Economic History Books

First posted 18 January 2015; last updated: 8 February 2017

I keep getting asked for survey-type books/articles on the economic history of particular regions or countries. In the list below, as much as possible, I stick to works of economic history with a stress on country and regional knowledge, not topical or thematic specialisation, (So no books focused on income inequality or international trade, etc.) It’s intended as a list of references which give you an overview and guide for further reading, especially if you want to know more about particular countries and regions. I don’t list any “big history” books along the lines of Jared Diamond.

Suggestions are welcome!

Also see the companion page: Economic History Papers.


For someone with absolutely no clue about the basics of world economic history of the last 500 years, but who wants something written by an economist, a good primer is Robert Allen’s Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction. It’s a little gem, a masterpiece of parsimony, so short yet so much. Every sentence packs a mound of research, going from the “rise of the West” and the “great divergence” to the “big push” late industrialisation of Japan, the Soviet Union, and China. Yet unlike other books of this kind, it has an idiosyncratic touch that’s uniquely Allen.

Also recommended: Livi-Bacci, A Concise History of World Population

The Industrial Revolution in Britain

Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective and Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy are the key works. I say start with Allen first. But you definitely need both for a balanced perspective. Allen’s book is also a good entrée to the “great divergence” debate, contrasting European and Asian living standards just before the modern era. Clark’s A Farewell to Alms offers a very heterodox take, but it’s also the best elementary introduction to the neo-Malthusian model. Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity, which is basically a chapter-by-chapter criticism of nearly all theories of the Industrial Revolution, serves as an excellent if idiosyncratic survey of the literature on the IR. However, I recommend disregarding (or tearing out the pages of) McCloskey’s critique of Clark in chapters 31 and 32 of Bourgeois Dignity — the reason for which I will blog some day.

With the exception of the above volume, I prefer McCloskey from the early days of cliometrics in the 1970s to the early 1990s. The two editions of The Economic History of Britain since 1700 that Donald McCloskey edited with Roderick Floud (2 volumes, 1981; and 3 volumes, 1994) are great. I treasure my unfortunately outdated, but dog-eared, copies of the 1981 volumes. The 2004 update by Floud & Johnson, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain (3 volumes) continues in that tradition.

The 2014 successor, Floud, Humphries & Johnson, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain (2 volumes) is important as introductory material and updated literature survey. But the great chapter on overseas trade originally written by Knick Harley has been replaced with one by Nuala Zahedieh which seems keener on Immanuel Wallerstein.

For a more nuanced perspective which stresses the contribution of the external to European economic development, try Findlay & O’Rourke, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium. Not only does it serve as economic history of the world since the fall of Rome, but you might also notice in it a more sophisticated version of Beckert’s “war capitalism”. (What exactly was wrong with the word mercantilism anyway???)

Morgan’s Slavery, Atlantic Trade and the British Economy, 1660-1800 is an excellent review of the debate surrounding this question, but as of 2000.

For some Europe-wide perspectives on the “rise of the West”, see Broadberry & O’Rourke, ed., The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe (vol. 1). Unlike its predecessors in the same Cambridge series, this one is a very reader-friendly source. Another comparative look is Prados de la Escosura, Exceptionalism and Industrialisation: Britain and its European Rivals, 1688–1815.

Some books which go back farther in time for the origins of the modern European economy:

The spread of the industrial revolution

After my recent post on the Hobson-Lenin thesis, someone asked if there’s a good book on the “first globalisation” of 1870-1914. My answer: Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy, by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson, the best summary-analysis of the vast empirical literature on the epic movement of people, goods, and capital in the long 19th century. If you’re interested in the impact of the “first globalisation” on today’s developing countries, then Williamson’s Trade and Poverty: How the Third World Fell Behind. (The name Williamson recurs almost infinitely in this literature…)

Scylla & Toniolo, ed., Patterns of European Industrialization: The Nineteenth Century is a collection of surveys with chapters on France, Russia, Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. Trebilcock, The Industrialization of the Continental Powers 1780-1914, also covers Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Spain.

There are surprisingly not that many general economic histories of France or Germany in English with a quantitative orientation and updated findings.

France:

Germany:

United States

The most general survey is Atack & Passell, A New Economic View of American History (1994) or Hughes & Cain, American Economic History (a fairly simple undergraduate textbook). For the economic history of slavery, don’t read Fogel’s Time on the Cross. Instead, read his Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. It’s updated and corrected compared with the first, taking into consideration the extensive debates Fogel had with economists and historians after Time on the Cross was published. The “Fogel of Emancipation” is Ransom & Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. Olmstead & Rhode, Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development is an agricultural history of the United States which touches on many themes from slavery to innovation.

Russia & the Soviet Union

Gatrell, The Tsarist Economy 1850-1917 is now rather old, but Gregory, Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation to the First Five-Year covers roughly the period from the abolition of serfdom in 1861 to the end of the New Economic Policy in 1928. Mironov is mostly about biological living standards in the prerevolutionary period, but has a chapter or two on wages and prices.

Gregory & Stuart, Russian & Soviet Economic Performance is a textbook covering the entire period of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian history from 1917 to the present.

Other current-OECD:

Comparative historical development

Nathan Nunn “Historical Development” (a chapter in The Handbook of Economic Growth) and “The Importance of History for Economic Development” are indispensable readings. For the “deep roots” literature, Spolaore & Wacziarg’s “How deep are the roots of economic development” is the best entry way.

VoxEU has also just issued a 3-volume series of free e-booklets called The Long Economic and Political Shadow of History (~150 pages in each volume). It brings together very readable summaries of the “deep history” literature by some of the key researchers themselves. Parts one (global), two (Asia & Africa), and three (Europe & the Americas).

Epstein, An Economic and Social History of Later Medieval Europe, 1000-1500 is probably the most general mediaval econ history. The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe — the greatest fucking debate in economic history ! The quasi-resolution of this debate is contained in Turchin & Nefedov, Secular Cycles, probably my single favourite book of quantitative history. Also worth mentioning: Hatcher & Bailey, Modelling the Middle Ages, an overview of the theories used to describe and explain economic change in the Middle Ages.

Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History (Boldizzoni & Hudson, ed.) is rather uneven, but this is a sui generis volume: there is no other place where you can read about the history of the economic historiography for the major regions and countries of the world.

The Cambridge History of Capitalism (2 volumes) has all kinds of short synoptic essays about many countries and regions, such as by Bresson (ancient Greece), Jongman (Roman empire), Pamuk (the Middle East), Roy (India), Jerven (Africa), and Atack (USA). I think Gareth Austin’s chapter in the 2nd volume, “Capitalism and the Colonies”, is the single best short treatment of the economic relationship between the imperial metropolis and the colonies.

Asian economic history

China

The recent The Economic History of China (2016) by Glahn has no equivalent. There is no other book at the moment which simultaneously contains a readable narrative of the full sweep of Chinese economic history; and reflects recent scholarship both Chinese and international; and covers the major themes and controversies of the historiography in the manner of Elvin’s The Patterns of the Chinese Past (which is now quasi-ancient but still worth reading). Glahn’s book might have dealt a little bit more with the controversies surrounding the revisionism of Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, which really changed the terms of the debate and is an absolute must-read. More on Chinese economic history:

India

Tirthankar Roy’s The Economic History of India 1857-1947, which is used in both India and the UK as the South Asian intro, is the absolutely necessary first stop. It can be seen as an updated, reader-friendly version of the more detailed The Cambridge Economic History of Modern India, volume 2. Roy himself is responsible for a major new take on Indian economic history. After that general volume, turn to Chaudhary et al., A New Economic History of Colonial India, which focuses more sharply on fewer themes.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of these two books by Roy and Chaudhary et al. In 1963, Morris D. Morris, an American economic historian of India, wrote:

It is dismaying to realize that even within very broad ranges of error we do not know whether during the past century-and-a-half the economy’s performance improved, stagnated, or actually declined.

The fact that we have no satisfactory basis for any judgments has not prevented the emergence of a widely-held interpretation of the career of the Indian economy in the nineteenth century. This conventional doctrine starts with a notion of “traditional India,” a subsistence economy which was self contained and static. Into this traditional socio-economic order came the shattering influence of market forces represented by Western commercial and industrial competition, reinforced by the power of the modern imperial state… Indian writers typically stress the exploitative features of British rule as the cause of nineteenth-century decay.

That’s no longer (as) true. Many things about the 19th century remain quite patchy, but the picture we now have is much more nuanced than “Britain impoverished India” — even though that crude and antiquated view still predominates in Western history departments or amongst nationalists and neo-Marxists in India.

For pre-colonial Indian economic history, see Moosvi, The Economy of the Mughal Empire c. 1595: A Statistical Study.

Parthasarathi, How Europe Got Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600–1850 (2011) tries to do for India what Kenneth Pomeranz had done for China. But Parthasarathi doesn’t quite make the cut, and I can’t recommend the book for reasons I touch on here.

But the historians Pomeranz and Parthasarathi (as well as Joseph Inikori) are so much better at writing economic history than others trained in history departments! In fact, if the “historians of capitalism” all reasoned and wrote like Pomeranz, Parthasarathi, and Inikori, I would probably still disagree with them but I would bitch less about them !

Japan

Given Japan’s status as the premier non-Western late industrialiser, there should be more books on Japan’s economic development with updated research. An ideal volume would start from the late Tokugawa period with Japan’s own version of the “industrious revolution” and the Meiji Restoration. It should also cover not only Japan’s pre-war industrialisation but also assessments of Japan’s post-war industrial policy and state planning (as described by Chalmers Johnson). Nothing really fits that bill in English:

Other Asia:

Overall, the best economic history of Asia is still mostly found in papers. (See this list.) Personally I think the relative dearth of East Asian economic history must be related to the near-absence of East Asia in development economics — despite the ‘historical turn’ taken by development studies in general. Acemoglu & Robinson’s Why Nations Fail barely has anything to say about Japan or South Korea! Here’s also a political economy of development syllabus with almost nothing about the region.

Africa:

Latin America:

The Middle East:

Developing countries in general, the Global South

The Spread of Modern Industry to the Periphery since 1871, edited by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson, is now the standard reference for the spread of industrialisation from the western core to the periphery, both European and non-European, with chapters on most major regions by specialists. Also see their VoxEU column.

Other books which had previously covered this period:

But there isn’t a specifically post-war economic history of the “Global South” taken as a whole, that’s both up to date and written by an economist. Radelet’s The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World doesn’t quite fit the bill. Ideally you want a book which covers the colonial period, the postwar boom, the fad for import-substitution industrialisation and other kinds of state-led development, the external shocks of the 1970s and 1980s, and structural adjustment in the 1980s and 1990s. But I’m not aware of a book which fills this woeful lacuna.

Little et al.’s Boom, Adjustment, and Crisis: The Macroeconomic Experience of Developing Countries (1993) is excellent but has a narrower focus than I’m talking about.

I must say, the finest fusion of economics and psychology is not some book on nudges or biases, but The Hive Mind by Garett Jones. It’s also the first time that differential psychology has been substantively applied by an economist to the questions of economic development and political economy. The book is also a masterpiece of cunning ambiguity, causing different readers to have diametrically opposed interpretations of it!

Ancient Economies:

Culture and cultural evolution

After my post on the origins of “pro-social institutions“, I have been asked about books on culture & economics, and the new(ish) interdisciplinary field of cultural evolution.

For the economistic perspective on culture, the key summary articles are Nathan Nunn, “Culture and the Historical Process“; and Alesina & Giuliano, “Culture and institutions“. Also see Sriya Iyer’s survey, “The New Economics of Religion“.

The best book on cultural evolution is by far Joe Henrich’s recent The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. (You can also see Henrich’s 15-minute presentation of his book.) It offers many delights, but my favourite bit is this. Henrich has a very interesting way of looking at (premodern) technology as a designerless-yet-designed, culturally evolved product for which no single person has any idea why it works but users have confidence in ancestrally transmitted methods. The best example is manioc processing — manioc is toxic yet the detoxification process is completely non-intuitive and users have no idea why any of the steps in the incredibly labourious system work. They just blindly imitate ancestral customs, but somehow this blind cultural evolution has an ‘intelligence’ and is highly efficient. If you skip one step in the process the whole thing fails. The manioc processing example is all the more evocative for its causal opacity — the damage from failure to follow all the steps in the traditional process (such as merely removing the bitter taste) is only apparent in the very long run, so there is no way individuals could have put 2 and 2 together and said it prevents toxin poisoning. I haven’t read a book with as many eureka! type insights in a long time.

Henrich’s book is compelling as narrative. But if you want more nuts-and-bolts description of what cultural evolution is about, especially in relationship with biological evolution, then Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences; and Boyd & Richerson’s Not By Genes Alone: How culture transformed human evolution. The mathematical theory is translated into ordinary language; it’s argued that cultures evolve in a way analogous with Darwinian biological evolution; and evidence (mostly) from the social sciences such as anthropology and sociology is put forward. Rest assured: this movement upholds culture as the driver of human social evolution, not genes or biology, but they reject the dichotomy between cultural and biological evolution, considering it a single process.

However, most of the cultural-evolution guys (Henrich, Mesoudi, Boyd, Richerson) are quantitatively orientated anthropologists who are more comfortable trucking in evolutionary game theory or talking about foraging bands like the Aché of Paraguay. You won’t get too much about the role of culture in history or economic life. For cultural evolution and recorded human history, the best (and almost the only) book-length exemplar is Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War: the Rise and Fall of Empires. This is the popularisation of theoretical modelling and empirical work he has done elsewhere. Not only does it apply the principles of cultural evolution to the dynamics of state formation and decay, but it also has the best single chapter describing the science of human sociality. Also worth a look is Turchin’s Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth with arguments drawn from anthropology, archaeology, religion, ancient history, as well as contemporary life. It’s also got a chapter with the best explanation-illustration of cultural group selection.

30 Responses to Economic History Books

  1. cicily says:

    Gregory Clark’s view might be stimulating but is there more to it than speculation?

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  3. Alberto says:

    One day you have to write a post about how you find the time to read all this stuff and still eat, sleep, procreate, etc.
    Do you have 36-hour days in Chokurdakh?

    Like

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  5. Warren says:

    What about Robin Grier and Jerry Hough “Building an Effective Market and State: Lessons from England, Spain, and Their American Colonies” for Spain?

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  6. Roger Depledge says:

    In an attempt to improve my Dutch I’ve been ploughing through de Vries and van der Woude’s “Nederland 1500-1815. De eerste ronde van moderne economische groei”, translated as “The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy”, CUP, 1997. It may be worth a mention; there’s a lot of peat in it.

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  8. Robert Schwartz says:

    Shouldn’t at least one of David Landes’ books be in this list?

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  10. Robert Dohner says:

    You mention that the best economic history of Asia remains in papers. I hope that you will be able to list (some/many of) them soon.

    Like

  11. Yudi says:

    I have a request about a topic somewhat related to that of these books. Is there a good book about the appearance, characterisitics, and change of the state through time? By “good” I mean relatively recent and grounded in anthropological, historical, and evolutionary ideas, not just political science. I have been trying to look for such a thing, but the literature is vast and I’m not sure what’s actually good, even though I have an idea of what I’m looking for.

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    • Yudi says:

      Is Boix’s Political Order and Inequality similar to what I am looking for? Is there anything in it about evolution?

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    • The closest I can think of is Tuschman’s Our Political Nature, which is partly about the evolutionary basis of tribalism and ethnocentrism. But it’s not really about the evolution of the state. Many books on the origins and the evolution of the state, but if you require an evolutionary pscyhology perspective, I’m not sure.

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      • Yudi says:

        I suspect what I want doesn’t exist yet–something like War in Human Civilization in its scope. That book discusses states extensively, but they are not the main focus. As far as an evolutionary perspective goes, I’m interested not in ev-psych approaches per se, but in what aspects of human nature allow us to create state organizations. Our Political Nature seems more concerned with the modern political spectrum.

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  12. tambo0986 says:

    Extraordinary list! Just one comment, the volumes of “An Economic History of Twentieth-Century Latin America” by Cárdenas, Ocampo & Thorp, are three:
    Volume I: The Export Age
    Volume 2: Latin America in the 1930s. The Role of the Periphery in World Crisis
    Volume 3: Industrialization and the State in Latin America: The Postwar Years
    http://www.palgrave.com/us/product-search?query=An+Economic+History+of+Twentieth-Century+Latin+America
    Kind regards

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  14. karimfoda says:

    Thank you for this. I am often overwhelmed by wanting to read everything and often find that it is simply not feasible given that, in addition to economic history, there is much more to read. May I ask what your strategy is when it comes to reading? Do you actually read all these works line by line? Many thanks.

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  16. Anonymous says:

    What do you think about Indian Economy(1858-1914) by Irfan Habib?

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  19. For the Middle East, Halil İnalcık’s An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire Volumes 1 and 2 are indispensable.

    Liked by 1 person

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  22. Akbar Noman says:

    Thanks much. Very usefyl ist but with a surprising omission: surely Alexander Gerschenkron should be on the list, especially on Europe’s catch-up with Britain.

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