Monday, April 13, 2009

Modelling the Medieval

Hatcher and Bailey’s Modelling the Middle Ages: The History and Theory of England's Economic Development examines the various “supermodels” of medieval (particularly English medieval) history: the demographic model (Malthusian or neo-Malthusian), the class model (Marxist) and the commercialisation model (Smithian).

The first sees demographic pressure (particularly the land/labour ratio [see next post], its effect on living standards, and therefore fertility and mortality) as the main driving force in medieval economic history. The second sees class struggle, primarily between landlords and peasants, as the main driving force. The last sees the growth of towns, increasing monetisation, specialisation and technological advance as the key driving force.

Hatcher and Bailey start off with an introductory chapter on historical methods and the role of the “supermodels”. Each is then examined in turn—what it says as shown by prominent practitioners, its strength and weaknesses in the light of the evidence. Each is seen as capturing important parts of English economic history. Each is also seen as trying to ultimately explain too much with too little.
A conclusion I have no problem agreeing with. Reading the chapter on the Marxian model (Class Power and Property Relations) brought home to me once again why I find Marxian analysis ultimately unsatisfactory. Classes are not historical agents in the way such analysis ultimately needs them to be. Coordination of a class is a public good that is not automatically provided. Indeed, the most intense competition tends to be within rather than between classes—between those seeking to occupy the same social roles, based on the same skills and assets. For example, it was fairly rare for lords and knights to die at the hands of peasants. It was far more common for lords and knights to die at the hands of other lords and knights. (It is not clear that the same point does not also apply to peasants.)

Moreover, members of different classes are often complementary in their roles: a point that Marxism, with its insistence that all elite groups are fundamentally “exploitative”, has inherent difficulty acknowledging.

Even more fundamentally, Bailey and Hatcher neglect, as contemporary medievalists (living in very safe milieus in very safe societies) frequently do, the fundamental problem of medieval society—how to maintain public order. Yet this was clearly basic to medieval social arrangements. It is all very well to talk about heriot, merchet, and similar obligations of manorial economies (p.79), but to do so without thinking through why they exist (as ways of stabilising provision of public goods subject to free rider problems) is rather to miss the point. Particularly given that medieval writings themselves are quite clear about the basic “public order” duties of lordship.

So, for example, the more the structures organised by the English Crown were able to maintain public order, the less bargaining power the lords had—both with the Crown and with the peasants.

Even more directly, the less important the lords were for providing the Crown’s military forces, the less bargaining power the lords had. In many ways, the “ cashing out” of military services was the most important form of “commercialisation” of the later medieval period. The English Crown had little incentive to provide the coordination the lords needed to resist increased peasant bargaining power when the land/labour ratio crashed due to the population "die-back" of the Black Death (so labour became more scarce and thus more valuable) because taxes (and, for that matter yeoman archers) were far more important to its military forces than whatever decadent elements of lordly service remained.

This is in direct contrast to what happened in Eastern Europe when the land/labour ratio dropped due to the defeat of the “ Tartars” making accessible to farming huge tracts of land. There, the service-nobility were crucial to military forces, and so Russian Tsars, Polish kings, etc actively supported enserfment, providing the coordination and enforcement the service nobility was not able to manage on its own. Rulership is generally a far better enforcer of cartels (including class cartels) than private action.

It was somewhat startling to read (p.202) Hatcher and Bailey citing the way serfdom waxed and waned, precisely as predicted by economic theory of bondage (with the exception of Western Europe after the Black Death), as evidence against a supply-and-demand analysis. It is quite clear that they are misled by being over-impressed by the anomalous case of Western Europe (particularly England) after the Black Death: the atypical being taken as benchmark.

On the other hand, I entirely agree that attempting to explain the demographic drop during the great famine and the demographic collapse during the Great Pestilence as being other than from exogenous factors ( climate change and a new disease hitting a non-resistant population) is trying to make a model “explain” far too much.

Like the authors, I have no difficulty accepting that population growing faster than cultivation of land could be expanded would put downward pressure on living standards, as per the demographic model: or that a sudden dramatic drop in the land/labour ratio due to demographic collapse could (provided the social order was sufficiently resilient) create upward pressure on living standards.

But the situation where such a constraint is taken away (in this case by the dramatic drop in population) then creates a very different situation. One in which other factors can come to the fore. The demographic model simply cannot clearly account for why the population level remained static for at least a century after the original Great Pestilence. Or explain why C14th England had a very different social and economic outcome than did C17th Russia when the land/labour ratio suddenly changed.

Nor do I have any quarrel with Hatcher and Bailey insisting, against the commercialisation model, that living standards did fall in the late C13th, that capital in all its forms did not expand fast enough to compensate for the rise in population.

After examining each of the three models, Hatcher and Bailey then emphasise, as their chapter title says, The Importance of Time and Place. Apart from their misreading of the economics of serfdom, which suggests they can be a little over-impressed by the particular, I have little quarrel with their intelligent discussion. The final chapter Beyond the Classic Supermodels defends history, particularly against the wilder claims of post-modern theory, as an empirical discipline which does manage to progress. Models are useful as heuristic, and new techniques can improve their utility, but they are guides not answers.

Obviously, I have some disagreements, but Hatcher and Bailey provide a very helpful guide to the three basic models which have been applied to (English) medieval history, their strengths and limitations, and the strengths and limitations of historical models generally.

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