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European Aristocracies and Colonial Elites: Patrimonial Management Strategies and Economic Development, 15th-18th Centuries

Author(s):Janssens, Paul
Yun-Casalilla, Bartolomé
Reviewer(s):Álvarez-Nogal, Carlos

Published by EH.NET (March 2007)

Paul Janssens and Bartolom? Yun-Casalilla, editors, European Aristocracies and Colonial Elites: Patrimonial Management Strategies and Economic Development, 15th-18th Centuries. London: Ashgate Publishing, 2005. x + 282 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-5459-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carlos ?lvarez-Nogal, Department of Economic History, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.

The aristocracy does not normally appear in analyses of economic growth for the pre-industrial period. More attention has usually been paid to the peasantry, a much larger and more homogeneous group. Before the Industrial Revolution, agriculture was the dominant activity employing most of the population. Historians interested in social or political areas had studied the nobility but little attention had been paid to its economic dimension. This may have been because the aristocracy was seen as a parasitic class or a rent-seeking group whose mere existence stood in the way of economic growth.

Paul Janssens, Professor at the Katholieke Universiteit, Brussels, and Bartolom? Yun-Casalilla, Professor at the European University Institute, Florence, remind us, in this magnificent collection of essays written by experts in the field, that the economic importance of the aristocracy under the ancien r?gime was due to their influential position in the institutional framework of society rather than simply to the number of aristocrats. Aside from the way in which wealth was distributed in that period, the aristocracy controlled most of the factors of production and, in addition, enjoyed a dominant position in the political institutions of the young European states. This meant that they were able to play a vital role in the development or lack of development of these societies.

This book brings this important social class into the debate surrounding economic growth and the prerequisites of the Industrial Revolution. It focuses on various European aristocracies and colonial elites and evaluates the strategies behind the decisions taken. The point of view adopted is that of supply, seeing aristocrats as investors in agriculture and other sectors or as innovators in the field of management of patrimonies, rather than taking the angle of demand and considering the aristocracy as wealthy consumers. Their contribution to economic growth is studied as if they were entrepreneurs taking or missing opportunities. Their influence in the establishment of property rights and behind advances in the workings of the market is also analyzed.

The book addresses three large questions. Were these large fortunes managed with maximization of profits or with socio-political criteria in mind? Did this situation change over the period under study? How and to what extent did change or lack of change affect economic performance in these societies?

One of the most interesting aspects of this book, despite the enormous difficulties involved, is the attempt to address these questions from a comparative point of view including as many countries and regions as possible. This approach leads to the conclusion that no single aristocratic model in the pre-industrial period existed and neither is it possible to offer a general model to explain its behavior.

Institutions are central to all the studies in this volume. There is no doubt about the influence of the aristocracy on the workings and development of the states during the ancien r?gime but, at the same time, the huge effect which the norms and traditions present in each society had on their behavior cannot be denied. For example, aristocracies became more important where crown estates and ecclesiastical properties were sold or redistributed as happened in England, France, Holland, Poland and Venice compared to regions like Portugal, Austria, Spain, Naples and Prussia where royal and ecclesiastical properties survived. On the other hand, the accumulation of national stocks of capital in the hands of commercial and industrial elites instead of in aristocratic hands would diminish the macro-economic significance of the aristocracy and lead the privileged group to make strategic changes.

Patrick O’Brien highlights three main areas present in many of the studies included in this book: the share of capital stock under noble control, the strategies and policies pursued by rich families for managing their patrimonies and the openness of aristocracies to talent and enterprise from outside their traditional networks.

The differences between the different European aristocracies in each of these areas are vital in an understanding of the influences of these groups on the economy. For example, the high proportion of real estate in the hands of the English aristocracy during the Industrial Revolution, noted by Robert Allen, allowed access to cheaper finance than that enjoyed by the rest of society. This explains the active investment of the landed classes in the non-agricultural sector, paving the way for a rapid industrialization of the island.

The book invites the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, in the light of the studies included, regarding the question of whether the differences between European aristocracies and ruling elites can explain the paths towards success or failure followed by each country before and during the Industrial Revolution.

The studies included in the book are organized geographically: Northern, Southern, Central and Eastern Europe and Colonial America (British North American, Peruvian and Brazilian colonial elites). The collection contains an introduction and fifteen chapters, each of which would deserve a review in its own right. The first is a general approach by Yun-Casalilla and the book closes with some considerations by O’Brien. While acknowledging the significant role played by the European aristocracy, the book avoids the error of “overcoming the prejudices by making the ancient r?gime nobles into standard-bearers of progress, modernization and economic growth.”

This collection of essays is an excellent first step but it also reveals that further research, measurement and analysis is needed before economic historians can begin to evaluate possible positive or negative contributions of the aristocracy to variations in national growth rates across Europe.

Carlos ?lvarez-Nogal is Assistant Professor of Economic History at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. His research spans the areas of early modern economic history, monetary and financial topics. His books include El cr?dito de la Monarqu?a Hisp?nica durante el reinado de Felipe IV (Junta de Castilla-Le?n, 1997) and Los banqueros de Felipe IV y los metales preciosos americanos, (1621-1665) (Banco de Espa?a, 1997). He is currently working on international networks of bankers in the seventeenth century.

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