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Famine in European History

Editor(s):Alfani, Guido
Ó Gráda, Cormac
Reviewer(s):Naumenko, Natalya

Published by EH.Net (January 2018)

Guido Alfani and Cormac Ó Gráda, editors, Famine in European History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xi + 325 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-316-63183-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Natalya Naumenko, Department of Economics, Northwestern University.

This collection of essays undertakes to construct a comprehensive history of famine in Europe. Each of the authors is an expert on the history of famine in a particular country or group of countries. In the opening chapter, the editors introduce methodology and discuss the common factors that created famine conditions and their relative importance in the European context. The concluding chapter studies famines during World Wars I and II.

Throughout the book, a standard definition of famine is used: “Famine refers to a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced disease” (p. 2). Famines occur when food is scarce. Scarcity, in turn, occurs when either food production or distribution is impaired (or both). Weather, crop diseases, changes in technology and climate all affect production. Market integration and specific public institutions providing relief affect distribution. Population pressure can increase the probability of famine (the number of famine episodes notably decreased after the Black Death epidemics). Finally, war is another important factor affecting both production (by destroying crops and reducing available labor) and distribution (via extortions and disruption of trade). The relative importance of production versus distribution changed over time — while some medieval famines can probably be attributed mostly to a shortage of the total amount of available food due to adverse shocks to production, with improvement in technology and market integration the factors affecting the distribution started playing a major role.

The country-specific chapters have a similar structure. Each chapter reports a time series of famines using best available data (relying on chronicles for earlier events, time series of burials and foodstuff prices for later events) usually from the thirteenth century and up to nineteenth century, although for some countries the time series of famines start as early as seventh century. Each chapter then attempts to analyze the scope and the severity of the famines, highlights some of the most important ones, and discusses the factors that led to the famines.

Although the reasons leading to famine are similar for all countries and are summarized in the introduction, some interesting country-specific factors are worth highlighting. For Italy the authors name population pressure combined with crop failure due to the weather or war as the main reasons leading to famine. Introduction of new crops (especially maize) during the eighteenth century finally increased food security but led to spread of pellagra disease. In Spain in addition to all the factors mentioned earlier epidemics could lead to famine by decreasing labor and consequently harvest. The famine research in France has been so extensive that it is difficult to distinguish between true crises affecting large areas and a high share of population and relatively localized ones. The increase in fiscal dues and the growth of cities to some extent offset the improvement in agricultural technology and therefore increased the probability of famines. In Germany, Switzerland, and Austria the lack of centralization increased the probability of famines — in case of local dearth, neighboring lords could shut grain trade exacerbating local food shortages.

The northern Low Countries, escaped from famine as early as late sixteenth century (with the exception is the crisis of 1845-1850 caused by potato blight) due to the central position of Amsterdam in the European grain trade. Episodes of famine in the southern Low Countries are mostly linked to war. Similarly, England escaped famine as early as eighteenth century due to change in weather conditions, improvements in food production technology, market integration, and, most importantly, the presence of well-developed relief system. In Ireland, chronicles document severe famines as early as seventh century. The two most notable recent crises are the famines of 1740-1741 and the famine of the 1840s. Both were triggered by severe external shocks — extremely cold weather and potato blight respectively. The 1840s crisis is outstanding both in its scale and its long-term impact on the population as it triggered mass emigration. Finally, despite the fact that the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland) are located in areas that are less suitable for agriculture and therefore more prone to crop failures due to poor weather, widespread famine was a rare occurrence there due to diversified agriculture and well-integrated markets.

In Eastern Europe (Russia and the Soviet Union) little quantitative information is available before the eighteenth century (characteristically, in the Russian language there is no distinction between dearth and famine), although some notable famines of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are discussed. Most importantly, the nature of food difficulties was determined by specific geographic conditions: for strategic reasons the capital and major industrial centers were located in the grain-deficit North and food had to be extracted from grain surplus regions of the South. Thus, when markets disintegrated due to the war, the grain-deficit North suffered (as in 1918-1920), and when negative weather shock occurred, mortality increased where grain was produced (as in 1921-1922). According to Stephen Wheatcroft, the famine of 1927-1933 was triggered by severe drought, and 1941-1947 food shortages and famine were caused by the occupation of grain producing regions by the Germans, and by poor weather of 1946. Nevertheless, it remains an open question why unfavorable weather caused severe famines in the Soviet Union while in other European countries weather ceased to play a major role by the beginning of twentieth century.

The final chapter discusses the episodes of famines related to World War I and World War II. The unprecedented scale of these conflicts disrupted food production and distribution, negatively affecting both traditionally grain exporting and grain importing territories. In addition, famine relief efforts were hindered by the conflict, the population in the occupied territories suffered from over-extraction of foodstuffs, and many prisoner camps were inadequately supplied. These factors explain pockets of starvation occurring even in areas that had long been free of famine.

This book does not oversell, does not strike the reader with bold concepts, unorthodox perspectives, or loud slogans. It does exactly what it promises — delivers a comprehensive systematic history of famine based on rigorous data collection and careful analysis. The analysis in the introductory chapter provides an excellent summary of the complex phenomena that famines are and will take its deserved place in many economic history courses. And although famine is [hopefully] long gone in Europe, all factors discussed in the book are still relevant for less developed parts of the world.

Natalya Naumenko is completing her dissertation on famines in the Soviet Union at Northwestern University.

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 ( Published by EH.Net (January 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Military and War
Household, Family and Consumer History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Famines in European Economic History: The Last Great European Famines Reconsidered

Editor(s):Curran, Declan
Luciuk, Lubomyr
Newby, Andrew G.
Reviewer(s):Alfani, Guido

Published by EH.Net (June 2016)

Declan Curran, Lubomyr Luciuk and Andrew G. Newby, editors, Famines in European Economic History: The Last Great European Famines Reconsidered. New York: Routledge, 2015. xvii + 267 pp. $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-65681-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Guido Alfani, Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics, Bocconi University.

In the recent historiography on famine, some episodes have tended to attract most of the attention. This is especially the case of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-50, which surely was a major event in the European history of the last two centuries — an event which however, as is often the case, can be understood fully only in comparison to others. This book, edited by Declan Curran, Lubomyr Luciuk and Andrew Newby, aims to provide us with this much-needed comparative perspective.

The book is organized in nine chapters (plus introduction), evenly divided between three of the main famines affecting Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Apart from the Great Irish Famine, the book covers another relatively well-researched episode, the Holodomor (“Death by Starvation”) affecting Ukraine in 1932-33, as well as an important but not internationally well-known episode involving northern Europe and particularly Finland, the “Great Hunger Years” of 1867-68. All these famines were characterized by particularly high death tolls, which (according to the estimates summarized in the editors’ introduction) amounted to about 1 million in 1845-50 in Ireland, 100,000-150,000 in 1867-68 in Finland and 1.9 million in 1932-33 in Ukraine. Notice that these figures do not include victims caused by these famines outside the boundaries of the three specific geographic areas that the book focuses on (see below).

Overall, the authors of the chapters explore in considerable detail the political and cultural consequences of famines. In Ireland and Ukraine in particular, the “politicisation” of famine — i.e. the way in which the crisis is used in the political discourse — and its “appropriation in collective memory and national identity formation” (p. 3) is particular apparent, while the case of Finland is singled out as one in which famine underwent (to a degree at least) a process of collective forgetfulness. A particularly interesting aspect is that of “culpability,” which has also to be understood in the context of areas which were all peripheries in much broader empires. So, while in Ireland and in Ukraine a discourse with political undertones developed blaming respectively the British and the Russians, in Finland the political center was never indicated as the culprit for the catastrophe, presumably because in 1867-68 Finland was a largely self-governed and well-identified territorial entity within the Russian Empire.

There is much to like in this book, particularly because many chapters provide interesting new information which will surely be of great use to other scholars. The attention dedicated to the famine in Finland in 1867-68 is particularly welcome. However, the book as a whole also has a few shortcomings, which somewhat hinder its ambitious comparative aims. A first problem, is that it never provides a clear definition of what a famine is — a topic which was quite contentious until recently, but has probably been settled (at least temporarily) by Cormac Ó Gráda with his recent definition of famine as a “a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced diseases.”[1] Quite obviously, all three episodes covered by Curran, Luciuk and Newby’s book fit into this definition (as they were characterized by mass mortality) — but the book is never entirely clear regarding the very important issue of causation. As Ó Gráda makes explicit, a famine can be due either to production problems (a shortage of food) or to distribution problems (a lack of purchasing power or “entitlement” to resources, à la Amartya Sen[2]). Quite obviously, this issue is also key to understanding correctly the debate about culpability of political authorities, which seems to be close to the heart of many of the authors of this book and consequently, a more detailed and encompassing discussion of famine causation would have been useful.

A second problem is that the book does not attempt to place the three specific episodes into an even broader perspective. First of all, the large literature on the continental European famines of the early modern period is almost entirely neglected. This matters because, as clearly shown by a very recent attempt at a comparison of European famines in the very long run (which admittedly the authors could not know about)[3], some reference to at least the main earlier episodes — like the famous “years of misery” of 1693-97 when famine ravaged most of the continent[4] (including Finland where the overall mortality might have been in the order of 25-33%, i.e. about three times the rate which can be estimated for 1867-68[5]) or the terrible famine of  the 1590s[6] — considerably puts a different complexion, in relative terms, on the European famines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Additionally, the three famines covered by the book were not exclusive to Ireland, Finland and Ukraine but also affected other areas, which is an important aspect to consider when assessing both the issue of causation, and that of the use of famine in the political discourse. So for example, the so-called “Great Irish Famine” was only one component (although admittedly the main one and by far) of a much broader crisis associated to the failure of the potato crops caused by a fungal disease (phytophthera infestans), a crisis which also affected the Low Countries, northern Spain (Galicia) and parts of Germany[7] (this is only mentioned in passing in Curran’s chapter), while the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 also affected (albeit less severely) other regions of the Soviet Union[8].

Notwithstanding these limitations, there is no doubt that Curran, Luciuk and Newby provide us with a very useful book, which advances our knowledge in many directions and especially regarding the political and cultural consequences of famine. It will be of considerable interest to all researchers working on modern famines.

1. C. Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 4.
2. A. Sen, Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Clarendon Press, 1981).
3. G. Alfani and C. Ó Gráda (eds.), Famine in European History (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2017).
4. M. Lachiver, Les années de misère: La famine au temps du Grand Roi, 1680-1720 (Fayard, 1991).
5. M. Lappalainen, “Death and Disease During the Great Finnish Famine 1695-1697,” Scandinavian Journal of History 39 (4), 2014: 425-47.
6. G. Alfani, Calamities and the Economy in Renaissance Italy: The Grand Tour of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Palgrave, 2013).
7. C. Ó Gráda, R. Paping and E. Vanhaute (eds.), When the Potato Failed. Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850 (Brepols, 2007).
8. R.W Davies and S.G. Wheatcroft, The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-33 (Palgrave, 2004).

Guido Alfani is Associate Professor in Economic History at Bocconi University (Milan, Italy). He is the author of Calamities and the Economy in Renaissance Italy: The Grand Tour of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Palgrave 2013).

Copyright (c) 2016 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (June 2016). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Historical Demography, including Migration
Household, Family and Consumer History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Ireland’s Great Famine

Ireland’s Great Famine

Cormac Ó Gráda, University College Dublin

The proximate cause of the Great Irish Famine (1846-52) was the fungus phythophtera infestans (or potato blight), which reached Ireland in the fall of 1845. The fungus destroyed about one-third of that year’s crop, and nearly all that of 1846. After a season’s remission, it also ruined most of the 1848 harvest. These repeated attacks made the Irish famine more protracted than most. Partial failures of the potato crop were nothing new in Ireland before 1845, but damage on the scale wrought by the ecological shock of potato blight was utterly unprecedented (Solar 1989; Clarkson and Crawford 2001). However, the famine would not have been so lethal had dependence on the potato been less. Poverty had reduced the bottom one-third or so of the population to almost exclusive dependence on the potato for sustenance. For those in this category, the daily intake was enormous: 4 to 5 kilos (9 to 11 pounds) daily per adult male equivalent for most of the year. That, coupled with an inadequate policy response from the authorities, made the consequences of repeated failures devastating (Bourke 1993).

Ireland was a poor country in 1845, income per head being about half that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The half-century or so before the famine was a period of increasing impoverishment for the landless poor. With impoverishment came rising inequality. Increasing population pressure was only partly relieved by an increase in the emigration rate and a fall in the birth rate (Boyle and Ó Gráda 1986). Moreover, demographic adjustment was weakest in the western and southern areas most at risk. The nutritional content of the potato and widespread access to heating fuel in the form of turf eased somewhat the poverty of Ireland’s three million ‘potato people.’ They were healthier and lived longer than the poor in other parts of Europe at the time. However, their poverty meant that when the potato failed, there was no trading down to a cheap alternative food (Ó Gráda 1994). Nowhere else in Europe had the potato, like tobacco a gift from the New World, made such inroads into the diet of the poor. It bears noting that the potato also failed throughout Europe in the 1840s. This brought hardship in many places, and excess mortality in the Low Countries and in parts of Germany. Yet nowhere was Ireland’s cataclysm repeated (Solar 1997).

The first attack of potato blight inflicted considerable hardship on rural Ireland, though no significant excess mortality. The catastrophe of the Great Famine really dates from the fall of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. At first there were food riots and protests, but they subsided as hope and anger gave way to despair (Eiriksson 1997). During the winter and spring of 1846-7 the carnage reached its peak, but the famine continued for another three years. Like all major famines, the Irish potato famine produced many instances of roadside deaths, of neglect of the very young and the elderly, of heroism and of anti-social behavior, of evictions, and of a rise in crimes against property. It was widely reported in the contemporary press at first, both in Ireland and abroad. It elicited a massive response in terms of private donations for a time, especially through the Catholic Church worldwide and the Society of Friends. Philanthropists in Britain were also moved by Irish suffering. That was before compassion fatigue set in. For narrative accounts of the tragedy see Edwards and Williams (1956), Woodham-Smith (1962), Ó Gráda (1999), and Donnelly (2001).

Public Action

The debate about relief measures for Ireland in the press and in parliament in the 1840s has quite a modern resonance (compare Drèze and Sen 1989). At first the government opted for reliance on the provision of employment through public works schemes, the cost of which was to be split between local taxpayers and the central government. At their height in the spring of 1847 the works employed seven hundred thousand people or one-in-twelve of the entire population. The works did not contain the famine, partly because they did not target the neediest, partly because the average wage paid was too low, and partly because they entailed exposing malnourished and poorly clothed people (mostly men) to the elements during the worst months of the year.

The publicly-financed soup kitchens which replaced the public works reached three million people daily at their peak in early 1847. Mortality seemed to fall while they operated, though doubts remain about the effectiveness of a diet of thin meal-based gruel on weakened stomachs. The drop in food prices during the summer of 1847 prompted the authorities to treat the famine henceforth as a manageable, local problem. The main burden of relieving the poor henceforth was placed on the workhouses established under the Irish Poor Law of 1838. In principal those requiring relief were supposed to pass ‘the workhouse test,’ i.e. refusal to enter the workhouse was deemed evidence of being able to support one’s self. In practice, most of the workhouses were ill-equipped to meet the demands placed upon them, and in the event about one-quarter of all excess famine mortality occurred within their walls. Local histories highlight mismanagement and the impossible burden placed on local taxpayers; and the high overall proportion of workhouse deaths due to contagious diseases is an indictment of this form of relief. The very high mortality in some workhouses in 1850 and 1851 is evidence of the long-lasting character of the famine in some western areas (Guinnane and Ó Gráda 2002; Ó Murchadha 1998).

Traditional accounts of the famine pit the more humane policies of Sir Robert Peel’s Tories against the dogmatic stance of Sir John Russell’s Whig administration, which succeeded them. Peel was forced out of office in July 1846 when his party split on the issue of the Corn Laws. The contrast between Peel and Russell oversimplifies. Though Peel was more familiar with Ireland’s problems of economic backwardness than Whig ideologues such as Charles Wood, the crisis confronting him in 1845-6 was mild compared to what was to follow. Moreover, Peel broadly supported the Whig line in opposition, and it was left to his former Tory colleagues to mount a parliamentary challenge against Russell and Wood. Assessment of the public policy response cannot ignore the apocalyptic character of the crisis that it faced. Nonetheless, the government’s obsession with parsimony and its determination to make the Irish pay for ‘their’ crisis cannot but have increased the death rate. The same goes for the insistence on linking relief with structural reform (e.g. by making the surrender of all landholdings over a quarter of an acre in size a strict condition for relief). At the height of the crisis the policy stance adopted by the Whigs was influenced by Malthusian providentialism, i.e. the conviction that the potato blight was a divinely ordained remedy for Irish overpopulation. Compassion on the part of the British elite was in short supply. The fear that too much kindness would entail a Malthusian lesson not learnt also conditioned both the nature and extent of intervention (Gray 1999).

The Irish famine killed about one million people, or one-eighth of the entire population. This made it a major famine, relatively speaking, by world-historical standards. In pre-1845 Ireland famines were by no means unknown — that caused by arctic weather conditions in 1740-41 killed a higher share of a much smaller population (Dickson 1998) — but those that struck during the half-century or so before the Great Famine were mini-famines by comparison. The excess death toll of one million is an informed guess, since in the absence of civil registration excess mortality cannot be calculated directly (Mokyr 1985; Boyle and Ó Gráda 1986). The record of deaths in the workhouses and other public institutions is nearly complete, but the recording of other deaths depended on the memory of survivors in households where deaths had taken place. In many homes, of course, death and emigration meant that there were no survivors. The estimate does not include averted births, nor does it allow for famine-related deaths in Britain and further afield (Neal 1997).

Mortality was regionally very uneven. No part of Ireland escaped entirely, but the toll ranged from one-quarter of the population of some western counties to negligible fractions in counties Down and Wexford on the east coast. The timing of mortality varied too, even in some of the worst hit areas. In west Cork, a notorious problem area, the worst was over by late 1847, but the deadly effects of the famine ranged in county Clare until 1850 or even 1851. Infectious diseases — especially typhoid fever, typhus and dysentery/diarrhea — rather than literal starvation were responsible for the bulk of mortality. While Karl Marx was almost right to claim that the Irish famine killed ‘poor devils only,’ many who were not abjectly poor and starving died of famine-related diseases. Medical progress, by shielding the rich from infection, has made subsequent famines even more class-specific. By and large, the higher the death toll, the higher the proportion of starvation deaths (Mokyr and Ó Gráda 2002). As in most famines, the elderly and the young were most likely to succumb, but women proved marginally more resilient than men.

The famine also resulted in migration on a massive scale. Again precise estimates are impossible. Though these migrants were also victims of the famine, their departure improved not only their own survival chances, but also those of the majority who remained in Ireland. True, the Atlantic crossing produced its own carnage, particularly in Quebec’s Grosse-Isle, but most of those who fled made it safely to the other side. There thus is a sense in which migration was a crude form of disaster relief, and that more spending on subsidized emigration would have reduced the aggregate famine death toll (Ó Gráda and O’Rourke 1997). Most of those who emigrated relied on their own resources; some landlords helped through direct subsidies or by relieving those who left of their unpaid rent bills. The landless poor simply could not afford to leave.

A Hierarchy of Suffering

Like all famines, the Irish famine produced its hierarchy of suffering. The rural poor, landless or near-landless, were most likely to perish, and the earliest victims were in that category. Farmers found their effective land endowment reduced, since their holdings could no longer yield the same quantity of potatoes as before. They also faced increased labor costs, forcing them to reduce their concentration on tillage. Landlords’ rental income plummeted by as much a third. Many clergymen, medical practitioners, and poor law officials died of infectious diseases. Pawnbrokers found their pledges being unredeemed as the crisis worsened. Least affected were those businesses and their work forces who relied on foreign markets for their raw materials and their sales. The relative impact of the famine on different occupational groups may be inferred from the 1841 and 1851 censuses. The overall decline in the labor force was 19.1 percent. There were 14.4 percent fewer farmers, and 24.2 percent fewer farm laborers. Not surprisingly, given their vulnerability, the number of physicians and surgeons dropped by 25.3 percent. The small number of coffin makers (eight in 1841, twenty-two in 1851) is a reminder that during the famine most coffins were not made by specialist coffin makers. It is difficult to identify any significant class of ‘winners’ in the 1840s, though the census indicates increases in the numbers of millers and bakers, of barristers and attorneys, and of bailiffs and rate collectors. The huge fall in the numbers of spinners and weavers was partly a consequence of the famine, partly due to other causes (Ó Gráda 1999: chapter 4; 2001).

Post-Famine Adjustment

The Great Irish Famine was not just a watershed in Irish history, but also a major event in global history, with far-reaching and enduring economic and political consequences. Individual memories of the famine, coupled with ‘collective memory’ of the event in later years, influenced the political culture of both Ireland and Irish-America — and probably still do (Cullen 1997; Donnelly 2000; Ó Gráda 2001). The famine brought the era of famines in Ireland to a brutal end. Serious failures of the potato in the early 1860s and late 1870s, also due to potato blight, brought privation in the west of the country, but no significant excess mortality. The famine also resulted in higher living standards for survivors. The bargaining power of labor was greater. Any negative impact on landlords’ income from a declining population was more than compensated for by the relative increase in the prices of land-intensive output and the prompter payment of rents due. Higher emigration was another by-product of the famine, as the huge outflow of the crisis years generated its own ‘friends and neighbors’ dynamic. Only in a few remote and tiny pockets in the west did population fill the vacuum left by the ‘Great Hunger,’ and then only very briefly (Guinnane 1997).

Whether or not the famine led to the decline of certain native industries by reducing the domestic market remains a moot point, worthy of further research (Whelan 1999). The long-run impact of the famine on the health of affected survivors is another unresearched topic (compare Lumey 1998). Finally, though the introduction of new potato varieties offered some respite against phythophtera infestans thereafter, no reliable defense would be found against it until the 1890s.

Note: This essay builds on my entry on the Great Irish Famine in Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll, editors, Encyclopedia of Population (New York: Macmillan, 2003).

Further Reading

Bourke, Austin. The Visitation of God? The Potato and the Great Irish Famine. Dublin: Lilliput, 1993.

Boyle, P.P. and C. Ó Gráda. “Fertility Trends, Excess Mortality, and the Great Irish Famine.” Demography 23 (1986): 543-62.

Clarkson, L.E. and E.M. Crawford. Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Cullen, L.M. ‘The Politics of the Famine and Famine Historiography,” Comhdháil an Chraoibhín 1996 (Roscommon, Ireland) 1997: 9-31.

Dickson, David. Arctic Ireland. Belfast: White Row Press, 1998.

Donnelly, James S. The Irish Potato Famine. London: Sutton Publishing, 2000.

Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Edwards, R.D. and T.D. Williams. The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-52. Dublin; Browne & Nolan, 1956 [new edition published by Lilliput Press, 1994].

Eiriksson, Andrés. “Food Supply and Food Riots.” In Famine 150: The Teagasc/UCD Lectures, edited by Cormac Ó Gráda, 67-93. Dublin: Teagasc, 1997.

Gray, Peter. Famine, Land, and Politics: British Government and Irish Society, 1843-50, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999.

Guinnane, Timothy W. The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Guinnane, Timothy W. and Cormac Ó Gráda. “Workhouse Mortality and the Great Irish Famine.” In Famine Demography, edited by Tim Dyson and Cormac Ó Gráda, 44-64. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Lumey, L.H. “Reproductive Outcomes in Women Prenatally Exposed to Undernutrition from the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 57 (1998): 129-35.

Mokyr, Joel. Why Ireland Starved: An Analytical and Quantitative History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Mokyr, Joel and Cormac Ó Gráda. “What Do People Die of during Famines? The Great Irish Famine in Comparative Perspective.” European Review of Economic History 6, no. 3 (2002): 339-64.

Neal, Frank. Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish. London: Macmillan, 1998.

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

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. “Famine, Trauma, and Memory. ” Béaloideas 69 (2001): 121-43.

Ó Gráda, Cormac and Kevin H. O’Rourke. “Mass Migration as Disaster Relief: Lessons from the Great Irish Famine.” European Review of Economic History 1, no. 1 (1997): 3-25.

Ó Murchadha, Ciarán. Sable Wings over the Sand: Ennis, County Clare, and Its Wider Community during the Great Famine. Ennis: Clasp Press, 1998.

Solar, Peter M. “The Great Famine Was No Ordinary Subsistence Crisis.” In Famine: The Irish Experience, 900-1900, edited by E.M. Crawford. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1989.

Solar, Peter M. 1997. “The Potato Famine in Europe.” In Famine 150: The Teagasc/UCD Lectures, edited by Cormac Ó Gráda, 113-27. Dublin: Teagasc, 1997.

Whelan, Karl. “Economic Geography and the Long-run Effects of the Great Irish Famine.” Economic and Social Review 30, no. 1 (1999): 1-20.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-49, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962.

Citation: O Grada, Cormac. “Ireland’s Great Famine”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s

Author(s):Li, Lillian M.
Reviewer(s):Will, Pierre-Étienne W
, Pierre-Ét

Published by EH.NET (May 2008)

Lillian M. Li, Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. xix + 520 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8047-5304-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pierre-?tienne Will, Coll?ge de France, Paris.

In this long-awaited book Lillian Li offers us a masterful account of three centuries of environmental and socio-economic history in one of the core regions of China ? the Hai River drainage that more or less corresponds to present-day Hebei, the capital province since the Mongol period. Li’s achievement is especially noteworthy when we consider the multiplicity of variables she addresses with equal thoroughness and clarity and combines into a convincing narrative of ever-mounting problems and tensions: the climate and natural environment, models and techniques of agricultural production, hydraulic engineering, market organization and price movement, dynastic and bureaucratic institutions, political and military history, and more.

As its title indicates, famine and the attempts at fighting it are central to the book. Not that North China always was a “land of famine” (a phrase coined by Western philanthropists in the 1920s and the title of a famous book at the time); but avoiding famine and promoting agricultural production in a context of high rainfall variability and environmental instability were traditional tasks of the Chinese state, tasks at which the Manchu rulers of China proved particularly adept during the heyday of the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century. Indeed, one of Li’s dominant themes ? not entirely new, to be sure, but treated here with especial sensitivity and attention to all conceivable factors ? is the dangers of success. Following a pattern that is found elsewhere in Chinese history, efficient river control and disaster relief during the middle decades of the eighteenth century encouraged population growth and land reclamation. This in turn led to a higher impact of natural disasters from the early nineteenth century on, at a time when the political and financial means of the state were rapidly diminishing, and eventually to the mega-famines of the late Qing and early Republican eras. The mega-famine of the 1959-61 Great Leap Forward is a special case, as it was caused not by environmental overload, government powerlessness or military disturbances, but by mad social engineering.

Such, then, is the narrative that Li unfolds in chapter after chapter, making important methodological points along the way. She starts with an historical account of the natural environment, stressing in particular that “what is important about the climate of the past or present is not that it directly causes particular social, economic, or social results, but rather the way in which politics, economy, and society have adapted to the weather and other environmental challenges” (p. 37). Much of the book is a development of that notion. Chapter 2 on river conservancy ? a particularly onerous task in Hebei ? is subtitled “Emperors as Engineers,” pointing less at the Qing rulers’ engineering interventions (only the Kangxi emperor [r. 1662-1722] claimed competence in that profession) than at their political and bureaucratic impact. Li proposes the intriguing notion of a “reign cycle” in floods, with exceptional disasters at the start of a new reign resulting from the gradual accumulation of negligence during the preceding period and triggering a fresh effort at bureaucratic mobilization and infrastructure building. This pattern well describes the situation through the beginning of the nineteenth century, and in some way it re-emerged under the “reign” of the powerful Zhili governor general, Li Hongzhang, during the last three decades of the same century. Still, if strong political leadership was vital, it was not enough to prevent such long-term environmental problems as increased silting and reckless land reclamation that was detrimental to drainage; and more and more it gave way to fragmented bureaucratic responsibilities that made any concerted action impossible: in Lillian Li’s phrase, “the rivers themselves became bureaucratized.”

The next chapter discusses the relation among population, land resources and agricultural techniques ? already a hot topic, incidentally, in the early eighteenth century, when the Kangxi emperor and his successor expressed much concern about population growth on a limited land base. Li offers the best educated estimates of Hebei population one can hope for given the present state of knowledge, as well as careful descriptions of crops, yields, techniques, cropping patterns, and so forth. The general picture ? here as in most chapters ? is one of overall downward trend after the eighteenth-century successes, even though Li refuses to speak of a “Malthusian tale”: coarse grains get more land at the expense of higher value-added crops like wheat and cotton, yields tend to diminish, no technological breakthroughs are in sight, the silting of rivers makes transportation more difficult and costly, available land per capita decreases, and so on.

Chapter 4 on prices is of strategic importance to the narrative as Li uses the massive price data produced by the Qing system of economic monitoring as well as that of its Republican inheritors as a backdrop to the ensuing chapters on disasters and famine relief. She tackles brilliantly the considerable methodological problems entailed by the data: several sorts of grain were monitored, the quality of the surveys was uneven, the pricing system resorted to different currencies with a volatile exchange rate (official figures were in silver weight but ordinary people used copper cash), statistics used the traditional lunar calendar, and finally, in order to make real sense the curves created by connecting the dots representing the data ? which have many gaps ? need to be subjected to various statistical procedures. As the administration monitored not only grain prices but also the weather, one major ambition of the book is to explore every possible correlation between the two. In the long term the secular rise of prices in imperial times appears surprisingly moderate despite steady demographic growth and increased pressure on natural resources. As far as the annual cycle is considered, the system seems to have been made more stable by its very complexity (“multicropping with different seasonalities,” p. 122); but massive state intervention in the form of organizing imports (the crucial role of Manchurian surpluses is stressed again and again), maintaining food reserves, and providing relief definitely was the major stabilizing factor. After all the region under scrutiny was the metropolitan province of a vast empire, therefore subject to special care on the part of the dynasty.

This theme is developed in the next few chapters, on “Provisioning Peking,” considerably qualifying the textbook image of a northern capital fed with southern “rice” transferred through the Grand Canal (Chapter 5); on the granary system, seen as both “solution and problem” and the object of much debate in official circles (Chapter 6); on markets and prices, with the interesting notion that the apparently strong integration of markets across the province in the eighteenth century was a “false integration,” state maintenance of the waterways and intervention on the market largely explaining the parallel behavior of prices (Chapter 7); and on famine relief during the high Qing (Chapter 8) and in the nineteenth century (Chapter 9). Even though Li draws generously on existing research (notably the work on storage policies and famine relief by R. Bin Wong, Helen Dunstan, and the undersigned), there is an abundance of new materials and, especially, original interpretations. Chapters 7 and 8 in particular provide a sense of texture and impact, and of change, by progressing painstakingly from one major disaster to the next and analyzing in great detail the way each unfolded, the impact on prices, the nature of official intervention, and the aftermath. To this reviewer the lesser-known part of the story ? the nineteenth-century devolution from the “classical” model of famine relief ? is of particular interest, with the reservation perhaps that there is too much adherence to the imperial discourse on corruption and abuses during the Daoguang reign (1821-50).

The last famines of the Qing (beginning with the great North China famine of 1876-79) make the transition to the modern era. Unlike similar earlier events they were considered as “national” events by the philanthropic sphere newly emerging around Shanghai, whose action was crucial even though, as Li shows, the state was far from being as absent as is often claimed. And they were “international” famines publicized overseas through diplomatic communication and missionary propaganda. Together with international (mainly missionary) organizations, Chinese philanthropies, which have been the object of recent research in China not mentioned here, continued to play a major role in the early Republican era. (The crucial impact of the Buddhist revival at the time might have been more clearly brought out.) This is when Hebei and North China become the “land of famine” (Chapter 10). The major disasters, described here with the same thoroughness as the earlier famines, were compounded by a series of military conflicts culminating with the Japanese invasion. They reveal several important shifts that were in large part due to the foreign presence in China. While the discourse on famine acquires nationalistic overtones and focuses on the need to eradicate its socio-economic causes, rather than restoring the existing balance between land and resources as in imperial times, the conditions for the management of relief change drastically with the advent of the railway and the development of Tianjin as a major port and industrial city. It is also during the early Republican decades that the ever-growing hydraulic problems of the Hai River basin start being addressed systematically and with the help of modern engineering, although the major work required had to wait until after 1949 to get accomplished.

The impact of such infrastructural change is analyzed with much subtlety in the important Chapter 11 on “Rural Crisis and Economic Change, 1900-1949.” To negotiate her way between the conflicting interpretations, then as now, of economic conditions in Republican China and their causes, Li takes us on a tour of selected districts, availing herself of the many well-informed local gazetteers published in the 1930s and showing that, indeed, the landscape was highly contrasted. Many places enjoyed new opportunities in terms of handicrafts (predominantly cotton goods), new commercial crops, employment outside the region, and so forth, and there was an improvement in living standards (further favored by a steady rise in prices through 1931) despite environmental change and general poverty. While admitting that this cannot be described as a fundamental economic “break-through” (p. 340), Li takes exception to such notions as “economic involution” (Philip Huang) or “high-level equilibrium trap” (Mark Elvin), which have been widely influential in the field of Chinese economic history: there was a process of development at work, but this was cut short by political and military turmoil.

The last chapter, “Food and Famine under Communist Rule,” which is perhaps less new, takes us to quite a different world. But disasters were still there, and at least one major famine, actually the worst in the whole of Chinese history ? the Great Leap famine. Li goes so far as to use the term “holocaust” (p. 359, following Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts), probably not the best one in this case; but indisputably this mostly man-made event would deserve the appellation “incredible famine” (qihuang) much more than the 1876-79 famine for which it was coined. The period after 1980, called “post-revolutionary” by many and marked by the “unleashing” of the market (p. 371) and a quantity of scientific inputs in the improvement of agricultural production ? though the Chinese “green revolution” had already started in the 1960s ? leaves us with ambiguous perspectives: while it is true that “at the end of the [twentieth] century, prosperity for many people in China has allowed them to leave hunger behind” (p. 375), rapid urbanization and mounting problems with water availability and desertification, not to speak of price instabilities, remind us that this is not yet the end of history. Certainly Li’s monumental work is a must-read for present-day planners and decision-makers.

Pierre-?tienne Will is the author of Bureaucracy and Famine in Eighteenth-Century China, Stanford University Press, 1990 (original French edition 1980) and co-author with R. Bin Wong of Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650-1850, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1991. He is currently researching famine and the role of philanthropy in Northwestern China during the 1920s and 1930s.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland

Author(s):Bigelow, Gordon
Reviewer(s):Peart, Sandra

Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Gordon Bigelow, Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. x + 229 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-82848-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sandra Peart, Department of Economics, Baldwin-Wallace College.

Gordon Bigelow’s Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland serves as a powerful reminder that economic ideas — then and now — are contextual, and that we fail fully to understand them when we neglect context. So, in Victorian England and Ireland, political economy emerged amidst social and literary responses to institutional, banking, and agricultural failures of the 1840s. Bigelow’s book demonstrates that there is much to be learned about economics from a survey of this commentary, his aim being “to understand the relationship between economics and other forms of social discourse and description in the nineteenth century” (p. 8).

Bigelow is an assistant professor of English at Rhodes College in Tennessee. His project is necessarily ambitious: he attempts to place the economic theory and methodology developed by Adam Smith through William Stanley Jevons in the context of major literary and philosophical discussions that took place during a period of roughly one hundred years. In the course of his investigation, Bigelow argues that political economy was entirely reoriented in the nineteenth century (p. 182). This comes as no surprise to economists who are familiar with the history of economic ideas and the “Marginal” or “Jevonian Revolution” that occurred with the near-simultaneous publication of Jevons’s Theory of Political Economy (1871), Carl Menger’s Grunds?tze (1871), and L?on Walras’s El?ments d’?conomie politiques (1870). For the most part, accounts of the transition by historians of economic thought have focused on the formal elements that entered into economics at the time.

Bigelow argues, instead, that neoclassical economics originated in the harsh and successful cultural criticism of classical (liberal) political economy (p. 4). Late in the century, Jevonian economics divorced itself from culture and politics (p. 3) and economic theory re-emerged as a “widely-accepted justification of capitalism” with the consumer at the centre of economic theory (pp. 2, 73). In the course of the transition, the “sea-change in the understanding of value that takes place between the work of Ricardo and that of Jevons, 1871, reveals a great deal about the cultural and political orientation of economic thought in the period” (p. 50).

To make his case, Bigelow begins with a wonderfully oriented investigation of Smithian economics. He rightly makes the case that Smith’s “theory of wealth and poverty developed out of his engagement with the philosophy of language” (p. 13). Human communication arose out of physical needs (p. 29), humans are characterized by a capacity for sympathy (p. 36), and humans trade both sentiment as well as goods (p. 44). To this, might be added the explicit case made by Smith in his Wealth of Nations for trade carried in language and governed by reciprocity (Smith 1776, p. 30). It might be noted, as well, that Smith’s position is in line with that of Archbishop Whately (see Whately 1831, p. 6), whom Bigelow distances from Smith on a number of issues. Bigelow rightly focuses on the significance of the debates concerning national character that ensued. Smith’s position on these matters, especially relative to that of Hume, is terribly important. Smith held to a doctrine (contra Hume) of human homogeneity, the street porter being the philosopher’s equivalent (see Peart and Levy 2005).

Since he makes his case in 229 pages — including 45 pages of notes, bibliography and index — there are, understandably, areas in Bigelow’s reconstruction that might be fleshed out. I would point to three. First, he might expand upon the romantic criticism of English classical political economy, wonderfully done as it is. Bigelow sketches the criticisms in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Cranford, and North and South, and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. But Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 essay and John Stuart Mill’s 1850 response to it — both in the center of the ten-year period in which Bigelow locates the “death” of Classical political economy — are entirely missing. Second, the role and influence of mid-nineteenth century biological and anthropological “science” receives no attention. Third, since the book points to a “sea-change” that culminates in the development of Jevonian exchange theory, Bigelow might examine Jevons’s works, including but not limited to The Theory of Political Economy, more fully.

Bigelow’s account focuses specifically on 1845-55, in which the seeds of the “sea-change” were sown in the debate between classical political economists and social and literary commentators (pp.74-75). Yet the picture is distorted if we leave Thomas Carlyle — and, for that matter, John Ruskin — largely out of the fray. For we fail to see what alternatives to capitalism were being defended by at least some of the critics of classical political economy. In his essay, Carlyle made the case that classical political economists were wrong to presume that all humans were potentially the same, that institutions, not inherent characteristics, explained observed variations in poverty and wealth. Some races, Carlyle argued against the economists like Smith and Mill, were inherently lazy and would fail to lead productive lives unless forced to do so (Carlyle 1849).

Most importantly, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was the fact that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and all entitled to liberty, that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.” (see

Bigelow rightly locates the context for the debate between classical political economy and its critics in the “Irish problem.” And here the issue of character versus institutions was of paramount importance. Bigelow suggests that classical political economy saw poverty as “atonement” for behavior (p. 2). This, he argues, was the political economy that “Coleridge, Carlyle, and Ruskin loved to hate” (p. 4). What is less clear is that, on the other side of this, the critics of classical political economy made the case that poverty was the result of innate human characteristics — the unwillingness to work under any circumstances. Carlyle’s argument was used by the critics of classical political economy, some of whom eschewed his polemical excesses but who nonetheless retained his basic assumptions of variability among human-folks, and inherent laziness of some. For example, the political economist and social commentator, W. R. Greg, attacked Mill for arguing that land reform would help solve the problem of poverty in Ireland:

“Make them peasant-proprietors,” says Mr. Mill. But Mr. Mill forgets that, till you change the character of the Irish cottier, peasant-proprietorship would work no miracles. He would fall behind the instalments of his purchase-money, and would be called upon to surrender his farm. He would often neglect it in idleness, ignorance, jollity and drink, get into debt, and have to sell his property to the newest owner of a great estate. … In two generations Ireland would again be England’s difficulty, come back upon her in an aggravated form. Mr. Mill never deigns to consider that an Irishman is an Irishman, and not an average human being — an idiomatic and idiosyncratic, not an abstract, man (Greg 1869, p. 78). In Greg’s view, the Irish would always be improvident and overly populous because they were impulsive and sexually debauched.

It is important to note that, along with the mathematical statistician, Francis Galton, Greg co-founded the British eugenics movement. In so doing, Greg began by attacking classical economics of the Malthusian sort. Malthus worried about the quantity of births, which, Greg argued, missed the real problem: it was not that too many births, but that too many Irish births, were occurring (Greg 1875). The caricature of the improvident Irishman was strenuously resisted by John Stuart Mill, who held that, contrary to this “vulgar” explanation for their poverty, the Irish were poor because of institutional failure:

Is it not, then, bitter satire on the mode in which opinions are formed on the most important problems of human nature and life, to find public instructors of the greatest pretension, imputing the backwardness of Irish industry, and the want of energy of the Irish people in improving their condition, to a peculiar indolence and insouciance in the Celtic race? Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences. What race would not be indolent and insouciant when things are so arranged, that they derive no advantage from forethought or exertion? … It speaks nothing against the capacities of industry in human beings, that they will not exert themselves without motive. No labourers work harder, in England or America, than the Irish; but not under a cottier system. (Mill 1848, p. 319)

Starting in the 1850s, leaders of the Anthropological Society of London devoted a great deal of attention to the problem of whether the Irish constituted a separate — and inferior — race, in which case their problems might be solved only by such drastic means as eugenics. In the popular press such as Punch, images of the supposedly impulsive and debauched Irish appeared frequently throughout these two decades (see, all serving to reinforce the argument that the Irish needed either looking after (paternalism), or something darker. An important part of the social fabric of this period, then, is the biological “science” which in some cases worked in concert with literary criticism. As Bigelow rightly notes, race and nationality were conflated. What, perhaps, remains underemphasized is the extent to which the negro and the Irish were intermixed in social and “scientific” commentary. As one indication of this conflation the President of the Anthropological Society of London in 1870 developed the racial category, “Africanoid Celt,” and an “Index of Nigrescence” to measure how close the Irish were to the negro (Beddoe 1870).

Bigelow’s project holds that the literary criticisms of markets in Dickens and Gaskell were, eventually, incorporated into a new economics which placed the consumer at the forefront and removed economic analysis from political or social concerns. He might well expand on this argument, the crux of his book. Even in his Theory of Political Economy Theory, Jevons makes it clear that man is a social, trading being. Bigelow rightly notes that race and gender are not removed from economic analysis with the insistence of marginalism. And, of course, Jevons wrote extensively about the very social phenomena that preoccupied the classical economists (Peart 2004).

Transitions are always a bit murky. Yet the key question which Bigelow’s important work forces us to examine in historical context, is clear: whether poverty is best explained in terms of choices within an institutional setting, or inherent human nature (pp. 69-70). On this, it seems clear that the classical economists differed from their critics. Classical political economy placed the (same, social) human at the center of analysis, and explained variations in observed outcomes in terms of history, luck and incentives. Their critics would add another explanation for observed poverty: human nature. I would place Jevons in this latter category, at least as far as the explanation for Irish poverty was concerned. Then, the question that emerged was how does the “expert” fix poverty if poverty is the result of inherent poor judgment, a purported failure of national or ethnic character? This opened up the door for a nasty set of eugenic policy recommendations that followed the transition to post-classical economics — restrictions on immigration flows (from so-called ethnic failures) and births among the “unfit” (Peart and Levy 2005). The importance of Bigelow’s project is that it gives us another lens through which to view the analytical underpinnings of such policies.


Beddoe, John 1870. “Anthropology and Politics: Kelts and Saxons.” The Anthropological Review viii: 211-213.

[Carlyle, Thomas.] 1849. “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 40: 670-679.

[Greg, W. R.] 1869. “Realities of Irish Life.” Quarterly Review 126: 61-80.

Greg, W. R. 1875. Enigmas of Life. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company.

Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2001-2002. “Secret History of the Dismal Science.”

Mill, J. S. 1848. The Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. Volume 2 of Collected Works. Edited by J. M. Robson. University of Toronto Press, 1965

Peart, Sandra J. 2004. “Introduction”, in W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses, 4 volumes. Edited by Sandra J. Peart. London: Routledge, pp. 1-26.

Peart, Sandra J., and David M. Levy 2005. The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher’: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economic Thought, forthcoming. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Smith, Adam. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by W. B. Todd. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Whately, Richard. 1831. Introductory Lectures on Political Economy. London: B. Fellowes.

Sandra Peart is professor of economics at Baldwin-Wallace College. She has published articles on the economics and methodology of W. S. Jevons and J.S. Mill, rationality and intertemporal choice, eugenics, and the transition to neoclassicism, in journals such as the Manchester School, the Canadian Journal of Economics, the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, the European Journal of Political Economy, the History of Political Economy, and the Journal of the History of Economic Thought. She edited W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses for Routledge (2004) and co-edited, with David Levy, The Political Economy of Slavery (2004), for Thoemmes Continuum. She is Vice-President of the History of Economics Society, and serves on the Editorial Board of JHET. Her book on the transition from Classical to Post-Classical economics, co-authored with David Levy, will be published by Michigan Press in 2005: The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

Receiving Erin’s Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and the Irish Famine Migration, 1845-1855

Author(s):Gallman, F. Matthew
Reviewer(s):Cohn, Raymond L.

Published by EH.NET (August 2000)

F. Matthew Gallman, Receiving Erin’s Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and

the Irish Famine Migration, 1845-1855. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North

Carolina Press, 2000. xii + 306 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8078-4845-X; $55

(cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2534-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Raymond L. Cohn, Department of Economics, Illinois State


Gallman (currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at

Gettysburg College) examines the responses of Liverpool and Philadelphia to new

and intensified urban problems that resulted from Irish immigration during the

period of the famine. For each city, he considers the responses of the public

and the Catholic Church, and explores how the migrants affected health,

sanitation, and crime. Thus, this book is a study in comparative urban history,

where the developments in the two cities are examined during a period in which

“new urban problems were magnified by the thousands of poor Irish Catholic

immigrants” (p. 14).

Gallman’s argument is that the responses in each city were determined by a

number of similar influences, but that the specific response in a particular

case also depended on three aspects of “national distinctiveness.” First,

government was structured differently in the two cities, with the central

government in Britain traditionally playing a larger role. Decisions in

Liverpool were frequently affected by Parliamentary actions whereas Congress

never influenced Philadelphia’s responses. Second, Americans tended to be more

committed to voluntarism and solved many of the problems caused by the influx

of migrants without resorting to government, even at the local level. Third,

the two cities faced different options concerning what to do with the migrants

and different economic abilities in helping them. Liverpool was often stuck

with many of the migrants, particularly the poorest ones. Philadelphia was able

to employ many of the migrants and could try to send the remainder out to the

frontier. In addition, Philadelphians seemed more able economically to provide

assistance to the migrants.

Gallman’s approach is analytical though he does not use economic theory or

provide numerical estimates. The six substantive chapters possess the same

general framework. Gallman discusses developments in each city before the

famine migration, examines developments in each city during the migration, and

draws conclusions concerning how the famine migration affected the situation.

The book is especially well grounded in original sources. Gallman has spent a

large amount of time going through contemporary newspapers and urban reports

along with the more recent literature.

Chapter 2 examines the public response to the migrants. In both cities, the

influx of poor migrants put a strain on public services in the face of public

pressure to keep taxes low and maintain economic stability. Gallman finds

Philadelphia helped the migrants more through voluntarism than did Liverpool.

In chapter 3, Gallman examines the issue of poor relief. In Liverpool,

non-government assistance was sparse, a situation in stark contrast to

Philadelphia where many private organizations greatly expanded their services.

Chapter 4 on medical care and chapter 5 on environmental reform examine the

issue of health. During the famine migration, a cholera epidemic occurred,

though it affected Philadelphia much less than Liverpool. In both cities, sick

immigrants were seen as a public charge. In Liverpool many were forced into

medical wards in public workhouses or almshouses, whereas Philadelphia’s

hospitals expanded their services and philanthropic organizations increased

their assistance. In both cities, efforts were made to limit the entry of the

afflicted, to quarantine them, and to clean up wastes and “nuisances.”

Chapter 6 on religion and chapter 7 on crime and policing examine the

repercussions of the famine migration. Even before the migration, religion was

an issue in schooling in both cities because the Protestant Bible was

traditionally taught. The famine migrants thus arrived in a heated situation in

both cities, though the main effect of their entry seems to have been that the

Catholic Church expanded its efforts to build parochial schools and churches.

The response was greater in Philadelphia, which is viewed as evidence of

greater American ability to respond. As to crime and policing in each city, the

entry of the famine migrants contributed to street violence and increased

arrest rates for minor crimes but did not have major effects on either the

level of serious crime or the development of the police forces. Overall,

Gallman argues that “the immigrants were adjusting to, rather than recasting,

the established patterns of the host culture” (p. 210).

The major criticism I have concerning Gallman’s book is his choice of cities to

compare. Though Gallman claims that Philadelphia and Liverpool were

sufficiently similar in terms of size, population growth, importance of the

Irish, and migration trends that the cities make an appropriate comparison on

which to draw conclusions concerning urban decision making, I am not convinced

this is the case. Most of the Irish viewed Liverpool as a city through which

they traveled on their way to the United States or elsewhere, rather than as a

final destination. The port that served the corresponding function in the

United States at the time of the famine was New York, not Philadelphia. Thus, a

much larger number of Irish arrived in Liverpool than in Philadelphia (so

potential effects were larger, such as with the amount of funds needed for poor

relief and the extent of the disease outbreaks) and a larger percentage of the

Irish arriving in Philadelphia were presumably planning to stay. The two cities

therefore experienced substantially different numbers of Irish immigrants who

were in different situations. Thus, it is possible that voluntarism would not

have taken on the same level of importance in Philadelphia that it did if the

city had been inundated with the much larger number of migrants who went

through Liverpool. While it is obvious that no set of cities would ever provide

a perfect comparison, and though it might not have changed his conclusions, I

believe Gallman would have better served comparing Liverpool and New York.

Criticisms aside, Gallman’s book is an important work in urban history. In

connection with his other work, he continues to provide support for the

argument that national and local history matters in affecting how a city reacts

to exogenous events.

Raymond Cohn primarily studies immigration to the United States during the

nineteenth century. He is the author of “Nativism and the End of the Mass

Migrations of the 1840s and 1850s,” which appeared in the June 2000 issue of

Journal of Economic History.

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century

Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish

Author(s):Neal, Frank
Reviewer(s):Weir, Ron

Published by EH.NET (March 2000)


Frank Neal, Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish. London: Macmillan Press and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998. xv + 292 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-333-66595-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ron Weir, Department of Economics, University of York.

During the 1980s there appeared to be developing a minor academic industry popularly known as ‘The Irish in ….’ It was concerned with describing the experiences of Irish immigrants in nineteenth century Britain and seemed destined to embrace every British city. In fact this research was never quite so all inclusive as its critics suggested and focussed pre dominantly on Dundee, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Salford, and York. It could also be justified in terms of the quantitative dimensions of Irish immigration, particularly during the decade of the Great Famine. Between 1841 and 1851 the Irish-born percentage of the population of England and Wales rose from 1.8% to 2.9%, or from 291,000 to 520,000. In Scotland the proportionate increase was even greater, from 4.8% to 7.2%, or from 126,000 to 207,000. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of such single city studies did pose the question whether further research was likely to yield more than marginal gains to our existing knowledge of the Irish in Britain.

In Black ’47 Frank Neal, Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Salford, proves conclusively that there is still a lot to be learned. That this is so, owes much to five features of his research. First, he adopts a very narrow time horizon, essentially the events of a single year, 1847. Secondly, he concentrates on a tightly focussed area, Lancashire, the county that exceeded all others in the number of Irish-born residents, and in particular on Liverpool, the main port of entry for famine refugees. Outside London, Liverpool had the greatest number of Irish-born within its boundaries and the greatest proportion of its population who were Irish-born. By comparing Liverpool with Glasgow, Manchester, and Salford, the four towns which accounted for 27% of all Irish-born in Britain in 1851, the sheer concentration of Irish immigration and the resulting problems are starkly revealed. Thirdly, he is aware that much previous research has been ‘going over old ground’ and responds by utilizing a wider range of primary source material, including county and church archives, newspaper reports, and personal testimony. Fourthly, he regards what might be described as the mechanisms of migration, that is the behavior of the shipping companies and the nature of the passage, as vital to understanding the condition of the refugees when they arrived in Britain. Finally, he has two clear objectives: to employ statistical evidence to establish ‘the parameters of sensible discussion’ and to evaluate the nature of individual experiences. The resulting analysis never loses sight of the individual yet offers a clear explanation of public policy and its consequences.

The book is also carefully structured. After an introductory review of recent work on the Famine, eight chapters take us through the nature of Irish settlement in urban Britain before the famine, the escape from Ireland, the arrival in Britain, the Irish fever (the typhus epidemic of 1847) – this is examined in separate chapters on Liverpool, and Glasgow and South Wales – survival and dispersal, removal, and the cost of famine immigration. Well before the influx of famine refugees, living conditions for the immigrant Irish were extraordinarily bad. At the bottom of the housing market with low incomes and intermittent employment, the Irish endured a wretched lifestyle and their presence was increasingly subject to unfavorable press comment. Yet at the same time their importance to the regional economy was recognized, not least because they were more mobile than English laborers subject to the laws of settlement. Whilst the volume of immigration swelled with the Famine, Neal argues convincingly that the ordinary workings of the labor market continued throughout 1845 to 1851. A perceptive analysis of the economics of shipping explains why. Human cargoes had always taken second place to goods and livestock, but as food exports from Ireland fell, competition between shipping companies intensified and fares were varied to suit whatever level the traffic would bear. The destitute found the fare either by selling their remaining assets or by assistance from ratepayers and landlords. In an unregulated market, terrible conditions were tolerated because ‘Irish paupers had no friends in high places’ and, unlike livestock, had no market value. On arrival the Irish had no legal claim to long term poor relief and were subject to the laws of removal. On the other hand, the poor law unions had a legal obligation to ensure that nobody died of starvation, malnutrition, or ‘the want of the necessaries of life.’ It is the resolution of this essential paradox which forms Neal’s core theme and he displays great skill in interpreting it at several different levels: ratepayers, Boards of Guardians, clergy, medical officials, and individual paupers. He also makes the first attempt to estimate the cost of famine immigration: for Liverpool in 1847 this amounted to #33,159 on a tax base of #929,645; for England and Wales as a whole perhaps #155,000 or 2% of all expenditure on the poor. Whilst coping with famine refugees did exert pressure on ratepayers, in what was a disastrous year for the economy, it was not a disaster for wealthier or business ratepayers, nor did the working class finance the payment of poor relief to the Irish. The extra rates burden amounted to 9s7d, roughly the equivalent of half a wee k’s wages for a laborer. However, as so often with refugees, it was perceptions rather than facts that counted; the belief that the Irish were diverting funds from Britain’s own poor damaged inter-communal relations.

Despite the harrowing nature of individual testimonies, Neal’s overall judgement of the performance of the poor law authorities during 1847 is that they fulfilled their responsibilities to the welfare of Irish famine refugees. They increased spending in proportion to the numbers seeking relief, they kept deaths from starvation to low levels (a maximum of 22 in Liverpool in 1847), they acted swiftly to deal with the much more serious problem of famine related diseases and, by doing so, averted a much greater crisis. Above all, they shouldered a burden whose ultimate duration was unknown – in Liverpool it was not till 1854 that Irish immigration dropped dramatically – and which ought properly to have been borne by national government rather than local ratepayers. Generous they were not, but the poor law was not generous to the British poor. Neal’s conclusion is that social class rather than ethnicity determined the response to the crisis.

Ron Weir, Provost of Derwent College, University of York, is on the editorial panel of the journal Irish Economic and Social History. His recent publications include The History of the Distillers Company 1877-1939 (Oxford University Press, 1995) and “The Scottish and Irish Unions: The Victorian View in Perspective,” in S. J. Connolly, editor, Kingdoms United? Great Britain and Ireland since 1500 (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 1999).


Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume II

Author(s):Ma, Debin
Von Glahn, Richard
Reviewer(s):Hübner, Jamin Andreas

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Debin Ma and Richard Von Glahn, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 845 pp. $155 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1108425537.

Reviewed by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.


The second volume of The Cambridge Economic History of China picks up where the first volume left off (reviewed here). It covers 1800 to the present, which includes major turning points in the evolution of China’s economy. The most notable include Britain’s conquest of the flourishing Qing dynasty in the 1840s, its eventual collapse and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912, Mao’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the “Reform era” (post-1978), and the most recent phase (post-Great Recession), which is a return to top-down planning and Party conformity.

For over 2,000 years, “China has sustained the largest single human society on the planet through the development of one of the most sophisticated agrarian systems in history” (p. 87). Before British colonization of China, the Chinese empire was “the largest economy on earth” (p. 531), where the “Qing…enjoyed standards of living comparable or even superior to those of Europe” (p. 83). There was little indication that things would change. But the Opium Wars did just that. While trade with the West was fairly limited up to this point, the victorious British forced “free trade” (p. 83)—requiring that China open its ports abroad. As with any major change in trade, this was viewed as an investment blessing to some, but also “as a destructive force capable of impoverishing certain sectors of the population and economy” (p. 365). Furthermore, “foreign nationals were exempt from the jurisdiction of Chinese law” (p. 414).

This “semicolonial” subordination (p. 415) to western power inaugurated a great reversal that Kenneth Pomeranz, Andre Gunder Frank, and others have written about. Contrary to ordinary Eurocentric history, Western economic dominance was not a long-term, inevitable result of superior institutions founded over 2,000 years ago, but a highly contingent blip on the screen of Asian dominance in the world system. The book traces out these dramatic changes in chapters covering ideology, institutions and enterprises, finance, money, markets, business organization, foreign trade and investment, education, and other areas up to and beyond the Maoist era.

Readers may find interesting the unusual role played in the Chinese economy by Christian missionaries —who poured into the country starting in the 1860s. By the 1920s, “94% of Chinese counties had records of a missionary presence” (p. 391). This led to the development of a huge number of schools with new curriculum, as well as hospitals. “A great majority of the subjects in the curriculum of the new schools were novel to the Chinese” (p. 393), and improved healthcare opportunities facilitated further population growth (p. 394) and perhaps more critical reflection that helped the revolts of 1911. Readers also learn that (in crude and simplistic terms) “Communism and violent Communist movements originate from Christianity, and naturally the Christian church was essential for the creation of the first totalitarianism” (p. 541). That is, similar to Europe and Catholicism, the institutional churches and movements involved in China validated and empowered state ambitions.

The road to Chinese economic and political statism was gradual. “As early as 1912, Sun [Yat-sen] stated that all major industries in China should be owned by the state” (p. 185); China had to make up for lost time in industrialization. The world wars and threats of Japan provided further reason or opportunity to centralize economic control (p. 165, 186-87). The “institutional genes” of “imperial institution and secretive organization” (p. 543) also contributed to this move. By the time of Mao, the road to totalitarianism had already been laid, and Mao explicitly took Stalin’s model to greater extremes. However, some contributors contend, “Totalitarianism is foreign to the Chinese. When the CCP was established in 1921, the number of Chinese who knew constitutionalism was far more than those who knew Marxism or Bolshevism” (p. 543). There was nothing inevitable about China’s turn towards totalitarian communism—anymore than industrialization and capitalism was inevitable for the British over a century earlier. Whatever the case, the advent of the Maoist period was filled with contradictions not unlike the Bolshevik Revolution. Just as the Bolsheviks promised economic democracy and worker control but then reneged in 1918, so the Chinese Constitution “recognized the peasants’ rights to private land and the property rights of the owners of private firms”—only to nationalize/collectivize a year later (p. 549).

Maoism is popularly known for its cult around Mao and the “Great Leap Famine” (1958-1961), where about 30 million people (needlessly) died. This was apparently caused by (a) the use of grain to finance industrialization and repay Soviet debt instead of feeding Chinese people, (b) the cruel confiscation of metal from the population (including cooking tools) to support industrialization, and (c) the consolidation of agricultural cooperatives into ineffective “gigantic peoples’ communes” (p. 645). By this “Great Leap,” China would become “self-reliant,” and never worry about being colonized by the West again (p. 717-19). Maoism as a whole did eliminate excess wealth inequality, increase life expectancy and primary education, and achieved  “food security”; and China “fared better than many other countries—Meiji Japan and Industrial Revolution Britain come to mind—during the early stages of their industrialization” (p. 639). The Maoist consolidation also, in some ways, made the reform era more effective (p. 733), if not simply provided the industrial infrastructure for the next, and most successful phase of all (1970s-2008).

Formal recognition of private property came back in 2004 and, with other reforms, spurred a surge of private enterprise. Private investment, financial reform, entry in the WTO in 2001 (though see p. 827), and less restrictions empowered China’s economy. The Great Recession and Xi Jinping’s grand visions amplified—and overextended—China’s ambitions and initiated a resurgence of top-down control (p. 817-820) and a return of the leader’s personality cult. “Since 2013 all private firms and NGOs…are required to set up CCP branches within the firm and organization,” and “Discussions of constitutionalism and judicial independence are prohibited” (p. 562). Religious freedom is now being eradicated. Academics are facing new obstacles, like “restrictions on participation in international projects and conferences. Foreign textbooks now arouse suspicion” (p. 822). China is vastly better off than it was a half century ago. But the challenge is “how to overcome self-imposed obstacles that prevent improvements in knowledge and capabilities from generating intensive growth that outruns the accumulation of resources” (p. 823).

I greatly enjoyed this work, as much as the first volume. The research is incisive, clearly presented, and the volume is very cogently organized. At one point I wondered how the second volume might have been improved if the contributors had read or paid more attention to the first. I say this because second-volume contributors sometimes had contradictory different perspectives about pre-modern Chinese culture and socio-economic ideas, and this is an important topic given the stereotype of “Oriental Despotism” that economic historians are—or should be—trying to wash out of their clothes. Some discussion on the future impact relating to demographics (e.g., age, population, fertility) might also have been relevant and helpful.

Whatever the case, we stand in a very privileged position to be able to learn many lessons from such massive and historic economic system(s), and both volumes deserve a wide reading.


Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and a research fellow at LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist, and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (January 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at


Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

Author(s):DeLong, J. Bradford
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

J. Bradford DeLong. Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 2022. 605 pp. $35 (hardback), ISBN 978-0465019595.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Northwestern University.


The twentieth century was like no other. That statement, of course, is true for any century, but economic historians will strongly argue that degree is everything, and that the twentieth century was more different. The evocative simile of a hockey-stick blade, which turns up sharply in the nineteenth century after a long flat handle, describes far more than just the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the associated rise in temperatures. It includes income, life expectancy, average years of schooling, and many other variables. It is thus with more than usual interest that our profession has looked forward to Brad DeLong’s long-awaited hefty volume that ventures to be a survey of the century worldwide.

The title of the book (not acknowledged) comes from W.B. Yeats’s famous poem of despair, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 after the mayhem of World War I:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(The title was also appropriated by Joan Didion in an essay on the San Francisco counterculture.) How many potential buyers of this book will get this allusion is something that an editor at Basic Books might know. The subtitle, of course, is more direct and will make every red-blooded economic historian want to plunk down for this (very reasonably priced) tome before rushing off to revise their class notes to reflect the insights of this widely respected and erudite scholar and public intellectual.

In many ways, they will not be disappointed. DeLong’s book, as will surprise no one, is exceedingly well written. It provides a narrative that is captivating, witty, often sardonic, at times even entertaining despite the often bleak realities it describes. The twentieth century, whatever else it was, was rarely boring: the rapid trend changes embodied in the hockey stick were punctuated by dramatic and often shocking events: two major wars; a great depression; the rise and fall of two brutal totalitarian movements that threatened and failed to take over the world; the rise and fall and rise of liberal democracies; and a long list of macro-inventions that changed material life on this planet in more dimensions than we can count. Arranged in a roughly chronological order, the book surveys the main events with a keen eye for irony and contingency, and while DeLong never hides his political and economic predilections, he writes with few distracting commitments to one ideological point of view or another.

This book is uncommon in that much of it is written in reference to intellectual history: far more than in most books called “an economic history of —” facts are juxtaposed with thoughts and thinkers. The writings of Hayek, Polanyi, Marx, Luxemburg, Friedman, Feldstein, Hobsbawm, and countless others are confronted with the historical developments as DeLong sees them. What influence did they have on how things turned out? DeLong is particularly fascinated by human folly, miscalculations, and plain ignorance. Time after time he cites some past essay or speech written by a policymaker or intellectual, adding his clear judgment: this was wrong. The only major twentieth century thinker who emerges entirely unscathed from DeLong’s critiques is John Maynard Keynes.

DeLong organizes his history around certain themes at the exclusion of others, which is of course his prerogative, and his choices illustrate his originality and imagination. A case where his out-of-the-box style shines through is his repeated juxtaposition of two influential thinkers of the mid twentieth century, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Polanyi, neither of whom was in the mainstream of economics. Hayek represents the belief in free enterprise and the strong resistance to regulation and redistribution, captured by DeLong’s phrase (repeated multiple times) “the market giveth and the market taketh away, the name of the market be blessed,” whereas Polanyi felt that the “invention” of the market economy during the Industrial Revolution (a wholly imaginary account) was a curse that threatened more fundamental human rights. For DeLong, the welfare states that emerged in the mixed economies in liberal post-1945 Europe represent a “shotgun marriage” between the two ideologies that otherwise shared nothing.

In many other places, DeLong provides keen insights, some big and some small, no more so than when he points out that much technological progress after 1945 was actually partially skill-reducing in that automation and mechanization could rely on workers with low human capital, and all the ingenuity was front-loaded by high-skill engineers and designers. Once that process got fully under way, firms had an irresistible temptation to outsource production to countries where low-skill labor was substantially cheaper — especially in a world in which long-distance communications (and hence control from afar) and transportation (as stressed by Vaclav Smil) became cheap and reliable (pp. 413-414).

One of the more appealing features of this book is DeLong’s willingness to engage the possibility that much of what went wrong in the twentieth century was the result of bad luck and contingency. Anyone familiar with the literature of what Acemoglu and Robinson (not cited) have called the critical junctures of the century, will see how accidents or relatively minor events with cascading consequences may have determined historical trajectories, though perhaps not everyone may embrace his example of the Florida hanging chads that gave an election to the “astonishingly-unqualified-for-the job” G.W. Bush. Others see material structures and inevitable historical forces, says DeLong, where he sees accidents and happenstance. But then he adds, “future historians will probably be in accord with [their interpretations], not mine” (p. 518). My sense is that there may be room for both.

Whether this book will do well with the general public is hard to say, but professional economic historians will notice that there is surprisingly little economics in it. Perhaps inevitably for a book about the twentieth century, it dwells far more on politics than on economics, and while the two are of course inextricable in any account of the world economy, the relative attention paid to politics and policy and the people involved in them seems oddly disproportionate for a book written by a professional economist. The book raises many of the most pertinent questions that economic historians worry about while thinking about the many challenging questions of the twentieth century: What were the economic roots of World War I? Why did the Soviet economy collapse? Why was Western Europe (a mixed economy) so successful after 1945 while Argentina (another mixed economy) failed? Why do some emerging economies become industrialized and in some fashion democratic, while others sink into poverty, misgovernment, and autocracy, ending up like Haiti, Myanmar, or Venezuela? Why did thousands of years of gender inequality and male domination over women come closer to an end in the twentieth century? The reader will find informed and thoughtful reflections touching lightly on all those and many other issues, but few if any well worked-out answers. While many scattered numbers are cited (often not sourced), there are no tables or graphs anywhere. Some of the most important economic developments of the century are either ignored or dealt with so succinctly that any undergraduate reading it may miss their significance. But even when they are discussed, some economic developments with enormous consequences seem to be treated with a broad brush if at all. Throughout the book, DeLong prefers anecdote to analysis, biographical vignettes to insight, bon-mot to depth.

The concept of utopia is a major focus of the book. Somehow, DeLong notes with sadness in his concluding chapter, utopia has eluded us despite the huge increase in material resources; humanity had an opportunity to bring it about and failed. Yet the concept seems less than fully developed. The complex and volatile relationship between the West and the Soviet world in the Khrushchev era is summarized in a typical two-line paragraph: “And so, the world entered a stable, well-shy-of-utopia equilibrium, so you had to squint hard to see it” (p. 331). Clever, but not all that enlightening. The triumph of the West at the end of the cold war, says DeLong, may have proven that the West’s economic system was “better or at least less bad” than communism, but he then adds a warning: “be not proud” —the Western system was not so much “more utopian than less dystopian” (p. 337). Few have ever believed that the economic systems that emerged in the post-1945 mixed free market economies had serious pretension to provide a utopia; but they did provide a reasonable standard of living, access to education, and economic security to a large and growing segment of the population, and in the most successful cases (sadly not including the United States) they all but eliminated poverty. Perhaps the greatest transformation was evident in the (approximate) doubling of life expectancy across much of the world and the spectacular decline in infant and child mortality, which the book barely mentions. That may not have been utopia, but it was pretty good.

Several other important episodes of the economic history of the twentieth century seem oddly under-emphasized or neglected in this volume. One is the economic history of the Soviet Union, which gets one thin chapter sardonically called “really-existing socialism.” DeLong manages to miss the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 involving the death by starvation of at least 2.6 million Ukrainians (see Naumenko’s recent analysis of this catastrophe), whereas Lenin’s taste in classical music somehow deserves a mention. The book never comes to grips with the deeper questions of whether the collapse of the Soviet system really prove that the collectivist experiment “failed” in some definable sense. Nor does it note the many ironies and contradictions of an economic system that side-stepped Hayek’s wisdom regarding the essential role of market prices in the allocation of resources, for which DeLong elsewhere expresses his unqualified admiration for (pp. 93-94, 526). Not to mention the environmental devastation that the workers’ paradise inflicted on the soil, water, and air of the socialist nations.

Equally surprising is the absence of any serious discussion of the miraculous decline in fertility that took place during this period, which has dropped every European country (and now the US) to a fertility level below replacement. For a scholar explicitly committed to a Malthusian view of most of human history, this omission is astonishing (the word “contraception” does not appear in the book). Does a phenomenon this momentous in human history really merit no more than a single paragraph in a chapter titled “inclusion”?

All in all, the great paradox of the twentieth century remains that despite the horrors and the violence and despite repeated setbacks, material life improved more in a hundred years than in the previous ten thousand. To be sure, inequality remained high, which DeLong seems to feel keeps us from utopia; it is surprising that he fails to refer to Walter Scheidel’s recent Great Leveler, which shows at length that a rise in equality and “utopia” rarely went together. The European welfare state was, as DeLong notes in a thoughtful chapter on post 1945 social democracy, as close as we may ever get to it, and even it was far from foolproof. Yet as Peter Lindert’s path-breaking work has shown, it was as good as it gets and it was cheap even if its sustainability remains a continuing open question. Perhaps the economics of the welfare state requires more Lindert and less Polanyi.

The principal driver of the great enrichment, oddly enough, is never seriously discussed in this book. The main primum movens of economic growth was and remained the rapid expansion of the combination of science and technology and the positive interaction of the two, as Robert Gordon has shown in lavish detail. For DeLong the roots of this complex and profoundly transformative mechanism seem to be a minor matter, thus opening this book to a criticism of playing a prince-less Hamlet. DeLong feels that technological progress was generated primarily by industrial research labs and through the “routinization of scientific discovery” (pp. 1, 274, 526). This cursory treatment is wholly inadequate; had it not been for the continued expansion of useful knowledge, all other sources of increased human welfare would have eventually fizzled out. But why and how did it maintain its relentless progress? How was it incentivized and rewarded? Why and how did the West maintain its leadership, and why did the capabilities to deploy it productively reach some countries and not others?

It seems unreasonable to expect that any scholar with a finite life expectancy can do full justice to a subject this enormous. With his idiosyncratic style and approach, DeLong has created an enthralling and coherent narrative of the twentieth century. Readers will be persuaded or not, annoyed here and there, impressed in many places, catch a few errors, but it is hard to put the book down even for those who know most of the details. It is perhaps not a fully satisfactory and complete account, but it serves our profession by fully heeding one tenet: the deadliest enemy of economic history is not error but boredom.


Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, New York: Crown, 2012.

Gordon, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Economic Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Lindert, Peter. Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Naumenko, Natalya. “The Political Economy of Famine: The Ukrainian Famine of 1933.” Journal of Economic History, Volume 81, Issue 1, March 2021, pp. 156 -197.

Scheidel, Walter. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Smil, Vaclav. Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.


Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University, and Sackler Professor, (by special appointment) at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics, Tel Aviv University. His most recent book is A Culture of Growth (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Income and Wealth
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

From Old Regime to Industrial State: A History of German Industrialization from the Eighteenth Century to World War I

Author(s):Tilly, Richard H.
Kopsidis, Michael
Reviewer(s):Wegge, Simone A.

Published by EH.Net (September 2022).

Richard H. Tilly and Michael Kopsidis. From Old Regime to Industrial State: A History of German Industrialization from the Eighteenth Century to World War I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 327 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN 978-0226725437.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Simone A. Wegge, Department of Economics, College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.


Richard H. Tilly and Michael Kopsidis have produced an interesting new book and effectively present an updated history of German industrialization. They cover a wide range of topics including agricultural innovation, demographic change, labor markets, entrepreneurial activity, patent activity, regulation, banking developments and more and provide a roadmap for most of the main events in the history of German industrialization in the two centuries leading up to the First World War. While doing so they draw on their own research as well as much new scholarship in Germany economic history. The reference section, at almost 40 pages, emphasizes the authors’ extensive and deep reading and serves as an excellent source for works in both English and German on the topics of German industrialization and economic growth.

The monograph is broken up into four parts, the first part describing Germany in the eighteenth century, the second part early industrialization, the third part the growth of industrial capitalism up to the 1870s, and the fourth and concluding section Germany’s takeoff as an industrial power from unification in 1871 to the year 1914.

One of the more interesting sections of Part I is Chapter 2, which provides an intensive account of industrialization in three important economic regions in Germany, Saxony, the Ruhr/Rhine region and Württemberg. All three had vibrant proto-industrial textile sectors in the eighteenth century, and this feature seemed to be important for rapid industrialization in both Saxony and the Ruhr/Rhine region but not in Württemberg. One thus cannot conclude that an active proto-industry necessarily led “directly to industrialization” (p. 57). Interestingly, Württemberg is one of the most industrialized parts of the German economy today. Chapter 4 is the other highlight of Part I and explains reforms in agrarian property rights and citizens’ rights, the adoption of compulsory schooling, the decline in the power of guilds accompanied by the rise of manufacturers, and the ascendancy of the bureaucratic Prussian state. This chapter is crucial, as it helps one to understand the overwhelming influence of Prussian customs and institutions on the rest of Germany. Note that “unification of Germany in 1871” is considered by some to be an oxymoron for a “Prussian takeover.”

A valuable section of Part II is the material (Chapter 5) on the Zollverein, the common market that evolved between various German states in the decades leading up to 1871. Incorporating research from Dumke (1981, 1984) and more recent work from Keller & Shuie (2014), Tilly and Kopsidis argue that the main effects of the Zollverein were not tariff protection, as Friedrich List had claimed in 1841, but were instead to eliminate internal trade barriers and to expand and integrate markets. The authors also cite intriguing work from Ploeckl (2009) to show that the development of the Zollverein was a complicated sequential game that Prussia devised in the interest of bringing all its neighboring states into the fold.

The authors round off Part II with a discussion of the financial and agricultural crises that culminated in a hunger crisis in the mid-1840s and eventually the 1848 Revolution; they argue that a significant result was that the bourgeoisie gained political power but that not much else changed for the vast majority of people in German regions, most of whom were farmers, laborers and artisans. The authors are very much focused on Prussia, where in 1807 with the Prussian Edict (p. 70), many farmers were able to pay off obligations and benefit from a more modern semblance of land ownership (Bauernbefreiung or “farmer emancipation”) and thus a more market-oriented rural economy. In various parts of Germany, however, this transformation took place in later decades: for example, in Bavaria farmers were first given the option in 1848 of paying off obligations in 1848; in the Electorate of Hesse-Cassel legislation to this effect was passed in 1832 and finalized in 1848. The authors may be underestimating the positive effects of the 1848 Revolution for a sizable number of German farmers outside of Prussia (p. 118). In general, the topic of Bauerbefreiung in understudied, and there are other possible connections that economic historians will find interesting: many farmers used loans to achieve these economic freedoms, which may have in turn spurred on the founding of more local credit institutions in the 1830s and 1840s.

The third part of the book delves into the actual industrialization of Germany up to 1870. Leading sectors like railroads, iron and steel, and coal mining expanded in the 1850s up to the crisis period of 1857 and again, after a downturn, in the late 1860s. The authors describe the development as a “cyclical phenomenon,” something they attribute to the work of Spree (1977), who emphasizes the linkages between sectors, both forward and backward ones, with railroads being the “initiator” and the chief consumer of German finished iron production. Since it was expensive to move coal, the location of coal deposits played a determinative role in the location of industries, which Gutberlet (2014) expands on. The takeoff of German industry was helped by two regulatory developments: first, Prussia paved the way for limited liability corporations in 1843; secondly, this option was available to most of the rest of Germany (“German-wide”) with the 1861 ADHGB (Allgemeine Deutsches Handelsgesetzbuch) legislation on business laws (p. 122).

Other sections of Part III handle the changes to labor and capital markets as well the increase in agricultural outputs in the takeoff period. A final chapter addresses changes in the banking sector, where the authors highlight first, the emergence of universal banks as arising at their inception as a way to finance railroads and secondly, the growth of German savings banks and credit cooperatives, which made a difference in encouraging savings and financing local economic activities.

The fourth and final section of the book, Part IV, covers the period from 1871 to 1914. Chapters 12 and 13 are especially interesting, as they get into the weeds of German industrialization and describe the takeoff period. It is a remarkable story, such that by 1907 Germany was ahead of the United Kingdom in various heavy industries, including the chemical, engineering, metals, and iron and steel industries. GDP per capita was still higher in the U.K. in 1914 though, given that the British were more productive in other sectors, such as in mining, clothing, textile, and food & beverage.

A particular important event was the passage of the German Patent Law, which established the German Imperial Patent Office in 1871. The authors use the recent research of Streb et al. (2006) on “valuable patents” to describe four waves of innovations involving steam and railroads in the first wave, chemical and dyestuffs in the second wave, pharmaceuticals and fertilizers in the third wave and electricity in the fourth. Besides emphasizing patents, economic historians have debated as to whether entrepreneurial skills or scale economies were more relevant, and the author come down on the side of the latter, stressing the rise of cartels. Advanced industrialization also required skilled and knowledgeable workers, and the story of how German industry, in cooperation with German vocational schools and technical universities, invested in human capital, is also told here. By 1900, on an annual basis Germany was producing eight times more new engineers than Britain. Industrialists increasingly turned to the corporation as a form of legal organization for their firms, with 80% of large firms in the latter years of the nineteenth century organized as such (p. 186). After 1892, many small firms took advantage of the new legal form of the GMbH (Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung), designed for a private limited liability companies or partnerships (Guinnane, 2021).

Chapter 13 continues with this story of takeoff and describes in more detail financial developments. The introduction in 1873 of a national currency, the German mark, and the establishment in 1876 of a central bank, the Reichsbank, are two notable events. By the 1880s, and especially with the Company Law of 1884, which paved the way for a greater role for banks that supplied capital, banks were very much involved in monitoring the firms they financed: the markets, for instance, viewed firms more favorably when their bankers served on their corporate boards, something that is still practiced today. These big banks evolved into large universal banks and held a lot of capital.

Tilly and Kopsidis claim that this setup and universal banks’ “diversified branching network and close ties to the Reichsbank” were effective in bringing more stability to the banking sector of Germany, a stark contrast to the U.S. banking system prior to 1913 before the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank (p. 200). The literature on Germany’s universal banks and their involvement in German industrialization is extensive, and Tilly and Kopsidis cite many recent scholarly works on this topic (e.g., Burhop 2006; Fohlin, 2007).

There is much to learn in this book. If I have quibbles, it is that the authors ignore significant parts of Germany. The book focuses heavily on Prussia and the regions that developed faster, Westphalia and Saxony. Less attention though is paid to areas like Bavaria and Baden, or to Württemberg in the takeoff period. Regions like Hessen, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg, and Thuringia are missing in the index. To discuss a less developed area of Germany, Tilly and Kopsidis repeatedly draw on the example of the East Elbian parts of Prussia, some of which is today Poland and quite removed from the rest of Germany. There were however other “backwaters,” the authors’ term that they could have drawn on. Of course, no single book can be everything to everybody. For a discussion in English of relative economic development and backwardness across all German regions, readers should refer to Oliver Grant’s 2005 monograph.

Over this almost 50-year period several notable political changes at the federal level occurred. German reunification (or “Prussian takeover”) took place in 1871 under Chancellor Otto Bismarck, who served in this role until 1890. Alongside the chancellor was the German monarch, consisting of a series of German emperors who stemmed from the House of Hohenzollern and who had ruled Prussia before 1871. The monarchy lasted from 1871 to 1918, at which point the political organization of German was switched to a republic. Did any of this matter? Tilly and Kopsidis do not say too much, although they briefly discuss the rise of tensions with other nations as Germany’s economic interests grew beyond its borders. It bears mentioning, however obvious, that Germany did not fight in any great war between 1872 and 1913, and this all helped provide stability that enabled entrepreneurs to innovate and businesses to grow.

The authors of From Old Regime to Industrial State cover much ground and discuss the many angles of economic growth, including patents, technological change, infrastructure development, education and occupational training, customs unions, evolving market structures, financial development and the rise of universal banks, agricultural productivity, and more. There is much here to absorb – the story of German economic development from many angles. That this monograph is written in English and not in German is a plus as it makes it accessible to a much larger audience. The authors’ engagement in many debates about the history of German economic growth, as well as the extensive references to so many different scholarly works, especially recent ones, makes this work further valuable.

For historians of the industrial revolution, contemplating Germany’s rise to an efficient, innovative and productive industrial economy is a must. Tilly and Kopsidis provide a fresh perspective on German economic history by considering many previous explanations and using the most recent scholarship, their own work as well as their deep reading into the subject matter. In sum, this work is a very important addition to the fields of historical economic growth and industrialization.


Burhop, C. 2006. “Did Banks Cause the German Industrialization?” Explorations in Economic History 43: 39-63.

Dumke, R. 1981. “Die wirtschaftlichen Folgen des Zollvereins.“ In W. Abelshauser & D. Petzina, eds., Deutsche Wirtschaftsgeschichte im Industriezeitalter. Düsseldorf: Athenäum-Verlag, pp. 241-73.

Dumke, R. 1984. “Der Deutsche Zollverein als Modell ökonomischer Integration.“ In H. Berding, ed., Wirtschaftliche und politische Integration in Europa im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pp 71-101.

Fohlin, C. 2007. Finance Capitalism and Germany’s Rise to Industrial Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grant, O. 2005. Migration and Inequality in Germany, 1870 – 1913. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guinnane, T. 2021. Creating a New Legal Form: The GmBH.” Business History Review 95 (1): 3-32.

Gutberlet, T. 2013. “Mechanization, Transportation and the Location of Industry in Germany 1846- 1907.” Ph.D. Diss., University of Arizona.

Keller, W., and C. Shiue. 2014. “Endogenous Formation of Free Trade Agreements: Evidence from the Zollverein’s Impact on Market Integration.” Journal of Economic History 74, 1168-204

List, F. 1841. Das nationale System der Politischen Ökonomie.Stuttgart: Cotta.

Ploeckl, F. 2009. “The Zollverein and the Sequence of a Customs Union. Australian Economic History Review 33: 277-300.

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Spree, R. 2011. Die Industrialisierung Deutchslands im 19. Jahrhundert. Online publication.

Streb, J., J. Baten, and S. Yin. 2006. “Technological and Geographical Spillover.” Economic History Review 59: 347-73.


Simone A. Wegge is Professor and Chairperson at the Department of Economics at the College of Staten Island and a member of the doctoral faculty at the Graduate Center, both of the City University of New York. Her recent publications include “Inheritance Institutions and Landholding Inequality in Nineteenth-Century Germany: Village-Level Evidence from Hesse-Cassel” (Journal of Economic History, 2021), and, with Tyler Anbinder and Cormac Ó Gráda, “Networks and Opportunities: A Digital History of Ireland’s Great Famine Refugees in New York” (American Historical Review, 2019).

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII