General Significance of the Period

General Significance of the Period, Medieval Economic History

The general signifi­cance of the Middle Ages as a period in the evolution of eco­nomic thought is rather difficult to state by reason of its com­plexity. In a sense, its negative aspect is large. While the chasm left by the downfall of Rome may have been exaggerated, yet civilization, as it had been, was in ruins.

But it had its positive characteristics, and the Middle Ages constitute, first, a period of adjustment and fusing; secondly, one of transitions. During its centuries, Roman institutions, standing for a narrow individualism and, on the whole, for a materialistic philosophy; Christian religion, teaching the brotherhood of man and idealism; early Germanic customs, showing a broad and democratic individualism and leaning toward idealism; Aristotle's philosophy, emphasizing the com­mon good and arguing for some degree of common use of prop­erty, with a correspondingly limited individualism, — all these were to be combined and fused. This was more or less con­sciously the work of the scholastics, who strove to formulate on an impersonal basis a consistent body of logical rules con­cerning the rights and duties of the classes of men, and the forms and functions of government. Thus Thomas Aquinas labored to adapt Aristotle while he assailed Rome; and one Nicholas von Cusa, while deeply versed in the contemporary learning of the Occident, turned his attention to the East; he sought to reunite the Greek and Latin churches, and studied the holy book of the Mohammedans.

As a transitional period it was during the Middle Ages that, objectively, national economy replaced independent domestic economy; that commerce and manufactures encroached upon the sole rule of agriculture; and that slavery was gradually abandoned for serfdom and free labor.

But it is the world of thought which is of interest here. In it one finds a transition from the materialism of later paganism to the modified idealism of Christianity. At the same time the individualism of the Romans was succeeded by the idea of a society broader even than the clan, as town life developed inside the domainal state, and the dawn of the eighteenth-century nation approached. We pass from systems of thought which postulate a natural inequality among men, and slav­ery, to ideals of brotherhood and freedom. The Church, too, became more dissociated, formally at least, first from politics, then from industry, allowing the separate treatment of economics which has been achieved in modern times. An economy in which land was regarded as the basis began the great transition to one in which personal relations dominated. In one, industry in manufactures and trading was despised; in the other, it was fostered. In the one, money was imperfectly understood and men generally condemned its accumulation; in the other, it was better understood, and probably came to be over-appreciated. Between these rather opposite views lay the Middle Ages.

During this great transition one notes that the idea of protec­tion by authority was strong. It appears in the Church and Christianity, in Feudalism and in the towns and gilds; custom, regulation, and legal monopoly, are met everywhere. "Author­ity" and "status " are two words which must be used frequently in describing medieval thoughts and institutions. The whole economic philosophy of the Middle Ages might be summed up in the doctrine of just price, which aimed to protect buyer and borrower from exploitation by subjecting economic motives to ethical appraisal under a sort of system of "rate regulation." Such regulation was directed toward enforcing ideals of duty, for the most part formulated and enforced by religious author­ity, but influenced by racial or local custom and occasional political upheavals.

Within the rigidities of custom and such institutions as church, manor, and gild, there were preserved the seeds of in­dividual freedom, which in conjunction with the idea of social order and the reign of law, were to develop into a social science. In a period of turmoil among such great opposing systems of thought, and classes and races of men, before the rise of nations, it was well that the idea of protection was strong.

But for further ideas let the reader, if interested, compare the chapter which precedes this with the two which follow.