Europe’s population was about 42 million in 1000. It increased to 62 million around 1200, and 73 million in 1300. Better food resulted in longer lifespan. By the thirteenth century, an average European’s lifespan increased by 10 years than what it was in the eight century. However, lifespan of women and girls was shorter.
The towns of the Roman Empire became deserted and ruined after its fall. But the towns began to grow again from the eleventh century, due to improvements in agriculture. Peasants needed a place where they could sell their surplus grain, and could buy tools and cloth.
This led to growth periodic fairs and small marketing centres. Such places gradually developed town-like features, such as a town square, a church, roads, shops, offices, etc. Towns offered the prospect of paid work and freedom from the lord’s control. Many serfs who wanted to be free ran away and hid in towns. If a serf could stay for one year and one day without being discovered by his lord, he would become a free man. The people of towns made the fourth order.
By the eleventh century, new trade routes with West Asia were developing. This helped in growth of traders and merchants. They became rich and powerful, and rivaled the power of the nobility.
Large churches are called cathedrals. They were being built in France from the twelfth century. These cathedrals belonged to monasteries, but were made by contribution from different groups of people. The contributions came in the form of labor, materials or money. During the course of construction of a cathedral, the surrounding area became more populated. On completion of construction, such places became centres of pilgrimage.
Europe’s economic expansion slowed down by the early fourteenth century. It happened due to three factors. The northern Europe began to experience bitterly cold summers. This resulted in shorter seasons for growing crops. It became difficult to grow crops on higher ground. Many farmsteads were destroyed by storms and oceanic flooding. It resulted in less income in taxes for governments.
Intensive ploughing had exhausted the soil, because land clearance was not accompanied by proper soil conservation. Shortage of pasturage reduced the number of cattle.
Population growth was outstripping resources. As a result, severe famines hit Europe between 1315 and 1317. It was followed by massive cattle deaths in the 1320s. Shortfall in the output of silver mines and Austria and Serbia resulted in severe shortage of metal money, which hit the trade. The government was forced to reduce the silver content of the currency, and mixed cheaper metals in it.
When the trade expanded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, ships from distant lands arrived in European ports. Those ships also brought rats, along with the goods. The rats carried the deadly bubonic plague inflection. Western Europe was hit by the epidemic (Black Death) between 1347 and 1350. The impact of plague was so severe that 20 per cent of the people of the whole of Europe died. Some places lost as much as 40 per cent of the population. The population of Europe reduced from 73 million in 1300 to 45 million in 1400.
This catastrophe, coupled with the economic crisis, caused immense social dislocation. There was major shortage of labor because of depopulation. Shortage of labor created serious imbalances between agriculture and manufacturing. Prices of agricultural goods dropped. Wage rate increased by as much as 250 per cent in England.
The income of lords was badly hit. They tried to give up the money-contracts and revive labor services. This was violently opposed by peasants; especially by better educated and more prosperous ones. Peasants revolted in Flanders in 1323, in France in 1358, and in England in 1381. These rebellions were ruthlessly crushed. But such protests showed that the peasants wanted to protect the gains made in previous centuries. In spite of severe repression, the old feudal relations could not be re-imposed because of intense opposition by peasants. The money economy was far too advanced to be reversed.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European kings strengthened their military and financial power. These kings created powerful new states. Hence, historians called these kings ‘the new monarchs’. Louis XI in France, Maximilian in Austria, Henry VII in England and Isabelle and Ferdinand in Spain were absolutist rulers. Isabelle and Ferdinand started the process of organizing standing armies, a permanent bureaucracy and national taxation in Spain and Portugal.
Social changes which took place in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, gave opportunities for the triumph of these monarchies. The feudal system of lordship and vassalage had become weak. The economy was growing at a slower pace. The kings introduced professionally trained infantry equipped with guns and siege artillery. The aristocracies could not offer much resistance in the face of the firepower of the kings. Monarchs increased taxes to get sufficient revenue to support larger armies. In England, rebellion occurred in 1497, 1536, 1547, 1549 and 1553, but were put down. In France, Louis XI had to wage a long struggle against dukes and princes. The nobility made a tactical shift to ensure their survival. From being opponents to the new regime, they turned into loyalists. In the new power equation, the lords were given permanent positions in the administrative services.
But the king was no longer at the top of the pyramid. There was now an elaborate courtier society and a network of patron-client relationships. The king was at the centre of this system. Now, patronage could be given or obtained by means of money. Due to money power, non-aristocratic elements could also gain access to the court. The merchants and bankers lent money to the kings. Thus, space was made for non-aristocratic elements in the state system.
Case of France: In France, in the reign of the child-king Louis XII, a meeting of the French consultative assembly was held in 1614. The French consultative assembly was known as the Estates General. It had three houses to represent the three orders. After that assembly, it was not summoned again for nearly two centuries, till 1789.
Case of England: The developments in England were entirely different. Even before the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxons had a Great Council. The king had to consult the Council before imposing any tax. This eventually developed into the Parliament. The Parliament was composed of two Houses. The House of Lords had lords and clergy as members. The House of Commons represented towns and rural areas. King Charles I ruled for 11 years (1629-40) without calling the Parliament. When he was forced to call the Parliament, due to the need of money, a section of Parliament decided to go to war against him. They later executed the king and established a republic. Within a short span of time, the monarchy was restored; but on the condition that Parliament would be called regularly.
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