Hope Greenberg
History 300
Daily Questions: July 7, 1993

1) What were some of the obstacles to the development of capitalism in the Renaissance period?

It is difficult to decide whether the development of capitalism was hampered by the structure of European society in the Renaissance period, or whether that structure was the perfect breeding ground for such a system to develop, albeit slowly. Whichever the case, as with any large social change, tradition and inertia proved to be the greatest obstacles.

The self-sufficient manorial system with its highly developed model of tiered and interwoven dependencies held no place for the enterprising merchant. The Christian tradition of a life geared to maintaining a particular lifestyle but not to increasing one's wealth was also an integral part of this society. The guild system, with its strict controls on who could produce, at what quantities and at what prices was also a deterrent to the free enterprise model.

While these systems permeated pre-Renaissance society, there were exceptions. It is in these exceptions that capitalism began to flourish. According to Jensen, it was in the "mediterranean basin, with its thin soil and less rainfall, [where] smaller, loosely organized farms and hamlets were the norm" that the conditions existed that fostered the growth of a capitalistic model. In the growing cities of the Italian states, located as they were on the trade routes, merchants developed the systems that would later be labeled capitalism.

2) Briefly summarize Boccaccio's description of society's response to the onset of the Black Death.

In Plagues and People, William H. McNeill asserts that the Amerindian peoples were so psychologically paralyzed by the Spanish-borne diseases that rapidly devastated their societies while leaving their conquerors untouched, that they did not hesitate to ascribe to the belief that their deities had indeed deserted them and that these same deities supported these new invaders. Boccaccio's description of society's response to the Black Death which strikes godly and ungodly alike, shows no such cohesive reaction. After describing the symptoms and the terrifying speed with which the disease struck, Boccacio records these reactions. They cover the full range of human behavior. Some people withdrew into relative isolation living "soberly and abstemiously" while some went to the other extreme by indulging in a "riotous manner of living". And while many people strove to maintain their normal lifestyle, the sheer numbers of deaths, at all levels of society, resulting in the breakdown or at least the faltering of the familiar social structures and activities, could not fail to have an impact.

The horror of towns and villages steeped in rotting corpses, the disappearance of the comforting rituals usually surrounding death, and the misery, sorrow and fear felt by the survivors are all vividly recorded. The confusion experienced by those survivors as they watched friends, family and acquaintances succumb is eloquently captured through the voice of a young woman who fears to go home and fears not to. She describes herself as "haunted by the shades of the departed, " feeling constantly "ill at ease" and berating those people who, "thinking to escape" have turned "lascivious and dissolute."
3) In the wake of the Black Death, the prices of agricultural goods plummeted, hurting the landowning nobility and landowning institutions like the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, much of Europe's urban population seems to have been better off. What factors contributed to this seeming paradox?

For the landowner, dependent on a stable labor force producing for internal consumption or for a market with relatively fixed prices, the upheaval of the Black Death was disastrous. While it is debated whether a reduction in the number of labourers had significant impact on the manorial system, it is obvious that inflation followed in the plagues wake. Landowners, caught in a single system, had no alternatives, no optional means of increasing wealth or even maintaining their previous lifestyles.

Conversely, merchants and urban dwellers had developed skills and systems that allowed for more flexibility. This is not to say that cities did not face their share of devastation. Rather, they seemed better equipped, having already developed methods of administration, at coping with the kinds of problems the plague brought. These same administrative abilities could be turned more quickly to the development of new sources of revenue.

My Questions:

How great were the differences in lifestyles at either end of the economic scale? Were these differences in terms of material goods or in measured respect or honor? Which was more important to the people of this time? How did those differences change with the growth of market based economies and urbanization?

This file is part of Hope Greenberg's Graduate Portfolio for the course History 300. Created 15 October 1996.