The middle ages provide a fascinating and beguiling contrast for economic and social historians. Agriculture, towns, commerce and population expanded throughout Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Yet the expansion first faltered then reversed, so that in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries many areas of Europe suffered agrarian retrenchment and sustained demographic decline. Not surprisingly, historians have long speculated on the nature, the length and the cause of the ‘crisis’ that caused this dramatic change. At the centre stands the Black Death, which first ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1353 and then returned repeatedly for the next century or so, but it was flanked by endemic famines, repeated wars, epidemics of cattle disease and extreme weather conditions. Who said economic history is dull?
This edited volume of ten essays aims to provide a broad empirical synthesis of the state of knowledge of these developments. The contributors are among the leading scholars in the field. Kitsikopoulos contributes three of the essays – an introduction, an epilogue and a survey of England – and his accessible, readable and knowledgeable work sets the tone for the whole. He is not a historian of primary sources, but a well-read economist who synthesizes the findings of medieval historians in fresh and interesting ways. Given his background, it is not surprising that the use of economic models and theory to explore agrarian crisis and change is a recurrent theme throughout the book. His co-contributors maintain the high standard: George Grantham on France, Paolo Malanima on Italy, Kostis Smyrlis on Byzantium, Ana Rodriguez on Spain, Janken Myrdal on Scandinavia, Grzegorz Mysliwski on Central Europe, and, finally, Janet Martin on Russia. Each essay adopts its own structure, and is permitted its own particular emphases, a policy which is entirely sensible given that variations in the nature of the source material, and thus in the traditions of historical scholarship, have resulted in different preoccupations among, for example, historians of Russia and those of France. Yet all of the essays cover the main issues – sources, demography, agrarian production and productivity, commercialization and urbanization, social structures and the characteristics of ‘crisis’ – with authority, and with an impressive sense of pitch and pace. As a result, the book achieves its aim of providing an accessible introduction for the general reader, and a pointer to advanced reading; of identifying the main patterns, and contrasts, in the major themes across the continent; and of offering some fresh insights for the specialist historian.
A clear picture emerges that late medieval Europe can be divided into three broad categories of agrarian development. The first category comprised the most progressive regions – northern Italy, the Low Countries to Paris, and the coastal areas of south-east England – which were densely populated, technologically innovative, highly urbanized and lightly feudalized. The second comprised those regions with fairly high population densities, but much lower levels of agrarian productivity and a more rigid feudal structure: much of Europe fell into this category. Finally, Scandinavia, Russia, Central Europe and Spain were the most backward, possessing the lowest population densities, low levels of productivity, limited urbanization, and incomplete or immature feudalization. The scale of the social and economic crisis around c.1300 was greatest in the first two categories, although the second was least capable of coping with it. The gradual resolution of the crisis over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries transformed society and economy across Europe, but in very different ways: landlords gradually strengthened and extended their powers in eastern Europe, while those in western Europe relinquished many of theirs. Consequently, ‘in the long-run these transformations highlighted two radically different paths to modernity’ (p. 352).
Inevitably, a volume of such breadth and ambition is vulnerable to criticisms, two of which the editor identifies himself. Kitsikopoulos concedes that ‘in its effort to balance the presentation of both theory and evidence [the book] occasionally sacrifices analytical depth in either of these regards’ (p. 15); he also acknowledges that the absence of any case studies of either Germany or the Low Countries are significant omissions, although no explanation is offered. We might also add two other criticisms. First, the index is far too generalized and brief – a mere two pages – to perform its function effectively, which will reduce considerably the usefulness of the volume to those readers wishing to use it as a ready source of reference for a particular subject: even the Black Death does not warrant an entry. Secondly, the contributors acknowledge the influence of the weather at various times, such as the heavy rainfall which caused the pan- European famines of the 1310s, but there is no proper assessment of the role of environmental change in the ‘crisis’. The exception is Malanima, who speculates that a sustained deterioration in the climate around c.1300 might have been the major factor in agrarian change in Italy. This is currently one of the most interesting areas of research into the medieval European economy, with new scientific evidence suggesting that the weather was exceptionally variable between the 1280s and the 1420s, culminating in a paradigm shift in the climatic system of the northern hemisphere of great historical significance. We are told that ‘there is still a fair amount of agnosticism, and thus scepticism, on the impact of this factor although, with further research, it may well prove to have been of decisive importance in destabilizing the European economies prior to the visitation of epidemics’, yet this possibility is then discounted (pp. 346–7). Admittedly, this is a recent and fast-moving area of research, but, in a volume that seeks to provide its readers with a broad synthesis of the main economic developments, the subject receives too little attention.