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History and the Social Sciences: Shock Therapy with Medieval Economic History as the Patient

  • Daniel R. Curtis, Bas van Bavel and Tim Soens


Since the turn of the Millennium, major changes in economic history practice such as the dominance of econometrics and the championing of “big data,” as well as changes in how research is funded, have created new pressures for medieval economic historians to confront. In this article, it is suggested that one way of strengthening the field further is to more explicitly link up with hypotheses posed in other social sciences. The historical record is one “laboratory” in which hypotheses developed by sociologists, economists, and even natural scientists can be explicitly tested, especially using dual forms of geographical and chronological comparison. As one example to demonstrate this, a case is made for the stimulating effect of “disaster studies.” Historians have failed to interact with ideas from disaster studies, not only because of the general drift away from the social sciences by the historical discipline, but also because of a twin conception that medieval disaster study bears no relation to the modern, and that medieval coping strategies were hindered by providence, superstition, fear, and panic. We use the medieval disasters context to demonstrate that medieval economic history can contribute to big narratives of our time, including climate change and inequality. This contribution can be in (1) investigating the root causes of vulnerability and resilience, and recovery of societies over the long term (moving disaster studies away from instant impact focus) and (2) providing the social context needed to interpret the massive amount of “big data” produced by historical climatologists, bioarchaeologists, economists, and so on.

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