Article Summary: “The Early Modern Great Divergence” by Broadberry and Gupta


Title: The Early Modern Great Divergence: Wages, Prices and Economic Development in Europe and Asia, 1500-1800
Author: Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 2 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

The authors compare wages in India, China and Europe between 1500 and 1800 to determine the relative standard-of-living of each region.

My Comments

Over the last few decades, there has been a great deal of controversy over whether the huge gap in standard-of-living between Northwest Europe and India/China emerged with the Industrial Revolution or much earlier. The timing of this divergence is critical to understanding why it occurred.

I am convinced by those that argue that the divergence happened many centuries ago, most likely starting in the 13th Century. The Industrial Revolution only accelerated the divergence. Particularly, compelling evidence for me is that the rate of urbanization changed rapidly in Northwest Europe, particularly in Belgium, Netherlands and Britain, but it stagnated in China until the 20th Century. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a society whose standard-of-living developed rapidly without a noticeable change in urbanization.

Key Take-aways

  • The standard-of-living in India and China was significantly lower than in Northwest Europe. India and China more closely matched the level in the much poorer regions of southern, central and eastern Europe.
  • The Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century only accentuated the divergence.

Important Quotes from Book

Many historians have claimed that the Great Divergence between Europe and Asia occurred only after 1800, and before that date, the most advanced parts of Europe and Asia should be seen as on the same level of development. In this paper, we argue that the most advanced parts of Asia in 1800 should be seen as the same development level as the stagnating parts of the European periphery.

Silver wages (cost of grain in silver) show the most advanced regions of Europe to be far richer than the most advanced regions of Asia. The high grain rates that some historians rely on is caused not by prosperity but by the natural advantage of the high yield of rice relative to wheat.

The Great Divergence was well underway before 1800.

Urbanization in China did not change substantially between 618 and early 19th Century. And the urbanization rate did not vary much between the regions within China.

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