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Economic and Social History Blog

45. In honour of Janne Heyndericx (19-5-2020)

In honour of Janne Heyndericx (19-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Writing (a blog) is an act of vanity, but for my 50th I will go all the way, and tell you about something I am really proud of. A few months ago Tine pointed out to me that our Girlpower paper was number one on the list of most cited papers published in Economic History Review since 1932, just ahead of Walt W. Rostow’s 1959 article ‘The Stages of Economic Growth’. That was obviously a great and pleasant surprise! It turns out that they list the number of times papers are cited in the last three years according to CrossRef. When I checked the list again today – I still find it hard to believe that it is true – we had dropped to no. 2, apparently overtaken by a ‘big spurt’ by W.W. Rostow  (who was a very famous economist in the 1960s and 1970s, an advisor to President Kennedy with strong anti-communist ideas; his major publication had the sub-title ‘a non-communist manifesto’ and presented a theory about how to kickstart economic development; and the first version of this theory was the 1959 paper in EHR – so we are in good company). And my bewilderment only increased when I went through the rest of the top 50, and discovered that also no.3 (comparison Chinese and European wages), no. 5 (Maddison project) and no. 9 (European Parliaments) had at least one author in common (I warned you that this is a blog with a more than usual level of vanity).

What these papers have in common is that they are multi-authored and, related to this, aim at making long-term, international comparisons of European and sometimes also non-European countries. Browsing through the list of most cited papers it is clear that this is a very small niche – only a few authors, Robert Allen is the best (other) example, dare to make such comparisons, and succeed in getting the paper published in EHR. Most papers – including some of the most cited (such as the paper on Spanish GDP by Leandro Prados de la Escosura) – focus on one country. The alternative strategy is to create a large dataset for England or a part of England – Greg Clark and Jane Humphries have very influential papers in this category. But for a scholar from outside the UK, doing research on non UK topics and data, it is not easy to get high in the citation index. The paper Bas and I published about Holland between 1350 and 1500 did well – ranking about 50 – but this place also shows the limitations of this focus on one (fascinating, spectacular, amazing) country.

My hypothesis is that for a non-British scholar the ideal paper for EHR is one which offers long-run international comparisons, and includes data and debates from the UK and other regions and countries. Including the UK is vital for getting sufficient attention – but also makes it more difficult to get the paper published, as it is not easy for an ‘outsider’ to understand the details of the British debates well, and one is bound to have at least one British referee (and the editor is probably British as well). Of two of the four ‘top 10’ papers the core contribution was the presentation and analysis of new data – of wages in China and other parts of Asia, compared with those in Europe, and of GDP per capita worldwide. The Parliaments paper did also produce new concepts (how to measure the influence of Parliaments before 1800?) and new data about the activities of these Parliaments (thanks to Eltjo  Buringh). So presenting a new, pan-European dataset seems to be key to the success of most cited papers.

What is, however, so remarkable about the Girlpower paper is that there are almost no data, no estimates in it. It is purely conceptual: we link a rather boring debate about the European Marriage System, which in the footsteps of Hajnal was mainly about marriage ages and the share of servants, to the much broader literature about human capital, labour markets, capital markets, and economic change in its broadest sense, and to debates about gender and agency (although this part was developed much further in more recent work). Economic historians had not been very sensitive to the debate about gender which had been going on in other parts of the academic community, but the way in which Tine and I linked it to broader questions – about the little and the great divergence – was acceptable to some of them.

These examples also tell us something about the niche for economic historians from the Continent in the international academic arena. We can write about interesting cases from our home country, but the impact of our research will be much bigger if we can make the kind of long-term, international comparisons that the Utrecht group has specialized in – even better examples are the recent books by Maarten on citizenship and Bas on the dynamics of capitalism. We are perhaps not entirely on top of the relevant British debates, which might be a handicap (or a reason to involve a British colleague), but we have a much better access to the European literature and debates (which is usually not the first concern of our British colleagues). This linking pin between (Western) Europe and the British world was the strategic position Slicher van Bath and Van der Wee occupied in the more distant past, and which has now partly been claimed by our Utrecht group.

And then there is Janne Heyndericx, the independent mother whose life story opens the Girlpower paper – who has exchanged marriage promises with one man, lives with another, has been kicked out of her parental home, but has remained independent over the years. The appeal of the Girlpower paper is also related to this opening story; a highly distinguished colleague once explained to me that his source of inspiration for writing a paper about the same subject was actually the life of Janne. It illustrates that nothing beats a good story.

Continue reading: The first European birdwatcher (20-5-2020)


De Moor, T., and van Zanden, J.L., ‘Girl Power: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period’, Economic History Review, 63 (2010), pp. 1-33.