In her lecture, Victoria Bateman chronicled the dramatic change in social and political conditions that shifted the balance of economic power from East to West —and in particular, to Europe.

Within the continent itself, the axis of economic power shifted westwards as Mediterranean trade monopolies gave way to new ventures from the north-west of the continent. The Dutch economy enjoyed a spectacular Golden Age and Britain set itself firmly on the path to the Industrial Revolution. Combining traditional historical theories such as the emergence of representative government, the development of markets, and the limiting of state control as well as some novel explanations from contemporary economic historians, such as Joel Mokyr’s Enlightenment theory and Robert Allen’s high wage theory, Bateman laid out the potential causes behind this dramatic migration of fortune.

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She dismantled the classical “West is best” approach to world history. Defying the traditional notion that history’s greatest achievements were European and that the East only gained ground by affecting Western customs, Bateman advanced examples from the history of technology to argue that, for a long time, “Europe was an imitator and not an innovator”. The most notable technological accomplishments in the West came from those cities best connected to the East. Indeed it was only by looking for a “back door to China” that Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the American continent, a trading partner that would position Europe at the centre of the global economy. The riches enjoyed in cities such as Venice, Bateman argued, were the result of monopoly trading privileges which allowed Italian merchants to source coveted Eastern goods for sale in the European marketplace. This transfer of goods was inevitably accompanied by a transfer of knowledge, which allowed Europe to catch up with Eastern economic and scientific monopolies by the end of the medieval period. The result was the Renaissance.

Explaining why countries along the Mediterranean, the classical cradle of European economic and political power, were unable to match the achievements of countries such as England and the Netherlands, Bateman suggested that the small state promoted prosperity. Colonial trade out of Iberia was highly regulated and hinterland markets were poorly developed. In the absence of integrated market dynamics, the benefits of colonial trade were limited to the port cities and the national economy stagnated. Moreover the rise of absolutism and excessive state power exercised by regional monarchs, resulted in expensive military campaigns and inordinate fiscal pressures on those with the least political privilege and power.  Economic incentives in Italy and Spain suffered accordingly. In England, however, the result was a stand-off between the monarch and Parliament, in the Civil Wars. Parliamentarians wrested property rights from state control, paving the way for agricultural revolutions which would widen the economic gap between the northwest and the rest.

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At the heart of this discussion was Bateman’s theory that an early wave of feminism, five hundred years before the era to which we commonly attribute the movement, laid the foundations for unprecedented levels of economic growth in the West. The labour shortage which accompanied the Black Death resulted in wage-increases and new job opportunities. Young people could earn enough to live independently of their parents, which had a particular effect on the lives of young women. “Perhaps for the first time in history”, Bateman argued, and after centuries of being seen as a financial burden to be “married off”, teenage girls could earn enough to support themselves. “With their newfound economic freedom, women could choose whether, who, and when to marry”. Women thus began to marry later in life, reducing the number of children in the average family. This lower birth rate helped to maintain the higher wages which had accompanied the plague; parents with fewer children could educate them better, which improved the skill set of the workforce; and the greater financial independence which the younger generation enjoyed forced older family members to save for retirement, providing new wells of investment funding for the economy.

Bateman thus concluded that the improved  status of women, and the reduced control of the state, contributed to north-western Europe’s economic triumph.

The conversation was hosted by Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute.

The Changing Axis of Economic Power in the Early Modern Period (1550-1750) - Download Transcript [PDF]

About the Speaker
Victoria Bateman is a Fellow and Director of Studies in Economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. She is the author of Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe (2012) and her research interests include the economic history of all time periods and places, with current work focusing on the development of the European economy from early-modern times to the present. She holds an MA in Economics (University of Cambridge), an MSc in Economic and Social History (University of Oxford) and a DPhil in Economics (University of Oxford).