The Rise of Europe in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, between about 900 and 1300, Europe experienced one of the longest periods of sustained growth in human history. What factors led to this tremendous expansion?

Photo of a castle from the middle ages

When we think of Europe in the period that we call the High Middle Ages, we see buoyant optimism everywhere. We see this Europe striking out against its neighbors, in movements that we call the Crusades. We see an unprecedented period of economic growth. We see the soaring of great, first Romanesque and then Gothic, cathedrals and churches all over Europe. We see new states being created, in a great arc running from the Celtic world, through Scandinavia, and on to the Slavic world.  It is a truly dynamic and remarkable period, and one that would not have been possible were it not for the remarkable population growth. Between about 900 to 1300, Europe experienced one of the longest periods of sustained growth in human history. We see growth in almost every aspect of life and this growth is the crucial background to the political and cultural achievements of this period. How do we capture a sense of the growth in this period, and how do we explain it?

Population Growth in the Middle Ages

The first fundamental fact is a long-term rise in the population. The evidence that we have at our disposal indicates that probably by the middle of the 8th century, but surely by the middle of the 9th—in other words, in the Carolingian period—the population began rising. Between about 1050 and 1200, there was an intense increase in population all over Europe. It gradually began to slow, between about 1200 and 1275, and then it finally leveled off. Our evidence for this is qualitative, not quantitative. We don’t have census data; we don’t have the kinds of sources that demographers, those who study population groups, would have to study from the 17th or 18th centuries down to the present. In earlier times, we look at other kinds of evidence and try to assess the general direction in which all of that evidence points.

middle ages painting of a family feast
Although census records do not exist for most of medieval Europe, much information about population size can be gleaned contextually by studying families and other records.

What are some of the indicators that we have? Wherever we have evidence of family size, families appear to be larger. It does not appear that more babies are being born, but rather that more of them are surviving, and people were living longer. There was no plague or significant famine throughout this period. Generally speaking, this was a period of warm, dry climate through much of Europe, when enormous amounts of new land were brought under cultivation. People would not bring new land under cultivation for no good reason at all. There were obviously mouths to feed. This was a time when diets got better. More and more land was being given over to crops that were rich in iron and in protein, so that people were simply eating better. They were healthier; they could do more work; they were more productive; they lived longer—so the population curve was marching upward right across this entire period.

Technology Drives Growth

A second element of the growth and expansion of Europe in this period is technological innovation and dissemination. The Romans were not terribly interested in technological gains, and there wasn’t much in the way of important technological achievement during the Roman period. The medieval period, on the other hand, was one that was fairly rich in technological innovation. We’re sometimes inclined to think of the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages, as having descended from the heights of classical antiquity. In fact, if we were talking about technology, we’d have to flip the polarity of that old equation and say that the Middle Ages were rather cleverer.

painting of middle ages farmers harvesting cereals
Medieval Europeans invented most of the fundamental ways in which it is possible to get maximum cereal production out of the soil, before the advent of modern chemical fertilizers.

The clearest indicator we have of medieval technology, of its application and of its connection to this population increase, is in the realm of cereal production. Medieval people vastly expanded cereal production. How? They laid down most of the fundamental ways in which it is possible to get maximum cereal production out of the soil, before the advent of modern chemical fertilizers. This has been the greatest change in modern times, not anything else—not even, for example, the use of motor-driven tractors. How did medieval people increase cereal production, which made it possible to feed a larger population? Greater use of horses as draft animals. A horse is significantly more efficient than an ox. He does more work for the same amount of food, perhaps even a little bit less. He is stronger, thus larger fields can be plowed, or fields can be plowed more times, and the soil can be turned more carefully.

painting showing a horse in the middle ages wearing a medieval horse collar
The horse collar was a key invention that allowed medieval Europeans to make use of the horse as a draft animal, rather than the ox.

