On the morning of 30 May, freshly arrived from Wageningen, Professor Jan de Vries arrives at Leiden University. Later this day, he will be giving a lecture, to a full room, on his take on the so-called Great Divergence debate, but beforehand he has kindly agreed to an interview with Itinerario. Apart from him, present are three graduate students, the authors of this piece, and Professor Jos Gommans of Leiden University, in whose office we are, and whose grandmother's stately chair serves as the interviewee's place of honour. Over fresh cups of coffee, an amiable but wide-ranging conversation unfolds.
Professor Jan de Vries, of the University of California, Berkeley, is a respected economic historian with a long career reaching back to the 1970s. His work has taken on such diverse topics as Dutch rural economy in the Golden Age, European urbanisation and, in his widely influential book The Industrious Revolution, the developments that in his view paved the way to industrialisation in Europe. Lately his work has also taken a global turn, as he has addressed topics such as the Great Divergence and globalisation in history.
There are so many people named Jan de Vries. Helped by Wikipedia, we first thought we had somehow overlooked your early career as a motor driver! Yes, even in Berkeley there is more than one of us. If you look at the telephone book, you'll find three of us. One was even at the university [University of California, Berkeley]. He was an electrical engineer who worked in the space science laboratory which was affiliated with the university. Many years ago I had a telephone call in my office from a Dutchman who said, “Jan, I am waiting here for you.” And after a little bit he said, “you are Jan de Vries the electronicus [electronic engineer], right?” I answered “no, I am Jan de Vries the historicus [historian].” Later I met my name-sake and we still see each other periodically.