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An Economic History of Europe: Knowledge, Institutions and Growth, 600 to the Present

Author(s):Persson, Karl Gunnar
Reviewer(s):Wandschneider, Kirsten

Published by EH.NET (November 2010)

Karl Gunnar Persson, An Economic History of Europe: Knowledge, Institutions and Growth, 600 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xv +253 pp. $33 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-54940-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kirsten Wandschneider, Department of Economics, Occidental College.

An Economic History of Europe: Knowledge, Institutions and Growth, 600 to the Present by Karl Gunnar Persson (University of Copenhagen) is a critical addition to the selection of economic history textbooks. It fills the void of an accessible, concise and yet precise, up-to-date text that can be used as the basis for a one-semester undergraduate course in European economic history.? Prior to the publication of this volume, instructors teaching European economic history would often exclusively rely on collections of papers and lecture notes or select book chapters from various works.? This new textbook makes cobbling together these pieces unnecessary and provides an easy, affordable, go-to textbook choice that will surely be welcomed by students and instructors alike.

Persson begins the book with 13 propositions about economic history, covering topics as wide as ?Europe trades, therefore it is? (Proposition 2) and ?Efficient institutions are often stable but stable institutions are not necessarily efficient? (Proposition 6). This introduction sets out an ambitious stroll through the economic history of Europe that is accomplished in the ensuing chapters. The topic outline loosely follows a historical progression, but each chapter also shifts the emphasis to specific economic topics, such as, for example, population growth, institutions, knowledge and technology transfer, money credit and banking, or trade and tariffs. This integration of economic history with key economic themes makes it easy for students to place economic history within the broader context of an undergraduate economics education.

The book is easily readable, well structured, and will not overwhelm the students. Of course, it is not comprehensive: which textbook, covering European economic history from 600 to the present, regardless of its length, could be? This, however, is an advantage rather than a disadvantage.? It leaves room, even in a semester-long course, to cover most chapters in the book and still supplement certain topics with additional readings. Each instructor can then personalize the course based on his or her own preferences or the interests and needs of the students.

The bibliography is up to date and the author does an excellent job introducing students not just to the latest debates in economic research, he also explains how such research is carried out. For example, in Chapter 4, when explaining total factor productivity (TFP), Persson explains the dual approach of calculating TFP through prices, factor incomes, and factor shares, but he also walks students through an indirect estimation via calculating the size of the urban versus the agrarian population. Persson shows how a researcher forms a research hypothesis and how this hypothesis can be tested using historical economic data. The emphasis on current debates in economic history demonstrates to the students that research is in flux and that there is often no easy right or wrong when it comes to interpreting historical events or economic phenomena. Persson is also extremely skilled in building the economic intuition of students while explaining the historical detail. The last three chapters, on the topics of the development of the welfare state, inequality, and globalization act as a bridge to topics discussed in any economics class and help the students situate the importance of economic history in today’s debate.

The glossary of economics terms at the end of the book, which provides an easy reference for students to refresh their memory about key concepts, is extremely helpful. By highlighting the economics terms, Persson also encourages the students to use the appropriate terminology when discussing economic history.? Also, the website provided and maintained by Persson to supplement the book is very useful for creating applied homework problems and provides a great starting point for launching students into independent projects.?? Likewise, the suggested readings at the end of each chapter satisfy the curiosity of interested students helping them to delve deeper into some topics for term papers and assignments.

However, while the text is a great fit for junior and senior level economic history courses taught in an economics department, it might be less suitable for interdisciplinary courses with low economics prerequisites or classes taught in history departments.? Persson assumes quite a high level of understanding of key economics concepts (Chapter 8 on trade and tariffs, for example, builds on comparative and absolute advantage, Ricardo, Heckscher-Ohlin, the Rybczynski Theorem and the Stolper-Samuelson theorem, which are all briefly reviewed in the first two pages of the chapter.) This means that the analysis put forth in the chapter is analytical rather than descriptive, since historical observations are posed against these theories. But this also implies that this chapter is more rewarding to a student who has seen the concepts before, maybe in an international economics class. At a minimum, I would suggest that students have taken a two-semester sequence in introduction to micro- and macroeconomics before taking an economic history course that heavily relies on this textbook. And, as said above, more background in international economics and maybe intermediate micro- and macroeconomics is a plus rather than a hindrance.

I look forward to relying on An Economic History of Europe next time I teach an upper-level elective course in European economic history.

Kirsten Wandschneider, Associate Professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, teaches economic history and is, among other things, the author of ?The Stability of the Interwar Gold Exchange Standard: Did Politics Matter?? Journal of Economic History (2008).

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII