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Response to Review no. 20


Such a generous and perceptive review is certainly gratifying–all the more so since it was penned by Robin Briggs, whose own work I deeply respect. It suggests that I may have even attained two of the goals I had in writing Growth in a Traditional Society: first, to question the received wisdom about rural society and the agrarian economy under the Old Regime; and second, to address a broad audience, from economists and social scientists to social and cultural historians. Here I must confess that I always wanted to reach beyond the confines of economic history. Indeed, I hoped that my book would appeal to historians of all sorts and that it might even help to reintegrate history’s balkanized terrain. My aim was simply to rekindle interest in issues that had been pushed off to the margins of European history–issues of economic growth, of the working of the agrarian economy, and of the nature of the village community. That a well known social and cultural historian like Briggs finds the book thought provoking demonstrates, to me at least, that I have perhaps succeeded.

To be sure, Briggs has also called for a debate about parts of my book, and like most authors I would be delighted if my book became the focus of discussion. The debate he has in mind revolves about the markets for agricultural labor and the rental of land. Such topics are usually left to economic historians, but as Briggs indicates, they ought to interest everyone, for they concern the way in which the humble members of the village community–the vast majority of the French population–fed themselves and made their way through life.

At bottom, what worries Briggs is seasonality–the great variation in the demand for labor over the harvest year. Before the invention of the mechanical reaper, harvesting required many hands. The grain harvest in particular tended to drive wages up, drawing men, women, children, and even city dwellers to toil in the fields. After the crops were in, though, wages fell, and Briggs fears (I would disagree here) that the connection between urban and rural labor markets would temporarily be sundered. While the city dwellers could return to employment at home, in his view the small scale peasants who remained in the countryside could only revert to subsistence farming. With no alternative employment until the next harvest, he believes that they had plenty of cheap family labor at their disposal. They would presumably put it to use in their gardens and tiny holdings, all of which were cultivated far more intensively than large tenant farms. For him, that was the practically the only way they could stay alive.

Now if Briggs is correct here, will the argument of my book suffer a great deal? Probably not, for many of the claims that l make will remain undisturbed: that much of the historical literature on the village community is overly romantic; that the rich rather than the poor were the obstacle to enclosure of the commons; that self sufficiency among the peasants is exaggerated and that markets for land, labor, and credit were essential parts of the village community; that agricultural productivity growth varied wildly from place to place and century to century in France and that French agriculture was thus not uniformly stagnant; and finally, that where agriculture did fail to grow, it was not because of communal property rights and small farm sizes, but because of warfare, taxation, and isolation from urban markets. These assertions would all continue to hold. The one point that would have to be revised, presumably, would be some of the actual calculations of agricultural productivity. The reason is that the paucity of sources sometimes forced me to use wages in a nearby city rather than rural wages in my productivity calculations. The urban wages do equal the rural wages at harvest, but if Briggs is right, they may diverge during the rest of the year, upsetting my productivity calculations somewhat.

Here it is worth stressing that many of my productivity calculations are in fact based on rural wages. That is the case for the productivity figures in a number of different regions: Lorraine, the Southeast, the Albigeois, the West, and part of Normandy. The same is true for the comparisons with England, and in still other cases – the Beaujolais, Salers in the Massif Central – wages do not enter into the calculation. Hence all these calculations will be unaffected even if Briggs is right about the divergence of rural and urban wages after the harvest.

Still, that does leave several regions where I did have to resort to urban wages – most notably, the Paris Basin. I had several justifications for doing so. The first is the mobility of labor. In the Paris Basin, for example, not only did Parisian come out to take in the harvest, but rural servants quit the farm for work in the city, and entire families went around searching for employment. Nor is the Paris Basin exceptional. Evidence for labor mobility in fact exists throughout Old-Regime France, particularly among the poor, who, instead of staying to cultivate small farms, often moved on in search of work. Given the evidence that workers actually could migrate, what would they do when earnings in the countryside– say after the harvest–suddenly plunged below wages in the nearest city? Would they not simply go to the nearest city, thereby bringing rural and urban wages back together?

That is the sort of argument which would convince an economist, but Briggs might object that there would not be enough mobility to raise rural wages to urban levels, particularly in the winter months. Such a position, though, risks exaggerating both the size and the significance of the winter drop in rural wages. Instead of being fixated upon the level of winter wages alone, we should actually compare annual earnings in the city and countryside and take into account the possibility of urban unemployment too. After all, if a rural day laborer hesitated to move from the countryside, might it not be because any wage gap in the winter would soon be offset by a premium for harvest work and by unemployment in the city as well? His annual earnings might actually be the same whether he moved or stayed in the countryside, and if so, it would be reasonable to assume that rural and urban wages were equal. And they really would be equal, for once averaged over the entire agricultural year, daily wages in the city and countryside would not differ at all.

Now in my book I do present some evidence that supports such a story, at least in the case of the Paris Basin (see pages 222-223). South of Paris, for example, in the village of Bretigny- sur-Oise, winter wages (12 to 20 sous a day for the unskilled in the late eighteenth century) did turn out to be somewhat lower than they were in Paris (18 to 24 sous a day in February in the 1770s and 1780s). But summer earnings in Bretigny were higher, making a day laborer’s annual earnings nearly the same, whether he remained in Bretigny or went to Paris. Similarly, agricultural domestics hired on annual contracts in Bretigny in the seventeenth century earned nearly exactly as much as they would had they worked year round on the Paris day labor market and experienced the unemployment that Parisian day laborer did. The same was also true in the village of Seraincourt, northwest of Paris in the 1720s and 1760s. Again, such a comparison of annual earnings is the relevant one, for it takes into account the whole year’s worth of farm work and also the unemployment that urban day laborers themselves faced. We should keep in mind that it was not just workers in the countryside who sometimes went without work: their counterparts in the city did too. Of course, if they were both idle for part of the year, then the reason for a gap between rural and urban wages would seem to disappear.

We should also avoid exaggerating the extent of off season unemployment in the countryside. Even in the off season, large scale farmers hired substantial numbers of agricultural domestics, both women and men In 1473-85, for example, the Cairon family in Normandy hired more female domestics (and almost as many male domestics) for the off season than during the harvest months. The Cairon and farmers elsewhere in France also engaged day laborers off season to dig ditches, thresh grain, and prune fruit trees and vines. If labor were actually so cheap off season, wouldn’t such large scale farmers simply take advantage of the situation to hire more hands?

Whatever the extent of rural unemployment, we can find even stronger evidence for the equality of rural and urban wages in the nineteenth century. It comes from Pierre Sicsic’s work on nineteenth-century labor markets, which I cite in my book but do not describe in detail. One might of course worry about pushing Sicsic’s conclusions back to the Old Regime, but the agricultural labor market was in fact much the same. The French Revolution had rearranged landownership, but the tasks involved in farming remained by and large unchanged until the arrival of mechanized farming late in the century. What then did Sicsic discover? That no rural-urban wage gap existed in France until the late nineteenth century. Using the abundant information from labor statistics and agricultural censuses, he took into account both rural and urban unemployment. He found no wage gap between city and countryside and no major difference either in the amount of time that rural laborers and urban builders spent without work. His conclusions have been reinforced by research of other scholars, such as Gilles Postel-Vinay and David Weir, who also find no disparity between rural and urban earnings until the late nineteenth century.

This nineteenth-century research helped persuade me that wages in the countryside and in nearby cities were the same. So did evidence from Old Regime sources: for the Paris area, for example, the data on sixteenth-century wages collected by Micheline Baulant, and the seventeenth and eighteenth-century material that I myself had gathered from the villages of Bretigny and Seraincourt. I therefore felt justified in using wages from local cities in the regions where an agriculture series was lacking.

Here one final point ought to be emphasised. Even if there were sometimes differences between city and country wages, it is the trend of rural wages, not their absolute level, that we need for the productivity calculations. Conceivably, a large gap might divide rural and urban wages, but the two wage series might both still move in parallel. If so, then substituting urban wages for rural wages in the calculations would simply shift each productivity figure by the same proportion, leaving the pattern and amount of productivity growth unchanged. Micheline Baulant’s research points to such a parallel movement of wages, at least in the Paris Basin, and so do my own figures on annual earnings from Bretigny. That is yet another justification for using urban wages when rural ones are unavailable.

Briggs is also worried about a second problem with my book. His concern is the explanation I give for the high price charged for renting tiny plots of land. I claimed that this widespread phenomenon was a risk premium demanded by landlords, who had little collateral to seize when rent on a little parcel was not paid. Unlike a large farm, the tiny plots typically had no barn or animals that could be attached when the rent was in arrears, and in any case the tenants were often small holders who had practically no assets.

Briggs is not persuaded by this argument and offers instead a very different explanation. For him the high rent on tiny plots simply reflected the small peasants’ situation in the off season. With the cheap labor of unemployed family members at their disposal, they could squeeze a living out of a little parcel of land by weeding, spading, and other forms of intensive cultivation. It would be more efficient were the idle hands toiling elsewhere in the economy, but the small peasants and their families had no other work. They were therefore willing to bid up the rental price of tiny plots of land in order to find work for their families. Meanwhile, the sales price would remain unaffected, because the small scale peasants lacked the capital to purchase land. And large scale tenants who wanted a tiny plot–say to round out their farms–would have to compete with the small fry and pay the high rental price. Otherwise, they could not rent it.

This is an ingenious explanation, but it depends on Briggs’s claims about the labor market. If those claims are wrong, as I believe, then obviously his explanation for the rental premium is undermined as well. But there are other problems with his description of the land rental market too. First of all, if he is right and the high rent is not a risk premium, then it seems that the sales price on small plots would eventually rise too. After all, when faced with the choice of paying high rent for a tiny parcel or purchasing it cheaply, wealthier peasants would simply prefer buying. They had capital and could borrow to acquire land at a relatively low price But in the long run their purchases would inexorably drive up the sale price of tiny parcels to a level commensurate with the rent. By the same token, if small plots sold cheaply, then privileged landowners would be tempted to buy large tracts of land, divide them into little pieces, and then lease the fragments for high rents. Such tactics would also boost the sales price of small plots and at the same time bring down the rental price. But that is simply incompatible with the evidence I present in my book.

Furthermore, I wonder about how much farming of small plots humbler peasants could actually do off season, even if they had no paid employment. If they produced grain for subsistence, much of the work (such as harvesting) would still have to be done at precisely the moment when they could hire themselves out for high wages. That would limit the amount of land they could plant with grain and it would also mean that their own labor (or at least a good portion of it) have to be priced at the market wage. They could of course cultivate crops that demanded different work rhythms, but such crops–vines are the best example–were usually tied to the market anyway and thus presumably returned the peasant a market wage. Even running a few animals on the commons could be market oriented, as I show in chapter 2 of my book. Perhaps the only escape from the market was gardening, yet while gardens were certainly important. I do not think that they alone kept villagers alive.

Finally, rural industry, where it existed, would also undermine Briggs’s argument, as he himself acknowledges. The reason is that it would tend to raise winter wages and link off season activities to the market. Curiously, credit might have the same effect. If the humbler members of the village community could borrow and work even longer hours in the summer to pay back their loans, they might find it worth their while to abandon subsistence agriculture, which yielded them so little for their toil. That might seem a bit far fetched, but as I point out in my book, lending was in fact widespread in Old Regime villages. It would all depend on whether the humble could borrow and the rate of interest they had to pay. But if they could borrow on terms that were not exorbitant, they would do less subsistence farming in winter and work more in the summer. As with rural industry, the long run effect would be to raise wages in winter and to lower them in the summer–in effect, to reduce seasonality.

If I disagree with Briggs about the labor and rental markets, he has at least convinced me that I ought to have devoted more space to seasonality in my book. I would also join him in calling for more work on how the humbler members of the village community made it through the year. Did they borrow, work for a wage, or raise crops that could be cultivated off season? Were these crops then consumed or sold? And how did strategies differ for women and men, and for the married and unmarried? In my book, I suggest that young single women worked as domestics while saving for marriage. Did women then retreat from the labor market after marriage? Did they look after gardens and the smaller livestock, as some agricultural manuals suggest? If so, was their time devoted purely to subsistence agriculture, or were some of their products (such as poultry or linen thread) actually sold? Indeed, the whole question of specialization by small scale peasants deserves further attention. Briggs stresses subsistence farming, but I would lay emphasis (as I do in my book) on the costs of supervision. Certain labor intensive crops, such as vines, required very close supervision and could be destroyed by negligent tenants and workers. Family labor had an advantage here, as I explain in my book, because it required less supervision. It is no surprise then that vineyards and other similar crops were tended by small scale peasant farmers. Of course vines were a commercial crop, not the sort of subsistence agriculture that Briggs has in mind.

Such questions may sound like economic history, but they ought to engage a wide variety of historians. The supervision of laborers and of servants naturally involved relationships of clientage, reputation, and trust, as I stress in my book. So did credit and tenancy. Here the anthropologically minded can join economists and- social historians in the rethinking of rural history. If in the process my book were ultimately proved wrong, I would still be delighted to see history’s balkanized field of research made whole.