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The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History

Author(s):North, Douglass C.
Thomas, Robert Paul
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip R. P.

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

North, Douglass C. and Robert Paul Thomas, The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973. viii + 171 pp. ISBN: 0-521-29099-6.

Review Essay by Philip R. P. Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University. <>

New or Old Economic History? Incentives and Development

This is a landmark book on the impact of property rights on European economic development. Published over a quarter of a century ago, its stated goal is “… to suggest new paths for the study of European economic history rather than … either [a detailed and exhaustive study or a precise empirical test that are the] … standard formats” (p. vii). North and Thomas attempt to identify the elements that allowed the Western European economy to rise to affluence. Their argument is made transparent in Chapter One (Theory and Overview): the key to growth was and is an efficient economic system. Efficient in the sense that the system of property rights gives individuals incentives to innovate and produce, and, conversely inhibits those activities (rent-seeking, theft, arbitrary confiscation and/or excessive taxation) that reduce individual incentives. They argue that property rights are classic public goods because: (1) once a more efficient set of property rights is discovered the marginal cost of copying it is low (compared to the cost of discovering and developing it); (2) it is prohibitively expensive to prevent other political jurisdictions from emulating a more efficient set of property rights regardless of whether they contributed to their construction; (3) and finally, the idea of a set of property rights, like all ideas, is non-rival — we can all consume the same idea and the “stock” of the idea is not diminished. These public good aspects lead them to conclude that there may be under investment in the attempts to create more efficient sets of property rights because the jurisdiction that invests in the development of property rights pays the entire cost of their development but receives only benefits that accrue to its jurisdiction, while other jurisdictions can get the benefits without any of the developmental costs. Thus, the problems of public goods and the “free riders.”

Chapter Two (“An Overview”) sets the historical stage for their analysis. North and Thomas begin with tenth-century Europe and an examination of the classic feudal system. They contend that relatively low population densities and the absence of security (both economic and personal) led to a retreat from market exchange to one of self-sufficiency and to the development of feudalism. Protection was valuable and had to be paid for, but in the absence of markets it was paid for in kind rather than money. Since agricultural output could not be exchanged in the market (land) lords demanded labor services (dues) rather than output shares. Labor dues could be used to produce a more desirable set of consumables than output shares. Lacking market exchange, manorial labor was more fungible than agricultural output. The authors argue that from kings down to peasants, the absence of markets was the mid-wife to feudalism. The second prong of their thesis is that in feudalism, as in any societal arrangement, there existed a myriad of details, known as the custom of the manor that allowed the system to function. Once established, these customs became the set of property rights that molded the economic and personal relationships of feudalism.

As the centuries progressed populations grew and manorial economies replicated themselves. North and Thomas contend that land was available at the constant marginal cost (the cost of clearing land) up to the thirteenth century. At the end of this period diminishing returns to labor employed in agriculture manifested itself. The growth of population densities and the establishment of political order allowed markets to emerge. Diminishing returns and emergent markets gave feudal lords incentives to convert their serfs’ labor dues into fixed money payments. The lords were better off receiving a fixed payment rather than labor dues because the market price for labor was falling due to Malthusian diminishing returns to labor in agriculture. The commutation of labor services into money payments could not be reversed when labor became more valuable during the plagues of the fourteenth century. Amending the custom of the manor was subject to severe transactions costs, consequently by the sixteenth century servile labor in Western Europe was not viable.

Part Two (Chapters 3-7) presents evidence to buttress this thesis. Chapter 3 explores property rights in humans and land, Chapters 4 and 5 develop the frontier movement and the settling of land. Chapter 6 explores diminishing returns to agriculture in the thirteenth century, and Chapter 7 the devastation associated with the fourteenth century. Part Three of the book deals with the period 1500 to 1700 and covers the “unsuccessful” national economies of Spain and France and the successful ones of Holland and England. North and Thomas argue that inefficient sets of property rights hindered economic growth in Spain and France, while more efficient sets promoted the economic growth of England and Holland.

The paragraphs above are a rough sketch of the North-Thomas thesis on the growth of Western Europe. How well have the last 25 years of the twentieth century treated it, and how much consideration should it be given? The first question is relatively easy to answer. Texts and books in European economic development and history generally cite The Rise of the Western World, with the notable exceptions of David Landes and Rondo Cameron. In the academic literature it is frequently cited: The Social Science Citation Index for the years 1986-1990 gives the book about fifteen citations per year (68 total citations in the entire five year period), and for the last decade of the twentieth century (and subsequent to North winning the Nobel Prize in economics) citations rose to about twenty per year.1 But how big is that? It is larger than most, but not in the league of scholarship that alters the way a subject is considered. A relevant example is Ester Boserup’s The Conditions of Agricultural Growth that, for the same period (1986-90), was cited 158 times, or more than twice as frequently as North and Thomas. I believe the citation count assessment of the significance of this book is relatively accurate. The Rise of the Western World is an addition to the historiography of property rights, but it does not accomplish its stated goal: to explain the rise of the West. Furthermore there are significant gaps in its argument.

First, its reliance on Malthusian population theory may be misplaced. In 1966 the aforementioned Ester Boserup published her work The Conditions of Agricultural Growth (not cited in North and Thomas). From empirical evidence she argued that increasing populations led to the intensification of economic activities: From hunting and gathering, to a long-cycle agricultural rotation mixed in with hunting and gathering, to settled agriculture. In Boserup’s analysis output per man-year rises in agricultural societies relative to hunting and gathering societies, but output per hour devoted to the acquisition of food may have fallen. Boserup’s thesis is much more sophisticated than (and contradictory to) the simple Malthusian framework that North and Thomas rely upon. She points out that it is extraordinarily difficult to compare outputs in societies with different levels of production intensity. Population densities lead to different modes of production and entirely different societies. An increase in population density increases the range of productive activities that can be produced for market exchange, and as Adam Smith explains increased specialization leads to increased output and the size of the market limits specialization. North and Thomas recognize this interdependency explicitly. They state that increasing specialization due to increasing population densities may have partially offset Malthusian diminishing returns. How do they know it was a partial offset? The evidence they offer on diminishing returns and a Malthusian crisis in medieval England is primarily derived from the works of James E. Thorold Rogers, who investigated six centuries of wages and prices in England.2

As a source, Rogers is an excellent compilation of manorial roles and other data sources, however he is not a transparent writer and he is difficult to interpret. In volume one of A History of Agriculture and Prices in England (1866) he states, “… we may… conclude that the price of the service [wage labor], in so far as it was affected by competition, represents fully the economical conditions of supply and demand, and is interpreted by the evidence of prices” (p. 253). This may be interpreted to mean that wages are an accurate representation of the laborers’ incomes, but that does not seem to be what Rogers meant. Two pages later he writes that: “In many cases the labourer or artisan was fed. In this case, of course, he received lower wages. … At Southampton, the various artisans are almost invariably fed, … [In 1385] we read … of an allowance instead of food. As a rule, however, the wages paid are irrespective of any other arrangement. Sometimes, but very rarely, and only in the earlier part of the period, the labourer is paid in kind.” And in Six Centuries of Work and Wages (1884), Rogers indicates that feeding workers was considered routine (pp. 170, 328, 354-55, 510, 540-541, etc.).

I interpret Rogers to mean that in the early centuries of his study day laborers did not normally receive family food allowances, but that they were typically fed on the job. Given the nature of work (agricultural labor from shortly after sunrise to sunset) and medieval food preservation and preparation technology, not feeding workers would have forced them to devote significant amounts of time away from working to food preparation and to feeding themselves (just getting bread would be a formidable task given their work hours and the work hours of bakers). Besides being fed on the job laborers frequently had other perquisites such as gleaning, allotments of beer, and small amounts of land for individual agricultural activities (kitchen gardens). All these in-kind payments are mentioned in Rogers (1866) and are considered normal. North and Thomas base their work not only on the wage data from Rogers, but also on his price data for agricultural products.3 In order to determine real wages, money wages are divided by an index of agricultural prices.4 Notice that the numerator typically ignores payments in kind and the denominator is exclusively a food index. Medieval workers’ consumption bundles had a heavy food component, but if one is being partially paid in food and resources devoted to food (kitchen gardens), then real wage indexes that focus solely on the costs of food may be seriously distorted unless the income (both in money and in kind) elasticity for food is one and the overwhelming preponderance of the budget is devoted to food. Mildly put, the data that North and Thomas rely upon to show Malthusian diminishing returns are not entirely adequate to the task.

Other sources question the use of the Malthusian paradigm. James Z. Lee and Wang Feng unequivocally deny that Chinese agriculture from 1300 to 1800 experienced Malthusian crises. Similarly, Julian L. Simon disputed the empirical validity of the Malthusian model. Others question the North and Thomas view of medieval English agriculture. Gregory Clark questions the view of a primitive English agriculture running into diminishing returns in the early fourteenth century.5 Certainly the fourteenth-century plague was a disaster to the European economy, but it does not follow that the plagues that devastated it were direct consequences of Malthusian diminishing returns. More likely it was, as William McNeill hypothesized, a result of an integrated Old World economy that led to the introduction of a “new” pathogen to a dense, flea-ridden European population.6

So there are difficulties with North and Thomas’s belief that the diseases of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are a manifestation of declining living standards (Malthusianism). They do not consider that the plague may have been exogenous, that pathogens are subject to their own dynamics and evolution and not necessarily a result of human intervention.7 North and Thomas simply assert that the plague was a result of over population, diminishing returns, and declining living standards. But if that is so, why did the plague reoccur after population had declined and (according to the data they rely upon) wages had increased? And why did plague occur earlier — in the mid-sixth century? North and Thomas do not have answers.

There is a straightforward explanation to these questions that is grounded in epidemiology: It is that the plague was a “new” disease to fourteenth-century Europe and its relatively dense population resulted in high rates of infection and mortality. These rates decreased as immunities (both acquired and genetic) became more predominant in the populations of Europe. What has this to do with Malthus and diminishing returns? Nothing: The simple Malthusian doctrine correlating high death rates with low living standards is suspect. It assumes that diseases are a function of poverty while there is evidence that the causation runs from diseases to poverty, and it is contradicted by data which show areas with high money incomes (cities) having higher death rates than those areas with low money incomes (rural areas). Consequently any line of reasoning that relies upon the Malthusian doctrine, as does The Rise of the Western World, is suspect.

There are other flaws in their thesis, some minor, some major. A minor omission is that they do not specify why the servile labor force accepted the original commutation of labor services to money payments. According to their high transactions cost model, “the custom of the manor” would have made the initial negotiations prohibitively costly. A simple observation that personal freedom to the individual was worth more than the value of the money payments would correct this omission. And, such an observation would reinforce their claim that when the purchasing power of a unit of money fell (inflation) the lords were unable to switch back to servile labor.

A more significant difficulty with their thesis is their claim that while diminishing returns to labor existed in the countryside, urban areas had constant returns. These are inconsistent with declining real wages, because migration from village to town will prevent agricultural wages from falling.8 Another difficulty is their lack of knowledge of antiquity: They seem to believe that institutional innovations such as insurance and bills of exchange were medieval innovations, but these were known and used at least by the Hellenistic era, and the ancients developed many contractual forms that were resurrected and used again during the European Renaissance.9

So North and Thomas’s book is not without its flaws, but blemishes and all it still makes significant contributions in its emphasis on an efficient set of property rights as a necessary condition for economic development to take place. In this emphasis North and Thomas returned to the fundamentals of economics and its founding father, Adam Smith, who said: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought by the natural course of things.”

The Rise of the Western World is right to echo these sentiments. Since its publication in 1973 the modest increases in economic and personal freedom that the Chinese have experienced have led its population to a degree of affluence entirely unanticipated a quarter of a century ago. Similarly, the decline in law and order has bought economic and personal disasters to many in parts of Asia and Africa. The lesson seems a hard one to learn: the protection of the liberties of people to both their persons and properties is the most effective way to promote the general welfare in the long run. Short-run policies that restrict these liberties inevitably reduce welfare in both the short and long run. By focusing on this lesson in The Rise of the Western World, North and Thomas have done the profession and humanity a meritorious service.


1. Counting citations is a tricky business because a slight change in the citation can result in an entry separate from the main one. Thus D.C. North and R.P. Thomas may be counted differently from D. North and R. Thomas.

2. North and Thomas cite other evidence, but much of this is ultimately derived from Rogers’s work. For example E.H. Phelps Brown and Shelia Hopkins’s works on wages and prices are based on data gathered from Rogers.

3. North and Thomas rely on the Phelps Brown and Hopkins works (1955, 1956, 1957) on real wages whose data are derived from the wage and price data of Rogers.

4. “Index” may not be a completely accurate term because the index frequently contains only one commodity; then, to be specific, it is a wage series expressed in wheat units.

5. Clark (1991) using labor inputs in harvesting as a proxy for wheat yields finds little change in output per acre over the medieval era. He observes that: “Interestingly the labour input on reaping wheat from 1250 to 1450 seems to have risen little, implying a constancy of yields over this period. This is consistent with the work of Titow and of Farmer on the Winchester and Westminster estates over the medieval period. … Wheat yields were fairly constant over the medieval period, the population losses of the Black Death having little impact on yields” (p. 454, footnotes omitted).

In another article, Clark (1988) observes that relatively low yields per acre in medieval England could be attributed to the relatively high interest rates. Taken together these observations do not lend support to the thesis that medieval Europe was in a Malthusian crisis because, if it were so, we would expect to see declining mean output per unit of labor and increasing mean output per unit of land as diminishing returns makes labor relatively abundant and land relatively scarce. The opposite would occur if, as a result of the Black Death, labor became relatively scarce.

6. North and Thomas do not recognize that the plague may have been the result of increasing living standards. As incomes rose trade increased and disease pools in different regions became integrated. Mortal diseases newly introduced to an area frequently have a devastating impact on the native population. For more on this see McNeill.

7. Exogenous in the sense that the plague was not a disease endemic to fourteenth-century Europe, although, most likely, it had appeared in Europe in the first millennium CE; see J. C. Russell for further information.

8. For a complete specification of this model see Chambers and Gordon.

9. Edward F. Cohen argues and presents persuasive evidence that these institutional forms were abundant in fourth-century BC Athens.


Boserup, Ester. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Chicago: Aldine, 1965.

Cameron, Rondo. A Concise Economic History of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Clark, Gregory. “Yields per Acre in English Agriculture, 1250-1860: Evidence from Labour Inputs,” Economic History Review 44 (1991): 445-60.

Clark, Gregory. “The Costs of Capital and Medieval Agricultural Technique,” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988): 265-94.

Chambers, Edward J. and Donald F. Gordon. “Primary Products and Economic Growth: An Empirical Measurement,” Journal of Political Economy 74 (1966): 315-32.

Cohen, Edward E. Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Lee, James Z. and Wang Feng. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Landes, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. New York: Norton, 1998.

McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books, 1976.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Seven Centuries of Building Wages,” Economica 22 (1955): 195-206.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Seven Centuries of the Prices of Consumables, Compared with Builders’ Wage-Rates,” Economica 23 (1956): 296-314.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Wage-Rates and Prices: Evidence for Population Pressure in the Sixteenth Century,” Economica 24 (1957): 289-306.

Rogers, James E. Thorold. Six Centuries of Work and Wages. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1884.

Rogers, James E. Thorold. A History of Agriculture and Prices in England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1866.

Russell, Josiah C. “That Earlier Plague,” Demography 5 (1968): 174-84.

Simon, Julian L. The Economics of Population Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Simon, Julian L. Population and Development in Poor Countries: Selected Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Simon, Julian L. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Simon, Julian L. and Herman Kahn (editors). The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000. New York: Oxford, 1984.

Philip R. P. Coelho has written on long-run economic growth (“An Examination into the Causes of Economic Growth,” Research in Law and Economics 1985) and is currently working on the impact of morbid diseases on economic history and growth (see: “Biology Disease and Economics: An Alternative History of Slavery in the American South,” with Robert A. McGuire, Journal of Bioeconomics Vol. 1, 1999; “Epidemiology and the Demographic Transition in the New World,” Health Transition Review, Vol. 7, 1997; and “African and European Bound Labor in the British New World: The Biological Consequences of Economic Choices” with Robert A. McGuire, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 57, 1997.)


Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval