Grantham G. W. (1997) The impact of pre-industrial cities on agrarian productivity

Grantham George W. and Sarget Marie-Noëlle (1997) “Espaces privilégiés : productivité agraire et zones d’approvisionnement des villes dans l’Europe préindustrielle” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 52/3, 695–725

Article available on line.

Introduction
Low agricultural productivity and high transportation costs before the second half of the 19th century induced a low demographic density (695). In 1821, J. H. von Thünen showed that – due to these characteristics – a series of specialised agrarian rings tended to encircle the cities and ordered so as to minimize transportation costs. The most precious productions (milk, vegetable) were located close to the urban centres, while the bulkiest (wood, grain) tended to be rejected further.

The city benefits from the most productive activities (industrial sector), these activities are attracted to the city because of its deep labour market, the availability of information and the seller/buyer proximity. By pooling their resources, industries have also a cheaper way to finance necessary infrastructures. These externalities allow the urban economic growth to be self-sustaining.

One of the main question for economic historian is: what disrupted this virtuous circle? Decreasing returns in the agriculture have often been mentioned but the regions closely related to the urban markets may have avoided that trap thanks to the mix of crops and cattle. The question the authors ask is: did the agricultural technology impede the growth of spatially concentrated activities (i.e. cities)? Nowhere in Europe before the 18th century did the proportion of urban population exceeded 35%, to what extend was this ceiling due to a limited foodstuff contribution available from the countryside (698) ? This article concentrates on the Northern European cities as the Mediterranean ones imported a lot of grain through the maritime routes and saw a lot of state interventionism (699).

The model of provisioning
The authors designed a model of a self-sufficient region where whoever is not cultivating grain is concentrated in a central point. What would be the minimal surface necessary to feed the population of the centre (700) ? On the long run the market was favouring large labour-saving farms when and where demand was high, thus up to a point supply followed demand in the regions neighbouring cities and the demand side of the labour market remained fairly stable (701). By 1800, most cities could be feed by the food brought by carts from a two days trip radius (702).

In the best conditions, it took 4.09 days of one man’s work on average to produce 1 hl (= 112,5 kg of grain) of wheat (only 2.38 in Flanders) in 1750 and 3.69 in 1800. In the most backward farms, it may have taken up to 12 days to produce 1 hl (705). The maximum productivity per hectare as early as 1300 may have been as high as 35 hl in Flanders, 20 around Paris and Southern England, and may not have been bettered before 1800. The average person may have consumed 225 to 335 kg of grain a year (with a diet mostly based on cereals) (706).

Based on these figures, the authors estimate the radius necessary for a city to be sustained depending on its size and the productivity of the surrounding agriculture. A town of 1.500 needed a “belt” (my word) with a radius between 6.2 and 2.8 km, at 10.000 the radius needed to be between 16.1 and 7.1, at 50.000 it was between 36.8 and 15.9. As the authors consider that beyond 50 km the transportation costs by land becomes to high, they conclude that a city of 100,000 needed a belt producing at least 8 hl per hectare. At 200,000 the minimum productivity was around 12 and at 500,000 around 20. Beyond, 500,000, the city could not rely uniquely on the production of the surrounding countryside and required other inputs (707).

The provisioning belts
We see that theoretically the state of the agricultural technology was not a major barrier to urbanisation before 1800, as even amid the countryside with the worst productivity a city of 50,000 could easily arise. Hence it does not come as a surprise that Paris managed to reach 200,000 inhabitants around 1300 and that some northern regions managed to reach a 35% rate of urbanisation. On the other hand, in the Mediterranean region, productivity was so low and the available land so rare that all cities had to rely on imports (709).

Paris was supposed to be fed by the cereals produced inside three “belts” (radius = 85, 150, 300 km depending on the harvest). The interior belt had 2.1 millions inhabitants in 1806 including 580.000 Parisians (in total the urbanisation rate was close from 40%) (710). This supposed that during good years the productivity inside the first belt must have been around 16 hl per hectare and inside the second one around 12 (711).

Clic on the image to enlarge it

The authors assume that the producers could carry the grain themselves over up to 30-50 km in two days, this defines the limit of the intensive direct exchange city/countryside as transportation costs remained low (712). The logistical problems of use of waterways (i.e. high fix costs to initiate and maintain it) meant that only farms located far away from the consumer would have been interested. The terrestrial transport could compete with the fluvial one up to 50 km away from the centre; for instance the grain meant to be carried on the Tames was loaded at Henley, some 70km away from London. Overall, the transportation costs alone may have accounted for 30 to 40% of the grain price in the 14th century and still 15 to 20% in the 18th (713).

In case of crisis
Establishing a new commercial linkage was difficult, expensive and likely to fail as it required a series of good harvest, trust and investment. As a result large grain trade routes were rare and in Northern Europe more or less limited to the Baltic region. But as most of the cities under 200,000 inhabitants could rely on their neighbouring countryside, there was little demand for a large grain trade anyway (714).

The strength of the demand created a strong intensive to increase productivity within the vicinity of towns. For example, the Parisian population fluctuated between 100,000 and 600,000 from 1000 to 1800 but still most of the grain consumed came from the same 50 km belt. The fact that the technology was stagnant does not mean that the output was (715).

Logically, considering the fact that population and prices were steadily on the rise, investment should be made up to the point where all marginal lands within the belt was put in use by the farmers who would have felt secured due to the steady rise of demand. But as the supply was not stable, during the bad years, merchants would bring grains from far and wide, which disturbed the local supply-demand relationship (716). Thus prevision of demand was impossible thus due to the uncertainty marginal farmers were not prone to invest while their original surplus was too small to induce the merchants to better the linkage of these regions with the metropolitan market: a typical case of coordinating failure (as both the farmers and the merchants would have been better off if the investments had been made) (717).

Market regulation and price volatility
This may also explain the regulation of the pre-modern grain markets which always favoured the neighbouring farmers over the merchants as the former were the cities’ most steady supply. It kept prices up but it guaranteed that demand would be met. For instance, in England as late at 1780, the buyers from outside the district (mostly from towns) had to wait one hour out of the market for the inhabitants to have time to buy whatever they needed (718). “The unequal competition between local buyers and urban buyers was a structural characteristic of these ancient market economies” As stocking was a problem even a tenuous rise in demand could trigger a massive increase of prices.

During crisis the supply belt of a city could increase so as to hit the 50 km ceiling and/or collide with other cities’ belts. This created ceilings for the size of cities’ population beyond which supply became much trickier. For instance, when Paris went beyond 300,000, price volatility increased suddenly (719).

Elasticity
Between 1726 and 1733, in Paris, the total grain consumption varied by 2%, but the surrounding countryside’s output varied by at least 15% and the prices fluctuated by 33% (elasticity was –0,06). This elasticity was partially absorbed by the farmers’ stock and the elasticity of the countryside’s consumption. Thus the urban demand inelasticity must have greatly disturbed the markets of the periphery. The rural population not involved in agriculture was the weakest in these condition; as a result, for example, the famine of 1693-4 started around Paris and only reached the city during the second year. Every six years or so, the Parisians needs could only be met by a large extension of the providing region. It was not regular enough to create lasting relationships. The commercial networks only became stable after 1725 and price instability decreased. On the other hand, at the same peiod, the rapid growth of Lyon’s population disturbed the Burgundy market for grain which suddenly had to modernise itself (721).

Conclusion
So what was the limit to urban growth in pre-modern Europe? Considering the rates of urban mortality, it was unlikely that a region could go beyond 37.5% urbanisation (maximum actually reached at 35% in the Low-Countries). A region of 19,500 inhabitant including a city of 10,000 would have been self-sufficient food-wise but would have been loosing inhabitants due to the higher mortality in towns (more people died in cities then were born in them). Thus, despite its inherent difficulties, it was not the food supply that capped the size of cities but urban mortality. Indeed, the cities’ migration belts were wider than their grain belts. So in a way, cities saved themselves as it is their demand that pressured the agriculture into specialisation and investment (724).

References
[url=http://www.rea.ru/portal/teachers.nsf/0/4E45B3A89A73AEAFC3256ED2002C40F2!OpenDocument] A page with the complete bibliography of G.W. Grantham.[/url].

The article provided an excellent bibliography of the 80s and 90s agriculture history.

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