Economic Expansion in the High Middle Ages

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During a recent discussion about developing world economies I was asked if I knew the three reasons for the economic expansion in the High Middle Ages. The time period known as the High Middle Ages is marked as the period from 1050 through 1350. This unique time witnessed the first crusade (1096), and the famous writings of Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica) and Dante’s (Divine Comedy). This period of history also saw a vast, sweeping economic expansion, due, primarily to three main factors. Namely, an agricultural revolution, a commercial revolution, the resurgence of towns fueled the economic expansion of the High Middle Ages.

The invention and spread of such inventions as the heavy plow, the collar harness and a simple horse shoe provided the technical advances that eclipsed the agricultural productivity of former ages. Moreover, the wide use of water mills in the tenth century and windmills in the twelfth made the once labor intensive job of grinding grain much more labor efficient. Lastly, increased production was made possible because of the adoption of the three-field system. This new system made the diversification of crops richer and led to more produce for all.

Naturally, as agricultural production increased, less people died of starvation. Farming became big business. Many Lords converted their lands into agricultural use because of the easy profits available. All levels of society benefited from the agricultural boom. This is evidenced by the dwindling serf population which fell from 90% to 10% from 1050 to 1350. Perhaps the biggest benefit of this agricultural revolution was that people had extra food, lived longer, and were then able to pursue careers in other industries. This fed perfectly into the commercial revolution.

The High Middle Ages were a vibrant time in business history. The commercial revolution that ensued was made possible because of the advances in trade techniques. Advances such as underwriting (insurance), currency exchange, the invention of double-entry bookkeeping (still in use today) and the development of commercial (contract) law all greased the wheels of the increased trade that transpired. From simple wandering salesmen and local trade partners there developed trade fairs and intricate trade routes which fueled the ever expanding economy.

Business progressively expanded, and another byproduct was produced, and further contributed to the boom. A resurgence of towns and town life was blossoming. Towns provided social, economic and cultural harbors where lives could flourish. These new towns surfaced mostly in trade locations. Merchants, and peasants alike, congregated in such places and labored in their respective trades. Towns provided safety and stability for families, and were a logical place to live and make money. Families had profitable businesses or gainful employment, money, and most importantly, a new freedom in town life. Towns were centers of trade and culture, and only perpetuated the growth of the period. Taken together, the agricultural revolution, the commercial revolution, and the resurgence of towns spurned and fueled the economic expansion of the High Middle Ages.

write by Rowan

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