Oooof, it’s over!
The 15th World Economic History Conference’s over, over 1300 participants from every continents, sort of the Olympics for hitory buffs and math geeks put together. On the very positive side: no organizational problems, everything seems to have moved smoothly and if it wasn’t for the quality of Dutch food in general the whole thing would have been perfect on a logistics point of view (thank you Jessica and Paula).
Of course some sessions were more interesting than others but overall the quality was quite good. Personally, I think some young scholars really made the week worthwhile. I’ve already mentioned Andrea Matranga (TSE), Jeff Taylor’s (CEU, Budapest) poster on the economic factors leading to modernism in art also made a big impression on me. The vivid discussion between Geertje Goldewijk (Groningen) and Nikola Koepke (Oxford) showed that anthropometrics need not to be excruciatingly borring.
More into my sort of things, the enthusiasm of Christian van Bochove (Utrecht U.) during a meeting about unorthodox financial intermetiaries showed that there is some good research to come in the next few years, and David Carvajal De La Vega (Valladolid) proved that old Europe can still produce some seriously good historians.
Among the somewhat less young, I was very excited to meet Pr. Denis Flynn (Pacific U.), a lonesome cowboy of economic theory who has been fighting for decade to introduce a more sensible model in economics. He swore to publish a book soon and I seriously hope he will accept to talk about it here. I was on duty during Greg Clark’s (UC Davis) talk on “the interaction of economics and biology in pre-industrial England” but the paper is really interesting.
Arguably 2009 was really the year of the reconciliation between history and biology, three sessions were devoted to the matter. There is still a lot of work to do before getting any sort of a model on tracks. Ulrich Witt (Max Plank Institute) presented a first draft of this model which most interestingly pays a lot of attention to consumption. However, this model truly suffers from its lack of dynamism, which is paradoxical when trying to explain history. But it is really a big step in the right direction.
This discussion can be placed in the larger debate between a materialist interpretation of history (as Guillaume aptly remarked) and a more post-modern one. This question was at the core of the final debate between Bob Allen defending the importance of factors of production in the rise of the Industrial Revolution and Joel Mockyr who argued that a set of Beaconian institutions should be recognized as the main reason why Europe was first. Old question, but always pleasant to see those two presenting the different options.
The institutional narrative is often attractive but is really difficult to prove. Moreover they often drag in some lofty social historians who don’t understand the first thing about economics and who think that dropping the word “industry” once in a while’s enough to qualify as economic history. On the other hand, the positivist approach may seem a touch dry but enjoys the huge advantage of being back by cliometrics (nb: I owe the distinction between these different approaches to the good theoretical introduction to the matter by Werner Scheltjens (Lyon)).
Summing up a congress with that many session –the bulk of which I did not attend to– is really difficult. I’ll post later some criticism about the congress format itself, but for now here are a handful of papers I found particularly interesting:
Amilcar Challu – Grain Markets, Food Supply Policies and Living Standards in Late Colonial Mexico
Tomotaka Kawamura – Maritime Asian Trade and Colonization of Penang, c.1786-1830
Patrick Wallis – Inventing manufacturers’ brands: medicine and commercial innovation in early modern England
Juan Huitzilihuitl Flores Zendejas – Information Asymmetries, Borrowing Costs and the Baring Crisis, 1880-1890
Erik Aerts – No Public Exchange Banks in The Southern Netherlands. Explanation of an Absence (1400-1800)
Dror Goldberg – Anglo-American Banking Before the Glorious Revolution
Irina Mukhina – “International Peddling and Legislative Changes in Post-Soviet Russia”
Stuart Borsch – The Black Death in Egypt and England