Miskimin, Harry A. The Economy of Later Renaissance Europe 1400-1600. New York: Cambridge UP, 1977.
Because these papers are intended to briefly present the argument of the book(s) in question, it behooves me to seize upon any work that the author has obligingly done for me. In The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe, 1300-1460, tucked in the middle of chapter four, under the doubtful heading "death and display" comes this useful summary
The most far-reaching events of the later Middle Ages was beyond doubt the plague of 1348-49, reinforced in its effects by its subsequent recurrences.... In the agricultural sectors of almost all of the countries of western Europe, a series of adjustments were made by producers in response to the plague, in order to shift assets in to areas where demand remained higher than that for the basic food grain, but with a few exceptions, mainly in northern Italy, those strategic shifts had failed to maintain agricultural revenues at high levels. Taxes and, in some areas, wartime destruction further acted to weaken the rural economy and to siphon funds from the countryside into the cities. The rise of manufactured prices in relation to agricultural prices greatly extended this imbalance. In the town, the primary and immediate consequence of the plague was probably an increase in per capita wealth, and by the same token, in the enhanced demand for luxury products, partially met by an upgrading of diet but more dramatically visible in changes of taste favoring the conspicuous consumption of expensive items of personal adornment. Thus, among textiles, the silk industry flourished, while sales of coarser grades of wool tended to suffer. (134-135)From here, Miskimin continues on the subject of luxury products and their "economic ramifications" and concludes with spending by medieval governments. Later Renaissance Europe, although providing excellent summaries within chapters, offers nothing of a longer sort, and I shall have to be content with doing my own work.
While plunging in media res allows a quick overview of Early
Renaissance Europe's argument, it may be helpful to turn back to the
beginning, and ask what Miskimin's general aims and claims were.
In the introduction to Early Renaissance Europe, and in his subsequent
offering, Later Renaissance Europe, Miskimin opens by discussing
the law. In Early Renaissance Europe he focuses on the loss
in status of the Catholic Church, and consequently the decline of scholastic
doctrinal influence. Miskimin lists the new military forces, new roles
for secular authorities, and the Black Plague as key influences for the
time period in question. Miskimin says "[e]ach of these forces made an
impact upon the economic structure, upon the definition of and justification
for property, and upon the economic role of the individual. Each
therefore requires consideration for an understanding of the economic history
of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries." (2) With the loss of the church,
he argues that there was no longer even theoretical support for the "value
of the individual"(6), an individual with a soul and a right to her or
her own property. Miskimin opens Later Renaissance Europe
with a review of the rise of witchcraft, and the new theories about natural
law advanced by Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockam. To a belief
in witchcraft he attributes not only the bizarre inability to learn from
policy mistakes in practice, but also a general tendency to add the supernatural
as a cause in economic "cause and effect" relationships. To these
two writers he attributes support for secular power as their writings were
used by princes to bolster absolutist claims and actions. Concluding Later
Renaissance Europe, Miskimin summarizes the forces at work a little
more broadly: "the nature and flux of systems of legal abstractions, the
realities of political history, and the development of economic society"
and he continues, "[t]he truth does reside, it seems to me, in the tension
and interaction between and among the three elements that we have considered."
(180). Although qualifying his remarks carefully -- commenting in
his first book that the legal theory is hardly commensurate with practice,
and again remarking in his second that legal systems are only one of the
forces a historian must consider -- it still seems to me that Miskimin
uses the legal status of the individual as a touchstone for understanding
what could and could not happen in early and in later Renaissance Europe.
I also think that the weight of Miskimin's argument rests on a sense of
loss, especially loss of the church as a check upon secular authorities,
and the erosion of the concept of natural law and the value of the soul,
(7, Later) which led to the rise of absolutism, and so to the economic
instruments -- taxes and fiat currency (monetary devaluation) -- that supported
Miskimin, Harry A. The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe, 1300-1460. The Economic Civilization of Europe Series. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969.
Chapter Two describes agriculture, starting with the general topography of Europe: an upper well-watered moderate plain and a lower, more arid mountainous region. Miskimin describes the slow adoption of the three-field system, and the relatively uncertain pay-offs for the new system in colder climates or in places where there was not enough manure to keep the fields productive. Famine had just begun to be a problem when the Black Plague of 1348-49 significantly changed the balance of trouble. Survivors (about 3 in 5) took land and became more self-sufficient, and there were, anyway, fewer mouths to feed. Grain became cheap; labor became expensive. Small farmers and landlords had to shift to cash-earning crops, or goods for which the demand was elastic, like meat, barley, and butter. In the wake of those changes, places like southern Italy and Spain became net-importers of grain. Chapter Three takes on urban life and industrial efforts. In order to avoid famine, towns had to regulate and defend their supporting agricultural regions. Because towns were the sites of most finished goods, and because during plague years popular tastes ran to luxury items, towns tended to pull back from the countryside what money had been disbursed for grain. (90) Industry, meaning the production of luxury goods, got along on a rather small market. Sales of expensive and rare silk flourished, while overstocked supplies of wool languished. However, other kinds of industries, like German mines -- under the difficulty of war and of the technological limitations of depth -- became too expensive to operate. French guilds typified the interaction between state and local producers during economic contraction: longer apprenticeships, royal monopolies and output limitations. Miskimin sees a downward industrial trend: "the few net opportunities opening up as a result of the plague, famine, war and depopulation were not sufficient to compensate for the losses sustained by the older, greater industries." (112) Chapter Four argues that international trade remained a part of economic life. Merchants used two-thirds one-third commenda contracts (118) to diversify capital and risk, and bills of exchange to conserve bullion and settle accounts over a distance. The fairs of Champagne also served as a regular place for meeting and settling bills. Rules against usury were "got around" by using exchange rates. As exemplified by the Bardi, Peruzzi, and Medici houses, the Italians dominated the financial world (121). Northern shipments tended to be composed of bulky low-cost items; southern shipments tended toward light luxury items. Northwestern regions tended to lose precious metals, and combined with expensive wars, slid toward legal "fixes," stagnation and recession. By contrast, southern lands like Venice needed to curb "high living and low productivity." Chapter Five briefly summarizes again the rights of the individual in the thirteenth century. Towns called for help, as did guilds, by asking rulers to regulate wages, establish mandatory labor requirements, and limit mobility. (168) By weakening the older power structures, without putting in place new support for individual rights, the medieval world invited the absolutism of the future. (170)
Miskimin, Harry A. The Economy of Later Renaissance Europe 1400-1600. New York: Cambridge UP, 1977.
Chapter Two charts the rise of money and population. Miskimin recaps
the effects of the Plague, and begins with the upward swing of population
-- about 50% between 1450-1600 (23). Wars still had a devastating
impact, but the twin pressures of plague and famine were lightened.
Generally, the population of cities rose in comparison to their former
sizes (27). Because precious metals became so scarce, it became economically
feasible to invest in the technology needed to recover gold and silver
from deep pits of European mines, and recovery of such metals encouraged
further exploration and investment. Exploration, of course, was not
limited to Europe: in this period the silver of Mexico and Peru entered
the European market. Miskimin picks up a question he debates through
several chapters of the book: the Hamilton thesis of profit inflation
as a basis for capitalism. Ultimately he rejects Hamilton's thesis,
in part because Hamilton does not use the proper definition of profit:
difference between total revenue --unit sales price times quantity sold
-- and the total cost of producing the number of units sold (46); and in
part because Miskimin believes that a consideration of disaggregated statistics
is more accurate. Chapter Three presents the rising demand for food
and the rising costs of grain which, naturally, rewarded the Dutch and
anyone else who could increase grain yield from 1:5 to 1:10. Although
not achieving particularly high yields, the Baltic regions were re-ensurfed
as it became profitable to enclose large area of land and raise grain for
the international market. Again, Southern Italy and Spain remained
net-importers of grain. Contra Hamilton, Miskimin argues that agricultural
productivity was not high enough to increase the real wage rate, and so
real wages lagged behind both the agricultural and industrial prices. (82)
In Chapter Four Miskimin reviews technology expansion and the development
of the putting out system. He glosses vicissitudes of the wool and textile
industry, the glass industry, leather making and the nascent coal industry
and argues that the confused system of national taxation on production
and guild regulations were disastrous in places like France and Spain where
these regulations were enforced, and not nearly so detrimental in places
where government was less intrusive, like England. Chapter Five,
trade patterns in the wider world, offers a look at the changes brought
by new ship technology, both those longer in beam for sailing the Atlantic,
like the Portuguese and Spanish ships, and those especially capacious,
like the Dutch "container" flute ships. By turns Venice, Lisbon,
Antwerp and Amsterdam were the anchor for the financial and spice trade.
Nations likewise competed to control the routes and city bases for the
trade in the far East. The Portuguese were no sooner successful than swallowed
up by the Spanish, who were promptly harried by the English and Dutch.
Trading houses were at once national and transnational: the slave trade,
hooked into copper mining, sugar, and silver, crossed the world.
Chapter Six and Seven conclude the work by surveying public and private
finances, especially government fund- raising. Miskimin compares
the unsteady balancing acts of Spanish and French monarchies, overburdened
with debt and inadequately supported by taxes, with the relatively sound
English, who escaped through some luck and some talented financiers. The
Spanish court repeatedly used the juros, interest-bearing obligations,
to fund the government expenditure; likewise the French used rentes: these
instruments constituted obligations that neither government was able to
pay. Coming full circle, Miskimin ends with the common people:
resisting a non-gold standard money, and overtaxed, their ability to resist
is sharply curtailed unless there was, already in place, a system of law
to protect them from their protectors.