Wealth and Income - Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, Distribution Of Wealth and Income

In the Middle Ages the self-sufficiency of the feudal estate and the rigidity of class lines in a sense made questions of distribution non-existent. When law and custom prescribe the amount of produce and service owed by one man to another according to his status; when the right of a man to receive these things depends ultimately upon military might; and when the supernatural and the hereafter so strongly influence the life of the people; there is obviously little room for the play of economic forces. One is not surprised then to find that men of the Middle Ages gave little thought to the problem of distribution. Where they thought about the matter at all it was to lay down rules of exchange that would preserve the traditional pattern of life and social relation­ship. In a sense, as we have noted before, the just price was merely a confirmation of the prevailing principle that in eco­nomic matters, as well as in all other phases of life, one treated a man according to his social status.

The expansion of trade had little effect upon the general un­derstanding of distribution. Since the economic ideas of the time were fostered by the Mercantilists, interest was focused upon the money aspects of foreign trade. Production was subordinated to the demand of foreign buyers, and restricted by the produc­tion costs of foreign competitors. Distribution of the proceeds of commercial transactions was again a matter of politics, since privileges of foreign trade were granted by the sovereign to his favorites at the price of taxing their earnings to support his court. The powers of the state were enlisted to ensure a favorable bal­ance of trade. This obviously was not an atmosphere which en­couraged consideration of the problems of either personal or functional distribution. National distribution was all that mattered, and the prevailing ideas on this subject can be stated briefly: In the absence of mines to produce gold from natural sources, a nation could assure itself of political security and eco­nomic prosperity by the simple device of always selling more to other nations than it bought from them. In that way the stock of gold, the only source of economic and political strength, would be constantly increased.