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Not many decades ago the long fifteenth century was a notoriously dark age in English history, neglected because it was located awkwardly between the ‘true’ Middle Ages and the early modern era. When at last it began to receive the attention it warranted, attempts to dispel the gloom were bedevilled by an ambition to fashion generalisations that fitted the whole experience of the 150 years after 1350, or even the quarter millennium from 1300 to 1550. As a result fundamental disagreements arose, the most notable being whether this era should be characterised by economic growth and prosperity or by recession and decline. However, contention cooled as more research was undertaken, topics on the agenda defined and prioritised, and more manageable chronologies adopted, along with a willingness to identify sub-periods and sectors whose characteristics differed in major respects. Confidence has now increased sufficiently to persuade us that we are close to achieving a full understanding of the economy and society of England at the close of the Middle Ages, and there are distinct signs of a consensus emerging, with optimistic epithets such as ‘Economic Growth’, ‘An Age of Ambition’, ‘A Golden Age of Prosperity’, ‘An Age of Transition’, ‘A Consumer Economy’ and ‘A New Middle Ages’ in the ascendant.
However, a little more probing reveals that there is much that remains mysterious about the era and paradoxical about attempts that have been made to describe and explain it.
Medieval economic and social historians are accustomed to dealing in long periods of time: often in centuries rather than decades. Indeed, it has long proved seductive to divide the half millennium from the Norman Conquest to the accession of the Tudors into just two parts: the first, running from the late eleventh century to the early fourteenth - the 'long thirteenth century' - characterised by expansion, urbanisation, commercialisation and, eventually, overpopulation; the second - 'the long fifteenth century' - characterised by retreat and retrenchment. By common consensus, tendencies developed in the first era which became progressively more favourable to landlords and injurious to the mass of the peasantry, while in that which succeeded it these tendencies were thrown into reverse, with the result that the mass of the people benefited at the expense of their social and economic superiors.
The contributors to this collection of essays in honour of the distinguished medieval historian Edward Miller pay tribute by writing on the society and economy of England between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. They address many of the most important themes of an era that witnessed profound change in rural, commercial, urban and industrial life, and they focus in particular on the progress achieved and the problems encountered. The subjects covered include the growth of London, the commercial and urban development of the north, Italian merchants and banking, overseas trade, taxation, farm servants, hunting and poaching, changing relations between landlords and tenants, the expansion of the economy in the twelfth century, and the great slump of the fifteenth. The book has been written by leading experts, and is a major contribution to English medieval economic and social history.
The essentials of Robert Brenner's argument have been put forward many times before by a long and distinguished line of proponents. The counter-argument is also securely placed in historiography. Consequently, there is much to be said for simply referring readers to previous publications. Yet Brenner's thesis warrants a comment, if only because it harbours a number of widespread misconceptions. In dealing with these misconceptions we will also take the opportunity of dissipating the doctrinal, or rather the nomenclatural, confusion which has for years befogged the controversies over the role of demographic factors in history. Lack of space and expertise has compelled us to restrict ourselves to western Europe, mainly England, in the middle ages. Brenner's notions of post-medieval developments in western Europe mainly attach to Le Roy Ladurie's writings, and had better be left to the latter's superior competence.
In his article Brenner sets himself a double task – to discredit the socalled “demographic” or “cyclical” Malthusian model, and to offer in its stead the class-oriented model. He makes the first of the two tasks far less arduous than it might otherwise have proved by misrepresenting the views of the historians he holds responsible for it. These misrepresentations are exemplified in his double accusation that the erring historians have assigned to demographic factors an all-determining role in the medieval economy and society and that, in so doing, they have disregarded or minimized the importance of social factors, above all the feudal class system and the exploitation of villeins inherent in it. Both imputations are groundless.