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Agricultural Tenures and Tithes

David R. Stead, University of York

The Tenurial Ladder

Agricultural land tenures, the arrangements under which farmers occupied farmland, continue to be the subject of extensive study by agricultural historians and economists. They have identified a “ladder” of tenures broadly classified by the degree of independence each type offered the farmer. Some of the key features of the main forms of tenurial agreements are briefly described below. In practice, though, the characteristics of these different tenures shaded into one another and they often had their own particular local features, ensuring that the distinctions among them were frequently blurred.

At the top of the tenurial ladder was owner occupation, where the farmer owned and farmed his property as a peasant proprietor or capitalist producer. All other types of tenure involved a separation between the ownership and the use of land. On the next rung were hereditary tenures, which gave the occupant quasi-ownership of the farm. The hereditary tenant had a lifelong right to cultivate the holding, and was allowed to bequeath it to his direct heirs. However, his freedom of action was subject to various restrictions imposed by the superior landowner, whose permission may have been needed to adopt a new course of husbandry, for example, and who might have levied a payment when the farm changed hands. Under some circumstances the landlord could also possess the right to evict the hereditary tenant, for instance if the property was not kept in a good state of maintenance.

After owner occupation and hereditary tenures was leasehold, where the tenant occupied under a lease either lasting until a number of persons named in the contract had died, or for some certain term of years (for example, “tacks” for nineteen years were prevalent in Scotland around the turn of the nineteenth century). In the former case the names stated were often those of the farmer, his wife and son, and thus this kind of lease approached hereditary tenure. The typical leaseholder for years was charged a fixed cash rent per annum which was equal or close to the yearly economic value of the land (a rack rent). In contrast, the typical leaseholder for lives paid a small annual rent that was well below the rack rent, together with a much larger “fine” levied when the landlord granted a new lease or when the sitting tenant wished to add another name to the contract after an existing life had ended.

On a lower rung of the tenurial ladder was sharecropping (the modern preference is for “cropsharing”). Here, the landlord took the rent in kind, instead of in cash, as some share of the farm’s annual produce (predominately one half). The sharecropping landlord tended to be closely involved in the management of farming operations, and met part of the production costs. Tenancy-at-will was the next broad category of tenure. The farmer did not have a written lease but instead held from year to year at the will of the landowner, who in theory could evict the occupant at short notice for no reason. In practice, however, many landlords tended to leave tenants-at-will undisturbed so long as their husbandry was satisfactory. Changing tenants was costly for the landowner if only because the incumbent occupier possessed specialist knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the farm’s soil, which would take a newcomer time to learn.

Serfdom and slavery were on the lowest rungs of the tenurial ladder because under these tenures the farmer was compelled to till the soil and often received little of the returns from his labors. In the feudal system in medieval Europe, even servile peasants were not the property of their manorial lord (unlike slaves), but they were – to varying degrees – bound to the land because they usually could not move (or marry) without their lord’s permission. Feudal tenants were generally required to pay some form of rent and also render personal labor services to their lord, most commonly working on his land a few days a week. Over time, these labor services were gradually commuted to a money payment. Finally, it is probably not unreasonable to include most communal forms of land tenure near the bottom of the tenurial ladder. Where land was owned or used by multiple persons, as on the village common and under Soviet collectivization, the communal nature of decision-making must have curbed the freedom of action of the enterprising farmer.

Tenurial Choice

It is possible to identify, as a very rough worldwide generalization, at least three main changes over the centuries in the types of tenure employed. First, with the gradual decline or abolition of communism, feudalism and slavery, there has been a shift towards tenurial systems based on market relations rather than collectivism or coercion. The second change has been the progressive substitution of leases for lives with leases for years, and the third has been a move towards owner occupation and fixed rent leasing at the expense of sharecropping. These shifts have occurred at different rates in different regions, and the progression has not always been linear, but sometimes characterized by reversals. This has produced enormous variation in the popularity of the various tenures. For example, in the eighteenth century sharecropping was common throughout much of the European Continent but was almost unknown in England and Ireland. Indeed, it was not uncommon for multiple forms of tenure to co-exist in the same village at the same time. After the emancipation of slaves in the American South, for instance, a diverse mix of tenures was employed: the traditional assertion that sharecropping replaced slavery in the postbellum countryside is an oversimplification.

Of the tenures listed above, it is the choice of sharecropping that has most fascinated agricultural economists. Its popularity appeared puzzling after many eighteenth and nineteenth century writers argued that this arrangement acted as a check on agrarian improvement because the farmer did not receive the full amount of any increase in farm output. More recently, however, the benefits of share tenancy have been recognised. For example, by dividing the crop, the sharecropping landlord shared the risks of a bad harvest with the tenant, thereby providing partial insurance to farmers who disliked being exposed to risk whilst still preserving some incentive for the occupier to undertake improvements. (By contrast, the fixed rent tenant contracted to pay the same amount irrespective of whether the harvest was profitable or poor.) Another sharecropping puzzle was why the output split was predominately 50/50 – indeed the French and Italian words for share tenancy, metayage and mezzadria respectively, mean splitting in half – when it might be expected that the landlord’s cut would have varied far more from farm to farm. This “easy” and “fair” fraction appears to have been a natural focal point that landlords and tenants were drawn to, thereby avoiding potentially protracted haggling that might have scarred their subsequent relationship.

Tenurial choice over the past century or so can be described using the (albeit imperfect) available body of statistics. Table 1 provides benchmarks of the percentage of agricultural land leased by farmers in several western European countries since the late nineteenth century (land not leased was owner occupied). Almost all farmland in England and Wales and Ireland at the beginning of the period covered by the table was owned by large landowners who divided their estates into farm-sized pieces which were rented out. The farm tenancy sectors of the three Continental countries in 1880 were noticeably smaller. One common factor among the various possible explanations for this was the 1804 Napoleonic Code, introduced in France and the then French empire which included Belgium and the Netherlands. The Code created inheritance laws that split the deceased’s landholdings equally among all heirs rather than, as elsewhere, the eldest son inheriting the whole property. This legal pressure for the fragmentation of landownership helped to produce a sizeable class of small owner occupying farmers on the Continent.

Table 1

Share of Land Leased by Tenant Farmers
in Selected Western European Countries, 1880-1997
(% of total agricultural land)

Belgium England & Wales France Ireland Netherlands
1880 64 85a 40 96b 40
1910 72 89 n/a 42 53
1930 62 63 40 6 49
1950 67 62 44 5 56
1980 71 47 51 8 41
1997 68 33 58 13 34

Source: Swinnen (2002), table 2.
Notes: a figure for 1885; b figure for 1870. Land not leased was owner occupied.

The most striking change since the late nineteenth century has been the rapid shrinkage of the English and Welsh, and especially Irish, tenancy sectors by 1930. In England and Wales, higher taxation (including increased death duties) combined with the legacy of an agricultural depression and the deaths of many landlords or their heirs in World War One to produce a situation where numerous owners were forced to sell to tenant farmers who had profited during the wartime agricultural boom. The even more dramatic decline of tenancy in Ireland was chiefly due to a series of state legislation beginning in 1870 that provided subsidized government loans – made on increasingly favorable terms – to help tenants purchase their holdings: the 1923 Land Act made such sales compulsory. Since the Second World War, most of the countries covered by Table 1 have enacted legal changes increasing rent controls and especially the security of leases. These restrictions have made tenancy more attractive for tenants but more importantly less so for landowners, which helps explain the post-war shrinkage of the tenancy sectors in England and Wales and the Netherlands. By contrast, in France the proportion of land leased has risen in recent years partly in response to government policies encouraging leasing, such as lower taxes on land rents.

The general prevalence of owner occupation in the second half of the twentieth century suggested by Table 1 is supported by Figure 1, which gives a snapshot of the global situation in 1970 using data from the world census of agriculture. The first of each pair of columns shows the percentage of all farmland in each region held under owner occupation. Usually the majority of land was cultivated by its owner, although in Africa communal tenures were more widespread. The second of each pair of columns shows the proportion of land in just the tenancy sector of each region that was let under a sharecropping contract. Despite its traditional association with poverty, sharecropping remains persistently popular even in modern advanced farming sectors, notably in North America where nearly a third of tenanted land in 1970 was occupied by sharecroppers.

Figure 1
Percentage of Total Farmland Held under Owner Cultivation, and the Percentage of Tenanted Land Held under Sharecropping, Various Regions, 1970

Source: Otsuka et al. (1992), table 1

The Historical Role of the Lease

A number of contemporaries and historians have suggested that the lease played an important role in influencing farming practices. Short leases, especially tenancies at will, were loudly criticized by the eighteenth-century English writers Arthur Young and William Marshall on the grounds that these contracts did not provide the tenant with sufficient security to make long-term investments to the farm, such as draining the land. If the benefits from these types of expenditures were not fully realized until after the original lease expired, then there was a danger that the tenant would lose part of his investment returns if the landlord acted opportunistically by evicting him, or by renewing his lease but at a higher rent. Tenants may therefore have been wary of making large expenditures for fear of the later consequences, inhibiting agricultural improvement. How serious a problem the potential insecurity of short leases was in practice is a moot point. Landlords not lessees undertook much of the long-term investments, and for those expenditures that were made by tenants, legal or customary rights existing outside the tenancy agreement might have provided at least some security. Outgoing farmers, for instance, could be due compensation for their “unexhausted improvements,” as under Ulster (Ireland) and English tenant right, and some landlords might have been able to establish a reputation for not unfairly treating their tenantry. Furthermore, when the economic conditions faced by farmers were depressed or uncertain, many tenants actually preferred a short lease because this ensured that they were not tied to the holding if it turned out to be unprofitable.

Leases could have promoted innovative, or at least best practice, farming if the landowner had used these documents to insist on the tenantry adopting certain types of crops and crop rotations. Evidence from England during the long eighteenth century, however, indicates that the husbandry clauses written into leases were primarily designed to restrict tenants from engaging in a course of farming that would be deleterious to long-term soil fertility, rather than stipulating that the latest agricultural methods be employed. Thus instead of demanding that (say) turnips be cultivated, popular covenants in English leases included those prohibiting the growing of more than two successive cereal crops on the same field or the plowing of pasture land without the landowner’s prior written consent.


Landlords and tenants were not the only parties with a close interest in the produce of the soil. Farmers frequently had to pay tithe, a tax payable for the support of the church. Probably originating as a voluntary payment in early Christian communities, tithes became a legally enforced obligation in many countries – particularly in western Europe – during the Middle Ages. The tithe was supposedly levied at one tenth of the gross value of the farm’s annual produce and was traditionally paid in kind, whereby the clergyman would claim every tenth sheaf of corn (etc.). In practice, a complex combination of case law and custom exempted various types of land and products. Moreover, frequently the tithe owner was not actually a member of the clergy, often because a layperson had purchased church-owned land that had tithing rights attached to it. Many contemporary agricultural writers, not without some justification, criticized tithes in kind on the grounds that they acted as a disincentive to agrarian improvement because, as with a sharecropping agreement, the farmer did not receive the full amount of any rise in farm output. Payment of tithes in kind also offered substantial scope for friction between tithe payers and collectors, for example over whether new crops, such as potatoes, were titheable. To thwart those farmers who sought to under-report their produce, or give poor quality products as tithe (one milkmaid urinated in the tithe milk), the tithing man typically collected his due from the fields rather than allowing the payer to deliver it to the tithe barn.

On account of these disputes and inconveniences, tithes in kind were often commuted to a fixed or variable annual cash payment. Alternatively an allotment of land or a lump sum might be given in return for the church extinguishing tithes. Many of these substitutions were achieved under government legislation, such as the 1836 and 1936 Tithe Acts in England. Yet cash payment was far from being free from conflict arising, for instance, when the church attempted to annul a fixed money charge that, owing to inflation, had fallen to a trifling amount. The underlying friction peaked in so-called tithe wars, which were characterized by demonstrations by payers and varying degrees of violent clashes with collectors; examples include Ireland in the 1830s and England and Wales in the 1930s. In short, the multiplicity of tithing customs and seemingly endless disputes over payment suggest that some tithe owners at some times got closer to obtaining their tenth than others.


Alston, Lee J. and Robert Higgs. “Contractual Mix in Southern Agriculture since the Civil War: Facts, Hypotheses, and Tests.” Journal of Economic History 42 (1982): 327-53.

Blum, Jerome. The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Brinkman, Carl, Heinrich Cunow, Fritz Heichelheim, Robert H. Lowie, George McCutchen McBride, David Mitrany, Radha Kamal Mukerjee, Peter Struve and Yosaburo Takekoshi. “Land Tenure.” In The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, Volume 9, 73-127. London: Macmillan, 1933.

Cameron, Rondo and Larry Neal. A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, fourth edition, 2003.

Carmona, Juan and James Simpson. “The ‘Rabassa Morta’ in Catalan Viticulture: The Rise and Decline of a Long-Term Sharecropping Contract, 1670s-1920s.” Journal of Economic History 59 (1999): 290-315.

Evans, Eric J. The Contentious Tithe: The Tithe Problem and English Agriculture, 1750-1850. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976.

Harvey, Barbara. “The Leasing of the Abbot of Westminster’s Demesnes in the Later Middle Ages.” Economic History Review 22 (1969): 17-27.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel and Joseph Goy. Tithe and Agrarian History from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

O Grada, Cormac. Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Otsuka, Keijiro, Hiroyuki Chuma and Yujiro Hayami. “Land and Labor Contracts in Agrarian Economies: Theories and Facts.” Journal of Economic Literature 30 (1992): 1965-2018.

Overton, Mark. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy, 1500-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Stead, David R. “Crops and Contracts: Land Tenure in England, c. 1700-1850.” D.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2002.

Swinnen, Johan F. M. “Political Reforms, Rural Crises and Land Tenure in Western Europe.” Food Policy 27 (2002): 371-94.

Wade Martins, Susanna and Tom Williamson. “The Development of the Lease and Its Role in Agricultural Improvement in East Anglia, 1660-1870.” Agricultural History Review 46 (1998): 127-41.

Whyte, Ian D. “Written Leases and Their Impact on Scottish Agriculture in the Seventeenth Century.” Agricultural History Review 27 (1979): 1-9.

Young, H. Peyton and Mary A. Burke. “Competition and Custom in Economic Contracts: A Case Study of Illinois Agriculture.” American Economic Review 91 (2001): 559-73.

Citation: Stead, David. “Agricultural Tenures and Tithes”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. January 25, 2004. URL

The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom

Author(s):Dennison, Tracy
Reviewer(s):Nafziger, Steven

Published by EH.Net (July 2013)
Tracy Dennison, The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xx + 254 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-19448-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Steven Nafziger, Department of Economics, Williams College.

In late 2011, this reviewer completed an early analysis of Dennison?s important monograph on serfdom on one relatively large estate in a north-central province of European Russia (Nafziger 2012). Since then, roughly a dozen reviews of this book have been published in English in various historical journals by a number of prominent scholars of Russian history. Overall, these scholars applaud Dennison?s skilled employment of myriad archival sources to describe how the estate of Voshchazhnikovo functioned, and they are mostly sympathetic with her argument that the variation in serfdom was largely the result of the heterogeneity in the institutions set up by estate owners. The Sheremetev family, who owned more serfs than any other noble family in Russia, controlled Voshchazhnikovo and relied on a particular set of administrative practices, property rights, judicial structures, and customary norms to extract rents while allowing considerably economic flexibility to engage in markets among their peasants. Dennison explores this setting in a series of thematic chapters that investigate the interaction between institutional structures (as fostered by the Sheremetevs) and peasant demographic and economic actions from 1750 until emancipation in 1861. After considering the book for a second time, my admiration has only grown for the detailed empirical work Dennison has done in depicting the operations of this particular estate to show how these structures influenced individual, household, and communal decision-making among the serfs.??

What other reviewers have found problematic in Dennison?s study concerns the broader framework and conclusions laid out in the first two and the last chapters. Section 1.1, entitled ?The Peasant Myth? (pp. 6-17), asserts that scholars of the Imperial Russian peasantry have frequently misunderstood their subject matter and overemphasized the persistence of a distinct moral economy among serfs (and the Russian peasantry more broadly) that was grounded in cultural and geographic factors. In critiquing Dennison?s study, the influential historian Steven Hoch (2012) appears guilty of fostering this very myth by claiming that because the serfs of Voshchazhnikovo were evidently involved in a variety of factor and goods markets, they were not really peasants at all, since, according to his interpretation, the peasant economy was antithetical to market relations. As pointed out by David Moon (2013) in another review of Dennison?s book, Hoch?s work considered a labor-service serf estate in an agricultural region to the south of Russia, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the structures created by the serf owners (the Gagarin family in his case) were more coercive and less conducive to peasant involvement in local markets. This is something Dennison is well aware of in emphasizing the heterogeneity of serfdom, but neither her work, nor that of Hoch, nor anyone else?s research for that matter, gives us a good sense of the overall distribution of serf estates along the relevant dimensions of institutional constraints, demographic practices, or market involvement. Just what ?serfdom? was for the modal estate, or for estates in very different geographic and economic circumstances than the ones studied by Dennison, Hoch, and the small number of other practitioners of the case study (who tend to focus on similar sets of archival records for estates in similar locations), demands further research.

This reviewer is mostly comfortable with the use of the ?peasant myth? as a focal point for Dennison?s analysis, especially given the persistence of that viewpoint in the work of Hoch and others. Dennison puts forth Alexander Chaianov (1986) as one of the main perpetuators of the Russian peasant myth, because he assumed away several dimensions of market involvement and utility maximization in proposing the existence of a unique peasant economy. Chaianovian ideas were adopted by scholars such as Theodore Shanin (1972) and James C. Scott (1976), who, in turn, influenced the work of historians such as Hoch. However, development economists have incorporated behavioral richness, various forms of market imperfections, and institutional constraints into the basic agricultural household model (which owes a lot to Chaianov?s initial insights about the relationships between consumption and production decisions of rural households) to show that standard tools of utility and profit maximization do go most of the way towards explaining the economic decisions made by peasants in developing economies. Much of Dennison?s success in this historical work is to incorporate insights from these and other modern social science ?models? to interpret her empirical findings in illuminating ways.?

Other reviewers (particularly Melton 2012; and Wirtschafter 2012) have emphasized one aspect of Dennison?s use of the ?peasant myth? as a foil that is perhaps more problematic for her study?s broader message. They note that late Imperial and Soviet scholarship on serfdom, while ideologically blinkered and limited in their own ways, was not wedded to the peasant myth, but instead emphasized and empirically documented considerable market involvement by serfs, especially in the region where Voshchazhnikovo was located. As such, they view the myth that Dennison focuses on to be something of a straw man. Dennison does cite these earlier studies of serfdom, but she does not really draw on the archival and quantitative evidence they present to make her argument. A more complete analysis of serfdom as a varied set of institutional conditions that affected market development and peasant economic behavior would benefit from further consideration of these and other available facts to really get at the different ?distributions? of the serf experience, as noted above.?

These few caveats should not detract from what is truly a paradigmatic new work on the economic history of Tsarist Russia. The boom in empirical research on the economic histories of societies that fell behind during the Great Divergence has mostly left Tsarist Russia behind. This reviewer modestly hopes that his comments and the reviews of others might help spur not only further work on serfdom and related topics by Dennison, but additional scholarship by others on the full set of institutional factors that underlay Russia?s development experience prior to 1917.?


Alexander Chaianov. The Theory of the Peasant Economy. Ed. by David Thorner, Basile Kerblay, and R.E.F. Smith. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Steven Hoch. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (2012): 966-967.

Edgar Melton. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? Journal of Interdisciplinary History 43, no. 1 (2012): 109-111.

David Moon. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? Slavonic and East European Review 91, no. 2 (2013): 367-369.

Steven Nafziger. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? Economic History Review 65, no. 4 (2012): 1597-1598.

James C. Scott. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

Teodor Shanin. ?The Nature and Logic of the Peasant Economy.? Journal of Peasant Studies 1 (1973): 63-80.

Elise Wirtschafter. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? Slavic Review 71, no. 3 (2012): 693-694.

Steven Nafziger is an Associate Professor of Economics at Williams College. He is currently embarking on a book-length study of the development consequences of Russian serf emancipation.

Copyright (c) 2013 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (July 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism

Author(s):Fichter, James R.
Reviewer(s):Cox, Thomas H.

Published by EH.Net (January 2012)

James R. Fichter, So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. xi + 384 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-05057-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Thomas H. Cox, Department of History, Sam Houston State University.

James R. Fichter?s So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism sheds new light on America?s early trade with Asia during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Seeking to move beyond traditional portrayals of national economic development, Fichter contends that ?American trade to the East Indies as a whole had repercussions for society, economics, and politics on both sides of the Atlantic? (p. 4). In particular, competition from private American merchants undermined British mercantilism and ?helped begin Britain?s nineteenth century free trade empire.? For the young American republic trade with Asia meant ?the accumulation of wealth and financial capital into the hands of the wealthiest Americans, creating financiers who would profoundly alter the shape of American business? (p. 4). Located at the intersection of economic, cultural, American, and British history, Fichter?s work is necessarily broad based, painting in broad strokes themes for future historians to further flesh out.

The publication of So Great a Proffit coincides with an emerging body of scholarship on the ?Pacific World.?? In recent years Katherine Gulliver and Matt K. Matsuda have pointed to the increase of cultural contacts between European and American traders and the native peoples of the Pacific Rim from the late 1700s through the mid-twentieth century as a formative period in world history. Such activity led to not merely exchanges of plants, animals, pathogens, and people but also linguistic, religious and cultural traits. Although slower to catch on than the concept of the ?Atlantic World,? the increasingly important relationships between the United States and Asian countries such as China has promoted new scholarly interest in the notion of a ?Pacific World.?

Fichter begins his narrative in colonial British North America. Drawing from Bernard Bailyn and Pauline Maier, Fichter discusses the role of anti-monopoly sentiment in the creation of republican rhetoric. In the post-Revolutionary period lingering distrust of large mercantile corporations prevented the creation of an American East India Company. It thus fell to individual American merchants, already excluded from British markets in the wake of independence, to form primitive business corporations and seek new business opportunities in the Pacific.

Following the outbreak of war between Britain and France in the 1790s, neutral American merchants conducted a bustling trade throughout the world. Over the next decade American ships carried Spanish silver, American furs, and Hawaiian sandalwood to the Far East, returning home with holds full of Sumatran pepper, Indian cloth, and Chinese tea and porcelain. Many of these goods were subsequently smuggled into European countries (including, ironically Great Britain) to be sold at exorbitant rates.

Fichter reveals that profits garnered from the lucrative Pacific trade helped to create the first class of American millionaires. Traditional American merchants pursued trade to achieve a ?competency? or ?enough money not to need to work, enough to retire on, but not enough to be rich.? In contrast, younger merchants like Jacob Crowninshield, Stephen Girard, and Israel Thorndike pursued trade with Asia to achieve ?affluence? characterized by ?profuse wealth and a liberality towards others commensurate with noble station? (pp. 117-18). By decorating their spacious mansions with Chinese tapestries, silks and lacquer ware these individuals showcased their refinement and gentility. By injecting large amounts of silver into the economy American merchants furthermore helped underwrite the costs of northern industrialization. T.H. Breen, Richard Bushman, and Daniel Vickers have traced the gentrification of America?s merchant community in the early 1800s. Fichter adds to their work by uncovering the previously unexamined role which trade with the Pacific Rim played in this process. Conversely, Fichter also relates how the British East India Company selectively attempted to lease its ships and privatize key aspects of its overseas operations to stave off competition from American free traders until its final demise in 1874. Crucial in the defeat of the unpopular monopoly were the lobbying efforts of British free traders who argued that it was their rights as British subjects to carry out trade anywhere within the Empire they chose. Ironically it was rise of private business partnerships which allowed Great Britain to remain a dominant economic power well into the twentieth century.

Fichter wastes no opportunity to depict American free trade as more effective than British mercantilism. Yet How Great a Proffit does not blindly celebrate the ?virtues? of capitalism. Fichter candidly admits that ?[f]ree trade was, despite Adam Smith?s sentiments, amoral? (p. 205). As late entrants into the Pacific trade and lacking notions of noblesse oblige shared by many royal and East Indian Company officials, American traders brutally overharvested seal skins and sandalwood and intervened in tribal wars throughout the Pacific to secure lucrative trading agreements with different chieftains. Most damning, Fichter recounts the vast fortunes British and American merchants made off the suffering of thousands of Chinese during the Opium Wars.

Despite the breath of Fichter?s research, many questions about America?s early trading relations with Asia remain unanswered. How, specifically, did trade with India and China influence the development of the modern American business corporation and how substantial was this impact? How did the lives of American sailors, dockworkers, clerks, and ordinary consumers change as a result of increased trade with Asia? Most important, what actions did Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Chinese peasants take to resist economic domination by British and American merchants? Further research is thus needed before the complex webs of commerce and culture identified by Fichter can be brought into clear historical focus. Nevertheless, How Great a Proffit remains a well written, carefully researched book which points the way for scholars interested in recapturing America?s early trading relationships with the diverse cultures of the Pacific World.

Thomas H. Cox is Associate Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. He is the author of Gibbons v. Ogden: Law and Society in the Early Republic (Ohio University Press, 2009). In 2009-2010 he served as Visiting Fulbright Professor at the Institute for American Studies, Northwest Normal University, Changchun, China.

Copyright (c) 2012 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (January 2012). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Australia/New Zealand, incl. Pacific Islands
North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

Economic Thought in Early Modern Japan

Author(s):Gramlich-Oka, Bettina
Smits, Gregory
Reviewer(s):Hellyer, Robert

Published by EH.NET (November 2011)

Bettina Gramlich-Oka and Gregory Smits, editors, Economic Thought in Early Modern Japan. Boston: Brill, 2010. xxii + 298 pp. $154 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-90-04-18383-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert Hellyer, Department of History, Wake Forest University.

While recent scholarship has shed new light on many facets of early modern Japan, less has been written about economic issues, making this a welcome volume.? Emerging from international conferences held in Germany and the United States, this book is the first installment in a Brill series, ?Monies, Markets and Finance in East Asia, 1600-1900.?? At the broadest level, Gramlich-Oka and Smits seek to ?deepen and revise our understanding of early modern Japan,? and also ?enlarge and refine the analytical vocabulary for describing early modern economic thought and policy? (back cover) — goals they have certainly achieved.

In the introduction, Smits and Mark Metzler note perceptions of early modern Japan, still found in some survey histories, that the volume seeks to contest: a Confucian disdain for commerce that stifled economic growth, commercial and intellectual networks defined primarily by a rigid Confucian-style class structure (samurai-agriculturalist-artisan-merchant), and a politico-economic order of ?collective feudalism? (the bakuhan system).? Following recent studies (such as Ravina 1999 and Howell 2005), this volume successfully challenges those perceptions and adds much to our knowledge of early modern Japan by presenting fresh insights on economic theories, commercial ideologies, as well as case studies of individual merchants and intellectuals, domains, and the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa prefecture).

In the first chapter, Ethan Segal offers useful avenues to consider the economic transition from medieval to early modern, highlighting the monetization that began in the thirteenth century and despite the political dislocation of the Warring States period (1467-1573), continued into the seventeenth century. Kawaguchi Hiroshi?s subsequent chapter, ?Economic Thought Concerning Freedom and Control,? is less engaging but does offer some intriguing conclusions, such as the fact that during the Edo period (1603-1868), the word jiy?, which commonly connotes ?freedom? in modern Japanese, ?indicated a state without stagnation, not autonomous agency implied by the modern sense of ?freedom?? (p. 50).? Smits? examination of the Ryukyuan official, Sai On, presents a portrait of a Confucian-educated leader trying to develop state infrastructure, such as a network of harbors, and pushing to ?tweak laws and regulations so that individual profit-seeking ended up contributing to the common good? (p. 88). Ochiai K? describes the development of a domestic sugar industry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stressing how Tokugawa leaders encouraged production to reduce the outflow of bullion used to obtain brown, white, and rock candy sugar from Dutch and Chinese merchants.? Nonetheless the leaders of the shogunate also feared that as farmers cultivated sugar and other valuable cash crops, they would neglect essential grains, most notably rice, central to the feudal tax structure.? In her chapter, Gramlich-Oka delivers an informative and valuable discussion of Kud? Heisuke, a physician from a domain in northern Honshu, who operating in late eighteenth-century social networks of high-ranking officials, daimyo (lords), doctors, and scholars, offered informed critiques and policy proposals concerning foreign trade and colonization of Ezo (present-day Hokkaido). Jan S?kora also focuses on the role of non-governmental actors and social networks with an examination of Sh?ji K?ki, a merchant and self-made intellectual, whom S?kora asserts ?played a part in preparing the intellectual background for the profound economic and political changes? that unfolded in the Saga domain (today?s Saga prefecture on the island of Kyushu) in the mid nineteenth century (p. 176).? In the subsequent two chapters, Mark Ravina presents a fascinating look at the community granary (shas?) as a legitimized lending and credit agency within the Confucian inspired, state-sponsored orthodoxy; Ishii Sumiyo details the life of It? Y?z?, an entrepreneur who more than adeptly navigated the political and social upheavals that marked the transition from Tokugawa to Meiji in the late nineteenth century.? While maintaining his family business, It? not only founded a silk promotion institute, a railway company, and a commercial bank but also found time to establish two schools and to run for the Diet. In the concluding chapter, Metzler slices the Edo period into novel units defined by ebbs and flows in land and non-land tax revenues, monetary expansion and restraint, domestic exchange rates as well as price movements.? His use of modern terminology and points of analysis, such as the notion of ?big government? and comparisons to the Japanese experience in the twentieth century, are fruitful and provocative.?

All told, this volume provides many valuable takeaways including: an increased understanding of the complex and varied networks of people, ideas and, of course, goods, that defined early modern Japan; the energy with which state and non-state actors brought to formulating and implementing pragmatic solutions to pressing economic problems; and perhaps most of all, the broad influence of economic thought centered on the ?benefit of the country/national interest? (kokueki), a term used, apparently quite frequently, by intellectuals and domain and shogunal officials alike.? Nonetheless this reader was concerned that at times, the volume presents too rosy of a picture of samurai-commoner relations in the early modern Japanese polity.? To this point, I was reminded of another eighteenth-century physician/economic theorist not noted in the book: And? Sh?eki, who bitterly criticized the warrior class as socially useless consumers, benefiting from an economy that exploited peasants (Norman 1949).

This caution aside, in multiple ways this book enhances our understanding of the early modern Japanese economy and should be read by both scholars and students of Japanese history.? As the editors aim, it will also interest scholars of economic thought outside of Japan and East Asia (although the decision, in some chapters, to provide the translation for every Japanese term may distract the non-specialist reader). One also hopes that a more affordable paperback edition will be published to allow it to be assigned in undergraduate courses on early modern Japan.???????


David L. Howell (2005). Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

E. Herbert Norman (1949). ?And? Sh?eki and the Anatomy of Japanese Feudalism,? Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, Third Series, Vol. 2 (December 1949): 1-340.

Mark Ravina (1999). Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Robert Hellyer is Associate Professor of History at Wake Forest University.? His recent publications include Defining Engagement: Japan and Global Contexts, 1640-1868 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2009).? (

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

Agriculture in World History

Author(s):Tauger, Mark B.
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2011)

Mark B. Tauger, Agriculture in World History.? New York: Routledge, 2011. x + 192 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-415-77387-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University (emeritus).

The revival of World History in the liberal arts curriculum has created a demand for serviceable textbooks to guide students (and their teachers) through an otherwise impenetrable thicket of names, places, events, and institutional detail.? Historians have responded to that challenge in two ways.? The first is to impose models (e.g., Marxian, Malthusian, property rights paradigm) as a means of unifying and coordinating the disparate material, an approach that in extreme cases borders on propaganda.? The other is to divide the history into ?themes? exhibiting enough internal coherence to be treated as historical objects in their own right.? As a history of agriculture from its origins in the tenth millennium BC to the present day, the present work exemplifies the second approach.? It is not, however, the history of agriculture an economist-historian would have written.? It has no tables of agricultural output, productivity, or population, does not evaluate the relative importance of efficiency, technological change, and markets in accounting for agricultural change in the long run, and says surprising little about the recent disappearance of farming as a way of life.? In short, the book is not about economic growth; it is about farmers in perpetual confrontation with the physical and the outside world.

The book covers the history of agriculture in all parts of the world where farming has occurred.? It provides thumbnail sketches of the agricultural histories of Europe, East, West, and South Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas.? While a work of such geographical and temporal scope inevitably perpetuates errors of fact and interpretation, the ratio of misinformation to information is happily low.? The author has read widely and intelligently.? The chapter on agricultural developments since the end of the Second World War is particularly good. This vast material encompassed is organized under the rubric of what the author terms a ?dual subordination? to the natural world of flood, drought, weather, and pests, and to the upper classes and authorities that live off surpluses extracted from farmers as rent, taxes, monopoly, and forced labor.? In short, the book is a history of the distribution of agricultural income between its producers and those who live off the fruits of the producers? labor.?

In that history farmers repeatedly find themselves forced by environmental catastrophe, debt, taxation, and simple oppression into forms of dependence requiring them to render their produce to non-farmers.?? Its logic follows from the productivity of farming, which if not exhausted by population growth ? a possibility lightly passed over ? provides surpluses that supply economic support for states and elites.? Traditionally, the power to appropriate agricultural surplus ran through control of the land.?? In some civilizations ownership was vested in the state, which typically took its render in tax; but since large states could rarely effectively administer farming on such a vast scale, actual control typically devolved on officials and local elites, who exploited their delegated authority to undermine peasant property.? At times, this role was played by lenders.?

The history of land ownership is thus conceived as a dialectical process in which rising inequality provokes peasant revolt and government collapse leading to a fresh start that in time degrades to a new phase of inequality and rebellion as the original thrust of reforms exhausts itself in environmental insults and the restoration of the local elite.? In ancient civilizations founders of new dynasties usually intervened to protect peasants from the rapaciousness those elites.? Reforms often involved restoration of land to the peasantry and changing the land tax to make it more bearable and fair.? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they also included tariff protection and agricultural subsidies.? Yet even in the most successful cases, farmers eventually found themselves once again under the thumb of outside predators, in particular oligopolistic agri-businesses and marketing organizations controlling farmers? access to urban and suburban markets for produce.? At the same time, the spread of monoculture based on heavy inputs of pesticides, fertilizer, energy, and antibiotics has not only led to the disappearance of family farms, but increased the vulnerability of surviving farms to environmental shocks.? From this perspective the lives of ordinary farmers, who a century ago constituted the majority of humanity, have been a continuous struggle to survive.

Populist history went out of fashion in the early 1960s, when the focus of economic historians shifted from the history of organizational forms and the distribution of economic opportunity and outcomes to the story of economic growth.? Both stories possess their particular teleology.? Populist history assumed a necessary movement towards social democracy through sustained confrontation between the forces of progress and the vested interests of reaction.? The history of economic growth has been organized around the concept of the production function: a bloodless history of inputs, innovation, and market integration, in which the distribution of the fruits of progress plays second fiddle to the upward march of average income.? Tauger?s book takes us part way back to that earlier tradition.? Removed from the political context that inspired it, that tradition raises the question whether the record supports a cyclical interpretation of the distribution of power and wealth, a wheel of fortune in which an initial phase of relative equality and fairness is succeeded in time by increasing inequality and oppression.? This seems to have been the pattern in early agrarian societies; does it operate in other types?? The question seems particularly relevant to world history, where the record invites one to compare and contrast.

George Grantham is Emeritus Professor of Economics at McGill University.? He is the author of numerous works on the history of French agriculture, and has been working for the past ten years on a history of the relation between agricultural productivity and agricultural markets in the pre-industrial era.? His most recent article is ?France,? in Harry Kitsikopoulos, editor, Agrarian Change and Crisis in Europe, 1200-1500, Routledge (forthcoming, 2011).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600

Author(s):van Bavel, Bas
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E.C.

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Bas van Bavel, Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600.? New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.? xiv + 492 pp. $140 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-927866-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anne E.C. McCants, Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The search for the medieval origins of European economic growth over the long run has become something of a growth industry in recent years.? For example, since 2008 the field of economic history has witnessed the publication of major book-length contributions from Jack Goldstone, Jan Luiten van Zanden, Paolo Palanima, and Timur Kuran, all of which argue strongly that there are readily identifiable causal linkages that extend in a meaningful way from at least the High Middle Ages (or even earlier) to present realities.[1]? For anyone familiar with an earlier instantiation of medieval economic history this trend may be unexpected.? It wasn?t long ago that the medieval economy was interesting only in so far as it was quaint (serfs and their lords eking out a living in the autarkic wilderness of the manorial economy); or worse, as it was brutal (the Middle Ages as the quintessential locus of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Conquest, War, Famine and Death).? Or if one?s tastes were not quite so dramatic there was always the longue duree of the Annales School, in which a relatively stable world of European peasants ran more or less seamlessly from late antiquity to the eighteenth century.? Admittedly, the greatest spokespersons of this view were Early Modernists, but the Medievalists were never far behind.? Indeed, it wasn?t always easy to tell them apart, given that they depicted a world of little change other than the cyclical fluctuations in the climate and the ebb and flow of population within its fairly narrow neo-Malthusian bounds.? None of this suggested the likely emergence of a historiography in which modern economic growth (of the kind defined by Simon Kuznets in the middle of the twentieth century and countless followers since) could be attributed back to conditions that prevailed in the years around or even before 1000.

This is not to say that the modern, industrial world as something sui generis has disappeared from recent scholarship; not at all.? Yet another group of important books of recent vintage seeking to explain the extraordinary economic achievement of Western Europe in the last two and a half centuries either passes over the question of medieval origins,[2] or in one prominent case counters it explicitly.[3]?? Jan de Vries finds his explanation for the modern transformation rooted in the new, consumerist, decision making strategies of households in the sixteenth and later centuries, while Deirdre McCloskey turns instead to the new ethical attachments, and the rhetoric by which they were expressed, of a commercial and middle class culture, more or less about the same time period.? Joel Mokyr turns his attention just a bit later to the eighteenth century proper when Enlightenment ideas loom large for both the development of new methods for organizing economic activities and in the tools and techniques employed in production, that is to say technological change in the broadest sense of that term.? For all of these arguments, newness is the important point; what may or may not have happened in the Middle Ages is hardly decisive.? In Greg Clark?s analysis, it is completely irrelevant.? Any economic breakthrough that may have occurred prior to 1800 would have been so quickly dissipated in a Malthusian population response that according to Clark there is no discernible change in living standards prior to the end of the eighteenth century.? Indeed, this position requires what this reader sees as the ironic claim that the only way to increase welfare before the advent of the modern world was for human suffering to increase; i.e. when other people die, you could then benefit.? In any event, all trends break at 1800, much as they did in the older historiography that separated the medieval economy from what came later in every fundamental way.

This is a long introductory discussion that references a lot of books other than the one under review, for which I crave the reader?s indulgence.? In fact, Bas van Bavel?s Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600, is at least as important for what it contributes to the emerging literature on the medieval origins of modern European economic growth, as it is for its direct contribution to the more narrowly circumscribed economic history of the Low Countries.? I should add, however, that it does indeed offer a significant contribution to the latter.? It is rich in detail, documenting the substantial regional variation that existed there (shockingly so given the relatively small area overall), and the shifting locus of the most advanced areas across the thousand years covered by his survey.? The Meuse Valley figures prominently in the Carolingian period, followed by the flowering of urban and industrial inland Flanders during the High Middle Ages, and finally by mercantile and maritime Holland, and its coastal cities in particular, in a sixteenth century he still characterizes as the Late Middle Ages.? Van Bavel?s range of topics includes everything from soil types, hydrological projects, choice of grains between spelt, wheat, and rye, forms of lordship, technological innovations in agriculture and industry, labor contracting arrangements, the standard of living, biometric and material evidence from the archeological record, legal rights to land, the power of political authorities, the emergence of communes and guilds, processes of urbanization, the minting of coins, the location of trade routes and the products traded along them, disease, social unrest, household structure, and of course, the making of cloth.? This list is even so not comprehensive, but it conveys the right idea.? For any economic activity that took place in the medieval Low Countries, van Bavel?s book will be the go-to source for a long time to come.? This is especially helpful as much of the monographic work on which he relies for his own source material is written in languages not readily accessible to a global scholarly audience.?

As wonderfully rich as all this is, most readers of this review are likely to find the broader argument about the powerful continuities between the distant past and the present the most provocative aspect of van Bavel?s work.? Broadly speaking, his argument rests on three components.? First, he postulates that what he calls the ?socio-institutional organization of the economy,? more specifically ?the rules that govern exchange,? is the most productive explanation for economic development (p. 4).? Second, he argues that these factors can vary considerably across even relatively small areas.? Finally, he asserts that the socio-institutional characteristics of a community demonstrate remarkable persistence over the very long run.? Despite the seemingly logical intuition that beneficial institutions ought to be readily adopted by at least close neighbors, this seems not to have been in fact the case.? Instead, van Bavel finds evidence of substantial variation in the response of even micro-regions to similar economic opportunities and changes in climate or population, depending on the socio-institutional framework with which they began.? The attentive reader will of course worry about the problem of origins, but in this case much of the land in question was reclaimed from the sea or swamp over the long Middle Ages, so van Bavel can often build his case from the moment of the original period of settlement.? In the final analysis he finds in the medieval history of the Low Countries ?a clear demonstration of how great the degree of socio-institutional path dependency and long-term continuity in regional structures was? (p. 396).

It is his close attention to the remarkable complexity of regional variation that leads him to reject many of the other commonly proffered explanations for long term economic fluctuations found in the broader economic history literature.? So while he acknowledges the importance of technological change, climate shifts, and population movements for the specific experiences of economic actors, he is not willing to grant them explanatory power for economic development.? He argues that they are too blunt an instrument for parsing the remarkable geographic variation in outcome already witnessed in the Middle Ages.? For example he says of climate and demography that ?these factors often vary little over wide areas, whereas economic and social developments within these areas may differ widely? (p. 3).? Likewise with arguments about commercialization, which he admits seem especially attractive in discussing the history of the Low Countries, characterized as it was from an early date by large cities and unusually intensive trade networks.? All of these factors, ?climatic, geographical, demographic, and political,? had their impact of course, but those effects were ?directed? by the differing socio-institutional factors ?in divergent directions? (p. 387).? Not surprisingly, given this perspective, he also upends the more typical narrative about urbanization as a factor in economic development.? Instead of seeing urbanization as a cause of economic growth, he argues it was more likely the other way around.? Economic growth, especially as it concerned the agricultural sector, was the necessary precursor of rapid urban growth (p. 384).

What then were the critical socio-institutional factors to which we can attribute the largely successful economic development of the Low Countries, at least as measured by the standards of a wider medieval Europe?? The answer to this question is not always entirely clear.? But it seems safe to say that van Bavel gives particular pride of place to two factors:? ?a relatively efficient system of exchange combined with social balance? (p. 405).? His definition of an efficient system of exchange is straightforward enough.? It includes unhindered regional interaction, the presence of open and flexible markets, and the early disappearance of non-economic coercion (p. 11).?? But his understanding of what might constitute social balance is more elusive.? The closest he comes to a concrete definition is to say that social balance occurs directly when ?independent actors and their associations played an important social and economic role,? and indirectly when those actors have ?influence on the authorities? (p. 408).? The Low Countries were blessed with this ?social balance? on account of ?the large degree of freedom for ordinary people? that occurred quite early in their history (p. 409).?

In the final analysis then, we have a story about the medieval period that resonates closely with our understanding of what makes a modern economy work best: relatively unrestricted and autonomous individuals, with access to efficient and well integrated markets, whose worst instincts are held in check by social institutions that promote balance.? No wonder their world proved to be such a good predictor of ours — their world was essentially ours, just on a smaller scale.? Some readers might be daunted by the level of detail that van Bavel dives into in order to substantiate his most important fact: the incredible complexity and variety of micro-regional differences in social institutions in the medieval Low Countries.? But for those who persevere to the end of this long book, his is a happy, and persuasive, tale indeed.

1. Jack Goldstone, Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1500-1850, McGraw-Hill: 2008; Jan Luiten van Zanden, The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000-1800, Brill: 2009; Paolo Malanima, Pre-Modern European Economy: One Thousand Years (10th-19th Centuries), Brill: 2009; and Timur Kuran, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, Princeton University Press: 2010.
2. See for example, Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, University of Chicago Press: 2010; Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present, Cambridge University Press: 2008; or Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850, Yale University Press: 2010.
3. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press: 2008.

Anne E.C. McCants teaches medieval and early modern economic history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.? Her research interests in the Low Countries have ranged from historical demography to the role of social welfare institutions and the rise of consumer culture.? She is currently working on a project to explore the financial underpinnings of Gothic cathedral construction in the High Middle Ages.

Copyright (c) 2011 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (June 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century

Living Standards in Latin American History: Height, Welfare, and Development, 1750-2000

Author(s):Salvatore, Ricardo D.
Coatsworth, John H.
Challú, Amílcar E.
Reviewer(s):Salvucci, Richard

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Ricardo D. Salvatore, John H. Coatsworth and Am?lcar E. Chall?, editors, Living Standards in Latin American History: Height, Welfare, and Development, 1750-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. iii + 313 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-674-05585-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Richard Salvucci, Department of Economics, Trinity University.

In 1999, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) at Harvard University published a milestone work in the field of economic history, Latin America and the World Economy Since 1800.? I reviewed the book for EH.Net and concluded something to the effect that if you wanted to know where the action was in Latin American history, you had come to the right place. I hate to sound like a broken record, but I can?t help thinking much the same about this volume. Sixty percent of the book (measured crudely, by page count) is still about Argentina, Brazil and Mexico ? and whatever ?Latin America? is, it isn?t that. However, its authors are an altogether different group and part of a new generation of scholars, which is only fitting. While it is true that there were historians, especially of the ?Berkeley School,? who had concerned themselves with historical patterns of indigenous diet and nutrition in Mexico under the stress of European colonization, when Woodrow Borah died in 1999, his publications were still regarded as the best work on the subject.? The highest compliment I can pay to these authors is that Borah would have admired and appreciated their efforts as a decisive advance. For like its predecessor, Living Standards in Latin American History is pioneering work.

Mexico ???

Appropriately enough, the volume begins with two studies of Mexico, and even if they were not intended to be read together as a revisionist work, they amount to just that. Am?lcar Chall? and Morimay L?pez Alonso have given us two centuries of Mexican anthropometric history, and if they don?t precisely answer all the questions, they reframe the debate. Based on comparable archival records (from the military ? some draftees, others volunteers) and methods of analysis (Maximum Likelihood Estimation of Truncated Distributions), they tell a story something like the following. After 1730, the stature of the lower classes (especially peasants, but later, urban workers too) fell for nearly a century. Starting for generations born around 1830, there was a recovery until 1850, and then another fall for generations born around 1860 and continuing through 1880, after which there was some recovery through the outbreak of the Revolution in 1910. Whereas the Revolution of 1810 seems to have had little effect on stature (even though population losses, at perhaps a million people, were enormous), the Revolution of 1910 (with catastrophic losses placed as high as three million) exacted a cost in lost stature reflected in a sharp decline in life expectancy. Recovery did not begin until the generations of 1920 and 1930. The sample size after 1940 is too restricted to draw firm conclusions, although elsewhere, L?pez Alonso has cast some doubt on the ubiquity of the heyday of the so-called ?Mexican Miracle.?

I think economic historians will be arguing about the significance of these results for years, for they both support and contradict the long-standing thesis of the ?decline of Mexico,? which has now become something like conventional wisdom, although there are dissenters.? Nor do Chall? and L?pez Alonso propose merely some trivial modification of chronology. There is now reason to suspect that Mexican independence actually meant something, after being told for years that rupture in government and its institutions was an outdated fetish of political historians. Specifically, Chall? implies that the much-vaunted ?Bourbon Reforms? and their spectacular translation into mineral wealth and imperial revenues coincided with the start of an equally impressive decline in popular welfare. On the other hand, the disintegration of the Bourbon state, which may have approximated its nadir in the 1830s and 1840s, coincided with the first signs of a temporary recovery. It is probably deeply significant that our hesitant attempts to reach some approximation of the value of national output ? in truth, hardly much of an advance on what contemporaries could conjure up in the nineteenth century ? have suggested precisely the opposite. There are, it appears, lies, damned lies, and Mexican GDP.
Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile

Similar themes emerge in these essays. According to Adolfo Meisel and Margarita Vega, who employ a sample of nearly 16,000 passports, the standard of living in Colombia in 1870-1905 was stagnant, something reflected in the largely unchanged height of the Colombian elite. The general impression of a much-delayed onset of export-led growth is confirmed by very slow population growth (perhaps one percent per year) and essentially flat terms of trade.? If anything, the work of Meisel and Vega leads one to have somewhat greater confidence in the pre-1905 price data and population data, which are by no means as abundant as the passport data from the wide range of cities they employ.

The very loose association between stature and conventional measurements of national product is again taken up by Ricardo Salvatore in his study of Argentina between 1901 and 1940. To reduce Salvatore?s argument to its essentials, conventional macroeconomic indicators ? per capita GDP, exports, real wages ? provide rather different, and not necessarily consistent, measures of welfare, although the nature of the series themselves casts some doubt on whether rank-order correlations are necessarily the best way of disentangling them.? Nevertheless, after constructing Ordinal Quality of Life indices, Salvatore concludes that Argentines were unambiguously better off in 1929 than they had been in 1914. On the other hand, whether they were better off in 1914 than in 1901 is ambiguous, and depends on the measures of welfare chosen. But by 1939 Argentines were unambiguously better off than they had been in 1901. Salvatore has underscored the point that neither stature nor GDP can possibly be considered decisive measures of welfare, although presumably, to have been better off in 1939 than 1901 you still had to be breathing. Death and the long run require no introduction to readers of this review.

The paper on growth and inequalities of height in Brazil by Leonardo Monasterio and his coauthors is, by contrast, somewhat more conventional. Its principal focus is the dimensions of inequality, social, ethnic and geographical, and their reflection in anthropometric data. In a way, the results are less controversial, for they find that severe inequalities at personal and regional levels affected the height of Brazilians between 1939 and 1981.? It will be very interesting to see the extent to which the recent, much ballyhooed surge in Brazilian growth and the ostensible reduction in the country?s persistently deep inequalities show up in the anthropometric data as well. Realistically, what better confirmation could there be of whether or not reduction of poverty and inequality in Brazil in the twenty-first century ? as it is portrayed in the international media ? has occurred.?

Luis B?rtola and his coauthors are not concerned with anthropometric issues per se, but are rather involved with questions of convergence and its estimation, and of human development indices rather than of rates of income growth per se. For Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, their analysis also makes the reasonable supposition that inequality matters (although historical cynicism inclines me to wonder if more could not be explained by elite efforts to maintain inequality in some countries rather than to reduce it, at least until rather recently). But by all accounts the results of their exercise, which is explicitly concerned with issues of data specification and measurement, are provocative. To the extent that there is a consensus view, it has been that convergence in Latin America occurred mostly between 1940 and 1980, rather than before or (at least until 2000) since. For B?rtola and his coauthors, the effect largely disappears under disparities in measured educational achievement, a very significant and suggestive result in light of recent discussions of the decline of inequality in Latin America.? For this reason, this is a paper that merits wide reading and debate: it goes to the heart of some of the more interesting explanations for the recent ?end of poverty,? if not end of history discussions in the financial press that have left some observers shaking their heads.

James McGuire?s work on Chile is not anthropometric either, but it raises pertinent questions about what he terms the ?wealthier is healthier? conjecture. Even though democratic Chile was relatively affluent in 1960, infant mortality was high and life expectancy unexpectedly low, in part because the state responded to the organized demands of urban constituencies rather than concern itself with basic needs or absolute poverty. Ironically, much of this changed under the harshly repressive government of August Pinochet (1973-1990), although historians familiar with public health campaigns in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy might not be shocked by the coincidence. Whatever the case, McGuire makes it clear that the military government targeted the poorest areas in Chile for a larger share of public spending, with impressive results, including a 70 percent decline in infant mortality from 1974 to 1983. To the question of whether democratic governments necessarily improve public health, McGuire?s answer is necessarily ambiguous.


The paper by Luis R?os and Barry Bogin covers disturbingly similar ground, and then some. By and large, there is very little anthropometric evidence for an improvement in twentieth century Guatemala, and much to the contrary. Guatemalan migrants to the United States do better, at least in terms of body size and stature, which suggests that the facile characterization of indigenous peoples as ?short but healthy? misses the point, let alone a measure of lost human potential. But even worse, the skeletal evidence for the pre-contact population, while admittedly based on small samples and resulting in indirect projections of stature, suggests that the nutritional and disease environment for the ancient Maya were less stressful than for their twentieth century descendants. If there is anything that encapsulates the dismal view of the consequences of modernization that many historians of Latin America harbor in some recess of their consciousness, surely this paper provides some explanation. Yes, there is a lot of naive romanticism in the prelapsarian view of the Americas as a world that the Europeans destroyed. But as Freud is said to have famously remarked, ?The paranoid is never entirely mistaken.? I would like to know what Woodrow Borah, who thought somewhat differently, would have made of this paper.


The volume provides no overall conclusion, so the reader is more or less left to consider its implications on his or her own. Surely, there are plenty of provocative directions in which this fine, path-breaking collection could lead us. One that immediately occurred to me is its relation to the ongoing debate over declining inequality in Latin America since 2000.? I am really not competent to bring the findings of those scholars into this anthropometric perspective, but it is hard not to be struck by the fact that we are essentially being asked to believe that generations, if not centuries of a particular pattern ? a ?colonial heritage? ? have been permanently reversed in a decade, and in some cases, by nothing more than imaginative and sophisticated, but nevertheless relatively basic Conditional Cash Transfer programs in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, to name only those with which I have some familiarity. Was it really that easy (or that difficult)? Or do we conclude that virtually every misguided policy had to be exhausted in a sort of chronicle of political, ideological and technical ineptitude before emerging from absolute poverty and profound inequalities was possible? Did we really have to put the people of ?Latin America? through colonial repression, national revolution, liberal reformism and lost decades of structural adjustment before we could get them back to square one? After 500 years? I want to say ?I hope not,? but sad to say, I?m afraid so.

Richard Salvucci is writing a history of the Lizardi Brothers in Mexico, the United States, Great Britain and Europe from 1750 through 1890. He is the author of Politics, Markets and Mexico?s ?London Debt,? 1823-1887 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Copyright (c) 2011 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (June 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Paying for the Liberal State: The Rise of Public Finance in Nineteenth-Century Europe

Author(s):Cardoso, José Luís
Lains, Pedro
Reviewer(s):Dincecco, Mark

Published by EH.NET (August 2010)

Jos? Lu?s Cardoso and Pedro Lains, editors, Paying for the Liberal State: The Rise of Public Finance in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xii + 310 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-51852-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Dincecco, IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies.


Paying for the Liberal State is a novel collection of case studies about the development of modern systems of public finance in core and peripheral European countries from the start of the nineteenth century to the eve of World War I. The work is edited by Jos? Lu?s Cardoso and Pedro Lains, both Research Professors at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon. The contributors are prominent scholars in European economic history.

By my count, Paying for the Liberal State makes three key contributions. Prior to its publication, there was no book-length investigation of the development of public finances in Europe after 1815. I view Paying for the Liberal State as a nineteenth-century counterpart to works on pre-modern public finances like The Rise of the Fiscal State in Europe, 1200-1815, edited by Richard Bonney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). With its focus on detailed case histories, Paying for the Liberal State also complements the cross-country, econometrics-oriented literature that covers the classic gold standard era from the 1870s to 1913. Finally, by providing a clear and accessible account of the evolution of public finances over the long run, Paying for the Liberal State will be of use to scholars in neighboring disciplines that study the interplay between politics and fiscal change. I describe other notable attributes of this book throughout my review.

The chapter ordering of Paying for the Liberal State runs according to relative fiscal sophistication. Britain represents the benchmark tax system. According to contributor Martin Daunton, the establishment of parliamentary budgetary control in 1688 was just one of many steps towards the creation of a fiscal regime that was truly legitimate in the eyes of taxpayers. Changes in tax composition, the extension of voter franchise, and instances of political leadership over the nineteenth century were also crucial elements to engender public trust.

Lack of legitimacy was one feature that distinguished the fiscal systems on the European continent from that of Britain. The chapter on the Netherlands by Jan Luiten van Zanden and Arthur van Riel draws heavily from their recent book (The Strictures of Inheritance: The Dutch Economy in the Nineteenth Century, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). Van Zanden and van Riel provide a useful timeline of Continental political processes over the nineteenth century: the restoration of absolutist rulers after 1815, the transition to liberalism in the 1840s, and the extension of voting rights from the 1870s onwards. Their analysis of the failure of the ?enlightened? autocrat William I (reign, 1815-40) illustrates how transparency and political representation helped create a credible tax regime. Van Zanden and van Riel?s description of the importance of colonial possessions like Indonesia to the sustainability of Dutch finances is also of particular interest. The chapter on France by Bonney emphasizes two related factors that prevented nineteenth-century fiscal innovations. The longevity of an oligarchic social order, coupled with the broad failure of population growth, slowed the establishment of public trust in the French tax system.

The next chapters are dedicated to polities east of the Rhine River, where issues of state formation were crucial. The contribution by Mark Spoerer on Germany neatly describes the political geography of the German territories before unification in 1871. Spoerer concentrates on Prussia, the largest nineteenth-century state, and W?rttemberg, an example of the sort of impersonal tax systems that prevailed in the South. His discussion of tax competition and free-riding among pre-unitary polities should be of particular interest to political economists. The chapter on Italy by Giovanni Federico illustrates how the aggressive pre-unitary state of Piedmont made fiscal innovations to further its nationalistic ambitions. Federico also documents the continuity between Piedmontese tax institutions and those in the Kingdom of Italy, established in 1861, as well as the shortcomings of Piedmontese (and later, Italian) fiscal policies. The chapter on Austria-Hungary by Michael Pammer provides a lucid account of tax differences within the vast Empire. In contrast to Germany and Italy, Pammer?s work shows how fiscal problems can lead to the dissolution of states.

The remaining case studies are devoted to other aspects of the European experience. The chapter on Sweden by Lennart Sch?n highlights the unique features of its fiscal system. Peasants were represented in parliament since late medieval times and played an important role in Swedish politics, often forming alliances with the king against the nobility. The link between the traditional political power of the peasantry and the modern Swedish welfare state illustrates how history can influence current outcomes. Surprisingly, Swedish public finances relied upon archaic tax structures including payments in kind through most of the nineteenth century. The chapter on Spain by Francisco Com?n describes the interplay between politics and public finances in great detail. Negative political shocks including civil war repeatedly undermined efforts to enact fiscal reforms, no matter how important they may have been. The chapter on Portugal by Cardoso and Lains follows suit. Their take on the excruciating process of institutional change over the nineteenth century is sympathetic, as Portugal (like Spain) was ultimately able to establish modern fiscal structures.

The conclusion by Larry Neal employs comparative analysis to bring together the divergent case studies. Neal makes compelling use of Harley Hinrichs? classic model of tax transformation from traditional to modern economies (A General Theory of Tax Structure Change during Economic Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966). His contrast between Britain and the European continent is of particular interest. Drawing upon the carefully-established results from previous chapters, Neal argues that it was difficult to transfer British fiscal institutions abroad, though they were widely recognized as superior. This subtle point has implications for current policy debates: if Anglo tax structures were not easily replicated throughout Europe, with its shared history of economic and political traditions, then we might think that it will be even harder to export updated versions of them to the modern developing world, which has diverse historical legacies.

In total, Paying for the Liberal State is a valuable addition to the historical literature on European public finance. Jean-Laurent Rosenthal claims that the main policy problem for governments since 1800 has been to design and implement growth-enhancing fiscal strategies (Review of The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, by Robert Allen. Journal of Economic History 70, no. 1 [2010]: 242-5). Through its detailed evaluation of the diverse ways in which nineteenth-century governments taxed, borrowed, and spent public funds, Paying for the Liberal State provides insights that help us to better understand this key challenge. By and large the book does not use the language or tools of modern political economics to frame its analysis. Now that a coherent set of case histories are in place, however, there is ample opportunity for enterprising research that builds upon the solid foundations that Paying for the Liberal State sets.


Mark Dincecco is Assistant Professor in the research area of Economics and Institutional Change at IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies, located in Tuscany. His current manuscript, under contract with Cambridge University Press, examines political transformations and public finances in Europe from 1650 to 1913. Email:

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History

Author(s):North, Douglass C.
Wallis, John Joseph
Weingast, Barry R.
Reviewer(s):Margo, Robert A.

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Published by EH.NET (June 2009)

Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History.? New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. vii + 308 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-76173-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert A. Margo, Department of Economics, Boston University.


One recent Sunday morning my wife and I were reading the New York Times.? ?Darling,? she said, ?have you noticed how often the word ?iconic? appears in the Times lately??

I looked up from the Arts section.? ?Hmm — you?re right! Everything and everybody is iconic these days.? Wonder what it means.?? She looked bemused as if I were insufficiently caffeinated.? ?Iconic — an icon perhaps??

If anyone is iconic in the economic history world Doug North certainly qualifies (along with Robert Fogel, Stanley Engerman, and a few others).? In my book people are iconic if I can summarize their life?s work in ten words or less.? North takes two: ?Institutions matter?.? The opposite perspective — viewed in isolation most institutions don?t matter much, being Harberger triangles and small ones at that — has its fans in modern economics.? But North has convinced the majority of economic historians, a goodly share of world?s development wonks, and the Nobel Prize Committee that he?s right.

I was taught by Robert Fogel to be catholic in my tastes and respectful of my elders. Hence for a while I read each North book that came along.?? But eventually I became frustrated — the books seemed ever more repetitious, with less and less in the way of real economic history.

Anyone who feels like I do should read Violence and Social Orders.? This time, North is joined by two prominent and strong-minded co-authors, John Wallis and Barry Weingast.? Their collaboration has been fruitful.?? Wallis has written many important articles on the growth of government and, equally important, has helped produce fundamental long-term data series from archival sources.? He remains grounded in the nitty-gritty of history no matter where his theoretical musings take him.? Weingast is a political scientist of real and lasting distinction, the co-author (with North) of a celebrated paper in the Journal of Economic History.?? (North is the Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts and Sciences at Washington University at St. Louis; Wallis is Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland; and Weingast is the Ward C. Krebs Professor of Political Science at Stanford University.)

After a brief preface, Violence is divided into seven chapters.? Chapter one, ?The Conceptual Framework,? sets the stage and effectively summarizes the book?s arguments.? This is a book about the organization of society.? North and co-authors (NWW, hereafter) concentrate on two ?social orders? — limited access or ?natural states? versus ?open access? orders.?? Open access orders offer their members a high and growing standard of living, lots of organizations, a bigger but more decentralized government, and equal treatment under rule of law.? Limited access orders offer a lower standard of living, a consequence of lower trend growth and a more volatile growth rate; less social capital and fewer organizations; and limited, if any access to the polity, because the polity is based on privilege and unequal treatment.? Organizations matter because North has been and always will be a Smithian — growth is about the division of labor.? Division of labor goes hand in hand with organizations — the pin factory, after all, was a firm.

In NWW?s view, the fundamental problem that any social order must solve is the problem of violence.? If I cannot prevent you from stealing my freshly-killed game or, worse, killing me, I do not have much of an incentive to engage in trade with you.? For people to form groups of size capable of generating aggregate economies of scale they must be convinced that threats of violence within the group do not overwhelm the benefits from group formation.? The first time this happens in human history in a big way is when limited access social orders form.

In a limited access social order some individuals — ?elites? — are assumed to be endowed with a comparative advantage in violence.? NWW envision a scenario in which the elites simultaneously ?lay down their arms? — that is, refrain from violence.? The ?limited? in limited access means that people other than elites are on the scene.? For the sake of argument, let?s call them ?peasants.?? The peasants get something from the elites — protection from marauding bandits that they pay for by tilling the lands, for example, under the control of the elites (shades of North and Thomas!)? But the peasants cannot readily join the elites — the elites are the coalition that keeps the group together.?? The elites may grant privileges, rights, and so on to each other but these are always under the shadow of the gun; the natural state is an ?adherent organization? meaning that interactions among elites must be incentive compatible at all points in time.?

The limited access order may do some things quite well.? It maintains order, and it may even keep the peasants? bellies full.? A priestly class, one that helps with rent distribution, may generate a belief system that keeps the peasants happy even if they are not that well fed.? But the limited access order does not permit organizations to form freely, nor does it treat people equally.? In NWW these features of the limited access social order create incentives that limit at the margin, for example, innovation.? However, the limits the limited access order imposes on the problem of stemming violence are essential such that, if they were not imposed, the order would dissolve.?

Next, NWW describe open access social orders.? An open access order has a positive rate of economic growth and a low degree of volatility to its growth rate.? This is important because economic growth is something that happens in the long run.?? An open access order controls violence in a very different way from the natural state.? In the open access order there are separate, ?third party? organizations — the military, the police, and the courts — that control violence.? However, these organizations do not operate independently nor do they operate at the caprice of politicians.? They are constrained by institutions — rules of the game — as are the politicians.? No individual is above the law. Open access means that politics and, more broadly, organizations are free-entry in the sense of economics.? Moreover, the right to form an organization is defined ?impersonally? — one does not need to seek a privilege.? Impersonality plus equality under the law facilitates the formation of new organizations.? NWW are careful not to claim causality but they clearly think that more organizations (more social capital) are better.? Rent seeking occurs in the open access order but it is more likely to be growth enhancing and to benefit large numbers of people than in the natural state.

The 64 trillion dollar question is:? How do we get from the natural state to the open access order? According to NWW this cannot happen without three ?doorstep? conditions.? These collectively describe a more or less open access order among the elites.?? Elites must be ready and willing to treat each other impersonally; there should be rule of law among elites, if not the rest of the population; and elites, as a group, should have control over a military.? Once these conditions are met the transition to open access can take place fairly quickly in historical time.

The remaining chapters of the book flesh out these ideas in greater detail.? The chapters follow a similar protocol — the theory is embellished and illustrated by examples from history, often very wide ranging in time and place.?? Chapter two elaborates on the natural state, drawing on the Aztecs and Charlemagne for examples of state formation, and France and England in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries for mature examples of the form.? The evolution of English land law, crucial to the emergence of secure property rights, is the subject of chapter three.? Open access orders are explored in greater detail in chapters four and five and crucial transitions in Britain, France, and the United States are covered in chapter six.? Chapter seven concludes by recapitulating the main points and by arguing that a proper political economy must recognize the complex, symbiotic relationship between political and economic development.

Although I think that Violence has a lot going for it, that is not to say it is a successful book overall.? It is useful, in my opinion, to contrast NWW with another work of ?big think,? Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson?s Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.? This is fair because NWW do so themselves in their book. Imagine that yours truly is to teach a graduate class on ?Institutions and Economic Performance.?? My goal is to train students to do independent research.? Which of these two works would better serve as a text? For me the answer is easy — Acemoglu and Robinson.

The reason I prefer Acemoglu and Robinson has to do with a core failing of NWW as economics.? Violence goes beyond earlier North by providing a better taxonomy for what he has been writing about since forever.? No question this is worthwhile:? economic historians have a clearer language for describing crucial features that distinguish one society from another.? However, NWW do not really provide an operative equilibrium theory of natural versus open access orders derived from the ?bottom up? (micro-behavior) or of the transition from one to the other in ways that are useful to researchers like me. They purport to think in game theoretic terms but they do not ?do? game theory.? Here the contrast with Acemoglu and Robinson is telling (and decisive, in my opinion). ?One can either like or dislike Acemoglu and Robinson?s specific dynamic games but at least they are there on the page to be debated.? Not so with NWW.? In this sense, chapter seven is very premature in its title (?A New Agenda for the Social Sciences?).

Although I do not think NWW is particular useful as a practical blueprint for research beyond taxonomy I emphasize that many of the ideas in the book have merit and are worthy of further exploration, particularly in a policy setting where formal theory (as opposed to ideas) may be counterproductive.? Above all, the notion that one cannot simply ?get rid? of the superficial exterior of natural states and thereby uncover the beating heart of an open access order yearning to be free is the book?s most important idea, and profound.


Robert A. Margo is Professor of Economics at Boston University.?? He recently stepped down as editor of Explorations in Economic History.

Copyright (c) 2009 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (June 2009). All EH.Net reviews are archived at


Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Common Land, Wine and the French Revolution: Rural Society and Economy in Southern France, c. 1789-1820

Author(s):Plack, Noelle
Reviewer(s):Liebowitz, Jonathan J.

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Published by EH.NET (June 2010)

Noelle Plack, Common Land, Wine and the French Revolution: Rural Society and Economy in Southern France, c. 1789-1820.? Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. xiv + 215 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6728-5.

Reviewed by Jonathan J. Liebowitz, Department of History, University of Massachusetts Lowell.


Since Arthur Young and the physiocrats, common land has been regarded as a burden on agriculture.[1]? Because no individual had a property right to the commons, all villagers would pasture more animals than it could sustain and overuse it.? In Young?s eyes, common lands were a sorry sight, run down and desolate, a picture that Garrett Hardin?s famous article, ?The Tragedy of the Commons.? has helped transform into a stylized fact of modern economics.[2]

From social history comes the other widely accepted fact about common land, that poor peasants needed it for survival — grazing for their animals, wood for fires — and resisted enclosure. The loss of the commons is said to have doomed them to proletarianization.?

Recently these conclusions have been challenged.? Historians have discovered that early modern farmers were as smart as modern economists and understood the dangers of an unregulated commons.? To avoid overgrazing, villages limited how many animals could be pastured.? And rather than the poor, it was often the wealthy, with large herds of animals, who benefited from the unenclosed commons.

Noelle Plack, senior lecturer at Newman University College in Birmingham, UK, accepts the conclusions of the last group of scholars.? Her thesis it is that the privatization of the commons begun during the Revolution gave peasants in southern France, specifically in the department of the Gard, land for the vineyards that transformed wine production in nineteenth century France.? Though this argument calls for an emphasis on the connection between privatization and wine production, the actual focus of the book is on the privatization process itself.? For a brief volume of 159 pages of text, it is unfortunate that the author felt the need to cover both national legislation and its local consequences.? She could have made a greater contribution had she focused on the latter topic, which, as she herself writes, is where research is needed.

Instead, the bulk of the book is a detailed narration of the legislative activity that affected the status of the commons from the start of the Revolution through the early post-Napoleonic years.? Plack begins just after 1789 when the revolutionaries set about to put into practice their belief that common lands should be eliminated because they were a drag on agriculture.? The revolutionaries wanted to privatize them, but how much to give each family or individual proved contentious.? The radical Jacobins decreed in the law of June 10, 1793 that all inhabitants of a commune should share the land equally, but it remains uncertain how much the law was put into practice.? Plack?s evidence shows that only 18 out of 361 communes in the Gard actually carried out the division of the commons (p. 83).

When the conservatives and then Napoleon took power, further division of the commons was halted because of property holders? concern that their rights were threatened by the 1793 decree.? Those who had gained land under that decree and even so-called usurpers (who occupied land without following official procedures) were able to keep it.? Further decrees of the Napoleonic and early Restoration eras moved additional land to private ownership.

Plack?s history of the French Revolution and common land is mostly told from the perspective of the various Parisian legislative and administrative organs.? It follows closely and adds little to Nadine Vivier?s presentation in Propri?t? collective et identit? communale: Les biens communaux en France 1750-1914 (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1998), which she frequently cites.

The original feature of the book is its focus on privatization in a single department, the Gard, which Plack introduces at the start in best Annales fashion.? Situated on the Mediterranean coast just west of the Rhone River, its territory included the marshy Camargue, near the sea; a fertile plain inland from that; bushy scrub known as garrigues; and the rugged C?vennes Mountains.? With the diverse terrain came diversity in the regional economy.? Not only wheat, but grapes, olives, and in the C?vennes chestnuts were grown.? Silk had been important, but it, along with livestock, was declining in the late eighteenth century.? ?Almost everyone? owned some land, but there were considerable divisions between the owners of tiny plots (0-1 hectares) at one extreme and those whose properties exceeded 40 hectares at the other (p. 28). The land that no one owned, that is the commons, was mostly used for pasture.? It comprised about 14% of the total area of the department in 1846 when it was first measured.? Access to the commons was determined by the amount of taxes paid, but the landless were allowed to pasture a few beasts.? Because of its central role in animal husbandry, the commons was vital to the functioning of the agricultural economy.? Plack provides the reader with a well crafted sketch of the Gard landscape as it appeared on the eve of the Revolutionary changes.?? Where there are gaps, like the important absence of data on the extent of pre-Revolution common land, these derive from gaps in the sources themselves

Plack returns to rural economy and society in her conclusions.? Since a significant portion of the Gard?s villages (42%) were affected by privatization and much of the former commons (about half), especially the garrigues, was converted to vineyards, she believes it legitimate to conclude that ?the origins of the ?viticultural revolution? that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century in southern France can be traced back to the Revolution of 1789 and its legislation to privatize common land? (pp. 150-151).??

She may well be right.? Certainly the understanding of the department she has gained from her deep immersion in its archives and other sources is impressive.? Yet evidence of the link she posits is sparse.? There is room for her in future work to study vineyards in the Gard and the even more productive neighboring H?rault to determine whether the privatized commons did lead the way in the expansion of viticulture.


1. Note that Plack and therefore the present discussion is about land held undivided, not about common rights over property otherwise used individually (as in open fields).

2. Garrett Hardin, ?The Tragedy of the Commons,? Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (13 December 1968), 1243-1248


Jonathan J. Liebowitz is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts — Lowell.? His research interest is French agriculture during the late nineteenth century with an emphasis on responses to the crisis of that time and on land tenure.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century