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The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

Author(s):Fischer, David Hackett
Reviewer(s):Munro, John H.

Published by EH.NET (February 1999)

David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of

History. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. xvi + 536.

$35 (hardcover), ISBN: 019505377X. $16.95 (paperback), ISBN: 019512121X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John H. Munro, Department of Economics, University of

Toronto.

Let me begin on a positive note. This is indeed a most impressive work: a

vigorous, sweeping, grandiose, and contentious, though highly entertaining,

portrayal of European and North American economic history, from the High Middle

Ages to the present, viewed through the lens of “long-wave” secular price-

trends. Indeed its chief value may well lie in the controversies that it is

bound to provoke, particularly from economists, to inspire new avenues of

research in economic history

, especially in price history. The author contends that, over the past eight

centuries, the European economy has experienced four major “price-

revolutions,” whose inflationary forces ultimately became economically and

socially destructive, with adverse consequences that provoked various complex

reactions whose “resolutions” in turn led to more harmonious, prosperous, and

“equitable” economic and social conditions during intervening eras of “price

equilibria”. These four price-revolutions are rather too neatly set out as the

following: (1) the later- medieval, from c.1180-c.1350; (2) the far better

known 16th-Century Price-Revolution, atypically dated from c.1470 to c.1650,

(3) the inflation of the Industrial Revolution era, from c.1730 to 1815; and

(4) the 20th century price-revolution, conveniently dated from 1896 to 1996

(when he published the book).

Though I am probably more sympathetic

to the historical concept of

“long-waves” than the majority of economists, I do agree with many opponents of

this concept that such long-waves are exceptionally difficult to define and

explain in any mathematically convincing models, which are certainly not

supplied here. For reasons to be explored in the course of this review, I

cannot accept his depictions, analysis

, and explanations for any of them. This will not surprise Prof. Fischer, who

is evidently not an admirer of the economics profession. He is particularly

hostile to those of us deemed to be “monetarists,” evidently used as a

pejorative term. After rejecting not only the “monetarist” but also the

“Malthusian,

neo-Classical, agrarian, environmental, and historicist” models, for their

perceived deficiencies in explaining inflations, and after condemning

economists and historians alike for imposing rigid models in attempting to

unravel the mysteries of European and North American economic history,

Fischer himself imposes an exceptionally rigid and untenable model for all four

of his so-called price-revolutions, containing in fact selected Malthusian and

monetarist elements from these supposedly rejected models.

In essence, the Fischer model contends that all of his four long-wave

inflations manifested the following six-part consecutive chain of causal and

consequential factors, inducing new causes, etc., into the next part of the

chain. First, each inflationary long-wave began with a prosperity created from

the preceding era of price-equilibrium, one promoting a population growth that

inevitably led to an expansion in aggregate demand that in turn outstripped

aggregate supply, thus — according to his model

– causing virtually ALL prices to rise. Evidently his model presupposes that

all sectors of the economy, in all historical periods under examination, came

to suffer from Malthusian-Ricardian diminishing

returns and rising marginal costs, etc. Second, in each and every such era,

after some indefinite lapse of time, and after the general population had

become convinced that rising prices constituted a persistent and genuine trend,

the “people” demanded and

received from their governments an increase in the money supply to

“accommodate” the price rises. As Fischer specifically comments on p. 83: “in

every price-revolution, one finds evidence of frantic efforts to expand the

money supply, after people have discovered that prices are rising in a secular

way.” Third, and invariably, in his view, that subsequent and continuous growth

in the money supply served only to fuel and thus aggravate the already existing

inflation. He never explains, however, for any of

the four long-waves, why those increases in money stocks were always in excess

of the amount required “to accommodate inflation”. Fourth, with such

money-stock increases, the now accelerating inflation ultimately produced a

steadily worsening impoverishment of the masses, aggravated malnutrition,

generally deteriorating biological conditions, and a breakdown of family

structures and the social order, with increasing incidences of crime and social

violence: i.e., with a rise in consumer prices that outstripped generally

sticky wages in each and every era, and with a general transfer of wealth from

the poorer to richer strata of society. Fifth, ultimately all these negative

forces produced economic and social crises that finally brought the

inflationary forces to a halt,

producing a fall in population and thus (by his model) in prices, declines that

subsequently led to a new era of “price-equilibrium,” along with concomitant

re-transfers of wealth and income from the richer to the poorer strata of

society

(where such wealth presumably belonged). Sixth, after some period of economic

prosperity and social harmony, this vicious cycle would recommence, i.e., when

these favorable conditions succeeded in promoting a new round of incessant

population growth, which inevitably sparked those same inflationary forces to

produce yet another era of price-revolution, continuing until it too had run

its course.

