The Great Depression of the 14th Century
[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith.]
Most people — historians not excepted — are tempted to think of economic and cultural progress as being continuous: in every century people are better off than in the one preceding. This comforting assumption had to be given up quite early when the Dark Ages ensued after the collapse of the Roman Empire. But it was generally held that after the "renaissance" of the 11th century, progress in western Europe was pretty well linear and continuous from that point to the present day. It took heroic efforts over many decades for economic historians like Professors Armando Sapori and Robert Sabatino Lopez to finally convince the historical profession that there was a grave secular decline in most of western Europe from approximately 1300 to the middle of the 15th century; a period which might be called the Late Middle Ages or the Early Renaissance. This secular decline, mistitled a "depression," permeated most parts of western Europe with the exception of a few Italian city-states.
The economic decline was marked by a severe drop in population. Since the 11th century, economic growth and prosperity had pulled up population figures. Total population in western Europe, estimated at 24 million in the year 1000 AD, had vaulted to 54 million by the year 1340. In little over a century, from 1340 to 1450, however, the western European population fell from 54 million to 37 million, a 31 percent drop in only a century.
The successful battle to establish the fact of the great decline has done little, however, to establish the cause or causes of this debacle. Focus on the devastation caused by outbreaks of the Black Death in the mid-14th century is partially correct, but superficial, for these outbreaks were themselves partly caused by an economic breakdown and fall in living standards which began earlier in the century. The causes of the great depression of western Europe can be summed up in one stark phrase: the newly imposed domination of the State. During the medieval synthesis of the High Middle Ages there was a balance between the power of Church and State, with the Church slightly more powerful. In the 14th century that balance was broken, and the nation-state came to hold sway, breaking the power of the Church, taxing, regulating, controlling and wreaking devastation through virtually continuous war for over a century (the Hundred Years' War, from 1337 to 1453).
The first and critically most important step in the rise in the power of the State at the expense of crippling the economy was the destruction of the fairs of Champagne. During the High Middle Ages, the fairs of Champagne were the main mart for international trade, and the hub of local and international commerce. These fairs had been carefully nurtured by being made free zones, untaxed or unregulated by the French kings or nobles, while justice was swiftly and efficiently meted out by competing private and merchants' courts. The fairs of Champagne reached their peak during the 13th century, and provided the center for land-based trade over the Alps from northern Italy, bearing goods from afar.
Then, in the early 14th century, Philip IV, the Fair, king of France (1285–1314), moved to tax, plunder, and effectively destroy the vitally important fairs of Champagne. To finance his perpetual dynastic wars, Philip levied a stiff sales tax on the Champagne fairs. He also destroyed domestic capital and finance by repeated confiscatory levies on groups or organizations with money. In 1308, he destroyed the wealthy Order of the Templars, confiscating their funds for the royal treasury. Philip then turned to impose a series of crippling levies and confiscations on Jews and northern Italians ("Lombard's") prominent at the fairs: in 1306, 1311, 1315, 1320 and 1321. Furthermore, at war with the Flemings, Philip broke the long-time custom that all merchants were welcome at the fairs, and decreed the exclusion of the Flemings. The result of these measures was a rapid and permanent decline of the fairs of Champagne and of the trading route over the Alps. Desperately, the Italian city-states began to reconstitute trade routes and sail around the Straits of Gibraltar to Bruges, which began to flourish even though the rest of Flanders was in decay.
It was particularly fateful that Philip the Fair inaugurated the system of regular taxation in France. Before then, there were no regular taxes. In the medieval era, while the king was supposed to be all-powerful in his own sphere, that sphere was restricted by the sanctity of private property. The king was supposed to be an armed enforcer and upholder of the law, and his revenues were supposed to derive from rents on royal lands, feudal dues and tolls. There was nothing that we would call regular taxation. In an emergency, such as an invasion or the launching of a crusade, the prince, in addition to invoking the feudal duty of fighting on his behalf, might ask his vassals for a subsidy; but that aid would be requested rather than ordered, and be limited in duration to the emergency period.
The perpetual wars of the 14th and the first half of the 15th centuries began in the 1290s, when Philip the Fair, taking advantage of King Edward I of England's war with Scotland and Wales, seized the province of Gascony from England. This launched a continuing warfare between England and Flanders on the one side, and France on the other, and led to a desperate need for funds by both the English and the French Crowns.
The merchants and capitalists at the fairs of Champagne might have money, but the largest and most tempting source for royal plunder was the Catholic Church. Both the English and French monarchs proceeded to tax the Church, which brought them into a collision course with the pope. Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303) stoutly resisted this new form of pillage, and prohibited the monarchs from taxing the Church. King Edward reacted by denying justice in the royal courts to the Church, while Philip was more militant by prohibiting the transfer of Church revenue from France to Rome. Boniface was forced to retreat and to allow the tax, but his bull Unam Sanctam (1302) insisted that temporal authority must be subordinate to the spiritual. That was enough for Philip, who boldly seized the pope in Italy and prepared to try him for heresy, a trial only cut off by the death of the aged Boniface. At this point Philip the Fair seized the papacy itself, and brought the seat of the Roman Catholic Church from Rome to Avignon, where he proceeded to designate the pope himself. For virtually the entire 14th century, the pope, in his "Babylonian captivity," was an abject tool of the French king; the pope only returned to Italy in the early 15th century.
