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The Singularity of Western Innovation: The Language Nexus

Author(s):Dudley, Leonard
Reviewer(s):Sasaki, Yu

Published by EH.Net (May 2018)

Leonard Dudley, The Singularity of Western Innovation: The Language Nexus. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017. vii + 316 pp. $170 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-137-40317-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Yu Sasaki, Waseda Institute of Advanced Study, Waseda University.

 
In The Singularity of Western Innovation, Leonard Dudley of Université de Montréal seeks to identify a cause of “Western innovation,” the term that encompasses the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the military revolution of the twentieth century. For Dudley, a primary cause is what he calls the “language nexus,” or the degree to which the main vernacular of a society was standardized in the preceding centuries. He argues that language standardization was far more advanced in Western Europe before 1800 than in contemporaneous eastern empires of Turkey, India, and China. Europe’s cultural precocity eventually led to key inventions in the modern era, including the steam engine, telegraph, electricity, and submarines. Given that these emerged from select Western states, namely Britain, France, and the United States as a British offshoot, the substantive question that is explored in the book is: what enabled these countries to lead in innovation? Addressing this puzzle is important to economic history, because it helps understand why it was Western Europe that economically “took off” first and not other world regions.

Dudley sets out to investigate this question in fourteen chapters that are organized in three sections. Each chapter clearly identifies a thesis and discusses it in a schematic fashion: on each topic, the European (mostly English) experience comes first as the benchmark case, followed by the brief comparison of the Ottoman, Indian, and Chinese cases. After the introductory chapter, Part I traces the extent to which vernaculars were developed in each society in Chapters 2 through 5. Chapter 2 lays out the foundation of language development by examining the dynastic cycle of the seventeenth century. It points out that while the eastern empires continued to suffer from the dynastic cycle — the pattern of the rise and fall of empires through financial instability, internal rebellion or external attack, and regime replacement — this cycle ceased in England as the power of the Parliament grew stronger relative to that of monarchy. This transformation ultimately gave England stability not only in finance but also in daily lives among ordinary citizens, giving an impetus for trust and cooperation in the subsequent centuries.

Chapter 3 discusses the adoption of print technology. In Europe, the metal movable type, invented by Johannes Gutenberg circa 1450, became the standard tool until the twentieth century. Non-European empires had a distinct experience with print. Although Jews brought Gutenberg presses to the Ottoman domain by the end of the fifteenth century, Istanbul banned private printing in Turkish or Arabic until 1726 (private printing in other languages was allowed). The main rationale for the ban is that the Ottomans relied upon oral communications by religious leaders to broadcast and maintain political authority. Printing presses would leave written records and political adversaries might take advantage of any inconsistency between those records and oral transmission to challenge the authority. In India, it was westerners who led the development of vernacular printing to understand local languages (and aid the business for firms such as the East India Company). It seems that the Mughals preferred hand-written materials to printed forms, and only in the late eighteenth century did vernacular print start by the initiative of an Englishman. China was the birthplace of movable type in the eleventh century, but woodblock printing, a more labor-intensive form, became standard until the late nineteenth century.

Chapter 4 describes literacy rates in the seventeenth century whose variation across the cases comes partly from the availability of the printing press and the size of the book market. Dudley argues in Chapter 5 that another factor that affected literacy was the extent to which the main vernacular of a society was standardized prior to industrialization. He uses the first publication date of a monolingual dictionary to measure language standardization. According to this definition, English was codified by 1658 and French, by 1680. Only in the twentieth century were Hindi, Turkish, and Mandarin Chinese standardized (in 1929, 1932, and 1937, respectively). The difference in the timing of standardization played a critical role, because a standardized language would reduce transaction costs and make collaboration easier in the age of urbanization, automation, and mass production.

The rest of the book discusses the consequences of pre-modern language rationalization for innovations in industrial and military technology, drawing examples from the West. Part 2 describes industrialization. Following an overview of each state’s ability to raise revenue reliably (Chapter 6), steam engines (Chapter 7), machine tools (Chapter 8), and rifles (Chapter 9) are examined. Part 3 focuses on the military dimensions: Chapter 10 goes over geopolitics at the turn of the nineteenth century. Chapter 11 discusses steam ships; Chapter 12, major conflicts between European and Asian powers; and Chapter 13, Europe’s overwhelming force of rifled firearms over Asian rivals. The concluding chapter compares the conventional model of geopolitical competition on Europe’s rise to the language hypothesis explored in the book.

One important contribution that Dudley’s book makes is his insight that language standardization is never a “natural” outcome. One reason, I suspect, is that it is hard to imagine how the uniform use of a language can have a direct and positive impact on the desired outcome for political and economic actors — be it greater revenue or greater trade. The monograph makes it clear that few, if any, pre-modern leaders put priority on investing in language standardization, as seen in the case of the Mughal Empire. There was also wide variation in such incentive within Europe, because countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy did not quickly follow the examples of Britain and France. Given the high fixed costs required to standardize a vernacular, what provides an incentive for language standardization? This question does not receive sufficient attention in the monograph. Future research could examine it to provide a fuller conceptual framework and offer an empirical test of the role of culture in understanding the process of economic development.

Dudley is right to underscore the importance of considering cultural dimensions when one seeks to address big questions such as “Why did Europe — or a specific subregion of it — industrialize first?” Here “culture” refers to a broad term that captures patterns of behavior with regard to actors’ choices of technology, codified rules, and policies, which conventional institutionalist arguments have difficulty explaining. For example, the Chinese relied on woodblock printing (a labor-intensive technology) even though a superior technology, movable-type print (a capital-intensive technology), was available. Their choice may in part be based on their shared preference for time-consuming but cheap labor over an efficient yet expensive technology. Future work can build on Dudley’s insight to shed greater light on the origins of European industrialization.

 
Yu Sasaki is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute of Advanced Study in Waseda University, Tokyo. His recent publications include “Publishing Nations: Technology Acquisition and Language Standardization for European Ethnic Groups,” Journal of Economic History, December 2017. He is currently working on how cultural consolidation within states affects political and economic development on the state level, drawing from early-modern Europe.

Copyright (c) 2018 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (May 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

From Warfare to Wealth: The Military Origins of Urban Prosperity in Europe

Author(s):Dincecco, Mark
Onorato, Massimiliano
Reviewer(s):Koyama, Mark

Published by EH.Net (February 2018)

Mark Dincecco and Massimiliano Onorato, From Warfare to Wealth: The Military Origins of Urban Prosperity in Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xi + 196 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-316-61259-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Koyama, Department of Economics, George Mason University.

 
Mark Dincecco and Massimiliano Onorato have authored numerous papers on the relationship between warfare, urbanization, state capacity, and economic development. This book presents the results of their research program in a single slim volume.

Their research sheds new light on the role warfare played in Europe’s urban and economic development before the industrial revolution. In particular, it helps to illuminate the historical origins of the “blue banana” — the corridor of urban development that spreads out from south-eastern England to northern Italy. Rather than relying on geography or national-level institutions to account for different patterns of economic development, Dincecco and Onorato focus on the role played by warfare

There are two main elements to their argument: (1) the safe-harbor effect; and (2) the warfare-to-welfare effect. The safe-harbor effect links frequent interstate warfare to rural to urban migration, which in turn spurred city growth. The warfare-to-welfare effect links conflict to modern economic development via several channels including human capital accumulation, state capacity, and more inclusive political institutions.

The Low Countries, for example, is often referred to by historians as a “cockpit of war.” Indeed, from the Hundred Years’ War to World War I many contests for European supremacy have involved battles in what is now modern Belgium. And, the Low Countries was both high urbanized in the past and highly developed today. A similar argument could be given for northern Italy.

Rather than just relying on historical examples, however, Dincecco and Onorato bring together several different types of data on historical conflict, city size, and regional development today to establish their argument. Chapter 2 confirms that Europe was indeed very bellicose and that the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period were especially warlike. Chapters 3 and 4 show that conflict helped give rise to urban development in a panel setting. Chapter 5 links the data on conflicts with regional income levels today. The authors find that the legacy of this bloodshed is a positive one. A one standard deviation increase in historical conflict exposure is associated with a 5 to 9 percent increase in regional per capita GDP today. The majority of the analysis is conducted for all Europe. But the authors also draw on specific evidence from regions like Italy and from historical case studies.

The main focus of this volume is on Europe but in Chapter 6 the authors consider why similar developments did not occur in East Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. China tended to be historically unified and hence did not experienced frequent interstate warfare (Ko et al., 2018). In sub-Saharan Africa, in contrast, the high land-to-labor ratio meant that warfare was over slaves rather than territory. War in Africa did not lead to urban growth.

This is a very focused book. The writing is clear and concise and Dincecco and Onorato excel at presenting their empirical results in an intuitive and transparent fashion. As a result, this volume will be a very valuable resource for scholars working on related themes and an excellent model for students learning how to write research papers.

One consequence of this brevity is that Dincecco and Onorato do not make use of the opportunity afforded to them to develop a more expansive argument. Many of the 112 pages of main text are devoted to tables and discussions of empirical results. Perhaps the argument would have been strengthened by considering counterarguments and possible exceptions in more detail?

In summary, this book will be very useful for scholars in economic history, political science, political economy and development economics. But, despite the discussion of historical case studies, it is not probably not a suitable book for the lay reader.

Reference:

Chiu Yu Ko, Mark Koyama and Tuan-Hwee Sng (2018), “Unified China; Divided Europe,” International Economic Review 59(1), 285–327.

 
Mark Koyama is an Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom (with Noel Johnson) which is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Copyright (c) 2018 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (February 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Military and War
Markets and Institutions
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Author(s):Mokyr, Joel
Reviewer(s):Diebolt, Claude

Published by EH.Net (November 2017)

Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. xiv + 403 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16888-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Claude Diebolt, Department of Economics, University of Strasbourg.

 
I enjoyed this new book by Joel Mokyr, which is praiseworthy for its elegance and erudition. It tells the story of economic growth with “culture” — a mushy word for most of us — as the invisible hand. However, I regret the lack of in-depth consideration of the German language literature. Significantly more attention could also have been given to economic cycles. Werner Sombart, for example (Der moderne Kapitalismus and Der Bourgeois. Zur Geistesgeschichte des modernen Wirtschaftsmenschen), was the first to come to mind while reading this fantastic book. It also reminds me of George Akerlof and Robert Schiller’s Animal Spirits, where confidence, fear, a propensity to gamble, and follow-the-leader effect stories are presented as central to explain the decision making process. The Bourgeois Trilogy by Deirdre McCloskey is another seminal work in that spirit: ideas, not capital or institutions enriched the world. A growth theorist would probably also see strong connections between Mokyr’s latest effort and the unified growth theory initiated by Oded Galor.

The book is about the roots of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Enrichment, and radical changes in values, beliefs, and preferences. It is not about a mass movement. It is a phenomenon related to an elite: philosophers and scientists of course, but also engineers, instrument makers, and even industrialists who spawned the process. In any case, it is a minority of the population. Mokyr’s ambition is to understand and to explain how these beliefs and values emerged — why some people developed new ideas and why these ideas replaced the ones in place.

According to Mokyr, we know pretty much what happened, how it happened and where it happened, but we still do not know why it happened. Why, after thousands of years of stagnation, have a number of countries and regions of the world experienced an unprecedented increase in both the scale and speed of their economic growth? Why Europe and not China? Why England? Is it the result of happenstance? The Black Death perhaps? What about the influence of religion (Max Weber and the Protestant ethic?), of major intellectual and scientific personalities who changed the game (Martin Luther, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin)? What role should be given to natural resource saturation, innovation (the compass, gunpowder, printing) and capital accumulation, trade networks, market institutions and organizations, ideas, violence (battles, dynastic arrangements, power struggles…), women, etc.? For Mokyr, the Gordian knot is a Culture of Growth — a “Useful knowledge,” scientific and technological knowledge, the meeting of motivations and incentives, of attitudes and aptitudes toward Nature and the ability to persuade others. These are the key elements of the puzzle.

“No theory-no history! Theory is the pre-requisite to any scientific writing of history,” wrote Werner Sombart (1929) in the Economic History Review. I urge you to carefully read Joel Mokyr’s evolutionary approach to culture in the spirit of Schumpeter’s theory on Unternehmergeist. It will give you a fresh insight into one of the most fascinating questions in our field: the origins of the Great Enrichment. It will invite everyone to visit economic history with an optimistic vision for the future of the World!

 
Claude Diebolt is CNRS Research Professor of Economics at the University of Strasbourg and editor of the journal Cliometrica.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (November 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History

Editor(s):Boldizzoni, Francesco
Hudson, Pat
Reviewer(s):Mitch, David

Published by EH.Net (September 2017)

Francesco Boldizzoni and Pat Hudson, editors, Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History. New York: Routledge, 2016. xv + 471 pp. $240 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-138-83803-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David Mitch, Department of Economics, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Francesco Boldizzoni (University of Turin) and Pat Hudson (Professor Emeritus, Cardiff University) have compiled a fascinating collection of 24 historiographical surveys on the economic history of countries and regions from six out of seven continents of the world bookended by their introductory essay (“Global Economic History: Toward an Interpretive Turn”) and their concluding essay (“Culture, Power, and Contestation: Multiple Roads from the Past to the Present”). Antarctica is presumably excluded due both to the absence of indigenous economic historians and the paucity of scholarly literature on the region. (See however, Bjorn L. Basberg, “Perspectives on the Economic History of the Antarctic Region,” International Journal of Maritime History (December 2006): 285-304.) The focus of each of these essays is on the historiography or alternatively history of economic history including the institutional setting for the practice of economic history for the geographical area under consideration rather than a survey of economic history as such. For twenty of the essays, the geographical entity considered is the nation state. The other four essays include Huri Islamoglu’s survey of what she calls “Middle Eurasia,” Luis Bertola and Javier Rodriguez Weber’s survey of Latin America, Ayedoji Olukoju’s survey of West Africa and Patrick Manning’s survey of Africa as a whole

A central defining feature of the volume is that in selecting authors for these pieces, the editors are explicit about their preference for indigenous economic historians. Boldizzoni and Hudson offer the following definition of an indigenous economic historian (p. 9): “Whenever possible historians who were trained and/or had based their career within their indigenous culture were favoured.” They offer the following justification for this principle of selection: “A distinctive contribution of the chapters therefore comes from their privileged access to sources. This is an aspect overlooked by global historians who have got accustomed to interpretations based upon cherry-picked secondary materials and upon inadequate, partial and delayed translations. We are not suggesting that indigenous scholars are inevitably more qualified than others to interpret their native cultures although we do accept, other things equal, that they have the opportunity to be better informed and that indigenous and external perspectives are likely to differ.” By my rough and ready reckoning, only two of the contributors clearly do not meet the indigenous criteria, Patrick Manning, the author of the Africa survey mentioned already, and Prasannan Parthasarathi who completed his Ph.D. at Harvard and has been in the History Department at Boston College since 1998. At any rate, the overwhelming majority of the authors in the volume would seem to meet the indigenous criteria as just described.

An important consequence of this for the surveys is that less attention than might otherwise occur is accorded to work by foreign scholars on the relevant territorial unit and, it would appear as a consequence, by cliometricians. The extent of inclusion of foreign and/or cliometric scholarship actually varies considerably across these pieces. Some chapters give no mention whatever to work by cliometricians or foreign scholars while others do so quite extensively. Thus both Naomi Lamoreaux’s chapter on the U.S. and that of Inaki Iriarte-Goni on Spain do give extensive coverage to cliometric work.

At first blush, it struck me that many of the chapters were thus wildly imbalanced by their lack of coverage of recent cliometric contributions or of major works by non-indigenous non-cliometric historians. Having heard, this past April, Bishnu Gupta deliver what I considered a tour de force Tawney Lecture featuring recent cliometric contributions to the economic history of India at the annual Economic History Society conference and having recently read Richard von Glahn’s magisterial The Economic History of China as well as having a sense of the considerable impact of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, I found it quite jarring to read the chapters on India and China and to find minimal mention of cliometric or foreign scholarship in either — including no mention of the contributions of Gupta, Pomeranz, or von Glahn. The chapter by Parthasrathi on India does mention the scholarship of Eric Stokes and Indian expat Amartya Sen, and Li Bozhong’s chapter on China does cite John Fairbanks and Angus Maddison. I do not find it obvious that any advantage associated with better access to primary sources or superior language skills should so fully outweigh other advantages associated with historical, social science and quantitative training in leading global academic centers as to either fully exclude or at least minimize the contributions of such perspectives.

It was only after I read Li Bozhong’s chapter on China that the case for economic history as done by indigenous scholars became compelling to me, although Boldizzoni and Hudson in their introduction indeed refer to an “interpretive turn” in history in which the perspective of the participant becomes central. Li makes the case that there is a 2000-year tradition of a genre that has been termed Shi Huo studies or food and money/commerce studies (p. 293-94). While not organized in terms of more modern concepts of economic history, these treatises did provide records and descriptions of “economic activities, events, and institutions” (p. 295). While this literature established a long tradition of Chinese antecedents for economic history, Li acknowledges that economic history in China was not indigenous but was introduced from the modern West in the first half of the twentieth century. However, he argues that the field developed in China in response to the distinctively Chinese self doubts of the time and an indigenous Chinese desire “to understand what was wrong with traditional Chinese society and economy and their failure to make China a ‘modern nation’” (p. 296). Similar arguments arise for the emergence of economic history in the Soviet Union and in Latin America in the early twentieth century and in South Africa in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed some of the most poignant passages in the volume are those by Leonid Borodkin and Li relating how Soviet and Chinese economic historians lost their lives — not to mention their career positions — for advocating approaches to economic history that were viewed by those in authority as not adhering to an orthodox line. Kaoru Sugihara in his chapter on Japan similarly relates how scholarly participants in debates in 1930s were subject to arrest and torture by the Special Thought Police (p. 316). The influence of political economy concerns broadly defined is also emphasized in Bill Freund’s chapter on South Africa.

Rather than seeing economic history as a field involving standard practices that have simply diffused from more advanced to less advanced societies of the world, the alternative view is that even if influenced by what at the time seem more advanced societies, the particular mix of issues and approaches to addressing them by economic historians develop indigenously. Thus the case for economic history in a given geographic area being practiced by indigenous scholars seems to me more one of awareness and responsiveness to distinctively local issues rather than readier access to primary sources. And the issue is less whether indigenous is intellectually superior to foreign but that in developing an intellectual history of the field, greater awareness of indigenous influences and driving factors gives an important advantage over either foreigner or practitioner of universal cliometric methods in providing an account of indigenous developments. Furthermore, it is useful to have accounts of how economic history has emerged in indigenous circumstances over and above whatever contributions to the economic history of a given geographical area have been made by foreigners. It is precisely in providing a compilation of such accounts that the contribution of this volume lies.

And despite my initial reservations, I do find this a quite worthwhile and successful volume. The scholarship in each of the chapters is excellent and the editors are to be saluted for their efforts in recruiting such strong scholars from all corners of the globe. Those with serious interests in economic history will want to consult this volume and at a minimum request it for their library’s reference collection.

However, some further limitations of the volume do warrant comment. First, the nation state emphasis at points becomes awkward insofar as relevant geographic units for coverage do not fall into current nation state categories and this may explain some of the exceptions to it. Thus, it seems odd that the chapters on the Czech Republic by Antonie Dolezalova, Slovakia by Roman Holec, and Hungary by Gyorgy Kover make only minimal reference to the extensive literature on the economic history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and indeed no chapter is included on Austria. The compelling chapter on Middle Eurasia by Huri Islamoglu seems to acknowledge that much is lost by an exclusive focus either on nation states such as Turkey or Iran or empires such as the Ottoman. She alludes to the value of a civilizational perspective in doing economic history in mentioning the neglect of the work of Marshall Hodgson as a scholar of Islamicate civilization as a whole. And the Latin American and African chapters alternate between country foci and continent wide or regional foci presumably reflecting the larger vistas one can obtain from a more regional or continental perspective than just considering an individual nation state.

Second, an apparent follow-on consequence of the nation state focus is a focus on the modern period since roughly the onset of the British industrial revolution from the mid-eighteenth century. So no coverage is given the literature on pre-eighteenth century economic history. This makes sense if the emphasis is on indigenous present-centered issues. But one misses the issue of how awareness of ancient, medieval and early modern roots can inform more contemporary historical analysis.

Third, while overtly aiming at overcoming disciplinary boundaries, the emphasis is on the economic history tradition. Karl Marx figures prominently and to a lesser extent Max Weber. Many of the chapters refer to the work of Fernand Braudel and the Annales School as well as the work of Immanuel Wallerstein. However, associated traditions in other social sciences seeking to integrate the economic with more general dimensions, including political science and sociology, are given minimal attention. For example, the major intellectual tradition of historical sociology reflected in the work of such prominent scholars as Charles Tilly and Michael Mann is hardly integrated into the accounts at all. No consideration is given to larger social science influences through organizations such as the Social Science History Association in the U.S. or the European Social Science History Conference. However, informative coverage is provided in the Dutch chapter by Ulbe Bosma on the origins and influence of the International Institute of Social History, based in Amsterdam and a key sponsor of the ESSHC.

Returning to the greater sensitivity of indigenous scholars to local issues raises the question of the general versus the particular in economic history. As both social science and history, there is presumably a case to be made for the presence of both. One place where this tension arises but is not considered as fully as it could have been in this volume concerns the extent to which economic historians should take up issues which have significance for the present within which they are working. This is what Claudia Goldin has called “Exploring the Present through the Past.” (See Claudia Goldin, “Exploring the Present through the Past: Career and Family across the Last Century,” American Economic Review 87, no. 2 (1997): 396-399.)

And this is a factor has had an influence on cliometric work in U.S. economic history. Thus one factor contributing to the intensity of the debate over slavery among U.S. economic historians in the late 1960s and early 1970s was concerns about racial unrest in American cities at this time. Major strands of research have developed since on issues concerning black economic progress in the advent of the Civil Rights movement and Great Society programs and on the impact of urban renewal and housing policies in the U.S. Similarly, another major strand of research focusing on the role of gender in the economy can be seen as reflecting increasing contemporary concerns with this issue. Yet the concern can arise that this infuses a presentism and whigishness into economic history with a neglect of perspectives of historical actors or longer-term general issues.

Given their preference for indigenous scholarship and a desire to avoid privileging occidental, metropole approaches, Boldizzoni and Hudson appear to have hoisted themselves by their own petard with regard to the organization of chapters in the volume. The area coverage essays is grouped into four parts. It starts with a lead section on “Anglo-American Traditions,” which includes chapters on Britain, the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Then it proceeds to “West European Roots and Responses” (which includes chapters on Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, and the Low Countries). Part III is a “Turning to the East,” which is actually the second world of former Soviet Bloc countries including not only the Russian Federation but also Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Finally, Part IV ends with “The Wider World,” which consists of an undifferentiated set of ten chapters but proceeding from Asia to Latin America and ending with three chapters on African regions. No explanation is provided for this sequencing but what is conveyed — even if unintentionally through this grouping and ordering — is a sense of hierarchy and diffusion from more enlightened Anglo-American regions down to more backward eastern European and then Asian and Latin American regions with African regions at the very bottom. However, many of the indigenous issues regarding national identity in economic history come through especially forcefully in the African and Latin American cases as well as those in Asia. Given the indigenous theme of the volume, highlighting more fully these latter cases at the outset would seem to be warranted.

Finally, it should be noted that an important contribution of the volume’s chapters is to consider the infrastructure supporting research and teaching in economic history — including not just the academic location of faculty and research positions in economic history but also the presence of government statistical agencies in collecting the data that can be seen as foundational for economic history research. In their concluding assessment, Boldizzoni and Hudson do make useful observations on the mix of demand- and supply-side factors including the role of government and foundation support for economic history. While there is much more that could be done in generalizing these findings, the material assembled in these essays provide an important foundation for considering the role of infrastructure in supporting the development of economic history research.

I hope these comments convey some of the respects in which this volume is both stimulating and provocative. I have not attempted to convey the full richness of its various essays. While not systematically a handbook in the sense of comprehensively surveying a gamut of methodological issues, the variety of levels of analysis and approaches taken by contributors does provide a quite valuable overview of the approaches that can be taken to the history of economic history. Not many readers perhaps will end up reading the volume cover to cover. Nevertheless, the contrasting assessments even within given geographic areas make browsing through the volume intriguing. For example, Inaki Iriarte-Goni’s and Sandra Kuntz Ficker’s upbeat assessments for Spain and Mexico respectively regarding the vibrant blending of various historical methodologies for the economic historiography of their countries present striking contrasts with Boldizzoni’s depiction of a field in decline for the case of Italy or Luiz Felipe de Alencastro’s portrait of involuted tendencies in the case of Brazilian economic history. Even cliometrically inclined scholars could potentially benefit from reading about the perspectives of those who remain resistant to their methodologies.

 
David Mitch is Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of “Economic History in Departments of Economics: The Case of the University of Chicago 1892 to the Present,” Social Science History (2011) and “A Year of Transition: Faculty Recruiting at Chicago in 1946,” Journal of Political Economy  December (2016)

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (September 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Energy and Civilization: A History

Author(s):Smil, Vaclav
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.Net (August 2017)

Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. x + 552 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-262-03577-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.
The arrival of an encyclopedic tome of 550 pages, crammed with graphs, calculations, bar diagrams and the interruption of plentiful “boxes,” so giving every appearance of being a textbook, does not usually fill the breast of a reviewer with joy. Fortunately reading this volume turns out to be a pleasure. Vaclav Smil came to notice in 1984 with The Bad Earth, an early account of China’s environmental degradation, and has since written prolifically on topics concerning energy. He is described as an “incorrigible inter-disciplinarian,” a stance that helps him compare and calibrate sources over the widest possible range. His latest book is a greatly expanded version of an earlier volume and may be taken as a summary of his life’s work. It is immensely valuable for reference as well as for calm, decisive commentaries on the state of knowledge, besides on what is actually or potentially computable about uses of energy worldwide and throughout the very long term.

What Smil concludes about the early modern period provides some of the most insightful passages among a vast number of offerings. The immense stretches of time when most humans remained either hunter-gatherers or toiling peasants can, of course, be approached along an energy perspective. Interpretations of these tedious periods by many authors nevertheless tend to lean on mere assumptions about motive and on various anthropological analogies that are sometimes plausible but commonly arbitrary. They typically amount to pronouncements about indifference to accumulation (readily but unconvincingly supported by material poverty) and chronic aversion to physical labor. Nor is Smil impressed by assertions about the labor supposedly required to erect the great monuments of the past, such as the Great Pyramid, and demonstrates how exaggerated they often are. Better documented detail is available once 1850 is passed, when the Western world took up fossil fuels on a grand scale and soon became a fossil fuel civilization. From that date he pays even closer attention to the energy implications of inventions in sphere after sphere after sphere. He offers a new and informative slant on many of these developments. In principle all this is, however, familiar ground.

Smil’s work on early modern times accordingly stands out between these epochs. What one might call the early modern prologue was remarkably progressive compared with many previous centuries. Smil shows just how much human labor could produce with no more than sweat, levers, treadmills, animals, wind power and water power, and how gradual advances were being made in the diffusion and productivity of these every day methods. His “box” on the raising of Alexander’s column at St Petersburg in 1832 is especially impressive, notwithstanding the facts that foreign architects were employed and that the Monument to the Great Fire of London constructed in the 1670s is taller still. Far earlier than any of this the Romans had made strides in exploiting the power afforded by people and nature. Yet from our distant viewpoint the most interesting fact may be how gradually best practice had spread. The tapping of ostensibly straightforward sources of energy continued for a long time — very long. Water wheels, Smil says, were the most significant energy foundation of Western industrialization. Even allowing for the telescoping effect of hindsight, the ancient world had experienced phases of rapid advance that were not matched for a considerable spell. The later Western world, taken as a whole, was often slow by contrast but at least its gains tended to be cumulative. Permissible loads drawn by French horses in the mid-nineteenth century were about four times the Roman limit. But can we say that reaching this point had been achieved at a reasonable pace?

Agreed, pace depends to some extent on where one stands. Even in the modern period, best practice could diffuse with what to our eyes seems a marked sluggishness. From 1745 the English introduced a fantail to turn the sails of windmills automatically into the wind. Their neighbors, the Dutch, who owned the most windmills in Europe, did not take up this device until the early nineteenth century. For all such blemishes on attainable advance, and despite most labor in England and Wales remaining craft work in 1850, energy output had nevertheless risen fifteen-fold in two hundred years. Was that fast or slow? Either way it meant that industrialization as conventionally defined piggybacked on economic changes already springing up with some frequency. Studies of energy use show that the period leading to modernity was complete by the mid-nineteenth century and by any reasonable measure things changed rapidly thereafter.

Studies of individual subjects might perhaps be thought somewhat like single-issue politics, with the distortions it entails. However Smil explicitly avoids the trap of explaining world economic history in terms of energy alone. Although per capita GDP and energy supply are linked more closely than many elements in socio-economic life, they can be decoupled and a determining role for energy is repeatedly frustrated by political and other choices. Energy use is after all an input, though doubtless one with beneficial outputs, but distributional considerations often alter the expected results. The population response that development economists once thought likely to neutralize any income gained from slow technical advances may have been deflected because elites commandeered a lion’s share of the gains. Smil insists on the need to get the balance right between energy imperatives and a multitude of non-energy factors. He rejects tempting comparisons across sectors, such as the uncannily similar energy use by sailing ships and drainage windmills during the United Provinces’ Golden Age, pointing out that no volume of peat dug would have made possible the voyages to the East Indies. Certainly there were too many overlaps in types of exploitation at any one period to separate history into energy eras. There is long experience and a maturity of judgment in this book that inspire much confidence.

 
Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010), The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013) [with Charles Foster], Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture (Princeton, 2016, paperback) and Middle Ridgeway and its Environment (Wessex Books, 2016) [with Patrick Dillon].

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (August 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Chinese Market Economy, 1000-1500

Author(s):Liu, William Guanglin
Reviewer(s):Pomeranz, Kenneth

Published by EH.Net (June 2017)

William Guanglin Liu, The Chinese Market Economy, 1000-1500. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2015.  xviii + 374 pp., $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-4384-5568-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kenneth Pomeranz, Department of Economics, University of Chicago.

William Guanglin Liu has written a valuable book on a big, important, topic: the general trajectory of the Chinese economy from roughly 1000-1650.  (The title says 1500, but the argument goes beyond that date.) The research is excellent, and the author comes up with some original and inventive ways to use his data.  At times, however, it frames its arguments in overly stark forms, and makes claims that go beyond what it can prove.  But despite these concerns, this is a book well worth reading, which will stimulate very useful debate on fundamental questions of Chinese economic history.

As a first approximation, Liu’s theses are hard to argue with.  The author shows that China experienced very impressive growth during the Song dynasty (ca. 960-1279), a period in which there was also a striking expansion of the role of markets in Chinese society.  He also show that the policies of Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368-1398), founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) dealt a major blow to China’s economy by trying to resurrect an idealized world of largely autarkic and demonetized villages.  It took a long time for China to recover from this: in contrast to many scholars who think that by 1500 China had returned to a market economy generating at least a Song level of prosperity, Liu argues that this did not happen until at least 1600, and quite likely not even then.  Moving beyond China, Liu then suggests that this historical case shows the centrality of market institutions for stimulating economic growth, beginning at a very low level of development.

The first three of these points — the marketization and relative prosperity of Song times, and the damaging effects of early Ming policies — are broadly accepted.  The first controversy concerns matters of degree: how prosperous? How marketized?  How big and lasting a blow did the early Ming inflict?  A second set of controversies centers on causation, and thus on the role of other factors.  For instance, Liu says very little about the many technological innovations during the Song — including the invention of gunpowder, the magnetic compass, paper money, and the importation (from Southeast Asia) of early-ripening rice — except to note that some of the most important innovations did not diffuse rapidly.  Some others would assign those innovations (and some that began in the Tang, such as printing) a good deal of credit for the growth that occurred in the Song, and continued into the Yuan (1279-1368) in some parts of the empire. While we will never have the data necessary to arrive at a precise allocation of growth to different factors, there is still room for further productive discussion about relative weights. Likewise, it is possible to show that the Mongol conquests of the mid-thirteenth century had a devastating impact in some places (especially North China and Sichuan), and very little elsewhere (the Middle and Lower Yangzi Valley, and in the far south); the relative weight of those different regional stories is still unsettled, and matters greatly in whether Liu is justified in placing an overwhelming emphasis on early Ming anti-market policies in explaining an apparent stagnation or decline in living standards between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries.

One of the book’s contributions is to concentrate in one place the arguments for transformational change concentrated in the Song period, and followed by a later reversal: a once popular view (e.g. Elvin 1973) that has lately given way to a tale of more gradual progress across several centuries (Smith and Von Glahn 2003).  Making the best of flawed data, Liu estimates population growth of 0.92% per year between 980 and 1109, a remarkable rate for a pre-modern society.  And drawing on a large body of secondary scholarship, he points to considerable evidence for changes in agriculture — capital deepening, especially in the form of massive investments in irrigation, and increasing use of oxen – which should, logically, have raised agricultural yields significantly, allowing a population that had more than tripled to eat as well or better than its forebears.

Unfortunately, however, we lack much good data on actual yields in the Song.  Liu notes that Dwight Perkins’ well-known estimates are (like most others for this period) inferences from agricultural rents, and that much of the land in question was land used to support schools; he further argues that school land was often rented out at below-market rates, depressing these inferred yields, and that the land which families donated to schools was often their least fertile property, anyway.  Meanwhile several of Perkins’ later data points come from agricultural handbooks, and probably represent optimal results.  Thus Liu argues, the impression of slow but steady growth across centuries that emerges from Perkins’ highly influential work may well be a statistical illusion. He prefers the older idea of a Song boom followed by little progress in subsequent dynasties.   Building on work by Zhou Shengchan, Liu tries to work backwards from data on population and average food consumption to estimate thirteenth century yields in the Lower Yangzi region; the results vary considerably among prefectures, but are generally near the high end of our range of estimates for any period before the arrival of modern farm inputs.  They would therefore leave little room for continued growth in the Yuan, Ming, or even Qing.

If verified, this would be a very important finding, but I have my doubts.  In part, my doubts come from personal experience, as adopting a similar methodology for estimating eighteenth century output of various crops led to extremely high estimates.[1]  There are also technical problems with some of this data (particularly in Table 7.8), though probably not big enough to change the results dramatically.[2]   The most we can say with strong confidence, I think, is that some Song farmers achieved yields near the pre-modern maximum, and more and more of their neighbors caught up over time — though whether this happened over decades or centuries remains very uncertain.

For most non-food items, we simply lack the data to generate serious estimates of per capita consumption in Song times; and while anecdotal evidence of rising consumption exists, Liu prefers not to rely on it.  Instead, he relies on an estimate of real wages for unskilled workers to show that living standards in the Song were as high as they ever got in China prior to the twentieth century.  Because we have not found for China any very long series of wages for privately-hired workers in a relatively standardized occupation in a particular place — like the long runs of wages for construction workers on European cathedrals and colleges, for instance — Liu constructs a long-run series of military wages, for which data are comparatively rich; and because we lack data for enough commodities to construct a long-run price index, he uses grain prices as the denominator for his series.  The resulting series peaks at its very beginning (in 1004) and fluctuates wildly while declining overall for the next roughly 170 years. It is then relatively stable until another steep drop in the early Ming, and recovers slightly in the late Ming before declining again in the early Qing (Figure E-1).

Liu has done us a considerable service by piecing this data series together, but as a proxy for the living standards of ordinary people it must be taken with a very large grain of salt.  Governments did not engage soldiers through a true labor market, nor did the institutional setting of military recruitment or the conditions of being a soldier (aside from the wage) remain constant over time.  Moreover, even if we had a reliable private sector wage series, it would not necessarily follow that this was a reliable basis for estimating popular living standards, much less per capita GDP, as Liu argues (p. 133).  Wage earners were never more than 15 percent of the labor force in late imperial China, and most farmers either owned their own land or had a relatively secure tenancy (especially in Qing times).  Consequently, they earned far more than unskilled laborers did — perhaps three times as much on average, according to preliminary estimates I have made for the eighteenth century (and for the early twentieth, where the data are better). (Among other things, this is confirmed by the fact that tenants and smallholders could support families, while unskilled laborers could rarely afford to marry. And for GDP per capita, we would also have to average in the earnings of well-to-do families.  Last but not least, if the ratio between wages and average farm earnings changed over time — as it might well have, given a gradual strengthening of tenant usufruct rights over the course of the late empire — even a much better wage series might not tell us what we want to know about general living standards.

But if Liu does not prove his most ambitious claims, he does succeed in proving many of his smaller empirical claims.  In particular, the evidence for relative prosperity in the Song and a sharp decline in the early Ming seems too much to explain away, even if one can raise doubts about each individual measurement.  The money supply contracted very sharply in early Ming times, followed by the introduction of government notes (for state payments) that soon became almost worthless; customs receipts (and presumably long-distance trade declined; and the wage decline between ca. 1050 and ca. 1400 is too big to be explained entirely by data problems.  A separate estimate, later in the book, suggests that per capita income in North China might have fallen by as much as half between 1121 (on the eve of the Song loss of the North) and 1420, though output per capita seems to have remained stable in the Yangzi Delta.  Liu also makes a strong case that Song people were freer than their early Ming counterparts, and perhaps even less unequal economically (though Song writing shows so much worry about inequality that one is tempted to believe there was fire behind so much smoke).

This brings us to the problem of explaining these differences.  Liu provides a straightforward answer: Song reliance on the market worked while the early suppression of it backfired.  Moreover, this represents a timeless truth, most recently vindicated by the sharp contrast between the Maoist and post-Maoist periods.  Here. I think, Liu lets his argument outrun his evidence, focusing too exclusively on one broad-brush contrast.

It would be hard to deny that the increased influence of market principles in the Song stimulated growth: above all, probably, the agricultural growth of the south, which required significant investment (especially for water management) that would surely have been more modest had earlier dynasties’ restrictions of private landowning remained in force; and given the surpluses that southern agriculture soon generate, and the relatively easy transportation that its rivers offered, impressive commercial and urban growth soon followed.  Since the coastline south of the Yangzi also has far more good sites for ports than the coastline north of the Yangzi, the southward shift of China’s economic center of gravity was also propitious for foreign trade, which boomed under both the Song and the (Mongol) Yuan.

Even in the south, however, the state provided essential infrastructure (though its role declined over time), and often played a very active role in foreign trade. In the north, meanwhile, both the enormous system of canals built by the Song government and the huge concentration of demand in the capital region were crucial, both for consumer markets and the growth of a precocious iron industry stimulated by unprecedented levels of military spending.   A variety of inventions also must have contributed something to the robust growth of the Song period.

Nor, I think, would many people deny that the early Ming attempt to return to local autarky had serious and lasting negative consequences. But we should bear in mind that the North, where Liu’s decline in estimated output between 1121 and 1420 was concentrated, suffered a number of  major shocks in this period, all of which bypassed or fell much more lightly on the south (except for Sichuan). These included conquests by three sets of northern invaders (including, most devastatingly, the Mongols); the prolonged turmoil that toppled the Mongols and brought the Ming to power; a civil war between supporters of two Ming heirs; and repeated, enormous, Yellow River floods, including two that dramatically shifted the river’s course (out of six such incidents in the last 4,000 years) and made it impossible to rebuild the Song-era canal system.   Ming policies certainly did great damage, too, but the relative size of these setbacks needs more detailed analysis before we can accept Liu’s almost exclusive emphasis on the Ming founder’s anti-market policies.

I would also caution against lumping all the parts of Ming anti-commercialism under the heading “command economy,” and comparing it to an ideal type of “market economy,” as Liu often does (e.g. pp. 1, 4-12, 134-136, 197, 199).  No pre-modern state could maintain the vigorous intervention needed to run a true command economy for long.  The Ming may have been more effective than most, but their massive redistribution of property and forced migration was over by about 1425, with land and labor again being exchanged in private markets;[3] the system of artisan conscription unraveled during the fifteenth century; foreign trade outside the official tribute system gradually returned; and so on.  This did not mark the end of Ming anti-commercialism as an attitude, or of its effects: among other problems, the dynasty never tried to provide the money supply that the private economy needed, saddling its subjects with costs that lingered for centuries.[4]   But even if this failure was originally part of an aggressive state’s attempt at command economy, it soon evolved into something else: the failure of a relatively weak state to undertake even those interventions that could have benefited both itself and the private economy.  The succeeding Qing dynasty (1644-1912) certainly had no dream of a command economy, and often (though not always) sought to encourage markets;  and the state’s share of GDP may have slipped as low as 2 percent, compared to at least 10 percent and perhaps as much as 20 percent at the peak of Song military-fiscalism.[5]  Yet the Qing provided the most stable bronze currency — the money used for most everyday transactions — China had ever known, while uncoined silver provided a reasonably adequate currency for big transactions; and it mobilized impressive resources for various physiocratic projects, from water control to grain price stabilization to promotion of best practices in agriculture and handicrafts. (That it spent much less, proportionately, on its military than the Song or Ming had facilitated this combination of low extraction and significant services.[6])  And for about a century and a half, they presided over impressive demographic and economic growth, Interestingly,  three prominent economic historians — Loren Brandt, Debin Ma, and Thomas Rawski, none of them remotely anti-market — have argued that the principal reason why Qing economic development was not even better was that the government was too minimalist: that a small government spread across a vast area was unable to prevent all sorts of local actors — from bandits to local elites employing private enforcers to rogue government clerks — from interfering with local markets and property rights.[7]  Such interference was clearly a problem in the late Ming as well, though it is not precisely measurable in either period.  It does, however, remind us that a simple contrast between “market economy” and “command economy” does not give us enough tools to understand the different relationships between state and market in imperial China, or anywhere else.

Nonetheless, the book does an impressive job of demonstrating how much dynamism the marketizing economy of the Song generated, and how much of those gains had been lost by the mid-Ming, at least in certain regions.  The author’s efforts to quantify trends that many others have been content to describe qualitatively are impressive; this is a book where the appendices are often as thought-provoking as the text.  The results are not as revolutionary or dispositive as the book sometimes suggests, but they will stimulate productive debates for years to come.

Notes:

1. Lacking data on the acreage devoted to non-grain crops in certain areas, I decided to estimate how much land must have been devoted to non-grain crops, relying on generally accepted numbers for population, grain consumption, and imports, and then multiply the acreage left over by conservative estimates of yields for the non-grain crops.  The results came out so high that I cut them in every way I could think of — including, in one case, arbitrarily reducing the estimate of non-grain acreage by half. The results I came up with were still at the high end of the existing range of estimates, or in some cases significantly beyond it.  I am not ready to toss out those estimates completely, and would be happy to see this approach vindicated; but I am inclined to be cautious here, especially since Liu has not made the same efforts to depress his results as I did.

2. The conversions from Zhou’s numbers, which mostly use Yuan dynasty measurements, is complicated. Trying to reproduce his results for one prefecture after an email exchange with me, Prof. Liu got a figure about 1 percent lower.

3. A rare set of household-level records, for instance, shows a family with modest landholdings in Huizhou engaged in no less than 18 land purchases or sales between 1391 (not long after the Ming came to power) and 1432.  See Von Glahn 2016: 291-293.

4. Von Glahn 1996 and Kuroda 2000 suggest that this was finally addressed with moderate success in the Qing.

5. Perkins 1967: 492; Wang 1973: 133 for the Qing; Golas 1988: 93-94 comes up with 24 percent for the Song, but admits that this seems unlikely.  Hartwell 1988: 79-80 suggests a bit over 10 percent.

6. On military spending compare Hartmann 2013: 29 with Zhou 2000: 36-38.

7. Brandt Ma and Rawski 2014: 60, 76, and 79.

References:

Brandt, Loren, Debin Ma and Thomas Rawski. 2014.  “From Divergence to Convergence: Reevaluating the History behind China’s Long Economic Boom,” Journal of Economic Literature 52(1):45-123.

Elvin, Mark. 1973.  The Pattern of the Chinese Past.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Goals, Peter, 1988. “The Sung Economy: How Big?”  Bulletin of Sung-Yuan Studies 20: 89-94.

Hartmann, Charles. 2013.  “Sung Government and Politics,” in John Chafee and Dennis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, Volume V Part 2: Sung China, 960-1279 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press):19-133.

Hartwell, Robert. 1988. The Imperial Treasuries: Finance and Power in Song China,” Bulletin of Sung-Yuan Studies 20: 18-89

Kuroda Akinobu. 2000. “Another Monetary Economy: The Case of Traditional China,” in A.J. H. Latham and Heita Kawakatsu, eds, Asia-Pacific Dynamism, 1500-2000 (London: Routledge): 187-198.

Perkins, Dwight. 1967. “Government as an Obstacle to Industrialization: The Case of Nineteenth-Century China,” Journal of Economic History 27 (4): 478–92

Perkins, Dwight. 1969. Agricultural Development in China, 1368-1968.  Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

Smith, Paul, and Richard Von Glahn, eds., 2003. The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History.  Cambridge:  Harvard Asia Center.

Von Glahn, Richard. 1996.  Fountain of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China, 1000-1700.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Von Glahn, Richard. 2016.  The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wang Yeh-chien. 1973. Land Taxation in Imperial China, 1750-1911.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zhou Yumin. 2000.  Wan Qing caizheng yu shehui bianqian (Late Qing Fiscal Administration and Social Change).   Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe.

Kenneth Pomeranz is University Professor of History at the University of Chicago.  His best known book is The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, 2000).  His most recent publication is “The Data We Have vs. the Data We Want: A Comment on the State of the Divergence Debate,” Pt. I and Pt II New Economics Papers (June 8, 2017) https://nephist.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/the-data-we-have-vs-the-data-we-need-a-comment-on-the-state-of-the-divergence-debate-part-ii/. Forthcoming publications include “Water, Energy, and Politics: Chinese Industrial Revolutions in Global Environmental Perspective,” in Gareth Austin, ed., Economic Development and Environmental History in the Anthropocene (forthcoming, 2017: Bloomsbury Academic).

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (June 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

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

Military Entrepreneurs and the Spanish Contractor State in the Eighteenth Century

Author(s):Sánchez, Rafael Torres
Reviewer(s):Agudo, David González

Rafael Torres Sánchez, Military Entrepreneurs and the Spanish Contractor State in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. xxii + 297 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-878411-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David González Agudo, Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia.

Rafael Torres Sánchez, professor of Economic History at the University of Navarra, has tackled an interesting topic that fits well in the current state-building debate: the relationship between military entrepreneurs and the Spanish monarchy in the eighteenth century. This well-known scholar of war, states and economic development tries to determine whether the Spanish mobilization of military resources helped improve the country’s economy or hindered it. The so-called “second contractor state interpretation” addresses military entrepreneurs’ effectiveness in pushing the state to “go further” (p. 8) in the production and distribution of markets.

Torres Sánchez approaches the issue from four different perspectives: 1) He first dives into eighteenth-century Spain’s military supply policy, whose priority was never the development of a supply method (direct administration or contract with private entrepreneurs), but the procurement of supply itself by means of pragmatic decisions. 2) In the second section, the author uses signed contracts, correspondence, and notarial protocols to look at the negotiation processes within the Spanish army and navy victualing, where the state saw no problem switching back and forth from administración (direct administration) to asiento (contract with private entrepreneurs). 3) Focusing on the navy, Torres Sánchez aims at determining whether or not a “fiscal-naval” state existed in Spain, as it happened in England. To do so, he analyses how Spain’s military entrepreneurs participated in the development of the world’s second biggest fleet. 4) The last section assesses the Spanish contractor state’s efficiency in an urgent and particular military action, the Minorca expedition of 1781-1782.

The book tells a twofold story. On one hand, the Spanish military supply system of the eighteenth century was apparently successful, giving way to the involvement of private entrepreneurs. This permitted a mutual collaboration between the state and Spanish businesspeople. Both parts, sharing mercantilist beliefs, benefited from their relation and somehow contributed to reinforce the national production of military provisions. The state did so through investment policies in shipbuilding, as well as in textile and iron-and-steel factories. The contractors played their part in it by purchasing most of supplies within the country and its territories. Torres Sánchez underlines the consequent emergence of several opportunities for Spain’s economic development: an improvement in the geographical integration, with a greater domestic and colonial circulation; a more effective redistribution of income, offering more opportunities than ever to local sectors and areas; and a strengthening of the business elites that brought about new prospects.

On the other hand, Torres Sánchez argues that the relationship between the state and military entrepreneurs was risky and unsteady. This mutual reliance, materialized in privileges and monopolies, ended up shutting out other potential businessmen and production systems that otherwise would have been beneficial for the whole economy. The state was not interested in constructing a competitive market for its military entrepreneurs, who became increasingly conditioned by the government’s finances. How this came about is shown through the case of several Spanish financiers, traders and companies such as Francisco Medinueta (chapter 4), or the Cinco Gremios Mayores of Madrid (chapter 5). This impeded the state from advancing in the production and distribution of markets. Unlike Britain, the Spanish Bourbons preferred to trust a business elite rather than exerting an administrative control of the military entrepreneurs. This leads the author to describe the “strange paradox” of the Spanish eighteenth century (p. 111): in the first half the government applied absolutist policies that encouraged a gradual development of monopolistic entrepreneurs; in the second half, as a free-trade stage was taking shape, the crown again resorted to anticompetitive measures.

We have, in sum, an excellent book that provides good Spanish “victuals” for thought and that contributes very substantially to the understanding of the link between warfare and modern state construction. Torres Sánchez sagely highlights the constant rivalry between European countries as the driving force behind the connection between the emergence of modern states and the growth of military activity. Historical competition between states in Europe is precisely one of the reasons argued nowadays by some economic historians to answer the basic questions on the Great Divergence debate: “why Europe conquered the world” (Hoffman, 2015), or “why the Industrial Revolution did not happen in China” (Mokyr, 2017). According to Joel Mokyr, fragmentation and competition within the European continent led to a “cultural change” that sparkled the Industrial Revolution. Philip Hoffman highlights the role of the rapid development of gunpowder technology and the military sector in the establishment of European colonial empires and industrialization. Embedding Torres Sánchez’s work in this recent discussion would be highly desirable.

References:

Philip Hoffman, Why Did Europe Conquer the World? Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017.

David González Agudo is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia. His main area of research is economic history, with a focus on the reconstruction of economic and demographic variables in early modern Spain. He is author of “Housing and the Cost of Living in Early Modern Toledo” (2014), with Mauricio Drelichman, in Explorations in Economic History.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (May 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century

History by Numbers: An Introduction to Quantitative Approaches

Author(s):Hudson, Pat
Ishizu, Mina
Reviewer(s):Roberts, Evan

Published by EH.Net (May 2017)

Pat Hudson and Mina Ishizu, History by Numbers: An Introduction to Quantitative Approaches (second edition).  London: Bloomsbury, 2017. xx + 339 pp. $35 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-84966-537-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Evan Roberts, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota.

For a field on the wane (see the discussion in Historically Speaking in 2010) quantitative history has a good stock of textbooks, but the flow of new entrants is slow. The revised edition of History by Numbers — originally solo-authored by Pat Hudson in 2000 and now co-authored with Mina Ishizu in its 2017 second edition — would make an excellent textbook for an upper division undergraduate history class. Anyone wishing to extend their students and themselves could add Charles Feinstein and Mark Thomas’s Making History Count for a more advanced undergraduate or graduate-level class in quantitative history. Of course, this supposes there is sufficient demand among history students to enroll in such a class, a critical question I return to later in the review.

The presumed audience for History by Numbers is history rather than economics students. Chapter 1 situates quantitative history within the discipline of history, while Chapter 2 discusses the nineteenth-century statistical movements in Britain and the epistemology of quantitative reasoning. Economics students would benefit from reading these chapters, yet they fit more squarely within the design of a history course and curriculum. The remainder of the book takes students and their instructors through a standard sequence of data management, exploration and analysis, written with the presumption that students begin with only a memory of high school mathematics. The exploratory data analysis chapters focus on graphical methods, and how to characterize the distribution of a single variable. Examples in all the chapters come from the published literature, but with a hand on the scale for modern British economic and social history. British universities have been more successful than their North American peers in maintaining quantitative work within history departments, so the choice of examples reflects the state of the field.

The chapter on time series and indices is particularly strong, with clear worked explanations of how to construct indices and the art of choosing the right base period. There is a very good explanation of cyclical fluctuations and seasonality, and how to work with this form of data correctly. The graphics and the text complement each other especially well here. Regression and correlation is then covered in one chapter, integrating both time series and cross-sectional data. For an introductory course this is appropriate, and the separation of cross section and time series approaches can await students in a subsequent course, where Feinstein and Thomas’s more advanced text separates these issues. Sampling and significance testing in Chapter 7 wrap up the purely statistical chapters, with more worked examples from published research. Chapter 8 outlines how economic historians put statistical methods to work in building models and testing theories, putting cliometrics in perspective for history students. It is not until Chapter 9 that we get to the foundational work of doing History by Numbers: getting numbers from manuscripts into the computer. Again, the authors do well in putting recent developments in creating quantitative data into historical perspective for a generation of students who have grown up in an era where important tools of quantitative history: digital cameras, laptops, databases, geographic information systems, and fuzzy matching of text are ubiquitous in their daily lives.

History by Numbers would make an excellent textbook for a course introducing students to quantitative methods in the context of historical examples, particularly for instructors who would integrate that introduction with a history of the British industrial revolution. A more general and topically eclectic course on quantitative history could also use this book as a core text with very little modification, as it discusses research on topics ranging from violence in nineteenth-century New Zealand to the wolfram market in World War II Spain. Two sections of discussion questions integrate the worked statistical examples in the text with substantive historical and economic questions, and could be used as the basis for labs or tutorials.

Alternatively, instructors might use History by Numbers as their secret guide to teaching statistics to history students without assigning it as a text (I apologize to the authors for the significant reduction in their royalties this implies). Indeed, this was how I used the previous edition of the book; as a script for teaching statistics to history students in a social history class using entirely American data. With IPUMS, EH.Net, and Historical Statistics of the United States it is not hard to find data that can be used to teach all the statistical concepts introduced in History by Numbers. Bearing in mind that book authors face harder constraints on length than online book reviewers whose words come cheap, there are some omissions in an otherwise quite comprehensive survey of modern quantitative history. There could be greater discussion of longitudinal data from cohort studies which are mentioned just briefly at the end of the text. Moreover, in an otherwise diverse set of articles for discussion I was surprised to see none from the strong Scandinavian quantitative history tradition (largely written in English these days).

Overall then there is much to recommend in History by Numbers for instructors whose goal is to teach statistics using relatively clean data from already digitized sources. Working with small clean datasets allows students to focus on learning statistics, statistical software, and gaining confidence in making statistical inferences. The next step in students’ development, directly suggested by Chapter 9, is writing an Honors or senior thesis using methods from the book, and available sources tailored to student and instructor interest.  This supposes that students have been motivated to first take a course guided by History by Numbers. Yet, as the authors note quantitative history has not grown since the first edition was published.

Perhaps we are doing it wrong, and need to rethink how we introduce students to quantitative history. The same arguments apply mutatis mutandis to introducing students to quantification in other undergraduate social science programs such as sociology, political science, and anthropology. In all of these disciplines a meaningful fraction of students approach quantitative methods with some anxiety. In the same spirit as Joshua Angrist and Jörn-Steffen Pischke (2017) recommend changing the traditional sequence of introductory econometrics courses to reflect changes in empirical econometric practice, quantitative historians should also introduce students to their practices “by example rather than abstraction.”

For historians and their kin in economics and sociology departments, teaching by example means beginning with primary sources. It is now straightforward to lead with the sources, to begin where students are found, a little shy of quantification but probably willing to enroll in a class that offers an introduction to research methods and an immersion in primary sources. Leading with immersion in primary sources meets the modal student closer to their interests, and can be a powerful recruitment tool for a class, compared to others built around textbooks and reading. Tools for transcribing data can now be easily built using Google tools, or the Zooniverse Project Builder (https://www.zooniverse.org/lab).  Such a course could also be pitched to students as “digital history.” The fashion for attracting students with “digital” may wane in the future, but the pedagogical underpinnings of beginning with collaborative digitization of sources (quantifiable sources!) are sound.

When students get their hands metaphorically dirty with the sources, see that their small sample of sources differs internally, and differs from their classmates’ sample of sources, the motivation to investigate questions statistically comes more organically.  They can then learn statistics with data they have created. Fitting data collection and analysis into one semester requires compressing analysis somewhat, the omission depending on the manuscripts and data at hand. If the data are cross sectional surveys, for example, index numbers may be omitted. My experience has been that beginning with the manuscript sources, creating a small dataset, and then analyzing it, leads to the greatest engagement from students who initially lack confidence in quantitative methods. Such an approach punts some of the statistics taught in History by Numbers to later semesters, but with the benefit of having engaged more students in quantification than a course framed explicitly as quantitative history.

Thus, the conclusion that History by Numbers is an excellent text for an upper division class is premised on the existence of a sophomore course that introduces students to quantitative methods quietly, and maybe just a little surreptitiously. Call it digital history, call it social history or historical sociology, whatever topic you think will attract students at your institution, and ideally the students will be so far into the course that they won’t realize they’re learning statistics until you’ve shown them they can do it. As Hudson and Ishizu emphasize many students have more of an aptitude for the common-sense tools of statistics than they realize. In short, while I can recommend History by Numbers to social and economic historians, I also recommend that we think carefully and creatively about how our curricular sequences can bring more students into quantitative history courses.

References:

Joshua D. Angrist and Jörn-Steffen Pischke. 2017. “Undergraduate Econometrics Instruction: Through Our Classes, Darkly,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 31(2): 125-44.

Charles H. Feinstein and Mark Thomas. 2002. Making History Count: A Primer in Quantitative Methods for Historians. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Robert Whaples. 2010. “Is Economic History a Neglected Field of Study?” Historically Speaking 11(2): 17-20.

Evan Roberts is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Population Studies at the University of Minnesota. His best enrolling quantitative methods class went by the title “Living, Working and Dying in Chicago.” Recent publications include “Family Structure and Childhood Anthropometry in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1918” (with John Robert Warren), History of the Family.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (May 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods

Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development

Editor(s):Beckert, Sven
Rockman, Seth
Reviewer(s):Wright, Gavin

Published by EH.Net (March 2017)

Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, editors, Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.  viii + 406 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8122-4841-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gavin Wright, Department of Economics, Stanford University.

In case any economic historian has been asleep or on Mars for the past three years, you may want to know that the economics-of-slavery culture wars have broken out again.  Though only a pale shadow of the dust-up we had back in the 1970s, the aggressive assertions of the “new history of capitalism” regarding the centrality of slavery for U.S. economic development, and critiques of this work by economic historians, have generated much commotion in academic circles, including numerous review articles and a lengthy survey in The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 8, 2016). The present volume is a manifesto of sorts for the slavery wing of the NHC insurgency, originating in a conference at Brown University (co-sponsored by Harvard) in 2011.

The claims of the editors for the new history of capitalism and slavery are not modest.  The opening sentence of the Introduction reads: “During the eighty years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, slavery was indispensable to the economic development of the United States” (p. 1).  They acknowledge that “the argument is more easily asserted than substantiated” (p. 3), but this cautionary note does not deter them from announcing the “impossibility of understanding the nation’s spectacular pattern of economic development without situating slavery front and center” (p. 27).  The publisher’s summary of the book (presumably approved by the editors) deploys even more extravagant language, declaring that the book “identifies slavery as the primary force driving key innovations in entrepreneurship, finance, accounting, management, and political economy,” “the originating catalyst for the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism” (University of Pennsylvania Press web site).

Having thus allowed the editors to dig their own rhetorical graves, let me urge economic history readers not to overreact to the bluster and bombast.  After decades of untouchability, the new interest in economic aspects of slavery on the part of younger scholars is a good thing, an opportunity for cross-disciplinary learning and cooperation.  Scholars from different disciplines will inevitably differ in their framing of the issues, their choice of language and styles of historical writing, but there is no deep reason here for an ideological Great Divergence regarding slavery.  Suffice it to say here that virtually none of the claims in the preceding paragraph are supported in any substantial way by the research presented in the volume. But most of the writers do not seem committed to this agenda anyway.  It is unfortunate that historians pursuing original inquiries on slavery-related topics have been persuaded to present their work as apparent disciples of a militant insurgency.  But there is no intellectual gain in recasting this historical project as a team sport.

Putting the editors’ introduction aside, only the chapter by Edward E. Baptist stands out for tendentious claims in support of a preconceived agenda.  Here Baptist is somewhat defensive, his book having been roundly criticized by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode for inventing the term “pushing system,” neglecting improvements in cotton varieties, and misusing historical sources, including the WPA slave narratives.  But this does not stop Baptist from adding a few more half-baked morsels to his mélange.  Among many candidates, most irksome to this reviewer is this one: “The three million white people in the cotton states were per capita the richest people in the United States, and probably the richest group of people of that size in the world” (p. 36). A footnote cites James Huston’s Calculating the Value of the Union (the whole book) and p. 87 of Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract.  The statement gets the population wrong, conflates wealth with income, ignores the widening gap between slave owners and non-owners, and aggregates real and slave property.  To be sure, the value of slave property was very real to the owners. The essential point is that the South was the wealthiest region in the nation when slave values are included, but the poorest when they are not.  (See Gavin Wright, Slavery and American Economic Development, p. 60.)  This deficiency, coupled with the failure to invest in education and infrastructure — not the purported decline in plantation productivity (p. 43) — explains the emergence of southern economic backwardness when slavery was abolished.

Because the Baptist debate is ongoing, it will not be pursued further here.  Following my own injunction to accentuate the positive, let me recommend the chapters by Caitlin Rosenthal on accounting practices on slave plantations; by Daina Ramey Berry on attitudes toward life and death in the shadow of slave markets; by Calvin Schermerhorn on the entwining of financial and mercantile interests in the coastwise slave trade; by Craig Steven Wilder on the role of slavery in financing Catholic colleges in the Age of Revolution; by Alfred L. Brophy on “proslavery instrumentalism” in legal thought; and by Andrew Shankman on Matthew Carey’s embrace of slavery in formulating his Whig political economy for the nation.  Independent scholar Bonnie Martin has performed extraordinary labor compiling records on slave mortgages from county deed books, and here she adds 10,000 additional loans to her previous collection (Journal of Southern History, November 2010).  One hopes that these data will at some point be put to use by economic historians.  Here, unfortunately, Martin struggles to draw interesting conclusions from her evidence.  She suggests that “an image of capitalistic sophistication … runs counter to the traditional assumptions about the economy of the South,” (p. 119) appending a footnote including no less than three books by the current reviewer.  Since none of these books advance any claims about the “lack of sophistication in the southern economy” — quite the contrary — one can only conclude that the author is grasping for straws.

Let me call particular attention to the chapters by Daniel B. Rood and by John Majewski, which should be read conjointly.  Rood writes about the slave-using wheat farms of Virginia, building on his earlier article on that topic (Journal of American History, June 2014).  The particular focus here is the invention of the reaper by Cyrus McCormick on his father’s wheat farm in the Shenandoah Valley.  The reaper’s Virginia origins are well-known to economic historians, but Rood asks us to see this “quintessentially American machine as a Creole artifact, a tropical technology, and, more than anything, a product of Atlantic slavery” (p. 87).   According to Rood’s account, pressure to mechanize came from a premium on speed in marketing, which arose as planters sought the patronage of new mills in Richmond, producing flour for the Brazilian market.  Rood is persuasive in describing the “pools of expertise and the plantation laboratory” (p. 94) in Virginia, including the contribution of skilled slaves.  (Oddly, there is no citation to Charles Dew’s Bond of Iron [1994], which discusses Virginia’s skilled slave machinists in considerable detail.)  What he does not come to grips with is the fact that the reaper did not diffuse rapidly in Virginia, which McCormick largely abandoned after 1845, moving into what he knew to be a more promising market for mechanical implements in the Midwest.  Obed Hussey, McCormick’s arch-rival in mechanical reaping, had been there all along.

Majewski, the only card-carrying economic historian in the group, also shows the compatibility between slavery and a “thriving, diversified economy,” (p. 279) focusing on what he calls the Limestone South, a fertile alfisol area encompassing Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and Tennessee’s Nashville Basin.  According to Majewski, the decisive feature differentiating the Limestone South from the free states was the absence of support for public schools, a consequence of slaveholders’ stranglehold on state politics.  Majewski argues that this stark difference in access to educational opportunity helps to explain northern opposition to the expansion of slavery.  He quotes Abraham Lincoln: “Free Labor insists on universal education,” but evidently the first step toward this goal was to keep large slaveholders out.

The book’s broad characterization of slave owners as calculating, acquisitive, financially sophisticated and linked to international networks, is not one that economic historians will be inclined to object to, in large part because we have been arguing along similar lines for decades.  The striking divergence between slave and free states, on the other hand, in the geography of settlement, population growth, urbanization, schooling, and politics (a partial list) cries out for more intensive study by historians of all types.  With only occasional exceptions, that major topic is largely missing from the volume under review.  One thing seems certain: calling one region or the other “capitalist” will not contribute much to historical understanding.

Gavin Wright is William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History Emeritus at Stanford University. His book, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, will be issued in paperback by Harvard University Press in the Fall of 2017.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (March 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World

Author(s):Campbell, Bruce
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.Net (February 2017)

Bruce Campbell, The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.  xxiv + 463 pp. $35 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-14443-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.

The cathedral that stands unfinished in Siena marks how abruptly the expansion of the High Middle Ages was brought to a halt, although maybe the failure to complete it during the recovery that began in the fifteenth century is more surprising.  Until the fourteenth century the expansion had been remarkable, with population doubling or trebling since the late eleventh century, cities multiplying, international trade routes linking up, and cultural output soaring, with a thirteen-fold increase in the annual output of manuscripts for example.  The climate was benign and the burden of disease modest.  What could go wrong?  Bruce Campbell’s 400 tightly-packed pages tell us about what might be termed the Great Disruption.

He is chiefly interested in climatic and biological forces, and the cascade of political, economic and social woes that arose in the “Perfect Storm” when they all seemed to go wrong at once.  Much of Eurasia was afflicted by the same malign, “quasi-autonomous,” turn of events.  The book concentrates heavily on England, which is better documented than other countries, but stretches across Europe to the Middle East and Asia as far as China.  It takes in the irruption of the Mongols and the cramping of options for the Vikings of the North Atlantic; indeed it takes in everywhere and every phenomenon.  Ingenious proxies are introduced.  The text is backed up by an extraordinary array of attractively drawn graphs and bar diagrams, although I have qualms about the unstated implication that all sources are equally reliable.  The reader is usually obliged to take the underlying numbers on trust.  Occasionally models are cited incautiously and objections to them scouted, for instance where falling interest rates are assumed to have determined capital investment in peasant farming.  Similarly, the costs and benefits of political fragmentation are dealt with a little ambiguously.

Medieval economic history is nevertheless more valuably expounded in the long central stretches of this volume than anywhere else.  In principle it is standard stuff, but here it is impressively digested, made sharper and brought right up to date by its use of advanced scientific findings about influences on the climate and human and animal health.  Over fifty years ago the Hampshire County Archivist told me that she had some sleepless nights after cutting her finger on a parchment of the Plague Year.  Well she might. Yet it is only this minute, so to speak, that DNA from the dental pulp of exhumed skeletons has confirmed what the disease organism really was.

The Perfect Storm of climate and disease was a gigantic shock but it was still an asymmetric one.  In the long term not quite everything did go wrong.  The Black Death, Campbell states, worked to England’s advantage by relieving the burden of poverty and facilitating structural reform.  This is a thesis of growth by disaster, a sort of neutron bomb that counteracted the morcellement produced by intense demand for land: a considerable proportion of capital-in-land was not exactly untouched but was at least reusable.  Extra-somatic sources of technical knowledge also survived.

The achievements of description and analysis in this hefty volume are incontestable and we should move on to consider its interesting method or rather scope.  There are lessons here for economic historians to ponder.  To my mind, Campbell overstates his case by presenting the book as the first to integrate physical and biological processes into historical narrative and its originality as a study of so much of the globe.  He rather sweeps most predecessors aside.  What is new is the extent to which his work rests on an upsurge of research by his contemporaries, something he does admit, just as he acknowledges the impetus from research on global warming.  The Great Transition marks the shift into a world of ample funding (not merely in the United States but now in Europe too), of the compiling of vast new sources of data, of enormous international chains of scholars, and of the arrival in economic history, natural science-like, of publications with very long lists of contributors.

Economic historians will henceforth be obliged to treat as normal the use of scientific articles, scientific data and wholly unfamiliar proxies.  Tree-ring counts are a recognizable tool but here we run out to something as indirect as a nine-fold increase in the purchase of sealing wax by the English Chancery in just forty years of the thirteenth century.  And what of a “precipitation index based on the band widths of a speleothem from Cnoc nan Uamh Cave, A.D. 900-1500” or the citation of articles like one entitled, ‘Antarctic Last Millennium 10BE Stack and Solar Irradiance Reconstruction”?  How will colleagues in general history or economics react to innumerable unfamiliar terms such as these?

Campbell was educated as a geographer and it shows — in the best possible sense, in that he is totally aware of the physical, climatic and biological worlds and open-minded enough to scour them for ideas and evidence.  But, as he says, he learned the hard way how resistant historians can be to venturing off what they believe to be piste.  I was myself admonished by a famous cultural historian not to use the simile of tectonic plates grinding “because historians will not understand what you mean.”  The scholarly world may be advancing beyond such obtuseness but the acceptance in general narratives of integrated natural science and history will still come slowly.  Nor are economists likely to greet with glee what might be called “deep environmental history.”  There is no gainsaying the fact that many prefer building a priori models to slow-motion wrestling with ground evidence from the natural world.

Both Marxist and neo-classical interpretations of the past are accordingly dismissed in this book but without fully stating the objections.  Campbell simply replaces them with a bold set of very complicated social, political and ecological interactions.  Nevertheless he swallows whole the fashionable neoclassical-style assertions that labor-saving inventions and innovations were induced by low interest rates and dear labor.  Because something was logical does not mean it actually happened for that reason.  Barely a word here about the human and cultural circumstances involved in the response, though there is something about the providential emergence of institutions to capture the rents from expanding commerce during the High Middle Ages.  Yet these issues can be taken forward by others and they are, in the vulgar phrase, “pimples on a side of beef” compared with the stupendous effort in charting the course of medieval economic history that this book represents.

Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010), The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013) [with Charles Foster], Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture (Princeton, 2016, paperback) and Middle Ridgeway and its Environment (Wessex Press, 2016) [with Patrick Dillon].

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (February 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Asia
Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval