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.