The Economic History of the World

posted on Wednesday 5th July

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Studying economics is vital in the modern world because political decisions often concern economic matters, and government decisions are influenced by economic events. World history can be illustrated through a series of economic markers, from the most primitive exchange of goods, to the current day international trade market.

In the UK, a key difference in courses between the leading universities, Oxford and Cambridge University is the approach to economics. Cambridge teaches pure economics. Oxford, on the other hand, promotes the study of economics as part of the course PPE: Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Studying PPE adheres to the view, that to understand social phenomena, one must approach them from several complementary disciplinary directions. So to understand world history and how it influences our lives now, you should have a grasp of the political, philosophical and economic time-line, and how these intertwine.

Lecturer Mark Fletcher visited the School of English Studies to shed light on key moments in the time-line of trade and finance and how these moments changed our lives now: a history of the world through the lens of economics. The talk was dynamic and interactive, engaging the students in an exploration of key moments, from Sumerian farmers to smart phones.

To get his audience talking, the first thing Mark did, was give them a list of questions to ask one another.

  1. How do you get the money in your hand to buy a cup of tea or coffee?
  2. Why is it cheaper to book a holiday today than it was last month?
  3. Has anyone in your family retired from work? If so, do they get a pension? Where does the money come from?
  4. Who in this class is wearing clothes that were all made in their own country?
  5. What has happened to the price of a) petrol b) food in your country in the last year and why?
  6. Can you brainstorm the names of six companies which operate in the country of each student here?
  7. Chelsea FC, Harrods, Rolls Royce, the Shard are all famous English names. What do they have in common?
  8. Who is on the reverse of a £20 note and why?
  9. Why are you learning English?

He followed this up with a question to the whole group: “what in the room did they think had travelled the furthest?” After much debate they concluded that is was the computer from China, to which Mark held up the apple from his desk: “all the way from New Zealand.”

A history of economics can be tracked right back to the Neolithic revolution. This was an agricultural revolution where a wide-scale transition of many human cultures transitioned from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, making it possible for an increasingly larger population. It also saw the domestication of many plants and animals.

Economics evolved from barter to a form of currency exchange similar to what we are used to today with standardised coinage, and international trade flourished as routes were established over land and sea. The most significant of which was the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes that were for centuries central to cultural interaction originally through regions of Eurasia connecting the East and West and stretching from the Korean peninsula and Japan to the Mediterranean Sea.


Jumping forward to 14th Century Italy, The Renaissance was not just a period of High Art and Culture, but also a pivotal moment for technology and science, a time which included inventions such as the printing press – which allowed for a whole new world of information to be shared. The rise of high aestheticism and economic progress were united during The Renaissance, fuelled by financial institutions – the Italian bankers – in particular the Medici family, who funded most development at that time.

The Industrial Revolutions of the late eighteenth and 19th centuries saw life changing everywhere as the manufacture of textiles and other materials became faster and cheaper, and we saw the rise of modern transport, infrastructure and telecommunications. Things were moving faster and climbing higher than ever. Then came the eventual crash, bringing the Great Depression and the Second World War.


The economic effects of the war were huge. With huge numbers of men leaving to fight, in Britain recruitment and training of workers was disrupted, creating long-term bad effects on the quality of workmanship and management. However, in reflection of this, there was a growth in Trade Unions and strikes, as workers used their indispensability to negotiate better conditions and wages. There was also significant progress for Women’s Lib as women stepped into traditionally male roles while the men were away.

Many people can still remember the Golden Age of Capitalism which occurred between 1945 and 1973. Alongside so called ‘economic miracles’ in Western Europe and East Asia this was a time of optimism, and in some circles, of excess.

In Britain, today, we live in a globally connected world, with a ‘throw away’ economy and an ever growing preference for shopping online in the comfort and safety of our homes. Our finances percolate through contact-less payments, often with little human interaction. Our trust in the management of these interactions has reached a peak, where currency is moving from government issued ‘Fiat Money,’ to a virtual state.


In his lecture, Mark used objects relating to particular times, or incidents, that influenced economic development. As he went along, he also illustrated the passage of economic progress, drawing out the countries to show where the key moments occurred.

He brought out a metal trowel to symbolise the settling of farmers in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) around 4000 years ago. This was followed by an image of the Colosseum for the Roman Empire, a teapot to signify the transport of goods along the Silk Road, to a packet of MacDonald’s fries to symbolise corporate globalisation.

In this way Mark covered several millennia, touching on: the opening of the first banks, impacts of the plague and slavery, the industrial revolution and eventual depression years, ending with corporate globalisation and modern technology. Each object he used was relevant when held up in context, but slightly obscure once laid out together on the table – for example a woolly hat for the cold war.

Once he had finished his presentation, Mark covered the objects, and asked the students if they could remember them all. They then each took an object to give to their neighbour, explaining what that object symbolised. This exercise helped to secure in their minds the key elements of the talk.

Taking it further, Mark handed out picture cards and texts that related to the talk. In groups, the students laid out the cards and captions, to recreate the economic history of the world.

The final incarnation of the story was for the students, in groups of three, to act out three chosen moments; the beginning of farming, travelling via the Silk Road and the industrial revolution.

To conclude the lecture Mark gave each student a 100 Euros… that he had printed himself. The question he left them with was: “Why is a genuine two Euro coin worth more than this 100 Euros?”

What Mark leaves us with, is that for economics to be a deciding force, these systems must be appreciated as part of a bigger picture, with an understanding of the political and philosophical times that led people to believe in and support the system.

“What is the economic system without our trust in it?”

The School of English Studies is based in Oxford and offers intensive language training in groups of no larger than eight. Mark Fletcher taught at the school for nearly 20 years. He is a BBC World Service speaker and author of many books for teachers and learners of English.