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A History of the European Economy, 1000-2000

Author(s):Crouzet, François C
Reviewer(s):Liebowitz, Jonathan J.

Published by EH.NET (May 2002)


Fran?ois Crouzet, A History of the European Economy, 1000-2000. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2001. xx + 329 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8139-2024-8; $26.50 (paper), ISBN 0-8139-2025-6,

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jonathan Liebowitz, Department of History, University of Massachusetts — Lowell.>

Fran?ois Crouzet, Professor Emeritus at the Sorbonne, has written a brief (about 260 pages of text) history of the European economy in the last millennium. Instructors could confidently choose it for European economic history courses, with its brevity allowing for additional more detailed readings.

Fran?ois Crouzet, Professor Emeritus at the Sorbonne, has written a brief (about 260 pages of text) history of the European economy in the last millennium. Instructors could confidently choose it for European economic history courses, with its brevity allowing for additional more detailed readings.

Crouzet has stood outside the Annales school of French economic historians and has been rather critical of the state of economic history in France. He has criticized most French economic historians for their insularity, both for sticking to their national history and for avoiding cliometrics. (See Crouzet and Isabele Lescent-Giles, “French Economic History in the Past 20 Years,” in NEHA-bulletin 12:2 [1998], 75-101. Available on-line at No one could reproach him for this fault. Crouzet is not insular in either sense. While he has done important work on the French economy, much of his focus has been on Britain, where he has studied, for example, the origins of entrepreneurs and the Victorian economy. (See the bibliography in the article listed above. His modesty keeps him from listing any of his own works — but he does cite one by his daughter-in-law! — in the ten page bibliography of the book under review.) If not stuffed with the latest in regressions, Crouzet’s book also reveals his familiarity with the new economic history

These qualities stand him in good stead in A History of the European Economy. The book treats Europe as a whole, rather than focusing on individual countries, and Crouzet carries on a dialogue with leading economic historians of all nationalities — some French but most British and American. Within chronological chapters, the approach is topical, based on the central issues of the time. Except perhaps toward the end of the volume, where he gives vent to his anti-statist, pro-free market attitudes, Crouzet adopts a judicious posture. No reader will be startled by his interpretations, which are traditional with a tilt toward the Mokyr-Landes emphasis on technology as a causal factor in economic change. Differing or opposing views are often considered, and Crouzet is prepared to accept what is valid in them. He is no monocausalist. While this approach may be less exciting than one that argues for an idiosyncratic interpretation, it may be what many professors want in a textbook.

One shortcoming felt by this reviewer is the lack of graphics, except for five maps that do little more than locate cities, regions and nations. There are no topical maps, no graphs, no technological drawings or illustrative images. Here Rondo Cameron’s A Concise Economic History of the World (third edition, New York and Oxford, 1997) holds a distinct advantage.

The author claims to examine a thousand years. I would guess this was a device to catch the Y2K spirit; actually the discussion starts with the fall of Rome. Like most surveys, Crouzet’s concentrates on more recent times, with the tenth through thirteenth centuries being covered in thirty-six pages, while the most recent eighty-five or so years take about ninety pages.

The early medieval chapter adopts the by-now-commonplace position that the history of Europe after the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions was one of progress. Crouzet places the prime cause for this progress in population growth without denying a role to improvements in technology and higher agricultural productivity. The manorial system was “rational … ; not inimical to change” (p. 15) and had the potential of expanding trade. Crouzet’s treatment of the latter topic will be familiar, with emphasis on fairs, towns, and regions like northern Italy and Flanders. He does accept the contention expressed by many scholars recently that various Asian economies held a considerable advantage over Europe, citing Bairoch’s contention that “what was essential in world history was happening in Asia,” (p. 2) but his emphasis never strays from Europe.

Crouzet goes on from the Middle Ages to consider as a bloc what historians have usually called the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. These years were marked by a combination of “Change and Continuity,” as the chapter title calls it. Among the types of technological progress he discusses are the new husbandry, printing, shipbuilding and navigation, and finance and banking. Not surprisingly, Crouzet devotes considerable attention to trade, both inter- and intra-continental. The narrative thrust of this chapter comes in discussions of how the yellow jersey of the leader was passed from one nation to another and of the cycles of expansion and contraction. His conclusion is that Europe suffered from a “low-productivity economic system”(p. 84) but that nevertheless, over the long run “some growth took place”(p. 95). This rhetoric is typical of chapters two and three — lots of “on the one hand, but then on the other.”

With chapter three Crouzet reaches the Industrial Revolution — a term he would rehabilitate. Whatever the proponents of the slow growth school would maintain (and Crouzet accepts their evidence), that does not eliminate the fact of a qualitative revolution, especially in technology. The central importance of the Industrial Revolution was that it made change the norm. After this introduction, Crouzet proceeds to touch all the usual bases: Britain’s place as leader, the followers, various technologies, national disparities and the reasons for them, among which he emphasizes “path dependency … of which human capital is a crucial component”(p. 150). The author concludes this optimistic chapter by stressing the progress and globalization of the long nineteenth century.

In the final chapter — on the “Disasters, Renaissance, Decline” since 1914 — Crouzet, despite everything, maintains his optimism. Even twentieth century Europe would not have been so bad, “were it not for the unatonable sin of the Shoah”(p. 172). Not surprisingly Crouzet stresses disruption during the first thirty years of this period though, in typical fashion, admitting that there were important gains during the twenties and that the depression of the thirties was not general. After World War II, “it was a mistake not to establish a federal Europe … and not destroy nation-states (especially France [!]) at a stroke … — a policy that the U.S. government ought to have imposed upon Europeans” (p. 204). Not based on any careful analysis, such rants, like a later one that “France looks like a last relic in Europe of old-fashioned, Soviet-style socialism,”(p. 246) add a bit of spice to the last chapter. For the second half of the twentieth century, Crouzet follows most observers in delineating two periods: the “Golden Age” of 1950-73 and the era of “Slowing Down and Not Working” that followed. For the first he naturally stresses the rapid growth of both western Europe and the Soviet bloc, for the second the contrast between the poor performance of Europe and successes of the United States and Asia. He ends disabused but hopeful that Europe will retain its liberty and recover the creativity essential for economic growth.

As will be apparent from this conclusion, Crouzet’s book feels personal and historical. The main organizational principle is chronological rather than one based on topics or problems. Yet the author is fully engaged with the cutting edge issues of contemporary economic history, and any economist or historian could assign it to students with assurance that they would obtain a solid grounding in Economic History.

Jonathan J. Liebowitz is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts — Lowell. He is currently working on a study of the impact of the late nineteenth century agricultural depression on French tenants and sharecroppers.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval