When did Europe pull ahead? And why?
Extent of Western Christianity (orange), 860 AD (Wikicommons – Blidfried)
In terms of GDP per capita growth, northwest Europe began to surpass the rest of the world during the fourteenth century. This was before the conquest of the Americas, the invention of printing, the Atlantic slave trade, and the Protestant Reformation.
When did Europe begin to pull ahead of the non-European world? Tanner Greer places the turning point in the fourteenth century, when England and Holland embarked on sustained economic growth:
These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the 'West' begins its more famous split from 'the rest.'
[...] we can pin point the beginning of this 'little divergence' with greater detail. In 1348 Holland's GDP per capita was $876. England's was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland's jumps to $1,245 and England's to 1090. The North Sea's revolutionary divergence started at this time. (Greer 2013b)
This process began before the European conquest of the Americas, the invention of printing, the creation of modern finance institutions, the Atlantic slave trade, or the Protestant Reformation. None of these can be proper explanations for this "little divergence." (Greer 2013a; see also Thompson 2012 and Hbd*chick 2013).
So what was the cause?
Europe, particularly northwest Europe, was pushed forward by an expanding market economy. That expansion was driven, in turn, by a population that tended toward individualism and “impersonal sociality.” For at least the past millennium, Europeans were behaviorally distinct north and west of a line running approximately from Trieste to St. Petersburg:
Almost everyone was single for at least part of adulthood, and many stayed single their entire lives.
Children usually left the nuclear family to form new households, and many individuals circulated among unrelated households, typically young people sent out as servants.
People were more individualistic, less loyal to kin, and more willing to trust strangers (Frost 2017; Frost 2020; Hajnal, 1965; Hartman, 2004; Hbd*chick 2014; ICA, 2020; MacDonald 2019; Seccombe, 1992, p. 94-95, 150-153, 184-190).
According to Schulz et al. (2019), the above behavioral pattern was created by the Western branch of Christianity, particularly through its decision in the ninth century to broaden the ban on cousin marriages to any couple who shared a common ancestor seven generations previously. That ban, they argued, had the effect of creating the Western European pattern of late marriage, frequent celibacy, and nuclear households. That pattern, in turn, encouraged individualism and impersonal sociality.
Schulz et al., however, ignore two points. First, the broadening of the cousin marriage ban resulted from a decision to abandon the Roman method of calculating degrees of kinship, whereby first cousins were considered to be fourth degree. The new method, of Germanic origin, made them second degree, thereby doubling the number of forbidden marriage partners (McCann, 2010, pp. 57-58). In sum, the ban was Church-enforced but of pagan origin.
Second, when the cousin marriage ban was broadened in the ninth century, Western Europe already had high rates of late marriage, celibacy, and nuclear households. This has been shown at two locations in ninth-century France: the estates of the Abbey of St Germain-des-Prés near Paris, where about 16.3% of all adults were unmarried, and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, where the figure was 11.5%. At both locations, households were small and nuclear (Hallam 1985, p. 56). A ninth-century survey of the Church of St Victor of Marseille shows both men and women marrying in their mid to late twenties (Seccombe 1992, p. 94). Further back, in the first century, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the Germanic tribes, “Late comes love to the young men, and their first manhood is not enfeebled; nor for the girls is there any hot-house forcing; they pass their youth in the same way as the boys” (Tacitus, Germania 20, 1970).
It seems more correct to say that Western Christianity promoted individualism and impersonal sociality because it had assimilated a pre-existing pattern of weak kinship, late marriage, and openness to non-kin. A fusion took place between the Christian faith and the pre-Christian values of northwest Europe (Russell 1994). With the loss of North Africa and Spain to the Muslims, and the rise of the Frankish-dominated Carolingian Empire, Western Christianity saw its ideological center of gravity move northward and westward.
From the eleventh century onward, the Western Church also strove to pacify social relations. Both Church and State came around to the view that the wicked should be punished so that the good may live in peace. Courts imposed the death penalty more and more often and, by the late Middle Ages, were condemning to death between 0.5 and 1.0% of all men of each generation, with perhaps just as many offenders dying at the scene of the crime or in prison while awaiting trial. The homicide rate plummeted from the fourteenth century to the twentieth, with the result that the pool of violent men dried up. Most murders would now occur under conditions of jealousy, intoxication, or extreme stress. (Frost and Harpending 2015).
Those three causes—individualism, impersonal sociality, and a pacified environment—allowed the market economy to grow beyond its former limits (Frost 2020; Macfarlane 1978; Weber 1930). The first two causes had long been around in northwest Europe, being what we may call “pre-adaptations” to the market economy. It was the third one, the pacification of social relations, that sparked the economic takeoff of the fourteenth century. The “market” was no longer a marketplace—an isolated point in space and time. It was now a means to carry out transactions wherever and whenever. It could thus spread farther and farther beyond the marketplace, replacing older forms of exchange and ultimately replacing kinship as the main organizing principle of society.
Reproductive success in Late Medieval England as a function of economic success (Clark 2009b, p. 69)
The expansion of the market economy went hand in hand with a demographic expansion. In England, the middle class began to grow in the twelfth century through a higher rate of natural increase, one result being that its surplus individuals moved down the social ladder and gradually replaced the lower class. The English as a whole became more and more middle-class in their mindset: "Thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent, and leisure loving" (Clark 2007, p. 166; Clark 2009a; Clark 2009b). The same demographic replacement took place elsewhere in Western Europe and more generally throughout Europe to varying degrees and over different timescales (Frost 2007; Frost 2019, p. 176; Oesterdiekhoff 2012).
The Western world thus embarked on a trajectory of sustained economic growth. This is in contrast to what we see in other times and places, where economic growth tended to stall after a while and give way to stagnation or even contraction:
As happened across the premodern world, successful dynasts would establish a system that allowed commerce to flourish, urban centers to grow, and wealth to increase. In the words of Jack Goldstone, these societies would undergo an economic “efflorescence” that historians of later days would remember as a Golden Age. These Golden Ages would not last. After a few centuries these societies would push agrarian civilization to its limits and contraction would begin. (Greer 2013b)
In sum, between 500 and 1500 AD the Western Church created a system of social and biological reproduction that would have far-reaching consequences, not only demographically but also behaviorally and economically. To understand that system, we must understand not only Christianity but also the pagan elements it incorporated from northwest Europeans (Russell 1994). We must also understand the preceding system, and its failings.
Before Christianity: demographic and cognitive decline
A study of ancient Greek DNA suggests that mean cognitive ability began to decline during Classical Antiquity (Woodley of Menie et al. 2019). A similar decline was probably happening throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. There were three main causes:
A decline in fertility and family formation, particularly among the upper classes (Caldwell 2004; Hopkins 1965; Roetzel 2000, p. 234)
A corresponding increase in female hypergamy, often by freed slaves, which reduced the reproductive importance of upper-class women (Perry 2013)
An increase in the slave population, particularly foreign slaves (Harris 1999). The continual influx of foreign slaves disrupted local cognitive evolution. To the extent that the upper class had surplus individuals, they could not move into lower-class niches and eventually replace the lower class. Such niches were deemed fit only for slaves.
Both Islam and Christianity tried to correct the worsening demography of the ancient world. Islam succeeded in reversing negative population growth but failed to restart cognitive evolution. It even hindered such evolution by permitting polygyny, thereby increasing female hypergamy and decreasing the reproductive importance of upper-class women (van den Berghe 1960). Foreign slaves were also imported on a larger-scale than in antiquity, further disrupting local cognitive evolution (Lewis 1990). Finally, the upper classes tended to congregate in urban areas, where the death rate was higher. In terms of population growth, Muslims actually underperformed Christians until the twentieth century. This was the case in the Balkans:
By the end of the eighteenth century the Muslim population had entered a period of comparative economic and moral decline. Several explanations have been offered for this development. Certainly the fact that the Muslim population provided the soldiers contributed to its ultimate weakening. Their concentration in towns also made them more susceptible to the ravages of plague and other diseases. Turkish customs, particularly the practice of polygamy, played a part. This process of decay was clearly illustrated in the eighteenth century in the changing demography of the Balkan towns where Christian and national elements formed an increasingly larger proportion of the population (Jelavich and Jelavich, 1977, pp. 6-7)
Christianity, especially Western Christianity, succeeded not only in promoting population growth but also in restarting cognitive evolution, specifically by supporting the formation of monogamous families, by discouraging slavery, at least during the long period from 500 to 1500 AD, and by creating the peace, order, and stability that allowed the middle class to expand and become dominant. The rise of Christian Europe actually began before its expansion overseas, the latter being due to the former.
Updated: December 4, 2022
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Good post. The general thrust of your argument seems convincing to me and aligns with what I’ve read elsewhere. However, I think you should have made some mention of the role the Black Death played in catalysing the little divergence.
As you write ‘In 1348 Holland's GDP per capita was $876. England's was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland's jumps to $1,245 and England's to 1090. The North Sea's revolutionary divergence started at this time.‘
If someone wasn’t aware that the Black Death occurred at this time then I think you run the risk of creating the impression that the rise in per capita incomes (in the 14th century) was primarily because of a proliferation of markets and the other factors you mention as opposed to a Malthusian shock. England’s population declined by roughly 30-40% (the figure was similar throughout the rest of Europe) and hence given the population dynamics of the pre-industrial world this lead to the rise in incomes. However, this rise was not unique to northwestern Europe and was seen in Italy too, for instance. What’s significant is that the cultural practices in northwestern Europe (marrying later, small nuclear families, interactions between old pagan belief and church) meant the population didn’t recover to its pre-Black Death level as quickly as it did in places such as Italy (where women tending to marry more commonly in their early-mid teens and extended families were conducive to a higher birth rate). The income gains that the Black Death caused thus endured much longer in northwestern Europe, and these gains were a key factor (along with a relaxation of feudal labour restrictions) in creating the conditions for markets to arise and develop. It was then markets (to grossly oversimplify) and the institutions they helped foster that made what would otherwise have been a temporary Malthusian boost into a permanent boost in incomes.
Anyhow, like I said you covered this second half well but I think emphasising the role of the Black Death in spurring the development of markets would have been useful context to include. Or maybe you dispute the importance of the Black Death? Would be interested to hear your thoughts.
Wouldn't the effects of the decline in female hypergamy under polygamy be counterbalanced by those of male hypergamy?