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Contract and Property in Early Modern China

Author(s):Zelin, Madeleine
Ocko, Jonathan K.
Gardella, Robert
Reviewer(s):Shiue, Carol H.

Published by EH.NET (September 2004)


Madeleine Zelin, Jonathan K. Ocko, and Robert Gardella, editors, Contract and Property in Early Modern China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. vii + 398 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8047-4639-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carol H. Shiue, Department of Economics, University of Texas — Austin.

It is often assumed that property rights in China were historically weak and that expropriation by the state was a major obstacle to its economic development. This volume argues against taking this view, and provides evidence that casts earlier misconceptions of Chinese contractual forms into considerable doubt. Taken together, the eleven papers in this volume present a fascinating range of case studies and historical details on the role of contracts and property rights in Chinese economic transactions during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the early years of the Republican Era (1912-1949).

A better understanding of the meaning of property rights in Chinese economic history is especially timely for readers interested in the comparative analysis of institutions and the historical evolution of different institutional forms. While many economists are now convinced that “good institutions” — common law, property rights, broad access to the commercial economy — are deep determinants of economic growth, it has been difficult to identify how exactly specific institutions generate long-run growth. Relating existing notions of good institutions to the different forms that these institutions might take in other societies allows us to get a better view of what is inside the institutional black box.

The articles from this book were drawn from a series of workshops on the evolution of property rights and the role of contract in Chinese business practice. The first part of the book describes the institutional features of Chinese property rights.

Madeleine Zelin makes the point that rights on property can take different forms. In China, property rights were well defined, the state played an important (though not exclusive) role in the enforcement of those rights, and the use of contracts permeated all levels of society. At the same time, Chinese notions of individual private property were different from their Western counterparts. For instance, the unit of ownership is usually the household and not the individual. Other differences existed with respect to rules of inheritance, and customs in the transactions of land and capital. A wealth of implications may be derived from these and other institutional examples that should be of great interest to economists and historians alike.

Upwards of 10 million land deeds and contracts from the imperial and modern period are publicly available. Myron Cohen discusses and translates full passages from 20 examples of such documents. His selection includes land contracts, marriage contracts, and agreements regarding adoption and family division. All were used in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by residents of Minong, a community in southern Taiwan.

Mark A. Allee examines over a thousand nineteenth-century case files from court cases of Taiwan and Sichuan Province. Although community norms and cultural notions of fairness cannot and should not be ignored, it is significant that written agreements were extremely important in dispute mediation, and these written contracts were typically upheld and recognized by the state. Thus, archives on lawsuits and civil cases are an excellent source of information on contracts, since these documents were very often part of the evidence preserved in the case files.

Thomas Buoye examines 630 homicide reports from three provinces of China that were related to property rights disputes such as disagreements over rent default, eviction, or land boundaries. Court cases and criminal records documented in the county magistrate’s office offer a way to assess legal institutions in China. Buoye focuses on homicides that were preceded by lawsuits to learn more about the effectiveness of official intervention in property disputes, the efficiency of courts in conflict resolution, and their effectiveness in enforcing property rights.

In the eighteenth century, the movement of people to the frontier resulted in the reclamation of much land that was previously wilderness. To analyze the extent to which the state established and protected the property rights of those who had newly acquired land, Anne Osborne considers the example of Qing land reclamation policy. She finds that tax receipts and contracts with an official seal fully established property rights, but private documents and other kinds of proof were also valid. Again, the state respected property rights, and relied on documents such as tax receipts, to prove ownership when land disputes arose.

Anglo-American political debates, dating back to Hobbes and Locke, may have led to a culture-specific understanding of individual rights. In contrast, the Chinese did not seem to speak in the legalistic language of “rights.” Jonathan Ocko surveys some of the current Western legal scholarship on transactions costs, property rights, customs, norms, and courts, and suggests the ways in which the ideas emphasized in this literature may or may not be applicable to China.

Articles in the second part of the book consider how the use of Chinese contractual forms affected Chinese business practice.

Feng Shaoting examines real estate contracts in the Shanghai Municipal Archives, and focuses on the custom of supplementary payment (jiatan) in sales of urban property. This was a custom in which the original owner could return to the same buyer months or years after the first sales contract and come to an agreement on a new contract involving a supplementary payment for the same property. Moreover, the original owner could do this not just once or twice, but seemingly in perpetuity or “according to custom.” Requests for supplementary payment by the original owners were prefaced with the customary statements: “because we are in urgent need [of the money] … and because we think we previously underestimated the price.” Feng suggests some of the difficulties that emerged as a consequence of this arrangement. However, a key unanswered question here is whether the sum of all payments reflects the present discounted value of the property. Furthermore, it is possible that the payment of property in flexible installments, where the timing and the amount paid might depend on the financial situation of the buyer or seller can potentially be a mutually beneficial way to transact a large purchase. This may be especially true in an economy with imperfect credit markets and informal means of enforcement of the implicit sales contract.

Using the Zigong Salt Yards of Sichuan as a case study, Madeleine Zelin examines the evolution of business relationships and the productive capacity of firms in China. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, growing domestic markets and other factors led to conditions that one might think would have helped to promote greater incentives for the development of forward and backward linkages. However, this did not occur in the case of the Zigong partnerships. Instead, over the nineteenth century, the size of managerial structures appears to have reached a critical level, beyond which partnerships started to erode. This article explains why the full potential of economies of scale and scope were not realized in China: unlimited liability, ambiguities in rights over shares and assets, and political instability all contributed to the fragmentation of corporate structure.

Tomoko Shiroyama examines financial arrangements in the textile industry in the Lower Yangzi Delta from 1895 to 1937, drawing on company records and archives of debt contracts in the cotton-spinning and silk-reeling industries. Contrary to conventional views that Chinese financial loans relied on personal ties, she shows that bank credit was based on forms of collateral such as factories, equipment, and raw materials.

Man Bun Kwan studies the court cases drawn from disputes involving the Changlu Salt Division. The merchants held state-licensed privileges to be the sole seller of salt in their designated district. Salt merchants were able to enter and exit the business by buying, selling, leasing, or subleasing their salt certificate. Kwan examines the ways in which the state resolved disputes that arose over these rights.

Robert Gardella concludes the volume and provides a summary and overview of models of Chinese business partnerships. He also provides a comparative perspective, suggesting that the risks and limitations of partnerships in the mid-nineteenth century United States (highlighted in the work of Naomi Lamoreaux) have similarities in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century China.

Carol H. Shiue is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Texas-Austin. Recent articles include “The Political Economy of Famine Relief in China, 1740-1820,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History (forthcoming); “Local Granaries and Central Government Relief: Moral Hazard and Intergovernmental Finance in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century China,” Journal of Economic History (2004); and “Transport Costs and the Geography of Arbitrage in Eighteenth Century China,” American Economic Review (2002).


Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Amartya Sen: A Life Reexamined

Author(s):Ghosh, Suman
Reviewer(s):Emmett, Ross B.

Published by EH.NET (August 2004)

Suman Ghosh, producer and director, Amartya Sen: A Life Reexamined. Distributed by First Run/Icarus Films, 2002. 56 minutes.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ross B. Emmett, James Madison College, Michigan State University.

In 1998, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science decided to present the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel to Amartya Sen. Sen was awarded the prize for his work in welfare economics, understood broadly enough to include his seminal contributions to social choice theory and the definition of poverty, his empirical work on famine, and his participation in the construction of the Human Development Index. Between 2000 and 2002, Suman Ghosh, a young economist completing his doctorate at Cornell University, produced this film in appreciation for his countryman’s contributions to economics, social philosophy, and India. Ghosh, who is now at Florida Atlantic University, has produced a balanced introduction to Sen’s work and an insightful look at his life.

Ghosh’s film sets out to examine Sen’s work through a documentary of his life. For the most part, the film works well: one sees important people and places in Sen’s life: his mother Amita Sen; his teacher Dhiresh Bhattacharya; Shantiniketan; some of the schools he attended; and the Master’s Lodge at Trinity College, Cambridge (which he now inhabits). We also meet several prominent Indian economists and government ministers, including Manmohan Singh, who became India’s Prime Minister after the movie was released. Other economists and philosophers also have roles in the film — Kaushik Basu is the interviewer, Ken Arrow provides commentary on (and a few criticisms of) Sen’s contributions to economic theory, and Timothy Scanlon, Sugata Bose, Emma Rothschild and Paul Samuelson make cameo appearances.

First and foremost, Ghosh’s movie is a celebration of Bengali contributions to the progress of human knowledge and reason. Sen is placed in the tradition of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and the chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray. As Bose says in the film, Tagore, Ray and Sen highlight the role of India, not as an alternative in a great “clash of civilizations” but rather as the source of another thread (perhaps competing with others, perhaps not) in the fabric of universal reason.

To illustrate the back-and-forth movement from the universal to the particular, the film alternates Sen’s contributions to universal reason with stories from his life and his contributions to India. Beginning with Sen lecturing at Cambridge on the axioms of social choice theory, the film then highlighting his contributions to economics and philosophy, interspersed with the story of his intellectual progress as he moved from India to Cambridge to Harvard and now back to Cambridge. Scenes and interviews from a West Bengal village literacy program provide the background for discussion of the UN Human Development Index and Sen’s approach to development, which draws the movie to a close.

The movie succeeds best at conveying the Indian fabric from which Sen’s life has been made. Sen’s early life and education in India are told to us by Sen himself (during an interview with Basu), and by his teacher Bhattacharya and his mother (also in interviews). The story is illustrated by family pictures and scenery from the places he lived. As the film moves to Sen’s life outside India and to the story of his intellectual progress, the treatment is less consistent, but includes the film’s most poignant moments: his early battle with cancer, his phone call to let his mother know he had won the Nobel Prize, and breaking in to his room at Trinity College in order to get the letter patent from the Queen that he needed to present at the gate when named Master of the College. Throughout, his humanity, in its brilliance and its fragility and fallibility, shines through.

Ghosh does not attempt in the film to provide a thorough investigation of Sen’s intellectual contributions to economics and philosophy. That is to his credit, one might say, because he conveys the warp and woof of Sen’s life quite effectively without it. However, if used in courses on economic development, economics and philosophy, and the history of economic thought, the film would require additional material in order to allow students to explore Sen’s work in greater detail. The film opens enough doors that invite further exploration to make this a pleasant task.

Ghosh’s re-examination of Sen provides the occasion to revisit his work, and to celebrate the Bengali contribution to the progress of human knowledge. It also reminds us that much remains to be done before “the clear stream of reason” (from the Tagore poem which closes the movie) guides human affairs.

Ross B. Emmett is Associate Professor at James Madison College, Michigan State University. Editor of Great Bubbles, The Chicago Tradition in Economics, 1892-1945, and Selected Essays by Frank H. Knight, Emmett is also an editor of the research annual Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

Inventing a Soviet Countryside: State Power and the Transformation of Rural Russia, 1917-1929

Author(s):Heinzen, James W.
Reviewer(s):Wheatcroft, Stephen

Published by EH.NET (June 2004)

James W. Heinzen, Inventing a Soviet Countryside: State Power and the Transformation of Rural Russia, 1917-1929. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. x + 297 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8229-4215-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stephen Wheatcroft, Department of History, University of Melbourne.

James W. Heinzen of Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey has written a very interesting book on several aspects of the history of the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture of the RSFSR (NKZem-RSFSR) from 1917 to 1929. This was the main state agency in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic that was involved in agricultural administration during the period of War Communism and the New Economic Policy (NEP). The contribution of People’s Commissar A.P. Smirnov, 1922-28 in protecting agricultural specialists, and in promoting a cautious rightist economic policy has been underestimated and Heinzen’s book is welcome in providing us with more detail about the internal vedomstvennii (departmental) politics that surround developments that have generally been seen from the central party position. Such a broadening of the picture is necessary because the political conflict of the time, and the infamous struggles between the Rights, the Left and the Party Center have tended to dominate most accounts of this period, and to give the opinion that it was these struggles that dominated everything that was happening at the time.

A few historians, including R.W.Davies, E.A. Rees and myself have argued that while the party struggles determined who the political leader would be, policy was often determined on the ground in the key state agencies in a sort of political vacuum. Heinzen’s book is therefore a welcome addition to the growing number of vedomstvenii histories that are beginning to transform our understanding of how NEP worked, and why it collapsed.

The description of the early years of the People’s Commissariat and the precarious transition from Tsarist Ministry to Revolutionary People’s Commissariat is generally fine, but it is marred by an early blunder about the nature of this particular commissariat. On pages 21-22, when discussing the birth and early activities of the Commissariat, 1917-20, it is stated that “Unlike some commissariats, which were headed by an agency at the national level, the Commissariat of Agriculture was one of the so-called non-united commissariats, for which separate commissariats were established in each republic.” This is confused. In 1917-20 there was no Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The country at this time was known as the RSFSR and federated with it Republics. NKZem-RSFSR was an agency at the national level. The distinction that Heinzen has introduced here at the birth of NKZem only became apparent after the formation of the USSR in 1922, when the decision was made not to create a People’s Commissariat at this time at the Union level. There was a reason for this, which relates to the fear that Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks had in the early stages of NEP that Party extremists would attempt to impose unrealistic universal plans on agriculture if an appropriate mechanism for this could be found. This is important for Heinzen’s story, because his story leads up to the establishment of an All-Union NKZem in 1929 precisely when such extremist and unrealistic plans were being launched.

My main criticism of the book is that it claims to be far more than it really is, that it doesn’t really cover all, or even all the important activities of NKZem RSFSR, and even more so does it fail to cover all the important aspects of state power and the transformation of rural Russia during this period.

I will just provide a few examples of the shortfalls in each of these cases.

The book spends little time looking seriously at the plans that were drawn up for the transformation of agriculture and how NKZem fitted into these plans, it also fails to provide much of an indication of the work actually carried out by NKZem, and it tends to suggest that very little was done.

Much of the planning for agricultural development was carried out in Gosplan, which was a universal centralized planning commission, which was set up at the same time that the policies which became known as NEP were accepted. Lenin initially opposed the creation of a Universal planning body, and only appears to have accepted it as a compromise for the party’s acceptance of NEP. Having been forced to accept Gosplan, he was keen to influence how it worked and was particularly anxious to ensure that it was staffed by cautious specialists. Lenin insisted that P.I. Popov, the non-party head of TsSU be the head of Gosplan Agricultural Sector. Popov, in his turn was determined to block any plan that required unrealistic surpluses of agricultural products to be extracted from agriculture. He quite reasonably insisted that major central planning needed to await improved statistical materials. There were at the time massive disputes over the size of grain harvests and even over the size of the population. Popov was also holding out for a midterm 1925 series of censuses to provide a serious basis for planning. The first multi-sectoral plan was drawn up as OSVOK in VSNKh because of Popov’s intransigence. Neither the Party Right, nor Smirnov in NKZem came to the support of Popov when he was attacked by Yakovlev and NKRKI in early 1926.

Subsequent conflicts over agriculture development were based on very shaky and distorted evaluations of agricultural reality. Lenin’s fear that the extremists would dominate the planning system and agricultural administration was becoming true. Smirnov was more involved in assisting Rykov to restrain the more extreme grain plans proposed for 1926 and 1927, but the failure to accumulate adequate reserves in combination with unwise pricing policy and poor weather, contributed to the grain procurement crisis of 1927/28. Kondratiev was a major victim of this crisis, not because the crisis provided a justification to attack NKZem, but because he was director of the Economic Conjuncture Institute of NKFin, where an article written by Vainshstein in the Bulletin edited by him warned that current policies were likely to lead to a restoration of War Communism.

Smirnov may have been a victim too, but he was probably more of a political figure than Heinzen suggests. His removal from NKZemRSFSR in March 1928 was not accompanied by dismissal, but with a move that could be interpreted as a promotion. He was already a member of the Party Orgburo, and in April he replaced Kubyak as a member of the Party Secretariat. He retained his important position as a member of STO until July 1929. His major demotion came relatively late after the XVIth Party Congress in July 1930 when he lost his place in the Secretariat and was demoted to Candidate member of the Orgburo.

As regards other neglected activities in NKZemRSFSR. One of the major achievements of NKZemRSFSR at this time was the extraordinary achievement of organizing the improvement of seed used for sowing.

Finally, on what may appear to be a fairly minor detail, Heinzen presents a confusing picture of the level of agricultural production in these years. He is generally correct in his text in describing the failure of grain production in the late 1920s to reach the pre-war level, but he does include a very misleading table which provides a totally different indication of the situation.[1] Although this may appear to be a minor matter I would argue that it is extremely important.

The main point about the Soviet countryside that was invented by Soviet State power in the late 1920s lies precisely in this confusion. The State invented a countryside that had abundant grain and where failure to market grain supplies was the result of peasant sabotage. Popov before 1926, and a whole stream of later heroic statisticians, (including surprisingly Osinskii) tried in vain to correct this distorted invention, and the major catastrophe that struck in 1932-33 was a consequence of this false invention. Any account of the politics of Soviet agriculture for this period which fails to describe this distortion is missing the main story. Heinzen’s account of the history of Smirnov’s attempts to protect rural specialists is important, but it does not live up to its claims to be a history of state power and the transformation of rural Russia, and unfortunately it fails to get to grips with one of the main distortions of the Soviet countryside that was invented at this time.

Note: 1. For most of his text Heinzen argues correctly, but in one critical table (table 4-1 on p. 140) he, for some reason, gives a totally misleading series which claims that mid 1920s levels of grain production were above the average pre-war level. The table comes from V.P. Danilov, the leading Russian authority on the Russian peasantry. But it is from a volume published in the USSR in 1977 at a time when the censor did not allow any figures to be published which disagreed with the current official assessments of the Soviet statistical system. So these are the ‘official’ Soviet figures of the time, which have been uncritically cited here. Danilov had no choice but to include these figures. Heinzen, should have known better, and in fact does know better. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the Soviet censor, Danilov was able to support other figures. Volume 3 of the important new series “Tragediya Sovetskoi Derevni,” which was produced under Danilov’s leadership, contains an appendix written by me which explains the distortions that were applied to the grain statistics of the late 1920s to make them appear larger than they were in reality. See V.P. Danilov et al., Tragediya Sovetskoi Derevni, Volume 3, Moscow 2001, pp. 842-865. As far as I am aware Danilov accepts my account of the scale of Russian grain harvests of this period, which is why he commissioned me to write that appendix.

Stephen Wheatcroft, together with R.W. Davies has just completed The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-33, Macmillan/Palgrave, 2004. This is volume 5 of The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia. He is one of the editors of the five-volume series led by V.P. Danilov, Roberta Manning and Lynne Viola, on “The Tragedy of the Soviet Village, 1927-1939,” Moscow, 1999-2004, and he is the author of the two articles on “Grain Balances and Harvest Evaluations” and on “Demographic Evidence of the tragedy’ in volume 3 of these volumes. He has written widely on Stalinist repression, the Famine and Stalinist Politics.”

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution

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

Published by EH.NET (June 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origins and Growth of the Global Economy: From the Fifteenth Century Onward

Author(s):Seavoy, Ronald E.
Reviewer(s):Cruz, Laura

Published by EH.NET (November 2003)

Ronald E. Seavoy, Origins and Growth of the Global Economy: From the Fifteenth Century Onward. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. xii + 301 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-275-97912-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Laura Cruz, Department of History, Western Carolina University.

Ronald Seavoy’s latest book, Origins and Growth of the Global Economy: From the Fifteenth Century Onward, will not surprise readers of his previous works, including Famine in Peasant Societies (1986), Famine in East Africa (1989) and Subsistence and Economic Development (2000), as the primary argument in each is similar, i.e. that economic development requires political intervention and forced social disruption. In the case of Origins and Growth, Seavoy has placed the argument in a new framework, namely the historic growth of European mercantile empires and their evolution into a world system.

The book begins with an overview of European expansion and commercial development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and then moves to an in-depth examination of English agricultural policy, especially the enclosure movement, which Seavoy sets up as a model for others to follow. The narrative then abruptly jumps to the late nineteenth century, drawing comparisons between old and new styles of imperialism, with particular attention paid to the political forms adopted by the latter. Nearly half of the book focuses on the late twentieth century, especially the economic problems faced in former colonies and the attempts by developed countries to address those problems, of which Seavoy is highly critical.

Seavoy is selective and eclectic in his use of historical sources and does little to address the historiography of European expansion in earlier periods. His historical overview is hardly exhaustive and a list of what-would-seem-like critical omissions would be long. Arguably, however, comprehensiveness is not the purpose of his book. He uses history not so much to contextualize but to highlight cases that illustrate his main focus — the failure of current development policies.

In doing so, he directly challenges neo-classical psychology. Beginning with Adam Smith, economists have claimed that their tenets are universal through time and across space, as they are based on assumptions about basic, inherent human nature — Smith’s homo economicus. Policies based on this assumption seek to bring out the economicus in peasants by providing incentives for them to participate in their own transformation to commercialized capitalists. Seavoy’s fundamental insight is that the main actors (usually male heads of households) in subsistence economies are not latent capitalists and, in fact, possess radically different mentalities than those assumed by policy makers. Capitalistic development, according to Seavoy, cannot be induced by such policies and must instead be forced upon populations who will never be willing participants in their own transformation. In Seavoy’s account, the English enclosure movement demonstrates this basic truth not just because it represents one of the most successful transformations from subsistence to commercialized agriculture but especially because it was accomplished almost entirely by coercion via collusion between the English Crown and the seigniorial landlords.

The colonial empires of the late nineteenth century also illustrate Seavoy’s great revelation, in this case not because of their success but because of their failure. Seavoy believes that the British imperial rulers had sufficient insight into the backwardness of their dependant populations and recognized the need for force. Unfortunately, they lacked the ability and/or the resources to effectively implement the necessary actions. In the end, they were precipitously cut short in their attempts to do so by the great wave of decolonization following World War II. Since that time, the fundamental insight into peasant mentality has been lost and replaced with neo-classical theories that have done nothing more than exacerbate the unfinished business of European, especially British, colonialism.

Seavoy does not examine nearly any recent work in developmental theory, most of which he dismisses simply as political correctness rearing its ugly head. Instead, he focuses on a few select policies and analyzes their results. According to Seavoy, these policies, as enacted by self-serving corporations, often-corrupt post-colonial regimes and well intentioned but misguided international agencies, coddle subsistence producers under the guide of social justice. Seavoy’s examples indicate that the problem is not laziness on the part of the peasants, but rather a radically different set of goals, which lead to an altered calculation of self-interest. Put simply, peasants choose less work because they do not see any increased benefits to working harder. In normal years, their efforts produce enough food for satisfy their basic needs. In bad years, problems do arise but there are plenty of agencies willing to bail them out of their predicament. Increased life expectancy, largely the result of better medical care coming from the developed world, and industrial expansion have strained the limits of these traditional economies and made famine more, rather than less, likely.

Seavoy’s arguments can perhaps justifiably be labeled as oversimplification because in many of his books he distills multivariate outcomes down to the same, single cause. This does not mean, however, that this book is without its contributions. Seavoy, now professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University, maintains unflagging optimism that economic development is possible. He posits a powerful, if problematic, defense of the idea that not everyone is born with a willingness and ability to play in the capitalist playground. The book also serves as a reminder that simple solutions (including those of the accuser and the accused in this case) will not solve complex problems with deep historical roots. Few readers will be able to deny that he has provoked them to think about the difficulties that underlie underdevelopment, even if the main source of that provocation is disagreement.

Laura Cruz is the author of “The Paradox of Prosperity: The Leiden Booksellers’ Guild and the Distribution of Books in the Golden Age” (forthcoming from Oak Knoll Press).

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

Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis

Author(s):Williams, Michael
Reviewer(s):Libecap, Gary

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. xxvi + 689 pp. $70 (cloth), ISBN: 0-226-89926-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gary Libecap, Department of Economics, University of Arizona.

Michael Williams is Professor of Geography at Oxford University and a Fellow of Oriel College. He is the author of numerous books and articles on forestry and historical geography.

Deforesting the Earth is valuable economic and environmental history. These two often do not go together, unfortunately. In much environmental history, humans (especially those from western industrial societies) are the problem. Nature in general and forests in particular, are often alleged to have been in a natural equilibrium with native peoples until both were ravaged by the onset of capitalist exploitation. With contemporary fears of globalization, global warming, species extinction, losses of biodiversity, deforestation, and depletion of many critical resources, advocacy groups and other special interests exaggerate environmental “crises” and fail to place them into their historical bases. In this setting it is difficult to find careful, reasoned examinations of key problems, their histories, complexities, and likely, long-term patterns and consequences. Deforestation, particularly of Amazon and other rainforests, certainly ranks at or near the top of any list of environmental crises. The issue is an impassioned one and a flood of alarmist books and articles have appeared on the subject, but they provide little understanding of the extent of deforestation, nature of regeneration, or of the underlying issues involved.

Michael Williams places deforestation into a broader historical and geographical context, and explores the linkages between forests and people since the end of the last Ice Age; identifies important economic forces; and provides estimates of the extent of forest clearing. He primarily examines Western Europe and North America, but also describes the extent and forces underlying deforestation in China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa and South America. There are extensive endnotes, figures, illustrations, and tables; an inclusive bibliography; and a complete index.

The book is divided into three parts: Clearing in the Deep Past, Reaching Out: Europe and the Wider World, and the Global Forest. Part I explores timber cutting from the end of the Ice Age through the medieval period. Williams points out that the thinning, changing, and elimination of forests is not a recent phenomenon, but rather is as old as the human occupation of the earth. Clearing, and indeed, deforestation, has been intricately tied to conditions of population growth and economic development for the past 14 to 15,000 years. He states that the book “is about how, why, and when humans eliminated trees and changed forests, and so shaped the economies, societies, and landscapes that lie around us.” He also provides some measures of the magnitude of deforestation. Chapter 1 describes the return of the forest as the ice sheets retreated some 16,000 years ago. Not only were Europe and North America affected by changes in the climate, but tropical regions as well — although less is known about the latter. As humans migrated to newly forested areas, they would have nearly as much impact on the forest over the subsequent 10,000 years as the glaciers had for 100,000 years. Chapter 2 points to fire as the main vehicle used by primitive peoples for deforestation. Williams argues that the manipulation and taming of nature by prehistoric and native peoples is commonly ignored and underestimated. Their actions have been romanticized and asserted to have been ecologically benign. But, according to Williams, natives never were “in perfect harmony” with nature, but attempted to transform it, and fire was the first great force. The combination of human predation and destruction of habitat through burning led to the extinction of many species across the planet, and Williams provides examples from Europe, North America, and Polynesia. He argues that the first Europeans to visit North America likely observed a profoundly disturbed landscape. At their peak around 1492, the Indian population of North America had long been transforming the forest for agriculture and hunting. Chapter 3 turns to the rise of agriculture, which involved both the domestication of animals and plant species and the removal of forest. The examination begins with the Neolithic period in the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America, and moves on to describe the gradual expansion of agricultural methods and clearing practices. Chapter 4 looks at agriculture and deforestation in the classical world of Greece and Rome. By this time three other factors in forcing timber cutting were becoming important, shipbuilding, urbanization, and metal smelting, and these were to become even greater forces in the harvest of trees in Europe by the fifteenth century. Williams provides some estimates of the amount of timber harvest necessary for ship construction and metal smelting. Chapter 5 turns to the medieval world, which brought new onslaughts on the forest. Population increases in Europe and the introduction of new plows and horsepower speeded the pace and extent of deforestation. Williams describes the complex relationship that medieval peoples had with the forest as a source of food, firewood, and other products. Forests were closely bound to everyday lives of ordinary people. At the same time, the forests were the enemy with dangerous animals and trees that blocked the paths of roads and fields. The Plague and the fall in population in the fifteenth century gave European forests some respite. The chapter ends with discussion of clearing in fourteenth century China.

Part II covers more modern factors in deforestation. Chapter 6 beings with the internal and external economic expansion of Europe between 1500 and 1750, with associated changes in cultural and economic forces affecting the forest. This was the age of discovery, and discovery needed ships of wood. Technological change brought new products and means of production and communication. Population growth surged, trade increased, and new sources of power were required. All of these dramatic changes impacted the forest. New views of nature arose, whereby trees and other natural resources became seen as instruments of human development. As described in Chapter 7, clearing accelerated in Europe during this period. The prices of firewood, charcoal, and timber stores increased sharply as population densities grew. This forced a turn to new, more distant, sources of supply, and importantly, for the first time, to a new concern with conservation. Plunder, preservation, and planting went hand in hand. Chapter 8 extends the analysis of this critical time, as the age of discovery, from Europe to the Americas, China, and Japan. Trade in timber products and clearing for European settlement in North and South America profoundly altered the landscape. In Chapter 9, Williams explores underlying driving forces that were eliminating primary forests across the world. These forces included industrialization, mechanization and motive power, population growth and migration, colonization, and improvements in transportation and communication. He illustrates the effect on the forest with a discussion of new, large-scale processes in timber harvest and industrial sawmilling. Steam power for cutting trees, sawing lumber, and transporting timber products changed the pattern and process of deforestation. As the eighteenth century began to end, however, the sense of inexhaustibility of the forest, at least temperate forests began to disappear. A new emphasis on conservation in Europe began to rise. Chapter 10 follows temperate deforestation from 1750 through 1920. In Europe and especially, the Americas, agricultural clearing was still viewed as “improvements.” The demands for shipbuilding, home fuel, construction, and charcoal continued to encourage timber harvest. Williams spends considerable time describing the path of clearing in the United States as frontier settlement expanded. Estimates of the extent and geographic pattern of clearing are provided. Experiences in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are also included. Chapter 11 turns to clearing of tropical forests through 1920, beginning with an overview of the use of forest by indigenous peoples. As populations grew, indigenous agriculture expanded, with associated burning and clearing. Gradually, more permanent agriculture emerged. Precolonial forests were not untouched Edens or community resources shared equitably by all. Societies were stratified and elites had more forest. In any event, tropical forests were under siege even before Europeans arrived, and with European colonization, pressures grew. Experiences in India and Brazil receive considerable discussion in the chapter.

Part III, the Global Forest, turns to contemporary forest issues. Chapter 12 begins with early twentieth century scares and solutions to “timber famine.” By the turn of the century, the process of deforestation had been so relentless in many areas that fears arose that timber supplies, along with supplies of other natural resources, were soon to be depleted. Advocates for greater government ownership and regulation, such as Gifford Pinchot manipulated concerns about “the coming timber famine.” In America the National Forests were established and expanded and the Forest Service was created. Publications, such as The Forest Resources of the World, painted a bleak picture, not only in North America, but also in the less-developed world. Laissez-faire capitalism and self-interest became viewed as threats to the remaining forest. But in the Soviet Union, which certainly was not laissez-faire capitalist, timber removal moved into new areas with increased levels of exploitation. Chapters13 and 14 attempt to summarize the magnitude of the onslaught on the forest between 1945 and 1995. This modern period brought greater population growth in many previously relatively forested areas, new technologies, higher incomes in the developed world with greater demand for forest products. As forest cover dwindled, concerns arose not only regarding the impact of scarcity on prices, but on broader climatic and ecological effects. Biodiversity became an objective to be pursued, at least by influential populations in rich countries. Williams presents data on global land use through 1985 and the distribution of remaining forests. While forest harvest is regulated and/or moderated in most developed societies, disturbing rates of deforestation occur in tropical regions due to demand for teak, mahogany and other valuable species and due to agricultural settlement and a shift to cattle raising. In the Epilogue, Williams places these current concerns with deforestation into the historical context he has described earlier in the book. There is some optimism as he notes that reforestation occurs without gaining media notice. Nevertheless, pressures on the remaining forest are intense, and he is wary of much of the current literature on the issue prepared not only by advocacy groups, but also by the scientific community, whose interests are molded by funding agencies. Williams concludes with a call for more dispassionate analysis of the problem of deforestation and potential solutions.

Deforesting the Earth is a work of first-rate scholarship. Parts I and II are particularly impressive. The discussion of the more modern period and trends is somewhat less satisfying, in part because the underlying issues have become so complex that to address them in any detail would involve additional material for an already large book. Even so, some attention to the role of prices to encourage conservation and reforestation on private forests, as compared to the public National Forests, would have been useful. Further, discussion of secure property rights — the absence of which so critically affects harvests of tropical forests — also would have added to the analysis of contemporary conditions. In the end, however, this is an important and valuable book for economic and environmental historians for gaining a clearer understanding of the historical complex human relationship with forests.

Gary D. Libecap is Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Arizona and Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research. Having just completed (for now) a project on homestead settlement, dryland farming, farm failure and the Dust Bowl on the American Great Plains, he is now turning to water. The project focuses on the history, law, and economics of water transfers from agriculture to urban and environmental uses. The initial task is to re-evaluate the Owens Valley water transfer to Los Angeles, 1905-1940, which was the subject of the movie Chinatown and which casts a dark shadow on all efforts to transfer water today.

Subject(s):Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance

Author(s):Warman, Arturo
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Allan G.

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Arturo Warman. Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance. (Translated by Nancy L. Westrate). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003 (originally published in Spanish in 1988). xiii + 270 pp. $49.95 (cloth,) ISBN 0-8078-2766-5; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8078-5437-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan G. Bogue, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The distinguished Mexican anthropologist, Arturo Warman, published the Spanish language edition of this sweeping survey of the place of corn in world history since the sixteenth century in 1988. The colorful subtitle refers to corn’s disputed parentage and the fact that through history the crop has stayed outside “the system of accepted norms” (p. xiii). As a Mexican social scientist Warman became deeply interested in the social and economic significance of corn and planned a history of the crop’s place in Mexican life. Various scholarly projects prepared him for that work but he ultimately deferred it in favor of the current volume.

Several preliminary chapters lay a foundation for the book. Warman begins by describing the many useful American plants that have had major “repercussions” in “the development of the world economy, and the world market place.” At the heart of corn’s story, he writes, “lies the history of capitalism” (p. 11). The corn plant (Zea mays), Warman explains, has various amazing characteristics. Evolved from the grass teosinte, it does not propagate itself in nature, is self-pollenizing, is remarkably responsive to hybridization, is adaptable to a wide range of environments, has outstripped other food plants in its yields, is accommodative to complementary crops, is easily converted to edible form, and is capable of conversion into a myriad of derivative products ranging from bourbon to adhesives and automotive fuel, as well as providing livestock feed that enters the human diet as animal protein. Debate has raged as to whether the birthplace of corn was the Americas or Asia. Sketching the archeological evidence, Warman accepts Mexico as the place of origin.

Warman devotes most of the remainder of the book to tracing the history of corn in major areas of the world, dealing first with Asiatic locales. First introduced there in the early sixteenth century by the Portuguese, corn became a crop of the mountains and frontier regions and particularly a food of the poor. He links its history to the complex land tenures and labor intensive systems of cropping in that great region and the relation of this crop to other major crops including a number of other western immigrants. Corn, he explains, was an important part of the second great agricultural revolution that occurred in China during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

He follows with an account of the place of corn in the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves endured their passage to the new world on a diet consisting almost solely of corn meal paste, the grain’s high vitamin content warding off scurvy. Introduced primarily by the Portuguese, corn became a major crop in the African slave shipping areas and their hinterlands to meet the provisioning needs of the slavers. The crop adapted well to slash and burn agriculture. By the seventeenth century, corn was well established on the Atlantic coast of Africa and probably in much of the interior. With the decline of the slave trade in Africa, European nations developed colonial relations with its peoples. Corn now became increasingly important as a subsistence crop grown by peasants. Colonial administrators and white settlers emerged as a ruling class in the colonial dependencies and a native worker class emerged to provide labor for extractive ventures and settler agriculture. Corn products also sustained this labor sector but corn’s resistance to disease, short growth cycle, versatility, low requirements of capital and labor, and high yields also commended it to white farmers. Colonial land policies, Warman explains, benefited white interests and confined native populations in restricted areas, thus limiting native livestock operations. Hampered by natural hazards and colonial policies, peasants used corn both as sustenance and to provide agricultural surplus. Corn became, Warman concludes “one of the secret weapons in peasant resistance to colonial rule” (p. 81). In the era of national independence that followed the colonial era in Africa growth in the volume of commercial export crops — coffee, tobacco, cacao, and cotton — far outstripped growth in domestic food crops; a condition of dietary dependence prevailed. Corn flour was one of the cheapest foods per thousand calories available in urban African markets. The hope for future growth in food production in Tropical Africa lies, Warman suggests, in land reform.

Turning to Europe, Warman reviews the treatment of corn in European publications from the sixteenth century to the modern era. First grown as a curiosity in Andalusia and later as an agricultural crop, by the eighteenth century it had displaced long established cereals both in irrigated areas and in the subsistence peasant economy of northern Spain. By the end of that century corn was planted from the Black Sea to Gibraltar and, it was said, south of a line from the mouth of the Garonne to the Rhine above Strasbourg. It was often planted on land that formerly had been fallowed. Ripening at a time that had typically been one of food scarcity, it reduced the threat of famine and became the food of those who lived in “poverty, rural deprivation, and primitive … conditions.” Corn contributed vitally to the ongoing, “intellectual, political, industrial, and agricultural revolutions” then underway (p. 111). Finding no “ubiquitous and precise cultural agent” that accounted for the diffusion of corn growing through much of early Modern Europe, Warman identifies four “natural and social factors”: “growing conditions and the agricultural systems or their associated methods: population dynamics; trade, prices, and markets; and landownership and the relations of domination existing between landowners and direct producers” (p. 112). Their interaction, sometimes affected by more subtle influences, made corn “the bread of southern Europe’s poor.” But it also “generated wealth for landowners, shopkeepers and money lenders, overlords, and the new middle class,” who, ironically, ate wheat bread (p. 131). This occurred as an agricultural revolution took place between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries involving more intensive cultivation of the land and dwindling use of fallow.

Two American agricultural exports had tragic consequences — the potato famines of the mid nineteenth century and the widespread incidence of pellagra in southern Europe and later in the southern United States. Those highly dependent on corn as a food might develop pellagra and this chronic disease, causing dermatitis, diarrhea, and ultimately dementia, battered the population of European corn growing regions during the nineteenth century. Warman describes the various efforts to explain the disease and the developing conviction that diets heavily dependent on corn were responsible. Such dependence was usually associated with poverty and such onerous rents that peasants could not eat a balanced diet. Pellagra was “a symptom of a process of fierce modernization in peripheral areas” (p. 150).

In telling the story of corn in the United States, Warman stresses the importance of Native American tutelage. “Once the settlers had fully grasped the secrets and potential of corn, they no longer needed the Native Americans. Indigenous peoples were wiped out, scattered or relocated as settlers penetrated even further inland” (p. 155). Warman’s discussion of American economic development sketches many of the familiar facts of that story. Corn was a basic crop in the long continuing American frontier experience but played “its most important and long-lasting role,” he writes, ” in the predominantly rural world of the American South” (p. 159). It was a staple of slave diets but these were apparently sufficiently varied that the slaves did not suffer from nutrition deficiency diseases. Corn cultivation was far more extensive than cotton in the South but the latter produced the wealth and contributed most to the development of class differences. Sharecroppers became so hard pressed that pellagra was endemic by the early twentieth century. U.S. Public Health Service researchers discovered that a diet rich in milk, meat, and beans countered the disease. In the 1930s the University of Wisconsin’s Conrad A. Elvehjem showed that nicotinic acid deficiency was the specific cause. The human digestive process failed to unlock corn’s content of this vitamin when it was prepared as food in certain ways. Warman here comments that “pellagra was a disease born of development, a product of a type of progress that was imposed, unjust, and unequal”(p. 173).

Prior to the nineteenth century corn’s history was “tied directly to human nutrition.” In the expanding, industrializing, railroad-building United States, however it also became “the raw material for the production of meat and dairy products” and in the first half of twentieth century the U.S. crop accounted for half of the world’s production. It was the “very backbone” of American agriculture (pp. 181, 183). During that era U.S. corn production was more or less stable. The successful development of hybrids, however, along with improvements in mechanization, and fertilizer and herbicide use resulted in unprecedented yields of the crop after World War II. Now American corn became a significant factor in the world trade in cereals. By the beginning of the twentieth century U.S. pioneer subsistence agriculture had been replaced by commercial farming but farmers still continued “to supply the largest part of the means of production”– “labor, motive power, seeds, organic fertilizers.” Now the farmer became increasingly dependent on the market for these things. A massive institutional framework developed to sustain and direct agriculture and agribusiness became the “dominant force” in American agriculture (pp. 186, 188). In 1954 the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954 was designed “to use U.S. agricultural surpluses abroad in the effort to eradicate world hunger” (p. 190). Related programs followed and corn was a major element in the U.S. contribution. Because “corn entered the world market … as a food stuff for the poor and as forage for the rich it surmounted the inelasticity of demand typically associated with cereals” (p. 192).

In a final substantive chapter Warman describes the world market for food as it developed between the 1950s and the mid 1980s. Prior to World War II, Western Europe was the only major agricultural region that did not meet its own needs and also provide some export grains. By the 1960s only the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada were independent producers. U.S. aid programs exacerbated this trend and “food dependence became a chronic and widespread phenomenon in many Third World countries” as did population explosions (p. 203). Wheat dominated in U.S. exports until the 1970s and then corn became increasingly important. American aid had generated “an entirely new market, whether by introducing the consumption of wheat or by displacing existing domestic production” (p. 205). The U.S., charges Warman, distributed aid with a view to its strategic political impact. The political considerations of the United States and its allies dictated the magnitudes of supply and demand, prices and the conditions of sale, that defined the world cereal market and interacted with domestic tariffs, subsidies, and other production controls (p. 209). By the 1970s five great multinational grain handling companies dominated world trade in cereals. After a food production crisis in Russia and a failure of the hybrid corn crop in the U.S. during the early 1970s, however, food production outpaced population growth. Although “corn’s incredible growth as a commodity for reexport was the most outstanding phenomenon.” most third world countries had entered a condition of dietary dependence (p. 212). Despite adequate world supplies of food at the time of writing, Warman identifies a major problem of distribution and future vulnerability to shortages.

In two concluding chapters Warman discusses the recent phenomenal expansion of food production in which corn has been an important part and the possible ways in which growth in food production may be sustained. He sees two available agricultural modes — “capitalized intensive agriculture, also known as scientific agriculture or production by the wealthy.” The other is traditional peasant agriculture, utilizing few resources beyond those readily available and controlled by the production unit. This is farming by the poor” (p. 218). The first of these, he argues, has not improved world diets in the past nor solved the problem of distribution. Advocates of the Green Revolution tried to increase production in peasant agriculture by the use of hybrid crop varieties but had very limited success because of the high costs involved. Warman identifies less expensive ways of increasing peasant production — reduction of fallowing, bringing marginal lands into production and land reform. “The only way to confront the problem of world hunger,” he argues, “is to increase peasant production, using the many and at times unimaginable means to achieve that goal” (p. 231).

In the final chapter “New Reflections on Utopia and the New Millennium,” Warman explains that he has attempted “to analyze some social processes in which corn has played an important role” (p. 232). From one perspective his book is a sweeping historical survey of the adoption of corn as a major food and feed crop in much of the world. In this respect it is a fascinating compendium of thought-provoking facts and illustrative statistics. The volume is also a somewhat sour Marxist critique of modernization and, one may argue, a defense of peasant agriculture. A few passages illustrate Warman’s perspective. Concluding his discussion of the Chinese case, he writes “Growing rural surpluses did not remain in the rural countryside or even in China itself. … They were transferred to foreign powers’ spheres of economic influence and accumulated there. Peasants were the source of agricultural know-how and labor, yet they were increasingly threatened … settling marginal lands on the nation’s domestic frontier. For many decades they accepted the destiny of peasants everywhere, unable to eat what they produced because it was prohibitively expensive. Thus they transformed corn and other American plants, previously foods for the poor, into essential resources for their very survival. They did even more, they carried out a [social] revolution” (p. 50). He summarizes the slave trade this way: “the slave trade was not destiny or fate, but a series of opportunities and limitations.” Those “opposed to slavery … were social groups with the emerging power and will to confront that circumstance. The slave trade was an aberration, but neither was it the result of a general law of historical development. Rather, it was history; something that happened, but that just as easily could not have taken place at all” (p. 65). In considering the European agricultural revolution of 1600 to 1800, Warman rejects the common assumption that it was “the result of the application of scientific knowledge to production, diffused by elites and intellectual vanguards,” preferring instead “the idea of revolution as a result of collective knowledge and collective action” (p. 119). Leaving discussion of pellagra, he argues, “Change was promoted in the periphery from above and from abroad in order to recreate society in accordance with an ideological model; the industrial millennium that sought to establish a homogenous world. … Pellagra was not simply a disease of poverty and deficiencies, but one of the many diseases of modernization, of development, of prodevelopment capitalism” (p. 150). And finally, the history of U.S. agriculture is a process of accumulation with very different and increasingly accelerated rhythms. It is also a history of inequality, of exclusion, and of subjugation. Each process created its own marginal groups” — Native Americans, rural poor, urban poor, migratory workers, food stampers (p. 193). “Marginalization threatens the American farmer, the most outstanding product of the U.S. democratic ideal” (p. 194). He contrasts these developments with the diversity, stability, community reinforcement, and population controls found in peasant societies.

Although the principle of comparative advantage was at work in the spread of corn, it was conditioned by relations of power and dominance, argues Warman; accumulated wealth put less powerful groups at severe disadvantage. He was apparently unaware of ongoing cliometric research on the profits of imperial enterprise. He does not offer a rigid formula of class differentiation; to him the process was one of diverse conditions and forces but invariably involved exploitation. In considering the sections dealing with corn’s history in the United States, Americanists will consider some of his judgments to be overstated. The achievements of American plant scientists are brushed aside in a sentence, and the mechanics of diffusion are described in terms more general than modern scholarship has achieved. Warman emphasizes the need for increasing the effectiveness of peasant agriculture’s national or regional dietary independence but he gives much less attention to the issue of population control. Warman’s translator has produced a lucid, stimulating, and informative narrative but the reviewer remains happy that he is not one of Warman’s peasants nor sentenced to relive the existence that he, himself, experienced as a farm boy, living the democratic ideal.

Allan G. Bogue is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and has published widely in American agricultural and political history. His most recent book is The Farm on the North Talbot Road (University of Nebraska Press). His next article, “Oxen to Organs: Chattel Credit in Springdale Town, 1849-1900,” will appear in the forthcoming summer number of Agricultural History.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Carolingian Economy

Author(s):Verhulst, Adriaan E.
Reviewer(s):Squatriti, Paolo

Published by EH.NET (May 2003)

Adriaan E. Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 160 pp. $50 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-80869-3; $18 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-00474-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paolo Squatriti, Department of History, University of Michigan.

With The Carolingian Economy Adriaan Verhulst, emeritus professor of medieval economic history at the University of Ghent, offers readers a slim, agile overview of eighth- and ninth-century European economics. His book summarizes generations of research into the “origins of the European economy,” a peculiar passion of medieval historians from the Low Countries ever since Pirenne, and a subject to which recent European politics have conferred new importance. This is a Cambridge Medieval Textbook, aimed at British undergraduates, yet unlike some textbooks, The Carolingian Economy is readable, as well as instructive. It is neither anodyne nor soulless, for behind the tidy organization into ten chapters and four sections (“Land and People,” “Production,” “Commerce,” and “The Dynamics of the Carolingian Economy”), Verhulst has inserted many personal evaluations, has candidly outlined scholarly polemics, and has not shied from taking sides on debated issues. The book’s optimistic conception of Carolingian economics, which reflects the late twentieth century consensus and revision of Pirenne’s more dour view, is matched by Verhulst’s minimization of the “revolution” other historians have located around the year 1000. Carolingian Europe’s buoyancy, despite a dip 830-850, is thus “part of a nearly continuous upward movement” (p. 135) of the continent’s economy after the definitive collapse of the Roman order in the seventh century.

In The Carolingian Economy, two important themes are the new ways of ordering agrarian production, and the vigor of commerce, behind both of which Verhulst divines the catalytic presence of the Carolingian family. To Verhulst, the prime mover of Carolingian economic expansion was the manor. He traces the inception, and to some extent the dissemination, of the bipartite rural estate to the designs of the Carolingians. Indeed, this type of “optimization of efficiency” (p. 59) in agricultural production appears earliest in the Carolingian heartlands between the Seine, Meuse, and Rhine rivers; often its emergence elsewhere can be linked to Carolingian influence or domination. And it was the surplus from the new-style, market-oriented manors that drove the demographic and commercial upswing Verhulst describes in this book. Giving such centrality to the manor helps confirm that part of the “Pirenne thesis” according to which the “axis of history” decisively shifted northward in the 700s. But whether it was a Carolingian creature or not, the manor is a lordly creation, and to focus on it (and its characteristic documents, the polytptychs) suggests that what mattered in the Carolingian economy were the choices and strategies of the elite. Verhulst recognizes that small-scale peasant production existed, but dismisses the subject because “so little is known about” it (p. 31). The study of charters, abundant for south European regions like Catalonia or the Lucchesia, might permit a less Nordic and less “supply side” reconstruction of economic relations in the Carolingian period.

In The Carolingian Economy trade, luxury objects transported over long distances and more basic products exchanged within a region or among contiguous regions, also receive much space. Verhulst demonstrates the extent to which the Carolingian empire formed a commonwealth by calling attention to similarities in regional patterns of exchange (monetarization, urbanization, synchronized booms and busts across Carolingian Europe). In his discussion Verhulst advances corrections to Pirenne’s explanation of why trade in the Mediterranean ports of Francia withered during the eighth century. Rather than the Arabs, Verhulst blames Carolingian enhancement of alternative routes for Mediterranean goods to reach northern Europe, and the lack of fine ceramics suitable for export (but what of “Forum ware”?) to leave archaeological traces.

The re-emergence of economically vibrant towns in north Europe, a Pirennian subject on which Verhulst has published extensively, is another theme in The Carolingian Economy. Diverging somewhat from the archaeologist Richard Hodges’s interpretation, Verhulst sees in emporia’s ephemeral nature (a result of being bound to Carolingian political power) the salient characteristic of these large commercial centers on the fringes of the Carolingian empire. Emporia and other, more long-lasting towns became the places of exchange for agricultural surplus, crafts, and raw materials produced in rural, and to Verhulst overwhelmingly manorial, contexts. They also housed mints and toll stations and facilitated the extractive activities of the rulers.

In several instances, the author gives proof of a nimble historical approach to texts, as when he suggests that the main incentive for Carolingian rulers to produce good, stable coinage was prestige (p. 129), or in his insistence that any “economic policies” rulers adopted were subordinated to theological goals (p. 118, 125). But in other cases Verhulst’s treatment of Carolingian texts is less nuanced. Carolingian authors’ terrifying accounts of famines fit inside moralizing discourses, and should be treated gingerly as evidence of cereal dearth: chroniclers were just as likely to mention famine as proof of divine displeasure with aristocratic politics as they were to describe actual penury. Likewise the polyptychs, detailed inventories of rents and obligations owed to ecclesiastical landowners, have limitations. While Verhulst recognizes that polyptychs remove any dynamism from the past they represent (p. 40), he still tends to accept them as snapshots of history “as it actually was” rather than as texts emerging from contested, messy realities, as efforts to frame the present, and the past, according to the interests of the compilers and preservers of these documents.

The Carolingian Economy is an extremely useful compendium, orderly and deft in its presentation of a remote period’s economics. In this book the author has synthesized enormous amounts of research in many languages, performing a service to specialists in Carolingian and economic history. Verhulst has also achieved his goal (p. 8) of contributing to the ongoing debate on Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne and the question of how to interpret the first postclassical European empire. With so much having been achieved, it is perhaps churlish to ask for still more, but some omissions are noteworthy. For instance, greater integration of the last decades’ early medieval Mediterranean archaeology might have enabled Verhulst to take the “Pirenne debate” even further than he does: the Crypta Balbi site in Rome receives no mention. Slavery is repeatedly touched upon, without its relevance being assessed; its economic weight is probably underestimated. Furthermore, The Carolingian Economy takes a very landlubberish approach to economic activity, overlooking fishing and irrigation, and presenting clearances as deforestation rather than also as drainage. Had Verhulst considered ecological variables more carefully, he could have deepened his discussion of Carolingian regionalism and (through climatology) discussed the Carolingian economic moment without ascribing so much agency to Carolingian elites. But such carping aside, in The Carolingian Economy Verhulst furnishes a concise and judicious synthesis, full of information and insight, that is actually fun to read.

Paolo Squatriti teaches medieval European history at the University of Michigan. His research centers on postclassical social and environmental history. In Past and Present 176 (2002) he published an article about “Digging Ditches in Early Medieval Europe.”

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

The English Poor Laws, 1700-1930

Author(s):Brundage, Anthony
Reviewer(s):King, Steve

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

Anthony Brundage, The English Poor Laws, 1700-1930. Basingstoke and New

York: Palgrave, 2002. vii + 185 pp. $69.95 or ?49.50 (hardcover), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Steve King, Department of History, Oxford Brookes


This book joins those of Lynne Hollen Lees, Alan Kidd and Pat Thane in trying

to provide an accessible overview of the English and Welsh poor law system up

to its final decline in the 1920s. Like Lees, Brundage orders his narrative

chronologically and characterizes the different periods into which he breaks

the book with catchy titles of the sort that my undergraduate students at least

have found attractive. The book opens with a short introduction which in turn

starts with the story of one of the most famous workhouse children, Charlie

Chaplin, and moves very briefly through the variety of different approaches

that historians have taken in the writing of poor law history. To this reviewer

such an opening looked attractive and I was heartened by Brundage’s

determination to confront the problem of conveying “something of the complexity

and significance of the poor laws, without losing sight of the individual human

dimension” (p. 3). This is precisely what undergraduate students need, though I

did not see how such an aspiration was going to be achieved in 185 pages.

Chapter two, undoubtedly the weakest in the book, looks at the

eighteenth-century poor law. It briefly traces the legislative roots of the Old

Poor Law and then rapidly canters through institutional provision, Knatchbull’s

Act, medical care, attempts at poor law reform by Gilbert, the impact of the

Napoleonic war and the development of allowance systems. At the end of the

chapter we have almost seven pages on poor law thinkers, a theme carried on in

chapter three and certainly the territory where the author seems to be most at

home. Of course, a broad survey should not be lambasted for skating over big

issues, but in this chapter I feel that Brundage has neither fulfilled his

desire to give us the human dimension, or to communicate to students some of

the nuances of the eighteenth-century poor law. Thus, it is incorrect to say

that the township was the basis for the administration of relief in the north

from the outset of the Old Poor Law (p. 9); it is arguable whether “relatives

were pressed to assume the obligation” of looking after aged or impotent

relatives (p. 11); it is very arguable indeed whether parishes were “pleased”

with the system of farming the poor given the speed with which most abandoned

experiments (p. 13); it is too simple to say that the first task of the

overseer was to assess settlement and remove where possible (p. 13) given that

removal activity took place in spurts; and it is certainly not the case in

large areas of eighteenth-century England that for married women on relief ‘an

additional child often meant simply an increased allowance’ (p.15). For me,

these caveats detract from some of the strengths of the chapter. It is

excellent, for instance, that Brundage grapples with the concept of open and

closed parishes and with the issue of failed legislation here. These are

concepts that I keep talking about to my students and I am glad to see them


Chapter three deals with the period between 1800 and the decision to undertake

radical investigation of the operation of the Old Poor Law in 1832. Brundage

traces the influences (evangelical, economic, post-war dislocation and

political) shaping debate on the poor law and deals briefly with the

intervening legislation such as that establishing select vestries. Finally, he

identifies the Swing Riots as the factor which cemented the perceived need for

reform. I found the chapter frustrating. It provides a decent review of the

competing agenda’s for reform and my students have found the summary of figures

presented on page 40 very helpful. The chapter also provides some great turns

of phrase that I wish I had thought of. The idea that “the principles of

economics burrowed ever deeper into the culture and social values” of the

middling and political classes (p. 44) is a great example. However, the poor

themselves and the human element are completely missing from this chapter.

There is absolutely no reference to the work of Thomas Sokoll on pauper letters

in Essex and more widely the tendency for recent poor law historians to

repopulate this period with the poor through their narratives does not get a

mention. This is a shame, for such work provides a useful foil to the drier

politico-legislative angle that my students find hard work.

Chapter four deals with the shaping and initial imposition of the New Poor Law,

starting with the interpretation and reinterpretation of the Poor Law Report,

moving through the processes and politics of Union creation and popular and

community resistance against the imposition of the New Poor Law, and ending

with the role of the Andover workhouse scandal in hastening the demise of the

Poor Law Commission. Brundage, as we would expect from his previous books,

clearly feels most comfortable in this territory, and the chapter is well

written and convincing.

Chapter five deals with the period 1847-1870. It shows that a scandal-prone

poor law settled down into relatively anonymous middle age, with attempts to

expand poor law activities in the spheres of education, medical care (albeit

“haltingly and unofficially,” p. 96), treatment and control of the insane,

vagrancy, structural poverty and the complex laws relating to settlement and

Union finance. The chapter ends by showing how a combination of the Lancashire

cotton famine, growing pauperism in London and a series of medical scandals led

to calls once more for poor law reform. My students found this the most useful

of all the chapters, and its style and coverage is very much better than that

of chapter two.

Chapter six deals with the important subject of the crusade against out-relief,

the Charity Organisation Society and the democratization of the poor law Board

through the addition of working class and female Guardians. Brundage correctly

notes that “While most smaller towns and rural districts seem to have gone on

much as before” (p. 116), some places were alive to the chances offered by the

crusade and adopted it with vigor. He also points out, very usefully for

undergraduates, that this period witnessed a tension between those who had an

agenda of attacking the poor and those who had an agenda for extending the

services and scope of the poor law. Once more, it is a pity that the poor and

their strategies and voices are not heard here. Page 124 starts along this road

but more is necessary to humanize the poor law. It is also a pity that some

misinterpretation of the secondary literature confuses the reading. It is not

the case on page 126, for instance, that Hurren argues for Pell and Spencer

being in opposition.

Chapter seven deals with the final decline of the New Poor Law, tracing

experiments in poplarism, the scope, character and findings of the Royal

Commission on the Poor Laws, Liberal Welfare Reforms and the impact of the

Great War. The chapter is competently executed and feeds through into a

conclusion, which is actually a lot better than some of the chapters on which

it is based. Importantly, Brundage argues that “English poor law experience

[was] simultaneously consensual, contested and contingent.” Once I had

explained this sentence to my undergraduates, they were able to grasp more of

the nuances of the poor relief. Their question though was “whose poor law

experience?” This is my question too, for while Brundage gives us a review of

the poor law from the angle of administrators, politicians, charitable donors

and others, the poor and their economic, cultural and social experiences are

almost completely missing. Maybe this does not matter for a general survey, but

I cannot help feeling that a slightly longer book that really did keep sight

“of the individual human dimension” (p. 3), would have made a more valuable

contribution to the undergraduate reading list. This said, my students like the

volume; the copies in our library have rather more stamps than some of their

natural competitors!

Steven King is Head of the Department of History and Director of Research for

the School of Arts and Humanities at Oxford Brookes University, England. He has

recently edited The Poor in England 1700-1900: An Economy of Makeshifts

(Manchester University Press, 2003) and is currently working on a study of

female poor law guardians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World

Author(s):Mattingly, David J.
Salmon, John
Reviewer(s):Engen, Darel

Published by EH.NET (February 2003)


David J. Mattingly and John Salmon, editors, Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. xii + 324 pp. $90 (cloth), ISBN: 0-415-21253-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Darel Engen, Department of History, California State University, San Marcos.

The economy of the ancient Greco-Roman world is an enigma. Despite over a century of debate, it has eluded all attempts at general characterization. The collection of articles edited by David Mattingly (University of Leicester) and John Salmon (University of Nottingham) entitled, Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World, may not resolve the debate, but it will help to propel it into new and fertile territory that at the very least will enhance our understanding of the ancient economy.

In the last quarter century a view most persuasively set out by the influential ancient historian, Moses Finley, has come to be the focal point around which the debate about the nature of the ancient economy has swirled.(1) Finley’s basic thesis is that the ancient economy was not only quantitatively small in scale, with low levels of capital investment, technological development, long-distance trade in non-luxury goods, and industrial specialization, but also qualitatively “primitive,” with social and political factors dominating “economic rationality” in motivating and organizing economic relationships and cities existing primarily as places of consumption, exploiting production carried out largely through agriculture in the countryside. Many recent studies, however, have argued at least for modifications of Finley’s view and Economies contains an excellent collection of several solid examples of this new scholarship.(2)

In particular, the collected articles in Economies examine the significance of the non-agrarian sector in the economies of ancient Greece and Rome and are the result of the Nottingham-Leicester Ancient History Seminar series from 1995 to 1997, entitled, “The Productive Past: Economies beyond Agriculture in the Ancient World.” The articles are grouped into sections concerning a variety of productive activity outside of agriculture and argue both against and in support of the Finley model and from both theoretical and empirical perspectives.

After a concise introduction by the editors that sets out the context of the collection within current scholarship on the ancient economy, the section entitled, “Modelling the ancient economy,” presents articles that discuss the key issue of economic growth. Paul Millet’s article critiques Keith Hopkins’ twenty-year-old arguments for growth in the Roman economy by offering alternative explanations to growth from the evidence cited by Hopkins.(3) Millet’s conclusion is that significant economic growth is likely to have occurred only during the early Roman Empire and was the product of exceptional circumstances, thus making it an aberration from the usual rule of little to no economic growth in the ancient world. On the other hand, the articles of Greg Woolf and David Mattingly et al. both attempt to test theoretical models against archaeological evidence from two specific places in the Roman Empire, Gaul and the city of Leptiminus in North Africa respectively, and conclude that the evidence of productive growth requires at least a modification of the Finley model of the “consumer city.” However, consistent with Millet’s article is the possibility that such a modification is specific to the era of the Roman Empire and is the result of political conditions created by the Empire, rather than free market economics. Jean-Jacques Aubert contributes an article on the management of non-agrarian production, but can conclude only that the indirect nature of the evidence (e.g. we know that management must have existed from the evidence of non-agrarian productive activity) is inadequate to study the economic ramifications of such management.

The section entitled, “Extraction,” concerns such non-agrarian pursuits as mining and quarrying. T.E. Rihll’s examination of the mining and processing of silver in Athens shows that the scale, complexity, and specialization of such activity must be said to constitute an industry. It should be noted, however, that the scale of Athenian mining operations was unique in the Greek world. Although the two articles by Valerie Maxfield and Colin Adams show that Roman stone quarrying in eastern Egypt was conducted on a tremendous scale, it would not and could not have been conducted by anything other than the Roman Imperial government, which alone had the power to conduct such an immense undertaking and did so primarily for political reasons (e.g. to build huge temples and arenas) that flew in the face of any economic rationalism.

Although much of the economic activity surrounding building in ancient Greece also defied economic rationalism, the section entitled, “Construction,” contains articles by John Salmon and J.K. Davies that take a closer look at the significance of building in the Greek economy. Davies’ article examines the epigraphic records containing the accounts for building temples at the sanctuary of Delphi. The records provide evidence for the development of administration, manufacturing skills, infrastructure, contracting, and regional interaction in economic partnerships and transportation of goods. It is especially refreshing that Davies examines the epigraphic evidence, which, in addition to archaeological evidence, may provide a path for us to explore beyond the limits of the old debate about the ancient economy, so bound as it was by theory and literary evidence. Salmon argues for a new method to detect economic growth through a comparison of labor costs for building projects in the Greek world over time. His approach requires some assumptions based on estimates to develop multipliers extrapolated from better to less well documented building projects. Such a method has its weaknesses (see the divergent figures obtained for estimates of the Athenian grain trade), but in the absence of more explicit evidence and given that the statistical sample of Greek public buildings is fairly complete, his method might at least give us a reasonable indication of the economic impact of the Greek building industry.(4) An article by Janet Delaine also attempts to quantify labor requirements for buildings, but this time in the Roman world. She wisely cautions that her methods require assumptions and estimates that really cannot provide us with figures for absolute costs, but argues that such an attempt at quantification can allow for useful comparisons of relative costs. Her study shows that building with concrete was much less labor intensive than doing so with dressed stone and that political factors often took precedent over cost effectiveness in the choice of materials for the monumental buildings of Rome.

The final section on “Textile production” includes articles by Andrew Wilson and J.F. Drinkwater that come to different conclusions for the significance of this activity in the Roman economy. The former argues on the basis of archaeological evidence that textile production in North Africa took place largely outside of its traditional locus in the private household and instead in numerous small workshops that existed together with well-organized cloth markets. Wilson thus suggests that the Finley model of the “consumer city” overgeneralizes what may be a more complex array of “city types,” some being net-consumers, others net-producers, others market centers, and so on. Drinkwater, however, downplays the existence of locally prominent wool manufacturers in northwestern Gaul by comparing them to their much more economically significant counterparts in the medieval era. His conclusion is that what Finley referred to as a “common psychological framework” of primitive economic thinking kept the people and government of Rome from exploiting the economic potential of wool manufacture, minimizing its growth and impact on the economy.

Overall, Economies is a useful collection of scholarship on the subject. It will appeal mostly to specialists in the history of the ancient Greek and Roman economies, but will also be valuable to any economic historians who have some knowledge of the historical context of the Greco-Roman world and the debate about its economy. The collection fits snugly into the growing body of scholarship that has attempted to move beyond the restricting confines of the old debate. The combination of theory and solid evidence, particularly archaeological, but also some epigraphic, is most welcome and several of the contributors are to be commended for their innovative approaches to the subject. It is also refreshing that the articles draw a clear distinction between the economies of the Greek and Roman worlds, something Finley failed to do when he lumped together an area stretching from Spain to Mesopotamia over the course of a millennium into one “ancient economy.” At the same time, however, this leads to one major shortcoming of Economies: those who wish to gain more knowledge of the Greek economy will have to look elsewhere, for the collection is heavily weighted toward analyses of the Roman economy, with only three of the twelve articles being devoted to Greece.

But despite being mostly about the Roman economy, the articles in Economies do reveal some important themes, the most significant of which in the opinion of this reviewer is that we must move beyond the parameters of debate about the nature of the ancient economy as it has been shaped over the last century. With the number of exceptions to the models of both Finley and his detractors growing with each new detailed study of specific aspects of the economy, it is clear that the economy was far too complex and dynamic to be characterized by such broad models. There is now ample evidence that can be drawn on to support either side in the debate. The choice of which side to support depends largely on which sector of the economy one wishes to examine, at what time period, and in what area. Agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and extraction were each unique in scale, organization, and potential for growth and cannot be easily lumped together into one simple picture of the economy overall. Moreover, the economies of Greece and Rome were as different as they were similar. The articles in Economies reveal time and again that early Imperial Rome created the kind of stability over a large area that was conducive to economic growth, but that this was unique in the ancient world. In Greece very different conditions prevailed and even within Greece, it is impossible to generalize about such divergent city-states as Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth.

Finley was right about one thing: the ancient economy was in many ways more different from ours than it was similar. But the increasing number of exceptions to his model, such as those put forth by several studies in Economies, show that Finley’s model, though useful in its general conception, grossly oversimplifies the complexity and dynamism of the economies of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus, with each new study of specific sectors of the Greek and Roman economies we will eventually obtain a much more nuanced and accurate picture. David Mattingly, John Salmon, and the authors of the articles in Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World have made a useful and important contribution to this effort.


1. Finley 1985.

2. Scheidel and Von Reden 2002 collect several key articles written over the last twenty years on the subject. See also Engen 2001, Parkins and Smith 1998, Morris 1994, Harris 1993, Cohen 1992, and Burke 1992.

3. Hopkins 1978 and 1980.

4. See Garnsey 1985 and 1988 and Whitby 1998 for two very different estimates for Athens’ grain production.

Works Cited:

Burke, Edmund M. 1992. “The Economy of Athens in the Classical Era: Some Adjustments to the Primitivist Model.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 122: 199-226.

Cohen, Edward E. 1992. Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Engen, Darel T. 2001. “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.” In Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy, ed. by David W. Tandy, 179-202. Montreal: Black Rose.

Finley, Moses I. 1985. The Ancient Economy. Second edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California. (Now available in an “Updated Edition” with a foreword by Ian Morris. Berkeley and Los Angeles 1999).

Garnsey, Peter. 1985. “Grain for Athens.” In Crux: Essays in Greek History Presented to G.E.M. de Ste. Croix on His 75th Birthday, ed. by Paul Cartledge and F.D. Harvey, 62-75. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Garnsey, Peter. 1988. Famine and Food Supply in the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, W.V., ed. 1993. The Inscribed Economy. Ann Arbor: Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series 6.

Hopkins, Keith. 1978. “Economic Growth and Towns in Classical Antiquity.” In Towns in Societies: Essays in Economic History and Historical Sociology, ed. by P. Abrams and E.A. Wrigley, 35-77. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hopkins, Keith. 1980. “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire, 200 BC-AD 400.” Journal of Roman Studies 70: 101-125.

Morris, Ian. 1994. “The Ancient Economy Twenty Years after The Ancient Economy. Classical Philology 89: 351-366.

Parkins, Helen and Smith, Christopher. 1998. Trade, Traders, and the Ancient City. London and New York: Routledge.

Scheidel, Walter and Von Reden, Sitta. 2002. The Ancient Economy: Recent Approaches . London and New York: Routledge.

Whitby, Michael. 1998. “The Grain Trade of Athens in the Fourth Century.” In Trade, Traders, and the Ancient City, ed. by Helen Parkins and Christopher Smith, 102-128. London and New York: Routledge.

Darel Engen is an Assistant Professor at California State University, San Marcos. He has published articles on the ancient Greek economy, including “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.,” in D.W. Tandy, ed., Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy (Montreal 2001) 179-202 and “Ancient Greenbacks: Athenian Owls, the Law of Nikophon, and the Greek Economy” in J.R. Fears and E. Zarrow, eds., Coinage, Politics, and Ideology in the Ancient World (forthcoming). He is currently working on a book, tentatively entitled, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E.

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