The Middle Ages: Economics and Society

In medieval Europe, rural life was governed by a system scholars call “feudalism.” In a feudal society, the king granted large tracts of land called fiefs to noblemen and bishops. Landless peasants known as serfs did most of the work on the fiefs. They planted and harvested crops, and they were required to give most of the produce to the landowner. In exchange for their labor, they were allowed to live on the land and promised protection in case of enemy invasion.

During the 11th century, feudal life began to change. Agricultural innovations such as the heavy plow and three-field crop rotation made farming more efficient and productive. Fewer farm workers were needed. At the same time, the expanding food supply led to population growth. As a result, many people migrated to towns and cities. Meanwhile, the Crusades had expanded trade routes to the East and given Europeans a taste for imported goods such as wine, olive oil, and luxurious textiles. As the commercial economy developed, port cities in particular thrived. By 1300, there were about 15 cities in Europe with a population of more than 50,000.

A new era arose in these cities: the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a time of great intellectual and economic change, but it was not a complete “rebirth.” Its roots were in the medieval world.

Source: The Middle Ages: Economics and Society
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