Seasons and history

This is my first post dedicated to… well… me. I’ll try not to bother too often with those, but I need to put my ideas in order.

As far as I can tell (my knowledge is limited) the problem of seasonality has pretty much been ignored by economic historians. At best it took a paragraph to deal with it here and there, but year-on-year trends have always received more attention. Yet it is quite obvious that seasonality is a very interesting subject that could shed a new light on topics such as pre-modern growth, living conditions, etc.

The progressive end of seasonality is one very clear trend over human history. We can safely assume that almost every aspects of our prehistoric ancestors was seasonal: the type of food, shelter, life style. One of the great conquests of humanity is precisely the possibility to live all year round in the same place and be able to do pretty much the same things in January, April, August and December.

But it did not come easy. During the pre-modern period, still, numerous aspects of life were dictated by the seasons. One of the best know examples is the availability of grain: plentiful after the harvest (July-September), and then evolving slowly toward scarcity in April-June. But even here the year-on-year variations have attracted more attention than the seasonal ones.

A great deal of products were affected by seasonality: different types of meat were available over the year during the European middle age [1], obviously cereals, fruits and vegetable were also seasonal. Seasonality went beyond foodstuff and even beyond goods. Braudel has insisted on the concept of “opened sea/closed sea” whereby the Mediterranean navigation almost integrally took place between March and October. Labour also was seasonal: the same people were journeymen for the harvest and proto-industrial workers the rest of the year.

Evidently, the impact of seasonality on the economy was enormous. It could make one’s fortune of destroy a region. Seasonality made business difficult: abundant supply would be followed by dramatic scarcity. The effect on prices is easy to imagine too low for the providers to earn a living during abundance, too high for the consumers to buy during scarcity: a very very suboptimal equilibrium.

But seasonality has an history. It did not disappear in one go. By the 18th century, already most types of meat were available all year round. Month-on-month price fluctuation for grain had decrease. The (relative) retreat of seasonality was the unsung progress of the pre-modern period. It would be particularly interesting to observe as it is a sure proxy for production and distribution progresses, specialisation, market integration, etc. When, where and how seasonality retreated would certainly be an extremely interesting to know, historians could compare the advance of economic modernity from an era to another or from a region to another.

No doubt that seasonality and its disappearance must have had a deep impact on the mental universe of the pre-modern populations. Seasonality was the traditional rhythm of life, it was tradition itself. For instance, war had been a highly seasonal activity. The great Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, at the end of the 1550s complain to have been forced to fight “during winter as well as during summer” which goes against all traditions [2].

I think that seasonality would be a beautiful subject for an article. I would love to read about it, and even writing that article! Instead I’m locked in LA looking for a job…

[1] Piuz A.-M. (1975) Cattle market and consumption in 18th-century Geneva

[2] Letter of Andrea Doria to Charles V. Genoa, March 5, 1556; Archivo General de Simancas: Simancas, Estado 1385/120. See also: letter of Andrea Doria to Joanna of Austria. Genoa, May 14, 1557; Archivo General de Simancas: Simancas, Estado 1386/156. Both in Vargas-Hidalgo R. ed. (2002), Guerra y diplomacia en el Mediterráneo : correspondencia inédita de Felipe II con Andrea Doria y Juan Andrea Doria, Madrid: Edicion Polifemo, p.19 and p.132

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