Political economy and economic policies: Europe from the High Middle Ages to the French Revolution

This information is for the 2021/22 session.

Teacher responsible

Professor Oliver Volckart


This course is available on the BSc in Economic History, BSc in Economic History with Economics and BSc in Economics and Economic History. This course is not available as an outside option nor to General Course students.

Course content

The course applies the theoretical toolkit of political economy to important questions in medieval and early modern economic history. The first term examines core issues of European history such as the character of feudalism (were feudal principalities states or was feudalism a type of market? what was the link between feudal rule and the structure of society?), state formation (how and why did political organisations invested with monopolies of force emerge?), interstate rivalries (war vs. competition for mobile factors of production - did competition between states contribute to growth?) and constitutional change (Absolutism vs. parliamentarism: How limited was Absolutist rule, and for which reasons? Which factors determined the power of parliaments?).

In the Lent term, we turn to core issues of economic policies: the expulsion of minorities (Why did rulers expel for example Jews and Huguenots?), trade and industrial policies (Mercantilism: Was this a result of interstate rivalries or of state formation?), monetary policies (what motivated debasements? why did premodern countries form currency unions?) and financial and fiscal policies (rent seeking, tax farming vs. bureaucratic taxation). Throughout, the focus is on the consequences these issues had for economic performance and growth.


20 hours of seminars in the MT. 20 hours of seminars in the LT.

This course is taught as a seminar, with classes totalling 40 hours across the Michaelmas and Lent Terms.

Formative coursework

One 500-words outline of an existing historical podcast. This is due shortly after the reading week of the MT.

One 1000-words book review due at the end of the MT.

One 1000-words outline of the historical podcast students will produce as part of their summative assessment. This is due early in the LT.

Indicative reading

R. Bonney, ed. Economic Systems and State Finance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

P. Contamine, ed. War and Competition between States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

R. B. Ekelund, and A. B. Davidson. 'The Public Choice Approach to Economic History.' In The Elgar Companion to Public Choice, edited by W. F. Shughart II and L. Razzolini, 512-46. Cheltenham, Northampton/MA: Elgar, 2001.

T. Ertman. Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

H. Spruyt. The Sovereign State and Its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change. Princeton Studies in International History and Politics. edited by J. L. Snyder and R. H. Ullman Princeton/NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

O. Volckart. 'The Open Constitution and its Enemies: Competition, Rent Seeking, and the Rise of the Modern State.' Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 42, no. 1 (2000): 1-17.


Essay (50%, 4000 words) in the ST.
Podcast (50%) in the LT.

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Economic History

Total students 2020/21: Unavailable

Average class size 2020/21: Unavailable

Capped 2020/21: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills