Medieval economics myths

The Middle Ages are called a distant mirror because although far away from our current life, it often has a message for today. This post will give three examples, of economic myths about how we think about economics in the Middle Ages and hint at how they are relevant for today.

I have read a few books on the history of economic thought and the history of the Middle Ages. There are a few myths that keep getting recycled that annoy me. I mean how can these respected Professors of the history of economic thought write such things with authority about economics in the Middle Ages, and yet they were never there. I was there.

Yes I was in the Middle Ages and was able to observe what really went on in terms of economic activity. Well not exactly but pretty close to it. See time moves at different rates in different places. My grandparents were born in Ukraine in the 1800s. Feudalism was still very much intact in the form of serfdom. Although they were free, many were not. You do not need a time machine to understand this feudal economics. I was  close enough to be able to make more accurate assessments than reading a book on the history of economic theory.

The serf was tied to the land he cultivated and received protection from the lord in return for certain economic and political services. The ultimate control of economic activity was in the hands of the king, who could, in most cases, transfer the feuds from one lord to another. Land and labour were transferred rather than bought and sold; and this meant that there was no need for labour and land markets. Authority, faith, and tradition were enough to guarantee that the system worked well.  – An Outline of Economic Thought by Scempanti and Zamagni  2005 (a good book by the way).

Myth 1 the feudal serfs exchanged work for protection

People write that a feudal lord would protect the serfs in exchange for working the land. After all the Dark Ages and beyond were a pretty rough place with bands of marauders and Vikings around.

This was not true. The feudal serfs, if organized, could defend themselves better than 1 lord for every 100 peasants. Rome build its empire on organizing farmers into legions ( it collapsed mostly because of initial problems). See it for what it was, Serfdom was a justification, and a poor one at that for enslaving people. It sounds like 1984 again. Keep the threat of war going to perpetuate the government. The road to serfdom is believing government or a power above ill protect you better than you can protect yourself.

In fact I would say that the peasants needed protection from the lords and government. This is why most countries have a Robin Hood legend in most countries. For example in the East he is Jasnosik.

This is why we had an American Revolution, to protect from the abused of government. This is why there was even a communist revolution in Russia. Everyone used and abused the peasants and workers for their own reasons. Of course so did the communists.

Peasants were enslaved because the law said they could be. I remember the movie ‘History of the word part I’, when the king was shagging the servants he kept turning to the camera and saying” it’s good to be the king’.  This was feudalism, this is to a much lesser extent big government.

Myth number 2 the Church scared people into submission

Think of Brother Cadfael. Read Thomas Kempis, written with such sincerity and humility. Yes the church as important but people submitted because of the law and threat of punishment from the government, not out of fear of some silly parish priest. Not out of faith as stated above. In fact, if you think of the Polish revolution against the Communists, it was faith and the church that leaded the charge.

In  Poland where I live, we had a very Medieval form of Catholicism (in a good way) . In fact, for a long time I did also, and maybe I still have some of that. But as much as I respect the beauty of religion as do others, I know no one personally who is a literalist like the opponents of religion create with their paper tigers. Let me explain.

Everyone knows the church and religion are two diffident ideas. Don’t you? Think of Canterbury tales. This is a very old form of writing and even there you could detect some mocking of the church. People poked fun at the church like today, or at least too it with a grain of salt.

It was not the church that keep people in line during the Middle Ages, it  was like today, government armies or threat of imprisonment.

Myth 3 Markets were starting to develop

At the same time, the formation of cities in densely populated areas and the widespread diffusion of craft workshops laid the ground for the beginnings of intense commercial activity. The figure of the independent merchant appeared, initially, in the gaps in and at the edges of the traditional economy and, later, in a new economic sphere: the free city and its markets; the seeds of the modern European city. – An Outline of Economic Thought by Scempanti and Zamagni .

Economic histories write how medieval fairs and trading were the cradle of capitalism. Reality, capitalism always existed. it is natural like speaking. When People need something they trade with their neighbors. This is even in the Bible. People in the Middle Ages traded also.  This is what happens in the Polish countryside today. Barter is popular, I scratch your back you scratch mine.

It is a normal form of human interaction to exchanges goods and services. Romans did it and so did people in the Middle ages. The only difference was there were less economic freedoms because the government. I think this is why Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is so popular today. People free economic freedom is being eroded.

Economics Fairy-tales from the Middle Ages and idea for today

From the above discussion we can draw maybe three parallels for today.

  1. Government protects you in exchange for your payment (taxes) – myth. Reality – Government drains people’s productive energy and does more harm then good in most cases.
  2. Faith hold’s people down and economics back – myth. Reality- threat of legal punishment does. In contrast, faith liberates people.
  3. Markets evolve slowly and economics improve with time – Myth. Reality –  Markets explode when people are free. As written about by our founding fathers and Adam Smith, when people are free to choose they will trade. This will be the most efficient form of stimulus. People always traded and wanted to do business,  it was the king or feudal lord or government that prevented people or slowed things down. It was not an evolutionary thing, but rather restrictions held people back.

These are three example of economic myths of the Middle Ages and draw your own conclusions about today.

The serf was tied to the land he cultivated

and received protection from the lord in return for certain economic and

political services. The ultimate control of economic activity was in the hands

of the king, who could, in most cases, transfer the feuds from one lord to

another. Land and labour were transferred rather than bought and sold; and

this meant that there was no need for labour and land markets. Authority,

faith, and tradition were enough to guarantee that the system worked well.