Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/536

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places where they were most wanted; and it was being applied to facilitate the production of wealth. The importing merchant neither increased the material objects nor altered their intrinsic qualities; but he gave them greater utility, by conveying them to places where they were largely required.

The economic revolution at the close of the Middle Ages was largely due to the discovery of new methods for the productive employment of capital. New lines of commerce were opened; and it was also found that various branches of industry could be prosecuted to greater advantage, when taken up and organised by capitalists. Success in these ventures enabled enterprising men to amass more wealth and to form additional capital, while it tempted those who had hoards lying idle to find means of employing them as capital; by so doing they brought large sums of money into circulation and moreover secured an income for themselves. The formation of new capital and the employment of hoards as capital for facilitating production went on apace in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; the lending of capital for purposes of unproductive consumption did not cease, but came to be an entirely subordinate, because it proved to be a less secure and less remunerative, method of employing wealth.

There was no apparent reason, so far as we can see in looking back to the beginning of the fourteenth century, why the material progress which had been steadily maintained for some generations should not have been continued. Medieval society, stereotyped as it was, had been capable of considerable readjustment, as circumstances had changed. It seems as if capital might have gradually found openings in new directions, so that the medieval system would have been slowly transformed without any serious rupture with the past. At Florence, in particular, capitalist organisation existed side by side with the older forms of industrial life at the beginning of the fourteenth century; and as money economy became increasingly prevalent, capitalistic enterprise might have taken advantage of the new fields which were ready for its operation. But circumstances combined to render this impossible; medieval society and its institutions suffered an especially severe blow from the terrible pestilence known as the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century. From this shock the various countries of Europe only recovered slowly; and when material prosperity began to be restored, the old institutions were no longer suitable to the changed requirements of the times. The old industrial life had been so far disintegrated by the disturbed conditions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that the change from the medieval to the modern was accomplished, not as a gradual transition but as a violent revolution.

Three principal causes combined to subject the social and economic system of medieval Europe to an overwhelming strain.