Saturday, February 24, 2018

"How capitalism tamed medieval Europe"

From CapX, Feb. 13:
 While knights engaged in violent tournaments, traders shaped the medieval period. Photo: Oli Scarff / Getty Images
  • A quarter of 14th-century aristocrats died violently, but merchants avoided conflict
  • Traders in Flanders became sufficiently rich to fend off the French army
  • The growth of mercantilism in Europe was also the beginning of a marked reduction in violence
In 1278 the King of England came up with a new plan to raise money and land, as leaders are fond of doing. Certain that historic privileges had been usurped by uppity subjects, King Edward sent royal officers around to prominent individuals demanding by what legal right – quo warranto – they held their honours. However when Edward’s men arrived at the home of one John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, the ageing aristocrat pulled out his rusty sword and proclaimed: “My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.”

And that was that. In the Middle Ages social status derived from military strength, or more importantly the military strength of one’s ancestors. The very European order rested on a caste of knights devoted to violence, one of the reasons why society was so absurdly dangerous, with Oxford’s homicide rate at the time being twice that of modern Baltimore. Because knights were strong, so knighthood was celebrated in songs and poems, and yet the violent culture that underpinned their position only led to further bloodshed – until the rise of the merchants swept them away. Although a number of things contributed to the huge decline in violence of the late medieval period, among them the Catholic Church and the legal system, the development of capitalism, and the rise of a merchant class whose wealth was not won with a sword, played a huge part.

The medieval system began with the Franks, whose mastery of cavalry made them the most powerful tribe in the former western empire. Later the Normans used horses in far larger numbers and developed the cavalry charge, used to lethal effect at the Battle of Hastings. Cavalry underpinned the European social order because only those with a reasonable amount of land could afford the destrier warhorse, which cost 30 times as much as a regular farm animal and which could carry up to 300lb in weight, including 50 lb of iron armour – itself very costly.

The sons of the aristocracy were mostly schooled in warfare from a young age and despised learning and trade as dishonourable, leading to an excess of landless younger sons whose only skill was fighting, many of whom found their way to wars, or caused them, or made a living at absurdly dangerous tournaments. Cavalry developed certain rules – chivalry, which primarily concerned the treatment of aristocratic prisoners – as well as an idealisation of the aristocratic warrior through the stories of Arthur, Lancelot and Roland that singers recited at the courts of dukes and counts.

This order was first shaken in 1302 when France’s cavalry confidently marched north to suppress a revolt by the Flemish. Flanders is not naturally rich in resources –Vlaanderen means flooded – but its people had turned swamps into sheep pastures and towns, building a cloth industry that made it the wealthiest part of Europe, its GDP per capita 20 per cent greater than France and 25 per cent better than England. The wealth of Flanders’ merchants was such that when Queen Joan of France visited she afterwards wrote in horror that: “I thought I would be the only queen there, but I find myself surrounded by 600 other queens.”...MUCH MORE