The Rise of Rentierism under Feudalism & Serfdom (5th - 18th Century)

As serfs, the peasants and their children were bounded to their tenement for life, losing all political rights as well as freedom in virtually all aspects of their life.  They were obligated not only to relinquish much of what they harvested to their lord. In addition, they were required to provide a fixed number of days of labour or even military service to their lord. Serfdom was therefore a grossly unjust relationship of bondage.

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20 June 2019

The Rise of Feudalism & Serfdom in Medieval Europe


One of the earlier forms of rentierism, for example, can be traced far back to the start of Middle Ages (中古世纪) in the 5th century when the Roman Empire was breaking up and Western Europe was constantly invaded by outsiders. Some of these invaders established themselves as kings and awarded land grants or "fiefs" (封地) to his warriors in return for their military contributions. In time, this political system of feudalism (封建主义) led to the emergence of a socioeconomic system of serfdom (农奴制) when the warriors, now as land-owning feudal lords, leased their land to peasants based on tenancy.


Serfdom was an extension of the older system of manorialism (庄园制度) which involved peasants living in a manor, comprising a village and the land surrounding it, and subordinating themselves to the landowning aristocrats (贵族) for a livelihood and protection. Under serfdom, each fief owned by a feudal lord (封建领主) might include one or many manors. Great lords might have hundreds of manors under their direct control.


Technically, tenants leasing the land from the feudal lord could remain as free peasants. In reality, however, most cases of tenancy involved a descent into serfdom. As serfs, the peasants and their children were bounded to their tenement for life, losing all political rights as well as freedom in virtually all aspects of their life.  They were obligated not only to relinquish much of what they harvested to their lord. In addition, they were required to provide a fixed number of days of labour or even military service to their lord. In return for the payments, the lord provided nothing – no help or capital improvements.


Serfdom was therefore a grossly unjust relationship of bondage that coerced an otherwise largely free peasantry into virtual slavery.  Life was excruciating hard for the serfs who had to give away as much as 75% of their produce to the feudal lords, church and government as rent, tithe, and taxes.


The age of feudalism and serfdom was therefore also a time period of extreme exploitations for the common Europeans. By the beginning of the 9th century, 60% of the population in western Europe had been reduced to serfdom.


Commercial Revolution and the Decline of Feudalism and Serfdom


The system of serfdom remained highly resistant to change until the late 12th century when the advent of Commercial Revolution (商业革命) gave rise to a money economy thus making free, rent-paying peasants more economically attractive than bound serfs to the lords, thus weakening the bond between the landowning feudal elites and the serfs.


The commercial revolution was spurred by a spike in agricultural productivity attributable to a generally favourable climate, new growing techniques, increasing agricultural specialization, and a series of technical innovations. The use of the heavy iron plow, for example, allowed seeds to be sowed in deeper fallows making them less vulnerable to frosts. The introduction of ploughing by horses, which moved faster than ox, also helped increased the amount of land that can be cultivated in a day by 30%. Between 1000 and 1250, Europe doubled its agricultural productivity.


With increasing agricultural specialization, needs for agricultural trade grew. Landowners found that they could increase their revenues by selling off surpluses of the crops they specialized in and using the profits to purchase commodities that grew poorly. The rise in agricultural commodities trade soon grew into a full-blown commercial revolution when Italian in cities, including Venice and Florence, had outgrown their local food supplies and emerged as net importers of agricultural commodities. Italian trades were also facilitated in part by crusaders (十字军东征战士) who went east to the Holy Land and then returned with not only their new tastes of Eastern luxuries but also the commercial contacts which soon bloomed into elaborate trading networks. As more and more precious metals that had been hoarded during the old days were released into circulation, commercial activities went from barter trade to monetary transactions using copper and silver coins. Gold was used on a large scale for the first time though only by the 13th century.


Meanwhile, with the growth of trading activities also came the demand for banking services. Many Italians have become enormously rich as traders by now. Some reinvested their wealth in banking, taking deposits from traders who had money to save and turned around to lend it to others elsewhere who were in need of funds to grow their business. By the 13th century, Italian bankers had become the dominant force in international moneylending with established branches in leading centres of trade.


Italian merchants also invested their wealth in the creation of products that would attract consumers in the East. Merchants in Florence, for example, invested in the production of fine leather goods and of finished cloths dyed and woven according to specialized techniques. After mastering the techniques of spinning and weaving, silk also became an important Italian export.


The Italian had about fifty years lead ahead of the rest of Europe in economic development, but the Catalans (i.e. people of Catalonia in northern Spain) and the Germans soon caught up. By the end of the 13th century, the Low Countries consisting of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg also became highly urbanized centres of wealth rivalling Italy in commercial importance. Trade was flourishing not only locally but also across border by this time. Enterprising European traders reinvested their trading profits in manufacturing goods for exports. As business activities picked up, the increase in the use of money for commercial transactions stimulated the growth of a bank network that spans the subcontinent.


Meanwhile, by the 13th century, feudal institutions were further weakened, this time between the feudal lords and the kings, by the advent of military revolution (军事革命). With the rise of modern warfare using professional soldiers and advanced weaponry, feudal warfare using knights mounted on horses became irrelevant. This heralded the end of feudalism as the foundation of the European political system.


In place of it, a new kind of state, defended by armies of professional soldiers and administered by salaried bureaucrats, began to emerge. The ability to wage a full-scale war now depended on the monarchies’ ability to accumulate enough financial resources through collecting tax, import-export duties and other levies to pay for professional soldiers who would fight for a living rather than depending on knights and fighting men who served out of feudal obligations.


Rentierism, however, did not retreat into history with the declining role of feudalism and serfdom. Instead, a new form of rentierism began to emerge with the rise of a new economic system, known as mercantilism (重商主义).

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