It has been impossible to escape the pervasive despondency surrounding the world economy in recent years, but even as we wait for the waves of the 2007/08 financial crisis to dissipate we face dire warnings of an impending global economic depression against a backdrop of demographic and ecological catastrophes. The only crisis apparently on the wane is that which befell economic history in the 1990s: soaring press and public interest in the Great Depression led Barry Eichengreen to remark in 2011 that ‘this has been a good crisis for economic history’. It is easy to draw parallels between the current economic recession and the Great Depression, but it is much more rewarding to widen our frame of reference to cross the traditional periods of history, exploring the concept of crisis and the responses of contemporary people.
Crisis has become a ubiquitous theme for historians, a concept which is considered crucial to economic development and social change, sometimes acting as a catalyst and frequently causing wholesale transformations of economies.
Financial crises, from the bullion shortage of the late fifteenth century to the Wall Street Crash and the current Credit Crunch, have often been at the heart of these discussions.
Demographic and epidemiological crises, in particular the Black Death and subsequent epidemics, have also been seen as crucial in bringing about structural transformations of society because they impacted upon the supply and demand of land, labour and food.
Closely linked to these problems were periods of agrarian crisis, often brought about by ecological factors, which threatened the stability of national or international economies, such as the Great Famine of 1315-17, in Bengal in 1770, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, or in Ethiopia in 1984.
Economic crises have also often been aggravated by warfare, conflict and trade disputes, whether in the form of the chevauchées of the Hundred Years War, European conflicts on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars, or the two World Wars of the twentieth century.
It is widely understood that many of these crises arose because of either a surplus or dearth of vital resources, and by implication there is a ‘Goldilocks’ standard against which historians measure economic and social change. Does such an ideal actually exist or is crisis the normative, and indeed necessary, state of affairs?