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Economy in the Late Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The Late Middle Age was marked by severe economic crisis also known as the Crisis of the 14th century. Poor harvests and high prices of food throughout Europe caused severe crisis in agriculture at the beginning of the 14th century. However, the crisis was not taken seriously until the 1340’s although indications of its severity were noticeable much earlier. The Great Famine between 1315 and 1317 was responsible for numerous deaths, while the fluctuation of grain prices further worsened the situation. Profits were stagnating and France, the County of Flanders and some other countries fell into severe monetary crisis.

The Crisis of the 14th century did not occur at the same time nor in the same magnitude in all parts of Europe. Most severely were hit the regions engaged in grain production – Southern Italy and the greater part of France. The lands east from the Elbe River were also major grain producers but the first phase of the crisis did not affect the region because the land was not so extremely exploited and the peasants were less burdened than elsewhere in Europe. Despite that the crisis reached the lands east from the Elbe River at the end of the 14th century as well. In contrary to the majority of European countries, Holland and England remained almost unaffected by the Crisis of the 14th century.

The outbreak of the Black Death in the 1340’s greatly affected medieval European cities. The cities were more densely inhabited and for that reason the mortality from the plague was higher than in the countryside. However, the peasants lost their consumers and the grain prices declined, while the lack of labour force increased the need for wage earners who demanded better payment. Such circumstances caused severe crisis and great insecurity in the countryside as well and eventually led to peasants’ revolts. However, the Black Death only deepened the economic crisis. The European cities were flourishing until the middle of the 14th century when it became obvious that medieval European economy was crumbling for other reasons as well. The most powerful Florentine banking companies Bardi and Peruzzi bankrupted in 1343, Western Europe lost its leading position on the markets of Levant and Russia, while western Asia became virtually unaccessible to the Italian merchants. The Western European products somehow found a way to the market but in much lower quantity. Profits began to decline, while the loss of numerous markets resulted in severe competition and politics of protectionism as well as in numerous wars which further deepened the crisis.

The Late Middle Ages is widely considered as the period of crisis but it was also the period of great opportunities which eventually led to the revitalization of economy and emergence of new economic structures which began to develop already during the period of crisis. Southern Germany emerged as one of the leading manufacturing centers, while England and Holland evolved into strong trade powers. The Italian merchants retained their leading position in European trade and established their trade bases in all important European cities. The Late Middle Ages was also marked by the emergence of big cities which evolved into trade and cultural centers. The economic recovery of the Late Middle Ages had also a big impact on revitalization of agricultural economy which remained the basis of the European economy although prosperity and wealth slowly became closely associated with trade.

Social Structure in the Late Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The Crisis of the 14th century had a great impact on the social structure. The demographic decline and especially the Black Death had a devastating impact on all classes of the medieval society but those who survived generally became stronger and wealthier.

The feudal system eventually adjusted to the new conditions by replacing husbandry with more profitable stockbreeding. Working duty was replaced with payment of a rent which led to weakening of serfdom, while the landowners ensured themselves regular inflow of income during the periods of poor harvests. The Late Middle Ages also saw the emergence of the early forms of capitalism and rise of bourgeoisie which eventually became a counterweight to the nobility.

Demographical Changes in the Late Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Medieval Europe at the beginning of the 14th century was marked by dramatic population decrease. The climate changes, the Great Famine of 1315-1317, growth of food prices, extremely exploited land, incessant wars and the Black Death in the 1340’s killed about one third, in some regions even up to one half of the total population.

The Black Death was definitely the most dramatic and devastating event of the Late Middle Ages although the demographic decline started before the outbreak of the most deadly plague pandemics in history. The contemporary repots probably greatly exaggerated the number of deaths from the bubonic plague but the Black Death caused great horror and insecurity throughout Europe. The mortality greatly varied from region to region but bubonic plague probably would not be so devastating if there had not been for sporadic outbreaks over the next 50 years.

Demographical Changes in the High Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The High Middle Ages was marked by the rapid growth of population. By some estimations the European population between 1000 and 1300 even doubled. According to J.C. Russel 22,6 million people lived in Western Europe about the year 1000 and 54,4 million before outbreak of the Black Death in 1348. M.K. Benett estimated that population in Europe numbered 42 million about the year 1000 and 72 million about the year 1300.

The causes for the dramatic growth of population during the High Middle Ages are not exactly known. Some historians believe that the progress of agricultural techniques and tools which enabled more efficient production is the main reason for the rapid growth of population in Europe between 1000 and 1300. However, this theory does not explain the growth of population in regions where the agricultural progress did not occur. Growth of population in the High Middle Ages was most likely influenced by several factors including the growth of the cities, increased trade with the East after the Crusades, colonization of new areas by deforestation and drying of marshes, and cessation of the Viking and Hungarian invasions.

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