Robert Allen characterized the region of Strasbourg in France in the period before 1789 as exceptionally poor. New evidence suggests, however, that Allen underestimated wage levels because of a failure to include payments in-kind and to clarify the differences between skilled and unskilled workers. Moreover, his wages came from a region that is wider than Strasbourg per se. The use of wage data for the agricultural sector that were higher in nominal terms than Allen’s, with reference to regions like Paris and southern England, elevates the economic standing of Strasbourg and, by extension, that of France.
How well did France fare relative to England in terms of living standards in the century before the revolution? This question has been central to many debates in economic history. Allen showed, through his pioneering use of one-person welfare ratios (real wages expressed in terms of their ability to purchase a certain basket of goods), that France was poor relative to England, especially London. From this methodology, which provided a “consistent framework and comparable data to measure real wages over time and across space,” he elaborated an explanation of the differences—now known as the high-wage-economy hypothesis—which purports to explain the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. According to Allen, the high wages of Britain relative to the cost of energy spurred the development of technologies and industries that spearheaded the Industrial Revolution.
His reason for why the Industrial Revolution did not begin in France is that (unlike Britain’s) France’s wages were too low relative to energy to motivate the adoption of labor-saving technologies. As a result, one of the key stylized facts supporting his hypothesis is that France was poorer than Britain. Based on Allen’s hypothesis, the differences between France and Britain have become a widely discussed topic in economic history.1
This research note does not question Allen’s hypothesis per se; such a strategy would be daunting in terms of both scope and scale. It does not even dispute the contention that France (with or without Paris) was poorer than Britain. It merely seeks to ensure that any debate about the hypothesis begins on sound empirical foundations—at least for the 1650 to 1775 era. As such, the leading question herein is exactly how much richer the British were than the French, especially the French outside of Paris.
This question is occasioned by the suggestion that recent revisions of wage estimates in Britain have been overestimated. Allen’s initial differences between Britain and France (based on daily wage rates) were considerable. His data set indicates that between 1650 and 1786, Londoners enjoyed an advantage of 81 percent over Parisians in real wages. On his view, the gap between London and the rest of France would have been even wider, since he depicted Paris as a wealthy European city. Humphries and Weisdorf, however, discovered differences in the evolution of annually contracted wages relative to that of daily wage rates. They argue that pre-industrial labor markets had search costs and that workers were willing to sacrifice a higher daily wage rate to obtain steady employment. Hence, the proper variable of interest should be the wage paid on annual contracts. If the penalty incurred in France for annual employment was smaller (or if search costs were lower) than that in Britain, the use of daily wage rates would overstate Britain’s relative advantage. Stephenson’s recent work also suggests a lower wage level. She found that the London wage rates that Allen used were not wages per se but contract rates that employers charged when they billed their clients. The contract rates included costs above and beyond the compensation of workers. Overall, Stephenson found wages for workers in London that were closer to those in Paris (see Table 1).2
|unadjusted figures (1)||stephenson adjustment (2)|
|unadjusted figures (1)||stephenson adjustment (2)|
sources (1) Robert Allen, “The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War,” Explorations in Economic History, XXXVIII (2001), 411–447, based on data found at http://www.iisg.nl/hpw/allen.rar; (2) Judy Stephenson, “Real Contracts and Mistaken Wages: The Organisation of Work and Pay in London Building Trades, 1650–1800,” Working Paper Series, Dept. of Economic History (London School of Economics and Political Science, 2015), 38.
This research note argues that wage levels are probably underestimated in France outside Paris. In Allen’s work, the “rest of France,” as represented by the city of Strasbourg (in Alsace), was 36 percent poorer than Paris between 1650 and 1786. The analysis herein maintains, however, that Allen underestimated wages for Strasbourg and its environs. The wage rates that he used seem to have represented semirural areas where wages would have been lower than in urban areas and most likely have included a non-negligible share of total compensation in the form of in-kind payments. Based on a range of wages for agricultural and nonagricultural workers, this study calculates the level of wages before 1775 to have been substantially higher than the levels commonly given. The significant differences between agricultural wages and construction wages call into question the extent (but not the existence) of France’s relative poverty.
Was Strasbourg an Exception?
Scholars generally consider Paris to have been one of richest cities in France, though with living standards lower than those observed in England, especially London. Allen used construction laborers’ wages from Strasbourg to conclude that France’s working population outside Paris was poorer than that inside the city, deriving his data from Auguste Hanauer’s profile of workers known as gâcheurs—taken as a proxy for unskilled workers. These data have many gaps, but a long continuous estimate from 1702 to 1789 places the daily wage rate (in summer) at 2.88 grams of silver between 1702 and 1764, 4.275 grams between 1765 and 1770 and 3.375 grams to 1775—averaging to 3.03 grams between 1702 and 1775.3
The results are not entirely plausible. Figure 1 shows the wages in Strasbourg relative to those of Paris. A comparison between the region of Paris and that of Cavaillon (66 km northwest of Marseille) for the period in which Allen reports wages for Strasbourg reveals Strasbourg to be anomalous. Although wages in Cavaillon and Paris were hardly the same (the five-year intervals for the wage rate in Cavaillon explain the evolutionary steps in its wages), they are synchronous in the long run and much closer to each other than to the wages in Strasbourg, which lag well behind. This irregularity fuels skepticism about Strasbourg’s economic standing for two reasons: First, although Strasbourg was certainly poorer in comparison with these regions, it was not exceptionally poorer. Hau depicted the region as such but not until the nineteenth century. Indicators other than wages also fail to distinguish Strasbourg as particularly underprivileged at the time. For example, Strasbourg occupied a middle ground in life expectancy, infant mortality, and stature. Alsace’s relatively good biological standard of living may be the result of differences caused by urban disamenities, such as air pollution, diseases, and overcrowding. Overall, the literature portrays Strasbourg and its surroundings as only moderately poorer than the rest of the country.4
Second, Hoffman observed a moderate level of mobility for young peasants without property that would have—imperfectly—forced wages across regions to be nearly synchronous in their evolution. Other options for migration available within the country would also have resulted, to some extent, in equalizing forces for wages. Such forces are in evidence between Cavaillon and Paris; their apparent absence in the case of Strasbourg is puzzling.5
Strasbourg’s appearance of dire poverty could derive from either or both of two sources. First are the significant wage disparities within England that Hunt and Boyer noted, which correspond to those between Paris and Strasbourg. These variations, which are consistent with labor-market structures, urban disamenities, regional specializations, and barriers to migration seen elsewhere in Europe at the time, could support an extreme interpretation of Strasbourg’s situation. Second, the city’s economic straits could be a statistical artifact, as in the case of Stephenson’s work for London regarding contract rates versus actual rates. Given Strasbourg’s outlier status relative to wages in Paris and Cavaillon—two regions farther from each other than Paris is from the Strasbourg area—the likelihood that the incongruity is a problem with the data rather than actual economic conditions seems appreciable, and not unprecedented. Malanima found Allen’s Italian wages to be underestimated; his new data changed the starting point of Italy’s status relative to England. The contention of this research note is that the second explanation is particularly compelling in the case of Strasbourg (though the first may also be relevant).6
Wages in Strasbourg, Mulhouse, and Colmar
Hanauer’s 1878 Études économique sur l’Alsace ancienne et moderne (two volumes, one covering money and the other covering wages and prices) has attracted much attention, mostly for its information about grain prices, since Allen first consulted it. In the volume devoted to wages and prices, Hanauer reported wages for gâcheurs in the summers between 1702 and 1761 at a rate of 0.64 francs per day (at the exchange rate of 4.5 grams of silver per franc), from which Allen derived his 2.88 grams of silver per day. Inscribed next to Hanauer’s wage rate is the term Mulh, referring to the city of Mulhouse—the future Manchester of France—which is 97 km south of Strasbourg but closer to Freiburg in Germany and Basel in Switzerland. Although it is in Alsace, Mulhouse was considerably smaller than Strasbourg, with a population of roughly 6,000 inhabitants in 1798, compared to Strasbourg’s 44,000 in the years from 1745 to 1750 and 48,500 in 1789. The two cities seem to have had differing labor markets. A few kilometers away in Colmar (73 km south of Strasbourg), masons were paid 4.5 grams of silver per day between 1726 and 1744 and 5.4 grams of silver per day between 1746 and 1749; in Mulhouse, they were paid a minimum of 3.6 grams per day. This large variation is difficult to reconcile within so small a geographical area, especially for workers with masonry skills. The wages presented seem more appropriate to semirural workers than to urban ones, making the area appear poorer than it was. Yet, Allen’s prices were intended for urban areas—where wages and prices are generally higher. The application of urban prices to semirural wages would understate the true level of living standards.7
Hanauer’s wages also might omit an important in-kind component. Hanauer reports that from 1702 to 1706, gâcheurs in Mulhouse were paid 3.24 grams of silver plus le goûter (plus food)—indicating that the wage rate excluded an important form of compensation. For Strasbourg in 1753, Hanauer reports that an ouvrier (worker) could choose between a wage rate of 2.4 francs without goûter or 2 francs with it, indicating that in-kind payment could represent at least 20 percent of a wage. This addition would bring Allen’s wage rates from 2.88 grams to 3.46 grams of silver per day—sufficient to push Strasbourg’s wage ratio with Paris from 59 percent to 71 percent between 1702 and 1764 and from 51 percent to 62 percent when compared with construction laborers from England (a proxy for England without London). In fact, this assessment might even be too conservative. Elsewhere, Hanauer points to a much greater difference in money wages earned between fed and unfed workers—nearly 50 percent of total compensation offered through in-kind payment.8
The extent of gâcheurs’ skills is not clear. Nowhere in his work does Hanauer explain exactly what kind of work gâcheurs did. Some sources point out that in many fields of the construction industry, gâcheurs were unskilled laborers. Gâcheurs were often plasterers’ or masons’ mates. Hanauer himself provides evidence to suggest that gâcheurs were at best semiskilled workers in occupations like masonry. However, the information that Allen uses relates to gâcheurs in carpentry, who, according to nineteenth-century construction dictionaries, could well have been skilled workers. An 1881 dictionary defined gâcheur as a “maîtrise ouvrier charpentier”—meaning a skilled carpenter. Another dictionary referred to a gâcheur as a supervisor of carpenters—making him a form of manager, offering further meaning to the point about in-kind payment. Indeed, if these workers were not unskilled, they were unlikely to have received low pay. Hence, their strictly monetary wage is probably unrepresentative of the total pay that would have accrued to even a semiskilled worker.9
These points generate an element of uncertainty about how Allen construes gâcheurs and their wages in his work. Were gâcheurs unskilled construction workers earning money wages in a large urban area, unskilled workers in semirural areas, or semiskilled workers in semirural areas whose wages included in-kind payments? The evidence available to correct the data series is scant.
We have two possible ways to circumvent these issues and arrive at reliable measurements. One is to use the data for the ouvriers that Hanauer provides, except for the years between 1675 and 1725. In the first column of Table 2, their wages between 1726 and 1775 seem to be about two-times higher than those proposed by Allen. Data from Clark’s work about construction workers in southern England permit a more accurate comparison of conditions in this part of France than do data about workers in London. During the era from 1726 to 1775, Hanauer’s ouvriers had wages equal to 77 percent of the wages that construction workers in southern England earned and 53 percent of those in Allen’s reported series. In terms of one-person respectable welfare ratios, the ratio with the ouvriers series stands at 2.72 from 1725 to 1775, as opposed to 1.86 with Allen’s series. However, this comparison is not on a completely level playing field since Hanauer described the ouvriers as semiskilled workers in semirural areas rather than urban and unskilled construction workers.10
|season||ouvrier||moisonneur||faucheur||journalier||journalier||batteur en grange||journalier||allen’s data|
|season||ouvrier||moisonneur||faucheur||journalier||journalier||batteur en grange||journalier||allen’s data|
Hanauer provides other vital pieces of information—data for agricultural tasks by twenty-five-year periods, in which he divides wage rates according to nourris and non-nourris (fed and unfed). He lists numerous types of unskilled agricultural occupations: faucheurs (mowers in summer), journaliers d’été (summer laborers), journaliers d’hiver (winter laborers), moissonneurs (reapers in summer), and batteurs de grange (threshers in winter). The use of this type of information breaks with the convention established by Allen for consideration of urban construction workers, but these data indicate the extent to which we should be cautious regarding the levels reported by Allen. Attention to agricultural wages in England permits us to maintain comparative focus. Although agricultural workers in the eighteenth century were likely to have earned lower nominal wages than urban construction workers, none of the agricultural wages reported by Hanauer descend to the 2.88 grams per day reported by Allen (see Table 2). The closest to that threshold around this period were the winter laborers (3.06 grams per day from 1726 to 1750) and the batteurs en grange (3.29 grams per day from 1676 to 1700). Reported wage rates were below 2.88 grams only when employers fed their workers.
To arrive at a wage income not plagued by the issue of seasonality, we calculated continuous values by interpolating for the missing years via the use of the average movement of available wages per quarter-century (indexed with the years from 1626 to 1650 equaling 1). The outcome can be seen in the column detailing the average wage of a journalier. That series sets wages between 4.03 and 4.9 grams of silver per day from 1700 to 1775, well above the estimate provided by Allen. A more cautious estimate, not shown in Table 2, would give summer and winter wage rates of 25 percent and 75 percent on average. Yet, even with that cautious estimate, the range of wages from 1700 to 1775 stands between 3.55 and 4.22, still well above Allen’s figure for the same period. For the batteurs en grange, the workers with the lowest pay, the one-person respectable welfare ratio is 2.11 between 1702 and 1775 (under the assumption that their low winter rate did not increase throughout the year). Allen’s data for the same period suggest a one-person welfare ratio of 1.80 (a 14.7 percent difference).
By way of comparison, Paris had a one-person respectable welfare ratio of 2.30 (with silver wages at 4.91 grams per day) during this same period, though in an urban setting. A more appropriate comparison that would highlight the importance of the points made in this research note contrasts Clark’s farm wages in England with those herein. Between 1702 and 1775, Allen’s data suggest a wage rate of 3.03 grams of silver per day, as opposed to 4.74 for farm workers in England—a 64percent ratio. The batteurs en grange, the poorest agricultural workers, earned 3.51 grams of silver, implying a 74 percent ratio. A comparison based on the other agricultural professions would reduce the pay scale between the workers of Strasbourg and those of southern England even further.11
This research note argues that although France was indeed poorer than England, the amplitude of the difference may have been exaggerated. Allen treats Paris as an exceptional city, with living standards much higher than those elsewhere in continental Europe, but also as relatively poor in comparison with England. According to Allen, the rest of France (represented by Strasbourg) lagged far behind Paris. This study, however, finds that Allen underestimated wage levels. France might have been poor, but it was not as poor as Allen thought.12
A more efficient use of Hanauer’s source material for Alsace demonstrates that Allen’s wage levels were low because of his failure to include payment in-kind and to specify the type of worker who should be considered unskilled. Moreover, the wages relevant to Allen’s conclusion come from a region that is wider than Strasbourg per se. To resolve the issue, this research note presents wage data for the agricultural sector that were higher in nominal terms than Allen’s, with reference to regions like Paris and southern England (which permits comparisons based on agricultural wages to be generated). The evidence raise Strasbourg’s economic standing above the level that Allen attributed to it, and since Strasbourg serves as a proxy for the rest of France in this analysis, it demonstrates that France at large was not as poor as Allen surmised.13
Given the prominence of comparisons between France and Britain in debates within the field of economic history, the results contained herein suggest that continued research can improve the accuracy of the comparisons. Indeed, since the wages in Britain appear to be overestimated and those in France appear to be underestimated, such an endeavor deserves further intensive investigation.
Robert Allen, “The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War,” Explorations in Economic History, XXXVIII (2001), 412; idem, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (New York, 2009), 203; Paul Sharp and Jacob Weisdorf, “French Revolution or Industrial Revolution? A Note on the Contrasting Experiences of England and France up to 1800,” Cliometrica, VI (2012), 79–88; Philip Hoffman, Growth in a Traditional Society: The French Countryside, 1450–1815 (Princeton, 1996); Jean-Marc Moriceau, Les fermiers de l’Île-de-France: XVe-XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1994). For economic historians who accept the hypothesis of the high-wage economy (at least in part), including it in a broad array of multicausal explanations, see Morgan Kelly, Joel Mokyr, and Cormac Ó’Gráda. “Precocious Albion: A New Interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution,” Annual Review of Economics, VI (2013), 363–389.
Jane Humphries and Weisdorf, “Unreal Wages: A New Empirical Foundation for the Study of Living Standards and Economic Growth in England, 1260–1860,” Working Paper no. 147 of the Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History (Univ. of Oxford, 2016); Judy Stephenson, “Real Contracts and Mistaken Wages: The Organization of Work and Pay in London Building Trades, 1650–1800,” Working Paper Series of the Department of Economic History (London School of Economics and Political Science, 2015); Allen. “Great Divergence.”
Hoffman, Growth in a Traditional Society; Moriceau, Les fermiers de l’Île-de-France; Allen, “Great Divergence”; Charles Auguste Hanauer, Études économiques sur l’Alsace ancienne et moderne (denrées et salaires) (Paris, 1878). Allen, “Great Divergence,” found that the level of real wages in Strasbourg from 1650 to 1749 to be the lowest in Europe, well below those of generally poorer areas like Madrid, Vienna, Krakow, and Warsaw (428). Furthermore, since the data used for Strasbourg concerned summer wage rates, they represent the high points. Wages adjusted for seasonality would be even lower than the proposed figure.
Michel Hau, L’industrialisation de l’Alsace: 1803–1939 (Paris, 1985); idem, “Pauvreté rurale et dynamisme économique: le cas de l’Alsace au XIXème siècle,” Histoire, économie société, VI (1987), 113–138; Laurent Heyberger, “Toward an Anthropometric History of Provincial France, 1780–1920,” Economics Human Biology, V (2007), 229–254; idem, “Received Wisdom versus Reality: Height, Nutrition and Urbanization in Mid-Nineteenth Century France,” Cliometrica, VIII (2014), 115–140.
Hoffman, Growth in a Traditional Society, 44–45. For imperfect mobility that allows for some moderate synchronization in movements and differences, see Jeffrey Williamson, Coping with City Growth during the British Industrial Revolution (New York, 2002); Leonard Schwarz, “The Standard of Living in the Long Run: London, 1700–1860,” Economic History Review, XXXVIII (1985), 24–36; for the forces that would have tempered co-movements in wages and the ability of wage levels to converge, Edward Hunt, “Industrialization and Regional Inequality: Wages in Britain, 1760–1914,” Journal of Economic History, VI (2013), 363–389.
Hunt, “Industrialization and Regional Inequality”; George Boyer, An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750–1850 (New York, 1996). For disamenities, see Williamson, Coping with City Growth; Humphries and Tim Leunig, “Cities, Market Integration, and Going to Sea: Stunting and the Standard of Living in Early Nineteenth-Century England and Wales,” Economic History Review, LXII (2014), 458–478; for the many small pockets of integrated markets that emerged over time in Europe, or in a “region” (rather than a country) with an integrated labor market independent from those in neighboring regions, David Chilosi et al., “Europe’s Many Integrations: Geography and Grain Markets, 1620–1913,” Explorations in Economic History, L (2013), 46–68; for discussions of Paris wages on firmer ground, Hoffman, Growth in a Traditional Society; Moriceau and Gilles Postel-Vinay, Ferme, entreprise, famille: Grande exploitation et changements agricoles, XVIIe–XIXe siècles (Paris, 1992); Micheline Baulant, “Les prix des grains à Paris de 1431 à 1788,” Annales, Histoire, Sciences Sociales, XXIII (1968), 520–540; idem, “Le salaire des ouvriers du bâtiment à Paris de 1400 à 1726,” ibid., XXVI (1971), 463–483; Yves Durand, “Recherches sur les salaires des maçons à Paris au XVIIIe siècle,” Revue d’histoire économique et sociale, XLIV (1966), 468–480; Paolo Malanima, “When Did England Overtake Italy? Medieval and Early Modern Divergence in Prices and Wages,” European Review of Economic History, XVII (2013), 45–70.
Hanauer, Études économiques sur l’Alsace, 420; Société industrielle de Mulhouse, Histoire documentaire de l’industrie de Mulhouse et ses environs au XIXe siècle (Mulhouse, 1902), 32; Guy Cabourdin, “La population de Strasbourg sous l’Ancien Régime (1681–1789),” Annales de démographie historique, MCLXVII (1967), 267–273. For an argument that Strasbourg was closer economically to Basel and Geneva than anywhere else, see Alan Milward and Samuel Berrick Saul, The Economic Development of Continental Europe: 1780–1870 (London, 1979; orig. pub. 1973), 273–274.
Hanauer, Études économiques sur l’Alsace, 416, 548. In the case of the batteurs en grange (threshers in winter), the difference in wages between being fed and being unfed is considerable. Between 1600 and 1725, when observations for both modes are available, wages for fed workers are 53% of those of unfed workers, suggesting that a substantial share of total compensation came from in-kind payments. Gregory Clark, “The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1209–2004,” Journal of Political Economy, CXIII (2005), 1307–1340. Clark’s reported wages are slightly lower than those reported in Allen’s spreadsheets. Clark’s data are used herein because they speak to England in general. However, the improvement in Strasbourg’s relative position holds when we use Allen’s spreadsheets with roughly the same amplitudes (datasheets available on request).
Casey Harison, The Stonemasons of Creuse in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Newark, 2008), 307; Pierre Chabat, Dictionnaire des termes employés dans la construction (Paris, 1881), II, 644; Ernest Bosc, Dictionnaire raisonné d’architecture, Tome premier (Paris, 1883), 404.
Hanauer, Études économiques sur l’Alsace, 402–403, 421; Clark, “Condition of the Working Class.”
Hanauer, Études économiques sur l’Alsace, 534–555. The data for southern England contained in Clark, “Condition of the Working Class,” is lower than that reported by Allen. The ratio for Paris is based on the data sheets provided by Allen reflecting his 2001 work and do not include his 2015 concessions to Humphries, “The Lure of Aggregates and the Pitfalls of the Patriarchal Perspective: A Critique of the High Wage Economy Interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution,” Economic History Review, LXVI (2013), 693–714; idem, “The High Wage Economy and the Industrial Revolution: A Restatement,” Economic History Review, LXVIII (2015), 1–22.
Allen. “Great Divergence.”
Hanauer, Études économiques sur l’Alsace.