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Common Land, Wine and the French Revolution: Rural Society and Economy in Southern France, c. 1789-1820

Author(s):Plack, Noelle
Reviewer(s):Liebowitz, Jonathan J.

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Published by EH.NET (June 2010)

Noelle Plack, Common Land, Wine and the French Revolution: Rural Society and Economy in Southern France, c. 1789-1820.? Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. xiv + 215 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6728-5.

Reviewed by Jonathan J. Liebowitz, Department of History, University of Massachusetts Lowell.

?

Since Arthur Young and the physiocrats, common land has been regarded as a burden on agriculture.[1]? Because no individual had a property right to the commons, all villagers would pasture more animals than it could sustain and overuse it.? In Young?s eyes, common lands were a sorry sight, run down and desolate, a picture that Garrett Hardin?s famous article, ?The Tragedy of the Commons.? has helped transform into a stylized fact of modern economics.[2]

From social history comes the other widely accepted fact about common land, that poor peasants needed it for survival — grazing for their animals, wood for fires — and resisted enclosure. The loss of the commons is said to have doomed them to proletarianization.?

Recently these conclusions have been challenged.? Historians have discovered that early modern farmers were as smart as modern economists and understood the dangers of an unregulated commons.? To avoid overgrazing, villages limited how many animals could be pastured.? And rather than the poor, it was often the wealthy, with large herds of animals, who benefited from the unenclosed commons.

Noelle Plack, senior lecturer at Newman University College in Birmingham, UK, accepts the conclusions of the last group of scholars.? Her thesis it is that the privatization of the commons begun during the Revolution gave peasants in southern France, specifically in the department of the Gard, land for the vineyards that transformed wine production in nineteenth century France.? Though this argument calls for an emphasis on the connection between privatization and wine production, the actual focus of the book is on the privatization process itself.? For a brief volume of 159 pages of text, it is unfortunate that the author felt the need to cover both national legislation and its local consequences.? She could have made a greater contribution had she focused on the latter topic, which, as she herself writes, is where research is needed.

Instead, the bulk of the book is a detailed narration of the legislative activity that affected the status of the commons from the start of the Revolution through the early post-Napoleonic years.? Plack begins just after 1789 when the revolutionaries set about to put into practice their belief that common lands should be eliminated because they were a drag on agriculture.? The revolutionaries wanted to privatize them, but how much to give each family or individual proved contentious.? The radical Jacobins decreed in the law of June 10, 1793 that all inhabitants of a commune should share the land equally, but it remains uncertain how much the law was put into practice.? Plack?s evidence shows that only 18 out of 361 communes in the Gard actually carried out the division of the commons (p. 83).

When the conservatives and then Napoleon took power, further division of the commons was halted because of property holders? concern that their rights were threatened by the 1793 decree.? Those who had gained land under that decree and even so-called usurpers (who occupied land without following official procedures) were able to keep it.? Further decrees of the Napoleonic and early Restoration eras moved additional land to private ownership.

Plack?s history of the French Revolution and common land is mostly told from the perspective of the various Parisian legislative and administrative organs.? It follows closely and adds little to Nadine Vivier?s presentation in Propri?t? collective et identit? communale: Les biens communaux en France 1750-1914 (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1998), which she frequently cites.

The original feature of the book is its focus on privatization in a single department, the Gard, which Plack introduces at the start in best Annales fashion.? Situated on the Mediterranean coast just west of the Rhone River, its territory included the marshy Camargue, near the sea; a fertile plain inland from that; bushy scrub known as garrigues; and the rugged C?vennes Mountains.? With the diverse terrain came diversity in the regional economy.? Not only wheat, but grapes, olives, and in the C?vennes chestnuts were grown.? Silk had been important, but it, along with livestock, was declining in the late eighteenth century.? ?Almost everyone? owned some land, but there were considerable divisions between the owners of tiny plots (0-1 hectares) at one extreme and those whose properties exceeded 40 hectares at the other (p. 28). The land that no one owned, that is the commons, was mostly used for pasture.? It comprised about 14% of the total area of the department in 1846 when it was first measured.? Access to the commons was determined by the amount of taxes paid, but the landless were allowed to pasture a few beasts.? Because of its central role in animal husbandry, the commons was vital to the functioning of the agricultural economy.? Plack provides the reader with a well crafted sketch of the Gard landscape as it appeared on the eve of the Revolutionary changes.?? Where there are gaps, like the important absence of data on the extent of pre-Revolution common land, these derive from gaps in the sources themselves

Plack returns to rural economy and society in her conclusions.? Since a significant portion of the Gard?s villages (42%) were affected by privatization and much of the former commons (about half), especially the garrigues, was converted to vineyards, she believes it legitimate to conclude that ?the origins of the ?viticultural revolution? that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century in southern France can be traced back to the Revolution of 1789 and its legislation to privatize common land? (pp. 150-151).??

She may well be right.? Certainly the understanding of the department she has gained from her deep immersion in its archives and other sources is impressive.? Yet evidence of the link she posits is sparse.? There is room for her in future work to study vineyards in the Gard and the even more productive neighboring H?rault to determine whether the privatized commons did lead the way in the expansion of viticulture.

Notes:

1. Note that Plack and therefore the present discussion is about land held undivided, not about common rights over property otherwise used individually (as in open fields).

2. Garrett Hardin, ?The Tragedy of the Commons,? Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (13 December 1968), 1243-1248

?

