the dark ages --7/24/24

Today's selection-- from Power and Progress by Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson. The Dark Ages weren’t so dark, but all the increased wealth was soaked up by a massive religious hierarchy:

“Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca (better known as Petrarch) famously argued that the era following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the year 476 was a time ‘surrounded by darkness and dense gloom.’ Petrarch was referring to the paucity of advances in poetry and art, but his pronouncements came to define how generations of historians and social commentators thought of the eight centuries that followed the glory of the Roman Empire. Conventional wisdom long held there was essentially no progress of any kind, including technological breakthroughs, until the Renaissance began to turn things around starting in the 1300s.

“We now know that this view was wrong. There was significant technological change and improvement in economic productivity in Europe during the Middle Ages. Practical innovations included:

"- better rotation of crops across different fields
- greater use of legumes to feed animals and add nitrogen to the soil
- the heavy wheeled plow, pulled by six or eight oxen
- increased use of horses for plowing and transportation
- better harnesses, stirrups, saddles, and horseshoes
- more use of animal manure as fertilizer
- widespread adoption of the wheelbarrow
- early fireplaces and chimneys, which greatly improved indoor air quality
- mechanical clocks
- the basket wine press
- good mirrors
- the spinning wheel
- improved looms
- improved use of iron and steel
- expanded access to coal
- scaled-up mining of all sorts
- better barges and sailing ships
- advances in stained-glass windows
- the very first eyeglasses

Petrarch (1304–1374), who conceived the idea of a European "Dark Age". From Cycle of Famous Men and Women, Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla, c. 1450

“Yet there was also something quite dark about this era. The lives of people working the soil remained hard, and peasants' standard of living may even have declined in parts of Europe.

“The technology and the economy progressed in a way that proved harmful to most of the population.

“Perhaps the most defining technology of the Middle Ages was the mill, whose rising importance is well illustrated by the English experience after the Norman Conquest of 1066. At the end of the eleventh century, there were about 6,000 water-powered mills in England, which worked out to just about one mill per 350 people. Over the next 200 years, the number of waterwheels doubled, and their productivity increased significantly.

“The earliest water mills involved a small wheel that rotated in the horizontal plane below a grindstone, to which it was connected by a vertical axle. Later, more-efficient designs introduced a larger vertical wheel, mounted outside the mill and connected by gears to the grinding mechanism. The improvements were striking. Even a small vertical waterwheel, operated by five to ten people, could generate two or three horsepower, the equivalent of thirty to sixty workers doing the work by hand—more than a threefold increase in productivity. The larger vertical mills of the later medieval period boosted output per worker to as much as twenty times the level that hand milling could achieve.

“Waterwheels could not be adopted everywhere: they needed a sufficient flow of water running down a steep enough gradient. Starting in the 1100s, windmills extended the reach of mechanical power, greatly expanding milling grain for bread and ale and fulling (preparing) cloth for wool processing. Windmills boosted economic activity in flat parts of the country with rich soils, such as East Anglia.

“From 1000 to 1300, water mills and windmills and other advances in agricultural technology roughly doubled yields per hectare. These innovations also helped kick-start English woolen cloth textiles, which later played a pivotal role in industrialization. Although it is difficult to determine exact numbers, agricultural productivity per person is estimated to have increased by 15 percent between 1100 and 1300.

“You might think that these technical and productivity advances would lead to higher real incomes. Alas, the productivity bandwagon—productivity increases that lift wages and workers' living standards—did not materialize in the medieval economy. Except for those belonging to a small elite, there were no sustained improvements in living standards and some episodes of deterioration. For most people, better agricultural technology during the Middle Ages deepened their poverty.

“The rural population of England did not have a comfortable existence in the early eleventh century. Peasants worked hard and achieved little more consumption than the bare minimum necessary for survival. The available evidence suggests that these people were squeezed even further over the next two centuries. The Normans reorganized agriculture, strengthened the feudal system, and intensified implicit and explicit taxation. Farmers had to hand over more of their agricultural output to their social superiors. Over time, feudal lords imposed more-onerous labor requirements as well. In some parts of the country, peasants spent twice as many hours per year in the lord's field as had been the norm before the conquest.

“Although food production was growing and peasants were working harder, malnutrition worsened, and consumption levels dropped toward the threshold below which subsistence becomes impossible. Life expectancy remained low and may have deteriorated to just twenty-five years at birth.

“Then things got much worse in the early 1300s, with a string of famines, culminating in the Black Death in the middle of the century, which wiped out between one-third and one-half of the English population. This virulent bubonic plague was bound to kill many people, but it was the combination of the bacterial infection and chronic malnutrition that was responsible for the staggering death toll.

“If not to the peasantry, where did all the additional output that came from water mills and windmills, the horseshoes, the loom, the wheelbarrow, and the advances in metallurgy go? Some of it was used for feeding more mouths. England's population increased from around 2.2 million in 1100 to about 5 million in 1300. But as the population rose, so did the size of the agricultural workforce and the level of agricultural production.

“Overall, higher productivity and lower consumption levels for most of the population brought a huge increase in the ‘surplus’ of the English economy, meaning the amount of output, mostly food, wood, and cloth generated above the minimum level necessary for the survival and reproduction of the population. This surplus was extracted and enjoyed by a small elite. Even under the most expansive definition, this elite, including the king's retinue, nobles, and high clergy, made up no more than 5 percent of the population. But it still captured most of the agricultural surplus in medieval England.

“Some of the food surplus went to support the newly burgeoning urban centers, whose population increased from two hundred thousand in noo to about a million in 1300. Urban living standards appear to have improved, in stark contrast with what happened in more-rural areas. A wider variety of goods, including luxuries, became available to city inhabitants. London's expansion reflected this growing opulence; its population more than tripled, to around eighty thousand.

“Most of the surplus was eaten up not by urban centers but by the large religious hierarchy, which built cathedrals, monasteries, and churches. Estimates suggest that by 1300, bishops, abbots, and other clerics together owned one-third of all agricultural land.

“The church's construction boom was truly spectacular. After 1100, cathedrals were established in twenty-six towns, and eight thousand new churches were built. Some were enormous projects. Cathedrals were stone constructions at a time when most people lived in ramshackle houses. Most were designed by superstar architects and some took centuries to complete, with hundreds of workers, including skilled artisans and a great deal of unskilled physical labor quarrying stone and carrying materials.

“Construction was expensive, costing between £500 and £1,000 per year, approximately 500 times the annual income of an unskilled worker at the time. Some of this money was raised through voluntary donations, but a significant portion was funded by periodic levies and taxes on the rural population.

“In the 1200s there was competition to see which community could build the tallest structure. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis in France, which was in the grips of a similar cathedral boom, represented the prevailing view, arguing that these glorious buildings should be equipped with every imaginable ornament, preferably in gold:

“'Those who criticize us claim that this celebration [of the Holy Eucharist] needs only a holy soul, a pure mind and faithful intention. We are certainly in complete agreement that these are what matter above all else. But we believe that outward ornaments and sacred chalices should serve nowhere so much as in our worship, and this with all inward purity and all outward nobility.'

“Estimates from France suggest that as much as 20 percent of total output may have been spent on religious building construction between 1100 and 1250. This number is so high that, if true, it implies that roughly all production beyond what was needed to feed people went into church building.

“The number of monasteries expanded as well. In 1535 there were between 810 and 820 religious houses, ‘great and small,’ in England and Wales. Almost all of these were founded after 940, and most first enter the records between HOO and 1272. One monastery held more than seven thousand acres of arable land, while another owned more than thirteen thousand sheep. Additionally, thirty towns, known as monastic boroughs, were under the control of monkish orders, which meant that the church hierarchy also lived off the revenue from these towns.

“Monasteries had a voracious appetite. They were expensive to build and operate. The annual income of Westminster Abbey in the late 1200s was £1,200, mostly derived from agriculture. Some of these agricultural empires were truly sprawling. The monastery of Bury Saint Edmunds, one of the richest, owned the rights to the income of more than sixty-five churches.”



Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson


Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity




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