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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2018

2 - Europe from obscurity to economic recovery


Light in the Dark Ages

The Dark Ages in Europe, the centuries after the decline of the Roman Empire, were not as dark as we used to think, although they did not possess the political, cultural and economic grandeur of the Roman Empire. Nor did Europe match Muslim civilization in terms of wealth and technical ingenuity. Products and technologies for the manufacture of sugar, paper, cotton and fine fabrics, chemicals for dying and glassmaking, would be imported during subsequent centuries. However, modern historians are now rewriting the history of the sixth to ninth centuries, and the prevailing pessimistic view is giving way to a more nuanced view of what happened after the decline of the Roman Empire. Settlements were abandoned and cities lost population and skills; roads deteriorated because of lack of proper maintenance; political maps were redrawn and social order was difficult to maintain; money was scarce and uniform coinage was lacking; income fell for ordinary people as well as the rich. Income declined because traditional trade links had been disrupted and because the social disorder and declining population could not support the infrastructure of public institutions and roads, markets and fairs, or the division of labour and specialization of the previous centuries. Income per head did not attain the peak level reached in the Roman period until the twelfth or thirteenth century in the most advanced parts of Europe.

In one respect this age remains dark: we do not have much written documentation, so we have to rely on archaeological evidence which is difficult to interpret. Historians use numismatic evidence, deposits of pottery and metal utensils; they analyse the nature and extension of settlements and of course the few written documents that are available. By locating coins you can, with a critical eye, trace trade links, for example. The extension of a market network can be revealed by the diffusion of specific types of pottery, jewellery and coins.

There is an ever-growing literature on the recovery of the European economy after the decline of the Roman Empire. The topic engaged the leading economic historians of the past. M., McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy: Communication and Commerce A.D. 300–900 (Cambridge University Press, 2001) is an impressive new study using archaeological and numismatic evidence and written documents to give a nuanced view of the recovery of the European economy, focusing on trade. It also builds on a long tradition of research, which is generously referred to, and the book is therefore a good guide to the relevant literature. Shorter monographs include R., Hodges, Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade, 600–1000 (London: Duckworth, 1989). On urban revival see A., Verhulst, The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
A modern classic is C., Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy 1000–1700 (London, Routledge, 1977 or later editions).
On money see P., Spufford, Money and its Use in Medieval Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1988) and J. H., Munro ‘The medieval origins of the financial revolution: Usury, rents and negotiability’, in The International History Review 25(3) (2003), 505–62.
Angus, Maddison has contributed to the comparative work on income in a number of books. His most recent contributions include The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Paris: OECD Development Centre Studies 2001), and Contours of the World Economy: The Pace and Patterns of Change, 1–2030 AD (Oxford University Press, 2007). His estimates for the pre-industrial period have recently been challenged and new estimates tend to upgrade income levels. On the Roman era income see also Raymond W., Goldsmith, ‘An estimate of the size and structure of the national product of the early Roman Empire’, Review of Income and Wealth 30(3) (1984), 263–88.
B., Milanovic has studied Byzantine and Roman income in ‘An estimate of average income and inequality in Byzantium around year 1000’, Review of Income and Wealth, 52(3) (2007), 449–70. In a working paper with the same title published by the World Bank Milanovic gives a full range of estimates (Table 5a) including what he calls an implausibly high estimate of Roman per capita income at 2500$PPP.
For a short introduction and interpretation of the history of technology with relevant references to the specialist literature see Joel, Mokyr, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
A rare example of a theoretical model discussing technological regress is S., Aiyar, C.-J., Dalgaard and O., Moav, ‘Technological progress and regress in pre-industrial times’, Journal of Economic Growth 13 (2008), 124–44. Technological regress as well as the conditions that make an economy operate below its potential are analysed in G., Grantham, ‘Contra-Ricardo: on the macroeconomics of pre-industrial economics’, European Review of Economic History 3(2) (1999), 199–232.