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Response to Review no. 294

John Langdon has made some very positive comments on my book, and I am naturally pleased that he has praised it in a number of ways. The purpose of these dialogues between authors and reviewers is not, however, to exchange compliments and thanks, but to engage in debate on issues which are of general interest. I would like to deal with three issues, which arise from the review.

The first concerns the writing of history for a wide reading public. In his last sentence Langdon praises Yale University Press for ‘creating the series’ in which this book belongs – The New Economic History of Britain. Yale were very helpful and effective publishers of the hardback edition of this book, but the idea belongs to Penguin Books. This is the first volume of the Penguin Economic History of Britain, and it will appear as a Penguin paperback in 2003. All of the commissioning and planning was done by Penguin, who were anxious to replace the economic history series which they acquired from Weidenfeld – the medieval volume being Postan’s The Medieval Economy and Society. An Economic History of Britain in the Middle Ages (Weidenfeld & Nicolson; London, 1972). It gave me great pleasure over the last four years to be ‘writing a Penguin’ because I always associate Penguin books with a tradition of popular education, which I experienced as a schoolboy in the 1950s when Penguins were a great source of inspiration to those who did not live in a city with a large library, and whose homes were not filled with academic books. It was in the spirit of Penguin’s tradition of bringing history and other subjects to a large public, cheaply and accessibly, that I wrote the book.

The publishers did not want a footnoted book, and I was anxious not to alienate readers with weighty accounts of academic debates and explicit references to historiography, schools of thought, and other off-putting paraphernalia of conventional academic writing. This has led reviewers to criticise me for my lack of theory and historiographical context. I intended to put all of these elements into my writing, but without the bells and whistles ( ‘Postan’s theory is x, Campbell’s is y ‘) which many readers find tedious. Readers will find Malthusianism, Boserupian thinking, Marxist ideas of class conflict, Smithean notions of market development and so on, used and explained, but not with labels attached. I think that it is important that academics make their subject as interesting and accessible as possible to a wide readership, and if I attract people to read more about the medieval economy, and convert some young people to wanting to study the economic history of the middle ages, I will have achieved a useful goal. Economic history is going out of fashion, and it can only be revived if it goes out to convert people, and convince them that it is an interesting, understandable and enjoyable subject.

The second issue is the difficulty of writing British history before Britain existed. Langdon says rightly that Wales and Scotland do not receive a sufficiently full treatment. That is partly because I am not so familiar with the history of those countries, but also because their past is so different from that of England, and especially southern and midland England. In looking at Scottish towns, we find characteristics more similar to continental Europe than England, with their trading monopolies. And how can we deal in an integrated way with urban history in the fifteenth century when Scotland saw the foundation of dozens of new boroughs, a development unknown in England? We cannot easily frame generalisations that apply to all parts of Britain, and the alternative would be to devote separate chapters and sections to the experience of the different parts of Britain. In one book dealing with 700 years of history, I chose to point out similarities and differences as I discussed each topic, but I could not explain the special characteristics of say, the highlands of Scotland, at the length that they perhaps deserved. We need more writing about the economic and social history of Wales and Scotland, and indeed more research on those individual countries must be accomplished before attempting integration and synthesis. For example, it is only recently that basic scientific work has been done on medieval Scottish prices, by Gemmill and Mayhew. Their results are extraordinary, showing patterns of price changes in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that differ from those prevailing in the rest of western Europe. These figures deserve lengthy discussion and interpretation before we can understand the trends in the Scottish economy.

Finally, Langdon says that I am old-fashioned in my attachment to the idea that significant novelties in economy and society came in the period 1350-1520. He prefers to see a ‘new world’ emerging in the expansion of the thirteenth century. He is right to champion the cause of the ‘long’ thirteenth century as a period of transformation, and this view has been persuasively advanced by Britnell and Campbell, among others. My argument in Making a Living was that a profound transformation was achieved with commercialisation and urbanisation in the thirteenth century, and these were essential precursors of the development of the modern economy. These changes, however, in some ways strengthened aristocratic power, enriched many great landlords, and promoted serfdom. The structural shifts, which set the serfs free, put the landed resources of the lords into the hands of the farmers, and turned England into an important industrial and maritime economy, all came after about 1375. The modern economy needed both changes – and it would be wrong to give one too much prominence over another. I hope to justify this view (with footnotes!) in the forthcoming printed version of my Ford lectures.