Account for the dramatic population increase in Europe during the 18th century
Explain how European nations developed world trade during the 18th century
Discuss the consequences of European expansion for the common people
How did our "modern" world begin? This chapter discusses the important economic and demographic changes of the 18th century, which led up to the Industrial Revolution. It also prepares us for understanding the life of ordinary people in the 18th century, which is the subject of the chapter.
The chapter covers four important and interrelated subjects. First, the centuries-old open-field system of agricultural production, a system that was both inefficient and unjust, is described. This system was gradually transformed into a more productive system of capitalist farming, first in the Low Countries and then in England. Some English peasants suffered in the process, but on the whole the changes added up to a highly beneficial agricultural revolution. The second topic is the explosive growth of European population in the 18th century. This growth, still imperfectly understood, was probably due largely to the disappearance of the plague and to new and better foods, such as the potato. Doctors and organized medicine played a very minor role in the improvements in health. Third, the chapter discusses the movement of manufacturing from urban shops to cottages in the countryside. Rural families worked there as units in the new domestic system, which provided employment for many in the growing population. The domestic system was particularly effective in the textile industry, which this chapter examines in detail.
Finally, the chapter shows how the mercantilist economic philosophy of the time resulted in world wars for trade and colonies. Mercantilism also led to the acquisition of huge markets for British manufactured goods, especially cloth. The demand from these new markets fostered the continued growth of the domestic system and put pressure on it. This eventually led to important inventions and the development of the more efficient factory system. Thus the modern world was born. It is important to look for the interrelatedness of these changes and to keep in mind that it was in only one country, Great Britain, that all of these forces were fully at work.
McKay Intro: The Expansion of Europe in the 18th Century
The world of absolutism and aristocracy, a combination of raw power and elegant refinement, was a world apart from that of the common people. For the overwhelming majority of the population in the 18th century, life remained a struggle with poverty and uncertainty, with the landlord and tax collector. In 1700 peasants on the land and artisans in their shops lived little better than had their ancestors in the Middle Ages. Only in science and thought, and there only among a few intellectual elites and their followers, had Western society succeeded in going beyond the great achievements of the High Middle Ages, achievements that in turn owed so much to Greece and Rome.
Everyday life was a struggle because European societies, despite their best efforts, still could not produce very much by modern standards. Ordinary men and women might work like their beasts in the fields, and they often did, but there was seldom enough good food, warm clothing, and decent housing. Life went on; history went on. The wars of religion ravaged Germany in the 17th century; Russia rose to become a Great Power; the state of Poland simply disappeared; monarchs and nobles continually jockeyed for power and wealth. In 1700 or even 1750, the idea of progress, of substantial improvement in the lives of great numbers of people, was still only a dream of a small elite in fashionable salons.
Yet the economic basis of European life was beginning to change. In the course of the 18th century, the European economy emerged from the long crisis of the 17th century, responded to challenges, and began to expand once again. Population resumed its growth, while colonial empires developed and colonial elites prospered. Some areas were more fortunate than others. The rising Atlantic powers - Holland, France, and above all, England - and their colonies led the way. The expansion of Agriculture and industry, trade and population, marked the beginning of a surge comparable to that of the 11th and 12th-century springtime of European civilization. But this time, broadly based expansion was not cut short. This time, the response to new challenges led toward one of the most influential developments in human history, the Industrial Revolution, considered in Chapter 22.
What were the causes of this renewed surge?
Why were the fundamental economic underpinnings of European society beginning to change at this time, and what were the dimensions of those changes?
How did these changes affect people and their work?
Agriculture and the Land
The Hazards of an Agrarian Economy
The agricultural yields in 17th century Europe were not much higher than in ancient Greece.
Frequent poor harvest and bad weather led to famine and disease
The open-field system
The open-field system, developed during the Middle Ages, divided the land into a few large fields, which were then cut up into long, narrow strips.
The fields were farmed jointly by the community, but a large portion of the arable land was always left fallow.
Common lands were set aside for community use.
The labor and tax system throughout Europe was unjust, but eastern European peasants suffered the most.
There were few limitations on the amount of forced labor the lord could require
Serfs could be sold
By the 18th century most peasants in western Europe were free from serfdom, and many owned some land
The agricultural revolution of the late 17th and 18th centuries
The use of idle fallow land by crop rotation increased cultivation, which meant more food.
the secret was in alternating grain crops with nitrogen-storing crops, such as peas and beans, root crops, and grasses
This meant more fodder for animals, which meant more meat for the people and more manure for fertilizer
These improvements necessitated ending the open-field system by "enclosing" the fields
Enclosure of the open fields to permit crop rotation also meant the disappearance of common land
Many peasants and noble landowners opposed these changes
The enclosure process was slow, and enclosed and open fields existed side by side for a long time
The leadership of the Low Countries and England
By the middle of the 17th century, the Low Countries led in intensive farming
This Dutch lead was due largely to the need to feed a growing population
The growth of the urban population provided good markets for the produce
Dutch engineers such as Cornelius Vermuyden helped England drain its marshes to create more arable land
"Turnip" Townsend was one of the pioneers of English agricultural improvement
Tull advocated the use of horses for plowing and drilling equipment for sowing seeds
The Cost of Enclosure
Some historians argue that the English landowners were more efficient than continental owners, and that enclosures were fair.
Others argue that the enclosure acts forced small peasants and landless cottagers off the land
In reality, the enclosure and the exclusion of cottagers and laborers had begun as early as the 16th century
The Scottish professor Adam Smith founded modern economics through his general idea of freedom and enterprise in foreign trade.
He claimed that mercantilism stifled economic growth
He advocated free competition; he believed that pursuit of self-interest would lead to harmony and progress, for workers as well as employers
While some European intellectual elites and parts of the educated public were developing a new view of the world in the 18th century, Europe as a whole was experiencing a gradual but far-reaching expansion. As agriculture began showing signs of modest improvement across the Continent, first the Low Countries and then in England launched changes that gradually revolutionized agriculture. Plague disappeared, and the populations of all countries grew significantly, thereby encouraging the growth of wage labor, cottage industry, and merchant capitalism.
Europeans also continued their overseas expansion, fighting for empire and profit and, in particular, consolidating their hold on the Americas. A revived Spain and its Latin American colonies participated fully in this expansion. As in Agriculture and cottage industry, however, England and its empire proved most successful. The English concentrated much of the growing Atlantic trade in their hands, a development that challenged and enriched English industry and intensified interest in new methods of production and in an emerging economic liberalism. Thus by the 1770s, England was approaching an economic breakthrough fully as significant as the great political upheaval destined to develop shortly in neighboring France.