Capitalism and Commercialization

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Robert S. DuPlessis

The rise of capitalism, one of the formative influences on modern Europe, is the subject of an enormous and contentious scholarship. The new economic and social order formed over many centuries, but historians have long devoted much attention to the two and half centuries from the Black Death to the onset of the seventeenth-century crisis. In this period, from about 1350 to about 1620, two of capitalism's central attributes became firmly and widely entrenched: the market as the fundamental economic institution, or "commercialization," and a polarized class structure. Analysis of these traits began with the founders of modern economics and sociology. Adam Smith held that market development promoted division of labor, specialization, and productivity-enhancing innovation that engendered continuous economic growth. For Karl Marx the origins of capitalism lay in "original" or "primary" accumulation. This process transformed existing land, labor, tools, and money into capital by dispossessing peasants and artisans, simultaneously turning them into proletarianized wage laborers and the landlords and merchants who accumulated this productive property into capitalist entrepreneurs. Max Weber argued that a novel mentality to motivate both capitalist classes stemmed from the theology of the sixteenth-century Reformation.

Over the many decades, these interpretations have been fiercely debated, elaborated, and modified, and important new explanatory factors introduced. No scholarly consensus exists on how to account for the rise of capitalism. Nevertheless, the critical nature of this period is widely accepted. This discussion first examines the appearance of the marketized economy and then turns to the social relations of commercial capitalism.


After about 1000, European population and economy underwent brisk growth. Colonists settled and improved large territories; new towns were founded and existing ones greatly expanded; crafts flourished; and local, interregional, and long-distance trade burgeoned, most of all on overland routes that spread across the Continent. Time-honored interpretations postulate that the traumatic Black Death (1347–1351), which killed up to half of Europe's population, put an abrupt end to the expansion of the High Middle Ages, but research in commercial, demographic, political, and price history has forced considerable interpretive revision. Instead of a unique catastrophe, most scholars have come to postulate a broader, protracted "late medieval crisis" extending from the early fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century. Heralded by poor harvests, extensive famines, and destructive warfare around 1300, the troubles touched their nadir with the catastrophic great plague. Worse, they were perpetuated by several decades of recurrent epidemics; interstate conflicts, most famously the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453); and social strife, notably the French Jacquerie (a peasant insurrection) of 1358, the Florentine Ciompi (wool workers) revolt of 1378–1382, and the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381, all of which cut short population recovery, stoked inflation, depressed farm and craft output, and disrupted trade. From about 1400, the worst problems eased, but the next half century was a time of slow revival marked by demographic stagnation, the constant threat or, all too often, reality of war, and steep deflation.

It also turned out to be a period of gestation. During the "long sixteenth century"—beginning in 1450–1470 and continuing to about 1620—earlier economic and social trends were renewed, extended, and consolidated. Until at least 1570 nearly all of Europe experienced vigorous demographic recovery, reoccupation of vacant holdings along with notable urbanization, intensified agricultural and industrial output, and the extension of trading relations across much of the globe. But thereafter the long expansion petered out. Population growth slowed, agricultural productivity stagnated, industrial output stalled or dropped, and both overseas and intra-European trade languished. Bitter and prolonged strife in France and the Low Countries was followed by wars elsewhere on the Continent, marking the return of disruption and high taxes, which sucked money out of the economy. After about 1620 most of Europe entered the "crisis of the seventeenth century." Yet the dominance of the market economy had been established, so whereas before the late fourteenth century most peasant output was directly consumed by its producers or taken by lords as tribute, by the end of the long sixteenth century the majority went to the market.

The late medieval crisis. Market exchange played a larger role in medieval Europe than traditionally assumed. Although overwhelmingly agrarian, Europe was not a nonmonetized, autarkic "natural economy." Commerce developed after the dawn of the new millennium and centered initially in northern and central Italy. Together with the early decline of serfdom, the precocious revival of towns fostered market production by urban artisans and by peasants encouraged or compelled to supply food, raw materials, and funds to city-states. The peninsula's middleman position between the flourishing Middle East and transalpine Europe, stimulus provided by the Crusades and consequent establishment of trading colonies in the Levant and around the Black Sea, and expansion of the papacy's fiscal apparatus prompted Italians to organize commercial, financial, and transport networks throughout the Mediterranean and adjacent areas and on into northern and eastern Europe. Italian commercial dominance was firmly grounded in stable currencies and in innovations such as permanent partnerships, bills of exchange, insurance, and double-entry bookkeeping that reduced transaction costs and enhanced efficiency. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, demographic recovery, urbanization, conversion of labor services and other feudal obligations into cash payments, and textiles and other crafts spread across Europe. As a result markets became particularly active along Europe's "dorsal spine," extending from Florence to southeastern England, and on related networks like the Hanseatic League, organized by merchants of Baltic and North Sea towns.

The late medieval crisis complicated commercialization but did not provoke a general retreat from markets. Warfare's attendant lawlessness, destruction, inflation, taxation, and coinage debasements disorganized commerce, especially long-distance trade in cheaper items whose transport and security costs exceeded potential profits. As John Munro showed, a once-flourishing transcontinental trade in inexpensive Flemish woolens ceased. Demographic collapse reduced both the supply of and the demand for industrial goods and provoked the abandonment of land or, in some areas, entire settlements. In Germany, perhaps the most severely affected, about one-quarter of the villages in existence before the crisis were deserted by its end.

These problems proved surmountable. Once the hyperinflation of cereal prices subsided in the 1380s, not only workers enjoying high real wages due to a tight labor market but most other Europeans had more income to spend on nongrain foodstuffs and manufactures. Richard Goldthwaite argued that Italian towns prospered on the basis of demand for luxury goods, notably works of art, which expanded because wealth concentrated in the hands of those who survived the ravages of the era. What from one perspective was the late medieval crisis from another was the celebrated Renaissance. Many Flemish towns that could no longer profitably export cheap textiles turned successfully to fine woolens—whose high selling price absorbed stiff transportation and insurance rates on unsafe routes—and then revived inexpensive lines when demographic, social, and political circumstances stabilized after 1400.

The evolution of agrarian specialization suggests that many peasants took their cues from the market. For much of the fourteenth century, the price of grain remained high, so it enjoyed pride of place in European fields. But when relative prices changed, farmers quickly switched to dairying, livestock raising, and the cultivation of wine, fruits and vegetables, flax, and other foodstuffs and industrial crops. Landlords, too, contributed to commercialization both inadvertently and intentionally. To be sure, some initially sought to exploit disarray and reintroduce labor services, even serfdom. But their offensive met intense resistance and succeeded only in limited regions, so trends toward commutation of feudal obligations into monetary payments and rents in cash and kind redoubled. Along with rising levies imposed by churches and states, these changes forced more farmers to sell a larger part of their produce. Many poorer peasants and full-time agricultural laborers also found jobs on large market-oriented estates established by landlords—noble, ecclesiastical, and bourgeois—who dispensed with tenants altogether, or on the farms of more substantial peasants.

High mortality, low birthrates, and rents and land values that fell by one-third to one-half, central features of the crisis era, combined to provoke an active land market for proprietors and tenants alike. These factors also spawned both subdivision and amalgamation of properties from individual holdings to entire estates. In this environment a novel attitude toward land arose. Rather than a patrimony to be carefully husbanded for transfer over generations, landed property became an exchangeable commodity valued by and in the market. The new mentality was still strongly attached to land but no longer identified a specific plot or manor with an individual family. Any piece of land was a capital asset to be put to the most lucrative use for a contractually stated period of time and disposed of if economic conditions warranted.

By the mid-fifteenth century the European economy was smaller than a century before. Some areas, notably uplands and regions of low fertility; producers distant from urban markets or trade routes; and artisans in crafts that failed to adapt to new market conditions continued to suffer. Guilds, village communities, landlords, laws, and customs often hampered experimentation with new procedures, crops, and tools. Many Europeans were too poor and the output of their farms or shops was too meager to enter the market regularly as either producers or consumers. But all economic sectors were much more vigorous than in the early fourteenth century, and per capita productivity and income were higher thanks mainly to agricultural and industrial specialization in response to relative market prices. Despite manifold signs of decline in the period, economic historians view the late medieval crisis as an era of adjustment and enhanced commercialization.

The long sixteenth century. The forces undergirding the robust growth that began about 1450 and became general before 1500 powerfully spurred commercialization. As epidemics waned and destructive warfare receded, lower death rates interacted with rising natality, initially reflecting higher incomes and the greater availability of land at affordable rents, to lift Europe's population from no more than 50 million in 1450 to nearly 80 million in 1600, boosting aggregate demand and enlarging the labor supply. Pronounced urbanization raised the proportion of Europeans living in towns of more than 10,000 people from about 5.5 percent in 1500 to 7.5 percent a century later, magnifying the numbers of people whose livelihoods depended on market involvement. The growth of cities also promoted economies of scale that by cutting prices helped widen the market. As commercial opportunities multiplied, merchants throughout Europe adopted commercial and financial innovations pioneered in Italy that decreased transaction costs and thus final prices to consumers, further quickening markets.

The declining incidence and destructiveness of intrastate and interstate conflicts lowered the cost of goods and eased tax burdens, giving consumers more disposable income. Additional market stimulus came from a budding new commercial network, even if it did not yet, in the opinions of most historians, constitute "the modern world-system" proposed by Immanuel Wallerstein. Overseas exploration, settlement, and trade grew exponentially. Seville, the staple port for Spain's New World possessions, shipped seventeen times as much by volume in the years 1606–1610 as it had in 1511–1515. Imports from Asia as well as America likewise developed smartly. One of the leading commodities, New World bullion, provided much of the enlarged money supply needed to keep the wheels of commerce turning. Production for the market motivated the establishment, in Europe's American colonies, of plantations staffed by indigenous peoples or, increasingly, enslaved Africans in what Wallerstein has aptly termed "coerced cash-crop" agriculture.

Expanding market production resuscitated old centers and launched new ones all across Europe. Long-neglected fields were plowed up, and forests were felled. By the 1530s the forest of Orléans, France, had contracted to a third of its former size. In many areas, particularly along the North Sea coast, new land was created. In a half-century more than 100,000 acres were drained and diked in the northern Netherlands alone. All this activity was made possible by massive capital investment, much by townspeople who sold the reclaimed land once it was ready for cultivation. The new owners, specialized commercial farmers who shed all auxiliary tasks to improve efficiency, purchased inputs from livestock to implements to additional labor. Under such conditions, peasants had to be closely attuned to market conditions. Thus as relative cereal prices again consistently exceeded those for other produce, farmers reversed course from their medieval forebears and increased grain growing. Landlords behaved similarly. Many English manors enclosed for sheep grazing in earlier years were plowed up and sown with wheat or rye. The proportion of western European landowners' income provided by feudal sources, such as seigneurial privileges, dues, and commuted labor services, tumbled, while income from capitalist activities, such as the sale of produce and market-determined rents, mounted. Witnesses—and handmaidens—to the ever-spreading commercialization were legions of market towns, amounting to four thousand just in Germany, so most farms were only a few miles from at least one of them. Agricultural advance also sustained the lively land market, for rising demand translated into mounting rents and related charges, making pasture and arable land excellent investments.

Industrial development had a broader impact. The city of Lille and its nearby countryside in Flanders illustrate the processes at work. Its once-thriving woolens industry devastated by the late medieval crisis, sixteenth-century Lille took up various forms of light textiles, which experienced a remarkable boom thanks to sales in much of Europe and in Spanish America. Eventually entrepreneurs, many of them Lillois, hired workers in neighboring villages, some of which became formidable competitors of the metropolis. Feeding the swelling industrial population and supplying it with raw materials greatly enlarged and enriched Lille's merchant class, developed a vigorous carting trade, and employed farmers in the immediate outskirts of town, in grain-growing districts in adjacent Flanders and northern France, in vineyards in Burgundy and the Bordelais, in grazing regions from Germany to Spain, and even on Polish serf estates.

The achievements of commercialization should not be exaggerated, however. Although wider and deeper market participation and specialization had occurred, relatively little capital had been invested in technical development that would have allowed productivity to outpace population. Why this was so is a matter of considerable dispute. To some historians, capitalists' preference for commerce, land acquisition, moneylending, and various types of conspicuous expenditure is evidence of a "traditional" mentality that valued consumption above production and placed social and political objectives above economic ones. But other scholars contend that such behavior was economically rational given the prevailing conditions of constantly expanding commercial opportunities, high rents and interest rates, lower industrial prices than agricultural prices and fluctuating markets for manufactures, cheap unskilled labor, and costly innovations with low rates of return.

Still, the results stopped economic advance. Inflation became sufficiently severe that many scholars speak of a sixteenth-century "price revolution." Because grains were central to diets and thus to budgets in nearly all of Europe, demand shifted away from other foodstuffs and especially away from industrial goods, heightening the damage to workers, who saw their real wages fall in tandem with work opportunities, and to specialized agriculturists. Florentine woolen output, for example, which had mounted from 10,000 to 12,000 pieces a year in the 1430s to 30,000 in the 1560s, dropped to 14,000 in the 1590s and just 6,000 by the 1630s. Across the last period sales of raw wool from Castile's vast herds were cut in half.

The effects of commercialization were unevenly distributed across Europe. Three distinct but interrelated zones are discernible. In the Mediterranean basin, agriculture and industry initially conquered foreign markets but were harmed by low levels of investment. Despite a few notable exceptions, like Catalonia and Lombardy, the Mediterranean region underwent a process of relative decline marked by a partial retreat from commercialization and specialization. Eastern Europe experienced the wide imposition of "second serfdom," which had dual origins in the late medieval crisis and in sixteenth-century commercialization. Despite resembling medieval serfdom by virtue of heavy obligations and restrictions placed on the peasantry, neoserfdom was market-oriented. Perhaps three-fourths of all the grain, cattle, wine, and other items produced by peasants performing compulsory, unpaid labor services on the lords' demesnes or appropriated from the surplus gathered on their individual plots was marketed in western Europe and locally. But commercialized serfdom obstructed development. Lords saw little reason to innovate, whereas peasants lacked the time and capital to improve their own holdings and had no inclination to improve their lords'. Industries making cheap goods emerged, but the narrow, impoverished market discouraged new methods.

Western Europe, particularly the quadrant comprising southeastern England, the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), northern France, and the German Rhineland and North Sea coast, reaped the most benefits. There Europe's highest rate of demographic expansion, rapidly growing town populations atop already elevated levels of urbanization, and a thick nexus of dynamic, increasingly efficient markets provided many incentives to innovate and the institutions and capital to do so. By the early seventeenth century, an area that had traditionally been on the periphery of the European economy was poised to become the core of a capitalism that was taking its first steps toward creating a global economy.


While few historians think that Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's notion of "motionless history" accurately represents the preindustrial world, many emphasize the continuities that marked it. From the Black Death to the seventeenth-century crisis—not to mention before and after the period—the basic farming unit over nearly all Europe remained the holding worked by an individual household or, notably in some sharecropping and upland areas, by several usually related and coresident households. Analogously, the small artisan workshop operated by a household produced most manufactures. Both farms and shops were integrated into larger institutions. Village communities supervised many aspects of cultivation, crop rotation, grazing, and access to common resources, such as woodlands, waterways, and waste. Corporations (guilds) regulated artisanal production and organized collective social and religious observances. All these structures retained broad ideological sanctions as the desirable means of ensuring not only acceptable livelihoods but also, through inheritance, provision for the next generation. In addition they fit snugly into the hierarchic image that ordered social perceptions and obligations.

Yet across the period these structures were undermined, and the ideal and reality diverged notably as the sixteenth century proceeded. Larger units emerged. In agriculture landlords and peasants enlarged and consolidated their properties. In manufacturing capitalists assembled urban and rural "putting-out," or domestic, networks by employing artisans, peasants seeking additional income, and women and children to process raw materials supplied on credit by the entrepreneur. Smaller units proliferated as well, especially in regions where peasant families subdivided their holdings to bequeath to all their children. All these changes reflected the weakening of village and corporate institutions as capitalists—commercializing landlords and rich peasants, putting-out organizers, and merchants—became more influential. Domestic systems, for instance, often existed in defiance of corporate privileges. As the period went on, advocates touting the benefits of the new arrangements to the economy and society claimed and sometimes acquired a degree of legitimacy for them.

These developments did not occur uniformly or steadily, and they were often interrupted, particularly during the late medieval crisis, when stabilization succeeded initial upheaval. But the transformation proved broad and persistent, as evidenced by the social polarization—most of all the extensive proletarianization—that accompanied sixteenth-century commercialization.

The late medieval crisis: Social upheaval to social stabilization. Echoing contemporaries, historians long believed that the Black Death severely and permanently disrupted European social institutions and behavior. Ever since Wilhelm Abel charted a close concordance between agricultural and population movements, however, scholarship has played down the singular importance of the plague, pointing instead to a host of problems that accumulated after the late thirteenth century. Chief among them was the demographic growth that exhausted much land, thereby reducing productivity, pushing up prices, engendering famine and disease, and allowing landlords to increase rents while also encouraging them to commute feudal bonds and obligations into more easily adjusted and thus more lucrative payments in cash and kind. But population pressure had such strongly negative effects, historians now contend, only because of three additional factors: frequent and destructive wars and civil conflicts, excessive state and lordly levies that further burdened the populace while taking from it the resources needed to satisfy them, and rigid tenurial structures that discouraged innovation. In the 1990s David Herlihy and other scholars attempted to rehabilitate a version of the earlier catastrophic view. Agreeing that Europe suffered from a late medieval crisis, they regarded the Black Death and the recurrent epidemics of the next few decades as chiefly responsible for the duration and magnitude of the troubles and for their most significant outcomes.

On the basis of this rich but contentious historiography, the outlines of another synthesis can be proposed that distinguishes two phases in the social history of the late medieval crisis. The first, which comprised the three decades or so after the Black Death, deeply shook European society, whereas the second, which roughly coincides with the end of the fourteenth century and the first half of the fifteenth century, was characterized by stabilization.

In the immediate aftermath of the plague, drastic inflation engendered by the wide abandonment of fields and the disruption of trading networks created golden opportunities for astute and unscrupulous merchants, landlords, and peasants. Further, the vagaries of survival and inheritance contributed to unprecedented individual social mobility, for many agricultural holdings and artisanal shops suddenly became available to rent or purchase on favorable terms. The same processes also encouraged geographical mobility, most notably among rural residents attracted by the new occupational positions that opened up in towns. The easing of access to mastership in craft guilds symbolized the new opportunities. Florence's silk guild, for instance, admitted just 16 new members in 1346 and 18 in 1347, the last preplague years, whereas in 1348, 1349, and 1350, 35, 69, and 67 matriculants, respectively, were accepted. Moreover in stable periods half or more of the neophytes had close relatives in the silk guild, but in the quarter century after the Black Death, the proportion was a third or fewer.

If this was a period when fortune smiled on "new men," women formed the group that probably saw the most improved conditions. The particularly lucky among them became substantial propertyholders upon inheriting assets that previously would have gone to their brothers. Because of labor shortages, gender divisions of labor were widely relaxed, and women were allowed entry to numerous jobs and guilds that formerly had barred them. For the same reason women who had been employed but suffered from discrimination saw their wages rise dramatically, particularly in relation to men's. Female grape pickers in Languedoc, for instance, paid just half the rate of their male coworkers before the Black Death, received 80 to 90 percent as much immediately after. Both men and women, however, experienced a big jump in nominal wages.

Not everyone benefited from the upheaval. Many men, of course, lost relatively, a sore point at a time when patriarchal power was widely taken as natural and inevitable. Those who bought grain in the market were harmed as wars and epidemics that repeatedly interfered with farming and distribution kept cereal prices high for at least a generation after the great plague. These same occurrences also interrupted manufacture and trade, so workers were unable to profit fully from their higher wages. Worse, improved nominal rates may disguise declining real wages consequent upon elevated grain prices and the practice, adopted by many employers, of paying with depreciating copper coins. One of the grievances of the rebellious Ciompi (wool workers) in Florence in 1378 was precisely that they received wages in debased pennies.

As the postplague troubles played out by 1400, a new equilibrium took shape. Attention to the effects of gender ideologies and relations reveals that for women the new order entailed a clear decline in opportunities and material conditions. As population and production stabilized, albeit at below preplague levels, labor shortages eased or rather were redefined to restore male preference. The female presence on lists of property owners diminished considerably. Many corporations statutorily prohibited female membership. Forced into gender-restricted labor pools, women experienced at least a relative drop in the market value of their labor. Thus Languedoc grape pickers' wage hierarchy returned to early-fourteenth-century levels. Landlords with fixed rents and long leases or those who employed sizable numbers of farm laborers also faced the prospect of hard times. But unlike women, they had socially approved and economically lucrative ways to cope. Many switched to in-kind or sharecropping rents that yielded consumable as well as marketable produce. Titled landowners requently found salvation in marriage to members of wealthy, upwardly mobile commoner families. The most powerful acquired offices, monetary grants, or other forms of state assistance.

For most males, at least, and perhaps for families as a whole, the first half of the fifteenth century was a golden age. What is often termed the "wage-price scissors" favored the majority of the population. Food prices finally fell, grain most of all (see table 1). Yet average farm size had grown. On Redgrave Manor in England, for example, the mean holding had twelve acres in 1300, twenty in 1400, and more than thirty in 1450. Consequently marginally productive land had been abandoned. Because peasants shifted from grain to higher-priced foods, their earnings were healthy. With land cheap and plentiful but tenants scarce, farmers and their communities enjoyed enhanced bargaining power. To attract them, landlords offered lower rents. In a sample of thirty-one Brandenburg villages, for instance, rents fell at least a third from the fourteenth century to the mid-fifteenth century. Landlords also offered longer leases, better tools and seed, and even expensive teams of oxen. Many of these improvements further enhanced productivity and encouraged greater commercialization, again augmenting farm income. Ongoing labor shortages in crafts and on the land, where vineyards, vegetable gardening, hop raising, and many other types of specialized agriculture were labor-intensive, kept employment and wages up.

Lower food prices and higher real wages, not to mention the return of more peaceful conditions that allowed the reopening of transcontinental trade routes, quickened and smoothed out both the supply of and the demand for industrial goods. Thus for the first time in over a century, many Europeans experienced rising incomes, which they used to rent or buy more land and new equipment and for training for better jobs—that is, they invested in capital that would sustain their incomes. They also improved their standard of living. Although they stuck mainly to moderately priced items, they purchased some luxury consumer goods, undaunted by aristocratic disdain and sumptuary laws, and once again traded widely across Europe.

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Herlihy proposed that this material progress and the realistic expectation of its continuation had fundamental effects on demographic behavior. Previously, forces like disease or famine beyond an individual's control had been the chief determinants of population trends. Now, however, Europeans embraced new inheritance conventions that concentrated property into fewer hands, married later and increasingly did not marry at all, and perhaps practiced birth control. Taken together, these steps limited the birthrate, allowing families and individuals to achieve or maintain greater degrees of prosperity. Concomitantly, the new low-fertility pattern delayed population recovery, which ironically helped sustain better material conditions.

In sum, despite all its tribulations, the late medieval crisis was a time when social divisions diminished. As the power and in many cases the wealth of landlords and employers of labor decreased, at least in a relative sense, material and tenurial conditions improved for the mass of the populace. In Languedoc, for instance, where rents, taxes, and tithes took about one-fourth of peasants' gross yield, down from a third or more in the High Middle Ages, a comfortable middling group constituted the majority of villagers. Rich peasants and the landless formed distinct minorities. As seigneurial levies and obligations were commuted into payments, peasant-controlled village communities took over most collective tasks from landlords. States bolstered them as useful counterweights to aristocrats and as tax-collecting entities. In a particularly dramatic manifestation of the power of village communities and the peasant solidarity they embodied, numerous rebellions shook rural Germany in the late fifteenth century, culminating in the Peasants' War of 1524–1525. In towns organized artisans supported by municipalities guided by ideological commitments and concerns about public order and tax revenues firmed up their dominance over craft production. But brisk demand for goods and services in a time of labor shortages also benefited workers outside guilds through higher wages and steadier employment.

The long sixteenth century: Polarization and proletarianization. Strong growth, in contrast, generated social polarization. Historians influenced by Abel and the so-called Annales school favor a neo-Malthusian explanation, that is, swelling population in a context of technological immobility leads to opulence for the few but misery for the many. As numbers increased, the land-labor ratio tilted in favor of property owners, permitting them to raise rents and associated levies. Commercial farmers benefited from strong demand and rising prices. Both urban and rural employers of labor found the labor supply growing, allowing them to stabilize wages. The same processes disadvantaged the many people who were at once suppliers of labor and purchasers of food, for competition among them drove pay down and prices up. In England agricultural laborers saw their real wages cut in half between 1500 and 1650. But that was not the worst situation: in 1570 the wages of reapers near Paris had just a third of the purchasing power of a century before.

Other historians consider commercialization largely responsible for the increasing poverty. Growing market activity favored merchants, financiers, landed proprietors, big farmers, industrial entrepreneurs, and certain artisans who possessed capital and skills. But by drawing more of the population into labor and commodity markets, this activity put them increasingly at the markets' mercy. Thus the sixfold or sevenfold rise in grain prices that prevailed across Europe during the long sixteenth century had a disastrous impact on wage laborers. As their pay went up only three or four times, the wage-price scissors cut against them. They suffered additionally from unsteady employment as the populace was forced to spend more of its income on grain and less on other produce and manufactures. The same circumstances also damaged much of the middling peasantry. Its members had formerly achieved an adequate standard of living by combining agricultural and industrial wage labor with work on their holdings, which typically comprised a few acres that they owned and rather more that they leased. But as the sixteenth century proceeded, their additional sources of income yielded less while their costs climbed. Obliged to borrow to make ends meet, many finished in bankruptcy and dispossession. The same fate awaited numerous artisans. Modest output and minimal productivity gains kept costs high, while relative industrial prices lagged behind agricultural prices and market swings intensified. Many artisans came to depend on credit and on work provided by merchant capitalists or rich artisans.

As Robert Brenner pointed out in articles that reignited the transition debate in the 1970s, neither demography nor commercialization accounts sufficiently for early modern socioeconomic developments, most of all in the countryside. Underlining disparate outcomes across Europe, Brenner argued that social relations and social conflicts determined how demographic and commercial forces played out. Vigorous village institutions, secure tenures, and various types of collective action from negotiation to rebellion best enabled peasants to hold on to their land and to enjoy continued access to common woodlands and pastures that were vital to the survival of middling and small farms. Conversely, short tenures, weak occupancy rights, and communities that had lost common resources and solidarity proved vulnerable to landlord initiatives that hiked rents and related charges frequently or even evicted tenants.

Subsequent studies moderated some of the sharp contrasts, notably between English and French agriculture, that Brenner drew and broadened the analysis to include political and military developments along with the industrial sector. Many princes, particularly in France and Germany, sought to defend peasants and their communities from excessive lordly levies and the loss of collective property so they could serve as counterweights to aristocratic power and shore up the fiscal foundation of expanding state bureaucracies and militaries. Yet because government finances relied mainly on taxing the countryside, village communities became fatally indebted and were forced to mortgage or sell common property to landlords or well-to-do peasants. Privatization of resources meant the exclusion of villagers, who had relied on common property to provide a margin of survival. Some authorities, prodded by guilds, supported petty artisan producers, but most permitted entrepreneurial initiatives. Women, almost entirely excluded from any sort of institutional protection and herded into overcrowded labor pools, saw their already unenviable position sink further. In Languedoc their wages fell to less than 40 percent of men's. Warfare returned with a religiously inspired vengeance in the sixteenth century, ruined many villages and towns, and dealt a crippling blow to many peasants and workers already on the edge.

In consequence the social order of commercial capitalism became ever more sharply divided. A small minority of the populace accumulated wealth and capital assets. In the textile center of Nördlingen, Germany, in 1579, the top 2 percent of the citizens controlled at least a quarter of the assets. In Lyon, the French silk and commercial metropole, more than half of all wealth belonged to 10 percent of the taxpayers, and just ten individuals, all merchants, owed 7 percent of the urban tax bill in the mid-sixteenth century. At a time when the average artisan had a loom or two, 220 looms were controlled by two merchants. A few decades later two others employed nearly one thousand people between them. Infrequently attempted, big centralized workplaces almost invariably failed because no technologically generated savings offset their high cost and financial vulnerability in the always fluctuating markets. The picture was much the same in the countryside. In Poland serfs worked a quarter of the cultivated area, and lords received, at no cost, up to half of the gross output of


The effect of the plague. All this year [1348] and the next, the mortality of men and women, of the young even more than the old, in Paris and in the kingdom of France, and also, it is said, in other parts of the world, was so great that it was almost impossible to bury the dead. . . . Many country villages and many houses in good towns remained empty and deserted. Many houses, including some splendid dwellings, very soon fell into ruins.

Source: Jean de Venette, The Chronicle of Jean de Venette.

Edited by Richard A. Newhall. Translated by Jean Birdsall. New York, 1953, p. 49. Venette, a Carmelite friar, was a theology professor at the University of Paris.

The poor of Norwich.

Theis be the names of the poore within the saide Citie [Norwich, England] as they ware vewed in the year of our Lord god 1570. . . .

The Parishe of St. Stevenes

Robert Rowe of the age of 46 yeres, glasier, in no worke, and Elizabeth his wyfe that spinne white warpe and have five children, 2 sonnes the eldist of the age of 16 yeres that kepe children, and the other, daughters that spinne, and have dwelt here ever. . . .

John Hubburd, of the age of 38 yeres, butcher, that occupie slaughterie, and Margarit his wyfe of the age of 30 yeres that sell souce, and 2 young children, and have dwelt here ever. . . .

An Bucke of the age of 46 yeres, wydowe, souster and teatcheth children, and hath two children, the one of the age of 9 yeres and the other of 5 yeres that worke lace, and have dwelt here ever. . . .

Thomas Pele of the age of 50 yeres, a cobler in worke, and Margarit his wyfe of the same age that spinne white warpe, and have 3 children, the elldist of the age of 16 yeres that spinne, and the other of the age of 12 and of 6 yeres that go to scoole, and have dwelt here 9 yeres and came from Yorkeshere.

Source: R. H. Tawney and Eileen Power, eds. Tudor Economic Documents. Vol. 2. London, 1924, pp. 313–314. The census, which includes nineteen more entries, reveals the poverty of the working poor in the late sixteenth century despite the labor of most family members.


A Consideration of the Cause in Question before the Lords Touching Depopulation 5 July 1607

[Enclosures result in]

I.2. Increase of wealth and people, proved (i) a contrario: the nurseries of beggars are commons as appeareth by fens and forests, of wealth people the enclosed countries as Essex, Somerset, Devon, etc.; fuel, which they want in the champion, is supplied by enclosures. And labourers increased as are their employments by hedging and ditching; (ii) a comparatis: as Northamptonshire and Somerset, the one most champion, more ground, little waste, the other all enclosed but inferior in quantity and quality, yet by . . . choice of employment exceeding far.

Source: W. Cunningham, The Growth of English Industry and Commerce in Modern Times. Part 2. Cambridge, U.K., 1903, p. 898.

The speaker in this parliamentary debate sought to show the superiority of enclosed farms over open fields.

Defending the commons.

The Twelve Articles of the Upper Swabian Peasants 27 February–1 March 1525 Article Ten

Tenth, we are aggrieved that some have appropriated meadowland as well as fields which belong to the community (as above, Luke 6). We will take these properties into our hands again, unless they have in fact been legally bought. But if someone has bought them unfairly, the parties involved should reach a benevolent and brotherly agreement, according to the facts of the case.

Source: Michael G. Baylor, ed. and trans. The Radical Reformation. Cambridge, U.K., 1991, p. 237.

This complaint, from a widely circulated manifesto of the German Peasants' War, indicates the wide resentment caused by landlord and rich peasant appropriation of common lands.

peasant plots. By 1600 city people owned half of the best land around Pisa, Italy, and Castilian nobles held even more, some two-thirds when holdings of aristocratic-dominated ecclesiastical institutions are included. Some of the property on expanding estates had traditionally formed part of the lords' demesnes or was usurped from village communities. However, the greater part was bought from churches, in Catholic as well as Protestant lands, or, more often, from indebted peasants.

While artisans and peasants in general were losing control of productive property, a minority accumulated assets in ways similar to and often linked with those followed by merchant and landlord elites. Before the mid-sixteenth century a few Antwerp ribbon makers had shops with several dozen looms. In 1584 nine cartels, the biggest run by merchants and financiers, comprising just twenty-four master builders performed 80 percent of the work on Antwerp's massive citadel. An affluent top tenth at most likewise formed in the peasantry. In a village near Toledo in Castile, 9 percent of the residents held 54 percent of the peasant land in 1583. In a Norman community the upper 5 percent occupied a sixth of the arable peasant holdings in the early fifteenth century but three-fifths in the 1630s. Often starting with substantial amounts of inherited property, these yeomen (the English term is widely applied elsewhere) bought more land, usually from their poorer counterparts, to whom they also extended credit, or served as tenants on big consolidated farms that the landlords assembled across Europe. Such substantial commercial-minded farmers could count on significant landlord investment in tools, buildings, and drainage systems, and many earned additional income as lords' agents.

Although these elites separated from the mass of their fellows, a degree of mobility into and among them existed. Rich peasants and artisans joined the ranks of merchants and entrepreneurs, and these latter groups purchased land and titles. The entry of a new family was often sealed by marriage. Yet each elite also developed into a kind of caste, rooted in intermarriage that helped build up patrimonies preserved by impartible inheritance, practiced even in the face of local custom. Caste members enjoyed enhanced power in critical institutions that advanced their interests. Landowners and some merchants found places in rising princely governments, and merchants solidified control of many municipalities, usually at the expense of all but the wealthiest artisans. For their part, the top craftsmen dominated guilds, and yeomen dominated the village communities.

Consumption also helped these groups define and distinguish themselves. In the European countryside a massive rebuilding of lordly houses incorporated modern conveniences, from separate rooms to glass windows. Leading farmers, too, upgraded their dwellings and added capacious new barns. Probate inventories reveal that rural and urban elites accumulated silver, glassware, additional servants, and other markers of affluence and difference. Finally, elites developed a certain ethic. Cutting across creedal boundaries, their emphasis on hard work, orderliness, and propriety demarcated them from both lavish-spending grandees and what they saw as the shiftless, drunken, and rowdy poor.

The mass of the population faced worsening conditions that increasingly distanced them from both the elite and the better times of the fifteenth century. Despite possibilities of upward mobility for a few, the predominant movement was down. As rich craftsmen used their guild authority and wealth to reserve positions for their sons, the status of journeyman was converted from the penultimate rung on the ladder to coveted mastership to a synonym for permanent, albeit skilled, wage laborer. Once-autonomous small and middling artisans were hard-pressed by puttingout entrepreneurs with access to markets and the resources to weather hard times. Most domestic workers owned their tools, toiled in their homes or shops, and retained some ability to change employers or at times to produce and sell wares in the market on their own account. Nevertheless, they were well on the way to becoming proletarians who had only their labor to offer. Long a feature of certain centers, putting-out spread both geographically and among more industries in the sixteenth century, enabling a growing throng to earn little more than a bare subsistence, even when a whole family was employed. Already by the 1520s more than 85 percent of the population in a Suffolk, England, district noted for its high degree of rural industry was classed as poor. Deteriorating conditions were not restricted to domestic workers. Whereas mason's assistants in Lyon earned a living wage in all but three years between 1525 and 1549, between 1575 and 1599 their income fell short seventeen times.

Farm populations experienced similar polarization. Sometimes well-to-do farmers were pushed to the wall when landlords, eager to recoup their investments, raised rents excessively or when a meager harvest, accident, or ill health struck. But middling peasants were most affected. During the sixteenth century in Languedoc, the proportion of arable land located on farms of less than about 12 acres doubled, but that on holdings of 12 to 25 acres dropped by a third. Similar results were recorded across Europe. As the ranks of small peasants swelled, the ongoing subdivision of holdings, privatization of commons, and high rents due to skyrocketing demand for modest-sized farms impoverished and all too often dispossessed them.

Some downwardly mobile peasants recovered farms—but as sharecroppers. A larger group became cottagers, forced to eke out livings from gardens attached to their dwellings in tandem with agricultural and industrial work. Cottages with gardens multiplied from 11 percent of English holdings in about 1560 to 40 percent around 1620. Many other farmers lost any holdings and became full-fledged wage earners. In Spain, across Castile perhaps half the rural population owned no land in 1570; in Andalusia the proportion approached three-quarters. Many of the landless stayed in the countryside, grouped into large impoverished villages or squatting on wastelands, otherwise left to pigs for foraging, where they erected flimsy shacks. But farm labor scarcely provided a tolerable living. English data, which seem representative, indicate that agricultural workers' real wages were sliced in half between about 1500 and 1650. Many villagers headed for towns, where they swelled the ranks of the urban poor and beggars, or became the wandering vagrants who preoccupied authorities.

Like the elites, proletarianizing Europeans developed distinctive attributes. By the late sixteenth century, they had to devote 70 to 80 percent of their meager incomes to food in a normal year, half just to rye bread. (Wheat was considered more desirable but was usually too expensive.) No wonder that meat consumption in Sicily fell to less than half of earlier levels. What with rent, heat, and light, little money remained for consumer goods apart from cheap textiles and metalwares, and inventories indicate the sparseness of the material environment in which the majority lived.

Unlike elites, impoverished Europeans had few institutional means to promote their interests, although journeymen in a few towns formed collective associations. For the most part, however, corporations or municipalities, in whose decisions workers did not participate, dictated their wages, mobility, and labor conditions. Similarly, richer villagers manipulated communal assemblies to shift the tax burden onto the shoulders of their less affluent neighbors or to monopolize communal pastures for their own large herds. In fact, new institutions like centralized municipal welfare offices and workhouses were established to provide for but also to manage the poor.


Social divisions widened least in poorer agricultural regions that offered few opportunities to landlords and affluent peasants, in areas where resilient villages maintained communal resources, in districts where unspecialized agriculture rode out hard times, and in towns where corporate and municipal leaders defended traditional production. Great variety in exposure to commercialization, even in closely neighboring regions, continued through the eighteenth century. Holland and adjacent provinces evolved a unique, commercialized agrarian order that likewise minimized social differentiation. It was characterized by family farms, weak landlords and village communities, and employment of the landless in crafts and services oriented to the specialized holdings. But the dominant trend was toward polarization and proletarianization, whether on productive enclosed English farms or lagging Mediterranean latifundia and eastern European serf estates, and whether in urban crafts or in rural industrial districts. The late medieval economic crisis brought good times to the majority of Europeans. The concomitant of economic growth and commercialization during the long sixteenth century was material and social advancement for the few, impoverishment and wage laborer status for the many.

See alsoThe Annales Paradigm; The World Economy and Colonial Expansion (volume 1);The Population of Europe: Early Modern Demographic Patterns; The City: The Early Modern Period (in this volume).



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