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Agricultural Tenures and Tithes

David R. Stead, University of York

The Tenurial Ladder

Agricultural land tenures, the arrangements under which farmers occupied farmland, continue to be the subject of extensive study by agricultural historians and economists. They have identified a “ladder” of tenures broadly classified by the degree of independence each type offered the farmer. Some of the key features of the main forms of tenurial agreements are briefly described below. In practice, though, the characteristics of these different tenures shaded into one another and they often had their own particular local features, ensuring that the distinctions among them were frequently blurred.

At the top of the tenurial ladder was owner occupation, where the farmer owned and farmed his property as a peasant proprietor or capitalist producer. All other types of tenure involved a separation between the ownership and the use of land. On the next rung were hereditary tenures, which gave the occupant quasi-ownership of the farm. The hereditary tenant had a lifelong right to cultivate the holding, and was allowed to bequeath it to his direct heirs. However, his freedom of action was subject to various restrictions imposed by the superior landowner, whose permission may have been needed to adopt a new course of husbandry, for example, and who might have levied a payment when the farm changed hands. Under some circumstances the landlord could also possess the right to evict the hereditary tenant, for instance if the property was not kept in a good state of maintenance.

After owner occupation and hereditary tenures was leasehold, where the tenant occupied under a lease either lasting until a number of persons named in the contract had died, or for some certain term of years (for example, “tacks” for nineteen years were prevalent in Scotland around the turn of the nineteenth century). In the former case the names stated were often those of the farmer, his wife and son, and thus this kind of lease approached hereditary tenure. The typical leaseholder for years was charged a fixed cash rent per annum which was equal or close to the yearly economic value of the land (a rack rent). In contrast, the typical leaseholder for lives paid a small annual rent that was well below the rack rent, together with a much larger “fine” levied when the landlord granted a new lease or when the sitting tenant wished to add another name to the contract after an existing life had ended.

On a lower rung of the tenurial ladder was sharecropping (the modern preference is for “cropsharing”). Here, the landlord took the rent in kind, instead of in cash, as some share of the farm’s annual produce (predominately one half). The sharecropping landlord tended to be closely involved in the management of farming operations, and met part of the production costs. Tenancy-at-will was the next broad category of tenure. The farmer did not have a written lease but instead held from year to year at the will of the landowner, who in theory could evict the occupant at short notice for no reason. In practice, however, many landlords tended to leave tenants-at-will undisturbed so long as their husbandry was satisfactory. Changing tenants was costly for the landowner if only because the incumbent occupier possessed specialist knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the farm’s soil, which would take a newcomer time to learn.

Serfdom and slavery were on the lowest rungs of the tenurial ladder because under these tenures the farmer was compelled to till the soil and often received little of the returns from his labors. In the feudal system in medieval Europe, even servile peasants were not the property of their manorial lord (unlike slaves), but they were – to varying degrees – bound to the land because they usually could not move (or marry) without their lord’s permission. Feudal tenants were generally required to pay some form of rent and also render personal labor services to their lord, most commonly working on his land a few days a week. Over time, these labor services were gradually commuted to a money payment. Finally, it is probably not unreasonable to include most communal forms of land tenure near the bottom of the tenurial ladder. Where land was owned or used by multiple persons, as on the village common and under Soviet collectivization, the communal nature of decision-making must have curbed the freedom of action of the enterprising farmer.

Tenurial Choice

It is possible to identify, as a very rough worldwide generalization, at least three main changes over the centuries in the types of tenure employed. First, with the gradual decline or abolition of communism, feudalism and slavery, there has been a shift towards tenurial systems based on market relations rather than collectivism or coercion. The second change has been the progressive substitution of leases for lives with leases for years, and the third has been a move towards owner occupation and fixed rent leasing at the expense of sharecropping. These shifts have occurred at different rates in different regions, and the progression has not always been linear, but sometimes characterized by reversals. This has produced enormous variation in the popularity of the various tenures. For example, in the eighteenth century sharecropping was common throughout much of the European Continent but was almost unknown in England and Ireland. Indeed, it was not uncommon for multiple forms of tenure to co-exist in the same village at the same time. After the emancipation of slaves in the American South, for instance, a diverse mix of tenures was employed: the traditional assertion that sharecropping replaced slavery in the postbellum countryside is an oversimplification.

Of the tenures listed above, it is the choice of sharecropping that has most fascinated agricultural economists. Its popularity appeared puzzling after many eighteenth and nineteenth century writers argued that this arrangement acted as a check on agrarian improvement because the farmer did not receive the full amount of any increase in farm output. More recently, however, the benefits of share tenancy have been recognised. For example, by dividing the crop, the sharecropping landlord shared the risks of a bad harvest with the tenant, thereby providing partial insurance to farmers who disliked being exposed to risk whilst still preserving some incentive for the occupier to undertake improvements. (By contrast, the fixed rent tenant contracted to pay the same amount irrespective of whether the harvest was profitable or poor.) Another sharecropping puzzle was why the output split was predominately 50/50 – indeed the French and Italian words for share tenancy, metayage and mezzadria respectively, mean splitting in half – when it might be expected that the landlord’s cut would have varied far more from farm to farm. This “easy” and “fair” fraction appears to have been a natural focal point that landlords and tenants were drawn to, thereby avoiding potentially protracted haggling that might have scarred their subsequent relationship.

Tenurial choice over the past century or so can be described using the (albeit imperfect) available body of statistics. Table 1 provides benchmarks of the percentage of agricultural land leased by farmers in several western European countries since the late nineteenth century (land not leased was owner occupied). Almost all farmland in England and Wales and Ireland at the beginning of the period covered by the table was owned by large landowners who divided their estates into farm-sized pieces which were rented out. The farm tenancy sectors of the three Continental countries in 1880 were noticeably smaller. One common factor among the various possible explanations for this was the 1804 Napoleonic Code, introduced in France and the then French empire which included Belgium and the Netherlands. The Code created inheritance laws that split the deceased’s landholdings equally among all heirs rather than, as elsewhere, the eldest son inheriting the whole property. This legal pressure for the fragmentation of landownership helped to produce a sizeable class of small owner occupying farmers on the Continent.

Table 1

Share of Land Leased by Tenant Farmers
in Selected Western European Countries, 1880-1997
(% of total agricultural land)

Belgium England & Wales France Ireland Netherlands
1880 64 85a 40 96b 40
1910 72 89 n/a 42 53
1930 62 63 40 6 49
1950 67 62 44 5 56
1980 71 47 51 8 41
1997 68 33 58 13 34

Source: Swinnen (2002), table 2.
Notes: a figure for 1885; b figure for 1870. Land not leased was owner occupied.

The most striking change since the late nineteenth century has been the rapid shrinkage of the English and Welsh, and especially Irish, tenancy sectors by 1930. In England and Wales, higher taxation (including increased death duties) combined with the legacy of an agricultural depression and the deaths of many landlords or their heirs in World War One to produce a situation where numerous owners were forced to sell to tenant farmers who had profited during the wartime agricultural boom. The even more dramatic decline of tenancy in Ireland was chiefly due to a series of state legislation beginning in 1870 that provided subsidized government loans – made on increasingly favorable terms – to help tenants purchase their holdings: the 1923 Land Act made such sales compulsory. Since the Second World War, most of the countries covered by Table 1 have enacted legal changes increasing rent controls and especially the security of leases. These restrictions have made tenancy more attractive for tenants but more importantly less so for landowners, which helps explain the post-war shrinkage of the tenancy sectors in England and Wales and the Netherlands. By contrast, in France the proportion of land leased has risen in recent years partly in response to government policies encouraging leasing, such as lower taxes on land rents.

The general prevalence of owner occupation in the second half of the twentieth century suggested by Table 1 is supported by Figure 1, which gives a snapshot of the global situation in 1970 using data from the world census of agriculture. The first of each pair of columns shows the percentage of all farmland in each region held under owner occupation. Usually the majority of land was cultivated by its owner, although in Africa communal tenures were more widespread. The second of each pair of columns shows the proportion of land in just the tenancy sector of each region that was let under a sharecropping contract. Despite its traditional association with poverty, sharecropping remains persistently popular even in modern advanced farming sectors, notably in North America where nearly a third of tenanted land in 1970 was occupied by sharecroppers.

Figure 1
Percentage of Total Farmland Held under Owner Cultivation, and the Percentage of Tenanted Land Held under Sharecropping, Various Regions, 1970

Source: Otsuka et al. (1992), table 1

The Historical Role of the Lease

A number of contemporaries and historians have suggested that the lease played an important role in influencing farming practices. Short leases, especially tenancies at will, were loudly criticized by the eighteenth-century English writers Arthur Young and William Marshall on the grounds that these contracts did not provide the tenant with sufficient security to make long-term investments to the farm, such as draining the land. If the benefits from these types of expenditures were not fully realized until after the original lease expired, then there was a danger that the tenant would lose part of his investment returns if the landlord acted opportunistically by evicting him, or by renewing his lease but at a higher rent. Tenants may therefore have been wary of making large expenditures for fear of the later consequences, inhibiting agricultural improvement. How serious a problem the potential insecurity of short leases was in practice is a moot point. Landlords not lessees undertook much of the long-term investments, and for those expenditures that were made by tenants, legal or customary rights existing outside the tenancy agreement might have provided at least some security. Outgoing farmers, for instance, could be due compensation for their “unexhausted improvements,” as under Ulster (Ireland) and English tenant right, and some landlords might have been able to establish a reputation for not unfairly treating their tenantry. Furthermore, when the economic conditions faced by farmers were depressed or uncertain, many tenants actually preferred a short lease because this ensured that they were not tied to the holding if it turned out to be unprofitable.

Leases could have promoted innovative, or at least best practice, farming if the landowner had used these documents to insist on the tenantry adopting certain types of crops and crop rotations. Evidence from England during the long eighteenth century, however, indicates that the husbandry clauses written into leases were primarily designed to restrict tenants from engaging in a course of farming that would be deleterious to long-term soil fertility, rather than stipulating that the latest agricultural methods be employed. Thus instead of demanding that (say) turnips be cultivated, popular covenants in English leases included those prohibiting the growing of more than two successive cereal crops on the same field or the plowing of pasture land without the landowner’s prior written consent.

Tithes

Landlords and tenants were not the only parties with a close interest in the produce of the soil. Farmers frequently had to pay tithe, a tax payable for the support of the church. Probably originating as a voluntary payment in early Christian communities, tithes became a legally enforced obligation in many countries – particularly in western Europe – during the Middle Ages. The tithe was supposedly levied at one tenth of the gross value of the farm’s annual produce and was traditionally paid in kind, whereby the clergyman would claim every tenth sheaf of corn (etc.). In practice, a complex combination of case law and custom exempted various types of land and products. Moreover, frequently the tithe owner was not actually a member of the clergy, often because a layperson had purchased church-owned land that had tithing rights attached to it. Many contemporary agricultural writers, not without some justification, criticized tithes in kind on the grounds that they acted as a disincentive to agrarian improvement because, as with a sharecropping agreement, the farmer did not receive the full amount of any rise in farm output. Payment of tithes in kind also offered substantial scope for friction between tithe payers and collectors, for example over whether new crops, such as potatoes, were titheable. To thwart those farmers who sought to under-report their produce, or give poor quality products as tithe (one milkmaid urinated in the tithe milk), the tithing man typically collected his due from the fields rather than allowing the payer to deliver it to the tithe barn.

On account of these disputes and inconveniences, tithes in kind were often commuted to a fixed or variable annual cash payment. Alternatively an allotment of land or a lump sum might be given in return for the church extinguishing tithes. Many of these substitutions were achieved under government legislation, such as the 1836 and 1936 Tithe Acts in England. Yet cash payment was far from being free from conflict arising, for instance, when the church attempted to annul a fixed money charge that, owing to inflation, had fallen to a trifling amount. The underlying friction peaked in so-called tithe wars, which were characterized by demonstrations by payers and varying degrees of violent clashes with collectors; examples include Ireland in the 1830s and England and Wales in the 1930s. In short, the multiplicity of tithing customs and seemingly endless disputes over payment suggest that some tithe owners at some times got closer to obtaining their tenth than others.

Bibliography

Alston, Lee J. and Robert Higgs. “Contractual Mix in Southern Agriculture since the Civil War: Facts, Hypotheses, and Tests.” Journal of Economic History 42 (1982): 327-53.

Blum, Jerome. The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Brinkman, Carl, Heinrich Cunow, Fritz Heichelheim, Robert H. Lowie, George McCutchen McBride, David Mitrany, Radha Kamal Mukerjee, Peter Struve and Yosaburo Takekoshi. “Land Tenure.” In The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, Volume 9, 73-127. London: Macmillan, 1933.

Cameron, Rondo and Larry Neal. A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, fourth edition, 2003.

Carmona, Juan and James Simpson. “The ‘Rabassa Morta’ in Catalan Viticulture: The Rise and Decline of a Long-Term Sharecropping Contract, 1670s-1920s.” Journal of Economic History 59 (1999): 290-315.

Evans, Eric J. The Contentious Tithe: The Tithe Problem and English Agriculture, 1750-1850. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976.

Harvey, Barbara. “The Leasing of the Abbot of Westminster’s Demesnes in the Later Middle Ages.” Economic History Review 22 (1969): 17-27.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel and Joseph Goy. Tithe and Agrarian History from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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

Otsuka, Keijiro, Hiroyuki Chuma and Yujiro Hayami. “Land and Labor Contracts in Agrarian Economies: Theories and Facts.” Journal of Economic Literature 30 (1992): 1965-2018.

Overton, Mark. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy, 1500-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Stead, David R. “Crops and Contracts: Land Tenure in England, c. 1700-1850.” D.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2002.

Swinnen, Johan F. M. “Political Reforms, Rural Crises and Land Tenure in Western Europe.” Food Policy 27 (2002): 371-94.

Wade Martins, Susanna and Tom Williamson. “The Development of the Lease and Its Role in Agricultural Improvement in East Anglia, 1660-1870.” Agricultural History Review 46 (1998): 127-41.

Whyte, Ian D. “Written Leases and Their Impact on Scottish Agriculture in the Seventeenth Century.” Agricultural History Review 27 (1979): 1-9.

Young, H. Peyton and Mary A. Burke. “Competition and Custom in Economic Contracts: A Case Study of Illinois Agriculture.” American Economic Review 91 (2001): 559-73.

Citation: Stead, David. “Agricultural Tenures and Tithes”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. January 25, 2004. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/agricultural-tenures-and-tithes/

Living Standards in Latin American History: Height, Welfare, and Development, 1750-2000

Author(s):Salvatore, Ricardo D.
Coatsworth, John H.
Challú, Amílcar E.
Reviewer(s):Salvucci, Richard

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Ricardo D. Salvatore, John H. Coatsworth and Am?lcar E. Chall?, editors, Living Standards in Latin American History: Height, Welfare, and Development, 1750-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. iii + 313 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-674-05585-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Richard Salvucci, Department of Economics, Trinity University.

In 1999, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) at Harvard University published a milestone work in the field of economic history, Latin America and the World Economy Since 1800.? I reviewed the book for EH.Net and concluded something to the effect that if you wanted to know where the action was in Latin American history, you had come to the right place. I hate to sound like a broken record, but I can?t help thinking much the same about this volume. Sixty percent of the book (measured crudely, by page count) is still about Argentina, Brazil and Mexico ? and whatever ?Latin America? is, it isn?t that. However, its authors are an altogether different group and part of a new generation of scholars, which is only fitting. While it is true that there were historians, especially of the ?Berkeley School,? who had concerned themselves with historical patterns of indigenous diet and nutrition in Mexico under the stress of European colonization, when Woodrow Borah died in 1999, his publications were still regarded as the best work on the subject.? The highest compliment I can pay to these authors is that Borah would have admired and appreciated their efforts as a decisive advance. For like its predecessor, Living Standards in Latin American History is pioneering work.

Mexico ???

Appropriately enough, the volume begins with two studies of Mexico, and even if they were not intended to be read together as a revisionist work, they amount to just that. Am?lcar Chall? and Morimay L?pez Alonso have given us two centuries of Mexican anthropometric history, and if they don?t precisely answer all the questions, they reframe the debate. Based on comparable archival records (from the military ? some draftees, others volunteers) and methods of analysis (Maximum Likelihood Estimation of Truncated Distributions), they tell a story something like the following. After 1730, the stature of the lower classes (especially peasants, but later, urban workers too) fell for nearly a century. Starting for generations born around 1830, there was a recovery until 1850, and then another fall for generations born around 1860 and continuing through 1880, after which there was some recovery through the outbreak of the Revolution in 1910. Whereas the Revolution of 1810 seems to have had little effect on stature (even though population losses, at perhaps a million people, were enormous), the Revolution of 1910 (with catastrophic losses placed as high as three million) exacted a cost in lost stature reflected in a sharp decline in life expectancy. Recovery did not begin until the generations of 1920 and 1930. The sample size after 1940 is too restricted to draw firm conclusions, although elsewhere, L?pez Alonso has cast some doubt on the ubiquity of the heyday of the so-called ?Mexican Miracle.?

I think economic historians will be arguing about the significance of these results for years, for they both support and contradict the long-standing thesis of the ?decline of Mexico,? which has now become something like conventional wisdom, although there are dissenters.? Nor do Chall? and L?pez Alonso propose merely some trivial modification of chronology. There is now reason to suspect that Mexican independence actually meant something, after being told for years that rupture in government and its institutions was an outdated fetish of political historians. Specifically, Chall? implies that the much-vaunted ?Bourbon Reforms? and their spectacular translation into mineral wealth and imperial revenues coincided with the start of an equally impressive decline in popular welfare. On the other hand, the disintegration of the Bourbon state, which may have approximated its nadir in the 1830s and 1840s, coincided with the first signs of a temporary recovery. It is probably deeply significant that our hesitant attempts to reach some approximation of the value of national output ? in truth, hardly much of an advance on what contemporaries could conjure up in the nineteenth century ? have suggested precisely the opposite. There are, it appears, lies, damned lies, and Mexican GDP.
???
Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile

Similar themes emerge in these essays. According to Adolfo Meisel and Margarita Vega, who employ a sample of nearly 16,000 passports, the standard of living in Colombia in 1870-1905 was stagnant, something reflected in the largely unchanged height of the Colombian elite. The general impression of a much-delayed onset of export-led growth is confirmed by very slow population growth (perhaps one percent per year) and essentially flat terms of trade.? If anything, the work of Meisel and Vega leads one to have somewhat greater confidence in the pre-1905 price data and population data, which are by no means as abundant as the passport data from the wide range of cities they employ.

The very loose association between stature and conventional measurements of national product is again taken up by Ricardo Salvatore in his study of Argentina between 1901 and 1940. To reduce Salvatore?s argument to its essentials, conventional macroeconomic indicators ? per capita GDP, exports, real wages ? provide rather different, and not necessarily consistent, measures of welfare, although the nature of the series themselves casts some doubt on whether rank-order correlations are necessarily the best way of disentangling them.? Nevertheless, after constructing Ordinal Quality of Life indices, Salvatore concludes that Argentines were unambiguously better off in 1929 than they had been in 1914. On the other hand, whether they were better off in 1914 than in 1901 is ambiguous, and depends on the measures of welfare chosen. But by 1939 Argentines were unambiguously better off than they had been in 1901. Salvatore has underscored the point that neither stature nor GDP can possibly be considered decisive measures of welfare, although presumably, to have been better off in 1939 than 1901 you still had to be breathing. Death and the long run require no introduction to readers of this review.

The paper on growth and inequalities of height in Brazil by Leonardo Monasterio and his coauthors is, by contrast, somewhat more conventional. Its principal focus is the dimensions of inequality, social, ethnic and geographical, and their reflection in anthropometric data. In a way, the results are less controversial, for they find that severe inequalities at personal and regional levels affected the height of Brazilians between 1939 and 1981.? It will be very interesting to see the extent to which the recent, much ballyhooed surge in Brazilian growth and the ostensible reduction in the country?s persistently deep inequalities show up in the anthropometric data as well. Realistically, what better confirmation could there be of whether or not reduction of poverty and inequality in Brazil in the twenty-first century ? as it is portrayed in the international media ? has occurred.?

Luis B?rtola and his coauthors are not concerned with anthropometric issues per se, but are rather involved with questions of convergence and its estimation, and of human development indices rather than of rates of income growth per se. For Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, their analysis also makes the reasonable supposition that inequality matters (although historical cynicism inclines me to wonder if more could not be explained by elite efforts to maintain inequality in some countries rather than to reduce it, at least until rather recently). But by all accounts the results of their exercise, which is explicitly concerned with issues of data specification and measurement, are provocative. To the extent that there is a consensus view, it has been that convergence in Latin America occurred mostly between 1940 and 1980, rather than before or (at least until 2000) since. For B?rtola and his coauthors, the effect largely disappears under disparities in measured educational achievement, a very significant and suggestive result in light of recent discussions of the decline of inequality in Latin America.? For this reason, this is a paper that merits wide reading and debate: it goes to the heart of some of the more interesting explanations for the recent ?end of poverty,? if not end of history discussions in the financial press that have left some observers shaking their heads.

James McGuire?s work on Chile is not anthropometric either, but it raises pertinent questions about what he terms the ?wealthier is healthier? conjecture. Even though democratic Chile was relatively affluent in 1960, infant mortality was high and life expectancy unexpectedly low, in part because the state responded to the organized demands of urban constituencies rather than concern itself with basic needs or absolute poverty. Ironically, much of this changed under the harshly repressive government of August Pinochet (1973-1990), although historians familiar with public health campaigns in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy might not be shocked by the coincidence. Whatever the case, McGuire makes it clear that the military government targeted the poorest areas in Chile for a larger share of public spending, with impressive results, including a 70 percent decline in infant mortality from 1974 to 1983. To the question of whether democratic governments necessarily improve public health, McGuire?s answer is necessarily ambiguous.

Guatemala

The paper by Luis R?os and Barry Bogin covers disturbingly similar ground, and then some. By and large, there is very little anthropometric evidence for an improvement in twentieth century Guatemala, and much to the contrary. Guatemalan migrants to the United States do better, at least in terms of body size and stature, which suggests that the facile characterization of indigenous peoples as ?short but healthy? misses the point, let alone a measure of lost human potential. But even worse, the skeletal evidence for the pre-contact population, while admittedly based on small samples and resulting in indirect projections of stature, suggests that the nutritional and disease environment for the ancient Maya were less stressful than for their twentieth century descendants. If there is anything that encapsulates the dismal view of the consequences of modernization that many historians of Latin America harbor in some recess of their consciousness, surely this paper provides some explanation. Yes, there is a lot of naive romanticism in the prelapsarian view of the Americas as a world that the Europeans destroyed. But as Freud is said to have famously remarked, ?The paranoid is never entirely mistaken.? I would like to know what Woodrow Borah, who thought somewhat differently, would have made of this paper.

Conclusion

The volume provides no overall conclusion, so the reader is more or less left to consider its implications on his or her own. Surely, there are plenty of provocative directions in which this fine, path-breaking collection could lead us. One that immediately occurred to me is its relation to the ongoing debate over declining inequality in Latin America since 2000.? I am really not competent to bring the findings of those scholars into this anthropometric perspective, but it is hard not to be struck by the fact that we are essentially being asked to believe that generations, if not centuries of a particular pattern ? a ?colonial heritage? ? have been permanently reversed in a decade, and in some cases, by nothing more than imaginative and sophisticated, but nevertheless relatively basic Conditional Cash Transfer programs in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, to name only those with which I have some familiarity. Was it really that easy (or that difficult)? Or do we conclude that virtually every misguided policy had to be exhausted in a sort of chronicle of political, ideological and technical ineptitude before emerging from absolute poverty and profound inequalities was possible? Did we really have to put the people of ?Latin America? through colonial repression, national revolution, liberal reformism and lost decades of structural adjustment before we could get them back to square one? After 500 years? I want to say ?I hope not,? but sad to say, I?m afraid so.

Richard Salvucci is writing a history of the Lizardi Brothers in Mexico, the United States, Great Britain and Europe from 1750 through 1890. He is the author of Politics, Markets and Mexico?s ?London Debt,? 1823-1887 (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Richard.Salvucci@trinity.edu

Copyright (c) 2011 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (June 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Paying for the Liberal State: The Rise of Public Finance in Nineteenth-Century Europe

Author(s):Cardoso, José Luís
Lains, Pedro
Reviewer(s):Dincecco, Mark

Published by EH.NET (August 2010)

Jos? Lu?s Cardoso and Pedro Lains, editors, Paying for the Liberal State: The Rise of Public Finance in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xii + 310 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-51852-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Dincecco, IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies.

?

Paying for the Liberal State is a novel collection of case studies about the development of modern systems of public finance in core and peripheral European countries from the start of the nineteenth century to the eve of World War I. The work is edited by Jos? Lu?s Cardoso and Pedro Lains, both Research Professors at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon. The contributors are prominent scholars in European economic history.

By my count, Paying for the Liberal State makes three key contributions. Prior to its publication, there was no book-length investigation of the development of public finances in Europe after 1815. I view Paying for the Liberal State as a nineteenth-century counterpart to works on pre-modern public finances like The Rise of the Fiscal State in Europe, 1200-1815, edited by Richard Bonney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). With its focus on detailed case histories, Paying for the Liberal State also complements the cross-country, econometrics-oriented literature that covers the classic gold standard era from the 1870s to 1913. Finally, by providing a clear and accessible account of the evolution of public finances over the long run, Paying for the Liberal State will be of use to scholars in neighboring disciplines that study the interplay between politics and fiscal change. I describe other notable attributes of this book throughout my review.

The chapter ordering of Paying for the Liberal State runs according to relative fiscal sophistication. Britain represents the benchmark tax system. According to contributor Martin Daunton, the establishment of parliamentary budgetary control in 1688 was just one of many steps towards the creation of a fiscal regime that was truly legitimate in the eyes of taxpayers. Changes in tax composition, the extension of voter franchise, and instances of political leadership over the nineteenth century were also crucial elements to engender public trust.

Lack of legitimacy was one feature that distinguished the fiscal systems on the European continent from that of Britain. The chapter on the Netherlands by Jan Luiten van Zanden and Arthur van Riel draws heavily from their recent book (The Strictures of Inheritance: The Dutch Economy in the Nineteenth Century, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). Van Zanden and van Riel provide a useful timeline of Continental political processes over the nineteenth century: the restoration of absolutist rulers after 1815, the transition to liberalism in the 1840s, and the extension of voting rights from the 1870s onwards. Their analysis of the failure of the ?enlightened? autocrat William I (reign, 1815-40) illustrates how transparency and political representation helped create a credible tax regime. Van Zanden and van Riel?s description of the importance of colonial possessions like Indonesia to the sustainability of Dutch finances is also of particular interest. The chapter on France by Bonney emphasizes two related factors that prevented nineteenth-century fiscal innovations. The longevity of an oligarchic social order, coupled with the broad failure of population growth, slowed the establishment of public trust in the French tax system.

The next chapters are dedicated to polities east of the Rhine River, where issues of state formation were crucial. The contribution by Mark Spoerer on Germany neatly describes the political geography of the German territories before unification in 1871. Spoerer concentrates on Prussia, the largest nineteenth-century state, and W?rttemberg, an example of the sort of impersonal tax systems that prevailed in the South. His discussion of tax competition and free-riding among pre-unitary polities should be of particular interest to political economists. The chapter on Italy by Giovanni Federico illustrates how the aggressive pre-unitary state of Piedmont made fiscal innovations to further its nationalistic ambitions. Federico also documents the continuity between Piedmontese tax institutions and those in the Kingdom of Italy, established in 1861, as well as the shortcomings of Piedmontese (and later, Italian) fiscal policies. The chapter on Austria-Hungary by Michael Pammer provides a lucid account of tax differences within the vast Empire. In contrast to Germany and Italy, Pammer?s work shows how fiscal problems can lead to the dissolution of states.

The remaining case studies are devoted to other aspects of the European experience. The chapter on Sweden by Lennart Sch?n highlights the unique features of its fiscal system. Peasants were represented in parliament since late medieval times and played an important role in Swedish politics, often forming alliances with the king against the nobility. The link between the traditional political power of the peasantry and the modern Swedish welfare state illustrates how history can influence current outcomes. Surprisingly, Swedish public finances relied upon archaic tax structures including payments in kind through most of the nineteenth century. The chapter on Spain by Francisco Com?n describes the interplay between politics and public finances in great detail. Negative political shocks including civil war repeatedly undermined efforts to enact fiscal reforms, no matter how important they may have been. The chapter on Portugal by Cardoso and Lains follows suit. Their take on the excruciating process of institutional change over the nineteenth century is sympathetic, as Portugal (like Spain) was ultimately able to establish modern fiscal structures.

The conclusion by Larry Neal employs comparative analysis to bring together the divergent case studies. Neal makes compelling use of Harley Hinrichs? classic model of tax transformation from traditional to modern economies (A General Theory of Tax Structure Change during Economic Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966). His contrast between Britain and the European continent is of particular interest. Drawing upon the carefully-established results from previous chapters, Neal argues that it was difficult to transfer British fiscal institutions abroad, though they were widely recognized as superior. This subtle point has implications for current policy debates: if Anglo tax structures were not easily replicated throughout Europe, with its shared history of economic and political traditions, then we might think that it will be even harder to export updated versions of them to the modern developing world, which has diverse historical legacies.

In total, Paying for the Liberal State is a valuable addition to the historical literature on European public finance. Jean-Laurent Rosenthal claims that the main policy problem for governments since 1800 has been to design and implement growth-enhancing fiscal strategies (Review of The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, by Robert Allen. Journal of Economic History 70, no. 1 [2010]: 242-5). Through its detailed evaluation of the diverse ways in which nineteenth-century governments taxed, borrowed, and spent public funds, Paying for the Liberal State provides insights that help us to better understand this key challenge. By and large the book does not use the language or tools of modern political economics to frame its analysis. Now that a coherent set of case histories are in place, however, there is ample opportunity for enterprising research that builds upon the solid foundations that Paying for the Liberal State sets.

?

Mark Dincecco is Assistant Professor in the research area of Economics and Institutional Change at IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies, located in Tuscany. His current manuscript, under contract with Cambridge University Press, examines political transformations and public finances in Europe from 1650 to 1913. Email: m.dincecco@imtlucca.it.

Copyright (c) 2010 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (August 2010). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

Migration and Inequality in Germany, 1870-1913

Author(s):Grant, Oliver
Reviewer(s):Wegge, Simone A.

Published by EH.NET (April 2009)

Oliver Grant, Migration and Inequality in Germany, 1870-1913. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. vii + 406 pp. $199.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-927656-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Simone A. Wegge, Department of Economics, College of Staten Island ? City University of New York.

In this impressive work, Grant explores the economic transition that Germany underwent during its period of industrialization. The Kehrite School, inspired by a doctoral thesis Eckart Kehr published in 1930, has argued that prior to 1914 Germany did not make necessary and important social changes that would have modernized German democratic society and made government more accountable and accessible to non-elites, the vast majority of the German population.

Here, Grant presents an alternative view, namely that Germany was not that different or special in the challenges it faced in moving from an agricultural economy to a more industrial one. The country faced many of the typical problems that a developing country goes through when industrializing, including a surplus of labor, shifting demographics, a migrant population, and changing land tenure systems. Throughout the book, the author applies the Lewis model of labor surplus from development economics and finds again and again that it is very suitable for describing the evolution of the German economy and specifically how internal migration can fit in a stage-of-growth story.

While Grant?s main objective is to counter the Kehrite view and convince the reader that Germany faced ?normal? problems over which its politicians had little control, the largest part of the book, eight of the ten chapters, is not about political history but instead about how agriculture, industry, income inequality, and demographics changed over the course of four decades or so. Only the first and last chapters deal specifically with the sociopolitical economy of Germany. As such, the first and last chapters seem somewhat divorced from the middle eight chapters.

Grant?s work provides an explanation as to how the migration decisions of many Germans were related to the economic transformations taking place in the German economy. As the German economy expanded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many workers had to make adjustments in leaving declining businesses and occupations and taking up better-paid ones in other parts of Germany or the world. By 1895 German emigration had decreased substantially from its heyday, and more Germans could find employment somewhere at home.

At the outset of Migration and Inequality, Grant suggests that Germany be considered among the group of late-stage developers like Russia, Italy and Spain, all of which adopted British technology. However, by 1890 Germany had a GDP per capita that was substantially larger than that of all three of these countries (Crafts, 1984, 440, Table 1). Using a Chernery-Syrquin framework, Crafts considers Germany to have industrialized later than Britain and Belgium but around the same time as France and well ahead of Italy, Russia and Spain (Crafts, 1984, 448-9). A bit more consideration of such findings would have been helpful.

In Chapter 3 Grant presents some of his main results on internal migration as it was affected by an economy on the path to industrialization. Here he provides a picture of who moved in and who moved out, and how the long-distance migration flows were related differentially to agriculture, industry and especially railroad building. He uses a number of sources, most of which are aggregated statistics previously published, but his key results in this chapter are based mostly on one city, Berlin. I would have preferred that he had examined more cities. He could at least have framed the results in light of other recent works on internal German migration such as Hochstadt (1999) on D?sseldorf and Jackson (1997) on the Ruhr Valley, a hotbed of industrial activity at this time. Both works are listed in the bibliography, but more effort towards placing his findings in the context of these works would have made this an even more valuable study.

Grant?s work also places a large emphasis on internal migration and less so on Germans who left for overseas destinations. Migration is analyzed at a macro and not at the micro level. This approach misses insights on selection patterns that could be gained from looking at how migrants differed from non-migrants. Of course, migration history is an enormous subject, and no single book on migration history can be all things to all scholars.

Chapter 4 expands on this work by describing what important variables influenced internal migration. Agricultural areas lost more than urban areas, as a significant amount of the internal migration consisted of classic rural-urban moves. Further, people were more likely to leave places with lots of large farms, a close proximity to cities and high rates of productivity growth in agriculture. Grant tackles demographic issues in Chapter 5. All sorts of demographic variables differed by region, with the upshot that after 1870, population growth was higher in the east than in the south: although both regions experienced sizable emigration flows the east still lost more people than the south, partly due to a much higher percentage of women who never married in the south.

With a heavy emphasis on eastern Germany, Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the popular view of nineteenth-century social scientists that there was something backward about the prevalence of large estates and a property-less agricultural labor force in the east when peasants in the rest of Germany tended to own their own holdings. Grant argues that higher wages in the urban centers convinced many young people in the east to abandon their parents? way of life, which prompted estate owners to seek seasonal laborers from Poland. Wages were low in the east partly because landowners had a substitute labor force.

Grant finds other evidence that migration in the decades after 1870 represented a release of surplus labor from conditions of underemployment, as the Lewis model predicts. Regions of high productivity growth in the agricultural sector were correlated with higher migration rates: as farmers became more productive they needed fewer workers. At the same time though, the product mix changed, towards more labor?intensive activities like root crops (sugar beets) and livestock. With suspected widespread underemployment across Germany many in agricultural areas could still be employed, and in the east a cheap seasonal labor force was available for such crops.

Grant also argues that in the 1870s and 1880s migration was more likely to take place from communities with high population densities, which validates the prediction of the Lewis Model he presents in Chapter 1. This result should be considered with some caution, as it is based on a regression with basically just one right-hand-side variable, population density. What else could be driving migration rates?

In Chapter 8, Grant finally discusses the process of industrialization in more detail, focusing on capital markets and Germany?s changing terms of trade as related to exports. ?Inequality,? part of what is promised by the book?s title, is finally tackled in Chapter 9, where Grant calculates Gini coefficients from Prussian tax statistics. Inequality was never that high in Germany but ironically it was higher in the urban sector than in the rural sector. Grant finds evidence for a Kuznets Curve and argues that his findings fit within the perspectives of Kuznets, Lewis and Weber.

Grant covers a lot of ground in his book. There are dozens and dozens of different tables and regression estimates spread throughout this work. Like a good detective he has dusted off many existing studies and sources of data from government and journal publications, many published more than a century ago and many of which have undergone little sophisticated treatment. By using modern statistical and regression analysis he sheds new light on these previously published sources. In fact there are so many tables and maps, I wish he had devoted a few pages to listing them in an organized fashion. He also goes out of his way to make this work user-friendly by placing most of the econometric results in the appendices and explaining their economic and social significance in the main body of each chapter. This feature makes the book very accessible to a variety of social and economic historians.

While he refers to long-standing debates stemming from the scholarship of Max Weber, Eckart Kehr and Kuznets, there could be more reference to the debates that economic historians are currently engaged in. As I mentioned above, comparison with Crafts? work would have been desirable. Using the insights of recent studies on internal migration within Germany would also have been helpful. Further, while Grant spends time comparing land ownership institutions between Britain and Germany, it would have been intriguing to know more about his thoughts on Britain?s own experience with a surplus of labor. Contrasting his findings with those of Baines (1985) would have been interesting, and perhaps this may provide Grant with an idea for further work.

In spite of these quibbles, Grant lays down piece by piece the argument that between 1870 and 1913, Germany was going through economic adjustment problems, and that these should be considered as a normal part of most industrialization processes, both historical and contemporary. This is the thesis of the book. Importantly, he argues that the Kehrite School, which viewed Germany as deeply flawed, has overlooked relevant economic realities and focused too much on internal political problems. Without trade, for instance, Germany could not have industrialized, as self-sufficiency would have entailed a higher agricultural labor force and allowed fewer for the factories. Here Germany needed food imports, which it supported with a moderate level of protection. Even the Kaiser acknowledged this.

Grant thus comes to reject the Kehrite School view that Germany suffered from internal socioeconomic flaws and could not make adequate political progress. Instead, he states on page 354 that ?the path to democracy was getting easier, not more difficult.? He goes further to conclude that ?The events of 1914 represented a derailment …? He thus provides his own particular views on the Sonderweg debate in German history, which attempts to trace the political-economic origins of the Nazi catastrophe. Luckily for him, his book ends in 1913. If we are to accept Grant?s view and reject the Kerite perspective that German sociopolitical evolution was misguided, we need a roadmap that takes us through World War I and further ? food for thought for future research.

For those interested in a case study of long-term economic development and transition, Grant provides a very interesting example in the form of Germany in the late nineteenth century. Germany industrialized inordinately quickly and came to dominate Europe not only economically but obviously politically in the twentieth century. Economic historians need to understand this particular case and compare it to others. Grant succeeds admirably in showing that it is relevant that we characterize historical processes accurately, both to understand the past and to examine carefully how socioeconomic evolution affects later periods. Lastly, Grant has provided a work that reminds economists and others of what insights they can gain on economic growth and political history by examining economic history.

References:

Baines, Dudley. Migration in a Mature Economy: Emigration and Internal Migration in England and Wales, 1861-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Crafts, N. F. R. 1984. ?Patterns of Development in Nineteenth Century Europe.? Oxford Economic Papers 36 (3): 438-58.

Hochstadt, Steve. Mobility and Modernity: Migration in Germany, 1820-1989. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Kehr, Eckart. Battleship Building and Party Politics in Germany 1894-1901: A Cross-Section of the Political, Social, and Ideological Preconditions of German Imperialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Kehr, Eckart (ed. by Gordon A. Craig). Economic Interest, Militarism, and Foreign Policy: Essays on German History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Jackson, James H. Jr. Migration and Urbanization in the Ruhr Valley, 1821-1914. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1997.

Simone A. Wegge is an associate professor of economics at the College of Staten Island and at the Graduate Center, both of the City University of New York. Her research focuses on European and German economic history, especially emigration. Her most recent paper is titled ?Network Strategies of Nineteenth-Century Hesse-Cassel Emigrants.? History of the Family 13 (3): 296-314.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles)

Author(s):Devroey, Jean-Pierre
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Jean-Pierre Devroey, ?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles). Paris: Belin, 2003. 381 pp. ?22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 2-7011-2618-5.

and

Jean-Pierre Devroey, Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles). Brussels: Academie Royale de Belgique, 2006. 725 pp. ?60.50 (cloth), ISBN: 2-8031-0227-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

Most economic historians who do not specialize in the medieval period draw their understanding of its economic and social evolution directly or indirectly from the work of historians inspired by Henri Pirenne and Marc Bloch, both of whom viewed it as a decisive turning point in Western history. As set out by Georges Duby in his essay on the early growth of the European economy, the half millennium following the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West marks the crucial discontinuity in Western Europe’s economic and social history.[1] The notion was, of course, not new. Originating in the humanist philological critique of early medieval Latin, the notion of a decisive break in social, political, and economic institutions was extended to other domains in the debate between Abb? Du Bos and Montesquieu over whether the Franks were subject to royal taxation, and by early nineteenth-century efforts to construct historical typologies from the surviving diplomatic and legal texts as part of the project to place the French Revolution in historical perspective. That effort led to a consensus that the West experienced a major economic and institutional collapse in the sixth and seventh centuries, and that from the wreckage there emerged a more decentralized economic and political system based on the exploitation of the rural population by lords connected politically in hierarchies constructed from bilateral ties of mutual obligation and fidelity. That institutional space left little room for agricultural innovation and hardly any for economic organization founded on the legal egalitarianism of voluntary exchange. The historiography thus posed three questions: the first concerned the process by which the old world was transformed into a new one; the second concerned the nature of that new world as an economic and social type; the third was how it in turn gave birth to modern western capitalism. Since the dissolution of Roman civilization was an uncontested fact, most attention was devoted to the second and third questions. It is only in the past thirty years that the first has received the attention it deserves, with devastating consequences for the conventional wisdom.

The present works by the eminent Belgian historian Jean-Pierre Devroey represent a vigorous defense of the conventional view that the early medieval society and economy was a distinct social type fundamentally different from the societies that preceded and succeeded it. Explicitly inspired by the theories of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi, this vision is idealistic rather than causal or mechanistic, to use an old-fashioned dichotomy. It aims to explain “why” things worked in terms of their relation to a pre-existing whole rather than “how” they worked in terms of ordinary connections between cause and effect. For Devroey, the true history is sociology. The historian’s task is to show how relations between different elements of a society formed a coherent “whole” or type. The theoretical foundation of this approach to the past is Durkheim’s tenet that social cohesion is a necessary condition for the temporal persistence of a society. This makes the central task of the historian the identification of the sources and mechanisms of that cohesion. Since every society is unique, the mechanisms will differ, providing a basis for comparative analysis of societies. The project of these two works, then, is to construct an ideal type for that analysis. As Teggart pointed out long ago, this approach to history is essentially teleological, since it presumes the whole used to explain the meaning of the parts.[2] In the present case the “whole” is Frankish society. The books thus fall in the category of “stages” history, to which may be added work on the same period by the English historian Chris Wickham, whose approach is also inspired by Polanyi notions of reciprocity and redistribution as essential means of securing social solidarity in primitive societies.[3] Both authors read the early medieval record through the eyes of social anthropologists, and are thus blind to what the eyes of Machiavelli and Adam Smith detect in it.

Devroey’s work thus poses a direct challenge to the alternative vision of early medieval society proposed by Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Jean Durliat and Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, who view the early Middle Ages from the perspective of the two great theorists of self-interested human behavior. That perspective reveals significant continuity with late Roman civilization in Frankish institutions of public administration and landholding.[4] The findings rest on a re-reading of the polemical and chronological texts, on prosographical studies of the leading Frankish families in the degree the evidence supports it, and on close analysis of the contemporary legal texts. It starts from the premise that the dissolution of the Roman state in the West was essentially an appropriation of its levers of power by German military leaders to whom the Roman state had unwisely subcontracted the defense of the Empire. Given that premise, the central historical questions turn on how the change in administration affected existing governmental apparatus and the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and how political legitimacy ? the ability to command and the willingness to obey ? was maintained in the presence of new and foreign rulers. Of the day-to-day life we know virtually nothing; but it seems plausible that in the core of the Frankish kingdom, things went on pretty much as before, except that, as would be the case down to the middle of the seventeenth century, there was fighting among elites for control of the state and its fiscal resources, and that for this and other reasons that part of the economy based on exchange imploded. On the sources of political legitimacy and the apparatus of administration, the texts are more loquacious, and everything thing they say supports the notion of continuity rather than the creation of a new society by force.[5] If so, the early medieval past was not a different country, but a place and time where men (and women) behaved in ways that are familiar to us. It did not constitute a “whole” whose meaning is accessible only through an exposition of its inner logic, but a congeries of institutions, practices, and attitudes evolving at different rates under the pressure of particular events.

From the perspective of economic history the main issues concern the nature of landholding and the organization of the state. Was land effectively “owned” by the elite and farmed by tenants on tenures determined by asymmetric bargaining, or was it mostly in the hands of small holders subject to their paying a property tax? To some that may be a distinction without a difference: taxes mainly went to support soldiers who the conventional historiography holds were granted land and rights of peasants in payment for their services. In either case the agricultural surplus went to the same people. But from the perspective of agrarian history the distinction is crucial. Taxes were based on assessments not easily altered, since they were regulated by law. On the assumption that they continued to be collected by tax farmers, the proceeds, or more commonly the tax base that generated them, could be securitized and alienated like any other asset, which would explain the exceptionally complex pattern of claims revealed by the sources. The issue turns on the continuity of law. The “primitivist” view of early medieval society espoused by Devroey considers the early medieval era to be fundamentally lawless and governed by relations of force in which the strong expropriated the weak. The “Romanist” view holds for legal continuity; the strong appropriated the tax base but within what must have been fairly wide bounds maintained the rule of law with respect to collection. The issue bears directly on the interpretation of terms relating to agricultural organization, which can be read alternatively as describing estates and farms or as units of fiscal assessment. According to Devroey, the “fiscalist” view is in his words “formalist,” because it rests on the explicit meaning of the legal texts rather than their presumed “real” meaning. He denies that view at great length and in great detail. The denial represents the core of both volumes.

Neither book is an easy read. ?conomie rurale is intended as a textbook for students preparing the aggr?gation, or state doctoral examinations in medieval history. Puissants et mis?rables is a treatise constructed on Weberian principles modified by late twentieth-century French sociology. Both deploy immense erudition to support the conventional view of a discontinuity and social primitivism against the hypothesis of continuity. Since the technical debate turns on etymological issues bearing on individual terms, it would be fruitless to attempt to summarize the argument in a short review. I am not persuaded by it, but as I am not a specialist in late Roman and early medieval Latin my judgment carries no special weight in the debate. Nevertheless, many of his arguments strike me as dogmatic assertions and special pleading. Heavy reliance on Polanyi as a source of theoretical insight raises further danger flags, as do abstract sociological arguments used to motivate description and analysis of institutions. One longs for a simple explanation of how things worked rather than why they worked. In terms of the issues raised, both books would have been better served by a clear exposition of the alternative points of view followed by analysis of facts bearing on them. They contain a lot of useful matter, but it is hard work to release them from their matrix of verbiage. The bibliography is magnificent. To cite the review of Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the books give the impression that “there is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.”[6] There is, of course, much more to be said.

Of the two works, the textbook is more accessible to non-specialists, despite being disfigured by “boxes” containing further information of the kind familiar to users of elementary textbooks in economics. The other covers more ground and provides a splendid introduction to the huge explosion in scholarship since the 1960s. Neither book can be ignored. Though clearly not the last word in early medieval economic and social history, they represent a major contribution that no one pretending to an opinion on the period can afford to dismiss. They are, however, highly opinionated, and must be read in conjunction with the literature they criticize. This is hard work, but there are no short-cuts to mastering the secondary literature on early medieval economic history. The divisions among its main practitioners are important and deep. The best account in English is a recent survey by Goldsmith, who gives a clear exposition of the “fiscalist” hypothesis, and follows up its implications for the subsequent evolution of land tenure in France to the end of the Middle Ages.[7] This is the best place for beginners to start.

The early middle ages are a fascinating and central segment of the history of western civilization. Like all extended periods, they were a time of transition. The explosion of scholarship since the 1960s and the renewal of interest in classical antiquity have given new life to a subject whose general contours seemed to have been set in stone in the magnificent syntheses proposed by Pirenne and Bloch. It is time for a new synthesis that encompasses the new findings and interpretations in a plausible narrative account of the transformation of a society and economy over five centuries. That synthesis is within reach, but to attain it will require confronting these two large volumes that, like the Roman army in its latter days, defend the conventional wisdom on the several fronts of attack.

References:

1. Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, London (1974).

2. Frederick J. Teggart, Theory of History, New Haven (1925).

3. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400 – 800, Oxford (2005).

4. Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Naissance de la noblesse: L’essor des ?lites politiques en Europe, Paris (1998); Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, Aux sources de la gestion publique. 1. Enqu?te lexicographique sur le fundus, villa, domus, mansus, Lille (1993); Jean Durliat, Les finances publiques de Diocl?tien aux Carolingiens, 284-889, Sigmaringen (1990).

5. Bernard Bachrach, Early Medieval Warfare: Prelude to Empire, Philadelphia (2001).

6. Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, London (2003).

7. James Lowth Goldsmith, Lordship in France, 500-1500, New York (2003).

George Grantham is Professor of Economics at McGill University, where he teaches economic history and the history of economic thought. His work on the present topic includes “The Early Medieval Transition: On the Origins of the Manor and the Early Medieval Transition,” presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Economic Association, Nashville, 2003. He is currently revising papers on “What’s Space Got to Do with It? Distance and Agricultural Productivity before the Railway Age” and “The Prehistoric Origins of European Economic Integration.”

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles)

Author(s):Devroey, Jean-Pierre
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Jean-Pierre Devroey, ?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles). Paris: Belin, 2003. 381 pp. ?22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 2-7011-2618-5. and Jean-Pierre Devroey, Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles). Brussels: Academie Royale de Belgique, 2006. 725 pp. ?60.50 (cloth), ISBN: 2-8031-0227-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

Most economic historians who do not specialize in the medieval period draw their understanding of its economic and social evolution directly or indirectly from the work of historians inspired by Henri Pirenne and Marc Bloch, both of whom viewed it as a decisive turning point in Western history. As set out by Georges Duby in his essay on the early growth of the European economy, the half millennium following the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West marks the crucial discontinuity in Western Europe’s economic and social history.[1] The notion was, of course, not new. Originating in the humanist philological critique of early medieval Latin, the notion of a decisive break in social, political, and economic institutions was extended to other domains in the debate between Abb? Du Bos and Montesquieu over whether the Franks were subject to royal taxation, and by early nineteenth-century efforts to construct historical typologies from the surviving diplomatic and legal texts as part of the project to place the French Revolution in historical perspective. That effort led to a consensus that the West experienced a major economic and institutional collapse in the sixth and seventh centuries, and that from the wreckage there emerged a more decentralized economic and political system based on the exploitation of the rural population by lords connected politically in hierarchies constructed from bilateral ties of mutual obligation and fidelity. That institutional space left little room for agricultural innovation and hardly any for economic organization founded on the legal egalitarianism of voluntary exchange. The historiography thus posed three questions: the first concerned the process by which the old world was transformed into a new one; the second concerned the nature of that new world as an economic and social type; the third was how it in turn gave birth to modern western capitalism. Since the dissolution of Roman civilization was an uncontested fact, most attention was devoted to the second and third questions. It is only in the past thirty years that the first has received the attention it deserves, with devastating consequences for the conventional wisdom.

The present works by the eminent Belgian historian Jean-Pierre Devroey represent a vigorous defense of the conventional view that the early medieval society and economy was a distinct social type fundamentally different from the societies that preceded and succeeded it. Explicitly inspired by the theories of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi, this vision is idealistic rather than causal or mechanistic, to use an old-fashioned dichotomy. It aims to explain “why” things worked in terms of their relation to a pre-existing whole rather than “how” they worked in terms of ordinary connections between cause and effect. For Devroey, the true history is sociology. The historian’s task is to show how relations between different elements of a society formed a coherent “whole” or type. The theoretical foundation of this approach to the past is Durkheim’s tenet that social cohesion is a necessary condition for the temporal persistence of a society. This makes the central task of the historian the identification of the sources and mechanisms of that cohesion. Since every society is unique, the mechanisms will differ, providing a basis for comparative analysis of societies. The project of these two works, then, is to construct an ideal type for that analysis. As Teggart pointed out long ago, this approach to history is essentially teleological, since it presumes the whole used to explain the meaning of the parts.[2] In the present case the “whole” is Frankish society. The books thus fall in the category of “stages” history, to which may be added work on the same period by the English historian Chris Wickham, whose approach is also inspired by Polanyi notions of reciprocity and redistribution as essential means of securing social solidarity in primitive societies.[3] Both authors read the early medieval record through the eyes of social anthropologists, and are thus blind to what the eyes of Machiavelli and Adam Smith detect in it.

Devroey’s work thus poses a direct challenge to the alternative vision of early medieval society proposed by Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Jean Durliat and Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, who view the early Middle Ages from the perspective of the two great theorists of self-interested human behavior. That perspective reveals significant continuity with late Roman civilization in Frankish institutions of public administration and landholding.[4] The findings rest on a re-reading of the polemical and chronological texts, on prosographical studies of the leading Frankish families in the degree the evidence supports it, and on close analysis of the contemporary legal texts. It starts from the premise that the dissolution of the Roman state in the West was essentially an appropriation of its levers of power by German military leaders to whom the Roman state had unwisely subcontracted the defense of the Empire. Given that premise, the central historical questions turn on how the change in administration affected existing governmental apparatus and the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and how political legitimacy ? the ability to command and the willingness to obey ? was maintained in the presence of new and foreign rulers. Of the day-to-day life we know virtually nothing; but it seems plausible that in the core of the Frankish kingdom, things went on pretty much as before, except that, as would be the case down to the middle of the seventeenth century, there was fighting among elites for control of the state and its fiscal resources, and that for this and other reasons that part of the economy based on exchange imploded. On the sources of political legitimacy and the apparatus of administration, the texts are more loquacious, and everything thing they say supports the notion of continuity rather than the creation of a new society by force.[5] If so, the early medieval past was not a different country, but a place and time where men (and women) behaved in ways that are familiar to us. It did not constitute a “whole” whose meaning is accessible only through an exposition of its inner logic, but a congeries of institutions, practices, and attitudes evolving at different rates under the pressure of particular events.

From the perspective of economic history the main issues concern the nature of landholding and the organization of the state. Was land effectively “owned” by the elite and farmed by tenants on tenures determined by asymmetric bargaining, or was it mostly in the hands of small holders subject to their paying a property tax? To some that may be a distinction without a difference: taxes mainly went to support soldiers who the conventional historiography holds were granted land and rights of peasants in payment for their services. In either case the agricultural surplus went to the same people. But from the perspective of agrarian history the distinction is crucial. Taxes were based on assessments not easily altered, since they were regulated by law. On the assumption that they continued to be collected by tax farmers, the proceeds, or more commonly the tax base that generated them, could be securitized and alienated like any other asset, which would explain the exceptionally complex pattern of claims revealed by the sources. The issue turns on the continuity of law. The “primitivist” view of early medieval society espoused by Devroey considers the early medieval era to be fundamentally lawless and governed by relations of force in which the strong expropriated the weak. The “Romanist” view holds for legal continuity; the strong appropriated the tax base but within what must have been fairly wide bounds maintained the rule of law with respect to collection. The issue bears directly on the interpretation of terms relating to agricultural organization, which can be read alternatively as describing estates and farms or as units of fiscal assessment. According to Devroey, the “fiscalist” view is in his words “formalist,” because it rests on the explicit meaning of the legal texts rather than their presumed “real” meaning. He denies that view at great length and in great detail. The denial represents the core of both volumes.

Neither book is an easy read. ?conomie rurale is intended as a textbook for students preparing the aggr?gation, or state doctoral examinations in medieval history. Puissants et mis?rables is a treatise constructed on Weberian principles modified by late twentieth-century French sociology. Both deploy immense erudition to support the conventional view of a discontinuity and social primitivism against the hypothesis of continuity. Since the technical debate turns on etymological issues bearing on individual terms, it would be fruitless to attempt to summarize the argument in a short review. I am not persuaded by it, but as I am not a specialist in late Roman and early medieval Latin my judgment carries no special weight in the debate. Nevertheless, many of his arguments strike me as dogmatic assertions and special pleading. Heavy reliance on Polanyi as a source of theoretical insight raises further danger flags, as do abstract sociological arguments used to motivate description and analysis of institutions. One longs for a simple explanation of how things worked rather than why they worked. In terms of the issues raised, both books would have been better served by a clear exposition of the alternative points of view followed by analysis of facts bearing on them. They contain a lot of useful matter, but it is hard work to release them from their matrix of verbiage. The bibliography is magnificent. To cite the review of Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the books give the impression that “there is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.”[6] There is, of course, much more to be said.

Of the two works, the textbook is more accessible to non-specialists, despite being disfigured by “boxes” containing further information of the kind familiar to users of elementary textbooks in economics. The other covers more ground and provides a splendid introduction to the huge explosion in scholarship since the 1960s. Neither book can be ignored. Though clearly not the last word in early medieval economic and social history, they represent a major contribution that no one pretending to an opinion on the period can afford to dismiss. They are, however, highly opinionated, and must be read in conjunction with the literature they criticize. This is hard work, but there are no short-cuts to mastering the secondary literature on early medieval economic history. The divisions among its main practitioners are important and deep. The best account in English is a recent survey by Goldsmith, who gives a clear exposition of the “fiscalist” hypothesis, and follows up its implications for the subsequent evolution of land tenure in France to the end of the Middle Ages.[7] This is the best place for beginners to start.

The early middle ages are a fascinating and central segment of the history of western civilization. Like all extended periods, they were a time of transition. The explosion of scholarship since the 1960s and the renewal of interest in classical antiquity have given new life to a subject whose general contours seemed to have been set in stone in the magnificent syntheses proposed by Pirenne and Bloch. It is time for a new synthesis that encompasses the new findings and interpretations in a plausible narrative account of the transformation of a society and economy over five centuries. That synthesis is within reach, but to attain it will require confronting these two large volumes that, like the Roman army in its latter days, defend the conventional wisdom on the several fronts of attack.

References:

1. Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, London (1974).

2. Frederick J. Teggart, Theory of History, New Haven (1925).

3. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400 – 800, Oxford (2005).

4. Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Naissance de la noblesse: L’essor des ?lites politiques en Europe, Paris (1998); Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, Aux sources de la gestion publique. 1. Enqu?te lexicographique sur le fundus, villa, domus, mansus, Lille (1993); Jean Durliat, Les finances publiques de Diocl?tien aux Carolingiens, 284-889, Sigmaringen (1990).

5. Bernard Bachrach, Early Medieval Warfare: Prelude to Empire, Philadelphia (2001).

6. Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, London (2003).

7. James Lowth Goldsmith, Lordship in France, 500-1500, New York (2003).

George Grantham is Professor of Economics at McGill University, where he teaches economic history and the history of economic thought. His work on the present topic includes “The Early Medieval Transition: On the Origins of the Manor and the Early Medieval Transition,” presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Economic Association, Nashville, 2003. He is currently revising papers on “What’s Space Got to Do with It? Distance and Agricultural Productivity before the Railway Age” and “The Prehistoric Origins of European Economic Integration.”

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

Author(s):Borsch, Stuart J.
Reviewer(s):Munro, John

Published by EH.NET (March 2006)

Stuart J. Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. xii + 195 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-292-70617-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Munro, Department of Economics, University of Toronto.

Certainly for my university students no topic in European economic history has proved to be more fascinating and engaging than that of the Black Death, especially with its late-medieval consequences. Its more general popularity is indicated by the recent spate of books on the Black Death, all of which are, of course, Eurocentric (cited below). This book, by Stuart Borsch, an Assistant Professor of History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, will likely attract considerable interest by providing a comparative history of the demographic consequences in Mamluk Egypt, whose economic history certainly deserves to be far better known, and England, as the most obvious paradigm for such a comparison. On these grounds alone, his book should be a major contribution to the economic history literature; and despite the criticisms that follow, he has indeed supplied some valuable and most interesting new historical evidence.

Inspired by Robert Brenner’s observation (1976, 1982, 1985) that ‘different [economic and social] outcomes proceeded from similar demographic trends at different times and in different areas of Europe,’ Borsch seeks to demonstrate that the demographic consequences of the Black Death produced almost diametrically opposite results in these two countries (by ca. 1520). In England, the results, according to the author (p. 16), were that: ‘the scarcity of labor in England destroyed the remnants of the manorial system, which was replaced by [non-servile] tenant farming. Wages rose, rents and grain prices dropped, unemployment decreased, per capita incomes rose, and the economy fully recovered by the 1500.’ Except for the final observation, his conclusions are thus fully in accordance with the standard Ricardo model, which, oddly enough, is never mentioned in this book. He goes even further to contend that ‘England’s economy epitomized the most positive economic transformations that took place in Western Europe in the wake of the plagues. The impact of the plague was the antithesis of that in Egypt,’ where the economy suffered drastic and long-term contraction, rising grain prices, stable or rising rents, falling real wages and per capita incomes. Alas, I do not believe that his evidence and analyses justify these stark conclusions.

Organized in seven chapters, this study discusses the following topics: (1) the nature of the plague (bubonic), and methodological problems of demographic analyses; (2) mortality, irrigation, and landholders in Mamluk Egypt; (3) the impact of the plagues on the rural economy of Egypt; (4) the impact of the plagues on the rural economy of England; (5) the Dinar Jayshi money-of-account and agrarian output in Egypt, which is then compared to England’s contemporary agrarian outputs; (6) a re-evaluation of estimates of prices and wages in both countries; and then (7) a summary of his major conclusions (with a supplemental appendix on marginal productivity models).

Comparative history thus offers us the prospects of insights into the nature of basic historical problems that might well be ignored by a focus on one just one country or region. It has, however, the inherent disadvantage that it defies, so to speak, the law of comparative advantage: in that few historians can be masters of more than one field in order to provide the insights from specialization. Borsch, who devoted two years to archival research in Egypt, has acquired a wealth of knowledge whose results, for Mamluk Egypt, I cannot properly judge, while I must disagree with many of his conclusions about the economy of late medieval England, and thus with some of the essential comparisons that he had presented. He has, to be sure, compiled an impressive bibliography on late-medieval England, but with some curious lacuna (he is aware of my earlier but not later publications) — leaving me with a possibly unfair impression that he has cherry-picked his sources and evidence to sustain his often provocative theses.

Yet even with his own statistics, Borsch’s statement that England’s ‘economy [had] fully recovered by 1500’ cannot be taken seriously. First, in citing Mayhew (1995a), he indicates that England’s population had fallen from about 6.0 million ca. 1300 to about 2.25 million in the early 1520s. While the latter estimate is now generally accepted (see Cornwall 1970, Blanchard 1970, Campbell 1981), the former estimate of 6.0 million for 1300, which originated with several studies by Michael Postan (1950, 1959, 1966) — especially in his attack on the more modest estimates of Russell (1966) — is now in much dispute, even if it still does prevail as the majority opinion. Recent studies, devoted to the ‘Feeding the City [of London] Project’ (Campbell, Galloway, Keene and Murphy 1993, Nightingale 1996), have convinced me that the population of England ca. 1300 could not have exceeded 4.75 million, and was probably much closer to 4.0 million. Note that a modest compromise estimate of 4.5 million is still double the size of the English population in the early 1520s. If we were to entertain the higher if still conventional estimate of 6.0 million, can we seriously believe that England lost almost two-thirds of its population in the ensuing two centuries — a vastly greater demographic loss than that experienced by any other region of Europe? Can we believe that England, despite very extensive economic development in the ensuing centuries, was unable to regain that medieval level of population until the very eve of the Industrial Revolution era (with an estimated population of 6.15 million in 1756)? That 6.0 million figure is also used to estimate England’s GDP in 1300 — thus rendering this estimate highly suspect, as is the comparison with Egypt’s population, also supposedly about 6.0 million at the time of the Mamluk land survey of 1315. His admissions that ‘we do not have exact figures for Egypt’s population’ (p. 90), nor indeed any estimates for that population in the early sixteenth century, provide an even more serious problem, to be considered later.

If England’s population in the 1520s was only half (rather than just a third) of that sustained in 1300, how can anyone speak of economic recovery? The retort may be that per capita incomes had risen since the Black Death, a contention discussed below, when we must differentiate the issues of rising real incomes for those fully dependent on wages, a small minority, from the question of per capita income for society as a whole. To be sure, economists and historians continue to debate whether or not we should measure economic growth in aggregate or per capita terms. A more modern example is the debate about the comparative economic performance of France and the United Kingdom during the nineteenth century. From 1800 to 1910, the population of the UK rose almost four-fold, from 10.7 to 40.9 million (+282.2%), while France’s population rose only 45.1%, from 27.3 to 39.6 million. Defenders of the French contend that, from the 1850s, its per capita income rose at a faster rate (overall: 207% vs. 197%) — ignoring the fact that in 1910 the French per capita income was only 67.8% of the British (Crafts 1983). The more important question — for both the modern and medieval periods — is the view, held by many, that genuine economic growth is almost always accompanied by and manifested by population growth. As Ralph Davis (1973, p. 16) once reminded us, ‘the economy of modern Europe would never have come into existence on the basis of population decline.’

There are other data to refute the notion of England’s supposedly ‘complete’ economic recovery by ca. 1500, specifically concerning the woolen textile industry, whose rapid post-Plague rise Borsch cites as major evidence for English economic growth in the later Middle Ages. But he never bothers to explain why England underwent this transformation from being principally a raw material exporter (wool) to a manufacturing exporter (cloth). The answer, in fact, lies in the totally unintended, inadvertent consequences of English fiscal policies, in financing the Hundred Years War from its very outset (1337-1453): the exorbitant taxation of England’s most lucrative export and most important agricultural commodity, wool, with a ‘specific’ tax (customs and subsidy) that reached 50% of the value of wool exports by the 1390s; and the crown’s re-organization of the wool trade through a mercantile cartel (Merchants of the Calais Staple) that was designed to pass the tax incidence from domestic growers to foreign buyers — principally the woolen cloth industries of the Low Countries and Italy (for whom that tax-burdened wool accounted for over 70% of production costs). Cloth exports, on the other hand, could not be organized in such a cartelized fashion; and thus export taxes, commencing only in 1347 (and thereafter fixed until 1558), amounted to no more than 3% of cloth export values. Consequently it became economically far more advantageous to export wool in the form of manufactured cloth. Using the ratio of 4.333 broadcloths (24 yards by 1.75 yards) to one woolsack (364 lb = 165.23 kg), I have calculated that the total volume of wool exports (wool and cloth combined) fell from a mean of 154,614 sacks in 1301-10 to a mean of 142,894 sacks in 1351-60, and finally to a mean of just 93,764 sacks in 1491-1500 — a fall of 40% by volume.

One may retort that domestic wools converted into cloth exports were that much more valuable (even though wool accounted for more than 50% of the value of the cloth, even in England). Over this same period, the value of wool exports fell from a mean of ?222,051 sterling in 1301-10 to one of ?152,608 in 1351-60 to just ?43,284 in 1491-1500 — a fall of 72%, while the value of cloth exports (unrecorded before 1347) rose from a mean of ?11,160.7 in 1351-60 to ?152,179.7 in 1491-1500. That means that the combined value of exports fell from a mean of ?222,052 in 1301-10 to one of ?134,641 in 1401-10, but, while rising thereafter, had reached only a mean of ?195,464 in 1491-00 (a net decline, in nominal terms, of 12%). Since, however, Borsch prefers to measure values in terms of kilograms of pure silver, we must note that the combined value of these exports, over these two centuries, fell from 70,984.34 kg to 33,741.80 kg — a fall of 53%. In other words, to explain the difference between nominal and ‘real’ values, we must note that the pound sterling had experienced a devaluation (debasement) of 46.0% over these two centuries. Finally, in view of the obvious importance of this taxation for aggregate government revenues — the most important single source — we must note that the total value of the combined export customs on wool and cloth fell from a mean of ?65,820 in 1351-60 to one of just ?20,958 in 1491-1500 — a dramatic fall of 68%; and that is just in nominal money-of-account terms. So much for the evidence on economic growth in late-medieval England.

The author is, however, cognizant of the ongoing debate about the late-medieval economic contraction, which is often if misleadingly called the ‘great depression.’ He asks (p. 65) how anyone ‘could characterize the 1350-1500 period as a true economic depression,’ when such a phenomenon ‘entails more than a drop in total agrarian (or commercial) output because of a drop in population.’ In his rebuttal of this notion, he is evidently unaware of recent critical studies by Hatcher (1996), Nightingale (1997), and Bois (2000), all of which provide substantial evidence and analyses of regional ‘slumps’ or ‘depressions’ for the fifteenth century (if not the entire period, for all of Europe). He might have defended that proposition by citing Bannock’s Penguin Dictionary of Economics (1984, pp. 118, 373), which notes that ‘there is no official quantitative definition of a depression, as is the case with recession’ [‘a downturn in the business cycle characterised by two successive quarters of negative rates of growth in the real gross national product’]. Unfortunately Borsch then states that ‘a real economic depression includes across-the-board, not merely sectoral (i.e. grain price) deflation,’ revealing his ignorance of two prolonged periods of deflation in both England and the Low Countries: ca. 1375 – ca. 1425 (in England, a fall of 31% in the Consumer Price Index), and ca. 1440-1480 (in England, again a fall of 32% in the CPI). That ignorance is evidently explained by the complete absence of any reference to the well known and so widely used Phelps Brown and Hopkins [PBH] ‘Basket of Consumables’ Index and of their corresponding Real Wage Index (1956, 1957). Their subsequent publication (1981) of the price series for six commodity groups clearly reveals that the decline in prices during these two periods, if not exactly in tandem, was general, and certainly not confined to grains (analyzed with revised data in Munro 2005).

This leads me to my most serious criticism of the book: Borsch’s comparative analyses of real outputs (GDP) and real wages in the late-medieval English and Egyptian economies. As indicated earlier, his comparisons involve the use of prices, values, and outputs expressed in grams of pure silver. To be sure, there may be cases in comparative economic history when there is no alternative to their use — certainly we cannot compare levels in the nominal values of two entirely different moneys-of-account, all the more so when their changes within Egypt itself have not been fully explored and explained. The author is also aware of controversies concerning the use of silver values, but he does not take full account of two other major objections: (1) that in seeking to compensate for the effects of coinage debasements, the use of silver-gram values distort the changes by two false assumptions: (a) that the expansion of the money supply is directly proportional (though inversely so) to the percentage change in the silver contents of the coinage; and that (b) any ensuing rise in prices (inflation) is directly proportional to the increase in the money supply — i.e., implicitly adopting the fallacy of the crude quantity theory of money; and (2) that the purchasing power of silver remains constant over long periods of time, when in fact it often changed radically (in terms of gold:silver ratios, from: 12:1 in the 1270s to 16:1 in the 1320s, falling to 9:1 in the 1380s, then rising to 12:1 by the 1450s, and to 15 or 16:1 by the 1660s).

The author’s most interesting and certainly most original statistical calculations are for Egypt’s gross domestic product in two years, virtually two centuries apart: those for 1315 (from a cadastral survey undertaken by the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad) and for 1517 (estimates made by Ibn Iyas, just following the Ottoman conquest of Mamluk Egypt). These intricate calculations based on a wide variety of evidence, involving extrapolations from later documents (1597 and nineteenth century), occupy a central portion of the book, and rightly so. Borsch states that, in making these comparisons, his major contribution was in ascertaining the true value of the dinar jayshi unit of account, which he reckons to be equal to 13.333 dirhams nuqra (evidently containing 26.4 grams of fine silver); but I have to note that the connection between his source, a document dated 1169, and the 1317 cadastral survey seems tenuous. For this 1317 survey, he estimates that the total value of aggregate agrarian output was 1,009,568.5 kg of silver (or 108,350.1 kg of gold); and that of the entire GDP (if agrarian output accounted for 75%) was 1,346, 091.5 kg of silver (144,467.1 kg of gold). For the second economic survey, in 1517, he does not dare to provide estimates of the Egyptian GDP but only the values of total agrarian output: whose valued is calculated to be 489,514.1 kg of silver or 42,120.6 kg of gold. At least implicitly concerned about the problem of changes in the relative values (bimetallic ratios) and purchasing power of the two metals, he offers an alternative comparison in terms of a grain unit called the ardabb (= 165 liters): an output of 38,337,056 ardabbs (= 63,256,142 hectoliters) in 1315; and one of 15,993,603 ardabbs in 1517 — or so he tells us. Unfortunately, however, that latter calculation involves a very major blunder. For he first calculates the value of the aggregate agrarian output in the gold-based money of account, the dinar ashrafi (3.45g of fine gold), providing an estimate of 12,208,857.1 dinars. Then, estimating that the mean value of the three principal grains (wheat, barley, broad beans) was 1.31 dinars, he calculates the total output in ardabbs of these grains by multiplying the two figures. Of course, he should have divided 12,208,857.1 dinars ashrafi by 1.31 to get the proper estimate: 9,326,858.0 ardabbs (= 15,389,315.7 hectoliters of grain). Next, in this exercise, but using values only in terms of gold and ardabbs, he informs us that the overall decline in total agrarian output, from 1315 to 1517, was the following: 61% in terms of gold and 58% in terms of grain ardabbs (Tables 5.14-15, p. 83). The comforting closeness of these two percentages naturally convinces Borsch that his complicated methodology has been fully vindicated. Unhappily, the opposite is true when we realize how different the percentage changes in these three variables are: in terms of silver kilograms (which he ignores), a decline of 51.1%; in terms of gold, 61.1%; and in terms of actual ardabbs 76.7%.

To make matters even worse, he then compares these estimates of agrarian output in 1517 with those of the later Ottoman survey of 1596-97. The data from the latter are as follows: 17,299,090 ardabbs of grain (28,543, 498.5 hectoliters) — for an increase of 85.5% (not the 8% increase stated in his text, on p. 87); 294,085.0 kg of fine silver — for a decline of 39.9%; and 16,388.0 kg of fine gold — for a decline of 61.2%. Even accounting for the price changes and changes in bimetallic ratios that accompanied the massive increases in precious metals (from South Germany, the Americas, and Africa) during the inflationary Price Revolution era, we would have great difficulties in explaining why these statistics — for grain units and the two precious metals — differ so radically.

His major comparison is, of course, with GDP estimates for England, in two years: 1300 and 1526, specifically chosen because relevant data had been supplied in Mayhew’s aforementioned article (1995a). Mayhew had speculated — with no real evidence supplied — that England’s GDP in 1300 could be valued at ?4.66 million sterling; and as Mayhew himself admitted, his estimate is based ‘on the assumption that population stood at about 6 million in 1300, [and] perhaps 2.3 million in 1526,’ for which year he estimates a GDP value of ?5.0 million, when the Price Revolution was underway, to ‘allow for that price rise and permit a modest improvement in per capita living standards’ (Mayhew 1995a, pp. 248, 250). Thus if, in the light of the previous discussion on the demographic controversy, we were to reduce the GDP for 1300 by one third, i.e., for a revised population estimate of 4.0 million, would we also have to change the GDP estimate for 1526? Mayhew (followed by Borsch), however, provides a somewhat less speculative estimate of the GDP for 1470 – at ?3.437 million sterling (based on Mayhew 1995b and Dyer 1989) — with the further assumption that England’s population was then also 2.3 million. One may comment that these data provide too weak a foundation to make comparisons with the Egyptian data on GDP; but neither Borsch nor anyone else has alternative data to work with. Beggars cannot be choosers in medieval economic history, as my mentor (Robert Lopez) once told me.

In view of Borsch’s persistent insistence on using silver values, we might assume that he would compare the changes in the English GDP, between 1300 and 1526, in terms of precious metals. Instead, he accepts Mayhew’s estimate of the ‘deflated’ value of the GDP for 1526 — and, in terms of Mayhew’s use of the Fisher Identity (M x V = P x y, for which ‘y’ is real GDP), the price index (P) used is, of course, the Phelps Brown and Hopkins index (for which the mean of prices in the basket for 1451-75 = 100, as the base). Mayhew has not, however, used the price index for the specific years concerned but rather an arithmetic mean of the ten years ending in the specified year (i.e., 1291-1300, and 1517-26). In view of the often significant fluctuations in the annual price index — especially around 1300 — the value for the P-deflator can vary widely according to the years chosen for the mean. Indeed why not choose the five years before and after the years concerned to calculate the mean value for P? If that method had been chosen, the P value for 1300, for example, would have been 97.64 (or, 96.16 by my revised, corrected version of the PBH index), instead of Mayhew’s (and Borsch’s) value of 104.8. By the Mayhew method, the deflated value of the GDP for 1526 (when the P value is given as 135.1) is ?3.88 million — and that indicates a decline of 16.9% from the value of ?4.66 million in 1300.

Thus, according to Borsch, the English experience compares very favorably with the Egyptian economy, which had suffered such severe decline, over about the same period: a view based Borsch’s miscalculated estimate of 58% for grain outputs — or the alternative ones of 51.5%, for silver values; or 61.3%, for gold; or the true one of 75.7%, for grain volumes. Suppose that we now calculate the changes in the GDP values in terms of precious metals. This time we must do so in silver, because England had been monometallic in 1300, striking its first gold coins only in 1344 (if we ignore Henry III’s abortive gold penny of 1257). Borsch provides estimates of the 1300 GDP in those terms (Table 5.11, p. 80): 1,487,472 kg of silver (1,489,685.1 is the true figure) and 114,421 kg of gold based on an estimated contemporary bimetallic ratio of 13:1 (Spufford, 1986). He does not, however, do so for 1526, when we may calculate that the estimated ?5.0 million GDP was then equivalent to just 767,219.8 kg of silver (or 68,758.9 kg of gold). In terms of silver kg, that means an overall decline, from 1300 to 1526, of 48.5%; and that is in accordance with the estimated decline of 51.5% for the Egyptian GDP over this same period, when also measured in silver kg (a comparison not involving changes in purchasing power, except for regional differences in the bimetallic ratio). In other words, the much vaunted contrast in the two countries’ overall economic fortunes, i.e., in the declines of their aggregate outputs (agrarian only for Egypt), now disappears.

Borsch is, however, on a much stronger ground in comparing prices, wages, and living standards — at least the real incomes for those totally dependent on money wages (a very small minority in both countries) — over these two centuries. Indeed, his major and much valued contribution lies in providing Egyptian wheat prices for the periods 1300-1346 and 1440-1487 (Tables 6.1-2, pp. 93-95), and of wages (for custodians, doorkeepers, water-carriers, and readers, though for very few years: Tables 6.10-12, pp. 106-07). They are provided in terms of both moneys-of-account (dirhams and dinars) and in grams of silver and gold. If much of the data come from already published sources — Ashtor’s publications (1949, 1969) being particularly important — a considerable amount comes from primary Arabic sources, and indeed from his own archival research. Certainly most readers will be quite unfamiliar with these data. The English prices — grain prices only — and wages of building craftsmen come primarily from Farmer (1991; but Farmer’s publications of 1957, 1983, and 1988 are surprisingly not cited), a problematic source. For unfortunately Farmer provides annual means based on manorial data from a variety of regions; and his wage data also suffer from a ‘compositional fallacy’ (as do the data in Beveridge 1936, 1955) in that wages for craftsmen of different skills are averaged, producing spurious fluctuations — readily observable in Farmer’s tables — that are based on changes in the composition and location of the workforce. He should have adopted the wage data for building craftsmen that Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1955) had produced: principally for one region — small towns in southeastern England — using the prevailing standard wage for senior master craftsmen and their laborers (at Oxford, an unchanging daily wage of 6d, for masters, and 4d for journeymen, from 1363 to 1536). But, as noted earlier, he seems to be unaware of their publications and thus of their price, wage, and real-wage indexes, for the period 1264-1954.

While the PBH data therefore are urban, Farmer’s data are not just rural, but manorial (providing other inherent problems); and undoubtedly we now need a proper survey of both sets of wages, with comparisons for London from the 1360s. There is, it must be noted, a very compelling reason why our analysis of real-wage changes is based on the experiences of European building craftsmen. For they are one of the very few groups that have left us with fairly continuous evidence of money wages paid for time-work — by the day or week; for most wage earners in medieval and early modern Europe were paid by piece-work, a far more difficult measure, even when some continuous evidence exists.

Borsch’s long term view, and comparisons of prices and wages in the two countries, when based on ‘snapshots’ of the early fourteenth and the late fifteenth centuries, is basically correct: grain prices in England had fallen, while those in Egypt had risen; and conversely, real wages in England had risen, while those for Egypt had fallen. He may also be correct in his assumption that agricultural land rents had also finally fallen in England (though many individual landlords were clearly better off), while remaining stable in Egypt.

His methods of calculation, however, leave much to be desired, especially for England, for which better alternative methods are available. Thus, in comparing the mean wages for English carpenters for the two periods 1300-1347 and 1440-90, he shows an 80% rise in nominal terms — from 3.068d to 5.516d; but, when those wages are measured in grams of silver, they show a decline of 3% (from 1021.64 g to 994.95g). Surely that should reveal the folly of measuring price and wages changes in silver grams; for indisputably their real wages had indeed risen.

To be fair, Borsch does, of course, fully realize that the proper measure of real wages is the purchasing power of the money wage in terms of the artisan’s standard consumer goods. But he makes his calculations only in terms of liters of wheat, for both Egypt and England, for the two periods 1300-50 and 1440-90. For English building craftsmen, his Table 6.15 (p.108) shows an overall rise of 102%, but a fall of 80% for the above-named Egyptian wage-earners. As one may well observe, ‘man lives not by bread alone.’ The great advantage of the Phelps Brown and Hopkins ‘basket of consumables’ composite price index is its weighting, based on consumption patterns in late-medieval household accounts: in which grains (wheat, rye, barley, peas) account for 20%; meat and fish, for 25%; dairy products, for 12.5%; drink, for 22.5%; textiles, for 12.5%; and fuel, for 7.5%. Van der Wee (1966, 1975) has found that these weights correspond to his evidence for household consumption in early-modern Brabant and has thus modeled his price index on this model, as have I for Flanders (Munro 2003, 2005). These price indexes for the Low Countries also permit us to compute the money-of-account value of the total basket of goods, year by year, and thus the number of baskets that master building craftsmen and their laborers could purchase with a year’s money wage income (based on 210 days of employment, for reasons given in our publications — while Borsch chooses a work-year of 250 days).

Phelps Brown and Hopkins, however, presented their data only in disembodied index numbers (1451-75 = 100); and they calculated the real wage index by the standard, almost universal formula: Real Wage Index = Nominal Wage Index/ Composite Price Index (RWI = NWI/CPI). Having acquired access to the complete set of working papers (Archives, British Library of Political and Economic Science), and the detailed calculations used in the construction of the Phelps Brown and Hopkins price index, I computed the value of each component in their basket (22 commodities) and thus the total value of the basket, in silver pence sterling, for every year from 1264 to 1700. Those calculations thus allowed me to compute the real wage in the same fashion: i.e., the number of such baskets that masters and journeymen could purchase each year (with 210 days of money-wage income).

When examined on an annual and on a quinquennial (five-year) basis, these real-wage data reveal a number of surprises — which do not support the standard Ricardo-based view, nor, therefore, Borsch’s view, on what happened to prices and wages in England following the Black Death. First, comparing mean prices for the 25-year periods before the Black Death (1323-1347) and after (1348-1372), we find that they rose, not fell. The mean value of the bread-grain component of the PBH basket rose by 26.25% (from a mean of 22.298d sterling to one of 28.152d); but most of this rise was inflation, for the value of the total PBH basket rose by 25.59%: from a mean of 114.386d (CPI: 101.41) to one of 143.657d (CPI: 127.35). Thus some portion of the grain-price rise was ‘real’: and its share of the PBH basket rose slightly from 19.49% to 19.60%. The even more striking behavior of prices took place in the next quarter century, from 1373 to 1397: when grain prices, in nominal terms, plummeted by 29.70%, from a mean of 28.152d to one of 21.706d. Again, some of change was due to monetary factors; for there was general deflation: a 29.4% fall from the peak CPI of 134.95 in 1376 to the trough of 95.25 in 1395. But since, in our two 25-year comparison periods (1348-1372 and 1373-1397), the mean value of the PBH basket fell only 17.23% — from a mean value of 143.657d (CPI: 127.35) to one of 122.540d (CPI: 108.63), the much steeper fall in grain prices had a considerable ‘real’ component. Thus the grain component of the total consumer basket fell from 19.60% to 17.71%, over this same 50-year period. Similar declines in real prices can be shown for other agrarian commodities, especially for wool.

The behavior of these prices, both nominal and ‘real’ (or deflated), may help us to understand better the seemingly perplexing behavior of real wages. Certainly nominal wages did rise after the Black Death, but the rise of those for building craftsmen was relatively greater in urban than in rural (manorial) areas; and for both, the nominal wage increases failed to keep pace with inflation, until the mid-1370s. For such master building craftsmen, in Oxford, Cambridge, and other small towns of southeastern England, mean annual real wage incomes, when measured in PBH ‘baskets of consumables’ fell from a peak of 7.482 baskets in 1336-40 (RWI = 66.9, when 1451-75 = 100) to a low of 5.200 baskets in 1351-55 (RWI = 46.55) : i.e., real wages for such building craftsmen were falling both before and after the Black Death; and despite some subsequent recovery, real wages were still below the earlier peak as late as 1371-75: with a mean of just 7.310 baskets (RWI = 65.44). Thereafter real wages, in these terms, did rise sharply to reach a late-medieval peak of 12.066 baskets in 1441-45 (RWI = 108.02) — a 132.0% rise over the post-Plague nadir; in 1496-1500, the annual mean was still quite high, at 11.336 baskets).

The rise, over this same period, in the real wages of their journeymen laborers was even more striking: a rise of 209.38%: from the nadir of 2.600 baskets in 1351-55 to the peak of 8.044 baskets in 1441?-45. For indeed, in these small English towns, the average journeymen’s daily wage rose from just one half to two-thirds of the master’s wage over this period (4d vs. 6d daily for most of the fifteenth century) — a change not observed in Flanders where the journeymen’s money wage remained at one half of the master’s (Munro 2005). Borsch, in noting the peculiar rise of an English thatcher’s helper (journeymen) is evidently unaware of this more general, if peculiarly English, phenomenon.

Not all laborers, however, enjoyed such a change into prosperity. Thus on the Bishop of Winchester’s Taunton manor, senior hired day laborers, while enjoying a tripling in their nominal wage, from 1.0d in 1348 to 3.0d in 1354, subsequently saw that rate fall back to 1.0d per day in 1364, where it generally remained until this wage series ends in 1415. Their real wage thus fell sharply with the continuing inflation, until the mid 1370s, and while experiencing some recovery with the ensuing deflation, their real wage in the early fifteenth century (to 1415) was only about 35-40% of that then enjoyed by the small-town journeymen laborers in the construction trades (see Munro 2003).

Borsch’s explanation for the rise in real wages for English building craftsmen, though based on just a comparison of two ‘snapshots’ for the early fourteenth and the later fifteenth centuries, is a standard one that will command almost universal support: namely, a steep rise in labor productivity, as the obvious and seemingly inevitable consequence of radical depopulation and the consequent alteration of the land: labor ratio — if we assume that England was still overpopulated on the eve of the Black Death. As Keynes (1936, p. 5) has reminded us, a basic postulate of Classical Economics is that ‘the wage is equal to the marginal product of labor’ — though it is more accurate to define that equality as the marginal revenue product of labor. One problem thus arises: if the marginal productivity of agricultural labor rose but the marginal revenue product declined, with falling grain prices, would the result for wage determination be a wash?

There is yet another problem: for several recent studies — by Farmer (1996), Raftis (1996), and Stone (1997, 2001, 2003) — indicate that the marginal productivity of labor in the arable economy fell, while the marginal of labor in pastoral farming (especially for sheep) rose significantly. In recent publications (Munro 1983, 2003, 2005), in seeking to explain the behavior of prices and wages described above, I have called into question the marginal-productivity of labor theory to explain changes in real-wages. For, to argue, in micro-economics, that a rational profit-seeking employer will hire labor to the point that its marginal revenue product equals the prevailing wage is different from a more macro-economic explanation for wages that prevail across an entire economic sector.

My observation, in those two recent studies, was that the rise in real wages for building craftsmen in both late-medieval England and the southern Low Countries was a phenomenon that is generally — if not fully — explained by a combination of institutional wage-stickiness and a deflation induced chiefly by monetary factors: i.e., that nominal wages (in silver coin), having risen, though not in tandem the post-Plague inflation, then remained rigid while the cost of living fell. Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1956) also observed that, calling it the ‘ratchet effect,’ while correctly noting that in England nominal money wages, having fallen by 25% during the later 1330s and early 1340s (but less so than did prices), never again fell, over the ensuing six centuries, until the post-WWI depression, in 1921. There is no space to discuss this complex issue further in this review, other than to note that often rapid oscillations in real wage measures and indices — almost always accompanying oscillations in the price level — cannot logically be explained by any such sudden shifts in the marginal productivity of labor. Yet, in making regional comparisons of changes in real wages over long periods of time we may have to call upon a broader concept of productivity: namely, changes in total factor productivity (land, labor, capital), particularly in so far as those changes may explain changes in real commodity prices, especially those involved in a wage-earner’s cost of living index.

Finally, I must also make another major observation in comparing the behavior of real wages for building craftsmen in late medieval England and the very much more limited group of Egyptian tradesmen: namely the fact that, at least from the later fourteenth century (but not after the Plague), agricultural prices and thus the cost of living fell in England while such prices and costs rose in Egypt. Of course, we would like to know why; but Borsch does not provide such a full explanation (other than one based on falling productivity in agriculture, with perhaps limited foreign trade) — and probably no one else can adequately explain why the real cost of foodstuffs did experience such a significant rise in fifteenth-century Mamluk Egypt.

The relative behavior of agricultural prices and wages (and interest rates, if we had the evidence) has one more point of relevance for this review. Borsch attributes the decay of English manorialism and serfdom, from the later fourteenth century, in much the same way as does Brenner (1976, 1982): as a victory of communal open-field peasants who, when feudal landlords became economically and politically weaker, especially in losing support from the monarchy, were finally able to exercise a greater degree of market power in bidding down rents and bidding up wages. But a more complete explanation should involve economic rationality on the part of such landlords, who in now experiencing adverse changes in both falling agricultural prices (both grains and wool) and in rising costs gave up their former reliance on Gutsherrschaft: i.e., a manorial regime with a significant income component from market-oriented domain production of these commodities. Some historians (Holmes 1957, pp. 85-120; Britnell 1990) contend that during the post-Plague era of high agricultural prices, gentry and feudal landlords may have increased their share of the national income (though evidence on rents and profits is very thin). Thus, from the later 1370s to the 1440s, we find an increasing manorial shift to Grundsherrschaft: i.e., a manorial regime far more based on peasant rental incomes. In carving up their already shrunken domains into peasant leaseholds, thereby also dispensing with whatever labor services and other servile obligations that had remained, English landlords probably did improve the position of some peasants — especially those with enough capital to work their extra lands. At the same time, of course, many such landlords benefited in the sense that these leasehold provided a more stable rental incomes, when agricultural prices and profits were falling; and thus with deflation, their real values rose. At the same time, however, as Campbell (2005) has recently demonstrated, Borsch, along with many other historians, has exaggerated the extent and burden of servile obligations imposed on the English peasantry before the Black Death.

Where does the Black Death itself enter this book and the review? Borsch has really very little new to say about the Plague itself, whose actual and direct consequences in Egypt still remain unknown. Furthermore, the timing of his publication is unfortunate in that three major and very important books on the Black Death have just recently appeared: those by Cohn (2003), Benedictow (2004), and Kelly (2005). Cohn has contended, with a massive amount of evidence, that the Black Death, the so-called Second Pandemic (1347-1720), was vastly different from the bubonic plague that was experienced in Asia during the so-called Third Pandemic (1894-c.1947): that the medieval Black Death spread with far, far greater rapidity, and was so much more virulent and lethal, killing a far higher proportion of the afflicted populations in Asia and Europe. If the mortality from the Black Death (initial onslaught) was perhaps 40% or more, the twentieth century mortality was no more than 5% in afflicted regions. Therefore, Cohn concludes that it could not have been bubonic plague, i.e., Yersinia pestis, the bacillus now spread by rodent fleas, according to the now standard view, and one uncritically repeated by Benedictow (2004). But Cohn does not compare it with the First Pandemic, the so-called Justinian Plague (sixth to ninth centuries), so well described as ‘bubonic’ (????”?????????) plague by Procopius, historian of Emperor Justinian (r. 527-65) and his Constantinople Prefect (see the Dewing edition 1961); nor can Cohn even suggest what this disease really was.

Borsch, if evidently unaware of Cohn’s book, nevertheless is cognizant of the problems posed by comparisons of the Second and Third Pandemics. He credibly suggests that the Second Pandemic was a manifestation of a possibly mutant, certainly peculiar and extremely virulent form of Yersinia pestis, as does, most recently, Kelly (2005). Yet neither can adequately explain how the Black Death literally ‘spread like wildfire,’ especially given Cohn’s cogent arguments as to why such a medieval transmission by rat fleas (if they could not survive without their rat hosts) was virtually impossible; but Borsch, citing Biraben (1975-76), does suggest that the human flea (Pulex irritans) may have been the prime medieval (if not modern) vector.

For Mamluk Egypt itself, apart from some fascinating anecdotal commentaries, Borsch is unable — given the paucity of evidence — to analyze the actual economic and social consequences of the Black Death. He does, however, offer a cogent and interesting thesis. Emphasizing that agricultural prosperity in Egypt had depended on a costly and complex irrigation system, based on networks of dikes, sluice-gates, and canals fed by the Blue and White Nile river systems — with very large amounts of fixed capital and land stocks, Borsch contends that depopulation from the Black Death ultimately led to severe and destructive shortages of labor — and to severe reductions in the marginal productivity of labor (i.e., proceeding in a backward direction on the ascending slope of the marginal product curve). Consequently, over ensuing decades, the required dredging, repairs, and general maintenance of this irrigation system could not be maintained, with disastrous results for Mamluk Egypt’s agricultural production.

That plight has to be understood in the context of Mamluk social structures and landholding; for the Mamluks, a military aristocracy who were, by origin, imported Asian slaves, were totally unlike that of medieval England: a non-hereditary fluid social caste, with very insecure ties to their landed estates, with rapid property turnovers, dependent on rendering service and maintaining military-political alliances; a military aristocracy that chiefly lived in towns, apart from their estates, rarely speaking the Arabic language of their peasant tenants, and caring little about their welfare. Furthermore, as indicated earlier, Borsch believes that so many of these peasants were victims of steadily declining productivity and outputs, and thus of falling real incomes, while forced by the state-supported Mamluk military aristocracy to pay even higher rents; and thus they were unable to contribute to the maintenance of the irrigation system (which also had some classic ‘free rider’ problems). To cite Borsch’s summary (p. 52): ‘By the mid fifteenth century, Egypt’s agrarian system had been badly damaged. The irrigation system was functioning poorly in many areas and lay in ruins in others. Badly damaged systems were overrun by Bedouin tribes: large sections of Upper Egypt [by far the more fertile region] and the eastern and western sections of the delta lay in Bedouin hands.’ The documentation of the drastic fall in outputs, from 1315 to 1517, has been discussed above. As also noted earlier, however, the greatest difficulty that Borsch and other historians of Mamluk Egypt have faced is the lack of any reliable demographic statistics. While one may assume, from the experience of the Black Death elsewhere, a possibly drastic fall in population, are we to believe that the combination of labor scarcity and the structure of Mamluk landholding provide the only explanation? What roles, for examples, may Mamluk fiscal policies, the nature and changes in taxation, public and private investment in agriculture, etc., have played during the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? Perhaps those questions cannot be answered, though they should be posed to suggest a possible framework of alternative models.

As one of my colleagues, an economic historian of Mamluk Egypt, and one who has read this book as well, has commented to me: Borsch ‘tries to break out of the mold and offer a new insight. The Mamluk period is the only one which offers any hope of computation, but as you can see, it is difficult to carve out any solid evidence.’ The author does deserve, despite the criticisms in this review, to be commended for the very considerable and arduous research devoted to this study, handicapped of course, in comparison to historians of medieval England, with such paucity of reliable evidence. If this form of comparative economic history did not prove to be the author’s strong suit, nevertheless his dedicated scholarship and contributions in particular to Mamluk economic history (which others may judge better than I) are to be commended.

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Ambrose Raftis, ‘Peasants and the Collapse of the Manorial Economy on Some Ramsey Abbey Estates,’ in Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, eds., Progress and Problems in Medieval England: Essays in Honour of Edward Miller (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 191-206.

J.C. Russell, ‘The Pre-Plague Population of England,’ Journal of British Studies, 5 (1966), 1-21.

Peter Spufford, Handbook of Medieval Exchange (London: Royal Historical Society, 1986).

David Stone, ‘The Productivity of Hired and Customary Labour: Evidence from Wisbech Barton in the Fourteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 50:4 (November 1997), 640-56.

David Stone, ‘Medieval Farm Management and Technological Mentalities: Hinderclay Before the Black Death,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 54:4 (November 2001), 612-38.

David Stone, ‘The Productivity and Management of Sheep in Late Medieval England,’ Agricultural History Review, 51: I (2003), 1-22.

Herman Van der Wee, ‘Voeding en dieet in het Ancien R?gime,’ Spiegel Historiael, 1 (1966), 94-101, republished in translation as ‘Nutrition and Diet in the Ancien R?gime’ in Herman Van der Wee, The Low Countries in the Early Modern World , trans. by Lizabeth Fackelman (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press and Variorum, 1993), pp. 279-87.

Herman Van der Wee, ‘Prijzen en lonen als ontwikkelingsvariabelen: Een vergelijkend onderzoek tussen Engeland en de Zuidelijke Nederlanden, 1400-1700,’ in Album aangeboden aan Charles Verlinden ter gelegenheid van zijn dertig jaar professoraat (Wetteren: Universum, 1975), pp. 413-47; reissued in English translation (without the tables) as ‘Prices and Wages as Development Variables: A Comparison between England and the Southern Netherlands, 1400-1700,’ Acta Historiae Neerlandicae, 10 (1978), 58-78; republished in Herman Van der Wee, The Low Countries in the Early Modern World, trans. by Lizabeth Fackelman (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press and Variorum, 1993), pp. 223-41. Only the original Dutch-language version contains the statistical tables.

John Munro is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto (where he still teaches). He is currently an elected member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts; and of the Comitato Scientifico, Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica ‘Francesco Datini da Prato,’ for which he has helped organize the May 2006 conference on ‘Europe’s Economic Relations with the Islamic World, 13th and 18th Centuries.’ He was the medieval area editor for The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, edited by Joel Mokyr (New York: Oxford University Press), 2003. Among his recent publications are: ‘Wage Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300-1500: Did Money Matter?’ Research in Economic History (2003); ‘The Medieval Origins of the Financial Revolution: Usury, Rentes, and Negotiability,’ International History Review (2003); and ‘Spanish Merino Wools and the Nouvelles Draperies: an Industrial Transformation in the Late-Medieval Low Countries,’ Economic History Review (2005).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval

Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution

Author(s):Allen, Robert C.
Reviewer(s):Davies, R. W.

Published by EH.NET (June 2004)

Robert C. Allen, Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. xviii + 302 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-691-00696-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by R. W. Davies, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham.

Robert Allen, Professor of Economic History at the University of Oxford, is well known for his Enclosure and the Yeoman (1992). While teaching Russian history, he became fascinated with the Soviet economy; learned Russian; and for the past ten years has been analyzing, and generalizing from, the Soviet experience. This original and stimulating book is primarily based on very careful use of Western research (it cites about 150 books and articles in English, and about 25 in Russian). It refreshingly places Soviet development in its long-term world context.

The author provides both a systematic description of the economy of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union in the first half of the twentieth century, and an exploration of feasible alternatives. In recent western and Russian publications historians have reassessed the Soviet past less favorably in the light of the unexpected collapse of the system,. This reassessment has been reinforced by the opening of the archives: the new data tend to illuminate the inhumane and inefficient aspects of the system, minimized or concealed in Soviet times. Allen’s conclusions are much more positive.

He describes the three main economic systems which prevailed between 1900 and World War II. First, tsarism. Allen acknowledges that agriculture and industry developed quite rapidly before 1914, but argues that this progress crucially depended on the favorable world prices for grain and on the “aggressive policy of import substitution” pursued by the state. According to Allen, if tsarist institutions had continued, the post-war slump in world agricultural prices would have meant that “in the absence of the communist revolution and the Five-year Plans — Russia’s fate would have been somewhere between India’s and Argentine’s” (p. 37).

Secondly, the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s, in which state ownership of large-scale industry was linked with individual peasant agriculture through a free market. On Allen’s view, state industry “operated in the capitalist manner” until the late 1920s. “Businesses looked only to their own profits,” so that “socially profitable investment” was not undertaken, and workers were hired “only if they generated enough sales to cover their salaries,” so that the structural unemployment in the towns and the vast amount of underemployed labor in the countryside was not brought into industry (p. 50). If these arrangements had continued, industrialization and mass urbanization would not have been achieved.

Thirdly, the Stalinist system of the 1930s. Allen explains that rapid industrialization took place through the direction of resources into investment, primarily in producer goods. This was accompanied by the collectivization of agriculture, which was initially disastrous, but did perversely accelerate industrialization by driving people off the land. So far this account is relatively uncontroversial. But Allen goes on to claim, citing the well-known model of the Soviet economist Feldman, that this increased investment in producer goods enabled investment also to be carried out in consumer goods. This investment, together with the recovery of agriculture after 1933, enabled consumption per head to increase by as much as 30 percent between 1928 and 1937 (p. 142). He contrasts this finding with those in the classic studies by Abram Bergson and Janet Chapman, which concluded that both urban and rural consumption per capita declined in this period.

On the late tsarist period, I sympathize with Allen’s view that economic growth was unstable and temporary. But he should have considered the possibility — if only to reject it — that tsarism could have given way not to Bolshevism but to “liberal democracy,” “social democracy” or “peasant democracy.”

His view of NEP before the launching of collectivization is oversimplified. NEP always involved both a substantial element of state management of the level and distribution of investment, and considerable manipulation of the peasant market. The economic system which prevailed briefly before the grain crisis of 1927/28 offered a genuine alternative to both capitalism and Stalinism.

Allen’s description of the 1930s has the considerable merit that it incorporates the growth of the industrial consumer goods sector and of investment in education and health as inherent features of the Stalin revolution. But his assessment of the standard of living raises many queries. To take one element in his assessment: farm income in kind. His key Table 7.3 (p. 142) is difficult to follow because the component elements in farm income in kind have been transposed from the last two columns into the second and third columns. Once this is corrected, it emerges that total farm food income in kind increased slightly between 1928 and 1937. This is dubious. Soviet estimates in the archives, based on peasant budgets, show that the amount of grain available for food to the agricultural population was substantially less even in the good harvest year 1937/38 than in 1928. In view of the decline in the weight and number of livestock, it seems implausible that the consumption of other foods compensated for the reduction in grain. On food consumption by the population as a whole, Wheatcroft concludes that calories consumed per capita per day declined from 2,800 in 1928 to 2,707 in 1940 (Slavic Review 58 (1999), p. 51) while Allen estimates that consumption increased from about 2,300 to about 2,900 calories (his Figure 7.1, p. 135). Wheatcroft also concludes that protein consumption, not discussed by Allen, declined from 101.4 to 95.9 grams a day in the same period. All this needs further investigation. But it is certain that, contrary to popular preconceptions, in the Stalinist period as a whole, between 1938 and the mid-1950s, consumption per head increased substantially in spite of the disastrous impact of the Second World War.

Allen compares the actual performance of the Soviet economy with alternative industrialization strategies using a simulation model. His most important alternative assumes that Soviet investment policy was enforced through a soft-budget constraint but was combined not with collectivization but with a continuation of the NEP arrangements of peasant sale of food on a free market. According to Allen, this would have been feasible because peasants would be willing to sell more food if agricultural prices increased, while simultaneously a large number of surplus rural citizens could have been transferred to the towns without a decline in agricultural production.

He estimates, using data for the years 1913 to1928, that a 10 percent increase in agricultural prices would lead to a 7 percent increase in marketing. But with an urban population at the end of the 1930s more than double that of 1928 agricultural marketings would have had to at least double to retain the existing urban food consumption per head. Even on Allen’s assumptions, this increase in marketings would have required an even larger increase in peasant real income. Was this increase feasible? And could the operation of the soft-budget constraint in the non-agricultural economy have been combined with the peasant market? It necessarily involved the extensive use of the physical allocation of resources. Could this have been combined with a peasant market without the use of compulsion to obtain the agricultural production required by the urban population and industry?

It is certainly true that the Soviet economy of the 1930s would have been more efficient, and accompanied by less suffering, if gross errors had been avoided. The economy was damaged, without compensating benefits, by the forced collectivization of livestock, the mass deportation of “kulaks,” the over-ambitious industrial plans of 1929-32, the repression of the “bourgeois specialists” in the earlier 1930s and the mass executions of 1937-38. A model of the economy without these flaws would yield better economic results with less human misery. But it would certainly have to include some form of state control of agricultural production.

Allen is on the whole an accurate scholar but he makes some minor errors. The “Ural-Siberian method” for obtaining peasant grain was introduced after the 1928 not the 1927 harvest (p. 98). Jasny’s estimates of the Gulag population were not based on the (non-existent) “1940 Five-Year Plan” but on the 1941 annual plan (p. 115). The figure of 10 million deaths from the 1932-33 famine (p. 78) is an exaggeration. Allen himself reduces it to 7.3 million on p. 115; and the true figure, horrendous enough, for all excess deaths in 1930-33 (including the earlier Kazakh famine) is probably 5.5 to 6 million. The author is rather cavalier in his presentation of the views of his fellow historians. I cannot refrain from pointing out that Wheatcroft and I did not present low grain prices as the only cause of the low level of agricultural marketings in the 1920s (his p. 79). And Bergson was more nuanced and more cautious in his conclusions about the standard of living in 1937 than Allen suggests.

R. W. Davies is Emeritus Professor of Soviet Economic Studies at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham, UK. He is the author of The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, the fifth volume of which (written jointly with Stephen G. Wheatcroft) is The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-33 (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004).

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece

Author(s):Schaps, David M.
Reviewer(s):Silver, Morris

Published by EH.NET (April 2004)

David M. Schaps, The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. xvii + 293 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11333-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Morris Silver, Department of Economics (Emeritus), City College of the City University of New York.

Briefly stated, David Schaps’ central argument runs as follows:

Coinage = Money (in the Greek experience the two are equated) was invented in Greece or Asia Minor (Lydia) in the later seventh or earlier sixth century. The Greeks eagerly copied/adapted this innovation and it spread rapidly in their cities during the sixth century. The result was a profound transformation in Greek economy and society. Before the Greek adoption of coinage, the ancient Mediterranean world knew only primitive money, not money as we know it. Primitive money was incapable of generating the revolution that Greece experienced.

I begin with a number of quotations capturing the argument and then, in the main part of the review, move on to consider the details.

This book will tell the story… of the development of money both in the Near East and in Greece up to the invention of coinage and its widespread adoption by the Greek cities, the only communities that adopted it wholeheartedly at its first appearance. (17)

Something new happened with the invention of coinage, and it produced a new idea that persists to our day. (5)

I have tried throughout only to sketch the ways in which Greek thought and behavior were changed by the introduction of money. (vii)

From the Greeks onward, we find a new way of speaking and ofthinking. Now a person might state the entirety of a household’s possessions in terms of money, as no member of a premonetary society would ever do. (16)

One of the central propositions of this book is that when we speak historically, the invention of coinage was the invention of money: that is, the concept that we understand as “money” did not exist before the seventh century B.C.E., when coins were first minted. There surely had been many items before that we may recognize correctly, as money, there were even places…where a single item performed all the functions associated with money. Never before, however, had these items been conceptualized as money, for money to the Greeks, as to us, was the measure of all things, something different in nature from all the valuables that might represent it. (15; emphasis in original)

All ancient Near Eastern societies had a conventional standard of value, usually precious metals or a specified grain. The standard of payment was always “primitive money,” never coin, and it did not always perform all the functions that coin was later to perform…. If Greece was the cradle of coinage and Lydia its birthplace, the societies of the Near East were its ancestors. (34)

Schaps links the unprecedented Greek adoption of coinage with Greek backwardness. The Greeks… who had only very primitive forms of currency, thought of coins as they had never thought of those items in which they had once traded, evaluated and paid. An ideal that had grown up in the East at a time when Greece had no need for it suddenly dawned on the Greeks when coins appeared. It was a time when the Greeks were in a period of economic and intellectual expansion for which their relatively primitive economic concepts did not provide an adequate basis…. Precisely because of their economic backwardness, they had no sufficient preexisting conceptual structure to compete with or subordinate the idea of money. (16-17)

Why did the ancient Near East (ANE) not move from a very evident monetization to “money, as we know it”? Technology would not have raised a barrier to the transformation. Why were coins so exciting to the Greeks and so uninteresting to their neighbors? The answer is that they filled a need peculiar to Greek society…. It was Greece that was searching for new forms of government and administration to manage the new complexity of the poleis and new ways of organization to maintain its people, and coins made that administration and that organization simpler and more manageable than spits and cauldrons [primitive money] could have done. (108)

This is interesting, but not entirely convincing. An alternative line of explanation is that coinage (guaranteed money) is not nearly as important economically as Schaps supposes. The alleged special interest of the Greeks in coinage may then reflect an ideological dimension peculiar to the Greeks. Schaps mentions “the particular Greek appreciation of the universality of money” (196). There is also a real question, explored below, whether Greece was really so backward monetarily as Schaps suggests.

Schaps’ presentation is quite clear and, obviously, there is rich material here. The view that coinage was invented by the Lydians is one that is generally accepted by scholars. I do have some problems with the equation of money with coinage and the meaning of “primitive money.” There is also something of a problem with respect to whom, according to Schaps, invented coinage: On the one hand, the Lydians invented coins and then the Greeks eagerly used them. On the other hand, the time when the Greeks eagerly used coins is the time of invention. These are relatively minor issues and I put them aside. On to the details!

I. Did the Ancient Near East Know Coinage?

A. Indirect Evidence

1. Schaps states that a “discussion of the factors that go into price determination does not form part of this book, for their importance arises in a money economy, and the point at which the Greeks achieved a money economy is the point at which this study ends” (30). I am not sure exactly what this means. Schaps is perhaps suggesting that the forces of supply and demand determine prices only in an economy with money, which he equates with coinage. This is, of course, completely false. Later Schaps adds “The Babylonian economy was still not, as it would become in the Hellenistic period, dominated by a market where prices changed each day; but it was not immune to the law of supply and demand” (49). This is a heroic understatement! Although we do not have daily price data, there is ample evidence of price changes and of the operation of supply and demand. Indeed, the Old Babylonian period (earlier second millennium BCE) has been characterized by Hallo (1958: 98) as one in which “there was a price on everything from the skin of a gored ox to the privilege of a temple office.”

2. Silver was indeed used as a means of payment in the ANE. However, rather than spreading through the population, it remained in the hands of merchants. “It never became, as coins eventually would, synonymous with wealth itself. It could not have done so, if only because too few people owned it. For this reason, the Babylonians never thought of silver as we think of money” (51).

The surviving documents do not demonstrate that Mesopotamians thought of money in the same way the Greeks did. Caution is justified about the reason for this presumed difference. There is evidence for the dispersal of precious metals in the population. As early as the middle of the third millennium in Ebla (in Syria) silver was used to purchase ordinary goods including clothing and grain as well as wine and semi-precious stones (Archi 1993: 52). Mesopotamian texts of the middle of the second half of the third millennium already show us street vendors, and, according to Foster (1977: 35-36, nn. 47, 48), the use of silver to pay rents and purchase dates, oil, barley, animals, slaves, and real estate; in addition, “silver was widely used in personal loans and was often in possession of private citizens and officials.”

3. Schaps asserts “The silver of the Near East had never been coined; it was weighed at each transaction, and the scale was an essential accessory to every sale” (49). This statement may reflect general belief, but it goes beyond the evidence. It is not true that ANE texts invariably mention weighing and/or scales. Indeed, to my knowledge, the mention of scales is infrequent. Nevertheless, Schaps is on strong ground in stressing the centrality of weighing in transactions recorded in the Bible.[1]

B. Direct Evidence

Schaps maintains that “an examination of the various primitive items that have at one time or another been claimed to be coins fails to reveal any clear example, and it may be useful to clear the air of the various hypotheses, which by their very number can create the false impression that coinage was common in the eastern Mediterranean Basin long before the Lydians and the Greeks” (222-23). Elsewhere he maintains that “the verisimilitude of the preceding suggestion is not much above zero” (235). Schaps may well be correct in rejecting this hypothesis. However, his treatment of the evidence leaves something to be desired.

1. The evidence is reasonably clear that the ANE went a good part of the way toward coinage by circulating ingots of guaranteed quality. Assyrian loan contracts of the eighth to seventh centuries use various formulas to advance “silver of (the goddess) Ishtar (of the city) Arbela (or Nineveh or Bit Kidmuri).” Lipinski (1979) argued brilliantly against interpreting this phrase to mean “temple capital.” Expressions of this kind, he suggested, refer to the quality of the metal, and their inclusion in contracts makes no sense unless the metal is impressed with a stamp of guarantee. The practice of guaranteeing metal quality, it may be added, probably goes back to the second millennium. The expression “silver of the gods” is found in texts from Mari in Syria and Amarna in Egypt. For example, in a letter concerning the disposition of an inheritance the king of Mari refers to the deceased person’s “silver of the gods” (Malamat 1998: p. 185; cf. CAD s.v. ilu 1.e).

In discussing the ingots from the temple of Arbela Schaps concludes: There was nothing particularly important about this development as far as Assyria was concerned. The temple’s ingots, even if stamped, were no more than good quality silver…. It will have been the business of a merchant to recognize them and to know good silver from bad, but there was nothing revolutionary about them. They may have come in convenient sizes…, but they were hardly standardized, and it is hard to imagine that a merchant would have failed to put them on the scale before accepting them. (92)

A guarantee of metal quality surely reduced the transaction cost of using money and it is therefore puzzling that Schaps considers this a development little or no importance. Moreover, he goes beyond the evidence in saying that the ingots were not standardized in weight. The texts do not say that the ingots were weighed.

2. Schaps writes of the Egyptian shaty “piece”: “It is regularly used as an item of account, not a medium of trade: that is, not ‘pieces’ but other items changed hands, bartered for each other and evaluated in terms of ‘pieces'” (224-25). In fact, there is evidence for the circulation of shaty‘s in texts of the Ramesside era (second half of the second millennium). In the Eighteenth Dynasty, a text (Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1453A) records the delivery of silver shaty‘s to a woman at the meryet “quay, marketplace” (Condon 1984: 63-65). In Papyrus Boulaq 11 merchants pay for quantities of meat and wine with shaty‘s (Castle 1992: 253, 257; Peet 1934). The texts do not say that the shaty‘s were weighed or tested for quality.

3. Schaps discusses the Egyptian Hekanakht letters of about 2000 BCE, but he does not refer to the following significant detail. Copper coins may be indicated when Hekanakht sends to his agent “24 copper debens” for renting land. James (1984: 245) explains that “the letter says quite clearly ’24 copper debens,’ not ’24 debens of copper,’ which ought to signify 24 pieces of copper each weighing, one deben.”

4. Schaps does not mention texts from the Assyrian trading station in Anatolia (earlier second millennium BCE) in which we sometimes find prices being expressed in terms of copper ingots, patallu and sad?lu. Thus, one Dakuku “owes 12 copper sad?lus as the price of donkey.” Dercksen (1996. 60, n. 179) notes that “quantity is expressed by simply giving the number of ingots instead of their weight [which] points to a more or less customary weight and size for this type” (emphasis added). I would add that use of the number of ingots also points to a standard quality.

5. Schaps defines “coin” as follows: “[A] coin is an object, usually but not necessarily of metal, which circulates as a medium of trade, and whose value is guaranteed by the stamp of the issuing authority” (223). He adds: “We may thus ignore without further discussions such items as spits, rings, and sealed bags of silver, which although they served many of the purposes that coins later served were not by themselves coins at all. They belong to the history of ‘primitive money’… (223).

Schaps’ dismissal of sealed bags of silver is most puzzling and instead of ignoring these, he offers a brief discussion of their significance. He concludes that “When silver was to be reused, a certain amount was given to the assayer in advance. Whatever the assayer did not use was sealed with a royal seal, obviating the need for weighing and assaying it again. The ‘sealed silver,’ then, is ordinary silver sealed in a sack, not a coin” (223-24).

In my view, sealed bags provide evidence for widespread use of “coinage” in the ANE. The background is as follows. Cuneiform sources of the first half of the second millennium refer to sealed bags of silver (e.g. kaspum kankum). We hear of “(silver) in lumps-sealed in a bag” (CAD s.v. kankua) and “x silver which is placed in its sealed bag” (CAD s.v. kan?ku 2). There is also mention of silver “marked” (udd?) with its weight (CAD s.v. id? 4.a). Copper might also be packed into purses called (c)hurshianu (CAD s.v.; Dercksen 1996: 66)

The sealed bags might be transferred: “I needed (and asked you for in writing) ten shekels of silver under seal.” x silver which PN gave to PN2 , and which is marked with the name of the merchant. (CAD s.v. s(umu 1.e); “you have sent me silver which is not fit for business transactions… send me silver, (in) a sealed bag” (CAD s.v. kaniktu 2). Oppenheim (1969) makes brief mention of cuneiform sources of the first half of the second millennium that refer to sealed bags of silver deposited with persons who used the silver in various transactions. Most directly, the practice of transacting with sealed bags of silver is reflected in the call, in eighteenth-century contracts from Mesopotamia (the city of Larsa), for merchants to pay for palace-owned goods with “sealed silver” (Stol 1982: 150-51). The transactional use of sacks is ignored by S.[2]

Some years ago, in reflecting on these references, it occurred to me that in eleventh-century-CE Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa, in Talmudic times (400-500 CE) and earlier in Carthage and in Rome (the tesserae nummulariae), various coins and (probably) metal fragments were kept in purses labeled on the outside with the contents and sealed by governments or private merchants. In addition to keeping the coins “fresh” — that is, preserving their full weight — Udovitch (1979: 267), who studied the usage in medieval Islam, explains: “these packaged and labeled purses made settlement of accounts much more convenient… by obviating the need to weigh, array, and evaluate coins for every individual transaction. Significantly, most payments and transfers of funds were executed by the actual physical transfer of the purses.” We may assume that these purses circulated among the wealthier classes.

Schaps responds as follows: “[Morris] Silver (126-27) obfuscates this point, going so far as to say that (medieval Islamic!) sealed purses ‘in short… were large denomination coins.’ This is surely to broaden the definition of a coin far beyond reason” (224, n. 9). Schaps obtained this quote from my 1985 edition. In 1995 I wrote: “In short, the sealed purses functioned as large-denomination ‘coins'” (161). The reason for the change in formulation is that numismatic specialists and antiquarians insisted that coins had to be made of metal. I was hammered on this, to an economist, unimportant detail. Schaps? properly broadened definition of “coin” makes my original formulation perfectly appropriate. Under his definition a “nickel,” as he says, can be wooden and “a dollar bill would also count as a ‘coin’ (223, n. 3). The important point is that there is evidence to suggest that the kaspum kankum functioned as/were coins!

6. Schaps does not mention evidence provided by Joann’s (1989). Hammurabi (1792-1750) paid/rewarded Mari’s soldiers with (mysterious) shamsh?tum “sun discs,” gold rings, silver of 5 or 10 shekels, and with small pieces of silver impressed with a seal. Joann?s bases himself on ARMT 25, 815 and a letter (A-486+) to Zimri-Lim, the king of Mari. The key word here is kaniktum from kan?kum “to mark a seal” (see CAD s.vv.). In the absence of (additional?) evidence for the use of kaniktum to make payments, Joann?s suggests that these sealed metal objects may have been “medals.” Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps they were coins. Indeed, as far as I am aware, the evidence for coinage is more ample than the evidence for “medals”! The text is silent about whether and how Mari’s soldiers spent the small pieces of sealed silver.

7. Several bread-shaped ingots of the eighth century inscribed with the name of a king preceded by the Aramaic letter lamed have actually been found in the palace of Zinjirli, a north Syrian state located on the only good crossing of the Amanus mountains from east to west. The meaning of the possessive l is debated. One possibility is that it means “belonging to” in the sense of personal possession. Balmuth (1971: 3), however, suggests that it means “on behalf of” or “in the name of” (its meaning on coins of later times) and, therefore, that the inscription represents a royal guarantee of the metal. Any such guarantee might refer only to the quality of the metal or to both quality and weight. Schaps responds as follows: “But there is no indication that this disk… was ever meant to be currency at all, and coins did not become current in this area until centuries later” (91, n.52). Thus, Schaps comes close to saying that the ingot could not be a coin because they had not been invented yet! Schaps believes that the disks were designed for storage of wealth, not for making payments. Perhaps he has guessed right. The fact is, however, that there is simply no evidence beyond the inscribed ingots themselves.

As I will show next, Schaps requires much more from the Near Eastern coinage evidence than from the Greek.

II. Greek Coinage Evidence

1. There is clear evidence of a double standard in Schaps’ consideration of the Lydian evidence (93-6). The “Lydian” coins excavated in the Artemision at Ephesus are mostly dated to the seventh and earlier sixth centuries BCE. However, the dating remains controversial. Two of the pieces were dumps not coins. The significance of their inscriptions is still being debated. All but two of the ninety-three pieces conformed to the Milesian weight standard. There is no evidence that merchants would not have had to weigh them. There is no direct evidence that the coins circulated. The coins are made of the wrong metal, electrum instead of silver, gold, or copper. (Variation in the ratio of gold to silver, would seem to call for quality testing.) In short, despite numerous opportunities for raising objections, Schaps does not hesitate to call the finds in the Artemision, the “earliest datable coins” (93; emphasis added).

Schaps explains further: “The motivation behind the ‘cutting’… of such coins must have been quite different from the motivation of the temple of Arbela in casting its ingots. Ingots of a pound or so are a convenient way in which to store silver, and they were probably made for that purpose. Small and minutely subdivided weights of electrum [as in the Ephesus hoard], however, were undoubtedly made for payment not storage” (100). Possibly. However, there is evidence for the circulation of the Arbela ingots. A contract in which neither the temple nor its commercial agent is a party shows the silver being loaned out. The document originates some 50 miles from Arbela. On the other hand, no direct evidence is presented that the Ephesus coins circulated.

Contrast Schaps’ evaluation of the Artemision coins with his view of the Cappadocian lead disks, which may date to the mid-second millennium (225-26). The “ornamentation” on (one side) of the disks is similar but not identical. The disks “vary irregularly in weight.” They are made of the “wrong metal.” There is no evidence of “circulation from place to place.” Scholars have expressed doubts that “such small bits of lead could have had much monetary value” (225). “Nothing suggests that they are coins except their size and shape and the fact that they are made of metal…” (225). It would seem that ANE candidates for designation as early coins are always too large or too small or whatever.

2. Schaps does not demonstrate that the Greece took its inspiration from Lydian coins. Schaps explains: “The Greek coins were silver, not electrum…. The change to silver indicates that coins, even if they had begun as a solution to the problem of the variability of electrum, had come to be appreciated as what they now were: a countable unit of value” (104; emphasis added). Clearly, this terminology simply assumes an imitation and modification of Lydian coinage practices.

3. There are hints that the Greeks had long been familiar with “primitive money” or even coinage. Greek traditions and legends place coinage much earlier than the sixth century. Thus, Plutarch (Theseus 25.3) wrote in the first century CE that Theseus, the legendary unifier and king of Attica, issued coins. In the second century CE, the scholar Pollux (9.83), claimed that coinage was invented by the even more shadowy Athenian figure Erichthonius, an early king. We find reports in ancient literary sources that Pheidon, king of Argos, introduced a silver coinage possibly as early as the eighth century (see S 101-4).

Hacksilber “cut-silver” hoards have not been found inside Greece. However, an eighth century hoard was excavated in Eretria in Euboea. (The Taranto 1911 hoard is dated to c. 600.) Balmuth (1975: 296) suggests that “although many of these have been called silversmith’s hoards, the practicability of exchange by weight suggests that Hacksilber could simultaneously be both material for a jeweler and material for exchange.” Schaps does not “believe there was ever an internal bullion economy in Greece” (195).[3] However, Kim (2001) has presented evidence that money of weighed silver bullion was employed in the Greek world well before the introduction of coinage. There are references to the use of silver to pay fines in Solon’s time.

More importantly, Schaps provides evidence consistent with bullion usage. In the eighth century, at Gortyn in Crete, the leb?s “cauldron” was used to make payments. Schaps explains that “it is hard to escape the impression that cauldrons, as inconvenient as they may seem to be, were functioning as a means of payment… in which fines could be assessed and deposits demanded” (83, cf. 195). Actually, it is preposterous that physical cauldrons were used as means of payment. More reasonably, “cauldrons” might be the name for an ingot, perhaps stamped with the image of a cauldron. Mysterious monetary units are, after all, commonplace in the historical documents. Thus, a text from the ANE (Isin) records the purchase of an orchard for copper “hoes” ((c)haputu) inscribed with the name of the goddess Ninisina. Payments are also made in “sickles” and “axes” (CAD niggallu 1.b).

III. Alleged Revolutionary Effect of Coinage/Money

Schaps’ central proposition is not documented in a credible manner. In this endeavor, he receives only limited mileage from his strained identification of coinage with money. Sometimes he claims for money/coin the effects of Greek economic growth. In other instances, he admits that no revolution occurred. The quotations cited below illustrate his difficulties.

1. “The conceptual revolution that identified coins with wealth turned money into an item of which one could never have too much, or, indeed, enough” (175). What then of the Assyrian merchants of the early second millennium BCE whose wives scolded them “You love only money, and you hate your own life!” (Larsen 1982: 42)? More to the point, what of Solon (Fragment 13.43-45. 47-48, 71-73 West):

One hastens after one thing, another after something else; one man, desiring to bring home profit, wanders over the fishy sea in ships … another, whose concern is the curved plow, cleaves the thickly wooded land and slaves away for a year… but no limit of wealth [ploutou d’ouden terma] is clearly laid down for men; for those of us who now have the greatest livelihood [pleiston…bion] have twice the eagerness [diplasion specdousi]; who can satisfy [koreseien] all? (Balot 2001: 90)Presumably, this view originates in the late archaic period — i.e. before the Greeks adopted coinage. In any event, Solon does not link human acquisitiveness with coinage or money.

2. “To the extent, then, that Homeric society had distinguished prestige goods from nonprestige goods, money subverted the distinction: money could buy anything and could be gotten in exchange for anything. It follows that even a peasant or a shopkeeper could amass enough money to buy the most prestigious goods; and it followed from this that the possession of those goods, which is now open to everybody, no longer distinguished the best from the worst” (117).

3. “The history of the late archaic age in Greece is the story of the crumbling of oligarchies. This development was already underway before coinage had been invented…. Nevertheless, it is more than probable that money and the market had their share in continuing the process and in changing the entire concept of oligarchy” (120).

4. An (alleged) trend from socially embedded transactions to impersonal economics should not be attributed to the adoption of coinage. There is no doubt that economic transactions tended, as Greek society developed from the archaic age to the classical and the Hellenistic, to be more a matter of immediate mutual economic benefit and less a form of discharging social obligations. The invention of coinage certainly facilitated this change, which may, however, have been propelled more by simple population growth than by any technological or cultural development. (33)

5. “The agora grew up in the Kerameikos, the potters quarter, and excavations have found evidence of potters’ waste as far back as 1000 B.C.E., but there are not other signs of commercial or industrial activity before the growth of the agora itself [in the sixth century]” (113). “We cannot… prove that there was no retail trade before coins were invented; but what we have seen suggests that if there was any, there was not much” (115). The latter suggestion, however, does not depend so much on “what we have seen” as on what we have not, namely the archaic agora! “The place in which Athenians had previously congregated was hardly remembered by the Athenians and has not been securely identified to this day” (113).

In the end, Schaps offers a more balanced appraisal. The various participants “were all making a profit, and they were doing it in a way that would have been a good deal more difficult before the invention of coinage” (115). “Money, we may reiterate, did not create trade, but it marked the beginning of a new age of commerce in Greece” (122). “An expansion of retail trade was the first visible concomitant of coins. At this distance, we cannot tell which is cause and which is effect, but we can say at least that the marketplace and coinage grew up together” (196).

6. “Without money, the great temples, the dramatic festivals of Athens, its navy, and its democracy would have taken a very different form, if they had come to exist at all” (197). This is simply a reach.

7. “Merkelbach’s observation that a bordello was hardly conceivable before the invention of money is a plausible one, though the ‘money’ involved need not have been coins: the weighed silver of the Levant would also have been sufficient” (160). “Merkelbach’s observation” is “plausible” only because he does not identify money with coinage. How did Greeks pay for sexual services before the (alleged) “invention” of coinage/money in the sixth century? Schaps does not tell us.

8. “The ancient Greeks, even when money had become the universal medium of exchange, still considered the exchange of labor for money to be the exceptional case” (162). No revolution in the labor market.

9. “In sum, it appears that money never truly transformed Greek agriculture” (172).

Schaps, however, underestimates the market orientation of Greek agriculture in the later archaic period. Citing Hesiod (Works and Days 618-94), he (89, cf. 119) suggests that “Peasants might try to change an agricultural surplus into a more lasting form of wealth by sailing abroad during the seasons when the farm could be left alone.” What exactly was the “more lasting form of wealth” in these days (allegedly) before money/coin? With respect to Schaps? “agricultural surplus,” Redfield 2003: 168) points out that Hesiod advises “peasants” to “leave the greater part, and load as cargo the lesser” (Works and Days 690). Hesiod it seems can actually imagine farming entirely for export, although he is against it.” Moreover, Hesiod’s comment that “wealth means life to poor mortals” indicates an appreciation of production for the market.

IV. Peripheral Contributions

Apart from his central argument, Schaps makes a number of rather interesting and useful observations. Some examples follow.

“When the [Mycenaean] palaces had been burned and their far-flung bureaucracy dispersed, there will have been more need for exchange. The Homeric heroes did indeed have to weigh the value of a slave against the value of a tripod; if this seems to us a step toward the concept of money, it is not for that reason a sign of an expanding economy” (71). Thus, as I would see this, the Homeric era can be viewed and an “Intermediate Period” of a type familiar in Egyptian economic history.

Speaking of the marketplace in Athens, Schaps notes: These merchandises were not mixed: not only was there no one ‘general store’ that sold them all, but there was not even a single place where one could ‘do the shopping.’ Each merchandise had its own part of the agora, and a person would speak of being ‘among the fish’ or ‘among the banks.’ (167)

Or even, citing Aristophanes, “among the tragedies” (S 167, n. 19)!

Schaps (123) cites Aristophanes’ joke that a politician could win public support by lowering the price of sardines.

Schaps takes up private enterprise in the coinage business: It might, in theory, have happened that coining would have become a form of business, in which private individuals turned silver into coins that would have been accepted by the reputation of the coiner…. It did not happen in Greece. Once coinage was generally adopted in Greek cities, the coining of money was normally a state monopoly. (179)

By contrast, I would suggest, some of the inscriptions on the coins from the Artemision coins seem to be personal names, which leaves open the possibility that the issuers were private individuals.

Large business loans were made at Athens. “It is true, however, that large loans at Athens were, as far we can tell, never designed to be paid off in drips and drabs out of one’s regular income” (245).

There are also some rather unfortunate observations. “Behind the [Greek] prejudice [against merchants] though hardly ever explicitly expressed, lies a real paradox, namely, the syllogism that: (a) a trade should be fair; (b) if a trade is fair, both sides should remain with the same value; whence it follows that (c) if a person can increase his capital by trade, he is cheating someone” (177). It should be needless to say that there is no “real paradox.” An uncoerced exchange benefits both parties. Unless each contractor views his postexchange position to be superior to his preexchange position, exchange will not take place. Contrary to the Marxist perspective, exchange is productive. Specifically, trade rearranges an existing stock of goods in a way that enables each participant to become better off as measured relative to his own values at the time of deciding to trade. The creative nature of trade is little appreciated by scholars untrained in basic economic principles. Schaps (177, n. 7) compounds the problem by minimizing the contribution of the middleman in “making a market.” Later, he redeems himself by crediting the obolostat?s “obol weigher” for smoothing the function of the marketplace by “redistributing — for a fee — the coins that circulated in the market so that any seller could count on finding enough coins to start a day’s business” (186).

Concluding Remark

Not surprisingly, Schaps fails to demonstrate his thesis that coin=money revolutionized Greek economy and society. In my judgment, it is not nearly enough to cite the obvious advantages of coins in retail trade and to note that a Greek household might now express the entirety of its possessions in terms of money. With respect to the invention of coinage, the communis opinio has long been that it first appeared in the Greek world, not in the Near East. Schaps, to his credit, does explore the evidence for coinage in the Near East. However, he omits or misrepresents much and treats the remainder in an unbalanced manner. He has a tendency to make definitive statements not supported by evidence. Outside his central argument, he has many worthwhile things to say. The latter insights are sufficient to justify a favorable evaluation of the book.

Notes:

1. In Genesis 23.16, Abraham “weighed” for Ephron’s field the sum of 400 shekels of silver kesep ‘?ber lass?cher. The latter phrase is usually translated “current money of the merchant,” but the literal meaning is “silver passing for the merchant.” The expression makes us focus on the kind of silver that would be employed in commerce. Hurowitz (1986: 290, n.3), taking note of the Old Assyrian usage kaspum asshumi PN (personal name) equlam ittiq — “silver will travel overland to the name of PN” — concludes that the silver “must have been of a standard, recognized quality.” There is no mention in Genesis of a test of the quality of the metal. Hence, it seems reasonable that a merchant’s stamp or seal guaranteed the silver. Schaps (91, n. 50) rejects this interpretation. He (228, n. 37) is correct in insisting that the silver was weighed

2. Despite the dangers, some biblical evidence should be noted. In 2 Kings 12.10-12 we read that in the ninth century under King Jehoash: a box with a hole bored in it was set up in the temple for the collection of silver [presumably silver pieces] for a repairs fund; at a certain point the Temple officers removed the silver from the box and “tied it up”/”bagged it” [warrasuru]; then the silver was counted [wayyimnu]; and then the “measured”/”regulated” [metukkan] silver was given to contractors who delivered it to various workers at the Temple who used it to purchase timber and stone. The text does not say that the sacks were opened in order to make payments. Thus, expressing all due caution, the most direct understanding is that the sacks circulated outside the Temple.

3. There is some reason to believe that terms originally meaning “weigh” came to have the meaning “pay” (compare S 228, n. 37) The Greek material provides a possible example of this kind of development in meaning. A law of Solon states: “Silver is to be stasimon at however much the lender may choose” (Kroll 2001: 78; Schaps 2001: 97). The orator Lysias (later fifth-earlier fourth century BCE) explains “This stasimon, my good man, is not a matter of placing in a balance but of exacting interest at whatever rate one may choose” (10.18). Schaps (2001: 98) concedes that stasis may refer to weighing but he opposes Kroll’s interpretation of Lysias as referring to an obsolete procedure, the weighing of silver on a scale: “The claim hinges on the presumption that stasimon ‘properly’ should mean ‘weighable’; but there are no parallels for such a meaning.” What then does stastimon mean in Solon’s law? According to Schaps (2001: 98) the word means “nothing more than ‘is to be paid’.”

In fact, there are no other examples of the use of stasimos in the meanings “weighing” (Kroll) or “paying” (Schaps). What is clear is that “There is an absolute connection between the adjective stasimos and the noun stasis, both derived from the verb hist?mi ‘to stand up, to cause to stand up” (David Tandy personal correspondence dated March 2, 2004; LSJ s.v. hist?mi). The verb hist?mi is well attested in the meaning “to weigh.”

In classical Athens, long after the introduction of coins, we find the term obolostate? “weigh obols” in the meaning “making small loans” (LSJ s.v.). There is evidence here of an evolution from “weighing” to “paying.”

Abbreviations:

CAD: Gelb et al., The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute (University of Chicago)

LSJ: Lidell, Scott, Jones, Greek-English Lexicon References

References:

Archi, Alfonso. (1993), “Trade and Administrative Practice: The Case of Ebla.” Altorientalische Forschungen, 20, 43-58.

Balmuth, Miriam S. (1971). “Remarks on the Appearance of the Earliest Coins.” In David G. Mitten et al. (eds.), Studies Presented to George M.A. Hanfmann. Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, 1-7.

Balmuth, Miriam S. (1975). “The Critical Moment: The Transition from Currency to Coinage in the Eastern Mediterranean.” World Archaeology, 6, 293-98.

Balmuth, Miriam S. (ed.) (2001). Hacksilber to Coinage: New Insights into the Monetary History of the Near East and Greece. New York: American Numismatic Society.

Balot, Ryan K. (2001). Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Castle, Edward W. (1992). “Shipping and Trade in Ramesside Egypt.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 35,239-77.

Condon, Virginia. (1984). “Two Account Papyri of the Late Eighteenth Dynasty (Brooklyn 35.1453A and B).” Revue d’?gyptologie, 35, 57-82.

Dercksen, Jan Gerrit. (1996). The Old Assyrian Copper Trade in Anatolia. Leiden: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul.

Foster, Benjamin R. (1977). “Commercial Activity in Sargonic Mesopotamia.” Iraq, 39, 31-44.

Gelb, I.J. et al. (eds.) (1956-). The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Locust Valley, N.Y.: Augustin.

Hallo, William W. (1958). “Contributions to Neo-Sumerian.” Hebrew Union College Annual, 29, 69-107.

Hurowitz (Avigdor), Victor. (1986). “Another Fiscal Practice in the Ancient Near East: 2 Kings 12:5-17 and a Letter to Esarhaddon (LAS 277).” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 45, 289-94.

James, T.G.H. (1984). Pharaoh’s People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Joann?s, F. (1989). “108) M?dailles d’argent d’Hammurabi?” Nouvelles Assyriologiques Br?ves et Utilitaires, (no. 4 D?cembre), 80-1.

Kim, Henry S. (2001). “Archaic Coinage as Evidence for the Use of Money.” In Andrew Meadows and Kirsty Shipton (eds.), Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 7-21.

Kroll, John H. (2001). “Observations on Monetary Instruments in Pre-Coinage Greece.” In Balmuth (ed.), Hacksilber to Coinage, 77-91.

Larsen, Mogens Trolle (1982). “Caravans and Trade in Ancient Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.” Bulletin of the Society of Mesopotamian Studies, 4, 33-45.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. (1968). A Greek-English Lexicon. Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie, rev. ed. London: Oxford University Press.

Lipinski, Edward. (1979). “Les temples neo-assyriens et les origines du monnayage.” In Edward Lipinski (ed.), State and Temple Economy in Ancient Mesopotamia, II. Leiden: Brill, 565-88.

Malamat, A. (1998). Man and the Bible. Leiden: Brill.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. (1969). “Review of R. Bogaert.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 12, 198-99.

Peet, Thomas Eric. (1934). “Unit of Value s(‘ty in Papyrus Bulaq 11.” In M?langes Maspero, Vol. 1, Fasc 1. Cairo: Institut Fran?aise d?Archa?ologie Orientale du Caire, 185-99.

Refield, James M. (2003). The Locrian Maidens: Love and Death in Greek Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Schaps, David M. (2001). “The Conceptual Prehistory of Money and Its Impact on the Greek Economy.” In Balmuth (ed.), Hacksilber to Coinage, 93-103.

Silver, Morris. (1985), Economic Structures of the Ancient Near East. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books.

Silver, Morris. (1995). Economic Structures of Antiquity. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Stol, M. (1982). “State and Private Business in the Land of Larsa.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 34, 127-230.

Udovitch, Abraham L. (1979). “Bankers without Banks: Commerce, Banking, and Society in the Islamic World in the Middle Ages.” Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, The Dawn of Modern Banking. New Haven. Conn.: Yale University Press, 255-74.

Morris Silver is Professor Emeritus of Economics in the City College of the City University of New York. His most recent publications about ancient economies are Taking Ancient Mythology Economically (Leiden: Brill, 1992) and Economic Structures of Antiquity (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995). “Modern Ancients” is forthcoming in Rollinger and Ulf (eds.), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World , Fifth Annual Melammu Conference 2002. Professor Silver maintains a website on “Ancient Economies” at http://sondmor.tripod.com/index-html.

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient

The Peasant Cotton Revolution in West Africa: Cote D’Ivoire, 1880-1995

Author(s):Bassett, Thomas J.
Reviewer(s):Boko, Sylvain H.

Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

Thomas J. Bassett, The Peasant Cotton Revolution in West Africa: Cote D’Ivoire, 1880-1995. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xix + 243 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-78313-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sylvain H. Boko, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

This book tells the story of how small-scale cotton farmers have used their adherence to free trade principles to revolutionize the cotton sector in West Africa, particularly in Ivory Coast. The books provides details of the historical development of the cotton industry in West Africa, and the innovative roles played by various African communities and groups in the economic and agronomic evolution of cotton in Africa. For example, it turns out from the author’s analysis that “in contrast to the dominant cotton development narrative that emphasizes the critical role played by Europeans in introducing new cotton varieties to West Africa, these ‘exotic’ varieties were in large part derived from African sources.” Further, the research reveals that half of the genetic components were derived from African sources and that African cotton farmers “actively experimented” with new cotton varieties. As the author, Thomas Bassett, points out: “this image of African cotton growers as innovative agents contrasts with the conventional representation of them as passive recipients of introduced technologies.” The research further reveals that in addition to their economic interest in cotton production, Africans had a scientific interest in this sector as well. Hence, Bassett notes that “female cotton spinners [in colonial French Sudan] were quick to appreciate the labor-saving qualities of medium and long-staple cotton.”

The analysis of the historical development of cotton in Africa is also conducted for the colonial period. Indeed, Bassett provides evidence that the French colonial government pursued a policy of cotton export promotion through coercion. In the end this strategy failed, however. The French colonial officers and the colonial textile companies were never able to convince, through coercion, including forced labor, the African cotton producers to produce in sufficient quantities for France’s textile industry. The reason is quite simple. During the colonial period there existed a parallel local cotton market in which prices received by local producers were more attractive than the prices offered by the colonial textile industry. Indeed, Bassett shows that African cotton producers took advantage of the existence of a local handicraft weaving industry that offered producers more competitive prices than were being offered by the colonial textile companies. The author explains that “only when compelled through administrative coercion would cotton growers produce for the export market. When the coercion let up, cotton exports fell dramatically.”

The main point of the book is that the cotton sector represents a success story in the history of agricultural development in Africa. According to this thesis, this success took the form of a dramatic expansion of cotton production, since pre-colonial times, as a result of two processes: “intensification” and (in more recent years) “extensification.” Intensification is explained as “some technical change that involves greater use of labor or other inputs per land unit,” and “extensification” is defined as “an expansion in cultivated area [or] situations in which farmers spread their labor and other inputs more thinly over a larger or smaller area.” Intensification resulted from the farmers’ choices of innovative and labor-saving technologies and usage of inputs such as fertilizer, to increase land productivity. This has been an on-going process since pre-colonial times. However, “extensification” became a farming strategy in more recent years as a result of the glut in the world cotton market, the subsequent drop in cotton prices and the World Bank-mandated elimination of subsidies for cotton farmers by the state textile company.

But regardless of the actual process of expansion, as explained by the book, the dramatic expansion in cotton production came about as a result of the “interplay of directed and induced technological and socio-cultural innovations that have developed in a dialectical and incremental manner since the early colonial period.” This “revolution” in the cotton sector was fueled by “negotiations” among African peasants and various external and internal agents, and the result of these interactions was that “new farming techniques and crop mixes, and different forms of labor organization and conjugal relations …” were adopted. Further, the book attempts to show, through detailed historical and field analysis, that the Africans themselves were largely responsible for this “cotton revolution” and that the role of foreign development experts in this African agricultural success story is exaggerated. African cotton producers, Bassett maintains, contributed to the “cotton revolution” in Ivory Coast through the adoption of innovative and labor-saving technologies, and their influence on government-directed research and price support policies, as independent producers who have proven their rationality over the decades by responding to price signals and profit opportunities rather than institutional price fixing or coercion. The book also points to important social changes in the cotton producing regions of Ivory Coast, including “flexible ways of interpreting culturally prescribed rest days, new forms of labor mobilization, and the greater importance of women’s work in household fields” as another important set of factors that have also contributed to the innovative success of cotton production in Africa.

The book is well detailed in its research and historical account of the development of the cotton sector in Africa. There is no question that this is one of the success stories coming out of the region. Indeed since 1980, cotton production has quadrupled for the main West African cotton producing countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Ivory Coast and Togo. For the region, cotton production now ranges from 5 to 10 percent of GDP and accounts for 30 percent of exports (for some individual countries such as Benin, cotton accounts for over 70 percent of exports). As maintained by the UN 2003 Human Development Report (HDR), many of these countries rely on cotton revenues to finance economic and social infrastructure in rural areas. However, the book fails to capture the important dynamics and distortions in the global cotton market which have direct impacts on small-scale producers in African countries. This omission may limit the usefulness of the analysis for policy-making.

As this review is being written, a group of African countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali, are negotiating with their WTO partners in Cancun, Mexico to enact a “sectoral initiative in favor of cotton” as one of the tools for poverty reduction. These countries and their co-sponsors base their request on the following facts: whereas African countries have undertaken a number of reforms in their cotton sector and have cut costs and improved productivity, a number of other exporting countries, including the United States, the European Union and China, have heavily subsidized their cotton industries, including providing export subsidies. According to the 2003 HDR, “in 2002 direct financial assistance (from the US, EU and China to cotton producers) was estimated to equal 73 percent of world production, considerably higher than the 50 percent recorded five years before.” Further, the report explains that “in 2001 these programs cost $4.9 billion, with about half provided by the United States” (p. 157). The heavy subsidization of the cotton sector by the Northern countries causes distortions in the global market since the resulting artificial glut is a direct cause of the price drops that have been experienced over the last few years in the sector. Clearly, poor exporting countries like those in West and Central Africa, that do not subsidize their production, but enjoy a competitive advantage and are forced to sell at close to cost suffer the most. Small farmers in these countries, for whom cotton is for the most part the only commodity they can export competitively, have only experienced a steady decline in their incomes beginning in 1985. Thus poverty continues to deepen as these farmers work more and more to maintain their productivity and competitive edge.

The solution proposed by the African producers group at the Cancun meeting is two-prong: a) the establishment of a mechanism to phase out support for cotton production with a view to its total elimination, and b) transitional measures in the form of financial compensation for cotton-producing LDCs to offset their loss of revenue (which resulted from dumping by the EU, US, and China), until support for cotton production has been completely phased out.

It remains to be seen whether these countries will be successful in Cancun, but there is no question but that more than development aid and other hand-outs, the best tool to combat poverty in poor countries is for them to receive fair and competitive prices in the world markets for the products in which they hold comparative advantage.

Reference: United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Human Development Report: Millennium Development Goals: A Compact among Nations to End Human Poverty, 2003, Oxford University Press.

Sylvan Boko is the author of Decentralization and Reform in Africa (Kluwer, 2002).

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII