Roger Price's book An Economic History of Modern France, 1730-1914 is concerned with the great question of how the French economy became modern, changing from a pre-modern agricultural economy defined by insular and provincial local markets to a modern industrial economy based upon a unified national market. It focuses heavily on transportation and communications, perhaps to excess, but it makes a convincing case that it was the railroad which was the most transformative feature of the French economy, which broke apart the fragmentation and isolation which characterized the economy of the ancien régime. Although it to my eyes understates the economic dynamism of ancien régime France, it is still an excellent case study of the creation of a modern economy and the changes involved.
The book's organization covers specific elements of economic advance chapter by chapter. Probably the most important is the first one, about the development of communications and infrastructure - since the book's key point is that infrastructure and transport development was necessary for the creation of a modern economy. Through its analysis, both qualitative and quantitative of roads, canals, railroads, and communication technology, it demonstrates that the cost of transport was a nigh-insurmountable brake on the creation of a national, integrated market in the pre-industrial era.
Agriculture's contention is that without better transportation, localized economies by necessity had to be entirely focused on subsistence agriculture. This varied by region, with the more productive North ironically seeing more in the way of famines, since it was based upon a monoculture of grain crops, while the South had a more diverse agricultural mix which could better withstand the failure of a single crop.
Next comes industrial development, which covers a wide range of subjects from textiles, to metallurgy, water and steam power, and construction. Again, the crucial feature of the French economy was that without cheap transport links, the economy was heavily decentralized, effectively providing insulation from both domestic and international competition. The introduction of the railroad dramatically altered this, introducing consolidation of industry and modernization to respond to competition.
The chapter on population views the French economy as being limited by food supplies, in a pre-modern, agrarian context, and in the 19th century, despite slow growth compared to other countries, it was facing a crisis of overpopulation in certain regions. It was the introduction of the railroads and more modern economic structures in the 1840s and 1850s that altered this. It also considers other elements such as natality, deaths, marriage, and the population structure.
In the final chapter, a look is taken at the period of economic slowdown after 1880, marked particularly by a decline in agricultural growth. but continued growth in industry meant that France slowly continued on the path to becoming an industrial society and underwent continued industrial modernization.
The conclusion restates the key feature of the book: that the French ancien régime économique was defined by agriculture, limited and expensive transport links, and industry being focused on consumer goods such as textiles, a picture which gradually changed over the course of this period.
France in the book is largely considered in isolation, which is both a strong and a weak suite of the book. Often, it seems that the French economy is compared, and found wanting, vis-a-vis the British and later German economies. Dealing with France in a purely French, and mostly internal framework, enables one ot take the French economy on its own logic, which is a very positive aspect of Price's work. However, he neglects the role of colonial commerce as trade, as well as having only somewhat limited focus on trade as a whole - the external trade of France only really is mentioned in the late 1850s and to some extent in the return to protectionism in the late 19th century. But colonial commerce and trade to the French Caribbean were the brightest and most dynamic parts of the French monarchy's economy, and led to the unique period of prosperity of Western France, in the ports of Bordeaux, Nantes, and to a lesser extent La Rochelle, St. Malo, and Port Louis. Furthermore, there is no mention of colonial commerce after the fall of the First Colonial Empire. Furthermore exports receive little significance, such as French Bordeaux wine exports in the 1860s, or champagne's popularity in the Anglo-Saxon world, or indeed various other luxury goods which were a mainstay of French exports in view of their reduced relative transport costs.
So perhaps the book overestimates the degree to which the French economy was closed to the outside world. But its investigation of the internal and closed nature of the economy before the industrial and transport revolution, defined by fragmented markets. local production, and extremely agriculture-centric investments and resources is a brilliant look at a pre-modern economy in action, and makes a great starting place for understanding how the industrial revolution fundamentally impacted society. Beyond the great description of the nature of this isolation, it has quantitative data backing it up, showing the cost of moving goods in a pre-industrial economy by land over French roads, or by canal or river for water transport in different regions of France, the speed of transport, and how improvements in the infrastructure network changed this over time - only really altering things fundamentally in the French North, where the canal network developed massively and enabled market integration. In the rest of the country, although transport costs slowly fell, it was only the coming of the railroad which enabled a real break with the past.
Certainly, the book mostly deals with macro-development in French economic history, and there is always need for other books to flesh out the more precise schema of the economic history of France. But Price has parsed the subjects covered very well, providing a good level of detail for key elements, syuch as textiles and metallurgy, machinery, fuels, and his excellent general coverage of agriculture. It has struck a good balance between detail and a basic, comprehensible, understandable look at the broad structural evolution of the French economy in a time of tremendous transformation.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas