We are publishing bi-weekly microreviews on Twitter: short discussions of monographs, edited volumes and articles which have inspired us (#RetroConflictsInspirations). Diplomatic, social, economic, legal history on the one hand, and conflict resolution & management theory on the other.

History meets the social sciences.

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Political Participation and Economic Development (Wahl)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

We’re mostly into the qualitative side of #conflict here at retroconflicts, but a little quantification can be useful to grasp the scale and consequences of historical urban conflict. That’s why today’s #retroconflictinspiration #microreview is about the work of Fabian Wahl.

Wahl’s 2019 article ‘Political Participation and Economic Development’ set out to answer a simple but important #econhist question: which urban political institutions contribute to economic growth. To do so, Wahl investigated 3 ‘participative’ institutions across 282 cities. His three institutions are 1) guild representation in the council 2) citizen representation alongside the council (e.g greater- or outer-councils) and 3) the selection of councilors by election, even if only with a very limited franchise. In line with Sheilagh Ogilvie’s research, Wahl finds no evidence for guild government strengthening economic growth, and in the medieval period it may even have been harmful. Representatives outside the council likewise had no demonstrable effect on growth.
As these two institutions did not make economic contributions, Wahl argues, they must have arisen for other purposes. The most likely explanation, he suggests, is the management of conflict between different social groups involved in urban politics, as proposed by Acemoglu.

Elections, in contrast, show positive effects on urban economies, even on a limited franchise, although this effect declines over time; a decline not fully explained, Wahl finds, by the ‘Olsen Effect’ of lessening effectiveness over time due to corruption and similar forces.
Wahl's article leaves readers with a clear picture of urban institutions' effects on pre-modern economies, and intriguing questions raised about both electoral politics’ diminishing effect on economic growth and conflict management’s role in shaping political institutions.

The full article can be found on the EREH website at https://academic.oup.com/ereh/article-abstract/23/2/193/4995798?redirectedFrom=fulltext and more information on his database of institutions here https://autopapers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2498047


Latest Blog Posts

The darker angels of our nature (ed. Dwyer and Micale)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Steven Pinker’s ‘The better angels of our nature’ painted an optimistic picture of the decline of violence in our modern world: the historical perspective was to demonstrate that we have come to grips with dark inclinations. The civilizing progress of Norbert Elias, once again. It’s a perspective we would like to believe, but is it true?

The current news upends it when it comes to the 21st century. In today’s #microreview, the superb ‘The darker angels of our nature’ (2022), the historians who wrote the 18 chapters argue that violence in the past centuries is a far more complex topic than Pinker assumed. There are many methodological points to be raised, e.g. his use of statistics of deaths over long periods of time, and without context. From our #conflictmanagement point of view, one of the major issues is the definition of violence: it does not and did not only equal homicide, which Pinker presented as a proxy. Violence encompasses nonlethal forms like injuries, humiliation, sexual and verbal violence. This broad spectrum still exists, and it certainly occurred in the past. Another point is that such violence was not simply accepted: laws, legal procedures or treaties on good behaviour show societies wanted to curb it. The premodern days were not just the bad example against which the modern time can cut a good figure. The volume shows that in order to understand human violence and our ways of dealing with it, specific historical cases (and the news) have to be analysed in their context. Few angels appear, but it clear that people see, reflect on - and act on violence.[....]

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Common good and private justice (Beck)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Today’s #microreview turns towards Christopher Beck’s article ‘Common good and private justice: letters of marque and the utilitas publica in fourteenth-century Marseilles’ which provides a fascinating case study about a medieval municipality navigating between political thought, the urban market, private property rights, and the common good.

Throughout late medieval Western Europe, marques presented an instrument of legal enforcement, especially for merchants. Municipal governments could grant the seizure of foreign goods in their city to compensate open debts or other claims against actors outside of their jurisdiction. Yet, over the course of 14th century, the council of Marseilles several times suspended its citizens’ marques for economic and diplomatic reasons: Open marques could dissuade foreign merchants to travel to Marseille and hindered the influx to the city’s market. They could also let the city appear as contentious and not led according to the ideal of peace. Publicly, the town council justified the suspensions and thus the neglect of its own burghers’ property rights with the common good of the community, reflecting learned discourse about just government. The issues pointed out by Beck also applied to Hanseatic city councils which had to balance individual interests not only with the common good of the city but also with the common good of the #Hanse. Not just in light of recent political debates, it seems worthwhile reminding that the question of how a society negotiates the relation between public and private interests is not an invention of modernity.[....]

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Power politics and princely debts: why Germany's common currency failed, 1549–56 (Volckart)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

After taking a few weeks off to report on the #historyinconflict webinar, we’re back with our #retroconflictinspirations #microreview series. For our first review, we’re looking at Oliver Volckart’s 2017 article on Charles V’s failure to unify his Empire’s currency.

By the sixteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire’s overlapping coinage jurisdictions had produced acute problems. Not least, the ‘trade in coinage’: Coins of high material value from some states were frequently exported to neighbouring mints as raw material lower value coins. The trade drove conflict in the Empire. Bavaria, Swabia, and Franconia all complained about it, as did the Salzburg's bishop and Hamburg's magistrates. The trade, they said, devalued coins throughout the Empire, violating a key value of premodern politics, ‘the common good’. Standardizing exchange rates between the coins was an appealing fix for this issue, but required coordination among the Empire’s estates. Volckart argues that the inability to reconcile non-monetary conflicts between estates was the main driver of this project’s failure. Previous research identified conflict over the value of coins as key to the project's failure, pitting silver producing estates against those reliant on imports. Others saw weak imperial political institutions at the heart of the failure. For Volckart, the root conflict lies elsewhere. Following the Schmalkaldic War, the silver-producers’ were more confident that Charles could enforce coinage reform, so were prepared to make concessions on value. Meanwhile, imperial institutions were more effective negotiators in the lead up to the 1551 Currency Bill than was previously assumed. What undermined the single currency project was not conflict over the monetary questions themselves, but the intrusion of other conflicts. The Emperor and his allies wanted to press their advantage and use the issue to weaken their enemy Saxony by devaluing its currency, the Thaler. But, when Charles’ conversion system was introduced, the Saxon Thaler’s face value was significantly lower than its real value. Merchants thus preferred it to the overvalued Imperial Guldiner, and Saxon authorities didn’t enforce the exchange rate between the coins, leading the system to collapse. Volckart’s article is a powerful illustration of how conflict in one domain can spread to another as actors seek new strategies to manage the situation to their advantage. [....]

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