Medieval Economics Dominated for Nearly 1,000 Years

Continuing the discussion of feudalism or medieval economics: In traditional, medieval societies, nearly all political power was vested in monarchies and the church. These were highly regulated societies with almost no social mobility. Everyone had a place and a role in society, and would maintain that role for life, no matter how unjust. The wealth of a nation was determined by how much gold and silver was in the monarch’s treasury.

Land was not generally for sale. It was tied to families of the nobility. They could mortgage the land, or rent it out to the land-less for farming, but they could not sell it. Land not associated with families or nobility was held in common, for the common good. It belonged to no one in particular, or to everyone.

Medieval societies had little concept or understanding of the free market. Monarchs confined merchants to certain areas in order to limit competition, and meted out charters for businesses. Trade was strictly regulated by guilds to pile up gold and silver for the monarchy and the nobility. One of the prime motivations for colonization was to increase the supply of gold and silver for the monarchy.

The state church paid for the education of clergy, and made certain that the church represented the interests of the state. The church was also the place members of the community went to build and maintain their reputations for goodness and virtue, to conform to community values, and to seek what happiness they could expect in this life and to prepare for the next life, which would be so much happier than this one. Church parishes were responsible for feeding the poor in their jurisdictions. But to discourage “drifters” from taking advantage of church generosity, people had to register in the parish and reside for at least 40 days before becoming eligible for benefits. If poor people behaved badly, a justice of the peace could boot them out of the parish.

Even clothing was highly regulated. Restrictions could be placed on the yards of lace available to individuals. Fashion was determined by the nobility and the monarch.

The nobility were barred from economic activity. There was a stigma attached to commerce. Profit or profiteering was viewed as selfish. Groups outside society’s mainstream, such as Jews, were forced into commerce rather than agriculture. Jews in Germany, for example, were not permitted to own farmland. Quakers, Methodists and other Protestants who emerged from the Reformation were not allowed to own land (which was equivalent to political power) and were also forced into commerce. The Protestant Reformation was therefore one of the sparks for a “Protestant work ethic” and the growing spirit of capitalism, as German sociologist Max Weber observed.

More videos on Weber and the Protestant work ethic.

Most jobs required apprenticeships of seven years in order to “learn the trade” and also to restrain competition and protect the trade from financial instability.

Merchants had to live in certain parts of town, or in certain towns, to restrain competition, and to protect monopolies.

Concepts of “Just Wage” and “Just Price” developed with the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A “just wage” was linked to the price of bread and an assumption that a worker’s diet would be 50 percent bread. The church might compensate a worker for the difference between what they were paid and what they deserved in the eyes of the clergy representing God. A “just price” would give the vast majority of earnings to those that produced a good or service, not to a middleman.

People were task-oriented, not time-oriented. They worked until they finished a task, then celebrated, often with drink, dancing and games. Life took on the natural rhythm of farming — the planting and the harvest. Festivals such as Mardi Gras and Octoberfest grew out of these rituals. Monday mornings were times laborers would return to work still drunk, or hung over.

As Thomas Aquinas’s ideas of “just wage” and “just price” began to spread, resistance to the idea that people were born into and destined to live in a rigid caste system declined. Dramatic changes followed over the coming centuries — the Age of Exploration and Discovery (Columbus, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Cabot), the beginning of Colonialism, the Scientific Revolution (Copernicus, Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton), the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther and John Calvin), the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and the early stages of capitalism. Yet pockets of feudalism and medieval economic structures can still be found in isolated parts of the world today.

NPR Planet Money.

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