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

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

Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money, Land and Trade: An Economic History of the Muslim Mediterranean

Author(s):Hanna, Nelly
Reviewer(s):Cosgel, Metin

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)


Nelly Hanna, editor, Money, Land and Trade: An Economic History of the Muslim Mediterranean. London: I.B. Tauris, 2002. vii + 294 pp. ?39.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-86064-699-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Metin Cosgel, Department of Economics, University of Connecticut.

Economic historians of the Middle East have recently made significant progress in studying the region’s history. Only a generation ago scholarship in the field was fraught with such obstacles as restricted access to sources, misguided methodologies and approaches, and misconceived notions about the peoples, institutions, and economic processes of the region. Thanks to the increasing availability of sources and the efforts of dedicated scholars, the influence of these obstacles has been gradually diminished. Although there is still much room for improvement, the field has reached a healthy stage of debating established ideas, revising misconceptions, and being open to new types of sources, methods, and approaches.

The collection of essays edited by Nelly Hanna (Professor of Arabic Studies at the American University in Cairo) in Money, Land and Trade: An Economic History of the Muslim Mediterranean attempts to contribute to this process. The book consists of thirteen essays presented in seminars at American University in Cairo under the research program called “Individual and Society in the Mediterranean Muslim World,” sponsored by the European Science Foundation.

The collection has three parts. The first part is titled “Land,” consisting of five chapters. In the first chapter Nicolas Michel examines the relationship between the individual and the collectivity in pre-colonial Morocco, showing that individual economic decisions were only partly influenced by social customs and obligations. In the next chapter Abbas Hamid emphasizes the importance of studying individual ownership and identifies the specificities of Egypt’s experience that must be considered in analyzing its historical development. Studying the multiplicity of rights on land, Muhammad Hakim examines in the third chapter agricultural land relations and social conflicts in Egypt in the nineteenth century. In chapter four Amina Elbendary examines state-peasant relations by analyzing Nile floods during years of crises. In the last chapter of Part 1, Peter Gran notes weaknesses in the study of nineteenth century Egypt and proposes an alternative approach based on a model of Italian history in order to articulate the internal dynamic of struggle.

The four chapters in the second part of the book are devoted to “Crafts and Trades.” Focusing on the guild system in Damascus, Abdul-Karim Rafeq investigates in chapter six the sources of vastly different incomes among craftsmen. In the next chapter Pascale Ghazaleh documents the transition from the guild system to the factory system, based on a case study of a firm called Al-Khurunfish in Egypt in the nineteenth century. In another case study of an Armenian merchant family in the Ottoman Empire, Armin Kredian examines in chapter 8 the business correspondence of this family to shed light on the historical development of the textile industry. Abbas Hamdani uses literary sources as evidence in chapter 9 to contribute to the debate about the origin of craft guilds in the early Islamic societies, finding strong support for the presence of professional urban organizations.

The final part of the book is titled “Money,” consisting of four chapters. Sevket Pamuk leads off by examining the interaction among the monetary regimes of Istanbul, Cairo, and Tunis during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Monetary causes of the financial crises and bankruptcy of Egypt during 1875-8 are the subject of chapter 11 by Ghislaine Alleaume. In the next chapter Magdi Girgis studies the financial resources of Coptic priests in the nineteenth century Egypt. In the final chapter of the book, Sayyid Ashmavi uses literary sources to understand the role of Greek money-lenders in the deteriorating status of the peasants and the image formed in the collective memory of Egyptians about Greek money-lenders at the turn of the twentieth century.

Most papers in the collection attempt to challenge a prevailing perception, methodological approach, or some other trend in the literature. One of the primary topics of emphasis is the individual, whose decisions have traditionally been viewed as dominated by other concerns such as the family, state, guild, and religion. Several of the papers refuse the traditional view and attempt to show the prominence of individualism even in earlier Islamic societies. Some papers challenge the “impact of the West” model of economic change, showing the way the internal dynamics of the region also contributed to change and development. Other departures from previous approaches include emphasizing not only urban centers but traditionally neglected rural and peripheral areas, and going beyond traditional sources such as government documents and introducing new sources like business correspondence, family papers, and literary sources.

Some of the book’s shortcomings may have been inevitable consequences of bringing together a collection of essays by different scholars. The book lacks a coherent framework or a consistent approach, even within each of its three parts. Papers also differ significantly in their use of economic theory and quantitative analysis and in their reference to broader economic or historical debates. Although some of these differences may also be viewed as reflecting the diversity of approaches in the field, there does not seem to be a systematic attempt for comprehensive coverage. For example, despite the wide geographic coverage suggested by the book’s title, a majority of the papers (eight of the thirteen) deal exclusively with the Egyptian experience. Page limitations may also have limited detailed, comprehensive, or in-depth analysis of issues or potentially useful comparisons with relevant phenomena in other parts of the world.

Despite these shortcomings, the collection nevertheless points toward a fascinating array of new areas of research. For example, rather than view the behavior and institutions observed in the Islamic world as being distinct, irrational, and beyond the boundaries of economic analysis, we may more appropriately use the available sources, economic theory, and tools of quantitative analysis to better understand these phenomena. Similarly, rather than let the content or availability of sources dictate our research agenda, we may search for new sources or use old sources in novel, creative ways.

The collection is probably a required reading for those interested in the questions of land, trade or money in this region and a supplementary source for those interested in the same issues in other parts of the world. The collection can also be a useful guide to the general historian interested in learning about some of the controversial issues in the history of the Muslim Mediterranean, received views about the peoples and institutions of the region, and current attempts at revising these views. Each chapter typically has a good discussion of the relevant literature and bibliographic notes and references, which are useful guides for further research. Although the collection may not be representative of the type or quality of current research in the field, it can still serve as a supplementary book of readings for undergraduate or graduate courses on the economic history of this region or for the Middle East or North Africa sections of courses on world history.

Metin Cosgel is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Connecticut. His current research interests include the tax system of the Ottoman Empire. Links to his publications and recent working papers can be found in

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

Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850

Author(s):Bozhong, Li
Reviewer(s):Pomeranz, Kenneth

Published by EH.NET (July 2003)

Li Bozhong, Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, and

Li Bozhong, Jiangnan de zaoqi gongyehua (Proto-Industrialization in the Yangzi Delta). Beijing: shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2000.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Kenneth Pomeranz, Department of History, University of California at Irvine.

Like most other aspects of Chinese intellectual life, economic history suffered badly during the 1960s and 1970s. In the generation that began rebuilding the field thereafter, probably the single most productive scholar has been Li Bozhong, now of Qinghua University. Professor Li has also been noteworthy for his efforts throughout the last twenty years to encourage Chinese scholars to engage seriously with the very different paradigms favored by most of their colleagues in the West, Taiwan and Japan — and vice versa. Yet only a fraction of Li’s massive scholarly output is available to those who do not read Chinese. The following review attempts to hit many of the highlights of his work by considering two recent complementary volumes, only one of which is translated: Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850 and Jiangnan de zaoqi gongyehua (Proto-industrialization in Jiangnan). Together, they paint a fascinating, though incomplete, picture of the economy of the Yangzi Delta (or Jiangnan),1 which was the richest region in China, and among the richest regions in the world from roughly 1000 until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion (1851-64 — probably the most destructive civil war in history, killing perhaps as many as 20,000,000 people), and the onset of rapid industrialization in Northwestern Europe fundamentally changed the social, political, and economic landscape.

In Agricultural Development, Li argues forcefully against two basic views of the Delta’s agriculture in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) periods: 1) the claims of some Chinese Marxist scholars that the Delta remained a subsistence-oriented “feudal” economy in which most peasants had very limited contact with the market until the nineteenth century; 2) the claim of some Western scholars that Malthusian pressures and very limited technological change produced a slow but steady trend of immiseration over the period from roughly 1250 (when the rate of technological progress seems to have slowed considerably) until at least the mid-nineteenth century, and perhaps until well into the twentieth century. (A variant of this latter view, sometimes called the “involutionary” position, claims that living standards remained basically unchanged over the long haul, while the amount of labor required to obtain this standard kept increasing, so that immiseration came in the form of more work for the same rather limited per capita output rather than in the form of a decline in per capita output.) Li argues instead that: a) positive technological change continued in Jiangnan agriculture throughout this period, particularly in the areas of fertilizer use and water control; b) local factor markets continued to become more efficient, facilitating the increasingly rational allocation of labor and capital; c) long distance trade in various products expanded dramatically, allowing the region to benefit by pursuing its comparative advantage in cotton and silk production, and importing rice, timber, soybeans, etc.; d) the gradual decline in farm size as population increased did not lead to under-employment.2 On the contrary, increased double-cropping and other measures meant that the labor year for peasant males stayed about the same, while output per labor day actually rose; meanwhile women increasingly exited agriculture (in which they had never been very productive anyway), and earned more per day by moving into rapidly-growing textile trades; e) deliberate fertility control became fairly widespread by the eighteenth century, considerably reducing any Malthusian pressures and; f) because of all these factors, both aggregate and per capita income increased slowly but steadily during this period. (Li does not attempt to calculate total factor productivity, but makes it clear that he thinks growth in output outstripped the rate of growth in inputs.) He sees these positive trends coming to an end — and even then, only a temporary end — with the coming of the Opium War (1839-42) and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), which he argues aborted the development of a national market, and led to the breakdown of law and order. (In a more recent paper, he has suggested a slightly earlier turning point, arguing that a prolonged period of exceptionally bad weather and flooding began about 1820, doing lasting ecological damage and contributing to the calamities of the mid-nineteenth century.)

The basic arguments of Proto-Industrialization are similar in spirit. Li’s most basic point — that handicraft production for the market by Delta households grew enormously between the mid-Ming and mid-Qing — is not much in doubt, but he adds a number of important further observations. First, he broadens the scope of inquiry beyond the relatively well-studied silk and cotton cloth industries, providing very useful discussions of food-processing, tool-making, bleaching and dyeing, residential construction, boat-building, and so on. While he does not have the level of detail on any one of these sectors that one would hope for, his work on most of these industries is a significant advance over anything we had before.

Second, Li shows us that the growth of production in almost all of these sectors was accompanied by increasing levels of specialization, in two senses: a) in the sense that the tasks of production were increasingly sub-divided; and b) that consumers were increasingly purchasing these goods rather than making them for themselves, and so increasingly concentrating their work effort on production for the market rather than “Z-goods” for auto-consumption. (The latter point is less well documented than the former; while Li is able to show burgeoning urban markets, both in the Delta and beyond, for all sorts of ready-made goods, the evidence on rural consumption is sparser.) Along with this increased specialization, Li also assembles evidence that the average size of production units was growing in most of these sectors. In the case of spinning and weaving, where most production continued to be done in households, he makes a generally convincing case that an increasing share of output was controlled by merchants operating on a large scale, who controlled access to often distant markets, imposed increasingly exacting quality standards in order to maintain those markets, and thus had an increasing influence on the production process, even without using credit and the provision of raw materials to control direct producers the way that European “putting-out” merchants often did.

Third, Li’s surveys of specific industries other than textiles make a strong case showing slow but continuing technological development, expansion of markets, and an increasingly complex division of labor. In contrast to an older version of Chinese economic history (pioneered by Japanese scholars in the 1930s, but later widely accepted around the world), which saw an enormous spurt of technological change during the Song dynasty (960-1279), followed by stagnation or even regression thereafter, Li argues that the Song revolutions have been over-emphasized: not because they weren’t important, but because the diffusion and subsequent small improvements of many major inventions pioneered in that period took centuries, and it was those processes that gave Song-era breakthroughs much of their impact. This, too, is a revision of the conventional wisdom that is gaining adherents among both Chinese and Western scholars. While Li has not unearthed enough quantitative data to let us make reliable estimates of, for instance, labor productivity for most of these sectors, what little we can do with this data tends to suggest continued improvements in most sectors, and snapshots of productivity levels in particular sectors that would compare well with other advanced areas in the world until probably some time in the eighteenth century. What we do not see, however, is a shift over time among sectors toward more capital intensive and energy intensive pursuits — and this, as we shall see, is crucial to Li’s overall argument.

Fourth, Li argues that the combination of proto-industrialization and rising yields in agriculture (discussed above) propelled a significant improvement in per capita income and standard of living between 1550 and 1850, despite significant setbacks in the mid-seventeenth century ( a period of civil war, foreign invasion, and massive epidemics) and a decline in the average size of family farms. Here he not only disagrees with the still-regnant Chinese Marxist orthodoxy, which insists that China remained essentially a subsistence economy until the Opium War, but also with American partisans of “involution,” who maintain that the late imperial period was characterized by miniscule gains in income achieved at the expense of very large increases in labor inputs. By contrast, his position comes much closer to what is sometimes called the “California school” of social and economic historians, who argue that economic development in the Delta more or less kept pace with that in the most advanced parts of Europe until the onset of widespread factory industrialization. (Full disclosure statement: this reviewer is a charter member of the California school.) But in some ways, he goes even further than they do: while most of the “Californians” see economic expansion (or at least per capita economic growth) in the Delta slowing by the late eighteenth century, Li’s argument in these two books (though not always since then) suggests that the basic dynamics of growth continued unchanged until China’s mid-nineteenth-century catastrophes.

But while Li is content to rely on largely exogenous factors to explain the decline of the Delta after 1840, he does devote considerable attention to analyzing why the highly productive agriculture, commerce and handicrafts he describes did not spawn something more like classical English industrialization sometime before that date. He argues that institutional structure, surplus available for investment, and the educational level of the workforce were all quite adequate, and that there was widespread interest in productivity-enhancing technological change. Consequently, he looks beyond social, intellectual, and political factors, and finds his answers in geography and the supply of natural resources. In particular, he emphasizes a dearth of energy sources that he says gave Jiangnan production a marked bias away from anything energy-intensive, creating what he calls “a super light industrial” economy. Being very densely populated (and to a great extent reclaimed from marshes, rather than by clearing forest), the Delta had relatively few trees and not very many large work animals; it had no coal or peat, and, being at sea level, relatively little water power. Conditions were even unfavorable for the large-scale use of wind power, though some windmills were established. Thus, Jiangnan did what it was best at: sustaining a very productive agriculture (especially in rice: cotton yields do not seem to have been outstanding), mobilizing the large numbers of people it could feed to produce handicrafts, and taking advantage of its location at the mouth of a river system draining roughly a third of China, plus the coastline and the one thousand mile Grand Canal, to engage in very widespread trade. That it did not shift much labor into areas in which it had serious natural deficiencies, such as energy-intensive heavy industry, should not blind us to what it did achieve, or to the ways in which, Li argues, Jiangnan’s “proto-industrialization,” like its Western counterpart, laid the basis for the growth of modern industry in the region later on.

Much of Li’s argument here parallels the arguments of Western scholars in the so-called “California school,” including myself: thus it is not surprising that I find most of his argument convincing, and welcome the wealth of additional data he has brought to bear. His reconstructions of agricultural productivity and factor inputs, while certainly open to question, are generally the best we have: in particular, I think his claim that both male and female labor productivity rose significantly between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, despite a large increase in population, is at least well-enough based that the burden of proof should now rest on those who wish to argue for stagnation or decline. (The problems with these estimates are that a) the documentary base is fairly narrow, and b) because this was an agriculture with both very high inputs of labor, fertilizer, etc., and very high outputs per acre, relatively small percentage changes in assumptions about either yields or the costs of inputs can lead to uncomfortably large changes in estimates of net output.) The particular care that Li has lavished on changes in fertilizer use and their effects has important implications for environmental history as well as economic history. In terms of industry, his attempt to broaden discussion beyond textiles is particularly welcome, as is his general argument that we should look at what happened within the major sectors of this economy, rather than focusing on why the relative size of light and heavy industrial sectors did not shift. And his attention to environmental and resource problems is also quite helpful, though I think there is evidence that these problems began to constrict the Jiangnan economy somewhat sooner than Li allows, and that some of them were exacerbated by state policies (especially restrictive mining policies, and very limited government investment in transportation infrastructure beyond maintaining the massive Grand Canal) in ways that he does not address. His discussion of the conditions for technological change also seems to me a bit too hurried. While he has certainly made an important contribution by showing that such change had not stopped in Qing-era Jiangnan, there is still some reason to think that its pace had slowed, and no sign that it was speeding up the way it was in Europe. And while Li makes a good case for enough literacy, availability of various manuals, and so on to perpetuate continued diffusion of best practices, we need to know considerably more than we currently do about the rate at which new innovations were being introduced, and about such matters as patterns of association among artisans, the extent to which they were aware of elite science, and what was happening in that science, among other things. But this is only to say that no one scholar can do everything. The main problem, for the foreseeable future, will remain data: Li’s re-interpretations of Chinese economic history have generated new hypotheses considerably faster than we have been able to find material that will satisfy skeptics. But this simply means that we can thank Li, along with his other contributions, for keeping ourselves and our students employed for quite some time to come.

Notes: 1. Technically, these two expressions are not synonymous, but they are now used interchangeably in Chinese studies. “Jiangnan,” meaning “South of the (Yangzi) River,” in Chinese, refers to only part of the geographic Delta, omitting the generally less prosperous North Bank. Most Westerners now use “Yangzi Delta” to refer to Jiangnan, rather than to a more geographically accurate, inclusive region. Jiangnan is also somewhat vague, since it does not refer to a political jurisdiction with officially set boundaries. Professor Li uses a fairly broad definition of the area, though still not as broad as that used by, for instance, Wang Yeh-chien or myself; some other scholars, such as Philip Huang, have adopted a much narrower definition, including only the most densely populated prefectures near Suzhou. Li’s Jiangnan, with an area of roughly 43,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles), had perhaps as many as 36,000,000 people by 1850.

2. Li favors a population figure of 20,000,000 for Jiangnan in 1620, and 36,000,000 in 1850, for a 0.3 percent per annum growth rate. These figures roughly match those of Cao Shuji’s recent work on Chinese population (Zhongguo renkou shi (History of Chinese Population), Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe, 2000), and appear to be widely accepted among Chinese scholars. Many Western scholars, however, favor a lower figure for 1850, following G. William Skinner’s argument that mid-nineteenth century population totals for various parts of China were seriously inflated. (“Sichuan’s Population in the Nineteenth Century: Lessons from Disaggregated Data,” Late Imperial China, 8:1 (1987): 1-79.) Population growth appears to have been minimal in the region after about 1770.

Ken Pomeranz is author of numerous works including The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton University Press, 2000 and The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society, and Economy in Inland North China, 1853-1937, University of California Press, 1993.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval

Sexual Revolutions: Gender and Labor at the Dawn of Agriculture

Author(s):Peterson, Jane
Reviewer(s):Steckel, Richard H.

Published by EH.NET (June 2003)

Jane Peterson, Sexual Revolutions: Gender and Labor at the Dawn of Agriculture. New York: Altamira Press, 2002. xii +177 pp. $70 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7591-0256-2; $26.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7591-0257-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard H. Steckel, Departments of Economics and Anthropology, Ohio State University.

Generations of economic historians have examined the evolution of labor organization, emphasizing patterns of the industrial era. Many recent efforts consider changes in women’s work over the past century that accompanied declining fertility, rising levels of education and new opportunities for employment in the industrial world. Sexual Revolutions extends the agenda far back in time, to the dawn of settled agriculture. Jane Peterson, who is assistant professor of Anthropology at Marquette University, asks how the rise of farming may have created or changed the sexual division of labor in the southern Levant (the modern regions of Palestine, Israel, and Jordan) as long as 10,000 years ago. One strand of the literature cites biological differences between men and women such as size, strength and the burden of pregnancy and childrearing as the fundamental sources of sexual labor patterns. Others claim that agriculture triggered significantly new labor roles for men and women.

There are no drawings or graphic images, much less written accounts of the process, and so anthropologists and archaeologists must construct their portraits from surviving remains of ancient cultures. Skeletons occupy center stage in this study, suggesting ways that the body adapted to mechanical and biological stress. Peterson explains that the wellsprings of this methodology originated in the late nineteenth century, when surgeons and anatomists observed that the type and intensity of work helped to sculpt the body. Doctors identified skeletal modifications with various occupations or habitual activity patterns, features that have been refined by modern industrial, sports and forensic medicine.

Skeletal Markers of Occupational Stress (MOS) may be confounded by nutrition, disease and other factors, and so Peterson is appropriately cautious in qualifying results. Bony changes are commonly interpreted within the framework of Wolff’s Law, which states that skeletal tissue places itself in the direction of functional demand. Because it has a blood supply, the skeleton remodels or responds to mechanical forces throughout life. Indicators used in the book include joint modification, trauma, and the sizes and shapes of ligament attachments. The latter take the form of bone buildup, rough patches and projections that can be graded using a visual reference system, as illustrated by photos in the book. Some repetitive motions, such as throwing, leave well-defined bony signatures, but other actions are the complex outcome of a large suite of muscle groups that are not easily identified with particular activities. Many actions utilize similar muscle groups, making it impossible, for example, to distinguish repetitive downward blows in pulverizing soil from chopping wood. Contextual information about inhabited sites, obtained from the remains of structures, tools, material goods, animal bones and so forth help to identify likely activity patterns associated with specific skeletal formations.

Although Peterson draws upon the work of other researchers to formulate and test hypotheses, her major contribution originates from careful study of 158 individual remains (93 males and 65 females) that were excavated at 14 sites. Seventy-two of the skeletons fall into the Natufian period, which predates settled agriculture. The hypothesis of sexual division of labor is supported for this period, with well-developed muscle attachments for overhand throwing among the males, while female musculature was oriented toward bilateral tasks associated with processing. During the Neolithic, male activities became increasingly bilateral, more closely resembling the female pattern while activity patterns became more intense for both sexes.

In appraising the book by standards familiar to economic historians, who often work with large quantities of data, one could easily complain about the small sample sizes. Economic historians are familiar, however, with ambiguous or qualified results, which in this case follow from limits in connecting detailed features of skeletal development with specific activities. On the upside, this is a local study and far more evidence is available on a continental or global scale for the transition under consideration. Moreover, the methodology on display is relatively recent and the outlook is promising for developing more nuanced and robust interpretations of activity patterns from skeletal evidence.

At first blush the methods articulated in Sexual Revolutions may appear to be uninteresting or of little use to economic historians, but applications do exist. One involves interpretation of high rates of productivity among American slaves, reported by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman in Time on the Cross. They claim this follows from the organization of work in gangs — a type of factory in the field. An alternative explanation, however, is exertion or speed-up– drivers simply forced slaves to work more intensively so that they produced more than free white farmers. Skeletal evidence may be able to distinguish between these explanations, in that slaves who worked intensively in the field should have had more robust skeletons and larger muscle attachments than those of free whites. Second, Robert Fogel recently argued that prior to the agricultural revolution of the nineteenth century, many European peasants had such poor diets that they were incapable of a full day’s work (and by extension, considerable physical exertion). If correct, their skeletons should have been relatively frail and lacking large muscle attachments that characterize more vigorous populations. In sum, skeletons provide useful markers of physical vigor and activity that can be useful for interpreting sources of long-run productivity growth. Thus, economic historians have good reasons to remain tuned to developments in this area of research.

Richard H. Steckel’s latest book (co-edited with Jerome Rose) is The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere (Cambridge, 2002), which employs skeletal remains to investigate long-term trends in health.

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Prehistoric

The Record of Global Economic Development

Author(s):Jones, Eric L.
Reviewer(s):Altman, Morris

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

Eric L. Jones, The Record of Global Economic Development. Cheltenham, UK

and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2002. xviii + 226 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Morris Altman, Department of Economics, University of


Throughout his illustrious scholarly career, Eric Jones has made significant

contributions to both world and English economic history. In this vein, this

book contains contributions to both general and local economic history, albeit

the bulk of this text deals with issues raised in his European Miracle

(1981), relating to world economic development. This discourse on questions is

here further contextualized by more contemporary English and Australian

economic history.

A key objective of this book is to show that (p. vii) “plain economic history

can help pick out the more durable of the arrangements that favour growth.” He

argues that the conditions favoring long run growth are largely political and

include competitive markets, free trade, decentralized institutions, democracy,

the rule of law, and property rights. These themes surface throughout the text,

although free trade and anti-protectionism are the more dominant ones. This is,

in part, a response to the contemporary anti-free trade and anti-globalization

‘populism’ that has gained force in recent years. In his focus upon the

importance of political factors to the growth and development process, Jones

joins a growing literature on the subject exemplified in the work of North

(1990), Olson (2000) and, of course, Jones (1981). Additionally, Jones takes

aim at the thesis that ‘culture matters’ with regards to either promoting or

impeding long run economic growth. Culture, he contends, ultimately adjusts to

economic change. Jones’ critique of the ‘culture matters’ perspective, however,

is largely focused upon a critique of Deepak Lal-type (1998) theses that East

Asian values are superior to ‘Western’ values in terms of facilitating,

fostering, and maintaining socio-economic development.

More generally, Jones critiques the view that the development of the West was

and is a product of ripping-off the rest of the world and related to this view,

that free trade, markets, and capitalism are bad for growth, socio-economic

development and, more generally, for improving the well-being of all members of

society, including workers and peasants. Development, argues Jones, is a

product of the right institutions, just as development failure is largely a

product of failures in constructing institutions that are conducive to the

process of growth and development. This book makes for a provocative read,

raising important questions for all who are interested in questions of

contemporary economic development.

The Preface to this book serves as an excellent introduction to what is

discussed in the text, as Jones succinctly summarizes the thrust of each

chapter. The book is divided into four parts. The first deals with long-term

economic development, the second with protectionism and free trade, the third

with East Asian Development (where the culture-related discourse is focused),

and the fourth deals with adjustments to more recent global economic changes,

with a focus on the Australian experience.

Jones argues, in Chapter One, that economic history of the long dur?e-type has

a lot to teach us about those conditions that facilitate the process of both

extensive and intensive economic growth. Thus, economic history is not simply

of esoteric scholarly interest, but should also be of vital interest from a

public policy perspective. He raises concerns about most quantifiers — Angus

Maddison being the clear exception — as greatly exaggerating the importance of

nineteenth century growth and of those who maintain that the West developed

first fortuitously or because of its exploitation of the less developed

economies, causing the actual underdevelopment of the latter. Jones argues that

it is important to note that extensive growth — output simply keeping pace

with population growth and some urbanization — was and is an important facet

of growth since it indicates important changes in economy and society, such as

investment in infrastructure, new technology, and new crops, which served to

avoid Malthusian crises. Such growth has taken place for centuries prior to the

dramatic tipping over into intensive growth in the West during the nineteenth

century. Thus, intensive growth flowed from the far-from-static extensive

growth societies. However, for intensive growth — increasing per capita output

— to occur and be sustained required, as ‘first order conditions,’ political

stability and the security of property. Also of importance were the rule of law

(and the related decrease in arbitrary and royal power) and good information

markets (and the related decrease of censorship). For intensive growth to

occur, elites could no longer engage in taxing the marginal product at high

rates, thus shifting from a regime of rent seekers to a regime that accrues

income from the increasing marketization of society.

Chapters Two and Three further elaborate upon the themes planted in Chapter

One, pointing out in the process that finding that the West developed first is

not indicative of Western triumphalism and chauvinism as some of the critics of

Jones’ European Miracle would have it. Rather, understanding and

recognizing the fact that the West was the first to engage in sustained

intensive growth, to be followed by Japan, allows us to glean some of the

general conditions necessary for the process of sustained socio-economic

development. He points to the importance of decentralized political

institutions which allowed for the politically and economically oppressed to

flee (thus the importance of labor mobility) and the importance of increasing

markets which allowed for significant ‘Smithian’-based intensive growth. He

points out, for example, that China blocked exploratory market expanding and

enhancing activities. Such negative state intervention was not possible in the

much more decentralized Western Europe. Jones also underlines the importance of

political pluralism, the rule of law (equality before the law) and a free press

for sustained intensive growth. Only under such an institutional regime can

systematic economic and political errors be critiqued and corrected. Also of

importance are the incentives for growth provided by a regime wherein

individuals have a right to retain the fruits of their labors. Jones also

maintains that culture, in terms of particular values, was not important to the

rise of the West. Rather values change to accommodate economic development.

However, this rather dismissive perspective on culture pays little heed to the

contemporary ‘culture matters’ literature (Harrison 1992; Harrison and

Huntington 2000), which points to the importance of institutional change as

necessary to the development process, where the latter is affected by the norms

and mores of society, especially by the decision makers of society.

Long run agricultural development is the focus of Chapter Four. Jones argues

that agricultural growth was a product of both supply and demand changes, very

often a product of independent changes in supply, related to intercontinental

crop and animal transfers, new methods of farming, trade flows, and

institutional innovations. Agricultural progress is also related to the

breaking up of large estates into smaller units thereby releasing

entrepreneurial energies, mechanisms for facilitating the transfer of new ideas

(including education), and incentives to adopt new ideas. Jones critiques the

view that the importance of long run world agricultural exchange should largely

be measured in terms of the convergence of agricultural prices. Rather, he

argues one has to determine counterfactually what might have occurred to

agricultural prices, population growth, and standards of living in the absence

of the type of international agricultural exchanges that transpired from the

sixteenth century. He argues that these exchanges allowed for an unprecedented

increase in population, which marked a significant economic achievement. Thus,

the ‘Age of Discovery’ was not an era dominated by rent seeking, but rather of

highly significant economic advance. Jones views agricultural protectionism as

a key deterrent to further agricultural progress and views the agricultural

protectionism in the contemporary West as damaging the economic well-being of

the population of both developed and less developed economies.

Chapters Five and Six focus on different aspects of protectionism. In Chapter

Five, focusing on contemporary England, Jones addresses the issue of

multifunctionality — unpriced positive spillovers from agricultural production

— as a raison d’?tre for the protection of uncompetitive agricultural sectors.

Jones argues that, on the contrary, there is no evidence of such positive

externalities. Indeed, farmers tend to generate significant negative

externalities, which are only exacerbated by protectionism. Moreover,

protectionism itself comes at a huge direct public expense, including keeping

too much land in agriculture as opposed to providing more tourist space —

urbanites escaping to ‘pristine’ rural settings — which is what the market

demands but which protected farmers will not provide. Resources are

misallocated at the expense of the general public. In Chapter Six Jones argues

against linguistic protection wherein society subsidizes the learning and

spread of ‘dead’ or dying languages at the expense English, which has become,

for historical reasons, the lingua franca, of the world economy. Jones argues

that linguistic nationalists are largely rent seekers who pay little attention

to the opportunity costs incurred by the larger society by their policies. He

argues, for example, that efforts to dissuade the use of English are

particularly damaging in terms of reducing the mobility of labor, increasing

transaction costs, and negatively impacting productivity. The losers in the

game of linguistic nationalism are the people at large — not the elites. Jones

does not argue against the preservation of local cultures and languages per se

as much as critiquing such policies when they interfere with learning proper

internationally understood English where the latter enhances the capacity of a

society as a whole to develop and prosper.

At this point it is important to note that Jones’ critique of protectionism is

narrowly focused on agriculture and language, although he maintains that the

absence of protectionism is a key cause of growth and development. He pays no

heed to the literature which points to the potential importance of selective

protection in newly developing economies to their development process and to

the clear positive correlation, pre-World War Two, between protection and

intensive growth (Bairoch 1993; O’Rourke 2000). The same can be said for the

rapidly developing East Asian economies after the Second World War. In a world

where comparative advantage is dynamically affected by learning-by-doing, for

example, temporary protection can serve as a development tool (Altman 1999).

Related to this is the unanswered question of how should less developed

economies respond to the protectionism of the more developed economies? Should

the less developed world choose the route of unilateral free trade or should it

use its own protectionism, in certain instances, as a tool for bargaining for a

more even tariff-related playing field?

In Chapters Seven, Eight, and Nine Jones critiques the perspective that culture

matters to the process of economic development in the context of East Asian

development. He intends to critique the view that culture either impeded or

caused economic development as opposed to political factors. Moreover, Jones

apparently identifies the ‘culture matters’ perspective with the notion that

culture is immutable. Instead he argues that culture can changes and does as

economic variables change. Economic change yields cultural change and ‘good’

culture can be learnt. Once again, Jones’ views do not contravene the

contemporary culture matters school which views cultural change as possible and

institutional change as key to economic change. In these chapters Jones argues

that for contemporary East Asia to flourish economically requires a more

pluralistic society, with a freer press, and a more independent judiciary — in

a word to be less authoritarian. This increases the capacity for society to

self-correct. He argues that one reason for the current crisis in East Asia has

been that these economies have not gone far enough down the road towards a more

pluralistic and less authoritarian society. He also maintains that the current

crisis demonstrates the failure of the statist approaches to development

adopted in many of the East Asian economies, inclusive of Japan. However, can

one important (financial) crisis, in itself, undermine the hypothesis that an

activist state in a mixed market economy can play a positive role in the

process of economic development, where such activism is positively related to

decades of unprecedented intensive economic growth in key East Asian Economies?

Should one pay heed to the policies of the IMF which, some have argued, played

a critical role in causing and exacerbating the recent East Asian crisis

(Stiglitz 2002)?

In Chapter Ten, Jones discusses the failure of the Australian economy to move

fast enough into the service sector as compared to other developed economies

and relates this to protection and inadequate investment in education. Chapter

Eleven, exploits a narrative on the rise of the supermarket in Australia to

discuss the hypothesis that structural change involving the destruction of the

smaller shop is somehow bad for society and economy. Jones argues that the rise

of the supermarket is in part a product of consumers choosing to shop at these

food retail outlets, which have dramatically increased the quantity and quality

of choices afforded to consumers. He also argues that the supermarket has

changed in response to dramatic shifts in consumer tastes over time. Efforts to

protect the old forms of food retailing would, Jones argues, only negatively

impact upon consumer well-being.

In Chapter Twelve Jones presents a highly polemical critique of the

anti-globalization forces and, on the other side of the coin, a strong defense

of market capitalism. He argues that the available statistics clearly show that

over the course of the past one hundred years most of the world’s population

has seen its socio-economic position improve in absolute terms, indicated by

improvements in life expectancy for example, and the absence of major

Malthusian crises which had plagued the world in previous centuries. Jones

argues that free trade and globalization are the means to resolve the world’s

socio-economic problems. But undemocratic institutions, especially NGOs, led by

misguided individuals, have seriously damaged the capacity of markets to

resolve problems of poverty and overall economic underdevelopment, by attacking

growth and freer trade as unequivocal forces of evil. The anti-globalization

activists, argues Jones, effectively serve the interests of rent-seekers both

at home and abroad, not those of the poor and dispossessed. In this instance,

one must contextualize Jones’ polemic in terms of the narrative presented in

previous chapters wherein markets and trade yield widespread benefits, which

can be sustained only in the context of an appropriate institutional setting.

It would also be important to note that although the NGOs are undemocratic so

are the multinational corporations who are lobbying for a particular path of

competitiveness, which involves lower wages and related benefits to labor and

an overall deterioration in labor standards and working conditions. This is

deemed to be the only path possible for capitalist development to take. The

evidence clearly shows that this is not the case. There indeed exist multiple

paths to competitiveness (Altman 2002). But then the NGOs, however misguided

about the great potential contained in capitalism for fostering and promoting

the human good, serve as a countervail to those who would maintain that

capitalism and globalization require that the population at large must see

their socio-economic position deteriorate (Stiglitz 2002). Needless to say,

Jones makes an important point in underlining the dangers posed, from the point

of view of institutional design and long run intensive growth, by misinformed

and misguided critiques of capitalist production and trade.

Overall, Jones’ most recent book represents an important contribution to the

literature on the role of institutional design in economic growth and

development and the contribution which economic history can make in furthering

our understanding of some of the key forces underlying the process of economic



Altman, Morris (1999), “Free Trade and Protectionism.” In P. O’Hara, ed.

Encyclopedia of Political Economy, vol. 1 (London: Routledge), pp.


Altman, Morris (2002), Satisfaction and Economic Performance (Armonk,

NY: M.E. Sharpe Publishers).

Bairoch, Paul (1993), Economics and World History: Myths and Paradoxes

(Chicago: Chicago University Press).

Harrison, Lawrence .E. (1992). Who Prospers? How Cultural Values Shape

Economic and Political Success (New York: Basic Books).

Harrison, Lawrence E. and Samuel P. Huntington, eds. (2000). Culture

Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New York: Basic Books).

Jones, Eric L. (1981), The European Miracle: Environments, Economies, and

Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (Cambridge/New York:

Cambridge University Press).

Lal, Deepak (1998), Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factors

Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance

(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

North, Douglass C. (1990), Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic

Performance (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Olson, Mancur (2000), Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and

Capitalist Dictatorships (New York: Basic Books).

O’Rourke, Kevin (2000), “Tariffs and Growth in the Late Nineteenth Century.”

Economic Journal, vol. 110, pp. 456-43.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. (2002), Globalization and Its Discontents (W.W.

Norton and Company).

Morris Altman is Professor and Head, Department of Economics, University of

Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He has published extensively in

both economic history and economic theory. His most recent article are: “Staple

Theory and Export-Led Growth: Constructing Differential Growth,” Australian

Economic History Review, 2004 (forthcoming) and, with Louise Lamontagne,

“On the Natural Intelligence of Women in a World of Constrained Choice: How the

Feminization of Clerical Work Contributed to Gender Pay Equality in Early

Twentieth Century Canada,” Journal of Economic Issues, 2004


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Modelling the Middle Ages: The History and Theory of England’s Economic Development

Author(s):Hatcher, John
Bailey, Mark
Reviewer(s):Richardson, Gary

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, Modelling the Middle Ages: The History and

Theory of England’s Economic Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

2001. xiii + 254 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-924411-1; $19.95 (paperback),

ISBN: 0-19-924412-X.

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

California, Irvine.

Modelling the Middle Ages, by John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, provides a

cogent and comprehensive survey of the history and economics of late medieval

England and an invaluable survey of the history of thought concerning those

topics. Scholars interested in these issues should read this book. It will be

especially valuable for graduate and undergraduate economic history courses,

where I expect it to be widely adopted, and for researchers, like myself, with

an interest in medieval England but who had to learn the material on their own,

because they studied at institutions that lacked leading (or any) scholars in

the field. I base my strong recommendation on three features of the text:

First, the book is insightful. It demystifies the beliefs underlying the

arguments of most economic historians — beliefs derived from intellectual

foundations established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Adam

Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and other eminent scholars. It

explains how and why the work of those intellectual forefathers generated three

grand explanatory models, “population and resources,” “class power and property

relations,” and “commercialization,” and how those models influenced debates

among historians and social scientists concerning the causes and consequences

of economic development during the Middle Ages.

Second, the book is useful, in the most practical sense of the term. It

summarizes two hundred years of scholarly literature in a few hundred pages

while building a framework, a lexicon, and a syntax that will allow scholars to

compare and contrast their ideas more precisely than they currently can. It

will have wide applications in other fields, such as global history,

particularly global history, where similar models form the foundation of

similar debates.

Third, the book is clear, lucid, and accurate. In some cases, the book explains

author’s ideas better than the original expositors did themselves. The clarity

of the prose and the organization of the argument assure the material will be

accessible to students at all levels.

The foreword and introduction establish the motives of the authors and sketch

an outline of their argument. The authors hope to fulfill a “pressing need of

undergraduate students studying the medieval economy for an introduction to the

theory and practice behind the grand models of development which dominate the

subject (p. vii).” As I mentioned earlier, they more than accomplish that goal.

The authors also hope to contribute to the ongoing scholarly debates concerning

the economic development of medieval England. They plan to compare and contrast

the intellectual and empirical content of the methods and models used to study

medieval English economic history and in doing so shed light on the advantages

and disadvantages of each method as well as advance our knowledge of the Middle

Ages. They also accomplish this goal, as my description of the remainder of the

book, and hopefully your reading of the text, should demonstrate.

Chapter 1, Methods and Models, explains “why the medieval period has proved so

attractive to the builders of historical models, and theorizing so attractive

to medieval historians (p. 3).” The Middle Ages lasted for more than five

centuries. During that long era, transformations occurred in almost every area

of economic and social life. Merely describing these changes is a challenging

task. “Historians cannot hope to describe, analyze, and explain them by

gathering and narrating factual information alone (p. 4).” They must choose to

present certain facts and materials but not others. Their emphasize depends

upon their point of view, their prior beliefs, and the point which they wish to

make. Theory and speculation are therefore indispensable ingredients of any

grand survey. They impose a degree of coherence and clarity and force scholars

to fit the facts into a manageable working framework. In this way, order can be

imposed upon the chaos of vast numbers of pieces of information and answers

formulated to crucial questions. In addition, abstract concepts and formal

models help scholars explain why things happened as they did and what might

have happened in counterfactual cases. Explaining such things requires more

than mere narration. Historical changes lasting several centuries and

penetrating all spheres of economic, social, and political activity were the

culmination of an infinite number of individual events. No one can describe

them all. Comprehending them requires analysis, a systematic approach to the

material, the sorting and grading of information, and the weighing of the

relative merits of different concepts. Models, in other words, are needed to

seek the reasons behind vast historical processes such as the rise and decline

of serfdom and feudalism, the rise of the money economy and capitalism, the

rise and contraction of economic activity, and the growth of urbanization and


Chapter 2, Population and Resources, focuses on the first of the grand

supermodels, and the ways in which assumptions influence its results and in

which it impinges on historical analysis “in both a helpful and harmful

manner.” The population and resource model, also known as the demographic or

Malthusian model, stems from a core set of simple economic relationships. The

productivity of agriculture depends upon the relative scarcity of the two prime

factors of production: land and labor. As addition units of one input are

employed while the others are held constant, the output generated by each

additional unit will eventually fall (diminishing returns). Thus, when land is

abundant relative to labor, the productivity of the land will be low. The

productivity of labor will be high. Products of the land, like foodstuffs and

raw materials such as leather, wool, and wood, will be inexpensive. Wages will

be high. When labor is abundant relative to land, the productivity of the land

will be high. The productivity of labor will be low. Food and rents will be

expensive. Real wages will fall. There is clear potential for applying such

basic supply and demand analysis to conditions prevailing in medieval England.

“There is abundant evidence to show that over the longer term there was a

strong correlation between rising population, on the one hand, and increasing

land values and agricultural prices, and falling real wages, and, on the other,

between declining population, falling prices and land values, and rising real

wages. By this analysis the Middle Ages falls into two sharply contrasting

periods; with the broad experience of much of the era up until the fourteenth

century conforming to the former set of circumstances, and the later

characteristics persisting throughout much of the late fourteenth and fifteenth

centuries” (pp. 22-23).

Chapter 3, Class Power and Property Relations, examines the second grand

supermodel, which begins with the presumption that the keys to understanding

the economic development lie in the social relations and political and legal

institutions of society. Of particular importance are the “relations between

the leading classes and in developments of what are termed the ‘mode of

production'” (p. 67). The most popular models of this type are those

constructed by Karl Marx and his intellectual descendants. For Marxists,

“history is a dialectical process in which the future is shaped by the present,

just as the present was shaped by the past, and each distinct era of human

development — ancient, oriental, feudal, capitalist — generates from within

itself the conditions which will ultimately transform it” (pp. 67-8). Marxists

focus their attention on a limited range of issues, particularly relations and

conflicts among social classes as well as the mode, means, and relations of

production, as the main agents of social and economic change and development.

Thus, the dynamic for the transformation of medieval society lay primarily in

the relationship between lords and peasants, who were the two principle classes

of feudal society. The relationship was inevitably one of conflict, due to the

opposing interests of landlord and tenant, and eventually resulted in a ‘crisis

of feudalism,’ whose “onset is usually located in the late thirteenth and early

fourteenth centuries” (p. 71). At that time, the increasingly excessive

depredations of the landlord class undermined agricultural productivity,

plunged the peasantry into poverty, and inspired them to struggle against the

exploitative social system.

Chapter 4, Commercialization, Markets, and Technology, focuses on commercial

activity and technical progress. The bulk of the space is devoted to the

rapidly expanding evidentiary base and to the discussion of ways in which

markets and technology could overcome Malthusian, Ricardian, and Marxist

constraints on economic development. There are two basic theories. Improvements

in agriculture — such as improving land management, crop rotation, and

selective breeding of crops and animals — raised the productivity of land and

labor. Urbanization and commercialization expanded the scope of the market, the

division of labor, and the wealth of nations.

Chapter 5, The Importance of Time and Place, explores the weaknesses of the

models discussed in the previous chapters from three different perspectives.

The first exposes the difficulties that emerge when the models are applied to

both the early and later Middle Ages. In each case, assumptions needed to apply

and conclusions drawn from the application of a model to the earlier era

conflict with those from the later period. The second reviews the wide range of

alternative models that have been proposed and which illuminate inadequacies in

existing models. The third tests the validity of the assumptions and methods of

each of the major supermodels by applying them to a particular test case: the

rise and decline of serfdom in medieval England.

Chapter 6, Beyond the Classic Supermodels, stresses the limitations of the

models described during the previous chapters. The principal flaws are their

neglect of social factors, institutions, historical contingency, and the

uncertainties inherent in individual behavior and group dynamics. The chapter

ends on a hopeful note, by suggesting ways in which the limitations of these

models might be overcome historically, empirically, and theoretically.

Overall, the book does an excellent job of accomplishing its two goals. The

first was to provide a clear and accessible introduction to the conceptual

frameworks that have dominated this field for many decades. The second was to

assess the strengths, weaknesses, relevance, and credibility of the models. The

book itself has many strengths and few weaknesses. I think that in the future

students interested in this topic will read it.

Gary Richardson is Assistant Professor of Economics at UC-Irvine. His

dissertation, “Social Change and Industrial Expansion before the Industrial

Revolution” was completed at the UC-Berkeley.

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

Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850-1520

Author(s):Dyer, Christopher
Reviewer(s):Masschaele, James

Published by EH.NET (September 2002)

Christopher Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain,

850-1520. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. x + 403 pp. $35.00

(Cloth), ISBN: 0-300-09060-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James Masschaele, Department of History, Rutgers


Christopher Dyer’s latest book, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The

People of Britain, 850-1520 appears as part of The New Economic History

of Britain series published by Yale University Press. The aim of the series

is to offer monographs that are sufficiently scholarly to be taken seriously by

academic historians, but sufficiently accessible to appeal to a broader market

of sophisticated amateurs curious to understand why a small island off the

coast of Europe came to have such an inordinate influence on the history of the

world’s economic development. Dyer, now professor of regional and local history

at the University of Leicester, has achieved this objective by providing a

thorough synthesis of existing literature in a book that is highly readable.

Specialists may come away from the book feeling that he hedged his bets on some

of the more controversial issues in the field, but most readers will find the

book to be a clear and well-articulated account of the medieval British


Dyer divides the period covered into three eras: from 850 to 1100; from 1100 to

1350; and from 1350 to 1520. The first era was one of vigorous and creative

growth, during which the basic patterns of village life, manorial economy, and

urban geography that would survive beyond the medieval period were put in

place. In making the argument for substantial and influential growth, Dyer

relies heavily on archeological evidence to support the meager written evidence

of the period, and his use of archeology and his arguments for major advances

in economic sophistication in the period are among the most original and

interesting parts of the book. Reginald Lennard once famously remarked that by

1066 England was already an old country. Compared to later medieval periods,

relatively little has been written about the economic history of this early

period, but Dyer makes a convincing case that we need to give more heed to

Lennard’s old saw. Whether one looks at settlement patterns, at the exchange

economy, or at the social relations of production, one finds an economy that

looks surprisingly familiar to those better versed in the economic structures

of later centuries.

Dyer divides his second era (1100-1350) into the two phases traditionally

depicted by historians, one of growth in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries

followed by a period of crisis in the early fourteenth century. The growth

phase is presented as a continuation of the first era, essentially a process of

filling in the mold set in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Population grew

quickly, for example, but mostly within settlements founded before the Domesday

Book; similarly, the money supply grew dramatically, but its growth was

associated more with a change in degree of commercial orientation than a change

in kind. Dyer portrays the crisis phase primarily in Malthusian terms, the

consequence of too many mouths feeding from too few acres of land. He expresses

dissatisfaction with several key components of the neo-Malthusian approach

championed by Michael Postan, but like most other economic historians, he finds

it difficult not to view the crisis phase as a consequence of the growth phase.

Dyer’s third era is one of flux, in which different sectors of the economy

experienced different phases of growth, stagnation, and decline, preventing any

easy generalizations. Dyer favors a high estimate of plague mortality, arguing

that a death rate of fifty percent accords well with the evidence. He also

argues for a relatively late date for a return of population growth, offering

1540 as his best guess. Most economic trends in the era are related to this

severe demographic regime. Some towns clearly suffered through the period as

markets shrank and new rivals emerged, but overall Dyer believes that towns

held their own through the period, noting that urban populations comprised

about the same proportion of total population in 1520 as they had in 1300. The

countryside saw considerable conversion from arable to pasture land, as

producers sought to cope with the collapse of the market for cereals in the

fifteenth century. Individual holdings of land increased in size, but many

proprietors of these larger holdings still had difficulty making ends meet. The

principal beneficiaries of the new circumstances of the era were laborers and

smaller landholders, while lords and those who employed labor had the greatest

hurdles to overcome. Dyer insists that collective action by peasants and

laborers, particularly in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was instrumental in

bringing about the redistribution of wealth that favored the lower orders in

the period.

Viewed as a whole, the book has many features to commend it. Dyer’s survey of

existing literature is thorough and his synopsis of the work of other scholars

is intelligent and fair. His inclusion of economic trends in Scotland and Wales

adds refreshing geographical breadth to the work, and often makes for

interesting comparative observations. Reports of archeological fieldwork are

skillfully integrated with documentary sources, and furnish considerable

support for the author’s contention that the material world of medieval

peasants and townspeople was richer and more accomplished than is generally

recognized. (The inclusion of twenty plates and illustrations also is helpful

in this regard.) One is particularly struck by the author’s use of anecdotes

and vignettes to enliven the general description of economic trends. Dyer

insists that individual decision making needs to be set along side impersonal

economic forces to explain why the economy behaved as it did. The story of

deserted villages, for example, is not simply a consequence of the exogenous

influence of disease on society, it is also a consequence of decisions made by

individual peasants to leave particular villages to seek better fortunes

elsewhere. Recapturing the motives, fears, and aspirations of a wide spectrum

of medieval people is not an easy task, and few, if any, medieval economic

historians do it better than Christopher Dyer.

The purpose of a good synthesis is to draw attention to what we don’t know as

well as to highlight what we do know. By adopting relatively broad geographical

and chronological frameworks, Dyer’s book raises a number of issues that beg

for further study. Regional variation is one such example. The author notes on

a number of occasions that pastoral areas differed from arable regions in their

responses to prevailing economic circumstances, but it is far from clear in

these discussions what such shifts mean and how we ought to relate them to the

economy as a whole. Why, for example, did the southwest fare so much better in

the late medieval period than other parts of the country? Similarly, the

author’s reconstruction of population trends over the period raises a host of

questions that defy easy explanations. His reconstruction (seen most readily in

Figure 2 on p. 235) opts for gentle growth from 850-1150, followed by

dramatically faster growth from 1150-1300. Given his emphasis on the structural

continuity between these periods, one is puzzled to explain their fundamentally

different demographic trajectories. One also wonders why late medieval

population levels stagnated for so long. Dyer suggests that both mortality and

fertility issues need to be included in the explanation, but he fails to give a

clear statement of how they ought to be weighted, nor does his treatment of the

subject offer many insights into earlier population dynamics. Perhaps the most

interesting issue raised by his population estimates is the aberrant nature of

the thirteenth century. Dyer’s model suggests that the population of England

ranged between two and three million for every century between the ninth and

sixteenth, except for the thirteenth, when it rocketed to about six million. By

crafting such a fine synthesis of other aspects of the medieval economy, Dyer’s

work suggests that we still have much to learn about the inner dynamics of

medieval demography, as well as about the structural relationships between

population movements, commercial change, and the social relations of production

and income distribution.

James Masschaele is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University. He

is the author of Peasants, Merchants, and Markets: Inland Trade in Medieval

England (St. Martin’s Press, 1997), and “The Public Space of the

Marketplace in Medieval England,” Speculum 77 (2002).

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

Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation

Author(s):Harris, J. William
Reviewer(s):Virts, Nancy

Published by EH.NET (April 2002)

J. William Harris, Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in

the Age of Segregation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

xii + 454 pp. $49.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8018-6563-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nancy Virts, Department of Economics, California State

University, Northridge.

In Deep Souths, J. William Harris writes a ground-level history of

three southern regions, the Mississippi Delta, the Georgia Piedmont and the Sea

Island Region of the Georgia coast, from reconstruction to World War II. The

book is divided into three sections, each of which covers a twenty-year period.

Each section has a chapter each on economic development, culture and politics.

There are many similarities among these regions. The economies of all three

were dependent on plantation agriculture and had a majority black population

before the Civil War. After the Civil War each struggled to revive the

plantation economy in a capitalist system with free labor and to deal with the

rise of African American political power. In all three regions the result was a

new era of segregation and consolidation of white power. One of the most

important points made is that this consolidation was never complete because of

the resistance of African Americans. In spite of the similarities among these

regions, however, Harris’s careful research into plantation records, county

records and the personal histories of diverse groups of individual citizens

shows that the economic, political and cultural development of these regions

also differed in important ways.

In the Sea Island region, initial attempts to grow rice on large plantations

were unsuccessful. Former slaves became landowning peasants who continued many

traditional practices that died out elsewhere. Harris does a good job of

describing both this unique culture and attempts to preserve it by African

American middle-class reformers. The rates of black land ownership were higher

in this region than elsewhere, and as a result blacks were more likely to hold

public office and mob violence against blacks was less common than in the other

two regions. However, as the old plantations either receded into the swamps or

became vacation destinations for wealthy northerners, opportunity for black

economic advancement stagnated.

The plantations of the Piedmont region, worked with black and white tenant

labor, survived after the Civil War but were in decline by the 1930s. Harris

shows that even in this region the number of black landowners increased,

although the number of black tenants increased faster. The presence of a large

number of small farmers, both white and black, made this area the center of the

Populist movement. Harris shows how the Populists initially attempted to unite

both white and black farmers on the grounds of economic interests, but were

ultimately unsuccessful.

In the Delta region, this was an era of expansion. Huge public work projects

along the Mississippi brought a large amount of new land into cultivation. The

scale of these new plantations was much larger than most slave plantations,

even though they were worked with tenant labor. Labor migrated to the region

from all over the South. These large plantations were well financed and well

managed. Although many were able to withstand natural disasters such a floods

and drought, the boll weevil and the variable price of cotton, there were also

those that did not. Harris makes clear that the planter elite was firmly

committed to the idea of white supremacy. The number of lynchings in the Delta

was higher than in any other region. Even here African Americans actively

pushed the color line. The need for a stable plantation labor force caused some

whites to protest the most shocking examples of racial violence. It was also a

place of African American creativity, which gave rise to a new musical form,

the blues.

One of the strengths of the book is the use Harris makes of the personal

stories of individuals of these regions. The individuals described are a

diverse lot including white planters, African American sharecroppers, and

middle class African American reformers, as well as Charley Patton the “king”

of the Delta Blues and Arthur Raper, a white sociologist who was prosecuted in

Georgia for referring to his African American co-workers as “Mrs.” and “Mr.”.

Their stories illustrate the varied reactions of both whites and black to


The government played an important role in this story in all three regions.

American entry into World War I challenged the racial code of the South in

important ways. The increased demand for labor resulted in increased migration

of African Americans to the North. African American soldiers in uniform were a

direct challenge to existing social norms. The New Deal also brought change to

the South, but African Americans continued to struggle against the color line.

The book makes an important contribution to our understanding of both the

origins and the evolution of segregation in the South. Harris is able to see

the broad similarities in economic, political and cultural developments in

these three regions. However, his effective use of primary source material also

allows him to highlight the differences as well. Although plantation

agriculture dominated all three regions before the Civil War, by the 1940s it

remained important only in the Delta region. Traditional African American

practices were preserved in the Sea Island region, while the Delta gave birth

to a new musical form, the blues. The stories of the many different people

Harris describes make the book compelling reading.

Nancy Virts’ publications include “The Efficiency of Southern Tenant

Plantations, 1900-1945,” Journal of Economic History, June 1991 and

(with Kenneth Ng) “The Black-White Income Gap in 1880,” Agricultural

History, Winter 1993.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History

Author(s):North, Douglass C.
Thomas, Robert Paul
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip R. P.

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

North, Douglass C. and Robert Paul Thomas, The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973. viii + 171 pp. ISBN: 0-521-29099-6.

Review Essay by Philip R. P. Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University. <>

New or Old Economic History? Incentives and Development

This is a landmark book on the impact of property rights on European economic development. Published over a quarter of a century ago, its stated goal is “… to suggest new paths for the study of European economic history rather than … either [a detailed and exhaustive study or a precise empirical test that are the] … standard formats” (p. vii). North and Thomas attempt to identify the elements that allowed the Western European economy to rise to affluence. Their argument is made transparent in Chapter One (Theory and Overview): the key to growth was and is an efficient economic system. Efficient in the sense that the system of property rights gives individuals incentives to innovate and produce, and, conversely inhibits those activities (rent-seeking, theft, arbitrary confiscation and/or excessive taxation) that reduce individual incentives. They argue that property rights are classic public goods because: (1) once a more efficient set of property rights is discovered the marginal cost of copying it is low (compared to the cost of discovering and developing it); (2) it is prohibitively expensive to prevent other political jurisdictions from emulating a more efficient set of property rights regardless of whether they contributed to their construction; (3) and finally, the idea of a set of property rights, like all ideas, is non-rival — we can all consume the same idea and the “stock” of the idea is not diminished. These public good aspects lead them to conclude that there may be under investment in the attempts to create more efficient sets of property rights because the jurisdiction that invests in the development of property rights pays the entire cost of their development but receives only benefits that accrue to its jurisdiction, while other jurisdictions can get the benefits without any of the developmental costs. Thus, the problems of public goods and the “free riders.”

Chapter Two (“An Overview”) sets the historical stage for their analysis. North and Thomas begin with tenth-century Europe and an examination of the classic feudal system. They contend that relatively low population densities and the absence of security (both economic and personal) led to a retreat from market exchange to one of self-sufficiency and to the development of feudalism. Protection was valuable and had to be paid for, but in the absence of markets it was paid for in kind rather than money. Since agricultural output could not be exchanged in the market (land) lords demanded labor services (dues) rather than output shares. Labor dues could be used to produce a more desirable set of consumables than output shares. Lacking market exchange, manorial labor was more fungible than agricultural output. The authors argue that from kings down to peasants, the absence of markets was the mid-wife to feudalism. The second prong of their thesis is that in feudalism, as in any societal arrangement, there existed a myriad of details, known as the custom of the manor that allowed the system to function. Once established, these customs became the set of property rights that molded the economic and personal relationships of feudalism.

As the centuries progressed populations grew and manorial economies replicated themselves. North and Thomas contend that land was available at the constant marginal cost (the cost of clearing land) up to the thirteenth century. At the end of this period diminishing returns to labor employed in agriculture manifested itself. The growth of population densities and the establishment of political order allowed markets to emerge. Diminishing returns and emergent markets gave feudal lords incentives to convert their serfs’ labor dues into fixed money payments. The lords were better off receiving a fixed payment rather than labor dues because the market price for labor was falling due to Malthusian diminishing returns to labor in agriculture. The commutation of labor services into money payments could not be reversed when labor became more valuable during the plagues of the fourteenth century. Amending the custom of the manor was subject to severe transactions costs, consequently by the sixteenth century servile labor in Western Europe was not viable.

Part Two (Chapters 3-7) presents evidence to buttress this thesis. Chapter 3 explores property rights in humans and land, Chapters 4 and 5 develop the frontier movement and the settling of land. Chapter 6 explores diminishing returns to agriculture in the thirteenth century, and Chapter 7 the devastation associated with the fourteenth century. Part Three of the book deals with the period 1500 to 1700 and covers the “unsuccessful” national economies of Spain and France and the successful ones of Holland and England. North and Thomas argue that inefficient sets of property rights hindered economic growth in Spain and France, while more efficient sets promoted the economic growth of England and Holland.

The paragraphs above are a rough sketch of the North-Thomas thesis on the growth of Western Europe. How well have the last 25 years of the twentieth century treated it, and how much consideration should it be given? The first question is relatively easy to answer. Texts and books in European economic development and history generally cite The Rise of the Western World, with the notable exceptions of David Landes and Rondo Cameron. In the academic literature it is frequently cited: The Social Science Citation Index for the years 1986-1990 gives the book about fifteen citations per year (68 total citations in the entire five year period), and for the last decade of the twentieth century (and subsequent to North winning the Nobel Prize in economics) citations rose to about twenty per year.1 But how big is that? It is larger than most, but not in the league of scholarship that alters the way a subject is considered. A relevant example is Ester Boserup’s The Conditions of Agricultural Growth that, for the same period (1986-90), was cited 158 times, or more than twice as frequently as North and Thomas. I believe the citation count assessment of the significance of this book is relatively accurate. The Rise of the Western World is an addition to the historiography of property rights, but it does not accomplish its stated goal: to explain the rise of the West. Furthermore there are significant gaps in its argument.

First, its reliance on Malthusian population theory may be misplaced. In 1966 the aforementioned Ester Boserup published her work The Conditions of Agricultural Growth (not cited in North and Thomas). From empirical evidence she argued that increasing populations led to the intensification of economic activities: From hunting and gathering, to a long-cycle agricultural rotation mixed in with hunting and gathering, to settled agriculture. In Boserup’s analysis output per man-year rises in agricultural societies relative to hunting and gathering societies, but output per hour devoted to the acquisition of food may have fallen. Boserup’s thesis is much more sophisticated than (and contradictory to) the simple Malthusian framework that North and Thomas rely upon. She points out that it is extraordinarily difficult to compare outputs in societies with different levels of production intensity. Population densities lead to different modes of production and entirely different societies. An increase in population density increases the range of productive activities that can be produced for market exchange, and as Adam Smith explains increased specialization leads to increased output and the size of the market limits specialization. North and Thomas recognize this interdependency explicitly. They state that increasing specialization due to increasing population densities may have partially offset Malthusian diminishing returns. How do they know it was a partial offset? The evidence they offer on diminishing returns and a Malthusian crisis in medieval England is primarily derived from the works of James E. Thorold Rogers, who investigated six centuries of wages and prices in England.2

As a source, Rogers is an excellent compilation of manorial roles and other data sources, however he is not a transparent writer and he is difficult to interpret. In volume one of A History of Agriculture and Prices in England (1866) he states, “… we may… conclude that the price of the service [wage labor], in so far as it was affected by competition, represents fully the economical conditions of supply and demand, and is interpreted by the evidence of prices” (p. 253). This may be interpreted to mean that wages are an accurate representation of the laborers’ incomes, but that does not seem to be what Rogers meant. Two pages later he writes that: “In many cases the labourer or artisan was fed. In this case, of course, he received lower wages. … At Southampton, the various artisans are almost invariably fed, … [In 1385] we read … of an allowance instead of food. As a rule, however, the wages paid are irrespective of any other arrangement. Sometimes, but very rarely, and only in the earlier part of the period, the labourer is paid in kind.” And in Six Centuries of Work and Wages (1884), Rogers indicates that feeding workers was considered routine (pp. 170, 328, 354-55, 510, 540-541, etc.).

I interpret Rogers to mean that in the early centuries of his study day laborers did not normally receive family food allowances, but that they were typically fed on the job. Given the nature of work (agricultural labor from shortly after sunrise to sunset) and medieval food preservation and preparation technology, not feeding workers would have forced them to devote significant amounts of time away from working to food preparation and to feeding themselves (just getting bread would be a formidable task given their work hours and the work hours of bakers). Besides being fed on the job laborers frequently had other perquisites such as gleaning, allotments of beer, and small amounts of land for individual agricultural activities (kitchen gardens). All these in-kind payments are mentioned in Rogers (1866) and are considered normal. North and Thomas base their work not only on the wage data from Rogers, but also on his price data for agricultural products.3 In order to determine real wages, money wages are divided by an index of agricultural prices.4 Notice that the numerator typically ignores payments in kind and the denominator is exclusively a food index. Medieval workers’ consumption bundles had a heavy food component, but if one is being partially paid in food and resources devoted to food (kitchen gardens), then real wage indexes that focus solely on the costs of food may be seriously distorted unless the income (both in money and in kind) elasticity for food is one and the overwhelming preponderance of the budget is devoted to food. Mildly put, the data that North and Thomas rely upon to show Malthusian diminishing returns are not entirely adequate to the task.

Other sources question the use of the Malthusian paradigm. James Z. Lee and Wang Feng unequivocally deny that Chinese agriculture from 1300 to 1800 experienced Malthusian crises. Similarly, Julian L. Simon disputed the empirical validity of the Malthusian model. Others question the North and Thomas view of medieval English agriculture. Gregory Clark questions the view of a primitive English agriculture running into diminishing returns in the early fourteenth century.5 Certainly the fourteenth-century plague was a disaster to the European economy, but it does not follow that the plagues that devastated it were direct consequences of Malthusian diminishing returns. More likely it was, as William McNeill hypothesized, a result of an integrated Old World economy that led to the introduction of a “new” pathogen to a dense, flea-ridden European population.6

So there are difficulties with North and Thomas’s belief that the diseases of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are a manifestation of declining living standards (Malthusianism). They do not consider that the plague may have been exogenous, that pathogens are subject to their own dynamics and evolution and not necessarily a result of human intervention.7 North and Thomas simply assert that the plague was a result of over population, diminishing returns, and declining living standards. But if that is so, why did the plague reoccur after population had declined and (according to the data they rely upon) wages had increased? And why did plague occur earlier — in the mid-sixth century? North and Thomas do not have answers.

There is a straightforward explanation to these questions that is grounded in epidemiology: It is that the plague was a “new” disease to fourteenth-century Europe and its relatively dense population resulted in high rates of infection and mortality. These rates decreased as immunities (both acquired and genetic) became more predominant in the populations of Europe. What has this to do with Malthus and diminishing returns? Nothing: The simple Malthusian doctrine correlating high death rates with low living standards is suspect. It assumes that diseases are a function of poverty while there is evidence that the causation runs from diseases to poverty, and it is contradicted by data which show areas with high money incomes (cities) having higher death rates than those areas with low money incomes (rural areas). Consequently any line of reasoning that relies upon the Malthusian doctrine, as does The Rise of the Western World, is suspect.

There are other flaws in their thesis, some minor, some major. A minor omission is that they do not specify why the servile labor force accepted the original commutation of labor services to money payments. According to their high transactions cost model, “the custom of the manor” would have made the initial negotiations prohibitively costly. A simple observation that personal freedom to the individual was worth more than the value of the money payments would correct this omission. And, such an observation would reinforce their claim that when the purchasing power of a unit of money fell (inflation) the lords were unable to switch back to servile labor.

A more significant difficulty with their thesis is their claim that while diminishing returns to labor existed in the countryside, urban areas had constant returns. These are inconsistent with declining real wages, because migration from village to town will prevent agricultural wages from falling.8 Another difficulty is their lack of knowledge of antiquity: They seem to believe that institutional innovations such as insurance and bills of exchange were medieval innovations, but these were known and used at least by the Hellenistic era, and the ancients developed many contractual forms that were resurrected and used again during the European Renaissance.9

So North and Thomas’s book is not without its flaws, but blemishes and all it still makes significant contributions in its emphasis on an efficient set of property rights as a necessary condition for economic development to take place. In this emphasis North and Thomas returned to the fundamentals of economics and its founding father, Adam Smith, who said: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought by the natural course of things.”

The Rise of the Western World is right to echo these sentiments. Since its publication in 1973 the modest increases in economic and personal freedom that the Chinese have experienced have led its population to a degree of affluence entirely unanticipated a quarter of a century ago. Similarly, the decline in law and order has bought economic and personal disasters to many in parts of Asia and Africa. The lesson seems a hard one to learn: the protection of the liberties of people to both their persons and properties is the most effective way to promote the general welfare in the long run. Short-run policies that restrict these liberties inevitably reduce welfare in both the short and long run. By focusing on this lesson in The Rise of the Western World, North and Thomas have done the profession and humanity a meritorious service.


1. Counting citations is a tricky business because a slight change in the citation can result in an entry separate from the main one. Thus D.C. North and R.P. Thomas may be counted differently from D. North and R. Thomas.

2. North and Thomas cite other evidence, but much of this is ultimately derived from Rogers’s work. For example E.H. Phelps Brown and Shelia Hopkins’s works on wages and prices are based on data gathered from Rogers.

3. North and Thomas rely on the Phelps Brown and Hopkins works (1955, 1956, 1957) on real wages whose data are derived from the wage and price data of Rogers.

4. “Index” may not be a completely accurate term because the index frequently contains only one commodity; then, to be specific, it is a wage series expressed in wheat units.

5. Clark (1991) using labor inputs in harvesting as a proxy for wheat yields finds little change in output per acre over the medieval era. He observes that: “Interestingly the labour input on reaping wheat from 1250 to 1450 seems to have risen little, implying a constancy of yields over this period. This is consistent with the work of Titow and of Farmer on the Winchester and Westminster estates over the medieval period. … Wheat yields were fairly constant over the medieval period, the population losses of the Black Death having little impact on yields” (p. 454, footnotes omitted).

In another article, Clark (1988) observes that relatively low yields per acre in medieval England could be attributed to the relatively high interest rates. Taken together these observations do not lend support to the thesis that medieval Europe was in a Malthusian crisis because, if it were so, we would expect to see declining mean output per unit of labor and increasing mean output per unit of land as diminishing returns makes labor relatively abundant and land relatively scarce. The opposite would occur if, as a result of the Black Death, labor became relatively scarce.

6. North and Thomas do not recognize that the plague may have been the result of increasing living standards. As incomes rose trade increased and disease pools in different regions became integrated. Mortal diseases newly introduced to an area frequently have a devastating impact on the native population. For more on this see McNeill.

7. Exogenous in the sense that the plague was not a disease endemic to fourteenth-century Europe, although, most likely, it had appeared in Europe in the first millennium CE; see J. C. Russell for further information.

8. For a complete specification of this model see Chambers and Gordon.

9. Edward F. Cohen argues and presents persuasive evidence that these institutional forms were abundant in fourth-century BC Athens.


Boserup, Ester. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Chicago: Aldine, 1965.

Cameron, Rondo. A Concise Economic History of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Clark, Gregory. “Yields per Acre in English Agriculture, 1250-1860: Evidence from Labour Inputs,” Economic History Review 44 (1991): 445-60.

Clark, Gregory. “The Costs of Capital and Medieval Agricultural Technique,” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988): 265-94.

Chambers, Edward J. and Donald F. Gordon. “Primary Products and Economic Growth: An Empirical Measurement,” Journal of Political Economy 74 (1966): 315-32.

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

Lee, James Z. and Wang Feng. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Landes, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. New York: Norton, 1998.

McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books, 1976.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Seven Centuries of Building Wages,” Economica 22 (1955): 195-206.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Seven Centuries of the Prices of Consumables, Compared with Builders’ Wage-Rates,” Economica 23 (1956): 296-314.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Wage-Rates and Prices: Evidence for Population Pressure in the Sixteenth Century,” Economica 24 (1957): 289-306.

Rogers, James E. Thorold. Six Centuries of Work and Wages. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1884.

Rogers, James E. Thorold. A History of Agriculture and Prices in England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1866.

Russell, Josiah C. “That Earlier Plague,” Demography 5 (1968): 174-84.

Simon, Julian L. The Economics of Population Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Simon, Julian L. Population and Development in Poor Countries: Selected Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Simon, Julian L. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Simon, Julian L. and Herman Kahn (editors). The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000. New York: Oxford, 1984.

Philip R. P. Coelho has written on long-run economic growth (“An Examination into the Causes of Economic Growth,” Research in Law and Economics 1985) and is currently working on the impact of morbid diseases on economic history and growth (see: “Biology Disease and Economics: An Alternative History of Slavery in the American South,” with Robert A. McGuire, Journal of Bioeconomics Vol. 1, 1999; “Epidemiology and the Demographic Transition in the New World,” Health Transition Review, Vol. 7, 1997; and “African and European Bound Labor in the British New World: The Biological Consequences of Economic Choices” with Robert A. McGuire, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 57, 1997.)


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