Emergence of the Fourth Estate (Merchant Class)

Perhaps the most important development of the High Middle Ages was the introduction of new farming techniques that vastly expanded the yield of the farms of Europe. That agricultural revolution was based on the cultivation of more land and new ways of farming those lands. Forests were cleared, and land was reclaimed from swamps or lakes. Lands were taken through conquest and then settled with an imported population. Next, peasants practiced the three-field system, which made land more productive, and they plowed their lands with a new, more effective plow. The combination of all of those developments produced prodigious surpluses, which in turn led to the development of towns and cities, as well as greater populations.

The 11th century saw a considerable increase in the number and size of European towns. That was due in part to a reinvigoration of trade, which had begun in the later 10th century and accelerated with the encouragement of local fairs to which traders and merchants brought their wares and made new contacts for future sales and purchases. As the agriculture boom of the 11th century drove growth in population and fostered the growth of towns, towns and trading sites developed into ever larger communities. That process was first visible in northern Italy at Venice and other trade-oriented sites, and soon the towns of Western Europe were political, social, and intellectual centers as well as commercial centers.

As the towns grew in economic power, their inhabitants began to agitate to be set free of feudal obligations—they no longer wanted to be bound to lords or subject to their law or rule. Over time, townspeople gained a certain measure of freedom from their old feudal relationships, and towns emerged as communal enterprises in which a document known as a charter was drawn up between the townspeople and the local lord that set an agreed-upon tax to be paid by the town to the lord. In return, the townspeople as individuals were no longer subject to the lord, but rather to the town and its laws.

It was also during the High Middle Ages that the first European universities appeared in such cities as Paris, Bologna, and Oxford. In addition to those prestigious seats of education, more humble cathedral schools also appeared where young men were trained in the arts of literacy. Those men became crucial administrators in the growing towns and at the courts of kings. They became lawyers, accountants, and scribes, and with the proliferation of that literate class of nonnoble elites, the written word assumed increased importance in the organization of European society. The learned clerical class that emerged from the universities and the cathedral schools was instrumental in the increased centralization of European society under powerful nobles and kings. The elites were also instrumental in the birth of a distinctive culture called chivalry for the courts of those nobles and kings.

In spite of the hardships of the late Middle Ages, Europe continued through the 14th and 15th centuries to develop politically, intellectually, and economically. Although the plague tore through towns and cities with a frightening ferocity, by the beginning of the 15th century, their populations were on the rise again.
As the Middle Ages came to an end around 1500, Europe had transformed itself over the space of a millennium from a collection of isolated and frightened post-Roman peoples into a strong, prosperous, and culturally rich world entity. Its medieval past was one of reason, piety, and progress, but also one of intolerance, war, and conquest. In the centuries to come, each of those elements would have a role to play in Europe's journey into modernity.


"Middle Ages." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. <http://www.ancienthistory.abc-clio.com>.