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The Peasants of Languedoc

Author(s):Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E.C.

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Peasants of Languedoc.

Review Essay by Anne E.C. McCants, Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

There and Back Again: The Great Agrarian Cycle Revisited

It has been thirty-six years since the original publication of Le Roy Ladurie’s now classic Les Paysans de Languedoc, whose English translation appeared only eight years later. This work of “total” regional history (p. 8), grounded in the climate and topography of its fixed place, narrated around a loving reconstruction of time series data drawn from land tax registers, grain (and other commodity) prices, population registers and communicant lists, and ultimately nuanced by an anthropologist’s sensitivity to the social impact of even small changes in literacy and spiritual affiliation, is in many respects the crowning achievement of the Annales school for the post-Braudelian generation.1 It takes for its subject a place close to the heart of Braudel himself, the Mediterranean French province of Languedoc, and the people who tilled its fields and nurtured its vines, mostly in the small family holdings which so captured the historical imagination of French scholars of the inter- and post-war periods. It also takes as its time period those in-between centuries so favored by Braudel, following the dramatic collapse of the fourteenth century, but well before the acceleration of change brought on by industrialization in the late eighteenth century and thereafter. Despite the poverty and hardship, not to mention the periodic bouts of starvation and insanity, which cross the pages of this book, it retains nonetheless a bucolic vision of the French countryside, only superficially touched by the affairs of men, at least in anything but the very long run. Finally, it attends most fully to the natural and human processes characterized best by an ebb and flow of cyclical change: climate, the productivity of the soil, and population. In all of these respects the intellectual debts to Marc Bloch, Fran?ois Simiand, and of course Fernand Braudel are immediately obvious.

Yet in important ways Le Roy Ladurie also deviates from what had by the time of this publication become the normative format for a major work of Annales history. Instead of dividing his subject into the classic, and fundamentally non-sequential, tri-part formula of structure, conjuncture, et ?v?nement, Le Roy Ladurie instead follows the older norm of telling his story in time. He begins with the tailings of the fourteenth century crisis, what he calls “the low-water mark of a society.” He then traces the effects of the so-called “wage and price scissors” of the long sixteenth century, culminating once again with population collapse and economic depression in the seventeenth century. The self-proclaimed “protagonist” of this book is “a great agrarian cycle, lasting from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, studied in its entirety” (p. 289). While as heroes go this is still a far cry from the kings and generals of old-fashioned history, it is clearly less fixed in time and space than Braudel’s mountains and seas with their capacity for geologic movement only. The Peasants of Languedoc is thus a narrative, and like all good narratives it is susceptible to accidental interventions in the plot and to their concomitant unanticipated outcomes. And so Le Roy Ladurie’s ‘great agrarian cycle’ turns out to have embedded in it a hint of something more linear, a harbinger of the demise of his otherwise so carefully crafted longue dur?e, and what he himself calls “the seeds of true growth” (p. 302). Yet his own lingering ambivalence about what others have been tempted to call progress is underscored by his choice of metaphor to describe it. In the same breath in which he invokes “incandescent particles in the darkest hours” he also speaks of the “contagion of true growth” (p. 303). Is economic growth (that is the “increase of individual wealth” (p. 303) in his definition) good or bad, or both simultaneously? This question, which seems so easily answered by anyone trained in neo-classical economics, lingers unresolved by La Roy Ladurie. Indeed, it perhaps remains to the present unanswered by those who have followed him in the French historical school, particularly as it has turned increasingly back towards the study of culture and in the process adopted many of the methodologies and proclivities of the anthropologist.2

What then are these (insidious?) interventions that push the great agrarian (read Malthusian) cycle off course? Perhaps somewhat surprisingly they are phenomena which Max Weber would have recognized even if their shading is not exactly that of a Protestant ethic. They include the spread of viticulture and sericulture to the detriment of the subsistence grain; the gradual appearance of an “industrial mentality,” admittedly never well defined but seemingly linked with the increase in production of exportable commodities; the spread of remedial education and its powerful accompaniment literacy; and finally, the most nebulous of all, “a certain psychological transfiguration and a general improvement in behavior,” that is best characterized by the “virtue of self-control” (p. 307). Le Roy Ladurie cites the decline of dueling, spontaneous knife fights, and religious fanaticism as just the most obvious evidence of the shift towards a more “intellectual” and “composed” life (p. 309). The link from this reform of manners to real (that is sustainable) economic growth is only inferred, but presumably those who can refrain from emotional outbursts of violence will also be better able to defer consumption gratification in order to invest for the future. Without these (overwhelmingly cultural) interventions the peasant smallholder might have been doomed to an endless Malthusian repetition of the great agrarian cycle of expansion — characterized by population growth, downward pressure on family farm size, the cultivation of marginal lands, the impoverishment of heirs, and rising subsistence prices — and retreat, in which all of the above signs would reverse. As long as subsistence agriculture remained the dominant activity of the agrarian economy population won the race over bread every time (p. 73). Malthus would have been right, if he had not been born too late. Certainly for La Roy Ladurie Malthus was the true prophet of the age that just preceded his own (p. 311)

Yet not many scholars remain unabashed Malthusians or even slightly watered-down neo-Malthusians these days. We have learned well from Ester Boserup that population pressure could and did drive human societies to greater intensity of work effort and the concomitant technological modifications suited to natural resource scarcity and labor abundance. We have learned from Adam Smith and his many followers the productivity advantages of specialization, encouraged as it was by the rise of urban places and the increasingly dense networks of trade among them. We have learned as well from the Marxists of Robert Brenner=s tribe that power relationships between and among individuals and social groups (dare I call them classes?) could powerfully impact the nature of economic response to demographic catastrophe, both on the individual level and for societies as a whole. And of course, we also know from the body of theory built up over the last century in mainstream economics departments that markets are capable of clearing an amazing range of commodities, and that they often did so even in the somewhat murky pre-industrial past. Finally, the “New” Institutional Economics has taught us that social and political institutions had a lot to do with how well markets were actually able to perform their pure function. What then is there for the Anglo-speaking economic historian (most likely trained in the neo-classical tradition) to take from this book and its larger research agenda nearly four decades out?

Fortunately lots. To begin with there is the terrific data series reconstructed over a substantially long period of time to allow for serious study of the macro-dynamics of a pre-industrial economy. For even if Le Roy Ladurie “confuses rent with profits” as Douglas North pointed out long ago, we do not have to follow in that confusion.3 We can read the rent series for what it really is, using it in tandem with price and wage series as a base for understanding the changing profitability of subsistence agriculture, particularly as it varied by the scale of the farm operation. For as La Roy Ladurie rightly emphasizes throughout his exposition, it is far too simplistic to speak only of booms and depressions in the agrarian economy overall. If you had a surplus to sell, falling grain prices induced hardship; but the story was very different for those forced onto the market to ensure sufficient quantities of bread for survival. For them agrarian depressions could be a time of relative plenty. Thus the macro-dynamics that inhere in his great agrarian cycle could produce both winners and losers simultaneously, depending on the distribution of property, and the larger social structure in which farming took place. It is always good for us to be reminded of this complication.

The Peasants of Languedoc also provides a model for the integration of cultural history into economic history which is still relevant today. Despite La Roy Ladurie’s now outdated reliance on Malthus for the structure within which his narrative operates, he nonetheless discerns the cultural forces which were at work in eighteenth-century Languedoc (and in nascent form even earlier) to disrupt the Malthusian paradigm. To the claim on this side of the Atlantic that ‘institutions matter’ a fresh reading of Le Roy Ladurie offers the reminder that mentalit? matters too. Adequate labor and capital resources may have been necessary conditions for economic growth of the modern variety, but they were hardly sufficient. Their application in new ways required whole new modes of thought and behavior. Thus, as any Frenchman would surely understand in the widest possible sense that we are what we eat, La Roy Ladurie would also have us understand that we produce what we think.

Finally this book remains the most accessible to the American student (of all ages) of all the major works to come out of the Annales school. It is neither geologic in its movement, nor overwhelming in its scope. Yet it achieves its stated goal to be “total” in its comprehension of its own subject. The barren mountain reaches, rolling fields of grain and vine, and scrub filled blessedly with chestnut trees; the long cycles of climate change, and the violent bursts of climatic extremes; the struggling peasant with too many children, the upstart coqs de village, and the emerging bourgeois of Montpellier; “Huguenot carders and Papist peasants” (p. 158); all of these characters come alive on the pages of this book. Their multiple, often conflicting, stories are woven together seamlessly by La Roy Ladurie into a complicated whole that looks remarkably like real human experience. If the master economic narrative sometimes goes astray or suffers from lapses of logical explanation, this seems a forgivable fault to this enthusiastic reader. There is much indeed for us to learn, not only about the agrarian economy of a Mediterranean province before industrialization, but about historical storytelling as well.

Notes:

1. All quotes from the text are taken from the English translation by John Day, published in paperback by the University of Illinois Press in 1976.

2. See Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School 1929-89, Stanford, 1990, especially pp. 79-93.

3. Douglass North, AComment@ in Journal of Economic History, Vol. 31, no. 1, 1978, p. 80.

Anne McCants is the author of Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam, University of Illinois Press, 1997, and numerous articles on living standards, migration, and marriage patterns in northern Europe. She teaches in history, economics and women’s studies at MIT.

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers

Author(s):Kulikoff, Allan
Reviewer(s):Rothenberg, Winifred B.
, Winifre

Published by EH.NET (August 2002)

Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers.

Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xiii + 484 pp.

$59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2569-7; $22.50 (paper), ISBN: 0-8078-4882-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Winifred B. Rothenberg, Department of Economics, Tufts

University.

“Men make their own history but they do not make it as they please; they do not

make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances

directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”1

Marx’s famous dictum might well serve as the epigraph for Allan Kulikoff’s

study of small (white, incidentally) farmers “in the context of ” the

capitalist transformation. Kulikoff, Baldwin Professor of Humanities at the

University of Georgia, is a prodigiously well-informed scholar of early

American history whose research over the last two decades has been devoted to

understanding the yeoman farmer in early America. Small farmers, it turns out,

left so large and deep a footprint on the American historical landscape, and

one that Kulikoff is able to describe at such an astonishing level of detail,

that he has had to divide this, his capstone work, into two volumes. The first,

From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, covers those aspects

of the story that one would call broadly ‘economic.’ Although there is nothing

on colonial fiscal or monetary policy and little on foreign trade, he deals

well with the English background of colonial settlement, the process of

emigration, the acquisition and allocation of land, agricultural developments,

internal migrations, encounters with Indians, and “the relation [that] farm

families forged with the market”(p. 4). The companion volume, The Making of

the American Yeoman Class (forthcoming), will deal more intensively, he

writes, with questions of class identity, kinship, community, ethnicity, and

faith that have long been identified with this author.

Kulikoff calls this book a “master narrative,” by which I understand him to

mean a narrative around which he has braided a commanding interdisciplinary

synthesis that draws from more than 2,000 works from the many proliferating

sub-fields into which history as an academic discipline has splintered since

the Sixties: women’s history, family history, African-American, Native

American, rural, environmental, social, demographic, religious, economic, a bit

of political, and enough of contemporary English, Dutch, German, Irish and

Scottish history to understand their emigrations to the American colonies.2

Kulikoff begins his history with the Black Death and the depopulation of

England that was its consequence. Here, although dense with absorbing detail,

the broad outline of his argument is a familiar one: much of the surviving

peasantry was loosed from the manor lands and wandered into an emerging labor

market. Two centuries later, in the course of the enclosure process, “agrarian

capitalists” threw peasants off the lands they had enjoyed for centuries in

secure tenure, “leaving them and their descendants with a great yearning for

land”(p. 2). In Kulikoff’s telling it was the yearning for land — not for a

New Jerusalem or new markets or empires or geopolitics or trade routes or raw

materials, but for land — that drove the settlement of England’s North

American colonies.

In what sense should American history begin in 1348? To ask that

question is to ask another: what interpretive theme is threading its way

through this story? I can think of three. It can be read as a long-running

dialectic between individualism and communalism. Or as a declension narrative:

from communities (to which Kulikoff attaches a positive valence) to markets. Or

as a redemption narrative: “the same men who evicted peasants financed colonial

ventures that promised land to former peasants” two-thirds of whom, and their

descendants, became landowners in a new Eden. The three interpretations have

this in common: that capitalism is central to all. It motivated the expulsion;

it financed the colonization; it secured the property rights by which peasants

came to hold land in fee-simple tenure. Looked at in any way, says Kulikoff,

“Capitalist transformation, stands at the center of our story” (p. 2).

Once capitalism is made to stand at the center it cannot be ignored, although

– as always — it immediately causes trouble. In the first place, capitalism

– which is here defined as “a society dominated by two classes: capitalists

who own the means of production (banks, factories, tools, and productive land)

and workers who have only their labor to sell” — did not reach our shores,

says Kulikoff on page 2, until after the American Revolution. That is,

until after the book ends! In his 1992 book he had gone even further: he argued

there that even after the Revolution, ‘capitalism’ (so defined) ill serves to

describe an economy of yeomen farmers who themselves owned the means of

production with which they produced a surplus as well as their labor to sell.3

Hence the question, how then can capitalism stand at the center of our story?

Kulikoff replies, “Because Britain had turned capitalist, colonists swam in a

capitalist sea” (p. 2). I find that to be a fascinating and provocative answer,

for it implies — does it not? — that capitalism is not embedded in a

particular material substratum or set of productive relations; it is not even

rooted in the forging of class identities. It is rather a set of behaviors,

responses, incentives, a culture that is learned in the act of ‘swimming’ in

it; a meme, perhaps, carried to these alien shores by the swimmers.4 If that is

so, what happened? Did they shake it off, like a dog, when they reached the

shore? As I said, ‘capitalism’ only causes trouble.

One would also like to engage Kulikoff in a discussion around the origin of

private property rights. I refer to these two statements: “enclosers created

private property” (p. 17); and “private property in land (with the absolute

right of alienation that went with it) was new in seventeenth-century England”

(p. 71). J. H. Baker, in his authoritative Introduction to English Legal

History, explains that a distinction was indeed made in Grenvill’s court

(1290) between the alienability of an acquisition and of a patrimony: “What [a

man] had himself purchased he could alienate without restriction; but what he

had inherited he could only alienate in exceptional circumstances.” But within

a generation that restriction had been abandoned. In Bracton’s time:

“If land were granted to A and his heirs, A received an inheritable fee which

he could alienate in its entirety to B and B’s heirs…[I]f the ancestor

alienated in fee during his lifetime, the heir had nothing to inherit and no

legal standing. The reason given was that the identity of the heir could not be

known until the ancestor’s death. Heirs were made by God not man: solus Deus

facit haeredem. No ascertained individual was therefore cut off by an

alienation inter vivos; an heir apparent or presumptive had an

expectation of inheriting, but not a vested estate. The tenant who was granted

land ‘to himself and his heirs for ever’ thus had something quite different

from a life estate. His estate was of infinite duration and during his lifetime

he could alienate it forever.”

That the privacy of property has its origins in the early fourteenth century,

not the seventeenth, is of immense importance, for it exposes to scrutiny the

association — so often assumed — between capitalism and the emergence of

libertarian institutions. But lest I be carried far beyond my competence I

return now to Kulikoff’s book, a skeleton outline of which he renders as

follows:

A Prologue “examin[es] how English peasants organized their households; how

rich Englishmen got capital to finance colonies; and how others lost their

land, tramped the countryside, and became eager to emigrate. Chapter 1 details

immigrant recruitment in seventeenth century England and patterns of migration

to the colonies. Once they arrived, Chapter 2 shows, colonists faced hostile

Indians, deep forests, and a climate far more extreme than England’s. Despite

the struggle with Indians, most families did get land and made it their own. As

Chapter 3 relates, during the eighteenth century, after coastal lands filled

with settlers, colonists moved to new frontiers, chasing Indians away and

improving more land. Chapter 4 shows who left eighteenth century Britain and

Europe and explains why so many peasants moved east rather than west. Turning

from economic and demographic issues to the process of farm making, Chapter 5

describes the gender division of labor on the farm, exchange between farm

families, and the relation between market and household. The American

Revolution, the epilogue argues, temporarily stopped migration, ended

international trade, thrust families into subsistence production, and ignited

vicious partisan and Indian warfare; after the war internal migration and farm

making resumed and intensified” (p. 4).

This outline does not begin to capture the scale and scope, the density and

complexity of the synthesis he has achieved. His two chapters on medieval and

early modern English rural history do a superb job of fixing the Great

Migration in its historical context. One is grateful for the close attention he

gives to financing the emigration process by means of subsidies, monopolies,

joint stock companies, chartered companies, and trading companies, and for the

penetrating detail he brings to his discussion of the settlement process.

Particularly noteworthy is his treatment of the colonists’ encounters with

Indians. Not having been familiar with these materials, I was struck — as I

have been by Peter Mancall’s work — at the amount of information Native

Americans appear to have left in the historical record. Tribe by tribe Kulikoff

tracks the systematic degradation of Indians from King Philip’s war to their

‘domestication’ through conversion, dispossession, absorption into the labor

force, indebtedness, servitude, and enslavement to other Indian tribes. But

most impressive is Kulikoff’s ability to write with equal authority about every

one of the thirteen colonies. In this field, expertise on one town has

sufficed to build an academic career on. To command, at this level of detail,

an intimate familiarity with the literatures on every colony is really

rather extraordinary. And he remains, as he has always been, acutely sensitive

to the roles women have played in sustaining the worlds that British peasants

and American farmers made.

But it is precisely with respect to “level of detail” that this review pivots

from an encomium to a critique. Let me start with a few of his paragraphs for

purely illustrative purposes.

1. “All but 4 of the first 238 inhabitants of Salem, Massachusetts got land,

and later arrivals fared nearly as well, eleven-twelfths (134 out of 146)

getting land. New England land continued to be widely distributed. In three

towns in Essex County, Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century, half the

men owned land before they were 30, as did 95 percent of men over 36. Before

1660, two-fifths of Connecticut settlers, most of them young men, had no land,

but by the 1690s six-sevenths of all farmers owned land. Similarly high levels

of landownership could be found in the Chesapeake colonies. In 1660 four-fifths

of the white men in Charles County, Maryland were landowners; as the

opportunity for former servants to get land plummeted, the proportion of owners

among taxable men declined to seven-tenths in 1675 and six-tenths in 1690. Most

landless men either moved from the county or died young, before they could

acquire land. In both 1687 and 1704 nearly two-thirds of the household heads in

Surry County, Virginia held land, as did three-quarters of householders in

Talbot County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in 1704. Landownership, moreover,

might have been nearly universal in early Pennsylvania; during the 1690s

eight-ninths of the householders in one Chester County township owned land” (p.

113)

2. “Six-sevenths of Connecticut men held land, and nine-tenths of those between

ages 40 and 70 farmed their own acreage. … [N]early eight-ninths of the [New

Hampshire] householders owned land. But in the ports of Portsmouth and

Newcastle only two-thirds of the householders owned land; most held just enough

for a house lot and small garden. During the Revolutionary era two-thirds of

taxed men in East New Jersey owned land, but four-fifths of men over age 27 —

nearly all the household heads — did” (p. 131).

3. “The proportion of cottagers and wage laborers among household heads grew

from one-quarter before 1560 to two-fifths by 1620, and at the same time the

proportion of small-holding husbandmen dropped from about two-fifths to less

than one-third. During the 1650s only half of the men in three Lancashire

villages worked in agriculture, while two-fifths worked in the textile

industry. By 1688 only a quarter of rural families … leased or owned land.

Half were cottagers, landless farm laborers, or vagrants, and one-seventh

worked exclusively in textiles, mining, and other village industries. At least

a third of late-seventeenth-century rural families lacked even a cottager’s

garden …” (p. 22). And on and on. Most of this could have been put in tables,

charts, graphs, and figures without which it is impossible to make sense of the

numbing superfluity of fractions, the numbing superfluity of ‘fact-lets.’ I put

the blame for this on the editor, and chalk it up to a serious failure on the

Press’s part to identify the book’s target audience. To what readership is it

aimed? For the lay or undergraduate reader the forest is all too often obscured

by the trees, while graduate students and professionals will be excessively

irritated by the absence of even the most elementary processing of quantitative

information: percents are as scarce as hens’ teeth.

I am reminded of the recent review of a biography of Marcel Proust: “Every

conceivable fact about Proust and about Proust’s friends and friends of his

friends, and about what they wrote, read, saw, heard, and loved is literally

stuffed into the Life, usually in very short segments that are, despite

the author’s desire to suggest otherwise, a hasty collage of disconnected

scenes et portraits … Tadie’s insights are almost always surrounded by

innumerable facts that end up clouding a sustained meditation on the inner

Proust. Tadie machine-guns facts with vertiginous dispatch, for he not only

knows everything there is to know about Proust — but he also means us to know

it.”6 In like manner, Kulikoff machine-guns facts with vertiginous dispatch,

for he not only knows everything there is to know about the small farmer in the

colonial period — he means us to know it. But, like a pointilliste painting,

it is meaningless up close, and a blur from a distance.

A still larger question has to do with the presentation of materials across

disciplines. A recent article in the Journal of Economic Literature

provides the hook on which to hang this, the principal point of my critique.7

On the assumption that interdisciplinary conversation contributes to the

diffusion of knowledge, the authors of that article propose that “actual

communication flows” between the various social sciences be measured by the

number of ‘high value’ citations an article garners in other journals. To that

I would add another metric: the authenticity of the translation from origin to

destination across disciplines. Narrative disciplines that import findings from

hypothetico-deductive disciplines (and modern economic history is one) have an

obligation, both to the reader and to the original author, to define

constructed variables, to report the research design as modeled, and the

findings as provisional.8 An example of successful ‘translation’ is McCusker

and Menard’s Economy of British America, which throughout treats early

American economic history as “a laboratory containing sufficient diversity to

encourage analysis but enough similarity to allow control of at least some

variables.”9 In Kulikoff’s book, on the other hand, I find many examples of

what I would consider to be bad ‘translations':

? Mistaking the size of a study sample for the size of the ‘universe’ from

which it was drawn. Thus, “In 1714 the Massachusetts land bank lent to 110 men

in Middlesex County; two-thirds were farmers, one-third artisans.” And “between

1650 and 1750 Middlesex County residents took out 619 mortgages.” Kulikoff is

citing work of mine here, and in both cases he is confusing the size of a study

sample with the size (unknown) of the ‘universe’ from which it was drawn. When

these two examples are followed by an example from New York State —

“Landholders in two Dutchess County precincts alone took out 329 mortgages

between 1754 and 1770″ (all on p. 219) — one wonders if that too is only the

sample size.

? To explain migration flows within and among the colonies, Kulikoff declares

that the decision to move: a) “was driven by increased land prices in older

areas and cheap frontier land” (p. 148); b) “depended on father’s age, the

number of children at home, opportunities at home or on the frontier, and

previous moves by friends or neighbors” (p. 149); c) depended on prices: “when

prices were good, propertied families risked the peril of moving to a frontier;

during depressions or wars, they stayed put or moved short distances” (p. 145);

d) depended on assets: “only families with assets could move long distances”

(p. 145). This is a regression waiting to happen. Regression analysis was

imported into social-science history just to prevent ‘effects’ from having an

unlimited number of equally plausible ’causes.’

