Published by EH.Net (February 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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