Economic and social effects of the crisis of the Late Middle Ages

At the beginning of the 14th century Europe suffered a serious agricultural crisis. This was the result of a succession of poor harvests, the result of adverse weather and the cultivation of poor quality land. The agricultural crisis led to the spread of hunger throughout all of Europe. In addition, the devastation caused by the black plague epidemic which devastated Europe and caused numerous deaths.

These events brought an abrupt halt to the long period of economic prosperity that had been experienced in Europe between the 12th and early 14th centuries. The period of recession that began in the 14th century lasted until the 15th century.

Implications of demographic collapse into the rural world: the depopulation of the countryside

Historians agree that the demographic collapse that occurred as a result of the late medieval crisis was more significant in the city than in the countryside. Epidemics and famines were more deadly in the cities, as large numbers of people lived in concentration and there was a greater lack of hygiene. However, in the medium and long term, the effects of population loss became more visible in the countryside. Again, migration of people from the countryside to the city was a major factor.

Why were people moving to the cities? Many craft workshops in the cities fell empty. As there was a demand for labour, wages tended to rise. In addition, we must consider the fact that many farmers fled from the countryside to avoid the abuses of the feudal lords.

At the same time, there were also migratory movements within the rural world. Some farmers simply changed their land. Some rural areas came up practically empty.

As a result of the crisis, population centres were rearranged. Cities quickly recovered the population level they had in the Early Middle Ages. The countryside lost population. All this had repercussions for the functioning of the feudal system.

The most immediate effect of the crisis?

This crisis had its first and most spectacular effect on the decline and reduction of cultivated areas because of the abandonment of the fields. We call this phenomenon rural depopulation. It was a selective abandonment.

Marginal lands, those that had been cultivated later, were abandoned because they were the worst. At the same time, the best lands got the most attention.

How did this reduction in the rural population manifest itself?

  • In the Netherlands, some of the waterworks that kept the fields in good condition, such as dykes and canals, were no longer maintained.
  • All over Europe, forests were encroaching on agricultural areas.
  • The number of wild animals increased.
  • Abandonment of residential areas in the countryside. The abandonment of farms was a common phenomenon in Western Europe. In Catalonia, these farmhouses were known as “mas rònec”.

Economic effects

Following the crisis of the 14th century, the peasantry had good reason for wanting to emigrate towards the more prosperous cities. The abandonment of the countryside brought about a change in economic orientation. From that moment on, livestock farming, needing fewer people than agriculture, flourished.

In Germany, the phenomenon of rural depopulation is known as Wüstung (abandoned villages). Around 1300, there were about 170,000 villages, while by 1500 the number had fallen to 130,000. In Alsace, between 1300 and 1800, 224 villages disappeared.

In France, the phenomenon of depopulation is known as “désert”. In England, rural depopulation is also known as “lost villages”. The depopulated nuclei in England had more to do with a reorganization of agricultural work. Many farms moved towards cattle raising. The area with the most depopulated nuclei was the central area (from London upwards, mountain areas).

The fall in agricultural production and feudal income

The drop in agricultural production was quite spectacular. We should start by looking at the relationship between man and the land. How does it look before and after the crisis?

Before 1300, i.e. during the growth period, the value of land was high. We know this thanks to:

  • The high cost paid by farmers in the form of feudal income;
  • The entry value paid for the establishment on the land (as soon as a cultivation contract was formalized, money was paid to enter). Why was the value of the establishment high? Because there was a great demand for land and little supply;
  • On the other hand, wages for the value of the work were low because there was a lot of labour.

This was the general situation until 1300. Up to the beginning of the 14th century, small-scale farming was predominant.

What happened after 1300? The positive trend of the previous period was reversed. These factors can be observed:

  • Between 25-30% of the labour force disappeared due to epidemics, famines, wars… Few labour force meant the revaluation of the labour factor;
  • Wages rose as a result of the lack of labour. The best land was selected, it was possible to choose and marginal land was abandoned;
  • If the best land was worked, we should expect that by keeping the input of labour and capital constant, the return on the land would be higher. In this sense, the farmers’ situation should have improved, but this was not entirely the case.

Dropping feudal rents

Revenue for the nobility declined and this is exactly the point of the so-called late-medieval crisis. Abandoned plots of land were taken over. This was attractive to both farmers and lords. The latter provided facilities, since if they wanted farmers to occupy land they had to provide incentives (lower incomes and more affordable entry prices).

However, when it came to accessing land, different people did not have the same opportunities: a selection process occurred. Not all farmers were equal. Some could have large farms, while others could not. There was a strong hierarchy of peasant work. A minority of this peasantry could consolidate, and it was powerful. This group, economically stronger, got to be known as the “greasy peasants” (the most favoured).

Often, these richer peasants could not work all their land. This is why many of them rented out salaried labour or made sub-establishments and/or sub-leases and this caused that with the passing of time the “greasy peasants” stopped working the land, dedicating themselves only to its control and management.

This fact created huge differences and contrasts within the peasant work.

Economic and social effects: restructuring of production

The changes brought about by the crisis required new criteria for land management and exploitation. The system of mansus indominicatus – the reserve part of the property that the landowner gave to his serfs or settlers to exploit in exchange for a commitment to pay for it with various jobs and obligations – receded. The feudal lords had great difficulty in receiving the corvées (the obligation of the farmer to work for free on the lord’s land), as the peasantry refused to make them and rebelled.

The increase in wages made it extremely difficult for the feudal lords to obtain free labour. For the lords, it was a real ruin. As they could not get free labour, this system was a totally unviable form of exploitation. It was therefore necessary to look for alternatives, such as a change of direction in production and new contractual formulas. Direct management of the land began to be carried out, monitoring the exploitation while orienting production towards supplying the urban market (diversified demand). Land management by tenants or owners. The communal spaces were often taken over by the lords.

The large managers, fat farmers, oriented production and turned the countryside into an area dependent on urban demand. The members of the urban bourgeoisie channelled the suburban area towards the needs of supply of the cities. These needs were increasing due to the growing population.

The agricultural areas adjacent to the cities could hardly supply them with wheat, so they had to go to farther areas. There was a need for grain and wine (obtained from rural areas), plants used for craft production (flax, hemp, dyeing), highly specialized agricultural products (rice, sugar, vegetables …) and, most importantly, the great potential of livestock, especially cattle (sheep’s wool was very profitable because textiles were the great industry of the Middle Ages).

New ways for exploiting land

The needs of the market implied a major involvement with the adjacent areas of the city. This new production required the implementation of other ways to exploit the land. We cannot say these were new forms of production, although they were greatly expanded, for example:

  • Leasing (giving up the land in exchange for a fixed income, whatever the volume of the harvest);
  • Share-cropping (giving a part of the harvest to the owner of the land). Crop contract, proportional rent;
  • Day labourers (hired labour). However, it was the most fluctuating of all, as it was closely linked to the wage ratio. It was a precarious labour force. In times of hard work, a lot of labour was available and in other times it was not. Day labourers were useful for specific times. Who was a day labourer? Sometimes the same share croppers working little land and renting out their labour power for extra money. It could be mobile labour, people constantly moving to work. Or slave labour, from Eastern Europe (Slavs).

Before 1300, surplus marketable grain was scarce. There were difficulties in supplying the cities. The product was scarce and its price was high. Although the surpluses were small, a good price was obtained. Once the initial effects of the Black Death were overcome, the situation was reversed: there was more surplus and more abundance due to the demographic fall. Prices fell and the income of the peasantry decreased.

Farmers, from 1300 on, had more at a lower price. In terms of subsistence, the situation was much better than before. Farmers had more resources. The big problem was that the crisis affected the feudal lords, who suffered a big drop in income, so the following changes took place:

  • Selection Process. The most powerful aristocracy continued to survive. It managed to accumulate further wealth. As many people disappeared, it could keep the land abandoned by the dead. The weaker and smaller lordships had less income, and therefore, were ruined. They had no choice but to sell their assets;
  • It was a period when the urban bourgeoisie, faced with the risk of investing in business, trade or manufacturing, preferred to invest in the purchase of estates that were more secure. That is why much bourgeoisie started to live on the income and to be called “rentier bourgeoisie”. Many of them had access to noble titles (either by buying the titles or through marriage).

At some points, the demands of the nobility increased. Jurisdictional demands increased, those burdens that were mainly directed at greasy farmers. It was these rich peasants who led the revolts of the 14th century. The rich peasants were the ones who led the revolts.

Impact of the demographic collapse on the urban world in the late Middle Ages

Following the great mortality rate of the 14th century in the cities, a reduction in demand was experienced and therefore production declined. The basic manufacturing activity was textiles. Other activities were related to the resources of each particular area. For its part, the textile industry was the most universal in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to establish the real dimensions of the textile industry at that time. Data is only available for England. There, the agricultural product is estimated at around three million pounds. The textile industry, considering the product marketed, accounted for some 100,000 pounds. It represented only 2% of the workforce. However, it did not cover all the demand. To meet this demand, rural areas also produced. The rural population was largely self-sufficient. The textile activity was expensive, and it was destined to a clientele with a high purchasing power.

During the late medieval period, feudal-type production was in crisis. The major production centres (northern Italy and Flanders) suffered the most. This phenomenon was more visible in these more active areas, but this does not mean that it was general. In the countryside there was an increase in productivity, and it was possible to supply the cities better. The cities paid for the supplies that arrived from the countryside with the sale of artisan products. But prices were more rigid. Urban productivity did not increase and therefore prices did not fall. Thus, the rural community was still unable to buy urban products, which led to a reduction in demand. This phenomenon is called price shearing. On the other hand, the imbalance between prices and wages must also be considered.

Impact on society

The demand of the most powerful groups also declined, as their incomes decreased. In Florence, in 1300, some 100,000 pieces of textiles were produced. In 1350, about 70,000 pieces. By 1373, it dropped to 30,000 pieces. And in 1382 the quantity decreased to 19,000 pieces. In Flanders, it seems that the proportion would be similar. We must relate this phenomenon of reduced demand to the urban revolts of the time.

The distance between a rich minority and a poor majority of the population is increasing. In the face of this collapse, alternatives had to be found to restore activity. The solution was to adapt to the demand. In this sense, three lines of action stand out:

  • The production of luxury goods (printed fabrics, quality crockery, silverware…) was promoted;
  • A reduction in production costs. It was not possible to make a technical improvement, so the decision to produce lower quality fabrics, such as the shaft;
  • Geographical dispersion of the industry rather than concentrating it in a single nucleus. The aim was to escape the rigidity of the guilds and so the “domestic system” was born. Thus, a structural change in craft production was taking place;
  • From the 15th century onwards, production was diversified to include the metal industry.

European explorers of the Atlantic

The European space had only been surpassed during the Crusades. Towards the end of the 13th century, there were sporadic appearances in Atlantic Africa. These journeys had little continuity. They were sporadic as technical means remained underdeveloped and because there was a high risk, so they did not receive financial support.

At the beginning of the 14th century, the Castilians arrived to the Canaries. Religious communities were also established there.

Towards the end of the 14th century, a major change took place. The last decade of the century marked the beginning of the Castilian and Portuguese expeditions. They had the character of preaching as well as of obtaining booty. They were a continuation of the process of the Reconquest. The Castilians also occupied areas of the Moroccan coast, such as Melilla, Bujía… The participation of the Castilians and the Portuguese in this new Atlantic area inevitably led to a confrontation. This is how the areas of influence had to be defined. A first agreement was the Treaty of Alcáçovas-Toledo (1479).

The Canaries became a key point on the route to America and were a place of experimentation for the subsequent American conquest. The conquest of the Canaries was of a feudal nature. The native population was exterminated and the populated islands of the Iberian Peninsula were colonized. However, there was a lack of labour, so African slave labour was used. On the islands, people worked in the sugar cane plantations, roccella canariensis and the dragon’s blood (both to make dyes).

The Portuguese developed an intense commercial activity. The bourgeoisie was consolidated, and it was actually powerful. It had many contacts with the rest of Europe. The Portuguese went to Africa to capture slaves and gold. The Portuguese merchants wanted to find a new route for the species across the Atlantic, circumnavigating Africa.

The reaction of the urban bourgeoisie: from financiers to renters. Methods of administration, management and finance

The development of new mercantile, technical and financial instruments was another way of overcoming the crisis of the late Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages, as far as transport and routes were concerned, land, river and sea were used. However, these methods were slow and expensive (they represented up to 25% of the total cost). Transport was chosen based on distance, yet the preferred method was by sea. The most widely used was coastal shipping. A toll had to be paid on each stretch of coast, the lezda.

It was necessary, however, to improve navigation. New sailing methods were needed. New boats were developed, such as the caravel which mounted new types of canvas, such as the square one. This new boat could carry more tonnage (up to 300 tonnes). The compass, portolan charts, trigonometric tables, the astrolabe, etc. were also used systematically.

Gradually, the transport of goods was improved with the aim of achieving safer journeys. However, it was still dangerous because of the corsairs and pirates. Insurance and convoys were developed to protect against these setbacks.

Commercial relations were therefore becoming more and more complex. Trade was regulated and commercial codes were drawn up. The Book of the Consulate of the Sea of Barcelona is very well known. It was a code in constant evolution so that it could be revised according to the needs.

Incipient capitalism

The development of business management and administration was another aspect of the crisis. Procedures were universalized in large trading centres. From the merchant-traveller, the focus shifted to a capitalist who controlled a network of commercial agents. Activities and investments were diversified. Companies traded any item. This is how investment was secured. If one product failed, another compensated. Speculation on currency exchange and loans followed. Trading companies became more and more stable and various capitals were pooled to cope more strongly with investments.

Financial and credit instruments flourished at this time. They became necessary due to the high volume of operations and the distance of travel. Carrying money around was dangerous, and currency exchange had to be borne in mind. Solutions were sought and systems were developed to facilitate the exchange.

The Arabic numbering was adopted. Accounting books were kept with entries and exits. Capital transfers and loans were practised. Cheques and bills of exchange served as the basis for this.

For all these reasons some historians speak of the development of a proto-capitalism.