Global trade imbalances in the classical and post-classical world

by Jamus Jerome Lim (ESSEC Business School and Center for Analytical Finance)


A Global trade visualization map, with data is derived from Trade Map database of International Trade Center. Available on Wikipedia.

In 2017, the bilateral trade deficit between China and the United States amounted to $375 billion, a staggering amount just shy of what the latter incurred against the rest of the world combined. And not only is this deficit large, it has been remarkably persistent: the chronic imbalance emerged in earnest in 1989, and has persisted for the better part of three decades. Some have even pointed to such imbalances as a contributing factor to the global financial crisis of 2008.

While such massive, chronic imbalances may strike one as artefacts of a modern, hyperglobalised world economy, nothing could be further from the truth. For example, recent economic history records large, persistent imbalances between the United States and Britain during the former’s earlier stages of development. Such imbalances also characterised the rise of Japan following the Second World War.

In recent research, we show that external imbalances between two major economic powers – an established leader, and a rising follower – were also observed over three earlier periods in economic history. These were the deficits borne by the Roman empire vis-à-vis pre-Gupta India circa 1CE; the borrowing by the Abbasid caliphate from Carolingian Frankia in the early ninth century; and the imbalances between West European kingdoms and the Byzantine empire that emerged around the 1300s.

Although data paucity implies that definitive claims on current account deficits are all but impossible, it is possible to rely on indirect sources of evidence to infer the likely presence of imbalances. One such source consists of trade-related documents from the time as well as pottery finds, which ascertain not just the existence but also the size of exchange relationships.

For example, using such records, we demonstrate that Baghdad – the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate – received furs and slaves from the comparative economic backwater that was the Carolingian empire, in exchange for goods such as spices, dates and olive oil. This imbalance may have lasted as long as several centuries.

A second source of evidence comes from numismatic records, especially coin hoards. Hoards of Roman gold aurei and silver dinarii have been discovered, for example, in India, with coinage dating from as early as the reign of Augustus through until at least that of Marcus Aurelius, well over half a century. Rome relied on such specie exports to fund, among other expenditures, continued military adventurism during the second century.

Our final source of evidence relies on fiscal records. Given the close relationship between external and fiscal balances – all else equal, greater government borrowing gives rise to a larger external deficit – chronic budgetary shortfalls generally give rise to rising imbalances.

This was very much the case in Byzantium prior to its decline: around the turn of the previous millennium, the Empire’s saving and reserves were in significant surplus, lending credence to the notion that the flow of products went from East to West. The recipients of such goods? The kingdoms of Western Europe, paid for with silver.

Squeezing blood from a stone: eighteenth century debtors’ prisons worked

by Alex Wakelam (University of Cambridge)


Woodstreet Compter.jpg
Wood Street Compter, 1793. Image extracted from page 384 of volume 1 of Old and New London, Illustrated, by Walter Thornbury. Available at Wikimedia Commons. 

While it is often assumed that debtors’ prisons were illogical and ineffective, my research demonstrates that they were extremely economically effective for creditors though they could ruin the lives of debtors.

The debtors’ prison is a frequent historical bogeyman, a Dickensian symptom of the illogical cruelty of the past that disappeared with enlightened capitalism. As imprisoning someone who could not afford to pay their debts, keeping them away from work and family, seems futile it is assumed creditors were doing so to satisfy petty revenge.

But they were a feature of most of English history from 1283, and though their power was curbed in 1869, there were still debtors imprisoned in the 1920s. The reason they persisted, as my research shows, is because, for creditors, they worked well.

The majority of imprisoned debtors in the eighteenth century were released relatively quickly having paid their creditors. This revelation is timely when events in America demonstrate how easily these prisons can return.

As today, most eighteenth century purchases were done on credit due to the delay in wages, limited supply of coinage, and cultural preferences for buying goods on credit. But credit was based on a range of factors including personal reputation, social rank and moral status. Informal oral contracts could frequently be made with little sense of an individual’s actual financial status, particularly if they were a gentleman or aristocrat. As contracts were not based on goods and court processes were slow, it was difficult to seize property to recover debts when creditors required money.

Creditors were able to imprison debtors without trial in this period until they paid what they owed or died. The registers of a London Debtors’ Prison, the Woodstreet Compter (1741-1815), reveal that creditors had good reasons to do so. Most of the 10,156 debtors contained in the registers left prison relatively quickly – 91% were released in under a year while almost a third were released in less than 100 days.

In addition, 84% were ‘discharged’ by their creditors, indicating that either the prisoner had paid their debts or a new contract had been agreed. Imprisonment forced debtors to find a way to pay or at least to renegotiate with creditors.

Prisoners were not the poor, but usually middle class people in small amounts of debt. One of the largest groups was made up of shopkeepers (about 20% of prisoners) though male and female prisoners came from across society with gentlemen, cheesemongers, lawyers, wigmakers and professors rubbing shoulders.

Most used their time to coordinate the selling of goods to raise money, or borrowed yet more from family and friends. Many others called in their own debts by having their debtors imprisoned as well.

As prisons were relatively open, some debtors worked off their debts. John Grano, a trumpeter who worked for Handel, imprisoned in the 1720s, taught music lessons from his cell. Others sold liquor or food to fellow prisoners or continued as best they could at their trade in the prison yard. Those with a literary mind, such as Daniel Defoe, wrote their way out.

Though credit works on different terms today, that coercive imprisonment is effective at securing repayment remains true. There have been a number of US states operating what amount to debtors’ prisons in recent years where the poor, fined by the state usually for traffic violations, are held until they pay what they owe.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions even retracted an Obama era memo in December aimed at abolishing the practice. While eighteenth century prisons worked effectively for creditors, they could ruin the lives of debtors who were forced to sell anything they could to pay their dues and escape the unsanitary hole in which they were being kept without trial. Assuming that they did not work and therefore won’t return is shown by my research to be false.


Is committing to a free trade policy enough? Evidence from colonial Africa

by Federico Tadei (Department of Economic History, University of Barcelona)


French map of Africa from 1898, showing colonial claims. Originally published as “Carte Generale de l’Afrique’. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Brexit negotiations have led to intense debate on the type of trade agreements that should be put in place between the UK and the European Union. According to Policy Exchange’s February 2018 report, the UK should unilaterally commit to free trade. The assumption underlying this argument is that the removal of tariffs has the potential to reduce consumer prices due to greater competition and lower protection of domestic industries, which would promote innovation and increase productivity.

But the removal of tariffs and protectionist policies might not be sufficient to implement free trade fully. My research on trade from colonial Africa suggests that a legal commitment to free trade is not nearly enough.

Specifically, it appears that during the colonial period the British formally relied on free trade encouraging competition between trading firms, while the French made use of their political power to establish trade monopsonies and acquire African goods at prices lower than in the world markets.

Yet the situation on the ground might have been quite different than what formal policies envisaged. Did the British colonies actually enjoy free trade? Did producers in Africa who lived under British rule receive higher prices than those living under the French?

To answer these questions, I measure the degree of competitiveness of trade under the two colonial powers by computing profit margins for trading companies that bought goods from the African coast and resold them in Europe.

To do so, I use data on African export prices and European import prices for a variety of agricultural commodities exported from British and French colonies between 1898 and 1939 and estimated trade costs from Africa to Europe. The rationale behind this methodology is simple: if the colonisers relied on free trade, profit margins of trading companies should be close to zero.

Tadei Figures

On average, profit margins in the British colonies were lower than in the French colonies, suggesting a higher reliance on free trade in the British Empire (see Figure 1). But if we compare the two colonial powers within one same region (West or East Africa) (Figures 2 and 3), it appears that the actual extent of free trade depended more on the conditions in the colonies than on formal policies of the colonial power.

Profit margins were statistically indistinguishable from zero in British East Africa, suggesting free trade, but they were large (10-15%) in West African colonies under both the French and the British, suggesting the presence of monopsony power.

These results suggest that, in spite of formal policies, other factors were at play in determining the actual implementation of free trade in Africa. In the Western colonies, the longer history of trade and higher level of commercialisation reduced the operational costs of trading companies. At the same time, most of agricultural production was based on small African farmers, with little political power and ability to oppose de facto trade monopsonies.

Conversely, in East Africa, production was often controlled by European settlers who had a much larger political influence over the metropolitan government, increasing the cost of establishing trade monopsonies and allowing better implementation of colonial free trade policy.

Overall, despite formal policies, the ability of trading firms in West Africa to eliminate competition was costly in terms of economic growth. African producers received lower prices than they would have in a competitive market and consumers paid more for imported goods. Formal commitment to free trade policies might not be sufficient to reap the full benefits of free trade.

Financial neoliberalism: British insurance and the revolution in the management of uncertainty

by Thomas Gould (University of Bristol)


Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Salford, 1982. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

What has been the relationship between the growth of finance and ‘neoliberalism’ in post-war Britain? My research shows that the drive towards popular capitalism and a property-owning democracy was not directly created by Thatcherism, which qualifies popular narratives about the impact of government reforms such as deregulation and privatisation.

Instead, away from the battlegrounds of mainstream economics and politics, a silent ‘neoliberal revolution’ developed deep within the financial industry before Thatcher came to power.

For example, between 1967 and 1980, the number of personalised life insurance policies directly linked to asset values increased from 81,000 to 3.5 million. This development marked a sea change in the way that society managed financial risk and uncertainty.

It had little to do with mainstream politics, and it was so powerful that by 1990 there were over 12 million of these unit-linked policies in force, showing that Thatcherite reforms merely accelerated the pace of change for developments that were already underway.

A cornerstone of traditional insurance, the objective of collective security, was superseded by the interests of individual fairness. The burden of financial risk was increasingly allocated to individual policyholders and the management of financial risk to the markets.

Together, unitised insurance policies and mathematical finance re-engineered the landscape of British capitalism by undermining the scientific foundations and appeal of traditional forms of protective insurance, such as industrial life insurance policies, annuities and defined benefit pension schemes.

Vast concentrations of personal wealth accumulated in institutional funds. The conduct and behaviour of firms became more diverse and complex as the science behind financial risk management was revolutionised. There were four key contours of change:

  • First, collective provision was increasingly superseded by considerations of individual equity.
  • Second, financial analysis and treatment of assets assumed greater importance than the management of liabilities.
  • Third, insurance and protection were increasingly displaced by savings and investment media.
  • Finally, traditional actuarial science was gradually substituted for a paradigm of financial economics.


Financial neoliberalism – the increased role and responsibility of financial markets and financial theories in the provision of economic security – redesigned the management of uncertainty and risk in insurance by changing the relationships between experts, individuals and the regulator within an increasingly sophisticated and competitive financial environment.

Risk-taking financial behaviour became an exigency. The presumption that financial uncertainty could, and should, be managed through financial markets gained saliency. The financial world, and its future, was increasingly understood through the lenses of advanced computing, mathematics and statistics.

Financial neoliberalism dramatically changed the ways in which the financial industry and government engaged with uncertainty; and it influenced the increasingly risk-based techniques, and forms of knowledge, through which they sought to manage and control that future.

Political philosophy may be thought to have represented the main attack on collectivism and the welfare state. Yet, removed from mainstream political discourse, the journals of the actuarial profession show how financial economics gradually displaced actuarial science as the principle scientific paradigm that managed financial uncertainty.

Furthermore, data compiled from the Association of British Insurers show that the attack on principles of collectivism were already underway in the late 1960s and early 1970s as individuals increasingly acquired these personalised insurance policies.

Thus, the practice of unitising the management of risk gradually merged with a new paradigm of financial economics that scientifically legitimised investment and savings rather than mutual protection and risk pooling. In this sense, many of the Thatcher government’s reforms geared towards promoting popular capitalism and property ownership simply pushed at an open door.

The Ruhr’s mining industry and its power struggle with the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community

by Juliane Czierpka (Ruhr-University Bochum)


Ruhr mining. Available at Pixabay.

Since the beginning of the Ruhr area’s industrialisation in the second half of the nineteenth century, the local mining industry has always been a powerful player. Controlling vast amounts of coal, the Ruhr’s mining companies held a huge share of the European coal market and were usually able to influence political decisions made by German governments.

One reason for the power of the Ruhr’s mining industry was of course the importance of the energy sector and the country’s dependence on its coal. But the local mining companies also used to present themselves as a unity, speaking with one voice and – even more importantly – selling their coals collectively.

In other words, the mining companies of the Ruhr had built a huge coal cartel, even though it wasn’t called a cartel or syndicate after 1945 – at least within the Ruhr area, everyone was quite keen on finding new names for the sales.

In the early 1950s, the newly constituted German government was desperately trying to reduce the Allies’ control. While Britain and the United States were willing to give the Germans back parts of their sovereignty and started to loosen the regulations on the production of steel and other goods, the French did not like this approach.

Naturally, after 1945 the French government not only felt threatened by the German heavy industry, which was seen as having made the war possible by quickly adapting to the production of arms in order to support Hitler and its troops, but also by the German mining industry’s market power, because the energy sector was closely linked to questions of national autonomy and security. Furthermore, the French steel industry depended on specific qualities of coal from the Ruhr area.

The specific combination of interests in Europe in the aftermath of the war – a French government trying to keep control over the German coal and steel sector and a German government that was trying hard to win back at least parts of its sovereignty from the Allies – led to the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

The ECSC’s principal goal was to merge the coal and steel markets of Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, thereby leading to a high degree of economic and political cooperation, and peace between the member states. These words were of course mainly tinsel and glitter, as every member state pursued its own national interests.

The High Authority, the ECSC’s supranational executive institution, is usually seen as a failure by historians and political scientists, because it did not succeed in enforcing the ECSC’s treaty against the member states’ national interests.

My research shows that the hypothesis of a weak HA is not generally true. Looking into the HA’s dispute with the Ruhr’s mining industry over the organisation of their coal sales, I show how the HA managed to break up the traditional structures in the Ruhr area, even though the mining industry fought fiercely for their cartel and was supported by the German government – which had initially sold the mining industry out for membership in the ECSC.

My research also sheds light on the relationship between businesses and national governments and shows how this relationship was changed by the emergence of a new player – the supranational HA. My research also shows that there would have been a very early Gerxit, which only was prevented by the pressure of the Allies, which forced the German government to be part of the ECSC regardless to domestic protests.

Institutional choice in the governance of the early Atlantic sugar trade: diasporas, markets and courts

by Daniel Strum (University of São Paulo)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available for EHS members here.


Strum Pic
Figure 1. Cartographic chart of the Atlantic Ocean (c. 1600). Source: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Florence, Italy. Port. 27.  By kind permission of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attivitá Culturali della Repubblica Italiana.
Reproduction of this image by any means is strictly prohibited.

In the age of sailboats, how could traders be confident that the parties with whom they were considering working on the other side of the ocean would not act opportunistically? Commercial agents overseas spared merchants time and the hazards of travel and allowed them to diversify their investments; but agents might also cheat or renege on or neglect their commitments.

My research about the merchants of Jewish origin plying the sugar trade linking Brazil, Portugal and the Netherlands demonstrates that the same merchants chose different feasible mechanisms (institutions) to curb opportunism in different types of transactions. Its main contribution is to establish a clear pattern linking the attributes of these transactions to those of the mechanisms chosen to enforce them. It also shows how these mechanisms interrelated.

Around 1600, Europe experienced rapidly growing urban populations and dependence on trade for supplies of basic products, while overseas possessions contributed to a surging output of marketable commodities, including sugar. Brazil was turned into the first large-scale plantation economy and became the world’s main sugar producer, with Amsterdam emerging as its main distribution and refining centre. Most of the Brazilian sugar trade was intermediated by merchants in Portugal, and traders of Jewish origin scattered along this trade route played a prominent role in the sugar trade.  The Brazilian sugar trade required institutions with low costs in agency services and contract enforcement because it was a significantly competitive market. Its political, legal, and administrative framework raised relatively few obstacles to market entrants, and trade in a semi-luxury commodity necessitated low start-up costs.

Sources reveal that merchants of Jewish origin engaged mostly individuals of other backgrounds in transactions in which agents had little latitude, performed simple tasks over short periods, and managed small sums (see table 1). Insiders were not left out in these transactions, but the background of agents was not determinant.The research shows that these transactions were primarily enforced by an informal mechanism that linked one’s expected income to one’s professional reputation. Bad conduct led to marginalization while good behaviour vouched for more opportunities by the same and other principals. This mechanism functioned among all traders, despite their differing backgrounds, who were active in these interconnected marketplaces. This professional reputation mechanism worked because a standardization of basic mercantile practices produced a shared understanding of how trade should be conducted. At the same time, the marketplaces’ structure together with patterns of transportation and correspondence increased the speed, frequency, volume, and diversity of the information flow within and between these marketplaces. This information system facilitated both the detection of good and bad conduct and relatively rapid response to news about it.


Strum Pic 2
Figure 2. Sugar crate being weighted at the Palace Square in Lisbon. Source: Dirk Stoop – Terreiro do Paço no século XVII, 1662. Painting. Museu da Cidade, Lisboa, Portugal. MC.PIN.261.© Museu da Cidade – Câmara Municipal de Lisboa.

The professional reputation mechanism worked better on transactions involving small sums and fewer, simpler, and shorter tasks. Misconduct in these tasks were easier to detect and expose amid an extensive and heterogeneous network; and if the agent cheated, the small sums assigned were not enough to live on while forsaking trade.


Table 1. Backgrounds of agents in complex and simple arrangements

Type of transaction Outsiders Probable outsiders Insiders Probable insiders Relatives
Complex 2.6% 4.9% 69.9% 2.1% 20.6%
Simple 20.0% 70.0% 0% 10.0% 0%

Source: original article in the Economic History Review.


On the other hand, merchants of Jewish origin preferred to engage members of their diaspora in complex, larger, and longer transactions (see table 1). A reputation mechanism within diaspora was more effective in governing transactions that were difficult to follow. Although enforcement within the diaspora benefitted from the general information system, the diaspora’s social structure generated more information more rapidly about the conduct of its members. In each centre, insiders knew each other and marriages and socialization within the group prevailed. Insiders usually had personal acquaintances and often relatives in other centres as well. They were conscious of their common history and fragile status. Such social structure also provided greater economic and social incentives for honesty and diligence than the professional mechanism, making the internal mechanism preferable in transactions involving larger sums and wider latitude.

Finally, the research shows that the legal system was able to impose sanctions across wide distances and political units. Yet owing to courts’ slowness and costliness, merchants resorted to litigation only after nonjudicial mechanisms failed. Furthermore, courts could not punish inattention that did not breach legal, customary, or contractual specifications, nor could courts reward accomplishment.

Litigation had to supplemented the professional mechanism because its incentives were not homogeneous across all marketplaces and diasporas. Courts also reinforced the diaspora mechanism by limiting the future income an agent expected to gain from misappropriating large sums from one or many principals. Finally, the professional mechanism supplemented the diaspora mechanism by limiting alternative agency relations with outsiders for insiders who had engaged in misconduct.

Because merchants were capable of matching transactions with the most appropriate governing mechanisms, they were able to diversify their transactions, expand the market for agents, better allocate agents to tasks, and stimulate competition among them. The resulting decrease in agency costs was critical in a significantly competitive market as the sugar trade. Institutional choice thus supported and reinforced—rather than caused—expansion of exchange.

War, shortage and Thailand’s industrialisation, 1932-57

by Panarat Anamwathana (University of Oxford)

This study was awarded the prize for the best conference paper by a new researcher at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference in Belfast.


1954 Bangkok street. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Thailand fell under Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The small agrarian country relied on imports from the West for consumer and industrial goods, and suffered shortages of everything from clothes to machinery between 1941 and 1945.

After the Japanese surrender, the Thai government learned from its trauma, adapted its economic approach and began domestic production of its own consumer goods – although at the cost of inefficiencies and rent-seeking.

Economic historians have expressed different perspectives on Thailand’s immediate post-war economic development and state-led industrialisation programme. Some, such as Hewison (1989) and Ingram (1971), mention the expansion of manufacturing capacity, despite government inefficiencies. Others, such as Suehiro (1989) and Phongpaichit and Baker (1995), are more critical of state involvement, saying that rent-seeking and corruption hindered any real progress.

Anyone familiar with state-operated enterprises might be suspicious of Thailand’s state-led industrialisation approach. To protect many of the country’s new industries, import tariffs and quotas were introduced. At the same time, a new class of capitalists emerged from an alliance of politicians and entrepreneurs. These people benefitted from favourable concessions, state-sponsored monopolies or being granted lucrative import licences. The question is: did anything come out of all this?

Since Thailand had no industrial census for the period, it is difficult to measure changes in the kingdom’s manufacturing capacity from before the war to after the war. To address this challenge, I have gathered statistical data on three industries: sugar, textiles and gunny bags (which are essential for transporting rice, Thailand’s most important export crop). These goods were three of Thailand’s most important pre-war imports, key to the wellbeing of the population and rationed during the war.

My data come from a variety of primary sources from the National Archives of Thailand, the National Archives at Kew, and the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. I also read previously unused qualitative sources, such as government reports, correspondence and old newspapers to build a more complete picture of wartime Thailand.

I find that Thailand was able to produce more of its sugar, textiles and gunny bags after 1945, and continued to substitute for imports as the decade progressed. This was achievable in part because the shortage of goods during the war reinforced the drive to diversify the economy. Government systems and infrastructure established under the Japanese occupation but hindered by wartime circumstances could then make use of importing machinery and international credit.

Finally, machines and facilities abandoned by the Japanese army could be used by the post-war Thai government and their capitalist allies. I also find that per capita consumption either plateaued or increased during this period, suggesting that Thais were not deprived of these products because of the government’s industrialisation programme.

Corruption and rent-seeking, however, were common and can easily arise from state-led industrialisation programmes with little transparency, like that in Thailand.

For example, the Sugar Organisation, the most important state-operated enterprise in this industry, played a large role in transporting sugar from both private and government mills to shops. Unfortunately, this organisation was completely corrupt. It embezzled, cheated farmers, sold sugar to fake agents and distributors, and was extremely permissive on check-ups and regulation. Although the state did revoke some of the privileges of the organisation, it continued to operate throughout all the scandals.

My study not only contributes to the historiography of Thai economic development, but also engages with studies of various models of economic growth, the efficiency and costs of state-operated enterprises, and the legacies of the Second World War in occupied territories.



Further reading

Hewison, Kevin (1989) Bankers and Bureaucrats Capital and the Role of the State in Thailand, New Haven.

Ingram, James C (1971) Economic Change in Thailand, 1850-1970, Stanford University Press.

Phongpaichit, Pasuk, and Chris Baker (1995). Thailand: Economy and Politics, Oxford University Press.

Suehiro, Akira (1989) Capital Accumulation in Thailand, Tokyo.

Is bad news ever good for stocks? The importance of time-varying war risk and stock returns

by Gertjan Verdickt (University of Antwerp)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


Brussels Stock Exchange Building (Bourse or Beurs). Available at Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most severe events that affect stock markets is arguably a war. Because wars rarely occur, it is difficult to document what the effect of an increase in the threat and act of war is. Going back to history can go a long way to fill this gap.

In my research, I start by collecting a large sample of articles from the archives of The Economist to create the metrics, Threat and Act. This sample contains 79,568 articles from the period January 1885 to December 1913. To mimic investors and understand the content of news items, I rely on a textual analysis with a thorough human reading.

First, I document that Threat is a good predictor for actual events. If The Economist writes more about a potential military conflict, the probability of that conflict actually happening in the future is higher.

The other metric, Act, only captures conflicts that are happening right now. This suggests that, in contrast to what other historians find, The Economist did not write about war excessively but chose their war news coverage appropriately.

Verdickt Graph

Second, I focus on seven countries with stock listings on the Brussels Stock Exchange: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain and the Netherlands. These countries are important for Belgium, either through import and export or with a large number of stock listings in Brussels.

Additionally, I use information on other European and non-European countries with stock listings in Brussels to test whether war risk could be considered a European or global form of risk.

For the seven countries, I document that firms do not adjust dividend policies when there is an increase in the threat of war, but only when there is an outbreak of war.

Investors, on the other hand, sell their stocks when there is an increase in the potential and outbreak of a military conflict. When the threat is not followed by an act, stock prices adjust increase to the similar levels as before.

But when there is an outbreak of war, stock returns are negative up to 12 months after the initial increase. This shows that war risk is priced appropriately in stock markets, but that the outbreak of war is associated with higher uncertainty and welfare costs.

More interestingly, I show that there is a decrease in stock prices for other European countries, but no effect for non-European countries. This suggests that investors value the importance of proximity to a war. But firms from these countries do not adjust their dividend policy when threat and act increase.

Population, welfare and economic change in Britain, 1290-1834

review by David Hitchcock (Canterbury Christ Church University)

book edited by Chris Briggs, P.M. Kitson & S. J. Thompson

‘Population, welfare and economic change in Britain, 1290-1834’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE  25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 14th June 2019. See below for details.



This edited volume emerged from a 2011 Cambridge conference held in honour of Richard Smith, and collects expanded versions of eleven papers presented to honour Smith’s scholarly contributions, not least his long tenure at the helm of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. In the introduction, the editors assert that the book is fundamentally about ‘the historical contexts of demographic decisions broadly defined: decisions about marriage, migration, household formation, retirement, child-bearing, work, and saving’ (p. 2). In practice however the eleven contributors speak to a necessarily narrower range of scholarly concerns. The bulk of the chapters revolve around either demographic reconstruction, in the classic Cambridge Group style, and mainly by using English evidence, or around systemic quantification of poor relief mechanisms such as workhouses and outdoor relief (Boulton), legislation (Thompson), relief to the aged (Williams), or Almshouses (Goose and Yates). E.A. Wrigley and R.W. Hoyle offer a summative and speculative chapter respectively which bookend the volume. Wrigley’s opening chapter reprises the now classic Hajnal essay on European marriage patterns in light of new evidence and offers a survey of the present state of scholarship on the divergent demographies of early modern North-West versus South-East Europe. Wrigley remains broadly convinced of the efficacy of the ‘North-Western marriage pattern’ thesis (p. 26). Hoyle returns to Alan Macfarlane’s once-controversial contention that the peculiarly individualistic distribution of English property rights meant that long-term single family ownership of the same set of landed estates was limited (p. 308), and he pronounces Macfarlane’s argument largely true for land ownership, and his final chapter then elaborates on the implications of English individualism for other types of economic activity, namely trade and agriculture.

The collection has a five-chapter section devoted to poor relief. Several of these chapters seem to offer addendums to work already in print and there is a distinct focus on locality, for instance, Samantha Williams’ work on support for the elderly in Bedfordshire, and her production of ‘pauper biographies’, can be found in full in her book-length study of Campton parish (p. 130). Julie Marfany adds Catalonian data to the debate over regional differences in European poor relief. Jeremy Boulton interrogates the intriguing unanswered question of the long-term resilience of outdoor relief after the advent of the 1723 workhouse test (p. 153); he does so using the voluminous records of St Martins-in-the-fields with which he and others have been working since at least 2004. These chapters demonstrate the value of substantive, and in the case of Boulton, decade-long engagements with discrete sets of microhistorical material. I question the rather pat neatness of the ‘decision tree’ graph of poor relief decisions offered by Boulton (p. 184) but still consider it a useful summarizing schema. I am less convinced by S.J. Thompson’s keyword-based quantification of poor relief statutes, in a chapter ostensibly about Malthusian theories of population and their relationship to Corporations of the Poor (p. 192). Some of these keywords seem rather under-represented in the findings, for example vagrancy and settlement statutes modified or created very different judicial powers from local acts that created Corporations, but this quite important qualitative distinction seems lost here. Certain very useful regional findings do emerge, but they sit uncomfortably beside a discussion of population and poor relief in Suffolk; I think the chapter would work well solely as a discussion of one subject or the other.

The chapters which offer demographic reconstructions and then analyses of these datasets comprise the second main group of material in the volume. Bruce Campbell and Lorraine Barry’s use of GIS produces an impressive new map of the geographical distribution of the population of the three kingdoms in 1290 (p. 65) using ecclesiastical taxatio records from 1291. However, the ensuing discussion of demography in the nineteenth century seems to stretch the chapter beyond the boundaries of its admittedly excellent medieval datasets (p. 69). Though speaking as a layman, I am sceptical that demographers can estimate the 1290 population of Scotland from 1801 census records, particularly given the noted absence of early modern parochial records to use for regression, though I understand the usefulness of the speculative exercise (p. 52). Rebecca Oakes’ chapter reconstructs the effects of place of origin on the mortality rates of late medieval monks in Winchester, Oxford and Westminster monastic communities. The findings map broadly onto the current historiography of mortality for the period, though I would have liked to see rather more on the impact of broader qualitative conditions such as climate and urban development, two critical influences on the profile of pre-modern plague epidemics. Tracy Dennison’s chapter on the institutional contexts of Russian serfdom proved interesting reading though it seemed disconnected from the volume’s wider and mainly English project.

To conclude, this volume’s main contributions can be divided in two: first, a wide range of impressive (and impressively visualized) datasets that speak to the ‘choices and constraints’ (p. 2) of economic life between 1290 and 1834, and second, a set accessible of reassessments of quite dense historiographical debates. E.A. Wrigley’s chapter in particular stands out as useful in this regard. Despite some small caveats, I found the scholarship rigorous and engaging, though we can hardly expect less of the group which reconstructed the historical population of England and Wales.



SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code B125 online hereOffer ends 14th June 2019. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email


Note: this post appeared as a book review article in the Review. We have obtained the necessary permissions.


Trains of thought: evidence from Sweden on how railways helped ideas to travel

by Eric Melander (University of Warwick)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.



Navvies during work at Nybro-Sävsjöströms Järnväg in Sweden. Standing far right is Oskar Lindahl from Mackamåla outside Målerås. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The role of rail transport in shaping the geography of economic development is widely recognised. My research shows that its role in enabling the spread of political ideas is equally significant.

Using a natural experiment from Swedish history, I find that the increased ability of individuals to travel was a key driver for the spatial diffusion of engagement in grassroots social movements pushing for democratisation.

In nineteenth century Sweden, as in much of Europe, trade unions, leftist parties, temperance movements and non-state churches were important forces for democratisation and social reform. By 1910, 700,000 Swedes were members of at least one such group, out of a total population of around 5.5 million. At the same time, the Swedish rail network had been developed from just 6,000km in 1881 to 14,000km in 1910.

Swedish social historians, such as Sven Lundkvist, have noted that personal visits by agitators and preachers were important channels for the spread of the new ideas. A key example is August Palm, a notable social democrat and labour activist, who made heavy use of the railways during his extensive ‘agitation travels’. And Swedish political economist and economic historian Eli Heckscher has written about the ‘democratising effect’ of travel in this period.

My study is the first to test the hypothesised link between railway expansion and the success of these movements formally, using modern economic and statistical techniques.

By analysing a rich dataset, including historical railway maps, information on passenger and freight traffic, census data and archival information on social movement membership in Sweden, I demonstrate the impact of railway access on the spread and growth of activist organisations. Well-connected towns and cities were more likely to host at least one social movement organisation, and to see more rapid growth in membership numbers.

A key mechanism underlying this result is that railways reduced effective distances between places: the increased ability of individuals to travel and spread their ideas drove the spatial diffusion of movement membership.

The positive impact of rail is only as a result of increased passenger flows to a town or city – freight volumes had no impact, suggesting that it was the mobility of individuals that spread new ideas, not an acceleration of economic activity more broadly.

These findings are important because they shed light on the role played by railways, and by communication technology more broadly, in the diffusion of ideas. Recent work on this topic has focused on the role of social media on short-lived bursts of (extreme) collective action. Research by Daron Acemoglu, Tarek Hassan and Ahmed Tahoun, for example, shows that Twitter shaped protest activity during the Arab Spring.

My study shows that technology also matters for more broad-based popular engagement in nascent social movements over much longer time horizons. Identifying the importance of technology for the historical spread of democratic ideas can therefore sharpen our understanding of contemporary political events.