By John W. Baldwin
Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Ser., Vol. 49, No. 4. (1959)
Introduction: If capitalism was a new movement originating sometime during the late Middle Ages and the early Modern Period, then it must follow that the preceding epoch of the Middle Ages possessed significantly contrasting characteristics. Those students interested in the historical origins of capitalism were obligated to devote a certain attention to the preceding period in order to highlight the characteristics of the new phenomenon, and for a while the study of the Middle Ages became an academic handmaiden to that of modern economic history. Moreover, the mistress bequeathed certain methodological devices to her servant. To present capitalism in the garb of a “spirit” is t o analyze capitalism by means of an ideal type or system, and to contrast the “spirit of capitalism” with the Middle Ages is to imply that the earlier period also possesses a certain “medieval or feudal spirit.”
Sombart painted the economic life of the Middle Ages or the “Precapitalistic Age” in rather dark colors, and his tableau agreed substantially with the general assessments of economic historians of his day. The medieval economic “spirit” was characterized by “traditionalism” and “handicraft economy.” In contrast to the age of capitalism and its principle of striving after unlimited acquisition, the dominating medieval principle was mere provision for one’s needs. By modern standards the volume of trade was exceedingly small. Sombart offered the comparison that the volume of goods carried annually over St. Gotthard’s Pass at the end of the Middle Ages would only fill one or two modern freight trains. Although wholesale and international trade may have been influential in certain limited areas, the greater part of Western Europe saw only local and retail trading on a small scale and by primitive means. If a natural economy based on barter exchanges was not totally universal, at least the role of money in commercial transactions was relatively slight. The techniques and instruments of business were appropriately crude. Banking, credit, and business organization were relatively undeveloped. The chief device which best characterized the commercial and industrial organization of the Middle Ages was the guild system. The guilds generally performed the functions of privilege, regulation, and control and were considered to be typical of the medieval sustenance and handicraft economy. Although Sombart’s view of the Middle Ages was never free from criticism at individual details, nonetheless his comprehensive picture has been widely accepted until recently by the general economic histories of the Middle Ages.