Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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Geography, War, and Economic Development in Early Modern Europe
John R Lovett

Last modified: 2014-03-10


The question of why some nations of Western Europe modernized ahead of others can shed light not just on historical economic development, but also on economic development of today. Neglected in the literature of recent decades is the (much older) argument that natural defensive barriers (ex. the English Channel) played a role.The first section of this paper overviews the “natural defenses”hypothesis.  States with an area large enough to achieve minimum efficient scale, and with excellent natural barriers to invasion, are less likely to spend vast sums on defense or experience the destruction of physical and human capital from conflict. These states can also survive times of internal crises, including the crises necessary to develop pro-growth institutions, without turning to authoritarian forms of government. England survived numerous crises without (uninvited) foreign invasion. Like England, the Republic of Novgorod, numerous free cities of Germany, Northern Italian city-states, theDutch Republic, etc. had excellent economic institutions for their day.  All, however, succumbed to foreign invasion during times of internal crises.The second section of the paper attempts to quantify the frequency of conflict for various regions.  As part of a larger project, European battlesand sieges are cataloged.  In this paper, the results for the years 1350 to approximately 1490 (I am still working on the late 15th century data) are presented.  An average of just over 14 conflicts per year are cataloged in terms of location and (estimated) number of combatants.  Approximately 50% of the actions (and 75% of the combatant total) are from standard secondary sources.  In addition, various language Wikipedias are used to better capture smaller conflicts. Combatants per population and (arable and total) land area are calculated for regions of Europe.The results suggest that even in times when the major conflicts are elsewhere, areas with few natural boundaries tend to have very high levels of military conflict.  For example, although the time period is well before the 80 Years War, the Low Countries (geographically on the “invasion super-highway” of Europe) still see very high levels of conflict.  Likewise, despite the time period being before the “Italian Wars”, Northern Italy (fine external barriers but of a very poor shape) is awash in conflict. Another conclusion, albeit more tenuous because of data limitations, is that religious conflict is much more destructive than secular conflict.JELCodes:  N-10, N-13, N-40, N-44, O-10