In the following pages I have tried to sketch the character and general movement of the economic and social evolution of Western Europe from the end of the Roman Empire to the middle of the fifteenth century. I have tried to envisage this great area as a single whole, of which the parts were in constant communication with each other; in other words I have adopted an international standpoint and have been concerned above all to set forth the essential character of the phenomena described, reducing to a subordinate place the particular forms which they assumed, not only in different countries but in different parts of the same country. Thus I have naturally been obliged to give special prominence to those countries in which economic activity developed most rapidly and most completely during the Middle Ages, such, for instance, as Italy and the Low Countries, whose direct or indirect influence may so often be traced in the rest of Europe.
There are still so many gaps in our knowledge that I have in many cases been obliged to resort to probability or to conjecture, in order to explain events or to trace their interconnection. But I have been careful not to resort to theories, lest I should do violence to the facts. My own object has been to be guided by the latter, though of course I cannot flatter myself that I have succeeded. Finally, I have throughout tried to give as clear an account as possible, even of the most controversial problems.
The necessary references to books, which will enable the reader to supplement my account or to criticise my opinions, will be found in the bibliographies attached to