Prof. John H. Munro

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1Prof. John H. Munro

Department of Economics

University of Toronto
10 and 17 October 2012

The Economic History of Modern Europe to 1914
Prof. John Munro
Lecture Topic No. 6:


G. The ‘Agricultural Revolution’ of the 17th - 19th Centuries:

G. The ‘Agricultural Revolution’ in England: during the later 17th to early 19th Centuries

1. The Agricultural Revolution in Historical Perspective: the General Character of Agrarian Change Since the 17th Century:

a) A radical transformation of the agricultural sector: in historical context

I) in my view, such a transformation has always been necessary: at least for almost all traditional societies and countries in order to permit modern urban industrialization and sustained economic growth.1

ii) purposes:

(1) to release labour, capital, and even land for more productive and profitable employment elsewhere in the economy, especially in the industrial sector;

(2) in particular, to supply labour, foodstuffs, and industrial raw materials for urban industrialization

(3) capital requirements for industrialization also came from agriculture, as well as from commerce & finance,

iii) European comparisons: we shall see how this principle was applied in both the 18th and 19th centuries.

(1) not only in the case of Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution era, and also subsequently in the 19th century

(2) But also in the case studies of France, Germany, and Russia, from 1789 to 1914

(3) In general, Great Britain succeeded best, in this transformation, followed closely by Germany, with Russia and France lagging behind (though Russia had wide regional variations).

iv) That Great Britain was the first major country to achieve this radical transformation of the agricultural sector is another important consideration in answering the perennial question about the origins of the modern Industrial Revolution: why was Britain first?

v) Our first task: is to understand the concept of an ‘Agricultural Revolution’

b) the so-called Agricultural Revolution and the accompanying ‘enclosures’ provide the chief focus on this topic – of the later 17th to early 19th centuries, with a three-fold purpose :

I) to ascertain when the fundamental period of agrarian change, the so-called Agricultural Revolution, took place: i.e.,

(1) Before the Industrial Revolution: in the 16th or 17th centuries?

(2) During the Industrial Revolution era itself: from ca. 1760 to ca. 1820?

(3) After the first phase of Industrial Revolution: i.e., from the 1820s?

ii) to examine how and why so much of the agricultural sector was transformed from essentially medieval feudal to modern capitalist foundations:

(1) the structure of early modern English agriculture as the heritage of medieval feudal-manorialism:

  1. with a system of communal, peasant-villager property rights

  2. even if they were tenants of powerful landlords (often aristocrats),

  3. a majority of them in the central and populous Midlands zone were, if no longer serfs, the descendants of serfs.

(2) this structure, with deep medieval foundations was being transformed, from the later 15th century,

  1. to a modernized economic system based on individual private-property rights:

  2. even if such lands, so transformed to achieve a complete private-property status, for landlords, was then rented out by those landlords to their tenant farmers.

  3. this was a long process, requiring several centuries, so that in this course we shall examine only the last and complete phase (from ca. 1750 to ca. 1830)

(3) Enclosure is the collective name for this radical transformation in property rights

  1. which in fact had actually first begun, in a very small way, as early as the 13th century, and

  2. but whose first major phases took place in Tudor-Stuart England, from the later 15th century through to the 17th century

(4) For the overall significance, see my web document on Major Themes in European Economic History, for which I list the first two main themes as:2

  1. The struggle for property rights: to acquire and defend property rights (and to ‘capture economic rents’) in land, labour, capital, and enterprise (intellectual property rights)

  2. The erosion of institutional impediments to a market economy and to European economic development: (inter alia) Feudalism, Manorialism, Serfdom, the Church

iii) to examine how and why Enclosures facilitated or permitted major advances in agricultural productivity, and promote Industrialization?

c) A negative question: why study agriculture and the agrarian sector of the economy in seeking the origins of the modern Industrial Revolution, in view of the following contrary or negative factors?

I) Despite all the positive changes of the so-called Agricultural Revolution era, nevertheless England or Great Britain never succeeded in feeding all of its growing population

(1) As I have argued before, England ceased being a net exporter of grains, from the 1770s, and became thereafter always a net importer of grains and other foodstuffs.

(2) by the late 19th century, almost 85% of Britain’s national consumption needs for grain was met by imports – from as far away as India.3

(3) But, for the crucial phases of the Industrial Revolution era itself (ca. 1760 - ca. 1820), Britain was then far less dependent on food imports than was its chief rival, the Netherlands.

ii) Growth rates in both agricultural productivity and total outputs:

(1) agricultural growth rates were much less than in the other sectors of the economy, especially in the industrial sector

(2) But growth rates are difficult to measure:

  1. We have to distinguish between growth rates of productivity per unit of land and unit of labour

  2. And growth rates in total outputs: for as we shall see increased productivity in the 19th century seemingly paradoxically to a decline in total outputs – for logical reasons to be seen later

iii) Furthermore, the industrial sector overall probably did not succeed in achieving significant growth rates until the 1830s.

(1) That seemingly calls into question the concept of the Industrial Revolution

(2) But we can hardly expect technological and innovative entrpreneurial changes to produce overall positive growth rates in the beginning: so that the period 1760 to 1830 must be viewed as one of an incubation or embryonic developments for future real growth

d) The importance of agrarian change for modern English and European economic growth and industrialization: arguments for its vital importance

I) agriculture still remained the largest sector of the economy in early-modern England and in all of early-modern Europe (except the Low Countries and possibly Lombardy in Italy):

(1) the agricultural sector, at the dawn of the modern era, still employed by far the largest proportion of the population.

(2) around 1500: agriculture (along with related forms of rural industries) engaged about 75% of the population in both England and France (compared to perhaps 85% - 90% in 1300);

(3) and, in this early-modern era, the agrarian economy employed up to 85% in eastern and south-eastern Europe.

ii) importance of agriculture for rural manufacturing industries:

(1) as just indicated, a very high proportion of the population engaged in agriculture in early-modern Europe also included some people who produced industrial goods,

(2) if only in terms of part-time employment, because that agrarian structure tied so much of the population to the land and thus helped determine a rural structure for so many industries;

(3) i.e., that reflected the basic inelasticity of the pre-industrial labour supply, especially for the manufacturing sector.

iii) low agrarian productivity:

(1) That agrarian structure, with a subset of rural industries, basically reflects a low level of productivity, per unit of manpower and per acre [or hectare: about 2.47 acres],

(2) and both productivity defects had to be transformed if real economic growth was going to occur.

iv) in any event, for this course as a whole, on modern European economic history, agriculture and the agrarian sector are everywhere vitally important:

(1) for the major goal of the course is to understand the economic and social processes that transformed fundamentally rural, peasant, agricultural societies into modern industrialized urban societies: i.e., transformed societies from being basically rural and agrarian to become largely urban and industrial (plus commercial/financial in scope).

(2) That means essentially the series of economic processes and transformation that liberated labour, resources (land), and capital from the agrarian sector to become far more productively employed as inputs in the commercial-financial and industrial sectors.

(3) Since we begin with England and the Industrial Revolution, we also want to see to what extent the English model of agrarian transformation was followed on the continent, when its major countries underwent industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries

e) The Tasks of Agrarian Change to Promote European Economic Development and Industrialization:

I) The elimination of existing social and institutional barriers, many surviving from medieval times: as just indicated, but worthy now of a more precise repetition

(1) in the form of two related socio-agrarian institutions that still survived the medieval era:

  1. manorialism (also called seigniorialism):4 the economic foundations for medieval feudalism;

  2. communal peasant land tenures and communal farming organizations, which had been part of medieval manorialism, in England and in much of northern continental Europe.

  3. indeed, from Ireland to Russia (as we shall see in the second term), when we examine similar agricultural transformations in France, Germany, and Russia (including Poland, Ukraine).

(2) and to replace them with contractual private property rights that allowed both land and labour to respond to market forces:

(3) In England, most of those barriers, except for communal agriculture under manorialism, had disappeared by the 16th or 17th centuries;

(4) Serfdom: did it remain problem?

  1. that means the bondage of peasants to their tenancies on manorial estates, though with a status better than that of slaves: to be examined in more detail in the second term

  2. Certainly in England, from the 16th century, there was no longer any problem of peasant serfdom, in terms of arbitrary manorial exactions and legal constraints on labour mobility (i.e., peasants were no longer bound to the manor)

  3. but it continued to be a major problem and economic barrier on the continent, especially in central and eastern Europe, linked closely with manorialism, as we shall see in the second semester: for France, Germany, and Russia

  4. serfdom in central-eastern Europe was not in fact abolished until the mid to late 19th century

(5) Thus, in much of northern continental Europe, especially eastern Europe, the medieval vestiges of feudalism, manorialism (seigniorialism) and communal agriculture remained as very strong barriers up to the 19th century.

(6) indeed, as noted earlier, and to repeat with emphasis once again: we shall see how important these barriers remained on the continent: and in examining the economic history of France, Germany, Poland, and Russia next term.

ii) Second task of agrarian changes: To increase productivity per acre of land and per unit of manpower engaged: to increase outputs at ever lower unit costs.

iii) Thus the third task: to liberate labour and other economic resources, as previously stressed,

(1) for more productive employment elsewhere in the economy:

(2) and thus to reduce the proportional share of the agrarian sector in a rapidly changing economy.

f) Increasing Agricultural Productivity had these more particular, specific objectives:

I) first, to repeat: to liberate labour from the soil: to be employed more productively in other sectors of the economy, especially urban sectors: trade, finance, and manufacturing industry.

(1) In England, the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture fell

  1. from 76% in 1500 to 46% in 1750,

  2. to 22% in 1850,

  3. and to just 7% in 1900

(2) In France, in sharp contrast, that proportion fell only from:

  1. 73% in 1600 to 61% in 1750,

  2. and to just 43% in 1900

(3) A prime goal of modernizing the agricultural sector was to achieve such reductions.

ii) to supply increasing foodstuffs to permit growth of urban industrial populations: and those of the economic sectors with urban settings, i.e., commerce and finance

iii) to supply more industrial raw materials: especially for the various textile industries, which were then the major manufacturing industries (woollens, worsteds, linens, fustians).

iv) to supply capital (from agrarian rents and profits): also to be invested more productively in other sectors of the economy.

v) to increase rural market demand for manufactured goods: when and for which the rural economy provided generally still the largest market.

g) These productivity objectives remained, however, limited in scope, from the 1760s:

I) current estimates of growth in agricultural productivity, during the Industrial Revolution era,

(1) are indeed much higher than older estimates,

(2) nevertheless productivity growth in industry and trade well outstripped those in agriculture.

ii) Indeed, as also noted earlier, the so-called Agricultural Revolution that both preceded and accompanied the Industrial Revolution, failed to feed all of Britain’s growing population:

(1) so that, as noted earlier, Britain became a net food importer from the 1770s, having been a net food exporter for the previous century (from the 1660s).

(2) at best, the so-called Agricultural Revolution, succeeded only in reducing the amounts and values of necessary food imports, which, as noted earlier, were proportionately far greater in the Netherlands during the later 18th and early 19th centuries.

(3) Yet the agrarian changes did meet other objectives: in terms of releasing labour and other resources from the agricultural sector to be more efficiently employed elsewhere.

iii) As I stressed earlier, British economic growth from the later 18th and 19th centuries fundamentally depended on industrialization and its related commercial expansion: i.e.,

(1) to permit the growing imports of much cheaper foreign foodstuffs, from export earnings: of both industrial goods and services (and especially services).

(2) Otherwise, there could have been no demographic revolution accompanying the Industrial Revolution: one that allowed the population of England and Wales to double (almost) from 1751 to 1821 (6.342 million to 12.269 million) and then to triple from 1821 to 1911 (to 36.136 million).

h) The Mechanics of Rising Agricultural Productivity in Early-Modern Europe to 1800:

Note: Before the 19th century, modernisation did not mean mechanization but the following changes in land use:

I) Enclosure:

(1) changes in land-tenure or land-holding to replace communal forms of agricultural with structures based private property institutions,

(2) which both economized on labour and promoted superior farming techniques.

ii) Changes in cultivation techniques involving complex crop rotations, and with animals

(1) which also changed the relationship between livestock raising and crop cultivation (known as ‘convertible husbandry’),

(2) designed to improve soil fertility and thus output.

iii) The significance of all these agrarian changes can be best understood by examining what they displaced, in the form of traditional communal agriculture in northern Europe, from Ireland to the Ural Mountains of Russia.5

  1. The Barriers to Agrarian Changes and Economic Development: The Open or Common Field Systems

a) The Organization of Communal Agriculture in Northern Europe: the ‘Common Field’ or ‘Open Field’ Systems of Peasant Tenant Agriculture: must be clearly understood

I) This was a system of peasant tenancy agriculture, practised by peasants in northern Europe: (1) The British Isles (including Ireland) and continental Europe north of the Loire river in France and north of the Danube in Central Europe, and eastward through Poland and Russia to the Ural Mountains:

(2) A medieval manor was divided between:

  1. the lord’s demesne (domain): usually the best and largest arable lands, pasture lands, and for forest lands, for the manorial lord’s exclusive use

  2. and the peasant tenancies: surrounding or distant from the demesne lands

(3) the peasant tenants were subject to the economic and judicial control of feudal manorial lords: i.e., they rented their farm holdings from great landlords, often military landlords or ecclesiastical lords (bishops, etc).

(4) peasant paid feudal-manorial rents to their lords in three forms (often combined):

  1. labour services on the lord’s demesne lands: chiefly arable lands

  2. in kind: i.e., as a share of their own harvests

  3. in money: in silver coin

(5) Over time cash money rents came to displace other forms of rent, as labour services and payments in kind were ‘commuted’ or transformed into money rents, which became almost universal by the 15th century.

ii) In medieval and early modern England, open field farming was, however, not universal:

(1) It was chiefly concentrated in what is called the Midlands belt (see map): which was precisely the very region that had been subjected to medieval feudalism, manorialism, and serfdom:

  1. feudalism: as a militaristic system of government, based on military service and rewards

  2. manorialism: the agrarian economic superstructure: to support the feudal lords

  3. serfdom: a dependent peasantry, tied to the manorial estate, to work the lord’s lands for his benefit – paying rent for land in the form of labour services + money (or kind)

(2) but excluding parts of the counties of East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk) and the Home Counties near London (Kent, Middlesex), the SE counties, Wales, and the North East,

(3) for these regions had evidently never experienced either feudalism, manorialism, or this system.

(4) These other regions, without open field farming, largely consisted of either:

  1. individual peasant proprietorships and hamlets; i.e., with small compact individual holdings

  2. or large areas of unfenced pastoral lands for raising cattle, sheep, and pigs

iii) This largely manorial peasant tenancy system goes under both names, each of which defines certain central characteristics of the farming system:

(1) ‘Open Field’: because croplands worked by the peasant tenants were not organized as individual plots but were cast as large, open or unfenced fields.

(2) ‘Common Field:’ because the peasant tenants worked these great open fields of croplands to a considerable extent communally, and not individually:

  1. i.e., teams of peasants ploughed all their lands and harvested all their lands together;

  2. and grazed their livestock in common both in common pastures (or waste lands) and on the arable fields after harvesting.

iii) The crop-zones of the Open Fields could be organized as either a two-field or a three-field system of crop rotations: let us consider the three-field system, which had become predominant:

iv) This so-called Open Field or Common system: pertained to almost half of the arable lands of Britain even as late as the early the 18th century:

b) The Mechanics of the Three-Field System of Crop Rotations


ARABLE LANDS in cultivation in Northern Europe






FALL (Winter)

Wheat or Rye; and/or Winter Barley (‘berecorn’)



Oats, Barley

Legumes (Peas and Beans)


Resting Uncultivated (Double Ploughed)









I) Fall or Winter Fields (Fields A):

  1. consisted of crops that were planted in the Fall, grew in the Spring, and were harvested in mid Summer:

  2. grains such as winter wheat and rye (rye being a northern crop in origin);

  3. and also winter barley (‘berecorn’).

ii) Spring or Summer Fields (Fields B):

  1. fields that were planted with both grain and vegetable crops in the Spring and harvested in the Fall (Autumn).

  2. The additional grains were oats and barley:

(1) oats were particularly important in serving as a foodstuff or fodder for livestock, especially for horses (more powerful and speedier than oxen), which could not be properly fed as draft animals in south;

(2) barley served not only for bread and porridge but for brewing beer [south: wine].

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