The Great Expansion - 1050 to 1300 A.D.

Many impersonal developments lay behind the great economic expansion of the 11th, 12th and 13th Centuries. The climate improved so that crops could be grown more reliably and in inhospitable places. The threat of epidemic disease receded also. Great geopolitical trends like the movements of nomadic tribes in central Asia tended to give western Europe an advantage in its trading relations with the east. There were also periodic fluctuations in the supply of precious metals, notably the opening of major silver mines in Germany in the late 12th Century which flowed into England to cause sudden inflation. But the changes of this period came from decisions made by groups and individuals which cumulatively had the effect of increasing population, agricultural production, the numbers and sizes of towns and the volume of trade.


A delicate balance had to be maintained during this time period between the aristocracy and the peasants. As the number of nobles increased, so did the shares of land being distributed to thegns. Thus more and more fifedoms and communities were arising at a rapid rate and dangerously close to the borders of others. Some of these fifedoms sought to collect specific crafters and traders and as a result formed small monopolies on certain veins of commerce. The idea of ‘free enterprise’ evolved at the end of the Norman conquests and soon private business owners were seeking to make their places between the peasants and the aristocracy.


This contributed greatly to the system of economics employed at the time as taxation reached new methods of legal collection. Kings viewed the opportunity as a means in which to increase their interests into foreign countries and rival fifedoms but at the same time were able to protect their communities. With the advent of free enterprise, peasants began legally contesting their bonds of service in terms of being ‘free’ and ‘unfree’. Throughout the 13th Century individuals and communites brought lawsuits against their lords using the legal loophole that tenants of former royal estates were protected from rents and endentured service. The royal courts almost invariably ruled against the peasants and they were punished for disobedience. This led to a major disruption inside the basis of the feudal system and in the early and mid 1200s, peasant revolts became popular and ugly. A local lord not only gained from the expert knowledge of his serfs but he was also dependant on them for the successful running of his fifedom. When the peasants began revolting and usurping their lords, the fifedoms broke down socially and economically and placed the lord into a precarious position. Thus lords did relent to the demands of their people and as a result peasant administrators acquired status and authority within the communities. Also, through their bold demands they requested more freedom within the open markets of neighboring communities, kingdoms and fifedoms.


Being given new opportunites to explore trade and commerce, private enterprise and innovation greatly aided the growth of the market. About half of the peasants in the 13th Century had holdings of between 15 and 30 acres which would have yielded saleable surpluses of grain and animal products worth a decent value. They freely embraced the chance to produce and sell their own goods as the prices of grain, wool and livestock more than doubled in the course of the century.


Still, a considerable portion of the money earned by peasants went to the lord in rents and to the kingdom as tax. But peasants were able to spend some of their own income. Apart from food and drink they purchased manufactured goods such as clothing and utensils. In the 13th Century peasant houses were based on stone foundations and the carpentry of the timber frame achieved such a high quality that occasional examples are still standing and inhabited. Architects, bnricklayers and carpenters built these structures and the peasants paid their wages and cost of materials. A small home cost roughly about $5.00.


Holders of small tracts of land were greatly damaged by the advance of the market. Unable to produce much they were often left to purchase items at a cost that exceeded their income. Compensation for these small holders came again in the economic advances of the wealthier peasants. Private employment, steady wages and annual taxation took its roots in this byproduct of the expansion of the Medieval market.


The growth of towns between 1050 AD and 1300 AD depended on imaginative planning and risky speculations. To achieve success the architects had to choose the right sites, arrange the new properties, streets and market-places in the most convenient ways. And, they had to offer settlers attractive privileges. Immigrants would only be drawn to new settlements if they were certain the site offered new opportunities for trade, commerce and manufacturing. New towns often failed but most acquired urban characteristics in which a majority of the population lived. By 1300 AD, about 600 towns were functioning, 40 or so with populations in excess of 2,000 people.


Towns provided newcomers with the chance to improve themselves. Those who began as servants could acquire the skills of a craft or trade. They then could enter the labor market as wage-earning employees and could eventually hope to have their own businesses.


Depending on where the town was situated it could provide international trade links. Entrepreneurs migrated to these areas in hopes of expanding their crafts and goods into foreign markets where such items were not available. Townspeople eventually aspired to self-government under the centralized English monarchy. But by 1300 AD they did manage to win the rights to regulate trade, levy taxes and hold courts.


The royal boroughs achieved the highest degree of self-government and purchased charters allowing them to farm their revenues so that the town collected rents for land, fines in the court and tolls in the market. The town then paid an annual lump sum to the provisionary monarchy.


As the aristocracy became more wealthy from these expansions their requirements on the market also increased. They demanded textiles for their own clothes, linens, exotic goods and precious stones for jewelry. They spent a great deal on elaborate items such as harnesses, saddles and transportation. Their lavish tastes greatly contributed to a growth in the commerical market.


Most transactions were conducted with coinage but the barter system of trade was still in use. A system of paying by credit also was formulated. The circulation of money was aided by these great achievements in, and rapid growth of the market. But by 1300 AD the expansion was ending and the next 50 years saw a series of catastrophes.