Surprising facts about the Middle Ages?

  1. On women:

Andrew Highlander Benn, is right that “Women were not universally treated as second class citizens.” In fact, all women were more equal to their men in the Middle Ages than they have been until very recent times.

Women ran the business side of the craft shop. A man could not become a master until he had a wife to keep track of orders, train servants and apprentices, order supplies, collect money etc. In short a master’s wife was management and the master was production. We know this partially because when the master died his widow assumed the vote in the guild and voted, whereas, if the woman died, and there was no daughter, aunt, woman cousin to take over her duties the master became a journeyman again. He lost his master status.

Historian Elise Boulding has said women have not regained the equality they lost in the Renaissance.

2. On the wealth of the West:

We owe capitalism to the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages.

After the fall of Rome, in the West, secular power was left to a mixed hodgepodge of nobles. They were the military which therefore was equally mixed. The only organized continent wide power was the Church.

The Church was a monopoly, and had the right of direct taxation – the tithe. And like other priesthoods, it was the controller of learning and literacy.

For the first time in history group that controlled information had a vested interest in the wealth of the lower classes. If a cooper, or weaver did well the church was entitled to 10% of his wealth.

Therefore, it was to the Church’s benefit that the commons make as much money as possible. The monasteries became like Agricultural Extension centers, teaching the three field rotation system and the use of horse shoes, and hard horse collars creating an agricultural revolution in Europe.

The Church encouraged the use of technology since better technology meant more efficient work, more efficient work meant more wealth, and more wealth meant more good works – meaning more money for the Church in the form of tithes.

So that by the time the press was introduced to Europe common folk saw technology used to increase wealth as a virtue. And the Church didn’t see it as a threat for the commons to be educated until the Reformation.

Before the Reformation Spain (soon to become the bastion of the inquisition) had active presses in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish and Arabic. The Church actively supported presses and found it useful for publishing its directives.

With the Inquisition, the Church began to control what was printed and many Spanish printers “voted with their feet” moving to the Spanish Netherlands (Holland of today) where the press wasn’t controlled. Soon there was a glut of printers so they had to print whatever would sell – children’s books, broadsides, business books, books on double entry bookkeeping, and pornography. Holland became as print intensive as we are television, or perhaps now, phone intensive. And Holland became the cradle of pre-capitalist business.

As England became Protestant printers moved there to take advantage of new markets and as more and more common folk became literate and numerate they changed the way they did production, inventing capitalism.

For more see: Chapter VII – The Late Middle Ages Full Text

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