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Regions, Institutions and Agrarian Change in European History

Author(s):Hopcroft, Rosemary L.
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (September 2000)

Rosemary L. Hopcroft, Regions, Institutions and Agrarian Change in European

History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. xiv + 272 pp.

$49.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-1102303.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill

University, Montreal.

Explaining pre-industrial divergences in the agricultural performances of

European nations has been a major preoccupation of agricultural and economic

historians for decades, and constitutes, if not the holy grail of European

economic history, at least one of its consecrated mugs. Professor Hopcroft’s

book belongs to this sprawling enterprise. Like Adam Smith, she thinks that the

critical factor was the presence or absence of secure property rights in land

and its produce. Good property rights encourage agricultural innovation and

investment by narrowing the gap between private cost and private benefit and by

reducing uncertainty. Ill-defined property rights do the opposite. It stands to

reason, then, that regional agricultural divergence in the early modern era

must have been, to some degree, due to ex ante differences in agrarian

institutions affecting the exercise of private property rights in land. The

institutions Professor Hopcroft thinks are most important are the ones

associated with communal supervision of crop rotations, the timing of

agricultural operations and guaranteed free access of people and their

livestock to other people’s land. In brief, the book addresses the age-old

issue of whether “communal” agrarian customs constituted a significant

impediment to agricultural improvement.

This is well-tilled ground, which historians have cropped so frequently that

its soil is in danger of being exhausted. Professor Hopcroft claims to have

invented a new fertilizer that combines the purported insights of the new

institutional economics with the traditional techniques of comparative history.

The institutional part shows why “communal” forms of agrarian organization

should have been relevant to agricultural performance; the comparative part

tries to show that they were. The demonstration compares agricultural

institutions and early modern agricultural histories in England, France, the

Low Countries and Sweden. As studies of this type are legion, she

differentiates her product by making the comparisons not on nations but on but

on eighteen regions that comprised them, distinguished chiefly, though not

exclusively by the form of their agrarian regime. In principle the extra

observations should increase the degrees of freedom enough to control for

factors other than the agrarian regime. This assumes, however, that the

variables subject to the analysis are well-defined and that they possess a

common metric across the sample of regions. In addition, for the study to

transcend conventional national comparisons, the regional units should be

defined independently of the states in which they happen to be located. This

book meets neither of these conditions. The “regions” are drawn from national

historiographies, and thus do not cross national boundaries, while variables

like “access to markets” the “strength” of communal regulations, “feudalism”

and “propensity to seek communal solutions to conflicts over access to

resources” that enter the analysis are not defined nor probably are they

definable. This looseness means that the comparisons can prove nothing about

the impact of communal regulation of agriculture.

The extent and importance of communal regulation of agriculture in the

open-field districts of Europe where they flourished is in any event greatly

exaggerated. Professor Hopcroft competently surveys the standard literature on

the topic, but misses the important fact that most of the scholarship on which

it rests was conducted before the Second World War at a time when the study of

agrarian institutions was badly infected by the view that the shape of the

fields, vernacular architecture, peasant costume, dialects, tools and agrarian

regulations expressed the lasting “genius” of the folk (a term Marc Bloch

finessed by calling it “rural civilization”). After the War social

anthropologists and historians placed functional constructions on some of the

elements of the agrarian regime — most notably on the choice of techniques and

communal regulations. However, they maintained the original typological

framework of analysis, which minimized the variability of local agrarian

regimes, and hid from view the need to explain that variability in terms other

than a rigid historical path-dependence linking the observable institutions of

the eighteenth and nineteenth century to a dim medieval and pre-medieval past.

Professor Hopcroft accepts this historiography, which allows her to treat

“communal” agriculture as a pre-determined variable rather than an endogenous

one in her comparisons.

The book is organized as a general argument followed by a series of national

case studies, somewhat belying the claim that the analysis is about regions.

Chapter 1 surveys single-cause models of early modern agricultural development

and finds them inferior to a comprehensive multivariate approach. Chapter 2

supplies a somewhat potted account of the types and origins of European field

systems. Chapter 3 analyses the institutions from the standpoint of

transactions cost, and sets out supposedly testable hypotheses such as

“development will be most likely in countries and regions where state

institutions (particularly legal institutions) and policies decrease

transactions costs involved in production and exchange.” Chapters 4 through 8

carry out the tests of hypotheses on England, the Netherlands, France, Germany

and Sweden. Chapter 9 concludes that “less-communal” institutions were critical

in creating the agrarian conditions for agricultural innovation. Readers

unfamiliar with the standard literature on European agrarian history may

benefit from the bibliography, but on the whole the material is rather dated

and the conclusions drawn from it are unexceptional. This is not a book that

will change anyone’s mind about the topic it treats.

It is also essentially a book in historical sociology rather than historical

economics. As a doctoral dissertation in sociology, it no doubt meets the

analytical standards of its discipline, but it is far from meeting those of

professional historians and professional historical economists. Historians will

be dismayed by the cavalier utilization of secondary sources taken at face

value; economists will be appalled by its failure to meet elementary

definitional requirements of logical analysis; scholars specializing in the

history of agrarian institutions will wonder whether the book’s failure to

discuss comparatively recent work arguing the contrary hypothesis that common

field practices had little long-term effect on the history of agricultural

improvement (Meuvret 1971 and 1987; Grantham 1980) is intentional or just

grossly negligent. Fundamentally, however, this is a work that should not have

been undertaken by a fledgling scholar, even one as obviously intelligent as

Professor Hopcroft. The risks of reasoning from secondary works in history are

so great there ought to be a standing order preventing anyone who has not won

her spurs in hand-to-hand combat with original sources from undertaking it.

This is not because primary sources speak with unforked tongues — quite the

opposite. But they can be made to tell something like the truth by testing them

against each other and against the whole body of scholarship that concerns

them, and by reviewing that literature in their light. This multi-dimensional

triangulation is what gives seasoned historians and seasoned historical

economists a sense of what to trust and what to test. This is not a skill

lightly acquired. How many times have economic historians witnessed an

accomplished economist constructing hypotheses out of stylized facts that have

long been proven to be false, in the gullible belief that if the work once

passed a referee, its results must still be valid, something he would never do

in his own field of expertise. Professor Hopcroft is not an accomplished

economist, but she has fallen into the same trap. Deans being who they are,

assistant professors have to publish books that should not be published. The

best one can hope for is that these books stand untouched on university library

bookshelves, where the only damage they do is to the library budget. It is

painful to see an obviously talented and promising scholar waste her gifts on

an enterprise that cannot but fail. The work shows a strong and vigorous mind

working with tools that are inadequate to the task. As failures go, this is a

promising one.


G. Grantham, “The Persistence of Open-field Farming in Nineteenth-century

France,” Journal of Economic History, 40 (1980), pp. 515-31.

Jean Meuvret, “La vaine p?ture et le progr?s agronomique avant la

R?volution,” in J. Meuvret, ?tudes d`histoire ?conomique.

Paris: Cahiers des Annales. 1971;

Jean Meuvret, Le probl?me des subsistances ? l’?poque Louis XIV. Vol

II. La production des c?r?ales et la soci?t? rurale,

chapter 1. Paris: 1987.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative