Commercial Activity and Population Growth in Medieval England

Commercial Activity and Population Growth in Medieval England

By John Langdon and James Masschaele

Past and Present, no. 190 (2006)

Introduction: Over the past two decades there has been an impressive escalation in the literature surrounding the marked economic and commercial growth that characterized the two centuries or so before the advent of the Black Death. This period of growth occurred on a virtually global scale, in that, at the very least, it involved a great swathe of interconnected trading networks stretching from China to the British Isles. For Europe this has been described in a number of important publications, such that ‘commercialization’ is now widely accepted as a valid characterization of the growth of the economy during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  As John Hatcher and Mark Bailey have pointed out recently, however, commercial models for the Middle Ages suffer from a certain theoretical immaturity:

In contrast with the maturity of the leading Marxist and populationresources models, which have been refined to a high level of exposition and coherence over many decades, most of the historians working on the significance of commerce and technology have so far operated within a looser conceptual framework and are far from providing comparably taut and rigorous models.

This article aims to address the critique of Hatcher and Bailey by providing a more logical formulation for medieval commercialization, particularly through a tighter elaboration of the mechanisms by which society and commercial opportunity interacted to produce population change. We are restricting our analysis here to England — a country for which an unrivalled wealth of documentary materials for issues relating to the medieval economy has survived — during the two centuries leading up to the arrival of the plague, but we recognize that much of what we are saying has application for other periods, as discussed in the conclusion, and undoubtedly for many other parts of Europe, if not elsewhere, during pre-industrial times. Put baldly, our argument is that there was a powerful conjunction between entrepreneurial activity and population growth, and that the former tended to lead the latter. Also central to our argument is the belief that the current scholarly emphasis on the real wages of individuals has given an unduly negative view of how this economic growth affected society at large, and that total yearly family income is probably a much better, and certainly more optimistic, indicator of medieval society’s well-being.

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