Book Summary: “Why Europe?” by Michael Mitteraur


Book Review

Title: Why Europe: The Medieval Origins of its Special Path
Author: Michael Mitteraur
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4.5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Mitteraur seeks a historical explanation as to why the Industrial Revolution occurred Europe, rather than other regions.

Key Take-aways

  • In Northwest Europe between 700AD and 900AD a unique social system started evolving. This evolution culminated in the Industrial Revolution 1000 years later, catapulting the region to prosperity and world dominance.
  • The basis of this new social system were unique agricultural crops, technologies and processes:
    • Growing rye and oats
    • The three-field farming system (each plot of land is divided into thirds; each third rotates between oats, rye and fallow)
    • Horse-driven heavy plows
    • Water mills
    • Horse-driven wagons

Important Quotes from Book

Many of the developments typifying Europe’s special path arose in the eighth and ninth centuries in the lands between the Seine and the Rhine, the heartland of the Carolingian Empire.

The early Middle Ages also marked a phase of radical change in the types of crops cultivated in the Carolingian heartland. Two new grain species take pride of place as a result of the very complex process of change: rye and oats… Rye is extremely resistant to cold and damp but also to heat and drought. It depletes the soils less than wheat does, which is why it can be grown in consecutive years. It ripens quickly, so that it thrives in cooler regions with a relatively brief growing period. It is not at all fussy as to soil conditions so it is well suited for cleared land adjacent to better soils. Oats also are not particularly demanding as to soil quality, prefer a cool, moist climate as well, but are more susceptible to heat, winter cold and frost.

It was in their imperial heartland between the Rhine and the Seine that the foundations were laid for a thoroughgoing dissemination of rye and oats all over Europe north of the Alps. Beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, cattle raising had enjoyed precedence over agriculture. Now, under Frankish rules, a cerealization got underway in those regions, with rye and oats playing a vital role.

The three-field system of crop rotation – with its sequence of winter grain, summer grain and fallow fields – place rye (the winter crop) and oats (the summer crop) in a closely structured relationship… The three field system offered many advantages:

  1. It greatly increased farm yields.
  2. It allowed for a better distribution of the farm work over the year – fallow fields would be plowed in a season when the other fields involved no labor.
  3. It lowered the risk of losing a harvest to bad weather.
  4. Most importantly, the new system of land use was integrated with cattle keeping, whose manure fertilized the fields and provided more work for draft animals.

The key innovations were the heavy plow and the water mill.

Rye and oats are specific to the cool temperate climatic zones of Europe. Their expansion throughout the medieval agrarian revolution had scarcely any influence on Mediterranean agriculture, where wheat, wine and olives dominate.

Muslim world maintained wheat, barley, peas, lentils and olives but added many plants from the tropics of Southeast Asia, enabled by the increased use of irrigation. No one crop dominated. Grains were far less important than in Northwest Europe. The camel replaced cattle because draft animals were no longer required.

As long as forests were available in Northern Europe, the new agriculture was able to expand. It was very different in Islamic regions, where areas of enhanced farmland were not surrounded by woodland. Small, intensively exploited sites were sprinkled throughout enormous steppes and deserts. There was utterly no question of colonizing more arable land within the heartland or beyond its borders.

The first important plant to be cultivated in the north of China – the leading region just before the Song dynasty – was millet, but it was shunted aside by wheat and barley. This system was somewhat similar to Near East and Mediterranean. Champa rice from southern Vietnam pushed China in a very different direction.

Oxen and horses were not found in areas where rice was intensively cultivated; high rice yields probably made it appear uneconomical to set aside arable land for pasture or fodder. Nor was the water mill necessary, as rice did not need milling or baking.

The Chinese agrarian revolution was more severely limited by natural and geographic conditions than the revolution in Europe was. Rice is a swamp plant by its very origin… Ultimately, the feasibility of wet-rice growing hinged on the summer monsoons… The large forest reserves so long accessible to Europe north of the Alps did not exist in China at least in areas suitable for rice growing. The thrust of the Chinese agrarian revolution had already reached its climax during the Song dynasty and was succeeded by a period of stagnation.

The use of draft animals for transportation (carts, wagons, roads and bridges) enabled the establishment of a whole host of midsized and smaller towns that were largely absent in Near East and China.

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