Medieval Trade Fairs and the Commercial Revolution

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Medieval Trade Fairs and the Commercial Revolution


By a.d. 1200, Europe was in the process of changing from a medieval agricultural economy to one based upon interregional trade, which contributed to the growth of large urban centers. Many of these cities evolved from successful trade fairs established along busy trade routes. In turn, they engendered a commercial revolution that would eventually change medieval society.


At its height, the Roman Empire extended from southwest Asia to the British Isles. Travel and communication were based upon an extensive network of roads that linked the four corners of the empire to the city of Rome. The Romans were the greatest military and civil engineers of the ancient world and many of their roads and bridges are still in operation today.

Over time, social, political, and economic problems weakened the empire, and by the end of Pax Romana, or "Roman Peace," in a.d. 180 it was in decline. Rome did not fall overnight, however. It took almost three centuries of incremental defeats and setbacks to finally bring the once mighty empire down. As problems increased, Roman authorities gradually withdrew from the border areas in order to reinforce Rome's defenses closer to home. When the army was pulled back, the protection of the far-flung empire went with it, and gradually it became impossible to maintain the established economic structure. Gangs of bandits roamed the countryside, attacking undefended farms and merchant caravans. Small, independent farmers and merchants found it impossible to continue their traditional methods of production. This brought about significant economic change, including the decline of both urban life and trade.

A large, interregional trading network under the Roman Empire was replaced by self-sufficient estates called manors. Every item that was required for survival was grown, raised, or constructed on these estates. The lord of the manor had complete control over the destiny of everyone on the estate. This system developed into the social, economic, and political model known as feudalism.

The Christian church was the major source of unity during this period of decentralized authority. The belief system of the church offered a guidepost to salvation. It was widely accepted by the population of Europe that if one followed the laws of the church, one could attain salvation. The monks and priests also provided an essential service for the monarch of each country. Since churchmen were the best educated members of early medieval society, they were essential to the day-to-day operation of the government. In time these men created an extensive and important bureaucracy in the governments of western Europe. When Pope Urban II called for a holy war, or crusade, to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination, the vast majority of European leaders answered the call. As a military operation the Crusades were a complete disaster, but their economic and cultural impact would prove to be extensive. In the area of economics, the Crusades reintroduced spices, especially pepper, silk, and perfume, back into European society. Of these three products, spices would prove to be the most significant because of its use for both preserving and flavoring food.

This early influx of goods was accompanied by an agricultural revolution based upon the application of new theories and inventions. Two of these new inventions, the horseshoe and the steel plow, allowed the farmers of western Europe to place thousands of acres of rich, fertile land under cultivation. The heavy steel plow had the ability to dig deeply into the rich soil, turning it over for planting. The horseshoe helped create a new, reliable source of power because it allowed horses to move safely through the fields without fear of damaging their hoofs on stones, rocks, and roots. Farmers also adopted the three-field system. Under this model one field would be planted with grain, the second with crops such as peas and beans, and the third would be left fallow. The peas and beans had a threefold impact on the system: the crops added to the diets of both the peasants and their livestock, and the roots and stems of these plants, when plowed under, increased the fertility of the field. The combination of increased agricultural output, population pressure, and the reintroduction of products because of the Crusades set the stage for the revitalization of trade in western Europe.


By the thirteenth century the great increase in trade and manufacturing lead to a substantial increase in the urban population of Europe. This is most readily evident in the establishment of trading and manufacturing centers in northern Italy and northwest France. The introduction of sea trade, most importantly in the Baltic and North seas, led to the development of a northern European economic federation known as the Hanseatic League. Merchants would establish fairs along these trade routes. In turn, other businessmen would take advantage of these fairs and construct and establish inns, stables, and banking institutions to service the people working at the fairs. New cities sprang up as the result of this economic activity.

These new cities were unique to the European environment. Other civilizations and empires kept strict control over their urban centers. Harsh laws and heavy taxation severely limited the initiative of merchants living in these areas. This was not the case in Europe. The vast majority of the new cities enjoyed independent status. National leaders knew that it was to their advantage to allow a considerable amount of freedom to the inhabitants of these cities. Over time, Europe began to develop a proto-capitalistic society in which the market, not the nobility, directed the economy.

This new urban economic environment was based upon talent and initiative. Success was not wholly the result of an accident of birth, but flowed from the application of intelligence and hard work. This new reality began to peel away the structure of traditional medieval society. No longer did a bright, aggressive young man have to accept that his life would be controlled by his social status at birth (women, however, remained largely excluded from such economic self-determination). This new economic system stimulated both economic and social mobility. A new, vibrant middle class was created that developed skills to take advantage of this new market economy.

Historians refer to this change as the Commercial Revolution, and revolutionary it was. Political, economic, and social power no longer rested solely in the hands of the wealthy and powerful landlords. The engine of the new economy was the middle class. The logic of the old medieval structure was based upon the fact that the lord and his vassals created and maintained an environment in which the production of food, shelter, and clothing was assured. The stability of this economic system depended upon the power of the noble class. The new economic order, which was based upon the movement of goods, shifted the location of that activity from the countryside to the new urban areas. This reduced the power of the local landlord and increased the importance of the merchant class.

This shift in power would play an important role in the development of the early modern European nation-state. In time, alliances were formed between monarchs and merchants. The traditional feudal model, which involved numerous feudal lords, created a significant barrier to trade. Often merchants had to pay multiple taxes to move their goods from one location to another. Every time they moved into a new feudal domain, another tax would be levied against them. Merchants found it far better for business if they could pay one yearly fee to the king, rather than numerous feudal lords, and rely solely on the king's protection.

In turn, the king viewed this as an opportunity to decrease the power of the nobles. With the tax revenue from the merchants, the king could afford to develop and maintain a strong standing army. This armed force could be used to ensure the safe movement of goods along the trading routes of the nation. It also enabled the king to equip his force with modern weapons, such as the long bow and cannon. These new tools of warfare created a tactical imbalance between the forces of the king and those of his nobles. Traditionally, the military power of the feudal lord rested in the defensive structure of his castle and the fighting power of his knights. The cannon quickly reduced the defensive stature of the medieval castle. Most importantly, the long bow was able to penetrate the armor of the mounted knight, which completely negated his effectiveness. Though powerful and deadly, the effective use of the long bow was easily acquired. Any peasant could be trained in a short period of time to become very accurate with this weapon. This resulted in a gradual but steady shift of power from the feudal lords to the king.

The new economy also led to an increase in anti-Semitism. The new proto-capitalistic economy created an extensive banking industry, which posed a major theological problem for European society. The Christian church had always prohibited usury, the charging of interest on borrowed money. The early Church fathers regarded this practice as unethical, as it was thought that a loving Christian should never profit from someone else's misfortune. In this new economic reality, the borrowing of money became a part of everyday business life, but the Church, which had deep reservations about the new concept of profit, refused to change its teachings. As a result, many of the banking houses were controlled by members of the Jewish faith, whose religion did not prohibit usury. The negative stereotype of the Jewish moneylender was established at this time.

A new, vibrant Europe emerged from this new economic system. Medieval trade fairs and the cities they helped create established a political, social, and economic worldview based upon the belief that any individual (again, primarily men rather than women) had the right to shape his own destiny and that success would be forever determined by talent, initiative, and drive. The new political philosophy of democratic capitalism would reorder society in Europe. Political legitimacy would come to be based upon a government's ability to create an environment in which individual talent and initiative could thrive.


Further Reading

Abu-Lughod, Janet. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Lopez, Robert S. The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Sapori, Armando. The Italian Merchant in the Middle Ages. New York: Norton, 1970.

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Medieval Trade Fairs and the Commercial Revolution

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