While many economic historians, using more structured Malthusian-Ricardian type

models, have also provided a similarly bleak portrayal of

demographically-related upswings and downswings of the European economy,

most have argued that this bleak cycle was broken with the economic forces of

the modern Industrial Revolution era. Fischer evidently does not. Are we the

reforecondemned, according to his view, to suffer these never-ending bleak

cycles– economic history according to the Myth of Sisyphus, as it were?

Perhaps not, if government leaders were to listen to the various nostrums set

forth in the final chapter,

political recommendations on which I do not feel qualified to comment.

Having engaged in considerable research, over the past 35 years, on European

monetary, price, and wage histories from the 13th to 19th centuries, I am,

however, rather more qualified

to comment on Fischer’s four supposed long-waves. Out of respect for the

author’s prodigious labors in producing this magnum opus, one that is bound to

have a major impact on the historical profession, especially in covering such a

vast temporal and spatial range, I feel duty-bound to provide detailed

criticisms of his analyses of these secular price trends, with as much

statistical evidence as I can readily muster. Problematic in each is defining

their time span,

i.e., the onset and termination of inflations. If many medievalists may concur

that his first long- wave did begin in the 1180s, few would now agree that it

ended as late as the Black Death of 1348-50. On the contrary,

the preceding quarter-century (1324-49) was one of very severe deflation,

certainly in both Tuscany (Herlihy 1966) and England. In the latter, the

Phelps Brown and Hopkins “basket of consumables” price index (1451-75 =

100) fell 47%: from 165 in 1323 (having been as high as 216 in 1316, with the

Great Famine) to just 88 in 1346. Conversely, while most early-modern

historians would agree that the 16th-Century Price Revolution generally ended

in the 1650s (certainly in England), few if any would date its commencement so

early as the 1470s. To be sure, in both the Low Countries and England, a

combination of coinage debasements, civil wars, bad harvests, and other

supply-shocks did produce a short-term rise in prices from the later 1470s to

the early 1490s; but thereafter their basket-of-consumables price-indices

resumed their deflationary downward trend for another three decades (Munro

1981, 1983). In both of these regions and in Spain as well (Hamilton 1934), the

sustained rise in the general price level, lasting over a century, did not

commence until c.1520.

For Fischer’s third inflationary long-wave, of the Industrial Revolution era,

his periodization is much less contentious, though one might mark its

commencement in the late 1740s rather than the early 1730s.

The last and most recent wave is, however, by far more the most controversial

in its character. Certainly a long upswing in world prices did begin in 1896,

and lasted until the 1920s; but can we really pretend that this so neatly

defined century of 1896 to 1996 truly encompasses any form of long wave when we

consider the behavior of prices from the 1920s?

Are we to pretend that the horrendous deflation of the ensuing Great Depression

era was just a temporary if unusual aberration that deviated from this

particular century long (saeclum) secular tend? Fischer, in fact,

very

rarely ever discusses deflation, ignoring those of the 14th century and most

of the rest. Instead, he views the three periods intervening between his price-

revolutions as much more harmonious eras of price-equilibria: i.e. 1350-1470;

1650 – 1730; 1820 –

1896; and he suggests that we are now entering a fourth such era. In my own

investigations of price and monetary history from the 12th century, prices rise

and fall,

with varying degrees of amplitude; but they rarely if ever remain stable,

“in equilibrium”.

Certainly “equilibrium” is not a word that I would apply to the first of these

eras, from 1350 to 1470: not with the previously noted, very stark deflation of

c.1325 – 48, followed by an equally drastic inflation that ensued from the

Black Death over

the next three decades, well documented for England, Flanders (Munro 1983,

1984), France, Tuscany (Herlihy 1966),

and Aragon-Navarre (Hamilton 1936). Thus, in England, the mean quinquennial PB

& H index rose 64%: from 88 in 1340-44 to 145 in 1370-74, fal ling sharply

thereafter, by 29%, to 103 in 1405-09; after subsequent oscillations, it fell

even further to a final nadir of 87 in 1475-79 (when,

according to Fischer, the next price-revolution was now under way). For

Flanders, a similarly constructed price index of quinquennial means

(1450-74 = 100: Munro 1984), commencing only in 1350, thereafter rose 170%:

from 59 in 1350-4 to 126 in 1380-84, reflecting an inflation aggravated by

coinage debasements that England had not experienced, indeed none at all since

1351. Thereafter, the Flemish price index plunged 32%, reaching a temporary

nadir of 88 in 1400-04; but after a series of often severe price oscillations,

aggravated by warfare and more coin debasements, it rose to a peak of 138 in

1435-9; subsequent ly it fell another 31%, reaching its 15th century nadir of

95 in 1465-9 (before rising and then falling again, as noted earlier).

