July 29, 2003

Notes: Some Historical Questions

Some historical questions I want to find the answers to:


  1. What difference did it make for medieval economies--and for the relative prosperity of the Muslim world in the middle ages--that Muhammed was a merchant?

  2. What was the typical pre-agricultural density of hunter-gatherer populations?

  3. What share of the world's population lived in the Iraq-Turkey-Syria-Lebanon Fertile Crescent in 5000 BC? 2000 BC?

  4. We hear a lot about the military revolution at the end of the sixteenth century: we hear about Gustaf Adolf, about Maurice van Nassau, even about (the earlier) Gonsalvo de Cordoba. We hear about the effective use of firearms and cannon. Discipline. Logistics--both ammunition supply and keeping guys fed and (relatively) plague free. And we hear of the victories won by Maurice van Nassau and Gustaf Adolf of Sweden over the half-modernized Spanish and Austrian armies, just as we hear of the victories won a century earlier by Gonsalvo de Cordoba and his half-modernized tercios over the unmodernized Italian mercenaries and French cavaliers.

    But we don't hear much about similarly striking victories won a little bit earlier somewhat further to the east: we hear little about Babur the Mogul or about Mehmet II the Conqueror of the House of Osman. Yet when Mehmet II takes Constantinople in 1453 it is with the largest and most technologically advanced artillery park the world had ever seen. Ottoman expansion owed a great deal to the--for the age--remarkable discipline and training of the slave-janissary core of the army around which the sipahis coalesced. Similarly, when Babur comes over the Hindu Kush into India early in the sixteenth century, his armies are outnumbered ten-to-one by the cavalry of the Delhi Sultanate. Yet Babur wins--because of superior firepower, superior discipline, and superior tactics (for example, the use of carts as mobile battlefield obstacles to cavalry charges). To me, at least, the accounts of Babur's conquest of the Delhi Sultanate (and the accounts of the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans and of Anatolia) read a lot like accounts of the British conquest of India three centuries later: a profound organizational edge that tells.

    How did the armies of Gustaf Adolf and Maurice van Nassau compare to those of leading-edge Islam a century or more before? How did they compare--in discipline and in logistics--to the janissaries of Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Lawgiver, or to the troops that crossed the Indus with Babur the Moghul (after, remember losing the struggle for Samarkand)?

  5. Property rights. Doug North has made a career out of talking about how parliamentary government and independent courts established secure property rights in Britain, and arbitrary royal government and dependent intendents created insecure property rights in France, hence the English economy boomed while the French economy stagnated in the century and a half before the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

    I've always had two worries about this line of argument. First, if Britain is the most successful late-early modern social formation in the world, France ranks no lower than number three. Britain, Holland, France--and behind them come all the rest, every single other nation and principality and empire in the world. To treat late-early modern Britain and France as if they are at opposite poles of success and failure may make sense if you are an eighteenth or nineteenth century British or French historian or politician. It makes no sense for anybody else. The number two superpower in any era is doing something very right.

    Second, it is not at all clear to me that disrespect for private property rights is the root cause of the fact that France was several steps behind Britain in economic development. Consider Jean-Laurent Rosenthal's work on Provencal canals. If you wanted to build a canal in eighteenth-century Provence, you had to get the active cooperation of--and suffer a potential holdup by--each individual jurisdiction along the canal's root. In England, by contrast, the King-in-Parliament would help you: eminent domain was there if you were politically well-connected and if you couldn't reach a satisfactory bargain for a right-of-way on your own. It is overscrupulous respect for "property rights"--the fact that that absolute monarch, that enlightened despot Louis King of France could or would not seize land for canals--that played a key role in hindering the development of commercial infrastructure.

    You see the same conceptual problem at work earlier. The problem with medieval commerce along the Rhine was not that private property rights were not respected: part of the Rhine barons' property was that their permission was needed to pass through their jurisdiction, and so they could levy whatever tolls they wished on river traffic. The problem was that there was no central authority to expropriate the Rhine barons' property right to levy tolls on passing traffic.

    So I want to see a detailed institutional history drawing the line between property rights that are good for commerce and growth--property rights that merchants and craftsmen like--and property rights that are bad for commerce and growth.

