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Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600

Author(s):van Bavel, Bas
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E.C.

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Bas van Bavel, Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600.? New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.? xiv + 492 pp. $140 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-927866-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anne E.C. McCants, Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The search for the medieval origins of European economic growth over the long run has become something of a growth industry in recent years.? For example, since 2008 the field of economic history has witnessed the publication of major book-length contributions from Jack Goldstone, Jan Luiten van Zanden, Paolo Palanima, and Timur Kuran, all of which argue strongly that there are readily identifiable causal linkages that extend in a meaningful way from at least the High Middle Ages (or even earlier) to present realities.[1]? For anyone familiar with an earlier instantiation of medieval economic history this trend may be unexpected.? It wasn?t long ago that the medieval economy was interesting only in so far as it was quaint (serfs and their lords eking out a living in the autarkic wilderness of the manorial economy); or worse, as it was brutal (the Middle Ages as the quintessential locus of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Conquest, War, Famine and Death).? Or if one?s tastes were not quite so dramatic there was always the longue duree of the Annales School, in which a relatively stable world of European peasants ran more or less seamlessly from late antiquity to the eighteenth century.? Admittedly, the greatest spokespersons of this view were Early Modernists, but the Medievalists were never far behind.? Indeed, it wasn?t always easy to tell them apart, given that they depicted a world of little change other than the cyclical fluctuations in the climate and the ebb and flow of population within its fairly narrow neo-Malthusian bounds.? None of this suggested the likely emergence of a historiography in which modern economic growth (of the kind defined by Simon Kuznets in the middle of the twentieth century and countless followers since) could be attributed back to conditions that prevailed in the years around or even before 1000.

This is not to say that the modern, industrial world as something sui generis has disappeared from recent scholarship; not at all.? Yet another group of important books of recent vintage seeking to explain the extraordinary economic achievement of Western Europe in the last two and a half centuries either passes over the question of medieval origins,[2] or in one prominent case counters it explicitly.[3]?? Jan de Vries finds his explanation for the modern transformation rooted in the new, consumerist, decision making strategies of households in the sixteenth and later centuries, while Deirdre McCloskey turns instead to the new ethical attachments, and the rhetoric by which they were expressed, of a commercial and middle class culture, more or less about the same time period.? Joel Mokyr turns his attention just a bit later to the eighteenth century proper when Enlightenment ideas loom large for both the development of new methods for organizing economic activities and in the tools and techniques employed in production, that is to say technological change in the broadest sense of that term.? For all of these arguments, newness is the important point; what may or may not have happened in the Middle Ages is hardly decisive.? In Greg Clark?s analysis, it is completely irrelevant.? Any economic breakthrough that may have occurred prior to 1800 would have been so quickly dissipated in a Malthusian population response that according to Clark there is no discernible change in living standards prior to the end of the eighteenth century.? Indeed, this position requires what this reader sees as the ironic claim that the only way to increase welfare before the advent of the modern world was for human suffering to increase; i.e. when other people die, you could then benefit.? In any event, all trends break at 1800, much as they did in the older historiography that separated the medieval economy from what came later in every fundamental way.

This is a long introductory discussion that references a lot of books other than the one under review, for which I crave the reader?s indulgence.? In fact, Bas van Bavel?s Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600, is at least as important for what it contributes to the emerging literature on the medieval origins of modern European economic growth, as it is for its direct contribution to the more narrowly circumscribed economic history of the Low Countries.? I should add, however, that it does indeed offer a significant contribution to the latter.? It is rich in detail, documenting the substantial regional variation that existed there (shockingly so given the relatively small area overall), and the shifting locus of the most advanced areas across the thousand years covered by his survey.? The Meuse Valley figures prominently in the Carolingian period, followed by the flowering of urban and industrial inland Flanders during the High Middle Ages, and finally by mercantile and maritime Holland, and its coastal cities in particular, in a sixteenth century he still characterizes as the Late Middle Ages.? Van Bavel?s range of topics includes everything from soil types, hydrological projects, choice of grains between spelt, wheat, and rye, forms of lordship, technological innovations in agriculture and industry, labor contracting arrangements, the standard of living, biometric and material evidence from the archeological record, legal rights to land, the power of political authorities, the emergence of communes and guilds, processes of urbanization, the minting of coins, the location of trade routes and the products traded along them, disease, social unrest, household structure, and of course, the making of cloth.? This list is even so not comprehensive, but it conveys the right idea.? For any economic activity that took place in the medieval Low Countries, van Bavel?s book will be the go-to source for a long time to come.? This is especially helpful as much of the monographic work on which he relies for his own source material is written in languages not readily accessible to a global scholarly audience.?

As wonderfully rich as all this is, most readers of this review are likely to find the broader argument about the powerful continuities between the distant past and the present the most provocative aspect of van Bavel?s work.? Broadly speaking, his argument rests on three components.? First, he postulates that what he calls the ?socio-institutional organization of the economy,? more specifically ?the rules that govern exchange,? is the most productive explanation for economic development (p. 4).? Second, he argues that these factors can vary considerably across even relatively small areas.? Finally, he asserts that the socio-institutional characteristics of a community demonstrate remarkable persistence over the very long run.? Despite the seemingly logical intuition that beneficial institutions ought to be readily adopted by at least close neighbors, this seems not to have been in fact the case.? Instead, van Bavel finds evidence of substantial variation in the response of even micro-regions to similar economic opportunities and changes in climate or population, depending on the socio-institutional framework with which they began.? The attentive reader will of course worry about the problem of origins, but in this case much of the land in question was reclaimed from the sea or swamp over the long Middle Ages, so van Bavel can often build his case from the moment of the original period of settlement.? In the final analysis he finds in the medieval history of the Low Countries ?a clear demonstration of how great the degree of socio-institutional path dependency and long-term continuity in regional structures was? (p. 396).

It is his close attention to the remarkable complexity of regional variation that leads him to reject many of the other commonly proffered explanations for long term economic fluctuations found in the broader economic history literature.? So while he acknowledges the importance of technological change, climate shifts, and population movements for the specific experiences of economic actors, he is not willing to grant them explanatory power for economic development.? He argues that they are too blunt an instrument for parsing the remarkable geographic variation in outcome already witnessed in the Middle Ages.? For example he says of climate and demography that ?these factors often vary little over wide areas, whereas economic and social developments within these areas may differ widely? (p. 3).? Likewise with arguments about commercialization, which he admits seem especially attractive in discussing the history of the Low Countries, characterized as it was from an early date by large cities and unusually intensive trade networks.? All of these factors, ?climatic, geographical, demographic, and political,? had their impact of course, but those effects were ?directed? by the differing socio-institutional factors ?in divergent directions? (p. 387).? Not surprisingly, given this perspective, he also upends the more typical narrative about urbanization as a factor in economic development.? Instead of seeing urbanization as a cause of economic growth, he argues it was more likely the other way around.? Economic growth, especially as it concerned the agricultural sector, was the necessary precursor of rapid urban growth (p. 384).

What then were the critical socio-institutional factors to which we can attribute the largely successful economic development of the Low Countries, at least as measured by the standards of a wider medieval Europe?? The answer to this question is not always entirely clear.? But it seems safe to say that van Bavel gives particular pride of place to two factors:? ?a relatively efficient system of exchange combined with social balance? (p. 405).? His definition of an efficient system of exchange is straightforward enough.? It includes unhindered regional interaction, the presence of open and flexible markets, and the early disappearance of non-economic coercion (p. 11).?? But his understanding of what might constitute social balance is more elusive.? The closest he comes to a concrete definition is to say that social balance occurs directly when ?independent actors and their associations played an important social and economic role,? and indirectly when those actors have ?influence on the authorities? (p. 408).? The Low Countries were blessed with this ?social balance? on account of ?the large degree of freedom for ordinary people? that occurred quite early in their history (p. 409).?

In the final analysis then, we have a story about the medieval period that resonates closely with our understanding of what makes a modern economy work best: relatively unrestricted and autonomous individuals, with access to efficient and well integrated markets, whose worst instincts are held in check by social institutions that promote balance.? No wonder their world proved to be such a good predictor of ours — their world was essentially ours, just on a smaller scale.? Some readers might be daunted by the level of detail that van Bavel dives into in order to substantiate his most important fact: the incredible complexity and variety of micro-regional differences in social institutions in the medieval Low Countries.? But for those who persevere to the end of this long book, his is a happy, and persuasive, tale indeed.

Notes:
1. Jack Goldstone, Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1500-1850, McGraw-Hill: 2008; Jan Luiten van Zanden, The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000-1800, Brill: 2009; Paolo Malanima, Pre-Modern European Economy: One Thousand Years (10th-19th Centuries), Brill: 2009; and Timur Kuran, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, Princeton University Press: 2010.
2. See for example, Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, University of Chicago Press: 2010; Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present, Cambridge University Press: 2008; or Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850, Yale University Press: 2010.
3. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press: 2008.

Anne E.C. McCants teaches medieval and early modern economic history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.? Her research interests in the Low Countries have ranged from historical demography to the role of social welfare institutions and the rise of consumer culture.? She is currently working on a project to explore the financial underpinnings of Gothic cathedral construction in the High Middle Ages.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century