Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

6. Towns and Trade in the Middle Ages

'AFTER the pause made for the purpose of comparison in our last Outline, we again take up the thread of development. The subject of this Outline has some difficulties in that, in dealing with it, we shall be forced to deal with other subjects which occur later in our Syllabus. For example, we cannot separate the Towns from the Guilds (allotted to Outline VII.); or dissociate Trade from The Rise of the Merchant Class (to be dealt with in No. IX.) ; and again we cannot show the rise of a new power without showing how it undermined the old—a process receiving attention in Outline VIII.—The Fall of Feudalism. However, these very difficulties show the utter impossibility of considering anything as "a thing in itself," and reveal that vital interconnection, the basis of all things, which Dietzgen so repeatedly emphasised. They also point out that the evolution of the new must mean the devolution of the old. Perhaps, in dealing with the same period from particular phases, we shall get a truer, fuller picture of it.

The Middle Ages is a term elastic in its application. We shall try to follow Towns and Trade from their beginnings in England up to nearly the end of the 15th century, when the new manufacturing towns begin to arise in opposition to the older corporations. But before dealing with the particular progress of towns and trade in England, a few general conclusions, as to the stages and effects of their general progress, will be drawn. Human development in regard to trade and exchange (towns in their origin in England, as we shall show later, are inseparably connected with these) has passed through four general stages:-

The First Stage. - It has been truly said that everything emerges from the imperceptible only to journey back into it again; and in this first stage towns and trade were not. The family or tribe was then entirely self-sufficient. Perhaps its life was nomadic. Property, in our sense of the word, did not exist. The "cash nexus" was undreamt of; relations of blood and kinship were supreme. Production was solely for use— man made his garments, his tools, and procured his food only when he needed them. There being no commodity produced, no market was necessary. The prevalent ideas necessarily reflected the material conditions. Tribal deities and tribal morality existed in correspondence with tribal production; and while, as many travellers have testified, a high code of honour prevailed between tribal members, no such feelings actuated them in their dealings with any person who was not a member of their tribe. The very fact of being outside the tribe made him an enemy who might be rightly tricked, plundered, or destroyed.

The Second Stage.— In this stage of development the family or tribal self-sufficiency has disappeared. (See Engels’ Origin of the Family for information as to the forms of the family preceding the present monogamic form.) Property breaks down the bonds of kin. Each village is now self-sufficient, e.g., the Anglo-Saxon village and, in its early days, the Norman Manor. Handicraft was slowly developing; each village had its semi-artisans, its swineherd, beeherd, and so on, who performed their particular work for their fellow-villagers and the lord of the manor, in addition to working on their own holding of land. The town developed from the large village—the difference between them, at first, being one of size rather than of character. But in the village and town trade soon begins. Markets and trade react upon the villages and turn them into towns; or the site of the market, originally on the neutral boundary, becomes a place of populous settlement. Hither the merchants would gather, and here later the semi- craftsmen would congregate, endeavouring to escape the feudal bonds and earn their livelihood by the practice of their craft alone. Other circumstances determining the site of towns will be detailed in dealing with towns in England. Though the self-sufficiency of the towns was a transitory stage, and though the merchants soon brought into touch with each other all the towns and villages, yet, for a while, at any rate, there existed a narrow mental outlook which, in the inhabitants of another town, saw an enemy; and long after towns strove with each other, at first for monopolies of certain kinds of trade, and later of production.

The Third Stage.—Here you get the nation a self-sufficient unit, with its affairs at first carried on by simple barter, which, soon becoming inconvenient to an increasing exchange, was displaced by metal coin. In the Anglo-Saxon development you will remember how the Danish invasion stimulated foreign trade. It also encouraged the use of money, because of the levying of the Dane-Geld, needed to buy off the marauders. The wide dominions of the Norman kings also encouraged trade with France. But, speaking generally, despite the existence of some international merchant leagues (e.g., The Hanseatic League), the merchants and early capitalists remained in national camps, under the protection of their own respective kings. As soon as the trade or production could be carried on without foreign help, jealousy demanded the restriction or exclusion of the foreign merchant. There was also an attempt to remove the barrier of town rivalries for the sake of the nation—a concept just coming into being. We hear of the conflict between differing national policies of "plenty" and of "power" enforced and tried in turn from the 13th to the 17th century to regulate trade and production for the national welfare. The foreigner was the enemy who had to be fought as a rival claimant when navigators discovered new lands of untapped wealth and potential markets; and with whom our colonies must not trade.

The Fourth Stage.—In this stage even national barriers begin to disappear. The nations become dependent upon each other. John Locke gives way to Adam Smith. Staple towns, Navigation Acts, taxes, bounties, and all other restrictions and monopolies, national or otherwise, are abominations preventing true progress. Colonies are now "white elephants." Trade does not "follow the flag"
so much as before, if at all. The market has widened from the local and national to the world market. The use of the metals in exchange, once so great an advance upon barter, has become cumbrous, and a world-wide Capitalism develops its wondrous nervous system, i.e., a credit economy. The development of the means of communication and transport, the telegraph, the locomotive, the ocean cable, and the mammoth liner, knit the world together. Commodities from many climes stand upon our tables, and fill our shops. Ideas of internationalism should now be possible, and find expression in the breaking down of the barriers of nationality among citizens of the world.[If the reader desires to appreciate the true nature of the obstacles which block the way to this desirable state in modern times, and if he would understand the economic causes behind the revival of the nationalist-imperialist spirit and the second Warlike period of Capitalism - which threaten, for a while at least, to rob us of the beneficial results of the ever-widening intercourse of trade—then he should direct his attention to the book and pamphlets first mentioned at the end of Outline XII.]

Towns and Trade in England. - Roman towns were the first built in Britain, and some of them were re-occupied when trade began to develop among the Saxons. The earliest merchants were foreigners, and they brought articles of commerce from countries more advanced in their development than England. The existence of trade predicates the development of handicraft and a stage of development when agriculture does not demand the whole of the energies of a people. Early towns in England were trading centres. Trade preceded manufacture, and the Merchant Guild was here before the Craft Guild.

Town sites were determined by natural advantages; places easily defended by forts or Surrounded by a moat; places of easy access, a river’s mouth, or near a good harbour, or at the centre of the highways. In some countries they have grown up in the caravan routes, where the ships of the desert have their stopping places. Other towns would have their origin near the residence of a king or famous earl, or in the shadow of a monastery. Oxford is an example of the latter. London was rebuilt and famed as a port in 700 A.D. Bristol was another early seaport town. Markets as a cause of towns have already been referred to. The fairs, too, would also be the cause of towns, and both markets and fairs enjoying religious patronage would be held near the shrine of some saint, so that business and
religion could be profitably combined. (For particulars of fairs and early towns see chapters mentioned at end of Outline).

As the town was only an enlarged village, it was subject, like the village, to the lord of the manor and also to the king. The lord of the manor exacted different kinds of payment from the traders in return for the right of holding markets and fairs. "The townsfolk lived to a large xtent by sale of wares at the periodical fairs but the wares had to be conveyed thither, and on their way were subject to taxes— 'passage' —on passing through a manor; 'pontage,' for crossing a bridge; 'lastage,' a tax on goods by weight; and 'stallage,' for setting up a booth or stall in a fair or market."

The rise to power of the towns was accomplished by buying out these taxes. "Their liberty was determined by the length of their purse." The towns, as we shall see more fully in our next Outline, were dominated at first by the Merchant Guilds, and they supplied needy nobles with foreign products and money to gratify their growing taste for luxury, or to enable them to go blood-letting in France and Palestine; and they (the merchants) would also help to ransom kings and supply money for war campaigns. In return for these payments they were granted privileges, and in many cases charters of freedom, which gave them the right of self-govern ment and freedom from all feudal dues. In the 1215 Charter there are trading clauses safeguarding their interests, and soon the boroughs were given representation in Parliament. Certain merchants in certain towns would also buy from the king "staples," i.e., the monopoly of trading in certain products in certain places.

Early Articles of Commerce.— These were at first chiefly luxuries, though salt, a vital necessity for the winter supply of meat, was early imported from France when the sun in England did not shine enough to evaporate the water from the salt pans. Tar was also imported for use of the sheep farmers. Millstones from near Paris and iron from Spain were other early foreign imports. Wool was the chief English export for many years. The foreign wars encouraged a display of luxury. Embroidery and weaving began to develop.

Money.— It is an interesting subject to follow how the medium of exchange, as we know it now, developed; and to follow the beginnings of usurers’ capital. The Jews were the first moneylenders, and the king protected them that he might plunder them himself; The philosophers condemned interest because money was naturally barren. The Church, too, at first, forbade the paying of interest, basing her objection upon the text: "Lend hoping to receive nothing again";-soon, however, she reconciled herself to accepting interest on the excuse of the time and trouble occasioned by the summoning in of loans. And later, in a trading age, she waxed fat by doing a roaring trade in relics an in pardons which forgave folks’ sins and ensured their passage to endless bliss.

In conclusion it might be remarked that the towns of the Middle Ages were very small in size, especially when compared with the modern town. The Domesday Book mentions 80 towns, and the whole country’s population was only about two millions, while London’s population alone now numbers more than four and a-half millions.

We shall endeavour to give details of the traders and producers, of their forms of organization, and their strict regulation of trade and production in the next Outline. Beneath the flaunting of knight errantry, the loud sounding of trumpets and the costly foreign wars (the lengthy details of which so often have passed for history) there was proceeding in the towns of the Middle Ages the coming of a new power which was destined to destroy the system of Feudalism and all its relations.

BOOKS.—Gibbins’, Period II., Chap. II and Period III., Chap.
III. Warner’s Landmarks in English History, Chap. III.'

From A Worker Looks At History by Mark Starr



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