Medieval Capitalism

March 14, 2011

by Jerry O’Driscoll  

Randall Collins is a distinguished sociologist and Weber scholar. In Weberian Sociological Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1986), Collins re-examines Weber’s contributions. It is a book favorable to Weber. In chapter 3, “The Weberian revolution of the High Middle Ages,” he employs Weber’s analysis to demonstrate that it was in medieval Europe that capitalism and modernity developed. “…The Middle Ages experienced the key institutional revolution, … the basis of capitalism was laid then rather than later, and that at its heart was the organization of the Catholic Church itself” (45).

Consider my post inspired by Gene Callahan’s earlier one. My interest is not in interpreting Weber, but understanding the history of the market economy. But much of the discussion in the prior post centered on interpreting Weber. Collins is relevant because he establishes the position I argued from a Weberian perspective.

Collins is not an historian, but he cites numerous, familiar historical texts in support of the view that medieval Europe saw the rise of the modern market economy. He cites Lynn White for detailing how the period was one of “the major periods of technological innovation in the history of the world” (47). Collins notes that the 1200s were a period in which mass production evolved. It was certainly a period of self-government in autonomous cities.

On the critical Weberian theme of bureaucracy, he contends that “the first bureaucratic state in modern times was not a secular state at all but the Papacy” (49). He goes into considerable detail to show how the Papacy and the Church conformed to a Weberian bureaucratic state. One tidbit is that the Curia evolved to settle economic disputes within the Church.

Much of Collins’ focus is in establishing whether medieval Europe was capitalist in Weberian  terms. His answer is a resounding yes.  “One could say that they [the Cistercian monks] represented Weber’s ‘inner-worldly asceticism’ in the most literal form. They had the Protestant ethic without Protestantism.

17 Responses to “Medieval Capitalism”

  1. Gene Callahan Says:

    I will just note this: the admiration I expressed for Weber’s work was chiefly methodological: I believe he gave us a beautiful demonstration of how to do social theory using historical evidence. Whether his thesis tying Protestantism to capitalism was correct was beside the point in terms of what I wished to note: an entirely laudatory method can fail to reach the correct conclusion if it is based on insufficient data.

  2. Roger McKinney Says:

    Medieval Europe may have had “Weberian” capitalism, but I don’t think Weber did a good job of explaining the origins of capitalism. All he did, and it seems all he intended to do, was show the values transformation.

    While the values transformation was necessary, as McCloskey shows, it wasn’t sufficient. One could argue that ancient Israel had the values but not much else.

    Institutional change is a fundamental requirement for capitalism. And while earlier groups may have discovered mass production, it wasn’t widely used until the Dutch.

    The ancient Greeks had steam power, but they used it in their temples to animate idols rather than provide labor savings.


  3. Gene — And on that point, we are on the same page.

  4. Current Says:

    > The ancient Greeks had steam power

    The aeophile isn’t really a practical steam engine.

  5. Roger McKinney Says:

    I agree, but I wasn’t referring to the aeophile. In Egypt and Greece, long before the aeophile, temples used steam power to move idols, in some cases making small chariots move across the temple and causing doors to open and close. They used steam pushing water and sometimes pistons in very much the same way that the first steam engines worked.

  6. chidemkurdas Says:

    RE “…The Middle Ages experienced the key institutional revolution, … the basis of capitalism was laid then rather than later, and that at its heart was the organization of the Catholic Church itself” It is an intriguing point. One certainly gets the impression of extensive bureaucratic organization in the medieval Catholic Church. Ancient Rome provided a model for some types of organization, I think. But the Church took it further.

  7. Roger McKinney Says:

    PS, see the Wikipedia article “Ancient Greek technology” for an amazing array of ancient technology. Also see the Wiki article “Hero of Alexandria”.

    Yes, most of these items were toys, but that is exactly the point I am making. They had the technology but they used them as toys for the wealthy or to deceive temple worshippers instead of for mass production. Why?

    The answer lies in the values and institutions of the period.

    A lot of people invented a lot of things throughout history, but the simple fact is that the real per capita gdp of any group of people did not grow consistently until the Dutch Republic.

    The wealth of many nations grew as they conquered other nations and stole their wealth, as the Ottomans and Spanish did, or by using their navy to give them a monopoly on trade as Venice did.

    But which nation first consistently grew its per capita gdp by mass production? The Dutch Republic, as De Vries, Maddison and I believe even Adam Smith assert. The Dutch didn’t invent much at first. They merely put all of the pieces together for the first time: institutions that protect property, such as free markets, investment, technology and the values to support it all. One or more of those elements are missing from every other group in the past.

  8. Roger Koppl Says:

    I can’t figure out whether I agree or disagree, Jerry. In college curricula, “modern” history began in 1500, which seems as odd date. I wonder if that date isn’t a reflection of Hume’s remark that the bit if English history that really matters for contemporary politics begins with Henry VIII. I figure Hume was thinking about events shaping the mixed constitution of England and Wales. But for most other purposes 1500 seems way off. Vasari dates the Renaissance to Cimabue, who lived about 1250 to about 1300. That seems way closer to the truth as the artists began then to take an increasingly scientific approach to their crafts. So if “medieval” means 1200s, as it seems to for Collins, then I suppose the modern world begins at least that far back and thus in medieval times. And the Italian city states were, of course, highly mercantile states in close competition. So Renaissance civilization was “capitalist” in that sense. But when did the average guy start to order his life in the closely “rational” way we see with, for example, Ben Franklin’s project of moral improvement? I thought that moment was later, wasn’t it? Marco Polo was a merchant and very modern in many ways, but he did *not* have the rationally ordered life we see with Franklin. I think Weber was getting at this last Franklinesque move. He saw that as the really characteristic feature of “capitalism,” it’s ubiquitous “rationality.” That last move, Weber says, happened when the Calvinists imported (“medieval”) monastic discipline to daily life. If that’s all correct, then Weber gets an A, but we also accept the claim that “medieval Europe saw the rise of the modern market economy.” I don’t know if that means I agree or disagree, Jerry.

  9. Rob Thorpe Says:

    Roger McKinney,

    You may be right that the Greeks didn’t use these things for practical purposes for cultural reasons.

    I think it’s much more likely though that they didn’t use them for practical reasons. Making something move using steam is a much simpler task than making a steam engine that can perform really useful work. I think it’s more likely that the ancient greeks didn’t have the metallurgical and engineering knowledge to apply steam to practical problems.


  10. Roger, you are exactly on the mark in concluding that the 1200s were modern in many ways. For instance, that is when the modern universities were first founded.

    The reassessment of medieval Europe began with Henri Pirenne’s Medieval Cities, published in 1925. Pirenne showed that trade and commerce revived much earlier than had been supposed. If there was a “dark” period in the West, it was roughly between the 5th and 9th centuries and linked to the decline of the Roman Empire. The East (Constantinople) never declined.

    There is no agreement on when the Renaissance began, but my favorite historian said the 1250-1300 figure is way too early. I suspect some want to push the Renaissance back because they cannot contenance anything “bright” about medieval Europe.

    If you reread Hayek’s LLL, especially attending to the footnotes, you will see that Hayek attributes a geat deal to the period for the development of liberty. That was born in practice and ideas followed. Economic flourishing drove that.

    There is nothing particularly controversial about what I have posted. Some of the texts Collins cites I read when I took European Economic History almost 40 years ago.(Lynn White’s classic piece on technology was written in 1962.) I try to keep up on the economic aspects, and directed a Liberty Fund Colloquium on trade and commerce in medieval times several years ago.

  11. Current Says:

    Roger McKinney, to make things clear Rob Thorpe = Current. I was posting to another forum where I normally use my real name and I accidentally used it here too.

  12. Roger McKinney Says:

    Rob, they did have the metallurgy. The first steam engines were iron, not steel. They had gear boxes, mostly wood, and water pumps. They had all of the pieces.

    I was watching a History Channel show last night about a water pump used in ancient Rome. It was nothing but an early steam engine working backwards. It would have been a small step to use steam to drive the pump instead of using the pump to drive water.

    But every time someone came up with a labor saving device, the emperor squashed it out of fear of creating unemployment. And the abundance of slaves kept people from even thinking about saving on labor. It just wasn’t in their culture.

  13. Roger McKinney Says:

    Trade did explode in the Middle Ages, but trade has always existed, like gravity. The Ottomans had a trading empire that went from Morocco to China and India, but they never developed capitalism.

    We have to explain the hockey stick effect of per capita gdp that began in 1600 in the Dutch Republic. Everyone in the world had enjoyed expansive trade networks long before that, but they didn’t develop capitalism.

  14. Current Says:

    I’m not convinced Roger.

    It’s not just a matter of having metallurgy. Not all iron is the same and ways for forming it vary greatly in what they can produce. Pumping water is a significantly easier task than dealing with stream. Large pressure and temperature differentials aren’t involved. Machines built of iron can only deal with those differentials if they’re constructed in particular ways.

    The pioneers of the steam engine in 18th century Britain had a great many problems with this when they built their engines. The advantage of Newcomen’s crude steam engines was that the power stroke was a suction stroke, that reduced the risk of mechanical failure causing an explosion. It also involved fewer temperature differentials.

    In the 19th century it became possible to make steam engines in many different ways because of the progress of metallurgy. High temperatures and pressures became possible. Then it became possible to make the type of high-pressure steam engines that you read about in books where a head of steam is used to move a piston forwards. George Selgin has a paper on this.

    It may have been possible with Greek or Roman technology to some degree. But, it’s not surprising if they didn’t discover exactly how to make it work with the materials they had.

    That said you may be right that the state of Greek & Roman society and culture played a large role. But, I don’t think it’s obvious that in this case that that was the reason.

  15. Hume Says:

    This is somewhat off topic (although in the realm of the discussion since it involves sociology / social theory), but I am hoping for a little help. Does anyone have any recommendations for pieces arguing against Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation? I have read Hejeebu and McCloskey (1999, 2004) and Rothbard’s letter. I am hoping for something that deals specifically with Polanyi’s “Double Movement” theory, but anything in general would work as well. I would greatly appreciate the help. Thanks.

  16. Roger McKinney Says:

    Current, I understand that the ancient Greeks didn’t have the technology fully developed. But they were very, very close. They had all of the pieces lying around. Why did it take another 2,000 years just to develop the metallurgy? They were very active in metallurgy of all kind at the time.

    Did Damascus steel exist in ancient Greece? I’m not sure, but it is very old.

    The point is that they had no incentive to work toward labor-saving machinery. In fact, such machines were actively banned and their pursuit discouraged. With the technology the ancients had, a very short learning curve existed between them and the industrial revolution. Instead, it took 2,000 years.

    btw, the water pump I mentioned earlier was two stroke and has a suction action followed by a pushing action, just like a steam engine.


  17. It is true that if you read The City by Max Weber, you discover a bourgeois society very familiar to us: legal equality in a society of arts, crafts, and trades where civic rule is by vote; lacking time or inclination for arms training, the citizen militia relies on firearms; whereas the manor neighbored the monestary, the city housed a university. For a publication in The Celator about the great fairs of Champagne, I was pleasantly surprised to discover sophisticated mercantile practices including the invention of money of account, the theoretical construct of pounds-shillings-pence independent of the plethora of actual currencies. Being all that as it may, capitalism is more than trade.

    It rests on the recognition of the inherent natural rights of the individual and the inherent limitations on political power: Socrates is not condemned; and Richard and Louis cannot expel the Jews after taking their money.

    If you prefer a more mechanistic standard, Peter L. Bernstein suggests the ability to calculate Risk (Against the Gods, 1996), made possible by Fermat and Pascal.

    As a reply to Roger Koppl above, allow me to suggest that we set 1500 as the start of Modernity because of Columbus. Moreover, as I learned it, if the Renaissance had an origin, it was with Dante his protege Petrarch seeking out old manuscripts and reviving an interest in ancient times. … But then, there had been the “Aquitaine Renaissance” which gave us the Arthurian Legends, medieval Latin, a Jewish center of learning next to a Cistertian monestary, and, of course, those great fairs.

    Perhaps it is fallacious to look for a terminus ante / post quaem. I think of a man waking up to the fading ring of an old alarm clock. “Honey! Quick! Wake up! It’s 1250 AD, we almost misssed the High Middle Ages!” She rises and asks, “Are you going to get me some brightly died wool?” He promises bring her cotton and to quit being a serf and to join the Hanseatic League. She takes down a lute, saying “I think I will learn to play this.”


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