Depression, Economic


Depression, Economic
   Since the 1940s many economic historians have contended that the older economic history of late medieval Europe, which explained the new culture of the Renaissance as a byproduct of a prospering urban capitalism centered in northern Italy, was fundamentally erroneous because it had missed the onset of a major economic crisis that marked the end of an age of rapid economic growth and caused widespread business failures and chronic unemployment in Italy and the southern Netherlands. Many of these revisionist historians also contended that the depressed economic conditions, clearly evident before the middle of the 14th century, were followed by a long period of economic stagnation rather than by the dynamic growth attributed by older historiography to Renaissance Europe. While the economic depression was uneven and some areas (Catalonia, Bohemia and neighboring parts of Hungary and
   Poland, the textile-producing regions of England, and the towns of southern Germany) continued to grow and prosper, these represented catching up by regions that were relatively undeveloped before 1300. Even these growing regions experienced slowing growth by the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
   Historians who accept the existence of this depression explain its origins largely in terms of structural limitations on growth imposed by the technological, social, and political realities of the late Middle Ages. They regard the major famine that struck northwestern Europe in the second decade of the 14th century as evidence that population had exceeded the capacity of a stagnating economy, and they dismiss the terrible mortality of the Black Death at mid-century as just an aggravating incident, not a fundamental cause, of the depression. They insist that unmistakable signs of the downturn were evident long before the plague. The stagnant economy, not the plague, explains the remarkable decrease in populations in Italy and throughout most of western Europe that is usually linked to the plague itself. Defenders of the theory note that the decrease in population was not followed by the population rebound that normally would be expected after the plague, and they point out that many of the leading Renaissance cities (Florence is a striking example) did not regain their pre-1300 population levels until the 19th century. The onset of the crisis (but not the underlying cause) was the series of bankruptcies of Italian banking and commercial companies (such as the Bardi and Peruzzi firms of Florence).
   In terms of cultural history, the revisionists suggest that students of the Renaissance should view its social foundations not as a dynamic, growing economy but as a reduced and rather stagnant, though still wealthy, mercantile capitalism that was dominated by a defensive mentality and sought to secure the position of its leaders by control of political authority and by investment of resources in such symbols of high status as patronage of art and literature.
   This economic reinterpretation of the Renaissance is by no means universally accepted. Virtually no one now denies that there was a serious economic crisis in the mid-14th century and that it was not caused primarily by the Black Death. What remains debatable is the depth of the economic downturn and its persistence, particularly the timing of renewed growth. There seems to be agreement that by the later 15th century, prosperity had returned to most regions. Europe as a whole seems to have had an expanding economy through most of the 16th century, though the period from about 1520 also suffered from a severe price inflation that fed social, political, and religious unrest. This general prosperity continued until the onset of a more universally recognized economic depression about 1618, which persisted until mid-century and formed the economic background of the wars and political upheavals of the early 17th century.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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