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

Stephan Epstein's book stands as a critique of the View that the origins of the economic disparities between the north and south in Italy can be found in the middle ages. The books title both disguises and reveals its author's purpose: to demonstrate that the economy of Sicily was not submerged by that of central and northern Italy in the later middle ages, and that, particularly, the Vespers in 1282 did not cast Sicily adrift economically.

The author begins with a survey of the historiography of the questione meridionale, the question of southern backwardness, introducing the main economic theories which have been applied to Sicily. These range from the so-called "geo-historical" approach of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which argues that Sicily was backward because of geographic, climatic, and even racial factors, to analyses which incorporate the broader theories of underdevelopment and economic dualism that emerged after World War II in the wake of decolonization. The author aggressively disputes the applicability of theories of dualism - theories which suggest a two-sector or bi-territorial economy divided unevenly into a small, advanced, commercialized, profit-maximizing sector or territory and a much larger, backward, agriculturally-based, and exploited sector or territory - to medieval and early modern Sicily. Epstein's book argues instead that there is demonstrable economic growth in late medieval Sicily, and that the process of economic development can be both charted and explained through regional specialization and the integration of regional markets. There is a dropped stitch in this early presentation of the argument, however, for, after having guided the reader through what he sees to be the pertinent historiographical trends, Epstein states that his own model "[reintegrates] the main current explanations, the neo-Malthusian and the Marxist - recently summarized in the so-called |Brenner debate'. . ." (p. 21), but fails to explain exactly what that debate consists in, or, indeed, for the novice reader, what the labels "Malthusian" and "Marxist" imply.

Following this initial chapter, the book begins in earnest to map the regional economic development of Sicily which the author sees as key. Subsequent chapters are devoted to the process of regional specialization in Sicily's domestic markets (Chapters 2-5), to foreign trade (Chapter 6), and to the relationship between economic and institutional change, particularly the effects of shifts in income distribution on political power (Chapter 7).

Chapter 2 introduces the geography of Sicily, which divides the island into three natural sub-regions and discusses demographic differentiation between the regions. There are several maps provided here, although in some instances they prove less helpful than they might, as, in the case of Map 2.1, not all the landmarks mentioned in the text are always indicated on the maps. Similarly, the first of many tables makes its appearance, as the author offers his own estimate of Sicily's population at six points in time between 1277 and 1497. The text is not particularly clear about the methods that have been employed to arrive at the tabulated figures: here tax returns have been utilized, but the author struggles to argue that these are regional tax allocations, not assessments, but then insists that they are indeed "local quotas assessed on the basis of demographic numbers and wealth" (p. 37) and begins to speak of "hearth taxes" without explaining the term or its use in the instance of allocations; and generally the numbers rely on an equation between population and taxable regional wealth, which may or may not be true. Intuitive assumptions indeed abound throughout the book, assumptions which Epstein usually notes as such, but is not so conscientious about defending - as when, in this context, he opts for the upper ranges of a possible figure for the island's population in the late thirteenth century, "assuming that the Aragonese in 1283 were more efficient or ruthless than the Angevins in 1277, and levied a higher tax" (p. 50). Sicily's loss of two-thirds of its population between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries is, however, critical to the book's argument.

Chapter 3 sees the author move toward his own theoretical model of the late medieval economic crises: he signals the general importance of institutionally modulated opportunities for specialization to economic growth or diminution, and then discusses the market integration and specialization within Sicily itself that such opportunities made possible in the later middle ages. Chapter 4 examines changes in Sicilian market structure over time, focussing on specific products within the island's regional trade - grain, wine, agricultural staples - and comes to the conclusion that economic events in Sicily "differed in degree but not in kind from more general western European trends" (p. 162). Chapter 5 pursues a regional case-study: the market structures of the val Demone, the smallest of Sicily's three sub-regions and under the economic sway of Messina. Messina's growth in the fifteenth century is seen to support Epstein's general theory that regional specialization and trade actually increased after the Black Death because constraints were relaxed. Chapter 6 brings the critique of dualist explanations full circle, by arguing that Sicily apparently was not in fact dominated through foreign trade, because it could boast a trade surplus during most of the period in question. Chapter 7 then re-emphasizes that far from being weak or backward, Sicily's later economic development was significant enough to have reshaped some of the political structures of the Sicilian state.

When all the qualifications made in the text are acknowledged and all the author's assumptions granted, one is left with an argument which is plausible, but perhaps not persuasive. Epstein's book is also a very hard slog for the reader. The prose is turgid, and laden with theory and numbers, certainly. But, more, with its prominent use of the first person, its many reiterations of points just made, points about to be made, reminders of conclusions reached, and recapitulations in every section, the text reads rather more like a dissertation than a polished book. This is particularly disappointing for a text in Cambridge's Past and Present series, which aims, as this book's flyleaf advertises, to communicate new findings "in readable and lively form." Truly the book is neither. Nonetheless, Epstein has helped us to reconsider a perennial question in Sicilian history.
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Author:Mulchahey, M. Michele
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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