Competing Approaches to Modern World History, Part II: The Case of Europe’s Late Take-off


The illustration from March from the early 15th-century book of hours, Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Barry. Books of hours contained liturgical texts for appropriate prayers to accompany the Christian calendar. In contrast to the days when European historians saw medieval Europe as foreign to modern European history (as they did non-European history), in the last generation or so, economic historians of Europe have argued that the wealth that made the “age of exploration” possible had accumulated over the previous 500 years. In addition to other purposes, this buttresses the claim that modern Europe’s expansion owed more to internal developments than to the pillaging of the Americas or the sweat and blood of slaves.

This week my graduate students and I explored a new front in the battle over modern world history. To recap the first installment in this series: David Landes argues for the cultural factors that explain European economic success in the modern period. This is not all that surprising since scholars like Max Weber have been making such claims for the better part of the last 100 years. What I am realizing now, however, is that starting with the publication of Eric Jone’s influential The European Miracle: Environments, Economies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (1981), European historians have adjusted the claim that European countries burst forth as economic powerhouses around 1500 (as was the standard explanation a generation ago). Instead, historians like Jones and, following him, Landes, argue that European economic success was predicated on the slow accumulation of wealth, expertise, and capitalist-friendly laws and institutions over the previous 500 years or so. Expansion in the Americas and the industrial revolution was fueled by a half century of economic, social, and cultural developments.

This week we read and discussed Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000). Pomeranz offers a powerful corrective to the version of European history outlined above through close empirical attention to Europe, China, and Japan during the period from 1600 to 1800.

His most important conclusion is that in terms of all the factors that count (so to speak) economically (population, family size, wealth, access to and exploitation of land, reliability of markets, ability of labor to move), Europe (particularly western Europe) and China and Japan were on the same footing as late as 1800. Europe was developing no advantages (over these regions) in 1000, nor in 1500, no, not until 1800. That’s late! All our world history textbooks and most world history surveys come in two parts, before 1500 and after 1500.

Pomeranz cover

Cover of Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence.

I find his evidence compelling. This is a quick overview.

In terms of population growth, there is an argument that says that a European fertility pattern (late age of marriage, tradition of celibacy among clergy) kept populations low and therefore reduced pressure on the land allowing for more productivity. In fact, families in China and Japan were relatively small, too. Life expectancy was also similar across these regions.

In terms of wealth, there is no evidence that Europeans were wealthier or more productive than their Asian counterparts during this period.

In terms of science and technology, ditto. The “scientific culture” attributed to Europe was not unique to Europeans. The Chinese dominated irrigation technology, for example. Europeans were behind in land conservation.


The misfortunes of Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham have introduced today’s audiences to the persistence of non-market factors in the distribution and transfer of land in Britain even into the 20th century.

How about market economies? Landes repeats the claim (over and over) that Chinese producers were subject to the ills of “oriental despotism” which smothered any drive by entrepreneurs, merchants, artisans, or peasants to be inventive, creative and more productive. There was  no room for private property and, therefore, private initiative. To the contrary, argues Pomerantz. In China, the overwhelming majority of land was freely alienable. Not so in Europe where hereditary estates often stifled the consolidation of land holdings. (Consider, for example, the fictional Crawleys of Downton Abbey who are struggling with the problem of how to keep land in the family as late at the early 20th century; it’s not all fiction. Read this interesting piece on “entails” and the Crawleys).

How about the idea that a new ethos, the much heralded “Protestant” or “work” ethic– which is supposed to be so singularly northern European–sparked rationalized economic behavior in early modern Europe? Pomeranz argues that, to the contrary, what drove consumption and thus production in Europe was demand for luxury goods and what he terms “everyday luxuries” like sugar, tobacco, and tea which became more and more important to the up and coming classes. Even here, however, Europe is not special. The Chinese had cultivated a sweet tooth earlier and produced their own sugar and, of course, tea.

In just about every category in which historians of Europe have postulated a European advantage at least as early as 1500, China and Japan were not behind and, in many cases ahead, of their western counterparts. Labor and land markets in China, in particular,  conform more to the neoclassical ideal of free trade than was the case in Europe.


Who would have known you could calculate kilograms of manure to acre of cropped land for the 18th century to support claims about releasing population pressure on the land, the greatest ecological challenge faced by pre-industrial economies in Europe and Asia?

[Lest you think these dramatic conclusions are based on conjecture, Pomeranz marshals all manner of empirical evidence. The book concludes with appendices under titles like “Estimates of Manure Applied to North China and European Farms in the Late Eighteenth Century, and a Comparison of Resulting Nitrogen Fluxes,” “Forest Cover and Fuel-Supply Estimates for France, Lingnan, and a Portion of North China, 1700-1850” and “Estimates of Earning Power of Rural Textile Workers in the Lower Yangzi Region of China, 1750-1840.”]

The lynchpin in Pomeranz’s argument is what happened after 1800. He does not dispute the fact that by 1800, Europeans were moving ahead in all the factors of production, access to markets, technological innovation, and the accumulation of wealth.

Conquest of the Americas provided Europeans with the perfect periphery for raw materials and markets for their manufactured goods that the Chinese and Japanese could not match. It’s not that slave labor generated enough wealth to give Europeans the edge. No, it was that new sources of land and resources as well as markets that created the perfect solution to western Europe’s diminishing access to land and raw materials and a new captive (so to speak) market for its manufactured goods.

The benefits accrued to Europe from the exploitation of the Americas (and of its native peoples) as well as of African slaves (non-market and non-European factors of production) made “transatlantic trade  a uniquely self-expanding route by which Europe (especially Britain) could use its labor and capital to relieve its hard-pressed land and thus turn even a demographic and proto-industrial expansion that (unlike in east Asia) far outpaced advances in agriculture into an asset for further development.” (296)

Not only was Europe not ahead of the pack until very late, but the circumstances that made for its success were primarily non-economic forces and clear violations of theories of free market capitalism (as touted by free-marketeers such as Landes) like unfree (slave)  labor.

I was bowled over. And a few of my students were likewise very impressed. My only Chinese student who said she had been brought up on the same theories of a European   “miracle” that are so widespread in the West and was inspired by Pomeranz’s work. Others, however, remained unmoved. They had two main criticisms: 1) so what if Europe zooms ahead in 1800 rather than 1500? the result is the same; and 2) the new American periphery may have not yielded the results that gave Europe the decisive edge until 1800, but since most of these territories had fallen under European control as early as the 16th century, isn’t it true that the die had been cast earlier?

The debate continues.


About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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