This blog aims to encourage discussion of economic and social history, broadly defined. We live in a time of major social and economic change, and research in social science is showing more and more that a historical and long-term approach to current issues is the key to understanding our times.
In the wake of the Libor scandal in 2012, Barclay’s bank suffered severe reputational damage. In response, its CEO promised a return to the bank’s Quaker roots. With this he referred to Barclay’s history as a Quaker-founded bank, and the proverbial Quaker honesty. The idea of the honest Quaker businessman is part of popular culture and historians have argued that honesty in business was an inherent trait of Quakerism from its beginnings.
The Society of Friends, learned opinion would have it, disowned culpable bankrupts. Thereby, it created an incentive for Friends to be honest in their conduct of business. The empirical basis for these claims however is curiously thin. The literature cites few actual instances of disownments for business-related offences from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most known cases stem from the nineteenth century, when this was indeed common practice. The story of Quaker business honesty is thus based on a strong assumption of institutional and cultural continuity.
The Library of the Society of Friends holds records of London Quaker meetings dating back to the 1660s, when Friends first appeared in the capital. Consulting Quaker meetings’ minutes, disciplinary records, as well as journals and letters of London Quaker businessmen, I conducted the first large scale empirical study of London Quaker meeting’s attitudes towards debt and bankruptcy, c.1660 – 1800.
Surprisingly, these meetings rarely sanctioned business offenders prior to the 1750s. For about 100 years after its conception, the Society of Friends showed no particular interest in its members’ conduct of business. What is more, the letters and diaries of Quaker businessmen in this period contain no evidence that that they feared repercussions from the Society. Quaker businessmen in financial difficulties discussed their impending bankruptcy procedures, or fear of being incarcerated for debt. The possibility of disownment from the Society however, did not figure among their concerns. This indicates that the punishment of offenders was not common enough to work as a deterrence.
From the 1750s onwards, however, this changed. Numbers of disownments for business-related offences skyrocketed. The last decades of the eighteenth century saw far more disownments for business-related offences than the 100 years before.
What caused this change? The new emphasis on honesty in business was part of the Quaker reformation, a movement within Quakerism which refocused the sect’s ideals. Reform movements within religious denominations are not uncommon, what set the Quaker reformation apart was its stated emphasis on protecting the Society’s reputation, and focus on business conduct.
These priorities were a response to a political crisis of the 1750s, which took place in the Quaker-founded colony of Pennsylvania. Erupting over internal disagreements about who was to cover the expenses for the colony’s defense during the Seven Years War, it led to a public scandal which shook Quakerism across the Atlantic World. Contemporary media accused the Quakers of failing to protect the colony’s population from French soldiers and native American raiders. Quaker politicians supposed motivation, their pacifist doctrine was merely a mask for selfish greed. Pamphlets published in London attacked individual Quaker businessmen as war profiteers, who were accumulating fortunes at the expense of the lives of innocent civilians.
In other words, just like Barclay’s Bank in the 21st century, the mid-eighteenth century Quakerism suffered severe reputational damage. The sect’s new focus on honesty in business was a response to this. The Society of Friends conducted an exercise of corporate responsibility, which was a tremendous success – so successful that 250 years later, Quakerism and honesty remain inseparable in the minds of lay people and Historians alike.
Friends went on to become leaders in important ethical concerns, such as the abolition of the slave trade. Today, the Society of Friends indeed stands for an exceptional ethical approach to many areas of public life. What this story tells us is that taking action against reputational damage can lead to institutional change. And institutions shape culture. In other words, corporate social responsibility can indeed lead to a better conduct of business, to the benefit of society as a whole.
Despite the importance of the phenomenon, there is no clear definition of what is a market crash. Arguably, market crashes should be related to important news but it is frequently difficult to effectively match historical events with market reactions. For instance, when WWI started in July 1914, the French stock index decreased by a modest 7.14 %; a monthly drop ranked only the 105th in the French stock market history. But, a given fall in percent has a stronger impact on a stable market than it does upon a highly volatile one. A crash is not solely a given percentage decrease but represents a significant discrepancy compared to what has been previously observed.
