Britnell Richard H. (2001) “Specialization of work in England, 1100-1300”, Economic History Review, 54/1, 1-16.
The 12th and 13th centuries experienced growing population. The more people, the more likely it is that some will become specialized in an activity where they enjoy a comparative advantage (see Adam Smith). Persson has estimated that this led to a 0.1 to 0.25 yearly increase of productivity per caput in England over two centuries (i.e. between 22 and 62% for the whole period). But to what extend the period’s productivity gains are attributable to specialization?
Adam Smith before Adam Smith
One sign of increasing specialization was the development of new occupations requiring high levels of acquired skills (1). Older jobs also acquired new skills (eg construction industry). Most importantly, urban growth created an improved commercial environment for entrepreneurs (2). These new activities often translated into occupational surnames (Smith, Drapper) even in small towns. Correlatively, occupational surnames were much less prevalent in the countryside (35%) than in town (59%). This specialization was reinforced by the concentration of workers by trade in the same streets and boroughs (3). Rural workers too got more specialized as the estates got wider (eg ploughmen, shepherd). These positions required stable workers (famuli) indeed the employee needed to be trusted as he may be taking care of fragile and valuable properties with little monitoring (animals).
These elements thus suggest a form of specialization of a part of the medieval workforce both in the countryside and – more clearly – in the urban centres. It is likely that the poll of specialized workers increased over the period (4). The question is how relevant these elements are?
Limits of the virtuous cycle
True enough the proportion of urban population rose from maybe 10 to maybe 20%, but most of this growth was fuelled by rural emigrants who were likely to be unskilled. An evidence of this comes from the fact the percentage of occupational surnames in towns did not increase significantly over the period. Similarly, it is estates did not get significantly bigger nor more specialized from the 12th to the 14th century (5). The prevalence of these big estates may have increased but it is unclear by which margin. Moreover, occupational surnames are not necessarily pointing at full-time specialization, but can merely describe the most distinctive of the part-time occupations a worker had (falconer). Similarly, most of the large estates’ employees seems to have been non-specialist and when an increase in the workforce did happen it seldom led to an increase of the specialized workforce. Most of the records historians have come from these large manors which are also the most likely to employ a large proportion of specialized workers, hence they are better know than the lesser, less known and less specialized estates (6).
It is estimated that 60% of the rural population was working its own land on family farms with little more specialization than the one traditionally liked to the gender division of labour. Most of the remaining 40% were journeymen and had no precise specialty as their tasks changed with the seasons (7).
The number of specialized occupation did increase from 1100 to 1300; but long-term specialization requires a reliable level of employment that the highly seasonal and volatile medieval economy could seldom guarantee. Such an unpredictable labour market selects for adaptability rather than specialization. Thus, skilled workers were better off if they specialized in several niches and not a single one (8). As a result, the economic situation of the skilled workers was quite weak and many of them were qualified as poor by the urban administrations. This necessary opportunism appears as destitute craftsmen were often recorded in employment roll totally different from their original specialty. Vagrancy and crime were options often used by artisans having run out of luck (9).
Considering the large proportion of rural population with too little land to live out from (but many of them had some land) it is like that they squeezed out a living from intensification of labour and by-employment; the very opposite of specialization (11). Even a larger percentage of townsmen seems as well to have agriculture-related sources of income along with their craft specialty even in time of plenty, suggesting that secondary professional activities were not a second best but a way of life (12). It seems that choice and necessity led to a mixed collection of employment. Many amongst the well-off cumulated rewarding urban specialty and wealthy agricultural properties (13).
It may of course be argued that these possessions in the countryside– specially at the top of the social scale – were little more than safe investment and securities necessary due to volatile food prices. However, it remains that commercial growth during the 12th and 13th century did not lead directly to specialization and that the high level of insecurity forced most people to have a backup plan. Hence the author, favours the expression of differentiation rather than straight specialization, it also implies a movement away from self-consumption routine due to commercialization but it stops short from the all-embracing structural change implied by specialization.