? “Agricultural productivity rose” (p. 170). Kulikoff is too familiar with

economics jargon to use the word ‘productivity’ often, but using it at all

imposes an obligation to define the measure of it, particularly when the

magnitude (total factor productivity) is a construct, and the measure of it in

the original research was proxied, as it so often is, by rents which have data

problems of their own.

? The end-notes — again, perhaps, an editorial decision. The practice of

bundling all references in a paragraph into one footnote (or end-note) is not

uncommon in narrative histories, but in this book virtually every paragraph

carries an end-note, and each end-note bundles together as many as twenty

citations. This impedes the serious scholar who wants to locate a source or

validate the authority of a ‘fact-let.’ In a hypothetico-deductive discipline

where the results are for the most part ‘made,’ not ‘discovered,’ their

provenance deserves to be known.

It would be a great pity if decisions made on the editorial level misjudged the

audience for this book. A more sophisticated treatment of the staggering amount

of quantitative material between its covers might have garnered it the

gratitude and respect it would then deserve.

Notes:

1. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1849), quoted

on p. 5.

2. Two thousand is my rough count, approximately four hundred of the two

thousand works were published in the last decade, and I recognized seventy-five

as the works of economic historians.

3. Allan Kulikoff, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism

(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), p. 34.

4. A meme — “An idea that seems to have a life of its own,” Edward Rothstein,

“The Mysterious Meme, A Seductive Metaphor,” New York Times (August 2,

2002), p. A15.

5. J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, second edition.

(London: Butterworths, 1979), pp. 222-24.

6. Andre Aciman, “Proust Regained,” New York Review of Books, July 18,

2002, p.58.

7. Rik Pieters and Hans Baumgartner, “Who Talks to Whom? Intra- and

Interdisciplinary Communication of Economics Journals,” Journal of Economic

Literature (June 2002), p. 484.

8. This issue is knowingly discussed by John Komlos in “Interdisciplinary

Approaches to Historical Analysis,” in Peter Karsten and John Modell, editors,

Theory, Method and Practice in Social and Cultural History (New York:

New York University Press, 1992).

9. John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America,

1607-1789 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), pp.

31-32.

Winifred B. Rothenberg, Associate Professor of Economics at Tufts University,

is the author of From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation

of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

1992).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century

Making Peasants Backward: Managing Populations in Russian Agricultural Cooperatives, 1861-1914

Author(s):Kotsonis, Yanni
Reviewer(s):Hayward, Oliver

Published by EH.NET (May 2000)

Yanni Kotsonis, Making Peasants Backward: Managing Populations in Russian

Agricultural Cooperatives, 1861-1914. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

x + 245 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-312-22099-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Oliver Hayward, Department of History, University of

Wisconsin-Parkside.

This study presents succinctly (188 pages of text) the clearest and most

thorough explanation yet available in the West of the failure of those

ostensibly responsible for the welfare of Russia’s peasantry to assist them

toward the progress enjoyed by many of their contemporaries in Western and

Central Europe.

In developing his analysis, Yanni Kotsonis (Assistant Professor of History,

NYU) has made effective use of extensive archival materials in Moscow and St.

Petersburg, as well as archives in the Archangel section of the Imperial State

Bank and the Agricultural Society of Vologda. He consulted newspapers,

periodicals, and serial publications of several Imperial government and private

agencies operating in the decades up to 1914. Also utilized are many published

monographs and articles on the subject, often by persons involved with

formulating and executing policies ostensibly designed to assist Russia’s

peasantry out of its backwardness.

Following an introductory statement of the theoretical framework within which

he explores various aspects of the peasant situation following the promulgation

of the “Great Reforms,” Kotsonis analyzes the subject in more depth through

chapters utilizing the following periodization: 1. 1861-1895,

during which the “Great Reforms” were set in motion; 2. 1895-1904,as Witte

attempted to strengthen Russia’s peasantry as part of his overall program for

modernizing the economy; and 3. 1906-1914, as first Stolypin and later

Krivoshein made further attempts to enhance the position of Russia’s peasantry.

Chapter 4 (“Citizens: Backwardness and Legitimacy in Agronomy and Economics,

1900-1914″) introduces the new set of forces which descended upon the Russian

countryside: agronomists, economists, and “cooperators,”

the professionals charged with assisting the peasants in establishing

agricultural cooperatives.

The final chapter (“Making Peasants Backward, 1900-1914″), utilizes the various

themes from the first four chapters to explain more precisely why the promising

programs ostensibly designed to assist Russia’s peasants in fact for the most

part conspired to “make peasants backward.” No element in Russian society–the

zemstvo nobility, government ministers and other leaders, the agronomists, and

other professionals sent out presumably to assist the peasants – seems to have

been able to escape the blinders created by their own prejudices and

preconceptions in order to further the peasants’ true interests.

Kotsonis’ brief Epilogue suggests some of the implications of all this for

rural Russia during World War I, especially its impact on the tumultuous years

of 1917-1918.

Permeating the entire book is the overwhelmingly pernicious attitude toward the

peasantry held by almost every group bearing some responsibility to assist the

peasantry. Through extensive quotations from the writings and speeches of

representative individuals, Kotsonis demonstrates this attitude to be a melange

of the following specific assumptions: that Russia’s peasantry were

overwhelmingly illiterate; that they were particularly ignorant in financial

matters; that they were therefore in unceasing danger of being exploited and

misled by unscrupulous and predatory middlemen, and that they therefore must

not be exposed to an impersonal credit market that could only be deleterious to

their interests.

Based on these assumptions, the cooperative movement generally focused on

bringing professionals down to the peasants in order to guide and protect them,

rather than seeking to educate the peasantry and showing them how to more

effectively manage their own agricultural activities. Many in the cooperative

movement viewed capitalism as a form of predatory power that should not be

practiced on or by the peasants except under the close supervision (nadzor) of

agronomists and other professionals.

State officials, zemstvo noblemen, and agronomists and other professionals all

vied to see which among them should conduct the peasants’ affairs for them.

Rarely were the peasants involved in the process even consulted on the chance

that they might have some useful insights regarding how to improve their lot.

Struggles for influence and bureaucratic control took precedence over the

interests of the peasants.

Perhaps most ominous of all, Kotsonis suggests, was the attitude with which the

various groups responsible for overseeing the peasantry in Russia did so, with

attitudes vastly different than those of their counterparts in other parts of

Europe. While there were the familiar references to the backwardness and

barbarism of peasants in European countries as well, there it was often in a

context of the need to mobilize the peasantry into the broader population as a

political nation. In Russia, in contrast, the presumption that peasants could

not measure up to the requisite standards of citizenship, self-reliance,

progress, and rationality produced not only a failure to recognize the

possibility of “dynamic transformation of peasants, but often a caste-like

reification of them and a justification of permanent administration over them,

‘as if by a foreigner'” (p. 134).

In his footnote to this assertion (p. 218, footnote #117), Kotsonis notes that

even in Poland, in stark contrast to Russia, “the integration of peasants into

a national idea was the central issue in political movements from the early

nineteenth century.”

That a mass cooperative movement encompassing by 1914 one-quarter of all

peasant households in Russia could nevertheless achieve so little in mobilizing

the peasantry into a broader political nation is a situation fraught with

ominous implications for post-1917 Russia. Kotsonis has made a significant

contribution to our understanding of how, despite often benevolent intentions

toward the peasantry on the part of many officials,

professionals, and “cooperators,” this dangerous situation was actually

deteriorating still further in the last decades of the Russian Empire.

I would make but one suggestion for improving this study. The specific data on

the extent and distribution of the cooperative movement in Russia that Kotsonis

presents in chapter 5 could have been more helpful if presented much earlier,

for it helps better assess the merits of various proposals to make credit more

readily available to the peasantry and thereby modernize Russian agriculture.

This work is, in any event, a major contribution to augmenting our

understanding of a crucial failure plaguing the troubled history of late

Imperial Russia. Those who might have been able to help formulate a

constructive response to the “Cursed Question” instead compounded and

perpetuated the curse.

Oliver Hayward is completing a study of the life and policies of M.Kh.

Reutern, Minister of Finance under Alexander II. He is currently researching

the periodic flooding of the city of St.Petersburg/Leningrad and efforts to

control that flooding.

Subject: A Geographical Area: 4 Country: Russia Time period: 7, 8

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Peasants, Merchants, and Markets: Inland Trade in Medieval England, 1150-1350

Author(s):Masschaele, James
Reviewer(s):Clark, Gregory

EH.NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by EH.NET (April 1998)

James Masschaele, Peasants, Merchants, and Markets: Inland Trade in Medieval England, 1150-1350. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1997. xii + 275 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-312-16035-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gregory Clark, Department of Economics, University of California, Davis.

Medieval Commerce: Too Much of a Good Thing

You have got to feel sorry for our colleagues in medieval economic history. This bright and energetic group – Richard Britnell, Bruce Campbell, Christopher Dyer, Derek Keene, Maryanne Kowaleski, John Langdon, Mavis Mate, Larry Poos, Ambrose Raftis, to name just a few – are model scholars. To practice their craft they master Latin and paleography, they learn the subtleties of the documents, they spend the time in the archives. And the archives themselves are glorious: a mine of economic information so much richer than even what we find for eighteenth century England. But what reward do they get for all this effort and all this erudition? The more we learn about medieval England, the more careful and reflective the scholarship gets, the more prosaic does medieval economic life seem. The story of the medieval economy in some ways seems to be that there is no story.

Back in the bad old days, when the scholarship was less careful, the medieval economy was mysterious and exciting. Marxists, neo-Malthusians, Chayanovians, and other exotics debated vigorously their pet theories of a pre-capitalist economic world in a wild speculative romp. But little by little, as the archives have been systematically explored, and the hypotheses subject to more rigorous examination, medieval economic historians have been retreating from their exotic Eden back to a mundane world alarmingly like our own.

This book, by James Masschaele, a historian at Rutgers University, is a nice piece of scholarship which constitutes a few more steps in this long retreat from paradise. His book is really a collection of essays exploring various aspects of the English medieval market before the Black Death. In successive chapters, through skilled and convincing use of tax records and other sources Masschaele shows that the medieval economy was thoroughly permeated by markets and market activities.

Thus the occupants of medieval towns engaged in a wide variety of specialized commodity production, of which the main were victualling, leather making, textiles, clothing, vending, metal working, and building. Those in towns were all engaged in the market. Some peasants were able to produce a substantial surplus of grain and animal products which must normally have been sold on the market. Many peasants were thus also in the market. Much, and perhaps even most, of the great cash crop of medieval England, wool, was produced on peasant holdings and not on the lay and clerical estates.

Those with the right to hold markets defended that right vigorously and tried to limit competition. But the English courts generally interpreted this right as excluding only other markets held on the same day within 6.7 miles. Thus in the East Midland counties of Northampton and Bedford we see even before 1250 many markets within 6.7 miles of their neighbors. Indeed it seems from the map given in the book that the average location in these counties would about 5 miles from a market by 1250. By 1690 I know from other sources that the average distance to market in these counties had shrunk to 3.3 miles. But this seems a very modest gain in the prevalence of markets over these years. If the monopoly right to hold a market exercised much restriction on the medieval economy, then markets should have generated significant incomes for their owners through market tolls. In fact toll rates were generally seldom more than 1% of the value of goods traded, and there were many who were by one custom or another exempted from toll. Thus goods bought for household consumption typically did not pay toll. Similarly small goods such as apples, or butter in earthen pots, produced by peasant households were also apparently often exempt.

Towns similarly seem to display an expected urban hierarchy, with a few major trade and manufacturing centers and a large array of smaller places with very little evidence of commercial or manufacturing activity. Using records of disputes over toll payments and toll exemptions Masschaele shows that there were significant trade relations between towns that could be quite distant from each other. Thus, for example, in 1315 the town of Sandwich seized the almonds, figs and raisins of a merchant refusing to pay toll, where the merchant was from London, 63 miles away.

Using again records of toll disputes Masschaele is also able to get some information about the marketing activities of rural producers. By the early thirteenth century English kings, as pious acts, had granted exemption from toll in all markets to most major ecclesiastical corporations. This exemption was held to apply to their manorial tenants also. The exemption was meant to apply to rural produce sold by the tenants to meet their rent payments to the houses. Tenants on the royal demesne had by custom a similar privilege. Tenants of both types, however, seem to have availed themselves of the exemption to further general trade activities. Thus even in the fourteenth century many court cases appear where rural tenants of religious orders or of the king are alleged to be buying goods with intent to resell, or selling goods they had bought.

In one of the later chapter Masschaele documents carrying costs by land and water per ton-mile in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire between 1305 and 1346. These costs suggest, for example, that if wheat was transported by water is would cost about 1.4% of its final value per additional ten miles carried. These costs seem relatively modest.

The concluding chapter begins with the statement, “By the end of the thirteenth century, England had developed a sophisticated commercial economy that embraced all levels of society” (p. 227). There is no doubt that this statement is well supported by the evidence of the book. But if medieval England was just a low-tech version of Kansas, why would anyone be interested in its economy? The early economy had, I believe, some very interesting features. But focused as this tradition is on the existence and extent of the market, I fear that further excellent scholarship such as this can only provide more compelling evidence of the utter dullness of the medieval economy. For this erudition to be more interestingly employed, at least as far as economic historians are concerned, it needs to be directed at a richer set of issues than just the existence of the market.

Gregory Clark Department of Economics University of California- Davis

Among Gregory Clark’s recent publications are “The Political Foundations of Modern Economic Growth: England, 1540-1800,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 26 (Spring, 1996), “Commons Sense: Common Property Rights, Efficiency, and Institutional Change,” Journal of Economic History, 58 (March, 1998) and “Land Hunger: Land as a Commodity and as a Status Good in England, 1500-1914,” Explorations in Economic History, 35 (1), (Jan., 1998).

?

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

The Economic History of Mexico

The Economic History of Mexico

Richard Salvucci, Trinity University

 

Preface[1]

This article is a brief interpretive survey of some of the major features of the economic history of Mexico from pre-conquest to the present. I begin with the pre-capitalist economy of Mesoamerica. The colonial period is divided into the Habsburg and Bourbon regimes, although the focus is not really political: the emphasis is instead on the consequences of demographic and fiscal changes that colonialism brought.  Next I analyze the economic impact of independence and its accompanying conflict. A tentative effort to reconstruct secular patterns of growth in the nineteenth century follows, as well as an account of the effects of foreign intervention, war, and the so-called “dictatorship” of Porfirio Diaz.  I then examine the economic consequences of the Mexican Revolution down through the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, before considering the effects of the Great Depression and World War II. This is followed by an examination of the so-called Mexican Miracle, the period of import-substitution industrialization after World War II. The end of the “miracle” and the rise of economic instability in the 1970s and 1980s are discussed in some detail. I conclude with structural reforms in the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and slow growth in Mexico since then. It is impossible to be comprehensive and the references appearing in the citations are highly selective and biased (where possible) in favor of English-language works, although Spanish is a must for getting beyond the basics. This is especially true in economic history, where some of the most innovative and revisionist work is being done, as it should be, by historians and economists in Mexico.[2]

 

Where (and What) is Mexico?

For most of its long history, Mexico’s boundaries have been shifting, albeit broadly stable. Colonial Mexico basically stretched from Guatemala, across what is now California and the Southwestern United States, and vaguely into the Pacific Northwest.  There matters stood for more than three centuries[3]. The big shock came at the end of the War of 1847 (“the Mexican-American War” in U.S. history). The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) ended the war, but in so doing, ceded half of Mexico’s former territory to the United States—recall Texas had been lost in 1836. The northern boundary now ran on a line beginning with the Rio Grande to El Paso, and thence more or less west to the Pacific Ocean south of San Diego. With one major adjustment in 1853 (the Gadsden Purchase or Treaty of the Mesilla) and minor ones thereafter, because of the shifting of the Rio Grande, there it has remained.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Mexico was a congeries of ethnic and city states whose own boundaries were unstable. Prior to the emergence of the most powerful of these states in the fifteenth century, the so-called Triple Alliance (popularly “Aztec Empire”), Mesoamerica consisted of cultural regions determined by political elites and spheres of influence that were dominated by large ceremonial centers such as La Venta, Teotihuacan, and Tula.

While such regions may have been dominant at different times, they were never “economically” independent of one another. At Teotihuacan, there were living quarters given over to Olmec residents from the Veracruz region, presumably merchants. Mesoamerica was connected, if not unified, by an ongoing trade in luxury goods and valuable stones such as jade, turquoise and precious feathers. This was not, however, trade driven primarily by factor endowments and relative costs. Climate and resource endowments did differ significantly over the widely diverse regions and microclimates of Mesoamerica. Yet trade was also political and ritualized in religious belief. For example, calling the shipment of turquoise from the (U.S.) Southwest to Central Mexico the outcome of market activity is an anachronism. In the very long run, such prehistorical exchange facilitated the later emergence of trade routes, roads, and more technologically advanced forms of transport. But arbitrage does not appear to have figured importantly in it.[4]

In sum, what we call “Mexico” in a modern sense is not of much use to the economic historian with an interest in the country before 1870, which is to say, the great bulk of its history. In these years, specificity of time and place, sometimes reaching to the village level, is an indispensable prerequisite for meaningful discussion. At the very least, it is usually advisable to be aware of substantial regional differences which reflect the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country both before and after the arrival of the Europeans. There are fully ten language families in Mexico, and two of them, Nahuatl and Quiché, number over a million speakers each.[5]

 

Trade and Tribute before the Europeans

In the codices or deerskin folded paintings the Europeans examined (or actually commissioned), they soon became aware of a prominent form of Mesoamerican economic activity: tribute, or taxation in kind, or even labor services. In the absence of anything that served as money, tribute was forced exchange. Tribute has been interpreted as a means of redistribution in a nonmonetary economy. Social and political units formed a basis for assessment, and the goods collected included maize, beans, chile and cotton cloth. It was through the tribute the indigenous “empires” mobilized labor and resources. There is little or no evidence for the existence of labor or land markets to do so, for these were a European import, although marketplaces for goods existed in profusion.

To an extent, the preconquest reliance on barter economies and the absence of money largely accounts for the ubiquity of tribute. The absence of money is much more difficult to explain and was surely an obstacle to the growth of productivity in the indigenous economies.

The tribute was a near-universal attribute of Mesoamerican ceremonial centers and political empires. The city of Teotihuacan (ca. 600 CE, with a population of 125,000 or more) in central Mexico depended on tribute to support an upper stratum of priests and nobles while the tributary population itself lived at subsistence. Tlatelolco (ca 1520, with a population ranging from 50 to 100 thousand) drew maize, cotton, cacao, beans and precious feathers from a wide swath of territory that broadly extended from the Pacific to Gulf coasts that supported an upper stratum of priests, warriors, nobles, and merchants. It was this urban complex that sat atop the lagoons that filled the Valley of Mexico that so awed the arriving conquerors.

While the characterization of tribute as both a corvée and a tax in kind to support nonproductive populations is surely correct, its persistence in altered (i.e., monetized) form under colonial rule does suggest an important question. The tributary area of the Mexica (“Aztec” is a political term, not an ethnic one) broadly comprised a Pacific slope, a central valley, and a Gulf slope. These embrace a wide range of geographic features ranging from rugged volcanic highlands (and even higher snow-capped volcanoes) to marshy, humid coastal plains. Even today, travel through these regions is challenging. Lacking both the wheel and draught animals, the indigenous peoples relied on human transport, or, where possible, waterborne exchange. However we measure the costs of transportation, they were high. In the colonial period, they typically circumscribed the subsistence radius of markets to 25 to 35 miles. Under the circumstances, it is not easy to imagine that voluntary exchange, particularly between the coastal lowlands and the temperate to cold highlands and mountains, would be profitable for all but the most highly valued goods. In some parts of Mexico–as in the Andean region—linkages of family and kinship bound different regions together in a cult of reciprocal economic obligations. Yet absent such connections, it is not hard to imagine, for example, transporting woven cottons from the coastal lowlands to the population centers of the highlands could become a political obligation rather than a matter of profitable, voluntary exchange. The relatively ambiguous role of markets in both labor and goods that persisted into the nineteenth century may perhaps derive from just this combination of climatic and geographical characteristics. It is what made voluntary exchange under capitalistic markets such a puzzlingly problematic answer to the ordinary demands of economic activity.

 

[See the relief map below for the principal physical features of Mexico.]

image1

http://www.igeograf.unam.mx/sigg/publicaciones/atlas/anm-2007/muestra_mapa.php?cual_mapa=MG_I_1.jpg

[See the political map below for Mexican states and state capitals.]

image2

 

 

Used by permission of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

 

“New Spain” or Colonial Mexico: The First Phase

Mexico was established by military conquest and civil war. In the process, a civilization with its own institutions and complex culture was profoundly modified and altered, if not precisely destroyed, by the European invaders. The catastrophic elements of conquest, including the sharp decline of the existing indigenous population, from perhaps 25 million to fewer than a million within a century due to warfare, disease, social disorganization and the imposition of demands for labor and resources should nevertheless not preclude some assessment, however tentative, of its economic level in 1519, when the Europeans arrived.[6]

Recent thinking suggests that Spain was far from poor when it began its overseas expansion. If this were so, the implications of the Europeans’ reactions to what they found on the mainland of Mexico (not, significantly in the Caribbean, and, especially, in Cuba, where they were first established) is important. We have several accounts of the conquest of Mexico by the European participants, of which Bernal Díaz del Castillo is the best known, but not the only one. The reaction of the Europeans was almost uniformly astonishment by the apparent material wealth of Tenochtitlan. The public buildings, spacious residences of the temple precinct, the causeways linking the island to the shore, and the fantastic array of goods available in the marketplace evoked comparisons to Venice, Constantinople, and other wealthy centers of European civilization. While it is true that this was a view of the indigenous elite, the beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated from numerous tributaries, it hardly suggests anything other than a kind of storied opulence. Of course, the peasant commoners lived at subsistence and enjoyed no such privileges, but then so did the peasants of the society from which Bernal Díaz, Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado and the other conquerors were drawn. It is hard to imagine that the average standard of living in Mexico was any lower than that of the Iberian Peninsula. The conquerors remarked on the physical size and apparent robust health of the people whom they met, and from this, scholars such as Woodrow Borah and Sherburne Cook concluded that the physical size of the Europeans and the Mexicans was about the same. Borah and Cook surmised that caloric intake per individual in Central Mexico was around 1,900 calories per day, which certainly seems comparable to European levels.[7]

Certainly, the technological differences with Europe hampered commercial exchange, such as the absence of the wheel for transportation, metallurgy that did not include iron, and the exclusive reliance on pictographic writing systems. Yet by the same token, Mesoamerican agricultural technology was richly diverse and especially oriented toward labor-intensive techniques, well suited to pre-conquest Mexico’s factor endowments. As Gene Wilken points out, Bernardo de Sahagún explained in his General History of the Things of New Spain that the Nahua farmer recognized two dozen soil types related to origin, source, color, texture, smell, consistency and organic content.  They were expert at soil management.[8] So it is possible not only to misspecify, but to mistake the technological “backwardness” of Mesoamerica relative to Europe, and historians routinely have.

The essentially political and clan-based nature of economic activity made the distribution of output somewhat different from standard neoclassical models. Although no one seriously maintains that indigenous civilization did not include private property and, in fact, property rights in humans, the distribution of product tended to emphasize average rather than marginal product. If responsibility for tribute was collective, it is logical to suppose that there was some element of redistribution and collective claim on output by the basic social groups of indigenous society, the clans or calpulli.[9] Whatever the case, it seems clear that viewing indigenous society and economy as strained by population growth to the point of collapse, as the so-called “Berkeley school” did in the 1950s, is no longer tenable. It is more likely that the tensions exploited by the Europeans to divide and conquer their native hosts and so erect a colonial state on pre-existing native entities were mainly political rather than socioeconomic. It was through the assistance of native allies such as the Tlaxcalans, as well as with the help of previously unknown diseases such as smallpox that ravaged the indigenous peoples, that the Europeans were able to place a weakened Tenochtitlan under siege and finally defeat it.

 

Colonialism and Economic Adjustment to Population Decline

With the subjection first of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco and then of other polities and peoples, a process that would ultimately stretch well into the nineteenth century and was never really completed, the Europeans turned their attention to making colonialism pay. The process had several components: the modification or introduction of institutions of rule and appropriation; the introduction of new flora and fauna that could be turned to economic use; the reorientation of a previously autarkic and precapitalist economy to the demands of trade and commercial exploitation; and the implementation of European fiscal sovereignty. These processes were complex, required much time, and were, in many cases, only partly successful. There is considerable speculation regarding how long it took before Spain (arguably a relevant term by the mid-sixteenth century) made colonialism pay. The best we can do is present a schematic view of what occurred. Regional variations were enormous: a “typical” outcome or institution of colonialism may well have been an outcome visible in central Mexico. Moreover, all generalizations are fragile, rest on limited quantitative evidence, and will no doubt be substantially modified eventually. The message is simple: proceed with caution.

The Europeans did not seek to take Mesoamerica as a tabula rasa. In some ways, they would have been happy to simply become the latest in a long line of ruling dynasties established by decapitating native elites and assuming control. The initial demand of the conquerors for access to native labor in the so-called encomienda was precisely that, with the actual task of governing be left to the surviving and collaborating elite: the principle of “indirect rule.”[10] There were two problems with this strategy: the natives resisted and the natives died. They died in such large numbers as to make the original strategy impracticable.

The number of people who lived in Mesoamerica has long been a subject of controversy, but there is no point in spelling it out once again. The numbers are unknowable and, in an economic sense, not really important. The population of Tenochtitlan has been variously estimated between 50 and 200 thousand individuals, depending on the instruments of estimation.  As previously mentioned, some estimates of the Central Mexican population range as high as 25 million on the eve of the European conquest, and virtually no serious student accepts the small population estimates based on the work of Angel Rosenblatt. The point is that labor was abundant relative to land, and that the small surpluses of a large tributary population must have supported the opulent elite that Bernal Díaz and his companions described.

By 1620, or thereabouts, the indigenous population had fallen to less than a million according to Cook and Borah. This is not just the quantitative speculation of modern historical demographers. Contemporaries such as Jerónimo de Mendieta in his Historia eclesiástica Indiana (1596) spoke of towns formerly densely populated now witness to “the palaces of those former Lords ruined or on the verge of. The homes of the commoners mostly empty, roads and streets deserted, churches empty on feast days, the few Indians who populate the towns in Spanish farms and factories.” Mendieta was an eyewitness to the catastrophic toll that European microbes and warfare took on the native population. There was a smallpox epidemic in 1519-20 when 5 to 8 million died. The epidemic of hemorrhagic fever in 1545 to 1548 was one of the worst demographic catastrophes in human history, killing 5 to 15 million people. And then again in 1576 to 1578, when 2 to 2.5 million people died, we have clear evidence that land prices in the Valley of Mexico (Coyoacán, a village outside Mexico City, as the reconstructed Tenochtitlán was called) collapsed. The death toll was staggering. Lesser outbreaks were registered in 1559, 1566, 1587, 1592, 1601, 1604, 1606, 1613, 1624, and 1642. The larger point is that the intensive use of native labor, such as the encomienda, had to come to an end, whatever its legal status had become by virtue of the New Laws (1542). The encomienda or the simple exploitation of massive numbers of indigenous workers was no longer possible. There were too few “Indians” by the end of the sixteenth century.[11]

As a result, the institutions and methods of economic appropriation were forced to change. The Europeans introduced pastoral agriculture – the herding of cattle and sheep – and the use of now abundant land and scarce labor in the form of the hacienda while the remaining natives were brought together in “villages” whose origins were not essentially pre- but post-conquest, the so-called congregaciones, at the same time that the titles to now-vacant lands were created, regularized and “composed.”[12] (Land titles were a European innovation as well). Sheep and cattle, which the Europeans introduced, became part of the new institutional backbone of the colony. The natives would continue to rely on maize for the better part of their subsistence, but the Europeans introduced wheat, olives (oil), grapes (wine) and even chickens, which the natives rapidly adopted. On the whole, the results of these alterations were complex. Some scholars argue that the native diet improved even in the face of their diminishing numbers, a consequence of increased land per person and of greater variety of foodstuffs, and that the agricultural potential of the colony now called New Spain was enhanced. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the combined indigenous, European immigrant, and new mixed blood populations could largely survive on the basis of their own production. The introduction of sheep lead to the introduction and manufacture of woolens in what were called obrajes or manufactories in Puebla, Querétaro, and Coyoacán. The native peoples continued to produce cottons (a domestic crop) under the stimulus of European organization, lending, and marketing. Extensive pastoralism, the cultivation of cereals and even the incorporation of native labor then characterized the emergence of the great estates or haciendas, which became a characteristic rural institution through the twentieth century, when the Mexican Revolution put an end to many of them. Thus the colony of New Spain continued to feed, clothe and house itself independent of metropolitan Spain’s direction. Certainly, Mexico before the Conquest was self-sufficient. The extent to which the immigrant and American Spaniard or creole population depended on imports of wine, oil and other foodstuffs and textiles in the decades immediately following the conquest is much less clear.

At the same time, other profound changes accompanied the introduction of Europeans, their crops and their diseases into what they termed the “kingdom” (not colony, for constitutional reasons) of New Spain.[13] Prior to the conquest, land and labor had been commoditized, but not to any significant extent, although there was a distinction recognized between possession and ownership.  Scholars who have closely examined the emergence of land markets after the conquest—mainly in the Valley of Mexico—are virtually unanimous in this conclusion. To the extent that markets in labor and commodities had emerged, it took until the 1630s (and later elsewhere in New Spain) for the development to reach maturity. Even older mechanisms of allocation of labor by administrative means (repartimiento) or by outright coercion persisted. Purely economic incentives in the form of money wages and prices never seemed adequate to the job of mobilizing resources and those with access to political power were reluctant to pay a competitive wage. In New Spain, the use of some sort of political power or rent-seeking nearly always accompanied labor recruitment. It was, quite simply, an attempt to evade the implications of relative scarcity, and renders the entire notion of “capitalism” as a driving economic force in colonial Mexico quite inexact.

 

Why the Settlers Resisted the Implications of Scarce Labor

The reasons behind this development are complex and varied. The evidence we have for the Valley of Mexico demonstrates that the relative price of labor rose while the relative price of land fell even when nominal movements of one or the other remained fairly limited. For instance, the table constructed below demonstrates that from 1570-75 through 1591-1606, the price of unskilled labor in the Valley of Mexico nearly tripled while the price of land in the Valley (Coyoacán) fell by nearly two thirds. On the whole, the price of labor relative to land increased by nearly 800 percent. The evolution of relative prices would have inevitably worked against the demanders of labor (Europeans and increasingly, creoles or Americans of largely European ancestry) and in favor of the supplier (native labor, or people of mixed race generically termed mestizo). This was not of course what the Europeans had in mind and by capture of legal institutions (local magistrates, in particularly), frequently sought to substitute compulsion for what would have been costly “free labor.” What has been termed the “depression” of the seventeenth century may well represent one of the consequences of this evolution: an abundance of land, a scarcity of labor, and the attempt of the new rulers to adjust to changing relative prices. There were repeated royal prohibitions on the use of forced indigenous labor in both public and private works, and thus a reduction in the supply of labor. All highly speculative, no doubt, but the adjustment came during the central decades of the seventeenth century, when New Spain increasingly produced its own woolens and cottons, and largely assumed the tasks of providing itself with foodstuffs and was thus required to save and invest more.  No doubt, the new rulers felt the strain of trying to do more with less.[14]

 

Years Land Price Index Labor Price Index (Labor/Land) Index
1570-1575 100 100 100
1576-1590 50 143 286
1591-1606 33 286 867

 

Source: Calculated from Rebecca Horn, Postconquest Coyoacan: Nahua-Spanish Relations in Central Mexico, 1519-1650 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 208 and José Ignacio Urquiola Permisan, “Salarios y precios en la industria manufacturer textile de la lana en Nueva España, 1570-1635,” in Virginia García Acosta, (ed.), Los precios de alimentos y manufacturas novohispanos (México, DF: CIESAS, 1995), p. 206.

 

The overall role of Mexico within the Hapsburg Empire was in flux as well. Nothing signals the change as much as the emergence of silver mining as the principal source of Mexican exportables in the second half of the sixteenth century. While Mexico would soon be eclipsed by Peru as the most productive center of silver mining—at least until the eighteenth century—the discovery of significant silver mines in Zacatecas in the 1540s transformed the economy of the Spanish empire and the character of New Spain’s as well.

 

 

 

Silver Mining

While silver mining and smelting was practiced before the conquest, it was never a focal point of indigenous activity. But for the Europeans, Mexico was largely about silver mining. From the mid- sixteenth century onward, it was explicitly understood by the viceroys that they were to do all in their power to “favor the mines,” as one memorable royal instruction enjoined. Again, there has been much controversy of the precise amounts of silver that Mexico sent to the Iberian Peninsula. What we do know certainly is that Mexico (and the Spanish Empire) became the leading source of silver, monetary reserves, and thus, of high-powered money. Over the course of the colonial period, most sources agree that Mexico provided nearly 2 billion pesos (dollars) or roughly 1.6 billion troy ounces to the world economy. The graph below provides a picture of the remissions of all Mexican silver to both Spain and to the Philippines taken from the work of John TePaske.[15]

page16

Since the population of Mexico under Spanish rule was at most 6 million people by the end of the colonial period, the kingdom’s silver output could only be considered astronomical.

This production has to be considered in both its domestic and international dimensions. From a domestic perspective, the mines were what a later generation of economists would call “growth poles.” They were markets in which inputs were transformed into tradable outputs at a much higher rate of productivity (because of mining’s relatively advanced technology) than Mexico’s other activities. Silver thus became Mexico’s principal exportable good, and remained so well into the late nineteenth century.  The residual claimants on silver production were many and varied.  There were, of course the silver miners themselves in Mexico and their merchant financiers and suppliers. They ranged from some of the wealthiest people in the world at the time, such as the Count of Regla (1710-1781), who donated warships to Spain in the eighteenth century, to individual natives in Zacatecas smelting their own stocks of silver ore.[16] While the conditions of labor in Mexico’s silver mines were almost uniformly bad, the compensation ranged from above market wages paid to free labor in the prosperous larger mines  of the Bajío and the North to the use of forced village  labor drafts in more marginal (and presumably less profitable) sites such as Taxco. In the Iberian Peninsula, income from American silver mines ultimately supported not only a class of merchant entrepreneurs in the large port cities, but virtually the core of the Spanish political nation, including monarchs, royal officials, churchmen, the military and more. And finally, silver flowed to those who valued it most highly throughout the world. It is generally estimated that 40 percent of Spain’s American (not just Mexican, but Peruvian as well) silver production ended up in hoards in China.

Within New Spain, mining centers such as Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas became places where economic growth took place rapidly, in which labor markets more readily evolved, and in which the standard of living became obviously higher than in neighboring regions. Mining centers tended to crowd out growth elsewhere because the rate of return for successful mines exceeded what could be gotten in commerce, agriculture and manufacturing. Because silver was the numeraire for Mexican prices—Mexico was effectively on a silver standard—variations in silver production could and did have substantial effects on real economic activity elsewhere in New Spain. There is considerable evidence that silver mining saddled Mexico with an early case of “Dutch disease” in which irreducible costs imposed by the silver standard ultimately rendered manufacturing and the production of other tradable goods in New Spain uncompetitive. For this reason, the expansion of Mexican silver production in the years after 1750 was never unambiguously accompanied by overall, as opposed to localized prosperity. Silver mining tended to absorb a disproportional quantity of resources and to keep New Spain’s price level high, even when the business cycle slowed down—a fact that was to impress visitors to Mexico well into the nineteenth century. Mexican silver accounted for well over three-quarters of exports by value into the nineteenth century as well. The estimates vary widely, for silver was by no means the only, or even the most important source of revenue to the Crown, but by the end of the colonial era, the Kingdom of New Spain probably accounted for 25 percent of the Crown’s imperial income.[17] That is why reformist proposals circulating in governing circles in Madrid in the late eighteenth century fixed on Mexico. If there was any threat to the American Empire, royal officials thought that Mexico, and increasingly, Cuba, were worth holding on to. From a fiscal standpoint, Mexico had become just that important.[18]

 

“New Spain”: The Second Phase                of the Bourbon “Reforms”

In 1700, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs died and a disputed succession followed. The ensuring conflict, known as the War of Spanish Succession, came to an end in 1714. The grandson of French king Louis XIV came to the Spanish throne as King Philip V. The dynasty he represented was known as the Bourbons. For the next century of so, they were to determine the fortunes of New Spain. Traditionally, the Bourbons, especially the later ones, have been associated with an effort to “renationalize” the Spanish empire in America after it had been thoroughly penetrated by French, Dutch, and lastly, British commercial interests.[19]

There were at least two areas in which the Bourbon dynasty, “reformist” or no, affected the Mexican economy. One of them dealt with raising revenue and the other was the international position of the imperial economy, specifically, the volume and value of trade. A series of statistics calculated by Richard Garner shows that the share of Mexican output or estimated GDP taken by taxes grew by 167 percent between 1700 and 1800. The number of taxes collected by the Royal Treasury increased from 34 to 112 between 1760 and 1810. This increase, sometimes labelled as a Bourbon “reconquest” of Mexico after a century and a half of drift under the Hapsburgs, occurred because of Spain’s need to finance increasingly frequent and costly wars of empire in the eighteenth century. An entire array of new taxes and fiscal placemen came to Mexico. They affected (and alienated) everyone, from the wealthiest merchant to the humblest villager. If they did nothing else, the Bourbons proved to be expert tax collectors.[20]

The second and equally consequential change in imperial management lay in the revision and “deregulation” of New Spain’s international trade, or the evolution from a “fleet” system to a regime of independent sailings, and then, finally, of voyages to and from a far larger variety of metropolitan and colonial ports. From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, ocean-going trade between Spain and the Americas was, in theory, at least, closely regulated and supervised. Ships in convoy (flota) sailed together annually under license from the monarchy and returned together as well. Since so much silver specie was carried, the system made sense, even if the flotas made a tempting target and the problem of contraband was immense. The point of departure was Seville and later, Cadiz. Under pressure from other outports in the late eighteenth century, the system was finally relaxed. As a consequence, the volume and value of trade to Mexico increased as the price of importables fell. Import-competing industries in Mexico, especially textiles, suffered under competition and established merchants complained that the new system of trade was too loose. But to no avail. There is no measure of the barter terms of trade for the eighteenth century, but anecdotal evidence suggests they improved for Mexico. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that these gains could have come anywhere close to offsetting the financial cost of Spain’s “reconquest” of Mexico.[21]

On the other hand, the few accounts of per capita real income growth in the eighteenth century that exist suggest little more than stagnation, the result of population growth and a rising price level. Admittedly, looking for modern economic growth in Mexico in the eighteenth century is an anachronism, although there is at least anecdotal evidence of technological change in silver mining, especially in the use of gunpowder for blasting and excavating, and of some productivity increase in silver mining. So even though the share of international trade outside of goods such as cochineal and silver was quite small, at the margin, changes in the trade regime were important. There is also some indication that asset income rose and labor income fell, which fueled growing social tensions in New Spain. In the last analysis, the growing fiscal pressure of the Spanish empire came when the standard of living for most people in Mexico—the native and mixed blood population—was stagnating. During periodic subsistence crisis, especially those propagated by drought and epidemic disease, and mostly in the 1780s, living standards fell. Many historians think of late colonial Mexico as something of a powder keg waiting to explode. When it did, in 1810, the explosion was the result of a political crisis at home and a dynastic failure abroad. What New Spain had negotiated during the Wars of Spanish Succession—regime change– provide impossible to surmount during the Napoleonic Wars (1794-1815). This may well be the most sensitive indicator of how economic conditions changed in New Spain under the heavy, not to say clumsy hand, of the Bourbon “reforms.”[22]

 

The War for Independence, the Insurgency, and Their Legacy

The abdication of the Bourbon monarchy to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808 produced a series of events that ultimately resulted in the independence of New Spain. The rupture was accompanied by a violent peasant rebellion headed by the clerics Miguel Hidalgo and José Morelos that, one way or another, carried off 10 percent of the population between 1810 and 1820. Internal commerce was largely paralyzed. Silver mining essentially collapsed between 1810 and 1812 and a full recovery of mining output was delayed until the 1840s. The mines located in zones of heavy combat, such as Guanajuato and Querétaro, were abandoned by fleeing workers. Thus neglected, they quickly flooded.

At the same time, the fiscal and human costs of this period, the Insurgency, were even greater.[23] The heavy borrowings in which the Bourbons engaged to finance their military alliances left Mexico with a considerable legacy of internal debt, estimated at £16 million at Independence. The damage to the fiscal, bureaucratic and administrative structure of New Spain in the face of the continuing threat of Spanish reinvasion (Spain did not recognize the Independence of Mexico (1821)) in the 1820s drove the independent governments into foreign borrowing on the London market to the tune of £6.4 million in order to finance continuing heavy military outlays. With a reduced fiscal capacity, in part the legacy of the Insurgency and in part the deliberate effort of Mexican elites to resist any repetition Bourbon-style taxation, Mexico defaulted on its foreign debt in 1827. For the next sixty years, through a serpentine history of moratoria, restructuring and repudiation (1867), it took until 1884 for the government to regain access to international capital markets, at what cost can only be imagined. Private sector borrowing and lending continued, although to what extent is currently unknown. What is clear is that the total (internal plus external) indebtedness of Mexico relative to late colonial GDP was somewhere in the range of 47 to 56 percent.[24]

This was, perhaps, not an insubstantial amount for a country whose mechanisms of public finance were in what could be mildly termed chaotic condition in the 1820s and 1830s as the form, philosophy, and mechanics of government oscillated from federalist to centralist and back into the 1850s.  Leaving aside simple questions of uncertainty, there is the very real matter that the national government—whatever the state of private wealth—lacked the capacity to service debt because national and regional elites denied it the means to do so. This issue would bedevil successive regimes into the late nineteenth century, and, indeed, into the twentieth.[25]

At the same time, the demographic effects of the Insurgency exacted a cost in terms of lost output from the 1810s through the 1840s. Gaping holes in the labor force emerged, especially in the fertile agricultural plains of the Bajío that created further obstacles to the growth of output. It is simply impossible to generalize about the fortunes of the Mexican economy in this period because of the dramatic regional variations in the Republic’s economy. A rough estimate of output per head in the late colonial period was perhaps 40 pesos (dollars).[26] After a sharp contraction in the 1810s, income remained in that neighborhood well into the 1840s, at least until the eve of the war with the United States in 1846. By the time United States troops crossed the Rio Grande, a recovery had been under way, but the war arrested it. Further political turmoil and civil war in the 1850s and 1860s represented setbacks as well. In this way, a half century or so of potential economic growth was sacrificed from the 1810s through the 1870s. This was not an uncommon experience in Latin America in the nineteenth century, and the period has even been called The Stage of the Great Delay.[27] Whatever the exact rate of real per capita income growth was, it is hard to imagine it ever exceeded two percent, if indeed it reached much more than half that.

 

Agricultural Recovery and War

On the other hand, it is clear that there was a recovery in agriculture in the central regions of the country, most notably in the staple maize crop and in wheat. The famines of the late colonial era, especially of 1785-86, when massive numbers perished, were not repeated. There were years of scarcity and periodic corresponding outbreaks of epidemic disease—the cholera epidemic of 1832 affected Mexico as it did so many other places—but by and large, the dramatic human wastage of the colonial period ceased, and the death rate does appear to have begun to fall. Very good series on wheat deliveries and retail sales taxes for the city of Puebla southeast of Mexico City show a similarly strong recovery in the 1830s and early 1840s, punctuated only by the cholera epidemic whose effects were felt everywhere.[28]

Ironically, while the Panic of 1837 appears to have at least hit the financial economy in Mexico hard with a dramatic fall in public borrowing (and private lending), especially in the capital,[29] an incipient recovery of the real economy was ended by war with the United States. It is not possible to put numbers on the cost of the war to Mexico, which lasted intermittently from 1846 to 1848, but the loss of what had been the Southwest under Mexico is most often emphasized. This may or may not be accurate. Certainly, the loss of California, where gold was discovered in January 1848, weighs heavily on the historical imaginations of modern Mexicans. There is also the sense that the indemnity paid by the United States–$15 million—was wholly inadequate, which seems at least understandable when one considers that Andrew Jackson offered $5 million to purchase Texas alone in 1829.

It has been estimated that the agricultural output of the Mexican “cession” as it was called in 1900, was nearly $64 million, and that the value of livestock in the territory was over $100 million. The value of gold and silver produced was about $35 million. Whether it is reasonable to employ the numbers in estimating the present value of output relative to the indemnity paid is at least debatable as a counterfactual, unless one chooses to regard this as the annuitized value on a perpetuity “purchased” from Mexico at gunpoint, which seems more like robbery than exchange.  In the long run, the loss may have been staggering, but in the short run, much less so. The northern territories Mexico lost had really yielded very little up until the War. In fact, the balance of costs and revenues to the Mexican government may well have been negative.[30]

Whatever the case, the decades following the war with the United States until the beginning of the administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876) are typically regarded as a step backward. The reasons are several. In 1850, the government essentially went broke. While it is true that its financial position had disintegrated since the mid-1830s, 1850 marked a turning point. The entire indemnity payment from the United States was consumed in debt service, but this made no appreciable dent in the outstanding principal, which hovered around 50 million pesos (dollars).  The limits of debt sustainability had been reached: governing was turned into a wild search for resources, which proved fruitless. Mexico continued to sell of parts of its territory, such as the Treaty of the Mesilla (1853), or Gadsden Purchase, whose proceeds largely ended up in the hands of domestic financiers rather than foreign creditors’.[31] Political divisions, if anything, terrible before the war with the United States, turned catastrophic. A series of internal revolts, uprisings and military pronouncements segued into yet another violent civil war between liberals and conservatives—now a formal party—the so-called Three Years’ War (1856-58). In 1862, frustrated by Mexico’s suspension of foreign debt service, Great Britain, Spain and France seized Veracruz. A Hapsburg prince, Maximilian, was installed as Mexico’s second “emperor.” (Agustín de Iturbide was the first). While only the French actively prosecuted the war within Mexico, and while they never controlled more than a very small part of the country, the disruption was substantial. By 1867, with Maximillian deposed and the French army withdrawn, the country required serious reconstruction. [32]

 

Juárez, Díaz and the Porfiriato: authoritarian development.

To be sure, the origins of authoritarian development in nineteenth century Mexico were not with Porfirio Díaz, as is often asserted. Their beginnings actually went back several decades earlier, to the last presidency of Santa Anna, generally known as the Dictatorship (1853-54). But Santa Anna was overthrown too quickly, and now for the last time, for much to have actually occurred. A ministry for development (Fomento) had been created, but the Liberal revolution of Ayutla swept Santa Anna and his clique away for good. Serious reform seems to have begun around 1870, when the Finance Minister was Matías Romero. Romero was intent on providing Mexico with a modern Treasury, and on ending the hand-to- mouth financing that had mostly characterized the country’s government since Independence, or at least since the mid-1830s. So it is appropriate to pick up with the story here. Where did Mexico stand in 1870?[33]

The most revealing data that we have on the state of economic development come from various anthropometric and cost of living studies by Amilcar Challu, Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, and Moramay López Alonso.[34] Their research overlaps in part, and gives a fascinating picture of Mexico in the long run, from 1735 to 1940. For the moment, let us look at the period leading up to 1867, when the French withdrew from Mexico. If we look at the heights of the “literate” population, Challu’s research suggests that the standard of living stagnated between 1750 and 1840. If we look at the “illiterate” population, there was a consistent decline until 1850. Since the share of the illiterate population was clearly larger, we might infer that living standards for most Mexicans declined after 1750, however we interpret other quantitative and anecdotal evidence.

López Alonso confines her work to the period after the 1840s. From 1850 through 1890, her work generally corroborates Challu’s. The period after the Mexican War was clearly a difficult one for most Mexicans, and the challenge that both Juárez and Díaz faced was a macroeconomy in frank contraction after 1850. The regimes after 1867 were faced with stagnation.

The real wage study of by Amilcar Challu and Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, when combined with the existing anthropometric work, offers a pretty clear correlation between movements in real wages (down) and height (falling). [35]

It would then appear growth from the 1850s through the 1870s was slow—if there was any at all—and perhaps inferior to what had come between the 1820s and the 1840s. Given the growth of import substitution during the Napoleonic Wars, roughly 1790-1810, coupled with the commercial opening brought by the Bourbons’   post-1789 extension of “free trade” to Mexico, we might well see a pattern of mixed performance (1790-1810), sharp contraction (the 1810s), rebound and recovery, with a sharp financial shocks coming in the mid-1820s and mid -1830s (1820s-1840s), and stagnation once more (1850s-1870s). Real per capita output oscillated, sometimes sharply, around an underlying growth rate of perhaps one percent; changes in the distribution of income and wealth are more or less impossible to identify consistently, because studies conflict.

Far less speculative is that the foundations for modern economic growth were laid down in Mexico during the era of Benito Juárez. Its key elements were the creation of a secular, bourgeois state and secular institutions embedded in the Constitution of 1857. The titanic ideological struggles between liberals and conservatives were ultimately resolved in favor of a liberal, but nevertheless centralizing form of government under Porfirio Diáz. This was the beginning of the end of the Ancien Regime. Under Juárez, corporate lands of the Church and native villages were privatized in favor of individual holdings and their former owners compensated in bonds. This was effectively the largest transfer of land title since the late sixteenth century (not including the war with the United States) and it cemented the idea of individual property rights. With the expulsion of the French and the outright repudiation of the French debt, the Treasury was reorganized along more modern lines. The country got additional breathing room by the suspension of debt service to Great Britain until the terms of the 1825 loans were renegotiated under the Dublán Convention (1884). Equally, if not more important, Mexico now entered the railroad age in 1876, nearly forty years after the first tracks were laid in Cuba in 1837. The educational system was expanded in an attempt to create at least a core of literate citizens who could adopt the tools of modern finance and technology. Literacy still remained in the neighborhood of 20 percent, and life expectancy at birth scarcely reached 40 years of age, if that. Yet by the end of the Restored Republic (1876), Mexico had turned a corner. There would be regressions, but the nineteenth century had finally arrived, aptly if brutally signified by Juárez’ execution of Maximilian in Querétaro in 1867.[36]

Porfirian Mexico

Yet when Díaz came to power, Mexico was, in many ways, much as it had been a century earlier. It was a rural, agrarian nation whose primary agricultural output per person was maize, followed by wheat and beans. These were produced on haciendas and ranchos in Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Mexico, Puebla as well as Oaxaca, Veracruz, Aguascalientes, Chihuahua and Sonora. Cotton, which with great difficulty had begun to supply a mechanized factory regime (first in spinning, then weaving) was produced in Oaxaca, Yucatán, Guerrero and Chiapas as well as in parts of Durango and Coahuila. Domestic production of raw cotton rarely sufficed to supply factories in Michoacán, Querétaro, Puebla and Veracruz, so imports from the Southern United States were common. For the most part, the indigenous population lived on maize, beans, and chile, producing its own subsistence on small, scattered plots known as milpas. Perhaps 75 percent of the population was rural, with the remainder to be found in cities like Mexico, Guadalajara, San Luis Potosí, and later, Monterrey. Population growth in the Southern and Eastern parts of the country had been relatively slow in the nineteenth century. The North and the center North grew more rapidly.  The Center of the country, less so. Immigration from abroad had been of no consequence.[37]

It is a commonplace to see the presidency of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) as a critical juncture in Mexican history, and this would be no less true of economic or commercial history as well. By 1910, when the Díaz government fell and Mexico descended into two decades of revolution, the first one extremely violent, the face of the country had been changed for good. The nature and effect of these changes remain not only controversial, but essential for understanding the subsequent evolution of the country, so we should pause here to consider some of their essential features.

While mining and especially, silver mining, had long held a privileged place in the economy, the nineteenth century had witnessed a number of significant changes. Until about 1889, the coinage of gold, silver, and copper—a very rough proxy for production given how much silver had been illegally exported—continued on a steadily upward track. In 1822, coinage was about 10 million pesos. By 1846, it had reached roughly 15 million pesos. There was something of a structural break after the war with the United States (its origins are unclear), and coinage continued upward to about 25 million pesos in 1888. Then, the falling international price of silver, brought on by large increases in supply elsewhere, drove the trend after 1889 sharply downward. By 1909-10, coinage had collapsed to levels previously unrecorded since the 1820s, although in 1904 and 1905, it had skyrocketed to nearly 45 million pesos.[38]

It comes as no surprise that these variations in production corresponded to sharp changes in international relative prices. For example, the market price of silver declined sharply relative to lead, which in turn encountered a large increase in Mexican production and a diversification into other metals including zinc, antinomy, and copper. Mexico left the silver standard (for international transactions, but continued to use silver domestically) in 1905, which contributed to the eclipse of this one crucial industry, which would never again have the status it had when Díaz became president in 1876, when precious metals represented 75 percent of Mexican exports by value. By the time he had decamped in exile to Paris, precious metals accounted for less than half of all exports.

The reason for this relative decline was the diversification of agricultural exports that had been slowly occurring since the 1870s. Coffee, cotton, sugar, sisal and vanilla were the principal crops, and some regions of the country such as Yucatán (henequen) and Durango and Tamaulipas (cotton) supplied new export crops.

 

Railroads and Infrastructure

None of be of this would have occurred without the massive changes in land tenure that had begun in the 1850s, but most of all, without the construction of railroads financed by the migration of foreign capital to Mexico under Díaz. At one level, it is a well-known story of social savings, which were substantial in Mexico because the terrain was difficult and the alternative modes of carriage few. One way or another, transportation has always been viewed as an “obstacle” to Mexican economic development. That must be true at some level, although recent studies (especially by Sandra Kuntz) have raised important qualifications. Railroads may not have been gateways to foreign dependency, as historians once argued, but there were limits to their ability to effect economic change, even internally. They tended to enlarge the internal market for some commodities more than others. The peculiarities of rate-making produced other distortions, while markets for some commodities were inevitably concentrated in major cities or transshipment points which afforded some monopoly power to distributors even as a national market in basic commodities became more of a reality. Yet, in general, the changes were far reaching.[39]

Conventional figures confirm conventional wisdom. When Díaz assumed the presidency, there were 660 km (410 miles) of track. In 1910, there were 19,280 km (about 12,000 miles). Seven major lines linked the cities of Mexico, Veracruz, Acapulco, Juárez, Laredo, Puebla, Oaxaca. Monterrey and Tampico in 1892. The lines were built by foreign capital (e.g., the Central Mexicano was built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe), which is why resolving the long-standing questions of foreign debt service were critical. Large government subsidies on the order of 3,500 to 8,000 pesos per km were granted, and financing the subsidies amounted to over 30 million pesos by 1890. While the railroads were successful in creating more of a national market, especially in the North, their finances were badly affected by the depreciation of the silver peso, given that foreign liabilities had to be liquidated in gold.

As a result, the government nationalized the railroads in 1903. At the same time, it undertook an enormous effort to construct infrastructure such as drainage and ports, virtually all of which were financed by British capital and managed by “Don Porfirio’s contactor,” Sir Weetman Pearson.  Between railroads, ports, drainage works and irrigation facilities, the Mexican government borrowed 157 million pesos to finance costs.[40]

The expansion of the railroads, the build-out of infrastructure and the expansion of trade would have normally increased output per capita. Any data we have prior to 1930 are problematic, and before 1895, strictly speaking, we have no official measures of output per capita at all. Most scholars shy away from using levels of GDP in any form, other than for illustrative purposes.  Aside from the usual problems attending national income accounting, Mexico presents a few exceptional challenges. In peasant families, where women were entrusted with converting maize into tortilla, no small job, the omission of their value added from GDP must constitute a sizeable defect in measured output. Moreover, as the commercial radius of Mexican agriculture expanded rapidly as railroads, roads, and later, highways spread extensively, growth rates represented increased commercialization rather than increased growth. We have no idea how important this phenomenon was, but it is worth keeping in mind when we look at very rapid growth rates after 1940.

There are various measures of cumulative growth during the Porfiriato. By and large, the figure from 1900 through 1910 is around 23 percent, which is certainly higher than rates achieved during the nineteenth century, but nothing like what was recorded after 1940. In light of declining real wages, one can only assume that the bulk of “progress” flowed to the recipients of property income. This may well have represented a reversal of trends in the nineteenth century, when some argue that property income contracted in the wake of the Insurgency[41].

There was also significant industrialization in Mexico during the Porfiriato. Some industry, especially textiles, had its origins in the 1840s, but its size, scale and location altered dramatically by the end of the nineteenth century. For example, the cotton textile industry saw the number of workers, spindles and looms more than double from the late 1870s to the first decade of the nineteenth century. Brewing and its associated industry, glassmaking, became well established in Monterrey during the 1890s. The country’s first iron and steel mill, Fundidora Monterrey, was established there as well in 1903. Other industries, such as papermaking and cigarettes followed suit. By the end of the Porfiriato, over 10 percent of Mexico’s output was certainly industrial.[42]

 

From Revolution to “Miracle”

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1940) began as a political upheaval provoked by a crisis in the presidential succession when Porfirio Díaz refused to leave office in the wake of electoral defeat after signaling his willingness to do so in a famous pubic interview of 1908.[43] It was also the result of an agrarian uprising and the insistent demand of Mexico’s growing industrial proletariat for a share of political power. Finally, there was a small (fewer than 10 percent of all households) but upwardly mobile urban middle class created by economic development under Díaz whose access to political power had been effectively blocked by the regime’s mechanics of political control. Precisely how “revolutionary” were the results of the armed revolt—which persisted largely through the 1910s and peaked in a civil war in 1914-1915—has long been contentious, but is only tangentially relevant as a matter of economic history. The Mexican Revolution was no Bolshevik movement (of course, it predated Bolshevism by seven years) but it was not a purely bourgeois constitutional movement either, although it did contain substantial elements of both.

From a macroeconomic standpoint, it has become fashionable to argue that the Revolution had few, if any, profound economic consequences. It seems as if the principal reason was that revolutionary factions were interested in appropriating rather than destroying the means of production. For example, the production of crude oil peaked in Mexico in 1915—at the height of the Revolution—because crude oil could be used as a source of income to the group controlling the wells in Veracruz state. This was a powerful consideration.[44]

Yet in another sense, the conclusion that the Revolution had slight economic effects is not only facile, but obviously wrong. As the demographic historian Robert McCaa showed, the excess mortality occasioned by the Revolution was larger than any similar event in Mexican history other than the conquest in the sixteenth century. There has been no attempt made to measure the output lost by the demographic wastage (including births that never occurred), yet even the effect on the population cohort born between 1910 and 1920 is plain to see in later demographic studies.  [45]

There is also a subtler question that some scholars have raised. The Revolution increased labor mobility and the labor supply by abolishing constraints on the rural population such as debt peonage and even outright slavery. Moreover, the Revolution, by encouraging and ultimately setting into motion a massive redistribution of previously privatized land, contributed to an enlarged supply of that factor of production as well. The true impact of these developments was realized in the 1940s and 1950s, when rapid economic growth began, the so-called Mexican Miracle, which was characterized by rates of real growth of as much as 6 percent per year (1955-1966). Whatever the connection between the Revolution and the Miracle, it will require a serious examination on empirical grounds and not simply a dogmatic dismissal of what is now regarded as unfashionable development thinking: import substitution and inward-oriented growth.[46]

The other major consequence of the Revolution, the agrarian reform and the creation of the ejido, or land granted by the Mexican state to rural population under the authority provided it by the revolutionary Constitution on 1917 took considerable time to coalesce, and were arguably not even high on one of the Revolution’s principal instigators, Francisco Madero’s, list of priorities. The redistribution of land to the peasantry in the form of possession if not ownership – a kind of return to real or fictitious preconquest and colonial forms of land tenure – did peak during the avowedly reformist, and even modestly radical presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) after making only halting progress under his predecessors since the 1920s. From 1940 to 1965, the cultivated area in Mexico grew at 3.7 percent per year and the rise in productivity in basic food crops was 2.8 percent per year.

Nevertheless, the long-run effects of the agrarian reform and land redistribution have been predictably controversial. Under the presidency of Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) the reform was officially declared over, with no further land redistribution to be undertaken and the legal status of the ejido definitively changed. The principal criticism of the ejido was that, in the long run, it encouraged inefficiently small landholding per farmer and, by virtue of its limitations on property rights, made agricultural credit difficult for peasants to obtain.[47]

There is no doubt these are justifiable criticisms, but they have to be placed in context. Cárdenas’ predecessors in office, Alvaro Obregón (1924-1928) and Plutarco Elías Calles (1928-1932) may well have preferred a more commercial model of agriculture with larger, irrigated holdings. But it is worth recalling that one of the original agrarian leaders of the Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, had an uneasy relationship with Madero, who saw the Revolution in mostly political terms, from the start and quickly rejected Madero’s leadership in favor of restoring peasant lands in his native state of Morelos.  Cárdenas, who was in the midst of several major maneuvers that would require widespread popular support—such as the expropriation of foreign oil companies operating in Mexico in March 1938—was undoubtedly sensitive to the need to mobilize the peasantry on his behalf. The agrarian reform of his presidency, which surpassed that of any other, needs to be considered in those terms as well as in terms of economic efficiency.[48]

Cárdenas’ presidency also coincided with the continuation of the Great Depression. Like other countries in Latin America, Mexico was hard hit by the Great Depression, at least through the early 1930s.  All sorts of consumer goods became scarcer, and the depreciation of the peso raised the relative price of imports. As had happened previously in Mexican history (1790-1810, during the Napoleonic Wars and the disruption of the Atlantic trade), in the medium term domestic industry was nevertheless given a stimulus and import substitution, the subsequent core of Mexico’s industrialization program after World War II, was given a decisive boost. On the other hand, Mexico also experienced the forced “repatriation” of people of Mexican descent, mostly from California, of whom 60 percent were United States citizens. The effects of this movement—the emigration of the Revolution in reverse—has never been properly analyzed. The general consensus is that World War II helped Mexico to prosper. Demand for labor and materials from the United States, to which Mexico was allied, raised real wages and incomes, and thus boosted aggregate demand. From 1939 through 1946, real output in Mexico grew by approximately 50 percent. The growth in population accelerated as well as the country began to move into the later stages of the demographic transition, with a falling death rate, while birth rates remained high.[49]

 

From Miracle to Meltdown: 1950-1982  

The history of import substitution manufacturing did not begin with postwar Mexico, but few countries (especially in Latin America) became as identified with the policy in the 1950s, and with what Mexicans termed the emergence of “stabilizing development.” There was never anything resembling a formal policy announcement, although Raúl Prebisch’s 1949 manifesto, “The Economic Development of Latin America and its Principal Problems” might be regarded as supplying one. Prebisch’s argument, that a directed change in the composition of imports toward capital goods to facilitate domestic industrialization was, in essence, the basis of the policy that Mexico followed. Mexico stabilized the nominal exchange rate at 12.5 pesos to the dollar in 1954, but further movement in the real exchange rate (until the 1970s) were unimportant. The substantive bias of import substitution in Mexico was a high effective rate of protection to both capital and consumer goods. Jaime Ros has calculated these rates in 1960 ranged between 47 and 85 percent, and between 33 and 109 percent in 1980. The result, in the short to intermediate run, was very rapid rates of economic growth, averaging 6.5 percent in 1950 through 1973. Other than Brazil, which also followed an import substitution regime, no country in Latin America experienced higher rates of growth. Mexico’s was substantially above the regional average. [50]

[See the historical graph of population growth in Mexico through 2000 below]

page39

Source: Essentially, Estadísticas Históricas de México (various editions since 1999; the most recent is 2014)

http://dgcnesyp.inegi.org.mx/ehm/ehm.htm (Accessed July 20, 2016)

 

But there were unexpected results as well. The contribution of labor to GDP growth was 14 percent. Capital’s contribution was 53 percent, and the remainder, total factor productivity (TFP) 28 percent.[51] As a consequence, while Mexico’s growth occurred through the accumulation of capital, the distribution of income became extremely skewed. The ratio of the top 10 percent of household income to the bottom 40 percent was 7 in 1960, and 6 in 1968. Even supporters of Mexico’s development program, such as Carlos Tello, conceded that it probable that it was the organized peasants and workers experienced an effective improvement of their relative position. The fruits of the Revolution were unevenly distributed, even among the working class.[52]

By “organized” one means such groups as the most important labor union in the country, the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers) or the nationally recognized peasant union, the CNC, both of which formed two of the three organized sectors of the official government party, the PRI, or Party of the Institutional Revolution that was organized in 1946. The CTM in particular was instrumental in supporting the official policy of import substitution, and thus benefited from government wage setting and political support. The leaders of these organizations became important political figures in their own right. One, Fidel Velázquez, as both a federal senator and the head of the CTM from 1941 to his death in 1997. The incorporation of these labor and peasant groups into the political system offered the government both a means of control and a guarantee of electoral support. They became pillars of what the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa famously called “the perfect dictatorship” of the PRI from 1946 to 2000, during which the PRI held a monopoly of the presidency and the important offices of state. In a sense, import substitution was the economic ideology of the PRI.[53]

Labor and economic development during the years of rapid growth is, like many others, a debated subject. While some have found strong wage growth, others, looking mostly at Mexico City, have found declining real wages. Beyond that, there is the question of informality and a segmented labor market. Were workers in the CTM the real beneficiaries of economic growth, while others in the informal sector (defined as receiving no social security payments, meaning roughly two-thirds of Mexican workers) did far less well? Obviously, the attraction of a segmented labor market model can address one obvious puzzle: why would industry substitute capital for labor, as it obviously did, if real wages were not rising? Postulating an informal sector that absorbed the rapid influx of rural migrants and thus held nominal wages steady while organized labor in the CTM got the benefit of higher negotiated wages, but in so doing, limited their employment is an attractive hypothesis, but would not command universal agreement. Nothing has been resolved, at least for the period of the “Miracle.” After Mexico entered a prolonged series of economic crises in the 1980s—here labelled as “meltdown”—the discussion must change, because many hold that the key to relative political stability and the failure of open unemployment to rise sharply can be explained by falling real wages.

The fiscal basis on which the years of the Miracle were constructed was conventional, not to say conservative.[54] A stable nominal exchange rate, balanced budgets, limited public borrowing, and a predictable monetary policy were all predicated on the notion that the private sector would react positively to favorable incentives. By and large, it did. Until the late 1960s, foreign borrowing was considered inconsequential, even if there was some concern on the horizon that it was starting to rise. No one foresaw serious macroeconomic instability. It is worth consulting a brief memorandum from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to President Lyndon Johnson (Washington, December 11, 1968) –to get some insight into how informed contemporaries viewed Mexico. The instability that existed was seen as a consequence of heavy-handedness on the part of the PRI and overreaction in the security forces. Informed observers did not view Mexico’s embrace of import-substitution industrialization as a train wreck waiting to happen. Historical actors are rarely so prescient.[55]

 

Slowing of the Miracle and Echeverría

The most obvious problems in Mexico were political. They stemmed from the increasing awareness that the limits of the “institutional revolution” had been reached, particularly regarding the growing democratic demands of the urban middle classes. The economic problem, which was far from obvious, was that import substitution had concentrated income in the upper 10 per cent of the population, so that domestic demand had begun to stagnate. Initially at least, public sector borrowing could support a variety of consumption subsidies to the population, and there were also efforts to transfer resources out of agriculture via domestic prices for staples such as maize. Yet Mexico’s population was also growing at the rate of nearly 3 percent per year, so that the long term prospects for any of these measures were cloudy.

At the same time, growing political pressures on the PRI, mostly dramatically manifest in the army’s violent repression of student demonstrators at Tlatelolco in 1968 just prior to the Olympics, had convinced some elements in the PRI, people like Carlos Madrazo, to argue for more radical change. The emergence of an incipient guerilla movement in the state of Guerrero had much the same effect. The new president, Luis Echeverría (1970-76), openly pushed for changes in the distribution of income and wealth, incited agrarian discontent for political purposes, dramatically increased government spending and borrowing, and alienated what had typically been a complaisant, if not especially friendly private sector.

The country’s macroeconomic performance began to deteriorate dramatically. Inflation, normally in the range of about 5 percent, rose into the low 20 percent range in the early 1970s. The public sector deficit, fueled by increasing social spending, rose from 2 to 7 percent of GDP. Money supply growth now averaged about 14 percent per year. Real GDP growth had begun to slip after 1968 and in the early 1970s, in deteriorated more, if unevenly. There had been clear convergence of regional economies in Mexico between 1930 and 1980 because of changing patterns of industrialization in the northern and central regions of the country.  After 1980, that process stalled and regional inequality again widened. [56]

While there is a tendency to blame Luis Echeverria for all or most of these developments, this forgets that his administration coincided with the First OPEC oil shock (1973) and rapidly deteriorating external conditions. Mexico had, as yet, not discovered the oil reserves (1978) that were to provide a temporary respite from economic adjustment after the shock of the peso devaluation of 1976—the first change in its value in over 20 years. At the same time, external demand fell, principally transmitted from the United States, Mexico’s largest trading partner, where the economy had fallen into recession in late 1973. Yet it seems reasonable to conclude that the difficult international environment, while important in bring Mexico’s “miracle” period to a close, was not helped by Echeverría’s propensity for demagoguery, of the loss of fiscal discipline that had long characterized government policy, at least since the 1950s. The only question to be resolved was to what sort of conclusion the period would come. The answer, unfortunately, was disastrous.[57]

 

Meltdown: The Debt Crisis, the Lost Decade and After

In contemporary parlance, Mexico had passed from “stabilizing” to “shared” development under Echeverría. But the devaluation of 1976 from 12.5 to 20.5 pesos to the dollar suggested that something had gone awry. One might suppose that some adjustment in course, especially in public spending and borrowing, would have occurred. But precisely the opposite occurred. Between 1976 and 1979, nominal federal spending doubled. The budget deficit increased by a factor of 15. The reason for this odd performance was the discovery of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps unsurprising in light of the spiking prices of the 1970s (the oil shocks of 1973-74, 1978-79), but nevertheless of considerable magnitude. In 1975, Mexico’s proven reserves were 6 billion barrels of oil. By 1978, they had increased to 40 billion. President López Portillo set himself to the task of “administering abundance” and Mexican analysts confidently predicted crude oil at $100 a barrel (when it stood at $37 in current prices in 1980). The scope of the miscalculation was catastrophic. At the same time, encouraged by bank loan pushing and effectively negative real rates of interest, Mexico borrowed abroad. Consumption subsidies, while vital in the face of slowing import substitution, were also costly, and when supported by foreign borrowing, unsustainable, but foreign indebtedness doubled between 1976 and 1979, and even further thereafter.

Matters came to a head in 1982. By then, Mexico’s foreign indebtedness was estimated at over $80 billion dollars, an increase from less than $20 billion in 1975. Real interest rates had begun to rise in the United States in mid-1981, and with Mexican borrowing tied to international rates, debt service rapidly increased. Oil revenue, which had come to constitute the great bulk of foreign exchange, followed international crude prices downward, driven in large part by a recession that had begun in the United States in mid-1981. Within six months, Mexico, too, had fallen into recession. Real per capital output was to decline by 8 percent in 1982.  Forced to sharply devalue, the real exchange rate fell by 50 percent in 1982 and inflation approached 100 percent. By the late summer, Finance Minister Jesus Silva Herzog admitted that the country could not meet an upcoming payment obligation, and was forced to turn to the US Federal Reserve, to the IMF, and to a committee of bank creditors for assistance. In late August, in a remarkable display of intemperance, President López Portillo nationalized the banking system. By December 20, 1982, Mexico’s incoming President, Miguel de la Madrid (1982-88) appeared, beleaguered, on the cover of Time Magazine framed by the caption, “We are in an Emergency.”  It was, as the saying goes, a perfect storm, and with it, the Debt Crisis and the “Lost Decade” in Mexico had begun. It would be years before anything resembling stability, let alone prosperity, was restored. Even then, what growth there was a pale imitation of what had occurred during the decades of the “Miracle.”

 

The 1980s

The 1980s were a difficult decade.[58]  After 1981, annual real per capita growth would not reach 4 percent again until 1989, and in 1986, it fell by 6 percent. In 1987, inflation reached 159 percent. The nominal exchange rate fell by 139 percent in 1986-1987. By the standards of the years of stabilizing development, the record of the 1980s was disastrous. To complete the devastation, on September 19, 1985, the worst earthquake in Mexican history, 7.8 on the Richter Scale, devastated large parts of central Mexico City and killed 5 thousand (some estimates run as high as 25 thousand), many of whom were simply buried in mass graves. It was as if a plague of biblical proportions had struck the country.

Massive indebtedness produced a dramatic decline in the standard of living as structural adjustment occurred. Servicing the debt required the production of an export surplus in non-oil exports, which in turn, required a reduction in domestic consumption. In an effort to surmount the crisis, the government implemented an agreement between organized labor, the private sector, and agricultural producers called the Economic Solidarity Pact (PSE). The PSE combined an incomes policy with fiscal austerity, trade and financial liberalization, generally tight monetary policy, and debt renegotiation and reduction. The centerpiece of the “remaking” of the previously inward orientation of the domestic economy was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1993) linking Mexico, the United States, and Canada. While average tariff rates in Mexico had fallen from 34 percent in 1985 to 4 percent in 1992—even before NAFTA was signed—the agreement was generally seen as creating the institutional and legal framework whereby the reforms of Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) would be preserved. Most economists thought its effects would be relatively larger in Mexico than in the United States, which generally appears to have been the case. Nevertheless, NAFTA has been predictably controversial, as trade agreements are wont to be. The political furor (and, in some places, euphoria) surrounding the agreement have faded, but never entirely disappeared. In the United States in particular, NAFTA is blamed for deindustrialization, although pressure on manufacturing, like trade liberalization itself, was underway long before NAFTA was negotiated. In Mexico, there has been much hand wringing over the fate of agriculture and small maize producers in particular. While none of this is likely to cease, it is nevertheless the case that there has been a large increase in the volume of trade between the NAFTA partners. To dismiss this is, quite plainly, misguided, even where sensitive and well organized political constituencies are concerned. But the legacy of NAFTA, like most everything in Mexican economic history, remains unsettled.

 

Post Crisis: No Miracles

Still, while some prosperity was restored to Mexico by the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, the general macroeconomic results have been disappointing, not to say mediocre. The average real compensation per person in manufacturing in 2008 was virtually unchanged from 1993 according to the Instituto Nacional De Estadística  Geografía e Informática, and there is little reason to think the compensation has improved at all since then. It is generally conceded that per capita GDP growth has probably averaged not much more than 1 percent a year. Real GDP growth since NAFTA according to the OECD has rarely reached 5 percent and since 2010, it has been well below that.

 

 

Source: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/mexico (Accessed July 21, 2016). The vertical scale cuts the horizontal axis at 1982

 

For virtually everyone in Mexico, the question is why, and the answers proposed include virtually any plausible factor: the breakdown of the political system after the PRI’s historic loss of presidential power in 2000; the rise of China as a competitor to Mexico in international markets; the explosive spread of narcoviolence in recent years, albeit concentrated in the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Veracruz; the results of NAFTA itself; the failure of the political system to undertake further structural economic reforms and privatizations after the initial changes of the 1980s, especially regarding the national oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX); the failure of the border industrialization program (maquiladoras) to develop substantive backward linkages to the rest of the economy. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the candidates for poor economic performance. The choice of a cause tends to reflect the ideology of the critic.[59]

Yet it seems that, at the end of the day, the reason why post-NAFTA Mexico has failed to grow comes down to something much more fundamental: a fear of growing, embedded in the belief that the collapse of the 1980s and early 1990s (including the devastating “Tequila Crisis” of 1994-1995, which resulted in a another enormous devaluation of the peso after an initial attempt to contain the crisis was bungled)  was so traumatic and costly as to render event modest efforts to promote growth, let alone the dirigisme of times past, as essentially unwarranted. The central bank, the Banco de México (Banxico) rules out the promotion of economic growth as part of its remit—even as a theoretical proposition, let alone as a goal of macroeconomic policy– and concerns itself only with price stability. The language of its formulation is striking. “During the 1970s, there was a debate as to whether it was possible to stimulate economic growth via monetary policy.  As a result, some governments and central banks tried to reduce unemployment through expansive monetary policy.  Both economic theory and the experience of economies that tried this prescription demonstrated that it lacked validity. Thus, it became clear that monetary policy could not actively and directly stimulate economic activity and employment. For that reason, modern central banks have as their primary goal the promotion of price stability” (translation mine). Banxico is not the Fed: there is no dual mandate in Mexico.[60]

The Mexican banking system has scarcely made things easier. Private credit stands at only about a third of GDP. In recent years, the increase in private sector savings has been largely channeled to government bonds, but until quite recently, public sector deficits were very small, which is to say, fiscal policy has not been expansionary. If monetary and fiscal policy are both relatively tight, if private credit is not easy to come by, and if growth is typically presumed to be an inevitable concomitant to economic stability for which no actor (other than the private sector) is deemed responsible, it should come as no surprise that economic growth over the past two decades has been lackluster.  In the long run, aggregate supply determines real GDP, but in the short run, nominal demand matters: there is no point in creating productive capacity to satisfy demand that does not exist. And, unlike during the period of the Miracle and Stabilizing Development, attention to demand since 1982 has been limited, not to say off the table completely. It may be understandable, but Mexico’s fiscal and monetary authorities seem to suffer from what could be termed, “Fear of Growth.” For better or worse, the results are now on display. After its current (2016) return to a relatively austere budget, it remains to be seen how the economic and political system in contemporary Mexico handles slow economic growth. For that would now seem to be, in a basic sense, its largest challenge for the future.

[1] I am grateful to Ivan Escamilla and Robert Whaples for their careful readings and thoughtful criticisms.

[2] The standard reference work is Sandra Kuntz Ficker, (ed), Historia económica general de México. De la Colonia a nuestros días (México, DF: El Colegio de Mexico, 2010).

[3] Oscar Martinez, Troublesome Border (rev. ed., University of Arizona Press: Tucson, AZ, 2006) is the most helpful general account in English.

[4] There are literally dozens of general accounts of the pre-conquest world. A good starting point is Richard E.W. Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica (3d ed., University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK, 2005). More advanced is Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. Macleod, The Cambridge History of the Mesoamerican Peoples: Mesoamerica. (2 parts, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[5] Nora C. England and Roberto Zavala Maldonado, “Mesoamerican Languages” Oxford Bibliographies http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199772810/obo-9780199772810-0080.xml

(Accessed July 10, 2016)

[6] For an introduction to the nearly endless controversy over the pre- and post-contact population of the Americas, see William M. Denevan (ed.), The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (2d rev ed., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

[7] Sherburne F Cook and Woodrow Borah, Essays in Population History: Mexico and California (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979), p. 159.

[8]Gene C. Wilken, Good Farmers Traditional Agricultural Resource Management in Mexico and Central America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 24.

[9] Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Aztec Medicine Health and Nutrition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

[10] Bernardo García Martínez, “Encomenderos españoles y British residents: El sistema de dominio indirecto desde la perspectiva novohispana”, in Historia Mexicana, LX: 4 [140] (abr-jun 2011), pp. 1915-1978.

[11] These epidemics are extensively and exceedingly well documented. One of the most recent examinations is Rodofo Acuna-Soto, David W. Stahle, Matthew D. Therrell , Richard D. Griffin,  and Malcolm K. Cleaveland, “When Half of the Population Died: The Epidemic of Hemorrhagic Fevers of 1576 in Mexico,” FEMS Microbiology Letters 240 (2004) 1–5. (http:// femsle.oxfordjournals.org/content/femsle/240/1/1.full.pdf, accessed July 10, 2016.) See in particular the exceptional map and table on pp. 2-3.

[12] See in particular, Bernardo García Martínez. Los pueblos de la Sierrael poder y el espacio entre los indios del norte de Puebla hasta 1700 (Mexico, DF: El Colegio de México, 1987) and Elinor G.K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[13] J. H. Elliott, “A Europe of Composite Monarchies,” Past & Present 137 (The Cultural and Political Construction of Europe): 48–71; Guadalupe Jiménez Codinach, “De Alta Lealtad: Ignacio Allende y los sucesos de 1808-1811,” in Marta Terán and José Antonio Serrano Ortega, eds., Las guerras de independencia en la América Española (La Piedad, Michoacán, MX: El Colegio de Michoacán, 2002), p. 68.

[14] Richard Salvucci, “Capitalism and Dependency in Latin America,” in Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson, eds., The Cambridge History of Capitalism (2 vols.), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 1: pp. 403-408.

[15] Source: TePaske Page, http://www.insidemydesk.com/hdd.html (Accessed July 19, 2016)

[16]  Edith Boorstein Couturier, The Silver King: The Remarkable Life of the Count of Regla in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2003).  Dana Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 43. The standard work on the subject is David Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763-1810 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971) But also see Robert Haskett, “Our Suffering with the Taxco Tribute: Involuntary Mine Labor and Indigenous Society in Central New Spain,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 71:3 (1991), pp. 447-475. For silver in China see http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/chinawh/web/s5/s5_4.html (accessed July 13, 2016). For the rents of empire question, see Michael Costeloe, Response to Revolution: Imperial Spain and the Spanish American Revolutions, 1810-1840 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[17] This is an estimate. David Ringrose concluded that in the 1780s, the colonies accounted for 45 percent of Crown income, and one would suppose that Mexico would account for at least about half of that. See David R. Ringrose, Spain, Europe and the ‘Spanish Miracle’, 1700-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 93; Mauricio Drelichman, “The Curse of Moctezuma: American Silver and the Dutch Disease,” Explorations in Economic History 42:3 (2005), pp. 349-380.

[18] José Antonio Escudero, El supuesto memorial del Conde de Aranda sobre la Independencia de América) México, DF: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2014) (http://bibliohistorico.juridicas.unam.mx/libros/libro.htm?l=3637, accessed July 13, 2016)

[19] Allan J. Kuethe and Kenneth J. Andrien, The Spanish Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century. War and the Bourbon Reforms, 1713-1796 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) is the most recent account of this period.

[20] Richard J. Salvucci, “Economic Growth and Change in Bourbon Mexico: A Review Essay,” The Americas, 51:2 (1994), pp. 219-231; William B Taylor, Magistrates of the Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth Century Mexico (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 24; Luis Jáuregui, La Real Hacienda de Nueva España. Su Administración en la Época de los Intendentes, 1786-1821 (México, DF: UNAM, 1999), p. 157.

[21] Jeremy Baskes, Staying AfloatRisk and Uncertainty in Spanish Atlantic World Trade, 1760-1820 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); Xabier Lamikiz, Trade and Trust in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World: Spanish Merchants and their Overseas Networks (Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press., 2013). The starting point of all these studies is Clarence Haring, Trade and Navigation between Spain and the Indies in the Time of the Hapsburgs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1918).

[22] The best, and indeed, virtually unique starting point for considering these changes in their broadest dimensions   are the joint works of Stanley and Barbara Stein: Silver, Trade, and War (2003); Apogee of Empire (2004), and Edge of Crisis (2010), All were published by Johns Hopkins University Press and do for the Spanish Empire what Laurence Henry Gipson did for the First British Empire.

[23] The key work is María Eugenia Romero Sotelo, Minería y Guerra. La economía de Nueva España, 1810-1821 (México, DF: UNAM, 1997)

[24] Calculated from José María Luis Mora, Crédito Público ([1837] México, DF: Miguel Angel Porrúa, 1986), pp. 413-460. Also see Richard J. Salvucci, Politics, Markets, and Mexico’s “London Debt,” 1823-1887 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[25] Jesús Hernández Jaimes, La Formación de la Hacienda Pública Mexicana y las Tensiones Centro -Periferia, 1821-1835  (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 2013). Javier Torres Medina, Centralismo y Reorganización. La Hacienda Pública Durante la Primera República Central de México, 1835-1842 (México, DF: Instituto Mora, 2013). The only treatment in English is Michael P. Costeloe, The Central Republic in Mexico, 1835-1846 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[26] An agricultural worker who worked full time, 6 days a week, for the entire year (a strong assumption), in Central Mexico could have expected cash income of perhaps 24 pesos. If food, such as beans and tortilla were added, the whole pay might reach 30. The figure of 40 pesos comes from considerably richer agricultural lands around the city of Querétaro, and includes as an average income from nonagricultural employment as well, which was higher.  Measuring Worth would put the relative historic standard of living value in 2010 prices at $1.040, with the caveat that this is relative to a bundle of goods purchased in the United States. (https://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/relativevalue.php).

[27]The phrase comes from Guido di Tella and Manuel Zymelman. See Colin Lewis, “Explaining Economic Decline: A review of recent debates in the economic and social history literature on the Argentine,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 64 (1998), pp. 49-68.

[28] Francisco Téllez Guerrero, De reales y granos. Las finanzas y el abasto de la Puebla de los Angeles, 1820-1840 (Puebla, MX: CIHS, 1986). Pp. 47-79.

[29]This is based on an analysis of government lending contracts. See Rosa María Meyer and Richard Salvucci, “The Panic of 1837 in Mexico: Evidence from Government Contracts” (in progress).

[30] There is an interesting summary of this data in U.S Govt., 57th Cong., 1 st sess., House, Monthly Summary of Commerce and Finance of the United States (September 1901) (Washington, DC: GPO, 1901), pp. 984-986.

[31] Salvucci, Politics and Markets, pp. 201-221.

[32] Miguel Galindo y Galindo, La Gran Década Nacional o Relación Histórica de la Guerra de Reforma, Intervención Extranjera, y gobierno del archiduque Maximiliano, 1857-1867 ([1902], 3 vols., México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1987).

[33] Carmen Vázquez Mantecón, Santa Anna y la encrucijada del Estado. La dictadura, 1853-1855 (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1986).

[34] Moramay López-Alonso, Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012);  Amilcar Challú and Auroro Gómez Galvarriato, “Mexico’s Real Wages in the Age of the Great Divergence, 1730-1930,” Revista de Historia Económica 33:1 (2015), pp. 123-152; Amílcar E. Challú, “The Great Decline: Biological Well-Being and Living Standards in Mexico, 1730-1840,” in Ricardo Salvatore, John H. Coatsworth, and Amilcar E. Challú, Living Standards in Latin American History: Height, Welfare, and Development, 1750-2000 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), pp. 23-67.

[35]See Challú and Gómez Galvarriato, “Real Wages,” Figure 5, p. 101.

[36] Luis González et al, La economía mexicana durante la época de Juárez (México, DF: 1976).

[37] Teresa Rojas Rabiela and Ignacio Gutiérrez Ruvalcaba, Cien ventanas a los países de antaño: fotografías del campo mexicano de hace un siglo) (México, DF: CONACYT, 2013), pp. 18-65.

[38] Alma Parra, “La Plata en la Estructura Económica Mexicana al Inicio del Siglo XX,” El Mercado de Valores 49:11 (1999), p. 14.

[39] Sandra Kuntz Ficker, Empresa Extranjera y Mercado Interno: El Ferrocarril Central Mexicano (1880-1907) (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 1995).

[40] Priscilla Connolly, El Contratista de Don Porfirio. Obras públicas, deuda y desarrollo desigual (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997).

[41] Most notably John Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750-1940 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986). p. 229. My growth figures are based on the INEGI, Estadísticas Historicas de México, 2014) (http://dgcnesyp.inegi.org.mx/cgi-win/ehm2014.exe/CI080010, Accessed July 15, 2016).

[42] Stephen H. Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890-1940 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989); Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, Industry and Revolution: Social and Economic Change in the Orizaba Valley (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[43] There are literally dozens of accounts of the Revolution. The usual starting point, in English, is Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution (reprint ed., 2 vols., Lincoln, NE: 1990).

[44] This argument has been made most insistently in Armando Razo and Stephen Haber, “The Rate of Growth of Productivity in Mexico, 1850-1933: Evidence from the Cotton Textile Industry,” Journal of Latin American Studies 30:3 (1998), pp. 481-517.

[45]Robert McCaa, “Missing Millions: The Demographic Cost of the Mexican revolution,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 19:2 (Summer 2003): 367-400; Virgilio Partida-Bush, “Demographic Transition, Demographic Bonus, and Ageing in Mexico, “ Proceedings of the United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Social and Economic Implications of Changing Population Age Structures. (http://www.un.org/esa/population/meetings/Proceedings_EGM_Mex_2005/partida.pdf) (Accessed July 15, 2016), pp. 287-290.

[46] An implication of the studies of Alan Knight, and of Clark Reynolds, The Mexican Economy: Twentieth Century Structure and Growth (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971).

[47] An interesting summary of revisionist thinking on the nature and history of the ejido appears in Emilio Kuri, “La invención del ejido, Nexos, January 2015.

[48]Alan Knight, “Cardenismo: Juggernaut or Jalopy?” Journal of Latin American Studies, 26:1 (1994), pp. 73-107.

[49] Stephen Haber, “The Political Economy of Industrialization,” in Victor Bulmer-Thomas, John Coatsworth, and Roberto Cortes-Conde, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America (2 vols., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2:  537-584.

[50]Again, there are dozens of studies of the Mexican economy in this period. Ros’ figures come from “Mexico’s Trade and Industrialization Experience Since 1960: A Reconsideration of Past Policies and Assessment of Current Reforms,” Kellogg Institute (Working Paper 186, January 1993). For a more general study, see Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid and Jaime Ros, Development and Growth in the Me3xican Economy. A Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). A recent Spanish language treatment is Enrique Cárdenas Sánchez, El largo curso de la economía mexicana. De 1780 a nuestros días (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2015). A view from a different perspective is Carlos Tello, Estado y desarrollo económico. México 1920-2006 (México, DF, UNAM, 2007).

[51]André A. Hoffman, Long Run Economic Development in Latin America in a Comparative Perspective: Proximate and Ultimate Causes (Santiago, Chile: CEPAL, 2001), p. 19.

[52]Tello, Estado y desarrollo, pp. 501-505.

[53] Mario Vargas Llosa, “Mexico: The Perfect Dictatorship,” New Perspectives Quarterly 8 (1991), pp. 23-24.

[54] Rafael Izquierdo, Política Hacendario del Desarrollo Estabilizador, 1958-1970 (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995. The term stabilizing development was itself termed by Izquierdo as a government minister.

[55]See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968. Mexico and Central America http://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xxxi/36313.htm (Accessed July 15, 2016).

[56] José Aguilar Retureta, “The GDP Per Capita of the Mexican Regions (1895:1930): New Estimates, Revista de Historia Económica, 33: 3 (2015), pp. 387-423.

[57] For a contemporary account with a sense of the immediacy of the end of the Echeverría regime, see “Así se devaluó el peso,” Proceso, November 13, 1976.

[58] The standard account is Stephen Haber, Herbert Klein, Noel Maurer, and Kevin Middlebrook, Mexico since 1980 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). A particularly astute economic account is Nora Lustig, Mexico: The Remaking of an Economy (2d ed., Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1998).  But also Louise E. Walker, Waking from the Dream. Mexico’s Middle Classes After 1968 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[59] See, for example, Jaime Ros Bosch, Algunas tesis equivocadas sobre el estancamiento económico de México (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 2013).

[60] La Banca Central y la Importancia de la Estabilidad Económica  June 16, 2008.  (http://www.banxico.org.mx/politica-monetaria-e-inflacion/material-de-referencia/intermedio/politica-monetaria/%7B3C1A08B1-FD93-0931-44F8-96F5950FC926%7D.pdf, Accessed July 15, 2016.). Also see Brian Winter, “This Man is Brilliant: So Why Doesn’t Mexico’s Economy Grow Faster?” Americas Quarterly (http://americasquarterly.org/content/man-brilliant-so-why-doesnt-mexicos-economy-grow-faster) (Accessed July 21, 2016)

 

 

The Economic Impact of the Black Death

David Routt, University of Richmond

The Black Death was the largest demographic disaster in European history. From its arrival in Italy in late 1347 through its clockwise movement across the continent to its petering out in the Russian hinterlands in 1353, the magna pestilencia (great pestilence) killed between seventeen and twenty—eight million people. Its gruesome symptoms and deadliness have fixed the Black Death in popular imagination; moreover, uncovering the disease’s cultural, social, and economic impact has engaged generations of scholars. Despite growing understanding of the Black Death’s effects, definitive assessment of its role as historical watershed remains a work in progress.

A Controversy: What Was the Black Death?

In spite of enduring fascination with the Black Death, even the identity of the disease behind the epidemic remains a point of controversy. Aware that fourteenth—century eyewitnesses described a disease more contagious and deadlier than bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis), the bacillus traditionally associated with the Black Death, dissident scholars in the 1970s and 1980s proposed typhus or anthrax or mixes of typhus, anthrax, or bubonic plague as the culprit. The new millennium brought other challenges to the Black Death—bubonic plague link, such as an unknown and probably unidentifiable bacillus, an Ebola—like haemorrhagic fever or, at the pseudoscientific fringes of academia, a disease of interstellar origin.

Proponents of Black Death as bubonic plague have minimized differences between modern bubonic and the fourteenth—century plague through painstaking analysis of the Black Death’s movement and behavior and by hypothesizing that the fourteenth—century plague was a hypervirulent strain of bubonic plague, yet bubonic plague nonetheless. DNA analysis of human remains from known Black Death cemeteries was intended to eliminate doubt but inability to replicate initially positive results has left uncertainty. New analytical tools used and new evidence marshaled in this lively controversy have enriched understanding of the Black Death while underscoring the elusiveness of certitude regarding phenomena many centuries past.

The Rate and Structure of mortality

The Black Death’s socioeconomic impact stemmed, however, from sudden mortality on a staggering scale, regardless of what bacillus caused it. Assessment of the plague’s economic significance begins with determining the rate of mortality for the initial onslaught in 1347—53 and its frequent recurrences for the balance of the Middle Ages, then unraveling how the plague chose victims according to age, sex, affluence, and place.

Imperfect evidence unfortunately hampers knowing precisely who and how many perished. Many of the Black Death’s contemporary observers, living in an epoch of famine and political, military, and spiritual turmoil, described the plague apocalyptically. A chronicler famously closed his narrative with empty membranes should anyone survive to continue it. Others believed as few as one in ten survived. One writer claimed that only fourteen people were spared in London. Although sober eyewitnesses offered more plausible figures, in light of the medieval preference for narrative dramatic force over numerical veracity, chroniclers’ estimates are considered evidence of the Black Death’s battering of the medieval psyche, not an accurate barometer of its demographic toll.

Even non—narrative and presumably dispassionate, systematic evidence — legal and governmental documents, ecclesiastical records, commercial archives — presents challenges. No medieval scribe dragged his quill across parchment for the demographer’s pleasure and convenience. With a paucity of censuses, estimates of population and tracing of demographic trends have often relied on indirect indicators of demographic change (e.g., activity in the land market, levels of rents and wages, size of peasant holdings) or evidence treating only a segment of the population (e.g., assignment of new priests to vacant churches, payments by peasants to take over holdings of the deceased). Even the rare census—like record, like England’s Domesday Book (1086) or the Poll Tax Return (1377), either enumerates only heads of households or excludes slices of the populace or ignores regions or some combination of all these. To compensate for these imperfections, the demographer relies on potentially debatable assumptions about the size of the medieval household, the representativeness of a discrete group of people, the density of settlement in an undocumented region, the level of tax evasion, and so forth.

A bewildering array of estimates for mortality from the plague of 1347—53 is the result. The first outbreak of the Black Death indisputably was the deadliest but the death rate varied widely according to place and social stratum. National estimates of mortality for England, where the evidence is fullest, range from five percent, to 23.6 percent among aristocrats holding land from the king, to forty to forty—five percent of the kingdom’s clergy, to over sixty percent in a recent estimate. The picture for the continent likewise is varied. Regional mortality in Languedoc (France) was forty to fifty percent while sixty to eighty percent of Tuscans (Italy) perished. Urban death rates were mostly higher but no less disparate, e.g., half in Orvieto (Italy), Siena (Italy), and Volterra (Italy), fifty to sixty—six percent in Hamburg (Germany), fifty—eight to sixty—eight percent in Perpignan (France), sixty percent for Barcelona’s (Spain) clerical population, and seventy percent in Bremen (Germany). The Black Death was often highly arbitrary in how it killed in a narrow locale, which no doubt broadened the spectrum of mortality rates. Two of Durham Cathedral Priory’s manors, for instance, had respective death rates of twenty—one and seventy—eighty percent (Shrewsbury, 1970; Russell, 1948; Waugh, 1991; Ziegler, 1969; Benedictow, 2004; Le Roy Ladurie, 1976; Bowsky, 1964; Pounds, 1974; Emery, 1967; Gyug, 1983; Aberth, 1995; Lomas, 1989).

Credible death rates between one quarter and three quarters complicate reaching a Europe—wide figure. Neither a casual and unscientific averaging of available estimates to arrive at a probably misleading composite death rate nor a timid placing of mortality somewhere between one and two thirds is especially illuminating. Scholars confronting the problem’s complexity before venturing estimates once favored one third as a reasonable aggregate death rate. Since the early 1970s demographers have found higher levels of mortality plausible and European mortality of one half is considered defensible, a figure not too distant from less fanciful contemporary observations.

While the Black Death of 1347—53 inflicted demographic carnage, had it been an isolated event European population might have recovered to its former level in a generation or two and its economic impact would have been moderate. The disease’s long—term demographic and socioeconomic legacy arose from it recurrence. When both national and local epidemics are taken into account, England endured thirty plague years between 1351 and 1485, a pattern mirrored on the continent, where Perugia was struck nineteen times and Hamburg, Cologne, and Nuremburg at least ten times each in the fifteenth century. Deadliness of outbreaks declined — perhaps ten to twenty percent in the second plague (pestis secunda) of 1361—2, ten to fifteen percent in the third plague (pestis tertia) of 1369, and as low as five and rarely above ten percent thereafter — and became more localized; however, the Black Death’s persistence ensured that demographic recovery would be slow and socioeconomic consequences deeper. Europe’s population in 1430 may have been fifty to seventy—five percent lower than in 1290 (Cipolla, 1994; Gottfried, 1983).

Enumeration of corpses does not adequately reflect the Black Death’s demographic impact. Who perished was equally significant as how many; in other words, the structure of mortality influenced the time and rate of demographic recovery. The plague’s preference for urbanite over peasant, man over woman, poor over affluent, and, perhaps most significantly, young over mature shaped its demographic toll. Eyewitnesses so universally reported disproportionate death among the young in the plague’s initial recurrence (1361—2) that it became known as the Childen’s Plague (pestis puerorum, mortalité des enfants). If this preference for youth reflected natural resistance to the disease among plague survivors, the Black Death may have ultimately resembled a lower—mortality childhood disease, a reality that magnified both its demographic and psychological impact.

The Black Death pushed Europe into a long—term demographic trough. Notwithstanding anecdotal reports of nearly universal pregnancy of women in the wake of the magna pestilencia, demographic stagnancy characterized the rest of the Middle Ages. Population growth recommenced at different times in different places but rarely earlier than the second half of the fifteenth century and in many places not until c. 1550.

The European Economy on the Cusp of the Black Death

Like the plague’s death toll, its socioeconomic impact resists categorical measurement. The Black Death’s timing made a facile labeling of it as a watershed in European economic history nearly inevitable. It arrived near the close of an ebullient high Middle Ages (c. 1000 to c. 1300) in which urban life reemerged, long—distance commerce revived, business and manufacturing innovated, manorial agriculture matured, and population burgeoned, doubling or tripling. The Black Death simultaneously portended an economically stagnant, depressed late Middle Ages (c. 1300 to c. 1500). However, even if this simplistic and somewhat misleading portrait of the medieval economy is accepted, isolating the Black Death’s economic impact from manifold factors at play is a daunting challenge.

Cognizant of a qualitative difference between the high and late Middle Ages, students of medieval economy have offered varied explanations, some mutually exclusive, others not, some favoring the less dramatic, less visible, yet inexorable factor as an agent of change rather than a catastrophic demographic shift. For some, a cooling climate undercut agricultural productivity, a downturn that rippled throughout the predominantly agrarian economy. For others, exploitative political, social, and economic institutions enriched an idle elite and deprived working society of wherewithal and incentive to be innovative and productive. Yet others associate monetary factors with the fourteenth— and fifteenth—century economic doldrums.

The particular concerns of the twentieth century unsurprisingly induced some scholars to view the medieval economy through a Malthusian lens. In this reconstruction of the Middle Ages, population growth pressed against the society’s ability to feed itself by the mid—thirteenth century. Rising impoverishment and contracting holdings compelled the peasant to cultivate inferior, low—fertility land and to convert pasture to arable production and thereby inevitably reduce numbers of livestock and make manure for fertilizer scarcer. Boosting gross productivity in the immediate term yet driving yields of grain downward in the longer term exacerbated the imbalance between population and food supply; redressing the imbalance became inevitable. This idea’s adherents see signs of demographic correction from the mid—thirteenth century onward, possibly arising in part from marriage practices that reduced fertility. A more potent correction came with subsistence crises. Miserable weather in 1315 destroyed crops and the ensuing Great Famine (1315—22) reduced northern Europe’s population by perhaps ten to fifteen percent. Poor harvests, moreover, bedeviled England and Italy to the eve of the Black Death.

These factors — climate, imperfect institutions, monetary imbalances, overpopulation — diminish the Black Death’s role as a transformative socioeconomic event. In other words, socioeconomic changes already driven by other causes would have occurred anyway, merely more slowly, had the plague never struck Europe. This conviction fosters receptiveness to lower estimates of the Black Death’s deadliness. Recent scrutiny of the Malthusian analysis, especially studies of agriculture in source—rich eastern England, has, however, rehabilitated the Black Death as an agent of socioeconomic change. Growing awareness of the use of “progressive” agricultural techniques and of alternative, non—grain economies less susceptible to a Malthusian population—versus—resources dynamic has undercut the notion of an absolutely overpopulated Europe and has encouraged acceptance of higher rates of mortality from the plague (Campbell, 1983; Bailey, 1989).

The Black Death and the Agrarian Economy

The lion’s share of the Black Death’s effect was felt in the economy’s agricultural sector, unsurprising in a society in which, except in the most urbanized regions, nine of ten people eked out a living from the soil.

A village struck by the plague underwent a profound though brief disordering of the rhythm of daily life. Strong administrative and social structures, the power of custom, and innate human resiliency restored the village’s routine by the following year in most cases: fields were plowed, crops were sown, tended, and harvested, labor services were performed by the peasantry, the village’s lord collected dues from tenants. Behind this seeming normalcy, however, lord and peasant were adjusting to the Black Death’s principal economic consequence: a much smaller agricultural labor pool. Before the plague, rising population had kept wages low and rents and prices high, an economic reality advantageous to the lord in dealing with the peasant and inclining many a peasant to cleave to demeaning yet secure dependent tenure.

As the Black Death swung the balance in the peasant’s favor, the literate elite bemoaned a disintegrating social and economic order. William of Dene, John Langland, John Gower, and others polemically evoked nostalgia for the peasant who knew his place, worked hard, demanded little, and squelched pride while they condemned their present in which land lay unplowed and only an immediate pang of hunger goaded a lazy, disrespectful, grasping peasant to do a moment’s desultory work (Hatcher, 1994).

Moralizing exaggeration aside, the rural worker indeed demanded and received higher payments in cash (nominal wages) in the plague’s aftermath. Wages in England rose from twelve to twenty—eight percent from the 1340s to the 1350s and twenty to forty percent from the 1340s to the 1360s. Immediate hikes were sometimes more drastic. During the plague year (1348—49) at Fornham All Saints (Suffolk), the lord paid the pre—plague rate of 3d. per acre for more half of the hired reaping but the rest cost 5d., an increase of 67 percent. The reaper, moreover, enjoyed more and larger tips in cash and perquisites in kind to supplement the wage. At Cuxham (Oxfordshire), a plowman making 2s. weekly before the plague demanded 3s. in 1349 and 10s. in 1350 (Farmer, 1988; Farmer, 1991; West Suffolk Record Office 3/15.7/2.4; Harvey, 1965).

In some instances, the initial hikes in nominal or cash wages subsided in the years further out from the plague and any benefit they conferred on the wage laborer was for a time undercut by another economic change fostered by the plague. Grave mortality ensured that the European supply of currency in gold and silver increased on a per—capita basis, which in turned unleashed substantial inflation in prices that did not subside in England until the mid—1370s and even later in many places on the continent. The inflation reduced the purchasing power (real wage) of the wage laborer so significantly that, even with higher cash wages, his earnings either bought him no more or often substantially less than before the magna pestilencia (Munro, 2003; Aberth, 2001).

The lord, however, was confronted not only by the roving wage laborer on whom he relied for occasional and labor—intensive seasonal tasks but also by the peasant bound to the soil who exchanged customary labor services, rent, and dues for holding land from the lord. A pool of labor services greatly reduced by the Black Death enabled the servile peasant to bargain for less onerous responsibilities and better conditions. At Tivetshall (Norfolk), vacant holdings deprived its lord of sixty percent of his week—work and all his winnowing services by 1350—51. A fifth of winter and summer week—work and a third of reaping services vanished at Redgrave (Suffolk) in 1349—50 due to the magna pestilencia. If a lord did not make concessions, a peasant often gravitated toward any better circumstance beckoning elsewhere. At Redgrave, for instance, the loss of services in 1349—50 directly due to the plague was followed in 1350—51 by an equally damaging wave of holdings abandoned by surviving tenants. For the medieval peasant, never so tightly bound to the manor as once imagined, the Black Death nonetheless fostered far greater rural mobility. Beyond loss of labor services, the deceased or absentee peasant paid no rent or dues and rendered no fees for use of manorial monopolies such as mills and ovens and the lord’s revenues shrank. The income of English lords contracted by twenty percent from 1347 to 1353 (Norfolk Record Office WAL 1247/288×1; University of Chicago Bacon 335—6; Gottfried, 1983).

Faced with these disorienting circumstances, the lord often ultimately had to decide how or even whether the pre—plague status quo could be reestablished on his estate. Not capitalistic in the sense of maximizing productivity for reinvestment of profits to enjoy yet more lucrative future returns, the medieval lord nonetheless valued stable income sufficient for aristocratic ostentation and consumption. A recalcitrant peasantry, diminished dues and services, and climbing wages undermined the material foundation of the noble lifestyle, jostled the aristocratic sense of proper social hierarchy, and invited a response.

In exceptional circumstances, a lord sometimes kept the peasant bound to the land. Because the nobility in Spanish Catalonia had already tightened control of the peasantry before the Black Death, because underdeveloped commercial agriculture provided the peasantry narrow options, and because the labor—intensive demesne agriculture common elsewhere was largely absent, the Catalan lord through a mix of coercion (physical intimidation, exorbitant fees to purchase freedom) and concession (reduced rents, conversion of servile dues to less humiliating fixed cash payments) kept the Catalan peasant in place. In England and elsewhere on the continent, where labor services were needed to till the demesne, such a conservative approach was less feasible. This, however, did not deter some lords from trying. The lord of Halesowen (Worcestershire) not only commanded the servile tenant to perform the full range of services but also resuscitated labor obligations in abeyance long before the Black Death, tantamount to an unwillingness to acknowledge anything had changed (Freedman, 1991; Razi, 1981).

Europe’s political elite also looked to legal coercion not only to contain rising wages and to limit the peasant’s mobility but also to allay a sense of disquietude and disorientation arising from the Black Death’s buffeting of pre—plague social realities. England’s Ordinance of Laborers (1349) and Statute of Laborers (1351) called for a return to the wages and terms of employment of 1346. Labor legislation was likewise promulgated by the Córtes of Aragon and Castile, the French crown, and cities such as Siena, Orvieto, Pisa, Florence, and Ragusa. The futility of capping wages by legislative fiat is evident in the French crown’s 1351 revision of its 1349 enactment to permit a wage increase of one third. Perhaps only in England, where effective government permitted robust enforcement, did the law slow wage increases for a time (Aberth, 2001; Gottfried, 1983; Hunt and Murray, 1999; Cohn, 2007).

Once knee—jerk conservatism and legislative palliatives failed to revivify pre—plague socioeconomic arrangements, the lord cast about for a modus vivendi in a new world of abundant land and scarce labor. A sober triage of the available sources of labor, whether it was casual wage labor or a manor’s permanent stipendiary staff (famuli) or the dependent peasant, led to revision of managerial policy. The abbot of Saint Edmund’s, for example, focused on reconstitution of the permanent staff (famuli) on his manors. Despite mortality and flight, the abbot by and large achieved his goal by the mid—1350s. While labor legislation may have facilitated this, the abbot’s provision of more frequent and lucrative seasonal rewards, coupled with the payment of grain stipends in more valuable and marketable cereals such as wheat, no doubt helped secure the loyalty of famuli while circumventing statutory limits on higher wages. With this core of labor solidified, the focus turned to preserving the most essential labor services, especially those associated with the labor—intensive harvesting season. Less vital labor services were commuted for cash payments and ad hoc wage labor then hired to fill gaps. The cultivation of the demesne continued, though not on the pre—plague scale.

For a time in fact circumstances helped the lord continue direct management of the demesne. The general inflation of the quarter—century following the plague as well as poor harvests in the 1350s and 1360s boosted grain prices and partially compensated for more expensive labor. This so—called “Indian summer” of demesne agriculture ended quickly in the mid—1370s in England and subsequently on the continent when the post—plague inflation gave way to deflation and abundant harvests drove prices for commodities downward, where they remained, aside from brief intervals of inflation, for the rest of the Middle Ages. Recurrences of the plague, moreover, placed further stress on new managerial policies. For the lord who successfully persuaded new tenants to take over vacant holdings, such as happened at Chevington (Suffolk) by the late 1350s, the pestis secunda of 1361—62 often inflicted a decisive blow: a second recovery at Chevington never materialized (West Suffolk Records Office 3/15.3/2.9—2.23).

Under unremitting pressure, the traditional cultivation of the demesne ceased to be viable for lord after lord: a centuries—old manorial system gradually unraveled and the nature of agriculture was transformed. The lord’s earliest concession to this new reality was curtailment of cultivated acreage, a trend that accelerated with time. The 590.5 acres sown on average at Great Saxham (Suffolk) in the late 1330s was more than halved (288.67 acres) in the 1360s, for instance (West Suffolk Record Office, 3/15.14/1.1, 1.7, 1.8).

Beyond reducing the demesne to a size commensurate with available labor, the lord could explore types of husbandry less labor—intensive than traditional grain agriculture. Greater domestic manufacture of woolen cloth and growing demand for meat enabled many English lords to reduce arable production in favor of sheep—raising, which required far less labor. Livestock husbandry likewise became more significant on the continent. Suitable climate, soil, and markets made grapes, olives, apples, pears, vegetables, hops, hemp, flax, silk, and dye—stuffs attractive alternatives to grain. In hope of selling these cash crops, rural agriculture became more attuned to urban demand and urban businessmen and investors more intimately involved in what and how much of it was grown in the countryside (Gottfried, 1983; Hunt and Murray, 1999).

The lord also looked to reduce losses from demesne acreage no longer under the plow and from the vacant holdings of onetime tenants. Measures adopted to achieve this end initiated a process that gained momentum with each passing year until the face of the countryside was transformed and manorialism was dead. The English landlord, hopeful for a return to the pre—plague regime, initially granted brief terminal leases of four to six years at fixed rates for bits of demesne and for vacant dependent holdings. Leases over time lengthened to ten, twenty, thirty years, or even a lifetime. In France and Italy, the lord often resorted to métayage or mezzadria leasing, a type of sharecropping in which the lord contributed capital (land, seed, tools, plow teams) to the lessee, who did the work and surrendered a fraction of the harvest to the lord.

Disillusioned by growing obstacles to profitable cultivation of the demesne, the lord, especially in the late fourteenth century and the early fifteenth, adopted a more sweeping type of leasing, the placing of the demesne or even the entire manor “at farm” (ad firmam). A “farmer” (firmarius) paid the lord a fixed annual “farm” (firma) for the right to exploit the lord’s property and take whatever profit he could. The distant or unprofitable manor was usually “farmed” first and other manors followed until a lord’s personal management of his property often ceased entirely. The rising popularity of this expedient made direct management of demesne by lord rare by c. 1425. The lord often became a rentier bound to a fixed income. The tenurial transformation was completed when the lord sold to the peasant his right of lordship, a surrender to the peasant of outright possession of his holding for a fixed cash rent and freedom from dues and services. Manorialism, in effect, collapsed and was gone from western and central Europe by 1500.

The landlord’s discomfort ultimately benefited the peasantry. Lower prices for foodstuffs and greater purchasing power from the last quarter of the fourteenth century onward, progressive disintegration of demesnes, and waning customary land tenure enabled the enterprising, ambitious peasant to lease or purchase property and become a substantial landed proprietor. The average size of the peasant holding grew in the late Middle Ages. Due to the peasant’s generally improved standard of living, the century and a half following the magna pestilencia has been labeled a “golden age” in which the most successful peasant became a “yeoman” or “kulak” within the village community. Freed from labor service, holding a fixed copyhold lease, and enjoying greater disposable income, the peasant exploited his land exclusively for his personal benefit and often pursued leisure and some of the finer things in life. Consumption of meat by England’s humbler social strata rose substantially after the Black Death, a shift in consumer tastes that reduced demand for grain and helped make viable the shift toward pastoralism in the countryside. Late medieval sumptuary legislation, intended to keep the humble from dressing above his station and retain the distinction between low— and highborn, attests both to the peasant’s greater income and the desire of the elite to limit disorienting social change (Dyer, 1989; Gottfried, 1983; Hunt and Murray, 1999).

The Black Death, moreover, profoundly altered the contours of settlement in the countryside. Catastrophic loss of population led to abandonment of less attractive fields, contraction of existing settlements, and even wholesale desertion of villages. More than 1300 English villages vanished between 1350 and 1500. French and Dutch villagers abandoned isolated farmsteads and huddled in smaller villages while their Italian counterparts vacated remote settlements and shunned less desirable fields. The German countryside was mottled with abandoned settlements. Two thirds of named villages disappeared in Thuringia, Anhalt, and the eastern Harz mountains, one fifth in southwestern Germany, and one third in the Rhenish palatinate, abandonment far exceeding loss of population and possibly arising from migration from smaller to larger villages (Gottfried, 1983; Pounds, 1974).

The Black Death and the Commercial Economy

As with agriculture, assessment of the Black Death’s impact on the economy’s commercial sector is a complex problem. The vibrancy of the high medieval economy is generally conceded. As the first millennium gave way to the second, urban life revived, trade and manufacturing flourished, merchant and craft gilds emerged, commercial and financial innovations proliferated (e.g., partnerships, maritime insurance, double—entry bookkeeping, fair letters, letters of credit, bills of exchange, loan contracts, merchant banking, etc.). The integration of the high medieval economy reached its zenith c. 1250 to c. 1325 with the rise of large companies with international interests, such as the Bonsignori of Siena and the Buonaccorsi of Florence and the emergence of so—called “super companies” such as the Florentine Bardi, Peruzzi, and Acciaiuoli (Hunt and Murray, 1999).

How to characterize the late medieval economy has been more fraught with controversy, however. Historians a century past, uncomprehending of how their modern world could be rooted in a retrograde economy, imagined an entrepreneurially creative and expansive late medieval economy. Succeeding generations of historians darkened this optimistic portrait and fashioned a late Middle Ages of unmitigated decline, an “age of adversity” in which the economy was placed under the rubric “depression of the late Middle Ages.” The historiographical pendulum now swings away from this interpretation and a more nuanced picture has emerged that gives the Black Death’s impact on commerce its full due but emphasizes the variety of the plague’s impact from merchant to merchant, industry to industry, and city to city. Success or failure was equally possible after the Black Death and the game favored adaptability, creativity, nimbleness, opportunism, and foresight.

Once the magna pestilencia had passed, the city had to cope with a labor supply even more greatly decimated than in the countryside due to a generally higher urban death rate. The city, however, could reverse some of this damage by attracting, as it had for centuries, new workers from the countryside, a phenomenon that deepened the crisis for the manorial lord and contributed to changes in rural settlement. A resurgence of the slave trade occurred in the Mediterranean, especially in Italy, where the female slave from Asia or Africa entered domestic service in the city and the male slave toiled in the countryside. Finding more labor was not, however, a panacea. A peasant or slave performed an unskilled task adequately but could not necessarily replace a skilled laborer. The gross loss of talent due to the plague caused a decline in per capita productivity by skilled labor remediable only by time and training (Hunt and Murray, 1999; Miskimin, 1975).

Another immediate consequence of the Black Death was dislocation of the demand for goods. A suddenly and sharply smaller population ensured a glut of manufactured and trade goods, whose prices plummeted for a time. The businessman who successfully weathered this short—term imbalance in supply and demand then had to reshape his business’ output to fit a declining or at best stagnant pool of potential customers.

The Black Death transformed the structure of demand as well. While the standard of living of the peasant improved, chronically low prices for grain and other agricultural products from the late fourteenth century may have deprived the peasant of the additional income to purchase enough manufactured or trade items to fill the hole in commercial demand. In the city, however, the plague concentrated wealth, often substantial family fortunes, in fewer and often younger hands, a circumstance that, when coupled with lower prices for grain, left greater per capita disposable income. The plague’s psychological impact, moreover, it is believed, influenced how this windfall was used. Pessimism and the specter of death spurred an individualistic pursuit of pleasure, a hedonism that manifested itself in the purchase of luxuries, especially in Italy. Even with a reduced population, the gross volume of luxury goods manufactured and sold rose, a pattern of consumption that endured even after the extra income had been spent within a generation or so after the magna pestilencia.

Like the manorial lord, the affluent urban bourgeois sometimes employed structural impediments to block the ambitious parvenu from joining his ranks and becoming a competitor. A tendency toward limiting the status of gild master to the son or son—in—law of a sitting master, evident in the first half of the fourteenth century, gained further impetus after the Black Death. The need for more journeymen after the plague was conceded in the shortening of terms of apprenticeship, but the newly minted journeyman often discovered that his chance of breaking through the glass ceiling and becoming a master was virtually nil without an entrée through kinship. Women also were banished from gilds as unwanted competition. The urban wage laborer, by and large controlled by the gilds, was denied membership and had no access to urban structures of power, a potent source of frustration. While these measures may have permitted the bourgeois to hold his ground for a time, the winds of change were blowing in the city as well as the countryside and gild monopolies and gild restrictions were fraying by the close of the Middle Ages.

In the new climate created by the Black Death, the individual businessman did retain an advantage: the business judgment and techniques honed during the high Middle Ages. This was crucial in a contracting economy in which gross productivity never attained its high medieval peak and in which the prevailing pattern was boom and bust on a roughly generational basis. A fluctuating economy demanded adaptability and the most successful post—plague businessman not merely weathered bad times but located opportunities within adversity and exploited them. The post—plague entrepreneur’s preference for short—term rather than long—term ventures, once believed a product of a gloomy despondency caused by the plague and exacerbated by endemic violence, decay of traditional institutions, and nearly continuous warfare, is now viewed as a judicious desire to leave open entrepreneurial options, to manage risk effectively, and to take advantage of whatever better opportunity arose. The successful post—plague businessman observed markets closely and responded to them while exercising strict control over his concern, looking for greater efficiency, and trimming costs (Hunt and Murray, 1999).

The fortunes of the textile industry, a trade singularly susceptible to contracting markets and rising wages, best underscores the importance of flexibility. Competition among textile manufacturers, already great even before the Black Death due to excess productive capacity, was magnified when England entered the market for low— and medium—quality woolen cloth after the magna pestilencia and was exporting forty—thousand pieces annually by 1400. The English took advantage of proximity to raw material, wool England itself produced, a pattern increasingly common in late medieval business. When English producers were undeterred by a Flemish embargo on English cloth, the Flemish and Italians, the textile trade’s other principal players, were compelled to adapt in order to compete. Flemish producers that emphasized higher—grade, luxury textiles or that purchased, improved, and resold cheaper English cloth prospered while those that stubbornly competed head—to—head with the English in lower—quality woolens suffered. The Italians not only produced luxury woolens, improved their domestically—produced wool, found sources for wool outside England (Spain), and increased production of linen but also produced silks and cottons, once only imported into Europe from the East (Hunt and Murray, 1999).

The new mentality of the successful post—plague businessman is exemplified by the Florentines Gregorio Dati and Buonaccorso Pitti and especially the celebrated merchant of Prato, Francesco di Marco Datini. The large companies and super companies, some of which failed even before the Black Death, were not well suited to the post—plague commercial economy. Datini’s family business, with its limited geographical ambitions, better exercised control, was more nimble and flexible as opportunities vanished or materialized, and more effectively managed risk, all keys to success. Datini through voluminous correspondence with his business associates, subordinates, and agents and his conspicuously careful and regular accounting grasped the reins of his concern tightly. He insulated himself from undue risk by never committing too heavily to any individual venture, by dividing cargoes among ships or by insuring them, by never lending money to notoriously uncreditworthy princes, and by remaining as apolitical as he could. His energy and drive to complete every business venture likewise served him well and made him an exemplar for commercial success in a challenging era (Origo, 1957; Hunt and Murray, 1999).

The Black Death and Popular Rebellion

The late medieval popular uprising, a phenomenon with undeniable economic ramifications, is often linked with the demographic, cultural, social, and economic reshuffling caused by the Black Death; however, the connection between pestilence and revolt is neither exclusive nor linear. Any single uprising is rarely susceptible to a single—cause analysis and just as rarely was a single socioeconomic interest group the fomenter of disorder. The outbreak of rebellion in the first half of the fourteenth century (e.g., in urban [1302] and maritime [1325—28] Flanders and in English monastic towns [1326—27]) indicates the existence of socioeconomic and political disgruntlement well before the Black Death.

Some explanations for popular uprising, such as the placing of immediate stresses on the populace and the cumulative effect of centuries of oppression by manorial lords, are now largely dismissed. At times of greatest stress —— the Great Famine and the Black Death —— disorder but no large—scale, organized uprising materialized. Manorial oppression likewise is difficult to defend when the peasant in the plague’s aftermath was often enjoying better pay, reduced dues and services, broader opportunities, and a higher standard of living. Detailed study of the participants in the revolts most often labeled “peasant” uprisings has revealed the central involvement and apparent common cause of urban and rural tradesmen and craftsmen, not only manorial serfs.

The Black Death may indeed have made its greatest contribution to popular rebellion by expanding the peasant’s horizons and fueling a sense of grievance at the pace of change, not at its absence. The plague may also have undercut adherence to the notion of a divinely—sanctioned, static social order and buffeted a belief that preservation of manorial socioeconomic arrangements was essential to the survival of all, which in turn may have raised receptiveness to the apocalyptic socially revolutionary message of preachers like England’s John Ball. After the Black Death, change was inevitable and apparent to all.

The reasons for any individual rebellion were complex. Measures in the environs of Paris to check wage hikes caused by the plague doubtless fanned discontent and contributed to the outbreak of the Jacquerie of 1358 but high taxation to finance the Hundred Years’ War, depredation by marauding mercenary bands in the French countryside, and the peasantry’s conviction that the nobility had failed them in war roiled popular discontent. In the related urban revolt led by étienne Marcel (1355—58), tensions arose from the Parisian bourgeoisie’s discontent with the war’s progress, the crown’s imposition of regressive sales and head taxes, and devaluation of currency rather than change attributable to the Black Death.

In the English Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381, continued enforcement of the Statute of Laborers no doubt rankled and perhaps made the peasantry more open to provocative sermonizing but labor legislation had not halted higher wages or improvement in the standard of living for peasant. It seems likely that discontent may have arisen from an unsatisfying pace of improvement of the peasant’s lot. The regressive Poll Taxes of 1380 and 1381 also contributed to the discontent. It is furthermore noteworthy that the rebellion began in relatively affluent eastern England, not in the poorer west or north.

In the Ciompi revolt in Florence (1378—83), restrictive gild regulations and denial of political voice to workers due to the Black Death raised tensions; however, Florence’s war with the papacy and an economic slump in the 1370s resulting in devaluation of the penny in which the worker was paid were equally if not more important in fomenting unrest. Once the value of the penny was restored to its former level in 1383 the rebellion in fact subsided.

In sum, the Black Death played some role in each uprising but, as with many medieval phenomena, it is difficult to gauge its importance relative to other causes. Perhaps the plague’s greatest contribution to unrest lay in its fostering of a shrinking economy that for a time was less able to absorb socioeconomic tensions than had the growing high medieval economy. The rebellions in any event achieved little. Promises made to the rebels were invariably broken and brutal reprisals often followed. The lot of the lower socioeconomic strata was improved incrementally by the larger economic changes already at work. Viewed from this perspective, the Black Death may have had more influence in resolving the worker’s grievances than in spurring revolt.

Conclusion

The European economy at the close of the Middle Ages (c. 1500) differed fundamentally from the pre—plague economy. In the countryside, a freer peasant derived greater material benefit from his toil. Fixed rents if not outright ownership of land had largely displaced customary dues and services and, despite low grain prices, the peasant more readily fed himself and his family from his own land and produced a surplus for the market. Yields improved as reduced population permitted a greater focus on fertile lands and more frequent fallowing, a beneficial phenomenon for the peasant. More pronounced socioeconomic gradations developed among peasants as some, especially more prosperous ones, exploited the changed circumstances, especially the availability of land. The peasant’s gain was the lord’s loss. As the Middle Ages waned, the lord was commonly a pure rentier whose income was subject to the depredations of inflation.

In trade and manufacturing, the relative ease of success during the high Middle Ages gave way to greater competition, which rewarded better business practices and leaner, meaner, and more efficient concerns. Greater sensitivity to the market and the cutting of costs ultimately rewarded the European consumer with a wider range of good at better prices.

In the long term, the demographic restructuring caused by the Black Death perhaps fostered the possibility of new economic growth. The pestilence returned Europe’s population roughly its level c. 1100. As one scholar notes, the Black Death, unlike other catastrophes, destroyed people but not property and the attenuated population was left with the whole of Europe’s resources to exploit, resources far more substantial by 1347 than they had been two and a half centuries earlier, when they had been created from the ground up. In this environment, survivors also benefited from the technological and commercial skills developed during the course of the high Middle Ages. Viewed from another perspective, the Black Death was a cataclysmic event and retrenchment was inevitable, but it ultimately diminished economic impediments and opened new opportunity.

References and Further Reading:

Aberth, John. “The Black Death in the Diocese of Ely: The Evidence of the Bishop’s Register.” Journal of Medieval History 21 (1995): 275—87.

Aberth, John. From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Aberth, John. The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348—1350, a Brief History with Documents . Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005.

Aston, T. H. and C. H. E. Philpin, eds. The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre—Industrial Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Bailey, Mark D. “Demographic Decline in Late Medieval England: Some Thoughts on Recent Research.” Economic History Review 49 (1996): 1—19.

Bailey, Mark D. A Marginal Economy? East Anglian Breckland in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Benedictow, Ole J. The Black Death, 1346—1353: The Complete History. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004.

Bleukx, Koenraad. “Was the Black Death (1348—49) a Real Plague Epidemic? England as a Case Study.” In Serta Devota in Memoriam Guillelmi Lourdaux. Pars Posterior: Cultura Medievalis, edited by W. Verbeke, M. Haverals, R. de Keyser, and J. Goossens, 64—113. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1995.

Blockmans, Willem P. “The Social and Economic Effects of Plague in the Low Countries, 1349—1500.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 58 (1980): 833—63.

Bolton, Jim L. “‘The World Upside Down': Plague as an Agent of Economic and Social Change.” In The Black Death in England, edited by M. Ormrod and P. Lindley. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1996.

Bowsky, William M. “The Impact of the Black Death upon Sienese Government and Society.” Speculum 38 (1964): 1—34.

Campbell, Bruce M. S. “Agricultural Progress in Medieval England: Some Evidence from Eastern Norfolk.” Economic History Review 36 (1983): 26—46.

Campbell, Bruce M. S., ed. Before the Black Death: Studies in the ‘Crisis’ of the Early Fourteenth Century. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.

Cipolla, Carlo M. Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000—1700, Third edition. New York: Norton, 1994.

Cohn, Samuel K. The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. London: Edward Arnold, 2002.

Cohn, Sameul K. “After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes toward Labour in Late—Medieval Western Europe.” Economic History Review 60 (2007): 457—85.

Davis, David E. “The Scarcity of Rats and the Black Death.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 16 (1986): 455—70.

Davis, R. A. “The Effect of the Black Death on the Parish Priests of the Medieval Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 62 (1989): 85—90.

Drancourt, Michel, Gerard Aboudharam, Michel Signoli, Olivier Detour, and Didier Raoult. “Detection of 400—Year—Old Yersinia Pestis DNA in Human Dental Pulp: An Approach to the Diagnosis of Ancient Septicemia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States 95 (1998): 12637—40.

Dyer, Christopher. Standards of Living in the Middle Ages: Social Change in England, c. 1200—1520. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Emery, Richard W. “The Black Death of 1348 in Perpignan.” Speculum 42 (1967): 611—23.

Farmer, David L. “Prices and Wages.” In The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol. II, edited H. E. Hallam, 715—817. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Farmer, D. L. “Prices and Wages, 1350—1500.” In The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol. III, edited E. Miller, 431—94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Flinn, Michael W. “Plague in Europe and the Mediterranean Countries.” Journal of European Economic History 8 (1979): 131—48.

Freedman, Paul. The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Medieval Catalonia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gottfried, Robert. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Gyug, Richard. “The Effects and Extent of the Black Death of 1348: New Evidence for Clerical Mortality in Barcelona.” Mediæval Studies 45 (1983): 385—98.

Harvey, Barbara F. “The Population Trend in England between 1300 and 1348.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4th ser. 16 (1966): 23—42.

Harvey, P. D. A. A Medieval Oxfordshire Village: Cuxham, 1240—1400. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Hatcher, John. “England in the Aftermath of the Black Death.” Past and Present 144 (1994): 3—35.

Hatcher, John and Mark Bailey. Modelling the Middle Ages: The History and Theory of England’s Economic Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Hatcher, John. Plague, Population, and the English Economy 1348—1530. London and Basingstoke: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1977.

Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, edited by S. K. Cohn. Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Horrox, Rosemary, transl. and ed. The Black Death. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Hunt, Edwin S.and James M. Murray. A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200—1550. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Jordan, William C. The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Lehfeldt, Elizabeth, ed. The Black Death. Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 2005.

Lerner, Robert E. The Age of Adversity: The Fourteenth Century. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. The Peasants of Languedoc, transl. J. Day. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Lomas, Richard A. “The Black Death in County Durham.” Journal of Medieval History 15 (1989): 127—40.

McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1976.

Miskimin, Harry A. The Economy of the Early Renaissance, 1300—1460. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Morris, Christopher “The Plague in Britain.” Historical Journal 14 (1971): 205—15.

Munro, John H. “The Symbiosis of Towns and Textiles: Urban Institutions and the Changing Fortunes of Cloth Manufacturing in the Low Countries and England, 1270—1570.” Journal of Early Modern History 3 (1999): 1—74.

Munro, John H. “Wage—Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and the Real Incomes in Late—Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300—1500: Did Money Matter?” Research in Economic History 21 (2003): 185—297.

Origo. Iris The Merchant of Prato: Francesco di Marco Datini, 1335—1410. Boston: David R. Godine, 1957, 1986.

Platt, Colin. King Death: The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late—Medieval England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Poos, Lawrence R. A Rural Society after the Black Death: Essex 1350—1575. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Postan, Michael M. The Medieval Economy and Society: An Economic History of Britain in the Middle Ages. Harmondswworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1975.

Pounds, Norman J. D. An Economic History of Europe. London: Longman, 1974.

Raoult, Didier, Gerard Aboudharam, Eric Crubézy, Georges Larrouy, Bertrand Ludes, and Michel Drancourt. “Molecular Identification by ‘Suicide PCR’ of Yersinia Pestis as the Agent of Medieval Black Death.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 97 (7 Nov. 2000): 12800—3.

Razi, Zvi “Family, Land, and the Village Community in Later Medieval England.” Past and Present 93 (1981): 3—36.

Russell, Josiah C. British Medieval Population. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1948.

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Shrewsbury, John F. D. A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Twigg, Graham The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal. London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1984.

Waugh, Scott L. England in the Reign of Edward III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. London: Penguin, 1969, 1987.

Citation: Routt, David. “The Economic Impact of the Black Death”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. July 20, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-impact-of-the-black-death/

The Making of the Mexican Border: The State, Capitalism, and Society in Nuevo Leon, 1848-1910

Author(s):Mora-Torres, Juan
Reviewer(s):Baskes, Jeremy

Published by EH.NET (June 2002)

Juan Mora-Torres, The Making of the Mexican Border: The State, Capitalism,

and Society in Nuevo Leon, 1848-1910. Austin: University of Texas Press,

2001. 384 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-292-75252-0; $23.95 (paperback), ISBN:

0-292-75255-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jeremy Baskes, Department of History, Ohio Wesleyan

University.

Historians have long noted that Mexico’s extreme regional diversity makes

generalization impossible. Instead historians have stressed the concept of

“many Mexicos,” each with its own peculiar historical development. Juan

Mora-Torres examines one such “Mexico,” the northern region that became the

state of Nuevo Le?n, and particularly Monterrey, its heavily industrialized

capital.

During the colonial period, Nuevo Le?n was a peripheral territory possessing

little in the way of mineral wealth. Consequently, colonial rulers largely

ignored this frontier region, which was settled by poor peasants. These early

colonists lived in landholding communities that were united in their need to

defend themselves against “barbarian tribes.” These colonists were viewed by

rulers in Mexico City as a vital defense against the largely nomadic indigenous

tribes of the frontier. According to Mora-Torres, defense of the frontier

earned the settlers special rights that included exemption from tribute to the

Spanish Crown, and would endow the local population with what the author calls

a “fronterizo identity” that was distinct from that of Central Mexico.

Furthermore, “class and ethnic hierarchies of colonial Mexico were not

reproduced in Nuevo Le?n, a condition that permitted the development of a more

egalitarian society” (p. 16).

Isolated from the seats of power, the fronterizos enjoyed considerable autonomy

and resisted the weak attempts at centralization pursued by Mexico City after

the colony’s independence in 1821. Texan independence followed by the

Mexican-American War, however, had a profound impact on Nuevo Le?n and marked

the transformation of this region from “frontier” to “border.” After 1848 Nuevo

Le?n ceased to be an isolated frontier and became a critical Mexican region

bordering the rapidly developing U.S. economy. “Northern Mexico became a

permanent zone in which the economies and cultures of two nations that were in

many ways worlds apart engaged each other, creating a unique region different

from the interiors of both Mexico and the United States” (p. 9).

End of isolation, however, did not mean that Nuevo Le?n came immediately under

the authority of Mexico City, which still proved unable to exert much influence

in this border region. Instead, the creation of the border provided new

opportunities to Nuevo Le?n’s “increasingly confident merchant class” (p. 36).

In the decades that followed 1848, Monterrey merchants took advantage of their

location to deal in contraband smuggled in from Texas. Merchants on both sides

of the border were all too happy to evade taxes. In fact, Mora-Torres suggests

that a number of the border towns were founded because of the opportunities

afforded by contraband (p. 33). This prosperity also strengthened the local

caudillo (warlord), Santiago Vidaurri, who dominated the Northeast of Mexico

from 1855 to the end of the French occupation. Vidaurri succeeded in curtailing

contraband and reducing violence at the border even while he centralized power

in his own hands. The Nuevo Le?n economy received a real boost with the U.S.

Civil War. Because of the blockade of U.S. southern ports, much of the South’s

cotton exports were diverted to Mexico and exported through Matamoros.

The author details the process by which Mexico’s modernizing dictator, Porfirio

D?az, (1876-1911) finally “eroded the power of Caudillos and forcibly

integrated the periphery into a centralized political system” (p. 6). D?az’s

1885 appointment of Bernardo Reyes as interim Governor of Nuevo Le?n coincided

with the coming of age of Monterrey, “the sultan of the North.” During the

Porfiriato, D?az’s thirty-five-year dictatorship, Monterrey emerged as the

industrial leader of Mexico. Monterrey was blessed with an ideal location, near

to both the United States and important natural resources in bordering states

of Mexico. As Mexico’s capitalist engine of growth, Monterrey attracted

millions of migrants from the nation’s poorer southern states. According to

Mora-Torres, the ability of Mexican laborers to abandon Nuevo Le?n and migrate

to the “other side,” forced northern capitalists to pay higher wages and adopt

more enlightened employment practices than their southern compatriots. “A labor

market emerged in the northern Mexican states, set apart from the rest of

Mexico by free labor” (p. 127). One of the results was greater productivity in

the industrial sector.

In stark contrast to Monterrey’s free labor regime, landowners in rural Nuevo

Le?n continued to depend on coerced labor, most notably debt peonage, as they

were simply unable to afford the high wages. As such, rural labor practices

more closely resembled the notorious conditions on southern haciendas during

the Porfiriato. Interestingly, however, largely absent in Nuevo Le?n was the

seizure of peasants’ lands that so characterized southern Mexico and which

contributed to the agrarian violence after 1910. The arrival of railroads did

not dispossess the peasants of Nuevo Le?n. Population growth within once viable

communities, however, did impoverish them. “Rural society was more or less

egalitarian: the great majority were poor but had land” (p. 106). Not even the

haciendas of Nuevo Leon fared particularly well during this age of export-led

growth. In contrast to the city of Monterrey, the rural economy stagnated.

Historians of Nuevo Le?n have traditionally emphasized the harmony of class

relations in Monterrey’s industrial sector distinguishing it from other regions

of Mexico. They depict the Porfiriato as a time in which Monterrey’s hard

working industrial class earned good wages from fairly enlightened employers.

Mora-Torres rejects this view arguing that Monterrey workers did have

class-consciousness and did challenge their employers on a number of issues,

such as the preferable treatment afforded to foreign workers or attempts to

reduce bonus pay. Despite this argument, Mora-Torres nonetheless portrays

Monterrey industrialists as more paternalistic than their southern counterparts

are traditionally depicted. Whether out of civic pride or economic necessity,

Monterrey businessmen pursued relatively enlightened employment practices.

The final chapter of this book is an interesting examination of Monterrey’s two

largest companies, the Cuauht?moc Brewery and the Compa??a Fundidora de Fierro

y Acero de Monterrey, the first steel mill in Latin America. The histories of

these two industrial giants differ notably. Cuauht?moc Brewery was established

in 1890 with a fairly small initial investment of 125,000 pesos. By the end of

Porfirio D?az’s rule in 1911, the company was worth five to eight million pesos

and had become “a key symbol of Monterrey’s industrial identity” (p. 236). Part

of the Brewery’s success in this highly competitive industry was attributed to

the fact that it vertically integrated glass production and enjoyed good

labor-management relations. While the government provided a favorable business

climate, the Brewery remained independent of the D?az regime. In contrast to

the Brewery’s small initial investment, the Fundidora steel works was founded

in 1900 with a ten million peso investment made jointly by Monterrey and Mexico

City capitalists. The steel industry was identified by D?az and Mexican

nationalists as an example of “progress” and “a symbol of Mexico’s attempts to

liberate itself from foreign domination of the economy” (p. 264). While the

Fundidora employed the most advanced technologies, it was unable to compete

with imported steel due to the high cost of coal and transportation.

Fortunately for investors, “Mexico’s nascent steel industry was too important

for the image-conscious Porfirian politicians to let it collapse” (p. 263-64).

The government kept the company afloat with lucrative concessions to produce

rails for the increasingly nationalized railway. In addition, the government

provided the company with subsidized loans. Unlike the Cuauht?moc Brewery, the

Fundidora became extremely dependent on the central state. While the author

does not emphasize the issue, the case of the steel works provides significant

evidence that runs contrary to the traditional depiction of the D?az

administration’s obsequiousness to foreign capital. Here D?az pursued an

interventionist policy to promote the nation’s perceived economic interests.

Juan Mora-Torres has written a very good book, which brings together a wealth

of detail on northern Mexico’s political and economic history. This work

reminds historians of Mexico that the experiences of its diverse regions

differed greatly. So much of Mexico’s traditional narrative simply does not

apply to the border region of Nuevo L?on, a region that was as deeply

influenced by events in its northern neighbor as those in Mexico City. As such,

this is a book that should interest U.S. historians as well.

Jeremy Baskes is author of Indians, Merchants and Markets: A

Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in

Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821 (Stanford University Press, 2000).

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Energy and Civilization: A History

Author(s):Smil, Vaclav
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.Net (August 2017)

Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. x + 552 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-262-03577-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.
The arrival of an encyclopedic tome of 550 pages, crammed with graphs, calculations, bar diagrams and the interruption of plentiful “boxes,” so giving every appearance of being a textbook, does not usually fill the breast of a reviewer with joy. Fortunately reading this volume turns out to be a pleasure. Vaclav Smil came to notice in 1984 with The Bad Earth, an early account of China’s environmental degradation, and has since written prolifically on topics concerning energy. He is described as an “incorrigible inter-disciplinarian,” a stance that helps him compare and calibrate sources over the widest possible range. His latest book is a greatly expanded version of an earlier volume and may be taken as a summary of his life’s work. It is immensely valuable for reference as well as for calm, decisive commentaries on the state of knowledge, besides on what is actually or potentially computable about uses of energy worldwide and throughout the very long term.

What Smil concludes about the early modern period provides some of the most insightful passages among a vast number of offerings. The immense stretches of time when most humans remained either hunter-gatherers or toiling peasants can, of course, be approached along an energy perspective. Interpretations of these tedious periods by many authors nevertheless tend to lean on mere assumptions about motive and on various anthropological analogies that are sometimes plausible but commonly arbitrary. They typically amount to pronouncements about indifference to accumulation (readily but unconvincingly supported by material poverty) and chronic aversion to physical labor. Nor is Smil impressed by assertions about the labor supposedly required to erect the great monuments of the past, such as the Great Pyramid, and demonstrates how exaggerated they often are. Better documented detail is available once 1850 is passed, when the Western world took up fossil fuels on a grand scale and soon became a fossil fuel civilization. From that date he pays even closer attention to the energy implications of inventions in sphere after sphere after sphere. He offers a new and informative slant on many of these developments. In principle all this is, however, familiar ground.

Smil’s work on early modern times accordingly stands out between these epochs. What one might call the early modern prologue was remarkably progressive compared with many previous centuries. Smil shows just how much human labor could produce with no more than sweat, levers, treadmills, animals, wind power and water power, and how gradual advances were being made in the diffusion and productivity of these every day methods. His “box” on the raising of Alexander’s column at St Petersburg in 1832 is especially impressive, notwithstanding the facts that foreign architects were employed and that the Monument to the Great Fire of London constructed in the 1670s is taller still. Far earlier than any of this the Romans had made strides in exploiting the power afforded by people and nature. Yet from our distant viewpoint the most interesting fact may be how gradually best practice had spread. The tapping of ostensibly straightforward sources of energy continued for a long time — very long. Water wheels, Smil says, were the most significant energy foundation of Western industrialization. Even allowing for the telescoping effect of hindsight, the ancient world had experienced phases of rapid advance that were not matched for a considerable spell. The later Western world, taken as a whole, was often slow by contrast but at least its gains tended to be cumulative. Permissible loads drawn by French horses in the mid-nineteenth century were about four times the Roman limit. But can we say that reaching this point had been achieved at a reasonable pace?

Agreed, pace depends to some extent on where one stands. Even in the modern period, best practice could diffuse with what to our eyes seems a marked sluggishness. From 1745 the English introduced a fantail to turn the sails of windmills automatically into the wind. Their neighbors, the Dutch, who owned the most windmills in Europe, did not take up this device until the early nineteenth century. For all such blemishes on attainable advance, and despite most labor in England and Wales remaining craft work in 1850, energy output had nevertheless risen fifteen-fold in two hundred years. Was that fast or slow? Either way it meant that industrialization as conventionally defined piggybacked on economic changes already springing up with some frequency. Studies of energy use show that the period leading to modernity was complete by the mid-nineteenth century and by any reasonable measure things changed rapidly thereafter.

Studies of individual subjects might perhaps be thought somewhat like single-issue politics, with the distortions it entails. However Smil explicitly avoids the trap of explaining world economic history in terms of energy alone. Although per capita GDP and energy supply are linked more closely than many elements in socio-economic life, they can be decoupled and a determining role for energy is repeatedly frustrated by political and other choices. Energy use is after all an input, though doubtless one with beneficial outputs, but distributional considerations often alter the expected results. The population response that development economists once thought likely to neutralize any income gained from slow technical advances may have been deflected because elites commandeered a lion’s share of the gains. Smil insists on the need to get the balance right between energy imperatives and a multitude of non-energy factors. He rejects tempting comparisons across sectors, such as the uncannily similar energy use by sailing ships and drainage windmills during the United Provinces’ Golden Age, pointing out that no volume of peat dug would have made possible the voyages to the East Indies. Certainly there were too many overlaps in types of exploitation at any one period to separate history into energy eras. There is long experience and a maturity of judgment in this book that inspire much confidence.

 
Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010), The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013) [with Charles Foster], Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture (Princeton, 2016, paperback) and Middle Ridgeway and its Environment (Wessex Books, 2016) [with Patrick Dillon].

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (August 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

States of Obligation: Taxes and Citizenship in the Russian Empire and Early Soviet Republic

Author(s):Kotsonis, Yanni
Reviewer(s):Nafziger, Steven

Published by EH.Net (January 2016)

Yanni Kotsonis, States of Obligation: Taxes and Citizenship in the Russian Empire and Early Soviet Republic. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. xx + 483 pp. $80 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4426-4354-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Steven Nafziger, Department of Economics, Williams College.

This deeply researched study by a leading Russian historian centers on Tsarist and early Soviet experiences with tax reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book presents a complex argument that centers on the movement towards individual assessment of wealth and personal income taxes that, while never fully realized, reflected Russia’s advancement towards modern citizenship and statehood between roughly 1870 and 1930. During this period, the state generated knowledge of the Empire’s population, income and wealth, and economic activities through new assessments of taxable resources. As policymakers collected this information and undertook more targeted tax collections (at the firm, household, and, eventually, individual levels), the Russian state was drawn into closer oversight of the economy, while the population was, at least in theory and as the title suggests, nudged towards becoming a real citizenry by the acts of declaring incomes and paying taxes. Although this was the case in cities and for the commercial elite, the retention of more indirect and collectivist fiscal practices in the countryside sharpened the urban-rural divide, limiting the identification of the peasant population with the modernizing efforts of the Imperial and Soviet states.

The book is divided into four interconnected parts. Following an introduction that very nicely places Russia’s tax history in a comparative light (drawing on works like Seligman (1914)), the first chapter in part one describes the Russian state’s fiscal knowledge, taxes, and tax reform efforts through the middle of the nineteenth century. From tax farming and regional apportionment for excise taxes to the use of communal collective responsibility to extract taxes from the peasantry, Kotsonis points out the pre-modern and hands-off (and information deficient) nature of early Imperial fiscal policies. The second chapter summarizes the tax reforms that the regime subsequently embarked upon, including urban and commercial tax reforms, changes to poll and land taxes (especially among the peasantry), and modifications of the excise tax system. This chapter postulates that each type of reform engaged with the relevant base in different ways, with a different set of information requirements and degrees of direct interaction (from individual assessment, to collective obligation, to transaction-dependent).

Utilizing archival records, contemporary publications, and insights drawn from a number of secondary literatures, the second and third parts of the book then focus on a series of policy discussions and tax reforms that emerged in the last third of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second part considers the progression towards individualized assessment of income and wealth among urban and commercial tax units over the period. Chapters 3 and 4 examine how previously ad-hoc, collective, or apportioned tax bills evolved towards person and firm-specific assessments of urban property, inheritance, and business taxes. These chapters describe the difficulties the regime faced in accurate assessment of taxable resources, and how a reliance on commissions of taxpayers (whether urban property holders or small businessmen), direct reporting (the corporate sector), and a new but limited tax inspectorate emerged. Chapters 5 and 6 then focus on the debates and proposals surrounding a personal income tax, which was only to come to fruition in 1916. It is particularly in Part 2 that Kotsonis emphasizes the evolution of more modern concepts of individual citizenship and legal personhood within tax discussions among Russian intellectual and policy-making elites.

Part 3 first considers indirect taxation (Chapter 7), especially in the form of alcohol excise taxes, and then studies the persistence of collective (i.e. non-individual) taxation of the peasant majority (Chapters 8 and 9). Kotsonis nicely summarizes the large literature on the evolution of Russia’s fiscal treatment of alcohol, from tax farming, to excises laid on producers, to the state monopoly after 1894, to the surprising declaration of prohibition in 1914, which gutted state revenues and partially led to the income tax. As others have noted, Kotsonis points out Russia’s dependence on alcohol revenues, which numerically greatly overshadowed any other types of taxes. This included the various assessments placed on the 85 percent of the population who were peasants. As nicely detailed in Chapters 8 and 9 (particularly with respect to the mechanisms of tax collection), the state actually lowered land and other tax burdens on the peasants from the 1880s onwards. However, into the Soviet period, the regime retained the system of collectively apportioning peasant obligations by province, district, township, and communal body. The frequency of mismatch between tax obligations and payment capabilities that resulted from such a system sharply contradicted the individualization of taxation and state interactions that was happening in the urban and commercial sectors.

Early Soviet tax policies endeavored to chip away at this urban-rural fiscal divide, but this quickly lost momentum, as Kotsonis documents based on a wealth of archival material in Chapters 10-12 of Part 4. Soviet authorities lowered exemption levels for the income tax, thereby doubling down on the commitment to connect taxation and citizenship. But attempts to expand this system to the peasantry failed during the War Communism period (1918-1921), and so authorities reverted to the earlier structure of collective imposition at the level of village, enforced by a greater level of violence. Prohibition ended between 1921 and 1926, with a renewed importance of indirect taxes and allowing some market relations to function under the New Economic Policy. But by 1928, growing state revenue and food demands led to the shift towards collectivization, with the direct imposition of state authority into the rural locality. By this point, Stalin was in charge and the Soviet regime carried state oversight of the economy to its (Communist) conclusion, with large-scale nationalizations and the tightening of state controls across the board. As Kotsonis argues, this was largely repeating the Imperial experience, with more violence thrown in.

I have long thought about many issues discussed in this book and greatly admire the job Kotsonis does in unpacking the intellectual, political, and economic conditions of tax reform in Imperil and early Soviet Russia. Each page delivers an insightful comment or little known but significant fact. The skilled employment of archival evidence and little known official records and contemporary publications generates a nuanced and largely convincing account of the rise of Russian fiscal modernity. The detailed discussions of urban and commercial tax reforms, the ways that indirect (i.e. vodka) taxes functioned, and the collection of collectively imposed obligations from the peasantry are real feats of historical scholarship. The study is impressively engaged with the Russian historiography (including some work in economic history), as well as the broader and comparative histories of taxation in this period. Indeed, a key contribution is to illustrate how Imperial Russia largely shared the experiences of fiscal evolution and state building with many contemporary states, albeit with a distinctive absolutist twist. However, and perhaps unfortunately, I imagine that only a few economic historians will be as interested in or impressed by this study as I was. There are several reasons for this.

The first has to do with style. Kotsonis is a skilled writer, but this study is repetitive at times and probably 20 percent too long. The writing is regularly overtaken with statements and paragraphs that complicate rather than clarify the argument. Sometimes this stems from the odd phrasing of an economic concept or argument (e.g. “The commercial and industrial sector was easily or only expressed as money,” p. 89; “Russia . . . had an inelastic system of revenue,” p. 236); sometimes this is due to almost gleefully convoluted or cryptic sentences (e.g. “The future was folded into the present,” p. 187). Making things more difficult for the non-specialist is the rather erratic utilization of quantitative evidence, where numbers are frequently offered without much effort paid to comparisons across space or over time (for example, the six tables in the book only draw on data from 1913). These stylistic features do not detract from the work’s careful and largely qualitative analysis, nor do they make the text unreadable (far from it!), but they do make the writing quite dense and the argument hard to track at times. While this critique might just speak to this reviewer’s own limitations, it would seem like even very interested specialists will find grappling with this study a difficult task.

A second and more significant difficulty with this book is its relationship to economic analysis and modern economic history. In a nutshell, Kotsonis seems uninterested in engaging with recent economic research on topics ranging from the history of the social welfare state (e.g. Lindert, 2004) to the interconnection between political liberalization and fiscal reform in the long nineteenth century (e.g. Aidt and Jensen, 2009). Economists and economic historians have made major advances in these and related areas over the past twenty years, very little of which is reflected in the footnotes or bibliography of this book. To take one important example: in a book detailing the construction of economic knowledge, administrative practices, and fiscal policy reform proposals, the concept of “state capacity” is never once mentioned, despite its growing prominence in the social sciences (e.g. Besley and Persson, 2009; Dincecco, 2015). To his credit, Kotsonis is interested less in the economics of Russian fiscal policy than the surrounding political and intellectual contexts. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that economic historians should engage with such contexts when considering the causes and effects of tax changes. However, social science historians without special interests in Russia might feel put off by the absence of direct connections to more familiar literatures and methodological approaches.

A third, related, issue that might limit the appeal of this book to the broader economic history community is the nature of the questions it tackles. While Imperial Russian authorities and policymakers might have been deeply engaged in debates over the proper structure of business and income taxes for decades, no broad income tax was enacted until 1916 (just before the fall of the regime) and it was largely ineffectual in terms of raising revenues in the chaos of the war or during the early Soviet period. Kotsonis discusses myriad other tax reforms over the period, some of which (e.g. changes in alcohol policy) had major revenue implications. However, the main theme of the book — that the move towards income taxation was both cause and effect of a shift towards both individualization and control in the state/citizen relationship — only comes to a head at the very end of the Imperial era and it seems to be contradicted by the absence of real change in the countryside. Thus, all the discussions and debates over taxes among Petersburg elites that Kotsonis details in Part 2 appear to have mattered little on the ground in effecting real change in Russia’s economy and society. The absence of perspectives from small businessmen, commercial farmers, traders, factory workers, and peasants makes it difficult to know whether changes in tax policies really mattered for non-elite conceptions of Russian citizenship. And since the book exclusively focuses on government revenues and ignores expenditures (and largely limits itself to discussing central government taxation), the reader gets little sense as to whether any fiscal developments over the period mattered for the provision of public goods and services.

But Kotsonis does not really have such objectives in mind in writing this book. His intention is to identify how tax discussions among the Russian elite, and the subsequent policies that these generated, reflected and affected the Imperial and Soviet regimes’ engagement with modern state building. In this, he largely succeeds, thereby providing an important contribution towards our understanding of how Russia became modern. For scholars interested in the political and intellectual contexts for fiscal reforms in other (especially lower income) societies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kotsonis’s work offers much food for thought. For specialists or fellow travelers in Russian business and economic history, this book is required reading.

References:

Aidt, Toke, and Peter Jensen. “The Taxman Tools Up: An Event History Study of the Introduction of the Personal Income Tax.” Journal of Public Economics 93 (2009): 160-175.

Besley, Timothy, and Torsten Persson. “The Origins of State Capacity: Property Rights, Taxation, and Politics.” American Economic Review 99 (2009): 1218-1244.

Dincecco, Mark. “The Rise of Effective States in Europe.” Journal of Economic History 75 (2015): 901-918.

Lindert, Peter. Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Seligman, Edwin R. A. The Income Tax: A Study of the History, Theory, and Practice of Income Taxation at Home and Abroad. Second edition. New York: Macmillan, 1914.

Steven Nafziger is an Associate Professor of Economics at Williams College and a Center Associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. He is currently working on numerous projects related to the economic development of Imperial Russia.

Copyright (c) 2016 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (January 2016). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

An Economic History of Early Modern India

Author(s):Roy, Tirthankar
Reviewer(s):Chaudhary, Latika

Published by EH.Net (December 2015)

Tirthankar Roy, An Economic History of Early Modern India. New York: Routledge, 2013. x + 174 pp. $53 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-415-69064-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Latika Chaudhary, Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School.

The literature on Early Modern India is characterized by debates surrounding the decline of the Mughal Empire, the rise of the East India Company and the timing of when India fell behind Europe. Despite strong claims on each side, the evidence underlying the arguments is often weak because of insufficient or unreliable economic data. Against this backdrop Tirthankar Roy’s book is a welcome addition to the field. It offers a measured assessment of the salient transitions in this important period of Indian history beginning with the death of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 and ending in the early 1800s as the English East India Company came to control large territories including most of coastal India.

Drawing on an impressive reading of the primary sources and secondary literature, Roy’s analysis moves away from traditional debates surrounding colonialism and draws cautious conclusions about urbanization, living standards and agrarian conditions. His main argument is that political turmoil at the top between the different warring factions led to a general decline in public goods but did not substantially weaken peasant property rights. In India, many people could claim the final agricultural output ranging from military nobles and tax collectors at the top to landlords in the middle and finally peasants cultivating the land at the bottom. While states needed more public money to fund wars, Roy argues they were limited in their ability to coerce peasants because land was abundant and labor was scarce in the eighteenth century. In support he points to qualitative evidence of peasant communities moving and clearing forest for cultivation across many Indian regions. The available evidence on living standards also matches this account of peasant property rights. Based on a careful reading of the economic trends, Roy argues that agricultural production, crop yields and standards of living did not fundamentally change over the long eighteenth century.

Roy begins by describing the process of state formation as new successor states wrestled power from the Mughal Empire in the first half of the eighteenth century. Success was contingent on the ability of these states to improvise old, or devise, new fiscal structures that could extract necessary revenues to support the military campaigns. By the end of the eighteenth entry, the English East India Company emerged victorious signaling a fundamental break. Unlike former states, the Company employed its own standing army relying less on earlier forms of military-agriculture relationships with landlords and tax collectors. By eliminating such middlemen, the Company made tax collection more efficient.

As a successor state, the East India Company was also special because of its strong naval presence. This contributed to the coastal shift in business as the Company transitioned to a colonial state. Overland trade within India declined over this period as maritime trade increased.  That said, maritime trade accounted for only a tiny share of the economy. Some groups with inland interests lost, while others that successfully transitioned to working with European firms gained. Roy argues that this change in orientation is also reflected in urbanization patterns. Agra, Delhi and Lahore among other interior towns of the Mughal Empire declined as the coastal towns of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras came to dominate the urban landscape. The latter were new industry hubs, which was as important in accounting for their rise as their status as colonial company towns. That said, there was no long run urbanization trend. Old centers of production tied to the Mughal Empire experienced decline but, this was balanced by the rise of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.

This book has much to recommend itself. A newcomer to Indian economic history will appreciate the military-political history of the eighteenth century successor states, the nature of military-agriculture interactions and the organization of agricultural production.  The chapters on urbanization and living standards are among the best I have read on the topic. They summarize the existing debates, describe the data and then draw sensible conclusions while acknowledging gaps in the literature. While general histories may overlook regional patterns, Roy gives the regional stories their due importance. My only quibble is the book shortchanges the story of the East India Company despite its presence in many chapters. The rise of the Company and its transition to colonial power deserves more attention. This book tells the story up to the early nineteenth century, by when it is clear that the East India Company will be dominant. Roy takes up the rest of the story in The East India Company: The World’s Most Powerful Corporation (New Delhi: Allen Lane, 2012).

Latika Chaudhary is an Associate Professor of Economics at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. She has studied the provision of primary education and railways in colonial India. Her articles include “Determinants of Primary Schooling in British India” published in Journal of Economic History and “Regulation, Ownership and Costs: A Historical Perspective from Indian Railways” (with Dan Bogart) published in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

Copyright (c) 2015 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (December 2015). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century