BAD LOCATIONS: Many French towns have been trapped in obsolete places for centuries

Beaumaris,_1610
John Speed (1610), 17th century map of Beaumaris. Available on Wiki Commons.

Only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared with 16 in France. That is one of the findings of research by Guy Michaels (London School of Economics) and Ferdinand Rauch (University of Oxford), which uses the contrasting experiences of British and French cities after the fall of the Roman Empire as a natural experiment to explore the impact of history on economic geography – and what leads cities to get stuck in undesirable locations, a big issue for modern urban planners.

The study, published in the February 2018 issue of the Economic Journal, notes that in France, post-Roman urban life became a shadow of its former self, but in Britain it completely disappeared. As a result, medieval towns in France were much more likely to be located near Roman towns than their British counterparts. But many of these places were obsolete because the best locations in Roman times weren’t the same as in the Middle Ages, when access to water transport was key.

The world is rapidly urbanising, but some of its growing cities seem to be misplaced. Their locations are hampered by poor access to world markets, shortages of water or vulnerability to flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters. This outcome – cities stuck in the wrong places – has potentially dire economic and social consequences.

When thinking about policy responses, it is worth looking at the past to see how historical events can leave cities trapped in locations that are far from ideal. The new study does that by comparing the evolution of two initially similar urban networks following a historical calamity that wiped out one, while leaving the other largely intact.

The setting for the analysis of urban persistence is north-western Europe, where the authors trace the effects of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire more than 1,500 years ago through to the present day. Around the dawn of the first millennium, Rome conquered, and subsequently urbanised, areas including those that make up present day France and Britain (as far north as Hadrian’s Wall). Under the Romans, towns in the two places developed similarly in terms of their institutions, organisation and size.

But around the middle of the fourth century, their fates diverged. Roman Britain suffered invasions, usurpations and reprisals against its elite. Around 410CE, when Rome itself was first sacked, Roman Britain’s last remaining legions, which had maintained order and security, departed permanently. Consequently, Roman Britain’s political, social and economic order collapsed. Between 450CE and 600CE, its towns no longer functioned.

Although some Roman towns in France also suffered when the Western Roman Empire fell, many of them survived and were taken over by Franks. So while the urban network in Britain effectively ended with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there was much more urban continuity in France.

The divergent paths of these two urban networks makes it possible to study the spatial consequences of the ‘resetting’ of an urban network, as towns across Western Europe re-emerged and grew during the Middle Ages. During the High Middle Ages, both Britain and France were again ruled by a common elite (Norman rather than Roman) and had access to similar production technologies. Both features make is possible to compare the effects of the collapse of the Roman Empire on the evolution of town locations.

Following the asymmetric calamity and subsequent re-emergence of towns in Britain and France, one of three scenarios can be imagined:

  • First, if locational fundamentals, such as coastlines, mountains and rivers, consistently favour a fixed set of places, then those locations would be home to both surviving and re-emerging towns. In this case, there would be high persistence of locations from the Roman era onwards in both British and French urban networks.
  • Second, if locational fundamentals or their value change over time (for example, if coastal access becomes more important) and if these fundamentals affect productivity more than the concentration of human activity, then both urban networks would similarly shift towards locations with improved fundamentals. In this case, there would be less persistence of locations in both British and French urban networks relative to the Roman era.
  • Third, if locational fundamentals or their value change, but these fundamentals affect productivity less than the concentration of human activity, then there would be ‘path-dependence’ in the location of towns. The British urban network, which was reset, would shift away from Roman-era locations towards places that are more suited to the changing economic conditions. But French towns would tend to remain in their original Roman locations.

The authors’ empirical investigation finds support for the third scenario, where town locations are path-dependent. Medieval towns in France were much more likely to be located near Roman towns than their British counterparts.

These differences in urban persistence are still visible today; for example, only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared with 16 in France. This finding suggests that the urban network in Britain shifted towards newly advantageous locations between the Roman and medieval eras, while towns in France remained in locations that may have become obsolete.

But did it really matter for future economic development that medieval French towns remained in Roman-era locations? To shed light on this question, the researchers focus on a particular dimension of each town’s location: its accessibility to transport networks.

During Roman times, roads connected major towns, facilitating movements of the occupying army. But during the Middle Ages, technical improvements in water transport made coastal access more important. This technological change meant that having coastal access mattered more for medieval towns in Britain and France than for Roman ones.

The study finds that during the Middle Ages, towns in Britain were roughly two and a half times more likely to have coastal access – either directly or via a navigable river – than during the Roman era. In contrast, in France, there was little change in the urban network’s coastal access.

The researchers also show that having coastal access did matter for towns’ subsequent population growth, which is a key indicator of their economic viability. Specifically, they find that towns with coastal access grew faster between 1200 and 1700, and for towns with poor coastal access, access to canals was associated with faster population growth. The investments in the costly building and maintenance of these canals provide further evidence of the value of access to water transport networks.

The conclusion is that many French towns were stuck in the wrong places for centuries, since their locations were designed for the demands of Roman times and not those of the Middle Ages. They could not take full advantage of the improved transport technologies because they had poor coastal access.

Taken together, these findings show that urban networks may reconfigure around locational fundamentals that become more valuable over time. But this reconfiguration is not inevitable, and towns and cities may remain trapped in bad locations over many centuries and even millennia. This spatial misallocation of economic activity over hundreds of years has almost certainly induced considerable economic costs.

‘Our findings suggest lessons for today’s policy-makers – conclude the authors – The conclusion that cities may be misplaced still matters as the world’s population becomes ever more concentrated in urban areas. For example, parts of Africa, including some of its cities, are hampered by poor access to world markets due to their landlocked position and poor land transport infrastructure. Our research suggests that path-dependence in city locations can still have significant costs.’

‘‘Resetting the Urban Network: 117-2012’ by Guy Michaels and Ferdinand Rauch was published in the February 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.

To contact the authors:
Guy Michaels (G.Michaels@lse.ac.uk)
Ferdinand Rauch (ferdinand.rauch@economics.ox.ac.uk)

RECONSTRUCTION OF MONEY SUPPLY OVER THE LONG RUN: THE CASE OF ENGLAND, 1270-1870

by Nuno Palma (University of Manchester)

This paper provides the first annual time series of coin and money supply estimates for about six hundred years of English history.

It presents a baseline set of estimates, but also considers a variety of alternative plausible scenarios and provide several robustness checks. It concentrates on carefully setting out the details for the data construction, rather than on analysis, but the hope is that these new estimates – the longest such series ever assembled, for any country – will open new vistas to help us understand the complex interaction between the real and the monetary sides of the English economy, at both business-cycle and long-run frequencies. Many applications are possible; for instance, O’Brien and Palma (2016) use it in their analysis of the Restriction period (1797-1821). Furthermore, the new methodology set out here may serve as a blueprint for a similar reconstruction of coin and money supply series for other economies for which the analogous required data is available.

The paper proposes two new estimation methods. The first, referred to as the “direct method”, is used to measure the value of government-provided, legal-tender coin supply only. This method does not consider broader forms of money such as banknotes, deposits, inland bills of exchange, government tallies, exchequer paper or private tokens, which became increasingly important from the seventeenth century onwards. The second method is an “indirect method,” which relies on a combination of information about nominal GDP with the value of coin supply or M2 known at certain benchmark periods. This permits estimating the volume of a broader measure of money supply over time. Figure 1 shows the main results.

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Figure 1. English nominal coin supply, 1270-1870 (log scale of base 2). The periods when direct method A cannot be seen means it coincides with the baseline method (aka direct method B). Source: my calculation based on a series of sources; see text for details.

This paper is forthcoming in The Economic History Review (currently available in early view), and the underlying data has now been included by the Bank of England in their historical database

To contact the author:
nuno.palma@manchester.ac.uk
@nunopgpalma

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.

How to achieve a more compassionate capitalism: look back to medieval Cambridge

by Catherine Casson (University of Manchester), Mark Casson (University of Reading), John Lee (University of York), Katie Phillips (University of Reading)

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How can modern economies reconcile the pursuit of international competitiveness with promotion of the common good? They could learn from the medieval period!

Contrary to popular belief, England in the late thirteenth century had a dynamic economy. Legal advances created a lively property market; cutting-edge technologies improved water management and bridge-building; commodity trade expanded; and towns grew dramatically, both in number and size.

But this was not an early form of individualistic capitalism. Family bonds were strong and community loyalty was intense. Economic ‘winners’ showed compassion for losers, rather than contempt.

Thirteenth-century expansion was not based on a consumer-driven boom. Its focus was on local infrastructure and local wellbeing. City churches were financed by local people to meet the needs of local people. Hospitals cared for the old, the poor and the needy, including special facilities for those affected by disease. Their legacy remains with us today: the most valuable real estate in a modern city is often occupied by medieval churches and hospitals.

Using recently discovered documents and novel statistical techniques, we have analysed the histories of over one thousand properties in medieval Cambridge over this period. Using evidence from the so-called ‘Second Domesday’ – the Hundred Rolls of 1279 – we show how wealth accumulated by successful businesses was recycled back into the community through support for local churches and hospitals and for itinerant preachers based in the town.

Town government was devolved by the king and queen to the mayor and bailiffs, and they encouraged the development of guilds, which promoted cooperation. New professions emerged in response to the growing demand for legal and administrative services.

The business centre of Cambridge shifted south as the town expanded. ‘New wealth’ replaced ‘old wealth’ as a local commercial class replaced Norman aristocrats. But local pride and religious devotion – expressed through high levels of charitable giving – helped spread the economic benefits throughout the town community.

This self-sustaining system was, however, broken in the 1340s by the Black Death, the outbreak of the Hundred Years War and the punitive levels of taxation imposed on towns thereafter. When prosperity returned in the Tudor period, a more ruthless form of capitalism took root, and it is this ruthless form of capitalism whose legacy remains with us today.