Economic and Societal Developments

Population developments

The Roman Empire had an estimated population of between 60 and 80 million. At that time similar in population seize as the Chinese Empire. There was severe depopulation in many parts of Europe and in particular in north western Europe after the collapse of the Empire. It has been estimated that the population of Europe doubled between 600 and 1000 from about 12 to around 20 million, an annual rather meager growth of around a quarter of a percent. An estimated 15 million of them lived in the Carolingian Empire. This increased to 75 million during the population boom of the High Middle Ages. By this time the Chinese population had increased to an estimated 150 million.

The favourable climate conditions during the Medieval Warmth (800-1300) was the key reason for the population explosion during that period. This had grown from around 2-4 per sq.kilomer in 500AD to around 13 by 1500. Holland was the mostly densely populated country at that time with approx 30 people per sq. kilometer [1. The Agrarian History of Europe, Bernard Hendrik Slichter van Bath. 1963 p81-82]

Assisted by the end of the Viking raids and their integration into the west European society as traders, remarkable progress was made during this dynamic period. In north-western Europe  Flanders was leading the economic revival. We see an increase in efficient government, peace, but also in agriculture production.  Money  reoccurred and started to replace the exchange system, which led to increase wealth. By medieval standards this was nothing less than miraculous. This progress, according to some historians, led to overpopulation and this in turn this was ‘kept in check’ by regular famine and pest epidemics.

While cities started to emerge and grow, the majority of the population explosion took place in the thousands of villages, these were the real seed beds of population.

Europe population levels during the Middle Ages

400-1000: stable at a low level.

1000-1250: population boom and expansion.

1250-1350: stagnation, slow decline.

1350-1420: steep decline

1420-1470: stable at a low level.

1470-onward: slow expansion gaining momentum in the early 16th century.

Late 11th century England had a population of around 1.4 million this had grown to 5 million by 1300, France saw its population increase from 6.2 million to 17.6 million over that same period. ‘Marginal’ Norway grew from perhaps a few tens of thousands of people to half a million. The Low Countries had a population of around 125,000 people in the year 1000, this grew to close to a million by 1350.

However, the economies in these countries had not kept pace with this growth and from 1250 economic conditions started to deteriorate which led to a decline in population that was nor rectified until many centuries later. Overall the European population dropped from around 75 million in 1300 to around 50 million by 1450. In some parts of north-western Europe it was not until the 19th century before those previous population levels were reached again.

Early urbanisation took place in North Italy, the Low Countries and England where during the Late Middle Ages 40-50% of the population lived in cities, other parts of Europe only reached such levels during the Industrial Revolution.

At the heights of the medieval boom average life expectation was between 35 and 40 years. However, we need to take into account that it was in particular the young (and the frail) who perished. A healthy, not by illnesses effected peasant boy, at the height of the boom could expect to live till the age of 54. A few would make into their 80s. Mostly, the people of standing – and not fighting in wars – lived beyond the age of 40.

However, in general the average age was low, this for example meant that people in the Middle Ages had less time to built up wisdom and knowledge and this had an effect on the overall population. Societies with more youthful populations tend to be more violent, less tolerant, more supportive of  slavery and saw nothing wrong in brutal combat.

Medieval men were in their prime in their 20s, mature in their 30s and growing old in the 40s. Responsibility was taken at a young age. Men could marry at the age of 14 (girls at 12)  and fight in the army at the age of 15. Some of the noblemen were in charge of battles and battalions at the age of 16. In some instances citizens as young as 12 could form part of the local jury and at the same age they could also  receive the death penalty for certain crimes. Many Medieval kings took decision at an age around  20 that are still having an impact today.

For girls cohabitation usually didn’t happen until they were 14, but by their mid twenties they would have 5 or 6 children (of which 2 or 3 would have died by that time). At that age, many would also be widowed as their husbands would have died somewhere in a battle.

The average length of  men was between 171-172 centimeters  and of women 158-159 centimeters. [2. The Time Travellers Guide To Medieval England, Ian Mortimer, 2009]


From 1000 onwards, with more people congregating in cities, vernacular languages started to emerge. In general they emerged from an amalgamation of the local tribal languages.

However, the official language remained Latin.

The vernacular languages gained prominence as they were ‘live’ languages and both rulers and merchants started to use the vernacular languages in their daily writings.

Latin with its unchanging structure and logic however, was much better suited for education, philosophy (science) and legal purposes. So Latin retained its importance, the Church didn’t change over to vernacular languages until the 1960s.

The aim of humanist writers was to try to express in perfect Latin. The language used was classical Latin, not the common Latin which was the spoken language with many different dialects, nor the newer vernacular Italian. In the Renaissance it was an aim to speak perfect classical Latin. So Latin remained important (during the first year of my high school -1961- I was still taught Latin).

The Dutch language

Following the migration in the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Indo-European language started to develop into different languages.  A proto Slavo-Germanic language developed into Balto-Slavic (1500BCE) and Germanic eventually they all branched of and by around 500BC during the Jastorf period Proto Germanic would have been a recognisable separate langue, which than further developed into Norse, Gothic, Swedish, Low and High German and later in Danish, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, Icelandic and English as well. In this process the individual language also evolved of course for example Low German developed into Middle Dutch and Modern Dutch and Flemish over the last 1,000 years. It would have been difficult for a modern Dutchmen to understand their cousins from around 1,500, let alone from around the year 1,000. At the end of the Middle Ages there were still five major variants of the Dutch language: Flemish, Brabants, Hollands, Limburgs and a north-east Dutch or ‘Oosters’. While most likely not as pronounced at than, the different dialects are still alive.


The consequences of the Century of Death

It is hard to imagine the personal suffering that took place during this century. Because of the severety of the events, social structures collapsed and each person had to fight for him or herself, they had to look after their own deaths in their families, they saw their parttners, children, parents die in front of their eyes and they couldn’t do anything to assist and often also dies in the same way; the French country people  could not stop the barbarian English troops ravaging their fields and homes and they saw their women raped indiscriminately of age. There was no safety net no social and security structures that assisted them to handle these shocking events. There was a more than 50% chance that if they weren’t killed by the English they would be killed during one of the waves of the plague. The level of grief during this period was totally  beyond imagination and beyond comprehension. For the survivors there was often nothing else left than to pray and this led to new developments in the Catholic Church with more emphasis on the personal experience of people and their individual relationship with God, the escape into devotion was also a result of these unimaginable experiences.

The devastation of all of these events  was felt more severely in the country side than in the towns. While villages remained the backbone of the European countries, with the Great Death we started to see change towards urbanisation. After the Great Death large number of peasants started to move to the cities, as there simply where more jobs and more security than there was on the land.

The number of towns increased substantially during the 14th and 15th centuries. However, also here the effects of the Great Death had hit hard, the size of the population per town had decreased significantly. Florence had over 100,000 inhabitants in 1300 and 40,000 in 1500. Overall the European population dropped from around 75 million in 1300 to around 50 million by 1450.

At the heights of the medieval economic  boom in the 13th century average life expectation was between 35 and 40 years, during the epidemics this dropped to under 20. However, we need to take into account that it was in particular the young (and the frail) who perished. A healthy, not by illnesses effected peasant boy, at the height of the boom could expect to live till the age of 54, this dropped to 48 during the Century of Death. Because of the high infant mortality the average age of the surviving population increased. However, at the same time this of course led to a decrease in a young workforce.

These disruptive developments had also significant effects and the economic structures of the time and led to radical changes.

A decline in infrastructure maintenance resulted in many farms and even whole villages to fall into disuse and disrepair and many were simply abandoned after its last survivors died. Large parts of cultivated lands became wastelands.

In perhaps a sort of an economic panic  reaction many lords started to lay off staff on their country estates and reduced their spending. which only adding to the misery.  In all situations this led to a contraction of the agriculture labour force.  These venomous social and economic disruptions led to a significant change in agriculture, one from the more labour intensive mixed crop farming to mono cultures, this led to commercialisation of agriculture and  made many farmers less self-sufficient. In England for example large parts of agriculture land was turned into paddocks (enclosures) for sheep breeding.

The serf system had also made many Lords rather lazy and had seen them “outsourcing”  many of the agriculture activities while they themselves became  ’rentiers’. The changes took them off guard and made them vulnerable to the massive economic transformation that followed in the Century of Death and this in its turn was of great consequence to the following period of revival.

Survival of the fittest

Devastated Europe recovered remarkably well.  Not surprisingly there was great celebrations amongst the survivors after the initial epidemic disappeared and this led amongst other things to a significant increase in the birth-rate. The lifestyle of the survivors certainly was not the sort of reaction the church had wanted from their sinners.

Several observers in Europe noticed that women were conceiving more rapidly and that many twins and triplets were born.

The upturn that followed the Century of Death was also partly because of the fact that the survivor had more to share amongst each other.

The Malthusian deadlock – as mentioned above – was broken.

In most situations there was no way back to the old feudal system of serfdom. The following century saw a total collapse of the feudal manorial and monastic systems. North Germany and further to the east of Europe were the only lands were the old feudal system was able to survive more or less in its former glory.

Labour was scarce and that favoured peasants, artisans and tradespeople. Those who could adapt to this new system, where there was more room for individualism, did well and after the ‘500 years of the village’ we now started to arrive in the era of the city. Wealth no longer came from owning land but from business and trade. However, the period of transformation from the village to the city culture – between 1400 and 1500 – could be classified as the Golden Age of the Peasants. Certainly they had nowhere near the wealth neither of the old nobility nor of that of the new emerging city slickers, but in relative terms this was their age.

Economic revival

As cost of labour increased significantly, this of course favoured the peasants and the labourers and severely disadvantaged the land owners and the nobility. Most peasants were able to buy themselves free, in other situations we saw whole villages or groups of peasants bargaining themselves out of the serf system.

With many farms abandoned farmers could again choose the more fertile lands and this of course increased the overall yield. During the boom period when the population grew, farms had to be subdivided which led to extreme small plots of land.  Slowly larger farms could be established which led to more prosperous farming.  Already after the Great Famine food production increased and with continuing decreasing population demand fell and  therefor also food prices started to fall. This led to an increase of disposable income. The common people got better fed and better clad.

These new opportunities were also seized upon by the people in the cities; also here survivors had been able to increase their wealth often through inheriting money and assets from the victims. City folk and peasants joined in new agriculture ventures based on opportunities such as farm extensions and sharecropping. With less emphasis on the common village fields many of the governing foundations of the villages disappeared or were at least severely undermined. The ‘new money people’ became more powerful and rapidly started to take control away from the old nobility.

However, some things never changed. It was still the king and the nobility who held the power. The ruling class didn’t wait long to issue laws to reign in the new powers that were flowing to the common people. In order to maintain the class system they passed laws that made it illegal to break (pre-plague) labour contracts, laws were even passed that forbid commoners to wear silk, silver buckles, fur-lined coats. The already hated poll tax was expanded. All indications of how fearful the ruling class was of the new social mobility that started to occur as a consequence to the upheaval of the previous century. But these oppressive laws had the opposite effect. Rulers started to sow the seeds for the many peasant revolutions. France -devastated by the Hundred Year War –  led the revolt with uprisings in 1358 (Jacquerie), 1381 and 1382. England saw its first peasants problems starting in 1381, as a result of taxation issues also in relation to Hundred Year War. Ghent had a serious peasant uprising in 1379. Many more revolts would follow over the next two hundred years.

Nevertheless, the ongoing re-occurrence of the various diseases as mentioned above however, stopped Europe from a more rapid recovery. Instead, it would take many centuries to get the population back to pre plague proportions.

The massive devastation between 1300 and 1450 led to significant social and economic changes. This in turn led to a prolonged period of expansion and innovations between 1450 and 1650. Less people to do the job also stimulated innovations in agriculture, shipping, printing and early forms of industrialisation. The windmill started to be used to drive other machinery for the production of timber and paper. Another invention was the salting and storage of fish, which allowed ships to stay longer at sea and thus increase their catch at lower (labour) costs. This led to the development of new ships which saw an increase of ship capacity while operating with fewer sailors.

New infrastructure projects were also undertaken; innovations in building techniques saw the arrival of stronger frames, masonry foundations and better fireplaces and chimneys. Houses were extended with second floors or extensions in the backyard.

Depopulation also led to fewer soldiers which resulted in better pay for those who were available for military services, this made war more expensive and this in turn resulted in innovations in weaponry such as the musket and the canon. Increasingly wars also started to strengthen national feelings. During the Middle Ages very few people saw themselves as living in a state/country. Their lives evolved originally around their tribes and later their village or town.  Ceremonies such as ‘Blijde Inkomsten’, heraldic symbols and genealogical histories all assisted in creating a sense of nationality.

The importance of war also started to see a change in the organisation of the army. It had changed from seasonally campaigns to an all year round activity. In 1439 the French king Charles VII received the funds to establish a standing army. The funding also allowed for better weaponry and this decision proofed to be a desicive element one in the hundred year war against England, they shortly after this new development were definitely expulsed from France.

At the same time a more and more complex society also needed more stability in order to stimulate trade and economic prosperity which in turn delivered the taxes to the kings. This led also to more sophisticated peace arrangements, aimed at creating long-term solutions.

Charles VII and his financier Jacques Coeur were also instrumental in establishing financial institutions, he also achieved a permanent tax system that greatly assisted him in establishing the standing army as mentioned above.

The integrated European trading system remained intact and especially in Flanders and Brabant – despite the human and social devastation – the Golden Age continued. That is not to say that it all went smoothly. The cloth industry underwent significant changes. Before the plague Flanders produced most cloth for the common people and the high death rate resulted in less customers. After the initial devastation with the above mentioned increase in disposable income, people were looking for more fashionable products and Flanders was late in making the necessary changes.

The end of the Middle Ages

Similar to its start also its end is not clear cut. It can be argued that in some parts of Europe the Middle Ages did not finis untll well into the 19th century, especially in many rural areas.

However, there are a number of key events that clearly showed that the end of a period had been reached.  Compared to the start of the Middle Ages:

  • There was no longer serfdom (for most of Europe)
  • Feuds and weregeld had been largely replaced by legal procedures
  • The nobility was checked in by laws and could no longer operate at will
  • Merchant could get into power and claim political functions – not just blue blood and land was all that mattered

Society had moved on from the rather ridged Middle Ages. While the power of the Church and the  State as intertwined entity remained in place, humanism started to undermine the infallible Medieval belief system.

Popular uprisings against that underlying structure started already in the early 14th century in Flanders(1325) and France and spread to England later that century to reach its climax in Germany in the beginning of the 16th century (1525), roughly at the same time as the Reformation (1517).

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the consequent invasions of the Turkish people into Eastern and even Middle Europe is another milestone date, as is the discovery of America in 1492.

The death of Charles V in 15558, marks the death of the last Emperor of the Middle Ages and Charles certainly was a man who stood in between these two periods and he had personally great difficulties with the transition of times.

Many of the devotional elements that were born in the late Middle Ages lingered on to well into modern times. I still vividly remember the last procession held in the parish I lived in  Oss somewhere in the late 1950s. The adoration of Mary is still very much alive in places such as Den Bosch. Guilds have recently going through of a rebirth and are still playing key social roles in many of the towns and villages in Brabant, Flanders as well as in other parts of Europe. The St Sebastian Guild in Oss is such an example abandoned by the church in the 19th century it was reinaugurated more than a hundred years later.

Many social, political, hierarchical, economic and agrarian structures remained in place until the French Revolution and in rural areas even longer.

That’s not to say that nothing changed, to the contrary. Following the massive social and economic changes of the late Middle Ages we did see a prolonged period of expansion and innovations between 1450 and 1650.

Nevertheless Western Europe remained an agriculture based society; it certainly had not achieved a higher political, economic or cultural levels than others such as China, Japan or India.

After the death of Charles the Reckless, the Habsburg Empire started to take control of the Netherlands. The seat of power moved from Brussels to Vienna and Madrid. This of course had serious consequences for the importance of this region. After the Dutch Revolt the southern parts of the Low Countries became an outpost and border region of the Habsburg Empire and as a consequence its once powerful position in Europe was relegated to a military zone.

Holland, which has wrestled itself away from the Empire, started to emerge as a new global economic power. This development started after the fall of Antwerp (1586) the massive departure of business, artistic and intellectual resources that followed this event saw the centre of innovation moved northward to Amsterdam. The famous cloth industry in Flanders collapsed and Leyden became the new centre for the cloth trade. There was a great influx of refugees from the south and based on a more modern form of capitalism this allowed the rich merchants to exploit this oversupply of labour and in particular the rural industry was the victim of this exploitation.

The Age of Discoveries started to broaden the view of the Europeans and that led to a more rapid development. Also here Holland played a key role in these developments not just in relation to discoveries but also in relation to the knowledge that this brought with it. Travel stories and reported were printed and spread throughout Europe. The atlases of Ortelius, Mercator and Blauw are world renown.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)