How did the economic system of medieval Europe operate?

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durbanville's profile pic

durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Medieval Europe was dominated by wars and conquests and the economy, predominantly agricultural, constantly suffered. Although historians struggle to define the beginning and end of the The Middle Ages, it exists somewhere between the ancient, classical world and the fall of the western Roman Empire (476 CE) and the early modern period (with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE); hence between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries. 

Kingdoms sprung up all over Europe and people migrated in huge numbers. Conflict continued. Trade evolved and spices and silks were traded for swords and slaves but wars seriously hampered this and often, more localized trade was favored. After gold ceased to be the main currency by the end of the seventh century, silver coins and the "penny" were popularized.  

From a system which allowed landowners to control their serfs and manage without much outside intervention, developments meant that some wealthy landowners continued to manage their own estates with peasants working on their land. Exchanges were made in lieu of rent or rent and taxes were paid so although serfdom was maintained, it gradually became a more open system. Peasants would manage the land to ensure that there was food for village occupants and their lords. Other land was sub-divided and farmers managed their own land.  A manorial economic system ensured that classes of people relied on each other for agriculture. More defined and structured forms of agriculture, such as horticulture, developed. By the middle period, Medieval Europe had a feudal- type system as areas became heavily populated and agricultural methods became more sophisticated, allowing the economy to begin to prosper. Kings gave "gifts" of land to their lords in exchange for their assistance in maintaining law and order and avoiding anarchy.  

Other occupations also became popular as blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, bakers and so on allowed for towns to develop and grow. Agriculture was seemingly well-managed and so there was an increase in productivity which allowed these and other occupations to become established. Merchants, generally disliked and mistrusted as they were often politically-motivated for their own gain, allowed for increased trade and a diversity not previously seen. 

After the Great Famine, the Black Death, in the fourteenth century decimated the economy. However, it also allowed the peasant farmer to become more demanding as he became more valuable due to diminished numbers. Politicians became more prominent in efforts to manage the more-demanding peasants and return to the system which had existed before the disease had struck. 

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rachellopez's profile pic

rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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The economy in medieval England was mostly based on agriculture and international trade. During the 12th and 13th centuries the population in England grew by the millions and a lot more land was obtained for more crops as well as the production of wool. This led to the making of guilds (groups of merchants) and charter fairs (street fairs/markets). New religious groups became a major part in wool trading up north. Mining also led to the "silver boom" which helped with England's currency.

Eventually England's economics failed due to over-population, land shortages, and low nutrient soils. The Great Famine stopped population growth and hurt the economy pretty severely. Plagues, like the Black Death, killed about half the population. By the end of the Medieval period, England's government was weak.

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