  6. What was the impact on the French medieval economy of the Hundred Years' War? The Black Prince shows up in your neighborhood and begins one of his chevauchees--he sets his soldiers to march, loot, burn, rape, kill, and spoil in a (often fruitless) attempt to get the French knights to come out and charge into the killing ground of his longbowmen. How much damage does he do, really? How many dead out of how large a population in how big an area? How much lost in tax revenue and feudal dues over the subsequent decade or two after the Black Prince has gone?

Posted by DeLong at July 29, 2003 04:04 PM | TrackBack


2) I have a fairly strong memory hunter/gatherer population densities are on the order of 10-20 people per square mile.

Posted by: Richard Johnston on July 29, 2003 04:16 PM

And no. 6) I think slightly misses the point of chevauchees - the whole point was not for the Black Prince to bring the French army to battle, but more a mixture of local levies, English professional archers and ambitious young second sons and diverse mercenaries mounted on the cheapest horses under the command of a local lord temporarily accepting English suzerainity sent to grab what they could, and do as much damage as possible to the next-door neighbours...

Posted by: Richard Johnston on July 29, 2003 04:20 PM

What was the typical pre-agricultural density of hunter-gatherer populations?

An excellent question. Leonardís research indicates that upright locomotion is more energy efficient than quadrupedal locomotion at walking rates. This means that modern human hunter-gathers could travel further in search of food than quadrupedal primates. Energy efficiency makes big brains possible. A big brain is costly in terms of energy. Our brains consume about 20% of the bodyís energy budget as compared to 8% for non-human primates. What did hunter-gatherer populations eat? This is an important question for human nutrition.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on July 29, 2003 05:32 PM

4) Per Lisa Jardine's excellent Worldly Goods, the architect of Mehmet's artillery superiority was a Hungarian named Urban who had previously offered his services to Emperor Constantine in defence of Constantinople, but was turned away for being too expensive. She also suggests that the less than enthusiastic support that the Eurpean's gave for the defense of Constantinople was largely due to a desire to not offend an improtant trading partner - the Ottoman's. (p39-46)

Posted by: Arnold Snarb on July 29, 2003 06:14 PM

4) I think the wars being fought between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that they were roughly comparable. So Maurice'd probably have beaten 'em. I'd also dispute that Maurice's armies were notably superior to those of his Spanish opponents. The Army of Flanders, particularly when commanded by the Duke of Parma (before 1592) was perhaps the best fighting force of its time. Its loss probably had more to do with the tenuousness of the lines by which it could get reinforcements from Spain than with any particularly tactical superiority of the Dutch.

5) I agree with you that the "absolute" nature of France in the 18th century has been massively overrated. When you look at ancien regime France as compared to contemporary Britain, what you see is that France still maintained all of these old medieval rules and customs that England had basically done away with.

Posted by: John on July 29, 2003 08:25 PM

2) Depends. Very high in the pacific northwest, for example. Much lower in the Arctic.

Posted by: Ian Welsh on July 29, 2003 10:14 PM

Brad, have you read Niall Furguson's The Cash Nexus? It gives a fairly good institutional history of the comparative development of the British and French states.

Posted by: Damien Smith on July 30, 2003 04:31 AM

>The number two superpower in any era is doing >something very right.

With the notable exception-that-proves-the-rule of Stalinist-Russian, I presume?

Or is there a list of Stalin's economic virtues that I have somehow overlooked?

Posted by: Melcher on July 30, 2003 05:06 AM

Russia's average pace of economic growth was 4.75% per annum through the 1932-1978 period, vs a 4.52% average pace for the world as a whole. The US pace of growth through that period was 3.46%. Russia's share of world GDP in 1952 was 8.7%, far smaller than the 28.4% for the US, but larger than that of China (5.2%), or Japan (3.4%). Given the higher share of national output devoted to armament and to men in uniform, that 8.7% of world GDP was enough to make it the #2 power. Russia could have done better. France could have done better. Both did something "right" in the sense that they had the wherewithall to mount a serious military challenge to the #1 power.

Posted by: K Harris on July 30, 2003 08:04 AM

We must also not forget the Hungarian General and Regent John Hunyadi, who fought several sanguinary battles with the Turks (some won, some lost) and whose early use of hand firearms led the Janissaries to begin the switch from bows to firearms. Or his son, King Matthias Corvinus, who inflicted several severe defeats on the Osmanlis, but who was more concerned with his successful wars with the Holy Roman Empire than with following up against the Turks.

Posted by: A D Moore on July 30, 2003 08:16 AM

I think the answer to number 5 lies historically in the respective lessons learned and oppotunities provided by Charles the Good's reign and death. As you point out property rights are only partially explanatory. Competition between warring states is much more explanatory of the overall dynamism of Europe during this period.

What happened under Charles provided lessons and opportunities that differed for the other actors in Europe. How those lessons and opportunities played out depended to a great degree on the level of centralized political control during each period.

The basic political theory of Burns (? sorry her name escapes me at the moment :) comes to mind. It holds that authoritarian political control is consolidated under first generation authoritarian regimes (i.e., Peter the Great, Mao). During subsequent regimes competition for support among the next rung (of more or less equally powerful individuals) for support slowly expands the political base and erodes power at the center.

Intially all owe their possessions and positions to the king (great leader, whatever). By the time king number 6 rolls around he usually doesn't have much authority. Sooner or later reconsolidation occurs which starts the process over again.

Posted by: Stan on July 30, 2003 09:01 AM

I don't have any numbers for you (so maybe I should just stop here), but having read the first 2 volumes of Jonathan Sumption's exhaustive history of the 100 Years' War (it's really too much detail, but very well-written and engaging), my impression is that these chevauchee were quite devastating, both in their immediate impact and in their rippling effect on regional economies. Furthermore, the effects lingered for several years. The French crown's absolute inability to collect provincial taxes was a crucial cause of the Jacquerie, and was caused only partly by peoples' unwillingness to send gold to Paris when they were being threatened at home. The primary cause was absolute economic collapse, both of trade and agriculture - there was no economic activity to tax.

Of course, the stunning fact is just how quickly (say, 7 years) these regions would bounce back. I recall being surprised more than once in my reading by the thought, "How could Burgundy be raising troops again?" I suppose it's due to just how un-advanced they were at the outset (just out of the Dark Ages, really), and so starting up from zero again wasn't that big a deal.

Oh, and doesn't Guns, Germs, Steel give some ballpark numbers on both hunter/gatherers and the Fertile Crescent populations? My copy's at home....

Posted by: JRoth on July 30, 2003 03:29 PM

> but having read the first 2 volumes of Jonathan Sumption's exhaustive history of the 100 Years' War

I've only ever managed to get through the first, and that took several attempts and the time freed up by a compulsory redundancy... Kudos.

If memory serves me right, the book about plagues which won the Rhone-Poulenc science book award a few years back (I honestly can't remember the name) also has a good discussion on the matter of hunter-gatherers.

Ah, the traditional 'two seconds on Google' moment reveals it to be Arno Karlen's 'Plague's Progress'.

Posted by: Richard Johnston on July 30, 2003 04:11 PM

>Of course, the stunning fact is just how quickly (say, 7 years) these regions would bounce back. I recall being surprised more than once in my reading by the thought, "How could Burgundy be raising troops again?" <

I had the exact same feeling reading Xenophon's *Hellenica* ("History of My Times"). My Penguin edition constantly reminds the reader that Xenophon's account is inadequate and misses huge parts of the conflict that raged through the Peloponnesian area and the Aegean.

Posted by: James R MacLean on July 30, 2003 04:37 PM

Hi Brad, long time no see. Long reply here, hope you don't mind.

(4) The Ottomans, at least, did not undergo a military revolution in the European sense. Don't be misled by the janissaries; it's a bit like looking at the Waffen SS and assuming they were "the core, around which the Wehrmacht coalesced". Seriously.

Before ~1600, janissaries were a corps d'elite, and there were never many of them. There were only 8,000 in 1453, and about 12,000 during the reign of Suleyman the Great. They were important, but their reputation very much exceeds their actual military significance. In both their excellence and their decline, they were more a symptom than a cause.

(For that matter, the janissaries weren't the best fighters in the Ottoman army. That honor, by general acclaim, belongs to the _delil_ fighters -- the "mad ones". Delils were the very best of the _akinji_, the frontier raiders. They were sort of the Special Forces of the classical Ottoman military.)

Ottoman nomenclature can be confusing, but basically their army had two parts: the _kapikulu_ or "Palace Army", which was the standing force of professionals based in Istanbul, and the _eshkinji_ or "Province Armies", which were levies of varying quality from the rest of the Empire. Janissaries were part of the Palace Army, but only a small part. The Palace Army consisted of full-time soldiers, and was -- as you put it -- the core around which the provincial forces coalesced.

The Ottomans did evolve some significant military innovations, such as the use of an armorer's corps (_jebeji_) in the Palace Army, for the production, distribution and repair of firearms. But they were oddly slow to adopt the musket as their main infantry weapon. They didn't do this until well into the 17th century, with the organization of the _tufekchi_ musketeers; and even when they did, they were equally slow to adopt the effective "continuous volley" tactics that Europeans developed in the 30 years war. This was an omission that would cost them dearly after 1683. In this case, the stereotype of the technologically conservative Oriental state has an element of truth.

Okay, so how did the Ottomans win so many battles? Two reasons. One, tactics. They very successfully adapted the ancestral steppe nomad tactics to a combined forces army. At Nicopolis (1396), Kosovo II (1428), and Varna (1444), they deliberately allowed enemy heavy cavalry to break their infantry lines while holding their own heavy cavalry in reserve. Highly mobile light cavalry then swarmed the enemy's flanks and rear while the Ottoman heavy cavalry countercharged. At Chaldiran (1515) and Mohacz (1526), they added the additional fillip of massed artillery in the rear. Just as the enemy charge ran out of steam, it was blasted by mass cannon fire -- and then the double envelopment and the heavy lancers countercharging.

Does this constitute a military revolution? I don't think so. The Mongols had been doing this sort of thing since the 12th century. The Ottoman innovation was to integrate infantry and, later, artillery into the mix.

(I am not that familiar with Babur, but he was another descendant of steppe nomads... and I'll bet a nickel that he achieved his victories by doing much the same thing.)

The second reason for Ottoman successes was size. For 200 years, until they bumped more or less simultaneously into the Safavid Persians and the Hapsburgs around 1520, the Ottomans only once had to face an opponent in their own weight class. Most of they time they were facing opponents who were smaller, or much less well organized (Bulgaria, Serbia, Mamluk Egypt) or both.

It's interesting to note that the sole exception was Tamerlane... and he tore their military a new orifice, and came very close to ending the whole Ottoman experiment then and there.

The advantage of size was not so much that the Ottomans could field bigger armies, although that was certainly part of it. Rather, it was that they had strategic depth. They could lose or draw a battle, and come back again a year or two later with another army. This is how they conquered Serbia; Kosovo was a draw at best, but the Ottomans could afford their losses and the Serbs could not. It also gave them the attractive possibility of simply glowering potential enemies into submission, like the princes of Armenia and Wallachia, and collecting tribute without firing a shot. The best battles are the ones you win without fighting, after all.

Now, part of the reason the Ottomans grew big was better organization at the center. Up until about 1550, their administration was top notch. However, there was a dangerous hidden flaw here. Even when it was good, it was very centralized. The Palace Army wasn't designed to be split up. This meant there was never more than one main Ottoman field army, and only one active campaign at a time. The _akinji_ raiders, settled all along the frontiers of the Empire, could form small irregular units and keep an enemy from probing. But they couldn't mount a serious invasion, and they couldn't stop one. Large provincial forces could be mustered, but they weren't nearly as effective without the Palace Army core.

The inability to field multiple large, high-quality armies wasn't a problem when the Ottoman state was just Anatolia, but it caused a variety of difficulties once the Empire stretched from Hungary to Persia. And, of course, once the Palace Army started to go downhill, the whole Ottoman military began to hit the skids.

Note that this may not have been an Ottoman flaw as such. Like a lot of peculiar Ottoman habits, it may have been something they picked up from those masters of bureacratic centralization, the Byzantines. The Byzantine influence on the Ottomans was enormous and all pervasive.

(But it's very neglected. Ottoman chroniclers downplayed it, but so too did Eastern Europeans. Russian, Greek and Serbian histories have always tended to lionize the Byzantines and demonize the Turks, and so gloss over the Empire's literally Byzantine patterns of administration.)

Finally, as to your question: "How did the armies of Gustaf Adolf and Maurice van Nassau compare to those of leading-edge Islam a century or more before?"

Well, if I had to match the army that Gustavus took to Lutzen against the one that Suleyman took to Mohacz 106 years earlier, my money's on the Swedes.

Suleyman's army is bigger, has a lot more cavalry and a hell of a logistical tail. In discipline and morale they're about even. The Swedes don't have janissaries, but neither are they dragging around a lot of low-quality _sekban_ peasant levies.

At the end of the day, though, it's firepower that decides battles. And in this the Swedes are just way ahead. They have more, better, and more mobile cannon, and they have muskets and they know how to use them. Individual muskets have a short range and crappy rate of fire, but trained musketeers en masse can deliver firepower at a rate that the Ottomans just will not be able to handle.

If the Swedes don't panic when the Ottoman light cavalry sweeps around their flanks, they'll be fine. They'll march through the center of the Ottoman army, like every other Western opponent... but then they'll just keep going, through the heavy cavalry and out the other side. Ottoman heavy cavalry? They will laugh at Ottoman heavy cavalry. Unless badly outnumbered, 17th century musketeers have little to fear from heavy lancers. As long as they hold formation, they'll be fine.

The only way I see an Ottoman win here is if the Swedes either (1) panic, or (2) march right into the Ottoman artillery. However, Suleyman's artillery was not mobile at all. At Mohacz they had to set it up and then work hard to get the Christians to charge in the right direction. By 1633 nobody was falling for this. Swedish battlefield scouting would probably be more than good enough to find the guns and avoid them.

So, my answer is, no military revolution as such; rather, a refinement and advance upon the (already very effective) steppe nomad tactics. A step forward along a different path. But they were overcentralized, and they didn't grab the gun with both hands.


Anyhow, great site, and I hope this finds you well.


Doug M.

Posted by: Doug Muir on July 31, 2003 09:45 AM

On question 2, "What was the typical pre-agricultural density of
hunter-gatherer populations?"

I recall reading a paper in Science about an archeological dig
in Greece covering a time about 15,000 years ago. I can't
remember the name of the paper.

Anyway here's the astonishing thing. They found that these people
were eating tortoises (among other things). One hundred fifty, two
hundred pound land tortoises. And that this had been going on
for some time.

Now land tortoises are a very easy animal for people to kill and
they reproduce very slowly. Even a low density human population
should finish them off just like that. The existence of land
tortoises as a food item for people in Greece for a significant
period of time implies an amazing, an extremely low population

Posted by: Mark Amerman on July 31, 2003 04:25 PM

Mary C. Stiner and al, in "Paleolithic Population Growth Pulses
Evidenced by Small Animal Exploitation," Science pp. 190-194 (1999),
assert that changes in human population density can be tracked
by changes in the prey consumed.


"What were once occasional shortages of highly ranked (slow) types
in the Middle Paleolithic, evidenced by the rare presence of bird
and lagomorph remains in the archaeofaunas, became chronic shortages
44 to 35 ka because of hunting pressure, which forced people's
attention to fleeter (lower ranked) prey types."


"With so few people on earth, replacement of one human population
with another could have involved minor differences in the intrinsic
rate of increase, such as from a modest improvement in child
survivorship. Low human population densities during most of the
Middle Paleolithic imply that group sizes and social networks were
small, which certainly limited the numeric scope of individual
interactions. Under these conditions the possibilities for evolution
of complex sharing and exchange behavior as ways to counter the
effects of unpredictable resource supplies would also have been
quite limited."

Posted by: Mark Amerman on August 5, 2003 04:55 AM
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