Commerce in Western Europe, 1000 - 1200 AD

Louise Adena, Dickson College 2008

Coronato, circa 1462
During the 11th and 12th Centuries, Europe underwent major changes in production and trade, developing the basis of our modern commercial world. This evolution was supported by a period of climate warming that enabled an increase of farming and of trade in crop surpluses which supported a swelling population. Innovation in farming techniques increased productivity whilst society became more organised based around a feudal economy, initially feudalism and later in the rise in market towns. The emergence of guilds shaped commerce and skilled labour, introducing a standardized coinage system to support trade. Thus, the High Middle Ages was marked as the beginning of commercial development as innovations strengthened the economy and stabilised Europe to such an extent that it was able to continue to flourish into the modern era.

By the beginning of the 11th century Europe’s temperature had increased by several degrees to become ideal for growing medieval crops, such as; wheat, barley and wine which supported and sustained an increasing population (Carr, 2007). The area for cultivation increased, including northern Europe which could now be cultivated all year round. Food production rose with innovations in technology and a surplus of food was maintained (Mann, 2004). The storage of this food eventually led to trade, with farmers trading their wares to both the north and south of Europe (Cobb, 2003). This exchange introduced new food, wines and technology, all helping to improve the living conditions in the 11th and 12th Centuries. This led to an increase in life expectancy, with more people being born, and more children living to adulthood (Bradley, 2003). The constant climate was largely responsible for the disappearance of widespread famine as regions were able to import food when crop seasons were ruined (Jones, 2004). Thus, during the High Middle Ages populations increased in many regions and commercial trade in food was established (Watson, 1974).

The three crop field rotation was one of the key innovations that developed in the High Middle Ages which allowed for mass production of crops and utilisation of fertilised fields (Watson, 1974). The three field system divided ploughed land into three sections. Each season, two of the three sections would be used to grow crops; the third section would be let fallow (not sown). In the following season the fallow field would be planted, and one of the previously used fields would be left fallow for a season. This allowed more land to be sown whilst still allowing the soil to regenerate depleted nutrients, increasing its fertility for the next season (Watson, 1974). The crop rotation was also a vital tool in eliminating weeds that killed or competed with crops. The growing cycle of weeds was interrupted by the sowing of other crops, many of which had pathogenic compounds that attacked the weeds, and thus, helped to prevent them from spreading (Bradley, 2003). The three field crop rotation was one of the most significant turning points in farming technology, which is still used in modern society today, because it allowed more food to be produced which enabled Europe to support a swelling population.

During the High Middle Ages, oxen were gradually replaced by horses. This was a successful attempt to speed up the harvesting season (Woodcock, 2007). Horses, stronger than oxen, were able to plough fields more efficiently, working faster and having smaller turning circles. The horses were also able to walk further to fields, allowing more land to be owned and efficiently cultivated by farmers (Barber, 2005). A harness for horses was invented in China in the 5th Century and it reached Europe by the 9th Century (Davis, 1989). The collar was designed specifically for horses, whereas the previous harness had been designed for oxen (Barker, 1986). The ‘horse collar’ allowed the horse’s head to move more freely, work at an increased speed and carry heavier loads without choking (Bennett, 2004). Horses were also harnessed behind each other to distribute the load more evenly and thus, pull heavier loads (Woodcock, 2007). The use of horses over oxen was one of the most efficient changes as farmers were able to sow a field two thirds faster than before, leading to a more efficient system which ultimately allowed more food to be produced and stored (Barber, 2003).

The 11th and 12th centuries saw the spread of the feudal system in Europe, where different social classes shared a reciprocal relationship regarding legal, land and military obligations (Reynolds, 1994). The feudal system developed in the High Middle Ages to structure societies, by giving each person a role, stigma and social status in society (Ferguson, 2005). The Lord granted land to a vassal in exchange for military service and working the land, whilst the vassal was ensured work, a home and protection from the Lord (Brown, 1974). The land granted by the Lord to the vassal was known as the fief (Reynolds, 1994).

The feudal system relied on a political and legal relationship, where both parties agreed to certain terms in regards to land and military service.

“There were thus different 'levels' of lordship and vassalage. The King was a lord who loaned fiefs to aristocrats, who were his vassals. Meanwhile the aristocrats were in turn lords to their own vassals, and so forth. This traditionally formed the basis of a 'universal monarchy' as an imperial alliance and a world order.” (Norman Cantor, 1991)

Ultimately, the feudal system served as the basis for society, and maintained order and stability which was only interrupted by an increase of social mobility in the lower classes as a result from increased wealth from trade.

