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Production Efficiency in Domesday England, 1086

Author(s):McDonald, John
Reviewer(s):Botticini, Maristella

Published by EH.NET (March 2000)

John McDonald, Production Efficiency in Domesday England, 1086. London

and New York: Routledge, 1998, xiv + 240 pp. $85 (cloth), ISBN:

0-415-16187-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Maristella Botticini, Department of Economics,

Boston University.

On the cover page of John McDonald’s Production Efficiency in Domesday

England, 1086 it might be appropriate to include a warning label: “Reading

this book may have fatal consequences for certain scholars.” The reason is

simple: it takes a lot of energy and passion for a medievalist to keep reading

the book after page

14 when the author starts employing high-tech economic models (chapters 2 and

3) and fancy regressions (chapters 4). On the other hand, patient medievalists

(and other scholars as well) will be rewarded by learning that scholars have

been basically wrong

in arguing that English estates were run inefficiently by Norman conquerors.

According to McDonald (Professor of Economics at Flinders University of South

Australia) these estates were run at similar efficiency levels to comparable

production units in more modern economies, such as farms in the postbellum

U.S. South, farms in contemporary California, and surface coalmines in the U.S

(p. 137).

After a clear and insightful introductory chapter that describes the main

features of the English economy at the

time of the Norman conquest,

elucidates the data of the Domesday Book, and outlines the main themes of the

book, the reader enters with chapters 2 and 3 into a “jungle” of technical

models that explain the techniques used by the author to measure production

efficiency in agriculture. The core of the book is in chapters 4 and 6 where

McDonald applies these techniques to a sample of estates surveyed in the

Domesday Book (those of Essex lay estates).

The book addresses important questions such as: Which ten ants-in-chief ran

efficient estates? How was productivity affected by soil type, the size of the

estate, the tenancy agreement, the institutional framework of the time and the

proximity of a market center? Which inputs made the major contribution to the

net value of output? Did slaves make a greater contribution to the manorial

lord’s net income than peasants? What was the effect of feudal and manorial

systems, which discouraged mobility of inputs, on the system of production,

input productivities and total output produced? Given technology and the

institutional framework, were estates run efficiently?

Multivariate regression analysis carried out in chapter 4 indicates that

efficiency depended on the spatial location of the farm (in which hundred the

farm was located), but was not affected by the type of soil and proximity to

urban economies. Larger farms tended to be more efficient suggesting that

economies of scale were at work. Efficiency was influenced by whether an estate

was held in demesne by the

tenant-in-chief (estates being held in demesne tended to be more efficient) and

who the tenant-in-chief was. Estates with relatively more grazing were more

efficient than estates with relatively more arable or mixed farming. The

existence of some ancillary resources on the farm (beehives, mills, or

saltpans) seems to have made estates less efficient, whereas fisheries and

vineyards do not seem to have had any effect. Overall, English estates were run

efficiently by Norman conquerors. Yet the restrictions

and rigidities imposed by feudal and manorial systems had a negative impact on

agricultural efficiency (pp. 140-143).

While I highly recommend this book to both economists and historians, I think

it is worthwhile to stress some weaknesses. The first issue is why the author

does not compare medieval English agriculture to English agriculture in later

centuries. This would have been even more interesting than comparing Domesday

England to contemporary California farms or U. S.

surface coalmines. We could learn, for example, how the demise of the feudal

and manorial systems of production affected agricultural production in England,

or how the development of more important and significant urban centers

(compared to Maldon and Colchester in 1086) influenced agricultural

efficiency. Second, given that it is not always clear whether the annual value

of an estate included ancillary resources, one wonders if this can make the

comparisons of the efficiency of various estates meaningless. The author

dismisses the argument by arguing that the existence of ancillary resources

would have had opposite effects and that therefore their overall impact on

efficiency was probably minimal. But what about other incomes from feudal

rights that could have entered into the annual values of estates?

Another critical point is the organization of the book. The technical chapters

2 and 3 should have gone into large appendices. Those who know the frontier

technique are bored by reading these chapters; those who do not have the

knowledge to understand these chapters can be really discouraged from reading

the

book. A further minor criticism is of technical nature and has to do with the

multivariate regressions. The question is why the author does not include fixed

or random effects to

account for variables that do not vary across a tenant-in-chief or whoever was

running the farm. His abilities, experience, and other unobservable variables

could have affected the way he ran his estates.

The book requires a lot of patience and passion

for high-tech economy history. If one is willing to persevere and arrive at the

end of the book,

the effort is rewarded. Someone else can apply the same frontier technique to

Norfolk and Suffolk, for which, together with Essex, the Domesday Book provides

the most detailed information, and check whether McDonald’s findings still hold

for these counties. More importantly, someone can do the same exercise on

English agriculture for later periods and tell us whether and how the demise of

the feudal system affected agricultural efficiency.

Maristella Botticini’s research focuses on marriage markets, dowries,

intergenerational transfers, credit markets and Jewish lenders, and agrarian

contracts in medieval and Renaissance Tuscany. Her recent work includes “A

Tale of ‘Benevolent’ Governments: Private Credit Markets,

Public Finance, and the Role of Jewish Lenders in Medieval and Renaissance

Italy,” Journal of Economic History 60 (March 2000): 164-89 and “A

Loveless Economy? Intergenerational Altruism and the

Marriage Market in a Tuscan Town, 1415-1436,” Journal of Economic

History 59 (March 1999):

104-21.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval