The economic system of the Middle Ages was founded on feudalism, supporting the overlords with the work of serfs.
In attempting to understand the ideas and institutions of the period of history that is usually called the “Middle Ages,” it must be kept in mind that this covers a time frame that is easily divided up into smaller periods, each of which can be seen to have its own unique characteristics and qualities.
Furthermore, each part of Europe had its own historical development in terms of traditions and customs. Only one institution encompassed the entire European world through most of this time – the Catholic Church.
The Middle Ages is usually defined as beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476, to invading Germanic tribes. The “close” of the Middle Ages is commonly said to be around 1500. After this date, momentous changes occurred in European history that transformed the face of European society, and the development of the whole world, as well. Fifteen-hundred was the eve of the Great Religious Reformation known as Protestantism. It marks the beginning of the “discovery” of the “New World” by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and a sea route around Africa to India in 1498.
Shortly after 1500, the compass came into use, which radically changed the ability to travel vast distances out of sight of land and without dependence on clear skies to “read” the stars; it saw the introduction of gunpowder, which transformed warfare; and it was the start of intellectual forces that eventually resulted in the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century.
Rural Life and the Self-Sufficiency of the Manorial System
In the United States today, less than three percent of the labor force works in farming or farming-related occupations; this small percentage of the American work force feeds the most of the population of the country with much left over to export to feed other parts of the world.
This is in stark contrast to life in the Middle Ages. It has been estimated that between 80 to 90 percent of Europe’s population lived on the land and devoted all their time to the production of food. The remaining 10 to 20 percent of the population was either following various small and relatively simple trades and crafts in the towns, provided personal services to the nobility, or were members of the Catholic Church and, therefore, ministering to the religious needs of the people.
Throughout most of Medieval Europe, agriculture was organized around the Manorial System. The local social units revolved around “the Manor,” or residence of the “Lord,” who both owned all the land and ruled over its use and the people on it through possessing a high degree of power and legitimacy.
In German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer’s book The State (1915), and in the American economist Mancur Olson’s Power and Prosperity (2000), both argued that the modern State emerged out of the conquest of territory by marauding bands who decided to permanently settle down and rule over those they had conquered and plundered. The State became the political institutional structure that provided legitimacy to the conquering bands by rationalizing their rule not just as an ongoing extortion racket for their own enrichment, but as beneficial to the ruled and plundered due to the conqueror providing them with law and order, and some useful infrastructure projects.
Each manor ultimately served as a mostly self-sufficient economic entity, in which all production for the local members was performed. Besides growing their own food, the manors raised livestock, milled their own grain for bread, spun thread to make their own clothing, and produced and maintained most of their own farm and manufacturing implements.
The manors contained within themselves three characteristics: they were unified political and economic activities in one institution; they extensively used forced labor for the performance of many tasks and duties; and they were extremely self-sufficient.
The Manorial System was part of the wider Feudal Order. Feudalism represented a system in which the occupants and users of the land they lived and worked on were not the owners; they were “tenants” of the “sovereign” – the Lord of the Manor – who legitimized his authority by claiming to offer protection to the occupants in the form of military service.
The distinguishing aspect of the Lord of the Manor was that he was both political leader and economic employer, and the two roles were not considered separate. As the French historian, Marc Bloch, explained in his book, The Feudal Society (1939),
The lord did not merely draw from his peasants valuable revenues and an equally valuable labor force. Not only was he rentier of the soil and beneficiary of the services; he was also a judge, often – if he did his duty – protector, and always a chief, whom apart from any more binding and more personal tie, to whom those who “held” their land from him or lived on his land were bound, by a very general but very real obligation, to help and obey.
Thus, the seigneurie was not simply an economic enterprise by which profits accumulated in a strong man’s hands. It was also a unit of authority, in the widest sense of the word; for the powers of the chief were not confined, as in principle they are in capitalist enterprises, to work done on his “business premises,” but affected a man’s whole life and acted concurrently with, or even in place of, the power of the state and the family.
Like all higher organized social cells, the seigneurie had its own law, as a rule customary, which determined the relations of the subjects with the lord and defined precisely the limits of the little group on which these traditional rules were binding.
Compulsory, Regimented Labor
The second element of the Manorial System was compulsory labor. The villeins, or serfs, who were occupants on the land, were given the right to cultivate some of the Lord’s land for their own benefit in exchange for their labor in tilling the remainder of the land for the benefit of the Feudal Lord.
The villeins also paid various dues in the form of money (from portions of the crops they grew on the land they were permitted to use for their own purposes, and which they sold in the local towns and villages), and other in-kind services, such as compulsory road building and maintenance at certain times of the year.
From morning to night the tenants were watched, supervised, reprimanded, and ordered to do various tasks. They had to work the Lord’s land; they needed to do a certain amount of field work each day, including caring for the Lord’s livestock (cows, horses, chickens, pigs, etc.), making sure the Lord’s land was properly manured, and maintaining and repairing the tools and implements owned by the Lord.
Only when all of this work had been done were they allowed to work their personal plots of land for their own family purposes. They were closely watched and supervised, since their own self-interest was to finish their work on the Lord’s land as quickly as possible to get to work on their own plots of land from which they personally benefitted. Explained Marc Bloch:
To this Lord, as they called him, the cultivators of the soil owed, first, a more or less important part of their time; days of agricultural labor devoted to the cultivation of the fields, meadows, and vineyards of his demense [estate]; carting and carrying services; and sometimes services as builders and craftsmen.
Further, they were obliged to divert to his use a considerable part of their own harvests, sometimes in the form of rents and sometimes by means of taxes in money, and preliminary exchange of produce for money being in this case their own affair.
The very fields that they cultivated were not held to be theirs in full ownership, nor was their community – at least in most cases – the full owner of those lands over which common rights were exercised.
But were said to be ‘held’ by the Lord, which means that as landowner he had a superior right over them, recognized by dues to him, and capable in certain circumstances of overriding the concurrent rights of the individual cultivators and of the community.
The villeins, or serfs, were born on the land and lived out their lives there. Few ever traveled more than 30 miles from their birthplace. If a Feudal Lord were to sell one of his manors to another Nobleman, it included not only the land, livestock, and working tools, but the serfs on the land as well.
The only escape from serfdom on the Manor was to successfully go to and hide in one of the Medieval walled cities for one year and a day. After that, the villein, or serf, was considered a “free man.” Thus, in the Middle Ages it was said, “City air makes you free.”