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An Island for Itself: Economic Development and Social Change in Late Medieval Sicily.

Stephan R. Epstein reconsiders the macro-theories of dependency analysis on the basis of local Sicilian experiences and enters the debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in early modern Europe. He questions the "general consensus that the economy of southern Italy ... was permanently overtaken by that of central and northern Italy at some point during the high or late Middle Ages" (I). On the basis of a broad-ranging analysis of late medieval Sicily, he argues that southern Italy did not become economically dependent on monoculture and foreign trade, but enjoyed a varied, vigorous, and dynamic economy. His explanation is that social and economic crises of the late middle ages encouraged agricultural and industrial specialization in the various regions of Sicily, which in turn supported considerable economic growth and the development of a healthy exporting economy through much of the sixteenth century. Only during the crises of the seventeenth century, Epstein suggests, did the economy of southern Italy begin to decline with respect to those of central and northern Italy and other European lands.

Epstein's argument rests on an impressive foundation of evidence diligently quarried from archival sources throughout Sicily. Particularly interesting is his examination of the three economic regions that he identifies in Sicily. Epstein's close look certainly shows that the Sicilian economy was not moribund, but was quite productive and exported large quantities especially of grain, cheese, livestock, sugar, silk, and other products. The author deserves congratulations also for his effort to address the large issues posed by dependency analysts and others engaged in the debate about the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In my view, his work successfully raises questions from a local point of view about the structures posited by dependency analysts.

Yet several problems undermine Epstein's larger argument. The most obvious is that Sicily is simply not the proper unit of analysis for Epstein's thesis, which makes claims for southern Italy in general. Many Sicilian exports, after all, went to destinations elsewhere in southern Italy, so that a strong showing of Sicilian exports does not necessarily indicate a strong southern Italian economy. Beyond that, economic strength is a relative matter, and Epstein does not consider his economically dynamic Sicily in light of central and northern Italy, much less other European lands. Epstein's thesis calls not only for a regional analysis, but also for a large-scale comparative study that examines Sicily in light of the larger European economy. Furthermore, I suspect that Epstein underestimates Sicilian imports: he recognizes cloth as the only significant import, supplemented by a small number of slaves. What about iron, steel, tools, arms, Spanish administrators, and foreign expertise? Given the apparent silence of Epstein's sources on items such as these, it is impossible to construct a meaningful balance of trade for late medieval Sicily. Finally, Epstein's work suffers from organizational problems: he constantly raises issues only to defer discussion until another time - a habit suggesting that he has not completely digested his material nor effectively organized his thoughts about it. Thus it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Epstein has not put his considerable research to the most effective use.

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Author:Bentley, Jerry H.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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