We tend to think of the Middle Ages as something that happened in Western Europe characterized by small kingdoms full of feudal lords, serfs, and knights. The patterns were much more widespread than that. Western Europe was actually one of the last places to exhibit the important characteristics of the Middle Ages. Everywhere Empires with strong centralized governments and expansionist military policies declined or disappeared and in their place smaller societies emerged. Axial Age religions rose in prominence as the new keepers of cultural continuity.
The “decline” of empires is usually thought of as a descent from civilization into a “dark ages” but the truth is the reverse for most of our species. Life for serfs in the Middle Ages wasn’t peachy, but it was positively luxurious compared with the lives of slaves, debt-bondsmen, or war-captives during imperial times. The demands of a feudal lord may have been onerous, but they were mild compared with the demands of maintaining a Roman or Chinese city. Urban areas declined because the military apparatus for extracting resources from the countryside no longer existed.
The Middle Ages also meant the return to prominence of a credit economy. As previously discussed barter isn’t really what happens in the absence of coinage. After the Roman Empire dissolved and coins were no longer being minted, trade continued being calculated in the familiar units. Money just became virtual again. Coins, after all, are principally useful to governments as a tool for creating markets through taxation, and bullion is really a military tool.
One fascinating aspect of the economic changes of the Middle Ages was the vociferous opposition to usury, often regarded as the worst of all evils. In many ways the critique of the Axial Age religions of the greed and violence of empire became the normative position of the Middle Ages. It could be said that in Europe, for example, the Church played a role in destabilizing the Roman Empire with economic criticism, and when the Church became the new institutional stabilizer the role it took was partly about guarding against a return to Roman decadence.
This really goes against the narrative we are usually taught about this period of history. We are usually taught that things got worse for everyone in the Middle Ages and that the Church mainly clung to the vestiges of Roman power and prestige. We are used, for example, to hearing a lot of criticism of extravagance in Church architecture. But one thing that the Church was doing was removing bullion from the market to guard against usury. Gold in Cathedrals is gold that is not circulating and building interest. When people donated precious metals to the Church they were, in part, attempting to live out the command to store up wealth in heaven, rather than on earth. In return, the Church ensured that usury and debt-bondage remained strictly forbidden. A serf may have owed their fealty to their lord, but they were not their lord’s property. The lord couldn’t sink them into debt and then sell them to a neighboring lord.