Economy in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
The middle ages economy was characterized by deep social stratification and a largely agricultural system. Even before the Normans invaded England, the market economy was an essential part of life in the medieval society. When the Normans invaded England, they imposed their institutions including serfdom, over the manorial intuitions that were already present in most parts of Europe. Even though the medieval economy grew and transformed, agriculture continued to be the mainstay in the medieval market economy.
Manorial System: Early Agriculture
The manorial system was an integral part of the social and economic structure of the middle ages. The system created the mode of cultivating plants that we today know as horticulture. The manorial system is the economic, political and social system in which peasants in the Middle Ages economy depended on both their land and that of their masters to derive a living.
The basic element of the manorial system was the manor which was a self-efficient estate controlled by the lord. The lord enjoyed the land rights and the right to control the peasants through serfdom.
The lord maintained authority over both the workers in the land and the land itself to ensure that civil order was maintained. The economic hardship that was aggravated by the barbarian wars of the 5th and 6th century, the famine and diseases saw many laborers give up their land and freedom to work under the protection of the influential local lords.
As such, the peasants were guaranteed protection and access to land in which they could provide economic service to their master. This was a form of barter trade: security for economic service. This system gave in to the structure of feudalism in which kings would give local lords gifts of land in exchange for loyalty and maintenance of local civil order.
In the Middle Ages economy, money was in the form of metal coins. The type of metal determined how much a coin cost, with the most valuable ones being copper, silver and gold. The coins not only varied in the type of metal they were made of but also in shape, size, weight, metal purity and the inscriptions on them. During the reign of the Byzantine Empire, gold, copper and silver were minted in Constantinople, which was the largest mint, but there were other mints scattered in different provinces.
The medieval Islamic community did not have its own coins but when they overthrew the Byzantines, they took over the minting system and began to produce their own coins. The dinar was the most valuable coin in the Islamic medieval economy. In Europe the coins were very varied due to the many authorities that existed at that time; the coins varied in shape, size and weight but an increase in trade and financial transaction led to the standardization of these coins, allowing for trans-regional trade.
Types of Jobs and the Guild System
The most common job in the medieval economy was that of a peasant farmer who worked in the manors of their lords. Each manor was made up of a number of acres in which the peasant farmers would work in to produce food for their villages and lords. In addition to farming, the farmers also kept sheep and the women were in charge of shearing the sheep, spinning the wool and sewing the clothes. Women were able to seek jobs such as seamstresses and laundresses.
Other middle ages occupations included artisans who produced commodities made from glass, wood, clay and iron. The artisans included weavers, shoemakers, masons, blacksmiths, tailors and carpenters. Other common jobs included working as bakers, beer brewers, millers and vintners. As trade increased toward the end of the medieval times, merchants became very important.
The rise of the merchants boosted the development of towns and cities in the middle ages. Other important professionals included dentists, barbers, teachers and surgeons who focused on the human services sector.
The 12th and 13th century saw significant growth and expansion in the middle ages economy. Agriculture remained the mainstay of the economy but there was proper management of the manors and farms. This increased productivity and allowed the economy to diversify away from agriculture. Other economic activities such as mining and forestry were adopted in many medieval societies.
Importantly, this economic expansion led to the growth of retail trading which the merchants dominated. Even though the merchants were despised by most of society, they can be credited as having boosted the state of middle ages economics. Merchants travelled across countries sourcing for goods and products that they would trade in other countries. They brought with them cloth, food, spices, and jewelry.
The growth of retail trade led to the development of towns and cities. More and more peasant farmers were able to purchase commodities from the merchants. The merchants took significant control over the regulation of the medieval economy. They not only became influential in the local politics but also formed powerful guilds. Through these guilds, the merchants were in a position to influence economic policies including aspects of taxation and levies.
Prior to the guild system, merchants and artisans would organize themselves into a lose conglomerate. The trade regulations were few if any, and because these people sold their merchandise close to each other, squabbles over price emerged. The guild system thus symbolized a mature and more organized economic system in which prices were highly regulated as well as the conduct of guild members. The strict guild system also helped the local government in the collection of tax and the inspection of the quality of merchandise sold by the artisans and merchants.
Just as the middle ages economy was at its peak, the Great Famine and one of the worst plagues, the Black Death hit the medieval society. The Great Famine of 1315 caused havoc upon the agrarian system and brought with it the decline of entire villages and towns. The Black Death also dealt another blow to the agrarian system as millions of peasants were killed thus affecting the productivity in the manor. However, this decline led to the rise of new economic systems in almost every area of society including agriculture, trade and taxation.