Economic History beginning with the Ancient and Feudal
December 18, 2010 3:19 PM   Subscribe

My understanding of economic history is rather poor. I couldn't even substantiate my primitive views of how the industrial first world's economy is structured, much less hold any views of how the economics of past communities were structured. So it's rather obvious that I would want to remedy this.

My only involvement with economic history is from the Marxist tradition, and because of that I'm naturally focusing on finding books that would consider ancient, feudal, and early capitalist modes of production: how these structures and relations operated, and how they developed and eventually transformed into the next mode.

I haven't read The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World yet, but it does seem to be along the lines of what I'm looking for (albeit temporally restricted (possibly too specific for my initial attempts in trying to educate myself)).

A generic search for economic history on Amazon came up with A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, but this (as far as I can tell by the table of contents) ignores the ancient and feudal organization, and seems to focus more on the industrial revolution than the actual structures of structures of mercantalism and capitalism.

The other title that came up though seemed fairly spot on considering, A Concise Economic History of the World, but I'd appreciate further and/or better resources.

posted by SollosQ to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
There is a wonderful book called The Origins of Value. It's a collection of authoritative essays by economic and finance historians on financial innovations throughout recorded history: simple interest in Sumer, futures markets in 16th-century Netherlands, etc. It's not exactly what you've asking about, but it proved a fascinating and informative book for this non-economist. It's usually available used for about $30.
posted by Nomyte at 3:36 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is supposed to be excellent for laymen, and includes history as well as theory. But you're basically asking "Help me understand more about epidemiology, bearing in mind that I'm only interested in resources that reify my belief in spontaneous generation." Sure, there are resources out there for Marxist economic historians, but they're not reputable or taken seriously by real economists, and they won't teach you much that you can't already recite.
posted by foursentences at 4:30 PM on December 18, 2010

Niall Furguson's The Ascent of Money is pretty good and seems to loosely fit the bill. It talks about the origins of the Banking system, the first financial bubble, how corporations and banks evolved etc...all the way to pretty much a couple of years ago.
posted by Geppp at 4:49 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times by Giovanni Arrighi. Review here.
posted by Abiezer at 4:55 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Arrighi's work would be a great starting point. You might also be interested in Michel Beaud's History of Capitalism, 1500-2000 as an overview (take a look through Monthly Review Press's other offerings as well). There's also Marx's own notes on Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (part of the Grundrisse) to consider. Just ignore that non-answer from foursentences about what "real economists" think — that presumed separation is especially false in the context of this question, because the further back into pre-capitalist history you go, the more interaction there is between Marxist and non-Marxist economic historians' work and ideas.
posted by RogerB at 5:31 PM on December 18, 2010

Best answer: My focus has been on American economic history, but...

I found there to be not a whole lot on pre-capitalist economics. Even A Concise Economic History of the World, while providing more on early economies than expected, focuses on 18th-century Europe and onwards. There's the five-volume encyclopedia of economic history edited by Joel Mokyr, but 1) it's terribly expensive and 2) doesn't go into as much depth as you'd probably want.

Your best bet might be to take a more piecemeal approach. There's a book called The Byzantine Economy which I've heard positive things about from another economic historian, that goes all the way to the fall of Constantinople. There's also a decent amount of work being done looking at the history of public finance (as an example, there's this paper on pre-capitalist public finance in the Netherlands that I saw presented at an economic history conference recently).

For better or worse, there's a lot more about economic history around the time of the Industrial Revolution than before. Some of that is because of the really significant shift in all the economic indicators; some of that is because the origins are so hotly contested.
posted by unfairlight at 6:42 PM on December 18, 2010

This sounds like the sort of thing Eric Hobsbawm should have done, though all of his books I'm familiar with span from 1789 onward.
posted by Sara C. at 6:50 PM on December 18, 2010

Read Robert Heilbroner, especially The Making of Economic Society (a much cheaper used copy of an older edition should be fine if you don't mind lack of coverage of the last few years).

For something focused on the 20th century, watch the excellent PBS miniseries Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:39 PM on December 18, 2010

Check out Fernand Braudel's epic Civilization and Capitalism series, particularly book 2: The Wheels of Commerce. I found it for $5 I think on Abebooks.

If you are interested in political economy, Hendrik Spruyt's The Soveriegn State and it's Competitors is one of my favorite reads from undergrad. It looks at the formation of nation-states in Europe and incorporates a good deal of economic analysis.
posted by ropeladder at 10:19 PM on December 18, 2010

Best answer: A classic textbook is Carlo Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700. The most recent edition dates from 1994, I think. More recently, Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution, discusses changes in the western European economy before the first Industrial Revolution.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:53 AM on December 19, 2010

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