In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Economic History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Primary Source Collections in Translation
  • Demography and Population Studies
  • The Great Famine and the Black Death
  • Prices, Wages, and Standards of Living
  • Lords and Peasants
  • Popular Discontent
  • Industry
  • Guilds
  • Merchants
  • International Trade
  • Local Markets
  • Transport and Communication
  • Banking and Accounting
  • Money
  • Rural Credit
  • Economic Thought
  • Family and Household
  • Women’s Work
  • Women after the Black Death

Medieval Studies Economic History
James Davis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0092


The study of medieval economic history has a rich pedigree and has led to major, wide-ranging debates about the nature and causes of economic change. Many of the books and articles listed in this article consider the transformation of the medieval economy, often on a broad chronological canvas, from the end of the ancient world to the creation of notable feudal institutions and thence to the emergence of the Early Modern world and protocapitalist organizations. A number of renowned scholars from the early to mid-20th century left their mark on this subject, including Henri Pirenne (b. 1862–d. 1935), Marc Bloch (b. 1886–d. 1944), Michael Moissey Postan (b. 1898–d. 1981), and Georges Duby (b. 1919–d. 1996), and they greatly influenced succeeding generations of historians. In addition, the debates of medieval economic history have often been shaped by numerous theories and approaches founded in the disciplines of economics, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, and geography. However, the strength of the subject still resides in rigorous analysis of the archival evidence. Many scholars have trawled through this material to produce important detailed, empirical case studies, based on specific localities or regions; a number of these are highlighted in this bibliography and are frequently based on English manors, villages, and towns due to the wealth of documentation that survives for that country. Much work concentrates on agricultural structures, demographic trends, and commercial growth. Some events stand out as significant for structural economic change, not least the dramatic intervention of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, but also wars, famines, and the discovery of new international trade routes. However, most economic historians also recognize that their subject is about understanding the everyday lives and material circumstances of ordinary people and their households. Medieval economic history concerns not only the elite, seigneurial estates, long-distance trade, wealthy merchants, and financial institutions but also peasant agriculture, living standards, technology, local trade, urban economies, and social conflict. This bibliography mostly concentrates on medieval Europe, 400–1500, but in the last section suggestions for readings on a more global scale are given.

General Overviews

The broad trends of medieval European economic history have attracted a number of renowned scholars. The early medieval period is covered eloquently in Wickham 2005, Verhulst 2002, and Devroey 2003. Alongside the classic appraisal of the later medieval economy in Pirenne 2006 (originally published in 1936), which has influenced so many succeeding scholars, many more surveys have been written since the 1970s, such as those offered by the authors of Cipolla 1976 and Pounds 1994. A more recent overview, drawing upon the latest research, can be found in Epstein 2009. Postan and Habakkuk 1966–1989 is another good starting point for students looking for a framework of the main themes.

  • Cipolla, Carlo M. Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000–1700. London: Methuen, 1976.

    A broad and readable sketch of European economic history over seven centuries, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) there is a great deal of generalization and speculation.

  • Devroey, Jean-Pierre. Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (Ve–IXe siècles). Paris: Belin, 2003.

    An introduction to peasant economy and society in the Merovingian and Carolingian periods.

  • Epstein, Steven A. An Economic and Social History of Later Medieval Europe, 1000–1500. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    This is a textbook survey of the current state of scholarship on European economic history. There is a broad geographical range to the study, and a select, recent bibliography for each chapter.

  • Pirenne, Henri. Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2006.

    This book provided the foundation and spur for many of the surveys that followed, even though much of it has been superseded by subsequent research. Pirenne’s focus was on the cities, merchants, and commercial institutions, regarding this as of fundamental importance for the development of the medieval European economy and the rise of commerce. Originally published in 1936.

  • Postan, Michael Moissey, and Hrothgar John Habakkuk, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. 8 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1966–1989.

    The first three volumes of this ambitious series examine the Middle Ages and discuss, respectively, agrarian life, trade and industry, and economic organization. Although aspects have been superseded by more recent research, the chapters still provide a useful introductory survey. There are also several seminal discussions, such as Postan’s analysis of the relationship between population and economic development.

  • Pounds, Norman J. G. An Economic History of Medieval Europe. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1994.

    This is one of the first general surveys of European economic history. There is a particular focus on demography (drawing upon the work of Postan) and the use of resources, which Pounds contentiously (and perhaps erroneously) argued led to a growth in aggregate and per capita income in the 12th and 13th centuries. First published in 1974.

  • Verhulst, Adriaan. The Carolingian Economy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511817083

    Verhulst argues that the western European economy grew significantly in the 8th and 9th centuries. He recognizes the problems of the documents and thus also uses archaeological evidence to support his emphasis on smaller “peasant” producers, growing craft specialization, and small rural markets, where, he argues, commodities were exchanged for profit. This provides a different perspective to the focus on monastic and royal estates in Wickham 2005.

  • Wickham, Chris. Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199264490.001.0001

    An extensive synthesis of the current state of knowledge about the history of the early Middle Ages. The economy is an important part of the discussion throughout the four main issues of the state, aristocracy, peasantry, and means of exchange.

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