Medieval Economics - The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, Medieval Economics

The Period Defined

There is a certain rather ill-defined period in the world's history which is commonly known as the Middle Ages. Most writers agree in placing the beginning of this period at the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, but its ending is not so clear. Dr. Ingram and others would bring it to a close with the year 1300, and it may be agreed that the Middle Ages reached a climax at about that time. But it by no means follows that the years of decline and break-up of medieval institutions which ensued, constituted the beginning of things modern. Ingram himself says that the movements of his first modern phase (1300-1500) "can scarcely be said to find an echo in any contemporary economic literature."

It seems more nearly true to regard the years about 1500 as marking the end of medieval times. By 1300 the transition was not complete. Not till toward the close of the fifteenth century did Humanism mark the rise of new tendencies in thought. At the same time the religious world was on the eve of its great Reformation; while in the mixed field of politics and economics the beginning of modern nation-building may be discerned. More objectively, there were such geographical discoveries as that of America and the water route to India (1498); and the extended use of such agents of civilization as the mariners' com­pass and gunpowder began during the same period. The sig­nificance of the influx of silver which followed the discovery of America has often been noted and its importance in bringing about the exchange economy of modern times commented upon; but American mines were not opened until the sixteenth century.

In a word, the Middle-Age period does not close with Nicole Oresme (d. 1382), but with Gabriel Biel (d. 1495), his disciple, who is sometimes called "the last of the schoolmen."

If further proof were needed, it might be observed that Feudalism, a preeminently medieval institution, did not gen­erally begin to lose its power until after 1500, the period during which it really represented the political organization of French society, for example, being that lying between the years num­bered 1300 and 1500. It was in the early sixteenth century, too, that the English government gave the death bkw to craft gilds, another medieval institution.

On large lines, and from the point of view of systems of thought rather than systems of industry, the Middle Ages may with profit be divided into two periods. From 400 down to 1200, or shortly thereafter, constitutes the first. During these years Christian theology opposed Roman institutions, and Germanic customs were superposed, until, through action and reaction, all were blended. This was the reconstruction; it was the "stormy struggle" to found a new ecclesiastical and civil sys­tem. From 1200 on to 1500 the world of thought settled to its level. Feudalism and scholasticism, the cornerstones of medie­valism, emerged and were dominant. The latter, springing from the fusion of Aristotle's philosophy with Christian theology, was formulated by Thomas Aquinas, who may be said to mark the turning point between the sub-periods.