[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]The Rise of Commerce and Towns

The year 1000 was a turning point in the fortunes of western Europe. Within a decade of that date, Olaf had converted most of the Scandinavians to Christianity, and the Viking threat came to an end. King Stephen accepted Christianity for himself and the Hungarian people, and the Magyars joined Christendom. The Muslim Caliphate of Cordoba collapsed into civil war, and the armed merchant vessels of the Italian city-states wrested control of the western Mediterranean from the Muslim fleets of north Africa. The Muslims who controlled the mountain passes between France and Italy made the mistake of capturing Majolus, abbot of Cluny, and holding him for ransom. After obtaining his freedom, the Burgundian warrior class drove the Muslims from their fortresses and restored secure land communication between France and Italy.

Otto I, the German emperor, entered Rome and freed the papacy from the control of local Roman political factions. He turned the papacy over to Gerbert of Aurillac, a learned and reform-minded monk and teacher, and the Cluniac reform movement finally reached the highest levels of the western Church. Meanwhile, the Guiscards and Hautevilles, a family of adventurers from Normandy, began the reconquest of southern Italy and the establishment of the Norman Kingdom of Naples and Sicily.

Western Europe's economic fortunes began to change just as quickly. The rulers of Kiev had destroyed the Khazar state to the east of them and, by so doing, removed a buffer that had protected the Varangian Route of Russian rivers from the peoples of central Asia. One of these peoples, the Patchinaks (there are various spellings of this name), settled around 1000 in those lands where the Varangian rivers entered the Black Sea. The Varangian route was blocked, and merchants began once again to carry goods from the Baltic to Mediterranean markets by way of the Seine-Loire-Garonne/Rhone river routes of France. In turn, Eastern merchants in appreciable numbers began to appear once again in the West. Two other events, less appreciated than those we have mentioned, also altered the economic situation of western Europe. Shortly after 1000, the old slave routes linking Poland with western Europe were reopened, but the traders were now driving cattle and horses west to trade for manufactured goods. This trade would prove to be an important factor in Poland's conversion to the western, Roman Catholic form of Christianity. Finally, with the use of new engineering techniques, a bridge was constructed that opened the Brenner pass for relatively easy transport and facilitated communications between the Germanies and Italy.

The old trade routes of western Europe were reopened just as those of Russian were closed, and Baltic-Byzantine trade was returned to the West after a long absence. The passage of this long-distance trade began to stimulate the western economy.

Conditions in the West were favorable to a revival of commerce. The slow spread of advanced farming techniques was a fundamental factor in this development. The heavy plow made it possible to open up the fertile but heavy bottom lands of Europe, and to plow lands with a single pass rather than the criss-cross pattern the lands demanded of the scratch plough. The heavy plow required greater tractive power, and the development of metal horse-shoes, padded horse-collars, and tandem harnessing made it possible to use horses as draft animals. Horses were not only faster (plowing 30+ % more in a day than oxen) but were more intelligent than oxen and so did not need the attention of a man wielding a goad to direct them. The peasants discovered the value of leguminous crops (peas and beans) in restoring soil fertility, and -- although they did not realize it -- improved the human and animal diet of western Europe with the addition of the relatively high grade of protein provided by peas and beans. The deep plow and the use of legumes made it possible to change the two-field system, in which 50% of the arable land was put in fallow each season, to a three-field-system, in which only 33% of the land needed to be in fallow in order to restore its fertility and to kill off the growth of weeds.

Agricultural productivity, as well as production, increased. An increased supply of food led to an increase in the peasant population at the same time that fewer hands were needed to provide the populations food requirements. A "surplus" peasant population arose that needed an outlet. Many of these peasants emigrated to the frontiers of Europe and began to support western European expansion by populating the lands the warrior class conquered. Many others turned to developing Europe's "internal frontier" by draining marshes, as in Belgium and the Netherlands, irrigating dry lands, as in Spain and parts of southern France, and clearing forests, as in Wales and eastern Germany. They began to transform Europe's landscape.

Even this was not sufficient to absorb all of the "surplus" peasant population, and many of them turned to trade and manufacture. Most village communities included part-time artisans, who gained an additional income by working during the winter to supply the village's need for particular goods and services. As the size and number of villages grew, some peasant artisans began to work at full-time at their trades This same increase in population led to the need for more distinctive personal names, and many people took their trade as a second name. Consequently, modern family names are a living record of the elaboration of the western European economy. Fletcher, Frenier, Shields, Schild, Spearman, Bowman, Boyer, Greaves, Sadler and others were engaged in the production of armaments, while Houseman, Mason, Maurer, Thatcher, Glazer, Turner, Carpenter, Sawyer, Sierra, and Dauber were in the business of home construction and improvement. Smith, Schmidt, LeFevre, Faber, Tinker, Plumb, Herrera and Ferrier worked in metals. Busch, Bush, Brewer, Brewster, Aylward, Boardman were in the brewing and bar-tending business. Arkwright, Cooper, Hooper, Boatwright, Wheelwright, Cartwright, Wainwright built boxes and barrels, boats, carts, and wagons. Wagner, Chapman, Packer, Merchant, Marchant, Drover, Dealer, Coiner, Minter were all engaged in the trading and selling of the products of such artisans. The list can be extended immensely. When long-distance trade began to flow once again through western Europe, there already existed a significant, although scattered, body of manufacturers and craftsmen in western Europe.

These two currents converged in the "revival" of urban life. The western European cities of the Roman empire had been, for the most part, artificial creations established by the imperial government to centralize legal, religious and economic activities. As the empire in the West declined, power and population began to move from the cities to the countryside. By the tenth century, many of these Roman cities had been abandoned, or had been reduced to fortresses, cathedrals, or monasteries with a nearby village, often enclosed by part of the old Roman wall. Nevertheless, they were still centers of population and generated a certain amount of traffic. Some village artisans moved to these centers, increasing their population and importance. The long-distance traders often found these locations convenient for breaking their journey, selling some of their goods, dividing cargo, or even trading with merchants arriving from distant parts. They often established residences and warehouses (called "factories") in the villages adjacent to the main administrative centers and took the lead in restoring and extending the old Roman walls to complete the defenses of an essentially new manufacturing and commercial center.

The presence of a population of artisans and merchants attracted a number of other specialists such as physicians, apothecaries, teachers, parchment-makers, scribes, lawyers, cobblers, furriers, butchers, bakers, cooks, prostitutes, barbers, tailors, and all of the other tradesmen necessary to support an urban population. Some of these centers developed some specialty of local manufacture. Centers along pilgrimage roots usually had a large number of shoemakers, for instance, since pilgrims walked for hundreds of miles along rocky roads and needed new shoes at regular intervals. The towns of Belgium began to use the fine wool of the sheep who pastured in the meadows and marshes along the sea to weave high-grade cloth for export to other towns.

<i>A note of explanation. Technically speaking a "city" in the middle ages was the seat of a bishop -- a cathedral with its dependent population. A "town" was an urban center without a bishop. So the difference between medieval cities and towns was not one of size.

Such industries increased local population still further. The production of woolen cloth, for instance, required carders (often women), fullers, dyers, spinners, weavers, printers (sometimes), and merchants. there was also an increased need for common laborers, and so many relatively unskilled peasants moved into the "new" cities and towns. These urban centers needed supplies of both food and raw materials for processing, and the supply of these commodities transformed peasant society.

Up to this time, there had been little point, from the peasants' point of view, to producing a surplus except to build up a reserve of food as insurance against crop failure, marauding war parties, or any of the other dangers of the time. Neighboring villages, producing the same crops, provided no market for surplus commodities, and there was little enough to buy even if there had been a cash market for surplus production. The need of the new and growing cities and towns for food and raw materials changed that situation completely, and many villagers now strove to increase their production and to sell their crops in the urban centers. Some used their profits to <i>commute</i> their labor services. Instead of spending two days a week in their lords' fields, providing two weeks of plowing, two weeks of harvesting and numerous minor services, they paid an annual rent. Now able to devote their full energies to producing and selling more than had before been possible, such peasants were able to accumulate still more money and to use this money to purchase the land rights of their less fortunate neighbors. A class of landless peasants began to emerge that swelled the ranks of the homeless and jobless poor. The poor moved from place to place, seeking work, and offered a source of cheap labor for plowing and harvesting that made it possible to make medieval agriculture still more profitable for those who controlled the land. The village community no longer had to support members whose sole contribution was to provide the extra hands needed at harvest time.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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