A History of the European Historical Economics Society: The Formative Years 1991-2001

During most of its early history the organization had a rather informal structure and documents tracing organizational matters are rare, dispersed or lost. Only recently did it get a written constitution, since it was obliged to have one under English law as a registered charity. A considerable proportion of the important decisions have been taken at coffee breaks during conferences, in airport lounges, and before, during and after (usually) good dinners. (From a culinary point of view this is by far the best organization I have been involved in.) However, notes on napkins are easily lost or difficult to read and interpret.

by Karl Gunnar Persson, University of Copenhagen[*]

How it all started: the formative years

As with most significant innovations, the EHES was in the air before it hit the ground. There were economic historians all over Europe in the 1980s who felt that their discipline had stagnated, and who felt, rightly or wrongly, that they were marginalized by traditionalists, and that significant improvements could not be accomplished without realignment to economics. There were quantitative economic history networks in some countries, for example in the UK, running annual meetings and on the European scale the European Economic Association congresses had economic history sessions in the 1980s organized by members of the future society.

However, as always, there is one outstanding formative event – although it was not meant to be so. In 1989 Leandro Prados, then at the University of Santander, now at Carlos III in Madrid, organized and hosted the Second World Congress of the Cliometric Society. There were lots of good papers but rather too much self-affirmative action on the side of the US participants, some of whom displayed a supreme ignorance of what European economic historians had accomplished in the past and scant interest in what they did at present. The idea of having the Congress in Europe was meant to give a stimulus to European quantitative economic history, but most Europeans were out-smarted by the numerous North Americans whose debating culture was not very helpful, in particular for those who were struggling to express themselves in a foreign language for the first or second time in a highly competitive environment.

Not surprisingly, Leandro Prados, who had done most of the work for the World Congress, looked for a new start. Others – Gianni Toniolo and James Foreman-Peck come to my mind as being particularly concerned – joined him in organizing a fringe meeting at the International Economic History Association Congress in Leuven in 1990. The aim was to set up, not a European chapter of the Cliometric Society, but an independent organization to foster cliometrics – or analytical economic history as it was called in the first documents – in Europe. At that time there was no European economic history association, but only national associations which in many cases were run by very able but traditional economic and social historians. The aim of the new society was different: ‘We intend’, James Foreman-Peck wrote, ‘to devote particular attention to economics as a means of analysis because…it is a sufficiently articulated and widespread body of thought to provide an international language of scientific communication on historical matters’. The Leuven meeting designed a steering committee to direct further initiatives in setting up a ‘European Historical Economics Group’. Cliometrics, analytical economic history, and historical economics were seen as practically identical descriptions of our field, but we evaded the first just to mark our independence from the Cliometric Society. An eight person strong group, a steering committee, including Leonide Borodkine, Albert Carreras , James Foreman-Peck, Rainer Fremdling, Gilles Postel-Vinay, Leandro Prados, Karl Gunnar Persson, Jaime Reis and Gianni Toniolo, came out of the Leuven meeting to organize a future congress, summer schools for PhD students, then called ‘enrichment courses’, and joint European research networks. There was also an intention to continue working within the European Economic Association.

As I recall, members of the steering committee were all expected to look for funding for a first congress. No particular location was favoured. James Foreman-Peck, however, was applying –successfully as it turned out – for European Commission funding of network activities. There was an optimistic mood at the Leuven meeting: at last something was happening. But then I did not hear much for a long time, and I started to make inquiries at various Danish institutions for funding a congress held by an organization that did not, as yet, exist. To my surprise it turned out to be quite easy. Not only the Danish Social Science Research Council, but also the National Bank and the Danish Society for Economic and Social History contributed money. Some banks provided funding and were promised a session on banking history which Forrest Capie and Geoffrey Wood organized. Given the short notice the number of submissions was not bad, about 35, but we (Rainer Fremdling, James Foreman-Peck and I) selected a little over 20 papers for a July 1991 congress in Copenhagen. The quality varied of course, but there were enough good papers for a conference. There were papers by senior figures like Angus Maddison and Patrick O’Brien who have been present at most of the subsequent conferences, and by people who were to play important roles in the Society and for the Review like Steve Broadberry, Rainer Fremdling, Bart van Ark, Giovanni Federico and Jaime Reis, as well as from upstarts such as Jean-Pierre Dormois, Francesco Galassi and Albrecht Ritschl, some of whom were making their debut at an international conference. Niels Kærgaard and Per Hansen played on their home-turf. Ingrid Henriksen (Copenhagen) and Vera Zamagni (Bologna) were, I think, the only two female economic historians present.

The concept cointegration was, if not in full swing, occasionally mentioned, but most papers were accessible to a wider audience of economic historians. There was no keynote speaker, but James Foreman-Peck and Rolf Dumke talked on the theme of The Future of Economic History. That discussion failed to stir the crowd, and I remembered I passed a note to Cormac Ó Gráda and Jacob Metzer with the following message: ‘If THIS is the future of economic history, there is NO future for economic history’. Cormac and Jacob nodded in full agreement. However, I was wrong: there was a future for European historical economics and in fact James Foreman-Peck was instrumental in bringing it about.

The Society’s general assembly at the close of the conference had to decide on the name of the new organization and there were two main alternatives: ‘analytical economic history’ vs. ‘historical economics’. The latter won a tight vote, hence the European Historical Economics Society (EHES). As I recall, in the discussion Patrick O’Brien won the argument (I had initially favoured analytical) pointing out that the use of the description ‘analytical’ would be unnecessarily offensive and counter-productive if we wanted to build bridges to other economic historians: they might feel intimidated by the suggestion that they were un-analytical. However, as the future demonstrated, the Society has not always been comfortable with its chosen name. ‘Historical economics’ does not have the immediate appeal of established trade marks like ‘economic history’ or ‘cliometrics’. The latter, by the way, took a long time to get established, although any spelling program reacts with red ink to it. To this day the name of the organization continues to trouble members and in particular trustees. It is, among other things, difficult to remember accurately: In the Venice (1996) congress material, the EHES was called the ‘European Association of Historical Economics’!

The general assembly also decided to proceed with the establishment of ‘enrichment courses’ and workshops, to establish a newsletter (which James Foreman-Peck wrote, edited and distributed until he got fed up with it after a couple of years). Rainer Fremdling was asked to organize the second congress in 1993. The idea was to have bi-annual meetings. That was not to be until later in the 1990s, however. Rainer was less lucky in securing funds in the Netherlands, where large cuts in the funding of universities were made in the 1990s. I accepted to be the first President on the premise that I could step down when Rainer Fremdling started to organize the second conference in 1993. However, no conference and no general assembly were held until the second congress took place in Venice in 1996 so I remained at the post. I was never comfortable with the title President, a ridiculous title for a small society which did not even manage to tax its citizens properly. There were some 250 names on the mailing list for the newsletter, but we did not bother to collect the membership fee agreed upon in Copenhagen.

Despite the setback with the 1993 conference, which never materialized, the EHES did not lose momentum. The first years of the new society were bursting with activity. We got European Commission funding for four workshops held in 1993. The themes reflected the broad research interests withing the steering committee and the Society: Market integration in history (K.G. Persson), European industrial policy (J. Foreman-Peck), Growth in the European periphery (L. Prados) and Monetary history (J. Reis). Two edited conference volumes came out of this effort and a series of journal articles.

The administrative structure of the EHES was rather informal from the start and long remained so. We seldom met but discussed by fax and later – what a relief – via the internet. We lacked resources, skill, time and interest to build up an executive office along the lines of the Cliometric Society. James Foreman-Peck was a sort of general secretary and I – Chair Persson, as Leandro Prados called (still calls) me – did most of the boring work. Although relations and the mood in the steering committee were friendly and supportive, my feeling was that some members meant that we should do more in terms of building up relations with the International Economic History Association and to be recognized in the organizational infrastructure of the established scientific community. James and I shared a ‘common-sense’ outlook rather than a grand vision, and did not care much about that aspect of organization building. We believed that the way to get recognized was to do things, to get workshops and schools going. There were several attempts to arrange sessions at European Economic Association annual meetings, as members like Gianni Toniolo had done on an individual basis in the past, but despite all our efforts they did not have a big impact, and neither did they attract a big crowd.

Relations with the Cliometric Society

During this formative period, the relationship between the EHES and the Cliometric Society was a bit ambivalent and at times a bit cool. We wanted to encourage clio-type economic history but knew that some of the US cliometricans were better than others at helping us to do that (and some were outright counter-productive). And we shamelessly exploited that knowledge. To some extent we applied a ‘Liztian’ (Clio would probably call it ‘Hamiltonian’) infant industry protection policy. As the first and subsequent activities showed, this did not imply that North Americans were barred from workshops or congresses. Quite the contrary. But we kept the right to mix merits, nationalities and personalities in a way that helped us to promote our aim to build a stronger European presence in quantitative economic history. Looking back at the composition of participants by affiliation and nationality at the first workshops and congresses, the participatory diversity at our events has been much more balanced than any similar event I have been to in North America, without sacrificing quality significantly or at all. Naturally, some voiced concern in the early years regarding the danger of becoming parochial, but as the 1990s unfolded I think that fear was clearly proven unfounded. Summer schools were different, when it comes to the student body, partly because of funding principles laid down by the European Commission and by the very purpose of the schools; that is to strengthen young European economic historians. The list of frequent summer school lecturers over the years does not reveal any discriminatory bias. [1]

There was one major diplomatic crisis in the relationship between us and the Cliometric Society. The long delayed second congress of the Society finally got funding to be held in Venice in 1996 – thanks to the efforts of Gianni Toniolo. When plans for Venice were finalized we were approached by Sam Williamson on behalf of the Cliometric Society, and asked to sponsor the Third Cliometrics World Congress to be held in Europe the same year- albeit not the same half of the year – as our long awaited second congress. With the Santander meeting in fresh memory I found it odd – and told Sam Williamson so – that the Europeans were again supposed to host the next Cliometrics World Congress. (‘I’, here, because I acted for once in a ‘presidential’ manner and I am not sure that all in the steering committee agreed or were consulted.) I was determined not to sponsor the Third Cliometrics World Congress if it was not postponed to the following year. Gianni Toniolo voiced concern that I had been a bit too tough on Sam Williamson. Sam and I had some noisy exchanges, but the disturbance was transitory. The issue was settled peacefully by Clio moving on to Munich the year after our second congress was held in Venice. [2] From then on it seems as if it has been taken for granted that Clio world events must not coincide with EHES conferences.

From the start, North American economic historians with an interest in European studies attended workshops, some on an almost regular basis, and not only because the food at the EHES workshops was much better than at the Clio and EHA meetings. Some, like Jeffrey G. Williamson, brought his (former) PhD students with him, like Alan Taylor and Kevin O’Rourke, all of them frequent contributors to the European Review of Economic History later on.

Growing up and helping others to grow up

The European commission also awarded the EHES a grant to hold summer schools for research students for three consecutive years starting in 1994 (directed by myself and the theme was Productivity and Growth Convergence in Europe) and a new round of three were held in 1998-2001, directed by Bart van Ark with the theme Structural Change in Historical Perspective. The need for these schools reflected the special problem of European economic history. Research students in economic history have a less homogenous background than in the US and on average they have less training in economics and econometrics, but better training as historians. Principal lecturers at these schools were always firmly based in the quantitative economic history tradition and were supposed to inspire those with insufficient training to hang on and improve. The schools were involving different host institutions which probably helped to establish the EHES as a credible organization. In chronological order the organizing institutions were, with the local organizer and the principal lecturer (p.l.) in parentheses: the European University Institute (Albert Carreras, 1994 with Nick Crafts as p.l.); Pisa ( Giovanni Federico and Paolo Malanima, 1995 with Joel Mokyr as p.l.); Groningen (Bart van Ark, 1996 with Jeffrey G. Williamson as p.l.); Lisbon (?,1999, again with Joel Mokyr as p.l.); Lund (Lennart Schön and Jonas Ljungberg, 2000, again with Nick Crafts and Knick Harley as p.l.); and Trinity College, Dublin (Kevin O’ Rourke with Avner Greif as p.l.).

The 1996 Venice conference had 26 papers selected from a larger number of submissions than the Copenhagen event. The geographical spread was more even with a good representation from Germany with A. Ritschl (although he was then based in Barcelona), M. Spoerer, J. Komlos and M. Kopsides; France with P. Sicsic, P-C. Hautcoeur, M. Flandreau J-P. Dormois; and quite a number of Scandinavians: I. Henriksen, O. Grytten, J. Ljungberg, L. Svensson. Sevket Pamuk read his first EHES paper at the Venice conference, and was presenting papers at the two following conferences in Lisbon 1999 and Oxford 2001. Other regulars appearing in Venice were Jeffrey G. Williamson, Avner Offer, Ingrid Henriksen, Niels Kærgaard, and Kevin O’Rourke. Charles Feinstein gave the keynote lecture on the British standard of living debate. The new prize for best PhD dissertation on European economic history, named after Italian economic historian and Venetian Gino Luzzatti, was awarded to Caroline Fohlin of Caltech for her work on German banking. The business meeting made Gianni Toniolo a President and Kristine Bruland became the first female economic historian to be elected as a trustee, nominated by Patrick O´Brien. The following two conferences, Lisbon 1999 and Oxford 2001, were modelled after the preceding ones. There were few new trustees, and too many like me just hanging on. The EHES was growing up and the organization settled down into routines.

However, Gianni Toniolo was over-committed and wanted to be replaced in the midst of his term as President. That was understandable because he had already done his duty organizing the Venice meeting. The original idea from the Copenhagen meeting was in fact to have a president elected at the present meeting to organize the next conference. But now we were without a president and without a venue for the next conference. Must it take another 5 years to organize the next one? Fortunately not.

The organization was not strong in a formal way but had its own spontaneous ways of solving a crisis. We were at the 1997 Third World Congress of Cliometrics and some of the ‘founding fathers’ retreated to a restaurant on the outskirts of Munich. The excellent local beer and food on top of long, persistent but most of the time friendly persuasion helped to make an initially less than enthusiastic Jaime Reis accept the responsibility by the time the desert was served. Although Jaime was then at the European University Institute in Fiesole (Florence) the meeting was to be held in Lisbon, Jaime’s home base. The Lisbon conference in 1999 produced a two volume conference document; awarded Tim Leunig the Gino Luzzatti prize; and Avner Greif gave the keynote speech later published by the European Review of Economic History. A suitable mix of old and new faces showed up. For the first time in the history of the organization we introduced an orderly postal ballot for the offices of the organization shortly after the conference. Now we were really mature, bureaucratic and orderly. James Foreman-Peck was nominated and later elected president and organized the fourth conference at Merton College, Oxford in 2001. Finally the bi-annual schedule decided ten years earlier in Copenhagen worked. The conference opened 10 days after September 11 and I thought at that time that if the world ends now Merton College is the ideal place to be. At the conference in Oxford 2001 there were more than 40 papers read. And the Luzzatti price was shared by Liam Brunt and Yadira Gonzales de Lara, the latter being a student of the keynote speaker at the preceding conference, Avner Greif.

Publish or perish: the making of the European Review of Economic History

Once we had got the summer schools and workshop programme going we turned to the next project: publishing. The questions we asked ourselves were whether there was a need for a journal, whether we could generate a sufficient supply of publishable papers, and whether there was a publishing house willing to take the risk of establishing a new journal. After all, economic history was not exactly the most fashionable academic discipline and we had a competitor – or sort of. The Rome based Journal of European Economic History still appeared and was distributed to interested persons freely, although at rather erratic intervals and with what seemed to be a random editorial selection process. Among decent contributions it occasionally published papers no sensible editor would touch. We ruled out that the old guard on the editorial board of the Journal of European Economic History would be interested in joining forces with us, so we had to start from scratch. There was a feeling that establishing a journal would help the organization to reach its original goals. Continental Europeans also felt, rightly or wrongly, that the established journals did not pay enough attention to European economic history, but were obsessed with Britain and North America respectively. The first meeting at which I can recall we had informal discussions on the launching of a publication of our own was at the workshop organized by Leandro Prados on Growth in the European Periphery, referred to above. We also discussed the issue in the steering committee, but there was no consensus. Sceptics included James Foreman-Peck, Rainer Fremdling and Gilles Postel-Vinay. Plans unfolded and at the International Economic History Meeting in Milan in 1994 we had a meeting of interested parties from both sides of the Atlantic. Although there were still sceptics, the general feeling now was that an attempt to launch a journal was motivated and important. Tim Hatton, Leandro Prados, Vera Zamagni and Jeffrey G. Williamson were the most outspoken optimists, and the meeting asked the first three and me to form a group to investigate the possibilities further. From now on there was no way back. Even James Foreman-Peck soon converted to the cause, commenting in typical fashion: ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’. The gang of four met in Rome the year after the Milan meeting and finalized our approach to British publishers. Tim Hatton worked hard on a proposal, but contacted just a few of the leading British academic publishing houses, and Cambridge University Press responded favourably. Later in 1995 Vera, Tim and myself met with the CUP people travelling from Essex in Tim’s old Beetle. Tim Hatton, who was a skilled typographer before he switched to academia, had clear views not only about the content, but about the style of the Review as well. He was a bit conservative on the style issue, I thought, but what could I say to a typographer-academic? By then we had decided the editorial structure, a troika where I was running the editorial office from Copenhagen and with Tim being responsible for the contacts with the publisher and the copy-editor. Vera based in Bologna was reading papers on the day she received them and had opinions. My department, the Institute of Economics, supported the Review with some money for editor’s meetings and a part time secretary. At an early stage we had decided that the Review should not be an exclusively cliometric journal. Good scholarship, traditional or cliometric, was welcomed.

We had less than a year from the first call for papers and the deadline for the first issue in 1997, and with hindsight a little more time would have been helpful. However, it is my impression that the profession early on regarded the European Review of Economic History as a serious player and one of the very best journals. Typically, we received submissions not only from new talents but also from a lot of established figures. I was particularly surprised and glad that we attracted a number of good papers on early modern economic history by people like Bob Allen, George Grantham and Jan Luiten van Zanden. And although my co-editors did not share my interest for these themes they were all for it.

Editorial routines soon settled down to a weekly exchange over the internet and we managed to get a fairly quick response from submission to first report to author, which is an excellent competitive advantage. There was surprisingly little disagreement among the three of us. We rejected something like two out of three submissions, but usually came to the same conclusions independently. We took considerable care to advise continental Europeans, not used to contemporary standards, how to improve their papers. So even if papers were rejected we tried to be constructive and supportive. We were helped by a number of very good referee reports, and I was impressed by the energy and time some colleagues put into refereeing.

However, after the first hectic years, when the deadlines were no longer so hard to meet and things started to cool down, Tim Hatton announced – sitting at a café just opposite Palazzo Communale in Bologna where we met with Vera Zamagni – that he wanted to step-down as editor in the midst of his term. He has been elected chair of his department, a job he had not asked for, and he simply could not combine it with the editorship. I was not happy because it was Tim’s optimism which had got me into it and now I and Vera had to carry on. However, Tim had already thought about a successor, Steve Broadberry at Warwick, who proved to an excellent choice. What could have been a major crisis turned out to be a swift transition. So a new troika worked for the last years of my term which ended with the editorial office moving to Groningen and Rainer Fremdling in January 2001.

Looking back

The ten or so years covered by this story did not fundamentally change the economic history profession in Europe, but it put economic history on a new track and the effects became clearly visible in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The latest congress in Dublin in 2011 confirmed that the work beginning in the 1990s really mattered a lot. An expanding group of young European economic historians was emerging, although few openings for colleagues in Eastern Europe were noticed. New standards for economic history research were established. The Review has become a respected venue for new research on European economic history. I am particularly impressed by seeing so many of the PhD students I met in the summer schools in the 1990s now sitting on tenured jobs and contributing to the top journals in our field. Fears that the European Historical Economics Society would foster parochial thinking has proved to be wrong, indeed.


[1] It includes Steve Broadberry, Nick Crafts, Steve Dowrick, Giovanni Federico, Knick Harley, Avner Offer, Cormac Ó Gráda, Avner Greif, John Komlos, Paolo Malanima, Joel Mokyr, Angus Maddison, Karl Gunnar Persson, Albert Ritschl, Lennart Schön, Alan Taylor, Bart van Ark, Jan Luiten van Zanden, and Jeffrey G. Williamson
[2] When in Munich Sam Williamson pointed out dryly, while complementing me for my suntan, that given that I had postponed the conference one year he was surprised I could not make it to Munich on time. I was one day late because I had been out sailing when winds disappeared (yes, we are old-fashioned and do not have a combustion engine on board a sailing boat) leaving me 30 nautical miles from Gothenburg at planned departure time from the airport.
[*] Remark from the webeditor: This text was likely written in 2011 or 2012. It is usually cited as “Persson (n.d.)”.