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Scotland: The Global History, 1603 to the Present

Author(s):Pittock, Murray
Reviewer(s):Wardle, William

Published by EH.Net (July 2023).

Murray Pittock. Scotland: The Global History, 1603 to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2022, xiv + 485 pp. $40 (hardback), ISBN 978-0300254174.

Reviewed for EH.Net by William A. Wardle, former Principal of York St John University and James Watt College of Further and Higher Education.


Imperial Scotland wasn’t built in a day! According to Murray Pittock it took four centuries, beginning in the seventeenth century and ending only in the 1970s, superseded by nationalist demands for an independent nation-state.

The fact that Scotland only looked to recapture its political form in the late twentieth century emphasises that this is an existential study of Scots, not of Scotland. From the 1960s, Scotland has presented an academic pulse revealing a revisionist history and a re-calibration of its global significance. This re-interpretation has taken place at the same time as the nationalist movement for independence has reached its contemporary zenith. The new historiography looks to provide an alternative history of Scotland, moving away from one-dimensional cultural sentimentality and a deficit model depicting Scotland as simply politically barren after 1707 and the Act of Union with England. At best, it was a shared national history, wrapped within the emergence of modern, imperial Britain.

The revisionist school catalogues the disproportionate contributions of Scots in a global diaspora, identifying decisive contributions in key sectors of the modern world. As well as the distributed, existential history of Scots, there is a special place for the global economic prominence of Scotland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, based largely on heavy industry.

Pittock comes late to the party. But he has rich provenance, providing a prolific output ranging from literary criticism to military history. A book of this scale can hardly be a synthesis. There is no doubting the depth and range of the author’s knowledge. But does this volumetric form equate to the self-proclaimed ‘scholarship’ highlighted in the Introduction as the defining characterisation of this book? It has a structure that follows the recent historiographical trend. We get more, a lot more, of the same but not a historiographical step-change or breakthrough.

The author’s justification for the book is that national history, British history, is a shared framework that does not give sufficient prominence to separate and contributing Scottish actions. ‘Non-national’ seems to be the author’s rationale, falling some way short of taking full account of the historiography of empires, globalisation, and modern world systems.

As Scotland’s activities were on a global stage, albeit distributed, Pittock deploys a wide-angle lens. He introduces the term and concept ‘imperial’, but without definition or comparison, and apparently equates this to ‘global’. The analysis describes how Scotland’s imperial presence is at variance with the modern world of nation-states and empires without emphasising strongly enough that this is the essence of Scottish exceptionalism. It would have been instructive to set the Scottish experience within the historiography connecting the local and global and contextualising globalisation in history. We learn nothing of the place of Scotland and Scots in the successive geo-systems from the seventeenth century. Did Scots go with the wave or ahead of the curve? And a bit of counterfactual musing would have entertained: what would have happened without these Scots’ contributions?

The book’s assertion that it is the first global history of Scotland is contestable. There has been a revised focus on the Scottish diaspora. And the genre of narrative survey is certainly headlined by Sir Thomas Devine, his trilogy identifying in turn Scotland’s profile as a nation and its expression through its ‘empire’ and diaspora (1).

On the basis of scale and empirical detail, this book convinces on the extent of Scottish intervention and influence, but less so on its primary significance. Pittock steers clear of the most extravagant claims, notably Herman’s assertion that the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment created the modern world (2). Equally, Pittock leaves untouched the wider interpretations of formative influences and turning points in determining the shape of the modern world system. Rather, Pittock covers familiar ground without being explicit about whether he is pivoting a new hypothesis. There is clear demonstration of the continuity and adaptability of the Scottish presence, sustaining prominence through different phases, military endeavour to mercantile enterprise and, by the nineteenth century, extending industrial dominance. Thus, the book is likely to shift perceptions by degree rather than more fundamentally by kind.

This is not a work of economic history. The author self-identifies as a ‘cultural historian’, and the methodology is more akin to ethnography than economics, sociology rather than statistical analysis of impact or influence. Individual and collective biographies proliferate. There is not presentation of a major re-interpretation of the causes of British imperialism. The descriptions of the operational mechanics of the British Empire reinforce Devine’s epithet that the English controlled the empire, while Scotland ran it. There is a frustrating historiographical void, with Pittock making no reference to the established debates on the nature of British imperialism and, in particular, the primacy of the concept of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’(3).

We learn an enormous amount about the roles of individuals, the importance of networks and the contributions of mercenary and displaced Scots. We also have new terminology to understand and accept. The term ‘Imperial Scotland’ does not convince that it is other than a description of geographical and demographic distribution rather than power dynamics. There is no sense of the British imperial system being run from Scotland or that there were alternative vectors, and which might disturb or displace prevailing interpretations.


The narrative follows a conventional structure. There are three chronological sections, with thematic subdivisions. The first part ranges from the seventeenth century to the second half of the eighteenth century, tracking Scotland’s incorporation into the Union (1707) and its absorption into the overseas endeavours of the British state. By the eighteenth century, a rebellious Scotland…Covenanters and Jacobites…had been suppressed, its domestic militarism converted into significant participation in overseas conflicts. Differentiating seventeenth century freedom of expression from an eighteenth century straitjacket within the Union, Pittock demonstrates how Scotland’s political outlook was narrowed within the Union but that the eighteenth century saw Scots leading in diverse fields and in a variety of organisations. This is not a novel hypothesis. It was in the eighteenth century that Scotland made a defining contribution to the emergence and consolidation of the British Empire.

The second part of the book covers the period from late eighteenth century to the eve of the First World War. The narrative covers the importance of Scots to military campaigns in North America…fighting on both sides…and in constructing the constitutional and economic frameworks of the emergent state. Pittock highlights the interesting paradox of the Scots subscribing to English laws and liberties while influential Scottish concepts on constitutional forms were exported to North America.

The mercantile activities of prominent Scots were in evidence in North America, the Caribbean, India, the Far East, and China, and the book gives detailed biographies. Scotland’s participation in the tobacco and sugar trades, based on slavery, gave it international prominence.

Pittock gives less exposure to the progress and influence of Scotland as a global industrial power in the nineteenth century. Economic historians of Scotland have written extensively of the co-existence of economic power with poor domestic income distribution and appalling social conditions. As a result, as well as exporting goods throughout the globe, Scotland continued to export people. It is a weakness of this book that the external dimension of global success is not complemented by illustration of persistent socio-economic problems created through weak wages, poor housing, urban squalor and inadequate public infrastructure and health provision.

The third part of the book addresses the Scottish experience in the twentieth century, highlighting the first world war, the inter-war period, the second world war and the period from 1945 and which sees the re-emergence of a political role for Scotland. By the 1960s a catalogue of persistent economic and social problems had led to meaningful political agitation, along with the perception in Scotland that centralist planning in Westminster was treating Scotland as a branch economy. Economic marginalisation of Scotland worsened with the decline of empire, a contributing rather than fundamental factor. The end of empire reduced economic opportunity for Scotland, but the author illustrates three, more powerful variables. First, the failure of the UK government to understand the significance and potential of oil revenues. Second, the prevarication, inconsistency, and misjudgement on devolution. Third, from 1979, the impact of attitudes and policies of the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher. Failure to make the transition to a modern economic format stimulated alternative political strategies, a including a proposed radical return to a re-invented nation-state.

Pittock identifies revitalised social cohesion in Scotland as a reaction to an arrogant and distanced UK government. He also supports the notion of re-awakened cultural self-awareness, underpinning nationalist resurgence, what he classifies as the ‘Matter of Scotland’. He aligns implicitly with those economic historians seeing Scotland as different to the rest of the UK, benefitting until the 1970s from shared awareness between employers and the workforce of the elements of co-operation and, ultimately, economic growth and recovery. That common enterprise or ‘moral economy’ is broken by the clumsy intervention…and ignorance and indifference…of the Westminster government. The author is not openly sympathetic to the more radical notion, as represented by Tom Nairn, that the demise of empire was the spur to Scottish nationalism (4). However, he cannot resist the sideswipe that an introspective, post-imperial UK was unattractive to the more cosmopolitan Scottish mind. Pittock is silent on the European Union (EU) Referendum of 2016, but its result would confirm his assumption that a more outward-looking Scotland would feel uncomfortable with formal UK policy. Scotland, of course, voted massively in favour of remaining in the EU. The post-industrial nationalist surge was not a reaction to the loss of empire but a consequence of economic downturn and the UK government’s mishandling of discontent in Scotland. In the end, devolution asked more questions than it provided answers or compromise.

There are a couple of omissions here. First, the self-inflicted damage caused by the fact of the Scottish economy clinging to the staple, heavy industries even as they lose post-WW2 competitiveness. Second, a global or imperial Scotland reverting to a political shape without having ever solved disproportionally severe social and infrastructural issues.


In identifying ‘Imperial Scotland’, the book sets up a revised and bold concept but also a question that it does not answer: whether the varied actions across continents and centuries were simply coincidental and accidental. The convincing answer as to whether the ‘Imperial Scotland’ had a sense of purpose would lie in the stimulus behind the different interventions and achievements. Since there was no Scottish ‘state’ as such we are left looking at the actions and motivations of individuals. The impact of Scottish education is referenced, but there is not a wider cultural argument.

For a small country, the judgement is one of disproportionate influence. The book in large part provides lists of locations, individuals and achievements. There is a sense of being presented with the weight of evidence rather than the strength of the argument. We learn more about motivation, individual and collective achievement than we do about quantified impact.

There isn’t sufficient reciprocal analysis of the impact on Scotland. There is description of intellectual self-congratulation, and the formation of different intellectual and cultural schools. There is, however, no discussion on why Scotland has emerged from its imperial and post-industrial phase with some of the worst performance indices in Europe: huge income inequality, persistent child poverty, poor popular health, deteriorating educational achievements, a worsening drug profile, endemic violence, urban decay, and inadequate transport infrastructure. The desire for independence is promoted as a desperate move away from treatment as second-class rather than crowning contemporary high achievement.

As such there are challenges for economic historians. First, the narrative: not its accuracy but its significance. While we have extensive, exhaustive illustration of the actions of Scots, individually and collectively, the chapter and verse are not located in an analytical framework. Second, the shortfalls in the author’s understanding of the processes and dynamics of globalisation and which have an extensive historiography. The fact that there is little attempt at comparative analysis means that the narrative is one of Scottish individualism or uniqueness. This shortcoming is compounded by the author’s denial of Scottish exceptionalism, while contemporaneously profiling the significance of the Scottish contribution across a range of spheres.

Readers will learn much from this work but are unlikely to find its explicit message convincing. History should not be written or read backwards. By contrast, this book nudges it forwards, cataloguing achievement, a sense of identity and, just maybe, destiny.


(1) T. M. Devine, Scotland’s Empire, 1600-1815 (Gardners Books, 2003); To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1700-2010 (Penguin, 2011); The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700-2000 (Allen Lane, 1999).

(2) Arthur L. Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001).

(3) P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-2015 (Routledge, 3rd edition, 2016).

(4) Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain (NLB, 1977).


Professor William Wardle is a former Principal of York St John University and James Watt College of Further and Higher Education. He has been a member of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and his bespoke consultancy engages internationally with institutions, agencies and governments.

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 (July 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

Pioneers of Capitalism: The Netherlands, 1000-1800

Author(s):Prak, Maarten
van Zanden, Jan Luiten
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne

Published by EH.Net (July 2023).

Maarten Prak and Jan Luiten van Zanden. Pioneers of Capitalism: The Netherlands, 1000-1800. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023. ix + 261 pp. $39.95 (hardback), ISBN 978-0691229874.

Reviewed by Anne EC McCants, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


This is a gem of a book about the long early history of a relatively small place whose consequences for the global economy and our thinking about how economies work is much greater than its footprint might suggest. The title alone has much to tell the prospective reader. It directs our attention to the emergence of “capitalism,” which it places in the Netherlands, not England, home of the first Industrial Revolution. If that were not enough, the account begins in the year 1000 when the Low Countries, especially their northern reaches, were comprised of little more than some small fishing villages and half-submerged peasant holdings. Finally, in what might be the boldest claim, the book takes for its terminus the year 1800, a time when the word capitalism had not yet even made its first appearance in print, and when its forerunners, “capital” and “capitalist,” were themselves hard to pin down to a clear definition (Braudel, 237). Thus, for anyone steeped in the standard narratives of economic history, the provocations of the title are an invitation to read further.

Happily, the text does not disappoint. Having first read the book in final proofs, and now again to write this review, I offer a most enthusiastic assessment, both for the merits of the argument and the elegance of the prose. It is the rare book that improves on a second reading in the span of only a year. So let me explain why I think everyone interested in economic development, the strength of civil society, the “history of capitalism,” or our prospects for a prosperous and more equitable future should read this book.

Like many people, the authors are interested in what they call the “how” and “why” of the emergence of a capitalist market economy (10). But unlike the many who despair at what they believe to be the iron logic of the ravages of capitalism (say, ever-increasing inequality or environmental destruction, to name two frequent charges), Prak and van Zanden leave open the possibility for a positive role played by civil society, both preceding the development of capitalism, and maintaining its power even after market transactions take on the dominant role in provisioning society. While far from blind to the actual ravages of Dutch capitalism abroad – or should one say colonialism, leaving open the possibility that they are not of necessity the same thing? – the chronology of their story makes clear that Dutch capitalism was able to flourish and enrich Dutch society in advance of the establishment of a colonial empire. Since the evidence for historical timing is such an essential component of their argument, let me begin with a discussion of their chronology.

Historians always struggle with the problem of when to begin their investigations, because there is always something that came before whatever starting point one selects. That something will almost certainly bear relevance for the narrative to come. However, at about the year 1000, as the authors correctly point out, there was remarkably little human activity in what would become the Netherlands. It was an “empty country,” not literally of course, but near enough (30). So their work begins at the beginning, or as near to it as historical writing usually achieves. This matters, not only because it allows them to account for historical territory that is little known outside the narrow circle of Low Countries medievalists, but it also gives them an unusually flexible platform on which to build their explanatory framework.

What then was so special, or potentially special, about those small, isolated fishing villages and half-submerged peasant farmers? Two things stand out most in their telling. First, of necessity and opportunity, the people who lived on these marginal lands, so well-connected via water transport but not well suited to the cultivation of staple grains, were fiercely independent by the standards of medieval society; at the same time they were also deeply dependent on trade with outsiders and cooperation within for the ever-essential management of water. The resulting balance struck between the two poles of autonomy and mutuality, matches the second key feature posited by Prak and van Zanden, namely what they argue was just the right historical mix of feudalism/not feudalism. Their statement of this argument is worth quoting directly. “To summarize, capitalism appears to have originated in a society that was relatively egalitarian, with a strong and continually developing civil society that was characterized by a balance between bottom-up influences and top-down institutions” such that “the capitalist engine became most dynamic in the border region between feudalism and freedom” (89).

There is something deeply satisfying about arguments that invoke the virtuous medium –Aristotelian balance, as Janna Coomans framed it at a recent workshop on the book (I had the example of Goldilocks in mind as I was reading). But this comfort is, of course, insufficient to guarantee that such arguments are correct.  How persuasive then is their case, for either the unique medieval origin story, or the balance struck between market economy and civil society? That the territory which would eventually become the Netherlands had a medieval past unlike that of its neighbors seems indisputable; likewise, that it was characterized by an unusual degree of commercialization from a very early date. The authors are also persuasive that Dutch society was more egalitarian (although far from fully of course) across multiple metrics than those around it and that the Dutch were able to protect their freedoms at home even when they were challenged by the temptations (if that is the right word) of inegalitarian colonial practices abroad, most notably slavery, polygamy, and restrictive racial hierarchies. That so many individuals and transplanted Dutch institutions easily adopted and promoted those practices abroad serves as a reminder in Prak and van Zanden’s telling that the Dutch held no special moral standing. Yet, their argument for a precocious capitalism working hand in hand with civil society to promote a long and largely sustained growth of prosperity for the Dutch at home, also does not depend, or not much anyway, on the spoils of empire. Indeed, as they point out with both data and argument, the period of most rapid economic growth in the Dutch Republic precedes the period of Dutch overseas expansion.

It seems fair to conclude, that for Prak and van Zanden the medieval origins of Dutch society hold more sway in the history of capitalism’s emergence than do the early modern vices of the East India and other companies. Consider their understanding of the contrast between the dynamic of economy and society at home versus abroad. They write: “Our comparison of institutional changes prompted by the rapidly developing form of capitalism in which the Republic participated around 1600 shows, above all, that the ‘excesses’ of capitalism experienced in the Republic were curbed, that the pursuit of short-term profit was restrained by institutional buffers, meant to ensure long-term thinking –generally with positive effects for the economy and society. Such corrections and buffers figured less prominently in its overseas expansion: nobody prevented the use of slaves, nor was the creation of ‘extractive institutions’ impeded” (143).

Capitalism understood in this way, as definitely preceding and at least plausibly separate from colonialism, has much to offer in the way of prosperity and well-being, but only so long as its potential for excesses can be curbed. Where they are not, growth is stymied, and well-being compromised. In this framing there is no one single thing as capitalism, the same in every time or place that it manifests. Instead, there are multiple varieties of “capitalism,” and what makes any one of them either good or bad (to put it crudely) is the nature of the norms of the society in which they are embedded. For Prak and van Zanden, this is a message of hope. The Dutch example shows that it is possible for capitalism and a (relatively) open civil society to coexist. Indeed, the latter might just be a prerequisite for the full realization of market-centered society. What is required is finding that balance between autonomy and mutuality, or to use their terms, between feudalism and freedom. Sadly, looking around the world, such balance may be more elusive in practice than it is in fairytales.


Braudel, Fernand. The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.


Anne EC McCants is the Ann F. Friedlaender Professor of History and Director of the Concourse Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among her recent publications is “Economic History and the Historians” (Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 2020).

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 (July 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century

The Backbone of Europe: Health, Diet, Work, and Violence over Two Millennia

Editor(s):Steckel, Richard H.
Larsen, Clark Spencer
Roberts, Charlotte A.
Baten, Jörg
Reviewer(s):Staub, Kaspar

Published by EH.Net (July 2023)

Steckel, Richard H.; Larsen, Clark Spencer; Roberts, Charlotte A.; Baten, Jörg (eds.). The Backbone of Europe: Health, Diet, Work, and Violence over Two Millennia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 476 pp. £83.99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1108421959.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kaspar Staub, Institute of Evolutionary Medicine, University of Zurich, Switzerland.


This book makes a strong impression, in more ways than one. The weight of the hardcover edition, about 1.1 kilograms, hints at the effort, commitment, and perseverance that must have been put in by all those involved, especially the main driving forces, to complete this nearly two-decade project and finally bring the results between two book covers. For this, the responsible scientists deserve a lot of respect. The book reviewed here is part of the larger Global History of Health Project ( and focuses on Europe. In terms of dataset, health indicators, context, and methods, it substantially extends an earlier subproject on the Western Hemisphere, which was the subject of a book published in 2002 (Steckel and Rose 2002).

As befits the 20-year Herculean effort that went into this project, its scale and purpose are large. Based on the largest skeletal dataset ever assembled, it aims to assess how human health and well-being have changed in Europe over the last two millennia. To achieve this ambitious aim, a large transatlantic network of collaborators has been established, using the same protocol to record health indicators from the skeletal remains of more than 15,000 individuals buried at 103 sites across Europe (representing 16 modern European countries) from the 3rd to the end of the 19th century.

When working with skeletal remains as historical sources, which are still one of the few ways to look back 2,000 years, sample size, context specificity, and generalizability or bias are often limiting factors. Therefore, the approach of the book to bring together as many skeletal remains as possible is certainly the right one. Thus, in addition to the book, the compiled large open access dataset (over 15,000 rows and over 180 variables) is a major output of the project. According to the editors, it is the largest database ever collected and analyzed in bioarchaeology. Making the numerous individual datasets comparable was certainly another major challenge, and the path via software that the researchers have taken here is certainly exemplary. It is great that the codebook for data collection and the coding process are very well documented, both in the book itself (chapters 14 and 15) and on the dataset website (

The book was edited by four renowned senior scholars in the field, whose experience and overview of the field are reflected in key chapters. A foreword and preface are followed by 15 chapters written by a total of 19 different contributors. The introduction by the four editors provides all the information necessary to understand and contextualize the project, the book, and the chapters that follow. As a side note, the precise data documentation here and later in the book is perhaps a little bit lacking in clarity as to how the dataset reduction process from the mentioned initial ca. 190,000 individuals identified at the start of the project to the ca. 15,000 at the end worked. Even when the understandable balancing ideas behind the reduction are described, it remains unclear, for example, whether there were large and important bone collections that were not accessible or had to be excluded for some reason.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of the archaeological and historical context, as well as information about the natural and socio-cultural environment, and highlights the potential of stable isotope analysis. Chapter 3 attempts an overall health assessment using the soc. health index, which combines seven skeletal variables or components that are recognized to represent a person’s health in early and later life. Chapter 4 focuses on oral health, Chapter 5 on proliferative periosteal reactions, Chapter 6 on growth disruption, Chapter 7 on anemia and related nutritional deficiencies, Chapter 8 on estimated stature, Chapter 9 on degenerative joint disease, and Chapter 10 on violence and trauma (a particularly interesting chapter from the reviewer’s perspective). Chapter 11 applies the developmental origins of health and disease approach to the dataset, and Chapter 12 assesses the all-important link between climate and health. The chapters are structured differently, are fully documented, and could therefore stand alone. However, as far as the reviewer has noticed, cross-links between the chapters are mostly missing. Thus, the reader is left alone with the sometimes contradictory results of the individual thematic chapters until the concluding Chapter 13, in which the four  editors compare the different dimensions.

In this recommended concluding chapter, the editors state that “collectively, these chapters explore longstanding bioarcheologically relevant topics using the most comprehensive and diverse skeletal sample yet available.” They go on to highlight some surprising findings (e.g., the unexpectedly favorable health situation in the early modern period) and otherwise provide guidance with interpretation, as the various indicators do not always point in the same direction. As a result, their overall conclusion is nuanced: The history of welfare in Europe over the past two millennia has been multifaceted in time, and many different components must be weighed against each other.

While reading, the reviewer wondered once or twice whether the full potential of this amazing dataset had already been exploited, and whether one or two more things could have been done here or there. For example, would modern quantitative methods of pattern recognition have made it possible to compute more complex synthesis models? Would such more complex methods have made it also possible to even better integrate uncertainties and deal even better with blind spots or missing data (e.g., the Mediterranean region covers only 5% of the dataset, and 28% of the dataset has missing age and sex information) to get towards the bottom of the complexity and perhaps resolve some of the contradictions? Would it have been beneficial to work with geographers to geovisualize or even model the spatial results in a more comprehensive way? Could the importance of major epidemics perhaps have been emphasized in a separate chapter to better acknowledge their impact (as repeatedly pointed out in individual chapters)? And, of course, one wonders how things might have gone after 1900, the book’s temporal end, during the 20th century, with its enormous changes in welfare and health in Europe.

But all this is subjective and does not detract from the book, it just shows how inspiring the whole project is. And that’s the way it is with these 20-year Herculean tasks: There is always more that could be done, but in this case more than enough has been done already and at some point one has to draw an (interim?) finish line. All of the above and certainly more could-haves are now left to other scientists, as this great dataset and its excellent documentation are helpfully available in open access.


Steckel, Richard H., and Jerome Carl Rose. The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.


Kaspar Staub is a historian and epidemiologist with almost 20 years of research experience in the field of Historical Anthropometry and Health History. Since 2014 he has led the Anthropometrics and Historical Epidemiology research group at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich.

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 (July 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Health, including Medicine, Disease, and Pandemics
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality

Author(s):Galor, Oded
Reviewer(s):Ziebarth, Nicolas L.

Published by EH.Net (June 2023).

Oded Galor. The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality. New York: Dutton, 2022. 301 pp. $28 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0593185995.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Nicolas L. Ziebarth, Auburn University and NBER.


Oded Galor is not one for understatement. In the introduction he states that the goal of this book is nothing less than “develop[ing] a unified theory that seeks to encompass the journey of humanity in its entirety,” putting himself in a line of thinkers including “Plato, Hegel, and Marx.” I admit that there is something almost refreshing about such bold pronouncements and lofty goals. Economists have gotten very good at answering very small questions very precisely, but too often that has come at the expense of trying to answer the big questions at all.

The problem is that the book doesn’t really deliver on this unified theory, which I assume should cover both the takeoff of economic growth, the first half of the book, and the divergence in living standards, the second half. The first half does have a unified theory in the form of the aptly named Unified Growth Theory (UGT) to which Galor has made major contributions. The thing is that this theory is never really brought forward in an explicit manner. If you did not know what UGT was before you read this book, you would probably miss it. Instead, the discussion of UGT is mixed with a lot of discussion about the role of institutions, culture, and pretty much every other hypothesis ever put forward for the “great enrichment.” Galor is evenhanded in discussing these alternative hypotheses to the point that you could easily forget he is trying to argue for a “unified” explanation.

That search for a unified theory gets even murkier when the book in its second half switches to a focus on explaining variations in living standards. In this half, we get a summary of some of the greatest hits of the institutional literature, from the Spanish forced labor system known as the mita to settler mortality to the effects of slavery on trust. Again, I thought Galor was quite reasonable in his presentation of this other work. I was happy to see that I’m not the only one who thinks the exclusion restriction in the seminal Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson paper (2001) is rather implausible. (Their exclusion restriction was that “the mortality rates of European settlers more than 100 years ago have no effect on GDP per capita today, other than their effect through institutional development” (p. 1371).)

It was only in the last two chapters, in which Galor goes rummaging through the very ancient history of humanity to find the determinants of inequality today, that he lost me. The last chapter makes the audacious claim that a country’s current living standards are related to the distance humans coming out of East Africa long, long ago would have had to travel to arrive at that particular place. Galor argues that the observed inverted U-shape pattern between living standards and this migratory distance from East Africa is due to differences in “population homogeneity.” Places with low diversity are dull but stable. Places with lots of diversity are interesting but a mess. So there is a “sweet spot” (Galor’s term) level of diversity in terms of a country’s level of development.

But why is migratory distance related to diversity in the first place? Galor appeals to the serial founder effect from evolutionary biology. The logic for this effect is simple. A small number of “founders” will not be able to represent all the diversity of the population from which they were drawn. In Galor’s example, if you start with one red, one blue, and one yellow bird and draw one to be the “founder” of a new population, that new population is not going to have all the colors of the original population represented. Hence the diversity of populations started by a small number of founders will appear to have been put through a funnel. In the case of humans, the process of migration out of Africa was a process of successive generations of founders pushing further and further away from that starting point somewhere in Ethiopia, decreasing (genetic) diversity at each step of the way. Galor points to anthropological and genetic evidence for this decline in diversity as the distance from East Africa grows.

The question is whether this diversity really amounts to anything. The genetic evidence is so-called “neutral” genetic diversity, meaning diversity in alleles that have no discernible effect on fitness. The anthropological evidence is in the form of “particular dental attributes, pelvic traits and the shape of the birth canal.” We have to take on faith that these measures of diversity are correlated with the dimensions of diversity that actually cause societies to fracture. Moreover, Galor is frustratingly vague on whether he thinks deep down the dimensions of diversity that matter are genetic or cultural. It is true that the serial founder effect would also apply to cultural evolution. The problem is that, as Galor admits, for this to work, “the rate of migration has to exceed the rate of mutation.” Is there any reason to believe this is true in the cultural context?

So after this whole discussion of institutions, the Agricultural Revolution, and the migration of humans out of East Africa, I was left wondering what exactly is Galor’s unifying theory of differences in living standards. Is it simply that these differences have “deep roots”? Would anyone deny that claim (at least at some level of generality)? Galor, in any case, thinks that establishing the deep roots of economic and cultural institutions is critical for formulating good policy. But, of course, institutions are sticky, slow to change, and have a history. If they did change rapidly, we wouldn’t call them institutions in the first place. So does it really matter if the institutions were determined 25 years ago? 100 years ago? At the dawn of the Neolithic era? At the Big Bang? While there are certainly interesting intellectual questions here, what is at stake when it comes to formulating policy?

There is, in fact, a weird inconsistency between the determinism Galor has so strenuously argued for (if subtly) throughout the book and the “voluntarist” thinking that overtakes him at this point. Galor (rightly?) pans the “misguided approach” of the Washington Consensus with its “one size fits all” policy recommendations that did not take into differences between countries in their “social and cultural prerequisites for growth.” Yet only five pages earlier, Galor makes the pronouncement that if only Bolivia would “foster its cultural diversity, its per capita income could increase as much as five-fold.” Who knew it was that easy?

In the end, this is a book of economic history, but not one that any card-carrying economic historian would write. Galor approaches the study of history with a totally different mindset than a historian. Nothing is out of place in Galor’s world: “Random events – dramatic and substantial as they loom in our minds – have played a transitory and largely limited role in the progression of humanity as a whole.” “Everything in its right place,” as the Radiohead song goes.

There was a time when I found this view of history very attractive. I went through a UGT phase as a graduate student and read (too many) books of evolutionary psychology. I think I was, at least, partly drawn to the type of thinking reflected in both UGT and evolutionary psychology because, like Galor, it seemed like the only two choices were determinism or randomness, and randomness didn’t seem all that fun. I’m not sure what changed, but at some point, I realized that those aren’t the only two possibilities, and, in fact, being able to integrate both of those viewpoints is the defining mark of true economic history.


Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson. “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation.” American Economic Review 91(5): 1369-1401 (December 2001).


Nicolas L. Ziebarth is the Ekelund and Hebert Professor of Economics at Auburn University and a Research Associate at NBER. His publications include Credit Relationships and Business Bankruptcy During the Great Depression” (American Economic Journal: Macro, 2017) and “Identifying the Effects of Bank Failures From a Natural Experiment in Mississippi During the Great Depression” (American Economic Journal: Macro, 2012).

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 (June 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy

Author(s):Griffin, Emma
Reviewer(s):Johnson, Paul

Published by EH.Net (June 2023).

Emma Griffin. Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. xi + 389 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-300-23006-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Paul Johnson, University of Western Australia.


The standard of living during Britain’s industrial revolution is one of the most well-worked and contentious topics in economic history, but there is little disagreement about the trajectory of living standards during Victoria’s reign. From the 1830s as economic growth, free trade and the Pax Britannica turned Britain into the globally dominant economic and military power, real wages more than doubled and average living standards rose to levels never previously seen. End of story.

Not so, says Emma Griffin in an exploration of family life in Victorian Britain which challenges many easy assumptions about the relationship between economic opportunity, real wages and living standards. Building on her earlier work that used working-class autobiographies from 1750 to 1850 – the classic Industrial Revolution period – to peer into the lives and experiences of children, women and men (Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, Yale University Press, 2014) she has now taken the same approach to look beyond the standard economic measures of earnings and employment to explore how the  unprecedented economic growth of the Victorian period affected the inner lives of ordinary families.

The core of the book is Griffin’s close reading of 662 autobiographies, some well-known personal accounts by political and union activists such as Walter Citrine, Tom Mann and Margaret Bondfield, others the unpublished writings – some little more than informal jottings – created by women and men who wanted to make and leave a record of their lives and thoughts. Two thirds of these autobiographies were written by men, and these were much more likely to be formally published than were the writings of women. Two-thirds of the male autobiographers present a story of personal success, of progressing from manual labour to middle-class or professional occupations – 57 of them became MPs. For the female writers, however, the numbers were reversed, with two-thirds spending their adult lives as unpaid working-class housewives or, less frequently, as manual workers. These women rarely wrote about politics or trade unionism; instead they wrote about the things that mattered to them – neighbours, children, husbands, housework, food and money.

For Griffin the value of the autobiographies is more in the incidental details they offer about the humdrum daily affairs of working-class families than in the overarching stories of personal achievement. The toil of housework, the food put on the table (or not, if times were hard), the behaviour of siblings and parents, the experience of school, the transition to adult life by way of employment for boys and marriage for girls – each autobiographer presents their unique account, yet collectively they provide a persuasive and intimate view of working-class family life. This enables Griffin to reassess the impact of Victorian economic growth on the working people who experienced it, and it is a much more nuanced picture than is told by the history of real wages.

Boys could find easy access to work with just a few years of elementary education, and industrialisation significantly expanded employment opportunities and real wages for men. For many girls, however, their adolescence was spent in unpaid domestic work in the parental home or elsewhere, and Griffin sees this lack of access to early-career work experience and training as setting the stage for low female wages and a life of adult dependency on male earnings. Just about the only job that provided working-class girls with a living wage and the prospect of independence was teaching; for the great majority of women the only way they could share in Victorian Britain’s economic success was by being tied to a male breadwinner through marriage.

Women’s principal role continued to be the provision of unwaged domestic labour while rising male wages gave men increased financial power and autonomy. The wellbeing of a family depended both on the male head’s skill and capacity to earn, but also on his willingness to share with his family. The autobiographies indicate that almost half of fathers were reliable wage earners who dutifully shared their earnings, but a quarter of them were not, and the dominant reason for this was drunkenness. Drunkenness was overwhelmingly an urban problem, mentioned by more than a quarter of urban autobiographers, but only 5% of rural autobiographers. Griffin points out that the rise of urban male wages gave men discretionary spending power which ‘altered an individual’s access to the fundamentals of human existence – food, clothing, warmth, companionship and contentment – in unexpected and highly gender-specific ways.’ The pub, the pie shop, the trade union meeting, the friendly society, the football team all provided men with an opportunity for sociability and ‘mass merriment’ which women had neither the money nor the time to enjoy.

Although by 1914 real wages in Britain were higher than at any time previously, it was still the case that ‘men earned the bread and women baked it.’  Griffin argues that the very process of Victorian economic growth – the development of a more urbanised, more monetised, more wage-dependent society – made gender divisions sharper. In pre-industrial Britain low wages created a degree of equality within the household between money income and unpaid labour which was snapped apart by the growth of the male industrial wage and the opportunity this gave working men to spend on themselves outside the family home.

Autobiographical writings are usually viewed as subject matter for social and cultural historians but here Griffin uses them as a source for economic historians to gain a fuller understanding of how the rising real wages of Victorian Britain were earned, used and shared. She has consciously chosen to focus only on these life writings rather than blend them with other more commonly used source material or place them within the existing historiography of women and the family in Victorian Britain. This creates a consistency in her account but leads to a degree of repetition as examples of similar experiences are layered over each other to build an evidence base which could be more persuasively supported by drawing on a wider range of source material. The focus in these autobiographical writings on the personal and familial also means that formal institutions such as churches and the Poor Law, and informal networks around local shops and market, and the role they played at various times in the family life course, have only a shadowy presence in Griffin’s account.

The overall impression created by Griffin’s deep and close reading of these autobiographies is one of continuing unpaid domestic drudgery for wives and mothers, episodic hardship and poverty for many children, particularly if fathers were drunk or absent, and widening gender inequality. This may seem a dismal outcome from half a century of Victorian prosperity, but no less dismal than the findings by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that in 2022 one in five British children live in a female-headed single-parent household, and that half these households are living in poverty.


Paul Johnson taught economic history at the London School of Economics prior to serving as Vice-Chancellor and President of both La Trobe University in Melbourne and the University of Western Australia. His publications include Making the Market: Victorian Origins of Corporate Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and (as joint editor) The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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 (June 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

The Origins and Dynamics of Inequality. Sex, Politics, and Ideology

Author(s):Wisman, Jon D.
Reviewer(s):Roy, Tirthankar

Published by EH.Net (June 2023).

Jon D. Wisman. The Origins and Dynamics of Inequality. Sex, Politics, and Ideology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. x + 528 pp. £25.99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0197575949.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Tirthankar Roy, London School of Economics and Political Science.


Historians studying the world economy have recently shifted their attention from ‘divergence’ or international inequality to societal inequality. The shift is welcome because it makes little sense to compare average income across countries, the benchmark to measure international inequality, in the presence of inequality within countries. But it makes historians’ task harder for several reasons. The first reason is that quantitative measures of inequality are a very recent thing. This is a minor problem. We know that inequality existed in the distant past because the practices that excluded people from access to wealth and power existed in the distant past. Second, most theories of the history of inequality presume a specific form of wealth, land, or machinery, which makes a long-run account integrating preindustrial and even pre-agricultural inequality with the recent past difficult. And third, the theories that economists and economic historians work with presume that inequality stems from ownership of capital. In contrast, ownership of capital may well be a symptom rather than the cause of inequality.

The Origins and Dynamics of Inequality tackles the two problems head-on, with a rich analytical narrative that needs 500-odd pages to build a connected history. Two ideas hold this project together. First, inequality stems from an impulse to corner the good things in life. The deepest and oldest impulse is biological, to win the competition for sexual partners and be successful in the evolutionary game. This, the biological root, is largely forgotten because we get carried away by the forms that power takes. We need to see instead why power matters. The biological root of inequality, and the elite conversion of economic power into political power by cultural-ideological means, run through the book as two connecting threads.

For much of human history, when humans hunted or practiced rudimentary agriculture, inequality was muted. Political power did not have a fixed character, and the stone tools to kill animals and people were widely accessible. Leaders of clans and groups would fight when there was a specific threat, and society would fall into a state of relative equality when the danger disappeared. The origins of inequality in the modern sense are owed to the emergence of ‘formal modes of social coordination’ or states about 5500 years ago (p. 3). One of the factors behind the emergence of permanent states was the wider use of metallic battle tools, which were expensive to make and restricted in access.

Surviving the evolutionary game rests on success in ‘sexual competition’. Human life was no exception to that rule, but humanity was exceptional in two respects. As formal coordination rules took shape, the chances of success depended less on physical prowess or hunting skills. The chances were better for those who could exercise political and military power over others. And competition generated pushback from an awareness of fairness. ‘Manipulating the strong sense of fairness is the essence of ideology.’ (p. 7) Thus, power acquired a dual aspect, the ability to exercise violence and the moral right to exercise violence to protect the weaker individuals inside the collective, or so ideology claimed.

The introduction and Chapter 1 set out the building blocks: sexual competition, the emergence of states, and the ideological campaign claiming that states existed to look after the weak. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 deal with the early history of inequality and religion’s role in supplying ideological support to elite power. Elite power until the more recent centuries after ‘the critical break’ of the rise of the bourgeoisie would mean military power maintained not only to defend against outside threats but also to protect private property and diffuse internal threats from landholders (Chapters 5 and 6). Chapters 7 and 8 return to ideology in Europe and take the reader through the remaking of Christianity and the tensions between the landholders and the new wealth that contributed to that remaking. Chapter 9 is about the nineteenth-century revolution that delivered political agency to the workers and broke the elite’s monopoly access to politics. Elite control over ideology had always been relatively weak in North America (Chapter 10), and the move to create it received a shock during the Great Depression. Chapter 11 takes the narrative to the late twentieth century, showing how a new ideology of state failure invalidated Simon Kuznets’ prediction that inequality would eventually decline in mature capitalist economies. Chapter 12 is less narrative history than an argument that inequality works against effective responses to overconsumption and environmental damage.

Parts of the book will seem familiar to readers. The book draws on a range of big ideas from predecessors. The most important one is the biological character of competition and inequality, the idea that sexual competition is the foundation of all competition. ‘It took Darwin to make clear that [the lust for money, lust for power] are driven by [sexual lust]’ (9). Karl Marx paid attention to ideology, not, as positivists thought, as beliefs outside empirically grounded ‘science’, but as a fundamental tool of politics. But Marx also believed that ideology would weaken if the structure of class power changed, which twentieth-century politics does not affirm. The book says why. Economists, who have recently written big books on inequality, underestimate the long-term dynamics of elite capture of ideology and the resulting contestations.

Despite the antecedents, the arguments are excitingly new and largely persuasive. The book is also a terrific read. It builds the inequality narrative on a deep human impulse, foregrounds culture, and unlike stories that place excessive weight on industrial capitalism, builds a story that acknowledges many transitions and suggests a way to relate these.

The book may leave readers wondering how to fit the last thirty years into this narrative. Like 1929, the 2008 recession led to big changes. It damaged the financial capacity of the Western states to deal with new challenges. These states depend ever more on private capital to generate investment and growth, provide for rising welfare bills, absorb migration from the tropics as climate changes, fund innovation in health for an ageing society, and more. In this scenario, helping the rich do their business has less to do with discourse and more with structural weaknesses. For that matter, economists who shaped the old discourse carry less credibility than they did before 2008.

And who are the elite anyway? Critics may find this concept a bit slippery. Defining the elite as wealth owners who exercise influence over politics and discourse makes less sense as the world produces and consumes more services than manufactured goods. A fashion designer who owns three houses is not wealthy because she owns three houses, has little in common with the millowner, and her capital does not have a name yet.

As for the deep impulse that leads humans to exclude other humans from access to resources, the book’s emphasis on sexual competition may work better for some societies than others. In a 1966 book on caste, the anthropologist Louis Dumont claimed that India was one civilization based on ‘a single true principle, namely the opposition of the pure and the impure.’ Perspectives on the secret roots of the impulse to exclude will differ.


Tirthankar Roy is a professor of economic history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the co-author, with Leigh Gardner, of The Economic History of Colonialism (Bristol University Press, 2021).

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 (June 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

An Economic History of the English Garden

Author(s):Floud, Roderick
Reviewer(s):Elliott, Brent

Published by EH.Net (April 2023).

Roderick Floud. An Economic History of the English Garden. London: Allen Lane (Penguin), 2019. xiii + 399pp. £12.99 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0141981703.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Brent Elliott, formerly of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library, London.


Roderick Floud’s book was published four years ago; it has since been issued in paperback and generally has been enthusiastically received and described as magisterial.

The originality of Floud’s book lies particularly in his standard of calculations for an historical comparison of financial figures. He had launched this standard a few years earlier, in a paper ‘Capable entrepreneur? Lancelot Brown and his finances’, published in Occasional Papers from the RHS Lindley Library, vol. 14 (October 2016). Capability Brown is the major figure in Floud’s book, followed by Joseph Paxton; both gardeners have been the subject of previous biographies, and forty years ago Peter Willis drew attention to Brown’s account at Drummond’s Bank, which has been a lively source of information for Floud. Few other figures have been as well documented, at least from the financial point of view.

Previous garden historians, I suspect – and know in my own case – had based their estimates of income and expenditure in previous centuries in the Bank of England’s website calculator, and that is largely based on a comparison of prices for consumer goods. Floud rejects this as unviable: ’Since consumer prices have increased by 128 times since 1741, we would multiply [Capability] Brown’s salary of £25 by 128 and conclude that he was paid, in today’s value, £3,200. But this figure doesn’t make sense. It suggests that the head gardener of the greatest garden in England in the 1740s was paid for a year the equivalent of someone working for twelve weeks at the current national minimum wage of an unskilled labourer’.  He goes on to enumerate some of the reasons why consumer prices are unreliable for long-term comparison: ‘the things on which we spend money have changed in nature and quality … We also spend less of our income on manufactured goods and good than we did two centuries ago and much more on services … We live our lives and spend our money quite differently’. He proposes as an alternative ‘to compare their pay with changes in average earnings over the centuries. In 1700 the average worker earned £12 and 8 shillings a year; in 2015 he or she received £25,609. … if something cost two-thirds of average earnings in 1800, we say that its equivalent is two-thirds of average earnings today’. This is the system of comparison used by the online calculator Measuring Worth, whose graph of changing money values Floud reproduces after his introduction.

On this basis, Floud calculates that Capability Brown’s £25 per year was the equivalent of £45,580, and for comparison, a century later Joseph Paxton, as head gardener at Chatsworth, was paid the equivalent of £47,120.  The results of this change in the mode of comparison is a salutary shock to the system, and over the last few years has shaken up the work of many garden historians as they rethink their calculations.

I do not think, however, that the matter can yet be regarded as settled. Floud’s litany of the changes in the content of consumer spending could surely be echoed by a list of changes in the status and functions of different types of work over the centuries. For example, having determined that Capability Brown was paid £45,580 a year, Floud adds, ‘or £63,810 if one includes the value of the house that came with the job’.  But should the value of the house be included? Brown didn’t own that house; as it came with the job, it was the property of his employer. On p. 177, Floud remarks that ‘The head gardener was provided, on top of his salary, with a free house and fuel and usually with free fruit and vegetables from the garden’. This makes the provision of accommodation sound like an unambiguous benefit, but socially and politically it caused difficulties. In 1840 Paxton, having been provided with an upgrade to his existing house at Chatsworth, bought a property in Darley Dale, and moved away from Chatsworth for six months to do it up, landscape the grounds, etc.; he then moved back to Chatsworth and leased the house out. Why? – an obvious reason is that by doing so, Paxton became a landowner, and therefore eligible to vote (people who lived in accommodation provided by their employers did not gain the right to vote until the Third Reform Act in 1884). For an aspiring head gardener, property investment could be considered as part of the necessary expenses for living the life of a true citizen.

Simple income, then, may not be the major determinant of status. Take a case from the eighteenth century. John Abercrombie wrote a manual entitled ‘Every man his own gardener’, but it appeared under the joint names of Abercrombie and Thomas Mawe. Mawe was head gardener to the Duke of Leeds and was apparently chosen to be identified as the principal author because of his high reputation. When Abercrombie first met him, he saw ‘a gentleman so bepowdered, and so bedaubed with gold lace, that he thought he could be in the presence of no less a personage than the Duke himself’. But despite his powder and lace, could Mawe vote in an election? If so, he must have been a property owner; where was his property?

All this ties in with the question of professional status, about which Floud has an informative section in his fourth chapter. The head gardeners of the nineteenth century longed to be recognised as professionals. In 1845, the young David Taylor Fish was offered a position ‘at £30 per year, with board, and the half of a footman’s room for lodging’; he angrily responded, ‘Why couple the knowledge and culture of professional men with the rewards of a livery servant?’ (See his autobiography, published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1875.) But the hoped-for professional recognition was never achieved, and in the twentieth century gardening sank to the level of a ‘semi-skilled occupation’.

Floud’s book is organised into ten chapters: ‘The English garden in 1660 and 2020’; ‘Gardens and the state’; ‘The great gardens’; ‘Designers’; ‘The nursery trade’; ‘The working gardener’; ‘Technology’; ‘The people’s gardens’; and ‘Kitchen gardens’. Of these, the chapter on the nursery trade is the least adequate, largely because there has been no systematic history of the nursery trade yet published. John Harvey, the pioneer of nursery history in the 1970s, took the subject up to the end of the eighteenth century only, and the best works on the subject since have been histories of individual firms or of regions (like E. J. Willson’s book on the nursery gardens of Woking). Floud does not deal with the question of the price of land required for nurseries, and while he considers the role of the railways in the ease and speed with which plants could be transported, he does not deal with the way in which access to railways allowed nurseries to move away from the urban perimeter where they had traditionally flourished. He does make a lovely point about the advantage for nurseries of proximity to the urban horse population and its quantities of useful dung. In 1904, the Bedfont seedsman Alexander Dean worried that the replacement of horses by automobiles would lead to ‘the ruin of both agriculture and commercial horticulture’ by reducing the available stock of dung.

I find the chapters on technology, the people’s gardens, and kitchen gardens the most satisfactory. Floud’s figures for the costs of lawn mowers in the nineteenth century are particularly eye-opening. But it is the chapters on the great gardens and on garden designers – the traditional subjects of most studies – that have had the greatest impact so far on garden historians, by forcing them to rethink the costs of garden-making in earlier centuries. This impact is entirely beneficial, even if further research and economic studies lead to some reconsideration of the historical comparisons. And when scholars finally get around to writing the history of commercial horticulture, the questions Floud raises will provide a sound basis for getting started.


Brent Elliott, now retired, was formerly the Librarian, then the Historian, of the Royal Horticultural Society. He is a former editor of Garden History and the author of Victorian Gardens (1986) and other works.

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 (April 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Economic Consequences of U.S. Mobilization for the Second World War

Author(s):Field, Alexander J.
Reviewer(s):Eloranta, Jari

Published by EH.Net (April 2023).

Alexander J. Field. The Economic Consequences of U.S. Mobilization for the Second World War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 472 pp. $45 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-0300251029.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jari Eloranta, University of Helsinki.


Alexander Field’s new book is a broad analysis of several important themes pertaining to the US participation in the Second World War and its aftermath. His overarching argument focusing on the overall supply side context is that manufacturing productivity declined during the war because production was shifted to producers and sectors that no prior experience in such activity as well as since the war disrupted the positive developments in innovation and human capital that preceded the war. Field’s book is an impressive new theoretical and empirical narrative to understand the war’s impacts and legacies.

How novel is his thesis? I would say it is definitely novel, especially when presented in such a comprehensive way, although economic historians have received some pieces of this argument from Field’s earlier work. While some studies on other war economies have made some similar points in a far less concise manner before, his analysis of the US case is unique. Moreover, the historical national accounting literature has touched on the topic of productivity changes due to the war only slightly, typically comparing productivity differences across countries. Many of these studies skip over the war period, which is a weakness in the literature. This book is also related to debates about the regional study of US economy during the war – for example, as Jaworski (2017) points out, the manufacturing productivity decline was not a uniform phenomenon in the US, namely in the South. Thus, there is work to be done to understand the regional and local levels comprehensively, which would possibly expose the network effects of shocks better.

There are several important insights arising from the book. First, it is a well-argued and persuasive answer to the enduring question of whether war can induce economic growth. His answer to this question is, in line with most defense economists, that in a larger sense it does not: the more limited positive impacts are outweighed by the negative effects of the actual war and its related costs. While some of the demand side implications of massive government spending are no doubt important, which Field acknowledges, the supply side disruptions to the economy have serious adverse effects. The government’s effort to prevail in the context of total war led to many detours and mistakes, which sometimes resulted in idle factories and delayed war mobilization – in fact, as he demonstrates with the skill of an experienced economist, the productivity performance of the US economy was quite disappointing during the war.

Second, Field’s book is a contribution to the larger debates about the causes and effects of the Great Depression and the New Deal in the longer run, namely whether the government interventions were effective in stimulating the American economy, both during and after the war. He argues that the command economy of the war period distorted the manufacturing sector’s productivity trajectory, and the expansion of the American economy after the war was related more to the productivity foundations in place before the war than the retraction of the government’s control of the production and rationing. The demand side expansion is not the focus in the book, and Field discusses that briefly in the concluding chapter. Yet, I think there is room to re-examine the demand side expansion too, especially the implications for the political economy and the post-war growth.

Third, this book is also a part of the newer crop of economic history scholarship in the last 30 years or so that has tackled the causes, impacts, mobilization, and aftermath of various conflicts. These studies have introduced several important contributions and findings, for example related to the world wars as the ultimate forms of total war. Mark Harrison and others were able to present a holistic accounting of what these wars meant for the larger participating states. (Harrison 2000; Broadberry & Harrison 2005) In particular, they argued that both world wars ultimately were determined by the mobilization and use of resources, with the US playing a pivotal role due to the size of its economy and industrial capacity. The richer and more democratic states were able to expand further than their authoritarian rivals, and thus they forced their adversaries into mistakes, both politically and economically. Field’s book provides much greater nuance to this aggregate view, namely that the expansion of the American war economy was also rife with problems and missteps, yet it still managed to expand way beyond what its rivals could have even imagined.

The first criticism that I would raise with this book pertains, in fact, to the lack of greater comparative content, which would have made some of the findings of the study even sharper. The similarities of the US with many other nations in terms of the missteps in the economic mobilization and output mix implications could have offered some further insights into the institutional consequences of various political decisions. Here I am referring to something that my own work has also touched on, namely how private-public partnerships evolved during the world wars, especially the Second World War. For example, Field cites Paul Koistinen’s work, but it would be interesting to know more about how producing some war goods privately or by government facilities affects the outcomes, also after the war. The MIC (Military Industrial Complex) literature suggests that the businessmen that were brought to manage wartime supply systems captured significant long-term rents in the process. Field discusses this issue for example. on p. 138, related to government-owned synthetic rubber production. He also analyzes contracts in the book at various points. However, a deeper discussion of the theoretical and empirical implications of the contracts would have been warranted, which has taken place for example in the debates of the Germany wartime supply system. One interesting book that touches on these topics is Boldorf & Okazaki (2015). To be fair, Field makes some important distinctions between the experiences of the US and the other warring parties, namely that a substantial negative output gap persisted at the beginning of the mobilization, which in turn made possible substantial supply engineering efforts.  This would be an interesting point to ponder also for other warring economies, to understand the actual mechanics of the economic mobilization better.

In general, Field has thus framed his book in terms of changes in the output mix and resource shocks that were at the core of the relatively poor manufacturing productivity performance. In addition, he touches on several themes that reinforce this powerful narrative. Perhaps the most important concerns the lack of innovation during the wartime, even though some prior literature has suggested that wartime demand side expansion had led to major innovations technology. This is a continuation of Field’s previous work, highlighting technological progress of the pre-Second World War period (and similar to Goldin’s work on human capital creation; see for example Goldin 2021). In this book, he showcases labor policies that failed to address labor shortages as well as the uncertainty the government’s contracting actions introduced. One road not taken was, of course, an industrial draft or something akin to that. Field addresses this for example on p. 220, with Selective Service draft calls actually leading to more labor shortages or distortions among the sectors of the economy. There were, of course, many forms of forced labor used globally during the war, with the use of prisoners of war as the most extreme and often inhuman option. But, in many countries there were campaigns to mobilize people for volunteer work too. All these forms were utilized in the US prior to the war, so the choices during the conflict are quite interesting and reflect the government’s willingness (or unwillingness) to address labor shortages in certain sectors. On the producer side, some were forced into converting their factories to manufacturing that they were ill-equipped for, and producers hoarding commodities and raw materials led to significant delays in firms reaching their imposed goals. Shortages were common, and rationing was an imperfect tool to manage wartime realities, although these problems were less pronounced in the American case. Again, a deeper comparative look at the rationing systems of other countries could have bolstered this argument. Field’s assertion that the US experience is unique may very well be true, but I cannot accept it on face value without a broad review of the other warring economies. And, if true, why would that be the case? There seems ample room for comparative research on this issue. Unfortunately, more often than not the study of rationing systems has not been linked with the analysis of productivity impacts.

Moreover, while learning by doing helped alleviate some of the immediate output mix problems, innovations were hard to come by even in the context of the American war economy. The US economy’s capacity to increase military production came at the cost of efficiency and distortions in the manufacturing sector. This was also enhanced, to a limited extent, by the actual war and the resources the US had to expend in fighting it. Regardless, innovations were on the decline, or at least they stagnated – Field showcases this by a detailed overview of patent and other data, which clearly suggest a dearth of innovative activity. While the overview in the book is quite convincing, Field could have gone deeper into the analysis of the patent data, in line with what some in the field are doing to capture the network effects of technological innovations and human capital creation. (see, for example, Diebolt & Hippe 2019; Esteves & Mesevages 2019)

Field also provides some interesting new historical and theoretical insights on the production and impact of strategic commodities and minerals. Chapter 3 examines the efforts to produce synthetic rubber in the US, given the loss of South Asian sources of rubber. Rubber was a crucial component for the war machine, since the vehicles that the armed forces used needed rubber for the tires, among other uses. These efforts were successful, with some missteps along the way, but they were also expensive for the American government. Moreover, these endeavors required sacrifices in other sectors of the economy, and this impacted the fossil fuel industries in particular. While the demand for rubber increased due to the military orders, rationing and limited consumption opportunities decreased its demand. In sum, the synthetic rubber production was not exactly a miracle inspired by the war mobilization and government intervention. However, he could have compared the US experience for example with that of Germany, as reflected by Streb (2015).

In Chapter 4, he analyzes gasoline and oil production, as well as other strategic raw minerals. As he notes, the war imposed some challenges to the US economic mobilization and war effort. While the overall impact of the economic warfare by Germany and Japan was limited, it did have an impact on the energy networks in the US. – moreover, it did have vastly different impacts on regions within the country. The global nature of the war meant that such commodities were not only difficult to produce in sufficient quantities but also hard to get to the various theaters of war. The economic warfare of the Second World War, for example the impact of U-boats and convoys, meant that the participants suffered significant resources losses during the most intense periods of the conflict. In this context, Field deftly analyzes the production networks and pipelines, and what the disruptions meant for the overall oil production capacity and the delivery of the products. However, he could have discussed the logic and extent of economic warfare more, again also in a more comparative way (see also Davis & Engerman 2006) For example, the Japanese war economy and its limitation would have provided further nuance into the US case, in addition to the German war economy that is discussed briefly in the book. (Again, to be fair, Field does discuss both Germany and Japan in the context of economic warfare for example on p. 150) Furthermore, he makes an important contribution to the literature on economic warfare by illustrating the lack of impact by convoys in protecting the Atlantic and Caribbean tanker traffic. What did this mean for the energy networks more widely during the war? This seems another fruitful avenue for new research.

On the whole, Alexander Field’s new book is an important contribution to the analysis of the US economic performance during and after the Second World War. It provides a powerful argument that even the massive expansion of the American war economy did not lead to lasting positive impacts during or after the war. Moreover, he highlights, based on different sectors and examples, that even the war mobilization embodied many problems and missteps. The productivity increases that carried the US into the post-war economic growth era did not arise from the wartime supply side mobilization impacts. This book is well written and cleverly argued, with a heavy dose of economic arguments and data, and it should be of interest to a large audience of scholars and general readers. If I had to nitpick about the few weaknesses of the book, I would highlight the somewhat limited nature of the comparative contexts contained in it. More engagement with the extant literature on the world wars and various country cases would have deepened and strengthened the analysis. Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend this book, especially to economic historians interested in the study of crises and warfare as well as the development of the American economy into the era of Cold War expansion.


Boldorf, Marcel, and Tetsuji Okazaki, eds. Economies under Occupation: The Hegemony of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. Routledge, 2015.

Broadberry, Stephen, and Mark Harrison, eds. The Economics of World War I. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Davis, Lance E., and Stanley L. Engerman. Naval Blockades in Peace and War: An Economic History Since 1750. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Diebolt, Claude, and Ralph Hippe. “The Long-Run Impact of Human Capital on Innovation and Economic Development in the Regions of Europe.” Applied Economics 51(5): 542-563 (2019).

Esteves, Rui, and Gabriel Geisler Mesevage. “Social Networks in Economic History: Opportunities and Challenges.” Explorations in Economic History 74 (2019).

Goldin, Claudia. “Career and Family.” In Career and Family. Princeton University Press, 2021.

Harrison, Mark, ed. The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Jaworski, Taylor. “World War II and the Industrialization of the American South.” Journal of Economic History 77(4): 1048-1082 (2017).

Scott-Kemmis, Don, and Martin Bell. “The Mythology of Learning-by-Doing in World War II Airframe and Ship Production.” International Journal of Technological Learning, Innovation and Development 3(1): 1-35 (2010).

Streb, Jochen. “Can Politicians Speed Up Long-Term Technological Change? Some Thoughts from a Comparison of the German and US-American Synthetic Rubber Programs Before, During and After World War II.” Essays in Economic & Business History 21 (2003): 33-49.


Jari Eloranta is Professor of Economic History at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He has published widely on the causes and impacts and causes of various conflicts in history, as well as military spending, for almost three decades, and also on the long-run economic history of the Nordic countries.

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 (April 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at





Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Military and War
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Unravelled Dreams. Silk and the Atlantic World: 1500–1840 (reviewed in both English and Spanish)

Author(s):Marsh, Ben
Reviewer(s):Luque Pecci, José María

Published by EH.Net (March 2023).

Ben Marsh. Unravelled Dreams. Silk and the Atlantic World: 1500–1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 502 pp. $39.99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1108418287.

Reviewed for EH.Net by José María Luque Pecci.

[Note: A Spanish-language review also appears in this document, after the English-language review.]


Although the history of silk in the Atlantic system is the history of a raw material which was never intended to be a mass consumer product, it has not ceased to be of economic interest and to be in the minds of many entrepreneurs. Ben Marsh presents a titanic work with fine historical details, in which the history of silk associated with the American Colonization is “unravelled” like a silk thread. The evolution of the silk business in the three main empires involved in the colonization of America is explained by means of private, social, and institutional motivations up to the early years of the United States.

The work presents three distinct parts: Emergence, Persistence, and Convergence of silk production in the Atlantic system. The author explains the birth and distribution of silk production nuclei over 340 years (1500–1840), from the European discovery of America until the consolidation of the United States as a nation.

The Emergence of silk in the colonized American territories begins with an accurate and documented relationship between the conquest of the kingdom of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs and the establishment of sericulture in American lands. The interest in silk cultivation of important figures in the early days of American colonization, such as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (p. 54), is striking. The question about why silk represented a possible source of wealth for the colonized lands is immediately answered. In the Americas initially discovered, from the Caribbean islands to the Mexican lands, species of native mulberry trees were discovered. Since the existence or cultivation of mulberry trees is the starting point of any silk exploitation, the colonizers considered the opportunities for sericulture (breeding silkworms and cultivating silk). This was also the case in the English colonies of the Bahamas and Virginia, as well as the French colonies of the Mississippi Delta (p. 188). Thus, the presence of mulberry trees in the lands was the common motivating factor, but problems with labour represented a stumbling block.

After 200 years of American colonization, it was the English silk enterprises which consolidated silk production as a productive activity. The strong development of the textile manufacturing industry in Great Britain, and the dynamic population growth in its Atlantic colonies (p. 225), made the Persistence of sericulture possible, something which the Spanish and French had already abandoned at the beginning of the 18th century. It is also necessary to add other factors for the persistence of silk activities: the Enlightenment and scientific promotion. The birth of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a clear example of how institutional influence based on the development of science in the English territories fostered the excellence and success of colonial silk farms in Georgia and other colonies.

The third part of the book concentrates on the last years of the British dominions in North America and in the subsequent period called the Age of Revolutions (the American and French Revolutions). The author explains how silk production underwent a moral interpretation as a product of clear imperial tradition: silk was produced in the colonies and woven in England, and many raised their voices against it as a product that was the standard-bearer of European inequality. Cleverly, the Americans reconverted silk into a product of national pride, promoting the elaboration of fabrics in the territories of the incipient country (Convergence). The experience of George Washington, who in his first appearance as president on 30 April 1789, wore a suit of fine Connecticut cloth along with American-made silk stockings, illustrates the point.

Along with the detailed micro-historical passages that weave this magnificent work, it is necessary to highlight two social and economic phenomena that accompany the whole journey: Female and Child Labour, and Slavery. The role of Female and Child Labour in pre-industrial manufacturing such as sericulture is well known. (See, for example, Maxime Berg’s 1985 book The Age of Manufactures). Throughout Marsh’s book, we can observe activities associated with silkworm rearing that were performed by women and children. Collecting mulberry leaves, feeding the worms, taking care of the rearing facilities, were activities that would certainly not be performed by men, who were employed in more physically demanding tasks. Spinning, which is the first phase of the silk manufacturing process, was traditionally carried out by women (p. 192). This book adds to the literature on the importance of women in pre-industrial development. Women in the Americas, of European, African, and Native American descent, were linked to the second and shameful phenomenon: slavery. Slavery accompanied almost every episode recounted in this book. First, there is the enslavement of Native Americans that accompanied the Spanish colonization with the encomienda system. Under this system, the natives were ceded to Spanish or Creole landowners who sometimes acted as true slavers. Secondly, there is the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, first in the colonies of the three empires mentioned in the book, and later in the Southern states of the United States. As expected, slavery was closely connected to the North Atlantic silk trade due to the labour problems cited above.

What could be called the history of a failure – “Much (American sericulture) had been proven to be possible, but rarely had it been proven to be profitable” (p.453) – in my opinion, is the history of human development itself. It is the history of those who tried new enterprises and faced the difficulties of promoting an economic activity from scratch and obtaining some profit. The history of the silk industry told here is the history of a commodity, which, although it did not become the economic engine of entire regions, was a source of wealth for some local cases.

Finally, it should be noted that the work on all the sources that accompanies this masterpiece is of such dimension that it would be unfair to highlight one or another more than the others, but the great diversity of archives, languages and types of documents is worth mentioning. A meta-analysis of the book leads to the conclusion that it is a work of historical research, which could not be more exhaustive and complete. The immense myriad of sources used and logically placed, are a sublime example of rigor.


José María Luque Pecci is a doctoral student in economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona whose thesis project is “Exports through the Port of Cadiz as an Indicator of Spanish Textile Production, 1720-1820.” He has also researched the contribution of the “high wages” of spinners to the First Industrial Revolution.


Spanish-language version


Ben Marsh. Unravelled Dreams. Silk and the Atlantic World: 1500–1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 502 pp. $39.99 (de tapa dura), ISBN 978-1108418287.

La historia de la seda en el sistema Atlántico es la historia de una materia prima que nunca estuvo llamada a ser un producto de consumo masivo pero no por ello dejó de tener interés económico y de estar en la cabeza de muchos emprendedores. Ben Marsh presenta una obra titánica donde se cuenta la historia de la seda asociada a la colonización de América pasando por finísimos detalles históricos como si de un hilo de seda se tratase, uniendo motivaciones privadas, sociales e institucionales para explicar el desarrollo que tuvo el negocio de la seda en los tres imperios que principalmente colonizaron América, hasta llegar a los primeros años de los Estados Unidos.

La obra presenta tres partes bien diferenciadas, aparición, persistencia y convergencia de la producción sedera en el sistema Atlántico, donde explica el nacimiento y distribución de los núcleos de producción sedera a lo largo de 340 años (1500–1840), desde el descubrimiento de América hasta la consolidación de los Estados Unidos de América como nación.

La aparición de la seda en los territorios americanos colonizados comienza con una acertadísima y documentada relación entre la conquista del reino de Granada por los Reyes Católicos y la implantación de la sericultura en tierras americanas. Llama la atención el interés que figuras tan importantes en los primeros días de la colonización americana como Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (p. 54) tuvieron por el cultivo de la seda. A la pregunta de ¿Por qué se plantea la seda como posible fuente de riqueza para las tierras colonizadas? la respuesta es inmediata. En toda la América inicialmente descubierta, desde las islas del caribe hasta las tierras mexicanas se descubrieron especies de moreras autóctonas que llamaron a sus conocedores a plantear la posibilidad de cultivar seda. Porque efectivamente, la existencia o cultivo de moreras es el punto de partida de toda explotación sedera. Este es también el caso en las colonias inglesas de Bahamas y Virginia o el de las francesas del delta del Missisipi (p. 188) en el intento de desarrollar la sericultura. Si la presencia de moreras en las tierras descubiertas para el mundo occidental fue ese factor motivador común, los problemas con la mano de obra fue uno de las principales escollos que encontraron los emprendedores.

Tras doscientos años de colonización americana fueron las experiencias inglesas las que se consolidaron como actividad productiva (persistencia). El fuerte desarrollo de la industria manufacturera textil en las islas británicas y el dinámico crecimiento poblacional de las colonias atlánticas (p. 225) sirvieron para mantener e incrementar las explotaciones sederas que españoles y franceses ya habían abandonado comenzando el siglo XVIII. Es necesario añadir también otro factor de persistencia de las actividades sederas como es la ilustración y la promoción científica. El nacimiento de la RSA “premium society” (p. 298) es un claro ejemplo de cómo el influjo institucional basado en el desarrollo de la ciencia en los territorios ingleses fomentó la excelencia y el éxito de explotaciones en colonias como Georgia.

Ya en la tercera parte, centrados en los últimos años de los dominios británicos en norte América y en el periodo posterior llamado la era de las revoluciones (Americana y Francesa), el autor nos explica cómo la producción sedera pasó el trámite moral de ser un producto de clara tradición imperial, la seda se producía en las colonias y se tejía en Inglaterra, donde no pocos alzaron la voz en contra de un producto que abanderaba la desigualdad europea. Inteligentemente lo supieron reconvertir en un producto de orgullo nacional fomentando la elaboración de los tejidos en los territorios del incipiente país (convergencia). La experiencia de George Washington (p.  403) que en 1789 en su primera aparición como presidente vistió un traje de paño fino de Connecticut junto a unas medias de seda también americanas zanja magistralmente el debate.

Junto a los detallados pasajes micro-históricos que tejen esta magnífica obra es necesario resaltar dos fenómenos social-económicos que acompañan en todo el camino, el trabajo femenino e infantil y la esclavitud. El trabajo femenino e infantil asociado a las labores manufactureras preindustriales es bien conocido (The Age of Manufactures, Maxime Berg, 1985) y no es menos importante en la sericultura. A lo largo de la obra podemos observar actividades asociadas a la cría del gusano de seda que eran desempeñadas por mujeres y niños. Recolección de las hojas de la morera, alimentación de los gusanos, cuidado de las instalaciones de cría, eran actividades que seguramente no serían realizadas por hombres, empleados en tareas más físicas como el arado de tierras o el acarreo de mercancías. Además, la primera fase manufacturera en la obtención de la seda consiste en el hilado, la actividad preindustrial que desembocó en las primeras experiencias industriales de éxito (Cotton Mills) y que era realizada por mujeres, pues bien, en el caso de la seda esta responsabilidad recayó también en la manos expertas de éstas (p. 192). Sirva esta obra como un ejemplo más de la importancia del trabajo femenino en la modernización económica del siglo XVIII. Mujeres, en el caso americano, de ascendencia europea, africana o nativa americana, lo que enlaza con el segundo y vergonzante fenómeno económico-social. La esclavitud acompaña a casi todos los episodios que se relatan en la obra. En primer lugar la esclavitud de nativos americanos que acompañaron a la colonización española con el sistema de encomiendas, donde los nativos eran cedidos a los propietarios de la tierra españoles o criollos que actuaban en ocasiones como verdaderos esclavistas. En segundo lugar la esclavitud de africanos y afroamericanos, primero en las colonias de los tres imperios citados en la obra y posteriormente en los estados sureños de los Estados Unidos. Como era de esperar tanto la esclavitud nativo-americana como la africana estuvieron muy relacionadas con la historia de la seda en el Atlántico Norte quedando patente en varios capítulos del libro.

Lo que en términos generales se podría llamar la historia de un fracaso, “Much (American sericulture) had been proven to be possible, but rarely had it been proven to be profitable” (p. 453), es en realidad la misma historia del hombre y su desarrollo, la historia de los que lo intentaron y afrontaron las dificultades de promover una actividad económica desde cero, que si bien no se convirtió en motor económico de regiones enteras sí fue fuente de riqueza para algunos casos locales.

Para terminar, hay que destacar que el trabajo de fuentes que acompaña a esta obra es de tal dimensión que sería injusto resaltar una u otra más que las demás, pero sí cabe reseñar la gran diversidad de archivos, lenguas y tipos de documentos. Haciendo un meta-análisis de la obra, la conclusión es que se trata de un trabajo de investigación histórica, que no puede ser más exhaustiva y completa. La inmensa miríada de fuentes utilizadas y colocadas de forma lógica son un ejemplo sublime de rigurosidad.


José María Luque Pecci es economista por la Universidad de Sevilla e historiador económico por las Universidades de Barcelona y Autónoma de Barcelona. Actualmente está doctorando por la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona con el proyecto de tesis “Las exportaciones por el puerto de Cádiz como indicador de la producción textil española. 1720-1820”. Desde el comienzo de sus estudios de posgrado en historia económica se ha interesado por la producción textil en el siglo XVIII presentando como trabajo fin de máster el ensayo, “¿Fueron los altos salarios de las hilanderas motor de la primera industrialización? El debate High-Wage Low-Wage Economy.”

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 (March 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Servitude and Slavery
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
North America
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

The Real Business of Ancient Maya Economies: From Farmers’ Fields to Rulers’ Realms

Editor(s):Masson, Marilyn A.
Freidel, David A.
Demarest, Arthur A.
Reviewer(s):López Alonso, Moramay

Published by EH.Net (February 2023).

Masson, Marilyn A., David A. Freidel, and Arthur A. Demarest, eds. The Real Business of Ancient Maya Economies: From Farmers’ Fields to Rulers’ Realms. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020. xviii + 634 pp. $125 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0813066295.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Moramay López Alonso, Rice University.


The history of Ancient Maya Civilizations has long been of great interest to scholars of different disciplines and different parts of the world. The nature and quality of the sources available has shaped interpretations of this civilization. Over time, the discovery of different archaeological sites, the deciphering of Maya texts and their reinterpretations, and most recently the emergence of new technologies that facilitate archeological exploration have shifted paradigms by providing a growing body of evidence about the landscape and organization of ancient Maya civilization throughout its long existence. Recently, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology has shed light on how vast the ancient Maya civilization was to understand how the landscape had been altered. This meant that institutions and organizations of the Maya Civilization were more complex and diverse than they had originally being thought. Especially it showed that there were markets and market exchanges; hence the ancient Maya economy could be studied from a different viewpoint than in the past.

The Real Business of Ancient Mayan Economies masterfully weaves together strategic management studies, archaeology, and economic history in a compilation where scholars from these different disciplines addressed the study of the Mayan economy in its diversity and complexity. It is a monumental volume that brings together the ideas and research of 57 authors compiled in 27 chapters. The book is divided in five main parts that show how, with new archaeological evidence, it is possible to study how ancient Maya economic systems worked by making the argument that it was a market-based society and what this could mean for our interpretations of the past. It would be impossible to address all important points made in each of the chapters so I will present the main overarching arguments of the compilation.

The first section presents the analytical framework that the authors will use as a connecting thread that to put the argument and evidence of their respective chapters in dialogue with the others. The evidence is diverse in time and space given that it encompasses the pre-Classic period to the early Post-Contact period in the different territories of the Maya civilization. The compilers of this collection begin by stating that the book will go beyond the dichotomous assertion that societies were market or non-market based and that there is the recognition of spectrums of institutional variability. It contributes to the scholarship that moves away from Betty J. Meggers’s environmental limitation theory. Additionally, there is a constant comparison with the civilization of Central Mexico and how market systems operated in the Aztec Empire, emphasizing how the two regions are very different and therefore inviting Mayanists to draw their conclusions and their own empirical data rather than receiving wisdom from comparative treatises.

The following sections are composed of chapters that present case studies of specific archaeological sites that examine household and community economies and resources; agriculture, climate, and land; political elites and economic administration; and spheres of economic exchange.

On the topic of autonomy, interdependence, and labor specialization, the authors examine their evidence in relative rather than in absolute terms. This is how autonomous and self-sufficient communities were compared to each other. The findings in different localities show that interdependency levels would coexist with various exchange modes so they could adapt them to the resources they had at hand and to potential climatic calamities while leaving the possibility to trade surpluses. Food shortages could be supplemented by imports or exchanges with other communities. Archaeological evidence shows the existence of gardens that served different purposes. Home gardens could be cultivated as a risk reduction mechanism but they could also be expressions of wealth. Although maiz was ubiquitous, a diversity of other plant species were cultivated, with variety corresponding to the different ecosystems. Researchers suggest the importance of maiz for the Maya may have been overstated by researchers due to the influence of post-1491 chronicles. That presented the opportunity for local specialization and exchange between environmental zones. So there was occupational specialization, exchange, and interdependencies.

Labor is often defined as the relationship between humans and land. In the case of Ancient Maya communities there is a variety of forms of landownership and cultivation, much more complex that than what Spanish colonial accounts would describe as communally held land. Farmers would cultivate land for both self-subsistence and a surplus to exchange. Salt-workers or fishers and those working in other subsistence industries, including slaves, could also engage in other forms of labor for part of the year, which could be for service to the community, voluntary or cooperative. There was a diversity of service occupations including corvée labor, masons, soldiers, non-crafting commoners, and market vendors. Labor was important for household production and exchange but also as a commodity in its own right.

On the topic of markets and merchants, archaeological evidence shows a circulation of various goods of different values, attesting to the existence of an integrated complex economic system. This does not negate the probability that goods were exchanged in other way such gifts or distributions. Additionally, findings move away from the argument that in ancient civilizations peripheries were uniformly impoverished and underdeveloped. Authors in different chapters show the existence of trading ports and affluent well-connected peripheries and core commercial nodes across regions. Ceramics are used as a proxy, albeit an imperfect one, for the exchange of other goods. The intricacies and variable traditions of ceramic economics in the different regions are recognized as a useful analytical tool that still has a lot of information to uncover. Markets and exchange also reflect the balance of power between merchant elites and royal elites in different regions. Merchant elites were important and their relationship with royals could at times be contentious. Surviving paintings and others records depict merchants as having less relevance, but it was royals who commanded these works. Studies also find that in places where merchant elites were stronger, the commoners were poorer. Still, the levels of inequality were not the same in every location. In terms of regional diversity, evidence makes clear that northwest Yucatán Mayan society was distinctive compared with the southern lowlands. The northern regions had a different economic trajectory that manifested in its architecture and pottery.

The Real Business of Ancient Mayan Economies offers no definite conclusions that would close a debate. It rather concludes by showing where research stands now and where it still needs to go. In that sense it is an invitation for scholars to make their contributions and further our understanding of the Mayan economy. This book will be an invaluable reference for an audience interested in the economic history of ancient civilizations, environmental studies, archaeology, and strategic management. It leaves the reader with lingering questions and promises more findings in a promising field.


Moramay López Alonso is Associate Professor of History, Adjunct Associate Professor of Economics, and Lecturer in Management Studies at Rice University. She is the author of Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950 (Stanford University Press, 2012).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Environment, Climate, and Disasters
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):Ancient