All entries for Sunday 23 January 2005
January 23, 2005
Why Did The Industrial Revolution Take Place In Europe And Not Asia?
As the world’s trade and industry started to change, arguably, into a more global economy in the late twentieth century, it could also be argued that historians altered their opinions on the past, seeming to move away from a ‘Eurocentric’ view of history and encompassing a more global history suggesting a global economy as early as the twelfth century with its centre placed firmly in Peking. The question of why the Industrial Revolution occurred in eighteenth-century Western Europe and not anywhere else for example the Yangzi Delta became global topics for historical debate. Opinion is diverse; however, one can roughly divide it into three groups; Eurocentric determinists, Global economists and a group of revisionist historians who dismiss the validity of any comparison due to the extreme differences between Europe and other areas of the world. Such diversity in opinion is cause for a closer look into the areas of contention; geography and ecology, demography, technology, European economic advantage, colonialism and a global economy, governmental policy and the role of exploitation, and general cultural differences.
Firstly, the role of geography has been used by historians to answer why Europe came before Asia. It is argued that Britain had a climatic advantage over China due to its mild weather and constant rainfall. Moderate weather conditions protected Europe against disease and drought, capital damaging disasters. Furthermore, the favourable agricultural conditions and fertile soil allowed Europe, especially Western Europe, to keep enough land spare to use to graze animals, something never really achieved in China. However, this fairly Eurocentric view does not account for the favourable conditions in many places in China such as the Guangdong region as highlighted by Pomeranz.
Historians agree that Europe had more livestock than Asia from the medieval period onwards. However, this fact has created a split opinion; Pomeranz argues that China did not have the same need for livestock that Europe did. Animals in Europe were used not only for food, but for industrial purposes [pulling ploughs, turning millstones] and transport. It is argued that these advantages set the bearings for Europe to develop. However, the Chinese cultivated rice in paddy fields instead of wheat, so there was no great need for ploughing or turning millstones. China utilised its waterways for transport links, and purchased warhorses from Central Asia and proceeded to breed them throughout the seventeenth century . Furthermore, although meat provides an unrivalled source of protein, the Chinese gained enough protein from rice and beans, in addition, the Chinese, along with the Japanese and South-East Asia, had a safe water supply and cotton was widely available. These advantages in standard of life are clear evidence that the geographical argument for why Europe ‘succeeded’ and not Asia are invalid, especially in light of the fact that in Europe between 1400 and 1800 meat consumption actually fell 80 per cent in some areas.
Secondly, Europe’s, and in particular Britain’s, ecological advantages are argued to have caused and inspired its industrialisation. Britain’s mines were close in proximity to its markets. Although China did have large coal reserves, they were situated in the North. Following the general migration southward and re-location of the cultural centre to ward against attack from invaders, the coal industry that had once been booming became ‘a backwater’ , in terms of commerce and new ideas. The climates of the two areas also have a role to play in the development of technology. Britain had a major problem with flooding, and a solution was found in the form of a steam powered pump. With adaptation, this would form the basis for the steam power used in industry. China had the opposite problem – the problem of spontaneous combustion – a solution was found in adequate ventilation, but this did not possess the same potential for development. Many theses place the ecological factor of coal as the vanguard of their studies, the discovery by the British of steam power created from coal arguably led to the Industrial revolution through transport and powerful machinery. Even though conditions in Song China were similar, the cheap coal available in Britain and the problems they had to overcome gave the British a unique and cheap motive to innovate.
Thirdly, demographical arguments play a major role in the argument about why China did not industrialise in the eighteenth century. China is seen by Eurocentric historians to have been much more densely populated than Europe. Due to the abundance of labour, China is argued to have had lower real wages than Europe and therefore did not have the same need to develop ‘labour saving’ devices. Additionally, rice, China’s main crop, soaked up land and labour, the more land and labour fed to it the more output it produced. The Malthusian argument never proved correct where rice was concerned. Europe however, had a higher percentage of arable land and a much sparser population. Furthermore, the natural disasters that occurred in Europe [wars, epidemics, famines] tended to hit labour rather than crops; it is argued that this created higher wages and a greater need for mechanisation. However, in terms of population growth the two seem quite similar. Although China did have earlier marriage rates, most women were married before the age of 21 and a belief system in Confucianism that, in theory, promoted large families; birth control methods such as infanticide and the spacing out of births did stem the tide of massive population growth to a certain extent. Comparatively speaking, the Chinese generally started families later and finished earlier than their European counterparts. Also, the only birth control widely used in Europe was marriage. Although the Chinese population was slightly larger and more considerable per square foot of arable land, the rise in ‘proto-industrialisation’ in China effectively swallowed this difference, therefore relatively equalising the population growths of Europe and China. Pomeranz argues along the same lines, when he points out that life expectancy in Asia was equal if not better than that of Europe up to 1750. He argues that ‘proto-industrialisation’ in rural China, kept real wages at a constant rate throughout this period. However, it has been argued that due to the total difference between the economic, cultural, geographical and demographic structures the two areas are so different they are ‘almost different “Darwinian species”’ and therefore any attempt to compare the two is pointless.
