Friday, June 03, 2011

A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550

I recently finished reading A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550 by Edwin S. Hunt and James Murray.

In 1200, 96 percent of the people in Europe lived on farms. There were few towns, and the road system had deteriorated greatly from that left by the Roman empire. What little economic surpluses were produced by agriculture were shared by the warlike aristocracy and the church.

The population of Europe and the economic production of Europe rose from 1200 to 1350. went down in the following half century due to the Black Death, other diseases and the disruption that they caused.

Hunt and Murray stress that business developed in this period in response to the demand for luxury goods from the small elite. Productivity increased as the remaining Roman technology was used more extensively (e.g. water mills), as some Roman technologies that had been lost were rediscovered (e.g. separation of silver and copper ore) and new technologies were developed (e.g. wind mlls, improved sailing ships). Not only were maritime routes improved, but roads were improved and better wagons were developed, reducing costs for the shipment of goods.

The textile industry seems to have led development during this period, and construction was focused on churches and military construction. There was also an industry in weapons, one in ship building, and many craft industries (with their associated guilds). Still, compared with modern industry, there was not much manufacturing.

Nor was there much commerce. There were fairs, especially in the early part of the period, in which merchants came to sell their wares and buyers came to acquire those things that were not produced locally. As time when on, towns came to centralize trade and even to create financial exchanges. Often these towns pioneered new forms of cooperation between political powers and businesses. For those who doubt the importance of regulation of trade, the early trade fairs and market towns already found regulation to be necessary.

New forms of business organizations were created, as were business instruments such as letters of credit and letters of exchange. Business tools, such as double entry bookkeeping, were also created. By the end of the three and one-half centuries covered in the book, business was much more developed and important than at the start of the period.

Hunt and Murray suggest that terms such as "high middle ages" and "Renaissance" are not very useful for describing the emergence of business during the period, as the process was both more complicated and more continuous than would be suggested by that older terminology. I suppose that the development of mining, shipping, trade, cloth manufacturing etc. was critical to the overall economic development that followed.

The book left me with a strong feeling of how deep the roots of our modern world go in history. The world of 1550 Europe was quite different than that of 1200 Europe. I suppose that the European invaders of the Americas did not properly understand the deep historical roots of the differences between Europeans and Native Americans. Indeed, those who would see "nation building" as being accomplished in the least developed nations in a period of a few decades might contemplate the history as set forth in this book in some detail. Still the book is not for the casual reader.

1 comment:

Raakel Raila said...

Europe is really successful before.No wonder it is really popular even now.