History and Economic Life – a reflection

by | Apr 23, 2021 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Georg Christ, and Philipp Robinson Roessner, ed., History and Economic Life: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Economic and Social History Sources Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources, (London: Routledge, 2020) – a reflection[1]

Georg Christ

Our centre leader’s request to write about a book I co-edited might seem unusual at first. Would it not be more appropriate to have colleagues critically review the book and tear it to shreds? Upon deeper reflection it seems wise, however, to have the editor doing the job himself. Critiquing myself I am not wasting a reviewer’s time and I reap the added benefit of looking terribly modest and self-reflective.[2]

Why should anyone, let alone a medievalist, care about economics and economic history? Economic history indeed has a difficult stand these days. Already back in 1988, Carlo Cipolla in his classic introduction to economic history saw it caught between ‘Two Cultures’ – economics and history.[3] Thus it is treated with contempt by both: economists reject it as unproductive and mathematically under-complex, historians as too quantitative, positivist, materialistic and, quite bluntly, ‘boring’.

Medievalists in particular seem to care rather little about economic history. In the 2019 programme of the Leeds International Medieval Congress economic history seems only marginally represented;[4] in Manchester’s medieval history first-year survey course it appears merely as an afterthought. There might be various and good reasons for this. There are far fewer medievalists than more ‘modern’ historians. While a history department can afford an economic historian among its many modern and contemporary historians, it might think twice before giving one of its few precious medievalist positions to an economic historian. Such animal would seem too specialized in an obscure side-show of a sub-discipline and not as well qualified to talk about the main ideal types wandering the Middle Ages in popular imagination: knights and dames and monks and nuns and perhaps the random scholar, witch/wizard and, of course, unicorn. The same goes for Economics departments where but a few hardy economic historians and only if boasting regressive-analytical prowess barely subsist. These specimens are usually economists by training, who very rarely venture into the Middle Ages (UoM being an exception: a business and economic historian, Dr Catherine Casson, works in the Business School (AMBS) and an economic historian, Dr Nuno Palma, in the department of Economics (SoSS) and both (!) do (also) medieval history.

[Figure 1 The three estates in Woodcut by Jacob Meydenbach, from Prognosticatio by Johann von Lichtenberg, 1488, Wikimedia commons, CC-PD]

Of the ideal types in the image here (figure 1), the clergy and the knights (left and right above) are amply researched but much less is the sweating peasant (of both genders- both sweating) in the foreground. Would medievalists not have to focus just as much on these as they were the very pillars, the core producers of the Middle Ages? Surprisingly, they don’t – not in great numbers anyway.[5]

Why is this so? Could it be that the medievalist focus of interests still reflects an idealized image of the Middle Ages as it was promoted since the late Middle Ages, i.e. by medieval actors themselves? This image, see figure 1, would depict an ideal society that is, if not pre-economic, certainly pre-capitalist in outlook and mentality. Clergy and knights would be honest non-business people, elements of an ideal, moral system, a moral economy, based on sacra agricultura. The peasants themselves would thus be turned into essentially non-economic, non-business actors.[6] This is arguably a grotesquely distorted image, probably promoted by late medieval and early modern actors in reaction to a starkly and terrifyingly different, business-like reality. Consequently, also research strongly focuses on sophisticated aristocratic and ecclesiastical cultures marked by beautiful structures and artefacts: castles and swords and shiny armour – altars, vaults and illuminated manuscripts. The economy, by contrast, would seem rather boring if necessary and rightly relegated to the bottom of the image and sideshows in big congresses. A certain propensity for vitriolic debates combined with a quantitative drudgery among 20th century medievalist economic historians might not have helped popularizing the topic.[7] Not only peasants, also merchants (nominally part of the same estate) remain rather understudied. Yet the merchant-investor-capitalist-business(wo)man is perhaps the quintessential figure of the Middle Ages and arguably in all three estates. Clergymen were business administrators for secular land-holders but also in their own right as the church managed huge economic assets (cf. the word ‘clerk’ derived from ‘clergy’, hints at this double-function and early bifurcation-cum-ongoing-entanglement of ‘business’ and ‘church’). For a knight’s or lady’s economic and social success their ability to accumulate, manage, develop and cleverly deploy economic assets was arguably more pivotal than their prowess in wielding a sword or a needle: they were businessmen and -women too.

There seems, however, not to be much space for business-minded Middle Ages.[8] Karl Polanyi formulated the thesis of the Great Transformation of the world in the 19th century,[9] while the fathers of New Institutional Economics position the Middle Ages before the industrial and bourgeois revolutions that, according to them, mark the beginning of economic modernity.[10] Thus the ‘economic’ per se, a capitalist, open economy characterised (allegedly) by open access, globalisation, international firms, advanced banking, speculation etc. becomes associated with mechanized industries, railways, steamers, the telephone, computers – with modernity.

Within the field of pre-modern research some challenge this paradigm and push the beginnings of, say, capitalism further back. But except for a few lone voices this back-tracking of an origin story is usually claimed by early modern and Renaissance studies: London in the 17th century, Amsterdam of the Gouden Eeuw. The lone voices might point at the capitalistic societies of Venice and Florence of the late Middle Ages or even (lo and behold!) of Abbasid Baghdad or Fatimid Cairo.[11] The few scholars venturing there or even beyond might wonder whether Athens of the classical period, imperial Rome, ancient China, perhaps even the Olmec obsidian industrialists and Ancient African societies (not just in Egypt) could be sensibly described as capitalist.[12] This would mean that also these experiences would be relevant for the understanding of the economy, the ‘economic’ in human experience more generally. This proposition, however, is hardly heard (let alone embraced) by the mainstream.

This is where History and Economic Life was supposed to come in. We originally planned the volume deliberately as a source guide for pre-modern economic history. Routledge very politely refused to go there. Economic history to them and their audience, as they no doubt rightly assessed, was ipso facto modern and thus they insisted we made it- more ‘modern’. In some ways that was a relief and spurred us to engage in a group building exercise, which turned out to be a nice experience: We enlisted the help of our Manchester colleagues in economic history across three different schools, who are all part of the Centre for Economic Cultures. This also enabled us to sneak in contributions by Dr Catherine Casson, from AMBS, Manchester’s genuine medieval economic historian. The volume thus remains healthily tilted towards medieval and early modern economic history with two medieval case study chapters ‘Origins of Capitalism’ I (Christ) and II (Casson & Casson). Phil Rössner’s studies on accounting and (economic) history through objects are focusing on the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, while Nuno Palma’s essay on quantitative history is also early modern in scope. So out of the seven essays/case studies only two are modern (by Sarah Roddy and Alexia Yates) – I would call that a rare and healthily balanced economic historical diet!

The essays/case studies, however, are only the second and, perhaps, more ‘conventional’ part of the book. We strove for cohesion and had some success with it but, to an extent, it remains the usual slightly motley mix of quite specialized stuff. Perhaps (even) more useful for young researchers or researchers new to economic history and for teaching might be the first part: the Toolbox, which features introductions to the study of economic history (Chris Godden), then, multi-authored, a typology of primary sources for economic history, followed by chapters on quantitative and qualitative analytical methods. Chris’ intro provides a succinct, critical précis of historiographical developments in economic history. With a rather modern focus, this is a most useful preparatory reading for the novice in economic history. The typology of sources is pretty straightforward and, of course, not comprehensive. Our hope is that it motivates scholars, who first look for information on ‘their’ sources (for instance, comprehensively covered, English administrative sources (Casson)), to be lured into looking at other, perhaps seemingly more exotic materials as well. Thus, they could expand their source base considering also accounts (Casson/Christ), newsletters (Christ/Roddy), literary sources (Christ), posters and adverts (Godden), archaeological sources, the landscape (Rössner/Smith), the human body (Rössner), or geography and climate (Lee).

The idea behind the corresponding chapters on quantitative and qualitative analysis was to offer a partial fusion of the two and to bridge the methodological gap between the ‘Two Cultures’, i.e. economics and history, operating mainly quantitatively the former and qualitatively the latter. We felt it was worth pushing for a more integrated and pragmatic approach. For the divergence becomes increasingly problematic and not only brings communications between history and economics almost to a halt but tears economic history itself apart. For qualitative, ‘traditional’ economic historians the language of contemporary quantitative analysis can be almost unintelligible. Critical data/source analysis might have been undertaken and the historical context was quite possibly considered but this is usually not the object of presentations focusing strongly on the technicalities of regression analysis, dummy variables etc. In order to facilitate discussions, it thus seemed sensible to provide the historian with some basics in statistical analysis and the economist with an introduction to historians’ qualitative source analysis. In that respect we were too ambitious and somewhat failed. The hard-core quantitative economic historian Nuno Palma (we are friends, just to be clear) point-blank refused to write an introduction to regression analysis (for dummies, so to say). He convinced us that the field was too complex (for a dummies’ intro) and that whoever wanted to embark on this journey had to put the graft in, become part of the tribe, read up on the suggestions Palma provides in his section ‘Statistical Analysis‘. In this quantitative chapter you find also sections on metrology (Velkar), (Social) Network Analysis (Smith), databases, digital humanities incl. GIS and digital linguistics (Christ, acknowledging amateurish dabbling and, gratefully, much needed feedback from Jo Taylor and Luca Scholz, who, for the record, are not only digital humanists but first and foremost literary scholar and (economic) historian respectively). This section also tries to provide some practical tips about the everyday use of research databases (cf. also Roddy’s essay – see above – on newspaper databases).

I should not say much about the chapter on qualitative analysis to this audience. The chapter was (maybe unrealistically) intended for economists as described above, providing a very basic manual of critical source analysis. I only dare mention it as my colleague Stephen M. found some merit in the attempt to show ways in which one could combine quantitative and qualitative approaches but also traditional ‘positivist’ with critical theoretical methods. Now, this colleague is exceedingly polite and genuinely friendly, so there might be less value in the attempt than I would like to believe. A critical theorist and thoroughbred cultural historian might cringe at the cavalier pragmatism, by which I try to break down complex theoretical approaches to simple check boxes on a form. The checklist approach might be owed to military conditioning (I came up with the first version of the source analysis form after battalion commander course). I agree that ‘reality’ (although perhaps not a mere construction) is complex and messy (see also my section on databases in the quants chap.). It is precisely because the ‘fog of war’[13] is so dense and exactly because our grasping of historical reality can only ever be so nebulous, preliminary, and hypothetical, that we might need checklists. The practitioner of history pressed for time (much like an infantry commander, mountaineer or sailor) might want to rely on simple routines in order to keep in sight essentials in the face of overwhelming complexity. Checklists in combination with common sense, gut feeling and experience may be safer guides than (seemingly unassailable because scientific) highly specialized and specific analytical methods of any kind – be it quantitative number crunching or sophisticated linguistic analysis. The highly specialized and filigreed, of course, has its place and cardinal importance but it typically cannot (standing alone) lift the fog of war; it might even make it denser. For minute analysis needs to be integrated into the big picture and there uncertainty returns: how representative is this minute finding and for what? It needs to be integrated into the bigger picture and for that the checklist can come in handy.

For history writing, in the end, is decision-making under uncertainty. It is guesswork, reconstruction, feeling and imagination. It is more art than science. History writing depends on both: artistic imagination to fill in the many gaps with hypotheses and the scientific method to check them. It requires the ability to make errors, to owe them and to correct them modestly and honestly. Perhaps our ambitions to contribute towards overcoming Cipolla’s gap between the ‘Two Cultures’ were rather high-staked and outlandish was our hope that economists might find back to mother history and cultural historians rediscover the economic, cf. introduction (Christ, Rössner). But one has to try- if only for the sake of trying. Who knows, something fruitful might come out of it after all. In the meantime, if we help a few history students to find their footing in economic history, if we encourage a few fellow historians do be a trifle more open towards economic and social history, we shall be more than happy.

[1] https://www-taylorfrancis-com.manchester.idm.oclc.org/books/e/9780429506819 accessed 21/09/2020.

[2] Die Selbstkritik hat viel für sich.
Gesetzt den Fall, ich tadle mich,
So hab ich erstens den Gewinn,
Dass ich so hübsch bescheiden bin;

Zum Zweiten denken sich die Leut,
Der Mann ist lauter Redlichkeit;
Auch schnapp’ ich drittens diesen Bissen
Vorweg den andern Kritiküssen;

Und viertens hoff’ ich ausserdem
Auf Widerspruch, der mir genehm.
So kommt es denn zuletzt heraus,
Dass ich ein ganz famoses Haus.

                Wilhelm Busch, Kritik des Herzens

[3] Carlo M. Cipolla, Tra due culture : introduzione alla storia economica Biblioteca storica (Bologna: Società editrice il Mulino, 1988).

[4] https://www.imc.leeds.ac.uk/imcarchive/2019/keywords/ accessed 21/09/2020, at first glance, does not look so bad: 172 contributions are classified under economic history in different sub-branches. That would be a bit more than gender studies (142) and only slightly less than ecclesiastical history (184). Yet a closer look under ‘economics-general’ (55) reveals that only a small part of these contributions are economic history in the more narrow sense, i.e. traditional economic history focusing on questions of rural and urban production, distribution and finance as well as economic policies and business administration. It is, of course, difficult to conclusively judge this on the basis of the paper titles and my definition of traditional economic history is obviously subjective and contestable.

[5] https://www.imc.leeds.ac.uk/imcarchive/2019/keywords/25/ accessed 21/09/2020.

[6] And of course, the Platonic ideal of philosophers-soldiers-peasants in Politeia, on the three traditional estates and the emerging fourth urban, mercantile, bourgeois, see also John Rigby Hale, Renaissance Europe, 1480-1520 (London: Fontana Press, 1985 [1971]), 167-172 .

[7] Or so some dear colleagues tell me.

[8] There is hope: wait for Georg Christ and Catherine Casson, ed. A Cultural History of Business, vol. 2 – Middle Ages 800-1450. London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming.

[9] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1944).

[10] Douglass Cecil North, Barry R. Weingast and John Joseph Wallis, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[11] Above all perhaps, Peter Spufford, The Merchant in Medieval Europe (London: Thames & Hudson 2002); Robert Sabatino Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350 (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1976); Shelomo Dov Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Pbk. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Richard A. Goldthwaite, The Economy of Renaissance Florence (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Frederic Chapin Lane, Venice – A Maritime Republic (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973);

[12] For instance, this list is by no means exhausistve, Marshall David Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (London: Tavistock Publications, 1974); Michail Ivanovic Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire 2nd ed. rev. by P. M. Fraser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); Kenneth Hirth, Ann Cyphers, Olmec Lithic Economy at San Lorenzo (Louisville: University Press of Colorado, 2020); Brian Muhs, The Ancient Egyptian Economy: 3000–30 BCE (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2016); Basil Davidson, African Kingdoms. London, Great ages of man (Amsterdam: Time-Life International, 1975); Anthony G. Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa 2nd ed.  (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2020).

[13] Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege. Ullstein Buch 34799, 4th ed. (Frankfurt a.M: Verlag Ullstein, 1994).