Three Essays in Empirical Historical Economics

Andrew Thomas

Advisor: Noel D Johnson, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Mark Koyama, Jonathan Schulz

Online Location, Online
July 27, 2022, 09:30 AM to 11:30 AM


In recent years text analysis and geographic information systems have become vital sources of data for economic research. In this dissertation I use these tools to investigate historical economic questions in a variety of contexts.

Chapter 1: The Impact of the Black Death on the Adoption of the Printing Press (co-authored with Noel Johnson and Alex Taylor)

The diffusion of the printing press across Europe in the late 15th century has been linked to increased growth and the later spread of the Reformation. But what factors explain which cities adopted earlier than others? The literature on technical change supports the idea that market size is an important factor in the diffusion of innovation. A challenge, however, is that market size is endogenous to many unobserved variables. Using scraped data from the Universal Short Title Catalogue we create a new database linking early European printed material to historical city population estimates. We leverage plausibly exogeneous variation in mortality from the Black Death (1347-52) across European cities to estimate the causal impact of market size on early print adoption. We find that cities whose populations were more heavily impacted by the Black Death were less likely to be early adopters of the press. We also investigate patterns of adoption on both the extensive and intensive margins as well as specialization in subject areas up to 1600. 

Chapter 2: Redistribution and Agricultural Productivity in Ethiopia

Development in many poor countries depends upon increases in agricultural productivity. Institutions supporting property rights have been tied to productivity and growth through two main literatures: in one low productivity persists due to insecurity of property; in the other misallocation of agricultural land persists due to high exchange costs. I investigate the relevance of these theories to agricultural productivity in Ethiopia at the end of the 20th century using subnational variation in an unexpected land redistribution as a natural experiment. I create a panel linking agricultural production data at the village and regional level with information on local soil suitability, yearly variation in rainfall, and market access. Using a difference-in-differences framework, I find no evidence of an impact from redistribution on agricultural yields or patterns of land investment.

Chapter 3: Late Medieval English Soldiers

The development of European state capacity after 1500 has been linked to a Military Revolution that saw dramatic increases in the costs of warfare, in part due to the need to recruit masses of professional infantry. Yet some historians have argued that the roots of this process lay earlier in the Hundred Years' War, a long running conflict between the royals of England and France. In this chapter, I use tools from the field of text analysis to examine the historical 'big data' of the Soldier in Later Medieval England Project, a database of over a quarter million soldier names from the years 1369-1453. Using soldier surnames as a proxy for social background, I find that the participation of soldiers of higher social status decreased over the length of the conflict. I also find suggestive evidence that the links between soldiers and their recruiting captains were growing increasingly impersonal compared with the earlier medieval era.