16.06.05, Drendel, ed., Crisis in the Later Middle Ages

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Chris Briggs

The Medieval Review 16.06.05

Drendel, John, ed. Crisis in the Later Middle Ages: Beyond the Postan-Duby Paradigm. The Medieval Countryside, 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. viii, 363. ISBN: 978-2-503-54742-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Chris Briggs
University of Cambridge

In the latter half of the twentieth century, and in the 1960s and 1970s especially, the works of M.M. Postan (1899-1981) and Georges Duby (1919-1996) exercised a huge influence on understanding of medieval agrarian development in Western Europe. As several contributors to the present volume point out, the ideas of the two scholars were far from identical, since (for example) Duby emphasized commercial change more forcefully than did Postan. Yet it is nonetheless justified to treat the two together as exponents of a Malthusian model in which a heavily cereal-based medieval economy ran into crisis in the decades prior to the Black Death of 1347-1349 in the face of land hunger, soil exhaustion and technological stagnation. The aim of Crisis in the Later Middle Ages is to examine how far this powerful conception of the period still holds good in the light of more recent research.

Following a ten-page introduction by the editor, the book is composed of six synthetic and primarily historiographical chapters, and seven chapters which draw on primary evidence and case studies to explore the late medieval crisis either directly or indirectly. As well as containing some very good individual contributions, the collection has more general strengths. It is particularly valuable in bringing together work on England and on southern France, two very different regions that can be fruitfully compared. The volume also has weaknesses. There is no index, which is a little disappointing. However, the main limitation is that the conference for which its chapters were first written was held as long ago as 2002. Unfortunately this long delay preceding publication has served to lessen the impact of some of the book's conclusions.

With the exception of Thierry Pécout's piece on Provence, the synthetic chapters are all in English and concern England or Britain. Two of these chapters are by scholars sadly no longer with us: Richard Britnell and John Munro, major figures in medieval economic history, both died in 2013. Here Britnell explores the strengths and weaknesses of the Postan model and proposes a more eclectic alternative, while Munro shows how Postan's interpretation of price and wage movements drastically underestimated the role of monetary factors. Christopher Dyer demonstrates how far our estimate of the importance of the English urban sector in general and of small towns in particular has grown since Postan wrote, and stresses that their role must be incorporated into any reassessment of the late medieval crisis. John Langdon reconceives the long thirteenth century as a possible era of "Schumpeterian growth", suggesting that one might substantially modify a Malthusian approach to this period by thinking instead in terms of cycles of entrepreneurial activity and population increase. Phillipp Schofield considers "M. M. Postan and the peasant economy". It is somewhat ironic, Schofield notes, that although Postan was among the first to hint at the importance of features of peasant economic activity which have recently investigated in detail, such the growth of land and credit markets, these features were played down in Postan's more general model of agrarian change. Finally, Pécout usefully shows how the notion of a general and primarily demographic crisis in fourteenth-century Provence, developed in the 1960s and 1970s in works by Baratier and others, has more recently been treated with scepticism following the investigation of new archival sources and the pursuit of fresh research questions.

Four of the book's seven case studies are in French and concern various parts of the Midi. Of these, Monique Bourin's contribution on Languedoc is perhaps the chapter which engages most directly and fully with the Postan-Duby model of pre-plague developments. Using, among other things, the economic insights presented in a set of arguments made in 1330 by the consuls of Béziers on the question of cloth exports, Bourin reviews evidence which casts doubt on this period as solely one of crisis and impoverishment. Philippe Bernardi's chapter on the market for building materials in mid-fourteenth-century Provence develops the themes of economic specialisation and close commercial connections between town and country. Francine Michaud uses notarial contracts to investigate the position of Marseille's employees and apprentices, and reaches rather pessimistic conclusions about the scope for long-term post-plague wage rate increases in this city. Laure Verdon examines royal terriers or capbreus from late thirteenth-century Roussillon but finds no unequivocal of evidence of a Malthusian crisis of overpopulation.

The remaining case studies (all in English) comprise Anne Dewindt's study of English peasant agency, Erik Thoen and Tim Soens's chapter on Flanders, and Constance H. Berman's essay on female Cistercian houses in northern France. Dewindt's chapter provides a literature review surveying the emergence of the themes of individual choice and decision-making in medieval rural history, plus a concrete example of late medieval peasant agency in action in the shape of the Berenger family of Warboys, Huntingdonshire. In a chapter which draws on primary research but achieves a wide-ranging overview, Thoen and Soens reveal how profound "agro-systemic" contrasts between inland and coastal Flanders explain why the former region largely avoided crisis, while the latter fared less well. Lastly, Berman uses the examples of three female Cistercian houses founded in the Paris region in the early thirteenth century to suggest that late medieval economic problems in this region have often been overdrawn. However, while her chapter certainly shows that these nuns were endowed with a diverse portfolio of income sources, questions remain about the extent to which those incomes remained buoyant after c. 1300.

Overall, this book demonstrates rather powerfully that while a "crisis" of some kind certainly did take place in many parts of western Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, its causes and character were much more complex and debatable than historians in the third quarter of the twentieth century were able to appreciate. This is broadly the position adopted by much other work on the topic published since the 2002 conference that underpins this book. As a consequence, the conclusions reached by the chapters in Crisis in the Later Middle Ages will surprise few expert readers. As Bourin notes in a footnote to her chapter (252), the historiography of this period has changed a lot in the past decade or so. A substantial number of important studies in medieval economic history have appeared since 2002 (here I am speaking only about England, which I know best; doubtless the same can be said for France and elsewhere). While the authors in this book make a concerted effort to take account of such work, it was evidently (and understandably) difficult for them to do so comprehensively. This is explicitly a book concerned to provide an up-to-date survey of the state of a field, and for that reason the delay in its appearance is especially to be regretted. One can certainly spot themes that play only a minor role here, but have become prominent in the most recent literature, the most notable being the impact of environmental shocks on economic change. There are a whole host of good reasons why the publication of a collected volume might be held up, and the editor's task is rarely an easy or enviable one. However, this volume provides a reminder that significant publication delay can run the risk of lessening the impact of an otherwise valuable essay collection.

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