EHS 2018 special: Wine prices in Anglo-Gascon trade, c.1337-c.1460

Robert Blackmore (University of Southampton)

29-autunno,Taccuino_Sanitatis,_Casanatense_4182.
Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century)
9-autunno,Taccuino Sanitatis, Casanatense 4182. Available at <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:29-autunno,Taccuino_Sanitatis,_Casanatense_4182..jpg>

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.

France’s Nineteenth Century Wine Crisis: the impact on crime rates

431px-marchand_de_vins_metier_de_la_rue_milieu_xix_eme_siecle_a_paris
Street Wine Merchant, France 19th century. From Wikimedia Commons

 

The phylloxera crisis in nineteenth century France destroyed 40% of the country’s vineyards, devastating local economies. According to research by Vincent Bignon, Eve Caroli, and Roberto Galbiati, the negative shock to wine production led to a substantial increase in property crime in the affected regions. But their study, published in the February 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, also finds that there was a significant fall in violent crimes because of the reduction in alcohol consumption.

It has long been debated whether crime responds to economic conditions. In particular, do crime rates increase because of financial crises or major downsizing events in regions heavily specialised in some industries?

Casual observation and statistical evidence suggest that property crimes are more frequent during economic crises. For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has claimed that in a sample of 15 countries, theft has sharply increased during the last economic crisis.[1]

These issues are important because crime is also known to have a damaging impact on economic growth by discouraging business and talented workers from settling in regions with high rates of crime. If an economic downturn triggers an increase in the crime rate, it could have long-lasting effects by discouraging recovery.

But since multiple factors can simultaneously affect economic conditions and the propensity to commit crime, identifying a causal effect of economic conditions on crime rates is challenging.

The new research addresses the issue by examining how crime rates were affected by a major economic crisis that massively hit wine production, France’s most iconic industry, in the nineteenth century.

The crisis was triggered by the near microscopic insect named phylloxera vastatrix. It originally lived in North America and did not reach Europe in the era of sailing ships since the transatlantic journey took so long that it had died on arrival.

Steam power provided the greater speed needed for phylloxera to survive the trip and it arrived in France in 1863 on imported US vines. Innocuous in its original ecology, phylloxera proved very destructive for French vineyards by sucking the sap of the vines. Between 1863 and 1890, it destroyed about 40% of them, thus causing a significant loss of GDP.

Because phylloxera took time to spread, not all districts started being hit at the same moment, and because districts differed widely in their ability to grow wines, not all districts were hit equally. The phylloxera crisis is therefore an ideal natural experiment to identify the impact of an economic crisis on crime because it generated exogenous variation in economic activity in 75 French districts.

To show the effect quantitatively, the researchers have collected local administrative data on the evolution of property and violent crime rates, as well as minor offences. They use these data to study whether crime increased significantly after the arrival of phylloxera and the ensuing destruction of the vineyards that it entailed.

The results suggest that the phylloxera crisis caused a substantial increase in property crime rates and a significant decrease in violent crimes. The effect on property crime was driven by the negative income shock induced by the crisis. People coped with the negative income shock by engaging in property crimes. At the same time, the reduction in alcohol consumption induced by the phylloxera crisis had a positive effect on the reduction of violent crimes.

From a policy point of view, these results suggest that crises and downsizing events can have long lasting effects. By showing that the near-disappearance of an industry (in this case only a temporary phenomenon) can trigger long-run negative consequences on local districts through an increasing crime rate, this study underlines that this issue must be high on the policy agenda at times of crises.

 

Summary of the article ‘Stealing to Survive? Crime and Income Shocks in Nineteenth Century France’ by Vincent Bignon, Eve Caroli and Roberto Galbiati. Published in Economic Journal on February 2017

[1] ‘Monitoring the impact of economic crisis on crime’, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2012. This effect was also noted by the French ‘Observatoire national de la délinquance et des réponses pénales’, when it underlines that burglaries sharply increased in France in the period 2007 to 2012.