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Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600

Author(s):van Bavel, Bas
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E.C.

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Bas van Bavel, Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600.? New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.? xiv + 492 pp. $140 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-927866-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anne E.C. McCants, Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The search for the medieval origins of European economic growth over the long run has become something of a growth industry in recent years.? For example, since 2008 the field of economic history has witnessed the publication of major book-length contributions from Jack Goldstone, Jan Luiten van Zanden, Paolo Palanima, and Timur Kuran, all of which argue strongly that there are readily identifiable causal linkages that extend in a meaningful way from at least the High Middle Ages (or even earlier) to present realities.[1]? For anyone familiar with an earlier instantiation of medieval economic history this trend may be unexpected.? It wasn?t long ago that the medieval economy was interesting only in so far as it was quaint (serfs and their lords eking out a living in the autarkic wilderness of the manorial economy); or worse, as it was brutal (the Middle Ages as the quintessential locus of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Conquest, War, Famine and Death).? Or if one?s tastes were not quite so dramatic there was always the longue duree of the Annales School, in which a relatively stable world of European peasants ran more or less seamlessly from late antiquity to the eighteenth century.? Admittedly, the greatest spokespersons of this view were Early Modernists, but the Medievalists were never far behind.? Indeed, it wasn?t always easy to tell them apart, given that they depicted a world of little change other than the cyclical fluctuations in the climate and the ebb and flow of population within its fairly narrow neo-Malthusian bounds.? None of this suggested the likely emergence of a historiography in which modern economic growth (of the kind defined by Simon Kuznets in the middle of the twentieth century and countless followers since) could be attributed back to conditions that prevailed in the years around or even before 1000.

This is not to say that the modern, industrial world as something sui generis has disappeared from recent scholarship; not at all.? Yet another group of important books of recent vintage seeking to explain the extraordinary economic achievement of Western Europe in the last two and a half centuries either passes over the question of medieval origins,[2] or in one prominent case counters it explicitly.[3]?? Jan de Vries finds his explanation for the modern transformation rooted in the new, consumerist, decision making strategies of households in the sixteenth and later centuries, while Deirdre McCloskey turns instead to the new ethical attachments, and the rhetoric by which they were expressed, of a commercial and middle class culture, more or less about the same time period.? Joel Mokyr turns his attention just a bit later to the eighteenth century proper when Enlightenment ideas loom large for both the development of new methods for organizing economic activities and in the tools and techniques employed in production, that is to say technological change in the broadest sense of that term.? For all of these arguments, newness is the important point; what may or may not have happened in the Middle Ages is hardly decisive.? In Greg Clark?s analysis, it is completely irrelevant.? Any economic breakthrough that may have occurred prior to 1800 would have been so quickly dissipated in a Malthusian population response that according to Clark there is no discernible change in living standards prior to the end of the eighteenth century.? Indeed, this position requires what this reader sees as the ironic claim that the only way to increase welfare before the advent of the modern world was for human suffering to increase; i.e. when other people die, you could then benefit.? In any event, all trends break at 1800, much as they did in the older historiography that separated the medieval economy from what came later in every fundamental way.

This is a long introductory discussion that references a lot of books other than the one under review, for which I crave the reader?s indulgence.? In fact, Bas van Bavel?s Manors and Markets: Economy and Society in the Low Countries, 500-1600, is at least as important for what it contributes to the emerging literature on the medieval origins of modern European economic growth, as it is for its direct contribution to the more narrowly circumscribed economic history of the Low Countries.? I should add, however, that it does indeed offer a significant contribution to the latter.? It is rich in detail, documenting the substantial regional variation that existed there (shockingly so given the relatively small area overall), and the shifting locus of the most advanced areas across the thousand years covered by his survey.? The Meuse Valley figures prominently in the Carolingian period, followed by the flowering of urban and industrial inland Flanders during the High Middle Ages, and finally by mercantile and maritime Holland, and its coastal cities in particular, in a sixteenth century he still characterizes as the Late Middle Ages.? Van Bavel?s range of topics includes everything from soil types, hydrological projects, choice of grains between spelt, wheat, and rye, forms of lordship, technological innovations in agriculture and industry, labor contracting arrangements, the standard of living, biometric and material evidence from the archeological record, legal rights to land, the power of political authorities, the emergence of communes and guilds, processes of urbanization, the minting of coins, the location of trade routes and the products traded along them, disease, social unrest, household structure, and of course, the making of cloth.? This list is even so not comprehensive, but it conveys the right idea.? For any economic activity that took place in the medieval Low Countries, van Bavel?s book will be the go-to source for a long time to come.? This is especially helpful as much of the monographic work on which he relies for his own source material is written in languages not readily accessible to a global scholarly audience.?

As wonderfully rich as all this is, most readers of this review are likely to find the broader argument about the powerful continuities between the distant past and the present the most provocative aspect of van Bavel?s work.? Broadly speaking, his argument rests on three components.? First, he postulates that what he calls the ?socio-institutional organization of the economy,? more specifically ?the rules that govern exchange,? is the most productive explanation for economic development (p. 4).? Second, he argues that these factors can vary considerably across even relatively small areas.? Finally, he asserts that the socio-institutional characteristics of a community demonstrate remarkable persistence over the very long run.? Despite the seemingly logical intuition that beneficial institutions ought to be readily adopted by at least close neighbors, this seems not to have been in fact the case.? Instead, van Bavel finds evidence of substantial variation in the response of even micro-regions to similar economic opportunities and changes in climate or population, depending on the socio-institutional framework with which they began.? The attentive reader will of course worry about the problem of origins, but in this case much of the land in question was reclaimed from the sea or swamp over the long Middle Ages, so van Bavel can often build his case from the moment of the original period of settlement.? In the final analysis he finds in the medieval history of the Low Countries ?a clear demonstration of how great the degree of socio-institutional path dependency and long-term continuity in regional structures was? (p. 396).

It is his close attention to the remarkable complexity of regional variation that leads him to reject many of the other commonly proffered explanations for long term economic fluctuations found in the broader economic history literature.? So while he acknowledges the importance of technological change, climate shifts, and population movements for the specific experiences of economic actors, he is not willing to grant them explanatory power for economic development.? He argues that they are too blunt an instrument for parsing the remarkable geographic variation in outcome already witnessed in the Middle Ages.? For example he says of climate and demography that ?these factors often vary little over wide areas, whereas economic and social developments within these areas may differ widely? (p. 3).? Likewise with arguments about commercialization, which he admits seem especially attractive in discussing the history of the Low Countries, characterized as it was from an early date by large cities and unusually intensive trade networks.? All of these factors, ?climatic, geographical, demographic, and political,? had their impact of course, but those effects were ?directed? by the differing socio-institutional factors ?in divergent directions? (p. 387).? Not surprisingly, given this perspective, he also upends the more typical narrative about urbanization as a factor in economic development.? Instead of seeing urbanization as a cause of economic growth, he argues it was more likely the other way around.? Economic growth, especially as it concerned the agricultural sector, was the necessary precursor of rapid urban growth (p. 384).

What then were the critical socio-institutional factors to which we can attribute the largely successful economic development of the Low Countries, at least as measured by the standards of a wider medieval Europe?? The answer to this question is not always entirely clear.? But it seems safe to say that van Bavel gives particular pride of place to two factors:? ?a relatively efficient system of exchange combined with social balance? (p. 405).? His definition of an efficient system of exchange is straightforward enough.? It includes unhindered regional interaction, the presence of open and flexible markets, and the early disappearance of non-economic coercion (p. 11).?? But his understanding of what might constitute social balance is more elusive.? The closest he comes to a concrete definition is to say that social balance occurs directly when ?independent actors and their associations played an important social and economic role,? and indirectly when those actors have ?influence on the authorities? (p. 408).? The Low Countries were blessed with this ?social balance? on account of ?the large degree of freedom for ordinary people? that occurred quite early in their history (p. 409).?

In the final analysis then, we have a story about the medieval period that resonates closely with our understanding of what makes a modern economy work best: relatively unrestricted and autonomous individuals, with access to efficient and well integrated markets, whose worst instincts are held in check by social institutions that promote balance.? No wonder their world proved to be such a good predictor of ours — their world was essentially ours, just on a smaller scale.? Some readers might be daunted by the level of detail that van Bavel dives into in order to substantiate his most important fact: the incredible complexity and variety of micro-regional differences in social institutions in the medieval Low Countries.? But for those who persevere to the end of this long book, his is a happy, and persuasive, tale indeed.

1. Jack Goldstone, Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1500-1850, McGraw-Hill: 2008; Jan Luiten van Zanden, The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000-1800, Brill: 2009; Paolo Malanima, Pre-Modern European Economy: One Thousand Years (10th-19th Centuries), Brill: 2009; and Timur Kuran, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, Princeton University Press: 2010.
2. See for example, Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, University of Chicago Press: 2010; Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present, Cambridge University Press: 2008; or Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850, Yale University Press: 2010.
3. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press: 2008.

Anne E.C. McCants teaches medieval and early modern economic history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.? Her research interests in the Low Countries have ranged from historical demography to the role of social welfare institutions and the rise of consumer culture.? She is currently working on a project to explore the financial underpinnings of Gothic cathedral construction in the High Middle Ages.

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 ( Published by EH.Net (June 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

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

The Politics of Provisions: Food Riots, Moral Economy, and Market Transition in England, c. 1500-1850

Author(s):Bohstedt, John
Reviewer(s):Ó Gráda, Cormac

Published by EH.Net (February 2011)

John Bohstedt, The Politics of Provisions: Food Riots, Moral Economy, and Market Transition in England, c. 1500-1850. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Books, 2010.? x + 312 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6581-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Cormac ? Gr?da, Department of Economics, University College Dublin.?

One of the classic set pieces in Alessandro Manzoni?s I Promessi Sposi is a famine scene set in seventeenth-century Milan, in which the hapless hero, Renzo, barely escapes with his life during a food riot.? Manzoni was a fan of the Enlightenment and of Adam Smith, so his account of Renzo?s folly is implicitly critical of those who would interfere with market forces, even during a famine.? Many economists would instinctively agree with him.? Some might change their minds, however, after reading John Bohstedt?s The Politics of Provisions, a masterly history of food riots in England.

Food riots were typically the product of commercialization and its handmaiden, the division of labor.? They were most likely in towns where the impact of sudden rises in food prices was most acutely felt, and where resistance was more easily organized.?? They were less likely in contexts of agricultural productivity growth and competitive, rapidly-adjusting markets.? Food riots thus became widespread in England during the Tudor-Stuart period, reached a peak on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, and petered out in the early Victorian era.

Politics of Provisions is built around the meticulous analysis of over seven hundred food riots occurring over a period of three centuries or so.? Riots are defined as collective action involving a dozen or more individuals.? Episodes might be over in a day or might last a week or two; they were more likely in areas with a tradition of collective action on other issues.?? Bohstedt?s census, which is available online [], is not a continuous three-century time-series; it focuses instead on episodes of peaks in rioting.? Thus Bohstedt identifies and documents in detail forty-five riots in 1740-41, but more than a hundred in 1756-57 and in 1766, and a further forty or so in 1772-73.? These are periods of extreme hardship well-known to scholars of subsistence crises in England and further afield.? Bohstedt contrasts the Tudor-Stuart period (c. 1550-1650) of rising population pressure and declining real wages with the following period (1650-1739) characterized by increasing market integration, an agricultural productivity growth that outstripped population, and (as a result) a decline in the number of scarcity crises (p. 266).? Then his third period (1740-1820) was what he calls the ?golden age of food riots.?

Bohstedt?s study is not an exercise in crude economistic determinism.? Although the riots were always caused by hunger, those who took part in them were not necessarily the most vulnerable or the poorest.?? They were more likely to be independent artisans and craftsmen, what Bohstedt calls ?masterless men? (p. 264).? The number of food riots grew as the growth in the number of ?masterless men.?? The rioters sought neither a return to bucolic self-sufficiency ? la Karl Polanyi nor social revolution ? la Karl Marx; according to Bohstedt they simply operated out of a deep conviction that the rich were bound to help in times of need.? Although their protests sometimes turned violent, the rioters were on the whole disciplined.? Moreover their actions, be they blocking exports, seizing food directly, and forcing prices down, succeeded in extracting concessions from the better-off.? Predicated on the ?moral economy? conviction that ?necessity knows no law,? the transfers of resources they that extracted saved lives.? Rioting worked.

The concessions gained by the rioters were by no means ad hoc only; some had lasting institutional consequences.? Thus, in January 1587 rioting led to the first book of ?dearth orders,? which directed local officials to regulate food supplies.? In the 1590s widespread rioting produced the codification in 1598 of the Elizabethan ?old? poor law, which would have an enduring impact on welfare and, some would argue, economic development; in 1756 widespread unrest prompted the creation of municipal food banks by the gentry; and in 1795 food riots in the south of England prompted magistrates in Berkshire to introduce their much maligned Speenhamland system of outdoor relief.? Bohstedt surmises that food riots were partly responsible for the elimination of famine in England after the 1620s, citing with evident glee E.P. Thompson?s panacea for famine: send cadres of food-riot instructors to countries at risk (pp. 33-34, 89).? The claim is plausible, although it must be qualified, given the evidence for excess famine mortality in England as late as the late 1720s and the early 1740s (Kelly and ? Gr?da, 2011).?

The correlation between rioting intensity, high food prices, and the threat of famine is striking.? The main outlier in this respect seems to be 1726-29, a period of famine which produced only twenty-one food riots (p. 97).? But did rioters succeed in reducing food prices?? While Bohstedt provides evidence on price controls, only micro-studies using high quality, high frequency data can really answer this question.? In order to be effective, did the riots have to reduce food prices?? One answer, set out by Malthus in An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Cost of Provisions (1800) — prompted, incidentally, by the serious outbreak of food rioting in 1799-1800 (pp. 206-09) — is ?not necessarily.?? Malthus pointed out, rather mischievously, that riot-induced transfers of purchasing power from the rich to the poor might increase the price of staple food items.? Yet he also conceded, atypically, that the operation of the poor laws had ?been advantageous to the country? in averting famine in 1799-1800.

Although Bohstedt does not cite Karl-Gunnar Persson?s Grain Markets in Europe, the very different approaches taken by him and Persson nicely complement one another.? One of Persson?s key points is that for as long as food markets responded sluggishly to disequilibria, both spatial and intertemporal, governing elites actively sought to preempt shortages by storing food and controlling interregional trade.? They did so partly out of noblesse oblige, but also out of fear.? The increasing integration of markets reduced the likelihood of those local food shortages and price peaks which led to food riots.

Politics of Provisions is well-produced but, as is the rule with Ashgate, pricey.? It deserves to be widely read and known.? It will be of particular interest to historians interested in the evolution of markets and the role of institutions and in the social and economic history of industrializing England.

Morgan Kelly and C. ? Gr?da. ?The Poor Law of Old England: Institutional Innovation and Demographic Regimes,? Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XLI[3] (Winter, 2011), 339?366.

Karl Gunnar Persson, Grain Markets in Europe, 1500-1900: Integration and Deregulation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Cormac ? Gr?da is Professor of Economics, University College Dublin.? Recent publications include Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009) and Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History (Princeton, 2006).

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 ( Published by EH.Net (February 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Household, Family and Consumer History
Markets and Institutions
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

Secular Cycles

Author(s):Turchin, Peter
Nefedov, Sergey A.
Nefedov, Se

Published by EH.NET (December 2009)

Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov, Secular Cycles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. ix + 349 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-13696-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Harry Kitsikopoulos, Department of Economics, New York University.

This book is an audacious and ambitious attempt to promote the viewpoint that historical progression runs according to certain regular patterns. In its effort to prove this hypothesis it lays out a number of predictions testing them against empirical time series for four countries during different epochs: Rome (350BC-285AD), France (1150-1660), England (1150-1730) and Russia (1460-1922). The argument is constructed on the basis of measuring (sometimes speculating) four fundamental variables: actual population figures contrasted against ?ideal? population levels, i.e., upper limits defined by agricultural productivity; social structure measured by numbers and consumption levels of elites as well as annual budgets of typical peasant households; the power of the state measured by its fiscal health; and socio-political instability reflected in relevant events (e.g., uprisings, rebellions, civil wars) or, used as a proxy, in coin hoards.

According to Turchin (University of Connecticut) and Nefedov (Institute of History and Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Ural Branch) each secular cycle lasts for several centuries and unfolds through the following phases: 1) An expansion phase characterized by relatively stable prices and modest wage declines (if any). 2) As population density tends to approach the limits imposed by the productive capacity of agriculture, we enter a stagnation or stagflation phase. A typical Malthusian scenario develops with an increase in the price of land and its products and a cheapening of labor. The ranks of the elite grow both due to biological reproduction and upward mobility and, simultaneously, its members get accustomed to higher levels of consumption. Gradually, however, we encounter a state of elite overproduction, so to speak, which leads to a relative (but not absolute, as in the case of commoners) decline of their living standards. Intensified oppression of peasants ensues as well as increased competition among members of the elite and between the elite and the state whose growth rate of revenues slows down. 3) A general crisis unfolds either abruptly or gradually which, in theory, can be addressed by raising productivity through technological innovations but more often than not it leads to military expansion into new territories and is resolved through the visitation of pandemics, extreme episodes of famine, or state collapse followed by intense civil war (or a combination of such events). The crisis lasts for a prolonged period. 4) It is followed by a depression phase during which resources per capita increase but fail to lead to population recovery due to the continuation of civil wars. This phase can be prolonged, particularly if the state continues to be dysfunctional, or it can lead to the beginning of a new cycle if the ranks of the elite are sufficiently pruned.

Secular cycles can acquire a periodic character but in societies with complex characteristics the dynamic may incorporate elements of sensitive dependence and non-linear feedback loops which lead to outcomes envisioned by chaos theory. The latter scenario is particularly plausible in the event of exogenous disturbances relating to geopolitical factors and the ecological environment as well as through the reaction of individual actors which can be portrayed ?as a stochastic process, a kind of Brownian motion that also results in erratic, unpredictable changes in the macrosocial trajectory? (p. 22).

The book relies on data drawn from the secondary literature but the authors? handling is not always as refined as it could be nor are they always accurate. For instance, in reconstructing the annual budgets of peasant households in pre-plague England, the authors neglect to include spending on the purchase of consumption goods not produced by the household or investment goods; the typical rent per acre was less than 1s and seigneurial dues at over half of the value of annual output exaggerate typical peasant obligations; gross yields of wheat were not at 10 and 8 bushels per acre before and after the Black Death but 10.5 and 11.9 bushels respectively (based on extensive demesnial records analyzed by Campbell), and when all grains are taken into account yields remained stationary between the two periods. In referring to seigneurial dues of French peasants during the same period, the authors take into account only the terrage and the tithe in reconstructing peasant budgets. But additional dues included the cens (a fixed cash payment), the taille (demanded both by lords and the state), and various payments stemming from the judicial and administrative authority of lords, conventionally known as seigneurie banale. Some of these payments may have been of nominal value, others irregularly imposed, but they amounted collectively to a significant draining of peasant resources; the authors are aware of their existence, since they mention them in other contexts, but for whatever reason they do not take them into account when reconstructing peasant budgets. Including such information is important in defining the acreage necessary to ensure subsistence and estimate the proportion of the population which fell below such thresholds.

Such issues may be deemed minor quibbles given the impressive breadth of evidence considered by the authors. But I found a little more problematic the lack of reference to publications presenting viewpoints inconsistent with the typology outlined in this book. Campbell (English Seigniorial Agriculture, 2000), for instance, argues that grain output per capita remained stable during the thirteenth century (corresponding to the stagflation phase in Turchin?s and Nefedov?s typology), hence challenging the notion of a growing immiseration of the peasantry. I happen to find this notion implausible but I am struck by the failure of the authors to address this viewpoint and to include in their bibliography Campbell?s book, the most important publication in this field of the last several decades. I am also skeptical as to whether Turchin?s and Nefedov?s description of the stagflation phase is applicable to the pre-plague economy of northern Italy (not considered in this book) whose non-agricultural sectors raised close to half of the value of total output (according to Malanima) creating impressive amounts of wealth that could be used to import grains and hence negate the worst effects of a Malthusian scenario. Most importantly, it is unclear how the model presented in the book fares in the case of capitalist-industrial societies. Despite the aforementioned shortcomings in terms of failing to include and discuss relevant empirical evidence, the presentation of the latter is superb through the use of a plethora of graphs.

In the end, notwithstanding the noted shortcomings, I am fascinated by this book, particularly by the theoretical framework which is laid out in the introductory and concluding chapters. Economic historians, particularly those dealing with the Middle Ages where my expertise lies, have tended to advance explanations of historical dynamics based on a fairly dogmatic adherence to particular models and downplay the merits of competing explanations. In contrast, Turchin and Nefedov stress the need of coming up with ?a synthetic theory that encompasses both demographic mechanisms (with the associated economic consequences) and power relations (surplus-extraction mechanisms). In the dynamical systems framework, it does not make sense to speak of one or the other as ?the primary factor?. The two factors interact dynamically, each affecting and being affected by the other? (p. 4).

But the main strength of the book lies in its scope, reminiscent of the broad perspectives of classical economists. It is the type of scholarship which proves that historical narrative can be fascinating.

Harry Kitsikopoulos is Clinical Professor, Department of Economics, New York University (e-mail: He has just completed editing a book which examines the topics of agrarian change and crisis across Europe during the period 1200-1500.

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Economics in Russia: Studies in Intellectual History

Author(s):Barnett, Vincent
Zweynert, Joachim
Reviewer(s):Samuels, Warren J.

Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Vincent Barnett and Joachim Zweynert, editors, Economics in Russia: Studies in Intellectual History. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. xviii + 198 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6149-8

Reviewed for EH.NET by Warren J. Samuels, Department of Economics, Michigan State University.

This collection of neatly-defined and well-structured interpretive essays illustrates how written histories of economic thought can vary depending on several distinctions. One distinction concerns whose thought a historian includes. One can concentrate, following Mark Blaug, on what is understood to be economic theory, pursued by largely academic, professional economists, or, following Joseph Dorfman, also include non-academic, non-professional people. A second distinction concerns the mutual impacts of the two mentalities on each other. A third distinction has to do with the homogeneity or heterogeneity of each mentality. A fourth distinction concerns the relation of the economic system, with its distinctive economic practice and system of social control, to the two mentalities. No one of the resulting stories is necessarily correct, but one interpretation can be more accurate than another, though more than one interpretation can often relate to a particular situation.

Accordingly, Russian economic thought of Muscovy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries oscillated between the doctrines of mercantilism and those of the Middle Ages. The ideas of some authors remained subordinated to religious, legal and political discourses, especially the vast fusion of state and church which tended to strictly limit the range of independent thinking. Nonetheless, the principal topics were the system of land ownership, money and trade ? with written texts dominated by religious discourse and political practice influenced by mercantilist concepts.

The eighteenth century manifested the conflict between the radical economic reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine II, on the one hand, and the continuing medieval social structure, on the other. Liberal rhetoric was silenced by autocratic claims for enforcement of absolute power. Later thinkers and statesmen helped to develop the system of finance and banking, unintentionally, one supposes, establishing some of the institutional foundations of the initial Russian industrial economy of the late nineteenth century. Writers combined liberal ideas with a Hamiltonian state promoting economic modernization. The targets were given by practice and the government.

Academic research and teaching was initially institutionalized in the early nineteenth century. The teaching of political economy commenced in 1804; the first textbook in political economy published in Russia (written in French, six volumes, a compilation of Smith, Turgot, Say, et alia) appeared in 1815; and the first chair was established in 1819. Some later academicians sought to articulate the ethical foundations of economics, some of them arriving at socialism, including Christian socialism. Several essays serve to suggest that economics cannot be formulated independently of the concrete conditions of time and space, though that does not prevent differences of interpretation and formulation by scholars in any given time and place. The point obviously applies to normative economics but also to positive economics. But the story is more complex and lengthier. Selig Perlman lectured that Marxism was (more or less surreptitiously) taught in the schools before 1917. One school of interpreters argued that until the 1890s Russian economists largely followed, even imitated, Western economists. Socialist ideas gained popularity first and foremost not economists among but the educated public. In 1917 the October Revolution replaced one system of social control of belief and practice with another. In 1927 the Communist Party line ostensibly changed from world revolution to socialism in one country coupled with praise for those early economists who had been close to Marxism and denigrated the Western non-Marxist imitators. Within three years, the Soviet Union adopted collectivization, planning and industrialization. After 1991, Soviet economics was denigrated in favor of both pre-Soviet and especially, eventually, Western mainstream economics. More recently, criticism of both the handling of transition to a market economy and the increasing influence of Western mainstream economics (imitation or transfer?) has emerged, along with discussion of a ?Russian school of economics.?

That is the overall account which emerges from the thirteen chapters written by twelve authors. Each essay attempts to interpret the work of key individuals, issues or concepts of particular periods.

Chapter 1, authored by the co-editors, is a nice six-page introduction and summary. It is preceded by a very useful four-page ?timeline? of the major events of Russian history.

Chapter 2, written by Danila Raskov, examines economic thought in Muscovy.

Chapter 3 discusses the Russian version of the Enlightenment (Leonid Shirokorad).

Chapter 4 examines the ideas and contributions to institutional innovation of three reformers of the monetary system in the early nineteenth century (Alla Sheptun).

Chapter 5 interprets what amounts to conflicts between different assertions of a ?natural order,? between rationalism and empiricism, between one or more conceptual models of the economy and one or more efforts at identifying the ?actual? economy, between German idealism and French rationalism, and between liberalism, socialism, the ideas of Friedrich List, German historicism, and conservative romanticism (Joachim Zweynert).

Chapter 6 takes up the pursuit of an ?ethical? basis for political economy, namely, socialism, by Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky, and Christian socialism, by Sergei Bulgakov (Natalia Makasheva).

Noting that the co-editors distinguish at this point between the pre- and post-1917 periods and the corresponding chapters, I move on to chapter 7, which deals with the ideas and status of A. V. Chayanov, but which also misses the opportunity to compare and contrast Chayanov and N. D. Kondratiev as agricultural economists (William Coleman and Anna Taitslin).

Chapter 8 examines Russian ?migr? economists in the U.S., and, to a lesser extent, in Europe. It helps explain the predominance of mathematical and statistical approaches to economics taken by those who escaped Hitler and Stalin which, along with the ideas and formulations of Austrian-school economists, eventually had a marked transformative impact on the mainstream of U.S. economics. Among the Austrian-School ?migr?s were Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter, Gottfried Haberler, and Fritz Machlup. Among the Russian ?migr?s were Simon Kuznets, Jacob Marschak, and W. W. Leontief (Vincent Barnett).

Chapter 9 presents the lives and work of two Russian economists exiled in 1922, Boris Brutzkus and Sergei Prokopovich, the former a Russian Jew and economic liberal, the latter from a noble family but transformed by his investigation of West Siberian villages during the great famines of 1891-92. The two men were later among the first students of the Soviet economy although having different careers and ideas as well as origins (Shuichi Kojima).

Chapter 10 is on the debate in the U.S.S.R. during 1941-53 on the law of value, interpreted by the chapter?s author, Michael Kaser, to have been a serious blow to economics in the U.S.S.R., one administered by Stalin. During 1956-1958, however, it began to be clear that ?a significant stage in the transition of Soviet economics from Marx to Marshall was complete? (p. 154). The emergence of a relativist value theory (demand and supply theory of price) and the eclipse of an absolutist single-valued value theory (labor theory or marginal utility theory of value) came about for both political and economic reasons in both worlds. In Europe and the United States, price theory came to be seen as both more empirically meaningful and more ideologically, i.e., politically, useful; in Russia during the period covered by Kaser, labor (the labor theory of value) was increasingly seen among economists as inadequate for planning purposes and was increasingly adversely but, writes Kaser (p. 151), not arbitrarily affected by political context.

Chapter 11 identifies the years after Stalin?s death as, in effect, an amalgam of elements (Pekka Sutela). It was a period of scientism, of varieties of Soviet economics, and of stages of economic reform. The stages were: decentralization, market pricing, and incomplete transition to commodity and labor markets. The central topics of reform discussions were on enterprise self-management, and impersonal owners such as pension funds. Not surprisingly, the authorities continued to be sensitive to anything resembling private property.

In the two-page chapter 12 the co-editors observe, first, ?that the progress of economic ideas in Russia was (and still is) inextricably connected to matters of economic policy and also to issues of governmental control? (p. 187). They also urge recognition that ?recent developments in Russia … [include] a tendency [as in the past] toward the ?state capture? of key branches of the economy, increasing restrictions on political liberty, and a low conviction rate regarding serious crimes against persons critical of the Russian government such as journalists. Even if no cases, so far, have been reported of economists being subject to direct political pressure, it does not take much imagination to conceive of such a case in the near future? (pp. 187-188). The co-editors conclude with two points: they do not believe that the mix of Western and native Russian ideas constitutes ?the existence of a ?Russian school? of economic thinking? (p. 188) in the same sense as is meant by such terms as ?Austrian school,? ?Cambridge school,? or ?Chicago school.? Second, they call attention to how little the economics of Marx, Engels and Lenin have been mentioned within this volume. ?Russian economics had a long and distinguished history before 1917? and ?[Marx] was by no means a dominant figure in pre-revolutionary Russian political economy? (p. 188).

Economics in Russia can be recommended as a nicely designed and executed collection of essays which provides insight into a history of economic thought in some respects different from that of the West and in other respects rather similar.

The co-editors correctly point to the centrality of the issue of ?precisely what developmental path the country should take.? They also note ?the extensive presence of ideology in the history of Russian economic thought? and (correctly) reject the argument that it is due to the features of a ?Russian character.? They suggest that in Russia the issue of development path has been heatedly controversial since the time of Peter the Great and claim that that ?might explain (in part) why economics was more strongly politicized [in Russia] than it was in many Western countries? (p. 2).

The view that controversy over development path explains the greater politicization of economics would likely be shared by many, perhaps most, historians of economic thought. The matter of development path is indeed a central issue of economic policy. It did not, however, arise in Russia with Peter the Great. The controversy between mercantilism and medievalism, in which mercantilism was the initial stage of capitalism, was about development path and preceded Peter the Great.

The key question, however, is whether differences in degree of politicization have existed, to be explained by controversy over development path. I do not want to overdo the point but the question of degree of politicization is not only important in itself but it casts light on how decision making on and interpretation of economic policy should be handled by the historian of economic thought.

There has been no conclusive difference in degree of politicization; any such perception is a function of one?s normative selective prior assumptions. The question of development path has not been unique to Russia. It has been, for example, central to policy debate in the United States. I cite the conflict between Pilgrim religious fundamentalism and money-making (trade) as rival ways of life that arose in (more accurately, was brought from England to) the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early- and mid-seventeenth century. The conflict continues to this day, in more complex forms and in different circumstances, most notably in presidential elections and the on-going formation of and conflict between secularism and religious fundamentalism. One was not more politicized than the other. Even if one or the other supporting group claims more than they actually want, expect or are willing to settle for, the approach to development path is at least expressed in terms of different discourses, each of which is political, whatever their content .

My view is based on several considerations, including: (1) Acceptance of the underlying fact and importance of the legal foundations of the economy, and through it the normative elements in economic policy and the choice of the incidents of the development path. Such acceptance only minimally relies on evidence founded on ideological doctrine. It especially reflects my perception of universal pragmatic practice. (2) Such pragmatism not only accurately describes the United States (and, of course, elsewhere) but has been facilitated, protected, encouraged and, more subtly, taught by the First Amendment?s rejection of an establishment of religion and its protection of the freedom of speech and of the press, and the rights of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, as well as through the use of various other clauses of the Constitution in the ?protection of property.? (I use that trope even though in other circumstances I would insist that property is property because it is protected and not that property is protected because it is property.) Pragmatism also accurately describes the jurisprudential processes through which the meaning of the Constitutional clauses and concepts themselves, e.g., property, are worked out. (3) The relatively greater heavy-handedness of the state in Russia has been either more salient or more selectively perceived than in the United States, which may reflect either ?reality? or the greater effectiveness of relatively light-handed social control in the latter country or the relatively small percentages of its population which thinks seriously of the federal government, state government, local government, indeed all government, as fundamentally infringing on their freedom. (By ?seriously,? I intend to be understood to mean something different from electoral and comparable rhetoric, but not necessarily requiring the ?litmus test? of an immediate willingness if not desire to resort to armed force in open rebellion.) (4) The multiple meanings of ?politicization? is another factor. It has been used to signify the introduction of politics (itself multiply defined) into areas of life in which it hitherto has been absent, to refer to institutions that are political (meaning having to do with decision making, or the exercise of power) by their very nature and/or to suggest that a decision has not been made on the respective merits of the relevant alternatives but in order to insinuate considerations of political-party advantage into the process. (5) Another factor is the eclipse or obfuscation of other possible paths by the success of the path actually ?chosen? and followed, perhaps as if that path was inevitable, say, due to the absolute nature of things.

It has been only (!) two to three hundred years since the eighteenth century, in which the values and policies of the Enlightenment first prospered, in which naturalism made major explicit inroads on supernaturalism, and in which society and its institutions were relatively widely seen to be a matter of policy and neither the natural nor the supernatural order of things. Ideological and normative propositions, typically having a complex relation to power, are operative in the making and conduct of policy and the social reproduction or alteration of socioeconomic structure. As for politicization, I know of no conclusive way in which a medieval or feudal structure and its world view can be conclusively shown to be more, or less, politicized than a mercantilist, capitalist or socialist/communist system. A change in power structure may (or may not) lead to a change of ideology that is typically more important than a change in power structure generated by a change in ideology. My key point is that no one ideology is more politicized than another.

Consider, for example, the interpretations of the United States made in the 1930s and in 2009. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Maynard Keynes were seen by many as socialists and antagonistic to capitalism whereas others saw the innovations of the New Deal as saving capitalism for the capitalists, or whomever. The amply evident present-day situation pits President Barack Obama against the Republicans of the House of Representatives. I suggest the following as a possibility ? the Republicans understand that the President?s program is geared to support business (investment) in part through bail-outs, etc., helping selected types of business rather than supporting households, especially lower- and middle-class families. The flow of spending can work, or not work, in different ways. Consider that consumption spending, even if financed by home bailouts of some sort, may lead to an increase in the expected rate of profit of businesses and a fall in liquidity preference by various groups, including those engaged in real or portfolio investment, or increase the distraction of the working class from recognizing or even speculating that it is capitalism that President Obama is saving while more or less increasing the possibility of upward mobility by the children and grandchildren of the masses, which is what President Obama seems at least to desire. (The reader will recall that in their concluding chapter, Barnett and Zweynert note a tendency in Russia ?toward the ?state capture? of key branches of the economy? (p. 187). It would be ironic if the bailout and stimulus packages (notice the play of metaphors) (and, to a lesser but not insignificant degree, the imposition of moral and/or legal constraints on the remuneration of corporate executives) that have become (as of April 2009) the centerpiece of the Obama administration?s anti-depression policy represented an area of Galbraithian (or other) convergence between U.S. capitalism and Russian post-Soviet organization; and possibly even more ironic if the packages represented the capture of business(es) by government in place of or in addition to business capture of government agencies and branches.)

Assume the foregoing is a meaningful account. Joseph Schumpeter pointed out the irony of a European labor party successful at the polls yet, instead of being able to introduce socialism (whatever that might have meant to them), they became the managers of a continuing, if somewhat revised, capitalism. In the dialectic of politics it is sometimes, perhaps often, the continuing task of each party both to abet and to limit the other, for example, in Moscovy. Performing that task transcends the vagaries of ideological perception.

If investment increases (say. due to an increase in the expected rate of profit generated by a newly optimistic psychology), income will tend to increase, as will also consumption. The reverse will also likely happen, i.e., a story of shocks coupled with either positive or negative multipliers. One point is the multiplier account. Another point is that, ceteris paribus, income can change as a result of a policy-induced change in either consumption (working, through the expected rate of profit, on investment) or investment (working, through the marginal propensity to save, on consumption). Each sequence is accompanied by its heroic account. One group of voters applauds one; another resonates with the other. Those who invoke a one-sided view of the two processes narrow the possibilities permitted by economic theory. But neither view is more ideological or more politicized than the other. The same applies to tax versus subsidy externality policies.

Religious people who are successful in life in their own mind, may tend to dispose of their discretionary income in a trade-expanding way; similarly, people engaged in trade who are successful may act in a religion-enhancing way. Neither practice is more ideological or more politicized than the other.

Apropos, therefore, of this and other books, on the Russia of Moscovy, policy might have reflected Eastern Orthodoxy or mercantilism or both, but be interpreted as the opposite. I submit, first, that any story told about the different pieces of Russian history, like that of the U.S., could stress one side or the other, yet the evidence remain incapable of conclusive affirmation of either side. I submit, second, that neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor mercantilism is more ideological or more politicized than the other. I submit, third, that any one-sided choice of a story is a function of sentiment or ideological position coupled with a desire to have a seemingly absolute account whose value is more important for influencing present-day policy than for interpreting the past. I should not be understood as attributing such to the motives of either the editors or the other authors, but to the logical situation of interpretation. There is no one complete, true history; there are interpretations.

One reader of a draft of this review suggested that by the time that the questions of politicization and of controversy over development path were largely and practically ?solved? in the Western countries, they were still on the agenda in Russia. I believe that they have neither ever been solved nor off the agenda in the Western countries. To that reader politicization means the entry of policy and ideology into practical solution policies and into economic theory; that it is impossible to either estimate the degree of politicization or eliminate it; and that its degree and meaning depend on political and legal arrangements, hierarchical system of power and so on. This reader also feels that no history of economic thought can be the ?true? story, only a story bearing signs of their time, place and the views of the people who were engaged in doing economics. This reader also believes that intellectual history cannot be reduced to one or two problems, however important they might be: intellectual history is a multi-stream process.

Another reader of the draft identifies as a missing issue differences in state attempts to control intellectual discourse. The actions can take different forms: the termination or intimidation of professors who challenge the dominant political ?line? or ?consensus,? government funding of economic research with a pronounced bias favoring ?mainstream? research where ?mainstream? reflects both professional orthodoxy and the economic system around which orthodoxy and the national economy is built, and so on.

All of which suggests that the work of contemporary historians of economic thought is richer and less presumptuous than the work of earlier generations. The history of economic thought is itself a vast interpretive field with numerous opportunities for interpretation.

Warren J. Samuels is Professor of Economics, Emeritus at Michigan State University. He is the founding editor of Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology. His book of essays on the use of the concept of the invisible hand is in the initial stage of the production process.

Copyright (c) 2009 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (May 2009). All EH.Net reviews are archived at


Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Mass Migration under Sail: European Immigration to the Antebellum United States

Author(s):Carson, Scott A.
Reviewer(s):Cohn, Raymond L.

Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Raymond L. Cohn, Mass Migration under Sail: European Immigration to the Antebellum United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xiii + 254 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-51322-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Scott A. Carson, Department of Economics, University of Texas ? Permian Basin.

Before the 1960s, most analysts concluded that willing and able nineteenth-century European immigrants could easily stake their claim and take advantage of a dynamic labor market in the United States. Research by Stephen Thernstrom, Dean Esslinger and Sally and Clyde Griffen called this optimistic view into question, finding that upward occupation mobility was fairly limited for first generation migrants. This revisionist view itself has come into question more recently. Joseph Ferrie, for example, presents evidence that the mid-nineteenth century U.S. was, rather, a place of considerable upward occupational mobility. Raymond Cohn weighs in on this important question in his latest contribution to the economic history of American immigration. However, where others devote considerable attention to conditions awaiting immigrants, Cohn evaluates conditions in the Old World ? Britain, Germany, and Ireland ? before mid-nineteenth-century migration, conditions during transit, and conditions after immigrant arrival. In the end, Cohn supports the optimistic view that the U.S. was, indeed, a place of opportunity for those willing and able to make the passage.

Organized into nine chapters, Mass Migration under Sail has three broad sections. Chapters two through five address immigrant origins, their pre-migration occupations, and factors motivating immigration. A second narrative that distinguishes Mass Migration from other like works is chapter six, in which Cohn considers migrant conditions during transit. The remainder of the book, chapters seven and eight, consider immigrant status after arrival, and like other research in this recent vein of the migration literature, considers how immigrants influenced nineteenth-century U.S. economic growth. Thus, readers are given a comprehensive examination of nineteenth-century Northern European immigration, a migration wave that radically transformed U.S. culture and labor markets.

Of interest to economic and immigration historians is the way in which Cohn places the immigration decision into push and pull factors and how these interacted with European economic conditions. European push factors included overpopulation and the Napoleonic Wars. Pull factors included U.S. economic growth and kin effects. However, other non-push and pull factors played an important role. Shipping costs fell; ship capacity and the number of passenger ships increased. Between 1815 and 1860, approximately 5.2 million Northern Europeans immigrated to the U.S. The increased flow of immigrants is frequently attributed to the onset of the Irish potato famine. Cohn, however, demonstrates the increase in mass migration began as early as 1815; immigration increased rapidly between the 1820s and 1830s, well before the outbreak of the potato famine. While Britain was a primary source of colonial era migration, Germany and Ireland sent comparatively more immigrants during the antebellum period. Two German and Irish geographic regions were responsible for pre-1840s migration: Southwest Germany and Northern Ireland.

Immigrants took a variety of pre-migration routes and transportation means before they embarked for the U.S. British and Irish immigrants embarked from London and Liverpool; Germans left from Le Havre, Bremen, and Hamburg. While high mortality rates were prominent on specific passages, the in-transit death rate was relatively low, around 1.56 percent of total migrants. Of the small share of immigrants who died during transit, the primary mortalities were typhus and cholera. Major ports of arrival were New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston; however, New York became the primary U.S. port of arrival. In response to diseases carried by immigrants on ships, the New York State government sent immigrants with contagious diseases to the Marine Hospital and Wards Island. In response to port runners, in-transit disease, and post-arrival health costs imposed on 1840s and 1850s U.S. populations and on local governments, government reforms on both sides of the Atlantic were enacted, which reduced many of the problems facing immigrants.

The final two chapters of Mass Migration under Sail offer additional evidence that the nineteenth-century U.S. was, indeed, a place where immigrants could stake their claims for a new life. After arrival, German and Irish immigrants settled regionally by nativity within the U.S. The Irish accounted for 68 percent of all immigrants to the Northeast; Germans accounted for 47 percent of all immigrants to the Midwest; British immigrants accounted for 19 percent of immigrants to the Northeast and 20 percent of immigrants to the Midwest. After arrival, the British, German, and Irish achieved success in U.S. labor markets, and the British and German immigrants found opportunity in skilled occupations. Irish immigrants did not fare as well as the other two groups, but still fared better than had they remained in Ireland. Moreover, all three cohorts improved their average skills in the U.S. after arrival.

The last issue Cohn addresses is possibly the most relevant to modern economics. Does immigration help or hurt native labor and will migration lead to long run economic growth? The answers, of course, vary widely, but if current migration is like the mid-nineteenth century, immigration will probably increase the long-run rate of economic growth. During the nineteenth century, immigration extended the U.S. product market and allowed labor in manufacturing and agriculture to specialize. Larger pools of unskilled labor after 1845 put downward pressure on wages. However, over time, labor markets adjusted, migrants assimilated, and the economy moved forward. In this sense, Mass Migration under Sail is a valuable contribution to economic and migration history and gives perspective on current migration issues.

Scott A. Carson?s recent publications include ?Indentured Migration in America’s Great Basin,? Journal of Interdisciplinary History (2002) and ?The Effect of Geography and Vitamin D on African-American Stature in the Nineteenth Century: Evidence from Prison Records,? Journal of Economic History (2008).

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

Female Labour Power: Women Workers’ Influence on Business Practices in the British and American Cotton Industries, 1780-1860

Author(s):Greenlees, Janet
Reviewer(s):Nickless, Pamela J.

Published by EH.NET (June 2008)

Janet Greenlees, Female Labour Power: Women Workers’ Influence on Business Practices in the British and American Cotton Industries, 1780-1860. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007. xx + 244 pp. ?55/$100 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-7546-4050-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pamela J. Nickless, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina-Asheville.

Janet Greenlees’ goal in this very fine study is to provide a more complicated and nuanced view of the role of women workers in industry. In particular she seeks to highlight “women’s agency as operatives and workers in the process of industrialization and developing perceptions of women’s work.” Her comparative approach emphasizes the unifying theme of that gender mattered but so did firm location and size. In particular, technological choice was influenced by local variations in transport, natural resources, and cultural as well as economic considerations. The influence of women workers on conditions of work and their experiences as workers varied by locality as well as by country. Although Greenlees does not put it quite this way, it seems to this reader that the variation within country was greater than the variation among “best practice” firms in Britain and the United States.

Chapters 2 through 5 are an analysis of the development of the cotton industry and how women’s roles developed over time. Chapters 6 and 7 look at women’s responses to industrialization and their role in the negotiation of the gendered nature of work. Greenlees uses a variety of sources and types of analysis ? indeed one of the strengths of this book is the variety of secondary sources used in her summary of the work on women and industrialization. So often the work economic historians or social historians is missing or inaccurately represented in the work of the other, but Greenlees has done a wonderful job integrating the analysis of economists and historians in her historiography and throughout the study.

The best and most valuable chapters are those on the choice of business organization and technology by firms. Most readers of this review will be familiar with the development of Lowell’s integrated mills and the interactive role of the availability of female labor and choice of technology. Greenlees uses firm-level data from a variety of firms located throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic area to argue persuasively that this is far too simple a story. Location, firm size and culture and tradition mattered as well. The “gender” of a job varied based on location and firm size as well as over time in both Britain and the United States. Greenlees emphasizes the role of labor market constraints and culture in the assignment of jobs by gender and in the proportions of men and women working in the mills. As might be expected, where men had more lucrative opportunities, women had more job choices available. Yet, local restrictions on women’s work, by trade union rules and/or by manufacturers’ adoption of gendered notions of work and skill, could reduce the numbers of women and the jobs they performed. Local economic and social conditions were key in the choice of organization and technology. Greenlees also emphasizes that firms had different goals ? while all might fit the “profit-maximizing” model from Econ 100 not all firms had the same time-horizon in mind and all were embedded in communities. Over time, as the notion of factory labor was developed and as transportation networks changed, firms’ choices of organization and technique changed. Students of technological change in textiles will find much to chew over in Greenlees’ analysis.

Of interest to students of wage change over time is Chapter 4, “Millwork: Pay, Work and Equity.” Greenlees finds the wage patterns and comparative performance defy easy generalization. Local circumstances loom large in determining men’s and women’s wages and productivity quite overshadowing the international differences. Greenlees finds that firm-level data on wages often contradicts or complicates national wage date from the U.S. Censuses, British Parliamentary Reports or other contemporary observers. Greenlees is careful to point out that, even at the firm level, you cannot always distinguish between women and children, introducing all sorts of problems with data comparisons. This chapter adds detail and nuance to Greenlees previously published work in this field.

The closing chapters on women’s response to industrial work are less satisfying, in part because direct testimony of women workers is scarce. Nevertheless, the same broad theme is well-supported ? local conditions and traditions mattered. Greenlees calls for a broader framework for analyzing the actions of women workers rather than trying to place them only in the context of a women’s labor movement. I found the analysis of the United States less unconvincing, resting as it does on an interpretation of differences between British and American work culture that are overstated.

This is a valuable addition to the literature on the cotton industry, but I fear it will not attract the wider audience it deserves. Too much knowledge of the industry is assumed to make the work appeal to a non-specialist. Some of this could be solved with more detailed explanatory notes for some of the tables. The text also suffers from some bibliographical glitches and typos in footnotes. Since one of the book’s real pluses is Greenlees’ excellent and intriguing historiography, this may make the bibliography less useful. I should add that I might have missed these errors but for the luxury of footnotes at the bottom of the page. In conclusion, I think this is must read for cotton textile scholars and scholars of women’s role in early industry. They will find much to admire and, probably, much with which to argue.

Pamela J. Nickless recently published “Scarlett’s Sisters: Spinsters, Widows, Wives, and Free-Traders in Nineteenth Century North Carolina,” in Famine and Fashion: Needlewomen in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Beth Harris (Ashgate, 2005) and has recently started a study on nineteenth-century female proprietors in Charleston, SC.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

The English Wool Market, c. 1230-1327

Author(s):Bell, Adrian R.
Brooks, Chris
Dryburgh, Paul R.
Reviewer(s):Murray, James M.

Published by EH.NET (June 2008)

Adrian R. Bell, Chris Brooks and Paul R. Dryburgh, The English Wool Market, c. 1230-1327. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. viii + 205 pp. $99 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-521-85941-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James M. Murray, Department of History, Western Michigan University.

English wool was a medieval commodity whose production, acquisition, exchange, and manufacture launched countless ships, occupied many merchants, and kept the looms of Flanders, England, and Italy humming. Some (but by no means all) of this wool was simply the world’s finest raw material for the production of high quality cloth, one of medieval Europe’s most successful exports. And it was in chronically short supply in the period covered by this study, really the reigns of the three Edwards, kings whose efforts to tax wool exports are also part of the story.

The cooperative research project by scholars from two UK institutions (University of Reading and King’s College, London) that led to this book and three related publications is a model of efficiency and usefulness, although the articulation among its various parts is unclear. The first product was an edition and translation of 203 wool contracts published in 2006 by the National Archives, Kew (formerly Public Record Office), summaries of which are also available in an online version at, study number 5325.[1] The series from The National Archives used were: Close Rolls (C54); Exchequer Miscellanea (E101); Memoranda Rolls (E159 and E368); Plea Rolls (E13); Ancient Deeds (E210, E236, E237); and Special Correspondence (SC1). Appendix 3 of the book gives a spreadsheet overview of each contract including its chronological order, reference, list of buyer(s) and seller(s), and summary of contract contents. This database alone puts an enormous quantity of new primary source material within easy reach of scholars.

On this evidentiary basis, the coauthors have published two journal articles besides the present monograph, the first, in the Journal of Medieval History the second in Journal of Banking and Finance. The former is a more or less straightforward version of the monograph’s chapter 3, and the latter is a significantly different version of the book’s chapter 4. The salient difference between the journal and book versions is the inclusion of a more extensive apparatus mathematicus in the JBF article including formulae and an additional table showing “regression results of tests for market efficiency.”[2] The intent here was obviously to tailor the presentation of the data analysis to the more or less numerate among interested scholars, but what is curious is that the book contains no reference to the article nor any mention that chapter 4 contains the same text but a pared-down presentation of the mathematics.[3]

The subject of the English wool trade could hardly be more important in the economic history of medieval England in particular and medieval Europe in general. As previous research has shown, from the eleventh to mid-fifteenth century wool was England’s dominant export ? at its height amounting to some ninety percent of revenues, and even in the subsequent period of decline from c. 1450 to 1650, wool in the form of English cloth was an equally dominant export in terms of trade value.[4] Yet the authors point out that the bifurcation of research into the subject by economic historians on the one hand and historians of the local and monastic economy on the other has obscured “important details” due to the neglect of “any concerted attempt to explore the fuller extent of the source base.” In other words, this is an innovative study of these particular contracts using the methodology of modern finance theory, not a general history or even a replacement of the seminal works by Eileen Power, T. H. Lloyd, and John H. Munro.

Nonetheless, the authors succeed in presenting conclusions that if not revelatory do make a solid contribution to the literature and make a persuasive claim for the financial acumen of late medieval merchants and woolgrowers. Their conclusion that “not only options, but instruments akin to forward contracts were in widespread use throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,” adds to the list of innovations whose origins must be pushed back to the late Middle Ages rather than more modern periods. Future historians will also be in the authors’ debt for the richly nuanced picture of a market under stress, where competing parties engaged in “cutthroat” competition for position as buyers in the market, while producers pitted potential customers against each other in an attempt to repair and restore shaky internal finances.

Chapter 3 gives a micro-study of these market dynamics by presenting the case of Pipewell, a Cistercian abbey of middling importance in Northamptonshire, whose history is richly illustrative of the storm and stress in the wool market from c. 1270 to 1325, the period of the greatest number of forward contracts. The majority of these contracts were made between Italian merchants and monastic institutions, most, like Pipewell, were Cistercian houses. Pipewell, however, occupied a particular niche as a small, super high quality producer whose product commanded top market prices. The decades-long travails and virtual bankruptcy of the abbey provide both a cautionary tale and window into the economic forces that shaped the wool market.

Pipewell was atypical in that its chief creditors were a firm of Cahorsin merchants instead of the more common Lucchese and Florentine firms, but it was all too typical of many English Cistercian houses in selling for ready money promises of wool delivered at a set price in the future. This seemed a good bargain for both parties, as Pipewell Abbey needed to complete building programs and the Cahorsins were eagerly seeking wool supply ahead of their Italian competitors. Innocent in the 1270s, such debt for wool swaps proved disastrous for monasteries across England by 1300, as animal disease decimated sheep herds reducing the wool clip and thereby the abbeys’ ability to meet their contracts. This kindled “those fires of indebtedness which gutted English Cistercian houses late in that [thirteenth] century.” Exacerbating problems of supply were new taxes levied by the English crown, disruptions in the market caused by war, and numerous protracted law cases. Pipewell was forced to refinance contracts, accept sheep from its creditors in order to build herds, and appeal for royal protection. Even these efforts at retrenchment could not withstand the terrible famine and murrain of 1315-1322, which even contemporaries called the “magna caristia,” and the abbey was temporarily dispersed. Thus ended a struggle to stay afloat extending over some forty years.

Chapter 4, “Modern Finance in the Middle Ages? Financial Aspects of the Advance Contracts for the Sale of Wool” is the most innovative in its use of “valuation techniques from ‘modern’ finance theory to analyze the large number of advance contracts” in order to ascertain the implied interest rate of the transactions and to assess the efficiency of the wool market. As stated above, a mathematically more complete version of this chapter was published in a specialized journal, but most historians will find enough of the quantitative underpinnings to assess the argument. After a disclaimer clause about the difficulties of applying financial analysis to such a small evidence base, the authors conclude that the forward agreements with money accepted for delivery of future wool sacks include an implicit interest rate of 20 to 27 percent given the discount over the spot price of wool promised in the contracts. Variations between the extremes can be accounted for by the creditworthiness of the abbey and strength of demand by the merchants. This rate accords well with interest rates of other loans across a wide variety of church and urban economies.

Market efficiency is judged by how closely the forward price predicts the subsequent spot price of wool. The authors seek to test this for the medieval wool market by isolating data from the first year of a forward contract leaving sixty-three observations. The influence of additional variables ? such as the length of the contract, the size of the contract, and even which monastic order was involved ? on the discount rate is also taken into account. Given these, and a comparison with modern wool trading in formal exchanges, the authors conclude that “the medieval wool forward market was remarkably well functioning and orderly” (p. 144).

In chapter 5, the conclusion, the authors recapitulate their findings and seek to answer some nagging questions. The finding that “modern finance is perhaps not so modern after all” reminds us of the remarkable ability of merchants of all times and places to solve practical problems in order to do business. The fact that the forward contract disappeared in the face of changing market conditions shortly after 1325 shows us as well the anachronism in measuring the medieval past by the standards of modern finance. The genius of medieval merchants was in adapting and adopting tools to cope with and circumvent the very difficult conditions of late medieval Europe, not in inventing modern finance. The search for modernity has been a besetting sin of past economic history, though using the tools of modern mathematical economics, as is done in this study, can lead to useful insights about the economies of past times.

Notes: 1. The book does not make clear that the full text of these contracts will only be available online by Autumn 2009 at the earliest due to copyright considerations. A. Bell, C. Brooks and P. Dryburgh, Advance Contracts for the Sale of Wool, c. 1200-1330 [computer file], Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], March 2006. SN: 5325 and eidem, Advance Contracts for the Sale of Wool c. 1200-1327 (List and Index Society, 315 London, 2006.

2. “Interest Rates and Efficiency in Medieval Wool Forward Contracts,” Journal of Banking and Finance 31 (2007) 361-80.

3. “Leger est aprendre mes fort est arendre: Wool, Debt, and the Dispersal of Pipewell Abbey (1280-1330),” Journal of Medieval History 32 (2006) 187-211. The JMH article mentions in footnote 7 the existence of the JBF article. There is a third not readily available article mentioned in footnote 7 as well.

4. See on this John H. Munro’s review of the edition of the contracts in Agricultural History Review 55 (2007) 311-12.

James M. Murray is director of the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has published on the history of medieval business and the urban economy of Bruges in the late Middle Ages. He can be reached at

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

When the Potato Failed: Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850

Author(s):Gráda, Cormac Ó
Paping, Richard
Vanhaute, Eric
Reviewer(s):Cohn, Raymond L.

Published by EH.NET (November 2007)

Cormac ? Gr?da, Richard Paping, and Eric Vanhaute, editors, When the Potato Failed: Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2007. 342 pp. ?66 (paper), ISBN: 978-2-503-51985-2.

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

This book consists of fifteen essays, fourteen of which were originally given at a conference held in Dublin in December 2003. The final essay (actually the first in the volume) is written by the editors and provides a comparative perspective of the conference findings. The idea of the conference was to encourage research on the effects of the potato famine in other European countries, and to compare the results to the latest work on the famine in Ireland. The editors (located at University College (Dublin), Groningen, and Ghent, respectively) claim: “This book is the first to offer a truly comprehensive perspective on the causes and the effects of what is sometimes considered as the ‘last’ European subsistence crisis” (17). Three of the essays (by ? Gr?da, Mary Daly, and Peter Gray) examine aspects of the famine in Ireland and another (by Peter Solar) looks at prices throughout Europe at the time. The other ten essays examine the famine period in other parts of Europe.

The essays on Ireland and the one by Solar do not break much new ground, but they do present a handy review of the latest work by experts on the Irish famine. ? Gr?da’s article provides an overview of the famine in Ireland, and briefly discusses public action, the demographic consequences, and post-famine adjustment. Daly’s contribution examines the government’s and landlords’ roles and describes efforts at the local level in providing famine relief. Gray summarizes the (very interesting) debates that occurred in Britain concerning whether and how the government should respond. Solar presents series on yearly, monthly, and weekly prices and concludes, “high prices alone do not make a crisis” (90).

The real contribution of this book is the ten essays relating to the other parts of Europe. The famine period is investigated in Highland Scotland (by Tim Devine), Flanders (by Vanhaute), the Netherlands (by Paping and Vincent Tassenaar), Prussia (by Hans Bass), South Germany (by Gunter Mahlerwein), France (two essays, one by Nadine Vivier and the other by Jean-Michel Chevet and ? Gr?da), Spain (by Pedro D?az Mar?n), Denmark (by Ingrid Henriksen), and Sweden (by Carl-Johan Gadd).

While one might expect the non-Irish essays to be of uneven quality, as usually results from such an endeavor, that is not the case here. According to the editors, all of the essays have been “significantly revised” since the conference (13). The result is that every paper generally addresses the same set of issues. Most importantly, the extent and type of crop failure is examined and done so at the regional level within each country or area. Thus, the reader is introduced to the wide variation in the onset and consequences of the crop failures not only between countries but also within each country. The papers also examine the demographic consequences, the government policy response, and connections to social unrest. In general, all of the former issues are more completely investigated than the final one. Though a few of the papers examine (and generally refute) possible connections between the crop failures and the unrest of 1848, the issue is not addressed in many of the other entries.

By the end of the set of essays, it is clear that events in Ireland followed a fundamentally different course than elsewhere in Europe. Outside of Ireland, extreme famine conditions existed in only a few local areas in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Though the famine caused about one million deaths in Ireland, only a few hundred thousand (at most) died in the much larger population in the rest of Europe. One gets the impression ? a point emphasized by a number of the authors ? that the period of the potato famine outside of Ireland was not very different from any number of other periods of bad harvests. Not pleasant by any means, but nowhere near as bad as in Ireland. So the issue becomes (with apologies to Joel Mokyr): “Why Ireland starved but not many other areas of Europe did.”[1] The answer is not surprising ? the Irish consumed more potatoes, planted potatoes on a larger portion of their available agricultural land, suffered crop failures over a longer period of time, and received little assistance from the English government. However, the data presented in the essays on the other countries make very clear how large the differences were between Ireland and the rest of Europe in the 1840s.

One factor that will make the essays on the continental countries potentially useful for some readers is that each summarizes in English a large body of work that has only been published in the local language. Since few economic historians speak the language of every country covered, these essays provide an excellent summary of the current state of research on the period of the 1840s. In covering such a restricted time period, however, many of these essays will appeal mainly to specialists. For others, an overview of the ideas presented in the book can be obtained by reading the excellent summary essay by the editors. This essay deserves to read by anyone interested in the latest work on the period of the potato famine.

Note: 1. Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1780 1850. London: George Allen and Unwin, paperback edition, 1985.

Raymond L. Cohn is Professor of Economics at Illinois State University. He has written extensively on immigration from Europe to the United States during the antebellum period and is currently finishing a book manuscript on the subject.

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

Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth

Author(s):Costanza, Robert
Graumlich, Lisa J.
Steffen, Will
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip R. P.

Published by EH.NET (October 2007)

Robert Costanza, Lisa J. Graumlich, and Will Steffen, editors, Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. xvi + 495 pp. $38 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-262-03366-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Philip R. P. Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University.

This book consists of an introduction and twenty-two essays and reports with an overall focus on an “Integrated History and Future of People on Earth” (IHOPE). The authors are primarily sociologists and environmentalists with representation from earth sciences (climatology, geology) and history. In spite of its pretentious title and acronym there are some worthwhile essays. In history, a very good chapter is John R McNeill’s essay on the twentieth century, “Social, Economic, and Political Forces in Environmental Change: Decadal Scale (1900 to 2000).” While I have some quibbles with it (the discussion of decolonialization is fuzzy at best), there are insights that make it worth reading and repeating. McNeill correctly states that the economic growth that occurred in the last half of the twentieth century “… is the most unusual in the history of economic growth, although many people, having experienced nothing else, now imagine it is as normal” (315). This is emphatically true; the human race has never experienced such a widespread and rapid rate of economic growth encompassing the majority of the globe’s inhabitants. If it continues through the mid twenty-first century the world will have been transformed in a myriad of ways, some predictable others unpredictable. A possible prediction can be derived from McNeill’s discussion of urbanization. McNeill states that: “[The low birth rate in cities] if it persists, means that cities are resuming their historic role as demographic black holes. Before 1880 they consumed population because their death rates were so high; after an interval of growth by natural increase they began to consume population because their birth rates were so low. London today, as in 1750, would shrink without in-migration.” This essay is worth reading and assigning to undergraduates/graduates.

There are other good, more specialized essays in this volume. Timothy F. Flanney has a brief but comprehensive chapter (“The Trajectory of Human Evolution in Australia: 10,000 B.P. to the Present”) on (the lack) of human evolution in Australia. Richard H. Grove’s chapter (“Revolutionary Weather: The Climate and Economic Crisis of 1785-1795 and the Discovery of El Nino”) correlating crop failures, famines and revolutions with shifting ocean currents is an intriguing hypothesis. His hypothesis is that the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the turbulence associated with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries can be traced back to crop failures and weather patterns attributable to changes in El Nino, the Pacific Ocean current. He marshals evidence well and he is persuasive, but I reserve acceptance until I see the hypothesis more widely debated and examined. Nevertheless Grove’s chapter is well worth reading for an imaginative, well-researched and intriguing hypothesis.

In contrast to an essay with a novel hypothesis, is Nathan J. Mantua’s data driven essay (“A Decadal Chronology of Twentieth Century Changes in Earth’s Natural Systems”). He emphasizes and presents data throughout his paper, saving speculations for presentation in his summary. Mantua details the various consensus estimates for data series ranging from temperatures to nitrous oxide, to the North Atlantic Oscillation. Whether the juxtaposition of these series makes sense is a question for climatologists/meteorologists. However he does seem to attribute too much to natural forces, while ignoring economic forces. He credits (293) the, “[r]apid declines in large predators” in the oceans of the world to changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans. However cod fishery of the Grand Banks did not collapse because of climatological/oceanographic changes, but because of over-fishing. The over fishing was a predictable result of the lack of property rights in the Grand Banks cod fishery. Climatic change may have been occurring, but the Grand Banks cod fishery collapse could have been easily avoided by rigidly enforcing catch limits and/or assigning property rights to the fishery.

Another relatively good essay that could be improved by introducing economic analysis is that of Christian Pfister (“Little Ice Age-type Impacts and the Mitigation of Social Vulnerability to Climate in the Swiss Canton of Bern prior to 1800”). The essay is marred by the misuse of economic data. He uses eighteenth century data to calculate the percentage change in prices within localities and to assess relative scarcity among localities. For example, if the price of grain rose by 60 percent in London and 300 percent in Lwow, the difference is indicative of greater scarcity in Lwow relative to London. But if Lwow is an inland area (true) with high-transport costs (true) then it could be indicative of either scarcity in Lwow or scarcity elsewhere. Imagine that the price of transport is so high that in normal times Lwow is not an exporter of grain even though its prices are very low compared to the export markets of London and Amsterdam; the low prices are not sufficiently low enough to compensate for the high transport costs given the “normal” price of grain in the export markets. If the price of grain outside of Lwow rises sufficiently beyond the threshold where it becomes profitable to export grain (the additional price compensating the high transport costs) from Lwow, the price in Lwow will rise penny for penny with the market (non-Lwow) price. Whether this was the case, I do not know; however if it is not true, then were there grain imports into Lwow? If there were no grain imports into Lwow, what is the explanation? Regardless Pfister should be wary of criticizing Robert Fogel for “questionable statistical manipulation” (204) and completely rejecting the claims that famines are man-made catastrophes. Appealing to authority is not a strong argument, but when Nobel Laureates and other eminent economists claim (with evidence) that famines are typically not the result of natural phenomena, it would be wise to tread cautiously. Pfister has one citation (204) to buttress his case against Fogel, and Karl Gunnar Persson (and by extension Amartya Sen). More modesty in the presentation of his hypothesis and less hubris in his claims would avoid potential embarrassments.

The essays I have mentioned are outliers because they are acceptable scholarly exercises; the other essays are not. The worst that this book has to offer is that by Dennis L. Meadows (“Evaluating Past Forecasts: Reflections on One Critique of The Limits to Growth“). This essay is an extended attack on a book review of The Limits to Growth that appeared in the New York Times on April 2, 1972. What can we say about an author placing in a collected volume an essay that is devoted to attacking reviewers thirty-five years after the review? Well self-indulgent, monomaniacal and bizarre are some adjectives that come to mind. Meadows’ main complaint of the review is that the authors (P. Passel et al.) did not read his book. To ascertain the truth of his complaint I dutifully read the original review, and then checked out The Limits to Growth. I cannot say whether Meadows’ claim is correct, but I believe it may be because the book is truly unreadable. In Meadows’s (et al.) book there are charts of time series that have multiple simultaneous outcomes, impenetrable flow diagrams, numerous unquantified feed back effects, and, all-in all, the diagrams and prose are impenetrable. The passage of time has not been kind to The Limits to Growth ? literally, empirically, and figuratively. In the distant future, given past behavior, there is a non-trivial probability that Meadows will savage me for these comments; so be it.

I will stop my comments on the individual essays following parental injunctions about not saying anything if unable to say anything nice. The basic problem with the remainder of the essays and the book itself is captured in its title: “Sustainability or Collapse?” The hubris evident in the title infects the remaining essays. They are typically self-indulgent, jargon-ridden, confused and confusing, replete with self-citations, and dogma. The dichotomy in the title is false; it is supported by neither science nor history. Entropy is continually reducing complexity to uniformity. To maintain civilization (complexity) humans have to utilize dense packets of energy to offset entropy. What is “sustainable” is a function of how effectively humanity can discover and manipulate the resources available to combat entropy. What is “sustainable” now, was not sustainable two centuries ago. There is a possibility that humanity’s ability to find new and more productive ways to manipulate the material world will cease in the near future, but that possibility is dwarfed by the chance that the Earth will be negatively affected by an asteroid, and that is a remote, albeit real, possibility. Inherent in any prediction of “collapse” are necessary corollary predictions on the basic limits to human knowledge. There will be no fusion, fission energy will remain costly and politically difficult, nanotechnology will be fruitless, genetic engineering will never produce organisms that reduce the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, and so on, and on. I suspect that most predictions that today’s futurologists make about future technology will prove to have been overly modest given what we have seen happen to humanity’s knowledge and control of the material world over the past quarter century. So, when we talk about “sustainability,” what level of technology are we specifying and what margin of error is “reasonable” for that specification? These questions are not considered.

With the exceptions noted, the essays in the volume are also innocent of economic principles. Considerations of costs and benefits are tertiary; what discount rate to apply to future cost/benefits is of no concern. Critics of catastrophic environmentalism are completely ignored. The majority of the essays contained in this volume are simply normative exercises in du jour environmentalism. If you are a believer and want to reinforce the faith, read it; but if you want a serious discussion of the issues, by and large, it is to be avoided.

Philip R. P. Coelho is Professor of Economics at Ball State University. His current research is on the effects of morbid diseases on economic productivity, and economic methodology and ethics.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Global Migration and the World Economy: Two Centuries of Policy and Performance

Author(s):Hatton, Timothy J.
Williamson, Jeffrey G.
Reviewer(s):Keeling, Drew

Published by EH.NET (June 2007)

Timothy J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Global Migration and the World Economy: Two Centuries of Policy and Performance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. xi + 471 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-262-08342-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Drew Keeling, Department of History, University of Zurich.

For decades, scholars of modern cross-border migration and its history have noted the desirability of broad comparative perspectives, as frameworks for more numerous studies of particular locales and ethnicities. In recent years, economists have led development of a “big picture” approach to the history of international migration, and Jeffrey Williamson and Timothy Hatton have been at the forefront of those economists.

Global Migration and the World Economy, the latest and most exhaustive joint study of this duo, builds on their prior work together and independently, but also breaks important new ground. For instance, most of this new book is not duplicated either in their Age of Mass Migration (1998) or in Williamson and Kevin O’Rourke’s collaboration, Globalization and History (1999).

The book is divided into four sections by time period: the nineteenth century rise of global migration, the early twentieth century fall, the late twentieth century “rise again,” and a final section examining contemporary migration trends and future alternatives. Ten of eighteen chapters concern the period since 1914, and among the book’s strengths are its many insightful comparisons between the post World War II period and the “first global century” that ended with World War I.

Using an impressive combination of original theory, statistics, and logic, and incorporating a broad array of findings from other scholars, the authors dissect the economic fundamentals underlying international mass migration. They deploy their multi-pronged analysis across the vicissitudes of the modern migratory age: through shifts in origin countries, the transformation from industry to services in destination country economies, the growing importance of asylum-seeking and illegal migration, and the emergence of policy regimes that have become more restrictive, more sophisticated, and more difficult to effectively administer. A solid historical perspective informs a thorough examination of contemporary issues: from the importance and limitations of immigration regulations in shaping the magnitudes and character of migration, to democratic disconnections between public opinion and public policies on migration, to the complex offsets and feedbacks between education and mobility, skilled and unskilled labor, and the “brain drain” and remittances. Global Migration and the World Economy is chock full of precise and salient questions, and takes at least a stab at most of them, although it is often a challenge for the reader to keep track of which among a shifting multitude of open issues is being addressed, or where it has already been addressed.

A tour de force summation of economic history literature on migration will make this an excellent reference source for future researchers. The coverage is particularly thorough on recent publications, through about 2004, which lends this volume an impressive “cutting edge” character, but also makes its conclusions tentative in a number of places. This suggests the possibility of an eventual second edition, which would also provide an opportunity to correct ambiguities in a few of the otherwise generally helpful “supply and demand” graphs or “box diagrams” and to redress overstatements such as “the labor market effect of immigration has always been the key focus in debate over immigration policy.” That remark, on page 289, is difficult to reconcile with the finding, on page 359, that “prejudice against those of a different race and culture is the most important influence on attitudes towards immigrants.”

The topical coverage is very wide, although less so than the title might suggest. Migration’s overlaps with international trade are treated more extensively, for instance, than its impacts on economic growth or its interactions with demographic and environmental factors. A more functionally descriptive title might be “the economic causes and consequences of global migration since 1815,” and in that important category this significant book has few peers, if any.

While an impressive work overall, some parts of Global Migration are problematic. The authors appropriately stress the importance of labor markets, which have been underappreciated in most of the migration historiography, but apply an incomplete corrective. They say little about labor demand, stressing labor supply instead, and attributing even more significance to factors exogenous to labor markets (such as travel costs, famines, wars, and government policies). At the core of their historical explanation for “what drove migration” is a model in which potential migrants in poorer countries are stuck in a “poverty trap” until they can find a way to “escape” it, with the help of higher wages, government subsidies, foreign remittances or lower ticket prices. Undoubtedly, relocation costs have always been a consideration in long-distance cross-border migration decisions, and were, in general, a more serious constraint the further back in time one looks, but the Hatton and Williamson model imputes to them a centrality beyond that established by their data. Rising wages across the nineteenth-century Atlantic basin lowered the real costs of travel, new travel technologies reduced travel times, the sources of Europe’s overseas emigrants shifted southward and eastward to regions more remote from New World destinations, and there was a long term secular shift towards lower average labor market “skills” amongst transatlantic migrants. All of this is consistent with a declining cost barrier to migration. But how big a role did that barrier play to begin with, at the outset of the “first global century,” e. g. circa 1830? The truth is, no one seems to really know for sure yet, including Hatton and Williamson. There is no model here explicitly assessing the relative importance of factors, including travel affordability, which distinguished stayers from leavers, there is no clear distinction between wanting to migrate and being able to migrate, and the cost data presented are quite incomplete.

The authors’ claim that “during the great transition from trickle to flood, it was the decline in steerage rates and in the time in passage that mattered most,” but there are at least two problems with this theory as they present it. Firstly, most nineteenth century overseas migrants left from Europe, most of those European emigrants moved to the United States, and the all-time peak in U.S. immigration relative to population was in the early 1850s, a time when very few migrants yet reached America on the steamships which cut oceanic travel times by two thirds or more. Steamships did not take more steerage passengers to the U.S. than sailing ships until 1865. Secondly, the supporting passage cost data presented in Global Migration do not include most available sources of such figures, such as the fares compiled by Kristian Hvidt (1971) or Arnold Kludas (1986) showing an increase in North Atlantic transit fares after 1900 that coincides with an even sharper rise to the second highest all-time peak in the U.S. immigration rate.

Hatton and Williamson deal authoritatively with the expected net benefits of migration, but have little to say about how the variance and uncertainties of such net benefits also have been important to voluntary international migrants. Uncertainties and fears ? of mass amnesty, or of millions forced to live outside the law ? have played a role in recent U.S. immigration policy debates. Long-distance transnational migration itself has long and rightly been regarded as a great gamble. Smuggled migrants crossing Arizona’s deserts or the waters between Africa and Europe clearly confront substantial risks. Risk considerations have been convincingly suggested as contributing factors to past mass migration trends, such as the record high rate of Irish emigration in the early 1850s, for example, or the strong and persistent drop in German emigration after 1890. The causal role of pitfalls and anxieties, about leaving or staying or both, receive little attention in this book, however.

The discussion on pre-World War I economic “convergence” between immigrant-sending and immigrant-receiving countries is not entirely clear-cut. Williamson’s path-breaking international real wage comparison data set, gathered in the early 1990s and focused on 1870-1913, apparently still lacks coverage of two immigrant source countries which were major contributors to the massive migration “peak” of 1900-1913, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Many of the convergence examples actually cited, moreover, are comparisons within Europe rather than between Europe and the New World. This important distinction is often blurred.

The authors nonetheless do make a persuasive case (for the nineteenth century and today) that chain migration, demographic transitions, travel costs relative to source incomes, and government policies are more significant than wage gaps in “driving” migration, but that international labor market migration, if sufficiently massive, has generally reduced global economic inequality between poor and rich countries. This migration-induced convergence has tended to come at the cost of rising inequality within richer destination countries, however. Subject to some notable distinctions and qualifications, the authors also reach similar conclusions regarding “south-to-south” migration, e.g. movement between less-developed countries.

The chapter on the early twentieth century “backlash” against immigration suffers from a conflation of attitudes and intentions (on the one hand) with effective policies (on the other). Based on a model quantifying “policy stance” rather than “policy impact,” Global Migration plausibly indicates that “labor market fundamentals,” e.g. the negative effect of immigration on wages of the native-born were, after all, more important than xenophobia or racism in producing a gradual shift in favor of restricting European migration to the New World by the early twentieth century. Contrary to the assertions in this chapter, however, (although not the immediately following chapter on the impacts of the” backlash”) the decade 1915-24 saw dramatic changes in the policies actually adopted in the U.S., the destination of most transatlantic migrants in the century before World War I.

On the eve of that war, gradually increasing exclusion of limited categories of arriving Europeans had raised the debarment rate at U.S. entry ports to a still near negligible 2%. During the war, in contrast, U.S. immigration dropped by over 75%. The 1920s quota laws which soon followed were explicitly and successfully designed to eliminate most of the influx from Southern and Eastern Europe which had accounted for a large majority of the 15 million American immigrants of 1894-1914. As the authors rightly observe, American immigration quotas were largely redundant during the Great Depression and World War II, but nonetheless did have major restrictive effects in the 1920s and 1950s. The shifting constellations of political party strategies and interest groups which enabled significant fulfillment of growing popular sentiment against immigration to the U.S. by the 1920s, but not before, was chronicled in John Higham’s Strangers in the Land half a century ago. It remains a useful study still today, but is not mentioned in Global Migration. The counterfactual question of whether ? absent the world wars, the 1930s depression, and the U.S. quotas ? immigration from Europe might have dwindled anyway after 1920, is one of many examples of provocative and interesting issues raised by the book, but not resolved, due to unavoidable space limitations.

Hatton and Williamson do not, however, duck complicated and controversial concerns about labor migration negatively affecting native employment and wage levels. In several different historical contexts, they unravel the often indirect ways this occurs (such as inflows of foreigners helping to stimulate regional relocations of natives). Nonetheless, the authors also make a convincing case that the net overall effect of cross-border migration has tended to be economically beneficial: not just for migrants but also for the countries they move out of and into.

The potential receptivity of contemporary policymakers and opinion-shapers to these judicious conclusions is another matter. The authors’ stated desire to reach that set of audiences might have been more effectively served had there been a bit more attention devoted to how labor migrants import language, culture, ideas, and so forth, along with their job skills. Migrants come for work, but then often also become neighbors, taxpayers, users of public services, parents of school children, citizens and voters, and these developments, in turn, have economic impacts well beyond the fiscal impacts (which are treated authoritatively here). The cogent final section, on contemporary policy issues, has much to recommend it, but it is questionable how much of the preceding 340 pages policy formulators might read en route to it. Complex historical insights and practical politics do not mix easily in any case, however.

A more avoidable shortcoming is the relative absence of questions addressed by migration historians. This book is loaded with material casting doubt upon non-economic historians’ often implicit assumptions that narrow slices of the migration picture suffice to illuminate the whole. But, the argument for the big picture rather than the narrow case study is never quite engaged.

Scholarship from outside of economic history but addressing migration history broadly is also given little weight. One cannot expect a book of this scope to cover all bases, but not mentioning Markus Hansen, Philip Taylor or Daniel Tichenor, for example, somewhere in four hundred pages suggests a lost opportunity. Dirk Hoerder’s nine hundred page Cultures in Contact, published in 2002, has several references to Wallerstein, but none to Williamson, or Hatton. Global Migration and the World Economy talks at some length about Heckscher, but makes no mention of Hoerder. This divergence of History and Economics is undoubtedly yielding gains from specialization, but also implies unrealized potential gains from trade. A better appreciation of the inherently interdisciplinary and historical nature of this deeply personal and interpersonal, psychological, cultural, and even biological phenomenon would enrich models and analyses built around economic aggregates. A firmer and more nuanced understanding of migration’s economic fundamentals, and a greater awareness of their central role, would enhance historians’ investigations of international human relocation.

Historians should read Global Migration and the World Economy, because sooner or later, they are likely to be called upon to more directly confront some of the crucial issues it raises. An interconnected world of demographic challenges, resource limitations and increasing climate disruptions, for example, is going to be a world where cross-border mass migration will be about much more than ethnic identities, culturally diffusing diasporas, or even elegantly contingent narratives. Even if ? as Hatton and Williamson realistically conclude ? the historical record offers no “easy solutions to the world migration problems” of the near future, it seems a reasonably safe bet that coming global migration challenges, whatever else they do, will also stoke desires for geographically broad historical insights.

Notwithstanding its unevenness, and sometimes overstated conclusions, the sweep and incisive power of this book make it likely to remain a point of reference for years to come. It will probably receive more attention within the fields of economics and economic history than outside of them, but the long run prospects for interdisciplinary “convergence” on the causes and effects of global migration are improved by this ambitious and far-reaching scholarly contribution.

Drew Keeling received his Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley in 2005, and is now an instructor in the History Department at the University of Zurich. His dissertation, “The Business of Transatlantic Migration between Europe and the USA, 1900-1914” was awarded the 2005 Gerschenkron Prize of the Economic History Association. Two related publications are forthcoming later this year: “Costs, Risks, and Migration Networks between Europe and the United States, 1900-1914,” in Research in Maritime History, and “Transport Capacity Management and Transatlantic Migration, 1900-1914,” in Research in Economic History.

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII