Hans-Jürgen Gerhard, Alexander Engel. Preisgeschichte der vorindustriellen Zeit. Studien zur Gewerbe- und Handelsgeschichte der vorindustriellen Zeit. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag. 358 pp. ISBN 978-3-515-08961-6.
Reviewed by Markus Cerman
Published on H-German (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
A Practical Guide to Hamburg Wage and Price Series
This volume is one of the results of a long-term project to investigate and publish price and wage series for pre- and early industrial Germany. Hans-Jürgen Gerhard published two voluminous books with German price materials for the period 1330-1867 in 1990 and 2001, with Karl-Heinrich Kaufhold as a co-editor. These represent what economic and social historians would regard as basic research with reference to their subject in the truest sense.
The aim of this book seems to be slightly different. The larger second part of the volume consists of price and wage data from Hamburg institutions for the period c. 1443-1821, yet the first part is dedicated to detailed discussion of the historiography of prices and wages in economic history. It introduces results, sources, and methods of price and wage history. The book aims to be a compendium on pre-industrial price history "that explains all important aspects of dealing with historical wage and price series and their sources by means of the Hamburg materials" (p. 15).
The volume's authors themselves concede that the subject of price and wage history has become more fashionable recently. As history has gone global over the last decade or so, so has price and wage history. Scholars are now concerned with global comparisons of long-term price and wage data, in hopes of investigating whether a difference in real wages emerged between Europe and Asia (in particular China) some time before or after the Industrial Revolution. Whether gold, silver, or grain wages can really be compared to each other so easily within Europe or between different parts of the world, however, is a different question altogether. Some of the difficulties and risks, many of them resulting from the nature of the sources, are discussed in an introductory manner in the pages of this volume.
Despite this acknowledged recent, but maybe short-lived boom in price and wage history, the authors seem to have a somewhat gloomier view of their subject, as they express their hope that the book will help scholars "to engage more with a sub-discipline of economic history that is currently in danger of having moved out of the focus" (p. 17). No doubt such basic research is threatened, not least because funding agencies are becoming less willing to finance long-term projects whose results usually cannot be printed in neat little volumes after the usual two- or three-year funding period.
Such considerations aside, the book's first part, a "Vademecum to Price History," opens with an interesting brief account of the earlier roots of price history and with the story of the International Scientific Committee on Price History (ISCPH) established by Edwin F. Gay (NBER) and Lord William Beveridge (LSE) in 1929/30 with a considerable grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The project was meant to last for five years, and included representatives from Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands and collected data for Poland and Spain as well. The project took longer and the results were less uniform than anticipated, but the work led to the well-known volumes of price and wage data which many still use or at least refer to, and which serve as the foundation for new, revised data sets. The evidence from Hamburg, originally a part of the German series, was not included in the publication by Moritz Elsas. Now it forms the basis of the price and wage series presented in part 2 of this volume.
The first part of the book also discusses the role and properties of money and historical coinage and then introduces the reader to the sources, methods, and techniques of price history. This section addresses problems historians usually face, such as the accuracy of price and wage series, the problem of the lack of homogeneity of goods before the quality standardization of the industrial age, metrology, and exchange rates, as well as the possible composition of wages and income. By means of some examples, the authors deal with misleading comparisons of real income or the value of money over time. Yet, when the authors state (in referring to an example from 1790) that historical data series such as price indices or GDP "cannot be reconstructed in a serious manner for the year 1790" (p. 47), this interpretation seems too strict. Most scholars actually engaged in constructing such series are aware that the numbers can only be regarded as an approximation under certain assumption, as "best guesses" and not as hard data. This is the reason that the data are sometimes revised. Nonetheless, the numbers can serve as interesting indicators with reference to some of the research in economic and social history, as long as they are used in a critical, hypothetical, and not in an absolute manner.
The book's final two sections deal with the question of how accurately the usual sources registered market prices and test their representativeness and comparability by proposing a measure of the degree of price volatility around the actual market price. This measure is then applied to examples from the Hamburg price series. The test is presented for four data periods between 1443 and 1815 and clearly indicates--unsurprisingly, but nevertheless interestingly--that the degree of volatility of the series around the market price decreased over time in the long run. It also helps to illustrate particularly clearly and impressively some of the points made earlier in the volume. With regard to the great variation in the quality of goods, for instance, the price volatility for plaice was significantly higher in one series than in the other (admittedly for two different periods). However, it turns out that one hospital, on which the first price series is based, bought small, medium, and sometimes big plaice, whereas the other more regularly provided its inmates with medium-sized plaice. The same exercise can be repeated with dried cod for the period 1539-1612. It is thus clear that information in the original sources is crucial and one of the problems of editions of price series is the possible reduction of information due to the editing process.
The authors discuss in detail the data in the tables of the second part. The book adds the data collected during the ISPHC project in the 1930s for future use. As the original sources no longer exist, this section has to concentrate on an evaluation of the notes. It presents a brief description of the two hospital institutions of St. Georg and St. Hilda, whose account material were the source of the data.
The book's 101 tables of price and wage series include data on types of grain (excluding wheat, but including wheat flour), beans, rice (1515-1804), and turnips. Fish, poultry, and meat are covered by data for herring, cod, and dried fish; geese; and chicken, lamb, beef, and pork. Apart from oil, fruits, and spices--this being Hamburg, after all--data are also included for beer and various industrial goods and raw materials, including fuel wood, coal, lead, and copper. Against this impressive list, the surviving Hamburg wage series are disappointing, as they cover a very short period only and mainly refer to service personnel from the hospitals. There are three series for female and male day laborers and, particularly interesting, for dike- and shipbuilders.
The appendix consists of a useful survey of measures and weights, currencies of account, and exchange rates, as well as an edition of chronicles with information on prices in early modern Hamburg. The bibliography contains references to older and more recent studies on price history. Other reviewers have noted that the bibliography is not entirely complete and does not include all relevant major works published in Germany over the past twenty years. Some of the activities carried out by different German research groups since the 1980s are also missing in the first section's introductory discussion. All in all, however, the references presented certainly serve the introductory character of the book.
The book presents necessary and important work in an understandable manner. It can be recommended as accessible reading for teachers of survey courses in early modern European economic and social history, who sometimes avoid discussing the technicalities of coinage and price series. As it presents previously unaccessible price series for late medieval and early modern Hamburg, the book will also be used by those who want to add material to international comparisons. For instance, a large database for historical prices and wages is available for download at the International Institute for Social History (http://www.iisg.nl/hpw/). I hope that the book will achieve its aim "to encourage" (p. 17) others to engage in this type of research.
. Hans-Jürgen Gerhard and Karl Heinrich Kaufhold, eds., Preise im vor- und frühindustriellen Deutschland, 2 vols. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1990-2001).
. John Moritz Elsas, Umriss einer Geschichte der Preise und Löhne in Deutschland: Vom ausgehenden Mittelalter bis zum Beginn des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, 2 vols. (Leiden: Sijthoff, 1936-1949).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Markus Cerman. Review of Gerhard, Hans-Jürgen; Alexander Engel, Preisgeschichte der vorindustriellen Zeit.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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