Commercial Production: Interaction Among Peoples

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Commercial Production: Interaction Among Peoples


Vikings . In the early Middle Ages, when the agricultural sphere was dominated by the manor system, there was little chance for local producers to have contact with people outside their village. There were, nonetheless, examples of fine craftsmanship both within and without the European rural economy. The Vikings provide perhaps the best example of early European medieval craftsmanship. They made many beautiful objects from gold, silver, and stone, such as bracelets, sword hilts, and even ship decorations. Not until the Vikings became the sedentary peoples of Britain, Normandy, and part of present-day Russia, however, were these products more than fleetingly glimpsed by the continental peoples.

Non-European Goods . Of course, foreign-trade goods made their way into the growing trade centers of medieval Europe. Despite their efforts, the guilds were frequently not well enough integrated to place total limits on the sale of foreign goods. Thus, local markets were a site where craftsmen might encounter the products of other peoples and lands. Undoubtedly, during the week of the fair when the city would attract the attendance of buyers and sellers from all over Europe, such exposure could hardly be avoided.

Traveling Journeyman . In yet another way, however, the impact of different craft practices filtered into medieval Europe. Once a young worker had served an apprenticeship under a craft master, he became a journeyman. Of all artisans, the journeyman had the greatest opportunity to interact with peoples from different regions. Frequently, he moved through a series of different “household” settings, working in each under the master there. During this time a journeyman was to master the craft completely. Journeymen and the few other craftsmen who traveled were among the relative few of local medieval craft societies who came into stimulating contact with people and ideas of different regions.

Crossroads . Throughout the Middle Ages, trading and commercial production went together. Goods produced in one area were in demand in another, which meant that the existence of production in one location frequently amounted to the amassing of much wealth for that town or city by artisans, merchants, and urban dwellers alike. During the 1100s and 1200s the community of merchants made the business, which grew of the new contacts between Europe and the Middle East, no accident. Slowly by land, sea, and rivers, merchants began creating a long-distance demand for products of the new economy of the West. Trade fostered wine production in France, timber and iron-ore extraction in Germany, and hunting and fur-procuring in Scandinavia. Florentine merchants built such a trade around Florentine cloth manufacturers that together they made of Florence on the Arno River, not even on the sea, a worldwide cloth-manufacturing and marketing center, as well as one of the first banking centers in medieval Europe. As merchants represented Florentine wares in many lands in and beyond Europe, Florence became rich and powerful, benefiting particularly in the middle of the fourteenth century from the doubling of prices and craft wages.

Importance of Craftsmen . The importance of craftsmen to Europe’s economic and social development was immense. The variety of natural and human-created conditions for the craft environment in Europe, combined with the prevalence of villages and towns deriving from agriculture and trade, made the Middle Ages a highly active period for craft production. In the towns the peasants’ skills of weaving and other jobs helped build commerce. The growth of trade and industry led to the rise of the new merchant and artisan classes from the 1100s to the 1400s. With city administrators, such as Siena’s city council, offering tax and other incentives to attract newcomers,

many people left the farms and manors and moved to the cities to find new work. The number of skilled crafts workers living in the cities grew steadily, and the few workers left farming the land could demand wages of the large landowners who needed their labor. Craftsmen, like merchants, never fit into the feudal system, the predominant economic system of the early Middle Ages. Thus, when European medieval society entered a time of difficulty about 1300 and was already undergoing monetarization, commercial craft production initially through the strength of its guild institutions was to thrive on the gradual changes away from the feudal economy. As the late Middle Ages drew to a close, the guild declined in power and influence, but craftsmen were nonetheless able effectively to survive and increase based alone on their production of goods and providing of services.


Prosper Boissonade, Life and Work in Medieval Europe (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

Steven A. Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

Joseph Gies and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval City (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).

O. F. Hamouda and B. B. Price, “The Justice of the Just Price,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 4 (1997): 191–216.

Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 900–1350 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971).

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Commercial Production: Interaction Among Peoples

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