The Rising Towns
In the medieval times there were several towns that began to be raised in the sense of forming one. There had been a lack of interest in being part of a town, because most of the wealthy people lived in the country side. However, several people like younger sons of large families that lacked land, or people whom various disasters forced them to pursue something new, or just people that were bold and courages began to move and form many towns.
Some people say that towns originated behind fortifications during the Viking invasions, others say that cathedrals and monasteries along with their schools attracted commercial activity and therefore people. Even if both cases are true, we can know for sure that later on the medieval towns became significant. Towns began to jockey for liberty, which rewarded them with self-government, freedom, living and engaging in commerce on the lord’s land, and freedom for serfs who lived in a town for a year undetected from their old lord after a year and a day. Of course, the lords of those lands consented to these freedoms, for those freedoms attracted people, and therefore gained more money, because of all the taxing. With this, people chose their own officials, they had representative assemblies, and the remnants of barbarian and feudal law gave way to a more rational system.
Nonetheless, there was much regulation of economic activity. The guilds were the ones that established quantity, quality, and prices of the goods produced in a town. This means that there was no competition. Other than there being an economic regulation, there was also a role in the social area. Guilds provided various kinds of insurance, including old-age insurance, plus they built hospitals, orphanages and schools.
Towns in the medieval times had a different liberty than how we know or associate the word “liberty” today. Their liberty was not an individual liberty, but a town liberty. They couldn’t make choices according to what was right or just for an individual, but according to the town. Still, the towns of the medieval times had and a have a significance for us today, for they shaped much of what we have today.
Why Growing Economy?
One of the questions that are asked today is why was there a sustained economic growth in the Middle Ages, something we haven’t seen today? This question has been tried to be answered by many, and some of the conclusions that they have come to are the following.
First of all, it has been asked why Europe in specific? What is it that makes Europe unique? We now know that it was mainly the way they had established their way of living and government which was completely different than what we have now. An ultimate factor on making this true was political decentralization.
This meant that there was more competition between polities, because of the many there were. They had to compete against each other in order to gain more people and more money, and that meant that there was more liberty, and therefore a lighter yoke. An example of this is if the United States of America ever became too oppressive, many people could move to another country, or if a state in it became too oppressive, people could move to another one. This would mean that these independent governments would have to compete against each other, and therefore attract the most people. Unlike today, in the middle ages it wasn’t countries or stares but cities and towns, which meant a greater liberty. The political competition limited prince’s from being too oppressive. (Some people think that because they handled a monarchy the king could do whatever he pleased, but the case is not like that. Today, our current politicians have way more power than what a king had back then).
Following this, there was limited taxation and even warfare, and this meant greater riches. Also, the representative bodies, the charters of rights helped limit the arbitrariness of the rulers. Even the pope could excommunicate monarchs that levied arbitrary tax increases.
Next, we can see the “demonstration effect”. This was when a town adopted the freest markets and became the wealthiest, with an effect of other towns following the same example. In those times, they didn’t squeeze people harder, the monarchs didn’t own all the property, and the people didn’t exist to serve the elite like today, but instead, institutions and values triumphed which gave support to market exchange and private property, and limited the power of the political class.
Another aspect of this great economic growth and contributing factor was political fragmentation. This meant that apart from there being more competition, there was more protection. The protection consisted on making a unified civilization, where if someone wanted to conquer it, he would have to conquer this political area, and then this one, then the next, etc. Even if he conquered one, that didn’t mean he had conquered everything, but in the other hand, he would have to conquer one by one making it much harder, expensive, and exhausting to be able to conquer everything. In other words, Europe would be safe from a “single-stroke conquest”.
As David Landes wrote: “And yet, in those middle years between ancient and modern fragmentation was the strongest brake on willful, oppressive behavior. Political rivalry and the right of exit made all the difference”.