Implicit in these observations is the quite pertinent criticism that Fischer

has failed to use, or use properly, these and many other price

indices–especially the well-constructed Vander Wee index (1975), for the

Antwerp region, from 1400 to 1700, so important in his study; and the Rousseaux

and Gayer-Rostow-Schwarz indices for the 19th century (Mitchell &

Deane 1962). On the other hand, he has relied far too much on the dangerously

faulty d’Avenel price index (1894-1926) for medieval and early-modern France.

Space limitations, and presumably the reader’s patience, prevent me from

engaging in similar analyses of price trends

over the ensuing centuries, to indicate further disagreements with Fischer’s

analyses, except to note one more quarter-century of deflation during a

supposed era of price equilibrium: that of the so-called Great Depression era

of 1873 to 1896, at least within England, when the PB&H price index fell from

1437 to 947, a decline of 34% that was unmatched, for quarter-century periods

in English economic history, since the two stark deflations of the second and

fourth quarters of the 14th century. (The Rousseaux index fell from 42.5% from

127 in 1873 to 73 in 1893).

My criticisms of Fischer’s temporal depictions of both inflationary long-waves

and intervening eras of supposed price equilibria are central to my objections

to his anti-monetarist explanations for them, or rather to his

misrepresentation of the monetarist case, a viewpoint he admittedly shares with

a great number of other historians, especially those who have found

Malthusian-Ricardian type models to be more seductively plausible explanations

of

inflation. Certainly, too many of my students, in reading the economic history

literature on Europe before the Industrial Revolution era, share that beguiling

view, turning a deaf ear to the following arguments: namely, that (1) a growth

in population cannot by itself,

without complementary monetary factors, cause a rise in all prices, though

certainly it often did lead to a rise in the relative prices of grain,

timber, and other natural-resource based commodities subject to diminishing

return and supply

inelasticities; and thus (2) that these simplistic demographic models involve

a fatal confusion between a change in the relative prices of individual

commodities and a rise in the overall price-level. Some clever students have

challenged that admonition,

however,

with graphs that seek to demonstrate, with intersecting sets of aggregate

demand and supply curves, that a rise in population is sufficient to explain

inflation. My response is the following. First, all of the historical prices

with which Fischer and my students are dealing

(1180-1750) are in terms of silver-based moneys-of-account, in the traditional

pounds, shillings, and pence, tied to the region’s currently circulating silver

penny, or similar such coin, while prices expressed in terms of the gold-based

Florentine florin behaved quite differently over the long periods of time

covered in this study. Indeed we should expect such a difference in price

behavior with a change in the bimetallic ratio from about 10:1 in 1400 to about

16:1 in 1650,

which obviously reflects the fall in the relative value or purchasing power of

silver — an issue virtually ignored in Fischer’s book. Second, the shift, in

this student graph, from the conjunction of the Aggregate Demand and Supply

schedules,

from P1.Q1

and P2.Q2, requires a compensatory monetary expansion in order to achieve the

transaction values indicated for the two price levels: from 17,220,000 pounds

and 122,960,000 pounds, which increase in the volume of payments had to come

from either increased

money stocks and/or flows. Even if changes in demographic and other real

variables, shared responsibility for inflation by inducing changes in those

monetary variables, we are not permitted to ignore those variables in

explaining historical inflations.

Admittedly, from the 12th to the 18th centuries, to the modern Industrial

Revolution era, correlations between demographic and price movements are often

apparent. But why do so few historians consider the alternative proposition

that much more profound, deeper economic forces might have induced a complex

combination of general economic growth, monetary expansion, and a rise in

population, together (so that such apparent statistical relationships would

have adverse Durbin-Watson statistics to indicate significant serial

correlation)? Furthermore, if population growth is the inevitable root cause of

inflation, and population decline the purported cause of deflation, how do such

models explain why the drastic depopulations of the 14th-century Black Death

were

followed by three decades of severe inflation in most of western Europe?

Conversely, why did late 19th-century England experience the above-noted

deflation while its population grew from 23.41 million in 1873 (PB&H at 1437)

to 30.80 million in 1896 (PB&H

at 947)?

Nor is Fischer correct in asserting that, in each and every one of his four

price-revolutions, an increase in money supplies followed rather than preceded

or accompanied the rises in the price-level. For an individual country or

region, however

, one might argue that a rise in its own price level, as a consequence of a

transmitted rise in world or at least continental prices would have quickly —

and not after the long-time lags projected in Fischer’s analysis — produced an

increase in money supplies to satisfy the economic requirements for that rise

in national/regional prices. Fischer, however, fails to offer any theoretical

analysis of this phenomenon, and makes no reference to any of the well-known

publications on the Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments [by Frenkel

and Johnson (1976), McCloskey and Zecher (1976), Dick and Floyd (1985, 1992);

Flynn (1978) and D. Fisher (1989), for the Price Revolution era itself]. In

essence,

and with some necessary repetition, this thesis contends:

(1) that a rise in world price levels, initially arising from increases in

world monetary stocks, is transmitted to most countries through the mechanisms

of international commerce (in commodities, services, labor) and finance

(capital flows); and (2) that monetized metallic (coin) stocks and other

elements constituting M1 will be endogenously distributed among all countries

and/or regions in order to accommodate the consequent rise in the domestic

price levels, (3) without involving those international bullion flows that the

famous Hume “price- specie flow” mechanism postulates to be the consequences of

inflation-induced changes in national trade balances.

In any event, the historical evidence clearly demonstrates that, for each of

Fischer’s European-based price-revolutions, an increase in European monetary

stocks and flows always preceded the inflations. For the first,

the price-revolution of the “long-13th century” (c.1180-c.1325), Ian Blanchard

(1996) has recently demonstrated that within England its elf,

specifically in Cumberland-Northumberland, a very major silver mining boom had

commenced much earlier, c.1135-7, peaking in the 1170s, with annual silver

outputs that were “ten times more than had been produced in the whole of

Europe” for any year in

the past seven centuries. By the 1170s,

and thus still before evident signs of general inflation or a marked

demographic upswing, an even greater silver mining boom had begun in the Harz

Mountains region of Saxony, which continued to pour out vast quantities of

silver until the early 14th century. For this same

“Commercial Revolution” era, we must also consider the accompanying financial

revolution, also evident by the 1180s, in Genoa and Lombardy; and though one

may debate the impact that their deposit-

and-transfer banking and foreign-exchange banking had upon aggregate European

money supplies,

these institutional innovations undoubtedly did at least increase the volume of

monetary flows, and near the beginning, not the middle, of this first

documented

long-wave.

For the far better known 16th-Century Price Revolution, Fischer seems to pose a

much greater threat to traditional monetary explanations, especially in so

quixotically dating its commencement in the 1470s, rather than in the 1520s.

Certainly Fischer and many other critics are on solid grounds in challenging

what had been, from the time of Jean Bodin (1566-78) to Earl Hamilton

(1928-35), the traditional monetary explanation for the origins of the Price

Revolution: namely, the influx of Spanish

American treasure. But not until after European inflation was well underway,

not until the mid-1530s, were any significant amounts of gold or silver being

imported

(via Seville); and no truly large imports of silver are recorded before the

early 1560s (a

mean of 83,374 kg in 1561-55: TePaske 1983), when the mercury amalgamation

process was just beginning to effect a revolution in Spanish-American mining.

Those undisputed facts, however, in no way undermine the so-called

“monetarist” case; for Fischer, and far too many other economic historians,

have ignored the multitude of other monetary forces in play since the 1460s.

The first and least important factor was the Portuguese export of gold from

West Africa (Sao Jorge) beginning as a trickle in the 1460s;

rising to 170 kg per annum by 1480, and peaking at 680 kg p.a. in the late

1490s (Wilks 1993). Far more important was the Central European silver mining

boom, which began in the 1460s, at the very nadir of the West European

deflation, which had thus raised the purchasing power of silver and so

increased the profit incentive to seek out new silver sources: as a

technological revolution in both mechanical and chemical engineering.

According to John Nef (1941, 1952), when this German-based mining boom reached

its peak in the mid 1530s, it had augmented Europe’s silver outputs more than

five-fold, with an annual production that ranged from a minimum of 84,200 kg

fine silver to a maximum of 91,200 kg — and thus well in excess of any amounts

pouring into Seville before the mid-1560s. My own statistical compilations,

limited to just the major mines, indicate a rise in quinquennial mean

fine-silver outputs from 12,356 kg in 1470-74 to 55,025 kg in 1534-39 (Munro

1991). In England, 25-year mean mint outputs rose

from 18,932 kg silver in 1400-24 to 33,655 kg in 1475-99 to 59,090 kg in

1500-24; and then to 305,288 kg in 1550-74 (i.e., after Henry VIII’s

“Great Debasement”); in the southern Low Countries, those means go from 54,444

kg in 1450-74 to 280,958 kg in 15 50-74 (Challis 1992; Munro 1983,

1991).

In my view, however, equally important and probably even more important was the

financial revolution that had begun in or by the 1520s with legal sanctions for

and then legislation on full negotiability, and the contemporary establishment

of effective secondary markets (especially the Antwerp Bourse) in fully

negotiable bills and rentes, i.e., heritable government annuities; and the

latter owed their universal and growing popularity, compared with other forms

of public debt, to papal bulls (1425,

1455) that had exonerated them from any taint of usury. To give just one

example of a veritable explosion in this form of public credit (which thus

reduced the relative demand for gold and silver coins), an issue that Fischer

almost completely ignores: the annual volume of transactions in Spanish

heritable juros rose from 5 million ducats (of 375 maravedis) in 1515 to 83

million ducats in the 1590s (Vander Wee 1977). Thus we need not call upon

Spanish-American bullion imp orts to explain the monetary origins of the

European Price Revolution, though their importance in aggravating and

accelerating the extent of inflation from the 1550s need hardly be questioned,

especially, as Frank Spooner (1972) has so aptly demonstrated,

even anticipated arrivals of Spanish treasure fleets would induce German and

Genoese bankers to expand credit issues by some multiples of the perceived

bullion values. Fischer, by the way, comments (p. 82) that: “the largest

proportionate increases in Spanish prices occurred during the first half of

the sixteenth century — not the second half, when American treasure had its

greatest impact.” This is simply untrue: from 1500-49, the Spanish composite

price index rose 78.5%; from 1550-99, it rose by another 92.1% (Hamilton

1934).

Changes in money stocks or other monetary variables do not, however,

provide the complete explanation for the actual extent of inflation in this or

in any other era. Even if every inflationary price trend that I have

investigate d, from the 12th to 20th centuries, has been preceded or

accompanied by some form of monetary expansion, in none was the degree of

inflation directly proportional to the observed rate of monetary expansion,

with the possible exception of the post World War I hyperinflations.

Consider this proposition in terms of the oft-maligned, conceptually limited,

but still heuristically useful monetary equation MV = Py [in which real y = Y/P

= C + I + G+ (X-M)]; or, better, in terms of the Cambridge “real cash

balances” approach: M = kPy [in which k = the proportion of real NNI (Py) that

the public chooses to hold in real cash balances, reflecting the constituent

elements of Keynesian liquidity preference]. Some Keynesian economists would

contend that an increase in M, or in the rate of growth of money stocks, would

be accompanied by some

offsetting rise in y (i.e. real NNI), whether exogenously created or

endogenously induced by related forces of monetary expansion, and also by some

decline in the income velocity of money, with a reduced need to economize on

the use of money. Since mathematically V = 1/k, they would similarly posit

that an expansion in M,

or its rate of growth, would have led, ceteris paribus — without any change in

liquidity preference, to a fall

in (nominal) interest rates, and thus, by the consequent reduction in the

opportunity costs of holding cash balances, to the necessarily corresponding

rise in k (i.e., an increase in the demand for real cash balances; see Keynes

1936, pp. 306-07). Sometimes, but only very rarely, have changes in these two

latter variables y and V (1/k) fully offset an increase in M; and thus such

increases in money stocks have also resulted, in most historical instances, in

some non-proportional degree of inflation: a rising P, as measured by some

suitable price index, such as the Phelps Brown and Hopkins

basket-of-consumables. [Other economists,

it must be noted, would contend that, in any event, the traditional Keynesian

model is really not applicable to such long-term

phenomena as Fischer’s price-revolutions.

Keynes himself, in considering “how changes in the quantity of money affect

prices… in the long run,” said, in the General Theory (1936, p. 306):

“This is a question for historical generalisation rather than for

pure theory.”]

For the 16th-century Price Revolution, therefore, the interesting question now

becomes: not why did it occur so early (i.e., before significant influxes of

Spanish American bullion); but rather why so late — so many decades after the

onset of the Central European silver-copper mining boom?

Since that boom had commenced in the 1460s, precisely when late-medieval

Europe’s population was at its nadir, perhaps 50% below the 1300 peak, and just

after the Hundred Years’ War had ended, and just

after the complex network of overland continental trade routes between Italy

and NW Europe had been successfully restored, one might contend that in such an

economy with so much “slack” in under-utilized resources, especially land, and

with elastic supplies for so many commodities, both the monetary expansion and

economic recovery of the later 15th century , preceding any dramatic

demographic recovery, permitted an increase in y proportional to the growth of

M, without the onset of diminishing returns an d without significant inflation,

before the 1520s By that decade, however, the monetary expansion had become

all the more powerful: with the peak of the Central European silver-mining

boom and with the rapid increase in the use of negotiable, transferable

credit instruments; and, furthermore, with the Ottoman conquest of the Mamluk

Sultanate (1517), which evidently diverted some considerable amounts of

Venetian silver exports from the Levant to the Antwerp market.

The role of the income-velocity of money

is far more problematic. According to Keynesian expectations, velocity should

have fallen with such increases in money stocks. Yet three eminent economic

historians — Harry Miskimin

(1975), Jack Goldstone (1984), and Peter Lindert (1985) — have sought

to explain England’s16th-century Price Revolution by a very contrary thesis:

of increased money flows (or reductions in k) that were induced by demographic

and structural economic changes, involving interalia(according to their

various models) disproportionate changes in urbanization, greater

commercialization of the rural sectors, far more complex commercial and

financial networks, changes in dependency ratios, etc. The specific

circumstances so portrayed, however, apart from the demographic, are largely

peculiar to 16th- century England and thus do not so convincingly explain the

very similar patterns of inflation in the 16th-century Low Countries, which had

undergone most of these structural economic changes far earlier. Certainly

these velocity model s cannot logically be applied to Fischer’s three other

inflationary long-waves. Indeed, in an article implicitly validating Keynesian

views, Nicholas Mayhew (1995) has contended that the income-velocity of money

has always fallen with an expansion in money stocks, from the medieval to

modern eras, with this one anomalous exception of the 16th-century Price

Revolution. Perhaps, for this one era,

we have misspecified V (or k) by misspecifiying M: i.e., by not properly

including increased issues of negotiable credit; or perhaps institutional

changes in credit (as Goldstone and Miskimin both suggest) did have as dramatic

an effect on V as on M. Furthermore, an equally radical change in the coined

money supply (certainly in England), from one that had been principally gold

to one which, precisely from the 1520s, became largely and then almost entirely

silver, may provide the solution to the velocity paradox: in that the

transactions velocity attached to small value silver coins, of 1d., is

obviously far higher

velocity than that for gold coins valued at 80d and 120d. Except for a brief

reference to Mayhew’s article in the lengthy bibliography, Fischer virtually

ignores such velocity issues

(and thus changes in the demand for real cash balances) throughout his

eight-century survey of secular price trends.

Finally, Fischer’s thesis that population growth was responsible for this the

most famous Price Revolution (and all other inflationary long waves) is hardly

credible, especially if he insists on dating its inception the 1470s. For most

economic historians (Vander Wee 1963; Blanchard 1970;

Hatcher 1977, 1986; Campbell 1981; Harvey 1993) contend that, in NW Europe,

late-medieval demographic decline continued into the early 16th-century;

and that England’s population in 1520 was no more than 2.25 million,

compared to estimates ranging from a minimum of 4.0 to a maximum of 6.0 or even

7.0 million around 1300, the upper bounds being favored by most historians. How

– even if the demographic model were to be theoretically acceptable — could

a modest population growth from such a very low level in the 1520s, reaching

perhaps 2.83 million in 1541, and peaking at 5.39 million in 1656, have been

the fundamental cause of persistent, European wide-inflation, already underway

in the 1520s?

According to Fischer, the ensuing, intervening price-equilibrium

(c.1650-c.1730) involved no discernible monetary contraction, and similarly,

his next inflationary long-wave (c.1730-1815) began well before any monetary

expansion became — in his view — manifestly evident. The monetary and price

data, suggest otherwise, however, incomplete though they may be. Thus, the data

complied by Bakewell, Cross, TePaske, and many others on silver mining at

Potosi (Peru) and Zacatecas (Mexico) indicate that their combined outputs fell

from a mean of 178,692 kg in 1636-40 to one of 101,534 kg in 1661-5, rising to

a mean of 156,497 kg in 1681-5

[partially corresponding to guesstimates of European bullion imports, which

Morineau (1985) extracted fr om Dutch gazettes]; but then sharply falling once

more, and even further, to a more meager mean of 95,842 kg in 1696-1700. During

this same era, the Viceroyalty of Peru’s domestically-

retained share of silver-based public revenues rose from 54% to 96%

(T ePaske 1981); the combined silver exports of the Dutch and English East

India Companies to Asia (Chaudhuri 1968; Gaastra 1983) increased from a

decennial mean of 17,293 kg in 1660-69 to 73,687 kg in 1700-09, while English

mint outputs in terms of fine sil ver (Challis 1992) fell from a mean of 19,400

kg in 1660-64 (but 23,781 kg in 1675-79) to one of just 430.4 kg in 1690-94,

i.e., preceding the Great Recoinage of 1696-98. From the early 18th century,

however, European silver exports to Asia were well more

than offset by a dramatic rise in Spanish-American, and especially Mexican

silver production: for the latter (with evidence from new or previously

unrecorded mines: assembled by Bakewell 1975, 1984; Garner 1980,

1987; Coatsworth 1986, and others), aggregate production more than doubled

from a mean of 129,878 kg in 1700-04 to one of 305,861 kg in 1745-49.

Possibly even more important, especially with England’s currency shift from a

silver to a gold standard, was a veritable explosion in aggregate

Latin-American gold production: from a decennial mean of just 863.90 kg in

1691-1700

zooming to 16,917.4 kg in 1741-50 (TePaske 1998). Within Europe itself, as

Blanchard (1989) has demonstrated, Russian silver mining outputs, ultimately

responsible for perhaps 7%

of Europe’s total stocks,

rose from virtually nothing in the late 1720s to peak at 33,000 kg per annum in

the late 1770s, falling to 18,000 kg in the early 1790s then rising to 21,000

kg per year in the later 1790s.

Finally, even though changes in annual mint outputs are not valid indicators

of changes in coined money supplies, let alone of changes in M1,

the fifty-year means of aggregate values of English mint outputs (silver and

gold: Challis 1992) do provide interesting signals of longer-term monetary

changes: a fall from an annual mean of 348,829 pounds in 1596-1645 to one of

275,403 pounds in 1646-95, followed by a rise, with more than a full recovery,

to an annual mean of 369,644 pounds in 1700-49 (thus excluding the Great

Recoinage of 1696-98). Meanwhile, if the earlier Price Revolution had indeed

peaked in 1645-49, with the quinquennial mean PB&H index at 680, falling to a

nadir of 579 in 1690-94, the fluctuations in the first half of the 18th-century

do not demonstrate any clear inflationary trend, with the mean PB&H index

(briefly peaking at 635 in 1725-9) stalled at virtually the same former level,

581, in 1745-49. Thereafter, of course,

for the second half of the 18th century, the trend is very strongly and

incessantly upward, with almost a

doubling in PB&H index, to 1093 in 1795-9.

Whatever one may wish to deduce from all these diverse data sets, we are

certainly not permitted to conclude, as does Fischer, that inflation preceded

monetary expansion, and did so consistently. Such a view becomes all the more

untenable when the radical changes in English and banking and credit

institutions, following the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694-97,

are taken into account: the consequent introduction and rapid expansion in

legal-tender paper bank note issues (with prior informal issues by London’s

Goldsmith banks), and more especially fully negotiable,

transferable, and discountable Exchequer bills, government annuities,

inland bills and promissory notes, whose veritable explosion in circulation

from the 1760s, with the proliferation of English country-banks, hardly

requires any further elaboration, even if these issues are given short shrift

in Fischer’s book. In view of such complex changes in Britain’s financial and

monetary structures,

subsequent data on coinage outputs have even more limited utility in

estimating money stocks. But we may note that aggregate mined outputs of

Mexican silver more than doubled, from a quinquennial mean of 305,861 kg in

1745-49 to 619,495 kg in 1795-99, while those of Peru more than tripled, from

34,318 kg in 1735-39 (no data for the 1740s) to 126,354 kg in 1795-99 (Garner

1980, 1987; Bakewell 1975, 1984; J.

Fisher, 1975).

Having earlier considered the so-called and misconstrued

“price-equilibrium” of 182 0-1896, let us now finally examine the inception of

the fourth and final long-wave commencing in 1896. Fischer again contends that

population growth was the “prime mover,” despite the fact that Britain’s own

intrinsic growth rate had been falling from its

1821 peak [from 1.75 to 1.31 in 1865, the last year given in Wrigley-Davies-

Oppen-Schofield (1997)]. For evidence he cites an assertion in Colin McEvedy

and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (1978) to the effect that

world population, having increased by 35% from 1850 to 1900,

increased a further 53% by 1950. Are we therefore to believe that such growth

was itself responsible for a 45.2% rise in, for this era, the better structured

Rousseaux price-index [base 100 = (1865cp +1885cp)/2]: from 73 in 1896 to 106

[while the PB&H index rose from 947 in 1896 to 1021 in 1913]?

As for the role of monetary factors in the commencement of this fourth long

wave, Fischer observes (p. 184) that “the rate of growth in gold production

throughout the world was roughly the same before and after 1896.” This

undocumented assertion, about an international economy whose commerce and

finance was now based upon the gold standard, is not quite accurate.

According to assiduously calculated estimates in Eichengreen

and McLean

(1994), decennial mean world gold outputs, having fallen from 185,900 kg in

1850-9 to 135,000 kg in 1880-9 (largely accompanying the aforementioned 44%

fall in the Rousseaux composite index from 128 in 1872 to 72 in 1895),

thereafter soared to

a mean of 255,600 kg in 1890-9 — their graph of annualized data shows that

the bulk of this increased output occurred after 1896 — virtually doubling to

an annual mean of 513,900 kg in 1900-14.

World War I, of course, effectively ended the international gold-standard era,

since the Gold- Exchange Standard of 1925-6 was rather different from the older

system; and the post-war era ushered in a radically new monetary world of fiat

paper currencies, whose initial horrendous manifestation came in the hyper

inflations of Weimar Germany, Russia, and most Central European countries, in

the early 1920s. For this post-war economy, Fischer does admit that monetary

factors often had some considerable importance in influencing price trends; but

his analyses, even of the post-war radical, paper-fuelled hyperinflations, are

not likely to satisfy most economists, either for the inter-war or Post World

War II eras, up to the present day.

This review, long as it is, cannot possibly do full justice to an eight-century

study of this scope and magnitude. So far I have neglected to consider his

often fascinating analyses of the social consequences of inflation over these

many centuries, except for brief allusions in the introduction, where I

indicated his deeply hostile views to persistent inflation for its inevitably

insidious consequences: the impoverishment of the masses, growing malnutrition,

the spread of killer-diseases, increased crime and violence in general, and a

breakdown of the social order, etc.

While some of

the evidence for the latter seems plausible, I do have some concluding quarrels

with his use of real wage indices. Much of our available nominal money-wage

evidence comes from institutional sources on daily wages, which, by their very

nature, tend to be fixed over long periods of time [as Adam Smith noted in the

Wealth of Nations (Cannan ed.

1937, p. 74), “sometimes for half a century together”). Therefore, for such

wage series, real wages rose and fell with the consumer price index, as

measured by, for example, our Phelps Brown and Hopkins basket-of-consumables

index. Its chief problem (as opposed to the better constructed Vander Wee

index for Brabant) is that its components, for long periods, constitute fixed

percentages of the total composite index,

irrespective of changes in relative prices for, say, grains; and they thus do

not reflect the consumers’ ability to make cost-saving substitutions.

Secondly, they are necessarily based on daily wage rates, without any

indication of total annual money incomes; thirdly, the great majority of

money-wage earners in pre-modern Europe earned not day rates but piece-work

wages, for which evidence is extremely scant.

But more important, before the 18th century (or even later), a majority of the

European population did not live by money wages; and most wage-earners had

supplementary forms of income, especially agricultural, that helped insulate

them to some degree from sharp rises in food prices. If rising food prices hurt

many wage-earners, they also benefited ma ny peasants,

especially those with customary tenures and fixed rentals who could thereby

capture some of the economic rent accruing on their lands with such price

increases. It may be simplistic to note that there are always gainers and

losers with both inflation and deflation — but even more simplistic to focus

only on the latter in times of inflation, and especially simplistic to focus on

a real wage index based on the PB&H index. And if deflation is so beneficial

for the masses, why, during the deflationary period in later 17th and early

18th century England, do we find, along with a rise in this real-wage index, a

rise in the death rate from 23.68/1000 in 1626 to 32.14/1000 in 1681,

thereafter falling slightly but rising again to an ultimate peak of

37.00/1000 in 1725 (admittedly an era of anomalous disease-related

mortalities), when the PB&H real-wage index stood at 60 —

some 24% higher than the RWI of 36 for 1626? One of the many imponderables yet

to be considered, though one might ponder that sometimes high real wages

reflect labor shortages from dire conditions, rather than general prosperity

and more equitable wealth and income distributions, as Fischer suggests.

Finally, Fischer’s argument that inflationary price-revolutions were always

especially harmful to the lower classes by leading to rising interest rates is

sometimes but not universally true, even if rational creditors should have

raised rates to protect themselves from inflation. Thus, for the Antwerp money

market in the 16th century,

the meticulous evidence compiled by Vander Wee (1964, 1977) shows that

nominal interest rates fell over this entire period [from 20% in 1515 to 9% in

1549 to 5% in 1561; and on the riskier short term loans to the Habsburg

government, from a mean of 19.5

% in 1506-10 to one of 12.3% in 1541-45 to 9.63% in 1561-55]. In the next

price-revolution, during the later 18th century, nominal interest rates did

rise during periods of costly warfare, i.e., with an increasing risk premium;

but real interest rates actually fell because of the increasing tempo of

inflation (Turner 1984), more so than did real wages for most industrial

workers.

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Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative