How France Still Pays For Bad City Planning In The Middle Ages

The English chose to build their towns next to rivers. The French instead built on the ruins of Roman cities. A look at how these centuries-old decisions have impacted today's economy.

The medieval center of Dijon in eastern France
The medieval center of Dijon in eastern France
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARISWhat if all of France's current economic and social problems were the fault of Julius Caesar? Could the nation be suffering from weaknesses that have been concealed for two millenniums?

These strange questions have captivated many people on, an interesting European website for ongoing economic debates. The most-read article last month compared the settlement of cities in France and in England — under the Roman Empire and during the Middle Ages. Of course, it may seem scatterbrained to study such a topic amid an economic slowdown, social tragedies and populist temptation. But it may help to understand the economy better.

Let’s go back in time: Julius Caesar invades France. Emperor Claudius conquers England a few decades later. The Romans create colonies and build roads so their troops can move around. And cities begin emerging with sometimes defensive, often commercial, and always administrative purposes.

But at the start of the 5th century, the Roman Empire begins collapsing along with its entire network of organized living and infrastructure. Roads deteriorate, and cities lose their inhabitants. The first period of urbanization comes to an end. These cities, of course, eventually resurfaced, but in an environment transformed by technical progress, when people could navigate on rivers with heavy cargo. Waterways become more important than roads for transportation. People begin building canals for the first time, not for drinkable water, like the Romans did, but to navigate.

This is when France and England took different paths. In England, towns began being built along rivers. In France, they were rebuilt where Roman cities used to stand, alongside lost roads and often far from major waterways. Dijon, Chartres and Troyes, which were rich medieval cities, were located along non-navigable rivers.

Seventeenth-century engraving of Chartres's skyline — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared to 16 in France,” economists Guy Michaels and Ferdinand Rauch found in their academic research, which is summarized on

Water means prosperity

Cities that are accessible by waterways are more prone to high growth. In the year 1300, transporting voluminous goods by waterways was 10 times less expensive than by moving it by land. So these cities grew quickly. In 1700, 87% of English city-dwellers lived in towns that had access to naval navigation — inland or outland — compared to 58% in France. Thanks to a more efficient urban network, England managed to gather more precious resources to finance its industrial revolution.

The origin of this difference between France and England may be religious. Above the English Channel, the Roman Catholic Church disappeared with the Empire. Beneath it, it resisted. Bishops were major local figures with economic and social roles. In the 6th century, the first unification of the kingdom by King Clovis, who was about to convert to Catholicism, prevented the kind of political fragmentation that was destroying the English urban network. And the French cities survived.

All of this, of course, is ancient history. Over the last century, roads and trucks have filled in for these French weaknesses. So how is this distant past relevant? First, because it shows the long-term importance of earlier choices. “Path-dependence in city locations can still have important welfare costs today,” one researcher concludes. In an emerging world’s booming urbanization, this is a precious reminder.

This comparative study of medieval towns also reveals the importance of factors that have been left out of economic analyses for too long. By being schematic, “mainstream” economists have focused on market forces — and their oppositions. They then discovered (or rediscovered) the roles institutions play. But history and technology serendipitously play roles that are at least as important. Researchers have shown that techniques existing in regions 3,000 years ago have an influence on the income per capita today, that early access to plowing has weighed on modern productivity. Others have shown how strong or weak family ties have changed the organization of a country’s economy. Others still have argued that countries with artificial borders (as many have been drawn in Africa) have had real economic and political handicaps.

In other words, the ancient past models the present in depth. This is undoubtedly very true in France. Many of the country’s current strengths and weaknesses find their origins in centralized power initiated by Clovis 15 centuries ago, earlier than in any Western country. The multi-layered bureaucracy, the ultra-presidential regime and heaps of regulations, for instance, are all part of this ancestral movement. This, of course, does not prevent change. But there is a deep-rooted resistance, down to the most archaic layers of our collective mind.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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