1998-1999 Essay Contest

Second Place Essay

The Economics of the Renaissance

Brandon Raatikka
Maple Grove Senior High School
Maple Grove, Minnesota


"Bustling" would be a great word to describe the market scene of La Place de Meir a Anvers un jour de marche. Spread from the foreground to the back of the painting, the market displays all sorts of economic activity. Women in yellow hats barter for chickens. Not far off, someone is peddling bread. Horses pull carts loaded with crops and other goods into the picture. If the "ordinary business of life" is concerned with meeting basic needs, people are fulfilling nutritional, medical and even social needs in this scene. Dozens of colors and clothing styles represent the different classes doing business in the painting; man is talking to woman, the fancily dressed is trading with the poorly dressed, the farmer is interacting with the city dweller. The peoples' bodies are active and curved; not like the flat, still paintings of medieval Europe. The artist painted a crucifix near the very back of the painting, far away from the people, to show the stark separation between the concerns of "past Europe" and the Renaissance. Peoples' statuses were beginning to be determined by where they were in the economic system, and not just because of their birth. In fact, the painting exhibits the beginnings of modern economic development as Europe went from the "Dark Ages" into the Renaissance and beyond. For the first time in Europe on such a large scale, economic growth led to city growth, productivity increases and overall a higher standard of living.

During the early l300s, plague and war disrupted Europe's stability. A fourth of the population was wiped out by the Black Death, taking along with it the economic momentum gained by increased commerce and trade in the years earlier. The Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) also stunted trade throughout Europe (Europe 420). However, there are few signs of the time period in the picture, which was painted in the 16th century, only 100 years later. The picture shows through the market that trading is not absent in the 16th century. The city, or at least the section highlighted in the piece, is new. The buildings, which would have been mostly made of wood in the centuries before, are made of brick (Middle Ages 527). So, as Europe shifted from medieval to modern times, increased urbanization took place. This urban expansion had many economic implications.

Because cities grew during the time of the late Renaissance, the economies of Europe enjoyed increased productivity. This is true because as cities grew more populated and dense productivity of labor increased. In 1975, Leo Sveikauskas did a study on how population and productivity are related (Ragan et al. 2). Taking economic and business data from 14 different industries in 200 metropolitan areas, he concluded that doubling the population size would yield close to a 6 percent increase in productivity (per worker) (Sveikauskas). Doing their research in 1996, Ciccone and Hall concluded that doubling population density increases productivity also by 6 percent (Ciccone et al). Thus, if the city is growing in the painting, it can be assumed that the productivity of the economy is increasing also.

Ideally, with increased productivity comes a higher standard of living. There are factors in the picture that indicate this is true for the Dutch market. First, the streets appear clean and free of debris. The wide roadways allow for the traffic of economic activity. Only 200 years earlier, the "streets were narrow, crooked, dark, and filthy" (Middle Ages 527). Also, as the buildings' brick told they were new, the bricks also represent affluence. In medieval times, most buildings were made of wood, and it was a luxury to own a brick or stone building (Middle Ages 527). It is clear from the painting that the economic activity allowed for the buildings to be made of brick. The standard of living is also increasing because of the market structure presented in the picture. Monopolistic competition is having its effect through numerous sellers and slight product differentiation. These conditions allow for healthy competition which helps keep prices at market equilibrium, and offers incentives to the sellers to be efficient. The higher the efficiency, or technology, the better off the society will be. The picture shows evidence of the beginnings of massive monopolistic competition throughout Europe. The market structure is extremely common among the industrialized nations of the world today.

Many economic lessons can be drawn from this picture if it is taken as a representative scene of economic development during the Renaissance. The painting shows the early urban growth in Europe, as well as the fact that the continent enjoyed increasing productivity of labor during the time. It displays a link in the progression of living standards from the Middle Ages to the late Renaissance. Really, though, the painting offers a glimpse into how we, as humans, strive to satisfy our needs in better and more efficient ways. By studying this picture, it is evident that the economic truths of increased urbanization, increased productivity and higher standards of living started to help meet the needs of Europeans more efficiently. Although these economic lessons are not particular to a certain location or time period, it is interesting to look on this picture and see the economic history of the Renaissance. It can help to explain how Europe changed fundamentally and how it developed into its present structure. Knowing these lessons, not only the painting, but also the whole era can be called "bustling."

Works Cited

Ciccone, A. and R Hall. "Productivity and the Density of Economic Activity." American Economic Review, March 1996.

Clout, Hugh, et al. "Europe." World Book Encyclopedia, 1993 ed.

Lyon, Bryce. "Middle Ages." World Book Encyclopedia, 1993 ed.

Ragan, Kelly, et al. "Cities and Growth." FRBSF Economic Letter, Number 98-27. San Francisco: Federal Reserve Bank, 1998.

Sveikauskas, Leo. "The Productivity of Cities." Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 1975.

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