The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

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.


Greet prees at market maketh deere ware.

--Chaucer's wife of Bath

CHARTRES, September 8, 1224, the festival of the Virgin's Birth. For more than a week, the country roads to this cathedral town were clogged with crowds of pilgrims. Some were pious peasants who wished to thank the Virgin for hearing their prayers. Others were worldly merchants who came to buy and sell at the great market-fair called the Septembresce.

Their journey brought them to the golden plain of Beauce, prosperous wheat country in the heart of France. In early September, the rolling fields were bright with ripening grain, and the last scarlet poppies of the summer were still in bloom beside the dusty roads. In the distance, footsore travellers could see their destination long before they reached it. The beautiful blue silhouette of Chartres Cathedral soared high above the horizon, and was visible for many miles across the open countryside.

The great building that loomed before them, and still stands today, was the seventh cathedral of Chartres. The fate of the other six made a catalogue of medieval miseries. The first had been wrecked by the Duke of Aquitania in 743, and the second had been ruined by the Vikings in 843. The third cathedral had been destroyed in 962, and the fourth had been pulled down in 1020. The fifth and sixth had burned in 1134 and 1194.

After each of these catastrophes, the people of Chartres acted quickly to rebuild a structure that was vital to their faith and fortunes. In 1134 and again in 1194, they unhitched animals from their carts and . . .

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