How Capitalism Shaped Modern Europe

In 1278 the King of England came up with a new plan to raise money and land. He felt that some regal privileges had been usurped by  subjects getting above their pay grade (so to speak)

King Edward sent royal officers around to prominent individuals demanding by what legal right they held their honours.

However when Edward’s men arrived at the home of one John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, the ageing aristocrat pulled out his rusty sword and proclaimed: “My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.”


In the Middle Ages social status derived from military strength, or  the military strength of one’s ancestors. This very European order rested on a caste of knights devoted to violence, like the Knights of Saint John and the Templars of the Crusades.  Society was dangerous then.  Oxford’s murder  rate at the time was  twice that of modern Baltimore.


Because knights were powerful,  knighthood was celebrated in songs and poems, but still the violent culture that underpinned their station in society only led to further bloodshed – until the rise of the merchants swept them away.


There were  a number of things that contributed to the shaping  of the late medieval period.

The  Catholic Church was one, and the legal system another. But it was the  development of capitalism, and the rise of a merchant class which played a huge part.


The medieval system began with the Franks, whose mastery of cavalry made them the most powerful tribe in the former western empire. Later the Normans used horses in far larger numbers and developed the cavalry charge. This was  used to lethal effect at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the most memorable date in British school history class, so I am told.


Cavalry underpinned the European social order. Only those with a reasonable amount of land could afford the destrier warhorse, which cost 30 times as much as a regular farm animal and which could carry up to 300lb in weight, the iron armour was around 60lbs alone – not an inexpensive investment.


The sons of the aristocracy were mostly schooled in warfare from a young age and viewed learning and trade as dishonourable, this lead to an excess of  young minor aristocrats whose only skill was fighting. They found their way to wars, or caused them, or made a living at absurdly dangerous tournaments. Cavalry developed certain rules – chivalry, which primarily concerned the treatment of  prisoners –Think of the legends of Arthur, Lancelot and Roland.


The knights got their  first wake up call in  1302.  France’s cavalry confidently marched north to suppress a revolt by the Flemish (modern day Belgium). The flat fields  of Flanders are  not naturally rich in resources –Vlaanderen means flooded – but its people had turned swamps into fertile sheep pastures.

Towns were  built and  a cloth industry thrived whose produce was sought in the wealthiest part of Europe. It’s  GDP per capita was 20 per cent greater than France and 25 per cent better than England.


The Flemish were traders, not knights, and the French were sure of a swift victory. And yet, with enough money to pay for a large, well-drilled infantry they were able to, for the first time, to destroy the cavalry at the Battle of the Golden Spurs.


It was the beginning of the end – and as the merchants and traders  grew in strength so they undermined the violence-obsessed culture of the nobility.


European capitalism had begun. Primarily in northern Italy, around Venice.


The Venetians, along with their arch-rivals the Genoese and Pisans, had been involved in the crusades, but despite papal prohibition continued to trade with the infidel. Indeed, nothing would stop their desire to engage in commerce, and Arab geographer and traveller Ibn Jubayr noted that “It is amazing to see that the fires of discord burn” between Christians and Muslims when it comes to politics but, when trading, travellers “come and go without interference”.


Religious zealots back in Europe observed with frustration that among Westerners settled in the Levant, once they began to trade with the Muslims, they lost their hunger for holy war.

If Venice was the leading capitalist state then Florence was where a middle-class ethos developed the strongest.


In Italy warfare had by the 14th century been contracted out to mercenaries, and even in France it was noticed that this new merchant lifestyle had its benefits

London was behind Italy or Flanders but it was catching up. The city had started to grow as a trading hub in the 12th century, and its mayor, William Hardel, was the only commoner to witness Magna Carta in 1215 and helped secure Clause 41, which stated that all foreign “merchants are to be safe and secure in departing from and coming to England” without “evil exactions”.


London expanded rapidly in the later middle ages, increasing its share of England’s wealth from two to nine per cent, and Henry IV (1399-1413) was the first king to invite its merchants on to the royal council, among them Sir Richard Whittington (although in contrast Henry hated another rising profession, lawyers, and banned from them from parliament, or the “Unlearned Parliament”, as it was called).


Despite their power, the merchants purposefully avoided conflict, so that when in the 1380s Richard II tried to raise an army in the city to fight his various internal enemies he was met with disinterest.


Of English aristocrats born between 1350 and 1375, one in four died violently and during the following century, with the War of the Roses, whole families were wiped out. Merchants played little part in the conflict, though they were supportive of the Yorkist Edward IV, the first king to really appreciate the City as a financial hub.


He invested himself, and would take leading merchants away for team-bonding sessions, where they played sports, drank themselves into a stupor and indulged in rather sordid behaviour with women (The Presidents Club recent scandals where young women were groped and Harvey Weinstein-esque behaviour  are nothing new).


King Edward’s favourite mistress, Jane Shore, came from the merchant elite, the daughter of a Cheapside trader and the wife of another.

Yet the nobility still longed for war with France, and in 1475 the king was pushed into leading an army across the channel, where he was happily bought off. After an enormous drunken party in which English and French soldiers intermingled, the king was greeted with enthusiasm by the city governors of London, delighted at the prospect of “intercourse of Merchaundises for their Cuntries and Subjects”.


The aristocratic class who wished for glory in battle were in retreat and yet despite this their tales live on.


While in exile in Burgundy King Edward had met a London merchant by the name of William Caxton who in his spare time transcribed books for aristocratic women. Exhausted at the toll of work, he learned through business contacts of a new technology in Germany, called moveable type; when Caxton brought a printing press back home one of the most successful books he published was Thomas Malory’s The Death of Arthur.


It became the influential work in celebrating the Heroic Narrative of the Middle Ages, but the aristocratic ideals it harked back to were mostly a sham and ultimately rested on the rusty sword (and Malory was a convicted rapist).


No account by  any trader or banker could  compete with these knights’ tales,  and yet it was they were the real heroes who shaped modern Europe.


Perhaps the Black Bloc and other anti capitalists aught to have a lesson in history before the next protest.


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