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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 5 - Economic Expansion and Change

   What will we be learning in this unit?
  • How did new technologies spark an agricultural revolution?
  • How did the revival of trade revolutionize commerce?
  • How were guilds linked to the rise of towns and cities?

 An Agricultural Revolution
  • By the 800s, peasants were using new iron plows that carved deep into the heavy soil of northern Europe. These plows were a big improvement over the old wooden plows, which had been designed for the light soils of the Mediterranean region. Also, a new kind of harness allowed peasants to use horses rather than oxen to pull the plows. Because faster-moving horses could plow more land in a day than could oxen, peasants were able to enlarge their fields and plant more crops. 
  • A peasant might look up and see another new device, a windmill, turning slowly against the sky. Where there were no fast-moving streams to turn a water mill, the power of the wind had been harnessed to grind the peasants' grain into flour.

An Agricultural Revolution
  • Other changes brought still more land into use. Feudal lords who wanted to boost their incomes pushed peasants to clear forests, drain swamps, and reclaim wasteland for farming and grazing. 
  • Peasants also adopted the three-field system. They planted one field with grain, a second with legumes, such as peas and beans, and they left the third fallow, or unplanted. The legumes restored soil fertility while adding variety to the peasant diet. Unlike the old two-field system, the new method left only a third of the land unplanted. 
  • All these improvements let farmers produce more food. With more food available, the population grew. Between about 1000 and 1300, the population of Europe doubled.

Trade Revives
  • Europe's growing population needed goods that were not available on the manor. Peasants needed iron for farm tools. Wealthy nobles wanted fine wool, furs, and spices from Asia. As foreign invasions and feudal warfare declined, traders crisscrossed Europe to meet the growing demand for goods.

   Trade Revives
  • Enterprising traders formed merchant companies that traveled in armed caravans for safety. They followed regular trade routes. Along these routes, merchants exchanged local goods for those from remote markets in the Middle East and further east into Asia. 
  • In Constantinople, merchants bought Chinese silks, Byzantine gold jewelry, and Asian spices. They shipped these goods to Venice on the Adriatic Sea. In Venice, traders loaded their wares onto pack mules and headed north over the Alps and up the Rhine River to Flanders. In Flanders, other traders bought the goods to send on to England and the lands along the Baltic Sea. Northern Europeans paid for the goods with products such as honey, furs, cloth, tin, and lead.

Trade Revives
  • At first, traders and their customers did business at local trade fairs. These fairs took place each year near navigable rivers or where busy trade routes met. 
  • People from the surrounding villages, towns, and castles flocked to the fairs. Peasants traded farm goods and animals. As they ate and drank, they enjoyed the antics of jugglers, acrobats, or even dancing bears. Still, peasants had no money to buy fine swords, sugar, and silks. The customers for these luxuries were the feudal rulers, nobles, and wealthy churchmen.

Trade Revives

  • Trade fairs closed in the autumn when the weather made roads impassable. Merchants might wait out the winter months near a castle or in a town with a bishop's palace. These settlements attracted artisans who made goods that the merchants could sell. 
  • Slowly, these small centers of trade and handicraft developed into the first real medieval cities. Some boasted populations of 10,000, and a few topped 100,000. Europe had not seen towns of this size since Roman times. The richest cities grew up in northern Italy and Flanders-the two ends of the profitable north-south trade route. Both areas were centers of the wool trade and had prosperous textile industries.


Trade Revives
  • To protect their interests, the merchants who set up a new town would ask the local lord, or if possible the king himself, for a charter. This written document set out the rights and privileges of the town. In return, merchants paid the lord or the king a large sum of money, a yearly fee, or both. 
  • Although charters varied from place to place, they almost always granted townspeople the right to choose their own leaders and control their own affairs. Most charters also had a clause, popular with runaway serfs, that declared that anyone who lived in the town for a year and a day was free. "Town air makes free," was a common medieval saying.

A Commercial Revolution
  • As trade revived, money reappeared, which in turn led to more changes. Merchants, for example, needed money to buy goods so they borrowed from moneylenders. In time, their need for capital, or money for investment, spurred the growth of banking houses. 
  • To meet the needs of the changing economy, Europeans developed new ways of doing business. For example, many merchants joined together in an organization known as a partnership. Under this setup, a group of merchants pooled their funds to finance a large-scale venture that would have been too costly for any individual trader. This practice made capital available more easily. It also reduced the risk for any one partner in the venture because no one had to invest all his or her capital in the company.

 A Commercial Revolution
  • Merchants also developed a system of insurance to help reduce business risks. For a small fee, an underwriter would insure the merchant's shipment. If the shipment was lost or destroyed, the underwriter paid the merchant most of its value. If the goods arrived safely, the merchant lost only the insurance payment.
  • Europeans adopted other practices from Middle Eastern merchants. Among the most important was the bill of exchange. A merchant deposited money with a banker in his home city. The banker issued a bill of exchange, which the merchant exchanged for cash in a distant city. A merchant could thus travel without carrying gold coins, which were easily stolen.

  A Commercial Revolution
  • These new ways of doing business were part of a commercial revolution that transformed the medieval economy. Slowly, they also reshaped medieval society.
  • For example, the use of money undermined serfdom. Feudal lords needed money to buy fine goods. As a result, many peasants began selling farm products to townspeople and fulfilling their obligations to their lords by paying their rent in cash rather than in labor. By 1300, most peasants in Western Europe were either tenant farmers, who paid rent for their land, or hired farm laborers.

A Commercial Revolution
  • In towns, the old social order of nobles, clergy, and peasants gradually changed. By 1000, a new class appeared that included merchants, traders, and artisans. They formed a middle class, standing between nobles and peasants
  • Nobles and the clergy despised the new middle class. To nobles, towns were a disruptive influence beyond their control. To the clergy, the profits that merchants and bankers made from usury, or lending money at interest, were immoral. 
  • During the Middle Ages, the Church forbade Christians to lend money at interest. As a result, many Jews who were barred from other professions became moneylenders. Although moneylenders played an essential role in the growing medieval economy, the need to pay them back led to much resentment and a rise in anti-Semitism, as you have read.

 Role of Guilds
  • In medieval towns, merchants and artisans formed associations known as guilds. Merchant guilds appeared first. They dominated town life, passing laws and levying taxes. They also decided whether to spend funds to pave the streets with cobblestones, build protective walls, or raise a new town hall. 
  • In time, artisans came to resent the powerful merchants. They organized craft guilds. Each guild represented workers in one occupation, such as weavers, bakers, brewers, or goldsmiths. In some towns, struggles between craft guilds and the wealthier merchant guilds led to riots.

 Role of Guilds
  • Guild members cooperated to protect their own economic interests. To prevent competition, they limited membership in the guild. No one except guild members could work in any trade. Guilds made rules to protect the quality of their goods, regulate hours of labor, and set prices. Guilds also provided social services. Besides operating schools and hospitals, they looked after the needs of their members.
  • Guilds also pledged to provide support for the widows and orphans of their members.

Role of Guilds
  • To become a guild member meant many years of hard work. At the age of seven or eight, a child might become an apprentice, or trainee, to a guild master. The apprentice usually spent seven years learning the trade. The guild master paid no wages, but was required to give the apprentice bed and board. 
  • Few apprentices ever became guild masters unless they were related to one. Most worked for guild members as journeymen, or salaried workers. Journeymen often accused masters of keeping their wages low so that they could not save enough to open a competing shop.

  Role of Guilds
  • Women worked in dozens of crafts. A woman often engaged in the same trade as her father or husband and might inherit his workshop if he died. Because she knew the craft well, she kept the shop going and sometimes might become a guild master herself. Young girls became apprentices in trades ranging from ribbon making to papermaking to surgery. 
  • Women dominated some trades and even had their own guilds. In Paris, they far outnumbered men in the profitable silk and woolen guilds. A third of the guilds in Frankfurt were composed entirely of women.

   Town and City Life
  • Medieval towns and cities were surrounded by high, protective walls. As the city grew, space within the walls filled to overflowing, and newcomers had to settle in the fields outside the walls. To keep up with this constant growth, every few years the city might rebuild its walls farther and farther out.
  • A typical medieval city was a jumble of narrow streets lined with tall houses. Upper floors hung out over the streets, making those below dim even in daytime. In the largest cities, a great cathedral, where a bishop presided, or a splendid guild hall might tower above humbler residences.

  Town and City Life
  • During the day, streets echoed with the cries of hawkers selling their wares and porters grumbling under heavy loads. A wealthy merchant might pass, followed by a procession of servants. At night, the unlit streets were deserted.
  • Even a rich town had no garbage collection or sewer system. Residents simply flung their wastes into the street. Larger cities might pass laws, such as one requiring butchers to dump their garbage on the edge of town. But towns remained filthy, smelly, noisy, and crowded.