Medieval Monasteries

Medieval Monasteries

Monasteries might be treated as a distinct factor in the life and thought of the medieval period. They were Christian industrial colonies influencing men in many ways, both by precept and example. Objectively, the manual activities of the monks improved agriculture, disseminated in­dustrial arts, and stimulated commerce. When a surplus was produced or a new supply of raw material was needed, exchange arose, and the principles which should govern the negotiator ecclesise m economic relations with the outside world were carefully formulated. Their chief service was to "diffuse a better appreciation of the duty and dignity of labor," though after the tenth century this service waned.

The Economic Thought of Medieval Townsmen

Taking it for granted that the reader is familiar with the picturesque phenomena of medieval towns, with their gilds and market places, it remains to point out the bearing of various town and gild regulations upon economic thought. There was always a large element of monopoly present and competition as we know it was unthought of. Foreigners were admitted to the trade of the town, but only under controlling restrictions. Thus they were subjected to tolls, were under surveillance, could not sell at retail save under great restriction, and could not deal with other foreigners unless at fairs or on certain days. In these regulations, also, appears the common hostility to strangers.

But this monopoly was a public one and designed to be in the interest of the community; trade was regarded as a public opportunity. The idea of equality and of public benefit appears in such common regulations as that sales were not to begin before a certain hour, that unsold goods could not be withdrawn until a certain time, and that raw materials — as tallow, for example — must not be sold to outsiders.

The universal prohibition of forestalling, regrating, and en­grossing illustrate the above point, and are also connected with the idea of a just price. Indeed, the price of the town's manu­factures was regulated; and that of the trader's merchandise was fixed within certain limits, though it came to be allowed a maximum and minimum within which it might play.

And this suggests the minute regulation of trade and in­dustry, largely through the agency of gilds, a regulation which characterized the whole economy, and which, again, was com­monly in the interest of the consumer, being notably so in the case of foodstuffs.

Interesting features of town economy were its communal prop­erty and undertakings. Thus a common town pasture was frequent; many towns got control of the seignioral mill (and the burghers were required to patronize such mills, the proceeds often going to decrease taxes). Bakeries, ovens, market places, and stalls might be added to the list. Then, too, in times of scarcity it was considered the duty of the town government to furnish grain. It sometimes made common bargains with for­eign merchants for the materials needed by its artisans. Public works were carried on by the compulsory labor of the com­munity.

The gilds, which were more or less closely associated with town government, serve to emphasize much the same line of thought. They were associations of merchants or craftsmen for the mutual benefit of their members, having as their ends protection, monopoly of the trade or craft, good workmanship, and fraternal and religious benefits. These associations served to train men in business ethics, to develop personal relationships, and to harmonize the interests of producer and consumer. And the craft gilds developed skill, protected the artisan, and in­creased the dignity and worth of labor. The ideas of just price, of regulation of quality and quantity of output, and of wages and conditions of employment, characterize their dealings.

In view of the exaggeration in the old idea concerning the freedom and equality in towns, it remains to be said that this idea is only relatively true. Depending upon the origin of the town, almost from the beginning there were three or four dis­tinct classes which successively dominated. A considerable number of inhabitants did not have the franchise, and the craft gilds, even, were in part monopolies of the masters (alder­men, wardens, commonalty) against the serving men.

As compared with rural life, however, there was a nearer approach to freedom which was quite marked in the earlier times in England.