The end of Medieval good times
May 1, 2017 9:36 AM   Subscribe

For about two centuries after the Black Death, workers in Europe had it good, medievally speaking. The medieval calendar was filled with festivals and feast days; dragons and church ales, carnivals and food fights, and an extra day off every week of the year. In bad years, it took only a few hundred hours of work to pay for the grain needed to feed a family; in good years, closer to a hundred hours. Then, in less than 50 years starting in the mid-1500s - and as quickly as the 10 years from 1540 to 1550 in at least one area - everything changed, almost everywhere in Europe.

Workers' real wages dropped dramatically. Now, a bad year for wheat prices meant that a few thousand hours of work per year were needed to afford a family's grain - which meant death by starvation of the poorest and weakest. The range of prices flipped: What was a bad year for workers in the 1400s - having to work a few hundred hours a year to pay for grain - now seemed a great year, a bumper crop. And it stayed this way. Workers' real wages did not rise back to late medieval levels until the late 1800s, over 300 years and an Industrial Revolution later.

Feasts and festivals for the poor fell out of fashion. "By the same statute, women singing round summer-trees, or maypoles, are ordered to be taken, handled, and put upon the ducking-stone." Gone was the inclusiveness of earlier Carnivals.

But not everyone suffered. In relation to the income of the rich, prices for servants and luxury goods dropped. Because of Engel's Law (no, not that Engel), high wheat prices had a small impact on the budgets of the rich. Cheaper servants made them considerably better off, and the engine of elite fashion became a whirlwind.

A massive increase in silver mining, first (beautifully illustrated) in Central Europe and later (horrifically) in South America, is blamed for the rise in (nominal) prices. The drop in (real) wages is blamed variously on population increases, the Little Ice Age, and the transmutation of silver into almost unparalleled violence, directed downward in service of social transformation.

(An explanatory note on the graph in the "10 years" link: The white dots and background are for 1400-1600. The text suggests that 12 quintals of grain would be needed to feed a family for a year, and the numbers on the left side of the graph - cut off in the scan, unfortunately - are in tens of hours needed to afford 1 quintal. The numbers are, from the top down, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10, 5, 0, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and I'd be glad for anyone to correct my interpretation of the 0,9,8,7... numbers as 1.0, 0.9, 0.8, etc. Thus the top of the graph represents 50x10x12=6000 hours of a labourer's work needed to feed a family; a devastating famine. The "everything changed" and "not everyone suffered" links go more deeply into the numbers behind the drop in real wages for workers across most of Europe, and what people spent money on besides grain.)
posted by clawsoon (18 comments total) 172 users marked this as a favorite

What a great link! I'm super-excited to dig into these.
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:12 AM on May 1, 2017

Coincidentally enough, I literally have a bookmark in Juliet B. Schor's (author of "The Overworked American") essay in Ours to Hack and To Own (PDF), a book about cooperative ownership of tech companies.
posted by neil pierce at 10:26 AM on May 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

So many links! Such a well-put-together post! Thanks, clawsoon - I'm going to be digging into this.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:39 AM on May 1, 2017

Nice, nice. Medieval history is one of my weak spots & this is a fantastic resource... if I could actually put down Twitter & read a book.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:31 AM on May 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Great post. A lot happened during that era. Without having read all the books and links, could it be argued that book printing and/or the Renaissance was partly responsible? Or was it just Machiavelli's influence?
posted by msalt at 12:18 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Say what you will about the medieval Church....
posted by No Robots at 12:50 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Merry England" itself is a retroactive idea dreamt up by the Victorians, who needed to distinguish themselves from the 18th century's classicism, rationalism, and internationalism. They needed something colorful! English! Romantic! MEDIEVAL! Oh but wait, not too Catholic.... back it up... BEHOLD THE GLORY OF THE TUDORS AND EARLY STUARTS!
posted by Hypatia at 2:09 PM on May 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

msalt: Great post. A lot happened during that era. Without having read all the books and links, could it be argued that book printing and/or the Renaissance was partly responsible? Or was it just Machiavelli's influence?

It was the graph in Braudel ("10 years") which sent me down this rabbit hole ("what the hell happened there??"), and I still haven't found a completely satisfactory explanation.

The economic historians who have established that the dramatic drop in real wages happened mostly suggest population growth as the cause. The usual logic is that once all the good, productive land was used up, marginal land which required more labour to get the same harvest had to be brought under cultivation, driving grain prices up and labour prices down. But that doesn't quite smell right, given that real wages dropped the least in England and the Netherlands, where this logic suggests they should've dropped as much as everywhere else in Europe. Something more complicated is going on.

There's no doubt something to anthropologist Graeber's argument that there was a change in power relationships behind the drop in wages, but he doesn't flesh it out in as much detail (or back it up with as much detailed evidence) as I'd like.

The "Industrious Revolution" - not the "Industrial Revolution", note - is the the nice name given to what happened after wages dropped. People started working harder and harder. One explanation given, which has some support from wills and probate records, is that people started wanting more stuff instead of more leisure. That seems to have happened after the wage drop, though, so I don't think it's a great candidate for what might've caused the wage drop in the first place.

And then there's all the other stuff that's happening at the time, some of which you might be able to tie back to the printing press if you try hard enough. :-) There are the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, which led to religious wars and much condemnation of village fun. There's gunpowder, and the rise of effective infantry fighting forces like the Spanish tercios and German landsknechts. There's the rise of more effective royal bureaucracies, the "noblesse de robe" slowly displacing the "noblesse d'épée". There are new sea routes to Asia and the New World. There's all that extra silver being mined.

There's a lot of stuff going on. Which of it caused a dramatic shift in wages that lasted 300 years? I still have no idea.

I'm no expert on any of this, but I find it fascinating.
posted by clawsoon at 2:29 PM on May 1, 2017 [23 favorites]

It's like society as a whole was acting like a giant machine, slowly increasing the pressure on poor people so it could it could achieve greater efficiency by extracting the most work from its constituent units.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:53 PM on May 1, 2017 [9 favorites]

The Little Ice Age ( also corresponds roughly with that period. I'm more familiar with the effects on cultures in the Western Hemisphere but it's likely it had a huge impact on Europe as well.
posted by DarthDuckie at 5:50 PM on May 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

One more possible explanation that I read, though I forget where: Enough Europeans had finally become immune to the plague that its recurrences no longer kept the population below Malthusian maximums.
posted by clawsoon at 6:58 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

This looks fascinating. It'll be weeks before I can actually dig in but thanks for getting it together.
posted by mark k at 8:53 PM on May 1, 2017

David Graeber has done some really interesting work. I've been meaning to read Debt for a while now.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:41 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Currently reading David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The chapter about the Middle Ages is very enlightening. During a time when India and China were orchestrating elaborate bureaucracies and the Middle East had a booming commerce, Europe was struggling to stand on its legs. Europe was in fact pretty late to the Middle Ages party, yet is almost always the setting of what we think of when we say "the Middle Ages". In any event, one thing that jumped out at me was the role usury played in shaping the European economy. It apparently used to be illegal to charge interest, because the Bible, but then someone noted Deuteronomy allowed for charging interest to "strangers". Then someone else came up with the idea that maybe if you thought of interest as damages for late repayment, then it wasn't really technically usury.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 1:42 AM on May 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'd be rather cautious of Graeber.
posted by hawthorne at 8:04 AM on May 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd be rather cautious of Graeber.

Graeber is like Jared Diamond or Kenneth Pomeranz - he may be wrong sometimes, but even when he's wrong he's worth reading.
posted by clawsoon at 9:25 AM on May 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

To expand on that a bit: I'm pretty sure that Graeber based most of the chapter which is criticized in your link, hawthorne, on The Great Divergence. He name-drops Pomeranz, and then proceeds to follow the argument of Pomeranz (and the facts presented by Pomeranz, including most of those criticized by DeLong) fairly closely. So Graeber is not going wildly off in all directions with his economics, making things up or repeating the arguments of kooks. He's picking a respectable minority opinion from within an ongoing debate in economic history.

That's one of the values of reading Graeber: You get exposed to a lot of respectable minority opinions, and they're tied together in interesting ways. No doubt some of the horses he chose to ride will prove to be lame, and conventional majority opinions will win out. But it's an interesting ride.

Pomeranz sparked a vigorous debate; in his critique, DeLong seems to either be unaware of it or to consider it closed (presumably with Pomeranz having been decisively refuted). Most economic historians don't seem to have DeLong's certainty, and the work of Pomeranz has sparked a flurry of fact-gathering on pre-modern conditions in Asia and the West - exactly what you expect (and want) to see when a debate remains unsettled.
posted by clawsoon at 10:15 AM on May 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

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