I grew up in the western Canadian city of Calgary, and have since lived in Scotland, Germany, England, the USA and the Czech Republic. I studied at the Universities of St Andrews, Cambridge, and Chicago, and was a Research Fellow at Trinity College Cambridge. I then taught for 31 years in the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge, before moving to the Chichele Professorship of Economic History at All Souls College Oxford in 2020.
I explore the lives of ordinary people in the past and try to explain how poor economies get richer and improve human well-being. I’m particularly interested in how social institutions – the formal and informal constraints on economic activity – shaped economic development in Europe between the Middle Ages and the present day. In recent years my publications have analysed guilds, serfdom, communities, the family, gender, human capital investment, consumption, and state capacity.
I would like to hear from potential DPhil students who are interested in doing research on pre-modern economies and institutions.
What Happened and Why? An Introduction to Themes and Approaches in Economic and Social History
Institutions and Economic Growth in Historical Perspective
Guilds and the Economy
The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Economics and Finance
Summary Guilds ruled many European crafts and trades from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Each guild regulated entry to its occupation, requiring any practitioner to become a guild member and then limiting admission to the guild. Guilds intervened in the markets for their members’ products, striving to keep prices high, limit output, suppress competition, and block innovations that might disrupt the status quo. Guilds also acted in input markets, seeking to control access to raw materials, keep wages low, hinder employers from competing for workers, and prevent workers from agitating for better conditions. Guilds treated women particularly severely, usually excluding them from apprenticeship and forbidding any female other than a guild member’s widow from running a workshop. Guilds invested large sums in lobbying governments and political elites to grant, maintain, and extend these privileges. Guilds had the potential to compensate for their cartellistic activities by creating countervailing benefits. Guild quality certification was one possible solution to information asymmetries between producers and consumers, which could have made markets work better. Guild apprenticeship had the potential to solve imperfections in markets for skilled training, and thus to encourage human capital investment. The cartel profits generated by guilds could in theory have encouraged technological innovation by enabling guild masters to appropriate more of the social benefits of their innovations, while guild journeymanship and spatial clustering could diffuse new technical knowledge. A rich scholarship on European guilds makes it possible to assess the degree to which guilds created such benefits, outweighing the harm they caused. After about 1500, guild strength diverged across Europe, declining gradually in Flanders, the Netherlands, and England, surviving in France and Italy, and intensifying across large tracts of Iberia, Scandinavia, and the German-speaking lands. The activities of guilds contributed to variations across Europe in economic performance, urban growth, and Inequality. Guilds interacted significantly with both markets and states, which helps explain why European economies diverged in the crucial centuries before industrialization.
guilds, entry barriers, occupational licensing, cartels, gender, quality certification, human capital investment, innovation, economic growth, economic history
Was Domar Right? Serfdom and Factor Endowments in Bohemia
Do Factor endowments explain serfdom? Domar (1970) conjectured that high Land-labor ratios Caused serfdom by increasing incentives to coerce labor. But historical evidence is mixed and quantitative analyses Are lacking. Using the Acemoglu-Wolitzky (2011) Framework and controlling for political economy variables by studying a specific Serf society, we analyze 11,349 Bohemian Serf villages in 1757. The net effect of higher Land-labor ratios was indeed to increase coercion. The effect greatly increased when animal labor was included, and diminished as Land-labor ratios rose. Controlling for other variables, Factor endowments significantly influenced serfdom. Institutions, we conclude, Are shaped partly by economic fundamentals.
Institutions and Economic Growth: Cautionary Tales from History
Thought Experiment Lecture, delivered at the UK Treasury, 18 Oct. 2019.