The World Economy by the OECD Development Centre
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Western europe recovers and forges ahead, 1000–1500

Between the years 1000 and 1500, Western Europe’s population grew faster than any other part of the world. Northern countries grew significantly faster than those bordering the Mediterranean. The urban proportion (in terms of towns with more than 10 000 population) rose from zero to 6 per cent, a clear indicator of expansion in manufacturing and commercial activity. Factors making it possible to feed the increased population were an increase in the area of rural settlement, particularly in the Netherlands, Northern Germany and the Baltic coast and the gradual incorporation of technological changes which raised land productivity. The classic analysis of these rural changes is by Lynn White (1962): “…the heavy plough, open fields, the new integration of agriculture and herding, three field rotation, modern horse harness, nailed horseshoes and whipple tree had combined into a total system of agrarian exploitation by the year 1100 to provide a zone of peasant prosperity stretching across Northern Europe from the Atlantic to the Dnieper.” White probably exaggerated the precocity of their impact and the degree of prosperity, but these technical improvements were clearly of fundamental importance. The switch from a two–field to a three–field system also increased food security and reduced the incidence of famine. A growing proportion of agricultural output went as inputs into clothing production (wool), wine and beer (cereals and vines) and fodder crops for an increased horse population. There was a degree of regional specialisation in food production with growing international trade in cereals, live cattle, cheese, fish and wine. Increased trade in salt and the reintroduction of spice imports helped improve the palatability and conservation of meat and fish.

Increased use of water and windmills augmented the power available for industrial processes, particularly in new industries such as sugar production and paper making. There was international specialisation in the woollen industry. English wool was exported to Flanders for production of cloth which was traded throughout Europe. The silk industry was introduced in the twelfth century and had grown impressively in Southern Europe by 1500. There were big improvements in the quality of textiles and the varieties of colour and design available. Genoa introduced regular shipments of alum from Chios to Bruges in the thirteenth century. There were improvements in mining and metallurgy which helped transform and expand European weapons production (see Nef, 1987 and Cipolla, 1970). Improvements in shipping and navigation techniques from the eleventh to the fifteenth century underpinned the increase in trade in the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Atlantic islands and the Northwest coast of Africa.

There were big advances in banking, accountancy, marine insurance, improvements in the quality of intellectual life with the development and spread of universities, the growth of humanist scholarship and, at the end of the fifteenth century, the introduction of printing.

There were important changes in the political order. Scandinavian raiders who had made attacks on England, the low countries, Normandy and deep into Russia had become traders and established effective systems of governance in Scandinavia itself, in England, Normandy and Sicily. The beginnings of a nation state system had emerged, with a reduction in the fragmentation of political power that had characterised the Middle Ages. The hundred years war (1337–1453) was not the last of the conflicts between England and France, but the national identity of the two countries was much more clearly defined after it was over. At the end of the fifteenth century, the reconquista had established Spanish identity in its modern form. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the situation was the reverse. The Ottoman Empire had taken Constantinople in 1453, and quickly extended its hegemony to the Balkans, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa.

Estimates of what happened to GDP in Europe and the rest of the world over this period are obviously subject to a wide margin of error. Chapter 1 and Appendix B explain the basis for my estimates as transparently as possible. I concluded that there was almost a doubling of West European per capita income from 1000 to 1500 compared with an improvement of about a third in China, less elsewhere in Asia, and some regression in Africa. It seems clear that West European levels of income and productivity were higher than in Asia and Africa at the end of the period whereas they had been lower in the year 1000. As far as West Asia and Egypt are concerned, this view seems to be shared by specialists in Muslim history, e.g. Abulafiah (1987) and Abu–Lughod (1989); for China/West European performance the evidence for this conclusion is examined in detail in Maddison (1998a).

Within Europe, the areas which made the most economic progress in this period were i) Flanders, which was the centre for wool production, international banking and commerce in Northern Europe; and ii) Italian city states — Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Milan and Venice. Of these the most successful and the richest was Venice.