My project re-assesses the nature of Genoese family networks in the Atlantic, at the end of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The canonical understanding of these networks is based on three observations: family networks were highly co-dependent, centralized, and that Genoa was the centre of operations for all the Genoese. My research shows a multitude of scenarios and provides new explanations for these observations. Using a case study of the Rivarolo-Cassana family network, I show that this particular network functioned more in terms of cooperation, using a pluricentric language. As the title suggests, the economic endeavours of these merchants involved a complex migration process. Consequently, their trading activities coincided with the interests of those in permanent settlements.
Genoese merchants chose cities in the Iberian peninsula for their homes and as a base for their business activities. For example, Lisbon, Seville, and Valencia had a significant permanent Genoese population who were in the process of becoming naturalized Spanish and Portuguese citizens. In turn, some of the families that dominated the economic landscape of the 15th and 16th centuries disappeared in Genoa. Yet, their descendants still appear in Portugal and Spain with their original Ligurian surnames altered into Castilian or Portuguese.
The findings from my study indicate the need for a major reassessment of our understanding of Genoese family networks. The data I have collected shows that most of the day-to-day trade happened outside the family network, and the contractual relationships that emerged between partners extended well beyond familial ties. Because the structure of private property ownership was connected to new interests and new markets, it was inevitable that these, in turn, were linked to the discovery of new lands. Consequently, The Genoese adopted a new business model based on owning the means of production for the goods they traded, particularly soap, wheat, and sugar.
Finally, I argue that the economic ties between families and family members, did not always translate into a share of business responsibility or welfare. The relationships and partnerships functioned in terms of very particular historical and geographical contexts. The contracts were between ‘individuals (Societas) to share losses and gains.’ Thus, liability was an individual matter despite the frequent use of jurists.
This blog is part of our EHS Annual Conference 2020 Blog Series.
Since the French economist, Thomas Piketty, published Capital in the 21st Century in 2014, it has become clear that we need to understand the development of wealth and income inequality in the long run. While Piketty traces inequality over the last 200 years, other economic historians have recently begun to explore inequality in the more distant past, and they report striking similarities of increasing economic inequality from as early as 1450.
However, one major European region has been largely absent from the debate: Central Europe — the German cities and territories of the Holy Roman Empire. How did wealth inequality develop there? And what role did taxation play?
The Holy Roman Empire was vast, but its borders fluctuated greatly over time. As a first step to facilitating analysis, I focus on cities in the German-speaking regions. Urban wealth taxation developed early in many of the great cities, such as Cologne and Lübeck. By the fourteenth century, wealth taxes were common in many cities. They are an excellent source for getting a glimpse at wealth inequality (Caption 1).
Caption 1. Excerpt from the wealth tax registers of Lübeck (1774-84).
Three questions need to be clarified when using wealth tax registers as sources:
Who was being taxed?
What was being taxed?
How were they taxed?
The first question was also crucial to contemporaries because the nobility and clergy adamantly defended their privileges which excluded them from taxation. It was Citizens and city-dwellers without citizenship who mainly bore the brunt of wealth taxation.
Figure 1. Taxpayers in a sample of 17 cities in the German Territories of the Holy Roman Empire.
The cities’ tax codes reveal a level of sophistication that might be surprising. Not only did they tax real estate, cash and inventories, but many of them also taxed financial assets such as loans and perpetuities (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Taxable wealth in 19 cities in the German Territories of the Holy Roman Empire.
Wealth taxation was always proportional. Many cities established wealth thresholds below which citizens were exempt from taxation, and basic provisions such as grain, clothing and armour were also often exempt. Taxpayers were asked to estimate their own wealth and to pay the correct amount of taxes to the city’s tax collectors. To prevent fraud, taxpayers had to swear under oath (Caption 2).
Caption 2. Scene from the Volkacher Salbuch (1500-1504) shows the mayor on the left, two tax collectors at a table and a taxpayer delivering his tax payment while swearing his oath.
Taking the above limitations seriously, one can use tax registers to trace long-run wealth inequality in cities across the Holy Roman Empire (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Gini Coefficients showing Wealth Inequality in the Urban Middle Ages.
Two main trends emerge: First, most cities experienced declining wealth inequality in the aftermath of the Black Death around 1350. The only exception was Rostock, an active trading city in the North. Second, from around 1500, inequality was rising in most cities until the onset of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This war, in which large armies marauded through German lands bringing along plague and other diseases, as well as the shift in trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, might be the reason for the decline seen in this period. This sets the German lands apart from the development of inequality in other European regions, such as Italy and the Netherlands, in which inequality continued to rise throughout the early modern period.
 Milanovic, B., Lindert, P.H., and Williamson, J., ‘Pre-Industrial Inequality’, Economic Journal 121, no. 551 (2011): 255-272; Guido, A. ‘Economic Inequality in Northwestern Italy: A Long-Term View’, Journal of Economic History 75, no. 4 (2015): 1058-1096; Guido, A., and Ammannati, F., ‘Long-term trends in economic inequality: the case of the Florentine state, c.1300-1800’, Economic History Review 70, 4 (2017): 1072-1102; Wouter, R., ‘Economic Inequality and Growth before the Industrial Revolution: The Case of the Low Countries’, European Review of Economic History 20, no. 1 (2016): 1-22; Reis, J., ‘Deviant Behavior? Inequality in Portugal 1565-1770’, Cliometrica 11, no. 3 (2017): 297-319; Malinowski, M., and van Zanden J.L., ‘Income and Its Distribution in Preindustrial Poland’, Cliometrica 11, no. 3 (2017): 375-404.
In a recent article[i] we reviewed research on preindustrial epidemics. We focused on large-scale, lethal events: those that have a deeper and more long-lasting impact on economy and society, thereby producing the historical documentation that allows for systematic study. Almost all these lethal pandemics have been caused by plague: from the “Justinian’s plague” (540-41) and the Black Death (1347-52) to the last great European plagues of the seventeenth century (1623-32 and 1647-57). These epidemics were devastating. The Black Death, killed between 35 and 60 per cent of the population of Europe and the Mediterranean (approximately 50 million victims).
These epidemics also had large-scale and persistent consequences. The Black Death might have positively influenced the development of Europe, even playing a role in the Great Divergence.[ii] Conversely, it is arguable that seventeenth-century plagues in Southern Europe (especially Italy), precipitated the Little Divergence.[iii] Clearly, epidemics can have asymmetric economic effects. The Black Death, for example, had negative long-term consequences for relatively under-populated areas of Europe, such as Spain or Ireland.[iv] More generally, the effects of an epidemic depend upon the context in which it happens. Below we focus on how institutions shaped the spread and the consequences of plagues.
Preindustrial epidemics and institutions
In preindustrial times, as today, institutions played a crucial role in determining the final intensity of epidemics. When the Black Death appeared, European societies were unprepared for the threat. But, when it became apparent that plague was a recurrent scourge, institutional adaptation commenced — typical of human reaction to a changing biological environment. From the late fourteenth century permanent health boards were established, able to take quicker action than the ad-hoc commissions created during the emergency of 1348. These boards monitored constantly the international situation, and provided the early warning necessary for implementing measures to contain epidemics[v]. From the late fourteenth century, quarantine procedures for suspected cases were developed, and in 1423 Venice built the first permanent lazzaretto (isolation hospital) on a lagoon island. By the early sixteenth century, at least in Italy, central and local government had implemented a broad range of anti-plague policies, including health controls at river and sea harbours, mountain passes, and political boundaries. Within each Italian state, infected communities or territories were isolated, and human contact was limited by quarantines.[vi] These, and other instruments developed against the plague, are the direct ancestors of those currently employed to contain Covid-19. However, such policies are not always successful: In 1629, for example, plague entered Northern Italy as infected armies from France and Germany arrived to fight in the War of the Mantuan Succession. Nobody has ever been able to quarantine an enemy army.
It is no accident that these policies were first developed in Italian trading cities which, because of their commercial networks, had good reason to fear infection. Such policies were quickly imitated in Spain and France.[vii] However, England in particular, “was unlike many other European countries in having no public precautions against plague at all before 1518”.[viii] Even in the seventeenth century, England was still trying to introduce institutions that had long-since been consolidated in Mediterranean Europe.
The development of institutions and procedures to fight plague has been extensively researched. Nonetheless, other aspects of preindustrial epidemics are less well-known. For example, how institutions tended to shift mortality towards specific socio-economic groups, especially the poor. Once doctors and health officials noticed that plague mortality was higher in the poorest parts of the city, they began to see the poor themselves as being responsible for the spread of the infection. As a result, during the early modern period their presence in cities was increasingly resented,[ix] and as a precautionary measure, vagrants and beggars were expelled. The death of many poor people was even regarded by some as one of the few positive consequences of plague. The friar, Antero Maria di San Bonaventura, wrote immediately after the 1656-57 plague in Genoa:
“What would the world be, if God did not sometimes touch it with the plague? How could he feed so many people? God would have to create new worlds, merely destined to provision this one […]. Genoa had grown so much that it no longer seemed a big city, but an anthill. You could neither take a walk without knocking into one another, nor was it possible to pray in church on account of the multitude of the poor […]. Thus it is necessary to confess that the contagion is the effect of divine providence, for the good governance of the universe”.[x]
While it seems certain that the marked socio-economic gradient of plague mortality was partly due to the action of health institutions, there is no clear evidence that officials were actively trying to kill the poor by infection. Sometimes, the anti-poor behaviour of the elites might have backfired. Our initial research on the 1630 epidemic in the Italian city of Carmagnola suggests that while poor households were more prone to being all interned in the lazzaretto for isolation at the mere suspicion of plague, this might have reduced, not increased, their individual risk of death compared to richer strata. Possibly, this was the combined result of effective isolation of the diseased, assured provisioning of victuals, basic care, and forced within-household distancing[xi].
Different health treatment reserved to rich and poor and economic elites making wrong and self-harming decisions: it would be nice if, occasionally, we learned something from history!
[i] Alfani, G. and T. Murphy. “Plague and Lethal Epidemics in the Pre-Industrial World.” Journal of Economic History 77 (1), 2017, 314–343.
[ii] Clark, G. A Farewell to the Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007; Broadberry, S. Accounting for the Great Divergence, LSE Economic History Working Papers No. 184, 2013.
[iii] Alfani, G. “Plague in Seventeenth Century Europe and the Decline of Italy: An Epidemiological Hypothesis.” European Review of Economic History 17 (3), 2013, 408–430; Alfani, G. and M. Percoco. “Plague and Long-Term Development: the Lasting Effects of the 1629-30 Epidemic on the Italian Cities.” Economic History Review 72 (4), 2019, 1175–1201.
[v] Cipolla, C.M. Public Health and the Medical Profession in the Renaissance. Cambridge: CUP, 1976; Cohn, S.H. Cultures of Plague. Medical Thought at the End of the Renaissance. Oxford: OUP, 2009. Alfani, G. Calamities and the Economy in Renaissance Italy. The Grand Tour of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013.
[vi] Alfani, G. Calamities and the Economy, cit.; Cipolla, C.M, Public Health and the Medical Profession, cit.; Henderson, J., Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City, Yale University Press, 2019.
[vii] Cipolla, C.M, Public Health and the Medical Profession, cit..
[viii] Slack, Paul. The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Routledge, 1985, 201–26.
[ix] Pullan, B. “Plague and Perceptions of the Poor in Early Modern Italy.” In T. Ranger and P. Slack (eds.), Epidemics and Ideas. Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence. Cambridge: CUP, 1992, 101-23; Alfani, G., Calamities and the Economy.
In his seventh-century Etymology Isidore of Seville wrote ‘bees originate from oxen, just as hornets come from horses, drone bees from mules, and wasps from asses’, reflecting the belief that bees were the tiniest of birds, which sprang spontaneously from the putrefying flesh of cows. Such ideas were not new to the Middle Ages, and had been common from Antiquity, when Pliny the Elder commented that dead bees could be brought back to life if covered with mud and bovine carcass.
Yet despite this peculiar (to modern eyes) belief, medieval people were in fact keen observers of the natural world. They knew that there was a larger bee which was especially important—although they thought this was a king, rather than a queen—which the other bees protected, even to the death. They knew that bees lived in well-ordered communities, where every bee had a particular task which it dutifully carried out. They especially emphasized worker bees, which went out tirelessly collecting dew, from which they thought honey came, and flowers, which they thought turned to wax. But they observed no mating in bee colonies, and the implications of this were profound. Medieval theologians associated the virginity and chastity of bees with the two figures whose virginity and chastity were central to the Christian faith: Christ and Mary. This religious symbolism had a singularly important practical consequence, for it meant that beeswax candles were required for observance of the ritual of the Mass.
Over the high and late middle ages Christian religious practice became increasingly elaborate, with a greater number of services celebrated at an expanding number of cathedrals, churches, chapels, chantries and shrines. All of these required wax candles. Candles also burned on the rood screens and before each image, shrine, and many tombs in every church in Europe. Every stage of a medieval Christian’s life, from the baptismal font to the grave, was accompanied by candles.
The imagery of light and dark, fundamental to Christian devotion, was reliant on the supply of vast quantities of beeswax for candles and torches. The cost of provisioning religious institutions with lights was significant. In England wax accounted for on average half of the total running cost of the main chapel of major religious institutions and, apart from the fabric and bells, was the most expensive single item in parish churches. The need for wax across medieval Europe was continuous and persistent, yet the extent and significance of the production, trade, and consumption of wax has yet to be fully considered.
Figure 1. Bees (apes) are so-called because they are born without feet. A medieval bestiary
By permission of the British Library: Bestiary: BL Royal MA 12 C XIX f45r
Where did this beeswax come from? Although demand for wax was high across Europe, production itself was unevenly spread. In northern and central Europe high medieval urbanization and settlement expansion came at the expense of favourable bee habitats. This meant that the areas with the greatest need for wax were under intense pressure to meet demand through local production. These regions were therefore especially attractive to merchants bringing wax from the Baltic hinterland, where large-scale sylvan wax production took place in forests which had not been felled to make room for arable fields. This high-quality wax became an important feature of Hanseatic trade, and a brisk westward trade brought this wax ‘de Polane’ to England and Bruges where eager buyers were readily found.
Yet even this thriving international trade was not enough to meet the demand for wax from the c.9,000 parish churches which existed in England by the early fourteenth century. Comparing the total amount of wax needed for basic religious observance with wax imports suggests that foreign wax accounted for only a fifth of the amount of wax needed in England before 1475. The remaining wax must have been the product of hundreds of thousands of skeps kept by small domestic producers. This local beekeeping is almost invisible in manorial documents, and it is only by considering the total demand for wax that the importance of beekeeping within the peasant economy becomes apparent.
What emerges, then, is a dual economy for wax. Wealthy religious institutions attracted merchants bringing high-quality Baltic wax in great quantities, demonstrating that geographically peripheral areas were not only vital to European trade, but that the cultural practices of high and late medieval society were dependent on these regions. At the same time, small producers found ready markets for the product of their hives in their local parish churches, supplying much-needed injections of income within the household economy.
Figure 2 Bees in the Luttrell Psalter
By permission of the British Library: Luttrell Psalter: BL Add MS 42130 f240r
Bees and bee products held a uniquely important place in medieval culture, and consequently in the medieval economy. In these tiny golden creatures medieval people saw something flung from Paradise, imbued with mystical qualities and powerfully symbolic. Today, as we face climate change, habitat destruction and the decline of bee colonies, we might do well to look at the natural world with something of the same wonder.
This research is being expanded in the Leverhulme project ‘Bees in the medieval world: Economic, environmental and cultural perspectives’, which will also explore the Mediterranean trade in beeswax and consider encounters between the Christian and Muslim worlds.
Episodes of major market volatility are rarely out of the headlines today. Their ramifications, though considerable, are discussed as if these were somehow new, and that they are the result of how economies are structured in our globalised world. Yet prices in international markets in the late middle ages could be just as volatile and have just as far-reaching consequences.
The wine trade between Gascony and England is one key example. Gascony, in modern southwestern France, was part of the medieval duchy of Aquitaine: a territory ruled by the English crown almost without interruption from 1154 to 1453.
Geography and geology permitted the production of just one commodity, wine, and as a result the region was dependent, like so many modern states specialised in fossil fuels or mining, on export earnings to pay for the purchase and import of food and all other goods from distant markets.
My research provides a better understanding of the possible factors that influenced fluctuations in prices, and their knock-on effects. To achieve this, I use wholesale prices in Bordeaux and Libourne from between 1337 and 1466, largely sourced from surviving original documents stored both in the Archives départementales de la Gironde in Bordeaux and the National Archives in London.
As today, extreme climactic events, as well as disruption by war, or demographic catastrophes such as disease or famines, can be understood to cause sudden shifts in supply. Likewise there were abrupt changes in local demand, for example, in 1356 the arrival of a victorious Edward, the Black Prince, with his army laden with ransoms and plunder after the battle of Poitiers, can be observed in the data.
Volatility was exacerbated by government intervention: particularly a 1353 English law that had constrained certain merchants from buying up stock in advance at pre-agreed prices, as would be done in modern markets. Likewise, ill-considered price controls at retail in England probably caused suppressed trade.
Critically, wine was a luxury in northern European ale-drinking societies, where only the rich would tolerate high prices, so any brief disruptions in supply or local demand disproportionately affected the level of exports.
Such characteristics also meant that wine prices were responsive to wider economic shocks in ways that would be well understood today. Monetary policy mattered. England and Gascony used different currencies with a changing exchange rate. As the Gascon livre appreciated against sterling in the two decades after the Black Death (1348-9), prices rose for foreign buyers, then later devaluations, such as in c.1370, 1413-4 and c.1440, made purchases suddenly cheaper, and triggered noticeable increases in English wine imports.
Yet, for Gascony, as in Venezuela today, an over-dependence on foreign imports meant such surges or falls in the value of one single exported commodity resulted in sudden strong trade surpluses or deficits. Foreign currency, then in the form of precious metals, poured in and out of the economy with fluctuations in the wine trade.
This made prices, and by extension, the duchy of Aquitaine’s whole economy, even more unstable. In the end inflation set in as production declined and later years of English Gascony were mired in an economic depression that contributed to the region’s loss to the French crown in 1453 at the end of the Hundred Years’ War.
by Elizabeth Wiedenheft (University of Nottingham)
There has long been a tension in Christianity between economic concerns and providing a way to commune with the sacred. Nowhere was this more apparent in medieval Europe than with the bodies of holy persons (saints’ relics).
These bodies provided pilgrims with a focus, allowing them to direct their devotion to heaven by praying over the relics. But these bodies were not only sacred objects: they were also bought and sold for profit by enterprising merchants and monks who created vast trading networks throughout Western Europe to exchange them.
Because they were human bodies, relics held a special position in the medieval economy. Their value was based in part on their connection to the spirit that had once inhabited the body, or the personality of the saint. But because they were objects (and often highly mobile objects too), relics were commoditised by medieval society – traded, bought and sold for profit by the communities that held them.
This research seeks to improve our understanding of the exchange of Christian relics in France, Belgium and England in the period between 800 and 1200. It uses medieval hagiographies (accounts of saints’ lives) to show that saints’ bodies were moved frequently in medieval Europe.
Monks used existing trade routes and networks to move these relics. They also used merchant connections to maximise the speed of the acquisition, which consequently allowed them to promote their new relics quickly and efficiently. While they did not have a strict monetary value, relics did have value that was based on their usefulness in performing miracles and as a tool to acquire and manage the church’s property.
The research uses the exchange of relics as social tools in return for land and social power to illustrate their value to the Church. When a community acquired an extremely valuable set of relics (such as St Cuthbert in Durham, St Aethelthryth at Ely, St Edmund at Bury St Edmunds or St Thomas Becket at Canterbury), they promoted their new acquisition by touring the relics throughout the region, moving them into sumptuous reliquaries (highly decorated boxes or statues that held the relics) or tombs, and by inviting ecclesiastical and secular dignitaries to watch these movements.
Over time, the relics could become inextricably tied to the place that held them, rendering them useless outside of that society. If that happened, the relics became ‘inalienable’, or could not be traded or exchanged for other items because they could not effectively be valued by the other society.
This research, therefore, argues that relics are best understood as ‘inalienable commodities’, or economic objects that could be traded but which were only valuable in a specific location.
Looking at the economic status of relics in studies such as this gives us valuable insights into the rise of markets in the era before the modern industrial and consumer economy. The medieval economy was not entirely based on a monetary system of exchange, but it was diverse and the objects that circulated within that economy were conceived of by their contemporaries in a myriad of ways.
Research into the status of relics, how they were exchanged, and the economic benefits accrued through their acquisition can have some bearing on modern conceptions of the worth of the human body, as well as the tension between creating capital and promoting the sacred in modern Christianity.
Noblemen, knights and kings had always been on tour in Medieval Period. Weather on campaign, pilgrimage or on itinerant court – mobility was unexpected high to this specific aristocratic peer group. When capital cities had not emerged yet, the king as the political centre was on continuously travelling through his kingdom. This travelling kingdom had a political and an often missed out economic dimension.
At a time without newspapers, television or other mass media, dealing ‘oral contracts’ in personal relationships with his vessels, was essential. In the 13th century written documentation re-emerged and contributed to a slowdown of the royal itinerant court. Hence travelling kingdom was part of most mediaeval societies to a specific point of their cultural and institutional evolution.
The first modest beginnings originated from Merovingian dynasty on ox carts. Centuries later, Italian campaigns since Charles the Great (742-814) till the Ottonian dynasty, had a specific itinerant court character with their long stays in the three Italian capital cities: Pavia, Ravenna and Rome. Henry II (973-1024) – starting after his crowning in 1002 – bethinks on these older traditions and established the travelling kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire for centuries. Until the mid of the 15th century under Frederick III (1415-1493), where Late Middle Ages, Early Renaissance and Early Modern Period overlapped, the travelling kingdom survived, until it fossilised at the end of the century.
Besides of the fragility of the political system solely relying on personal relationships, the travelling kingdom had also an economic dimension. At the time food was rare in Europe in the Middle Ages and the king did not travel alone. He was accompanied by his royal court, including nobility, knights, bodyguards, and servants. This entourage could make up thousands of people. Because the transportation facilities were poor, the agricultural resources to provide the itinerant court food and shelter were scarce. Thus there was economic pressure for travelling around.
Unsurprising, that more frequented routes and stops were highly correlated with the most prosperous regions in Europe. In the Holy Roman Empire regional focus was on Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia and along the Rhine, the Franco-German border. The king and the king’s follower’s hostage were an enormous economic burden for cities and monastics they visited. Royal accommodation, the servitia regis, was an expensive duty for all his vassals. The average visit lasted three days but could be as long as two weeks. As prestigious as the king’s hostage might have been for a city, from a budgetary perspective his hoosts were relieved when he left for his next destination.
In contrast to continental Europe, England was once more special. A travelling kingdom was not common under Norman regimen. Power was less challenged than on the continent and Westminster early emerged as capital city. But John Lackland (1167-1216), king and heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), had done longer travels to secure his power, as well as his brother did before. But the tradition of a travelling kingdom was much more common to the north of the island, to the Scottish, than to the English.
Meanwhile, in the transition from the High to the Late Middle Ages the duty for king’s hostage was replaced by a financial grant – in France, Flanders and Bourgogne. Records from the French droit de gîte revealed, that most cities from 1223 to 1225 payed something in between 100 and 200 pound sterling silver a year. The combined income for the French crown was 3,000 pound sterling silver a year, covering 1% of Louis VIII of France (1187-1226) total expenses. The cities and monastics made a good deal in transforming the servitude into money. Fixing the amount via privilege, unadjusted by high inflation in the Late Middle Ages, the financial grant completely vanished over time – as well as the travelling kingdom.
by Robert Warren Anderson (University of Michigan-Dearborn), Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama (George Mason University).
Jewish communities in pre-industrial European societies were more likely to be vulnerable to persecutions during periods of economic hardship.
The authors’ study finds that colder springs and summers, which led to reduced food supply, were associated with a higher probability of Jewish persecutions. What’s more, the effect of colder weather on the probability of Jewish persecutions was larger in cities with poor quality soil and in states that were weaker.
Throughout most of history, religious minorities were the victims of persecution. Violence against religious and ethnic minorities remains a major problem in many developing countries today. This study investigates why some societies persecute minorities.
To answer these questions, the researchers focus on the persecution of Jews in medieval and early modern Europe. Violence against Jews was caused by a complex set of factors that have been studied intensively by historians. These include religiously motivated anti-semitism, the need to blame outsider groups and the economic role that Jews played in pre-industrial European societies.
The new study focuses on the hypothesis that Jews were more likely to be vulnerable during periods of economic hardship. The researchers test this hypothesis by combining two novel datasets.
The first dataset is drawn from the 26-volume Encyclopaedia Judaica and contains yearly information on 1,366 city-level persecutions of Jews from 936 European cities between 1100 and 1800. The location of these cities as well as the intensity with which they persecuted Jews is illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The distribution of cities with Jewish persecutions and total persecutions, 1100-1800
The second source contains data on yearly growing season temperature (April to September), which have been reconstructed from proxies including tree rings, ice cores and pollen counts (Guiot and Corona, 2010).
The first result is that colder springs and summers are indeed associated with a higher probability of persecution. A one standard deviation decrease in average growing season temperature in the previous five-year period (about one-third of a degree Celsius) raised the probability that a community would be persecuted from a baseline of about 2% to between 3% and 3.5% in the subsequent five-year period or a 50% to 75% increase in persecution probability.
To explain this effect, the researchers develop a conceptual framework that outlines the political equilibrium under which pre-modern rulers would tolerate the presence of a Jewish community. They argue that this equilibrium was vulnerable to shocks to agricultural output and why this vulnerability may have been greater in locations with poor quality soil and in polities where sovereignty was divided or which were more susceptible to unrest.
Consistent with their conceptual framework, the researchers find that the effect of colder weather on persecution probability was larger in cities with poor quality soil and in states that were weaker. Moreover, the relationship between colder weather and persecution probability was strongest in the late Middle Ages.
Furthermore, as Figure 2 illustrates, the relationship disappeared after 1600, which the researchers attribute to various factors: the rise of stronger states (which were better able to protect minorities); increased agricultural productivity; and the development of more integrated markets, which reduced the impact of local weather shocks on the food supply.
Figure 2: The effect of cold weather shocks on persecution probability over time
The researchers support their results with extensive narrative evidence consistent with these claims and with further evidence that the relationship between colder weather and higher wheat prices also diminished after 1600.
‘Jewish Persecutions and Weather Shocks: 1100-1800’ by Robert Warren Anderson, Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama is published in the June 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.
A blog article also appeared on the media briefings of the Royal Economic Society.
by Jane Humphries, Professor of Economic History, University of Oxford Published on 8 April 2014
The plague known as the Black Death which tore through 14th century Europe is traditionally held to have had at least one upside. Women, the theory runs, were able to exploit the labour shortages of post-plague England to find themselves in a richer and more stable position than before. However the idea that women of the era were forerunners of the post World War I generation doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, as new research shows.
Medievalists have long debated the extent to which women shared in the “golden age” of the English peasantry that followed the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death. The plague killed between 30% and 45% of the population in its first wave 1348-59. Recurrences meant that by the 1370s England’s population had been halved.
The silver lining, for the peasantry at least, was the dramatic increase in workers’ remuneration as landowners struggled to recruit and retain labourers. The results are apparent in a rapid increase in male casual (nominal and real) wages from about 1349.
Some historians have argued that women’s gains were even more marked as they could find employment in hitherto male-dominated jobs, or migrate to towns to work in the growing textile industries and commercial services and so enjoy “economic independence”.
Others however have suggested that whatever the implications of the Black Death for male workers, the sexual division of labour prevented women from seizing the opportunities created by the labour shortage. As one account puts it: “Women tended to work in low-skilled, low-paid jobs … This was true in 1300 and it remained true in 1700”.
The debate has significant implications as optimists have gone further in arguing that women’s improved wages changed demographic behaviour by delaying marriage, promoting celibacy and reducing fertility, with the resulting so-called north-west European Marriage Pattern raising incomes and promoting further growth.