The feudal system is often closely linked to manorialism - the organization of the rural economy and social structure (Strayer, 1989). Manorialism helped to develop rural communities so that Lords had power over the common or poorer people (Gies, 1991). Over time, the vassals began developing specialized skills, promoting people to move into the manor regions (Brown, 1974). These townships eventually expanded to support growing populations. The age of manorialism dwindled by the end of the High Middle Ages as the market economy of Europe gradually weakened the manorial economy (Reynolds, 1994) and market towns grew in their place. This decline was also aided by vassals, who surpassing the wealth of their Lords, were able to buy their freedom (Cantor, 1991). The development of the manorialism and feudal system helped to shape society in Europe during the High Middle Ages, and thus, enabled Europe to stabilize and continue commerce into the modern era. Despite the decline of set social mobility, class structure remains in society today, with the wealthiest members of society still ranking above the poorer classes. However, unlike the feudal or manorialism systems, modern social classes are not tied by a political or legal relationship, and are open to upward social mobility (Ferguson, 2005).

In the 11th and 12th Centuries, commercial development welcomed the introduction of guilds and the organization they instigated to help control the economy (Cobb, 2003). The guilds were founded by merchants who wished to regulate trade and prices. This organized and standardized trades as “the guild was a professional association that maintained formal guidelines for each craft,” (Trimnell, 2008). The guilds ensured that Lords were unable to overtax farmers for their goods, and also introduce training to ensure the continuation of skilled jobs, such as blacksmiths and carpenters (Barber, 2005).

The master of the guild established strict admission requirements and rules to all patrons to ensure fair “prices, wages, standards of quality and operating procedures,” (Annenberg, 2008). The masters also played a vital role in developing trade and craftsmen in the High Middle Ages by running their trade, hiring apprentices to learn new skills and employing journeymen, who worked for set wages (Williams, 2002). The guild eventually evolved to become the foundations for the modern union (Oakes, 1989). The main advantage of the guilds was the introduction of fair and organized trade, which was run by the craftsmen themselves. This allowed the guilds to set their own standards, where as previously they had been under the control of the Lords, who often implemented unfair taxes and changed trade prices to their own advantage (Gascoigne, 2008). By the 12th Century, laws had been introduced to support the workers, with a set amount of hours, days off and wages. This introduction removed a lot of the Lord’s power, as they were unable to force people to work (Brown, 1974).

By the 11th and 12th Centuries, Europe’s commercial trade began to move again, using roads that had been developed by the Romans, and improved during the reign of Charlemagne (Sweeney, 1995). However, as trade increased, piracy on the roads also developed, with many travelers attacked and their wares ransacked (Biel, 1994). In a bid to improve trade routes, and encourage travel between regions, the Lords began ferrying travelers and traders across their land with an armed guards to deter attacks. The travelers, in exchange for their protection paid a small fee to the Lord (Holms, 1998). The increased movement on the roads led to the introduction of a new universal currency (Rowlings, 1971). The previous currencies had been neglected and removed from trade, with many of the coins being melted down, the metal used for weapons and other vital tools (Howarth, 1992). As trade developed in the 11th and 12th Centuries, with new improved trade lanes, a need for a currency appeared, and was rewarded by new coins by which people could trade. Throughout history, lapses in currencies were covered by bartering - the exchange of goods (Barber, 2005). Bartering began to disappear by the end of the 12th Century as coins re-emerged. As trade spread across newly opened trade lanes, a standardised currency was introduced in 1140 AD, modeled off Charlemagne’s coinage system (Biel, 1994). This allowed secure trade from one region to the next and help to standardize prices on wares as the universal currency (ducats) was applied. Ducats were used from 1140 AD into the early 20th Century, until the end First World War where other currencies, such as Franks replaced ducats in most nations (Brown, 1974). The guilds were largely responsible for introducing a set of standards for trade, but the re-mergence of a standardised currency and secure trade routes is one of the most valuable legacies from the High Middle Ages, as they are the foundations for modern trade.

The 11th and 12th Centuries are marked as the beginning of modern commerce and commercial development. The change in climate allowed the northern regions of Europe to grow food, whilst the overall affect was seen in the growth of the European populations. Technological advancements were seen in the three field crop rotation, to help depleted soil regenerate nutrients, whilst horses replaced oxen as a more efficient counterpart. The feudal and manorialism systems emerged, producing different social classes with a reciprocal relationship to serve and protect each other. Guilds were created to standardize and organise swelling economies. Trade re-emerged, with Lords providing armed guards to protect road travelers, as did the necessity for a common coinage system to pay for trade and protection. The 11th and 12th centuries were responsible for key movements in commerce but also for commercial development which continued to be used into the modern era.