Europe’s history is laced with significant people and events that have time and again changed what life was like on the continent. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance period, numerous kingdoms expanded, cultures changed, and so did society. From the reformation movement to the French revolution; Europe has seen its fair share of revolts, conflicts, political uprisings, acts of diplomacy, and religious fervor. Over years numerous empires formed and expanded creating new societies in their wake. Cultural exchange between regions whether it was because of the crusades, colonization, or trade, helped shape Europe as it is today. Through centuries a multitude of changes have impacted people’s lives, their views about themselves, the way they were organized and governed, and the way they interacted with the larger world around them. Technological development has revolutionized the people’s lifestyle, formed towns and cities, changed war and trade, and brought education and institutes to people’s doorsteps. Each change has impacted people’s identity creating the collective history of Europe. However, no change is more significant than the economic changes that perpetuated throughout Europe’s history-changing modern life as we know it. The development in trade and economy gave rise to empires and created institutes and systems that developed a mercantile and later a capitalist economy. These economic changes led to modifications in people’s living styles, spending patterns, social status, the development of cities and residential areas, and most importantly the political changes in the laws and representation of the working class (Grafton & Bell, 2018).
Economy during Feudalism
The mighty Roman Empire exerted its influence across the Mediterranean into North Africa and Asia. But no empire can last forever and through a combination of reasons such as the attacks by the Germanic tribes in the north or the increasing spread and influence of Christianity as a new way to view the world and self; the Roman Empire came to its eventual demise. With this came an end to the age of antiquity. Eventually, over the next century, numerous Germanic tribes conquered and expanded their kingdoms. Each of them established laws, religion, and systems to manage resources in their kingdom. This period saw the organization of society, politics, economy, and the division of land and labor under feudalism. The feudal economy was based on agriculture creating self-sufficient manors. The manors also collected taxes and paid to the kings. Although peasants were largely unpaid for most work, with lords of the manor providing them housing and land for agriculture, life under the feudal system created a simple economic model (Antharch, 2015). Over time some manors became towns by trading with other nearby places developing their economy further. In the 1300s manors were producing goods from farming, tanning, pottery making, and weaving, all of which were traded as well (BirminghamMAG, 2012).
Trade and trade routes further expand across the continent after the crusades. Towns and cities specialize in various goods such as Flanders for its wool. The Magna Carta in 1215 also outlined that merchants and traders would have the freedom to travel through land and sea for trade (The Avalon Project : Magna Carta 1217, 2008). This produced higher economic activity all of which came to a halt when the Black Death arrived on trading ships to Europe. The bubonic plague wreaked havoc across Europe killing somewhere around a half to two-thirds of the population. Although the plague caused death and suffering, however, its long-term impacts especially on the economy were positive. To begin with, the loss of lives created a labor shortage, which for the first time gave bargaining power to the peasants. They were in a position to ask for higher wages and in places where their demands were not met, peasants revolts erupted. Plague also made social mobility possible, as people who had been for so long been placed in a certain social class now could move up with more resources and paid work. Even wages could not stop people from leaving manor lands and many of them migrated to larger towns to find paid work (TED-Ed, 2014).
Economy during Renaissance
From the year 1337, France and England went into a long period of battle known as the 100-year war. By the time it ended in 1453 both France and England were in ruins due to the constant warfare. On the other hand, Italy had been flourishing through trade, its city-states were prospering because of its strategic location creating trade relations with Arabs and Turks through their vast sea trade routes (History Time, 2017). Its rather stable economy and political systems made it central to the Renaissance movement. To boost the economy in Italy financial institutes such as banks provided loans, charged interests, and offered bills of exchange to be used for trade. With the economy thriving, many families became prominent patrons that commissioned works of art and architecture. The merchant class emerged as the wealthy aristocrats in Italy bringing new social order. Italy also saw the further development of medieval guilds in a multitude of crafts and skills. Not only did guilds protect the economic interest of all their members they also controlled price and quality. The earliest models of trade associations emerged from here. The prosperity of city-states was evidence of their economic development (History 111 Spring 2022 Sixth Module Guilds and Trade with Narration, 2022).
Italy’s mercantile economy in various city-states was the background to all achievements that were made during the renaissance. Numerous artists and craftsmen were under the patronage of the rich merchant class. The cultural movement that is attributed to the Renaissance could not have been possible without the affluence of the patrons. Thus economic changes in the renaissance were most significant in leading the cultural and social changes. The guilds produced high-quality products that were traded across Europe and other continents. This economic growth also saw a change in the spending and lifestyle of people. People started buying things that were fashionable and improved their quality of life (Perry, 1995).
Economy and colonies
The glory of the Renaissance was marred by political conflicts and Reformation. With the wealth that various kingdoms increased because of trade, they could afford better-equipped armies which gave them the confidence to fight wars and expand. The church had been an integral part of life in Europe and had remained a strong institute during the medieval period. During the Black Death, the church’s inability to heal or stop the disease had led to some resentment and loss of trust in the church. However, the reformation movement caused some real trouble for the church. In 1517, Martin Luther’s 99 theses suggested reforming the existing corrupt practices however the movement unraveled into a new religious divide. This gave rise to Protestant Christianity emerging as a new religious ideology. In this period of religious divide and conflict, the economic prosperity of the renaissance did not survive (Khan Academy, n.d.).
Religious persecution was one of the major reasons for the colonization of new lands (Woolf, 2001). Nations across Europe competed to find land, resources, and markets to strengthen their economy and increase their wealth. The end of the 15th century was highlighted by Portuguese sailors making small navigational feats. The westward travel by Christopher Columbus paved the way for the colonial movement led by economic motives. The British established thirteen colonies on the East coast of the United States. The geography of the colonies influenced the major economic activities that took place in the region. The northern colonies with their forests and cold climate supported lumbering and ship making, which became essential to the eventual trans-Atlantic slave trade. The middle colonies with moderate climates grew grain and also supported trade, manufacturing, and industry. Lastly, the southern colonies with warm climatic patterns formed large agricultural plantations as the basis of their economy. Trade of all kinds of products developed throughout the colonies and across continents (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d.). The crops grown in the region were labor-intensive. Indenture servants coming to the colonies were insufficient to meet the demand for labor. It was then that Europeans developed institutes and systems for trading slaves across the Atlantic from Africa into the colonies. Slave trade in its essence is a seriously oppressive and heinous part of history, however here it will be considered an economic activity as many people profited through this activity.
Europe had developed its early mercantile economy during Renaissance, the same economic model was followed in the colonies, as the European nations ensured that their exports are high and imports are low. Through colonies raw materials especially agricultural products such as sugarcane and cotton were taken back to Europe. These were converted to finished goods and sold back in the colonies. The British also banned products from other European countries or colonies to be sold in regions under their control. This way they increased their wealth multifold, they were using free labor in the form of slaves, they had unlimited access to resources of the colonies, they were selling finished goods in the colonies and they also had complete market control both on price and access. The wealth and power of the European countries saw an unprecedented increase through this economic change. People saw a massive increase in their wealth and lifestyle. Many opted for settling in the colonies where they were granted large land holdings in return for payment of taxes.
The Economy during the Industrial revolution
With resources flowing in from all the colonies scattered across the globe Britain became a wealthy and powerful nation. Their economic prosperity because of the colonies paved the path for the strengthening of the medieval textile cottage industry. Many households thrived through this economic activity. Over the coming decades in Britain, the textile industry took roots and kick-started the industrial movement. The development of machinery to produce clothes will bring change in every aspect of life in Europe. When the first factories were set up, many successful cottage industries lost their business leading to various revolts and aggression against the factory owners. Similarly, as factories grew they needed more labor so people started moving out of small towns and rural areas and moving to cities for paid work. This economic change triggered massive social problems, such as child labor, poor living conditions, and exploitation of workers with low pay and long working hours, and the emergence of the rich class of factory owners.
The industrial revolution later involved other sectors as well. Rich factory owners started investing in new business ventures creating more economic and employment opportunities. Technological advancements were also spearheaded by industrial needs. Most importantly as the industry was a new economic system, there was no prior legislation or laws to guide it, but over time industrial economy also brought in political changes. Working-class was given the right to vote and political representation. Although this was achieved after a long period of suffering and active protesting of the people, however, it changed the political landscape of Europe.
Significance of economic development
Economic prosperity is the foundation on which nations and cultures grow. Through colonization, Europe created empires that were controlled to seek economic benefit. The access to resources strengthened them making them powerful and wealthy as they alone had a monopoly in trading certain items. Economic development and change also bring technological and ideological change. The period of the Renaissance is an example of how economic prosperity led to cultural and artistic movements. During the period of the industrial revolution, many political ideologies emerged throughout Europe. When economic development is high, it creates more employment opportunities, thus increasing the circulation of money. When people earn they spend money to improve their lifestyle, thus creating income for other people. Surplus earnings lead to saving and investment which make financial institutes vital to the system.
Economic development acts like a chain reaction as one industry generates income and business for many other related sectors. Also, historic events from across Europe show evidence of the political reforms that were caused by the economic changes. Political changes such as the formation of labor unions, legislation to reform factories, and end child labor all were a result of the industrial revolution.
Even though history cannot be considered by looking at isolated events, many changes and developments have a complex series of causes and events. Europe’s history has been shaped through centuries of important happenings. Christianity is the major religion in the region and even though the Church has faced criticism and backlash in certain periods of history, Christianity remains a popular and widely practiced belief system. On the other hand, economic development has given Europe an advantage over the rest of the world. Even today the historic advantage remains, as Europe majorly trades in industrial goods. Throughout history change in the economy has impacted lifestyle, culture, social status, art, and technological development. The significant period of the Renaissance shows how economic development gave rise to patrons who supported and funded many artists. They also added value to the everyday life of people by commissioning architecture such as churches and public squares. This was also a way for the Italian city-states to boast their wealth in front of other city-states. Furthermore, technological developments such as the power loom used in the textile industry show that economic changes also impact technological and scientific development.
Antharch. (2015, February 5). Medieval ploughing with Oxen, Green Valley. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GH7KBZ5jkHg
BirminghamMAG. (2012, October 23). Exploring Medieval Birmingham 1300. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZq9cBzrIVI
Grafton, A., & Bell, D. A. (2018). The West: A New History (Vol. 1) (Vol. 1). W.W. Norton & Company.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (n.d.). The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/
History 111 Spring 2022 Sixth Module Guilds and Trade with Narration. (2022, February 18). www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_4dK6iun7s
History Time. (2017, March 8). Venice: A Short History. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQRWtkKrsnY
Khan Academy. (n.d.). Italy, 15th century | Europe 1300—1800 | Khan Academy. Khan Academy- Unit: Italy, 15th Century. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/early-renaissance1/venice-early-ren
Perry, M. (1995). Source of the Western Tradition: Volume II: From the Renaissance to the Present: Vol. II. https://books.google.com/books/about/Sources_of_the_Western_Tradition_Volume.html?id=L-mOfwioWYAC
TED-Ed. (2014, August 18). The past, present, and future of the bubonic plague—Sharon N. DeWitte. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySClB6-OH-Q
The Avalon Project: Magna Carta 1217. (2008). Lillian Goldman Law Library. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/magframe.asp
Woolf, H. I. (2001, March). Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. https://history.hanover.edu/texts/voltaire/voltoler.html