Average temperatures rose in the northern hemisphere between the 600s and the 1050s – climate change. Food-growing benefited. Agricultural productivity improved western Europe's economy. Townspeople bought more food, and the agriculture estates that had survived western Roman Empire's political collapse were encouraged to abandon self-sufficiency and begin producing for a rising market.
The improved availability of food was accompanied by growing populations and the growth of towns, which spiraled economic growth further, a growth that included the sale of goods manufactured largely by hand. More merchants appeared, and they were seeking customers in more distant places.
Economic growth was to replace castles of wood with castles of stone and to be accompanied by community walls that were thicker and higher. Economic and population growth had political consequences. With the growth of towns, its people wanted the king's protection against the lords who had dominated the area around their town – the lords having a history of rivalry with the king for power. In exchange for the king's protection the townspeople were paying taxes, the king gaining a new source of income.
The rising economy was changing the lives of many. Most Europeans were using money at least in some transactions, while most people were still farming (and would remain so until the 20th century). And in western Europe most of those working the soil were serfs.
Runaways serfs from large estates might win freedom if in a town they could elude capture for a year or so. Towns were inspiring a sense of freedom, and when a lord tried to block the move toward freedom by a community there might be violence. In 1070, the people of Le Mans formed a commune and rose against their lord – a rebellion that failed. In 1077 people of the town of Cambrai rebelled against an Episcopal overlord. And in 1112 a bishop in England who tried to suppress a commune was hacked to pieces.
Life remained hard for common people. The average life expectancy going into the 1200s has been described as something like thirty-five years. Disease and sudden death were common and servility a way of life. The class that had the luxury of riding horseback – the aristocrats – viewed themselves as protectors and as deserving their privileges. Despite everyone's dependence on those who labored at farming, aristocrats treated the common peasant with little respect. The heroes of the aristocrats continued to be the knights in shining armor.
In well-established towns, people that perhaps can be described as middle-class jumped at the opportunity for order. Fraternal and political clubs called guilds helped to create local regulations and local government that suited the interests of its members. The craft guilds buried members who had died, and they cared for the widows and orphans of those who had been their members. Some towns hired men as policemen. Religious worship remained dominant, and clubs built their own chapels, and, interested in education, they created schools.
Into the 1100s, new cathedrals were built, often a community effort. In the last 1100s the Church started to grant indulgences (forgiveness of sins) to those who would help to build a church or cathedral – a house of God – an alternative to absolving sins by going on a crusade. To the glory of God the cathedrals were tall and with abundant light from the heavens. The cathedrals were big investments of time and money and objects of civic pride. They became centers where people gathered for festivities, prayer, funerals and for marriages – the brides often at the age of fourteen or fifteen. The cathedrals were also town halls, where municipal officials did their work, where the homeless slept, where actors staged plays and couples courted.
Cathedrals were also schools. In monasteries, people studied scripture and the writing of influential early Christians known as "church fathers." Monasteries had been interested in seclusion. Cathedral schools were more public oriented. Wealthy merchants might be involved in a school creation. There were schools that became universities. By the end of the 1100s, Paris had become the political, economic, religious and cultural capital of France, and the University of Paris appeared around 1150 as a corporation associated with the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral school.
Two centuries of economic growth was sufficient time for a major dislocation to develop. Between the years 1000 and 1300 the availability of food in Christendom allowed its population to grow an estimated 2.5 times. (By 1300, Europe had around fifteen cities with a population greater than 50,000.) Given the productivity of agriculture, the rise in population had been too fast. Hunger was returning, and starvation. Climate change was again involved, this time contributing to a reduction in food production. This is said to have been caused by the advance of polar and alpine glaciers, producing longer winters, wetter weather and a shortened growing season. Farm animals died. Farm expansion in Western Europe came to an end by the year 1300. Much farmland went into disuse, and there was the disappearance of a major food source from the sea: herring.
Europe had begun its longest economic depression. According to Western Civilization by Stephen Hause and Walter Malty:
Local crises of subsistence became common and for the first time in two centuries, a large-scale famine struck northern Europe in 1315-17. Southern Europe suffered a similar catastrophe in 1339.
It was supposed to be God's perfect world. Human activity creating developmental dislocation was an idea the would come during a later age. Preparing for climate change was also not on the minds of people. It was believed that things went wrong because of sin.
People continued rising at dawn to do what they thought they had to do to survive. And there were economic advances despite the decline of food. There was the manufacture of linen in place of wool, and the metal and glass industries were growing. Power-driven bellows improved the iron industry. The first mechanical clock in Paris appeared 1300. In the 1300s, windmills became popular, applied where there was too little water, where rivers froze in winter and in flat lands where the flow of the river was too slow to provide the power required to grind corn, saw wood or operating bellows for metal works. But food was the economy's biggest factor – unmenable to prayer no matter the widespread and intense religious devotions.
Meanwhile, another catastrophe had been in the making: the increase in world trade in recent times had exposed more people to the bubonic plague, to be widely seen as God's punishment. In December 1347 the disease had spread to Marseille. By June, 1348, it was in Spain, Italy and as far north as Paris. By June 1349 it was in London and central Europe. In about eighteen months it was in Ireland and Scandinavia. People weakened by malnutrition were less able to resist the disease. It became known as the Black Death and lasted to 1351. The plague was destined to diminish as it had centuries before in Europe in a dynamic that nobody understood. People did not yet know about bacteria or anything else microscopic. As the bacterium killed off its source of life the deadly bacterium again faded away, but not completely.
According to Britannica:
A rough estimate is that 25 million people in Europe died from plague during the Black Death. The population of western Europe did not again reach its pre-1348 level until the beginning of the 16th century.
The shortage of labor allowed free laborers to bid up their pay rate. The demand for slaves increased. Merchants competed for servants to staff their households. Craftsmen and shopkeepers tried to hang on to their slaves. It is written:
Cobblers, carpenters, weavers and woolworkers bought men and women from the slave dealers to help in their industries. And more slaves were put on the market as hungry parents sold their children, preferring their children's enslavement to watching them starve to death.
Peasants called for a reduction in service obligations. There were attempts by employers to keep wages low. And, in cities, workers rose against the wealthy merchants who had been running city hall. Peasants and workers revolted in Spain, in the Netherlands, southern Germany, Italy, and in England.
In Eastern Europe, populations had been less dense and towns were smaller and more distant from one another, and the Black Death had been less virulent. Large estates were not regulated by governmental authority, and they were able to force peasants to work their land under the added servitude of serfdom.
With the decline in populations and the war between the English and French monarchies, feudalism in Western Europe was at its end. What some historians would label modernity was in the making. Secular kings were gaining power at the expense of local feudal lords, and gaining influence at the expense of the Church. Kings were expanding their realms and coming between feuding nobles, and kings were winning recognition as national leaders. National identities were growing, with monarchs paying for the raising of armies with money from taxation and the approval of parliaments. People looked to their king to provide them with security and order. Monarchs learned to exploit popular fears. They became the populists of their time, pretending to rule for all who lived in their realm.
The Church lost prestige as it divided with two popes and then three popes – a result in part at least of conflicting nationalist sentiments among the cardinals. Many cardinals were French who had found offended by a pope who was Italian. Secular rulers supported the pope whom they thought more favorable to their interests. Soon there was one pope again, but by the second half of the 1400s the papacy had become an Italian principality and the pope was providing fortunes for his relatives and posing as patrons of literature and art. The Church continued to be viewed as the only way to redemption and heaven, but many were beginning to look forward to reform, and coming in the 1500s would be that great conflict called the Reformation.
CONTINUE READING: Middle Ages: Closer to Science
Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.