Wednesday, September 03, 2014

J.L.Bolton - The Medieval English Economy 1150-1500

This study of medieval England is far from a dry academic text. It is a detailed examination of an economic system that evolved over an extended period, exhibited extensive regional variations and was at times incredibly dynamic. The author, J.L.Bolton, covers a great deal of ground. Within the first thirty pages there is a description of the debate on the origins of open field farming systems, its links to manorialism, a discussion on which parts of England open field farming dominated and where it didn't (and the reasons for the variations), and the distribution of villeinage (unfree labour). There is even a passing mention of Cornish tin-miners and their position in the medieval hierarchy. All in the first thirty pages.

The greatest achievement of the book though, is the way that Bolton gets across the idea of an evolving, dynamic economic system. Bolton's medieval world is far from the unchanging economy that we sometimes imagine when thinking of this period. One key aspect to this is population which influences all sorts of other areas of the economy - the amount of land being farmed, the type and amount of exports, and the wage levels for instance. The conventional story, of population crash during the Black Death, followed by stagnation and wage rises linked to the undermining of serfdom isn't far from the mark. But Bolton suggests a slightly more complex scenario. He suggests that the Plague initially had few economic consequences. The countryside was full, and there were plenty of people to fill up vacant plots of land. It was, Bolton says, not until much later that changes become apparent,

"Real signs of economic change as a result of plague come only gradually and are not generally evident until the mid-1370s. Then prices began to fall, wages to rise, landlords began again to lease demesnes, holdings began to fall permanently vacant. As with the Great Famines of 1315-25, one disaster does not lead to demographic downturn. But a whole series of disasters will have a cumulative effect... Plague was now endemic..." 

For Bolton the plague accelerated existing economic trends, and acted as a brake on the recovery of the population to its former level. For recover it should have. "Fewer people meant more per capita wealth, an improved standard of living for the survivors. Land was now readily available, food was cheap, real wages high, a better diet with greater consumption of meat and dairy products was now possible.... But the population did not rise. All the indirect evidence suggests that after the major fall int the third quarter of the 14th century, the population remained at best static, at worst slowly declining until the last decades of the 15th century."
What this meant in the fields, so to speak, was interesting. "Wages moved with prices until the late 1370s", but after that the general trend of wages was up and grain downwards. Now this is a work of economic history, but Bolton doesn't neglect the reality of his figures. Take the wealth of the rich.

"royal revenue inclusive of taxation ran at about £60-100,000 per annum in the later part of the century... At the very top, a great earldom like that of Lancaster... had a yearly income of about £10,000. This was in a class by itself... Clare of Gloucester or Bigod of Norfolk drew £3-4,000 a year... whilst the 'average' earl would have had a net income of about £1,600. The archbishop of Canterbury's estates provided him with an average income of £2,128 in the thirteenth century."

Bolton points out that £20-£40 per annum, was enough to support a thirteenth century knight in comfort. To the ordinary peasant, the man or woman who created all this wealth, these were astronomical sums. Even an average earl had wealth beyond the dreams of the masses. And, as Bolton points, out conditions for the peasantry progressively got worse over the period. These were the "most exploitable" and exploited they were. Medieval lords became experts at finding the most efficient ways of getting money from the lowest orders.

"Population pressure was pushing up the value of land, to the obvious advantage of those who held it. This can be seen in two main ways, from the rising level of entry fines and of rents for free land. Rents from customary land in the form of money payments were hard to vary. Custom protected them. Services could be increased by redefinition of subdivision... but what the lord wanted was usually more money, not more labour. He could however, commute services and demand high payments for so doing, but this could produce resistance. A better way was to exploit the only truly flexible element in customary payments, the entry fine [money paid to take over a holding]."

These rose significantly. The quoted averages on Winchester manors was 24s. 4d a virgate between 1277 and 1348, compared to 1s to 1s. 8d in 1219. An enormous increase.

Image of happy peasants eating. The reality was often destitution
As a result of this exploitation, the peasant, Bolton points out was usually on the edge of destitution. So far I have concentrated on the peasant aspect to the medieval economy. Bolton does not neglect other important areas such as the growth and development of industry in England - particularly mining, fishing and cloth making - all significant contributors to various regional economies and national trade. Nor does Bolton neglect the rise (and sometimes fall) of towns and cities. Bolton looks at the many reasons why English industry barely developed, and indeed stagnated in places. The one industry that seems to be the exception to the rule was masonry, which "experienced two centuries of almost unbroken boom" - not surprising given the preponderance of medieval projects building cathedrals, castles and churches. Cloth, like other industries was very labour intensive, to produce a cloth of half length (12 x 1.5 - 2 yards) required 15 persons for a week. So wage costs were a significant factor in how the industry developed over time.

"By the late thirteenth century England was exporting some 30,000 sacks of wool per annum to Flanders. In return... Flanders seems to have sent back large quantities of finished cloth... More cheaply produced Flemish cloth was swamping the home market and to survive the English manufacturer had to try in all ways possible to cut costs. The simplest way was to use the cheap, unregulated labour increasingly available in the countryside."

But the biggest problem was the lack of capital. Which Bolton suggests was because of the English merchants and manufacturers had no access to home based banking systems, relying on loans and capital from overseas bankers, particularly those from Italy. This meant "the majority of English trade was not in English hands". Consequently,

"From the English point of view the economy had to operate within the constraints of inadequate access to capital. Consequently neither trade nor industry could offer a major alternative source of employment to the growing mass of peasants living on the brink of subsistence. At the very mist perhaps 10 per cent of population were engaged in non-agrarian occupations."

But things changed. In particular, by the 15th century there was a significant improvement in agriculture. While there "were poor men still, disease was rife, starvation possible, yet compared with the thirteenth century the fifteenth was one of quiet prosperity for the mass of the people."  Unfortunately though, this was actually the result of shortages of labour. Once the population began to grow, the position of the peasantry "became precarious" again.

By the end of the 15th century, England does not seem to be a country that has the potential to be a world power. Bolton sums it up well. Apart from the cloth industry, there was no industry of any size.

"No large-scale mining or metal working complexes emerged to rival those in other areas in Europe. There seemed to be a shortage of English shipping and the most profitable markets for English exports were served by alien merchants. Indeed, compared not only with modern industrialized countries but also in relation to the standards of the 'developed' countries of that time - Italy, the Low Countries and South Germany - England was an underdeveloped country. It had not broken out of the medieval straitjacket."

To break out would require major political, social and economic upheavals in the following centuries. Bolton's book is an excellent backdrop to understanding the economic situation before the 1600s fundamentally transformed things. Bolton describes the general picture as well as the developments and changes that are taking place below the surface. But this book is most useful for its detailed examination of the economic dynamics in the context of wider political and social forces. This book is a must read for anyone getting to grips with England in between the 12th and 16th centuries. It is one that I will reference countless times.

Related Reviews

Bloch - Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence
Lacey and Danziger - The Year 1000
Ziegler - The Black Death

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