Tag Archives: free market

The Peasant’s Revolt

So that was the Black Death. An estimated 25-30 million people in Europe died from bubonic plague—maybe a third to a half of the population. Under those circumstances, the feudal system was what the experts call ‘unsustainable.’ Serfs were expected to keep the food supply going full steam with only a partial crew on each manor. The way it was supposed to work was serfs paid their rent by giving the lord of the manor their harvest and keeping some for themselves. With smaller harvests, the serfs saw their portion get cut. They were working harder for lower pay.

Did I mention? Serfs had to pay taxes to the king, too—so there goes another chunk of the food they’d hoped to live off of that year. If you’re a serf, you’re starting to get plenty torqued. It was at this moment the geniuses who run the English government thought, “Now’s an ideal time to collect those unpaid poll taxes.”



It was too much. Serfs and peasants from all over England got together—they gathered a bigger crowd with each manor they passed—and marched on London to tell whoever would listen that they weren’t paying the poll tax. A guy named Wat Tyler emerged as the peasants’ leader. They broke into the Temple and destroyed tax records. They killed the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer and other officials. Finally, 14-year-old King Richard II rode out to meet the mob and somehow talked them out of killing him, too. Richard promised a bunch of reforms. He kept the peasants there long enough for the London militia to arrive and arrest or break up the crowd. Wat Tyler was killed.

I include this episode merely to show the effects of the bubonic plague, its terrible death toll and the cheesed-offedness of the serfs. The Peasants’ Revolt didn’t accomplish anything much that wasn’t going to happen anyway. Richard (or his handlers) didn’t keep his promises, but the feudal system was already over, kaput, done, stick a fork in it. Why? The Laws of Supply and Demand, gang. It eventually dawned on the serfs that they were in short supply—a limited resource—which increased the demand for them. Lots of farm fields, only a few farmers. There was nothing to keep serfs tied to one lord’s manor anymore. They could set up on their own and negotiate terms. A voluntary exchange of labor for wages. The beauty of the free market.

“That’s nice, Manders. What’s it got to do with reading and writing?” That’s an excellent question and I’m glad you asked. It turns out not only were people fed up with feudalism, they’d begun to question the way the Church was run, too. One guy in particular thought that more people ought to read the Bible.

I love this little illumination of Richard II in his ship meeting the peasants (although it looks more like an army to me)—https://www.worldhistory.org/image/11780/richard-ii–the-peasants-revolt/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peasants%27_Revolt
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_Temple
Laws of Supply & Demand:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9aDizJpd_s

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Phoenicians



Happy new year! Well, we let that Rosetta Stone story take us a few thousand years ahead of our timeline. So, we’re going back to roughly 1500 bc., leaving Egypt and hieroglyphics behind so we can move along to the Phoenicians.

Phoenicians were seafaring-trading people who lived in what is now Lebanon, Syria and northern Israel on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. There wasn’t a country called Phoenicia, exactly—it was more like a federation or league of cities: Tyre, Byblos, Sidon.

The Phoenicians traded with other people around the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. The city of Byblos did a big business trading in papyrus and books. The Phoenicians sold expensive purple cloth (they got purple dye from squishing murex mollusks—ew). What drove the Phoenician economy wasn’t so much the production of goods, but buying and selling goods in the free market. You buy papyrus in Byblos where they have lots of it and it’s not so expensive, take that papyrus to somewhere—maybe Cyprus—where they don’t have very much papyrus and they’ll pay much more than it cost you. You use the profit to buy copper for cheap, because Cyprus has lots of copper. You put that copper aboard your ship and take it where they’ll pay you well for it. Buy low, sell high, gang.

https://www.ancient.eu/phoenicia/

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

More miles per galleon!

The magnetic compass appeared in Europe sometime in the late ad 1100s. No doubt compasses were traded along the Silk Road.

The compass was being used in the West at the same time Venice’s sea-trade flourished. Before the compass, sea-travel was limited to the few uniformly sunny months—June through September. The rest of the year sailors stayed home because they had no way to navigate. Let’s stop for a second to appreciate what was happening. China had the compass for centuries and used it to achieve spiritual harmony—chi—when they built houses or arranged furniture and gardens. The compass slowly moved west along the Silk Road—possibly it was thought of as a novelty item.

Meanwhile back in Venice and Genoa and other Mediterranean sea-faring towns, the merchants can only make money when the sun’s shining. They’re pacing back and forth and tearing their hair out because they have these new, flexible, easily-steerable ships; they have the merchandise; they have the sailors—but their ships can’t leave port for eight months out of the year because it’s cloudy!

Then, suddenly, miraculously, the compass drops into their laps. What do they do? They seize on it! They exploit it! Now mariners can go to sea, trade and make money all year round.

You’re probably thinking, “Hold on, Manders. What about that astrolabe-thinghy you were going on about a few posts earlier—how come sea-farers didn’t use that to navigate?” I have to admit, that’s a good question. Here’s the answer: If you can’t see the Sun or the stars, you can’t navigate with an astrolabe. The compass points North even when it’s cloudy. With it, the Venetians could find their way no matter the weather.

This is what happens when you have a free market. People want to trade, make money. When a new piece of technology comes along they figure out how to exploit that technology. A similar thing happened in the last few decades with the internet. The US military invented the internet for its own communications, but the business world seized it and transformed it into the world wide web.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space