later Middle Ages, western Europe's
economy and society embraced a number of contradictory groups and principles.
Commercial and capitalist elements joined against the slower pace of economic
life in the countryside and even against the dominant group protectionism of
most urban guilds. Most people remained peasants, but a minority had escaped
to the cities where they found more excitement, though also increased danger
and higher rates of disease. Medieval tradition held that a serf who managed
to live in the city for a year and a day became a free person. A few
prosperous capitalists flourished, but most people operated according to quite
different economic values, directed toward group welfare rather than
individual profit. This was not either a static society or an early model of a
modern commercial society. It had its own flavor, and its own tensions - the
fruit of several centuries of economic and social change.

Women And Family Life

The increasing complexity of medieval social and economic life may have
had one final effect which is familiar from patterns in other agricultural
societies: setting new limits on the conditions of women. Women's work
remained of course vital in most families. Christian emphasis on the equality
of all souls, and the practical importance of monastic groups organized for
women, giving some an alternative to marriage, continued to offer distinctive
features for women's lives in Western society. The veneration of Mary and
other female religious figures gave women real cultural prestige,
counterbalancing the Biblical emphasis on Eve as the source of human sin. In
some respects women in the West had higher status than their sisters under
Islam: They were less segregated in religious services (though they could not
lead them) and less confined to the household. Still, women's effective voice
in the family may have declined in the Middle Ages. Urban women often played
important roles in local commerce and even operated some craft guilds, but
they found themselves increasingly hemmed in by male-dominated organizations.
By the late Middle Ages a literature arose that stressed women's roles as the
assistants and comforters to men, listing supplemental household tasks and
docile virtues as women's distinctive sphere. Patriarchal structures seemed to
be taking deeper root.

The Political Values Of The Middle Ages

The key values and tensions of medieval society and culture were
expressed in characteristic styles and institutions: the Gothic cathedral, the
scholastic Summas, the manors, and the guilds. Medieval politics produced a
similar summary expression in the feudal monarchy as it flowered during the
High Middle Ages. There was, to be sure, greater basic diversity in medieval
politics than in social or cultural forms, and feudal monarchy by no means
took hold universally across Western society. However, some of the principles
this institution captured were more widely held, wherever feudalism evolved to
permit somewhat more centralized governing structures, in duchies or other
regional states as well as the more eye-catching kingdoms like England and

In addition to its unusual, sometimes overwhelming chaos, the early
postclassical West developed a number of implicit political principles that
were carried over, though also modified, when more sophisticated government
structures began to emerge with the rise of monarchies. Principle number one,
clearly articulated in Church writings, held that laws of God were superior to
those of humans. The Church, as an instrument of God, was separate from the
state and in some ways above it, even though in the rough and tumble of actual
medieval politics secular rulers often seized the upper hand. Principle number
two involved the ineradicable local and regional divisions. Effective imperial
governments could not be formed, as the collapse of Charlemagne's empire
demonstrated; the West would be politically divided. Even regional governments
had to recognize the strength of the local interests and power clusters.
Principle number three, closely related to the impediments to centralization,
involved the values embodied in feudalism. Feudal bonds - the relationships
between lords and vassals - stressed mutuality. Each party in the relationship
should contribute, each should gain. Vassals received protection and, usually,
land (the fief or feudum, from which feudalism took its name) from their lord;
lords won some payments, military service, and loyalty from their vassals.
While feudalism permitted hierarchy among lords, it did not permit, at least
in theory, unilateral assertions of power. It also encouraged mutual
consultation. Vassals were supposed to advise their lords on judicial matters
or issues of policy; lords were supposed to consult their vassals, rather than
acting arbitrarily.

Unadulterated feudalism might of course function very badly. For all the
high-sounding principles, there was a great deal of outright bullying and
power display among the local lords during the postclassical period, quite
apart from ill treatment of the masses of ordinary serfs who were underneath
the feudal system. Effective government required some modifications of
feudalism. Yet feudalism could be blended with other political systems,
without losing many of its distinctive features.

Monarchy And Its Limits

The new ingredient in medieval politics, as medieval society developed
greater vigor from the 10th century onward, was of course the growth of royal
power (or in some regions such as much of present-day Belgium, ducal power).
Here the key steps are in many ways familiar, for they duplicateo,
unwittingly, the centralization principles developed earlier and more
extensively in China and elsewhere. Medieval kings followed particular
patterns of alliances and gradual aggrandizement because of their initially
weak positions, and there were important specific events involved such as the
Norman Conquest of England. Centralization is centralization, however, and
though often reinvented it has some standard features.

Thus, as they began to expand their resources and aspirations, medieval
kings developed small armies of their own, paid for by lands under their
direct control, and they ventured a small central bureaucracy. Often they
chose urban business or professional people to serve in this bureaucracy,
partly because such people had expertise in financial matters and partly
because, unlike the aristocracy, they would owe allegiance to the crown alone.
French and English monarchs began to introduce bureaucratic specialties, so
that some of their ministers would handle justice, others finance, and still
others military matters. They found ways to send centrally appointed
emissaries to the provinces to supervise tax collection and the administration
of justice. It was in this vein that English kings, from the Norman Conquest
onward, appointed local sheriffs to oversee the administration of justice.
None of these activities gave the monarchs extensive contacts with ordinary
subjects; for most people, effective governments were still local. Once the
principle of central control was established, however, a steady growth of
state-sponsored rule followed. By the end of the Middle Ages, monarchs were
gaining the right to tax their subjects directly, and they were beginning to
recruit professional armies, instead of relying solely on an aristocratic
cavalry whose loyalties depended on feudal bonds or alliances. Several
medieval kings, such as Louis IX in France, also gained solid reputations as
law givers, which allowed a gradual centralization of legal codes and court
systems. Rediscovery of Roman law in countries like France encouraged this
centralization effort.

Feudal monarchy was always a delicately balanced institution, of which
the central government formed only one of the key ingredients. The power of
the Church served to check royal ambitions. As we have seen, the Church could
often win in a clash with the state by excommunicating rulers and thus
threatening to turn the loyalties of the population against them. Although the
Church entered a period of decline at the end of the Middle Ages, the
principle was rather clearly established that there were areas of belief and
morality not open to manipulation by the state. And during most of the Middle
Ages, the sheer authority of church organization and religious doctrine made
this limitation on royal power a telling reality.

The second limitation on the royal families came from the traditions of
feudalism and from the landed aristocracy as a powerful class. Aristocrats
tended to resist too much monarchical control in the West, and they had the
strength to make their objections heard. These aristocrats, even when vassals
of the king, had their own economic base and their own military force -
sometimes, in the case of great nobles, they had an army greater than that of
the king. The growth of the monarchy cut into aristocratic power, but this led
to new statements of the limits of kings. In 1215 the unpopular English king
John faced opposition to his taxation measures from an alliance of nobles,
townspeople, and church officials. Defeated in his war with France and then
forced down by the leading English lords, John was forced to sign the Great
Charter, or Magna Carta, which confirmed basically feudal rights against
monarchical claims. John promised to observe restraint in his dealings with
the nobles and the Church, agreeing for example not to institute new taxes
without the lords' permission or to appoint bishops without the Church's
permission. A few modern-sounding references to general rights of the English
people against the state that were included in Magna Carta largely served to
show where the feudal idea of mutual limits and obligations between rulers and
ruled could later expand.

This same feudal balance led, late in the 13th century, to the creation
of parliaments as bodies representing not individual voters but privileged
groups such as the nobles and the Church. The first full English parliament
convened in 1265, with the House of Lords representing the nobles and the
church hierarchy, and the Commons made up of elected representatives from
wealthy citizens of the towns. The parliament institutionalized the feudal
principle that monarchs should consult with their vassals. In particular,
parliaments gained the right to rule on any proposed changes in taxation;
through this power, they could also advise the crown on other policy issues.
While the parliamentary tradition became strongest in England, similar
institutions arose in France, Spain, and several of the regional governments
in Germany. Here too, parliaments represented the key estates: Church, nobles,
and urban leaders. They were not widely elected.

Feudal government was not modern government. People had rights according
to the estate into which they were born; there was no general concept of
citizenship and no democracy. Thus parliaments represented only a minority,
and even this minority only in terms of the three or four estates voting as
units (nobles, clergy, urban merchants, and sometimes wealthy peasants), not
some generalized collection of voters. Still, by creating a concept of limited
government and some hint of representative institutions, Western feudal
monarchy produced the beginnings of a distinctive political tradition. This
tradition differed from the political results of Japanese feudalism, which
emphasized group loyalty more than checks on central power.

During the postclassical period, a key result of the establishment of
feudal monarchy was a comparatively weak central core; although several
monarchies gained ground steadily, they wielded very few general powers. This
would change, as kings attained far more extensive powers in military affairs,
cultural patronage, and the like. However, some solid remnants of medieval
traditions, embodied in institutions like parliaments and ideas like the
separation between God's authority and state power, would define a basic
thread in the Western political process even in the later 20th century.


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