Perdue names the demographical argument as one of the ‘shortcuts’ of explaining the difference between east and west. He argues that there was a relative correspondence between the two populations, they rose and fell together and never really exceeded the five per cent gap in their percentage of world population. Perdue also suggests that if scarce population was the sole catalyst for innovation, Siberia would be the most technologically advanced area on the planet, which it is of course not.
Technological advancement is another major factor in the quest to decipher how Europe came to Industrialise before Asia. Industrialisation was dependant on the development of technology and indeed the Europeans did make many technological breakthroughs. Europe’s discovery of how to capture heat and use it effectively was a major breakthrough towards Industrialisation. However, Eurocentric historians, of which Landes is the main spokesman, argue that the idea of progress was ‘weak or absent’ from Chinese culture. Instead of developing previous generations’ technology, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, each generation seemed to start from scratch. This is Landes’ explanation for the apparent Chinese successes in other periods of history. Chinese technology had given the world the compass and gunpowder [to name a few] and had ‘developed a huge iron and coal complex’ during the Song dynasty; however the Chinese, in what seems to be an ideal basis to industrialise, never did. The absence of ‘scientific societies’ and the spread of ideas is thought to have had an adverse effect, although print in China was widespread many years before Europe, ideas were never spread like the enlightenment in the late eighteenth century. Furthermore, in Europe scientific study was government backed and the catalysts of consistent warfare and inter-nation competition helped its cause.
The world system theory pioneered by Frank, suggests that technological advancement was a ‘world economic process’ and that Asia just took a back seat during this period. This global economy is indicated by the ‘Green Revolution’ – the introduction of new crops all over the world. Potato and maize were introduced to China whereas spices, cotton and silk were traded in the opposite direction along the infamous Silk Route across Asia. Additionally, the affect of silver on the Ming shows the global nature of trade in the sixteenth century, 80 per cent of silver mined in Mexico and Peru found its way into China. Even if this figure is overestimated it indicates that China was not completely isolated from foreign trade like Eurocentric scholars argue.
Development in the area of precise measurement was an area of unique European speciality, and they kept a monopoly in the science of time measurements and magnification for over 300 years. These inventions allowed the precision that empirical method relied upon.
Chinese technology did not stagnate during the Ming-Qing dynasties, but it did not ‘revolutionise the Chinese economy’ like it revolutionised the European market. This is where the true question lies.
Eurocentric scholars argue that Europe was ‘uniquely wealthy’ preceding Industrialisation. Arguing that Europe had more capital, private ownership, basic property rights, a surplus producing agricultural system, the beginnings of specialisation, professional trade and law and order. However, these claims on closer inspection are not entirely unique to Europe. Private ownership and basic property rights had existed in China since sixth century BC. China owned a highly productive agriculture based on rice which yielded a surplus, and allowed the Chinese to trade extensively domestically and internationally. Frank’s global economy also suggests that China was at the forefront of a global economy and that Europe had to use its colonial outlet’s riches [i.e. the American gold and silver] to break into an economy, run by the East for more than three centuries.
Europe’s exploitation of its colonial outlets is a major reason for its success according to Pomeranz. Europe’s ‘global conjunctions’ allowed Europe to save its own ‘land-intensive’ resources. Furthermore, in combination with events elsewhere, such as the introduction of silver as fiscal payment in China, the Americas supplied capital for the Europeans to exploit in order to infiltrate the Chinese market, which supports Frank’s global economy theory.