Jonathan J. Liebowitz is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts — Lowell.? His research interest is French agriculture during the late nineteenth century with an emphasis on responses to the crisis of that time and on land tenure.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

Agriculture and Economic Development in Europe since 1870

Author(s):Lains, Pedro
Pinella, Vincente
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (January 2010)

Pedro Lains and Vincente Pinella, editors, Agriculture and Economic Development in Europe since 1870. London: Routledge, 2009. xviii + 407 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-42487-5.

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

The seven decades leading up to World War II represent a distinct epoch in Europe?s long agricultural history as a transitional phase between late organic agriculture based on farm-produced inputs and the modern industrial forms that since 1960 have transformed western agriculture out of all recognition. Despite intervals of stagnation (and in war-torn economies contraction) productivity rose two to three times faster than in pre-industrial times. With the exception of Britain, whose precocious industrialization prior to the transport revolution provoked industrial hyper-specialization, Europe as a whole nevertheless remained fundamentally agricultural. In industrially advanced economies agriculture occupied a quarter to a third of the work force; on the backward periphery the proportion was half to four-fifths into the 1950s. Certain features of the agricultural history of this period are well-known: the politics of agricultural protection has been exhaustively studied, as have institutional innovations like the Danish cooperatives and German land banks. For advanced countries the statistical record is fairly complete. The main gap in our quantitative knowledge concerns eastern and southeastern Europe, where boundary changes and massive displacement of rural population make it difficult to collate and interpret the statistical record, and the Iberian peninsula, where scholars were late to mine the rich veins of data deposited in Spanish and Portuguese archives. The result is that until recently, it has been difficult to get an idea of the evolution of European agriculture as a whole.

The present work takes a big step in that direction. It consists of twelve country studies ranging from Portugal to Poland and Sweden to Turkey preceded by three fine introductory essays by Lains and Pinella, Olmstead and Rhode, and Broadberry that set out the methodological and historical issues raised by the collection, and in Broadberry?s essay, estimate the effect on aggregate productivity of agriculture?s declining share of the work force. The editors are to be congratulated for having gotten contributors to observe a common format, which helps bring out the common threads in a fascinating tapestry of national experiences. The format is a set of questions formulated by development economists in the 1960s to measure the effect of agricultural change on developing economies. To what extent did agriculture ?release? labor and capital to modern sectors? In what measure did agricultural demand support domestic manufacturing? In what measure did agricultural exports support the import of capital? How fast did productivity grow? I would have preferred a format based on historical categories of opportunity and response, but these are useful and important questions that do good service as a framework for assembling and interpreting the statistical material.

That material constitutes one of the collection?s major strengths. The series are well-presented and many are new, making the work an indispensable reference for economic historians of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Europe. Special care was taken to adjust the data for boundary changes in the case of Germany, Poland, Greece, and Turkey. The French data are an exception and those interested in the statistical record to 1914 are referred to my reconstruction of the French agricultural capital stock and its attached estimate of total factor productivity.[1] The German data are especially helpful in showing the regional diversity of productivity growth in this period. Federico?s new capital stock series alters the traditional picture of utter stagnation in the 1880s and early 1890s, putting the long-term growth record before World War I on a par with other late nineteenth-century industrializing nations.

What generalizations can one draw from the forest of country studies? The number of countries covered makes it impossible to summarize individual contributions. All are excellent, and the best, like Wolf?s essay on Poland, Petmezas?s on Greece, and Pamuk?s on Turkey, are outstanding. Perhaps the simplest way is to interpret the outcomes as the product of the responses of millions of farmers and a dozen or so governments to the period?s specific sequence of opportunities and shocks. The main opportunity was expanding markets for farm produce in regions undergoing industrialization, which sustained cash flows needed to finance agricultural investments and the purchase of modern inputs. The regional unevenness of that opportunity goes a long way to explaining the regional unevenness in agricultural development on the eve of the Second World War. Agricultural countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, which did not experience intense industrialization benefitted from their proximity to markets in Britain, Belgium, and Germany. By contrast, farmers in southern Italy obtained almost no benefit from northern Italy?s late nineteenth-century industrialization. Pre-war Poland is a special and interesting case. Divided among three occupying powers, its western German partition experienced relatively high productivity growth based on markets around Berlin and the industrial district of Silesia. By contrast, a chain of mountains separated Austrian Galicia from urban and industrial districts in Lower Austria and Bohemia, and a tariff wall separated the province from the Russian partition centered on Warsaw, which had a deficit in foodstuffs. North-south differences in dietary traditions also mattered. The comparative advantage of Mediterranean agriculture in olive oil and wine could not be exploited because the cuisine of northern industrializing districts was based on beer and animal fats. The region might still have managed to find an opportunity in the export of citrus fruits, but that market was pre-empted in the 1880s and 1890s by California. The infestation of French and Italian vineyards by phylloxera in the 1880s gave a temporary boost to Greek currant exports, but recovery of French production after 1895 ended the brief boom, precipitating massive emigration of Greek peasants to America.

On the whole then, it would appear that agricultural development in this period was tributary to industrial and urban development rather than the other way round. As to the globalization of the grain trade, about which so much has been written, its impact was felt mainly by farmers provisioning urban markets, to which it was disproportionately oriented. Overall, however, declining transport costs, of which the ?grain invasion? was a prominent consequence, contributed to productivity growth by inducing more efficient land use. As to new technologies and new inputs, the main conditioning factors were the strength of market outlets, the availability of credit, and in the case of agricultural machines employed in field operations, farm size. In northern Europe yields rose most rapidly in districts where declining transport costs made it possible to import fertilizers and soil amendments onto poor soils. These advantages were largely lacking on the periphery, where high transport cost, poorly organized markets and credit, and low demand provided little incentive to invest in new inputs.

As to the farmers? responses, nothing in the record suggests that their reaction to events was economically irrational. The same cannot be said of governments, which adopted protectionist policies supporting rural incomes at the expense of urban consumers, and attempted to soften the cost of those policies by rationing and price controls. That autocratic as well as democratic governments pursued such strategies suggests the continuing need to accommodate the landed interest, including a generally conservative peasantry that still made up half the population. Yet in a long-run perspective it is unclear whether on balance protectionist policies significantly depressed productivity growth. Tariffs were often part of a broader program of public investment. In Portugal and Spain it took the form of roads, hydroelectric projects, and irrigation projects; in Italy, Spain, and Greece autocratic governments subsidized the draining and resettlement of malarial plains; the Swedish government promoted rural electrification. The major exception seems to have been Germany. In the 1930s Germany?s nationalistic pursuit of agricultural self-sufficiency deprived her farmers of the imported feed for livestock, with the result that per capita production of meat in 1939 was less than in 1913. There is no question that agricultural protection in the 1930s depressed real incomes. Yet given worldwide contraction in agricultural demand during the Great Depression it is doubtful that productivity would have grown significantly faster under a regime of free trade. On the whole, the responses of farmers and governments seem to have mattered less for growth in agriculture than the opportunities.

The other feature of this period was war. In successively reading the agricultural histories of the peripheral countries (Poland, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, and Greece and Turkey) one is impressed by the effect of political instability on productivity growth. It does not seem to make much sense to reduce that instability to the effects of insecure property rights, however. Wars, civil or foreign destroyed property, disrupted commercial connections, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people independently of the legal protection of private property. The Civil War in Spain brought large numbers of people to the brink of starvation and malnutrition that lasted through the 1940s. The most important expropriations occurred on disputed territory on the Ionian coast and the southern Balkans that were jointly populated by Greeks and Turks. But once the ethnic cleansings were carried out, the rights of the new owners were fully protected. Even so, productivity stagnated.

Few books can be said to be ?essential reading.? The present book is one of them. The bibliographies are in general full and up to date. The interpretations are within the space limitations imposed by this kind of work sensitive to the political and social context of agricultural change in this period. It is, however, only a beginning of the effort to place the development of Europe?s agriculture through the Continent?s classic phase of industrialization in a long-run perspective that incorporates the period?s technological and social-political specificity.

Reference:

1. George Grantham, ?The French Agricultural Capital Stock, 1789-1914,? Research in Economic History 16 (1996): 37-83.

George Grantham is a recently retired Professor of Economics at McGill University. His recent work includes ?Explaining the Industrial Transition: A Non-Malthusian Perspective,? European Review of Economic History (2008); ?Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development: A Research Perspective,? Explorations in Economic History (2009) with Jeremy Atack and Peter Coclanis; ?French Agriculture, 1250-1550: Crisis or Continuity?? (forthcoming); ?Female Labour Supply in the Industrial Revolution? (forthcoming) with Franque Grimard; ?Science and Its Transaction Cost: The Emergence of Institutionalized Science in Europe, 1650-1850? (forthcoming); and ?What’s Space Got to Do with It? Distance and Agricultural Productivity before the Railway,? Journal of Economic History (forthcoming). He is also engaged in a translation of Francois Crouzet’s La Grande Inflation: La monnaie en France de Louix XVI a Napoleon.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

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: hk20@nyu.edu). 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

Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian

Author(s):Sarris, Peter
Reviewer(s):Gregory, Timothy E.

Published by EH.NET (June 2009)

Peter Sarris, Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xi + 258 pp. $88 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-86543-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy E. Gregory. Department of History, Ohio State University.

A detailed monograph on the economy and society of a part of the Byzantine Empire might not encourage a large and enthusiastic readership. Well, this book should do so, both because the history of the Byzantine empire deserves to be better known and because this carefully crafted book has much food for thought in the context of the contemporary economic situation. Sarris?s work is based on deep research in the voluminous papyrus archives of early Byzantine Egypt (fifth to seventh centuries A.D.) and the introductory material is rather rough going for the reader not familiar with this sort of detail. The core of the book is a social and administrative analysis of the workings of the estates of the wealthy and powerful Apion family, whose land holdings centered on Oxyrynchus in Middle Egypt but had expanded to include properties in Constantinople and Sicily. Sarris uses the surviving, frequently fragmentary papyrus documents to paint a picture of how these estates were divided between lands that were operated for the direct benefit of the family and those that were rented out to poor farmers who were essentially chained to the plots they farmed. The author provides considerable detail about how the estates were administered and by whom, arguing that individuals of a ?middle? economic and social status were the primary administrators, who effectively demanded productivity and loyalty from those under their jurisdiction. The landowners themselves had mainly risen from relatively lowly origins but by the fourth century A.D. they had become enormously wealthy and they frequently obtained high imperial positions, and these allowed them to use the power of the state, as well as their own wealth, to pursue their interests and maintain control over the vast populace living and working on their lands. All this seems rather dry, but since the evidence Sarris uses is individual documents (accounting lists, contracts, letters, petitions, and orders) the book provides fascinating details not only about administrative structures but also about the kinds of people who lived on the estates and significant detail about their individual lives. Sarris concludes that the Apion family grew more and more powerful as time went on and as their holdings increased their control over large numbers of people became nearly absolute.

All of this is extremely interesting, but Sarris claims much more. In fact, he argues that the situation in Oxyrynchus existed in lesser or greater degree in all of rural Egypt, and that it reflected the basic economic and social conditions throughout the whole of the eastern Mediterranean in this same period. In a useful but not well-integrated chapter Sarris provides a long discussion of the historiography on the nature of Egyptian rural economy in this period, varying from the view of Hardy and Bell, who emphasized the negative (proto-feudal) character of the landowning aristocracy, to Rouillard and Johnson and West, who argued for an efflorescence of the peasants in the same period. Sarris himself clearly follows the views of R?mondon and Gascou, who argued that the state encouraged the transfer of many public institutions to the great landowners. Particularly significant is Sarris?s observation that the growing power of the extraordinarily wealthy was one of the most characteristic phenomena of the age and that it determined most of the major events of the succeeding centuries. Thus, in his view, much of Justinian?s reign is understandable only as a serious attempt to put a halt to this development and to reassert direct state control over many areas of life. This involved ferocity in tax collection and direct supervision of the aristocrats, as well as a policy of deliberate reduction in the ratio between the copper coins and gold, something which would have given the poor and working class a real economic benefit. All these policies, however, led to bitter hatred on the part of the aristocrats, discernable in Prokopios and elsewhere. In addition, Justinian encountered serious economic problems, beginning with the appearance of plague in 541 and the resulting drastic decrease in population and a severe shortfall in state income. Beginning in the reign of Justin II (565-78) the situation turned once more, and among other things the drastic reversal of the internal exchange rate indicates the triumph of the aristocrats and the economic devastation of the poor. This, in turn, had negative impact on the soldiers and the ordinary citizens, who had to depend on the copper coinage, and their dissatisfaction may have contributed significantly to the social unrest at the very end of the sixth century and the military collapses against the Persians and the Arabs in the seventh centuries.

Sarris?s arguments are fascinating and they demand serious consideration. His detailed discussion of documents from the Apion archive is convincing in terms of its reconstruction of the system used in the administration of the properties of the family, and this may be the most important contribution of the book. His broader conclusions are somewhat less easy to accept, especially his attempt to see the emergence of aristocratic dominance as an empire-wide phenomenon. In addition, the organization of the book is a little rough, and the individual chapters lack coherence and development. But this is an important work deserving to be read by all who have an interest in the pre-modern economy and the relationship between economic and political developments.

Timothy E. Gregory (gregory.4@osu.edu), is Professor of Byzantine History at Ohio State University and Director of the OSU Excavations at Isthmia, in Greece.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval

Migration and Inequality in Germany, 1870-1913

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

Published by EH.NET (April 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Byzantine Economy

Author(s):Laiou, Angeliki E.
Morrisson, Cécile M
Reviewer(s):Gregory, Timothy E.

Published by EH.NET (October 2008)

Angeliki E. Laiou and C?cile Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 270 pp. $33 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-61502-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy E. Gregory, Department of History, Ohio State University.

As the authors point out, until recently the economy of the Byzantine Empire has not been the subject of many detailed studies. The reasons for this are many, including the continued bias against Byzantium even in historical circles and the perception that the economy of the empire was dominated by the heavy hand of an autocratic state and that its study has little to teach us. This small and quite readable book is likely to change all such scholarly assumptions. It is based squarely on the massive and detailed three-volume The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, edited by Laiou and published in 2002, and its articles, many of which present completely new analyses of crucial facets of the Byzantine economy and revise many conclusions found in standard textbooks. The present book, of course, is much smaller in scale, but it makes up for that by a more concise focus and a treatment that is accessible to readers, from beginning students to scholars interested in the economy of the medieval West or the Islamic East.

The Byzantine Economy differs from most extant studies of Byzantium by insisting that modern economic theories and studies are relevant for Byzantium and by frequently making seamless use of archaeological and archival sources, as well as the more commonly utilized literary and numismatic material. The literary sources, they reasonably insist, are highly biased by the focus of their authors on the central government, a bias that had led most scholars to the conclusion that the state was the dominant element in the Byzantine economy, which emperors and administrators affected without any real economic interest or knowledge. Laiou and Morrisson do not, of course, deny the importance of government action, especially the successive fiscal institutions and policies over the thousand-year history of the empire. Rather, they argue throughout that, on the one hand, Byzantine statesmen frequently made decisions based on economic considerations, and, on the other, that political and non-economic factors (frequently from outside the empire itself) not uncommonly played crucial roles in the development of the Byzantine economy.

The book is arranged chronologically and it begins with a helpful consideration of the ?natural and human? resources available to the empire. Treatment of late antiquity (sixth-early eighth centuries) avoids what would otherwise be a necessarily long discussion of the situation in the third-fifth centuries, and analysis essentially begins in the period of Justinian. There is little new here and it is clear that the authors regard the period as a continuation of the ancient economy that forms merely an introduction to the economy of the seventh century and beyond. The Byzantine economy per se came into existence as a result of devastating depopulation in the aftermath of the plague of 542 and significant climate change. The labor shortage led to political and economic fragmentation, and a complete reorganization of the economic underpinning of the state. The loss of areas that had provided much of the raw materials of the empire caused severe contraction of manufacturing and a diminution of the money supply. Nonetheless, the meager sources suggest that, even in this period, trade continued and the economy was much more fully developed than has previously been thought. The latter part of the eighth century witnessed significant changes in the military power of the state and the beginning of a slow growth of the Byzantine economy and its gradual monetarization as well as the revival of urban life. Constantinople was the main economic center, and it was an industrial and trading power whose merchants engaged in long distance trade throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Near East. Key in this revival was the state, its fiscal policies, and a complex economic ideology based on ideas of justice in interchange and possession of property.

By the eleventh century Byzantium reached its economic height and by the twelfth century Byzantine cities had developed some of the characteristics that could be seen in the contemporary West. At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, the Byzantine aristocracy had come to challenge the exclusive right to political and economic power that had been maintained by the state (i.e., by the emperor and the imperial bureaucracy). The authors discuss this struggle, that has long interested historians, but in the end they conclude that the victory of the aristocracy did not inevitably cause economic problems for the state or for the peasants. In addition, western (mainly Italian) merchants came to control greater and greater portions of long-distance trade, in part because of tax concessions given them by the Byzantine state and because of their increasing access to naval power. Throughout the twelfth century the Byzantine economy flourished and medium- and large-scale production (both agricultural and industrial) served local, regional, and ?international? markets. The cities, as well as the countryside and marginal lands, played important roles in this economy, contradicting the old theory that middle Byzantine cities were ?parasitic? in nature. The authors conclude that Byzantine merchants played a decreasing role in this trade. In the view of the authors, however, this was not an irreversible situation, but one that was affected negatively by the growth of western military power in the form of the Crusades and, ultimately, the conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

After that date and even after the recovery of Constantinople in 1261 the economy remained fragmented and the loss of areas with important resources, such as mines in Asia Minor and the Balkans, had important negative results. Nonetheless, the authors maintain that the Byzantine economy remained ?articulated? and population growth continued until the middle of the fourteenth century, when the combination of the Black Plague and the loss of most remaining territory to the Ottomans essentially put an end to anything resembling a unified Byzantine economy.

In a concluding chapter the authors make general observations about the Byzantine economy and discuss the value of comparing it specifically with the economy of the medieval West. They conclude that contemporary research shows the Byzantine economy, in virtually all periods, to have been sophisticated and flexible, able to respond to challenges and to change in the face of historical conditions. In most periods the state, in the person of the emperor and a large and well-trained bureaucracy, was the most important factor in the economy, but it was by no means the only one, and political, ideological, and fiscal considerations, as well as forces outside the empire, played significant roles. They note that recent research, in both East and West, has pointed to the importance of the linkage between production and distribution and has seen greater similarities than differences in the two economies. Finally, they strongly suggest that it is not reasonable to ?blame? Byzantium because it did not develop western-style capitalism, something that did not come about in the West until the eighteenth century. They conclude that Byzantium had a ?flexible and dynamic economy, which was successful in terms of growth but also provided some important needs of the people … that is, all the factors which today are recognized as constituting true economic development? (p. 247)

This book is a convenient, reasonably well written and carefully documented handbook that should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Byzantium or the medieval economy.

Timothy Gregory is Professor of History and Anthropology and Director of the Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia; he is author of books such as Isthmia, Volume V, The Hexamilion and the Fortress (Princeton 1993) and A History of Byzantium (Oxford 2006). He has pioneered in the teaching of online courses in Classical Archaeology and Byzantine History. gregory.4@osu.edu.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

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

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

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community

Author(s):Marglin, Stephen A.
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.NET (March 2008)

Stephen A. Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. xvi + 359 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-674-02654-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Eric Jones, Melbourne Business School.

This is an exceptionally learned, uncompromisingly contrarian critique of markets and economics by a member of the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Stephen Marglin emphasizes the costs of market transactions and blames economics for supplying the associated frame of reference. The Dismal Science is patently the result of a lifetime of reading and cogitating about conceptual issues related to market exchanges and economists’ approaches to them. Some historical background is given but what is mainly offered is extended commentary on the history of thought and on everyday practice.

The “modern world view,” in Marglin’s opinion, derives from economics, which ignores the breakdown of community and elevates instead an obsession with productive efficiency. No accusation seems too gross for him to level at the economics profession. Economics distorts everything, he says, particularly human proclivities, although I found it hard to keep clear whether he thinks non-economists are too sensible to think like smart-alec graduate students or have been brainwashed by the economics’ mind-set seeping into every debate. In a meandering volume crammed with long quotations, he seems to qualify each assertion only to proffer some variant a few pages later.

His charges against economics boil down to the way the subject fosters individual maximization, ignores distributional concerns, and legitimizes “the market” behind a pretense of scientific detachment. Yet economics is a broad church and is always evolving, never more so than at present. Aha, the reader thinks, at least behavioral economics is not so crass as to accept the Homo economicus of Econ 101. Marglin is a step ahead, however, urging that all the behavioral economists are doing is altering one or two assumptions at a time. Theirs may seem a prototypically scientific procedure but Marglin will not agree. His mind is made up, right to lamenting that Adam Smith failed to entitle his book, The Wealth of Workers.

One of Marglin’s favored examples is the Amish, whose mutual dependence resists the market. The Amish exemplify community in his terms, which is to say there is no exit short of exorbitant personal cost. Who are the Amish? For practical purposes they are the community leaders. A world thus dominated is surely as likely to become that of the Lord of the Flies as a circle of benevolence.

While Amish community patterns survive, they are only patterns: Pennsylvania is not the eighteenth-century Rhineland, nor can it be when some Amish run tools off propane gas although they are forbidden electricity, install telephones in their barns although they are not to have them in their houses, and so forth. Thus, while they do so at a long remove, the Amish shadow American society. Theirs is often, so to speak, the world of the Shabbas goy, not the principled realm of community implied.

Marglin’s notion that a world of neighborliness was swept away by impersonal insurance markets does not fully capture reality. He thinks the neighbors would have rallied round to put up another barn for you if yours burned down ? a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ model of community help. No doubt there was mutuality in small places. But he does not refer to what actually preceded the development of fire insurance. Previous arrangements were less, not more, personal than the policy one might buy for oneself from an insurance agent. They relied on briefs for alms, instruments not abolished in England until 1828. Parish records are full of sums collected for briefs for distant places.

The system was non-compulsory but also non-local ? you subscribed for sufferers whom you would never meet and lived in hopes they would respond to your brief if you suffered in turn. People helped their neighbors but simultaneously belonged to vast networks of Christian support that can only be termed “community” by considerable stretching. This had little to do with the nation-state, which is one of Marglin’s innumerable betes noires: the instrument was previously the Papal Brief. Briefs did not supplant community, they supplemented it, while being less reliable than formal insurance. Moreover it is misleading to single out England as the home of insurance markets. Continental countries were writing insurance against losses of crops from hailstorms back in the eighteenth century. England, supposed fount of market ideology, did not do so until 1842.

Nor is the impression given of the English enclosure movement more persuasive. Landowners were eager to take land into ring-fenced holdings of their own but this did not preclude their raising productivity. Marglin thinks they were merely engrossing. Enclosure processes were long drawn out, he claims, because until 1688 peasants who resisted were backed by the Crown. Nevertheless we have to explain why progress was slow even afterwards. Copyholders were not instantly stripped of resources ? Marglin does not acknowledge that they typically held their farms on three lives. Nor were farmers necessarily averse to leaving the land in order to become shopkeepers in the market towns of a gradually expanding economy.

We must agree that markets entail costs, as Marglin endlessly insists, even if economists neglect the fact. Yet he rationalizes away the corresponding costs of being trapped in small groups that risk being inequitable as well as inefficient. The work of Jonathan Hughes on the colonial economy shows just how onerous non-market regulatory control was: we need not rely on gains in efficiency from the adoption of markets to reject the politicized allocation of resources and roles inseparable from “community.”

Marglin does advance some telling points against the practice of modern economics and, even leaving aside the political animus evident in The Dismal Science, it would take another volume (though not such a long one) to expound and contest its hundreds of propositions. Economists may be left to look after themselves; and while economic historians may wish to contemplate aspects of the critique, I suspect most of them will leave by the door through which they first came in. They may also be under-whelmed by some of the stylized historical facts on which the arguments depend.

Eric Jones is Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, and Visiting Professor, University of Exeter. He is the author of The European Miracle, Growth Recurring, and Cultures Merging.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

State, Peasant, and Merchant in Qing Manchuria, 1644-1862

Author(s):Isett, Christopher Mills
Reviewer(s):Vries, Peer

Published by EH.NET (August 2007)

Christopher Mills Isett, State, Peasant, and Merchant in Qing Manchuria, 1644-1862. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. xiv + 418 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8047-5271-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peer Vries, Institute for Economic and Social History, University of Vienna.

Christopher Mills Isett is associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota and a specialist in the economic history of Manchuria, Taiwan, and China during the Qing dynasty. His book consists of three parts. The first one deals with the ideological, political and economic interests of the Qing rulers in their ‘homeland’ and with their actual policies. The second one shows what property and labor relations evolved in the region. The third part presents an analysis of the way in which those relations limited possibilities for economic development. By Qing Manchuria Isett basically means the provinces Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, especially the southern parts of these last two provinces. The period covered is from 1644, the establishment of Qing rule in most of China Proper, to 1862, the opening of the Manchurian port at Niuzhang.

The underlying, I am almost tempted to say ‘real,’ subject matter of the book, in my view, is how to characterize the economy of China ? for which Manchuria by and large simply functions as a pars pro toto ? as compared to that of Britain. Two models of economic (non)development act as points of reference, one that is called ‘Smithian’ and one that is called ‘Malthusian’ or rather ‘Malthusian-Ricardian.’

In line with a long tradition, Isett claims that the economy of early modern Britain operated according to Smithian principles. That means that it could and did grow via extension of the market and increasing specialization. Quite recently some historians, in particular Kenneth Pomeranz, have toned down this optimist view by claiming that Britain’s growth was not very impressive and certainly finite, and that Britain on the very eve of its industrialization was heading for a Malthusian cul-de-sac just as much, if not more so, than China. When it comes to characterizing the economy of China in early modern times, authors like, again, Pomeranz, Wong and Li Bozhong, have also urged for revision. In the case of early modern China too there is a long tradition, in this case to consider its economy as a clear example of a Malthusian economy in which a sustained increase of the population was bound to lead to over-population and crisis. While not denying that in the end China was heading for a Malthusian crisis, Pomeranz cum suis claim that its economy was just as ‘Smithian’ as Britain’s and in that way opt for a more optimist perspective on China’s pre-industrial economic history. According to them, the increase in its population, at least until the end of the eighteenth century, overall, had no negative effects on China’s wealth. If the revisionists are right, the two economies would have been strikingly similar in the early modern era, the only difference being that Britain had the ‘luck’ to be saved by its Industrial Revolution.

