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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson


In the course of the eleventh century, there was a process of specialization in several areas of northwestern Europe that, taken with the development of routes of heavy transport, created an integrated and interdependent economy in the region.

Under the pressure of natural population increase and rising sea levels, the peasantry of the lowlands began diking and ditching canals for drainage. The goal was land reclamation and preservation in Holland and Dietmarschen, but the canals of Flanders also opened up "inland" towns such as Ypres, Bruges, and Lille to the sea and the sea-trafficking Frisian merchants. At the same time, it was found that the salt meadows of the district supported the raising of sheep of extraordinarily fine wool. The Flemish towns began utilizing thisresource to produce textiles that were shipped out to be sold all over theknown world.

Sheep-raising expanded at the expense of arable land, but the capacity of the Flemish mills eventually outstripped the fleece-production of the district and other sources of raw materials had to be found.

In England, the beginning of the shift from beer and ale consumption among the well-to do was accompanied by the intensification of sheep-raising in the Fens and Wash. These districts had been extensively canalized by the Romans, and the process of restoring these canals, both for drainage and transportation was begun. Although English monarchs attempted time and again to stimulate an English textile industry, the fleece of the sheep of eastern England remained almost exclusively an export product, designed to supplement the wool supplies of Hainhault and Flanders.

Although Scheldt towns such as Tournai, Courtrai, and Ghent, and Maas towns such as Namur and Liege, developed extensive textile manufactures, they also drew upon grain and wine-producing districts upstream for local consumption and export, including a favored type of beer. The greatest wine-producing region, however, was the Moselle valley, with vineyards dating back to Roman times, and the narrower reaches of the Rhine.

The Rhineland supported a relatively dense population, both from industries such as the metalwork of Strasbourg and the glassware of Cologne, as well as the extensive trade that linked with Italy over the Alps, the Danube above Lake Constance, and the Rhone via the Moselle. This population was too numerous for the limited land of the Rhine Valley to support, and depended upon grain and other commodities from the Neckar, Main, Ruhr and other valleys to the east.

Artois and Picardy came to produce the surplus foodstuffs to meet the needs of the Flemish population and, occasionally, that of Hainhault. Finally, the Frisians were able to draw upon the fishers of Norway and Denmark for smoked and pickled herring that was highly-prized and consumed throughout the region.

It is important to remember the interdependent character of these districts since the cause of an event in one may often be found in another. An outbreak of ergotism in Artois, normally the sign of a shortfall in the previous year's harvest, may in fact be the result of a hailstorm in Hainhault that has diminished its beer shipments to Flanders, driving up grain prices in Bruges and stimulating grain merchants of Boulogne to ship out more grain than usual, thus reducing the amount available for local consumption and driving up grain prices in Calais.

Economic integration can mean that local scarcities may be mitigated by imports, but it can also mean that the misfortune of one district may be borne by the inhabitants of another.

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Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.