Epstein Stephen R. (2000) “The late medieval crisis as “integration crisis’” in idem Freedom and Growth. The rise of states and markets in Europe, 1300-1750, New York/London: Routledge/LSE, 38-72.
The post-war historians thought ‘traditional societies’ did not experienced growth in per caput income due to the lack of technological innovation. But recent research has shown they could be much more productive then formerly thought, so pre-modern societies operated well below their potential: technology was not a fundamental constraint. In agriculture, only a handful of regions were reaching their technological frontier: Essex, Flanders, Lombardy, etc. Elsewhere, the bulk of the medieval innovations was still to be introduced (38). Commercial progress also allowed specialisation to take place, but warfare regularly reversed these improvements (39).
So, what if the “structural crisis” that preceded and is said to have greatly helped the Black Death, was little more than a cyclical shock caused by warfare, bad weather and epidemics? That is not to say that Europe did not experience some regional showdown such as the 1315-7 Great Famine.
The pessimist case
After 1280, the post-war historiography goes, a crisis was building up due to:
- primitive technology
- lack of investment (coming from the risk-adverse culture of the peasantry)
- rise of the cost of warfare which caused taxation to rise (40).
This crisis pushed the individuals to their physiological limits, increased mortality rates and prepared the ground for the Black Death. Medieval societies needed these crisis to keep their rising demography in check.
Problems with the teory
This issue is that some regions in Europe went on growing economically and/or demographically all the way till 1347-8 such as Castile and Flanders (41). Thus there is little evidence of a generalised European crisis between 1280 and 1347. Our records for these crisis are overwhelmingly urban (while the population was mostly rural) and they don’t differentiate between the tax payers who died and those who simply migrated.
The increase of the levels of volatility of urban grain prices is often used as an evidence of failing agricultural output (42). The rational being that excess population were driven unto less productive lands and led to an intense process of land fragmentation. But as prices volatility remained high after the Black Death, showing that the cause thereof was distribution, not production.
“Consistently low levels of food intake do not generally raise susceptibility to mortality crisis. On the other hand, strong fluctuation in food intake […] do increase susceptibility to infectious disease”. The cause of the crisis was thus poor commercial structures rather than agricultural backwardness (43). As a result, cities (which enjoyed a better provisioning than the countryside) received many rural migrants in times of famine.
Five limits to the Ricardo-Malthusian model
- There was a positive correlation between peasant wealth and family size, showing that birth control methods were well known of the medieval peasants (44). Theoretically, the 14th-century populations had the means to maintain equilibrium between population and resources (45).
- More than backward peasant nobility, it is likely that the lack of transport systems, credible justice and political stability (due to political and jurisdictional fragmentation) were the disincentives for the low rate of investment in medieval agriculture (46).
- Unlike the rise/check dynamics that has often been described, it is likely that the correlation between agricultural productivity and population density was a long-term relationship. As a result, the most productive regions were also the most populated.
- This is confirmed that grain production was not as overwhelmingly dominating as it has often thought it was. The importance of cereals decreased (40% of English GNP by 1300), rural populations had occupational alternatives (wool, cattle, by-employment in services or manufactures). This involves that the price of food (despite urban volatility) was relatively decreasing and explains how peasants manage to deal with land fragmentation (47).
- Finally despite what has often been said, the peasantry’s self-sufficiency is a myth. Markets for goods, land, labour and credits were prevalent (48).
Crisis and feudal economy
Feudal lords were one of the main limits to growth: they created uncertainty for peasants, they were not producers so had little incentives to encourage agrarian innovations (50) and they drawn part of their revenues from the sale of privileges and monopolies over trade and production (and thus opposed a freer economy). They also opposed the central authorities’ expansion through war which on the long-term increased jurisdictional and political integration, thus reducing transaction costs (51).
After 1280, the incidence of feudal warfare was on the rise (52). This was particularly disruptive and created “institutionally induced crisis of distribution”. As warfare was more prevalent in some regions than others, it explains the differences demographic and economic growth of the 1280-1346 period (53).
Brenner assumes that a contingent balance of class power led the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Braudel on the other hand assigns that role to intercontinental trade. Could it be that the prime mover explaining that process came from within feudalism? Since the 11th century, state warfare had slowly emerged. “War required taxation and taxation required […] political consensus”, sovereignty and administrative resources that were new (54).
The Black Death empowered the few remaining peasants against their lords (end of serfdom) and hasted the latter’s fall, but it would have very likely happened anyway as the pressure against them from the peasant elite-urban elite-sovereign alliance had been building up for at last two centuries. In other words, a prime example of ‘creative destruction’ (55).
Black death and golden age
As a result, living standards increased significantly after 1348. In Genoa for example between 1341 and 1398 the population decreased by 40% but the wine consumption did so by 25%. This trend is made clear by the rise of urban population, 60% in England from 1330 to 1520 (56).
There was a widening and a deepening of the market’s reach. More goods and a greater variety thereof were traded. The process that took place resembles the 17th-century Industrious Revolution: people were working more to consume more. Un- and under-employment decreased over the period. New crops (rice, sugarcane) and commercial crops (vineyards, hops) helped distribute labour more evenly during the year (57). Micro-level specialisation is made clear by the late 14th-century increase in the number of butchers, brewers, etc.
A series of institutional innovations took place at the same time and decreased the crippling coordination problems of the pre-modern period. Monetary unions flourished (Alsace, Swabia) and central places imposed their money on the peripheries (Milan, France) lowering the changing costs (58). Gold coinage facilitated international payment. States strived to standardise their measurements as well. Their new-found abilities to enforce contracts allowed the rise of fairs that became the institutional backing of market integration and coordinating flows of credit, labour and goods (59).
The law of reprisal that made one liable for his countrymen debts abroad disappeared. The legal system and the merchant law became more sophisticated. As many tariffs and trade barriers went down grain price volatility decreased noticeably (60). Public interest rates collapsed from 20-30% in 1350 to 8-10% in 1450 for large monarchies (it is particularly noticeable since the consolidated debt soared in the mean time). Private interest rates went from 10% to 4.5% from 1350 to 1500. The European enjoyed a real ‘free lunch’ that allowed the substitution of capital for labour (61). Investments were safer and more valuable as profit could be spent on more goods.
A brand new world
More people were living in towns. Many backward regions (Bohemia, England) were quickly catching up with the more advanced ones. That were in stagnation (Catalonia). The centralising states took down numerous urban privileges, but also flooded the towns with unprecedented levels of administrative resources. A few pan-continental trade started such as cattle or salt (63), but many elements (weak synchronicity in epidemics and recovery from the Black Death) indicate a regionalisation of the economies after 1350. Regional economies, protected by tariffs and enjoying sophisticated labour specialisation, became more independent one from another (64).
Technical diffusion more than compensated for the population decline, mostly through mobile workers. Lesser interest rates and higher demand spurred investment which created better and new product that in turn favoured market extension such as transportable hard cheeses or double entry book-keeping (65).
Despite the crippling population losses of the Black Death, the 1350-1500 period was one of intense change and innovation. Agricultural best practice enjoyed a notable diffusion (England) and political integration helped decrease transaction costs, as an evidence of this larger chunks of territory started speaking the same language, for instance the Parisian langue d’oil became France’s national language (68).
Ultimately ,“the crisis brought [the European economies] closer to their technological frontier and established a new dynamic equilibrium”. Diet became more varied and more good were consumed. The most significant effect was the acceleration of the political centralisation (69)