That demmed elusive rational economic medieval actor

While some of the paper-writing pressure was off I punctuated my reading with some of the stored-up PDFs I’ve stashed at various points, having followed web-links and gone, “that looks interesting and potentially relevant!” and one of these was a paper by Cliff Bekar and Clyde Reed called “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility”.1 I’d like to question it, and I imagine the readership at large won’t mind if I do.

This is one of those episodes where someone from outside medieval studies has a theory they want to test and decides that a medieval sample would be cool, though in this instance the papers that did that were some way down the line and this is the return of the son of the heir to the open fields debate that apparently economists have been having for close on forty years. At the beginning of it one D. N. McCloskey seems to have taken issue with an understanding that then existed that consolidating and enclosing agriculturally productive land was economically beneficial, and that peasants in the Middle Ages had instead worked common land or at least open land and so must have been completely benighted. McCloskey argued that actually, scattered land holding was a good insurance strategy because it meant one’s crop was less likely to all fail at once, and the decrease in yield was the ‘premium’ one paid for that.2 This meant that the peasants were making a sound decision for economic reasons and seems therefore to have attracted economists and an argument, as Dr McCloskey doesn’t seem to be or have been one to back down easily. Where Bekar and Reed came into this in 2001 was that they wanted to use simulation to test some of the assumptions, and so tried to estimate the possibility of actually running out of economic resource over a fifty-year period for a peasant population of 300 ‘agents’ each holding 20 acres, given various set-ups of field system. They set the system up so that it more or less approximated McCloskey’s figures and then started changing things, showing that in their system there was a ‘sweet’ range, in which actually scattering landholding was less effective at preventing disaster than either of (i) storing surplus against hard times individually or (ii) pooling it as a village reserve to be redistributed at the end of the year.

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

So instead they suggest that scattering lands instead had other advantages: firstly, it made a pooling system much easier to police because what one was growing each year would be obvious to anyone walking through it so that one couldn’t decide, for example, to grow only flax that year hoping to max out one’s income secure in the knowledge that you could live out of the village reserve. I’m a bit dubious about this because it only works if no-one with scattered holdings ever fenced or hedged them and quite frankly I’d have thought wandering animals, including wolves at this time in England, would have meant that almost everyone did. The core assumption that enclosed and open are opposite along with consolidated and scattered looks very strange to me, though I haven’t read enough Chris Dyer to know if they’re wrong, and from their footnotes they have. Well, I’ll leave it. Secondly, they suggest that scattering meant that lands could easily be sold off as a form of income substitution in bad years, whereas a consolidated enclosed estate couldn’t easily be fragmented and selling big lumps of it would hit productivity permanently. They also note in the works of their chosen medieval historians that a lot of land on the last medieval English market was indeed tiny units and that enclosure did massively increase vulnerability to disaster for the small-holder (here esp. pp. 322-323).

So, OK, there are so many problems that I am about with the assumptions here that one hardly knows where to begin. At the beginning I suppose; here are the ones I marked while reading this in a café in Oxford.

  1. They assume that harvest quality follows a normal distribution (p. 310), but we know (you and I, dear readers, we know) that actually harvests are usually either poor, adequate, good or really disastrous, and people have done real simulation, with crops and work and stuff, showing this.3 So it’s garbage-in right from the get-go.
  2. A small thing, but they compensate for the fact that a pooling system would take administrating by effectively charging the system for it, deducting 20% of the yield as running costs (p. 317 & n. 20). Actually, though, the impact of this cost would not be on the final product, but on the availability of labour to generate it, and they have already said that effects on labour are disproportionately heavy on yield (p. 316).
  3. Most importantly of all, McCloskey’s figures were derived from nineteenth-century information. By that stage, in England at least, agriculture was at least part mechanised, in mills and threshing at least, and certainly far better tooled up than anywhen in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages themselves are problematic because towards the late end blast furnace manufacture of iron makes large-scale production of iron tools more practical and so late medieval agriculture is probably more effective than early. Also, there’s the climate, but let’s not do that again, let’s just note that since an estimate of likely yield range is fairly vital to their simulation, if it should actually be a lot lower I think that ‘sweet range’ may disappear. They need medieval figures very badly, though as they say there aren’t any. All the same, there is earlier stuff than this they could have used I’m sure.
  4. At all stages there is no money factored into the system. Land is converted to grain direct (p. 316), yield is never monetised or invested as capital for improvements or sold at market, agriculture is stationary, autarkic and closed of distribution. And this is just not how it was, anywhere really. People took yield out of the system for a range of reasons, not just their self-protection against disaster.
  5. Most of all, the simulation ignores lords. It does this firstly by forgetting that surplus left the medieval food system, as we’ve just said, although it does talk about tithes as a form of pooling (p. 321), which is only partly the case—doesn’t factor for that though—and thus ignores any form of taxation, but it also assumes that the peasantry are free economic agents unconstrained by outside factors. The idea that the local lord might make them grow oats that year because he was experimenting with horse-breeding, or tax all the wheat and nothing else, or whatever, doesn’t appear here at all; even though they talk about different patterns of land exchange on demesne land the authors don’t allow for other rules to enter the system. BUT THEY OUGHT. And the idea of any extra-economic factors, tradition, religion and so on is completely lacking.

So what we have here is that elusive creature, the free rational economic actor. He or she is fully informed about the consequences of their decisions and operates unconstrained with perfect foresight. Yet the practices that the authors are describing would have had to have been observed, and observed correctly, over a lifetime and then accurately passed down to the next generation. So actually, at the beginning of our simulation the actors shouldn’t have the knowledge required to behave as the simulation needs them to. Likewise, medieval peasant villages were of course not all made up of 20-acre landholders: once the authors allow land sale into the model, indeed, change occurs rapidly and much more variation exists at its end than at its start. That’s when they should have started: I’d be much more interested in what the results were if one continued the model for the next fifty years.

Now, I don’t want to imply that this was a completely useless paper. It certainly makes explicit the economics of peasant-scale land management in some ways that most early medievalists would just ignore: one does get a sense of options and consequences from it. Secondly, because the same problems exist with all the simulations, they do at least have some comparative value. If the nineteenth-century figures can be accepted for what they are then the idea that scattering one’s landholdings might still make sense is interesting. One would, as I say, prefer to know whether it still held when many of the values were altered, and since we’re looking for a cross-over point where wealth and probability of disaster meet, if that shifted violently one way or the other then any economic viability for storage, pooling or land scattering might immediately disappear from the figures. But in its own terms it does show something. As long as it’s showing an isolated population sample who didn’t use money or barter with outside interests, who didn’t pay tax or spend on non-subsistence goods and all of whom were nicely-landed and knew what the results of a fifty-year survey would be when it started, though, what it shows isn’t going to have much to do with the Middle Ages as people lived them, and lived (and died) by such decisions.


1. C. .T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5.

2. D. N. McCloskey, “English open fields as behavior towards risk” in P. Useldine (ed.), Research in Economic History Vol. 1 (Greenwich 1976), pp. 124-170.

3. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/j418g4qt35038806/fulltext.html, last modified 19 June 2007 as of 4 January 2009, citing Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507.

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12 responses to “That demmed elusive rational economic medieval actor

  1. Dude — you need to stop being interesting till after Leeds. I can’t waste my BL time reading relevant and cool stuff on the nets!

    • I think at the very least I am going to have to bargain you up to ‘stop being interesting till during Leeds’, there!

      It was much harder to waste time in the BL before they made internet so widely available, wasn’t it? Nothing to do but read. How did we manage?

  2. OK — I accept that. And I have no idea. I only justify reading your stuff because it makes me think about my stuff, and is therefore work-related! :-)

  3. McCloskey argued that actually, scattered land holding was a good insurance strategy because it meant one’s crop was less likely to all fail at once, and the decrease in yield was the ‘premium’ one paid for that.2 This meant that the peasants were making a sound decision for economic reasons and seems therefore to have attracted economists and an argument

    I guess my question here is, how scattered is scattered?

    From the perspective of a catastrophic crop failure, what are the potential causes?

    Weather – Drought, Flood/Wetness, etc.
    Pestilence (Crop disease)
    Insects
    I suppose, if you were a peasant in 14th century France, physical damage as a by-product of war

    The problem is, for most of these, using physical location of fields as a risk management strategy isn’t a matter of moving things half a mile or so – almost all modern insect pests have wings and will travel miles in a day (I doubt this differed from back then), disease spores fly on the wind and are carried in shoes and clothing, and for weather the issue is obvious. You’re talking a 3-5 mile distance in order to have a major impact.

    There’s a concept today we call “wheels on the road.” Any time a farmer has to take his or her equipment onto a road, he or she is losing money – if they’re gonna move everything several miles, they should have enough acreage to make it worth their while. I’d think for peasants the same would hold true for “feet on the path.” I imagine they didn’t view time in transit quite the way we do now but still, time traveling to and fro is a cost.

    We try to get farmers to use risk management techniques today such as varying hybrid maturity groups (basically how long it takes that variety to mature) to avoid their entire crop being subject to a weather event, so the concept isn’t totally out of whack (though farmers do much less of this than is recommended – they tend to choose familiarity and comfort level over this) but I can’t say as we’ve ever recommended that folks start trying to swap some of the acreage they have near home for a few hundred acres miles away.

    I have a hard time seeing anyone – including a medieval peasant – when given the choice saying, “Yeah – I’ll take that land miles away to farm instead of getting another field right next to ground I already work.”

    • Yeah, I don’t know either. For the areas I do know about, though, it’s not unusual for people to amass property over something of a scattered area, different villages even; but these are people who can afford to buy and sell large lumps of land and therefore presumably have tenants on it. So another assumption I should probably have questioned is: how poor are the peasants? At the start of their simulation, not very at all. And that isn’t very realistic, because the people who have to work for other people radically alter the costs of operating land.

      Where my guys in the Pyrenees do have scattered land they are working, it tends to be for different crops. A share of a mill on the river, some wheat fields wherever flat land can be found, vines on the hillsides where they grow best (or did then), etc. But at that rate the crop variation would be more of an insurance than the geography… So on the whole, as you’ve probably gathered, I don’t buy it. I’m glad it’s not just me though!

      And I have met the ‘time in transit’ question in one major aspect: oxen travel more slowly than horses, so if you can afford a horse to pull your plough you can get further and back with it in a day and thus farm more land… The sort of little fact that becomes hugely important once you add it up.

      • Yeah – one of the first thoughts that popped in my head was, “Are these guys sure they’re talking about peasants?”

        Of course there were wealthier peasants but they weren’t the rule – I don’t think even Chris Wickham would argue that.

        And vines still grow best on a south facing slope with deep soil – no change there. ;)

        • Chris would say that if they’re not farming land themselves they’re no longer peasants, this is his operating definition of peasant.

          The simulation involved deliberately well-to-do peasants so that disaster wasn’t too easy to achieve. I don’t really have a sense of how usual a 20-acre landholding was in the English high Middle Ages but I’m willing to bet that there were a lot of people with less.

        • As for the vines, my caution there is because in my Catalan charters it is clear that vines were being grown then far higher than was practical when the people who were noticing these documents wrote. Unfortunately, now the climate is changing down there we’re finding out how they got away with it

          • I should know better than to over-generalize – especially across continents. Around here we keep grapes off flat areas because it doesn’t drain – the high water table keeps ‘em from growing the deep roots they need. No reason that would have to be an issue somewhere else.

  4. Laurel Wilson

    Dear Jonathan Jarrett whose blog I enjoy so much,

    I don’t have a position in this argument, since although I’m a medievalist, I’m primarily looking at the later centuries of the Middle Ages, and at urban areas rather than rural. But I thought you might like to know who D. N. McCloskey is. As Donald McCloskey, he was a distinguished economic historian, specializing in early modern Britain, and apparently known for his brilliance and general intransigence. Since 1995 s/he has been Deirdre McCloskey, an even more distinguished economic and social historian, and has apparently become far more collegial as a woman. I have to admit that sets my feminist teeth on edge to a degree, but she wrote a really fascinating book about her sex change, called “Crossing: A Memoir” (just one of her fifteen! books; she’s currently in the middle of a six-volume series on the Bourgeois World).

    I’m a good friend of the delightful Elizabeth McMahon, by the way, and was tickled by your references to her in your Kalamazoo posts.

    • Well! That’s quite a lot of surprising information, for which thankyou, and also for the compliments. Do send my regards to Dr McMahon and tell her I intend to keep marching. As to the McCloskey saga, I am duly impressed; to go through that and remain productive is something that is less often seen than one would hope. I guess she’s happier! Which is of course the idea…

  5. A late addition to this argument, or at least related ones, that I should probably have read, is recounted by this post at Neuroanthropology about behavioural economics; hat tip to Four Stone Hearth #97 at Zenobia: Empress of the East.

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