The 14th Century Crisis

Viewing 3 posts - 1 through 3 (of 3 total)
  • Author
  • #16349

    Dr. Jewell,

    Listening to your lectures on the 14th century crisis, I found them to be a bit at odds, or perhaps not fully overlapping, with Rothbard’s brief chapter dealing with this matter in his “Economic Thought Before Adam Smith” on p.67-71.

    First, he doesn’t even mention the famine of 1315-1317, which perhaps indeed wasn’t the paramount issue in a century-long crisis. But more importantly, Rothbard claims that the chief cause of the crisis was the rising power of the state and not the Black Death. He is very clear and unambiguous in his writing:

    “Focus on the devastation caused by outbreaks of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century is partially correct, but superficial, for these outbreaks were themselves partly caused by an economic breakdown and fall in living standards which began earlier in the century. The causes of the great depression of western Europe can be summed up in one stark phrase: the newly imposed domination of the state.”

    and a bit later on

    “The Black Death was largely the consequence of people’s lowered living standards caused by the great depression and the resulting loss of resistance to the disease.”

    He recites a number of events and ways in which the state (mostly Philip IV the Fair) grasped more and more power and wreaked havoc to the economy: destruction of the fairs in Champagne, which were hitherto untaxed and unregulated, via high sales taxes; confiscatory levies on wealthy groups, such as the Order of Templars; a series of levies on Jews and Lombards; exclusion of Flemmings from fairs and trade in general; inauguration of heavy regular taxation which was not common before; plundering of the Church; debasement of the coinage; borrowing and repeated default; maximum wage controls; forced labor and compulsory child labor; restricted mobility; etc.

    He also gives a slightly different account of the dispute between Philip IV and Boniface VIII. In (t)his case Boniface prohibits taxation of the Church, and in turn Philip prohibits the transfer of Church funds from France. Boniface therefore issues the bull Unam Sanctam (in this case not because of an appointment dispute), which causes Philip to arrest him. Philip then seizes the papacy, brings it to Avignon (as opposed to Clement V choosing to go there), designates the pope himself (and not the cardinals) and the pope becomes a tool of the king.

    Is this incorrect, an oversimplification or does he get things mostly right, in your view?

    He also pins down the beginning of the hundred years’ war to the seizure of Gascony by Philip IV and not to a dispute for inheritance.

    I would be grateful if you could comment on Rothbard’s claims that the Black Death was a consequence, rather than a cause, of the crisis which by his account began as an economic crisis caused by the state much earlier, and on these other claims he makes.

    Jason Jewell

    Great questions!

    I think what’s going on here is that when Rothbard uses the term “crisis” he’s referring specifically to the economy, mainly commerce, whereas I’m using the term in a more general sense. All the things that Rothbard mentions took place, and of course they had harmful economic effects. There’s a sense in which those policies in places like France could have made populations more vulnerable to outbreaks of plague, but of course they couldn’t _bring_ the plague to those regions.

    There is a taxation-of-clergy question involved in the Boniface/Philip dispute with the issuance of the bull “Clericis Laicos” several years earlier which forbade bishops from paying taxes to the king. The appointment question revolves around whose guys are going to be in those positions. Philip’s guys would pay the tax; Boniface’s guys wouldn’t. So Rothbard and I are talking about different aspects of the same thing.

    The same with the Hundred Years War. The seizure of Gascony was what I referred to in the lecture (if I remember correctly) of the Valois king (Philip IV was dead by that time) attempting to force Edward III to pay traditional feudal service for the French lands he held. The kings of England had not done this for 150 years. When Gascony was seized, Edward pressed the inheritance issue. Again, two aspects of the same thing.

    Rothbard is always looking for economic explanations for things; that’s the point of his book. He appears to be assuming that his readers are already familiar with traditional interpretations, something I am not doing in these lectures (for many viewers, these lectures are their first exposure to the material). He’s presenting accurate information, and the things he mentions have an impact. Here I’m trying to present a general overview of things. If there’s ever a “second edition” of this course, I’ll talk some about Rothbard’s interpretation to show how it complements what I’m saying.


    Thank you very much for your in-depth reply and for clearing things up! Of course I understand, one could easily make this into a 200-lecture course, there is enough material to go on:)

    I also went back to check and found I had made a mistake transcribing the quote. Rothbard writes “the resulting loss of resistance to disease” and NOT “loss of resistance to THE disease”, which of course makes a lot of difference.


Viewing 3 posts - 1 through 3 (of 3 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.