Pre-industrial Economic History

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Oliver Volckart SAR 6.10


This course is compulsory on the BSc in Economic History and BSc in Economics and Economic History. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit. This course is available to General Course students.

Course content

This course surveys long-term processes of growth and development in late medieval and early modern Europe (eleventh to eighteenth centuries). It focuses on the transition from a hierarchical society of estates or corporate orders to a market society based on legal equality and freedom of contract. There are two core questions: First, why did this transition occur in an evolutionary way in England and the Netherlands, whereas it was severely delayed the rest of Europe? And second, how is it related to the ‘small divergence’ between the Dutch Republic and England on the one side and most of the Continent on the other, where the North-West enjoyed significantly higher living standards and per capita incomes than other countries long before the onset of industrialisation?

The course thus raises fundamental questions about societies and economies: Was pre-industrial economic growth transitory and regional? Or was it a recurrent, even normal phenomenon, which however could occasionally be reversed? Was Dutch and British success the result of their social and institutional features? Or was it a combination of geographical factors and good fortune? To what degree did early modern governments help or hinder economic development? Did Europe’s political fragmentation hold back the continent’s development, or did competition between states have beneficial consequences? In conclusion, can we define an optimal combination of social, political, and economic institutions that sustained growth in the past (and thus, perhaps, in the future)?

The course has a strong focus on skills training, in particular on essay writing.


This course is delivered through a combination of classes and lectures totalling a minimum of 40 hours across Michaelmas Term and Lent Term. 

This course includes a reading week in Week 6 of Michaelmas and Lent Term.


Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 exercise and 1 other piece of coursework in the MT.

Students are expected to produce two pieces of formative written coursework in the MT. They will give formative presentations on topics that form part of the course content. They will receive structured feedback on their formative coursework.

Indicative reading

Anderson, J.L. (1991): Explaining long-term economic change, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press).

Cipolla, C.M. ed. (1971/72). The Fontana economic history of Europe, vols. 1 and 2, London (Fontana).

de Vries, J. (1976). The economy of Europe in an age of crisis, 1600-1750, Cambridge, London, New York etc. (Cambridge University Press).

Hatcher, J. and Bailey, M. (2001): Modelling the Middle Ages. The History and Theory of England’s Economic Development, Oxford (Oxford University Press).

Miskimin, H. (1969). The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe 1300-1460. Englewood Cliffs/NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Miskimin, H. (1977). The Economy of Later Renaissance Europe 1460-1600. Cambridge, London, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 

Persson, K. G. (2010). An Economic History of Europe: Knowledge, Institutions and Growth, 600 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Exam (70%, duration: 2 hours) in the summer exam period.
Essay (30%, 2000 words) in the LT.

Key facts

Department: Economic History

Total students 2021/22: 66

Average class size 2021/22: 13

Capped 2021/22: No

Lecture capture used 2021/22: Yes (MT & LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

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.

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills