Economic Growth and Stagnation in the Pre-Industrial Era: Iraq, Italy and the Low Countries, 600-1700

The pre-industrial era was characterized by sharp differences in economic growth, both spatially and chronologically. The proposed research aims to clarify some of the underlying causes of such differences by focusing on the institutional organization of the exchange of land, labour, capital and goods, since this critically influences the allocation of scarce resources and thus the potential for economic growth. In order to better understand why these institutions acquired their specific and often highly distinct nature, their development will be studied in the context of the socio-political organization of the area. It is hypothesized that the emergence of a favourable institutional organization requires a power balance between social organizations and actors, creating dynamism and flexibility. If, however, this balance becomes disrupted, with one social group becoming dominant, the existing institutional organization of exchange, which apparently serves the interests of this dominant group, becomes locked-in, leading to the stagnation of the area. This hypothesis will be tested for the most notable pre-industrial cases of economic growth in western Eurasia, which are also exemplary of different types of socio-political systems, namely: Iraq in the early Middle Ages, Italy in the high Middle Ages and the Low Countries in the late Middle Ages/early modern period. The project will investigate how in these three areas such social organizations as the state, foundations, guilds and households shaped and applied the rules of exchange, and how the often diverging arrangements and their functioning were influenced by the relative power of the actors and interest groups involved. The rise and relative decline of these areas, which successively operated at the cutting-edge of economic growth, form excellent cases with which to test the hypothesis by means of a comparative analysis, enabling us to make an innovative contribution to the debate about the causes of geographical differences in wealth and poverty.

The project is sponsored by NWO (vici-grant) for the period 2007-2012. Researchers at one point involved in the project are: Auke Rijpma, Dan Curtis, dr. Jessica Dijkman, dr. Jaco Zuijderduijn, dr. Michele Campopiano and prof.dr. Bas van Bavel (research leader).