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Economy in the Middle Ages

Economy in the Middle Ages

The phrase “Middle Ages,” also called the “dark ages,” is often used to describe the five centuries, starting with William the Conqueror’s invasion of England and ending with the Renaissance period in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was a period that saw a reviving economy transitioning from agrarian to commercial activities.

Before William the Conqueror invaded England, the economy in the middle ages consisted of subsistence agriculture and a barter system. Through the period, it slowly transitioned to agricultural products being sold in exchange for money and ultimately to a change to one based on trading commercially. 

The 450 years of the middle ages economy saw an uptick in the per capita GDP and a slow improvement in the lives of the peasant classes. The time wasn’t without its challenges, including invasions, the crusades, and the plague’s devasting effects on the economies.

The Middle Ages Economy

The four main periods in the middle ages were:

  1. William the Conqueror’s invasion of England and the early Norman period (1066–1100)
  2. The economic growth in the middle medieval times (1100–1290)
  3. The economic devastation that the Black Death caused (1290–1350)
  4. The economic recovery in the last period (1350–1509)

William The Conquerors Invasion

William the Conqueror (1027-1087) on engraving from 1830. King of England during 1066-1087.  Published in London by Thomas Kelly.
William the Conqueror

To provide some context to William the Conqueror’s invasion of England. The mother of  King Edward was a Norman. Harold Godwinson was the natural successor to King Edward, but after being captured by William the Conqueror, he agreed to forsake his claim in return for his freedom.

Harold double-crossed William and sought to become king after King Edwards’s death.

On hearing of the double cross, William decided to invade England.

At the battle of Hasting in October 1066, William the Conqueror triumphed over Harold (the apparent heir to the throne) and killed a large portion of the English nobility.

William and his cronies seized land, stole women, and appropriated treasure.

His fight against the North in 1069/70 was known for its brutality and left a trail of suffering and famine.

He formed a new army, which he paid for by exchanging parcels of land tenancy granted to his European allies. In return, he demanded their military service.

The Economy Under William The Conqueror (1066–1100)

Before William conquered England, subsistence agriculture was the primary economic activity based on a barter system. 

Local Lords and Kings taxed the peasant farmers. Because the farming activities were local, no surplus crops were grown. Generally, food was bartered for other food or goods.

William disrupted the entire English society, its laws, economy, and way of life were overhauled. He commissioned the writing of the Domesday book, which inventoried every bit of land, pigs, horses, and livestock.

Although it caused immense cruelty and hardship, William the Conqueror’s tax collection resulted in the English economy becoming the largest in Europe.

This provided the southern English economy with many benefits, some of which included:

  1. Local production was increased to include trade with other regions.
  2. The financial system developed formally with links to the European continent.
  3. All churches, monasteries, and other large structures were torn down and rebuilt in the European style, which created employment and skills development.
  4. Many towns, in particular London, benefited from the continental practice of receiving new privileges, of which the building of Durham Cathedral and the Tower of London are examples.
  5. By 1086, 28,000 enslaved people and been released, and slavery was abolished. 

In contrast, the North rebelled and was brutally crushed by William. As a result, the Northern economy, which was already hampered by a severe climate, was also prevented from joining markets and trading with the South.

This created a wealth imbalance between the South and North.

The economy remained primarily agricultural during this period, using the land as follows:

  1. Arable land constituted 35% of England’s land mass.
  2. Pasture accounted for 25%
  3. Woodlands covered 15%.
  4. Moorland, fens ( peat-accumulating wetland), and heaths accounted for 25%.

The main crops were:

  1. The most important crop was wheat.
  2. Crops such as rye, barley, and oats were widely grown.
  3. Legumes and beans were grown in the most fertile areas of England.

The English livestock breeds tended to be smaller than the continental breeds and were slowly replaced.

The change from bartering to exchanging money representing specific values was a significant development.

The Economic Growth In The Middle Medieval Times (1100–1290)

During the next period, there were four crusades to capture Jerusalem. The first few were massively successful, making the knightly orders rich and powerful.

Despite crusades being undertaken for a noble reason, the reality was different. They are reputed to have seized loot and become money lenders.  

In 1187 the Egyptian Muslim general named Salah-ad-Din (better known as Saladin ) crushed the Crusaders and retook Jerusalem.

This caused the templars to abandon the holy land in 1187 and return to Europe, where most became bankers.

The crusades had a significant effect on the middle age economies.

The coastal cities of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa grew rich by providing transport infrastructure and supplies to the Crusading armies.

The Italians living in the North achieved the greatest increase in wealth by providing:

  1. Transporting of men and materials.
  2. They grew wealthy as merchants.
  3. They financed the crusading expeditions.

This set Northern Italy as the banking capital of Europe and the cultural center during the Renaissance in the 15th century.

The Economic Devastation Which The Black Death Caused (1290–1350)

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death.
The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death
Pierart dou Tielt (fl. 1340-1360), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the year 600 AD, the European population was approximately 14 million. 

  1. By this time, the Vikings had ceased invading and become productive citizens in their conquered countries.
  2. The Magyars (Hungarian ) took control of present-day Hungary and stopped the conflicts.
  3. The Saracens were opposed and beaten back by the kingdoms in southern-European.

The peace and improvement in farming methods caused the population in 1300 to grow to approximately 74 million.

The economies were still primarily agricultural, and because there was less conflict, peasant farmers could plant more crops.

There was an increased demand for metals, and so mining activities increased. 

While most people continued to live in the area they were born in, many migrated to towns and cities. Serfs who stayed away a year and one day from the farms were legally liberated, and there was no pressure to return.

This caused significant growth in towns and cities. Many of these centers increased by a factor of six in the century. 

  1. Paris had a population of 200,000 
  2. Grenada – 150,000 (the largest multicultural city in southern Spain)
  3. London – 80,000
  4. Venice – 110,000
  5. Genoa  – 100,000
  6. Florence – 95,000
  7. Milan – 100,000

In 1346, people on the dock of the Sicilian port of Messina were horrified to see that most of the sailors on the incoming ships were dead.

The cause was the black death. This bacterium, “Yersinia pestis,” caused the plague and had spread from Asia. 

The plague was spread by contact with sufferers. With the increased size of the town and city populations, it had the perfect breeding ground to transmit.

The black death spread quickly and killed more than 20 million people, or 1/3rd of the European population.

The economic disruption caused by the plague was devastating.

Building work stopped, mines were closed down, and, in some regions, farming was curtailed.

Because the economy’s supply side faltered, inflation became rampant, and prices of locally and foreign-sourced goods increased massively.

Farm labor was in short supply. Peasants (Serfs) were no longer tied to one master and could negotiate terms among several Lords. 

If a serf left one master, he would be instantly offered employment by another. This increased the wealth of the peasant class.

The increase in wages outstripped costs, and living standards started to improve.

The Economic Recovery In The Last Period (1350–1509)

Peace was disrupted during the first part of this period with the 100-year war ( 1337–1453) between the English and French Kingdoms. 

The effect on the economy was devasting, and increased taxes were imposed. In 1381 Wat Tyler’s Rebellion (the peasant revolt) broke out.

Although the revolt was suppressed, it had a long-lasting impact on England.

One of the impacts was a move away from an agrarian economy to one where the merchants and traders increased in importance.

Much of the wealth created in this period was developed by merchants plying their trade and growing rich. This was a significant shift from landowners taxing the peasants.

Other activities included:

  1. Livestock farming.
  2. Banking
  3. A booming shipbuilding industry
  4. Logging.
  5. Iron ore mining to meet the growing needs for metal.
  6. Textile production.
  7. Trading in animal fur.
  8. Papermaking.

Trade in cloth increased significantly, and England became the major exporter of cloth during this period.

By 1447 the cloth trade from England had increased to 60,000 pieces.

In this period, international trade also grew. The famed silk road became the primary route for trade between Europe, Central Asia, and China. 

The lower classes started to experience an increase in wealth, so much so that laws were passed that were designed to reduce consumption.

Peasants were not allowed to purchase certain products and were also not allowed to wear fine clothes worn by high society. Despite this, there was a notable improvement in their standard of living.

Prosperous trading cities in Italy emerged, as did the foundation of modern accounting and finance systems.

The growth in Northern Italian cities’ wealth became the launching board for the next historical stage, namely the Renaissance.

Artists were able to create their masterpieces with wealthy benefactors funding them.

  1. Michael Angelo (1475 –1564.)
  2. Leonardo da Vinci (1452 –1519.)
  3. Raffaello Santi “Raphael”  (1483 – 1520.)
  4. Hieronymus Bosch (1450 –1516.)


The middle ages started with William the Conqueror invading England in October 1066 and ended with the start of the Renaissance in the 14 and 15th centuries. It is arguable that if the growth in the middle ages economy had not happened, the Renaissance would also have been prevented.

The period saw an improvement in the life of the peasant classes and vast wealth created in Southern Europe, particularly Italy.