Standardized Latin and Medieval Economic Growth

Standardized Latin and Medieval Economic Growth

By Ulrich Blum and Leonard Dudley

European Review of Economic History, Vol.7:2 (2003)


Abstract: Traditional explanations for Western Europe’s demographic growth in the High Middle Ages are unable to explain the rise in per-capita income that accompanied observed population changes. Here, we examine the hypothesis that an innovation in information technology changed the optimal structure of contracts and raised the productivity of human capital. We present historical evidence for this thesis, offer a theoretical explanation based on transaction costs, and test the theory’s predictions with data on urban demographic growth. We find that the information-technology hypothesis significantly increases the capacity of the neoclassical growth model to explain European economic expansion between 1000 and 1300.

Introduction: On Christmas day of the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Western Emperor in Rome. In honor of the event, Alcuin, the abbot of Saint-Martin of Tours, presented his sovereign a magnificent bible with a new, corrected Latin text. For a half century between 800 and 850, the scriptorium at Tours produced two such bibles a year. Each copy in codex (i.e. book) form contained 420-450 leaves of parchment written with a uniform punctuation along with a “hierarchy of scripts”. As this new information technology with its standardized characters, grammar, written and spoken language diffused across Western Europe between 900 and 1300, there occurred a remarkable increase in the region’s population and wealth. Might there be a link between the standardization of Medieval Latin and the economic achievements of the age of the cathedrals?

Recent research suggests that something is missing in traditional accounts of medieval economic growth. It is well known that the population of medieval Europe rose steadily from the tenth century until the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century and then recovered to regain its former peak by 1500. This demographic upswing has usually been explained by three concurrent developments: first, the end of the Viking, Magyar and Muslim invasions; second, a rise in long-distance trade flows; and third, the establishment of the feudal system. Each of these factors offers a possible explanation for a rise in economic activity. However, rough estimates by Maddison along with earlier conjectures by Jones, suggest that not only total output but also per-capita income rose after the turn of the millennium. Neither the return of peace, nor the rise of long-distance exchange nor the subcontracting of nominal property rights can explain why in this period Europeans were able to produce considerably more output per unit of labor than had previously been possible.

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