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The Reemergence of Towns and Commerce

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Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

The reemergence of towns and commerce came about with the European urban revolution. Learn about the original medieval economy, understand the resurgence of trade, explore the scope, causing factors, and implications of the urban revolution, and identify the role of cities at the heart of these events. Updated: 10/26/2021

The State of the Medieval Economy from 750-1050

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, trade in Europe ground to a halt. Cities were abandoned. Craftsmen and merchants all but disappeared from the European landscape. Money fell out of use and trade was conducted by means of barter. Serfs struggled to feed themselves, and their lords enjoyed none of the luxuries we associate with aristocrats these days.

Europe experienced an urban revolution around the 12th century.
Europe Map

For three centuries, Europe languished in an economic slump. Then, around 1050, the European economy started turning again, slowly at first, but quickly accelerating. Trade began to flow across Europe's roads and waterways. Urban centers that had been all but abandoned began to grow again. Old trades re-emerged, and new trades were invented. The change was nothing short of an urban revolution. In the course of a couple centuries, Europe went from a continent of farmers, an economic dead end, a cultural backwater, to a land of merchants and craftsmen, living in bustling cities, generating culture at an unprecedented level.

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The Scope of the Urban Revolution

The scope and speed of Europe's urban revolution is rather startling, considering its stagnation during the Dark Ages. The old Roman cities, which had never been more than fortified outposts to start with, became the centers of growing urban sprawls. Paris, London and Cologne doubled in population between 1100 and 1200, and doubled again between 1200 and 1300. Outside the old empire, new towns were established. 12th century Germany witnessed the founding of such prominent cities as Freiburg, Lubeck, Munich and Berlin. The height of this urban explosion was Italy. Venice, Genoa and Milan already had populations of over 100,000 in the 12th century. These populations would triple in less than two hundred years.

Factors Behind the Urban Revolution

Several factors made this urban revolution possible. New lands were being opened up for agricultural development. A decline in Viking raids, combined with the development of stable central governments, at last allowed Europeans to stop huddling around feudal manors and start taming the great wilderness of the north. New agricultural technologies and techniques were producing unprecedented surpluses in European farms. The heavy plow was breaking up the rich soils of northern Europe. The three field crop rotation system was allowing farmers to wring the most from each acre. These agricultural surpluses would be essential to feed Europe's growing urban population.

Meanwhile, labor saving technologies were freeing up human beings from many time consuming tasks. By the 12th century, Europeans had harnessed horses, the wind and rivers to do work that people used to do. This meant that it took far fewer people to run a farm. Instead of digging in the dirt with sticks or grinding grains by hand, people could pursue skilled trades in Europe's growing cities and leave the grinding and digging to horses and mills. These agricultural shifts were having an impact on the European aristocracy as well. Feudal lords were beginning to realize that they could make a lot more profit by charging rents on free peasants than they could by manning their own fields with serfs. Freed from the land at last, many of these free peasants left their farms to find fortune in the city.

Europeans harnessed the power of the wind, rivers, and horses to reduce human labor.
Labor Saving Technologies

The Resurgence of Trade

Yet, the greatest factor in the urban revolution was the resurgence of trade in Europe. This probably started locally in most of Europe as free peasants made their way to market towns to trade their small surpluses: a sack of grain here, a few dozen eggs there. The availability of basic foodstuffs emboldened some farmers and lords to specialize in specific goods that had a greater market value. Wine and cotton began to be traded across hundreds of miles.

Peasants traded their surpluses at market towns.
Peasant Trading

With this trade, land and sea routes were reopened. Europe entered a frenzy of road building that might have even given the Romans pause. And at sea, the Italian city states of Genoa, Pisa and Venice had re-opened the Mediterranean for trade, reestablishing Europe's link with the East. For the first time in centuries, Europeans had access to oriental luxuries, like gems, spices, perfume and silk. European aristocrats began developing ever more expensive tastes, which drove them to further increase the economic output of their estates.

Market towns boomed, and local market days gave way to huge trade fairs, bringing goods from all over Europe. At a trade fair in the French region of Champagne, you could find Flemish cloth, French wine, Italian olives and Eastern spices. And, even these trade fairs faded to insignificance when the Italian trading states expanded their shipping routes past the strait of Gibraltar, establishing trade centers across the Atlantic seaboard.

As international trade accelerated, coinage returned to the scene. The old barter system would not work in the world market. Merchants don't carry silk a thousand miles to trade it for a pig. They wanted cold hard cash, if you please, or failing that, a hunk of gold would do nicely. Yet, even coins of precious metals could not keep up with the dizzying pace of international trade. To overcome these limitations, Italians established business contracts and letters of credit to move wealth around without the trouble of dragging coins around in a chest. These enterprises, undertaken solely for the purpose of profit, made the merchants of Italy Europe's first commercial capitalists.

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