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Feudalism and the growth of the market

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In the first part of our new series Jonathan Maunder looks at the dynamics of the feudal system
Issue 2146
The black death
The black death

Supporters of capitalism tell us that, no matter how bad the current economic crisis gets, the system cannot be changed.

They say that features of the system somehow correspond to human nature. These include the centrality of money, production for profit and the need to sell something (for most, the ability to labour) to survive.

But capitalism has not been always existed. It was preceded by feudalism, a very different “mode of production”.

In 10th century Britain, society was made up of small villages in which money played little role.

Peasant families might work their own piece of land, with the lords taking their part of the produce.

This robbery came to be called serfdom. The lords were driven by personal consumption rather than profit.

This forcible extraction of a surplus from peasants was the main economic relation across much of the world.

Feudal society was not stagnant. There were many changes to the way things were produced, leading to increases in productivity.

So from the 10th to 14th centuries across Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, changes in production methods – such as crop rotation and the use of manure as fertiliser – led to increases in the amount peasants could grow.

This was partly because they had more interest in developing their own land than slaves, whose exploitation characterised the society that preceded feudalism in areas of Europe.

In certain parts of the world, strong aristocratic demand for products such as ceramics, glass, clothing and wine led to the intensification and growing complexity of the peasantry’s labour.

One of the effects of this was to reinforce the use of “demesne” labour, where peasants would work on the estate of a lord rather than on their own land.

In the demesne the labour process was closely directed and the focus was on producing to sell on the market. This system originated in northern France and the Rhineland in Germany.

It spread to northern Italy and then to England.

Increases in productivity in the countryside gave the impetus for the emergence of towns as hubs of trade and artisan manufacturing.

Towns encouraged a different kind of logic from that which had prevailed in the countryside.

They reinforced the shift towards what is called “commodity exchange” – goods produced not for immediate use but for the market.

The rise of the towns was fed by improved production methods in the countryside.

In turn the towns shaped those changes, further encouraging commercialisation and the formation of networks of trade.

By the 13th century patches of Europe had fairly developed industries, exporting wine, timber, wool and fish to other areas.

This was mutually reinforcing. For example, the production of Flemish cloth depended upon importing English wool.

These industries required the flexibility of “free” wage labour, and this became increasingly available as peasants were cleared off, priced out, or chose to abandon their land.

Between a third and a half of the English population were involved in some form of wage labour by the 14th century.

The Italian town of Florence had around 30,000 workers in the woollen industry and the Belgian town of Ghent had around 4,000 weavers.

However, this development was uneven across Europe.

It generally constituted a small part of total economic life, which remained feudal.

The developments were pushed back between the 14th and 16th centuries as feudal society went into crisis.

The level of production was not enough to meet the growing demand of the elite and an increasing population.

The ruling class drained resources away from productive investment through luxury consumption and military campaigns. Then came the mass deaths caused by the bubonic plague in the mid-14th century.

The crisis led to intense class struggles across Europe. The feudal ruling class wanted to defend its power at all costs.

The peasants and urban poor revolted against their miserable existence. And the merchants and artisans, who represented the new commercial logic of production, were split.

They sometimes headed up opposition. At other times they were too afraid of the masses below them to do this.

The role of these class conflicts in the transition from feudalism to capitalism will be the subject of my next column.


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