On archives, macroeconomics and labour markets

Everything (well,… most things) you know about wages 1650 -1800 is wrong. That’s a great opportunity for historians

by Judy Stephenson (University of Oxford)

 

My forthcoming paper in the Economic History Review (abstract available here) makes some big claims about the level of nominal and real wages in urban England before industrialization. There is an early working paper version here

Specifically, I argue that the data used for the years between 1650 and 1800 are completely wrong because the people who compiled them (who go back in some cases to the 1930s and late nineteenth century) took figures from bills for construction services rather than actual wage books. As an actual wage book from the contractor who built the South West Tower of St Paul’s shows, men were not paid these charge out rates, they were paid considerably less.

This has some big ramifications for some influential economists and historians who have relied on long established data sets of ‘builders wages’, such as those of Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1955, 1956) to create macroeconomic models of the past to calculate real wages and infer GDP; to argue that Britain had ‘high wages’; or a comparative advantage in traded goods; or a narrower ‘skill premium’ and better institutions.

In truth, that these wages were ‘wrong’ is in no way surprising to anyone who has ever done work on early modern earning. Any historian of the eighteenth century sensed that these ‘average wages’ were unreasonably high and that their implied welfare ratios gave a falsely rosy picture. (As someone face palmed; ‘A labourer in London able to afford a respectable basket of goods for a family in the mid eighteenth century?? Have you read Dorothy George?’). Those who have ever worked with labour records and account books know that the homogenous figures found by Elizabeth Gilboy were questionable, and indeed in 2011, John Hatcher had successfully called into question the golden age of the fifteenth century. ‘Real’ day wages and wage accounts are always fascinatingly messy, unpredictable, and varied, yet econometricians clung to the old data sets because they believed it was too difficult to find anything else.

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Chart showing comparative real wages, in grams of silver, of European cities 1650 -1800, based on Allen, (2001), where the nominal wage has been reduced by 25%.

My findings make the idea that Britain was a ‘high wage’ economy in the long eighteenth century hard to sustain. If paid wages were 25% lower than we thought, the real wage for labourers through this period in London was not the highest by far. Rather, it seems, they were at the lower end of NW European advanced economies.

This is exciting for economists who think that explaining why the industrial revolution happened in Britain is the ‘Holy Grail’ (it’s back up for grabs). But, the debunking of these inaccurate wage series also makes it a really exciting time for people who want to understand the role of labour in the economy, and who think that the period before collective bargaining and factories has some strong parallels with our own. Lots has been written about the decline of ‘history’ in economic history, but the new opportunity is as wide and bright for historians as it is for economists and econometricians. This breakthrough in this long-run view on wages came not from new statistical techniques, but from the margins of dusty parchment, little iron pins, raggy old papers, smudged watered down ink, and the tentative ‘x’s’ and proud flourishes of the archives.

It’s time to stop recycling tired old data sets and expecting new technology to tell us something different about them. There is a wealth of sources and data in London archives, which have never been used before because they didn’t look comparable to Elizabeth Gilboy’s ‘day rates’, but which offer historians and economists the potential to look at earning, bargaining and the capital labour relationship in new ways. There is exciting work in progress from established and new scholars in the field. No one data set will ever be able to replace the supposed reliability of Phelps Brown and Hopkins, but even they were very tentative about their sources.

To contact the author: judy.stephenson@wadham.ox.ac.uk

References list available here

The Travelling Kingdom during Medieval Period in England, France and the Holy Roman Empire: An Economic Interpretation

by Daniel Gottal (University of Bayreuth)

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Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa on his Third Crusade

 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.

 

 

Learning for life? Comparing miners’ education and career paths in Chile and Norway 1860-1940

by Kristin Ranestad (University of Oslo)

classroom-19th-century-1140x684

Is formal education relevant and useful for industry? Do trained workers acquire relevant knowledge outside the school setting, and if so, where and how?

Much research has been done on technical education, industrial performance and economic growth. But we still lack knowledge of the content of teaching, and the direct use of formal education in daily work tasks and innovation processes. Moreover, our knowledge of the limitations of formal education is scarce.

This research seeks to complement previous work with a detailed investigation of the connections between formal education, ‘learning by doing’, networking and innovation in mining from around 1860 to 1940. Analysing the connection between education, learning and innovation in mining is particularly interesting because mining education was one of the first technical training programmes aimed at a specific industry.

The reason it is possible to study this subject in detail is because of unique source material for the period. Student yearbooks from Norway for the years between 1855 and 1943, and for some years for Chile, provide exclusive information about the life and work of secondary school graduates after they completed their formal education.

This allows to follow the graduates from school into their practices, work and travels, and it is possible to make in-depth analyses of the functions of formal education and of knowledge and skills learned outside school settings.

The student yearbooks for Norway were published each year by the university and are collections of reports made by the graduates themselves about scholarships, continuing education in Norway and abroad (technical and higher), study travels, trainee positions, companies they worked at in Norway and abroad, working positions and personal experiences.

From these yearbooks and additional sources, we find that the formal mining education was relevant and useful for positions in a broad spectrum of mining organisations. Moreover, the radical technological changes that were happening in mining at the time were supported by increased diversification in workers’ educational background and an increase in the proportion of trained workers.

Workers with formal education were increasingly used by the industry. At the same time, we find that practice, work experience and especially study travels abroad, are key examples of essential supplementary knowledge to the formal and theoretical mining instruction, which was acquired outside a school setting.

Workers, technicians and engineers from Norway had a long tradition of travelling abroad. Out of 341 Norwegian mining engineers, 256 (75%) went abroad between 1787 and 1940, normally to Germany, Sweden, France, England, and the United States from the turn of the twentieth century – all countries with important mining industries. They went to study at a foreign universities or schools, to do geological surveys or acquire information about specific techniques, or to work for a longer period at a foreign company.

During these trips abroad, the engineers created networks, acquired knowledge about up-to-date mining technology and contacts and took specialised courses at universities. To understand all dimensions of technology, and especially how to select, transfer, adopt and modify techniques, hands-on experience and learning by doing on-site was key.

The trips abroad were vital to learn how to use, repair and maintain new mining machinery, tools and techniques and enabled knowledge transfer. They functioned as a form of networking and sometimes led to new investments and business opportunities in Chile and Norway. The knowledge acquired during these trips was different than the knowledge learned in school, but not less important.

 

 

British engineering skills in the age of steam

by Harry Kitsikopoulos (academic director, Unbound Prometheus)

Side-lever_engine_1849
Wiki Commons. The side-lever Engine, 1849 ca.

 

Engineering skills in Britain improved during the eighteenth century but progress was not linear. My research uses a novel approach to quantifying the trends from the first appearance of the technology of steam power (1706) through to the last quarter of the century (the Watt era), using a large amount of data on fuel consumption rates.

Britain was a very unlikely candidate for the invention of steam engines, as I argue in my 2016 book, Innovation and Technological Diffusion: An Economic History of the Early Steam Engines. It was French and Italians who first rediscovered, translated and published the ancient texts of Hero of Alexandria on steam power; they also discovered the existence of vacuum in nature, the main principle of a steam engine’s working mechanism.

But Britain had two advantages: first, a divorce-obsessed king who detached the island from the Catholic dogma and its alliance with the Cartesian epistemological paradigm, both denying the existence of vacuum in nature. The same king also brought a seismic institutional transformation by passing monastic properties under the ownership of lay landlords, a class far more keen on solving the water drainage problem plaguing the mining industry in its drive to exploit mineral wealth.

Britain was also fortunate in another respect: it was relatively backward in terms of mining technology! That proved to be a good thing. While mining districts in Germany and Liège used a technology that resolved the drainage problem, Britain failed to imitate them, hence forcing itself to seek alternative solutions, thereby leading to the invention of the steam engine.

Grand inventions earn glorious references in school textbooks, but it is the diffusion of a technology that contributes to economic growth, a process that relies on the development of relevant human capital.

The records reveal that there were not much more than a dozen engineers who were active in erecting engines during the period 1706-75, including Thomas Newcomen, the obscure ironmonger from Devon who came up with the first working model. The figure increased to at least 60 during the last quarter of the century through the action of the invisible hand: the initial scarcity of such skills raised wages, which, in turn, acted as stimuli transferring talent from related engineering occupations.

My new study traces the production and marketing strategies of this group, which ranged from the narrow horizons of certain figures concentrating on the erection of engines in one locality, a single model, or focusing on one industry all the way to the global outlook of the Boulton and Watt firm.

The last question I pose is perhaps the most interesting: did British engineers get better during the eighteenth century in managing these engines?

Measuring skill is not a straightforward affair. Two well-respected experts at the time came up with tables that specified what the ideal fuel rates ought to have been for engines of different hp. When plotted in a graph these two variables depict a curve of ideal rates.

My analysis uses two distinct datasets with 111 fuel rate observations recorded in working engines – one for the older Newcomen model and another for the newer Watt engines. These actual fuel rates were plotted as bullet points around the respective ‘ideal’ curves. A progressively narrower distance between the curves and the bullet points would indicate higher efficiency and improved engineering skills.

The results reveal that for the first 25 years following the appearance of both models, there was no consistent trend: the bullet points alternated coming closer and moving away from the ideal curves. But the data also reveal that these initial patterns gave way to trends revealing consistent progress.

In an era of practical tinkerers lacking a formal educational system when it comes to this particular skill, British engineers did get better through a classic process of ‘learning-by-doing’, But this only happened after an initial stage of adjustment, of getting used to models with different working mechanisms.