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.
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.
. . . 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.