A horse requires very different harnessing than an ox, and so we see, from about the year 1000 or a little after, the proliferation of the horse collar. In a sense, when a horse is pulling a plow or wagon, the horse is driving the horse collar forward, and it’s the horse collar that’s pulling the wagon or plow. If a horse were simply harnessed the way an ox was, with leather traces across its chest, it would immediately choke him; he’d stop, he couldn’t work. New harnessing was required. The hooves of horses are particularly sensitive, and, therefore, they had to be shod. This virtually universalized the use of the horseshoe in Europe. It provided protection for the horse’s hooves, and a bit of traction as well. If you’re going to shoe all of those horses, you’re going to be involved in iron and smithing. Certain other things have to develop, as horse harnessing and the use of horses as draft animals increases.

painting of an oxen pulling a wheeled plow in the middle ages
The heavy, wheeled plow allows for deeper plowing and aerates the soil better, a key need in making rich, wet European soil as productive as possible.

The new heavy, wheeled plow, with an iron plowshare, fits into this picture as well. This type of plow appears to be an invention of the Slavic world and appears to have come into Western Europe in the Carolingian period. It was used on large estates: on the estates of the Carolingian family, on the estates of the greatest churches and monasteries. But it wasn’t widely used, perhaps, until the 11th century or so when it finally began to proliferate throughout Europe.

The heavy, wheeled plow is important for several reasons. Once again, we put horses in front of it, and it can do a lot of work. A heavy iron plowshare can cut much more deeply into the soil than can the older forms of the aratrum, the Roman scratch plow, which really didn’t do much more than just disturb the surface. The soils of northern Europe are very good, but they’re damp and heavy. The heavy, wheeled plow is able to turn the soil, which aerates it. This heavy, wheeled plow with its iron plowshare also is going to call for a much greater proliferation of iron in this society. Again, more smithing. So, we can see connections between the use of the plow and all of the advantages that it brings, and then some of the requirements that flow from this.

painting showing water mills attached to a bridge in the middle ages
Water mills required complicated gears that had to be built and maintained which, in turn, drove advances in engineering.

Water mills were very widely used from the 11th century. In some parts of northern Europe, for example, in the Low Countries, windmills were used, but water mills were fairly common. Mills demanded engineering gains, in terms of gearing. If we had a flow of water, I could lay a water wheel parallel to that flow of water, which makes the gearing turn a mill wheel fairly easily. That’s a very inefficient way to turn a water wheel. If I sent the water wheel perpendicular to the flow of water, that is a much more efficient way to turn the water wheel, but I now have to turn vertical motion into horizontal motion. I have to do some very elaborate gearing.

I also have to be able to run my mill wheel at a common speed, whether the water is running very fast or very slow. If the water itself is running very slow, or if the water supply is somewhat unpredictable, I’ve got to engage in a little hydraulic engineering and create millraces. I’ve got to make the water go past my water wheel, whether the water wants to or not, because I want to do my milling when I want to do it, not when the river says that I can. A variety of technologies are spawned by the need to use more mills.

Why do we need these mills? Mills were imperative because there was more grain. More and more land was being brought under cultivation, the new technological inputs were making the land that was being plowed and farmed yet more productive, producing yet more grain. A rising population needs more food. Bread is the staple of the diet and is baked from flour. I’ve got to grind all that grain to make flour. One factor drives another factor that drives another factor. We begin to see the interconnectedness of the elements of this economy.

New Methods of Land Use

Land itself began to be more efficiently used. In early European history—northern Europe at the time of the Romans and of the Greeks—agricultural communities would very often farm a particular area quite intensively for a brief period of time, and then move. They didn’t necessarily move very far, maybe just a few kilometers, but they would move, farm fairly intensively, and move, farm and move. Slowly but surely, and as we begin moving into the Middle Ages, communities began to anchor themselves.

For a long period of time, they tended to practice what we would call two-field agriculture. About half of your land was plowed, and about half of it was left fallow. On that fallow land you would also run your animals, so that animal manure would provide some enrichment to the soil. Household wastes and so on might also be spread on that land to provide some enrichment. Basically, about half of the available land would be under the plow at a given moment.

diagram of the Three Field System used by farmers during the middle ages
The Three Field System (click to enlarge)

In the Carolingian era, we begin to see the proliferation of the three-field system, but again mostly on the estates of the Carolingian family, and the estates of the Church. By the High Middle Ages, after the year 1000 to 1050, we begin to see the three-field system very widely used across Europe. What exactly is the three-field system? You divide the available land of an estate into three parts, roughly equal parts. One of these is left fallow, one of these is planted in winter crops and one of these is planted in spring crops. You work your way through a rotation this way.

Right away, you can see that from 50 percent we got to 66.67 percent of our land under the plow. Second, by balancing winter and spring crops, we guarantee against one season of terrible weather or of blight. If you get two in a row, you’re in big trouble, but if you get one, you’re still going to get a crop during the course of that year. It also means that one can vary the agricultural regime. You can plant different kinds of crops and have different kinds of things coming in at different points in the year.

This is interesting in connection with the horses. Virtually everywhere in Europe, horses eat oats, but people don’t. They do in Brittany and they do in Scotland, but in most parts of the European world people don’t eat oats. If I’ve decided that I’m going to have a horse for my tractor, I have to grow that tractor’s fuel someplace. If I give over my estate, or a substantial part of my estate, to growing the fuel for my horse tractor, then what’s the fuel for me? If I’m dividing up my agricultural regime in such a way that I can set aside a certain amount of land to grow oats to feed my horses, then I have other land that I can use to grow crops that I will use to support myself and my family, that I may be able to sell excess. If I produce excess, I can sell in local markets. From the crops that I’m able to sell, I can make money with which to buy other kinds of things.

painting of farmers in the middle ages
Medieval Europeans increased the amount of agricultural specialization, which helped drive new food products and trade leading to a better diet for the average person.

With a lot more land under the plow, a much greater variety of crops, and greater insurance against individual seasons of bad weather, we also see a growing tendency towards agricultural specialization. People in particular regions understood how to grow certain crops very well. In areas of Europe where grape vines are tended, viticulture is a complex and sophisticated operation. In other places, cereal grains are particularly cultivated.

painting of a four-wheeled wagon used in the middle ages
The spread of four-wheeled wagons increased the carrying capacity for horse-drawn wagons, a feature that helped to boost trade between communities.

This produces a situation where if a given region is going to concentrate on particular kinds of crops, then obviously those regions are going to rely on other regions and trade to get them the things that they do not themselves produce. In turn, they have to be able to move the things that they do produce to other places. This requires improved roads and improved transport vehicles in order to move more goods, farther and faster. Again, the use of horses as draft animals pulling wagons. They can pull heavier loads, and they can pull those loads farther. We begin to see the use of large four-wheeled wagons, instead of two-wheeled carts, so that more can be moved in one trip.

Trade in the High Middle Ages

Improved roads and vehicles of transportation provide for increasingly far-flung urban markets. Cities are, in some ways, parasitical on the land around them. They don’t grow their own food, and as cities get larger and larger, they’re going to need more food. That food is going to have to come from farther and farther away, so a great deal of this agricultural productivity out in the countryside also permits the growth of cities and of urbanization.

We notice also that both the Church and secular government worked to protect trade and traders. Agricultural specialization was one important impetus to trade, but there were others: growing prosperity; more money at people’s disposal; and a desire to have more products. Increasingly through movements like the crusades, people were becoming familiar with exotic products from other parts of the world that they wished to have, either because they brought pleasure or because they brought a certain kind of prestige; a certain cachet attached to having spices on one’s table, for example.

painting of a fair in the middle ages
A medieval fair

Trade was facilitated by a number of things. There were fairs, with the fairs in the Champagne region of France being perhaps the most famous. These fairs were held over many months of the year, excepting the dead of winter, and they moved around from town to town in the Champagne region. Merchants from the south of Europe came north; merchants from the north of Europe came south.

These great fairs were very important centers for the growth and promotion of trade, until gradually, by the end of the 13th or beginning of the 14th century, trade began to move from the Mediterranean world to northern Europe, and also in the opposite direction by ship. Earlier trade tended to move over land or by preference, when possible, on rivers. It was always much easier to float your stuff down a river than to drag it down a road. There were also places, in the south of England, for example—in the Baltic Sea basin, for example—where various cities leagued together to protect their commercial interests and to avoid unwanted and unwarranted competition.

The increasing growth of trade began to lead to more sophisticated commercial contracts. It lead to partnerships, and then eventually to corporations. That is, quite simply, the idea that a large number of people could get together, pool their wealth, and be vastly stronger than any one of them by himself. Moreover, you could also distribute risk that way. If I buy a share in a ship and that ship sinks, I’ve lost something. If I own the ship and the ship sinks, I may have lost everything. Because there can be mishaps, insurance began to be sold. So a whole series of subsidiary industries, businesses, and economic practices that were based on commerce began to grow, spread, and develop in High Medieval Europe.

map of the trade networks in Europe during the middle ages
Medieval European trade networks (click to enlarge)

Several vast, large-scale commercial networks emerged. For example, there was one that connected the North and the Baltic Seas, which linked together the British Isles, the Low Countries, as well as northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. There were important commercial networks that went up and down the Rhine, back and forth on the Danube, and up and down the Rhone, the great river of southeastern France. The great river networks were always very important.

map of venice during the middle ages
Medieval Venice was the center of a vast trading network.

Italian cities such as Venice, Bari, and Genoa had very important commercial networks in the Mediterranean. Venice, in particular, had a far-flung and very sophisticated commercial network in the eastern Mediterranean. The eastern Mediterranean world was linked by land routes that went right through Central Asia to China—the Silk Road, for example—but it was also linked to a vast set of seaborne trade routes in the Persian Gulf and in the Indian Ocean. Goods came by caravan or by ship from the Persian Gulf region and the Indian Ocean region, eventually linking together South Asia and the eastern coast of Africa with the eastern Mediterranean. Then through Italian merchants the products of those parts of the world were brought back to Western Europe, via river or overland trade routes, to places like France and England.

Mining and Heavy Industry

photograph of Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris is one of many European cathedrals built of stone during the 12th and 13th centuries.

By this time there were greater efficiencies in surface mining. In the Middle Ages, deep mining was impossible because you couldn’t get the water out of the shafts, or out of the mine galleries. So most mining tended to be surface mining, and most of it was not for metal but for stone, what we would call quarrying. If you think of some famous churches that you’re aware of and look when they were built, there’s a very good chance they were built out of stone in the 12th and 13th centuries. These vast stone buildings required ever more efficient mining, and since they were often built long distances from the sources of the stone, once again better roads and more efficient vehicles of transportation played a significant role.

There was a certain amount of surface mining for iron, which was necessary for all the new horseshoes and heavy iron plows, not to mention the traditional mix of weapons: swords, armor, spear tips, arrow tips and so on. That said, while there was a considerable amount of surface mining for iron, the most prominent type of mining was stone.

Development of Urban Centers

All of these above factors together put a great deal more money into circulation, facilitated economic specialization, and promoted the growth of towns. Early medieval towns had tended to be either governmental seats and/or ecclesiastical sites. They would have either a count, an officer of government, or even a royal court in the town, or they would have a great monastery or a bishop. In the Carolingian period, some of these centers began to have faux-burgs or as we’re more familiar with today, sub-urbs. A small community of merchants would gather outside on the edge of this community to do their business. Mostly, they were part-time. They were more sophisticated, perhaps, than peddlers, but they were basically people who did business part time.

medieval painting of Nuremburg during the middle ages
The walled medieval German town of Nuremburg

After about 1100, maybe 1000 to 1100, those communities of merchants began to settle permanently. They began to engage in trade on a regular basis, and they began to engage in artisanal industry, with the exception being the cloth industry. We’re not talking about the large-scale industrialization seen in 18th and 19th-century Europe—it was smaller in scale—but it was notable all the same. With the settlement of permanent communities like this, towns took on a new life. They remained ecclesiastical centers, they may have remained governing centers, and with their universities they became intellectual centers. But they are, first and foremost, economic engines, driving this growing Europe.

Town people need different things than the rural elite who dominated society and politics. They need peace. They need security. They need order. They need predictable supplies of food. They need predictable raw materials. They need a kind of peace in the countryside that the rather rambunctious, chivalrous nobility were not necessarily keen on providing. So we find the Church and royal governments legislating to provide the kind of peace, order, and harmony that townspeople needed. One of the key visible features of expansion is the growth of towns. Again and again and again, we see city walls expanding and towns growing.

Europe in what we call the High Middle Ages was dynamic and prosperous. Such widespread prosperity had not been seen since the Pax Romana. In certain respects it would not be seen again until the dawn of modern times. When we talk about the society, government, politics, culture, art, architecture and literature of High Medieval Europe, we want to have in mind a picture of this growing, expanding Europe.

From the lecture series The Foundations of Western Civilization
Taught by Professor Thomas F. X. Noble, University of Notre Dame

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