A Light at the End of the Tunnel

Europe - The High Middle Ages – 1200 > 1500


            In 1914, the countries of Western Europe  controlled 80% of the world’s population.  In 1969, this same West put a man on the moon.  In 2000, they then put a portable telephone in everybody’s pocket.

            In 1000, the West lived in dirt-filled hovels.  In 1000, the West was afraid to venture outside itself.  In 1000, the West was probably the most backwardly primitive piece of real estate on the planet.

            So what happened?  How did the West break out of it’s self-imposed slump to rejoin the pantheon of the world’s greatest civilizations?

            First, Europeans started eating better.  You’d be surprised how little your society can progress when it’s hungry.  Try it sometime.  Don’t eat for a week and then try to write poetry, harness electricity or create your own original algorithm for calculating the circumference of a circle.

            The West was late to the agricultural party, and when they arrived, their available tools were ill-suited to the environment.  The plows of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia  and the Nile River Valley were great when your lands flooded and the nutrient-rich soil sat a mere inches below the surface.  Northern Europe has different dirt.  Now, without exploring the stimulating perplexities of the composition of soil, you need to just trust that Northern Europe’s good dirt is far deeper beneath the topsoil than the good dirt in other places.  Subsequently, for millennia, Europeans did the best they could with an ox and a puny plow, but then, one day (it was a Thursday I believe), the Europeans found a better way of making crops, and the rest is agricultural history.  They invented a heavy plow that could pull the prime soil to the surface, they created a collar for horses that wouldn’t rip apart their necks and they rotated their crops using the oh-so-efficient three-field system.  The three-field system enabled farmers to plant wheat on 1/3 of their land, peas or beans on another 1/3 and nothing on the final 1/3 (letting it lay “fallow”).  By leaving the field fallow, and maybe even allowing your animal fertilizing machines to plop down their little nuggets of nourishment, the soil’s fertility rejuvenated, making the land far more productive.

            Once their bellies were full, Europeans could start looking for other ways of making money.  As the threat of bandits gradually decreased and the lure of foreign goods steadily increased, men started hitting the road to try to quench the region’s growing thirst for luxury goods.  These “dusty feet” might bring back spices, silks or ceramics from the East (china from China?).  The lords quickly jumped on this get-rich-quick idea and allowed these merchants to set up shop in towns.  At these markets, the townspeople (known as “burghers”) might lend money, they might sell recently acquired specialties or they might provide one of the many services offered by the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.  Not surprisingly, millions left the farms for town-life, hoping to make a buck as one of the many smiths – arrowsmiths, blacksmiths, silversmiths, locksmiths, goldsmiths or bladesmiths.  No wonder the leading surname in the West is “Smith” (followed closely by those famous people who liked to turn grain into flour – the Millers).  As these burghs, or boroughs, grew, their inhabitants increasingly demanded more rights and because a growing number of these merchants were rolling in the dough, the regional lords had to start listening to the merchant commoners.  Families like the Medicis  of Italy  or the Fuggers (not kidding about the name) of Germany  even started loaning money to governments, making these medieval businessmen serious rivals to the thrones.

            And these thrones had a seemingly endless thirst for money.  Here was the problem for kings.  They...