January 23, 2005

'Age of Depression' How Fair is This on European Economic Life in the Period 1350–1500?

Daniel Venn
‘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 [1486] 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.

1885 words
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)

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