In this way, the once mighty Catholic Church, dominant power and spiritual authority during the High Middle Ages, had been brought low and made a virtual vassal of the royal plunderer of France.
The decline of Church authority, then, was matched by the rise in the power of the absolute State. Not content with confiscating, plundering, taxing, crushing the fairs of Champagne, and bringing the Catholic Church under his heel, Philip the Fair also obtained revenue for his eternal wars by debasement of the coinage and thereby generated a secular inflation.
The wars of the 14th century did not cause a great deal of direct devastation: armies were small and hostilities were intermittent. The main devastation came from the heavy taxes and from the monetary inflation and borrowing to finance the eternal royal adventures. The enormous increase of taxation was the most crippling aspect of the wars. The expenses of war: recruitment of the modestly sized army; payments of its wages; supplies; and fortifications — all cost from two- to fourfold the ordinary expenses of the Crown. Add to that the high costs of tax assessment and enforcement and the cost of the loans, and the crippling burden of war taxation becomes all too clear.
The new taxes were everywhere. We have seen the grave effect of taxes on the Church; on a large monastic farm, they often absorbed over 40 percent of the net profits of the farm. A uniform poll tax of one shilling, levied by the English Crown in 1380, inflicted great hardship on peasants and craftsmen. The tax amounted to one month's wages for agricultural workers and one week's wages for urban laborers; moreover, since many poor workers and peasants were paid in kind rather than money, amassing the money to pay the tax was particularly difficult.
Other new taxes levied were ad valorem on all transactions; taxes on wholesale and retail beverages; and levies on salt and wool. To combat evasion of the tax, the governments established monopoly markets for the sale of salt in France and "staple points" for English wool. The taxes restricted supply and raised prices, crippling the critical English wool trade. Production and trade were hampered further by massive requisitions levied by the kings, thus causing a drastic fall of income and wealth, as well as bankruptcies among the producers. In short, consumers suffered from artificially high prices and producers from low returns, with the king bleeding the economy of the differential. Government borrowing was scarcely more helpful, leading to repeated defaults by the kings and consequent heavy losses and bankruptcies among the private bankers unwise enough to lend to the government.
Originating as a response to wartime "emergency," the new taxes tended to become permanent: not only because the warfare lasted for over a century, but because the State, always on the lookout for an increase in its income and power, seized upon the golden opportunity to convert wartime taxes into a permanent part of the national heritage.
From the middle to the end of the 14th century, Europe was struck with the devastating pandemic of the Black Death — the bubonic plague — which in the short span of 1348–1350 wiped out fully one-third of the population. The Black Death was largely the consequence of people's lowered living standards caused by the great depression and the resulting loss of resistance to disease. The plague continued to recur, though not in such virulent form, in every decade of the century.
Such are the great recuperative powers of the human race that this enormous tragedy caused virtually no lasting catastrophic social or psychological effects among the European population. In a sense, the longest-lasting ill effect from the Black Death was the response of the English Crown in imposing permanent maximum wage control and compulsory labor rationing upon English society. The sudden decline of population and consequent doubling of wage rates was met by the government's severe imposition of maximum wage control in the Ordinance of 1349 and the Statue of Labourers of 1351. Maximum wage control was established at the behest of the employing classes: large, middle, and small landlords, and master craftsmen, the former groups in particular alarmed at the rise of agricultural wage rates. The ordinance and the statute defied economic law by attempting to enforce maximum wage control at the old pre-plague levels. The inevitable result, however, was a grave shortage of labor, since at the statutory maximum wage the demand for labor was enormously greater than the newly scarce supply.
Every government intervention creates new problems in the course of vain attempts to solve the old. The government is then confronted with the choice: pile on new interventions to solve the inexplicable new problems, or repeal the original intervention. Government's instinct, of course, is to maximize its wealth and power by adding new interventions. So did the English Statute of Labourers — which imposed forced labor at the old wage rates for all men in England under the age of 60, restricted the mobility of labor, declaring that the lord of a particular territory had first claim on a man's labor, and made it a criminal offence for an employer to hire a worker who had left a former master. In that way, the English government engaged in labor rationing to try to freeze laborers at their pre-plague occupations at pre-plague wages.
This forced rationing of labor cut against the natural inclination of men to leave for more employment at better wages, and so the inevitable rise of black markets for labor made enforcement of the statutes difficult. The desperate English Crown tried once again, in the Cambridge Statute of 1388, to make the rationing more rigorous. Labor mobility of any sort was prohibited without written permission from local justices, and compulsory child labor was imposed in agriculture. But there was continual evasion of this compulsory buyers' cartel, especially by large employers, who were particularly eager and able to pay higher wage rates. The cumbersome English judicial machinery was totally ineffective in enforcing the legislation, although the monopolistic urban guilds (monopolies enforced by government) were able to partially enforce wage control in the cities.
 The population decline was roughly uniform throughout western Europe, with the Italian population falling from 10 to 7.5 million, France and the Netherlands from 19 to 12 million, Germany and Scandinavia from 11.5 to 7.5 million, and Spain from 9 to 7 million. The largest percentage drop was in Great Britain, where the number of inhabitants fell from 5 to 3 million in this period.