Medieval elites

The High Middle Ages, according to Peter Turchin, was a great time to be part of the landed nobility.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the populations of France and England tripled.  As a result, the cost of labor declined precipitously while the value of land increased in proportion.  The lords and ladies of the upper crust could work their lands cheaply, and sell the produce at high prices.  The resulting surplus paid for a lavish and ostentatious lifestyle, and a building program which included the towering Gothic cathedrals.

This, writes Turchin, was an unsustainable Malthusian situation.  Low wages made the cost of food prohibitive for the peasantry, and the high medieval party ended in the fourteenth century with the triumph of famine, pestilence, war, and death.  The outbreak of bubonic plague in 1348, which recurred over several generations, cut the population by half or more.

A reversal of fortune now confronted the medieval elites.  Agricultural labor became scarce, hence expensive.  The prices of land and food collapsed.  This might be called the great age of the peasantry, but it meant the ruin of the land-owning class.  Because of their privileged condition, they had survived plague and famine rather well.  Only one European monarch, Alfonso XI of Castile, died of the Black Death.

By the end of the fourteenth century, the surplus of wealth had been converted into a surplus of elites.  And here the story gets really interesting, from a twenty-first century perspective.

With too many nobles chasing too little wealth, the only sensible way forward was to cut back on consumption:  fewer tournaments, feasts, and jeweled gowns.  Yet conspicuous expenditures had an ideological foundation:  they signaled “I belong at the top” to other members of the elite caste as well as to nonelites.  To give up tournaments and rich gowns would be to tumble out of the nobility, down into the arms of the great unwashed.

Here’s Turchin on the ideological dilemma of the medieval elites:

Many nobles found that their revenues were insufficient to support them in the style to which the previous generation was accustomed.  Decreasing the level of consumption was unthinkable because it meant losing the elite status, and nobles responded by extracting a greater proportion of resources from peasants, by seeking supplemental sources of income with the state, and by going into debt.

A country experiences a severe loss of wealth.  To live within its reduced means, the government should adjust its expenditures downward.  Instead, for ideological reasons, the ruling elites increase their share of the country’s wealth, by increasing the government’s burden on everyone else.  In addition, ruinous debt is incurred.

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar.

In the last three years, Americans lost $10 trillion because of lower home and stock values – a shock that spread to the rest of the economy, forcing 10 percent of the workforce into unemployment.  Decline in prosperity, in turn, led to dramatically lower tax receipts by the federal government.

Truth in advertisement:  I am no economist.  But simple household prudence suggests that the government, with less income, should adjust its expenditures downward.

Instead, our ruling elites took the opposite tack.  President Bush met the devastation of US personal wealth with a “stimulus” of $180 billion.  President Obama claimed this wasn’t enough, and offered a second “stimulus” of nearly $1 trillion.  Since, unsurprisingly, such a massive federal bellyflop into the marketplace hasn’t stimulated much of anything, the call has gone out for a third attempt.

Every penny of “stimulus” has been sucked out of the economy:  out of people’s hands.  It must be paid for with higher taxes or massive borrowing.  The current plan calls for both.

As we grow poorer, our government has decided to consume a greater portion of the remaining wealth.  Despite the Keynesian cant, the reasons are transparently ideological.  Our ruling elites, like their medieval counterparts, believe above all in themselves – in their own virtue and genius, in their unique ability to solve complex problems, in the necessity, therefore, of their controlling power.

The “stimulus” was itself stimulated far more by the ambition and self-love of the elites, than by any desire to improve the dreary lives of the peasants.

Historical parallels are always imperfect, and comparing a traditional agricultural society to a modern, growth-based one is even more of a stretch.  But I think it’s worth recalling  that the attempt by medieval elites to squeeze a greater proportion of wealth out of a smaller population turned out badly.  Wars, factional violence, peasant rebellions, duels, bankruptcy and breakdown of central authority, sheer looting and banditry:  the arrow of causation is uncertain, but the general trend is clear.

Turchin again:

. . . the primary reason of the collapse of law and order was the failure of the ruling class.  There were huge numbers of destitute, but armed and dangerous, nobles.  Individuals fought duels or ambushed each other, and families and clans conducted multigenerational feuds. . . It was really the nobles who were the ‘criminal underclass’ during the late Middle Ages.

Fortunately, it’s unlikely that we’ll see bands of federal bureaucrats crossing swords like Montagues and Capulets.  But the attempt of our elites to monopolize moral responsibility can and will de-moralize the people:  about  this, let me suggest, medieval history counts as fair warning.

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5 Responses to Medieval elites

  1. Adam says:

    This is consistent with the Road to Serfdom story; it’s easy for the encroachments to creep further and further into our lives but much harder to regain the ground we have lost. Even, as this book suggests, when necessity would seem to call for it.

    Peter said that he was taking a class once in which they were talking about the trouble coming down the line for entitlement spending on things like social security, and someone in the class said “But didn’t Chile overcome their entitlements crises?” and an awkward silence followed.

  2. Stephen says:

    While I’m actually in agreement that our cycle of debt and expenditures is harmful to the underclass (it seems like most things are), I don’t believe it’s sound to compare government stimulus to medieval nobles enriching their personal treasuries.

    I understand an argument that government stimulus is less efficient than the free market, but it also seems wrong to claim that stimulus money has been removed from the economy altogether. It’s also worth noting that the Bush stimulus was a tax rebate, and the Obama stimulus contained $300 billion in tax cuts (vs. ~$500 billion in spending).

  3. ishron says:

    Stephen, please elaborate on the $300billion in tax cuts that were in any Obama stimulus to date. Yes, there is a proposal for tax cuts in the near future but there has not been any legislation passed that included tax cuts in the past two years. As for your comments about the Bush Tax Cut, the rebate as you put it, please refer to Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation reports which should help you with factual information about taxation. President Bush proposed and Congress passed two tax cut plans. There were two 10-year plans that cut $1.35Trillion in 2001 and one in 2003 for $350Billion that included your tax rebate in hopes of stimulating the economy, which you can argue that it did. These were in response to the largest tax increases in history imposed by the Clinton Administration to balance the budget, which it did.

  4. Maureen says:

    Actually, everything was fine with the peasants until the Little Ice Age started.

    It wasn’t a Malthusian case of too many people; in fact, there was a good deal of social mobility in the High Middle Ages. Labor was cheap, so nobles and gentry weren’t minded to hold their serfs tightly. With the influx of peasants from the countryside, towns began to grow and flourish. Towns were able to get all sorts of concessions.

    Then the Little Ice Age started, and there were lots of storms and crop diseases and a much shorter growing season. That’s why people froze and starved and got malnourished; they were suddenly not able to grow oranges in Southern England and grapes in Scotland. Wine stopped being a common person’s drink in most of Northern Europe, and food was scarce. The only thing that helped the situation was the massive amounts of salt cod being brought in by the Catalans from the Newfoundland fishery.

    Malthus, my butt. It’s the weatherman who was to blame.

    • You could both be right – I don’t believe in single-cause explanations of human events. For what it’s worth, Turchin explicitly discusses the climate change at the time, and comes down on the side of “it compounded the problem, which was essentially social.”

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