JOIN EHA

DONATE

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, Modelling the Middle Ages: The History and

Theory of England’s Economic Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

2001. xiii + 254 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-924411-1; $19.95 (paperback),

ISBN: 0-19-924412-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gary Richardson, Department of Economics, University of

California, Irvine.

Modelling the Middle Ages, by John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, provides a

cogent and comprehensive survey of the history and economics of late medieval

England and an invaluable survey of the history of thought concerning those

topics. Scholars interested in these issues should read this book. It will be

especially valuable for graduate and undergraduate economic history courses,

where I expect it to be widely adopted, and for researchers, like myself, with

an interest in medieval England but who had to learn the material on their own,

because they studied at institutions that lacked leading (or any) scholars in

the field. I base my strong recommendation on three features of the text:

First, the book is insightful. It demystifies the beliefs underlying the

arguments of most economic historians — beliefs derived from intellectual

foundations established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Adam

Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and other eminent scholars. It

explains how and why the work of those intellectual forefathers generated three

grand explanatory models, “population and resources,” “class power and property

relations,” and “commercialization,” and how those models influenced debates

among historians and social scientists concerning the causes and consequences

of economic development during the Middle Ages.

Second, the book is useful, in the most practical sense of the term. It

summarizes two hundred years of scholarly literature in a few hundred pages

while building a framework, a lexicon, and a syntax that will allow scholars to

compare and contrast their ideas more precisely than they currently can. It

will have wide applications in other fields, such as global history,

particularly global history, where similar models form the foundation of

similar debates.

Third, the book is clear, lucid, and accurate. In some cases, the book explains

author’s ideas better than the original expositors did themselves. The clarity

of the prose and the organization of the argument assure the material will be

accessible to students at all levels.

The foreword and introduction establish the motives of the authors and sketch

an outline of their argument. The authors hope to fulfill a “pressing need of

undergraduate students studying the medieval economy for an introduction to the

theory and practice behind the grand models of development which dominate the

subject (p. vii).” As I mentioned earlier, they more than accomplish that goal.

The authors also hope to contribute to the ongoing scholarly debates concerning

the economic development of medieval England. They plan to compare and contrast

the intellectual and empirical content of the methods and models used to study

medieval English economic history and in doing so shed light on the advantages

and disadvantages of each method as well as advance our knowledge of the Middle

Ages. They also accomplish this goal, as my description of the remainder of the

book, and hopefully your reading of the text, should demonstrate.

Chapter 1, Methods and Models, explains “why the medieval period has proved so

attractive to the builders of historical models, and theorizing so attractive

to medieval historians (p. 3).” The Middle Ages lasted for more than five

centuries. During that long era, transformations occurred in almost every area

of economic and social life. Merely describing these changes is a challenging

task. “Historians cannot hope to describe, analyze, and explain them by

gathering and narrating factual information alone (p. 4).” They must choose to

present certain facts and materials but not others. Their emphasize depends

upon their point of view, their prior beliefs, and the point which they wish to

make. Theory and speculation are therefore indispensable ingredients of any

grand survey. They impose a degree of coherence and clarity and force scholars

to fit the facts into a manageable working framework. In this way, order can be

imposed upon the chaos of vast numbers of pieces of information and answers

formulated to crucial questions. In addition, abstract concepts and formal

models help scholars explain why things happened as they did and what might

have happened in counterfactual cases. Explaining such things requires more

than mere narration. Historical changes lasting several centuries and

penetrating all spheres of economic, social, and political activity were the

culmination of an infinite number of individual events. No one can describe

them all. Comprehending them requires analysis, a systematic approach to the

material, the sorting and grading of information, and the weighing of the

relative merits of different concepts. Models, in other words, are needed to

seek the reasons behind vast historical processes such as the rise and decline

of serfdom and feudalism, the rise of the money economy and capitalism, the

rise and contraction of economic activity, and the growth of urbanization and

industrialization.

Chapter 2, Population and Resources, focuses on the first of the grand

supermodels, and the ways in which assumptions influence its results and in

which it impinges on historical analysis “in both a helpful and harmful

manner.” The population and resource model, also known as the demographic or

Malthusian model, stems from a core set of simple economic relationships. The

productivity of agriculture depends upon the relative scarcity of the two prime

factors of production: land and labor. As addition units of one input are

employed while the others are held constant, the output generated by each

additional unit will eventually fall (diminishing returns). Thus, when land is

abundant relative to labor, the productivity of the land will be low. The

productivity of labor will be high. Products of the land, like foodstuffs and

raw materials such as leather, wool, and wood, will be inexpensive. Wages will

be high. When labor is abundant relative to land, the productivity of the land

will be high. The productivity of labor will be low. Food and rents will be

expensive. Real wages will fall. There is clear potential for applying such

basic supply and demand analysis to conditions prevailing in medieval England.

“There is abundant evidence to show that over the longer term there was a

strong correlation between rising population, on the one hand, and increasing

land values and agricultural prices, and falling real wages, and, on the other,

between declining population, falling prices and land values, and rising real

wages. By this analysis the Middle Ages falls into two sharply contrasting

periods; with the broad experience of much of the era up until the fourteenth

century conforming to the former set of circumstances, and the later

characteristics persisting throughout much of the late fourteenth and fifteenth

centuries” (pp. 22-23).

Chapter 3, Class Power and Property Relations, examines the second grand

supermodel, which begins with the presumption that the keys to understanding

the economic development lie in the social relations and political and legal

institutions of society. Of particular importance are the “relations between

the leading classes and in developments of what are termed the ‘mode of

production'” (p. 67). The most popular models of this type are those

constructed by Karl Marx and his intellectual descendants. For Marxists,

“history is a dialectical process in which the future is shaped by the present,

just as the present was shaped by the past, and each distinct era of human

development — ancient, oriental, feudal, capitalist — generates from within

itself the conditions which will ultimately transform it” (pp. 67-8). Marxists

focus their attention on a limited range of issues, particularly relations and

conflicts among social classes as well as the mode, means, and relations of

production, as the main agents of social and economic change and development.

Thus, the dynamic for the transformation of medieval society lay primarily in

the relationship between lords and peasants, who were the two principle classes

of feudal society. The relationship was inevitably one of conflict, due to the

opposing interests of landlord and tenant, and eventually resulted in a ‘crisis

of feudalism,’ whose “onset is usually located in the late thirteenth and early

fourteenth centuries” (p. 71). At that time, the increasingly excessive

depredations of the landlord class undermined agricultural productivity,

plunged the peasantry into poverty, and inspired them to struggle against the

exploitative social system.

Chapter 4, Commercialization, Markets, and Technology, focuses on commercial

activity and technical progress. The bulk of the space is devoted to the

rapidly expanding evidentiary base and to the discussion of ways in which

markets and technology could overcome Malthusian, Ricardian, and Marxist

constraints on economic development. There are two basic theories. Improvements

in agriculture — such as improving land management, crop rotation, and

selective breeding of crops and animals — raised the productivity of land and

labor. Urbanization and commercialization expanded the scope of the market, the

division of labor, and the wealth of nations.

Chapter 5, The Importance of Time and Place, explores the weaknesses of the

models discussed in the previous chapters from three different perspectives.

The first exposes the difficulties that emerge when the models are applied to

both the early and later Middle Ages. In each case, assumptions needed to apply

and conclusions drawn from the application of a model to the earlier era

conflict with those from the later period. The second reviews the wide range of

alternative models that have been proposed and which illuminate inadequacies in

existing models. The third tests the validity of the assumptions and methods of

each of the major supermodels by applying them to a particular test case: the

rise and decline of serfdom in medieval England.

Chapter 6, Beyond the Classic Supermodels, stresses the limitations of the

models described during the previous chapters. The principal flaws are their

neglect of social factors, institutions, historical contingency, and the

uncertainties inherent in individual behavior and group dynamics. The chapter

ends on a hopeful note, by suggesting ways in which the limitations of these

models might be overcome historically, empirically, and theoretically.

Overall, the book does an excellent job of accomplishing its two goals. The

first was to provide a clear and accessible introduction to the conceptual

frameworks that have dominated this field for many decades. The second was to

assess the strengths, weaknesses, relevance, and credibility of the models. The

book itself has many strengths and few weaknesses. I think that in the future

students interested in this topic will read it.

Gary Richardson is Assistant Professor of Economics at UC-Irvine. His

dissertation, “Social Change and Industrial Expansion before the Industrial

Revolution” was completed at the UC-Berkeley.