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Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian

Author(s):Sarris, Peter
Reviewer(s):Gregory, Timothy E.

Published by EH.NET (June 2009)

Peter Sarris, Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xi + 258 pp. $88 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-86543-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy E. Gregory. Department of History, Ohio State University.

A detailed monograph on the economy and society of a part of the Byzantine Empire might not encourage a large and enthusiastic readership. Well, this book should do so, both because the history of the Byzantine empire deserves to be better known and because this carefully crafted book has much food for thought in the context of the contemporary economic situation. Sarris?s work is based on deep research in the voluminous papyrus archives of early Byzantine Egypt (fifth to seventh centuries A.D.) and the introductory material is rather rough going for the reader not familiar with this sort of detail. The core of the book is a social and administrative analysis of the workings of the estates of the wealthy and powerful Apion family, whose land holdings centered on Oxyrynchus in Middle Egypt but had expanded to include properties in Constantinople and Sicily. Sarris uses the surviving, frequently fragmentary papyrus documents to paint a picture of how these estates were divided between lands that were operated for the direct benefit of the family and those that were rented out to poor farmers who were essentially chained to the plots they farmed. The author provides considerable detail about how the estates were administered and by whom, arguing that individuals of a ?middle? economic and social status were the primary administrators, who effectively demanded productivity and loyalty from those under their jurisdiction. The landowners themselves had mainly risen from relatively lowly origins but by the fourth century A.D. they had become enormously wealthy and they frequently obtained high imperial positions, and these allowed them to use the power of the state, as well as their own wealth, to pursue their interests and maintain control over the vast populace living and working on their lands. All this seems rather dry, but since the evidence Sarris uses is individual documents (accounting lists, contracts, letters, petitions, and orders) the book provides fascinating details not only about administrative structures but also about the kinds of people who lived on the estates and significant detail about their individual lives. Sarris concludes that the Apion family grew more and more powerful as time went on and as their holdings increased their control over large numbers of people became nearly absolute.

All of this is extremely interesting, but Sarris claims much more. In fact, he argues that the situation in Oxyrynchus existed in lesser or greater degree in all of rural Egypt, and that it reflected the basic economic and social conditions throughout the whole of the eastern Mediterranean in this same period. In a useful but not well-integrated chapter Sarris provides a long discussion of the historiography on the nature of Egyptian rural economy in this period, varying from the view of Hardy and Bell, who emphasized the negative (proto-feudal) character of the landowning aristocracy, to Rouillard and Johnson and West, who argued for an efflorescence of the peasants in the same period. Sarris himself clearly follows the views of R?mondon and Gascou, who argued that the state encouraged the transfer of many public institutions to the great landowners. Particularly significant is Sarris?s observation that the growing power of the extraordinarily wealthy was one of the most characteristic phenomena of the age and that it determined most of the major events of the succeeding centuries. Thus, in his view, much of Justinian?s reign is understandable only as a serious attempt to put a halt to this development and to reassert direct state control over many areas of life. This involved ferocity in tax collection and direct supervision of the aristocrats, as well as a policy of deliberate reduction in the ratio between the copper coins and gold, something which would have given the poor and working class a real economic benefit. All these policies, however, led to bitter hatred on the part of the aristocrats, discernable in Prokopios and elsewhere. In addition, Justinian encountered serious economic problems, beginning with the appearance of plague in 541 and the resulting drastic decrease in population and a severe shortfall in state income. Beginning in the reign of Justin II (565-78) the situation turned once more, and among other things the drastic reversal of the internal exchange rate indicates the triumph of the aristocrats and the economic devastation of the poor. This, in turn, had negative impact on the soldiers and the ordinary citizens, who had to depend on the copper coinage, and their dissatisfaction may have contributed significantly to the social unrest at the very end of the sixth century and the military collapses against the Persians and the Arabs in the seventh centuries.

Sarris?s arguments are fascinating and they demand serious consideration. His detailed discussion of documents from the Apion archive is convincing in terms of its reconstruction of the system used in the administration of the properties of the family, and this may be the most important contribution of the book. His broader conclusions are somewhat less easy to accept, especially his attempt to see the emergence of aristocratic dominance as an empire-wide phenomenon. In addition, the organization of the book is a little rough, and the individual chapters lack coherence and development. But this is an important work deserving to be read by all who have an interest in the pre-modern economy and the relationship between economic and political developments.

Timothy E. Gregory (gregory.4@osu.edu), is Professor of Byzantine History at Ohio State University and Director of the OSU Excavations at Isthmia, in Greece.

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

Migration and Inequality in Germany, 1870-1913

Author(s):Grant, Oliver
Reviewer(s):Wegge, Simone A.

Published by EH.NET (April 2009)

Oliver Grant, Migration and Inequality in Germany, 1870-1913. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. vii + 406 pp. $199.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-927656-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Simone A. Wegge, Department of Economics, College of Staten Island ? City University of New York.

In this impressive work, Grant explores the economic transition that Germany underwent during its period of industrialization. The Kehrite School, inspired by a doctoral thesis Eckart Kehr published in 1930, has argued that prior to 1914 Germany did not make necessary and important social changes that would have modernized German democratic society and made government more accountable and accessible to non-elites, the vast majority of the German population.

Here, Grant presents an alternative view, namely that Germany was not that different or special in the challenges it faced in moving from an agricultural economy to a more industrial one. The country faced many of the typical problems that a developing country goes through when industrializing, including a surplus of labor, shifting demographics, a migrant population, and changing land tenure systems. Throughout the book, the author applies the Lewis model of labor surplus from development economics and finds again and again that it is very suitable for describing the evolution of the German economy and specifically how internal migration can fit in a stage-of-growth story.

While Grant?s main objective is to counter the Kehrite view and convince the reader that Germany faced ?normal? problems over which its politicians had little control, the largest part of the book, eight of the ten chapters, is not about political history but instead about how agriculture, industry, income inequality, and demographics changed over the course of four decades or so. Only the first and last chapters deal specifically with the sociopolitical economy of Germany. As such, the first and last chapters seem somewhat divorced from the middle eight chapters.

Grant?s work provides an explanation as to how the migration decisions of many Germans were related to the economic transformations taking place in the German economy. As the German economy expanded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many workers had to make adjustments in leaving declining businesses and occupations and taking up better-paid ones in other parts of Germany or the world. By 1895 German emigration had decreased substantially from its heyday, and more Germans could find employment somewhere at home.

At the outset of Migration and Inequality, Grant suggests that Germany be considered among the group of late-stage developers like Russia, Italy and Spain, all of which adopted British technology. However, by 1890 Germany had a GDP per capita that was substantially larger than that of all three of these countries (Crafts, 1984, 440, Table 1). Using a Chernery-Syrquin framework, Crafts considers Germany to have industrialized later than Britain and Belgium but around the same time as France and well ahead of Italy, Russia and Spain (Crafts, 1984, 448-9). A bit more consideration of such findings would have been helpful.

In Chapter 3 Grant presents some of his main results on internal migration as it was affected by an economy on the path to industrialization. Here he provides a picture of who moved in and who moved out, and how the long-distance migration flows were related differentially to agriculture, industry and especially railroad building. He uses a number of sources, most of which are aggregated statistics previously published, but his key results in this chapter are based mostly on one city, Berlin. I would have preferred that he had examined more cities. He could at least have framed the results in light of other recent works on internal German migration such as Hochstadt (1999) on D?sseldorf and Jackson (1997) on the Ruhr Valley, a hotbed of industrial activity at this time. Both works are listed in the bibliography, but more effort towards placing his findings in the context of these works would have made this an even more valuable study.

Grant?s work also places a large emphasis on internal migration and less so on Germans who left for overseas destinations. Migration is analyzed at a macro and not at the micro level. This approach misses insights on selection patterns that could be gained from looking at how migrants differed from non-migrants. Of course, migration history is an enormous subject, and no single book on migration history can be all things to all scholars.

Chapter 4 expands on this work by describing what important variables influenced internal migration. Agricultural areas lost more than urban areas, as a significant amount of the internal migration consisted of classic rural-urban moves. Further, people were more likely to leave places with lots of large farms, a close proximity to cities and high rates of productivity growth in agriculture. Grant tackles demographic issues in Chapter 5. All sorts of demographic variables differed by region, with the upshot that after 1870, population growth was higher in the east than in the south: although both regions experienced sizable emigration flows the east still lost more people than the south, partly due to a much higher percentage of women who never married in the south.

With a heavy emphasis on eastern Germany, Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the popular view of nineteenth-century social scientists that there was something backward about the prevalence of large estates and a property-less agricultural labor force in the east when peasants in the rest of Germany tended to own their own holdings. Grant argues that higher wages in the urban centers convinced many young people in the east to abandon their parents? way of life, which prompted estate owners to seek seasonal laborers from Poland. Wages were low in the east partly because landowners had a substitute labor force.

Grant finds other evidence that migration in the decades after 1870 represented a release of surplus labor from conditions of underemployment, as the Lewis model predicts. Regions of high productivity growth in the agricultural sector were correlated with higher migration rates: as farmers became more productive they needed fewer workers. At the same time though, the product mix changed, towards more labor?intensive activities like root crops (sugar beets) and livestock. With suspected widespread underemployment across Germany many in agricultural areas could still be employed, and in the east a cheap seasonal labor force was available for such crops.

Grant also argues that in the 1870s and 1880s migration was more likely to take place from communities with high population densities, which validates the prediction of the Lewis Model he presents in Chapter 1. This result should be considered with some caution, as it is based on a regression with basically just one right-hand-side variable, population density. What else could be driving migration rates?

In Chapter 8, Grant finally discusses the process of industrialization in more detail, focusing on capital markets and Germany?s changing terms of trade as related to exports. ?Inequality,? part of what is promised by the book?s title, is finally tackled in Chapter 9, where Grant calculates Gini coefficients from Prussian tax statistics. Inequality was never that high in Germany but ironically it was higher in the urban sector than in the rural sector. Grant finds evidence for a Kuznets Curve and argues that his findings fit within the perspectives of Kuznets, Lewis and Weber.

Grant covers a lot of ground in his book. There are dozens and dozens of different tables and regression estimates spread throughout this work. Like a good detective he has dusted off many existing studies and sources of data from government and journal publications, many published more than a century ago and many of which have undergone little sophisticated treatment. By using modern statistical and regression analysis he sheds new light on these previously published sources. In fact there are so many tables and maps, I wish he had devoted a few pages to listing them in an organized fashion. He also goes out of his way to make this work user-friendly by placing most of the econometric results in the appendices and explaining their economic and social significance in the main body of each chapter. This feature makes the book very accessible to a variety of social and economic historians.

While he refers to long-standing debates stemming from the scholarship of Max Weber, Eckart Kehr and Kuznets, there could be more reference to the debates that economic historians are currently engaged in. As I mentioned above, comparison with Crafts? work would have been desirable. Using the insights of recent studies on internal migration within Germany would also have been helpful. Further, while Grant spends time comparing land ownership institutions between Britain and Germany, it would have been intriguing to know more about his thoughts on Britain?s own experience with a surplus of labor. Contrasting his findings with those of Baines (1985) would have been interesting, and perhaps this may provide Grant with an idea for further work.

In spite of these quibbles, Grant lays down piece by piece the argument that between 1870 and 1913, Germany was going through economic adjustment problems, and that these should be considered as a normal part of most industrialization processes, both historical and contemporary. This is the thesis of the book. Importantly, he argues that the Kehrite School, which viewed Germany as deeply flawed, has overlooked relevant economic realities and focused too much on internal political problems. Without trade, for instance, Germany could not have industrialized, as self-sufficiency would have entailed a higher agricultural labor force and allowed fewer for the factories. Here Germany needed food imports, which it supported with a moderate level of protection. Even the Kaiser acknowledged this.

Grant thus comes to reject the Kehrite School view that Germany suffered from internal socioeconomic flaws and could not make adequate political progress. Instead, he states on page 354 that ?the path to democracy was getting easier, not more difficult.? He goes further to conclude that ?The events of 1914 represented a derailment …? He thus provides his own particular views on the Sonderweg debate in German history, which attempts to trace the political-economic origins of the Nazi catastrophe. Luckily for him, his book ends in 1913. If we are to accept Grant?s view and reject the Kerite perspective that German sociopolitical evolution was misguided, we need a roadmap that takes us through World War I and further ? food for thought for future research.

For those interested in a case study of long-term economic development and transition, Grant provides a very interesting example in the form of Germany in the late nineteenth century. Germany industrialized inordinately quickly and came to dominate Europe not only economically but obviously politically in the twentieth century. Economic historians need to understand this particular case and compare it to others. Grant succeeds admirably in showing that it is relevant that we characterize historical processes accurately, both to understand the past and to examine carefully how socioeconomic evolution affects later periods. Lastly, Grant has provided a work that reminds economists and others of what insights they can gain on economic growth and political history by examining economic history.

References:

Baines, Dudley. Migration in a Mature Economy: Emigration and Internal Migration in England and Wales, 1861-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Crafts, N. F. R. 1984. ?Patterns of Development in Nineteenth Century Europe.? Oxford Economic Papers 36 (3): 438-58.

Hochstadt, Steve. Mobility and Modernity: Migration in Germany, 1820-1989. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Kehr, Eckart. Battleship Building and Party Politics in Germany 1894-1901: A Cross-Section of the Political, Social, and Ideological Preconditions of German Imperialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Kehr, Eckart (ed. by Gordon A. Craig). Economic Interest, Militarism, and Foreign Policy: Essays on German History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Jackson, James H. Jr. Migration and Urbanization in the Ruhr Valley, 1821-1914. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1997.

Simone A. Wegge is an associate professor of economics at the College of Staten Island and at the Graduate Center, both of the City University of New York. Her research focuses on European and German economic history, especially emigration. Her most recent paper is titled ?Network Strategies of Nineteenth-Century Hesse-Cassel Emigrants.? History of the Family 13 (3): 296-314.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Byzantine Economy

Author(s):Laiou, Angeliki E.
Morrisson, Cécile M
Reviewer(s):Gregory, Timothy E.

Published by EH.NET (October 2008)

Angeliki E. Laiou and C?cile Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 270 pp. $33 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-61502-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy E. Gregory, Department of History, Ohio State University.

As the authors point out, until recently the economy of the Byzantine Empire has not been the subject of many detailed studies. The reasons for this are many, including the continued bias against Byzantium even in historical circles and the perception that the economy of the empire was dominated by the heavy hand of an autocratic state and that its study has little to teach us. This small and quite readable book is likely to change all such scholarly assumptions. It is based squarely on the massive and detailed three-volume The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, edited by Laiou and published in 2002, and its articles, many of which present completely new analyses of crucial facets of the Byzantine economy and revise many conclusions found in standard textbooks. The present book, of course, is much smaller in scale, but it makes up for that by a more concise focus and a treatment that is accessible to readers, from beginning students to scholars interested in the economy of the medieval West or the Islamic East.

The Byzantine Economy differs from most extant studies of Byzantium by insisting that modern economic theories and studies are relevant for Byzantium and by frequently making seamless use of archaeological and archival sources, as well as the more commonly utilized literary and numismatic material. The literary sources, they reasonably insist, are highly biased by the focus of their authors on the central government, a bias that had led most scholars to the conclusion that the state was the dominant element in the Byzantine economy, which emperors and administrators affected without any real economic interest or knowledge. Laiou and Morrisson do not, of course, deny the importance of government action, especially the successive fiscal institutions and policies over the thousand-year history of the empire. Rather, they argue throughout that, on the one hand, Byzantine statesmen frequently made decisions based on economic considerations, and, on the other, that political and non-economic factors (frequently from outside the empire itself) not uncommonly played crucial roles in the development of the Byzantine economy.

The book is arranged chronologically and it begins with a helpful consideration of the ?natural and human? resources available to the empire. Treatment of late antiquity (sixth-early eighth centuries) avoids what would otherwise be a necessarily long discussion of the situation in the third-fifth centuries, and analysis essentially begins in the period of Justinian. There is little new here and it is clear that the authors regard the period as a continuation of the ancient economy that forms merely an introduction to the economy of the seventh century and beyond. The Byzantine economy per se came into existence as a result of devastating depopulation in the aftermath of the plague of 542 and significant climate change. The labor shortage led to political and economic fragmentation, and a complete reorganization of the economic underpinning of the state. The loss of areas that had provided much of the raw materials of the empire caused severe contraction of manufacturing and a diminution of the money supply. Nonetheless, the meager sources suggest that, even in this period, trade continued and the economy was much more fully developed than has previously been thought. The latter part of the eighth century witnessed significant changes in the military power of the state and the beginning of a slow growth of the Byzantine economy and its gradual monetarization as well as the revival of urban life. Constantinople was the main economic center, and it was an industrial and trading power whose merchants engaged in long distance trade throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Near East. Key in this revival was the state, its fiscal policies, and a complex economic ideology based on ideas of justice in interchange and possession of property.

By the eleventh century Byzantium reached its economic height and by the twelfth century Byzantine cities had developed some of the characteristics that could be seen in the contemporary West. At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, the Byzantine aristocracy had come to challenge the exclusive right to political and economic power that had been maintained by the state (i.e., by the emperor and the imperial bureaucracy). The authors discuss this struggle, that has long interested historians, but in the end they conclude that the victory of the aristocracy did not inevitably cause economic problems for the state or for the peasants. In addition, western (mainly Italian) merchants came to control greater and greater portions of long-distance trade, in part because of tax concessions given them by the Byzantine state and because of their increasing access to naval power. Throughout the twelfth century the Byzantine economy flourished and medium- and large-scale production (both agricultural and industrial) served local, regional, and ?international? markets. The cities, as well as the countryside and marginal lands, played important roles in this economy, contradicting the old theory that middle Byzantine cities were ?parasitic? in nature. The authors conclude that Byzantine merchants played a decreasing role in this trade. In the view of the authors, however, this was not an irreversible situation, but one that was affected negatively by the growth of western military power in the form of the Crusades and, ultimately, the conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

After that date and even after the recovery of Constantinople in 1261 the economy remained fragmented and the loss of areas with important resources, such as mines in Asia Minor and the Balkans, had important negative results. Nonetheless, the authors maintain that the Byzantine economy remained ?articulated? and population growth continued until the middle of the fourteenth century, when the combination of the Black Plague and the loss of most remaining territory to the Ottomans essentially put an end to anything resembling a unified Byzantine economy.

In a concluding chapter the authors make general observations about the Byzantine economy and discuss the value of comparing it specifically with the economy of the medieval West. They conclude that contemporary research shows the Byzantine economy, in virtually all periods, to have been sophisticated and flexible, able to respond to challenges and to change in the face of historical conditions. In most periods the state, in the person of the emperor and a large and well-trained bureaucracy, was the most important factor in the economy, but it was by no means the only one, and political, ideological, and fiscal considerations, as well as forces outside the empire, played significant roles. They note that recent research, in both East and West, has pointed to the importance of the linkage between production and distribution and has seen greater similarities than differences in the two economies. Finally, they strongly suggest that it is not reasonable to ?blame? Byzantium because it did not develop western-style capitalism, something that did not come about in the West until the eighteenth century. They conclude that Byzantium had a ?flexible and dynamic economy, which was successful in terms of growth but also provided some important needs of the people … that is, all the factors which today are recognized as constituting true economic development? (p. 247)

This book is a convenient, reasonably well written and carefully documented handbook that should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Byzantium or the medieval economy.

Timothy Gregory is Professor of History and Anthropology and Director of the Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia; he is author of books such as Isthmia, Volume V, The Hexamilion and the Fortress (Princeton 1993) and A History of Byzantium (Oxford 2006). He has pioneered in the teaching of online courses in Classical Archaeology and Byzantine History. gregory.4@osu.edu.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles)

Author(s):Devroey, Jean-Pierre
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Jean-Pierre Devroey, ?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles). Paris: Belin, 2003. 381 pp. ?22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 2-7011-2618-5.

and

Jean-Pierre Devroey, Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles). Brussels: Academie Royale de Belgique, 2006. 725 pp. ?60.50 (cloth), ISBN: 2-8031-0227-7.

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

Most economic historians who do not specialize in the medieval period draw their understanding of its economic and social evolution directly or indirectly from the work of historians inspired by Henri Pirenne and Marc Bloch, both of whom viewed it as a decisive turning point in Western history. As set out by Georges Duby in his essay on the early growth of the European economy, the half millennium following the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West marks the crucial discontinuity in Western Europe’s economic and social history.[1] The notion was, of course, not new. Originating in the humanist philological critique of early medieval Latin, the notion of a decisive break in social, political, and economic institutions was extended to other domains in the debate between Abb? Du Bos and Montesquieu over whether the Franks were subject to royal taxation, and by early nineteenth-century efforts to construct historical typologies from the surviving diplomatic and legal texts as part of the project to place the French Revolution in historical perspective. That effort led to a consensus that the West experienced a major economic and institutional collapse in the sixth and seventh centuries, and that from the wreckage there emerged a more decentralized economic and political system based on the exploitation of the rural population by lords connected politically in hierarchies constructed from bilateral ties of mutual obligation and fidelity. That institutional space left little room for agricultural innovation and hardly any for economic organization founded on the legal egalitarianism of voluntary exchange. The historiography thus posed three questions: the first concerned the process by which the old world was transformed into a new one; the second concerned the nature of that new world as an economic and social type; the third was how it in turn gave birth to modern western capitalism. Since the dissolution of Roman civilization was an uncontested fact, most attention was devoted to the second and third questions. It is only in the past thirty years that the first has received the attention it deserves, with devastating consequences for the conventional wisdom.

The present works by the eminent Belgian historian Jean-Pierre Devroey represent a vigorous defense of the conventional view that the early medieval society and economy was a distinct social type fundamentally different from the societies that preceded and succeeded it. Explicitly inspired by the theories of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi, this vision is idealistic rather than causal or mechanistic, to use an old-fashioned dichotomy. It aims to explain “why” things worked in terms of their relation to a pre-existing whole rather than “how” they worked in terms of ordinary connections between cause and effect. For Devroey, the true history is sociology. The historian’s task is to show how relations between different elements of a society formed a coherent “whole” or type. The theoretical foundation of this approach to the past is Durkheim’s tenet that social cohesion is a necessary condition for the temporal persistence of a society. This makes the central task of the historian the identification of the sources and mechanisms of that cohesion. Since every society is unique, the mechanisms will differ, providing a basis for comparative analysis of societies. The project of these two works, then, is to construct an ideal type for that analysis. As Teggart pointed out long ago, this approach to history is essentially teleological, since it presumes the whole used to explain the meaning of the parts.[2] In the present case the “whole” is Frankish society. The books thus fall in the category of “stages” history, to which may be added work on the same period by the English historian Chris Wickham, whose approach is also inspired by Polanyi notions of reciprocity and redistribution as essential means of securing social solidarity in primitive societies.[3] Both authors read the early medieval record through the eyes of social anthropologists, and are thus blind to what the eyes of Machiavelli and Adam Smith detect in it.

Devroey’s work thus poses a direct challenge to the alternative vision of early medieval society proposed by Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Jean Durliat and Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, who view the early Middle Ages from the perspective of the two great theorists of self-interested human behavior. That perspective reveals significant continuity with late Roman civilization in Frankish institutions of public administration and landholding.[4] The findings rest on a re-reading of the polemical and chronological texts, on prosographical studies of the leading Frankish families in the degree the evidence supports it, and on close analysis of the contemporary legal texts. It starts from the premise that the dissolution of the Roman state in the West was essentially an appropriation of its levers of power by German military leaders to whom the Roman state had unwisely subcontracted the defense of the Empire. Given that premise, the central historical questions turn on how the change in administration affected existing governmental apparatus and the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and how political legitimacy ? the ability to command and the willingness to obey ? was maintained in the presence of new and foreign rulers. Of the day-to-day life we know virtually nothing; but it seems plausible that in the core of the Frankish kingdom, things went on pretty much as before, except that, as would be the case down to the middle of the seventeenth century, there was fighting among elites for control of the state and its fiscal resources, and that for this and other reasons that part of the economy based on exchange imploded. On the sources of political legitimacy and the apparatus of administration, the texts are more loquacious, and everything thing they say supports the notion of continuity rather than the creation of a new society by force.[5] If so, the early medieval past was not a different country, but a place and time where men (and women) behaved in ways that are familiar to us. It did not constitute a “whole” whose meaning is accessible only through an exposition of its inner logic, but a congeries of institutions, practices, and attitudes evolving at different rates under the pressure of particular events.

From the perspective of economic history the main issues concern the nature of landholding and the organization of the state. Was land effectively “owned” by the elite and farmed by tenants on tenures determined by asymmetric bargaining, or was it mostly in the hands of small holders subject to their paying a property tax? To some that may be a distinction without a difference: taxes mainly went to support soldiers who the conventional historiography holds were granted land and rights of peasants in payment for their services. In either case the agricultural surplus went to the same people. But from the perspective of agrarian history the distinction is crucial. Taxes were based on assessments not easily altered, since they were regulated by law. On the assumption that they continued to be collected by tax farmers, the proceeds, or more commonly the tax base that generated them, could be securitized and alienated like any other asset, which would explain the exceptionally complex pattern of claims revealed by the sources. The issue turns on the continuity of law. The “primitivist” view of early medieval society espoused by Devroey considers the early medieval era to be fundamentally lawless and governed by relations of force in which the strong expropriated the weak. The “Romanist” view holds for legal continuity; the strong appropriated the tax base but within what must have been fairly wide bounds maintained the rule of law with respect to collection. The issue bears directly on the interpretation of terms relating to agricultural organization, which can be read alternatively as describing estates and farms or as units of fiscal assessment. According to Devroey, the “fiscalist” view is in his words “formalist,” because it rests on the explicit meaning of the legal texts rather than their presumed “real” meaning. He denies that view at great length and in great detail. The denial represents the core of both volumes.

Neither book is an easy read. ?conomie rurale is intended as a textbook for students preparing the aggr?gation, or state doctoral examinations in medieval history. Puissants et mis?rables is a treatise constructed on Weberian principles modified by late twentieth-century French sociology. Both deploy immense erudition to support the conventional view of a discontinuity and social primitivism against the hypothesis of continuity. Since the technical debate turns on etymological issues bearing on individual terms, it would be fruitless to attempt to summarize the argument in a short review. I am not persuaded by it, but as I am not a specialist in late Roman and early medieval Latin my judgment carries no special weight in the debate. Nevertheless, many of his arguments strike me as dogmatic assertions and special pleading. Heavy reliance on Polanyi as a source of theoretical insight raises further danger flags, as do abstract sociological arguments used to motivate description and analysis of institutions. One longs for a simple explanation of how things worked rather than why they worked. In terms of the issues raised, both books would have been better served by a clear exposition of the alternative points of view followed by analysis of facts bearing on them. They contain a lot of useful matter, but it is hard work to release them from their matrix of verbiage. The bibliography is magnificent. To cite the review of Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the books give the impression that “there is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.”[6] There is, of course, much more to be said.

Of the two works, the textbook is more accessible to non-specialists, despite being disfigured by “boxes” containing further information of the kind familiar to users of elementary textbooks in economics. The other covers more ground and provides a splendid introduction to the huge explosion in scholarship since the 1960s. Neither book can be ignored. Though clearly not the last word in early medieval economic and social history, they represent a major contribution that no one pretending to an opinion on the period can afford to dismiss. They are, however, highly opinionated, and must be read in conjunction with the literature they criticize. This is hard work, but there are no short-cuts to mastering the secondary literature on early medieval economic history. The divisions among its main practitioners are important and deep. The best account in English is a recent survey by Goldsmith, who gives a clear exposition of the “fiscalist” hypothesis, and follows up its implications for the subsequent evolution of land tenure in France to the end of the Middle Ages.[7] This is the best place for beginners to start.

The early middle ages are a fascinating and central segment of the history of western civilization. Like all extended periods, they were a time of transition. The explosion of scholarship since the 1960s and the renewal of interest in classical antiquity have given new life to a subject whose general contours seemed to have been set in stone in the magnificent syntheses proposed by Pirenne and Bloch. It is time for a new synthesis that encompasses the new findings and interpretations in a plausible narrative account of the transformation of a society and economy over five centuries. That synthesis is within reach, but to attain it will require confronting these two large volumes that, like the Roman army in its latter days, defend the conventional wisdom on the several fronts of attack.

References:

1. Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, London (1974).

2. Frederick J. Teggart, Theory of History, New Haven (1925).

3. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400 – 800, Oxford (2005).

4. Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Naissance de la noblesse: L’essor des ?lites politiques en Europe, Paris (1998); Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, Aux sources de la gestion publique. 1. Enqu?te lexicographique sur le fundus, villa, domus, mansus, Lille (1993); Jean Durliat, Les finances publiques de Diocl?tien aux Carolingiens, 284-889, Sigmaringen (1990).

5. Bernard Bachrach, Early Medieval Warfare: Prelude to Empire, Philadelphia (2001).

6. Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, London (2003).

7. James Lowth Goldsmith, Lordship in France, 500-1500, New York (2003).

George Grantham is Professor of Economics at McGill University, where he teaches economic history and the history of economic thought. His work on the present topic includes “The Early Medieval Transition: On the Origins of the Manor and the Early Medieval Transition,” presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Economic Association, Nashville, 2003. He is currently revising papers on “What’s Space Got to Do with It? Distance and Agricultural Productivity before the Railway Age” and “The Prehistoric Origins of European Economic Integration.”

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

?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles)

Author(s):Devroey, Jean-Pierre
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Jean-Pierre Devroey, ?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles). Paris: Belin, 2003. 381 pp. ?22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 2-7011-2618-5. and Jean-Pierre Devroey, Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles). Brussels: Academie Royale de Belgique, 2006. 725 pp. ?60.50 (cloth), ISBN: 2-8031-0227-7.

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

Most economic historians who do not specialize in the medieval period draw their understanding of its economic and social evolution directly or indirectly from the work of historians inspired by Henri Pirenne and Marc Bloch, both of whom viewed it as a decisive turning point in Western history. As set out by Georges Duby in his essay on the early growth of the European economy, the half millennium following the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West marks the crucial discontinuity in Western Europe’s economic and social history.[1] The notion was, of course, not new. Originating in the humanist philological critique of early medieval Latin, the notion of a decisive break in social, political, and economic institutions was extended to other domains in the debate between Abb? Du Bos and Montesquieu over whether the Franks were subject to royal taxation, and by early nineteenth-century efforts to construct historical typologies from the surviving diplomatic and legal texts as part of the project to place the French Revolution in historical perspective. That effort led to a consensus that the West experienced a major economic and institutional collapse in the sixth and seventh centuries, and that from the wreckage there emerged a more decentralized economic and political system based on the exploitation of the rural population by lords connected politically in hierarchies constructed from bilateral ties of mutual obligation and fidelity. That institutional space left little room for agricultural innovation and hardly any for economic organization founded on the legal egalitarianism of voluntary exchange. The historiography thus posed three questions: the first concerned the process by which the old world was transformed into a new one; the second concerned the nature of that new world as an economic and social type; the third was how it in turn gave birth to modern western capitalism. Since the dissolution of Roman civilization was an uncontested fact, most attention was devoted to the second and third questions. It is only in the past thirty years that the first has received the attention it deserves, with devastating consequences for the conventional wisdom.

The present works by the eminent Belgian historian Jean-Pierre Devroey represent a vigorous defense of the conventional view that the early medieval society and economy was a distinct social type fundamentally different from the societies that preceded and succeeded it. Explicitly inspired by the theories of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi, this vision is idealistic rather than causal or mechanistic, to use an old-fashioned dichotomy. It aims to explain “why” things worked in terms of their relation to a pre-existing whole rather than “how” they worked in terms of ordinary connections between cause and effect. For Devroey, the true history is sociology. The historian’s task is to show how relations between different elements of a society formed a coherent “whole” or type. The theoretical foundation of this approach to the past is Durkheim’s tenet that social cohesion is a necessary condition for the temporal persistence of a society. This makes the central task of the historian the identification of the sources and mechanisms of that cohesion. Since every society is unique, the mechanisms will differ, providing a basis for comparative analysis of societies. The project of these two works, then, is to construct an ideal type for that analysis. As Teggart pointed out long ago, this approach to history is essentially teleological, since it presumes the whole used to explain the meaning of the parts.[2] In the present case the “whole” is Frankish society. The books thus fall in the category of “stages” history, to which may be added work on the same period by the English historian Chris Wickham, whose approach is also inspired by Polanyi notions of reciprocity and redistribution as essential means of securing social solidarity in primitive societies.[3] Both authors read the early medieval record through the eyes of social anthropologists, and are thus blind to what the eyes of Machiavelli and Adam Smith detect in it.

Devroey’s work thus poses a direct challenge to the alternative vision of early medieval society proposed by Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Jean Durliat and Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, who view the early Middle Ages from the perspective of the two great theorists of self-interested human behavior. That perspective reveals significant continuity with late Roman civilization in Frankish institutions of public administration and landholding.[4] The findings rest on a re-reading of the polemical and chronological texts, on prosographical studies of the leading Frankish families in the degree the evidence supports it, and on close analysis of the contemporary legal texts. It starts from the premise that the dissolution of the Roman state in the West was essentially an appropriation of its levers of power by German military leaders to whom the Roman state had unwisely subcontracted the defense of the Empire. Given that premise, the central historical questions turn on how the change in administration affected existing governmental apparatus and the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and how political legitimacy ? the ability to command and the willingness to obey ? was maintained in the presence of new and foreign rulers. Of the day-to-day life we know virtually nothing; but it seems plausible that in the core of the Frankish kingdom, things went on pretty much as before, except that, as would be the case down to the middle of the seventeenth century, there was fighting among elites for control of the state and its fiscal resources, and that for this and other reasons that part of the economy based on exchange imploded. On the sources of political legitimacy and the apparatus of administration, the texts are more loquacious, and everything thing they say supports the notion of continuity rather than the creation of a new society by force.[5] If so, the early medieval past was not a different country, but a place and time where men (and women) behaved in ways that are familiar to us. It did not constitute a “whole” whose meaning is accessible only through an exposition of its inner logic, but a congeries of institutions, practices, and attitudes evolving at different rates under the pressure of particular events.

From the perspective of economic history the main issues concern the nature of landholding and the organization of the state. Was land effectively “owned” by the elite and farmed by tenants on tenures determined by asymmetric bargaining, or was it mostly in the hands of small holders subject to their paying a property tax? To some that may be a distinction without a difference: taxes mainly went to support soldiers who the conventional historiography holds were granted land and rights of peasants in payment for their services. In either case the agricultural surplus went to the same people. But from the perspective of agrarian history the distinction is crucial. Taxes were based on assessments not easily altered, since they were regulated by law. On the assumption that they continued to be collected by tax farmers, the proceeds, or more commonly the tax base that generated them, could be securitized and alienated like any other asset, which would explain the exceptionally complex pattern of claims revealed by the sources. The issue turns on the continuity of law. The “primitivist” view of early medieval society espoused by Devroey considers the early medieval era to be fundamentally lawless and governed by relations of force in which the strong expropriated the weak. The “Romanist” view holds for legal continuity; the strong appropriated the tax base but within what must have been fairly wide bounds maintained the rule of law with respect to collection. The issue bears directly on the interpretation of terms relating to agricultural organization, which can be read alternatively as describing estates and farms or as units of fiscal assessment. According to Devroey, the “fiscalist” view is in his words “formalist,” because it rests on the explicit meaning of the legal texts rather than their presumed “real” meaning. He denies that view at great length and in great detail. The denial represents the core of both volumes.

Neither book is an easy read. ?conomie rurale is intended as a textbook for students preparing the aggr?gation, or state doctoral examinations in medieval history. Puissants et mis?rables is a treatise constructed on Weberian principles modified by late twentieth-century French sociology. Both deploy immense erudition to support the conventional view of a discontinuity and social primitivism against the hypothesis of continuity. Since the technical debate turns on etymological issues bearing on individual terms, it would be fruitless to attempt to summarize the argument in a short review. I am not persuaded by it, but as I am not a specialist in late Roman and early medieval Latin my judgment carries no special weight in the debate. Nevertheless, many of his arguments strike me as dogmatic assertions and special pleading. Heavy reliance on Polanyi as a source of theoretical insight raises further danger flags, as do abstract sociological arguments used to motivate description and analysis of institutions. One longs for a simple explanation of how things worked rather than why they worked. In terms of the issues raised, both books would have been better served by a clear exposition of the alternative points of view followed by analysis of facts bearing on them. They contain a lot of useful matter, but it is hard work to release them from their matrix of verbiage. The bibliography is magnificent. To cite the review of Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the books give the impression that “there is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.”[6] There is, of course, much more to be said.

Of the two works, the textbook is more accessible to non-specialists, despite being disfigured by “boxes” containing further information of the kind familiar to users of elementary textbooks in economics. The other covers more ground and provides a splendid introduction to the huge explosion in scholarship since the 1960s. Neither book can be ignored. Though clearly not the last word in early medieval economic and social history, they represent a major contribution that no one pretending to an opinion on the period can afford to dismiss. They are, however, highly opinionated, and must be read in conjunction with the literature they criticize. This is hard work, but there are no short-cuts to mastering the secondary literature on early medieval economic history. The divisions among its main practitioners are important and deep. The best account in English is a recent survey by Goldsmith, who gives a clear exposition of the “fiscalist” hypothesis, and follows up its implications for the subsequent evolution of land tenure in France to the end of the Middle Ages.[7] This is the best place for beginners to start.

The early middle ages are a fascinating and central segment of the history of western civilization. Like all extended periods, they were a time of transition. The explosion of scholarship since the 1960s and the renewal of interest in classical antiquity have given new life to a subject whose general contours seemed to have been set in stone in the magnificent syntheses proposed by Pirenne and Bloch. It is time for a new synthesis that encompasses the new findings and interpretations in a plausible narrative account of the transformation of a society and economy over five centuries. That synthesis is within reach, but to attain it will require confronting these two large volumes that, like the Roman army in its latter days, defend the conventional wisdom on the several fronts of attack.

References:

1. Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, London (1974).

2. Frederick J. Teggart, Theory of History, New Haven (1925).

3. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400 – 800, Oxford (2005).

4. Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Naissance de la noblesse: L’essor des ?lites politiques en Europe, Paris (1998); Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, Aux sources de la gestion publique. 1. Enqu?te lexicographique sur le fundus, villa, domus, mansus, Lille (1993); Jean Durliat, Les finances publiques de Diocl?tien aux Carolingiens, 284-889, Sigmaringen (1990).

5. Bernard Bachrach, Early Medieval Warfare: Prelude to Empire, Philadelphia (2001).

6. Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, London (2003).

7. James Lowth Goldsmith, Lordship in France, 500-1500, New York (2003).

George Grantham is Professor of Economics at McGill University, where he teaches economic history and the history of economic thought. His work on the present topic includes “The Early Medieval Transition: On the Origins of the Manor and the Early Medieval Transition,” presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Economic Association, Nashville, 2003. He is currently revising papers on “What’s Space Got to Do with It? Distance and Agricultural Productivity before the Railway Age” and “The Prehistoric Origins of European Economic Integration.”

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

The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community

Author(s):Marglin, Stephen A.
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.NET (March 2008)

Stephen A. Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. xvi + 359 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-674-02654-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Eric Jones, Melbourne Business School.

This is an exceptionally learned, uncompromisingly contrarian critique of markets and economics by a member of the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Stephen Marglin emphasizes the costs of market transactions and blames economics for supplying the associated frame of reference. The Dismal Science is patently the result of a lifetime of reading and cogitating about conceptual issues related to market exchanges and economists’ approaches to them. Some historical background is given but what is mainly offered is extended commentary on the history of thought and on everyday practice.

The “modern world view,” in Marglin’s opinion, derives from economics, which ignores the breakdown of community and elevates instead an obsession with productive efficiency. No accusation seems too gross for him to level at the economics profession. Economics distorts everything, he says, particularly human proclivities, although I found it hard to keep clear whether he thinks non-economists are too sensible to think like smart-alec graduate students or have been brainwashed by the economics’ mind-set seeping into every debate. In a meandering volume crammed with long quotations, he seems to qualify each assertion only to proffer some variant a few pages later.

His charges against economics boil down to the way the subject fosters individual maximization, ignores distributional concerns, and legitimizes “the market” behind a pretense of scientific detachment. Yet economics is a broad church and is always evolving, never more so than at present. Aha, the reader thinks, at least behavioral economics is not so crass as to accept the Homo economicus of Econ 101. Marglin is a step ahead, however, urging that all the behavioral economists are doing is altering one or two assumptions at a time. Theirs may seem a prototypically scientific procedure but Marglin will not agree. His mind is made up, right to lamenting that Adam Smith failed to entitle his book, The Wealth of Workers.

One of Marglin’s favored examples is the Amish, whose mutual dependence resists the market. The Amish exemplify community in his terms, which is to say there is no exit short of exorbitant personal cost. Who are the Amish? For practical purposes they are the community leaders. A world thus dominated is surely as likely to become that of the Lord of the Flies as a circle of benevolence.

While Amish community patterns survive, they are only patterns: Pennsylvania is not the eighteenth-century Rhineland, nor can it be when some Amish run tools off propane gas although they are forbidden electricity, install telephones in their barns although they are not to have them in their houses, and so forth. Thus, while they do so at a long remove, the Amish shadow American society. Theirs is often, so to speak, the world of the Shabbas goy, not the principled realm of community implied.

Marglin’s notion that a world of neighborliness was swept away by impersonal insurance markets does not fully capture reality. He thinks the neighbors would have rallied round to put up another barn for you if yours burned down ? a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ model of community help. No doubt there was mutuality in small places. But he does not refer to what actually preceded the development of fire insurance. Previous arrangements were less, not more, personal than the policy one might buy for oneself from an insurance agent. They relied on briefs for alms, instruments not abolished in England until 1828. Parish records are full of sums collected for briefs for distant places.

The system was non-compulsory but also non-local ? you subscribed for sufferers whom you would never meet and lived in hopes they would respond to your brief if you suffered in turn. People helped their neighbors but simultaneously belonged to vast networks of Christian support that can only be termed “community” by considerable stretching. This had little to do with the nation-state, which is one of Marglin’s innumerable betes noires: the instrument was previously the Papal Brief. Briefs did not supplant community, they supplemented it, while being less reliable than formal insurance. Moreover it is misleading to single out England as the home of insurance markets. Continental countries were writing insurance against losses of crops from hailstorms back in the eighteenth century. England, supposed fount of market ideology, did not do so until 1842.

Nor is the impression given of the English enclosure movement more persuasive. Landowners were eager to take land into ring-fenced holdings of their own but this did not preclude their raising productivity. Marglin thinks they were merely engrossing. Enclosure processes were long drawn out, he claims, because until 1688 peasants who resisted were backed by the Crown. Nevertheless we have to explain why progress was slow even afterwards. Copyholders were not instantly stripped of resources ? Marglin does not acknowledge that they typically held their farms on three lives. Nor were farmers necessarily averse to leaving the land in order to become shopkeepers in the market towns of a gradually expanding economy.

We must agree that markets entail costs, as Marglin endlessly insists, even if economists neglect the fact. Yet he rationalizes away the corresponding costs of being trapped in small groups that risk being inequitable as well as inefficient. The work of Jonathan Hughes on the colonial economy shows just how onerous non-market regulatory control was: we need not rely on gains in efficiency from the adoption of markets to reject the politicized allocation of resources and roles inseparable from “community.”

Marglin does advance some telling points against the practice of modern economics and, even leaving aside the political animus evident in The Dismal Science, it would take another volume (though not such a long one) to expound and contest its hundreds of propositions. Economists may be left to look after themselves; and while economic historians may wish to contemplate aspects of the critique, I suspect most of them will leave by the door through which they first came in. They may also be under-whelmed by some of the stylized historical facts on which the arguments depend.

Eric Jones is Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, and Visiting Professor, University of Exeter. He is the author of The European Miracle, Growth Recurring, and Cultures Merging.

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

State, Peasant, and Merchant in Qing Manchuria, 1644-1862

Author(s):Isett, Christopher Mills
Reviewer(s):Vries, Peer

Published by EH.NET (August 2007)

Christopher Mills Isett, State, Peasant, and Merchant in Qing Manchuria, 1644-1862. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. xiv + 418 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8047-5271-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peer Vries, Institute for Economic and Social History, University of Vienna.

Christopher Mills Isett is associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota and a specialist in the economic history of Manchuria, Taiwan, and China during the Qing dynasty. His book consists of three parts. The first one deals with the ideological, political and economic interests of the Qing rulers in their ‘homeland’ and with their actual policies. The second one shows what property and labor relations evolved in the region. The third part presents an analysis of the way in which those relations limited possibilities for economic development. By Qing Manchuria Isett basically means the provinces Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, especially the southern parts of these last two provinces. The period covered is from 1644, the establishment of Qing rule in most of China Proper, to 1862, the opening of the Manchurian port at Niuzhang.

The underlying, I am almost tempted to say ‘real,’ subject matter of the book, in my view, is how to characterize the economy of China ? for which Manchuria by and large simply functions as a pars pro toto ? as compared to that of Britain. Two models of economic (non)development act as points of reference, one that is called ‘Smithian’ and one that is called ‘Malthusian’ or rather ‘Malthusian-Ricardian.’

In line with a long tradition, Isett claims that the economy of early modern Britain operated according to Smithian principles. That means that it could and did grow via extension of the market and increasing specialization. Quite recently some historians, in particular Kenneth Pomeranz, have toned down this optimist view by claiming that Britain’s growth was not very impressive and certainly finite, and that Britain on the very eve of its industrialization was heading for a Malthusian cul-de-sac just as much, if not more so, than China. When it comes to characterizing the economy of China in early modern times, authors like, again, Pomeranz, Wong and Li Bozhong, have also urged for revision. In the case of early modern China too there is a long tradition, in this case to consider its economy as a clear example of a Malthusian economy in which a sustained increase of the population was bound to lead to over-population and crisis. While not denying that in the end China was heading for a Malthusian crisis, Pomeranz cum suis claim that its economy was just as ‘Smithian’ as Britain’s and in that way opt for a more optimist perspective on China’s pre-industrial economic history. According to them, the increase in its population, at least until the end of the eighteenth century, overall, had no negative effects on China’s wealth. If the revisionists are right, the two economies would have been strikingly similar in the early modern era, the only difference being that Britain had the ‘luck’ to be saved by its Industrial Revolution.

Isett clearly does not agree. For him the Smithian model, as he defines it, is a model of development, and English. The Malthusian-Ricardian model, as he defines it, in the end stands for non-development and it nicely fits most of the characteristics of the economy of early modern China, including Manchuria. In his approach he clearly is inspired by Robert Brenner. That means that he thinks the dynamism associated with a Smithian economy does not occur in a vacuum but only in specific social and political settings in which, in particular, the existing property relations are essential. To have a Smithian market economy, as he interprets it, the sheer presence of buyers and sellers does not suffice. When it comes to analyzing Malthusian dynamics one has to be aware that those too are not simply the result of the ratio between available resources and population, but have to be placed in a broader social and political context as well.

But let us first discuss the actual empirical content of the text. How did things actually work out in Manchuria? Basically the Qing wanted to keep Manchuria to themselves as a place that provided land, income and a ‘home’ for Manchu aristocrats and banner men. Their livelihood was supposed to be taken care of by a labor force primarily consisting of bonded labor. In an extensive and detailed analysis Isett shows that and how this policy failed: by far the biggest part of Qing land in Manchuria came in actual possession of commoners who worked it. The Qing state’s presence in the villages was not strong enough to maintain the agrarian regime it initially implemented. The bailiffs in charge of the manors did not heed official policy very much, and although the region from 1689 onwards was officially closed to permanent settlement, new settlers kept on coming in. What emerged was a peasant-dominated agriculture in which wage labor was quite exceptional. Manchuria in that sense became a replica of Northern China.

Manchurian peasants, buying and selling products and, very occasionally, services, clearly and increasingly were integrated in markets. In absolute terms we are talking about a substantial amount of exchange. But for Isett that does not suffice to call Manchuria’s economy ? and for that matter the economy of China Proper ? a real Smithian market economy or to claim it would have known real Smithian growth. Firstly, this is because for him commercialization is a matter of relative and not of absolute amounts and his analysis of the main trade of Manchuria, that in soy beans, has convinced him that, relatively speaking, market exchange was fairly small and much less relevant in Manchuria than in Britain. Even a superficial reading of existing literature suffices to show that China Proper too was far less commercialized than Britain.

Secondly, however, quintessential to withholding the adjective ‘Smithian’ is the fact that Manchuria’s agricultural producers did not depend on the market. They were not forced to maximize their price-cost ratios and could ‘afford’ to think in terms of risk aversion. Manchurian peasants did not, to loosely paraphrase Smith, need to continually exert themselves to find out the most advantageous employment for what capital or labor they could command. The reason is simple: they were not, or at least not completely, deprived of means of subsistence. It therefore, according to Isett, need not surprise us that before long in Manchuria, as in most of China Proper, a process of ‘involution’ set in, with labor inputs by households increasing and the productivity of their labor decreasing.

Such a ‘peasant’ strategy of intensifying production as a rule is associated with small farms. In Manchuria, however, at least for Chinese circumstances, plots continued to be fairly big. Again, the broader context has to be taken into account. In the footsteps of Philip Huang, Isett claims that opting for intensification was not just, and not even necessarily, a matter of the land to labor ratio. It also was a result of a specific rationality of the peasant and his household. Overall, peasants tend to not systematically regard extra input of household labor in terms of calculable extra costs. When, as was the case in Manchuria, there simply are no opportunities to earn income outside the household, they are even less likely to behave in a ‘calculating’ way. But that is not all. What according to Isett also played a role, is the fact that, in Manchuria as well as in China, there was no primogeniture. This tended to diminish the size of the existing farms and, with state support, actually precluded the formation of big estates.

In the end, Manchurian peasants were integrated into the market under conditions that facilitated merchant extraction of their surplus instead of promoting ways of increasing their labor productivity. Capital costs were too high for the peasants. Direct investment in agriculture by people with capital was very scarce. The return on their capital was rather unsafe. It was easier to earn money by providing loans to peasants. In contrast to the tiny group of well-informed ‘monopsonistic’ merchants, peasants lacked sufficient knowledge and information to make the most of market conditions. Merchants were increasingly used by government to provide all kinds of services. In return they received significant powers over the market, which further weakened the position of the small producer and made the entire setting in which he operated even less ‘Smithian.’

Having read Isett’s book, no one can doubt that in Manchuria, as in China Proper, the elimination of the subsistence peasant ? which Marxist and ‘Marxisant’ historians like Isett and Brenner tend to regard as conditio sine qua non for the emergence of modern, full-blown capitalism ? did not take place. Britain, where the peasantry no longer existed as a major social class, developed in a completely different direction. Just think of its commercial farms whose survival as productive units depended on their success on the market; its massive proletarianization; the very substantial increase of labor productivity in the agricultural sector; the relative decrease of the number of people working in it; and the big increase in specialization. According to Isett, Smithian mercantile capitalism in Britain ‘worked': at the end of the eighteenth century the country still was not even near a Malthusian crisis.

Let us come to a general evaluation and start on the positive notes. Isett is quite explicit, not to say somewhat repetitive, about his goals and results. His description and analysis of developments in Manchuria are detailed, clear and convincing. He clearly is keener on confirming his and Brenner’s points of view than on falsifying them. Reading this book, one would not suspect that ‘the Brenner thesis’ has engendered a fierce ‘Brenner debate.’ All this, however, does not detract from the fact that he clearly shows the existence of major differences between the relations of production and exchange in Britain and in China and offers a sensible explanation for those differences. His claim that the actual development of an economy along Smithian lines requires a very specific and persistent kind of behavior, that of the homo oeconomicus of (neo) classical economics, certainly is to the point. In all these respects Isett’s book simply is a good book.

But Isett clearly wants more in his book: he wants to engage the ‘California School.’ I cannot help thinking, however, that in a way he is fighting a bit of straw man. Much hinges on the concept ‘Smithian growth’ and how it is interpreted. The Californians use the term ‘Smithian’ in a much less strict sense than he does. For them, so it seems, the term refers to any situation where legally free people engage in substantial market exchange in conditions of (fairly) free and fair competition. In the specific context they are discussing, i.e. the organic economies of the pre-industrial world, they add the very important caveat that this market exchange as such, without technological breakthroughs and without a new energy-regime, can only lead to finite growth.

In both Britain and China market exchange between legally free people was the rule and in both this exchange was substantial, though relatively speaking much smaller in China than in Britain. When it comes to the kind of competition, the term Smithian becomes much more problematic … in particular for the British case! Let us only refer to the role of the state. After all the first word in the title of Isett’s book is ‘state.’ In the part of book dealing with migration policies and property rights in Manchuria that role is analyzed in detail. But considering the fact that Isett is so keen on comparing Smithian Britain and Malthusian China, opportunities are missed here. When one takes on board the role of the state, the use of the term ‘Smithian,’ by Isett as well as by members of the Californian School, is highly problematic for China and simply wrong for Britain.

All the talk about Britain’s Smithian growth not-withstanding, Britain’s government policies were fiercely mercantilist. Government interference in the market, in particular but not only in sectors of the economy that were relevant to foreign trade, was the rule rather than the exception. Even in agriculture, the sector that Isett focuses upon, there was tampering with the market, e.g. when it comes to the rules of strict settlement and entail. Britain at the time was a fiscal-military, highly interventionist state. The differences with China, where government policies can best be described as ‘agrarian-paternalist,’ were enormous, as for example shows in the fact that China’s government did hardly anything before 1862 to exploit the huge economic potential of Manchuria. But neither of the two governments can be described as a principled defender of the kind of ‘laissez faire’ that Adam Smith pleads for.

The California School focuses on (certain parts of) China Proper. The empirical research of Isett’s book deals with Manchuria. That also at least gives the impression Isett has a strange way of engaging with it. Is not all the information on Manchuria in that respect something of a detour? Personally I found the permanent switching from Manchuria to China and vice versa not always convincing and not always helpful. On top of that and finally, the ‘Californians’ focus on the ‘Great Divergence’ ? that is, the emergence of modern economic growth. In that respect Isett ought to have been more specific about the exact impact of the differences he has found. It would have been helpful had he distinguished between development, growth, and modern economic growth.

For Isett Smithian dynamics mean development and growth without any further specification. As such it is not difficult to imagine that a Smithian economy has more ‘potential’ than a Malthusian one. I think that nevertheless two comments are in order here. The first one is that, compared to Isett, Smith himself, with good reason, was much more of a pessimist and much more ‘Malthusian,’ as shows in his various references to the ‘stationary state’ of highly developed economies. Smithian development and growth, even in Isett’s definition, do have structural limits. In the long run they will inevitably peter out and hit a ceiling, as long as one is dealing with an organic economy. Both pre-industrial China-Manchuria and Britain were organic economies and both in that sense were ‘Malthusian.’ In that respect the Californians are right.

My second comment would be that in being so insistent that China’s economy was not ‘Smithian,’ it would have been natural for Isett to inquire – Consumption being the sole end of production, to put it in Smith’s own words ? whether that meant that China was poorer. This question is not extensively addressed, but everything in Isett’s texts suggests the answer must be yes. Neither is the question addressed of the connection between Smithian dynamics and so-called modern economic growth, i.e. the sustained and substantial increase, in real terms, of per capita income that is regarded as the product of the Industrial Revolution. Interestingly enough, Smith thought such growth to be impossible and in any case had no clue that an ‘Industrial Revolution’ was about to fundamentally change Britain’s economy. He, and most present-day economic historians, clearly would not claim such a revolution simply evolves out of commercialization. Isett is too optimist when he writes (on page 286) that England was already breaking free of Malthusian constraints in the early modern era. He may be right in claiming against the Californians that eighteenth-century Britain was not (yet) in a Malthusian cul-the-sac. But that does not imply that Britain had got rid of Malthus: it only had managed to keep him at some distance. Until industrialization its economy continued to operate according to a ‘Malthusian,’ organic logic.

The challenge ahead for Isett and other historians who are interested in the Great Divergence and who think its explanation resides in Smithian dynamics, is to look for the exact mechanisms by which these dynamics could have brought about a transition from a pre-industrial to an industrial economy. This is a major challenge, as that transition is not smooth or natural as Isett seems to suggest, while knowing that, for example, it did not occur in the Dutch Republic, nor a matter of sheer ‘luck’ as Californians claim. Isett has proven to be very qualified to take up that challenge.

Peer Vries is professor of global economic history, in particular for the early modern era, at the University of Vienna. Apart from various articles dealing with global economic history in that era, he published Via Peking back to Manchester: Britain, the Industrial Revolution and China (Leiden 2003). In the spring of 2008 his A World of Surprising Differences: State and Economy in Early Modern Western Europe and China will appear on the market. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Global History and one of the founders of the Global Economic History Network

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century

Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915

Author(s):Williams, Stephen F.
Reviewer(s):Nafziger, Steven

Published by EH.NET (July 2007)

Stephen F. Williams, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2006. xiv + 320 pp. $15 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8179-4722-1.

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

Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime, by Stephen F. Williams, is an interesting, interdisciplinary study of one of the largest property rights reforms in European history ? the famed Stolypin reforms of late-Tsarist Russia. Initiated in the wake of the first Russian revolution of 1905-6, the Stolypin reforms (named for their guiding personality and then presiding Prime Minister, Petr Stolypin) aimed to help alleviate the backwardness and inefficiency of peasant agriculture through land titling and the consolidation of scattered plots into unified farms. Williams, a retired Federal Appeals court judge (DC Circuit) and former law professor at the University of Colorado, offers an interpretation of the reforms that draws heavily on political science, law and economics, and the economics of institutions.

Liberal Reform argues that the measures taken under Stolypin failed to truly modernize Russia’s economy because they were undertaken by a fundamentally illiberal regime that did not guarantee the enforcement of property rights or allow markets (especially in land) to freely function. Broadly comparative, especially to property rights issues in the modern developing world, the book implicitly and explicitly compares the Stolypin reforms under Tsar Nicholas II to recent reform efforts (or the lack thereof) in Russia under Vladimir Putin. As such, Williams’s analysis will appeal to scholars interested in property rights, land reforms, and the political implications of both, especially in authoritarian states. However, economic historians with an interest in Russian development are unlikely to be persuaded by the structure of the argument or the evidence brought to bear.

After 1905, Stolypin and his allies in the administration and the Duma passed a series of decrees and statutes aimed at transforming the prevailing regime of peasant property rights, thereby improving production incentives and the allocation of resources. This effort was motivated by the perceived inefficiencies of open-field agriculture and the communal organization of rural society. Since the reforms of the 1860s, which emancipated the peasants and endowed them with collective property rights (typically at the village level), Russian peasant agriculture appeared increasingly backward in comparison to the best practices in Western Europe and North America. The reforms were meant to spark technological modernization by enabling peasant households to shift from communal property rights and practices towards individualized farming and land tenure. This meant the establishment of individual title to land that was previously under collective community control and consolidations of scattered, open-field holdings into unified farms. The reforms set forth administrative and financial support for the millions of farmers and thousands of entire villages that undertook one of a menu of possible changes: from full enclosures of villages under individualized titles, to exchanges of intermingled fields among neighboring villages, to the resettlement of interested households in Siberia.[1] Alongside these changes in land-holdings and property rights, the reforms ended collective responsibility for tax and land obligations, forgave arrears on existing obligations, and officially did away with many other juridical limitations on peasant civil rights.

Given the epic scale of the reforms, historians have long argued over whether Stolypin’s efforts mattered (or would have, if not for World War I and the Bolsheviks) for Russian economic development. To Alexander Gerschenkron (1965), establishing private property rights and ending the commune’s hold on peasant initiative enabled Tsarist Russia’s belated turn towards modern economic growth.[2] In contrast, Williams argues that any productivity benefits, as well as peasant “freedoms” (Chapter 1) more generally, were undermined and ultimately failed to take root because they were enacted by a non-democratic, non-liberal state. He builds his study around a thematic question: is it possible for fundamental grass-roots reforms (enabling “freedom” and “liberal democracy” in his view) to take place under a centralized and “illiberal” regime such as Tsarist Russia. Williams eventually answers this potentially interesting query, recently investigated by economists such as Acemoglu and Robinson (2006), in the negative, but he bases his conclusions on theoretical musings and secondary sources, rather than any detailed analysis of available documents or official statistics.

After introducing the reforms and instrumental concepts such as “liberalism” in Chapter 1, Williams describes the agricultural and social context of pre-1905 Russia in Chapters 2 and 3. Overall, his review of a vast literature is well-done, but problems do emerge here that spill over the rest of the study. In several places, the book exhibits small but significant lapses when either describing historical developments or applying economic theory to explain them. For example, in Chapter 3 (pp. 104-06), a puzzling discussion of the positive correlation between grain and land prices puts much of the blame for high land prices on the Peasant Land Bank ? a fairly limited institution that definitely did not have market power when it came to credit or land. Moreover, although Williams acknowledges that practices of collective fiscal responsibility and land management were fairly flexible, he eventually accepts Gerschenkron’s association of the commune with agricultural backwardness and labor immobility. In contrast, recent studies (see Nafziger, 2006) have drawn on archival and statistical evidence to question these interpretations by econometrically testing for linkages between communal practices and economic inefficiencies. Finally, Williams refrains from discussing or analyzing his sources ? both secondary and primary ? in much depth. This allows him to either brush aside contradictory evidence or to qualify his conclusions to such a degree that the argument of the book becomes difficult to maintain and, eventually, to prove.

In Chapter 4, Williams describes the political context of the efforts by Stolypin and his supporters to enact property rights reforms. This chapter usefully outlines the views of the main political groups at the time (the nobility, the various parties of the left, the liberal Kadets, etc.) regarding land reforms, but these synopses exist in something of a vacuum, without much historical context to help the reader. Moreover, this chapter, along with Chapter 1, focuses almost exclusively on politics at the highest levels, often through the allusions to the personality and decisions of Stolypin, himself. The resulting depiction of events is rife with many quasi-counterfactual statements regarding what the reformers might have done differently, but little documentary evidence is analyzed beyond public speeches and memoirs to explain exactly how and why various choices were made.

This birds-eye focus on the mechanics of reform continues in Chapter 5, where Williams describes the particulars of the statutes and decrees and the take-up of different options by peasants and villages. The account is complemented by data at the provincial level, but the micro-level process of the reform process is left as a black box. In Chapter 6, which returns to the issues of reform design, the exclusive focus on legislation and decrees contrasts sharply with Pallot’s (1999) impressive study of the enactment of the Stolypin reforms. In her work, Pallot puts the emphasis squarely on how peasants encountered the reform through their interaction with surveyors, administrators, and each other. Unlike Williams, she views the failures of the Stolypin reforms to revolutionize rural society and economy as the outcome of peasants rationally choosing to retain communal practices and to resist certain aspects of the reforms. At the end of the day, this reviewer is much more convinced by Pallot’s careful study of the reform process based on archival and primary evidence, than by Williams’s analysis.

In Chapter 7, Williams concludes by studying the effects of the reforms, both immediate and long-term. Likening the Stolypin reforms to the English enclosure movement (although misinterpreting the state of the literature regarding productivity benefits of enclosure), Williams jumps from noting the lack of evidence on positive productivity gains to asserting that the reforms must have not gone far enough in liberalizing land markets or privatizing land holdings.[3] Besides this logical leap, Williams puzzlingly points to state support of the cooperative movement in the 1900s and 1910s as additional evidence that the regime was not really committed to becoming a liberal capitalist democracy (really now?). This leads him to conclude that although the intent of the reforms was very much “liberal” (p. 250), the “illiberalism” of the Tsarist state undermined Stolypin’s laudatory goals. The book ends with a consideration of property rights and liberal reforms in Putin’s Russia that is overly brief and highly conjectural. As a result, the book ends rather abruptly, without adequately summarizing what the reader should take away.

Overall, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime is a significant contribution to our understanding of a critical moment in Russian economic and social history. Stephen Williams offers an impressive distillation of a large amount of secondary literature on the Stolypin reforms. He sheds deserved attention on the political context of what ended up being the last chance for the Tsarist regime to effect modernization in rural Russia before the October Revolution. Unfortunately, the limited use of original sources, several conceptual difficulties arising from not delving deep enough into the reforms’ context or process, and the polemical undertones of the study (published by Hoover Press) detract from this book’s usefulness as either an introduction to the Stolypin reforms or as a specialized study of the political implications of enclosing and privatizing communal land-holdings.

Notes:

1. The “take-up” of the reforms did involve millions of households and a large number of villages. However, these totals still only included a minority of the vast Russian peasant population. Pallot (1999, pp. 190-192) and Williams (2006, Chapter 5) review the relevant numbers. 2. This “Gerscheknronian” view has recently been questioned by Gregory (1994) and Nafziger (2006), based on aggregate and micro-evidence, respectively. 3. Surprisingly, Williams does not mention the only work this reviewer is aware of which “tests” for positive agricultural productivity effects of the Stolpyin reforms. The empirical work in Toumanoff (1984) is limited by significant identification problems, but it could have usefully served as a starting point for Williams’s research.

References:

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Alexander Gerschenkron. “Agrarian Policies and Industrialization, Russia 1861-1917.” The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. Vol. VI, Part II. Ed. H. J. Habakkuk and M. Postan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965. 706-800.

Paul R. Gregory. Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation to the First Five-Year Plan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Steven Nafziger. “Communal Institutions, Resource Allocation, and Russian Economic Development: 1861-1905.” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University. 2006.

Judith Pallot. Land Reform in Russia 1906-1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin’s Project of Rural Transformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Peter Toumanoff. “Some Effects of Land Tenure Reforms on Russian Agricultural Productivity, 1901-1913.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 32, 4 (1984): 861-72.

Steven Nafziger is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Williams College. His research focuses on institutions and economic development in Imperial Russia before 1917.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000

Author(s):Topik, Steven
Carlos Marichal
Frank, Zephyr
Reviewer(s):Baskes, Jeremy

Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal and Zephyr Frank, editors, From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. v + 378 pp. $24 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8223-3766-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jeremy Baskes, Department of History, Ohio Wesleyan University.

The field of Latin American history has been slow and reluctant to abandon the dependency paradigm (and its world systems sister). Conceived largely by Latin American scholars who used the region as the prime example to illustrate the alleged underdevelopment of the periphery caused by international trade, dependency theory came to be the nearly universal model influencing textbooks as well as monographs on regional trade.

For some time, scholars of Latin America have grown dubious of the claims of dependency theory. The model seemed too rigid, too dogmatic and too flimsily based on statistical data, which when actually compiled did not necessarily corroborate the paradigm’s dismal predictions. Despite the discrediting of dependency theory, Latin American scholars did not find a suitable alternative, rejecting the triumphant claims of neoliberalism as equally unrealistic.

The essays in this excellent collection seek to illustrate the value of examining Latin America’s international trade through the lens of “commodity chains,” the trajectory through which commodities passed from producers to consumers. While this method cannot possibly “answer” as many questions as dependency theory purported to address, the authors leave little doubt that a commodity chain approach can prove rewarding.

As the authors demonstrate, the examination of commodity chains serves to rupture historians’ tendency to focus exclusively on the national level. Too often, Latin American historians have focused on the supply side of the region’s exports, and have consequently been ignorant of the broader forces affecting the industries. The essays in this book demonstrate clearly the value of examining the entire commodity chain.

From Silver to Cocaine contains twelve essays penned by fifteen authors, each of them highly respected scholars. Each essay focuses on a single (or complementary) commodity and attempts to follow its path from producer to consumer. Four of the pieces examine colonial products. Carlos Marichal writes on both silver and Mexican cochineal; David McCreery compares Salvadoran and Bengali indigo and Laura Nater explores Caribbean tobacco. The remaining essays discuss Latin American commodities that, for the most part, took off in the second half of the nineteenth century. Steven Topik and Mario Samper contrast the Brazilian and Costa Rican coffee industries; Horacio Crespo examines the world market for sugar; Mary Ann Mahony investigates Bahian cacao; Marcelo Bucheli and Ian Read focus on Central American bananas and especially the United Fruit Company; Rory Miller and Robert Greenhill compare and contrast Peruvian guano and Chilean nitrates, both used as fertilizers; Zephyr Frank and Aldo Musacchio consider the Brazilian rubber boom; Allen Wells looks at the demise of the Yucatecan henequen industry; and, finally, Paul Gootenberg explores coca and cocaine.

It would be impossible to summarize adequately these rich and detailed chapters. One issue emphasized by a number of the authors is the social transformations undergone by commodities as they move from producer to consumer. Coffee became the preferred beverage of French revolutionaries who thought little about the enslaved workers who produced it. Cochineal was employed to dye the clothing of kings and popes, yet was produced by poor indigenous peasants in southern Mexico. Tobacco and coca were considered spiritual products by their Caribbean and Andean producers but consumed by Americans and Europeans for their medicinal or intoxicant value.

A central issue examined by most of the essays was the “agency” of producing countries. Dependency theory suggests that decisions of significance are made in the “metropolis” and that the “peripheral” producing countries have little control over their destiny. These essays clearly extinguish this notion demonstrating that “Latin American producers were much more than simple marionettes set to dance by overseas commands and demands. They were not simply passive victims” (p. 3). While wealthy capitalists and multinational companies undoubtedly wielded significant influence, producers and governments in Latin America exercised considerable market and other power. The massive expansion of Bahian cacao naturally responded to growing international demand, but was also influenced by government policies and the gradual conclusion among planters that it was their most advantageous commodity. The coffee industry of Costa Rica and Brazil followed very different paths due to distinct domestic conditions. Costa Rica opted to produce high quality coffee while Brazil took advantage of ample territory and an interventionist state to become by far the world’s largest producer.

More generally, the essays convincingly show the greater understanding that arises through an examination of the entire commodity chain. The boom and bust of the rubber trade in Brazil is much more comprehensible and much less tragic when one takes into consideration the evolution of the automobile industry. Considerable light is shed on the Salvadoran indigo industry by examining its major competitor, Bengal, India. While substitute products might have contributed to henequen’s decline, corruption and mismanagement in Mexico sealed its demise.

An additional matter addressed in the essays is the distribution of profits between core and periphery. Dependency theory predicted that profits from international trade invariably accrued in the more developed countries. While none of the essays goes so far as to suggest that the opposite was the case, for the most part they reject dependency’s predatory claim, arguing that reasonable profits accumulated and development occurred in Latin America. The arrangements of production and the networks of distribution were rational solutions given the different endowments of the various actors. According to Miller and Greenhill, for example, the nitrate and guano industries came to be organized in the most efficient manner conceivable, benefiting from the technological, financial, and informational advantages enjoyed by the multinational companies engaged in the trade. Despite multinational control over marketing, the authors conclude that each government extracted reasonable rents and that no alternative organization of the trade “would have provided significantly better rewards for Peru and Chile” (p. 261).

The death of dependency theory in Latin America is long overdue. It answered lots of questions, but the answers were most often facile. The essays in this excellent collection illustrate the potential rewards of reexamining old topics and offer a compelling way to help shape this new research. Unlike so many edited collections that lack cohesion or seem poorly conceived, the essays in From Silver to Cocaine are remarkably well integrated and address similar questions and themes. As such, the reader is well rewarded from comparison of the differing commodity chains.

Jeremy Baskes is Professor of Latin American History at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of Indians Merchants and Markets: A Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821 (Stanford University Press). His current research examines the ways that merchants in the Spanish empire organized their transatlantic commerce to mitigate risk.

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Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Mills in the Medieval Economy: England, 1300-1540

Author(s):Langdon, John
Reviewer(s):Beek, Karine van der

Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

John Langdon, Mills in the Medieval Economy: England, 1300-1540. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xx + 369 pp. $150 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-926558-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Karine van der Beek, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Mills represent one of the largest and most significant investments in physical capital in the pre-industrial European economy. Nevertheless, economic aspects of milling have received little scholarly attention so far and most studies in this field are dedicated to technological aspects of milling and to their pattern of diffusion.

Mills in the Medieval Economy by John Langdon, professor at the University of Alberta and a leading figure in the field of medieval economy and technology, is a well-written study, based to a great extent on original data, that not only provides an exceptional survey, but also explores key economic aspects of medieval milling and offers the reader an overall understanding of the industry.

This book focuses on England from 1300 to 1540 and examines various aspects of milling in a period that saw a dramatic peak in mill numbers and in population. Through skilled and convincing use of numerous documents and other sources, Langdon shows that the development of the industry displayed continuity over the period, both in terms of technology and investment, rather than a radical breakdown, as has often been emphasized in Marxist analyses of the Middle Ages.

Langdon’s book is obviously of great value to technology historians and social historians in general. Nevertheless, I find it to be of prime interest to economic historians. It presents an interesting case of entrepreneurial organization of a capital-intensive key industry that was characterized by low profitability and that was highly sensitive to periods of instability.

In successive chapters that examine most aspects of milling, it is shown for the first time that mills, which were traditionally seen as the symbol of peasant exploitation and as an important source of feudal income, were in fact hard to uphold. Their construction and maintenance required vast resources, and their revenues were highly volatile. The milling industry was widely exposed to demographic disasters caused by bad weather, wars, and plagues, which were commonplace from the mid-fourteenth to the end of the sixteenth centuries. These features of milling, which are noticed by Langdon but which should have been more emphasized throughout the book, are what makes the observation of continuity in this industry interesting, to my opinion.

The total number of mills in 1300 was about 10,000. This number remained relatively unchanged in the half century leading up to the Black Death. Yet, although the number of mills was clearly affected by the catastrophic demographic outcomes of the Black Death, the overall impact was not as critical as one might expect and it declined by only 10 percent in the first decades following the plague.

Langdon sees this moderate fall and quick adjustment of the industry as a testimony to what he refers to as “the determined entrepreneurial spirit” (p. 236). He explains it by an adjustment of the use of mills, which he observes in the documents. Mills, which had been most commonly used for grain grinding, were widely converted into industrial activities, such as textile fulling, after the Black Death. Such use was more profitable than grain grinding in periods of demographic crisis due to the relative rise in real wages.

Nevertheless, mill operation involved regular and costly maintenance, which was difficult to maintain during long periods of instability and low profitability. This is why, from the late fourteenth century to the early sixteenth, following a long period of instability that delayed the recovery of the milling sector, many mills were abandoned and mill numbers shrank by another 10 percent.

The different managerial strategies of dealing with the volatile profitability of mills are described in depth by Langdon in chapter five. This chapter demonstrates to the reader once again that medieval entrepreneurs were no different than modern ones. It shows that owners tended to lease the mills for a fixed rent. The relative bargaining power of mill owners, usually feudal lords, and lessees was reflected in the contract, in the degree of risk imposed on each part, revealed in the repair agreements. Langdon provides extensive data concerning the level of risk sharing and how it has changed over the period. The data show, for example, that as the situation in the milling industry worsened and revenues declined in the beginning of the fifteenth century, owners began to take a larger share of the maintenance costs.

Langdon also examines the extent to which the legal framework affected peasant demand and challenges the thesis posited by Marc Bloch. He argues that customers generally came to mills because they wanted to, not because they were coerced by lords to do so. There is much evidence that supports this claim, particularly in areas where feudal lords were holding small scattered estates and could not prevent peasants from going to nearby rival mills, such as in the South of England.

To conclude, Mills in the Medieval Economy is an in-depth study of late medieval milling which deals with the wider nature of industrial change. It is an admirable study that provides economic historians with a comprehensive description and thoughtful analysis of the medieval milling industry and of pre-modern entrepreneurship in general.

Karine van der Beek is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, as part of the CEPR Economic History RTN: “Unifying the European Experience.” Her research focuses on early European growth and on the effects of political structures on institutional formation, market organization, and productivity. Her recent papers include: “Political Fragmentation and Technology Adoption: Watermill Construction in Feudal France,” and “Political Fragmentation and Investment Decisions: The Milling Industry in Feudal France (1150-1250).”

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval