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Secular Cycles

Author(s):Turchin, Peter
Nefedov, Sergey A.
Nefedov, Se

Published by EH.NET (December 2009)

Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov, Secular Cycles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. ix + 349 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-13696-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Harry Kitsikopoulos, Department of Economics, New York University.

This book is an audacious and ambitious attempt to promote the viewpoint that historical progression runs according to certain regular patterns. In its effort to prove this hypothesis it lays out a number of predictions testing them against empirical time series for four countries during different epochs: Rome (350BC-285AD), France (1150-1660), England (1150-1730) and Russia (1460-1922). The argument is constructed on the basis of measuring (sometimes speculating) four fundamental variables: actual population figures contrasted against ?ideal? population levels, i.e., upper limits defined by agricultural productivity; social structure measured by numbers and consumption levels of elites as well as annual budgets of typical peasant households; the power of the state measured by its fiscal health; and socio-political instability reflected in relevant events (e.g., uprisings, rebellions, civil wars) or, used as a proxy, in coin hoards.

According to Turchin (University of Connecticut) and Nefedov (Institute of History and Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Ural Branch) each secular cycle lasts for several centuries and unfolds through the following phases: 1) An expansion phase characterized by relatively stable prices and modest wage declines (if any). 2) As population density tends to approach the limits imposed by the productive capacity of agriculture, we enter a stagnation or stagflation phase. A typical Malthusian scenario develops with an increase in the price of land and its products and a cheapening of labor. The ranks of the elite grow both due to biological reproduction and upward mobility and, simultaneously, its members get accustomed to higher levels of consumption. Gradually, however, we encounter a state of elite overproduction, so to speak, which leads to a relative (but not absolute, as in the case of commoners) decline of their living standards. Intensified oppression of peasants ensues as well as increased competition among members of the elite and between the elite and the state whose growth rate of revenues slows down. 3) A general crisis unfolds either abruptly or gradually which, in theory, can be addressed by raising productivity through technological innovations but more often than not it leads to military expansion into new territories and is resolved through the visitation of pandemics, extreme episodes of famine, or state collapse followed by intense civil war (or a combination of such events). The crisis lasts for a prolonged period. 4) It is followed by a depression phase during which resources per capita increase but fail to lead to population recovery due to the continuation of civil wars. This phase can be prolonged, particularly if the state continues to be dysfunctional, or it can lead to the beginning of a new cycle if the ranks of the elite are sufficiently pruned.

Secular cycles can acquire a periodic character but in societies with complex characteristics the dynamic may incorporate elements of sensitive dependence and non-linear feedback loops which lead to outcomes envisioned by chaos theory. The latter scenario is particularly plausible in the event of exogenous disturbances relating to geopolitical factors and the ecological environment as well as through the reaction of individual actors which can be portrayed ?as a stochastic process, a kind of Brownian motion that also results in erratic, unpredictable changes in the macrosocial trajectory? (p. 22).

The book relies on data drawn from the secondary literature but the authors? handling is not always as refined as it could be nor are they always accurate. For instance, in reconstructing the annual budgets of peasant households in pre-plague England, the authors neglect to include spending on the purchase of consumption goods not produced by the household or investment goods; the typical rent per acre was less than 1s and seigneurial dues at over half of the value of annual output exaggerate typical peasant obligations; gross yields of wheat were not at 10 and 8 bushels per acre before and after the Black Death but 10.5 and 11.9 bushels respectively (based on extensive demesnial records analyzed by Campbell), and when all grains are taken into account yields remained stationary between the two periods. In referring to seigneurial dues of French peasants during the same period, the authors take into account only the terrage and the tithe in reconstructing peasant budgets. But additional dues included the cens (a fixed cash payment), the taille (demanded both by lords and the state), and various payments stemming from the judicial and administrative authority of lords, conventionally known as seigneurie banale. Some of these payments may have been of nominal value, others irregularly imposed, but they amounted collectively to a significant draining of peasant resources; the authors are aware of their existence, since they mention them in other contexts, but for whatever reason they do not take them into account when reconstructing peasant budgets. Including such information is important in defining the acreage necessary to ensure subsistence and estimate the proportion of the population which fell below such thresholds.

Such issues may be deemed minor quibbles given the impressive breadth of evidence considered by the authors. But I found a little more problematic the lack of reference to publications presenting viewpoints inconsistent with the typology outlined in this book. Campbell (English Seigniorial Agriculture, 2000), for instance, argues that grain output per capita remained stable during the thirteenth century (corresponding to the stagflation phase in Turchin?s and Nefedov?s typology), hence challenging the notion of a growing immiseration of the peasantry. I happen to find this notion implausible but I am struck by the failure of the authors to address this viewpoint and to include in their bibliography Campbell?s book, the most important publication in this field of the last several decades. I am also skeptical as to whether Turchin?s and Nefedov?s description of the stagflation phase is applicable to the pre-plague economy of northern Italy (not considered in this book) whose non-agricultural sectors raised close to half of the value of total output (according to Malanima) creating impressive amounts of wealth that could be used to import grains and hence negate the worst effects of a Malthusian scenario. Most importantly, it is unclear how the model presented in the book fares in the case of capitalist-industrial societies. Despite the aforementioned shortcomings in terms of failing to include and discuss relevant empirical evidence, the presentation of the latter is superb through the use of a plethora of graphs.

In the end, notwithstanding the noted shortcomings, I am fascinated by this book, particularly by the theoretical framework which is laid out in the introductory and concluding chapters. Economic historians, particularly those dealing with the Middle Ages where my expertise lies, have tended to advance explanations of historical dynamics based on a fairly dogmatic adherence to particular models and downplay the merits of competing explanations. In contrast, Turchin and Nefedov stress the need of coming up with ?a synthetic theory that encompasses both demographic mechanisms (with the associated economic consequences) and power relations (surplus-extraction mechanisms). In the dynamical systems framework, it does not make sense to speak of one or the other as ?the primary factor?. The two factors interact dynamically, each affecting and being affected by the other? (p. 4).

But the main strength of the book lies in its scope, reminiscent of the broad perspectives of classical economists. It is the type of scholarship which proves that historical narrative can be fascinating.

Harry Kitsikopoulos is Clinical Professor, Department of Economics, New York University (e-mail: He has just completed editing a book which examines the topics of agrarian change and crisis across Europe during the period 1200-1500.

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval