The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

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9780195121216: The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

David Hackett Fischer, one of our most prominent historians, has garnered a reputation for making history come alive--even stories as familiar as Paul Revere's ride, or as complicated as the assimilation of British culture in North America. Now, in The Great Wave, Fischer has done it again, marshaling an astonishing array of historical facts in lucid and compelling prose to outline a history of prices--"the history of change," as Fischer puts it--covering the dazzling sweep of Western history from the medieval glory of Chartres to the modern day. Going far beyond the economic data, Fischer writes a powerful history of the people of the Western world: the economic patterns they lived in, and the politics, culture, and society that they created as a result. As he did in Albion's Seed and Paul Revere's Ride, two of the most talked-about history books in recent years, Fischer combines extensive research and meticulous scholarship with wonderfully evocative writing to create a book for scholars and general readers alike.

Records of prices are more abundant than any other quantifiable data, and span the entire range of history, from tables of medieval grain prices to the overabundance of modern statistics. Fischer studies this wealth of data, creating a narrative that encompasses all of Western culture. He describes four waves of price revolutions, each beginning in a period of equilibrium: the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and finally the Victorian Age. Each revolution is marked by continuing inflation, a widening gap between rich and poor, increasing instability, and finally a crisis at the crest of the wave that is characterized by demographic contraction, social and political upheaval, and economic collapse. The most violent of these climaxes was the catastrophic fourteenth century, in which war, famine, and the Black Death devastated the continent--the only time in Europe's history that the population actually declined.

Fischer also brilliantly illuminates how these long economic waves are closely intertwined with social and political events, affecting the very mindset of the people caught in them. The long periods of equilibrium are marked by cultural and intellectual movements--such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Victorian Age-- based on a belief in order and harmony and in the triumph of progress and reason. By contrast, the years of price revolution created a melancholy culture of despair.

Fischer suggests that we are living now in the last stages of a price revolution that has been building since the turn of the century. The destabilizing price surges and declines and the diminished expectations the United States has suffered in recent years--and the famines and wars of other areas of the globe--are typical of the crest of a price revolution. He does not attempt to predict what will happen, noting that "uncertainty about the future is an inexorable fact of our condition." Rather, he ends with a brilliant analysis of where we might go from here and what our choices are now. This book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the state of the world today.

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Review:

David Hackett Fischer is a master storyteller, capable of writing challenging histories in highly enjoyable prose. His earlier works, Albion's Seed and Paul Revere's Ride, have both been hailed for their extraordinary success as both scholarly achievements and readable histories. In The Great Wave, Professor Fischer directs his erudite attention to the ebbs and flows of prices, demonstrating that the historical costs of goods shed much light on patterns of human events, and the interpretation of those prices in turn discloses a great deal about the methods and biases of historians. The result is an intriguing study of both human history and a critical appraisal of the historian's craft. The greatest talent Fischer demonstrates is the ability to master a diverse amount of quantitative data and organize it into a remarkably clear story. Certain to interest lay readers, investors, and serious students alike, The Great Wave changes the way you look at those common signposts known as prices.

From the Back Cover:

"The history of prices is the history of change", writes David Hackett Fischer in this broad sweep of western history from the middle ages to our own time. His primary sources are price records, which are more abundant for the study of historical change than any other type of quantifiable data. Fischer uses these materials to frame a narrative of price-movements in western history from the eleventh century to the present. He finds that prices tended to rise throughout this long period, but most of their increase happened in four great waves of inflation - which he calls the price-revolutions of the thirteenth, sixteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries. The four waves shared many qualities in common. All had the same movements of prices and price-relatives, falling real wages, rising returns to capital, and growing gaps between rich and poor. They were also very similar in the structure of change. Each of them started silently, developed increasing instability, and ended in a shattering crisis that combined social disorder, political upheaval, economic collapse, and demographic contraction. These crises happened in the fourteenth, seventeenth, and late eighteenth centuries. They were followed by long periods of comparative equilibrium: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Victorian era. In all of these eras prices fell and stabilized, wages rose, and inequalities diminished. Then another great wave began and the pattern repeated itself, but not in precisely the same way. Fischer quotes Mark Twain: history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. Through all of these movements, Fischer explores the linkages between economic trends, social tendencies, political events, andcultural processes. He finds that long periods of price-equilibrium were marked by a faith in order, harmony, progress, and reason. By contrast, price-revolutions created cultures of despair in their middle and later stages. Fischer examines the cause of these movements, and discusses the models that have been used to explain them. He also considers their consequences. Fischer does not attempt to predict what will happen next, noting that "uncertainty about the future is an inexorable fact of our condition". Rather, he ends with an analysis of where we might go from here, and what our choices are now. This book should be required reading for anyone who is seriously concerned about the state of the world today.

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