Isett clearly does not agree. For him the Smithian model, as he defines it, is a model of development, and English. The Malthusian-Ricardian model, as he defines it, in the end stands for non-development and it nicely fits most of the characteristics of the economy of early modern China, including Manchuria. In his approach he clearly is inspired by Robert Brenner. That means that he thinks the dynamism associated with a Smithian economy does not occur in a vacuum but only in specific social and political settings in which, in particular, the existing property relations are essential. To have a Smithian market economy, as he interprets it, the sheer presence of buyers and sellers does not suffice. When it comes to analyzing Malthusian dynamics one has to be aware that those too are not simply the result of the ratio between available resources and population, but have to be placed in a broader social and political context as well.

But let us first discuss the actual empirical content of the text. How did things actually work out in Manchuria? Basically the Qing wanted to keep Manchuria to themselves as a place that provided land, income and a ‘home’ for Manchu aristocrats and banner men. Their livelihood was supposed to be taken care of by a labor force primarily consisting of bonded labor. In an extensive and detailed analysis Isett shows that and how this policy failed: by far the biggest part of Qing land in Manchuria came in actual possession of commoners who worked it. The Qing state’s presence in the villages was not strong enough to maintain the agrarian regime it initially implemented. The bailiffs in charge of the manors did not heed official policy very much, and although the region from 1689 onwards was officially closed to permanent settlement, new settlers kept on coming in. What emerged was a peasant-dominated agriculture in which wage labor was quite exceptional. Manchuria in that sense became a replica of Northern China.

Manchurian peasants, buying and selling products and, very occasionally, services, clearly and increasingly were integrated in markets. In absolute terms we are talking about a substantial amount of exchange. But for Isett that does not suffice to call Manchuria’s economy ? and for that matter the economy of China Proper ? a real Smithian market economy or to claim it would have known real Smithian growth. Firstly, this is because for him commercialization is a matter of relative and not of absolute amounts and his analysis of the main trade of Manchuria, that in soy beans, has convinced him that, relatively speaking, market exchange was fairly small and much less relevant in Manchuria than in Britain. Even a superficial reading of existing literature suffices to show that China Proper too was far less commercialized than Britain.

Secondly, however, quintessential to withholding the adjective ‘Smithian’ is the fact that Manchuria’s agricultural producers did not depend on the market. They were not forced to maximize their price-cost ratios and could ‘afford’ to think in terms of risk aversion. Manchurian peasants did not, to loosely paraphrase Smith, need to continually exert themselves to find out the most advantageous employment for what capital or labor they could command. The reason is simple: they were not, or at least not completely, deprived of means of subsistence. It therefore, according to Isett, need not surprise us that before long in Manchuria, as in most of China Proper, a process of ‘involution’ set in, with labor inputs by households increasing and the productivity of their labor decreasing.

Such a ‘peasant’ strategy of intensifying production as a rule is associated with small farms. In Manchuria, however, at least for Chinese circumstances, plots continued to be fairly big. Again, the broader context has to be taken into account. In the footsteps of Philip Huang, Isett claims that opting for intensification was not just, and not even necessarily, a matter of the land to labor ratio. It also was a result of a specific rationality of the peasant and his household. Overall, peasants tend to not systematically regard extra input of household labor in terms of calculable extra costs. When, as was the case in Manchuria, there simply are no opportunities to earn income outside the household, they are even less likely to behave in a ‘calculating’ way. But that is not all. What according to Isett also played a role, is the fact that, in Manchuria as well as in China, there was no primogeniture. This tended to diminish the size of the existing farms and, with state support, actually precluded the formation of big estates.

In the end, Manchurian peasants were integrated into the market under conditions that facilitated merchant extraction of their surplus instead of promoting ways of increasing their labor productivity. Capital costs were too high for the peasants. Direct investment in agriculture by people with capital was very scarce. The return on their capital was rather unsafe. It was easier to earn money by providing loans to peasants. In contrast to the tiny group of well-informed ‘monopsonistic’ merchants, peasants lacked sufficient knowledge and information to make the most of market conditions. Merchants were increasingly used by government to provide all kinds of services. In return they received significant powers over the market, which further weakened the position of the small producer and made the entire setting in which he operated even less ‘Smithian.’

Having read Isett’s book, no one can doubt that in Manchuria, as in China Proper, the elimination of the subsistence peasant ? which Marxist and ‘Marxisant’ historians like Isett and Brenner tend to regard as conditio sine qua non for the emergence of modern, full-blown capitalism ? did not take place. Britain, where the peasantry no longer existed as a major social class, developed in a completely different direction. Just think of its commercial farms whose survival as productive units depended on their success on the market; its massive proletarianization; the very substantial increase of labor productivity in the agricultural sector; the relative decrease of the number of people working in it; and the big increase in specialization. According to Isett, Smithian mercantile capitalism in Britain ‘worked’: at the end of the eighteenth century the country still was not even near a Malthusian crisis.

Let us come to a general evaluation and start on the positive notes. Isett is quite explicit, not to say somewhat repetitive, about his goals and results. His description and analysis of developments in Manchuria are detailed, clear and convincing. He clearly is keener on confirming his and Brenner’s points of view than on falsifying them. Reading this book, one would not suspect that ‘the Brenner thesis’ has engendered a fierce ‘Brenner debate.’ All this, however, does not detract from the fact that he clearly shows the existence of major differences between the relations of production and exchange in Britain and in China and offers a sensible explanation for those differences. His claim that the actual development of an economy along Smithian lines requires a very specific and persistent kind of behavior, that of the homo oeconomicus of (neo) classical economics, certainly is to the point. In all these respects Isett’s book simply is a good book.

But Isett clearly wants more in his book: he wants to engage the ‘California School.’ I cannot help thinking, however, that in a way he is fighting a bit of straw man. Much hinges on the concept ‘Smithian growth’ and how it is interpreted. The Californians use the term ‘Smithian’ in a much less strict sense than he does. For them, so it seems, the term refers to any situation where legally free people engage in substantial market exchange in conditions of (fairly) free and fair competition. In the specific context they are discussing, i.e. the organic economies of the pre-industrial world, they add the very important caveat that this market exchange as such, without technological breakthroughs and without a new energy-regime, can only lead to finite growth.

In both Britain and China market exchange between legally free people was the rule and in both this exchange was substantial, though relatively speaking much smaller in China than in Britain. When it comes to the kind of competition, the term Smithian becomes much more problematic … in particular for the British case! Let us only refer to the role of the state. After all the first word in the title of Isett’s book is ‘state.’ In the part of book dealing with migration policies and property rights in Manchuria that role is analyzed in detail. But considering the fact that Isett is so keen on comparing Smithian Britain and Malthusian China, opportunities are missed here. When one takes on board the role of the state, the use of the term ‘Smithian,’ by Isett as well as by members of the Californian School, is highly problematic for China and simply wrong for Britain.

All the talk about Britain’s Smithian growth not-withstanding, Britain’s government policies were fiercely mercantilist. Government interference in the market, in particular but not only in sectors of the economy that were relevant to foreign trade, was the rule rather than the exception. Even in agriculture, the sector that Isett focuses upon, there was tampering with the market, e.g. when it comes to the rules of strict settlement and entail. Britain at the time was a fiscal-military, highly interventionist state. The differences with China, where government policies can best be described as ‘agrarian-paternalist,’ were enormous, as for example shows in the fact that China’s government did hardly anything before 1862 to exploit the huge economic potential of Manchuria. But neither of the two governments can be described as a principled defender of the kind of ‘laissez faire’ that Adam Smith pleads for.

The California School focuses on (certain parts of) China Proper. The empirical research of Isett’s book deals with Manchuria. That also at least gives the impression Isett has a strange way of engaging with it. Is not all the information on Manchuria in that respect something of a detour? Personally I found the permanent switching from Manchuria to China and vice versa not always convincing and not always helpful. On top of that and finally, the ‘Californians’ focus on the ‘Great Divergence’ ? that is, the emergence of modern economic growth. In that respect Isett ought to have been more specific about the exact impact of the differences he has found. It would have been helpful had he distinguished between development, growth, and modern economic growth.

For Isett Smithian dynamics mean development and growth without any further specification. As such it is not difficult to imagine that a Smithian economy has more ‘potential’ than a Malthusian one. I think that nevertheless two comments are in order here. The first one is that, compared to Isett, Smith himself, with good reason, was much more of a pessimist and much more ‘Malthusian,’ as shows in his various references to the ‘stationary state’ of highly developed economies. Smithian development and growth, even in Isett’s definition, do have structural limits. In the long run they will inevitably peter out and hit a ceiling, as long as one is dealing with an organic economy. Both pre-industrial China-Manchuria and Britain were organic economies and both in that sense were ‘Malthusian.’ In that respect the Californians are right.

My second comment would be that in being so insistent that China’s economy was not ‘Smithian,’ it would have been natural for Isett to inquire – Consumption being the sole end of production, to put it in Smith’s own words ? whether that meant that China was poorer. This question is not extensively addressed, but everything in Isett’s texts suggests the answer must be yes. Neither is the question addressed of the connection between Smithian dynamics and so-called modern economic growth, i.e. the sustained and substantial increase, in real terms, of per capita income that is regarded as the product of the Industrial Revolution. Interestingly enough, Smith thought such growth to be impossible and in any case had no clue that an ‘Industrial Revolution’ was about to fundamentally change Britain’s economy. He, and most present-day economic historians, clearly would not claim such a revolution simply evolves out of commercialization. Isett is too optimist when he writes (on page 286) that England was already breaking free of Malthusian constraints in the early modern era. He may be right in claiming against the Californians that eighteenth-century Britain was not (yet) in a Malthusian cul-the-sac. But that does not imply that Britain had got rid of Malthus: it only had managed to keep him at some distance. Until industrialization its economy continued to operate according to a ‘Malthusian,’ organic logic.

The challenge ahead for Isett and other historians who are interested in the Great Divergence and who think its explanation resides in Smithian dynamics, is to look for the exact mechanisms by which these dynamics could have brought about a transition from a pre-industrial to an industrial economy. This is a major challenge, as that transition is not smooth or natural as Isett seems to suggest, while knowing that, for example, it did not occur in the Dutch Republic, nor a matter of sheer ‘luck’ as Californians claim. Isett has proven to be very qualified to take up that challenge.

Peer Vries is professor of global economic history, in particular for the early modern era, at the University of Vienna. Apart from various articles dealing with global economic history in that era, he published Via Peking back to Manchester: Britain, the Industrial Revolution and China (Leiden 2003). In the spring of 2008 his A World of Surprising Differences: State and Economy in Early Modern Western Europe and China will appear on the market. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Global History and one of the founders of the Global Economic History Network

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