The Question of Medieval Growth (11th — 13th century)

Historiography as a whole agrees on the existence of medieval growth, especially as regards population, which coincides with the development of the feudal system in the 11th-13th centuries. In this period, Europe surpassed the geographical framework of Latin Christianity. A spectacular movement of territorial expansion beyond the natural borders of the continent took place.

Some historians place the beginning of the new feudal order in the 10th century, and others in the 11th century. However, it is agreed that the end of the feudal order took place between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century. During this age, several events took place, on the one hand the subjugation of the peasant communities and on the other hand the projection of Christianity abroad, which implied the subjugation of non-feudal societies. Villages were subdued through military campaigns, looting and crusades. Beneath the Cross, everything was justified.

Factors driving Medieval demographic growth

Authors who have devoted their research to this period agree that an increase in population has taken place. Nevertheless, these historians have offered figures that vary dramatically from one to another. A first approximation places the demographic growth in Europe, explaining that it went up from an initial population of 40 million in the 11th century to 70 million inhabitants in the 14th century. Others claim that during this period the population tripled. It was an almost uninterrupted growth, during a very long period of time.

Graph of population in England during the Middle Ages.
Graph of population in England during the Middle Ages. Population growth came to a halt with the Black Death epidemics of the 14th century

This increase was achieved by several factors:

  • Premature age of marriage. Couples got married very young (average 24 years). This made the years of fertility longer;
  • Increased fertility, precisely because of the advancing age of marriage;
  • Extremely high ordinary mortality rate. Average life expectancy was 40 years.

These circumstances were not the same everywhere. There are marked regional differences. Urban growth outpaced rural growth. Fertility was probably higher in the city than in the countryside, since in time of prosperity there was a higher quality of life in the city.

Also, there was considerable migration from the countryside to the city. There are historians critical of this view, who claim that there are no reliable documentary sources to defend this position. But in Feudal times there was more control over the population and more means to be able to count. It was a population that became more visible, as it was a dominated population (serfs). During this period, the nuclear family was imposed, as a result of a process of decomposition of the large family units (of the “tribal” type).

The Church imposed the nuclear family model (small nuclei), for example by not allowing marriage between relatives. A smaller family was less protected. Laws of inheritance were imposed to favour one person only, through laws of primogeniture (the inheritance was passed on only to the eldest brother).

Major breakdowns and agricultural expansion. A growing population

Feudal age was a period of agrarian colonization. The increase in population required an expansion of agricultural production. This led in certain respects to an improvement in the standard of living. But during the Middle Ages, the increase in agricultural production could only be achieved through the extensive exploitation of the fields, that is, by putting more land under cultivation.

Agricultural growth was the cause-effect of population growth. What drove this phenomenon? Was the increase in cultivation the result of a peasant’s initiative, or was it the effect of the feudal lords’ demand for more income? The feudal rent implied dictating how much could be produced. Feudal lords effectively demanded more from peasant communities over this period.

And what was to be produced? The feudal lords were not satisfied with just anything. The demand for more income from the lords, and the obligation to grow certain products, directly influenced the diet habits of the population. Peasants were absolutely dependent on grain and, in the end, the result was truly negative and devastating in time of poor harvests.

The break-up of new lands was located both indoors and outdoors. In the interior space, where there were already peasant communities, the lands were immobilized and secured by the feudal lords. The lords divided up the space and assigned their peasant communities within those spaces and, through rent, imposed new guidelines on their peasant work. And, in the outer space, the feudal lords distributed the new lands in the areas of feudal expansion.

The process of ploughing was made possible by a new technical system. It was not only new agricultural technology, but also new ways of cultivating the land and the use of new energies. The use of iron became widespread, especially through the construction of ploughs. This meant that the art of blacksmithing and smithies became more and more important. There was a trend towards specialization in certain trades.

New instruments during the feudal era:

  • The iron plough;
  • Animal traction systems, such as yokes: they served to stretch the animals, starting from the chest and not from the neck;
  • New crop systems: slow introduction of the three-year rotation system. It allowed to work the 2/3 of the field, and to leave 1/3 in rest. This system allowed making spring and summer cereal rotation, the cereal was diversified, as they could grow winter cereal like wheat and spring cereals like barley and oats;
  • Application of the horseshoe to animals;
  • Technology: use of water and wind. These instruments had the capacity to release a lot of labour.

New technological advances made it possible to extend the area of cultivation and increase yields.

The problem that feudal agricultural growth had been that once the qualitative and quantitative change mentioned above was achieved, the improvements stopped. It was not until the 18th century that there was a renewal of cultivation techniques.

In the 13th century, large hectares of land were put under cultivation, as it was the only way to increase production at a time when the population was expanding. However, there came a time when this extensive growth could not go any further, and a process of regression began. After a while, the land started to decrease, and they made the production go down.

During the Early Middle Ages, there was an important space in the diet of the peasantry for meat obtained from hunting animals. It was not an abundant hunt but it allowed to have a more balanced and diversified diet. On the other hand, from the feudal period onwards, the diet was based almost exclusively on cereals. The fact that the diet depended on a very high percentage of a single product was very negative. In case of harvest, the consequences could be catastrophic for the population.

Economic and demographic recovery of cities through trade and crafts

The specialization of production led to the necessity of exchanging goods. This need for exchange generated new systems of growth linked to the space that is the mainstay of this trade, cities. The process of medieval urbanization began in the 12th century. Why did this process occur? On the one hand, the number of cities in feudal Europe increased, and on the other hand, the surface area of cities expanded, which allowed the boost of population living there.

What do we consider to be a feudal city? To be considered a medieval city, it was necessary to be an entity above 2,000 inhabitants. In feudal times the most spectacular phenomenon was the formation of the burghs (they were a type of average city, a regional town, with very concrete functions of dominion over the rest of the populations of its surroundings). The burghs were a middle ground between the villages and the big cities.

Miniature illustrating the celebration of a market on the 15th century
Miniature illustrating the celebration of a market on the 15th century

Cities in the same territory were connected to each other, and were part of a hierarchical network. The city was not defined by the number of inhabitants, but rather by the functions it carried out, which were usually non-agricultural.

What were the functions of a city?

  • The production of handmade products and of daily consumption, including products such as clothes, shoes, tools or ceramics… That is, all those productions that respond to a local or regional demand. Sometimes, the cities offered products that were not available in the area;
  • Fairs were also held in the cities. It was a commercial function. The fairs used to be the weekly market. The city that enjoyed a little more substance could hold a larger annual fair. These were functions that the city centralized within its space.

The productive activity of the city generated a series of incomes. The fees and taxes that were collected in the city space were imposed by the feudal lords. The enrichment of these feudal lords allowed them to become a new local oligarchy that gradually monopolized the institutions of local power in the cities. Local oligarchies that were known as “patricians” (as in Roman Empire times).

A typical medieval town example, with the wall, castle, cathedral and the central square where the market is held
A typical medieval town example, with the wall, castle, cathedral and the central square where the market is held

The mercantile flows that were generated in the cities needed instruments to facilitate these activities. They began to appear:

  • Means and systems of transport that were faster and safer. Advances in navigation (rudders, sails, winds …);
  • Financial, accounting and credit instruments (cheques, bills of exchange, drafts). At the beginning of the 13th century, the first insurances began to be documented;
  • The most widely used instrument was that of currency (use of pieces of metal currency or in the form of paper, money, cheques …).

The new mercantile and financial instruments of the city

As trade and the exchange of goods developed, society became more monetized. Out of this monetization came the need to establish a system of equivalence between currencies and products.

Example: a feudal castle cost 3 horses, considering that the value of each horse was 30 pounds.

Everything had a set price. But that did not necessarily mean that there were pieces of currency in circulation. Why, following the example of the castle, could a castle be bought with horses and not with coins, but had barter (exchange of one product for another) been used? Because the horse had a monetary reference! On the contrary, in barter there was an exchange of one product for another, but the value of each object was what satisfied the needs.

Little by little, society was becoming more monetized and the use of pieces of currency increased. Money lowered the silver content, thus facilitating exchange. The currency stopped being a selective object, before in the hands of the magnates. From this moment on, money was used for the acquisition of common goods.

We find many documentary references in the 12th century about the use of money for the purchase of bread and wine. This meant that its use had become widespread. The monetary system consisted in the fact that there was only one currency in circulation, the Denarius (French denier, from the Carolingian period).

When it was used in great quantities, a multiple of the Denier was used, the Solidus. A salary was equivalent to 12 deniers. Solidus was the currency of account, it was not a circulating currency, it was like saying 100 cents = 1 euro. Although there was another multiple above the salary, the Pound. The equivalent was 1 pound = 20 sous.

Why could the content of the coin be lowered? Towards the last third of the 12th century, new silver mines were discovered. This increased the mass of money in circulation. In Britain, the price of wheat doubled and the price of the metal halved.

There was an increasing use of credit, which was used to acquire anything. The first loans with interest appeared, which before the feudal period had almost been seen. The Church was more vulnerable than before. An incipient “money market” appeared, and the foundations were also laid for an incipient land market (buying and selling of land).

The land had a direct ownership (in today’s terms, the ownership of the land, which was in the hands of the feudal lords) and a useful ownership (the right of cultivation, in the hands of the peasant). One lord sold the land, but the farmers could also sell their useful domain to another farmer. The lord, however, always kept a percentage of the sale of that useful domain.

The new situation favoured the emergence of hired (salaried) labour. Labour was used that was paid in money, even in the countryside. Society had become monetized thanks to the market. The existence of the market was very visible, since the lords had an interest in controlling the activity.

The peasants had lost non-agricultural production, due to specialization: what a family produced was not for consumption, but for exchange. Part of the income generated by the countryside passed to the city.

This situation often generated tensions. In suburban areas (areas closer to the countryside), specialized crops were established, above all products that the cities demanded such as wine, oil, industrial raw materials such as flax, hemp… It was a trade in vital necessities. In the big cities, these areas became the centres and main axes of international trade. This was a novelty, since during the 13th century the trade that was practised was of luxury.

The phenomenon of urbanization was not general throughout Europe, there were major differences. The most urbanized regions were the coastal ones, both in the north and south of Europe. Urbanization was quite scarce in the east as in the west.

In the north and in the Baltic Sea area, trade was dominated by the German Hansa. In the south, in the Mediterranean, trade was especially controlled by the Italian cities, with the trade routes connecting to the east.

Between the two great poles of international trade in Northern and Southern Europe, there was a whole series of connecting axes, which were made on two or three main routes. The first route was via the Rhone Valley, which connected the fairs of the Champagne region of France in the 12th century, but this route declined and another was sought. The second way was through the Alps (Switzerland and Germany). This route allowed the opening of a central corridor.

Cities were getting bigger and more dependent on each other. They had to be continuously supplied, they needed mostly grain and raw materials. This made them vulnerable to any cut in supply, which could cause a real disaster. Cities were large centres of demand.

The consolidation of feudal monarchies

Back in the 11th century, we still cannot talk about the state. Rather there was a constellation of kingdoms, principalities, crowns, res-publica, populus, etc. Political units that were the seed that ended up generating the State.

Europe in 1328
Europe in 1328. Original source:

From the 11th century onwards, new political configurations began to take shape after the dismemberment of the Carolingian Empire, the feudal monarchies, which were strengthened by:

  • The Church: an entity that supported the king and legitimized the power of the monarch. The king became a spiritual representative of God on earth. And in return, the king defended the Church and carried out her orders;
  • The law: The jurists of the time recovered the common law, precepts of Roman law such as the Code of Justinian.

These were the two great supports that gave legitimacy to the monarchy’s being. Feudal monarchies tended to articulate themselves and become more visible as they identified with a community, which was then considered as a subject. The subjects admitted the authority of the king. Concurrently, the monarchy also identified itself with a territorial space that was becoming more and more limited. This space was called Regnum.

This reality was materialized in 3 aspects.

  1. Strengthening of the monarchical institution, not the figure of the king, rather the institution.
  2. Formation and articulation of new organs of political representation of the estates, such as the Courts or the Parliaments. Depending on the territory, they received one name or another.
  3. Progressive construction of a State taxation system, thanks to a set of taxes that allowed to face the expenses of this State.

The new royal fiscal system

All this meant a structural change from the previous situation, as until this moment the kings depended on their revenue, and there was no state treasury. With the strengthening of the monarchies and their dominant position in feudal society, the kings had to look for new formulas to enter resources within the fiscal structures of the State.

The kings, in their search for new resources, added new taxes, without eliminating those already paid by the tax subjects to the feudal lords. This was the origin of the great revolts of the 14th and 15th centuries.

The most powerful feudal states were the Kingdom of France, the Holy Roman Empire (the Habsburg), the Kingdom of England and the various kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula (Castile and Aragon). The system of monarchies in modern times has its origin in the Middle Ages, during the 13th-14th centuries.

Why did they have to increase taxes and look for new sources of financing?

  • Due to the generalization of war, as armies became more numerous, and in many cases had to hire the military services of private mercenary armies (as for the Great Catalan Company).
  • And because of the growth of the State itself, which forced the payment of salaries to more officials and the maintenance of a bureaucracy and a powerful diplomatic corps. The State needed more resources to be able to function more effectively.

The conflicts that affected the territory of the Regnum also had consequences for its neighbours. That is why the defence of the Regnum was created, and why it is now a matter of a new law. The need to defend the Kingdom implied substantial change from the previous situation.

If the king was responsible for defending the whole territory, the sovereign had to obtain resources not only from the peasants living in his jurisdiction, but from all the sites he defended. The first thing the king had to do was to ask permission from the feudal lord (a nobleman) to oversee his lordships. This was done in the Courts, which were convened by the king for this purpose (request for donation, also called subsidy). In these Courts, the king asked the three arms for the donation or subsidy. The nobility always gave in, but in return asked to enjoy more privileges (such as not paying taxes). The result of the Courts was always an increase in the power of the aristocracy.

The big loser in the process of consolidation of the monarchies was the peasantry, which already paid the feudal rents to the lords and now saw how they also added the payment of further taxes to the king.

The capitularies were the agreements that were taken in the Courts. The procedure for collecting taxes involved drawing up lists of contributors (it was necessary to know from whom the tax was to be collected, so the census of inhabitants, called fouage, was taken). The registers were prepared by each lordship.

As to carry out the tasks of tax collection, bureaucratic bodies had to be set up to collect the taxes. Originally, in Catalonia the collection body was the Diputació del General, later known as the Generalitat. The civil servants who had to collect were called “generalitats.”  There came a time when collections were so frequent that the intermittent bureaucratic bodies had to become permanent. Initially, they were exclusively fiscal bodies, but in time they took on political power. A system of fees was formed that varied greatly according to the political characteristics, the strength of the king, the economic characteristics of each area…

Consequences of tax collection:

  • The new taxation was superimposed on the already existing feudal rates, and we must not forget that in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries there were times of crisis, therefore, the increase in taxes caused many revolts;
  • The group that benefited the most was the monarchy, which obtained resources that it could not otherwise have acquired;
  • For the nobility it was also very beneficial, since a great part of the State budget was dedicated to pay the private armies of mercenaries, formed by the same nobility;
  • They also benefited all the people who lived off the State and were part of it: the civil servants who made up the bureaucracy and administration of the state (in Catalonia the veguers, in Castile the mayors, among others).

In this new situation, the feudal monarchies were strengthened, as well as the feudal lords. The peasantry was undoubtedly harmed.

Feudal conquests and the question of colonization

The expansion of European Christianity took place between the 11th and 12th centuries, and laid the foundations for Europe’s hegemony in the world. The origins of Christian expansion may be traced back to the Gregorian Reformation. There came a point where Christianity and feudalism became one and the same thing.

The role of the Church was fundamental, since it created the discourse and gave legitimacy to the process of conquest. The end justified the means. As military projection was extended to non-Christian societies, the conquest was legitimate. Non-Christians had to be converted. The ideological basis was the Church’s discourse of subjugation of the infidels and the Christianization of the pagans. The Church legitimized actions, which implied the use of violence, since only the expansion of Christianity mattered. The Church was the main guarantor of the Crusade movement, to be executed by the aristocracy.

The Mediterranean Sea, copied from the Catalan Atlas by Cresques Abraham. Copy of 1959 from the original of 1375
The Mediterranean Sea, copied from the Catalan Atlas by Cresques Abraham. Copy of 1959 from the original of 1375

Europe expanded in all possible directions. This process of growth began at the end of the 11th century, following the speech of Pope Urban II (1095), which marked the beginning of the 1st Crusade. But it must be said that the 1st Crusade was not really the first action of European expansion, as there had already been movements before. The operation of conquest was more complex than the military operation. In the feudal case, it involved:

  • Preparing and forming the hueste (the army). According to the military contribution that each one contributed, there was a previous distribution of the territory that supposedly would be conquered;
  • The sieges (a strictly military operation): the form of attack was to be launched against the castles and the cities. This implied surrounding the city, isolating it, suppressing its supplies. And if this was successful, they would proceed to divvy up the “prize” according to the previously agreed agreement.

All in all, the feudal troops demonstrated a military superiority that was never stopped. The feudal armies created a kind of ferocity before the attack with the purpose of frightening the adversary. The procedures used varied, depending on the final fate of the vanquished.

Conquest Procedures

The conquest implied the subjugation of the native population, this did not necessarily involve bringing settlers from the place of origin. In the occupied territory, the existing social order was not modified, nor the agrarian cycles that existed. The social structure of the population, both social and economic, remained the same. The submission was materialized in the obtaining of tributes, this implied risk. As nothing was changed, and no settlers were taken to occupy the territory, these dominated territories ended up being recovered sooner or later. The conquest, that only used military action, could be a reversible one. That is why all the occupied territories in the Holy Land were lost after a while.

When the control involved external colonization, there was no intention of subduing the defeated native population, but rather the objective was to liquidate them. Some were killed, others were taken away, families were divided, a large part of the population was enslaved… They did this to make it impossible to rebuild the indigenous community.

What they did was a substitution of the population. Colonization is the process by which Christians took people from their places of origin and brought them to the new occupied territory. The transfer of settlers took place. For this to happen, there were some demands.

This was a colonization that was highly directed by the “locator”, a person specialized in the establishment of peasant families abroad. The population letters were documents issued by the feudal lords to promote these colonizations. They allow us to know in writing how the process of colonization was carried out, what land incentives were given to all those who were going to conquer the territory, as well as the tax exemptions that were provided.

The agrarian landscape of the occupied territories changed. It was the replacement of some agrarian models by others, new patterns of organization of the population, new villages… The transformation was radical and was done relatively quickly. Due to this great transfer of people, the role of the Church was also crucial in imposing it:

  • A new family system, with smaller and more vulnerable families;
  • A system of transmission of inheritance, which tended towards primogeniture, so that all not-heir children had to leave the family nucleus.

In the process of conquest, there was an ecclesiastical organization. When it was occupied a relatively important city, it became an episcopal see. This process of colonization was very well organized and structured. The colonizations affected equally all social sectors: the aristocracy looked for lordships, and the peasants (serfs) went looking for land to cultivate. Of these settlers, a small minority prospered, but the vast majority failed.

The process of conquest affected a huge nucleus (territories of the former Carolingian Empire), the core of Europe.