Medieval Economies


The Middle Ages were a time of dramatic economic change in Europe.  Between the ninth and the fourteenth centuries, a primarily agrarian economy based on the values of land and labor grew into a commercial one based on the exchange of currency.  This change, however, was not absolute.  Throughout the Middle Ages, diverse economic realities existed simultaneously.  Silver mined in central Asia permeated European trade even as some local communities became more isolated and decentralized.  Money was used to purchase spiritual rewards just as much as market goods.  In this course we will study how medieval people defined, measured, and allocated valuable resources.  We will begin and end the class with a look at long-distance trade and the European role in pre-modern global commerce.  Out initial unit on global trade will consider the Pirenne thesis and the question of what happened to trade in the Early Middle Ages.  The final unit will examine the expansion of the European role in global commercial systems in the fourteenth century, immediately before and after the spreading of the Black Death. In the intervening weeks we will examine various agrarian and urban economic landscapes. We will read sources on fief allocation, forest management, gifts to saints, beer-brewing, anti-Judaism, intentional poverty, guilds, and public ceremonies.  By the completion of the course, students should have a better understanding of the complexities of medieval commerce in all its forms.