Thus, crashes need to be identified after having taken into account the prior financial context. I propose a simple new tool to identify market crashes by measuring price variations in numbers of standard deviations of the preceding period rather than in percent. French stock market was used to a low volatility before 1914, thus the modest decrease of 7.14 % represents a fall of 6.09 standard deviations, which is the second worst case in French history. This ranking is much more consistent with history.
In a paper (forthcoming in Economic History Review), this method is applied to long term series of US and French stock prices and UK state bonds. This new tool offers a renewed story of the financial shocks. A better match between crashes and historical events is achieved than with pure price variations. Events that were financially insignificant when measured in percent become important crashes after adjustment for volatility. This improved matching brings new insights to several historical debates.
Consistent with other historical sources pointing out the severity of the 1847 crisis, this episode appears to be in the top ten crashes of the UK bond market whereas it ranks 102th in pure price variations. The start of the American Civil War caused a significant crash, supporting the cost side in the cost/advantage debate about this conflict. The Berlin conference dividing up Africa caused a considerable fall in UK bonds, as if the market took account of the future cost of African colonization for UK public finances. Pre-1914 wars (Franco-Prussian, Russo-Ottoman, Boxer Rebellion in China, Boer War, etc.) led to many crashes on both the French stock and UK bond markets, supporting the traditional narrative of the importance of these confrontations despite the weak price changes they caused in this era of low volatility.
Turning to the 20th century, the outbreak of WWI caused major crashes in both French stock and UK bond markets, mitigating the view of sleepwalking to disaster. It is not possible to distinguish more crashes before than after the creation of the Fed in 1913, whose role in stabilizing financial markets is still being questioned. Two crashes in France during the 1920s caused by monetary issues support analysis of French monetary policy as an important factor in the interwar troubles. Hot episodes of the cold war caused crashes on the US and French stock markets, which is consistent with narratives of the risk of disasters incurred at this time. There was no crash on the French stock and UK bond markets in 1929, supporting the views of a transmission of the Great Depression to Europe through other channels than financial markets. The 2008 crisis differs on this point because both French and US stock markets fell strongly.
Maybe, our understanding of financial mechanisms could be enriched thanks to this new tool.
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Jane Whittle ed. Servants in Rural Europe 1400-1900, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, 2017, ISBN (978 1 78327 239 6).
Contributors: Christine Fertig, Jeremy Hayhoe, Sarah Holland, Thijs Lambrecht, Charmian Mansell, Hannah Østhus, Richard Paping, Cristina Prytz, Raffaella Sarti, Carolina Uppenberg, Lies Vervaet, Jane Whittle.
One of the most distinctive features of the early modern economy of Europe was the presence of large numbers of servants. Across Western Europe servants typically made up between 5% and 15% of the total population. Rather than being domestic servants in the nineteenth-century sense, the term ‘servant’ was used in early modern society to describe wage workers who lived in their employer’s household, and were employed for several months to a year at a time. Servants were usually young unmarried people between the ages of 15 and 25, and men and women were employed in roughly equal numbers. Servants did all kinds of work, ranging from agriculture, craftwork, and retailing to housework and childcare, depending on the needs of their employer. The majority of days worked by wage workers in the rural early modern economy were undertaken not by casual labourers employed by the day or task, but by servants. Given this ubiquity, it is surprising how little attention servants have received from economic historians. There are a number of excellent studies of urban servants, but the majority of servants, like the majority of the population in early modern Europe, lived in rural communities. Servants in Rural Europe 1500-1900 is the first book to offer a European overview of the topic.
The book has chapters on Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, England, France and Italy, with research focusing on periods from the early fifteenth century to the early twentieth century, and varying in scale from in-depth studies of single farms to national overviews. Yet strong common themes underpin the contributions. For everyone the starting point is the ground-breaking work of Peter Laslett and John Hajnal. From the 1960s onwards Laslett and Hajnal repeatedly asserted the importance of acknowledging and understanding the ubiquity of (and variations in) the employment of servants for the comparative demographic history of Europe. The institution of service allowed young people to circulate between households before marriage, acquiring skills and saving wages, and redistributing labour according to demand. It was part of the European marriage system which was characterised by a first age of marriage for women in their early to late twenties, and a relatively high proportion of people never marrying: service was how many adults supported themselves when they were not married. It also allowed young people to accumulate the resources to set up a new household at marriage and to do so independently from their parents. This contrasts with the situation in many societies based on small-scale agriculture in which parents controlled the choice of marriage partner and timing of marriage, women married in their mid to late teens and marriage was almost universal, and where young people began married life as junior members of the parents’ household.
But service, or working as a servant, was much more than part of demographic system. It was an integral element in the development of wage labour in early modern Europe, and an element that was heavily controlled by law. From the late medieval period onwards governments passed legislation that attempted to regulate servants’ contracts, wage rates and mobility. A consistent theme was the insistence that young unmarried people should work as servants rather than day labourers. Once within a contracted period of service, servants became the legal dependents of their employer, with a status similar to children within the household. For early modern governments, concerned about the implications of growing numbers of landless labourers for levels of poverty, crime and social unrest, service was a far more attractive prospect. It combined the flexibility of wage labour with social control within landholding households, as part of the existing social order. In countries such as England and Sweden, service was compulsory for young unmarried people. In England this was inconsistently enforced, but in eighteenth-century Sweden enforcement was very effective. There, the government even regulated how many children could stay at home and how many servants each household could employ. Servants remind us that the story of western Europe’s economic development during the early modern period was not simply one of smooth transition from an economy based on small scale agriculture (peasant society) to one where the majority of the population were landless wage earners (capitalism). The early modern economy had characteristics which set it apart from both earlier and later periods, and service is perhaps the most important of these.
by Maria Stella Chiaruttini (European University Institute)
Risorgimento history and mythology have, from the very beginning, been a cornerstone of Italian nation building and are still informing public rhetoric and education. However, while their predominance in public discourse has decreased over the last few decades, stereotypical views of Italian unification have begun to be increasingly and vociferously called into question, especially in the South, by cultural associations and popular history writers. Opposing the nineteenth-century interpretation of the messianic role played by Piedmontese patriots and institutions in unifying the country, they highlight the shortcomings of Italian unification, advocating a ‘counter-history’ of the Risorgimento in which the South is portrayed as the hapless victim of ruthless colonizers.
This picture is most provocatively put forward in L’invenzione del Mezzogiorno by the journalist and political activist Nicola Zitara (Jaca Book, 2011). The book, based on secondary literature and addressing a non-academic audience in an extremely polemical style, traces back the origins of the North-South divide to the pillage of the South by a gang of Northern robber bankers. Though lacking in scientific rigor and fairness, it has the merit of addressing one of the – surprisingly – least studied aspects of the Italian ‘Southern question’, namely the financial one. It is indeed high time to open a historical debate on the financial divide still characteristic of today’s Italy. Even more importantly, the financial history of the Risorgimento can offer new insights into two major contemporary issues: economic regionalism, recently come to the forefront with Brexit and the Catalan crisis, and the nexus between finance and politics that emerges constantly in the ongoing EU crisis.
As part of a larger project on Italian financial integration during the Risorgimento, this research focusses on the early development of modern financial markets in the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Two Sicilies and their clash in the first years after Unification. On the basis of extensive archival research, it questions both the traditional view of Southern backwardness versus Northern progress and the revisionist stance praising the superiority of the old Southern system. Apart from the huge differences between the financial systems of the former Italian states, which make the very concept of a financial ‘North’ meaningless, this study shows the crucial role that political events played in shaping financial markets in the Two Sicilies and Piedmont-Sardinia, determining comparative advantages and disadvantages that would prove crucial after 1861.
Interestingly, both kingdoms faced sovereign default, although at different stages. The Two Sicilies came close to bankruptcy in the early nineteenth century, when public debt, already high due to the Napoleonic wars and the expensive restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, skyrocketed after the 1820 constitutional uprisings were crushed by a long and costly Austrian military occupation. From then on, the constant concern of the Bourbons was the repayment of foreign debt. To this end, they consistently implemented an austerity policy which, coupled with the political and financial troubles of 1848, delayed any major banking reforms for decades. At the same time, however, the Southern public national bank, the Bank of the Two Sicilies, managed a sophisticated cashless payment system countrywide that, although working less smoothly than is usually assumed, helped to finance public debt while ensuring monetary stability. Moreover, the role played by Southern business elites in consolidating a model of financial development which favoured Naples at the expense of the rest of the country should not be overlooked.
The rather primitive financial system of the Kingdom of Sardinia was, on the contrary, completely overhauled in less than one decade to sustain the war effort during the disastrous First War of Independence (1848–49), pay for war reparations and enable Prime Minister Cavour to pursue his expansionary policies. From 1848 on, the Piedmontese government found its closest ally in an initially modest bank of issue, the Bank of Genoa, later National Bank and forerunner of the Bank of Italy. Under Cavour’s leadership and with the support of a dynamic business elite, a complex credit system closely integrated with the international markets emerged – a system, however, plagued by large-scale speculation and dependent on both government support and foreign patronage.
The first few years after Unification were particularly traumatic for the South, although not unequivocally negative from the point of view of financial development. The region suffered heavily from monetary and credit disruptions due to warfare, the ever-increasing burden of Italian public debt with its corollary of note inconvertibility, and the decrease of its political and economic power within the new state. The expansion of the Piedmontese National Bank dealt a fatal blow to the Bank of Naples, as the Bourbons’ bank was renamed. At the same time, however, it encouraged the latter to update its business model and the provinces benefited from the creation of a branch network first by the National Bank and later by the Bank of Naples. However, banking competition also came at the cost of financial instability, since, due to bitter regional antagonism, Italy constantly swung between banking pluralism and de facto note monopoly until the early twentieth century. By analysing the feud between the National Bank and the Bank of Naples, this study also shows how the ‘constructed identity’ of the two banks was instrumental to the private interests of their respective business groups, giving rise to conflicting narratives still in currency today.
Following decades of long run economic decline, recent calls to establish a “Northern powerhouse” offer some hope for the reinvigoration of once proud manufacturing regions of the industrial revolution. A recent 2015 report by the Alliance Project suggested that the textile sector had the capacity to create 20,000 jobs in the Manchester region by 2020.
But how would such a revival cut across the systemic causes of longer run decline? And what lessons, if any, can be learned from earlier phases of industrialisation?
To examine the long run rise and fall of the Lancashire textile industry, this research project has assembled financial data from over a hundred mainly Lancashire textile firms over the period c.1790-2000. Analysing this data in the context of wider economic trends and the strategic options available to individual firms offers new perspective on the long run dynamics of this once great industry.
Regardless of the size of the market, and the market share of the firms involved, firms’ profits were typically highly volatile. So although market instability was a continuous feature, profit instability reflected specific investments, which differed through time, according to ownership, industry organisation and technology.
In the early industrial revolution, the working capital cycle of inventory and credit was crucial, such that profit volatility reflected material supply and monetary conditions. Firms that were most successful in financial terms automated specific processes, using their enhanced capacity to exercise control over the remainder of the value chain and final product markets.
Greater investment in fixed capital in subsequent phases of industrialisation meant added risk in the face of volatile markets. Entrepreneurs were pressured by such investments to impose notoriously long working hours and lobby against regulatory interventions.
The most successful firms built partnerships that combined technical innovation, market access and mutual financial support. Like modern day venture capitalists, entrepreneurs operated through informal networks rather than hierarchical integrated structures.
Throughout the nineteenth century, and up to the post war boom and slump of 1919-1921, volatile profits reflected over-investment during upturns and surplus capacity during downturns. After 1920, firms that were most successful were those that avoided the temptation to refinance during the 1919 boom, and such firms at least survived, as profit opportunities dwindled in a declining market.
As more firms exited the industry, the remainder were absorbed by textile-based conglomerates. These firms enjoyed a short-lived period of success in the late 1960s and early 1970s, promoted by regional assistance and productivity-boosting capital investment.
Even so, exports dwindled further and the textile producers became increasingly dependent on contracts with large retailers. The more financially successful took advantage of strategic relationships with retailers to make further productivity enhancing investments.
The globalisation of retail in the 1990s undermined these relationships, resulting in the outsourcing of much of the remaining British textile industry to cheaper overseas locations. The few surviving firms had adopted niche strategies producing specialised fabrics for sectors like healthcare, outdoor equipment and motor vehicles.
Recent successes stories have also reflected strong demand in international markets for authentically British clothing. The Burberry brand is one good example and Marks and Spencer’s “Best of British” range is another. Authenticity requires genuine sourcing, which helps explain the opening of the first Lancashire cotton-spinning mill for several decades, in 2015, at Tower Mill, Dukinfield.
If textiles are to revive further in Lancashire, the lessons of history are important.
Regional, rather than national, financial institutions, ranging from informal networks to country banks to local stock markets, underpinned previous phases of development, and London’s influence as a financial centre then, and today, has little to do with investment in northern manufacturing.
Public sector funding, via the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, has helped secure the immediate future of Tower Mill. Meanwhile, recent research has identified further growth potential in the form of medium and small textile firms in the region fit the usual criteria for investment by private equity (n=52) and venture capital firms (n=125).
However, these are mere possibilities, and a far cry from the closely integrated networks of innovation and finance that underpinned success in earlier generations. Even if the demand for “Britishness” in fashion conscious international markets remains stable, and that is a big “if”, given the long run context of volatility, supportive regional financial institutions seem to be lacking.
In this sense, the lessons of history overshadow the future of the textile component of the Northern powerhouse project.
By Jon Stobart (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Today, village shops are often seen as central to village life and their closure is greeted with alarm because, like pubs, they act as a litmus for the health and vitality of our rural communities.
Yet we know little about the long-term history of village shops: how widespread they were, what they sold, how they traded, who their customers were and how they related to the wider community. This is partly because they have been overlooked by historians of retailing, who are dazzled by the bright lights of the city and the seemingly revolutionary changes wrought by department stores and chain stores, who are seen as ushering in “modern” practise like display, fixed prices and leisure shopping. Rural historians have long focused on the production of the countryside; marketing is of interest only when it comes to selling the produce of farms.
This article rescues village shops from both the neglect of historians and the rose-tinted perspective of nostalgia. It reveals how shopkeepers like Ralph Edge, an ironmonger in late seventeenth-century Cheshire, stocked goods from around the world, including calicos from India, tobacco from across the Atlantic, raisins from the Mediterranean; how Rebecca Course managed the credit of her customers to her shop in early-Victorian Buckinghamshire; and how Hardy Woolley mixed retailing in rural Lincolnshire with writing books of trade hints for his fellow shopkeepers.
We know about these people through their entries in trade directories, often with people listing several trades alongside their shop; their inventories, which tell us about their stock held, shop fittings, and sometimes their by-employments; their account books, which reveal prices, identify their customers and their shopping habits and uncover often complex credit arrangements; their diaries and memoirs, which let us into the lifeworld of a small number of shopkeepers and give us some understanding of their motivations and concerns.
Not every village had its own shop, of course, but most of England’s rural population was within easy walking distance of a shop. Whilst the image of the general store is perhaps misleading, they supplied a wide range of items, bringing the expanding world of goods into rural society. We should not judge them against the contested and problematic standards of urban modernity, but rather as businesses and social spaces that served the needs of their customers. The entries in Charles Small’s mid nineteenth-century account book which record mending baskets and mangling clothes for some of his customers may seem quaint and old-fashioned at a time when department stores were emerging in major cities. And the agonising of Thomas Turner about whether to execute an order for distraining the goods of Mr Darby, who owed him about £18 in shop debts, could be seen as a sign of weak business practice. Yet these men – and thousands of other men and women like them – were running businesses that thrived on customer loyalty and their place within the socio-economic fabric of their village communities. They were in the swing of broader changes in retail practice, but deeply embedded in their localities.
The full article is published on the Economic History Review and is available here
By Paul Atkinson (University of Liverpool) – research conducted at Lancaster University thanks to ERC funding.
This work looked at the variation in infant mortality across time and place in country districts of England and Wales between 1851 and 1911. It used statistical methods to find patterns in the data from nearly 90% of rural places to show that, far from being one undifferentiated whole, the countryside was divided into zones with their own infant mortality trends. Broadly, infant mortality in the 1850s was worst in an eastern zone of England, but improved fastest here; across a large zone of south and central England infant mortality was somewhat lower than in the first zone in the 1850s (especially in the far south), but dropped somewhat more slowly; while in northern and western England, and in Wales, infant mortality began at lower levels than the rest of the country but stagnated or even increased, above all in the remotest districts.
How infant mortality changed in seven clusters of Registration Districts: for their locations, see map. The eastern zone is made up of Fenland and Mercia; Wessex, Severn and Trent form the south-central one and Health and Moor and Upland the final zone.
The obvious question is what made these patterns? Mainly different factors from the ones operating in towns, where the combination of crowding and poor sanitation made diarrhoeal disease the major killer, and where falling fertility was associated with decreasing infant mortality. This research identified statistically three other factors associated with infant mortality across time.
First, maternal health – plainly a factor in towns as well, but partly masked there by stronger influences. This work confirms – using a much larger dataset – Millward and Bell’s finding that the mortality of females from tuberculosis at reproductive ages, a good indicator of their general health, predicted infant mortality, explaining about a quarter of the variation in it. So, what makes mothers sick makes babies sick: probably poor nutrition above all, though we could not test that directly.
Second, maternal education, again relevant in towns too, but obscured there. Horrell, Oxley and Humphries have shown how a disadvantaged status within the household for women could produce excess female mortality: the research extends this argument to their babies. Literate women had higher status and more access to resources including food. What makes mothers vulnerable – in our study, their illiteracy – makes babies vulnerable. Female literacy predicted about a sixth of the variation in infant mortality.
The third factor linked with rising infant mortality in this period was remoteness, measured as the distance from the centre of each district to London. This was not just a characteristic of very remote locations, but applied at all distances above 100km. Exactly why infant mortality in the remotest places improved most slowly – even went backwards until the 1890s – is not very clear. This research argues that it was a mixture of large-scale out-migration stripping regions of their healthier inhabitants; possibly, the gradual way new ideas about infant care may have diffused from the biggest cities into the country, and, probably, features of rural social organisation: we argue elsewhere that the general trend to force women out of the agricultural labour market across the later nineteenth century was excluding them from forms of labour which benefited their status, and their babies’ welfare, in northern and western upland, pastoral farming areas, but harmed them in the arable south and east.
This amounts to an argument for two things: attention to ‘the mother as medium’ when explaining infant mortality rates, and attention to the diversity and particularity of local economies and cultures as we study the countryside of the past.
B. Saul (1965) once referred to late nineteenth-century Britain as the ‘export economy’. During this period, one of Britain’s largest export markets—in some years, the largest market—was the United States. To the United States, Britain exported a range of (mainly manufactured) goods spanning such industries as iron, steel, tinplate, textiles, and numerous others.
A forthcoming article in the Economic History Review argues that the total volume of British exports to the United States was significantly affected by American tariffs during the interval from 1870-1913. The argument runs contrary to the more general finding of Jacks et al. (2010) that Britain’s trade with a sample of countries, i.e. not just the United States, was uninfluenced by foreign tariffs.
This argument complements some previous studies that focused on specific commodities that Britain exported to the United States in the late nineteenth century. Irwin (2000) found that Britain’s tinplate exports to the United States were indeed responsive to changes in the American duty on tinplate. Inwood and Keay (2015) reached a similar conclusion regarding Britain’s pig iron exports to the United States. However, as this research claims, the determinacy of American tariffs for the volume of British exports was not limited to only certain commodities, but rather applied to the bilateral flow of trade, as a whole.
The United States imposed different duties on different commodities. Because the composition of commodities that the United States imported from all countries collectively differed from the composition of commodities that the United States imported from Britain, the average American tariff is an inaccurate measure of the tariff level encountered by, specifically, British exports to the United States. For this reason, this research reconstruct an annual series of the bilateral American tariff toward Britain for the interval from 1870-1913, using the disaggregated data reported in the historical trade statistics of the United States. This reconstructed series is crucial to the argument.
The figure above presents the average American tariff and the reconstructed bilateral American tariff toward Britain, both expressed as percentages (ad valorem equivalent percentages, to be precise). In the 1890s, the average American tariff and the bilateral American tariff toward Britain do not follow a similar course. For example, whereas the tariff revisions of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 had little effect on the average American tariff, these tariff revisions resulted in the bilateral American tariff toward Britain declining from 45% in 1893/4 to 31% in 1894/5.
This econometric analysis of the Anglo-American bilateral trade flow relies upon the empirically-correct bilateral American tariff toward Britain. In this respect, the forthcoming article in the Economic History Review departs from other historical studies of trade, which use average tariffs as approximations of bilateral tariffs.
Perhaps the reconstruction of another country’s bilateral tariff toward Britain—Germany’s tariff toward Britain is an obvious choice—would reveal that the effect of foreign tariffs on British exports was more widespread than just the bilateral American case. Nevertheless, the importance of the bilateral American case should not be diminished, as the United States was a large export market of Britain, the ‘export economy’ of the late nineteenth century.
by Richard Blakemore (University of Reading) – research conducted at the University of Exeter thanks to a ERC project.
In April 1642, Michael Johnson sailed from London aboard the Fame. The voyage took him to northern France, southern Spain, and the Caribbean, and Johnson started it with a ‘venture’, a personal investment of cash or goods, worth £5. He spent the voyage ‘turneinge and winding’ (as one of his shipmates put it) his venture and his wages: hiring out his cabin to passengers, buying and selling at each port. By the time the ship was heading for home, Johnson had accumulated 200 pieces of eight and some cargo, altogether worth roughly £50 – ten times his original ‘venture’.
This example invites us to reconsider the traditional image of mariners as wage workers, as poor and unskilled labourers, sitting at the bottom of a strictly ranked workforce. That is what this article is set to do.
This idea of mariners has endured among historians in part because it was popular among those mariners’ contemporaries, especially during the early modern period when global trade and shipping expanded enormously. A proverb from that period claims that ‘the sea and the gallows refuseth nobody’. Yet this interpretation has also been founded on a relatively limited analysis of sailors’ wages, which sought mainly to identify averages across the sector. This article presents a more detailed discussion of this topic, based on a dataset gathered from the papers of the High Court of Admiralty. It is possible to download the dataset here.
The data confirms the impression of a hierarchical labour market, with clear thresholds between ranks. Most mariners (sailors with no specific role) earned less than most specialists (men with a specific job, like boatswain, gunner, or carpenter); most specialists earned less than masters and master’s mates, who navigated and commanded ships. However, there was also remarkable variety – across the seventeenth century, mariners earned between 5 and 55 shillings a month, specialists between 13 and 100 shillings, though in both cases there was predictable lumping around a median point.
Such variation can be explained by the circumstances of a voyage, such as length, destination, and anticipated riskiness. In wartime, for instance, wages rose for most seafarers. This also reflects different levels of skill and social capital for individual sailors at all levels of the shipping industry. In other words, we must recognise that at least some mariners, as well as those at higher ranks, were experienced workers who could claim a skill premium in their wages.
As well as exploring this variety in wages, we also need to look beyond them to other forms of income – something which, like wages, scholars have often treated briefly, and with more attention to the activities of shipmasters. There were multiple available arrangements. Sailors might receive a share of the profits from a voyage, especially when working on a fishing vessel or a privateer, and they also expected a full ‘diet’ aboard ship, and protested loudly when the food did not meet their expectations.
Most crucially, it seems that Michael Johnson was not alone. Many sailors of all ranks carried goods aboard ship, sometimes in their own cabin or chest, sometimes in larger volumes with the ship’s other cargo. This is an area that historians have begun to investigate in more depth (as in this article by Beverly Lemire, and this roundtable edited by Maria Fusaro). Though there is not enough evidence on the value of these goods for a systematic analysis, we can at least establish that the practice was ubiquitous, and that it formed a significant portion of many seafarers’ incomes.
There are implications from this evidence for our wider understanding of the shipping industry and early modern economic developments. As well as the idea that they were unskilled, sailors have often been seen as an exploited group, essential to but not benefitting from European economic growth, to which shipping and trade were dynamic contributing sectors. There is some truth to this picture: sailors’ working lives were certainly hard and dangerous, and the period saw rising inequality, with wages falling behind inflation. Nevertheless, studying seafarers’ wages and trade shows us that they sought to make the best of, and some of them were able to successfully operate in, the venture economy of early modern shipping.
Full article: Blakemore, R. J. (2017), Pieces of eight, pieces of eight: seamen’s earnings and the venture economy of early modern seafaring. The Economic History Review, 70: 1153–1184. doi:10.1111/ehr.12428. Available here
On Marten Seppel, Keith Tribe (eds.) Cameralism in Practice. State Administration and Economy in Early Modern Europe, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge 2017 (ISBN 978 1 78327 212 9)
There has been a growing interest in cameralism over the last five to ten years, but it has been claimed that the only scholarly book-length treatment of cameralism in English was a 1909 work by Albion Small.
Fortunately, things are changing: the annual conferences of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought are dominated by young French and Italian scholars; the developing field of intellectual history has upgraded the quality of work done in the history of economics; and from the later 1970s onwards the history of eighteenth century political thought has emerged as a very sophisticated field, within which the study of cameralism no longer seems such a minority interest. If there is a “logic” it could be described as a literature of economic management. Thought about this way, it then becomes more obvious quite why it is so hard to define, since there is no strictly equivalent body of writing in contemporary languages such as English and French. It has become more and more clear (as argued also our collection) that besides Germany and Austria, cameralist literature on state and economy also had great influence in Sweden, Russia, Denmark and even Portugal.
The present collection focuses on the practices of cameralism. In the 1930s August Wolfgang Gerloff argued that eighteenth-century cameral science was “die Lehre von der Staatspraxis, die Lehre von der praktischen Politik” (a doctrine directed to state practice, to practical politics). However, Andre Wakefield writes that cameralism was a kind of fantasy fiction or even a utopian theory, rather than any particular plan that could be followed by administration. He believes that cameralist authors did realise that their teaching was too theoretical.
One of the main goals of our book was to bring out the innovative tendencies associated with cameralist discourse in the eighteenth century. This objective raised intriguing questions such as: did cameralism change the world? Or was there a “cameralist revolution”?
However, it may be too easy to assimilate ideas of “progress” to a present-centred history lacking an understanding of past historical commentary and argument. While it would be wrong to suggest that cameralism in some way changed the world, what we can say is that it changed the language with which the world was conceived. Whatever the outcome of cameralist “practice”, by the later part of the eighteenth century there was a new language of state administration that became transformed into the financial sciences of the nineteenth century, and thence became part of the language of public administration. It gave “practitioners” a way of talking to each other about the way in which they conducted their affairs.
What the study of cameralist literature has brought to light is the extent of our ignorance about early modern Europe, its politics and administration, its economy and society. The sheer volume of material that recent work has revealed compels us to think about new ways of exploring networks of activity and argument. Rosenberg’s work on Prussia remains important, but today it would not be appropriate to write a history of bureaucratic rule without examining the language of administration. The key to that lies in the study of cameralist literature and its language, and in a new approach to the work of administration in the European states of the eighteenth century. As I suggest above, my problem with “mercantilism” is that it presents a grid that obscures from us both diversity and convergence in early modern economic literature. Insofar as our book on cameralism and administration shows the sheer diversity of this material, I hope that it provides encouragement to others to explore this literature more systematically than has ever before been attempted.
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