Ch. 8. The Beginning of the End for Aristocrat-Peasant Society

Change From Peasant Farmers to Market Farmers

    About nine hundred years ago in western Europe, population was expanding, and the cities were growing. Manorial agriculture was having trouble keeping up with demand. The feudal aristocrat-peasant system that was in use was not capable of providing enough surplus food for the growing urban population. The aristocrats mostly lived in their castles and manor houses out in the countryside. They often fed a hundred or more people every day in their “great halls.” European peasant agriculture was not very productive. It had been doing fine feeding the aristocrats, their servants and support structure, and a few small towns, but there was little food left over for urban growth. The expanding cities were hungry. 1

    The peasants—especially in the Netherlands, northern France, England, and the Rhineland—began looking for new ways to produce and deliver the necessary food. By about 1100, there were some barely perceptible signs of change. Some peasants were showing up less often to perform their required labor service on the lord’s demesne. This meant that they were fined in the manor courts, but they used the time to increase production on their own land allotment and took the extra food into town and sold it. They used the cash income to pay the manor-court fines and still made a profit. 2

    More fundamental changes also began to appear. Some peasants made arrangements with their local lord whereby they enclosed a portion of the common fields, grew whatever they chose, sold it, and used some of the cash proceeds to pay rent. The rigid manorial system was relaxed. Peasants were slowly allowed more freedom to experiment with new crops and practices. 3

    An idea was tried. It might have succeeded for a few years or a few generations, but then it did not seem to work anymore for at least one of the parties, the peasant or the aristocrat. So then they would fight and bicker about it for a while. We have court records for some of the cases. After that, they would come up with another idea and try again. They were looking for new ways to divide the land and allow peasants to rent, lease, or sharecrop in some manner that would be more productive. They needed to find extra incentive for the peasants to work harder and work smarter. There were numerous problems with the market based reforms, but they continued for one important reason; more food was produced, and sold in the towns and cities. 4

    In the past—rank, birth, and tradition were the dominant factors of human life. Peasants plowed, planted, and harvested the same way that their fathers and grandfathers had. Most people did as they were told by family elders or by men of superior rank. Now, individual peasants were examining their own work and looking for ways to make it more productive. This was not rocket science. You cannot get any more practical and down to earth than looking for better ways to plow, plant, and harvest, but it was still revolutionary. 5

    The peasants were responding to market signals. They were examining prices, looking for better paying crops, and using the varying soil and drainage conditions of their fields to the best advantage. The peasant farmers were slowly learning to make their own decisions based on the profit motive. As part of that process, some of them were learning to read and do basic arithmetic. 6

Slow Spread of the Market Format

    It was largely the better off peasants and the lowest level of the aristocracy, knights and squires, who began the process of agricultural transformation. Merchants, artisans, financiers, and others were also drawn in. The great plague (1347-1348) gave the peasants more bargaining power, which helped to accelerate the market reforms and spread them more widely among the remaining population. 7

    On the production side of the equation, it was a slow, continuous, and complicated process. On the distribution side of the equation, there was a major change that was gradual but more distinct. The peasants were selling an increasing amount of food to the towns and cities. Wholesale and retail networks were slowly developing along with transportation infrastructure. Investors and money lenders were needed to provide capital. Blacksmiths and other craftsmen were producing better plows, tools, and implements. The concept of market incentives had been introduced at the lower level of society, and it was spreading. 8

Complacency at the Top

    The change was so gradual that it almost went unnoticed. The chronicles and other written sources say little about this very slow agricultural evolution. Most historians have never realized its significance, but this was the earliest beginning of the process that would lead directly to the modern world. 9

   The lower level aristocrats, the ones who were closest to the peasants, were also drawn into the agricultural revolution. They too were trying to maximize their income. At the same time, they were slowly changing from armored knights into landed gentry and essentially becoming businessmen. For most of the medieval period, it was considered demeaning for aristocrats to engage in trade, but at the lowest level that was beginning to change. 10

    It was mostly the lower and mid-levels of society that began adapting to market conditions. The kings, dukes, bishops, and counts were too busy fighting each other and exercising their privileges of rank to worry about markets becoming a threat to their authority. What they wanted was more cash revenue from their agents and overseers, and they were getting it. 11

    This was the earliest beginning of the modern transformation. Monarchs and upper-level aristocrats had no idea that the transition to a market economy would eventually require the elimination or sidelining of their rank and privileges. They could not imagine a world that was not run by kings and aristocrats. They were the war leaders. What other force could possibly become strong enough to displace them? Royalty and the high nobility were quite happy to receive their increasing revenues without bothering about the details. 12

    The cities continued to expand, and the price of food remained high. The Dutch began buying increasing amounts of grain from the eastern Baltic region and shipping it to western Europe. Peasants and gentry continued their market-oriented reforms. Production, trade, and wealth of all kinds were increasing. New silver mines were opened in southern Germany, which allowed the money supply to keep pace. 13

Conflict and Military Institutions

    The military structure of society was also changing. The levy of feudal knights was no longer as useful as before. Kings were looking for more flexibility on the battlefield and could achieve this by hiring mercenary soldiers, which cost money. The introduction of cannon and firearms increased this trend and cost more money. The cities were growing larger, more productive, and more important. The kings were giving them royal charters and taxing them. Money was flowing further and faster. 14

    The lower-level feudal knights were becoming gentry, investors, and businessmen. The higher-level bishops, dukes, and counts were more often becoming embroiled in conflicts with the commercial cities, which were trying to achieve greater independence from provincial aristocratic authority. By about 1500, economic growth in western Europe was advancing faster than the feudal-aristocratic structure could handle. 15

    Classical Athens, the Roman Republic, Song Dynasty China, and Renaissance Italy had also reached the point where they were ready to change to a more market oriented form of society. The process of change was begun, but it was not completed, and they mostly returned to aristocratic norms. This time it was different. Led by the Netherlands, western Europe pressed forward and began the development of modern society. 16

The Weakness of European Feudal Institutions

    People have often wondered why Europe was the first part of the world to begin the modern transformation. The answer to that question probably has a lot to do with the weakness of medieval feudal governments. The upper-level and mid-level aristocrats swore allegiance to their sovereign king but ran their duchies and counties pretty much as they saw fit. A large amount of local government was administered by the Church; bishops governed many of the cities. 17

    All of these different levels of aristocrats, secular and religious, were more or less in constant competition with each other. The size and shape of their territories were flexible. They were always looking for ways to usurp the land and revenue of their neighbors. This led to constant conflict. The medieval European feudal system was government by institutionalized anarchy. The developing market forces and the merchant class were able to play off the different aristocrats against each other. The kings were not strong enough to lay down the law and control the situation. 18

    It was different in ancient Persia, Athens, Rome, and China. These societies had much stronger imperial governments with large armies, which could and did sack any commercial city that refused to submit to the emperor's authority. The Greek city states, including Athens, were conquered by Philip of Macedon along with his teenage son, Alexander the Great. Their liberty and freedom to choose their own form of government came to a sudden end.  In early republican Rome, the largest landowning families united together to form the Roman Senate. This institution worked hard and successfully to preserve their aristocratic privileges and dominance over their serfs from being eroded from below. The development of grain markets for the peasants in relatively passive Song Dynasty China came to an end during the Mongol wars of the 1260s. 19

    If the Mongols had conquered Europe, it probably would have put an end to modern development there as well. The modern transformation began in western Europe right under the noses of feudal monarchs and aristocrats, but they were slow to understand the significance of what was happening and too weak to stop it. 20