The Medieval Review 12.06.13

Kitsikopoulos, Harry. Agrarian Change and Crisis in Europe, 1200-1500. Routledge Research in Medieval Studies. New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. x, 364. $125. 978-0-415-89578-1. . .

Reviewed by:

Paul Freedman
Yale University
paul.freedman@yale.edu

There was a time when the Black Death of 1348-1353 was not credited (if that is the word) as the key agent for change in the transition from medieval to modern Europe. The traumatic epidemic and its consequences were rediscovered in the nineteenth century and a book published in 1832 by J. F. C. Hecker, Der Schwarze Tod im vierzehnten Jahrhundert was especially influential in creating the notion of a late-medieval crisis that affected every aspect of subsequent European life and attitudes. The Black Death did not appear in a cloudless sky, however. The disease reoccurred in different forms and intensities repeatedly, and the era was in addition marked by famines and climate events preceding the epidemic as well as by devastating wars, divisions within the church and social upheavals. With the rise of social history in the twentieth century, the Black Death's effects came to be seen not just as tearing apart the moral fabric of the medieval world, but as provoking long lasting economic retrenchment and radical changes to government and power. The Black Death ushered in the Renaissance, even modernity itself, a view of historical change particularly strong when there was more confidence than now about what is constituted by modernity.

The present volume weighs the evidence for an economic crisis in the late Middle Ages. It stands in a venerable line of debate and research on endogamous factors, flaws, tensions or dislocations in the European economy that existed before 1348 and that persisted long after. Without (for the most part) minimizing the impact of the Black Death, the contributors are looking at longer term developments and features. The book is unusual in its comparison among many regions of Europe (Germany is a notable omission, and the Low Countries are discussed but not given separate treatment) and tries to draw out what the editor refers to as a synthesis "at a high level of abstraction" (1) to come to some conclusions about what drove economic change in the period under consideration, and just how massive that change was.

There are several ways of approaching the late medieval crisis and a virtue of this collection is that its authors, although engaged in a comparative enterprise, do not all embrace the same methodology or ideology. The neo-Ricardian/Malthusian position identified particularly with M. M. Postan posited over-population before the Black Death that in the absence of substantial technological innovation degraded already fragile standards of living and agricultural productivity. This does not work for many regions (Eastern Europe, Russia, Spain, Scandinavia) that did not face a Malthusian crisis in the early fourteenth century because they did not experience a high degree of population density. The Marxist theory emphasizing economic mode of production and social factors rather than exclusively demographic ones (the impress of the seigneurial regime in particular) is embraced, in modified form, by Harry Kitsikopoulos (England) and Janken Myrdal (Scandinavia). Kitsikopoulos leavens his methodological approach with the teachings of the so-called New Institutional Economics which accepts social and institutional factors as keys to economic trajectories. Those institutions that are not grossly exploitative create an equilibrium in which it is not to the interests of anyone radically to change the social order. Change, according to this view, tends to be both gradual and contingent. It depends on particular conditions and circumstances so that the NIE school denies that just because the basic problems are similar, the outcomes will also have to be similar.

Embracing the NIE teachings as well as accepting a sharper Marxist notion of class conflict, Kitsikopoulos' chapter on England has the unusual virtue of re-directing attention towards the seigneurial regime and the burden it imposed increasingly on a subordinated peasantry. In treating the Italian case, by contrast, Paolo Malanima is more Malthusian as well as more quantitative in his methods of analysis. He is also among the contributors to this book the most taken with climate change as an important factor in the fourteenth- century crisis before the Black Death. In contrast to the assertion by Robert Lopez that the vaunted Italian Renaissance was an era of economic poverty, Malanima sees prosperity after the Black Death, a prosperity based, to be sure, on the removal of much of the population. This ended with the late sixteenth century when population growth and its corresponding impoverishment returned.

For France, George Grantham offers a rather optimistic picture of conditions on the eve of the Plague and emphasizes as well the survival of an independent and fairly prosperous peasantry. His approach resembles that pioneered by Bruce Campbell for England, focused on demand rather than supply, and drawing attention to the commercial side of demand and its positive effects on agriculture. There was a crisis in France, to be sure, but it was due to exogenous factors (the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War) rather than fundamental problems of technology, social structure or productivity.

In what used to be thought of as the European periphery the population pressures before the Plague were minimal. Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia were thinly settled, and the Christian conquest of Islamic Spain and (in Castile) the expulsion of the Muslim population attracted migration to new lands and substantially reduced overall density of habitation. Spain suffered a late medieval crisis, but it was related to political disorder, disease and climate change more than to demography. Here the picture is not so different from Italy, centered around a fifteenth-century recovery (although the earlier period was more favorable in Spain). Dysfunctional social relations (as Myrdal terms it) are also more important than disease or demography in the Scandinavian realms. For Eastern/Central Europe and Russia there was no general crisis. Grzegorz Myśliwski denies the significance of the Black Death in particular, taking particular issue with Ole Benedictow's neo-catastrophist theory. There is reason to doubt Myśliwski's confidence, especially in the long-standing and widely diffused assumption that Bohemia was almost untouched by the epidemic. [1] For Russia, the period 1200-1500 was similarly characterized more by continuity than rupture. In both cases, the subsequent development of serfdom and changes in the nature of lordship and the economy occurred for reasons that are not buried in the medieval past.

The book is unusual in including the remnants of the Byzantine Empire (a chapter by Kostas Smyrlis) in evaluating European crisis and change. In certain respects Greece and the Balkan lands remaining to the Empire followed what has been regarded as a conventional European pattern: problems before the Black Death attributable to population pressures and better conditions for the peasantry in the aftermath of substantial population decline. The difference is of course the dislocation from the slow but continuous collapse of the political and military situation of the Byzantine state, a particularly harsh exogenous factor affecting agrarian change and crisis.

The result of these disparate studies is multi-faceted but coherent. The editor has taken care to avoid a "free-range chicken" model (as he puts it) in which the approaches to the question of the late medieval crisis are so distinct that they cannot be compared. In an "Epilogue" Kitsikopoulos organizes the European nations or regions as of 1300 into two basic groups. Group A was densely populated and had substantial urban networks: Italy, the Byzantine Empire, England, northern France and the Low Countries. Group B is defined in terms of its non-Malthusian demography and as incompletely "feudalized," that is, there were substantial numbers of independent peasants and the seigneurial regime faced limitations on its extent and impress. What is here called Central Europe (Bohemia, Poland, Hungary), Russia and Scandinavia fit into this group. Spain is a special case because of the distinction between Catalonia and Castile with the former more densely populated and its peasantry more subordinated to their lords. Within Group A, some regions were more progressive in their ability to intensify their agricultural methods and so increase productivity. Elites were willing to invest in improvements involving drainage, flexible field systems, crop rotation and fertilizer inputs. North- central Italy, southeastern England and a triangle including the Low Countries and north-central France are in this sub-group. The other sub-group of "laggards" in Group A was less successful in relieving the Malthusian pressure. They form a larger proportion of Group A than the progressives, consisting of most of France, most of Italy, much of England, and Byzantium. In both the progressive and laggard regions of Group A, land-holding was fragmented and the seigneurial regime was strong.

There is thus a way of looking at Europe before the Black Death in terms of demography as well as social institutions, with differential degrees of tension or crisis and a variety of responses. The economy of the fourteenth century here is viewed as structurally unsound, but this was not caused by a single factor nor did it have the same outcomes everywhere. Both population pressure and class conflict are important. The model used in summarizing the disparate data relies on the outlook of Bas van Bavel for Holland and Flanders that, in keeping with the New Institutional Economics school, emphasizes the way society was organized and governed, and how institutions determined the outcomes in response to the crisis. Those regions with more liberal institutions (less scope for seigneurial oppression, conditions favoring social mobility and investment in land) fared better, took advantage of opportunities, and continued to develop a diversified (increasingly urban) economy.

This synthesis of economic history represents a valiant effort to put together social-historical investigations of particular places and to account for the apparent turmoil of late medieval Europe. The project is to some extent hampered by its reliance on the Brenner Debate which played out in the pages of Past & Present more than twenty-five years ago. Robert Brenner questioned what was then the dominant demographic Malthusian framework for describing the late medieval crisis, positing instead the oppression of the peasantry by an extractive seigneurial system which proved resistant to labor-market forces in the wake of population decline. Brenner offered a comparative framework similar to what is presented here, if not so broad, and regarded the conflicts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as the necessary prologue to modernity, or to various kinds of modernity.

The ways of looking at medieval social processes are changing and this affects the supposed fourteenth-century crisis. One cannot deny the existence of terrible events such as the Great Famine of 1315-1317 or the Black Death, but it is possible to question just how demographically saturated even Group A was and it is possible to challenge the confidence that by 1300 Europe was faced with critical structural problems. A recent group of articles in Annales examines the rural societies of Languedoc, Italy and Catalonia and finds no evidence for widespread over-population, declining productivity, peasant pauperization or any general regression of standards of living around 1300. [2]

On the other side of the divide marked by the great epidemic, the recent tendency has been on the one hand to see the mortality rate as even graver than the one-quarter to one-third once widely circulated, but to be careful about attributing everything from peasant wars to Renaissance Art and the Protestant Reformation to the long-term impact of the Plague. The resilience of late medieval society is surprising; the absence of a catastrophic breakdown of civilization is, given the apparent fragility of the world we inhabit, puzzling, perhaps astounding.

The crisis of the fourteenth century looks now more like a collection of contingencies (albeit very grim ones) rather than the manifestation of structural flaws or the interaction of forces such as population, wages, prices, or productivity. Agrarian Change and Crisis is a thoughtful and diverse synthesis, but a crisis (or perhaps progress) in historiography undermines its results.

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Notes:

1. See David Mengel, "A Plague Over Bohemia? Mapping the Black Death, " Past & Present 211 (2011): 3-34.

2. Monique Bourin, Sandro Carocci, François Menant, Lluís To Figueras, "Les campagnes de la Méditerrané occidentale autour de 1300: tensions destructrices, tensions novatrices, " Annales HSS (2003): 663- 704.