The Commercial Revolution in Medieval Europe

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., The College of William and Mary

From the years 1000 to 1300, Europe’s population nearly doubled. This demographic growth led to urbanization, which in turn led to the Commercial Revolution, as Europe became involved in trading around the world. Europe also developed a more sophisticated monetization system during this period.

Illustration of a medieval market by Nicole Oresme (15th century)
(Image: Nicole Oresme, translation of Aristotle’s Ethics, Politics, and Economics, Rouen (France), Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms. 927, fol. 145/Public domain)

Climatic Change in Medieval Europe

In addition to technological changes and food production, another change favored increased population: climatic change. Given the controversy surrounding what the Earth’s climate is doing today, the history of the medieval climate might seem beyond our knowledge.

We probably know more about the medieval climate than we know about present-day climate. Various methods can help us reconstruct what the climate has done in the past.

Glacier movements, now charted scrupulously, lend clues to long-term changes in weather patterns. As the weather turned colder and wetter, the glaciers advanced down the mountain and they retreated off the mountain when the weather turned warmer and drier. Tree rings also offer evidence of climatic changes.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Perhaps the greatest weapon of the medievalist’s arsenal is the peat bog. Studied for their ability to preserve objects within, peat bogs have been known to preserve everything from cheeses from the Middle Ages to statues.

Anything that fell into peat bogs became preserved, even pollen grains. When studied level by level, peat bogs indicate what sorts of plants were flourishing at what time in that area, both cold and warm weather species.

peat bog in the national park Sumava Europe
Peat bogs, like the one shown here, have been known to preserve everything from cheeses from the Middle Ages, to statues. (Image: Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova/Shutterstock)

By combining these various techniques, historians have a reasonably detailed understanding of what the earth’s climate was like in the past.

Historians arrived at the following conclusion: Beginning around 800 and ending roughly in 1200, Europe entered a period of very good weather, named “the little optimum.”

“Good” weather meant—believe it or not—“warm,” or warmer than it had been. Good weather also meant drier weather. The dual factors of warm and dry weather were beneficial to agriculture. Cold, wet weather, especially several years of it, caused crops to rot in the fields.

Europe was warmer during the little optimum than it is today. Grapes were grown further north than they are today, and Greenland, currently snow-covered, was green.

Historically, warming periods have been good for the human race, while cold periods have been problematic.

Learn more about the innovations and events that had huge effect on demography during the High Middle Ages

But for the Middle Ages at least, the warming trend of the little optimum was good. The cooling down of the climate during the final century of the High Middle Ages helped usher in the demographic catastrophes of the Late Middle Ages.

The Urbanization of Europe

As a result of the confluence of these many changes—societal, militarily, technological, and climatic—Europe’s population grew and changed in nature.

The population of Europe changed in terms of how and where it lived. Around the year 1000, urban life was at a low ebb in Europe, much lower than had been the case in the Roman Empire.

A big city in Italy around the year 1000 might have contained 10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants. North of the Alps, a major metropolis like Paris might have had perhaps 4,000 people.

Compared to other parts of the world, such as neighboring parts of Europe, Islamic North Africa, or the Middle East, these towns were minuscule.

By 1300, parts of Europe were heavily urbanized, and the towns substantially bigger. The most urbanized part of Europe in 1300, as in 1000, was northern Italy.

In 1300, many towns had 100,000 people, or sometimes, 200,000. This growth represented a significant increase, perhaps tenfold, over what had existed in 1000.

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Even north of the Alps, large cities could be found: France, Germany, England, and Spain all boasted towns and cities of 40,000 or 50,000, and maybe as high as 80,000 inhabitants. Those totals are 20 times the size of what had existed 300 years earlier.

The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages

The revival of urban life within Europe and that urbanized populations no longer needed to survive on agricultural labor for their living set off a chain reaction of consequences.

One result included the Commercial Revolution of the High Middle Ages, a change in Europe’s economic life. Europe became a more economically sophisticated place that was part of the world’s major trading network, which had not been the case in 1000.

The Commercial Revolution has two components: one qualitative, and the other quantitative. Qualitatively, it refers to the increasing sophistication of economic life in Europe. Quantitatively, it refers to an increasing amount of trade and commercial exchange taking place in Europe.

Towns of 100,000 inhabitants, and even of 40,000 inhabitants, constituted sizeable markets for goods, the way that a town of 4,000 did not.

The merchants of the year 1000 rarely traveled to Europe, simply because it was not worth their while economically. There were too few concentrations of people for one to bring goods from other parts of the world to sell.

As cities with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of inhabitants proliferated, merchants increasingly traveled to Europe, bringing back luxury goods from Asia to the eastern Mediterranean. There, they were picked up by merchants and shipped back to Europe.

Illustration of a medieval shop from in 14th century.
Merchants from other countries such as England, Germany, and Spain, gathered to buy the products that Italian merchants had brought.(Image: unknown/Public domain)

The merchants responsible for spreading commercial exchange throughout Europe were Italian. Geographically, Italy was ideally situated to be a broker between Europe and the rest of the world, as it juts out into the Mediterranean.

Italian merchants traveled to the east end of the Mediterranean, bought up goods, and brought them back to Italy. What they did not sell in Italy, they then brought north of the Alps, often into the central French region of Champagne.

There, fairs were held periodically, and merchants from other countries such as England, Germany, and Spain, gathered to buy the products that Italian merchants had brought. The Italians were simply middlemen. These other merchants would disperse, and introduced other parts of Europe to luxury items from the East.

Mostly, Europeans were content simply to go to the east end of the Mediterranean and buy objects whose origins they barely understood. But during the High Middle Ages, and for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, Europeans began traveling to Asia to see where the items were coming from.

Learn more about how Europe had assumed an economic and political importance that would have been unimaginable in 1000

It was during the 1270s and 1280s that the famous Italian explorer, Marco Polo, made his way to China—assuming his account is truthful—and wrote about his experiences there.

The Refinement of the Money System

As commercial exchanges became more frequent, and as people traded more during the High Middle Ages, the nature of economic life also had to change. Sophisticated and efficient ways of trading had to be developed. Perhaps the best example of increasing sophistication concerns the use of money.

Around the year 1000, Europe’s monetary system was simplistic. Physical money existed in the form of silver coinage, and there was very little of it.

The state of limited currency had not always been the case for Europe. During the Roman Empire, a sophisticated monetary system had existed— a “tri-metallic” one—in which several types of coins existed that met the needs of different kinds of economic transactions.

Gold coins existed for huge economic transactions, while bronze and copper coins were used for everyday transactions. By the year 1000, gold, bronze, and copper coinage had died out, because the economic exchanges that needed those coins no longer existed.

The revival of those coin types in commerce signaled that Europe had reached a level of economic sophistication it had not known in centuries. The reintroduction of gold coinage can be dated precisely.

Learn more about the birth of the university in Europe

Florin 1352
In 1252, Italian cities began to mint a gold coin, called the “florin,” that soon spread throughout Europe. (Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc./Public domain)

In 1252, Italian cities—especially Florence—began to mint a gold coin called the “florin” that spread throughout Europe. For bronze and copper coins, people simply used debased coins whose silver purity had been diminished.

By 1300, Europe was once again on a tri-metallic monetary system. It had returned to the past from which it had come.

The Impact of Europe’s Population Increase

To sum up the demographic history of the High Middle Ages, the years between 1000 and 1300 saw substantial increases in the European populations by doubling.

By medieval standards, the doubling of the population was a highly unusual event, even across three centuries. The growth was unusual, and it required the combination of many different factors unfolding in the order that they did for Europe to break out of the pattern of low population and little growth.

As the population grew, the nature of the population changed. Urban life revived, towns began to dot the landscape, and economic life became more sophisticated and substantial as trade increased.

The revival of urban and commercial life informed many different aspects of medieval society, even groups who had seemingly little to do with commercial and urban life, such as medieval nobility.

Common Questions About the Commercial Revolution

Q: What were some of the effects of the Commercial Revolution?

The Commercial Revolution helped to connect Europe with the rest of the world through trade, commerce, and investing. It brought the European influence to other countries, and in turn these countries influenced Europe when it came to food, clothing, and other items.

Q: What economic changes came during the Commercial Revolution?

Economic changes that came during the Commercial Revolution include inflation due to the flood of gold and silver into Europe, the stock exchange, and what we recognize today as the modern banking system.

Q: What was the most important aspect of the Commercial Revolution?

The most important aspect of the Commercial Revolution was the trading of goods, which was made possible by European exploration of other countries.

Q: Which system developed as a result of the Commercial Revolution?

The Commercial Revolution led to capitalism. During this important phase in European history, goods and currency were rapidly exchanged, and the fact that goods were available in much larger quantities than in the past allowed for competitive pricing. The nobles began to lose power, and the class system was no longer as fixed.

This article was updated on October 30, 2019

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