Economy in the Late Middle Ages
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.