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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

The Ancient Economy

Author(s):Scheidel, Walter
Von Reden, Sitta
Reviewer(s):Silver, Morris

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)


Walter Scheidel and Sitta von Reden, editors, The Ancient Economy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xxi + 282 pp. ?16.99 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7486-1321-8; ?45 (hardback), ISBN: 0-7486-1322-6.

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

In 1973, the classical scholar Moses Finley (1973, 1985, 1999) unveiled a view of the economic underpinnings of ancient economies in which markets and economic motivations played little if any role. Status and civic ideology governed the allocation of scarce resources. Hence, the application of economic theory to the ancient economy was at best a futile exercise and at worst a source of grave misunderstandings. By “ancient economy” Finley had in mind only the economy of classical civilization — i.e., of the Graeco-Roman area beginning roughly in the earlier first millennium BC. However, Finley’s perspective found completion and generalization in the works of the economic historian Karl Polanyi (1981).1 Polanyi argued forcefully that the ancient Near East did not know markets and, like Finley, he was implacably opposed to the application of economic theory to ancient economic life. Thus was formed a new orthodoxy. Suggestions in the literature of ancient market behavior or economic motivation might simply be ignored or dismissed in a condescending manner as mere “anachronism.” The latter criticism was found devastating by Greek and Roman scholars.

The world of scholarship is rarely completely static, however. Scholars came forward with new evidence and new interpretations pointing to a significant role for markets. In their “Introduction” Scheidel and von Reden* explain that “Critics question the real-life impact of elite mentality and identify apparent tensions between the historical record and the model that was meant to make sense of it. They tend to emphasize the considerable scale of economic activities (above all trade) and, make a case for significant economic growth in the Roman imperial period when political and fiscal unification boosted market exchanges.” (p. 3)

This, it may be added, represents only the tip of the critical iceberg. Thus, the study of the ancient economy became an “academic battleground.”2 As a result of this battle the influence of the Finley/Polanyi orthodoxy has unquestionably waned.3 At present the study of the ancient economy might be compared to a minefield, full of perils for the unsuspecting scholar.

Thus it is most encouraging to learn from the publisher’s website that the Greek and Roman scholars involved in the publication of The Ancient Economy aim to move the debate beyond “partisan controversies.”4 Scheidel and von Reden seem to second the call for studies moving the debate beyond the Finley/Polanyi agenda and benefiting from “the conceptual and analytical repertoire of modern economics” (pp. 3-4). Obviously, a new synthesis is badly needed even if, to begin with, it is confined to the Greek and Roman periods.

Concerning the realities of the volume, it is certainly not reassuring that in the lead article (originally published in 1998), Greek specialist Paul Cartledge (p. 15) takes as a given Finley’s view that “the categories of neoclassical economic analysis” have “no useful application to ‘the ancient economy’.” Cartledge goes on to consider how we should “set about formulating usable and useful models.”5 We search his contribution vainly for the citation of even one example in which the predictions of economic theory are falsified by economic events in the Graeco-Roman economy. No synthesis, no new evidence and no usable new model can be detected here!

Turning to the closing (previously unpublished) article, as is my wont in collections of this kind, Roman specialist Richard Saller (p. 253) agrees with Finley that modern economic theory is inappropriate for antiquity because of an “incomparability in economic organization.”5 The problem, Saller suggests, is the absence in antiquity of integrated markets: * Had the markets been fully integrated, there should not have been desperate grain shortages in individual cities, at the same time as other cities were well supplied. * In such cases hungry urban dwellers did not depend solely on higher market prices to draw larger supplies from elsewhere in the [Roman] Empire. but resorted to imperial intervention. * In an integrated market, this sort of supervision would have been superfluous because pricing would have drawn grain to areas in need (p. 254 with n. 2).

Understandably, not being imbued with the trained suspicions of the modern economist, it does not occur to Saller that imperial “supervision” and not the absence of “fully integrated markets” kept the grain away from hungry cities! The classic example is provided by a serious famine at Antioch in AD 362/3. Despite the enlightened protests of Libanius and others, Emperor Julian had responded to rising grain prices caused by a severe and prolonged drought with an edict of maximum prices and the sale of imported grain at prices below the market-clearing level. These well-meant but counterproductive measures served mainly to misallocate the available stock of grain (see Downey 1951: 315-19; de Jonge 1948). They also operated to discourage large landowners (and other speculators) from storing grain.7 The problem here was not transport costs/fragmented markets but a much more significant problem: failure to understand the economic facts of life.8

The remainder of Saller’s contribution includes some cautionary observations on the scale of Roman economic growth. The ancients did of course accumulate material and human capital and they introduced important technical innovations. Clearly, the industrial era’s increased reliance on scientific knowledge and its increased range and variety of fixed capital goods have steeply accelerated the rate of technical progress and material growth. It must not be overlooked, however, that dramatic improvements in living standards are attainable through improvements in economic organization. The evidence demonstrates that ancient civilizations experienced lengthy periods of market activity and prosperity, including even affluence, interspersed with periods of pervasive economic regulation by the state and, ultimately, economic retrogression. There can be no doubt, for example, that something very important happened to Roman living standards between Romulus and Remus and Diocletian!

Perhaps there is more evidence of a move beyond partisan controversy towards a new synthesis in some of the contributions positioned between Cartledge and Saller. I proceed selectively and begin with a useful, previously published article by historian Reger because of its possible bearing on the question of integrated markets raised by Saller. Reger compares time-series of prices for a number of imported commodities (oil, perfume, papyrus, pitch). The price data are taken from priestly inscriptions on the island of Delos dating to the Hellenistic period in the third and second centuries BC. The prices of the various commodities display markedly different patterns. This finding is understood by Scheidel and von Reden (pp. 133-34) to undermine the view that the Hellenistic market was integrated (Reger 145). The assumption underlying this conclusion seems to be that economic integration requires prices to be determined by “general economic trends” and/or “broader interregional developments” meaning, apparently, that all prices must change in the same direction. Have Scheidel and von Reden identified price inflation/deflation with economic integration? Obviously, integration across spatially distant markets is quite consistent with an unchanged general level of prices combined with pronounced changes in relative prices — i.e., perfume rises in price, oil prices decline. Indeed, such changes are commonplace in the contemporary economy and in no way indicate an absence of integrated markets.

The beginning of a trend toward synthesis can indeed be seen in the (previously published) contribution by the French historian Andreau. I especially appreciated his suggestion that “To contrast, term by term, everything pre-industrial with everything modern, and endlessly to scour antiquity for all possible and imaginable signs of archaism, results in a very reductionist view of history. Besides, whether deliberate or not, such an approach has the effect of providing present-day institutions and situations with an intellectual justification which they do not always merit, and of strengthening our reassuring (but illusory) impression that they are eternal, or at least immortal, since we have now entered modernity.” (p. 35)9

While there is room for disagreement, Andreau’s article merits close and respectful attention.

A (previously published) article by archaeologist Halstead also is helpful. He sees “famine-brokering” as a partial answer to “what is arguably the most important problem in the ancient economy ‘how did rich Greeks and Romans in classical antiquity acquire their wealth?'” (p. 68) Selling stored grain on the market in periods of exceptionally high prices “may well hold the key to the original emergence of a rich minority, given that current ancient historical orthodoxy seems…to have ruled out all the obvious alternatives” (p. 69) (emphasis added). Of course, the “obvious alternatives” for becoming wealthy would be reinstated in any new synthesis! Thus, archaeologist Hitchner (p. 76) in his discussion of growth in the olive oil industry in the Roman provinces of North Africa observes “the proliferation of small farms with one or two presses often in close proximity to oileries, and frequently on agricultural marginal lands…. That is, the decision to construct a large stone lever press… particularly when much more modest means of extracting oil for subsistence needs were available, implies that surplus oil production was the ultimate objective of the small farm occupants. Although the capital for these presses is likely, in many instances, to have come from the owners of the nearby oilieries interested in the oleocultural development of marginal lands in or around their estates, we may also see in these arrangements an effort by the farms’ occupants, whether independent small-holders, free tenants or even slaves, to better their lot.” (emphasis added)

Let it be noted that Hitchner published these words in 1993 when proponents of the idea that members of the ancient public might become rich by means of productive activity were still likely to risk being derided as “anachronistic.”10 With respect to the sources of Athenian wealth in the fourth century BC Osborne (pp. 128-30) tentatively raises the possibilities, “against firmly held modern convictions,” that manufacture was of some importance and that agriculture was actually profitable.

The Ancient Economy, much to my surprise, actually does include a number of contributions (Andreau, Halstead, Hitchner plus the “Introduction”) that move the discussion beyond partisan controversy toward a new synthesis. The volume has the additional merit of bringing together in one place valuable previously published articles by Hopkins, Panella/Tchernia, and Rathbone. On the other hand, the articles by Saller and, especially, Cartledge cling to the Finley/Polanyi orthodoxy. Their strategic placement in the book, first and last chapters, betrays a serious tension in the conception of the editors. To conclude, this is a collection that scholars of the ancient world should be pleased to have in their libraries.

I do have one strong complaint. The editors (p. 4) note that “It goes without saying that it is impossible for a collection of this kind to cover all the bases.” Agreed, but why in a volume devoted to economic history do we find classicists, historians, archaeologists and even a philosopher but not a single contribution by a professional economist? The omission is glaring and revealing.


*About the Editors: Walter Scheidel, formerly Moses and Mary Finley Research Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge, currently teaches Ancient History at the University of Chicago; Sitta von Reden is Senior Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol.

1. I have relied upon Polanyi’s posthumously published manuscript entitled The Livelihood of Man (1981). The editor of this volume, Harry W. Pearson, has included material on Polanyi’s life and has contributed a useful introduction citing Polanyi’s major publications and placing his thought in perspective.

2. The “Suggestions for further Reading” include recent contributions on both sides of the controversy.

3. Interestingly, as their empirical base deteriorated some scholars loyal to this “primitivist/substantivist” school began to denigrate the use of empirical evidence and, more and more, to stress the importance of “erudite models” (see note 6 below). Indeed, even Finley (1985: 182) in “Further Thoughts,” appealed to historical and anthropological/sociological “models” as opposed to “the continual evocation of individual ‘facts’.”


5. In modern economic models are conceptual structures capable of being manipulated to make predictions, which may be tested against empirical evidence. For Finley/Polanyi scholars, however, a model is “a heuristic device for organizing data into an intelligible whole” (Stager 2001: 625) As Finley (1985: 182) explained in “Further Thoughts,” “models” are “valuable in obscuring incidental detail and in allowing fundamental aspects of reality to appear.” “Model” serves as an objective-sounding name for a priori positions that are employed to sift, shape, interpret or avoid the evidence.

6. With two exceptions the articles included in The Ancient Economy were originally published elsewhere. The editors contribute an introduction and chapter commentaries. With one exception the contributions are authored by classicists, historians and archaeologists. The exception is a reprinted contribution by philosopher Scott Meikle who, while critical of modern economic theory, is quite adept at manipulating the Marxist categories of “use value” and “exchange value.”

7. Halstead (p. 69) notes that the Roman writer Varro advised landowners to store grain in order to take advantage of high market prices in times of famine.

8.Readers interested in market integration in the Roman world might consult Temin (2001).

9. One might consider in the light of Andreau’s remarks Douglass North’s (1991: 98) pursuit of the “Holy Grail” of a once-and-for-all incremental evolution of efficient institutions.

10. Hitchner (pp. 80-81) was well aware of the professional risk he was taking in citing empirical evidence for significant growth in the Roman economy.


Downey, Glanville (1951). “The Economic Crisis at Antioch under Julian the Apostate.” In P.R. Coleman-Norton (editor), Studies in Roman Economic and Social History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 312- 21.

Finley, Moses (1973, 1985, 1999). The Ancient Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Jonge, P. (1948). “Scarcity of Corn and Corn Prices in Ammianus Marcellinus.” Mnemosyne, 1, 238-45.

North, Douglass C. (1991). “Institutions.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5, 97-112.

Polanyi, Karl (1981). The Livelihood of Man. Harry W. Pearson (editor). New York: Academic.

Stager. Lawrence E. (2001). “Port Power in the Early and the Middle Bronze Age: The Organization of Maritime Trade and Hinterland Production.” In Samuel R. Wolff (editor), Studies in the Archaeology of Israel and Neighboring Lands. Chicago: Oriental Institute, 625-38.

Temin, Peter (2001), “A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Studies, 91, 169-81.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Bleiberg, Edward (1995). “The Economy of Ancient Egypt.” In Jack M. Sasson, John Baines, Gary Beckman, and Karen S. Rubinson (editors), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. III. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1373-85.

Cartledge, Paul, Edward E. Cohen, and Lin Foxhall (editors) (2002). Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece. London: Routledge.

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

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

Dercksen, Jan Gerrit (editor) (1999). Trade and Finance in Ancient Mesopotamia. Leiden: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Instanbul.

Donlan, Walter (forthcoming). “Homer and Hesiod on Commerce and Trade”. In Rollinger and Ulf (editors), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World.

Engels, Donald (1990). Roman Corinth: An Alternative Model for the Classical City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Figueira, Thomas J. (1984). “Karl Polanyi and Ancient Greek Trade: The Port of Trade.” Ancient World, 10, 15-30.

Greene, Kevin (2000). “Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World: M.I. Finley Re-considered.” Economic History Review, 53, 29-59.

Hudson, Michael and Baruch A. Levine (editors) (1999). Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Hudson, Michael and Marc Van De Mieroop (editors) (2002). Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East. Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press.

Mattingly, David .J. (1988). “Oil for Export? A Comparison of Libyan, Spanish, and Tunisian Olive Oil Production in the Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1, 33-56.

Mattingly, David J., David Stone, Lea Sterling and Nejib Ben Lazreg (2001). “Leptimus (Tunisia): A ‘Producer’ City?.” In David J. Mattingly and John Salmon (editors), Economies Beyond Agriculture in the Classical World. London: Routledge, 66-89.

Menu, Bernadette (2001a). “Economy: Overview.” In Redford (editor), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 1, 422-6.

Menu, Bernadette (2001b). “Economy: Private Sector”. In Redford (editor), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 1, 430-3.

Millett, Paul (1991). Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Olivier, Jean-Pierre (1987). “Des Extraits De Contrats De Vente D’Esclaves Dans Les Tablettes De Knossos.” In John T. Killen, Jos? L. Melena, and Jean-Pierre Olivier (editors), Studies in Mycenaean and Classical Greek. Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, 479-98.

Purcell, Nicholas (1990). “Mobility and the Polis.” In Oswyn Murray and Simon Price (editors), The Greek City from Homer to Alexander. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 29-58.

Redford, Donald B. (editor) (2001). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. 3 volumes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rollinger, Robert and Christoph Ulf (editors) (forthcoming). Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World (5th International MELAMMU Conference, Innsbruck Oct. 3rd-8th 2002).

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

Silver, Morris (forthcoming). “Modern Ancients”. In Rollinger and Ulf (editors), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World.

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

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

A Monetary History of the Ottoman Empire

Author(s):Pamuk, Sevket
Reviewer(s):Munro, John

Published by EH.NET (November 2002)


Sevket Pamuk, A Monetary History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xxvi + 276 pp. $70 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-44197-8.

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

It is my firm conviction that one cannot fully comprehend European economic history without an adequate knowledge of Islamic history (and indeed of Asian-African history) — and, from the early fourteenth century, such a knowledge, in particular, of Ottoman-Turkish history. Furthermore, I also believe that a proper knowledge of economic history must be informed by a command of monetary history (and monetary economics, of course), one of the most difficult forms of history to produce well. For these reasons, and also for the quality of the research, analyses, and historical narrative, this book is a singular triumph, a masterpiece (albeit one to be expected from such an eminent economic historian), and indispensable for European economic historians. And I read it through with ease and great pleasure, in one sitting. Very few scholars could possibly have undertaken a study with such a vast scope, geographically and temporally, covering seven centuries and this very extensive, far-flung empire, embracing not only the Anatolian heartland, but also most of the Balkans, and then, from 1517, the former Mamluk domains in the Levant (Syria-Palestine), Egypt, and adjacent lands in North Africa, Iraq and Arabia. But monetary and more general economic history of these Turkish-ruled lands are not discussed in isolation, they are admirably integrated into the mainstream themes of European and Asian economic history, particularly in analyses of commercial relationships, specie flows, and monetary changes within and among these various areas in the Mediterranean basin especially.

The introductory chapter provides an overview of these developments, over these many centuries, in the particular context of Ottoman monetary and more general economic policies; the second chapter analyses the relationships among commercial, financial and specie flows; the changing supplies of gold, silver, and copper; and the organization and operation of the mints in the earlier centuries. Chapter 3 focuses on the book’s central theme: the role of late-medieval coinage debasements as essentially a fiscal policy (though analyzed as well in the context of their possible relationship to periodic bullion scarcities, and other possible motives for debasement); and it is worth noting that medieval Ottoman debasements were far more modest than those in most of medieval western Europe (excepting England). Chapter 4 explores the development of the Ottoman imperial monetary system, based on a common gold coinage, one conveniently modeled on the Venetian ducat or zecchino (with 3.56 g fine gold), or rather on the Mamluk gold ashafri first minted, on this basis, in 1425 (the model for the Ottoman sultani, minted from 1447-8); but, from the sixteenth century, the silver coinages largely retained their regional identities (i.e., beyond the original Ottoman silver ak?e). Even in the medieval world, however, there was more to money than just coinage; and Chapter 5 thus discusses the important roles of credit and related financial institutions. Chapter 6 provides a much more detailed analysis of monetary changes in the various imperial regions: the Balkans; Egypt; the “shahi” zone of eastern Anatolia, Iraq, and lands bordering Iran; Crimea (a dependency); and North Africa (the Maghrib, Tunis, Algeria, Tripoli). Chapter 7, on the early modern Price Revolution, provides an even-more globally integrated view, emphasizing not just changes in monetary stocks but more especially in monetary flows (and in the context of the “monetary approach to the balance of payments”). This chapter is of particular interest in utilizing the author’s own extensive and invaluable research on Ottoman prices, allowing him to critique and modify, though substantially support, the earlier and renowned work of O. L. Barkan, segregating the impact of debasements from the other monetary forces examined.

The following Chapters 8 (ominously called “Debasement and Disintegration”), 9 (“In the Absence of Domestic Currency”), 10 (“The New Kurus”), and 11 (“Linkages with the Periphery”) examine the following developments from the late sixteenth to early twentieth centuries: a greatly increased fiscal reliance, aggravated by declining mining outputs, on truly drastic debasements (from 1586), which reduced the silver ak?e to a virtually unusable small coin and forced much of the populace to rely instead on imported European coins; a return (from the later seventeenth century) to purely copper coins (first issued in the fifteenth century); the eighteenth-century attempt to establish, on a more centralized minting basis, a new and much heavier silver currency (the kurus), aided by a revival in Ottoman and indeed European silver mining, accompanied by a revival in gold minting as well; and the establishment of stronger, more stable monetary links with the outlying provinces. Before a brief conclusion, the final two chapters, 11 (“The Great Debasement”) and 12 (“From Bimetallism to the ‘Limping Gold Standard'”), establish that the later eighteenth-century attempts to eschew debasements and rely instead on European borrowing could not continue,; and thus, from 1808-34 the worst debasement in Ottoman history ensued (forcing down the exchange rate on the British pound from 8 to 104 kuruses by 1839) — a most remarkable experience. Nevertheless from 1839-44, the Turkish government successfully achieved its goals of monetary reform, finally abandoning coinage debasements, introducing a limited circulation of non-convertible paper currency, marketing long term “bonds” (or annuities?), and, from 1881, adopting a “limping” gold standard, and modern (French-dominated) commercial banking institutions. The book ends, of course, as did the Empire, with World War I.

The heart of the book lies in the truly superb economic analyses of coinage debasements and their consequences — perhaps the best that I have read. While I fully endorse Pamuk’s thesis that the primary objective of aggressive debasements was purely fiscal, in increasing seigniorage revenues (and perhaps in reducing the real burden of debt repayments), debasements could also be defensive reactions to neighboring mint policies. Thus a comparison of Ottoman debasements with those of the Habsburg Empire and Safavid Persia (Iran) — with whom the Ottomans were so frequently at war — might have provided a better perspective, if such evidence were available. My only other minor criticism about this theme concerns the attempt to distinguish among the causes of the Ottoman Price Revolution: i.e., between the effects of debasement and those of other monetary forces, by providing both nominal and silver-gram prices. While useful, it unwisely and unrealistically suggests — without these added caveats — that debasement produces an exactly proportional inflation; or implicitly that a debasement (1) produces an inversely proportional expansion in the coined money supply (if based on the formula: [1/(1-x)] – 1, in which “x” represents the percentage reduction of fine silver or gold in the monetary unit of account); and that (2) such a monetary expansion would lead to an exactly proportional rise in the price level — implying acceptance of a very crude version of the Quantity Theory. Elsewhere, of course, the author very properly establishes that the extent of inflation depends as well upon changes in monetary flows and real output changes in the economy: i.e., upon the variables V (=1/k) and y, in MV = Py; or, better, in M = kPy. Clearly, however, different degrees of coinage debasements do help explain differences in price levels among regions and countries in early-modern Europe; and yet the most remarkable feature of Graph A-1 (p. 236) is how much the Istanbul price level, from 1450 to 1900, resembles the patterns of the Phelps-Brown Hopkins index for southern England! My other minor quarrel is Pamuk’s almost complete neglect of the Central European silver mining boom, from the 1460s to 1530s (expanding Europe’s silver supply about five-fold), whose causes and consequences would have put in much better perspective his discussions of the mid-fifteenth century “bullion famine” and the monetary origins of the sixteenth-century Price Revolution. And for the latter, at least in a pan-European perspective, more attention should have been given to the sixteenth-century financial revolution in negotiable credit instruments. But Pamuk is in good company, since most economic historians continue to neglect these important monetary phenomena. Finally, these criticisms do concern only minor defects. In sum: this book is a splendid, monumentally important achievement, warmly and strongly recommended to all European economic historians.

(Pamuk is Professor of Economics and Economic History at Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey. He is also the author of The Ottoman Empire and European Capitalism, 1820-1913 (1987).)

John Munro is Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto; and is currently the medieval area editor of the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History (Joel Mokyr, general editor). He is the author of, inter alia, Bullion Flows and Monetary Policies in England and the Low Countries, 1350-1500 (Aldershot, 1992); and “Wage Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300-1500: Did Money Matter?” Research in Economic History, 21 (2002), 185-297.

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment

Author(s):Rothschild, Emma
Reviewer(s):Hueckel, Glenn

Published by EH.NET (September 2002)

Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the

Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.

ix + 353 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-674-00489-2; $18.95 (paper), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Glenn Hueckel, Department of Economics, Pomona College.

This is a book that will itself provoke in its readers a number of

“sentiments,” chief of which will be, no doubt, what Smith would have

described as a “sense of wonder” at the breathtaking range of the author’s

learning. Her exposition carries us beyond the works of the two authors in the

staring roles, beyond even those of the two chief supporting actors (Hume for

Smith; Turgot for Condorcet), to commentaries on Greek tragedies, studies of

medieval British labor markets, comments on a modern French philosophical

critique of “bourgeois society,” and much more. Indeed, since few

English-speaking readers will be able to measure up to Rothschild’s linguistic

skills, her commentary on a vast French literature, supplemented with

occasional German sources, cannot fail to prompt new lines of thought. The

argument is lavishly documented; her endnotes alone could provide the diligent

scholar with a rich syllabus for a long and highly instructive course of


The text, however, is a rather different matter. That initial reaction of

“wonder” will be, I fear, quickly tempered by a growing sense of aggravation

and disappointment as readers contemplate the interpretative structure the

author constructs from her sources, particularly as that structure concerns

Smith. Frequently, the reading advanced seems to be conditioned by the needs

of Rothschild’s argument rather than by the content of her sources. This is,

without question, a difficult book. The exposition is highly allusive,

carried along by hundreds of fragmentary quotations that are more tantalizing

than instructive. Not infrequently one longs for a series of simple

declarative sentences where one can get one’s bearings. Nevertheless,

“enlightenment” eventually arrives in the last chapter, where the author

finally makes explicit her organizing structure.

That structure is best described as comprising three layers of varying degrees

of complexity. At the simplest, most descriptive level, the author seeks to

“cast light” on her notion of eighteenth-century enlightenment. For this

purpose, the object of our attention is to be understood as “a universal, or

potentially universal disposition; … not a characteristic only of

philosophers,” but “a particular disposition of everyone.” This is a

disposition to “a discursive, disputatious, theorizing way of life” which

infuses all areas of existence, particularly the political and commercial

spheres (which, as the author is at pains to point out, are themselves

interrelated) (pp. 16, 31, 39, 49). It is at this level that the argument is

most instructive. The ideas of her authorities fit easily into this scheme,

and the arrangement reveals a number of fascinating insights that will enrich

our understanding of those authorities.

It will be evident from the book’s title that our attention is to be directed

at those enlightenment authors who were roughly a generation younger than

Quesnay and his physiocratic contemporaries. This is an important distinction

since that earlier generation has been criticized for the authoritarian stance

of their political views, a sort of “compulsory enlightenment” in which the

state was to shape the spirit of its people in the philosophers’ image of the

“laws of nature.” Indeed, our authors — Condorcet and Turgot; Smith and Hume

— were among those critics. The failure to maintain this important

distinction in the post-Revolutionary world led, we are told, to the false

portrayal of Smith and Condorcet as expressing that same “cold, rational, and

reflective calculation” associated with the previous generation of

Enlightenment writers in contrast to that “warmth” of sentiment said to

characterize post-Napoleonic thought (pp. 25-28; 34-39).

The author’s first objective is to rescue the reputations of Condorcet and

Smith from this frigid characterization. The task is accomplished for

Condorcet in chapters 6 and 7, the latter of which is slightly revised from

its earlier version appearing in the Historical Journal, 39.3

(September 1996): 677-701. These demonstrate quite satisfactorily that his

“principles … are strikingly different from the cold, unfeeling, all-summing

‘mechanical philosophy’ which is supposed to be characteristic of the French

enlightenment” (p. 212). His world not only permitted diversity of opinion but

encouraged it. Indeed that diversity is to be seen as “of central importance”

to the analysis of voting procedures that led to his famous conclusion that

aggregation of individual choices by majority vote will, under certain

circumstances, produce intransitive outcomes. Condorcet’s solution to the

problem was to envision constitutional procedures to manage that “political

dissonance” by encouraging “deliberation, delay, and the prospect of

reversibility.” His citizens would “vote interminably” on “everything from

property rights in ponds to the future constitution of representative

government” (pp. 188-89; 198-99; 204-05; 219-20).

In Smith’s case, the rescue occurs in chapter 2, which, like chapters 3 and 7,

is very slightly revised from an earlier publication (in the Economic

History Review, 1992, 45.2: 74-96). Here the problem is to explain how

Smith’s expansive views on “natural liberty” could come, within a decade of

his death, to be compressed in the minds of his countrymen to no more than a

narrow call for commercial freedom. Here the argument introduces us to the

oppressive social atmosphere in Britain of the 1790s, when widespread fear

that the terrors of the Revolution might be exported across the Channel made

very unpopular any discussion of reform, or even expressions of anything less

than wholehearted support for the war with France. We are reminded that

Stewart, Smith’s first biographer, read his “Account” of Smith’s life to the

Royal Society of Edinburgh at just the time when several of his countrymen

were on trial in the same city for sedition, for which they were eventually

convicted and transported. Some even appealed in their defense to the views

expressed in The Wealth of Nations, which, no doubt, made Smith’s less

reckless readers very nervous. Indeed, Stewart himself fell afoul of the

contemporary sensibilities a year later and was constrained to repudiate what

seems to modern eyes a very mild quotation from Condorcet included in an

earlier work. No wonder Stewart was at pains in his “Account” to distinguish

commercial freedom alone as conducive to national wealth, assuring his hearers

that the freedom of widespread political participation is not, in all cases,

necessary to the “happiness of mankind” (Smith, 1980, p. 310). It is, of

course, obvious that the reception and interpretation of an author’s work will

be influenced by the political and social environment of the time. Rothschild

has here given us a fascinating picture of how that environment influenced the

reception of Smith’s work in the 1790s. A similar story is told in chapter 4,

which contrasts Smith’s criticism of apprenticeship with the arguments

advanced in the debates leading to the 1814 repeal of the apprenticeship

clauses of the Elizabethan statute of artificers. Here too we see in detail

how the participants in those debates carefully chose from among Smith’s

broader arguments to support their own narrower purposes. These and the

intervening chapter 3 may well be the best in the book.

That intervening chapter (appearing in a shorter version in the Economic

Journal, 1992, 102.414: 1197-1210), completes the effort to rescue

Condorcet and Smith from that “cold” and “unfeeling” version of the

Enlightenment. Here we are concerned with the teachings of our authorities

regarding the grain trade because, we are told, “The political economy of food

has been an emblem, at least since the 1760s, of the heartlessness of the

liberal system” (p. 72; the like point is made with particular reference to

Smith on p. 61). Rothschild, however, is at pains to convince her readers that

Condorcet, Turgot, and Smith all “argued that free trade in corn is the best

means to avoid famine” (pp. 73-74). This will come as no surprise to

economists; but her brief survey of the arguments contained in Turgot’s

“Lettres” and Condorcet’s R?flexions on the grain trade (which, apart

from some brief excerpts from Turgot translated by Groenewegen, are not

available in English) will be of considerable help to scholars interested in

understanding how societies (and economic theory) respond to subsistence


It should by now be evident that Rothschild’s effort to describe the positions

advanced by her second-generation Enlightenment authors and to trace out how

the perception of those positions changed in the decades immediately following

the Revolutionary period does indeed cast new and revealing light on the

position of those authors in the pre-Revolutionary intellectual firmament.

About midway through the book, however, the argument shifts away from this

descriptive stance and turns ever greater attention to an evaluation of that

“liberal economic thought” associated with those authors. By the end of the

fifth chapter we are confronted with what Rothschild insists are the two

“shortcoming[s] of the liberal economic order.” The first is its alleged

failure to acknowledge “that individuals seek, on occasion, to pursue their

own (economic) interests by political means.” The second is the “inconstancy”

of that “liberal order.” The institutions comprising the world described by

Condorcet and Smith, being “the outcome of innumerable, unruly judgments, …

may or may not be good.” In this respect that structure “is very unlike a

divine providence … in which individuals should have confidence.” Or, as

the point is expressed in the last chapter, this “more insidious shortcoming

of the liberal orders … is that they do not contain within themselves the

sources of their own improved orderliness.” If, in their intellectual systems,

our authors deny the existence of a “divine providence” looking after things,

then they can have no certainty that those “innumerable, unruly judgments”

will lead to “improved orderliness” (pp. 157-58; 219-20). This uncertainty

provides the third facet of Rothschild’s organizational structure. As she puts

it on the penultimate page of her text, she “has been concerned in this book

with an economic thought in which uncertainty is the overwhelming condition of

commercial society.”

It must be admitted that this theme of “uncertainty” appears frequently in

various brief obiter dicta throughout the book, but the precise nature

of the “uncertainty” that is supposed to be at issue is not made explicit

until the last chapter. There it takes several forms, ranging from the trivial

to the profound. At its most mundane level, it is no more than normal market

risk: “The world of eighteenth-century commerce was insecure, or risky, in the

sense that it was full of new investments and new economic relationships” (pp.

239-40). Yes, replies the reader, and the same could be said for any other

century. To some degree, the uncertainty that is supposed to be at the heart

of “liberal economic thought” arises from capricious changes in the rules of

the game: “The new world of commerce was insecure, too, because it was subject

to frequent and often sudden changes in laws, regulations, and the

jurisprudence of property” (p. 240). But the key role in the argument is

played by those sources of uncertainty that correspond to Rothschild’s two

“shortcomings” of the “liberal order.” That enlightened disposition to “a

discursive, uneasy, self-conscious way of life” that produced the “political

dissonance” that so occupied Condorcet spills over into commercial life as

well: “The eighteenth-century system of commerce … was subject to continuing

flux not only in events, and in rules, but also in the dispositions of the

individuals … of whom the system is composed.” This “flux in the condition

of men is the essential circumstance of modern commerce, in Smith’s, Turgot’s,

and Condorcet’s description” (p. 241). The individuals who populate the world

envisioned by these authors are said to “have opinions about their own

interests, about the interests of the society, and about the policies which

are likely to promote those interests,” and they recognize that they can

promote their private interests through efforts to influence those policies:

“They are buying and selling, buying and selling; in the end, they are buying

and selling rules, and customs, and their own dispositions.” Apparently this

flaw in the “liberal economic system” is to be understood as a fundamental

internal contradiction and is, consequently, the source of “the system’s own

insecurity”: “The system of economic freedom is founded on the equality of all

individuals, and it is at the same time subversive of equality,” that

subversion arising from “the endless circle in which individuals become rich,

and use their money to buy power, to buy other individuals, and to influence

the ways in which other individuals think” (pp. 239; 245; 251-52). Here,

obviously, we have come to Rothschild’s first “shortcoming.” The connection to

the second is obvious: without the presumption of a benevolent, divine

creator, there can be no certainty that those shifting “dispositions of the

individuals” in the system will lead to a socially desirable outcome. But,

Rothschild insists, the system to which Smith, Hume, Condorcet, and Turgot all

subscribed “is not the sort of order which is directed, like the ‘movements of

nature,’ by an ‘all-wise Being,’ or by a single, unified theory” (p. 230).

Here then is the evaluative framework that Rothschild would have us adopt. It

portrays the social systems envisioned by Condorcet and Smith as infused by

uncertainty in various forms, all arising from the “continuing flux” in the

“dispositions” of a “discursive, disputatious” populace, that perpetual social

“dissonance” operating with no hope of a divine, guiding hand and,

consequently, plagued by the “shortcoming” that its agents might pursue their

private interest through anti-social means. But what of the supporting

argument? Can such a reading be shown to be consistent with the texts under

review? With respect to Condorcet, Rothschild’s evidence is extensive and

largely persuasive. Smith, however, simply will not permit himself to be

forced into this template for it attributes to his work positions that, in

several cases, are directly opposed to those which he actually advanced. At

nearly every point, the argument rests on selective omissions and

misrepresentations of the Smith texts. Consider, as illustration, just those

bearing on Rothschild’s two “shortcomings of the liberal order.”

If, as alleged by that first “shortcoming,” we fail to acknowledge that those

intelligent, “discursive,” “self-conscious,” agents in our enlightened world

will recognize the incentives to pursue their private interests through the

political system, then our only hope for future social improvement is to take

refuge in the hope that those agents will grow in social awareness and form

their own interests to those of society. As Rothschild puts it, the

Enlightenment’s “late eighteenth-century exponents” looked forward to “a

universe of small proprietors, most of whom are sufficiently foresighted to

understand that their own lasting self-interest, which coincides with the

interest of the society, consists in competing by economic means … and not

through political influence” (p. 158). Now, this seems a fair portrayal of

Condorcet’s position, at least as it was near the end of his life. Quoting

from her translation of one of his last texts, Rothschild observes that

Condorcet put his faith in reform. With “better laws, … ‘the interest in

acquiring things by illegitimate means will present itself less often, to a

smaller number of individuals, and in less diverse and less seductive forms'”

(p. 166). Here, no doubt, is the source of Rothschild’s claim of

“uncertainty.” There is nothing in this rendition of Condorcet’s vision to

inspire confidence in future improvement. It is, as Rothschild puts it, no

more than “a probabilistic judgment,” an “expression of confidence in the

disposition of individuals to discuss and to live by principles of morality;

to be mild and moderate, and to feel an increase of humanity, from the very

habit of conversing together” (p. 232). “The only source of certainty in such

a society,” we are told, “is to be found … in domestic virtues and domestic

conversations. … Condorcet … is prepared to defend the softness or

sweetness of modern life; to look forward to the ‘easy virtues’ of a world in

which improvements in education and laws would have made ‘the courage of

virtue almost useless.'” But, and here we see evidence of that second

“shortcoming,” Condorcet “also recognizes the frightening insecurity of such a

world, in which there is no foundation of political order, either in reverence

for divine right, or in fear, or in political virtue” (p. 235). Now, to make

her case, Rothschild must demonstrate the existence of Smithian parallels to

this rather bland, but insecure, Condorcevian society. Hence we are told that

Smith “was confident that there would be very little opportunity for violence

in a free, civilized, commercial society, and little advantage to be derived

from fraud” (p. 244). We are to take it that Condorcet’s “mild and moderate”

agents populate Smith’s world too. At any rate, we read that “Smith’s

political philosophy … is a description of a world without violent conflicts

over political principles, without revolutions, and without certainty” (p.

232). Presumably to echo Condorcet’s praise of the “softness or sweetness of

modern life,” we are assured that, for Smith, the “political virtues are the

virtues of humanity, and they are even, in some circumstances, the virtues of

women”; and we are offered a brief quotation in support: “‘Humanity is the

virtue of a woman,’ Smith wrote in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and

it … requires ‘no self-denial, no self-command, no great exertion of the

sense of propriety'” (p. 234).

By now, those familiar with Smith’s thought will be writhing in agony. Anyone

who is aware of Smith’s praise for the virtue of self-command (that from which

“all the other virtues seem to derive their principal luster”) will be

suspicious of any suggestion that it can be excluded from the “political

virtues.” The suspicion is confirmed when we take the trouble to check the

citation. Rothschild fails to warn us that the fragment concerning “humanity”

as “the virtue of a woman,” appears as the other half of a contrast with the

character of “generosity.” The meaning of the passage changes dramatically

when we return the fragment to its context: “Generosity is different from

humanity. … Humanity is the virtue of a woman, generosity of a man.” While

it is true that “[t]he most humane actions require no self-denial, no

self-command, no great exertion of the sense of propriety, … it is otherwise

with generosity.” This “masculine” virtue requires the “sacrifice [of] some

great and important interest of our own to an equal interest of a friend or of

a superior.” It is, in other words, the opposite of “humanity” in that it

does require “self-denial.” Now, perhaps Rothschild’s selective omission of

the other half of Smith’s rhetorical contrast could be excused if the omitted

concept was, in Smith’s system, excluded from the “political virtues,” but no

such defense is possible here. In the very next sentence, Smith takes his

illustrations from the fields of political and military conflict: “The man who

gives up his pretensions to an office that was the great object of his

ambition because he imagines that the services of another are better entitled

to it; the man who exposes his life to defend that of his friend, which he

judges to be of more importance; neither of them act from humanity;” rather,

they both exhibit the “self-denial” of “generosity” (Smith 1976b, p. 190-91).

Apparently Smith’s vision does include “conflicts over political principles”

and even battlefield sacrifice. His system contemplates revolution too, but

here that “divine order” supposedly missing from that system interposes

impediments to such violent disruption. As we will see shortly, Rothschild’s

peculiar refusal to acknowledge the role of a divine creator in Smith’s system

is the most puzzling aspect of her argument. The benevolent care of that deity

pervades his Theory of Moral Sentiments. “[T]o raise and support …

the great, the immense fabric of human society,” Smith wrote there, “seems in

this world, if I may say so, to have been the peculiar and darling care of

Nature.” To preserve that social fabric, “Nature” implants in us a disposition

to acquiesce in our rulers even when reason would have it otherwise: “That

kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or

punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and

philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature.” On the contrary, “Nature

would teach us to submit to them for their own sake.” This disposition to

submit to unjust rulers can apply even in the case “of the most brutal and

savage barbarians, of an Attila, a Gengis, or a Tamerlane.” This is not a

particularly noble characteristic. It arises from our disposition to admire

success and to despise failure even when those outcomes are the product of

chance or force. Nevertheless, even this “great disorder in our moral

sentiments” serves to preserve human society, particularly in the worst of

times. Consequently, “we may on this, as well as on many other occasions,

admire the wisdom of God even in the weakness and folly of man.” It may be a

“foolish admiration,” but by this tendency to admire those who, whether by

chance, by force, or by merit, succeed in achieving positions of political

leadership, the populace “are taught to acquiesce with less reluctance under

that government which an irresistible force imposes upon them, and from which

no reluctance could deliver them.” Where in passages such as these are we to

find any hint of Rothschild’s reading of Smith as envisioning “a world

without violent conflicts over political principles, without revolutions”? At

best, Smith’s world is one in which, by virtue of “the wisdom of God,” only

“the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment … excited [to] the

highest degree” can rouse “the bulk of the people … to oppose [their

leaders] with violence” (Smith 1976b, pp. 53, 86, 252-53).

Nor does Smith’s vision of social order rest on a na?ve “confidence in the

disposition of individuals to live by principles of morality.” The agents who

populate Smith’s world exhibit all the faults we have come to know in fallible

humans. It is true that Smith’s ethics — his “theory of moral sentiments” —

rest on a presumed human capacity and desire to, through our imaginations,

“enter into” the situation of our fellows and to experience to a muted degree

their emotions. But it is also true that Smith was ready to acknowledge that

“self-deceit” — that “fatal weakness of mankind” — that too often prevents

us from checking and condemning behavior in ourselves that we would condemn in

others. Yet the “fabric of human society” requires that we all meet certain

accepted standards of decorum. Once again “Nature … has not left this

weakness … altogether without a remedy; nor has she abandoned us entirely to

the delusions of self-love.” Through our normal social interactions, we form

“certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or

to be avoided.” These “general rules of conduct” become “fixed in our mind” by

training and “habitual reflection.” Although “ultimately founded upon

experience of what … our moral faculties … approve, or disapprove of,”

their application does not require that all agents exhibit a finely-tuned

capacity for sympathy in all circumstances. A good thing too since “[t]he

coarse clay of which the bulk of mankind are formed, cannot be wrought up to

such perfection.” It is these general rules or duties that are the proximate

foundation of social order: “upon the tolerable observance of these duties

depends the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing

if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence for those important

rules of conduct.” Finally, lest there be any remaining doubts as to the role

of a benevolent deity in Smith’s system, we are told in the next sentence,

“This reverence is still further enhanced by an opinion which is first

impressed by nature, and afterwards confirmed by reasoning and philosophy,

that those important rules of morality are the commands and laws of the

Deity,” a position which is elaborated on the subsequent pages (Smith, 1976b,

pp. 158-63).

We find in chapter 5 Rothschild’s defense of her claim that Smith’s system

exhibits those two “shortcomings” that she perceives in “liberal economic

thought.” The chapter advances the remarkable position that Smith’s “image of

the invisible hand is best interpreted as a mildly ironic joke” (p. 116; a

very brief summary of the argument appeared earlier in the American

Economic Review, 1994, 84.2: 319-22). This must be the case because “if it

were taken seriously,” the concept expressed by that metaphor “would have been

in conflict with several of Smith’s most profound convictions” (p. 136). What

is at issue here is not simply the metaphor itself but the concept which it is

taken to convey, that concept being, for Rothschild, that the individual

pursuit of private interest can produce an orderly aggregate outcome which

can, under some identifiable circumstances, be socially desirable (p. 121). It

is Smith’s expression of this concept that we are to take as intended as “an

ironic joke … on himself … [and] on his immense posterity as well” (p.


Among those of “Smith’s most profound convictions” with which this concept is

supposed to conflict is his well-known principle that merchants often pursue

their interest through political influence. By Rothschild’s argument, we may

take it that the notion of a spontaneous order conveyed by the invisible hand

metaphor was “un-Smithian and unimportant to his theory” because “Smith’s

criticisms of government and of established institutions are essential to his

economic thought; it is most unlikely that he would simply forget them in a

grand theory of the social good” (p. 128). But this bespeaks a remarkably

narrow reading. Smith did not “forget” his “criticisms” of public and private

institutions in his “grand theory”; they were part of his theory. Rosenberg

(1960) pointed out long ago that those “criticisms” were in fact original and

perceptive investigations of the incentive structures embedded in those

institutions, and the point has only been elaborated since. Rothschild is

quite right (p. 244) that Smith suggested in his jurisprudence lectures that

commercial relationships could improve the character of the participants, at

least with respect to their “probity and punctuality.” But as Rosenberg again

has elsewhere (1990) reminded us, Smith did not stop there. In his vision,

commercial society served to improve not only the character of the people but

also the legal structures that guide their actions and establish their

security of property right. The same philosopher who took account in his

ethics of the “coarse clay of which the bulk of mankind are formed” could not

fail to recognize in his investigation of market behavior that “such, it

seems, is the natural insolence of man, that he almost always disdains to use

the good instrument, except when he cannot or dare not use the bad one”

(Smith, 1976a, p. 799). He was quite aware that the individual pursuit of

private interest must be channeled by properly constructed incentive

structures (which include, of course, not only legal restraints but

competitive markets as well) to prevent recourse to the “bad instrument.” Only

when operating within such structures can we speak of an “invisible hand”

directing individual actions to a socially desirable outcome.

Yet Rothschild insists that there is “something oddly ingenuous in Smith’s

sudden invocation of the timid, virtuous merchant, led by the invisible hand

to pursue only harmonious interests” (p. 128). In violation of her own

injunction to understand the invisible hand reference in its broad, conceptual

sense, she here limits attention to “the invisible hand passage” in The

Wealth of Nations, where the merchant “does not, for example, seek to

collect together with other merchants to obtain special privileges for home

production.” No, not in this passage; but Smith was, no doubt, writing under

the reasonable presumption that his readers can be expected to recall the

countless other passages that warn of such collusion and propose incentive

structures designed to impede it.

Adding further to her portrayal of Smith as playing a sly joke on posterity

with his invisible hand metaphor, Rothschild would have us find it

“interesting … that in a chapter mainly concerned with British restrictions

on imports, Smith’s ingenuous merchant is described as a resident of

Amsterdam, trading in corn from K?nigsberg and fruit from Lisbon; he is a

cosmopolitan figure, far less tempted than any English merchant to pursue his

own advantage through political influence” (p. 128; the point recurs on p.

144). Now, any reader who takes the trouble to review the reference in its

context will find this to be a particularly egregious mischaracterization.

While it is not commonly mentioned, the particular social benefit supposed to

be achieved by the Wealth of Nations appearance of the invisible hand

is a preference for home over foreign investment, a principle that will seem

peculiar to modern readers accustomed to decisionmaking at the margin.

Nevertheless, the principle arises from Smith’s eighteenth-century view of

capital as “setting to work productive labor.” Capital employed domestically

“in purchasing in one part of the country in order to sell in another …

generally replaces by every such operation two distinct capitals.” But in

foreign trade, where one of the transactions occurs abroad, “the capital

employed … will give but one-half the encouragement to the industry or

productive labour of the country.” Hence, that famous invisible hand, which

Rothschild would have us believe is slyly applied by Smith to an Amsterdam

merchant “far less tempted” to pursue his interest through influence in the

British political arena, applies in fact to the domestic merchant who, in

“preferring the support of domestick to that of foreign industry, … intends

only his own security,” and is “in this, as in many other cases, led by an

invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” that end

being, in this case, the support of more domestic labor than would have been

accomplished had he traded abroad. That Amsterdam merchant trading between

Prussia and Portugal enters Smith’s story only as illustration of the lower

risk associated with domestic trade by providing the contrast of the greater

“unease” felt by the merchant engaged in foreign trade, where he is “separated

so far from his capital” (Smith, 1976a, pp. 368; 454-56).

This alleged “ingenuous” character of Smith’s invisible hand expression recurs

throughout the rest of the argument and is central to Rothschild’s case for

her first “shortcoming.” Upon its introduction, that “first conflict or

shortcoming of economic thought” is described as having to do with “the

transformation of money into political power” and is illustrated by the claim

that “[i]n Smith’s description of the invisible hand in the Wealth of

Nations, the circumstance that individuals pursue their economic

objectives by political means is largely ignored” (p. 154). It also provides a

spurious point of contrast between Smith and Condorcet, who is described as

“admirably explicit in addressing one shortcoming of liberal economic orders,

to do with the transformation of money into political power, and of political

power into the power to influence markets” (p. 166). All this is no more than

a figment of Rothschild’s misreading of Smith.

The foundation of Rothschild’s second “shortcoming” of “liberal economic

thought” is also to be found in chapter five. There is no denying the

“conception of providential order” long associated with Smith’s invisible hand

metaphor. That association provides Rothschild with one more reason to dismiss

that metaphor as “un-Smithian” — namely the conviction that Smith would have

found “very serious problems” in such a “theology of the invisible hand” (p.

129). However, her argument on this point, for all its lavish citations, is

nearly devoid of textual evidence from Smith himself, apart from the remark

that he frequently made known “his differences with Christian doctrines.”

This, of course, is no more than a red herring. That Smith had little patience

with the positions and practices of the established Christian denominations of

his time is obvious. But it is equally obvious that a deistic faith in a

benevolent creator does not rest on Christian doctrine. In support of her

claim, Rothschild can offer us little more than the statement of her “own view

… that … Smith’s and Hume’s religious opinions were indeed quite close,” a

view that no doubt explains why her case so frequently rests on appeals to

Hume rather than to Smith (e.g. pp. 120, 130, 134-35, 139). One could, of

course, argue (and Rothschild does, in passing) that Smith’s frequent

references to the “all-wise Author of Nature” (some of which we have already

noticed) were no more than a smokescreen intended to avoid the kind of

conflict with contemporary sensibilities that so dogged his friend. But the

frequency and apparent sincerity of those references are far greater than the

minimum necessary to satisfy the local keepers of the public morals. Certainly

Rothschild’s claim that Smith denied “the conception of providential order,”

or employed it as no more than “an ironic joke,” is directly opposed to recent

scholarship on the matter. One wishes that in all her footnotes, she had taken

notice of those studies that, with a good deal more relevant documentation,

manage to advance an opposing view (e.g. Evensky 1998; although it appeared

too late to help Rothschild, interested readers will want to consult Hill 2001

as well).

To be sure, Rothschild does acknowledge the common view that Smith professed

the existence of a benevolent creator and that his position on this matter

derived from the natural theology of Stoic philosophy. But she offers little

in rebuttal beyond the unsupported declaration that he “was influenced by

different Stoic doctrines”; that “[w]ithin the overall Stoic system, … it

was the idea of a providential order … to which Smith was most opposed” (p.

132) As to that, I will simply leave it to those interested to read for

themselves Smith’s own assessment of that “Stoical” system, where he assures

us that, even in our greatest extremity, when, in spite of our best efforts,

events “turn out the most unfortunate and disastrous, Nature has by no means

left us without consolation,” that consolation being drawn “from a firm

reliance upon, and reverential submission to, that benevolent wisdom which

directs all the events of human life, and which, we may be assured, would

never have suffered those misfortunes to happen had they not been

indispensably necessary for the good of the whole” (Smith 1976b, p. 292). Is

this an author who opposed the idea of a providential order?

In spite of its flaws, we can learn a great deal from Rothschild’s work here.

Her command of a vast and complex literature is awesome. She has been

scrupulous in identifying her authorities, and she has opened a number of new

and promising lines for further work. She has reminded us that the forces

unleashed by the French Revolution left their mark not only on the political

and social structures of the period but also on the intellectual structures

that conditioned the discourse of the nineteenth century and, at a remove, of

our own time. She has prompted us to look again at the intellectual

influences running in both directions across the Channel in the immediate

pre-Revolutionary period, and she has identified the sources to do so. No

doubt it is that great promise that heightens the disappointment we feel when

we encounter her efforts to turn those sources to purposes which they simply

will not support.


Evensky, Jerry. 1998. “Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy: The Role of Religion and

Its Relationship to Philosophy and Ethics in the Evolution of Society.”

History of Political Economy 30.1: 17-42.

Hill, Lisa. 2001. “The Hidden Theology of Adam Smith.” European Journal of

the History of Economic Thought 8.1:1-29.

Rosenberg, Nathan. 1960. “Some Institutional Aspects of the Wealth of

Nations.” Journal of Political Economy 68.6: 557-70.

1990. “Adam Smith and the Stock of Moral Capital.” History of Political

Economy 22.1: 1-18.

Smith, Adam. 1976a. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of

Nations. Edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner. Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

1976b. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D. D. Raphael and A.

L. Macfie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1980. Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Edited by W. P. D. Wightman and

J. C. Bryce. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(The author, Emma Rothschild, is a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and

Director of the Center for History and Economics, King’s College.)

The reviewer, Glenn Hueckel, is the author of various articles on the history

of economic thought in the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century