When Modern War Met an Antique Art  

Posted by T. Greer in , , ,

Kobayashi Kiyochika,  “In the Battle of the Yellow Sea a Sailor Onboard Our Japanese
Warship 'Matsushima', on the Verge of Dying, Asked Whether or Not
the Enemy Ship had been Destroyed” (October 1894)
 [2000.109a-c] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The earliest extant woodblock print was uncovered in a 7th century tomb excavated in the outskirts of modern Xian, then known as Chang'an, the seat of the Tang court.  Buddhist scriptures and holy phrases were the objects printed, and as at this time the connections between the Buddhist sangha of Japan, Korea, and China were closely intertwined it was not long before these sacred texts (and the technologies that created them) had spread across East Asia. When Westerners think of Eastern wood-block printing, however, it is not Buddhist wonders like the Tripitaka Koreana, but the colorful and iconic ukiyo-e style prints of Edo Japan that first spring to mind. Most folks have never heard of the word ukiyo-e, of course, but people the world over recognize the style when they see it. Be it Hokusai's great wave or Hiroshige's famous birds and landscapes, this style woodblock artwork can be found in kitsch and curio stores across the globe. 

Yasuda Hampo, "Picture of the Eighth Attack on Port Arthur.
The Flagship of Russia Was Destroyed by the Torpedo of Our Navy
and Admiral Makaroff Drowned” (1905)
We associate ukiyo-e prints with traditional Japanese landscapes or pastoral settings, episodes from Japanese myths or historical epics, and scenes of courtesan life in Edo. It can be a bit bewildering when we see the same art style and production methods used to produce more modern images. This should not be too much of a surprise, however: the most famous of the great Japanese woodblock artists died only a few decades before Commodore Perry brought his black boats to Edo bay. Much of their era would disappear in the miraculous changes of the Meiji revolution, but as the prints included here show quite clearly,  much of the old order lived on into the 20th century. 

These prints all depict episodes from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 or the Russo-Japanese War that was waged a decade later. Remarkably, none of these prints were designed to be great works of art; the great majority were carved and colored to accompany news reports from the front-lines, printed in newspapers or periodicals circulating in Japan on short notice. The artists never saw the battlefields they depicted, relying instead on common visual tropes,  reporter's accounts (you can see a gaggle of such reporters in the bottom right corner of the print placed directly below), and their own imaginations to create these images. The prints are therefore less useful for understanding the tactics or battlefield conditions of these wars than they are for understanding the attitude of a Japanese public mobilized for external conquest for  the first time in centuries. 

As historical sources the prints are revealing. A comparison of the physical features of the Japanese and Chinese soldiers depicted testifies to how thoroughly the Japanese people had adopted the racialist ideology common in European circles at the time. The prints, like the wars themselves, also betray how eager the Japanese were to prove that they were the equals of the Western powers. Perhaps most interesting, however, is how exultantly they depict the wars of their day. Tactically, the Russo-Japanese War was not far removed from the Great War that soon followed it, but the way the Japanese portrayed their experience with industrial warfare could not be further removed from the collective horror Europeans felt when they fought in the trenches. These woodblock prints were some of the first artistic renderings of industrial age warfare; never again would a people forced to wage such a war render it so beautifully. 

Copied below are the war prints I found most useful as historical windows or most visually arresting as works of art. The MIT Visualizing Cultures project has a much larger gallery of images that those as fascinated by these prints as I am will wish to explore. Also useful is an in-depth three part visual essay by John. W. Dower that explains the context for most of these images and which I drew upon to write this introduction to the prints.

Mizuno Toshikata, "Hurrah, Hurrah for the Great Japanese Empire! Picture of the 
Assault on Songhwan, a Great Victory for Our Troops” (July 1894)
 [2000.435] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Kobayashi Kiyochika, “Our Forces’ Great Victory in the Battle of the Yellow Sea - First Illustration” (Oct 1894)
 [2000.380_15] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Kobayashi Kiyochika, “Picture of Our Second Army Landing at 
Jinzhoucheng and Bombarding the Enemy Camp” (1894)
 [2000.380_33] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Kobayashi Kiyochika, “Scouting Out the Enemy Situation near Tianzhuangtai”  (1894)
[2000.021] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 Adachi Ginkō, “Major Sakakibara Fights Fiercely to the South of Ximucheng” (January 1895)
[21_1549] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Mizuno Toshikata,, "Admiral Ding Juchang of the Chinese Beiyang Fleet, Totally Destroyed at Weihaiwei,
Commits Suicide at His Official Residence”  (February 1895) [IMP_44_74]
Ogata Gekkô, “Illustration of the Death-Defying Squad of Captain Osawa and Seven Others 
from the Crew of the Warship Yaeyama Pushing Forward in Rongcheng Bay” (1895)
 [2000.408a-c] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Mizuno Toshikata, "After the Fall of Weihaiwei, the Commander of the
 Chinese Beiyang Fleet, Admiral Ding Juchang, Surrenders” (November 1895) 
[2000.123] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Kobayashi Kiyochika,, “A Soldier's Dream at Camp during a Truce in the Sino-Japanese War”
(April 1895) [2000.279] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Getsuzō," In the Battle of Nanshan, Lieutenant Shibakawa Matasaburō 
Led His Men Holding up a Rising Sun War Fan” (1904)
 [2000.448] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Shinohara Kiyooki, “A Righteous War to Chastise the Russians: 
The Night Attack of the Destroyer Force” (1904)
 [2000.453] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

If mankind is, as has been claimed since ancient days, a species driven by the narrow passions of self interest, what holds human society together as one cohesive whole? How can a community of egoists, each devoted to nothing but his or her own ambition, thrive? Or for that matter, long exist?

Patrick Morelli
Patrick Morelli
Patrick Morelli
Patrick Morelli
Patrick Morelli
Patrick Morelli
Patrick Morelli

Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury thought he knew the answer.

John Michael Wright, Thomas Hobbes (17th c).

Image Source
Hobbes is famous for his dismal view of human nature. But contrary to the way he is often portrayed, Hobbes did not think man was an inherently evil being, defiled by sin or defined by vileness ingrained in his nature. He preferred instead to dispense with all ideas of good and evil altogether, claiming "these words of good, evil, and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them, there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves; but from the person of the man." [1] Only a superior power,  "an arbitrator of judge, whom men disagreeing shall by consent set up" might have the coercive force to make one meaning of right the meaning used by all. Absent such a "common power", the world is left in a condition that Hobbes famously described as "war of every man against every man" where they can be no right, no law, no justice, and "no propriety, no dominion, no ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ distinct, but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it." [2]

This description of the wretched State of Nature is familiar to most who have studied in the human sciences at any length. Also well known is Hobbes's  solution to the challenge posed by anarchy:
[Those in this state will] appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgements to his judgement. This is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH; in Latin, CIVITAS. [3]
What is most striking in Hobbes' vision of this State of Nature and the path by which humanity escapes it is his complete dismissal of any form of cooperation before sovereign authority is established. Neither love nor religious zeal holds sway in the world Hobbes describes, and he has no more use for ties of blood or oaths of brotherhood than he does for the words right and wrong. He does concede that if faced with large enough of an outside threat fear may drive many "small families" to band together in one body for defense. However, the solidarity created by an attack or invasion is ephemeral--once the threat fades away so will the peace. "When there is no common enemy, they make war upon each other for their particular interests" just as before. [4] Hobbes allows for either a society dominated by a sovereign state or for a loose collection of isolated individuals pursuing private aims.
Hobbes' dichotomy is not presented merely as a thought experiment, but as a description of how human society actually works. Herein lies Hobbes' greatest fault. Today we know a great deal about the inner workings of non-state societies, and they are not as Hobbes described them. The man without a state is not a man without a place; he is almost always part of a village, a tribe, a band, or a large extended family. He has friends, compatriots, and fellows that he trusts and is willing to sacrifice for. His behavior is constrained by the customs and mores of his community; he shares with this community ideas of right and wrong and is often bound quite strictly by the oaths he makes. He does cooperate with others. When he and his fellows have been mobilized in great enough numbers their strength has often shattered the more civilized societies arrayed before them.

The social contract of Hobbes' imagination was premised on a flawed State of Nature. The truth is that there never has been a time when men and women lived without ties of kin and community to guide their deeds and restrain their excess, and thus there never  could be a time when atomized individuals gathered together to surrender their liberty to a sovereign power. Hobbes mistake is understandable; both he and the social contract theorists that followed in his footsteps (as well as the Chinese philosophers who proposed something close to a state of nature several thousand years earlier) lived in an age where Leviathan was not only ascendent but long established. They were centuries removed from societies that thrived and conquered without a state. [5]

To answer the riddle of how individuals "continually in competition for honour and dignity" could form cohesive communities without a "a visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants," [6] or why such communities might eventually create a "common power" nonetheless, we must turn to those observers of mankind more familiar with lives spent outside the confines of the state.  Many worthies have attempted to address this question since Hobbes' say, but there is only one observer of human affairs who can claim to have solved the matter before Hobbes ever put pen to paper. Centuries before Hobbes's birth he scribbled away, explaining to all who would hear that there was one aspect of humanity that explained not only how barbarians could live proudly without commonwealth and the origin of the kingly authority that ruled civilized climes, but also the rise and fall of peoples, kingdoms, and entire civilizations across the entirety of human history. He would call this asabiyah. 

Patrick Morelli, Ibn Khaldun (2009)
Bronze bust commissioned by the Tunisian Community Center

Image Source.

Patrick Morelli
Ibn Khaldun was born in 1332 in Tunis, what was then one of the grander cities of the Islamic world. He became a hafiz at a very young age, received ijazah in the hadith, sharia, and fiqh, and memorized volumes of Arabic poetry and prose as a young man. In addition to this classical Islamic education, Khaldun was given the opportunity to study logic, mathematics, and philosophy--including Greek philosophy--before he began his official political career. The formative events of his life occurred there in the sands of North Africa, as Ibn Khaldun moved from one dynasty's court to the next, cannily jumping ship from one king's court just before it fell to the sword of another. This life of wandering led him across the Maghreb and Al-Andalus, observing first hand the cycles of flourish and failure that would form the centerpiece of his political philosophy. He would eventually retire to Cairo, remaining there until the end of his days, interrupted only by an assignment to act as Nasir-ad-Din Faraj's diplomatic envoy to Timur the lame. [7]

Ibn Khaldun's life work was a gigantic multi-volume history called the Book of lessons, Record of Beginnings and Events in the history of the Arabs and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries. As the title suggests, Khaldun wished to write a universal history that moved from the time of Adam to the dynasties he had seen rise and fall before his eyes. However, Khaldun is most famous today not for his history, but for the supplement he wrote to preface it. In this Muqaddimah (Arabic for "Introduction") Ibn Khaldun set out to establish a new and "independent science" that would aid a historian trying to find the truth in the many conflicting accounts of the past. Such a science:
has its own particular object – that is, human civilization and social organization. It also has its own particular problems – that is, explaining the conditions that attach themselves to the essence of civilization, one after another. [8]
In other words, Ibn Khaldun sought nothing less than to discover and explain the basic laws and principles upon which all of human society operated. For his efforts Ibn Khaldun has been acclaimed in turn as the first economist, the first sociologist, and the first true social scientist of human history. In English translation his Muqaddimah is three hefty volumes in length.[9] Its contents range from poetry to climatology. Libraries could be written analyzing this book without fully plumbing it depths. Alas, a library is beyond my capacity.  I reserve myself to the less ambitious task of introducing one concept key to most of Ibn Khaldun's wider work and detailing some of the ways Khaldun applied it. This concept is of course asabiyah. 

The term asabiyah has been variously translated as "solidarity," "group feeling,"  "social cohesion," and even "clannishness." Ibn Khaldun did not invent the term, but he did retool it for his own purposes. The meaning he imparted to it is largely what it means today.

To introduce the idea of asabiyah I like to start in a place where the cold Hobbseian logic of fear and interest break down: the battleground. This example is not what Ibn Khaldun uses to explain the concept, but it does accord with his later outline of the principles that lead to victory or defeat. [10] War is an activity that requires extreme sacrifices from those called to wage it. Imagine if you will a Roman legion, Greek phalanx, or any kind of ancient army that required men to stand arrayed in line against a foe as terrible as themselves. How does a commander of such a force motivate his men to obey his commands despite the terror, tiredness, and sheer brutality to be found on the killing fields of war? The Legalists of ancient China thought great rewards for valor and dreadful punishments for cowardice or insubordination would be enough to command the devotion of the soldiery. Theirs was an attempt to align the private passions of the masses with the will of the state, and with this Hobbesian logic they hoped to throw conscripts and slaves into battle without needing to worry about loyalty or other soft emotions of the soul. [11] As the success of the Qin armies demonstrates, their methods had merit. But theirs was a strategy that worked best when the battle was easy and victory was  certain. When victory is in doubt, when rewards may not be given, and death seems certain for both those who follow orders and those who shirk them, the Hobbesian approach falls apart. In such dire times the self interested soldier realizes that his personal interest would be better served by fleeing from the field of battle than staying to be sacrificed for the greater cause.

An army composed of self interested soldiers more concerned with their own appetites and advantage than the army's fate is an army that, other things being equal, will be defeated. The force that conquers or defends 'against all odds' is a force imbued with a spirit of solidarity whose strength is more compelling than naked self interest could ever be. This spirit of sacrifice and common cause may be the fruit of patriotic fervor or revolutionary zeal, though often it is simply the sort of battleground loyalty that turns a group of strangers into "a band of brothers." It is this feeling that compels the self interested man to lead the charge and hold fast the standard despite the seeming irrationality of his position. It is not an emotion that causes men to ignore or forget self interest so much as it is a virtue that causes them to identify their narrow passions with the greater cause. For as long as this conviction lasts, the soldier thus enraptured will believe sincerely that the army's gains are his gains and that the army's fate is his fate.  Even in most desperate straits he will work with the strength and focus normally reserved for attaining private advantage, for in his mind the distinction between "self interest" and "group interest" will no longer be important.

The feeling and conviction that causes a man to think and act this way is what Ibn Khaldun called asabiyah

I have introduced asabiyah as a passive element--something an army has or has not. Ibn Khaldun understood asabiyah in much more dynamic terms, as a variable that not only changed history but was changed by it. His theories, as I have noted above, were based on his experience and his study of politics in the Mahgreb, where Berber nomads often swept out the desert to conquer sedentary kingdoms, established themselves as rulers there, and  were then in turn swept away by the next incursion from the wilds. Central to this cyclical vision of politics is the distinction Ibn Khaldun makes between Umran, or "civilization," and Budawah, or "the Bedouins." Ibn Khaldun used the term Budawah to describe not only nomadic tribes, but also sedentary rural people living far away from great population centers--in essence, any place where life was rough and there was no Leviathan to order relations between one man and another. 

Far away from the Leviathan's reach social organization devolves to the tribe and family. Appropriately, Ibn Khaldun introduces asabiyah first in familial terms:
“Their [the Bedouins] defense and protection are successful only if they are a closely knit group of common descent. This strengthens their stamina and makes them feared, since everybody’s affection for his family and his group is more important (than anything else). Compassion and affection for one’s blood relations and relatives exists in human nature as something God put into the hearts of men. It makes for mutual support and air, and increase the fear felt by the enemy.
…[Those without their own lineage] cannot live in the desert, because they would fall prey to any nation that might want to swallow them up.”[12]
Mutual reliance and kinship among these clans will naturally lead to a strong asabiyah. But Ibn Khaldun also states there is nothing inherent in common descent itself that makes asabiyah possible. In the wilds families exist because if they did not then men would be soon be overwhelmed and destroyed by circumstance and danger. Feasibly other groups (for example, the tight-knit communities of ‘social bandits,’ which in places like China have routinely taken their asabiyah and transformed it into armies, kingdoms, and dynasties) could gender the same sense of loyalty if placed in similar circumstances. Thus Khaldun notes:
“The consequences of common descent, though natural, still are something imaginary. The real thing to bring about the feeling of close contact is social intercourse, friendly association, long familiarity, and the companionship that results from growing up together having the same wet nurse, and sharing the other circumstances of life and death. If close contact is established in such a manner, the result will be affection and cooperation.” [13]
The simplest and clearest description of asabiyah’s requirements is given by Lenn Evan Goodman in his essay “Ibn Khaldun and Thucydides”:
“The tragic fact of history, however, which Ibn Khaldun insists on bringing before us, is that in politics whatever can be demanded will be demanded. Thus ‘asabiyya, whether in the nation or the tribe, becomes a matter of willingness to die.’ It is because this is so that nations and tribes, and the families, states or dynasties which rule them, have finite lifespans. Unless individuals are prepared to die for their group, the group itself will die." [14]
These requirements start with the clan and by necessity define the clannish life. But asabiyah does not end there:
“Once asabiyah has established superiority over the people who share in that particular asabiyah, it will, by its very nature, seek superiority over people of other asabiyah unrelated to the first. If the one asabiyah is the equal of the other or is able to stave off its challenge, the competing people are even with and equal to each other. Each asabiyah maintains its own domain and people, as is the case with tribes and nations all over the Earth. However, if the one asabiyah overpowers the other and makes it subservient to itself, the two asabiyah enter into close contact, and the defeated asabiyah gives added power to the victorious one, which, as a result, sets it goal of domination and superiority higher than at first.” [15]
Now Ibn Khaldun is never really too explicit on what exact mechanism allows one "asabiyah to overpower another." He is quite empathetic that religion is not this mechanism, and goes to great lengths to point out how the early Arab conquests and the consolidation of the Arab tribes by Muhammad and the early Caliphs are anomalies that his theory can not explain. He views that period in human history as singular, a direct product of God’s will and interference, not the natural product of the laws God devised to regulate the universe.

In Ibn Khaldun’s thought, conquest itself seems to be the driving force behind the consolidation of two asabiyah into one. Once a weaker tribal group is defeated, its leaders removed and men of valor killed, pacified, or subsumed under a new organization so utterly that the ‘tit for tat’ vengeance schemes so common to nomadic society (which Ibn Khaldun sees as the root cause of war) are no longer possible, then their asabiyah can be swallowed up in the larger group’s. What is key here is that the other groups – after their initial defeat – are not coerced into having the same feeling of asabiyah as the main group. Asabiyah that must be coerced is not asabiyah at all (this is a theme Ibn Khaldun touches on often and we will return to it in more detail when we talk about why asabiyah declines in civilized states). Instead, those who have been allowed to join the conquering host slowly start to feel its asabiyah be subsumed as the two groups “enter into close contact,” sharing the same trials, foods, circumstances, and becoming acquainted with the others' customs, but just as importantly, sharing the same set of incentives. Once the losers are are forced together with the winners, defeat for the main clan is defeat for all; glory for the main clan is glory for all; booty gained by the main clan’s conquests becomes booty to be shared with all. Once people from a subordinate group begin to feel like the rise and fall of their own fortunes is inextricably linked to the fate of the group that overpowered them then they become willing to sacrifice and die for the sake of this group, for it has become their group.

If one studies the formation of steppe confederacies in Inner Asia, such as the Xiongnu, Turks, Keraits, and the later Mongols (and to an extent Chinggis’ Empire, thought that one followed a slightly different path) it is not difficult to see  this process unfold almost exactly as recounted.

American Colony (Jerusalem) Photographer,
Bedouin wedding series: Mounted Bedouins racing (c. 1910)

Image Source.

Though asabiyah has its beginnings in the world without a state, it does not stay in that world. As Ibn Khaldun describes it this is because men and women cannot collect in too large a mass without there being some form of hierarchy to coordinate their actions and leadership to resolve inner disputes. Give man a little power and he will strive for more; it is the nature of the leader of the moment to try and make his authority permanent--a type of authority that Ibn Khaldun calls  mulk

Rosenthal translates this word as “royal authority,” Isawii translates its as “sovereignty,” Baali uses “state,” and Goodman uses “kingdom.” Ibn Khadun notes that this kind of power was not the same kind most clan chieftains or nomadic leaders possess:
According to their nature, human beings need someone to act as a restraining influence and mediator in every social organization, in order to keep members from fighting with each other. That person must, by necessity, have superiority over the others in the matter of asabiyah…. Such superiority is royal authority (mulk). It is more than leadership. Leadership means being a chieftain, and the leader is obeyed, but he has no power to force others to accept his rulings. Royal authority means superiority and the power to rule by force.[16]
Such authority springs from asabiyah but it is not asabiyah. Asabiyah is a corporate possession, a shared loyalty or partisanship possessed by entire clans or peoples. Sovereignty, on the other hand, cannot be divided. It is possessed by one man and one man only. In the end it is to him, not to his clan or to his people, the kingdom belongs.

Ibn Khaldun makes the distinction between the two in the following terms:
It is difficult for them [Bedouins] to subordinate themselves to each other, because they are used to (no control) and because they are in a state of savagery. Their leader needs them mostly for the asabiyah that is necessary for the purposes of defense. He is, therefore, forced to rule them kindly and to avoid antagonizing them. Otherwise, he would have trouble with the group spirit, and such trouble would be his undoing and theirs. Royal leadership [mulk] and government, on the other hand, require the leader to exercise a restraining influence by force. If not, his leadership would not last. [17]
Royal authority is impersonal. It is deliberate and planned. It is upheld by the realm of bureaucrats and officials; it is enforced by law and the force of arms. It is, in simplest terms, coercion used to bring peace to the ruler’s realm and ensure that the ruler’s will is done inside it.

As the power of royal authority increases the incentives his warriors, clansmen, and followers face begin to change:
First, as we have stated, the royal authority, by its very nature, must claim all glory for itself. As long as glory was the common property of the group, and all members of the group made an identical effort (to obtain glory), their aspirations to gain the upper hand over others and to defend their own possessions were expressed in exemplary unruliness and lack of restraint. They all aimed at fame. Therefore, they considered death encountered in pursuit of glory, sweet, and they preferred annihilation to the loss of it. Now, however, when one claims all glory for himself, he treats the others severely and holds them in check. Further, he excludes them from possessing property and appropriates it for himself. People become too lazy to care for fame. They become dispirited and come to love humbleness and servitude. [18]

This is the root of the ‘asabiyah cycle’ Khaldun is famous for. On it rests the rise and decline of empires and nations.
NOTE: Ibn Khaldun actually describes two cycles and they are not the same. One is the ‘four generations from rags to riches and back’ cycle, which he believes affects individual lines of the royal house. He does not equate this with the rise and fall of kingdoms themselves, suggesting that once generation four comes around and screws things up enough, the ruling dynasty’s kinsmen will depose him and put another member of the clan with more sense on the throne, starting that cycle over. The kingdom collapses when the dynasty’s kinsmen themselves are no longer willing to fight for the ruling line at all – in essence, when they (and everyone else) has lost their asabiyah for it. [see Rosenthal trans., vol I, p. 280 for more on this]. This broader cycle, in which asabiyah waxes and wanes, is the one that transforms barbarians into kings and nomads into emperors. It is important not to confuse these two). 
Thus in Khaldun’s view, asabiyah is not permanent. Almost inevitably, it dwindles away. The process can take generations, but the reason is always the same: “They have lost the sweetness of fame and asabiyah, because they are dominated by force.” [19] To use a rather rough analogy to make clear the point: a community may agree that it is a good and saintly thing to give alms to the poor. But once a government steps in and decides that they will tax the community in order to provide for the poor, the nature of the exchange changes. What was once  a decision freely made in a spirit of charity becomes an act compelled by force, tolerated (at best!) or resented by the givers. The spirit gives way when a law is in place. The principle could be restated: law is the substitution of asabiyah with coercion. 

 That law ascends and asabiyah withers away is in the interest of the new monarch, for the egalitarian party spirit that leads to conquest does not exalt the ruler when the conquest is over. Khaldun sketches this process out in the following terms:
It should be known that, as we have stated, a ruler can achieve power only with the help of his people. They are his group and his helpers in his enterprise. He uses them to fight against those who revolt against his dynasty. It is they whom fills the administrative offices, whom he appoints as Wazirs and tax collectors. They help him to achieve superiority. They participate in the government. They share in all of his other important affairs.
This applies as long as the first stage of a dynasty lasts, as we have stated. With the approach of the second state, the ruler shows himself independent of his people, claims all the glory for himself, and pushes people away from him with the palms of his hands. As a result, his own people become, in fact, his enemies. In order to prevent them from participation (in power) the ruler needs other friends, not of his own kin, which he can use against his own people and who will be his friends in their place. These new friends become closer to him than anyone else. They deserve better than anyone else to be close to him and to be his followers, as well as to be preferred and to be given high positions, because they are willing to give their lives for him, preventing his own people from regaining the power that had been theirs and from occupying with him the rank to which they had not been used. [20]
For the societies of the Middle East with which Ibn Khaldun was most familiar “new friends” could be of two types—the first were the civilized urbanites and advisers who were never part of the ruling clan but, possessing institutional knowledge and familiarity with the cities now ruled, prove useful to the ruling clan (their mandarin counterparts in traditional China, whose influence can be seen clearly in the Liao, Jin, Yuan, and Qing courts, are another excellent example of the type). The second are mercenaries – or as was the case in the medieval Middle East, slave armies. For Ibn Khaldun the reliance on slave armies and Turkic warriors by Arab dynasts was a sure sign of a dynasties’ decline, vivid proof that the clan in question no longer commanded the asabiyah needed to preserve itself. When only those compelled by punishment or induced by payment will fight in your name the end is near.

Part of the reason the ruling line loses this capacity is the corrupting nature of urban civilization itself:
By its nature, royal authority demands peace. When people grow used to being at peace and at ease, such ways, like any habit, become part of their nature and character. The new generations grow up in comfort, in a life of tranquility and ease. The old savagery is transformed. The ways of the desert which made them rulers, their violence, rapacity, skill at finding their way in the desert and traveling across wastes, are lost. They now differ from city folk only in their manner and dress. Gradually their prowess is lost, their vigor is eroded, their power undermined…. As men adopt each new luxury and refinement, sinking deeper and deeper into comfort, softness, and peace, they grow more and more estranged from the life of the desert and the desert toughness. They forget the bravery which was their defense. Finally, they come to rely for their protection on some armed force other than their own. [21]
But the problem with urban civilization is not just that it makes me people soft. It also affects their conception of asabiyah. Goodman explains:
Sublimated ‘asabiyya, the “identification” of individuals with the group such that they effectively sub- ordinate their atomic interests not to one another, simpliciter, but to one another as office holders, as possessors of various special and general rights which arise in a diversified, money economy and a more or less peaceful, legalized civil society, is necessary qua social bond for the maintenance of such a society; but qua sublimated, it bears within it the seeds of its own destruction.
....In the tribe it does not much matter how one feels about one’s obligations; the painful and immediate consequences of dissociation from the group are all too evident and pressing. But in civilization obligations have proliferated and grown complex; multiple substitutions of doer and recipient are possible (for the relation, not the identity of its participants is what counts); a thick cushion against the consequences of neglect is provided by the built-up institutions of society itself; and above all, the rise of wealth, the products of industry, including leisure (which is at once the most precious and most dangerous product of human industry) have opened the door to the most convincing enemies of duty (for sublimated ‘asabiyya in the most general sense is duty), namely personal ease, personal safety, personal pleasure.” [22]
Asabiyah, then, amounts to the feeling among those dying that they are dying for their own. As soon as they begin to feel that they are not dying for their own, but are dying for the king, or for someone else's clan, or for some obscure institution that is not them — well, that is when asabiyah is gone and the kingdom is in danger. Civilized life shrinks the asabiyah that once united people of different lineages, tribes, and occupations until the people of a kingdom only feel a sense of loyalty to themselves, of if you are lucky, those in their immediate neighborhood or caste. But at this point the feeling they have is not really asabiyah at all, but the narrow self interest Hobbes would appreciate. This leaves the kingdom open to attack from the next round of nomadic tribesmen united by charismatic leaders into one indivisible asabiyah driven force. 

Although it was not his intent, I think Ibn Khaldun here answers another puzzle apparent to the careful observer of human affairs. It has oft been held that a strong enemy unites a divided people. When faced with with a foe that threatens liberty and the integrity of the realm, private disagreements ought to be put aside until victory has been declared. But it is not apparent that history actually works this way. If one must compare the rising and declining eras of history's great empires--here I think of the Romans, the Abbasids, the Ming, the great empires of Castille and the Hapsburgs, or the Russian Empire of Tsarist fame (no doubt other examples can be found with if more thought were put to the question)--it does not seem the enemies they faced in their early days were any less powerful or cunning than the enemies that pushed them to extinction. The difference was in the empires themselves; where the wars of their birth forged nations strong and martial, the wars of their decline only opened and made raw violent internal divisions. Even destruction cannot unite a people who have lost all feeling of asabiyah. 

Andrea Cilesti, Tamerlane and Bayezid (c. 1770)

Image Source
The concept of asabiyah is applied most easily to the distant past. One cannot read histories of the early Islamic conquests and the slow hardening of state authority in Umayyad and Abbasid times without seeing Ibn Khaldun's cycles within it. I have alluded to many examples of these same themes in East and Central Asian history, for I have found that his theories map well to state-formation among pastoral nomads across the world, including those places Ibn Khaldun had barely heard of. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun's "independent science" can be applied to almost any pre-modern society or conflict without undue violence to his ideas. I recently wrote that in the pre-modern world, "internal cohesion and loyalty were often the deciding factor in the vast majority of military campaigns" [23]. Ibn Khaldun provides a convincing explanation for where such cohesion came from and why it so often failed when kings and princes needed it most dearly.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to see the hand of asabiyah in the rise and decline of modern great powers. Military science has progressed in the centuries since Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddimah; the drills and training seen in the militaries of our day are capable of creating a strong sense of solidarity and cohesion even when such feelings are absent in the populace at large. In that populace the nationalist fervor that accompanies mass politics has eclipsed (or perhaps, if we take asabiyah as the nucleus of nationalist feeling, perfected) asabiyah as the moving force of modern conflict. This sort of nationalism, dependent as it is on mass media and technologies unknown to Ibn Khaldun,  has a dynamic of its own that he could not have foreseen.

The most important difference between Ibn Khaldun's world and our own, however, concern the fundamental structure of the societies in which we live. Ibn Khaldun's was a static age where wealth was easier to seize than make. This is not the case today. For the past two centuries military power has been intertwined with economic growth and industrial capacity. No more can poor 'Bedouins' living beyond the pale of civilized society dethrone kings and reshape empires. In the more developed nations of the earth there is so little fear of war that both asabiyah and nationalism are sloughed off with few misgivings. 

 Despite all these differences, Ibn Khaldun did articulate principles that remain relevant despite their age.  The first and most important of these is that social cohesion should be understood as a vital element of national power. Wars are rarely won and strategies rarely made without it. A nation need not be engaged in existential conflict to benefit from strong asabiyah. Absent solidarity, internal controversies absorb the attention of statesmen and internal divisions derail all attempts to craft coherent policy. Strategic malaise is one byproduct of a community deficient in asabiyah. 

 Ibn Khaldun offers few cures for this sorry state. He asserts instead that asabiyah is not and never will be an artificial invention. The fragility of despotic regimes maintained by blood and fear reflect this fact. No matter how dearly the despot may wish it, the most powerful forms of human cooperation cannot be produced by coercion. Indeed, the most powerful forms of cooperation cannot be produced at all. Ibn Khaldun's vision is pessimistic: great men may ride the waves of history but they cannot direct their force. Asabiyah will rise and fall as communities grow and then splinter, bureaucracies expand and then calcify, and laws are established but then too quickly multiply. What was constructed for the glory of a people in past ages only hampers their progress and hastens their decline in the present. All the good man can do in such a time of decline is wait for the old order to fall apart and join the asabiyah driven group of men and women ready to rebuild upon the ashes. 


[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, or The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), Book I, Chapter VI.

[2] ibid. Book I, Chapter XIII.

[3] Hobbes, Leviathan, Book II, Chapter XVII.

[4] ibid. 

[5] Hobbes defenders try to downplay this err by claiming the State of Nature was but a thought experiment. How they explain away Hobbes' specific reference to the peoples of the American wildness living in just such a state, and also the sorry lives of all caught in a civil war, is beyond me. 

For the Chinese philosophers, see Mozi 11; Book of Lord Shang 7. There is also a passage in the Huainanzi of a similar nature; I ask readers to forgive me for not having time to pour through its 1,000 pages to try and find it right now.

[6]  Hobbes, Leviathan, Book II, Chapter XVII.

[7] Both these biographical details and those reported later in the essay are taken from Allen Fromherz, Ibn Khaldun: Life and Times (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011) and Franz Rosenthal, Introduction to Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), vol I, i-lxvvii.

[8] Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Vol I, p. 76

[9] More than five years ago I had the luck to find the 3-volume Rosenthal translation of the entire Muqaddimah in the library. I slogged through the whole thing (and then read the Issawi translation excerpts on top it) before the month was over. I copied down a lot of interesting passages into a ms word document so that I might use them later, and that is what I will be citing in this discussion. I cannot recheck the context for all these statements, as I am several thousand miles away from the library in question, but I believe they will serve for the purpose at hand. Unless stated otherwise, all quotations that follow are from volume I of Rosenthal’s translation.

Princeton University Press has since published an abridged (512 page) version of this same translation. 

[10] Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Vol II, 73-90. See esp. his comment on page 87: 
What is the fact proven to make for superiority is the situation with regard to group feeling. If one side has a single group feeling comprising all, while the other side is made up of numerous different groups, and if both sides are approximately the same in numbers, then that side that has a single comprehensive group feeling is stronger than, and superior to, the side that is made up of several groups. These groups are likely to abandon each other, as it the case with separate individuals who have no group feeling at all, each group being in the same position as an individual.

[11] For a particularly clear statement, see Book of Lord Shang, 11. 

[12] Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Vol I, 25.

[13] ibid., 374.

[14] Lenn Evan Goodman, "Ibn Khaldun and Thucydides," Journal of the American Oriental Society 92, no. 2 (1972), 260. 

This essay is  by far the best commentary on Ibn Khaldun’s thought written in the English language. I strongly recommend it to everyone who can access it. 

Goodman's point is echoed by Ibn Khaldun's definition of asabiyah:
This shows most clearly what asabiyah means. Asabiyah produces the ability to defend oneself, to protect oneself, and to press one’s claims. Whoever loses (asabiyah) is too weak to do any of these things.  
Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Vol II, 289.

[15] Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Vol I, 285.

[16] ibid., 284.

[17] ibid., 306. This accords with what modern anthropologists have learned about hierarchy and leadership in contemporary nomadic societies. See Philip Salzman, Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, And The State(Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 2004). 

[18] Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Vol I, 339.

[19] ibid.,  374.

[20] ibid., 372.

[21] ibid., 341-342. 

[22] Goodman, “Ibn Khaldun and Thucydides,” 261.

[23] T. Greer, "ISIS, The Mongols, and the 'Return of Ancient Challenges," The Scholar's Stage (18 December 2014).   

Dolia, an example of one type of pottery common in Roman times that
completely disappeared from Western Europe after the fall of the empire.

"Ostia Antica Dolia" by AlMare - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Source.

Economic history blogger Pseudoerasmus published an interesting pair of posts earlier this month titled "Economic Growth in the Ancient Greece" and "Ian Morris' Calculations About the Ancient Greece Economy" in which he takes issue with the estimations historians Josiah Ober and Mogens Herman Hansen and archaeologist Ian Morris have developed to measure economic growth in classical Greece. I recommend reading the two post in their entirety. They are an interesting case study in the difficulty facing anyone who tries to apply economic theory to or gain cliometric insights from the ancient past.

The problem is one of data. We simply don't have it. There was no National Bureau of Economic Research, Economic and Statistics Administration, or Bureau of Labor Statistics, or Federal Reserve Division of Research and Statistics in the world of ancient Greece or Rome. While folks like Angus Maddison, Walter Scheidal, Dominic Ratheborne, Chris Wickham and a few others have tried to estimate or model the real wages, labor supply, and GDP per capita of the ancients, ancient economics remains an imperfect art. Wage data is particularly tricky--while useful for understanding economic change within specific classical societies, I cannot think of a wage estimate built on ancient data I would trust in a comparative study.

To try and get around this archaeologists, historians, and the occasional eccentric economist who turns his gaze to the far past will use proxies to gauge the extent of economic growth. Scholars will get quite creative with these proxies; they range from measuring the size of homes to the number and type of animal bones found in trash heaps. One of the most popular proxies are measures of health: things like disease incidence, average age of mortality, and height. There are good reasons for their popularity: they do not need to be fed into complex mathematical models to be used, the source of their data (skeletons) are relatively plentiful, they record the well being of average farmers as well as elites, and can easily be used to measure one society or time against another without the usual challenges that come with comparing quantitative data drawn from radically different social contexts.

I urge caution in using these 'biological standard of living' data points as a proxy for wealth. As I pointed out in a recent post on this question, it is not very difficult to find examples from both the modern and the ancient world where historical measurements of health and of wealth diverge from each other. The examples I discussed included data from the African American "great migration," China and England at the turn of the industrial revolution, the collapse of the Roman empire, and the Neolithic transition to agriculture. In all of these cases wealth did not move into tandem with health--in my mind compelling evidence that what we usually refer to as "'living standards" and wealth are not the same thing." [1]

I received some push back in the comments section of that post. The afore-mentioned Pseudoerasmus wrote:
The term "wealth" is used very loosely in this blogpost.

You need to keep in mind the difference between a society's production per capita and the incomes received by the median person. The former says nothing about how the incomes in the society are distributed, so there may be a lot of income per capita but the median person may be benefiting very little from it. Stature is a very good proxy for incomes received by ordinary people, especially before the 20th century.

There is a big debate on whether wages for the working classes rose during the first phase of the Industrial Revolution or no. Robert Allen for example is a very prominent "wage pessimist". If real wages fell in the period 1800-50 then there is no height paradox.

But this loose use of the word "wealth" most afflicts your statement about the Roman empire. It's plausible that the median Roman was better off in the 1st century than in the 6th, but who says the median inhabitant of the Roman empire was NOT better off in the 6th century than in the 5th?

Who says neolithic farmers were wealthier ? [2]

I will concede that in that earlier post I used the phrase "wealth" in a rather loose way. In less than 1,300 words I moved from industrial America to premodern agrarian empires to hunter gatherer bands. It is difficult to talk about any one variable that might describe all three economic systems without stretching its meaning a bit. What is really necessary in order to make useful comparisons between such different eras is a discussion of fundamentals:  is there a meaningful conception of wealth that applies equally well to the paleolithic hunter gatherer and the information age office worker? What exactly is this thing we call "wealth"?

I cannot promise answers to these questions--I imagine it would take an entire book to answer them, and there are other topics much higher up on my priority list of things I plan to write books about.  However, I do not think it is wasted effort to explore these questions a bit and see if we cannot approach proper answers to them. I must reserve a full exploration of that topic for a later post. Before I delve into it I would like to clarify why I think biometric data--especially average height--is often a poor proxy for wealth and why measurements of a population's biological standard of living should not be confused with a population's wealth. A good place to begin is with the Roman case study mentioned above. I was surprised to find it faulted as my weakest point, for I consider it the strongest and least controversial of the examples given.

Roman cliometrics are only slightly more solid than the uncertain attempts to piece together the size of the Greek economy discussed in Pseudoeramsus's posts.  The most interesting data used in these studies involves wage estimates constructed from payrolls recorded on Egyptian papyri. [3] Unfortunately, there are no comparable records for the Western Empire and we must study the economics of that empire's fall by using what material proxies for wealth that might survive until some archaeologist digs it out of the earth or sea floor.

The most accessible introduction to this topic is Bryan Ward-Perkin's classic The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. As Ward-Perkin's title might suggest, the archaeological record shows that the collapse of the Western Empire can be seen in the collapse of an entire material culture--a "civilization." For awhile it was fashionable for historians to downplay this event, speaking not in terms of the empire's fall and Europe's descent into a "dark age" but of a "transition" or "evolution" of Europe into "late antiquity." Ward-Perkins will have none of this. He fights sophistry with data, providing one example after another of catastrophic collapse.

One of his first examples is pottery. Here is how the good professor describes the pottery found in archaeological sites from before the fall:
"In all but the remotest regions of the empire, Roman pottery of a high standard is common on the sites of humble villages and isolated farmsteads. For example, even on of a tiny farm stead in the hills behind the Roman city of Luna in Italy, which was occupied between the second century BC and the first century AD, produced the following range of pottery vessels: the huge storage jars (dolia) characteristic of the ancient world; coarse kitchenwares that were probably locally made (for the most part fast wheel turned, but including some vessels that were hand shaped), other kitchenwares imported from potteries along the West coast of Italy; amphorae from this same coastal area (with a few shards also from southern Italy and Africa) and finally, the fine glossy tablewares of Campania near Naples and of Arezzo in the Arno valley.... The list is not unimpressive for a peasant household." [4]
This contrasts with the pottery found in post-Roman sites:
"In the post-Roman West, almost all of the material sophistication disappeared. Specialized production and all but the most local distribution became rare, unless for luxury goods; and the impressive range and qualities of high quality functional goods, which had characterized the Roman period, vanished, or at the very least, were drastically reduced. The middle and lower markets, which under the Romans had absorbed huge quantities of basic, but good quality items, seem to have almost entirely disappeared. 
Pottery again provides us with the fullest picture. In some regions like the whole of Britain and parts of coastal Span, all sophistication in the production and trading of pottery seems to have disappeared altogether: only vessels shaped without the use of the wheel were available, without any functional or aesthetic refinement.... In other areas, such as Northern Italy, some solid wheeled turned pots continued to be made and some soapstone vessels imported, but decorated tablewares entirely, or almost entirely disappeared and even among kitchenwares, and the range of vessels being manufactured was gradually reduced to only a few basic shapes. By the seventh century the standard vessel for Northern Italy was the olla (a simple bulbous cooking pot) whereas in Roman times this was only one vessel type in an impressive batterie de cuisine (jugs, plates, bowls, serving dishes, mixing and grinding bowls, casseroles, lids, amphorae, and others). 
....It was not only the quality and diversity that declined; the overall quantities of pottery in circulation also fell dramatically. This fact is very difficult to demonstrate conclusively; but it will be familiar to anyone who has worked on a post-Roman site--mountains of Roman pottery are reduced to a few interesting but unassuming boxes of post Roman sherds. In both excavation and field survey  while Roman pottery is so abundant that it can be a positive nuisance, post-Roman wares of any kind are almost invariably very scarce. " [5] 
The same thing can be said for building materials and techniques:
In the Mediterranean region the decline in building techniques and quality was not quite so drastic [as in England]--what we witness here, as with the history of pottery production, is a drastic shrinkage rather than a complete disappearance. Domestic housing in post Roman Italy, whether in town or countryside, seems to have been almost exclusively of perishable materials. Houses, which in the Roman period had been primarily of stone and brick, disappeared, to be replaced  by settlements constructed almost entirely of wood. Even the dwellings of the landed aristocracy became much more ephemeral, and far less comfortable: archaeologists, despite considerable effort, have so far failed to find any continuity into the late sixth century of the impressive rural and urban houses that had been a ubiquitous feature of the Roman period.... 
As with pottery, the change was most complete, and significant in the lower and middle markets. In the fifth and six centuries tiles, which as we have seen had been very widely available in Roman Italy, disappear from all but a few elite buildings. It may have been as much as a thousand years later, perhaps in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries that roof tiles again became as readily available and as widely diffused in Italy as they had been in Roman times. In the meantime, the vast majority of the population made do with roofing material that were impermanent, inflammable, and insect infested. This change in roofing was not an isolated phenomenon, but symptomatic of a much wider decline in domestic building standards--early medieval flooring, for instance, in all but palaces and churches, seems to have been generally of simple beaten earth" [6] 
And household goods:
"An object from the Sutton Hoo ship burial that attracts very little attention in its British Museum showcase speaks volumes; the pottery bottle. In the context of seventh century East Anglia, it was almost certainly a high status item, imported from abroad (since it was shaped on a wheel, at a time when all pottery in Britain was hand formed). But in any context of the Roman period, even a rural peasant context, it would be entirely unremarkable, or notable only for its porous fabric and course finish. The economy that sustained and supplied a massive middle and lower market for low-value functional goods had disappeared, leaving sophisticated production and exchange only for a tiny number of high-status objects." [7] 

Ward-Perkins provides more examples, but this is sufficient for our purposes. The trend is clear: the quality and quantity of every-day material goods fell as the empire went into decline. Importantly, this was not just an elite affair. The decline was most dramatic in the households of the West European peasantry, not the West European nobility. The average European farmer in the 8th century lived in a worse house, bought far fewer of possessions from long distance trade, owned fewer possessions over all, and owned material goods of a lower quality than his 2nd century predecessor.

He was also more than three centimeters taller.

Average height of skeletons found in Western European archaeological sites, 1st to 18th centuries.

From Nikola Koepke and Joerg Baten, "The Biological Standard of Living in Europe in the Last Two Millennia," European Review of Economic History 9, no. 1 (2005), p. 14

We thus have two proxies for wealth that moved in different directions at the same time. In terms of health the average European farmer was substantially better off than before; in terms of material possessions the same farmer was in a substantially worse position. How do we reconcile this? Which measure better accounts for this thing called "wealth"?

It is worth it to stop here and reflect on just what determines the changing heights of the populations used in "biological standard of living" measurements.  The relationship between genes, diet, and the heritability of height is a fairly complex one. To simplify a bit, the heritability of height varies from 60-80% depending on the ethnicity of the population in question, and the remainder of variation in height reflects environmental effects, especially nutrition. When the average height of a population changes this is mostly a function of the changing nutritional quality of the food available to the population in question (though disease also plays a small part).  [8]

The quality of the food a household has access to usually is directly related to the income of that household and the general prosperity of the society in which they live. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is no law of economics or nutrition that mandates this be so, and if we search through the historical data we can find instances where it clearly was not. One such example was described at length by Jo¨rg Baten and John E. Murray in their research on the heights of prison inmates in 19th century Bavaria. As they report:
One valuable characteristic of the Bavarian prisoner data sets is the capability of distinguishing among the effects of nativity in the several regions. These regions differed notably in the composition of their agricultural output. While some emphasized milk and dairy products in their production mix, others concentrated on potatoes and still others on bread grains. Surveys from the mid-century allowed us to assign each observation values that represented per capita agricultural production levels in their birth region: milk production as of 1840, potato production as of 1853, and bread grains also as of 1853 (no author, 1854–1859; see also Baten, 1999 for further explanation). To model potential nonlinearities and substitutabilities we used both linear and quadratic terms for the food-production variables.
Food production–adult height relationships were strongly nonlinear in the men’s case while mixed in the women’s case. For both men and women there was an optimal (in height terms) amount of milk production in their birth region; but for both men (353 liters) and women (371 liters) the optimum occurred at a standard deviation above average production levels. Availability of protein from dairy sources may thus have been a binding constraint in the growth process, even if subject to diminishing returns above a large production level. A similar pattern emerged for the effect of potato production on men’s heights. The optimal production level of potatoes was far above the average. The relationship between women’s heights and potato production was linear, positive, and significant, while bread grain production was unrelated to women’s heights. Overall, we find that food production in the prisoner’s birth region was generally positively related to final adult height, but in a complex and nonlinear relationship. [9] 
The implication of these results is that the height of average lower-class Bavarians was strongly influenced by first the availability of milk and secondly the availability of potatoes in a given region.

There are several reasons why milk production might be so closely related to regional health differences. The first is simply that milk is perishable; in pre-industrial times raw milk could usually not be transported over 10 kilometers before spoilage, and soured milk could not be sold more than 40-50 kilometers before it too spoiled. Dairy produced locally had to be consumed locally. There was also, as Nikola Koepke points out, "an indirect advantage [to milk production] via equality: the transport problem lead to a very low shadow price of milk in remote milk producing areas. This induced a relatively egalitarian distribution of high-value proteins. Thus, even low income groups could consume a healthy diet. In contrast, in large cities, only high-income groups could afford a protein-rich diet which was based on meat there." [10]

Intrigued by these results, Baten later extended his study to other parts of Europe, looking at Prussian and French conscript records (as well as conscript records in Bavaria) to see if he could find a clearer relationship between milk production and height. The results were unequivocal: across all three countries "milk production per capita" was strongly correlated with average conscript height. This, combined with real wages, accounts for almost all of the variability in heights. [11]

Baten and Stegla found similar results in a long-range study of heights across the modern Near East during the 19th century. Here again we find that populations with most access to milk products--in this case Bedouin tribesmen--were far taller than their countrymen. [12] Perhaps the most interesting study along these lines, however, was Koepke and Baten's attempts to measure dairy production in the Roman and post Roman world. These are the same two researchers that originally reported the drop in average height as classical civilization expanded across Western Europe and then its three centimeter jump after the empire fell. What they found is that the prevalence of cow bones in trash heaps moved in parallel with the decline and jumps in human height. Archaeological sites from the zenith of the empire had few cattle remains, but plenty of bones from swine. [13] In other words, the changes in the average height of European farmers during the Roman and post Roman worlds can largely be explained as a function of the access these farmers had to the proteins found in dairy products.

As purchasing and feeding a cow requires a larger capital investment than purchasing and feeding a pig one could conclude that access to dairy is simply a measure of household wealth by another name. I do not think this fact alone tells the entire story. The prevalence of cattle over swine or pasturage over wheat cropland may just as well reflect a decision on the part of households to focus on the goods which would trade at the highest price on regional markets.  Whether or not cultivating these goods created a side product that substantially improved the health of their children would be less important than the market price of wheat, leather, beef, pork, etc., and the cost of devoting farmland to their production. This also holds true for those peasant farmers too poor to raise larger amounts of livestock themselves or wage workers who did not raise livestock at all. Their access to protein rich dairy products were just as much a product of their location as of their wages or household wealth.

This is the problem with using "biological standard of living" as a straight proxy for wealth. There are simply too many intervening variables that complicate the picture. In the case of European data, the heights recorded over the centuries clearly reflected average household income--but they also reflected average household dairy consumption. Until economic historians begin controlling for dairy consumption in their models, measurements of biological standard of living that rely solely on height data must be used with caution.


[1] T. Greer, "Health ≠ Wealth," Scholar's Stage (22 March 2015).

[2] Pseudoerasmus, comment #2 (25 March 2015), on T. Greer, "Health ≠ Wealth,Scholar's Stage (22 March 2015).

[3] For an introduction to this line of study see Walter Scheidel, ‘Real wages in early economies: evidence for living standards from 1800 BCE to 1300 CE’,  Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53 (2010), 425-462.

[4] Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 92. 

[5] ibid., 105-106.

[6] ibid., 107-108.

[7] ibid., 118.

[8] The matter is complicated somewhat by the fact that heritability itself can vary within a genetically similar population living in different environments--a fact I chalk up to reaction norms.  For a lucid introductory discussion of this topic, please see Lai Chao-Qiang, "How Much of Human Height is Genetic and How Much is Due to Nutrition?", Scientific American (11 December 2006).

[9] Jo¨rg Baten and John E. Murray, "Heights of Men and Women in 19th-Century Bavaria: Economic, Nutritional, and Disease Influences," Explorations in Economic History 37 (2000), 361.

[10] Nikola Koepke, "Regional Differences and Temporal Development of the Nutritional Status in Europe from the 8th century B.C. until the 18th century A.D.," PhD Diss., Universität Tübingen (2008), p. 100.

[11] Jo¨rg Baten, "Protein Supply and Nutritional Status in Nineteenth Century Bavaria, Prussia and France”, Economics and Human Biology 7, iss. 2 (2009), 165-180.

[12] Mojgan Stegla and Joerg Baten, "Tall and shrinking Muslims, short and growing Europeans: The long-run welfare development of the Middle East, 1850–1980," Explorations in Economic History 46, is 1 (2009), 132–148.

[13] Nikola Koepke & Joerg Baten, “Agricultural Specialization and Height in Ancient and Medieval Europe”, Explorations in Economic History 42, is. 2 (2008), pp. 127-146