The change of emperor in China in the mid 1430s brought about the end of the seven epic voyages of Zheng He. His maritime voyages reached as far as east Africa and predated Vasco de Gama by half a century in his navigation of the Indian Ocean. However, rivalries at court prevented any more voyages possible and by 1550 it had become a capital offence to sail a ship of more than two masts at all. China’s naval policy indicates three aspects of Chinese society, firstly that it had the technological knowledge before Europe to build grand ships and navigate a notoriously difficult area of ocean. Secondly, that Chinese culture was not inward looking as is presumed by Eurocentric scholars, and finally, the role of the Chinese state. A wave of modern historical thought holds the Chinese state responsible for its retardation. The cessation of naval voyages is an example of this hindering state intervention. However, Chinese money and resources were needed for much more pressing matters at that time. Mongol attacks along the northern border were becoming more frequent and needed attention and funding.
‘Oriental despotism’ a phrase coined by Wittfogel, presents a view of the Ming state as a rent-seeking government, it also suggest that this prevented capitalist fervour in China. The state is also accused of only taking an interest in homicide and tax evasion in court. However, new evidence suggests that the lower realms of Chinese society had security of tenure and some legal access and that the population increase in tenancy areas would not have been possible had the state been repressive enough to warrant the title of “rent-seeking”. Furthermore, Europe was not as free as Eurocentric historians might like to point out. Europe was a land of landed elites, religious restrictions, warfare and expulsion of entrepreneurial peoples such as the Jews and pogroms. Therefore, no decisive conclusion can be made to distinguish between the economic security and freedom of the Chinese or the European communities.
In conclusion, historical opinion tackles this question from many different points of view, more recently what have seemed to be solid descriptions of how Europe came to Industrialise before China have been proved to be ‘misplaced concreteness’ and ‘shortcuts’ by Eurocentric historians. The issue has become even more clouded as many of these factors have started to be seen to occur in similar ways in both regions. Only slight differences stand out in the cloud and these are not stand-alone factors, without the combination it is likely the Industrial Revolution might not have happened at all. Europe’s coal resource and its proximity to its economic base is an important factor. Also, the European discovery of steam power made possible by the expendable amount of almost worthless coal at the disposal of the inventors. Colonial expansion into the America’s also awarded Europe with extra land and capital to fund industrialisation. However, these factors have to have been in conjunction with Chinese trade, especially in silver. The invention of precision instruments also was indispensable to the European advancement. The world probably did have a global economy, at least, a set of interactions between east and west from as early as the early middle ages. Therefore, the revisionist argument is discredited, as has been shown, east and west were similar in many aspects and a comparison between them is possible especially in light of how close China might have come to industrialisation.
Deng, Kent. G., ‘A Critical Survey of Recent Research in Chinese Economic History’ Economic History Review, 53 , pp 1–28
Frank, Andre Gunder, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age [Berkeley, 1998]
Gerritsen, Anne, ‘Dragon’s Ascent: Lecture 5: Why Did the Ming Fall?’ Dragon’s Ascent Lecture 27 October 2004
Hicks, John Richard, Sir, A Theory of Economic History [Oxford, 1969]
Jones, E.L., The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia [Cambridge, 2003]
Landes, David S., The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why some are so rich and others are so poor [London, 1998]
Levathes, Louise, When China Ruled the Seas: the Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne [Oxford, 1996]
Perdue, Peter C., ‘China in the Early Modern World: Shortcuts, Myths and Realities’ Education About Asia, 4.1  pp.1–15
Pomeranz, Kenneth, The Great Divergence: Europe, China and the Making of the Modern World Economy [Princeton, N.J., 2000]
‘Why Do So Many People in the World Go Hungry?’
‘Hunger is not a scourge but a scandal’
The polemic issue over the continuation of hunger in a mainly democratic and modern society has produced varied explanations. Firstly, the climatic and population determinisms both to a certain amount held true in describing the nineteenth century, however more recently have been demoted to merely secondary or short-term factors. Is it arrogant to think that human reason has conquered nature’s power? More recently, the human involvement has come under closer scrutiny. Sen’s infamous definition of famine that hunger is ‘the characteristic of some people not having enough to eat. It is the characteristic of there being not enough to eat’ exemplifies this new wave of thinking. Susan George, from whom the opening quote is taken, takes Sen’s argument down a more neo-Marxist route, seeing the undeveloped world in a class war as the new proletariat with the new bourgeoisie developed world. Has colonialism actually departed or has it been replace in the form of globalisation and unequal trade? Zimbabwe can be taken as a example, is President Mugabe’s ill-fated resistance to the white, Western domination despotic and arrogant, or a desperate attempt to escape the dependency Western economies impose on African nations? Democracy, although seemingly being the answer to famine, has recently has come under attack as well. The re-emergence of famine in India – a democratic state – has brought some older theories into question. The hunger question in the twenty first century is complex, where a range of problems must be considered to establish any kind of valid explanation.
Firstly, the power of nature as a destructive force has a valid place in history. The famines of 1314–5 in Europe can be put down to a succession of failed harvests caused by colder and wetter summers. The ‘mini ice-age’ in the seventeenth century ruined crops over a long period of time. Furthermore, the eruption of the Tombaro volcano in Indonesia caused climate change all over the world and resulted in many failed harvests as far as Northern Europe and North America. The widespread damage caused by this eruption led to the world’s ‘last great subsistence crisis’, according to John D. Post. India can also provide good evidence to support climate determinism. Every major famine of the nineteenth century followed a complete or partial failure of the monsoon rains.
Climate, however, as a principal factor of hunger has become unpopular with recent historians, as the human role in hunger causation has risen to prominence. Climate has therefore been relegated to a secondary factor. Figures supplied by Sainath confirm that climatic determinism is not valid as a sole factor in drought and famine. He argues that Indian districts can survive off a minimum of 800mm in order to get by, however, areas such as Kalahandi has much higher rainfall but still has deadly problems with drought. In fact, Kalahandi has not dropped below the minimum in the last twenty years and yet has suffered continual difficulties. What makes this example even clearer is that California’s annual rainfall is only a quarter of Kalahandi’s and yet grapes are cultivated there and no famine has occurred in living memory. Malthusians and neo-Malthusians argue that natural disasters such as drought or plagues highlight problems with population. Climatic determinism is also attacked by George who argues that climate is a useful scapegoat to deter attention from an absence of planning, investment and justice.
However, recent denial of climate as a plausible factor in hunger has been refuted by Arnold. He argues that even if the threat of famine in the West has effectively disappeared it does not mean that that fear of famine is not present in less developed areas or indeed in the past of developed nations. Arnold also highlights the psychological effects of Famine illustrated by market reaction to the threat of food shortage; a vicious trail of events, those with grain start to hoard, causing grain prices to saw, causing food riots. An example of a problem created due to the mere threat of climatic disaster.
Ball nicely surmises the role of climate in famine and hunger causation, in that climate normally is influential in pushing the limits of the ‘conditions for disaster’ made up from ‘a combination of social, political, economic and environmental factors’.
The works of Thomas Malthus have an influential role in theories in hunger. However, many historians feel that it might be a misleading one. The Malthusian argument that population growth will outstrip food production has never really developed as history has progressed. Additionally, Neo-Malthusian alarm in the 1970s by authors such as Ehrlich has never materialised. Marxists attack this view by suggesting that the unequal distribution of capital and wealth not population growth is the cause of famine. The use of contraceptive checks on population even as far back as Malthus’s period [abortion, female infanticide, late marriage] also poses new questions of society and culture, of how and why different places put different emphasis on birth control, rather than population growth. Boserup directly contradicts Malthus and suggests that population increase sparks innovation not hunger and goes on to argue that rise in population has actually grown alongside standard of living; also, that urbanisation, industry and the formation of the state would not have happened without the pressure of population.
Amartya Sen’s influential theory of ‘entitlements’ shifts the argument from a natural explanation of hunger to a man-made one. His theory is based upon a series of ‘entitlements’ – legal and economic resources available to exchange for food. In times of famine these entitlements can lose value altogether, this is especially true for those who provide a service. However, Sen’s theory does not really explain the cause of hunger just what happens after a food shortage has already started. Sen himself acknowledges the psychological power of famine as a determinant for a decline in entitlements. Murkerjee takes this one step further suggesting that any of seven basic causes can lower entitlements. Oriental Despotism, a phrase coined by Wittfogel to describe the ‘colonisation of water’ in Asia, would be appropriate in the Indian case, where there is significant disparity and exploitation between those with entitlements in water over those without; a problem highlighted by Sainath. Sainath also highlights that corruption in the Indian bureaucracy leads to increased hunger. The exploitation of Drought Relief in India is a major drain on funding and a ‘scam’ that never reaches those who need it.
As a solution to hunger, Sen promotes Free Trade and globalisation, however, a wealth of fellow commentators and current examples suggest that this is the opposite of what is needed. Shiva notes ‘Free Trade = importation of hunger and employment’ also that the re-emergence of famine in many Indian states, such as Orissa, indicates that Sen’s theory that famine has been eradicated in India due to democracy is an error of judgement.
The role of globalisation in world hunger is emphasised in George’s conflict theory. She argues that the western, mainly American, dominance of the world market through the WTO is impoverishing countries and leaving them open to hunger. Furthermore, the stranglehold that developed nations have on less developed states is extremely difficult to escape. Those that do try to escape this Western grip ends up as another factor for causing major famine and chaos, as they try and drag their nations out of colonial repression. Taking Zimbabwe as an example, the western media’s portrayal of President Mugabe’s refusal of Western aid is one of disgust and terror and is total across all media. However, his seemingly despotic and catastrophic leadership could be argued to be a direct consequence of the West’s success in making Africa dependant upon it. Mugabe, in order to free his country of Western dependency, needs to change attitudes and plunge his country into chaos. It is forgotten that Mugabe was a condoned African leader for the best part of two decades and was democratically elected before recent events. Further research is needed to prove this case but the wall presented by the bias of current Western media and the present anarchy in Zimbabwe makes it difficult for an impartial view to escape as anyone coming out of Zimbabwe has some political persuasion.
In conclusion, as with all history, no one factor is solely responsible for the causation of hunger. The supply of food available for consummation must have a major role to play in hunger, after all hunger is, is a lack of food. However, social, political and cultural roles also play a major role. Famine can quite plausibly be explained as an indication of weaknesses within a society, be it corruption, or a lack of effective measures to combat drought or other crop destroying disasters. Globalisation and Free Trade also allow Western countries to obtain the power of life and death over less developed countries. The slump of Zimbabwe highlights what occurs when a country breaks from this vicious monopoly ran by Western conglomerates. Hunger is indeed a scandal.
Arnold, D., Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change (Oxford, 1988), ch. 2
Ball, Nicole, ‘Understanding the Causes of African Famine’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 14 (1976) pp. 517–522
Boserup, Ester, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: the Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure (London, 1993)
George S., How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger, (London, 1976)
Mukherjee, A, Hunger: Theory, Perspectives and Reality (Aldershot, 2004)
Sainath, P., Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts, (London, 1996), pp.317–24, 339–46, 367–70
Sen, A., Poverty and Famines (Oxford, 1981), ch.1, pp.1–8
Shiva, V, ‘The Real Reasons for Hunger’, The Observer: Special Reports, 23rd June 2002.
‘Age of Depression’ How Fair is this Verdict on European Economic Life in the Period 1350–1500
The impact of the epidemic, war and lack of resources on European economies and the entire economy was substantial. There is a general agreement within the historiography of this topic that the disasters of the mid fourteenth century created economic recession in Europe until at least 1360. However, this is where the opinion begins to diversify. Historians such as Postan and Lopez argue that Medieval Europe continued along an economic recession from which it did not fully recover. However, scholars such as Herlihy and Bautier prefer to see the period after the initial shock of the catastrophes of the late fourteenth century as the ‘age of new men’ rather than of depression. The question of whether Europe was a complete economic entity is also raised within this topic. Should we see the medieval era in terms of a European economy or should Europe be seen in the form of many different economies, all with independent motives and economic cycle? Mid fourteenth century scholars, however, must contend with a lack of solid data and it is difficult to back up any theory with any concrete certainty. However, there is enough evidence in existence to give historians an idea of what happened following 1350. Therefore, the historiography of this period is based, to a certain extent on opposing interpretations of the same evidence.
The ‘Stagnationist’ interpretation is based around a European economy that failed following the crises of the late fourteenth century. The crises therefore hit everywhere simultaneously and caused a ‘great depression’.
The Black Death is the most common place to start when stating the case for economic depression. In its reign of fear, between 1348 and the early fifteenth century, the ‘Pestilence’ reduced Europe’s population, at a conservative estimate, by a third. In addition to the plague, Europe also had to contend with major killers such as influenza and smallpox, of which neither, had any affective remedies in the Middle Ages. The huge damage to Europe’s demography interrupted work routines and left numerous jobs services incomplete. As Boccaccio, a contemporary observer, notes ‘everywhere left to languish in almost total neglect’. Plague and famine complemented each other, plague reduced population and therefore production, whilst hunger weakened resistance to infection. So, famine became a cause for depopulation as well. ‘Stagnationists’ argue that these population declines came off the back of a golden age of European history. The effect of a reduced workforce means less production and therefore a depression in the market for goods. However, the drop in population can be seen in a positive light. Europe was crowded by 1350. England and France stopped reclaiming land by the early fourteenth century as there was physically no where to go indicated by decreasing sizes of plots of land. Furthermore, an apparent depression in the light of a massive check in population must occur as there are fewer people and therefore less demand.
Work became a commodity due to the crisis in population. As there were fewer peasants to cultivate the land, their rights and demands began to change. Many gained their emancipation from serfdom during this period. In England, serfdom, which was already in a state of decline, was abandoned in an attempt by the landed elite to regain control following the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. The commercialisation of labour could be interpreted as resulting in higher standard of life. ‘The Black Death undoubtedly improved out of all recognition the lot of the mass of inhabitants’. It is argued that those who interpret this period in a ‘Stagnationist’ light are looking at it from a top-down perspective, from this angle there was a downturn in fortunes. However, the rise in fortunes of the masses and the rise of new nations and products in the market [see below] are cases often cited in reaction to this argument. The ‘standard of life’ debate is open to interpretation especially in a period without an abundance of documentation, however the high price of Barley during this period suggests an increased consumption of beer, indicating an increase in standard of living. High prices in animal produce might be a red herring due to a comparative decline in numbers in livestock over the wartime period, however the complaints of contemporary chroniclers about the ‘conspicuous consumption’ of the masses, and the new laws established to combat it [i.e. the sumptuary laws in Florence] suggest that standard living did improve in this period.
The Plague probably however, caused a decrease in quality of goods in towns, as skilled workers decreased in numbers. Despite attempts by employers to compensate by employing younger apprentices on a larger scale, seven years, the time in which it took to train them, was too long in a period where plague returned every few years.
Although depopulation caused problems, it also had some positive effects; the rise in standard of life [above], the release of valuable resources and the liberation made a diversified economy possible. The problems that depopulation did caused lead to innovation and adaptation and ‘spurred business men to further rationalisation and sounder management’
Warfare is also seen to have had a long term impact upon the European economy. It ruined French arable farmland and areas around it. Knights were now being paid in wage instead of in fiefs due to the decline in the feudal system, this method of payment was not feasible in a time of war and thus they stole from local farms in order to survive. In addition, a new battle tactic of ransacking enemy territory was used throughout the Hundred Years War. Bands of ‘adventurers’ also added to the misery of local people by stealing lifestock and grain supplies. Cities began to swell with refugees fleeing the countryside, Lille’s population doubled in wartime periods, therefore, warfare added to the depopulation of the country. Contemporary accounts of French life suggest that ‘it was impossible to till soil or sow anywhere’ such was the damage left by war. France, agriculturally, was destroyed by the war, and with the additional horror in the wake of the Plague areas such as Gascony in south-west France were abandoned altogether. War also brought higher taxes further impoverishing already depressed areas.
War interrupted trade links all over Europe and outside Europe. For instance Bordeaux’s depleted wine exports, once a booming trade, fell to a quarter in 1414 of what it was in 1348. ‘Stagnationists’ believe that the interruption of the trade links to Asia and between the northern and southern Europe were crucial in the economic recession of the period. Venice’s economic predominance during this period could be argued to be down to keeping their trading links open with the East through Egypt. The relative decline of Genoa who closed their links with the East highlights the importance of global trade to the European economy. However, an alternative interpretation has be extracted from this fact. Bautier proposes that Europe was not one economy and suggests that these catastrophes did not all happen simultaneously. He proposes that the European economy in the Middle Ages was like a ‘relay’ with towns and provinces passing the baton of success and failure. Venice’s rise to prominence was a direct consequence of Genoan decline and vice versa. In other words, when some towns failed other towns prospered as a result. The decline of Bruges therefore, was due to the rise of Antwerp as a commercial port. This also applies to industries, as Antwerp only moved to commerce after the decline of the Flanders cloth trade, which in turn was caused by English tariffs on wool exports. Europe consequently was made up of many interdependent individual states rather than one economy. Furthermore, Lopez’s argument, that although there were success stories in this period, they were not enough to compensate for the decline of major cities, is discredited. The rise of many new but smaller towns and countries such as Antwerp and Frankfurt, Hungary and Portugal, meant comparative economic decline compared to the previous period for those at the top but a broadening of wealth across Europe.
Trade although more-or-less abandoned during this period internationally, according to Epstein, stayed alive regionally. In fact, Epstein argues that the visible decline in international fairs was a result of ‘cost-reducing institutional changes’. This is an example of aggressive moves by communities to grasp the expanding market and return to prosperity.
Whether there was technological progress or not during this period also divides opinion. Lopez argues that except for Leonardo Da Vinci, the printing press and advances in mining and metallurgy, the later Medieval period spawned very little effective technology. Lopez argues that technological development ‘stagnated’ between 1350–1500. However, it can be argued quite strongly that Lopez underestimates the influence of Da Vinci and the Printing Press on the world of technology. Furthermore, the late medieval period witnessed the creation of the ‘gear’ in Europe which lead to hydraulic power and the force pump. Glass also was used in civilian houses for the first time, improved engineering developed harbours and bridges, bridges now able to span rivers that needed more that one arch. The fifteenth century was also host to great leaps in Maritime technology. The Portuguese from the early fifteenth century set out on voyages and reached as far as the Cape of Good Hope  and the Indian Ocean in the form of Vasco de Gama infamous journey in 1498. Navigational techniques improved throughout the century as well as technologies in the shipbuilding process. Maritime insurance and firearm development also came out of the Maritime ‘Revolution’. Columbus’s fateful journey in 1492 also occurred in this period. Reasons for these technological improvements are founded in the disasters that started the period. An ‘age of new men’ came to the fore, the Black Death knew no class boundaries, so new men had to infiltrate higher society and the rise of culture allowed them to do it. Furthermore, universities, in particular Oxford and Cambridge opened for Post-Graduate study, promoted new ideas. Depopulation also meant that there were less people to do the work that needed to be done. New methods had to be discovered to combat this problem. Also, the decline in the overland trade routes between the North and South meant new routes had to be tried; the sea and the Straits of Gibraltar gave Europe a new way to trade, shown by the rise in commercial ports such as Antwerp and Bristol in Northern Europe and that Venice reached its peak within this period, also to Venice’s massive fleet. Therefore, new technology and also new infrastructure, insurance, had to be found to sure up this method of trade.
There is no debate that depression did occur in the mid fourteenth century; however, whether it can be said that the period between 1350 and 1500 was an ‘age of repression’ is unlikely. Firstly, Europe at this time was not one entity and Bautier’s ‘relay’ suggestion provides a good explanation for why Europe should appear to be depressed but on closer inspection actually still to be improving. The great wealth of technological advancements shows how throughout this ‘age of new men’ new ways of thinking helped to overcome the major setbacks provided of the start of the period. The late medieval period, at the most optimistic level, can be seen as an example of how the human race can adapt to adverse conditions.
Bautier, R.H., The Economic Development of Medieval Europe, (London, 1971)
Bridbury, A.R., Economic Growth in the Later Middle Ages, (London, 1962)
Cipolla, Carlo M., ‘The Economic Depression of the Renaissance?’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 16 (1964), pp. 519–524
Dotson, John D., 'Trade' in Joseph R. Strayer et al. (eds.), Dictionary of the Middle Ages, 13 vols. (New York, 1982–89), vol. 12, pp. 110–120.
Epstein, S.R., 'Regional Fairs, Institutional Innovation, and Economic Growth in Late-Medieval Europe', Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 47 (1994), pp. 459–82
Herlily, D, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, (London, 1997)
Lopez, Robert S., 'Hard Times and Investment in Culture’, in Anthony Molho (ed), Social and Economic Foundations of the Italian Renaissance (New York, 1969), pp. 95–116
Lopez, Robert S., and Miskimin, Harry A., 'The Economic Depression of the Renaissance?', Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 16 (1964), pp. 525–9
Lopez, Robert S., and Miskimin, Harry A., 'The Economic Depression of the Renaissance', Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 14 (1962), pp. 408–26
Rosenwein, Barbara H. A Short History of the Middle Ages, 2nd ed., (Peterborough, 2004)
Waley, D, and Denley, P, Later Medieval Europe 1250–1520, (Harlow, 2001)