a1 Amherst College
Douglass North and Robert Thomas recently proposed a model of the rise and fall of the manorial system. There is much to be admired in this work, which explores an unusually broad historical vision with great analytical acumen; but my purpose here is to examine some of its less compelling features. In section II, I consider the nature of feudalism, and develop empirical arguments against the wholly voluntaristic and non-exploitative interpretation proposed by North and Thomas. Section III examines their analysis of the “classic” manor, which I believe errs both in limiting the feasible contracts to forms of direct barter and in attributing the lowest transaction costs to labor dues even within that restricted set. Section IV reviews the proposed explanation of the later evolution of the manorial system, disputing both the continued use of the transaction costs model and the extensions of it that consider custom as an institutional barrier to efficiency, and population growth and inflation as the exogenous motors of change. Section V provides a brief concluding summary and evaluation.