What are some characteristics of Europe's economy in 1250 and how did it change by 1500?

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osurpless | Middle School Teacher | In Training Educator

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The European economy in the 13th century was dominated by feudalism, a system in which lords and vassals (serfs and farmers) benefited from each other in a mutually beneficial relationship. The vassal worked the land, providing food for the lords, and in return the lord protected them from the dangers of everyday life with their knights and similar. A population explosion resulted in a struggle over resources and inequality relative to life expectancy was not improving. Farming became more efficient leading to larger farms run as businesses versus just as a method of producing food. This helped to address the reality that farming methods had damaged soil's fertility, so something had to change besides simply growing more food to address rising populations.

The surplus goods lead to extra income that led society to be based around comfort. Castles became more luxurious with added features. More people bought non-essential products. The spinning wheel improved production of clothing material and helped decrease the skill associated with the work, moving jobs towards greater automation.

Despite improved technology, life was still dominated by danger and war, with the 14th century especially defined by the 100 Years War. Taxation naturally rises with military spending, and it is a foregone conclusion that a war of such duration (and the micro wars it also spawned) would be a massive financial burden that had to be address somehow if the counties were to remain solvent. The biggest change leading to the movement known as the Renaissance first required a solution to the problem of the exploding population. A novel one was found in the form of the Black Death.

Also known as the black and bubonic plague, this disease from the East, spread by parasites in fleas and carried on ships by rats wiped out significant percentages throughout the 14th century, and most significantly in 1348. As tragic as the plague was, its spread via poor hygiene led to improved sanitation throughout Europe and the prohibition on human dissection was suspended by the Church in a desperate effort to better understand why the disease was so virulent and deadly. Combined with the now apparent glut of resources, the surplus allowed for scientific inquiry and discovery to foster again, bringing forth the Renaissance "Rebirth", given that not as much time was required for growing food and suchlike.

It has been suggested that this scientific rediscovery leading to the eventual Age of Enlightenment could not have taken place if the population growth had continued increasing exponentially during this time. This is bolstered by the connection of the Protestant Reformation to ideas above as well as the Age of Exploration and colonization by European sailing expeditions around the world. The conquest of Constantinople also lead scholars and texts to migrate to Italy and elsewhere following the Ottoman takeover. There are doubtlessly other connections to be made as well, should one wish to explore this topic further.

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