Five hundred years of French economic stagnation: from Philippe Le Bel to the Revolution, 1280-1789

by Leonardo Ridolfi (IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca)

In 2008, output per capita in France amounted to around $22,000 dollars per year. After the Second World War, in 1950, annual average income per capita reached $5,000 dollars, while in 1820, at the beginning of the first official national statistics, GDP per capita averaged $1,100 (Maddison, 2010). Nevertheless, precise knowledge of economic growth in France stops when we get back as far as 1820; before this date, the quantitative reconstruction of economic development is shrouded in mystery.

That mystery lies in the difficulty of uncovering sufficient resource material, devising adequate measures of economic performance in the past, and ultimately interpreting the complexity of the dynamics involved. These dynamics stretch far beyond just the mere economic sphere and concern the way a society is itself organised and structured. Nevertheless, several questions spring to mind.

What was the level of material living standards between the thirteenth and the late eighteenth century, from the early stages of state formation to the French Revolution? How did per capita incomes evolve over time? And were French workers richer or poorer than their European counterparts during the pre-industrial period?

This research provides answers to these questions by estimating the first long-run series of output per capita for France from 1280 to 1789.

The study reveals one important conclusion: the dominant pattern was stagnation in levels of output per capita. For the first time indeed, these estimates document quantitatively and in the aggregate what was previously known only qualitatively or for some regions by the classic works of French historiography (Goubert, 1960; Le Roy Ladurie, 1966): the French economy was an inherently stagnating growthless system, a ‘société immobile’, which at the beginning of the eighteenth century was not much different than five centuries earlier.

At the time of the death of King Philip the Fair in 1314, France was a leading economy in Europe and output per capita averaged $900 per year. Almost five centuries later, this threshold was largely unchanged, but the France of King Louis XVI now belonged to the group of the least developed countries in Western Europe. In the 1780s, per capita income was slightly above $1,000, about half the level registered in England and the Low Countries.

Nevertheless, stagnation was not the same as stability. The French economy was highly volatile and experienced multiple peaks and troughs. In addition, these results reject the argument that there was no long-run improvement in living standards before the Industrial Revolution, demonstrating that GDP per capita rose more than 30% between the 1280s and the 1780s.

Yet most of the rise was explained by a single episode of economic growth that took place prior to the Black Death between the 1280s and the 1340s and which shifted the trajectory of growth onto a higher path.

Overall, these estimates suggest that the evolution of the French economy can be suitably interpreted as an intermediate case between the successful example of England and the Low Countries and the declining patterns of Italy and Spain. Being neither a southern country nor a northern one, the growth experience of France seems to reflect this geographical heterogeneity.

 

References

Goubert, Pierre (1960) École pratique des hautes etudes, Laboratoire cartographique, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730: contribution a l’histoire sociale de la France du 17e siècle, Sevpen.

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy (1966) Les paysans de Languedoc Vol. 1. Mouton.

Maddison, Angus (2010) Historical Statistics of the World Economy: 1-2008 AD, Paris.

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