How capitalism tamed medieval Europe

How capitalism tamed medieval Europe, by Ed West.

In the Middle Ages social status derived from military strength, or more importantly the military strength of one’s ancestors. The very European order rested on a caste of knights devoted to violence, one of the reasons why society was so absurdly dangerous, with Oxford’s homicide rate at the time being twice that of modern Baltimore.

Because knights were strong, so knighthood was celebrated in songs and poems, and yet the violent culture that underpinned their position only led to further bloodshed — until the rise of the merchants swept them away. Although a number of things contributed to the huge decline in violence of the late medieval period, among them the Catholic Church and the legal system, the development of capitalism, and the rise of a merchant class whose wealth was not won with a sword, played a huge part.

The medieval system began with the Franks, whose mastery of cavalry made them the most powerful tribe in the former western empire. Later the Normans used horses in far larger numbers and developed the cavalry charge, used to lethal effect at the Battle of Hastings.

Cavalry underpinned the European social order because only those with a reasonable amount of land could afford the destrier warhorse, which cost 30 times as much as a regular farm animal and which could carry up to 300lb in weight, including 50 lb of iron armour — itself very costly.

The sons of the aristocracy were mostly schooled in warfare from a young age and despised learning and trade as dishonourable, leading to an excess of landless younger sons whose only skill was fighting, many of whom found their way to wars, or caused them, or made a living at absurdly dangerous tournaments. …

This order was first shaken in 1302 when France’s cavalry confidently marched north to suppress a revolt by the Flemish. … The Flemish were traders, not knights, which is why the French were sure of victory. And yet, with enough money to pay for a large, well-drilled infantry they were able for the first time to destroy the cavalry at the Battle of the Golden Spurs. It was the beginning of the end — no longer could the aristocracy simply push around the bourgeoisie, and as the latter grew in strength so it undermined the violence-obsessed culture of the nobility.

European capitalism had begun in northern Italy, chiefly Venice, one of nine Italian cities that had surpassed 50,000 people by this point. … In Italy warfare had by the 14th century been contracted out to mercenaries, and even in France it was noticed that this new merchant lifestyle had its benefits. The 14th-century satire Renart le Contrefait observed that: ‘They live in a noble manner, wear lordly garments, have falcons and sparrow hawks, fine palfreys and fine chargers. When the vassals must go to join the host, the bourgeois rest in their beds; when the vassals go to be massacred in battle, the bourgeois picnic by the river.” …

Among English aristocrats born between 1350 and 1375, one in four died violently and during the following century, with the War of the Roses, whole families were wiped out. Although merchants played little part in the conflict they were enthusiastically supportive of the Yorkist Edward IV, the first king to really appreciate the City as a financial hub. He invested himself, and would take leading merchants away for team-bonding sessions, where they played sports, drank themselves into a stupor and indulged in rather sordid behaviour with women. …

Yet the nobility still longed for war with France, and in 1475 the king was pushed into leading an army across the channel, where he was happily bought off. After an enormous drunken party in which English and French soldiers intermingled, the king was greeted with enthusiasm by the city governors of London, delighted at the prospect of “intercourse of Merchaundises for their Cuntries and Subjects”.

The aristocratic class who wished for glory in battle were in retreat and yet despite this they won the narrative. … No account of any trader or banker could ever compete with these knights’ tales, of course, and yet you could argue that they were the real heroes who shaped our world.

hat-tip Matthew