Conference Round-Up: Sowing the Seeds V: Measuring the Medieval Economy

The Money Changer and his Wife (1490).
The Money Changer and his Wife (1490).
The Money Changer and his Wife (1490).

On March 31st, I attended the fifth annual Sowing the Seeds: Measuring the Medieval Economy conference at Cambridge University, organised by Jordan Claridge and Alex Brown. It was a full day of discussion about the current research beng done in medieval economics, and a look ahead to the future. There were four sessions, three formal ones, with three papers presented in each, and one roundtable to close out the day. This report is a summary of the three structured sessions, and brief overview of what was presented in each paper.

The conference kicked off with a keynote address by renown medieval economist, Emeritus Professor Christopher Dyer (University of Leicester), Economic history and other disciplines: why we need each other. Dyer discussed how using other disciplines can strengthen, improve and enhance medieval economic history. Dyer suggested, ‘It’s (economics) strength lies in how it works within well worked out rules and conventions and is an interesting subject that attracts interest and enthusiasm.’ It peaked in popularity during WWI but since then has evolved dramatically and, ‘Is still telling good stories that relate to people’s everyday experience, relating the past to the present.’ There are subjects, such as Geography and Archaeology, that are good allies which economic historians should make an effort to incorporate in their research. These two subjects in particular, help push the study of economics forward. Dyer also discussed some of the frustrations faced by economic historians such as a lack of historical evidence in earlier medieval periods, and problem of medieval morality and commerce. He recounted the story of St. Martin dividing his cloak and giving it to a beggar. The story of St. Martin was a medieval attempt to show of charity in a world that was becoming increasingly commercial. Stories like this tell us about changing attitudes and mentalities towards commerce in the Middle Ages, and Dyer suggested St. Martin’s story can be viewed as an ‘anti-market’ commentary. There were rules and regulations set out by town authorities regarding the morality of certain trades, Dyer noted that there was a difficult balance to be maintained: the acceptance and approval of commercial activity, alongside the criticism of bad practices, anti-social behaviour, and dishonesty. There was a clash between the commercial world and medieval morality.

The first session, Institutional Approaches to Plague, Politics and War in Medieval Europe, began with Bram Besouw, (Utrecht University), and his paper entitled, Lease markets for land and recovery from war: how factor markets, institutions and social relations influenced economic recovery from war in the former county of Flanders, c. 1450-1550, which tried to answer the questions: Why are some societies better able to prevent warfare form becoming a major disaster? Why do some societies recover better than others? How much of this is determined by social economic structures?

Besouw’s paper looked at the relation between markets, institutions, and social contexts and also focused on the way in which rural localities rebounded from the disruptions due to war, and their production recovery times. He focused on the border between Belgium and France, and the southern part of Flanders and Artois in the late 15th century, during the period of the Burgundian Succession War and the Flemish Revolt against Maximilian I of Austria (1459-1519). He chose the area due to it being a relatively small, compact geographical area with one political structure that was in a relatively propersous and urbanised region. This allowed for a systematic analysis of the relation of certain variables within his study. It was interesting to note the way different areas within this localised region recovered after war. The Artois region was hit hardest by the war but had very rapid recovery period, within ten years it was nearly back to normal. The southwestern part of Hainaut, on the other hand, took a very long time to recover. There were many deserted localities and production levels didn’t recover until the sixteenth century. Inland Flanders, was another place of slow 20-30 years recovery. By the sixteenth century, the production level recovered, and the peasants were in a better position. Lastly, Coastal Flanders, saw intermediate recovery of approximately between 15-20 years. There appeared to have been no linear relationship between the equal distribution of land and better recovery times.

The second paper in this session was another contribution from Utrecht University, Joris Roosen and, The socio-institutional regions approach to the dynamics of societal resilience to plague. The paper looked at accepted plague paradigms today, how the pathogen that spread through fleas and black rats, and was then transferred from human to human and tried to answer the question: Why were there diverging recovery rates, e.g., Great Britain recovered more slowly from the effects of the plague than France and the Low Countries. “Regions experienced significant divergences in the rate of demographic recover and possibly impact from the Black Plague”. The current explanation for the fast recovery in the Low Countries has been that they were visited less severely than plague than many other areas. Roosen focused on regions with good demographic data and mapped out the economic post-plague recovery.

Conference organizers, Jordan Claridge and Alex Brown.
Conference organizers, Jordan Claridge and Alex Brown.

Finishing off the first session was Leigh Gardiner (London School of Economics) and her paper, To Take or to Make? Contracting for Legitimacy in the Emerging States of Twelfth-Century Britain. This paper was initially part of a project she began eight years ago. She was interested in how medieval and early modern states influenced economic growth, and the examination of predatory rulers who interfered with property rights, and the fragmentation of markets. Her paper discussed the rise of the Scottish national monarchy between the 10th-14th centuries. Was medieval power private or public? Private order institutions were those created for for protection, like the modern day Mafia; actors provided protection in exchange for rents, expanding their territory in competition. Medieval Scotland was a system of powersharing, rural elites, and devolved authority.

The second session, Re-evaluating Agrarian Economic History, began with with Piotr Guzowski (University of Bialystok) and, Turning points in medieval and early modern Polish agriculture in the light of historical and environmental sources. He discussed the difficulties Polish economic historians have with the lack of written sources for the middles ages. Guzowski showed how historians can try to find other methods to do research on medieval agriculture in Poland in the Middle Ages in spite of this dilemma. He has undertaken a new project cooperating with historians and paleoecologists to examine turning points in Polish agriculture at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, as well as German colonisation in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Black Death, and the development of a grain export economy up to the 16th century. Guzowski challenged the view that Poland was free of the plague. Plague did visit Poland, Guzowski cited two chronicles: the Oliwa Chronicle (mid-14th century), and the Annals of Jan Długosz (second half of the 15th century). Both chronicles detail the plague coming to Poland. Historians, however, have been suspicious because the descriptions were not taken from European sources; the Oliwa Chronicle is a copy of a chronicle from Avignon, and the Annals of Jan Długosz also appears to be a copy of the Avignon plague treatise. “The two sources repeat the archetype description of the plague but cannot be used to support the thesis of the wave of the first plague in Poland.” However, Guzowski noted that one source was ignored for plague inofmraiton: St. Peter’s Pence, an amount paid to the Pope since the inception of Christianity in Poland (as well as in other countries). It was introduced as a state tax in Poland and historical demographers have used it as a good resource for numbers in Poland during the years of the Black Death.

The second paper was given by Olof Karsvall (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) on, Deserted Farms and Settlement Changes in Sweden in the Late Middle Ages. Karsvall’s paper focused on the desertion of land in Nordic countries from 1300-1600 AD, after a comparative report from the Scandinavian research project on deserted farms and villages was criticised due to its varied results that didn’t present an accurate picture of desertion in Sweden. The results are part of his forthcoming PhD thesis.

The final paper in this session was by Harmony Dewez (Laboratoire de Médiévistique Occidentale de Paris) on, Trial and Error:The Impact of Mathematical Techniques on Agrarian Calculations at Norwich Cathedral Priory, c.1270-c.1340. Dewey examined how the priors of the cathedral calculated ratios for cereal yield rations. The calculations were an mportant tool for control of the manor expenses, and to provide profit for the chapter. These ratios were also used to charge the Reeve. Dewey reconstructed the abacus calculations used to come to the figures, showed how mistakes were made, and tried to answer how some of the larger, more obvious errors were left to stand.

Our final session of the conference was, Authority and Investment in the Late Middle Ages. Spike Gibbs (University of Cambridge) spoke about, The Manorial Court at Stokenham, 1560- 1603: Applying a medieval methodological toolkit to an early modern manor. In the last 20 years, historiography has been challenged regarding manorial court records. Gibbs suggested that, “The post medieval manor court has largely been rehabilitated”, however, it has been the work of early modernists, not medieval historians. How far does the continuity go between medieval and early modern manor court? This is what Gibbs wanted to find out. He researched the manor of Stokenham, near Devon. This manor had a dispersed structure of townships much like in the medieval period. Up to 1586, the manor was held by the Earl of Huntingdon, then transferred to a local gentleman from an aristocratic lord. Gibbs focused on the Elizabethan period but noted that there is a regrettably large gap in the early portion of this period between 1562-1567. He also discussed the ways in which post-medieval manorial courts handled crime.

Marta Gravela (University of Milan) then talked about, Kinship and economic strategies in Turin in the late Middle Ages: problems and methods. Gravela was presenting a small part of her PhD research, that examined kinship structures and strategies in Turin between 1300-1500. Gravela analyzed political change from a socio-conomic point of view, and the financial investments of families. How did kin relate to each other over time? How did their economic solidarity have an impact on their duration? Gravela looked at sixty kinship groups and used cadastral and city council registers for her sources. Gravela managed to reconstruct kinship ties via ownership, residence and management of houses, information from notarial records, wills, dowries and contracts. She also discussed the sudden dissolution of kinship groups in the 15th century due to a late 14th century economic crisis, a lower mortality rate, and a rise in the cost of political competition.

The final paper of the day belonged to Helen Killick (University of Reading), Property investors in late medieval England. When was the first “real estate bubble”? Killick tried to answer this question by looking at land prices and rents in medieval England between 1200-1550. Killick tried to find evidence of speculative housing bubbles and the deviation of prices and rents from fundamental values, focusing on the Home Counties, the north of England, and the Welsh Marches.

I was happy to have been a part of this conference. It was a day of fascinating insghts and engaging discussion about developments in medieval economics, a topic often ignored, or deemed “boring”. This conference was anything but boring and demonstrated the impact and influence medieval economics has on other subjects in medieval history. It also showed how medieval economics can collaborate with other areas of study to further research in this important discipline.

~Sandra Alvarez

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