CRUCIAL DEVELOPMENTS IN THE COUNTRYSIDE

ALL ECONOMIES BEGIN with food production. We know this, but not intuitively. The array of goods at our ubiquitous malls dulls our sense of what scarcity might be like. Famines are things that occur in other, distant lands. Yet they were once as common as the bad weather that caused them. Despite the handsome buildings constructed in the Middle Ages, the universities founded, the wars funded, Europeans—along with the rest of the world—often did not have enough to eat. The very rich might have plenty in the months before the first harvests came in, but most people had to tighten their belts, hoping that the carrots and turnips they had laid down the last fall would not mold, nor a late frost delay spring planting.

There were few ways to preserve food in those days. During the lean months farmers would be hard pressed not to eat the animals wintered over for spring breeding or the seed reserved from the grain harvest for next year’s planting. Dying from starvation was not common, but it loomed as a possibility when harvests fell short. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see the absolute necessity of producing more food with less labor if countries were ever to support other economic pursuits because only the restructuring of farming could free up workers and investment funds needed for, say, industry.

Scarcity exercised a pervasive influence in premodern societies. Public authorities kept a weather eye on each year’s harvest as it came into the granaries to be stored for the coming year. Officials were always on the lookout for farmers who held their grain off the market, hoping for a rising price, or who sold part of it to brewers without permission. Fear of famine promoted pervasive oversight. The growing and marketing of grain were enmeshed in a skein of regulations. Each country’s laws reflected the authorities’ fear of famines and the riots they provoked. Every step in the production of the wheat, barley, oats, or rice—those precious grains that composed the staff of life—came under surveillance.

The great triumvirate of marketing evils in English law—engrossing, forestalling, and regrating—were all felonies. What were these heinous acts? Buying up large quantities of foodstuffs and holding them off the market, waiting for a better price, and then retailing them to others. These old statutes with their wonderfully archaic names, affirmed that the growing and marketing of grains were as much social as economic activities. Grain was not seen as a commodity to be moved through the countryside in search of the best price.

The farmer who grew grain, what the English called corn—be he tenant, freeholder, or landlord—did not really own the crop; he attended it during its passage from the field to the market. He could not store it, he could not move it to a distant market, nor while it stood in the field could he sell it to a middleman. Rather he had to load up his cart with the grain not needed in his household and proceed to the nearest market. There he offered his harvest to his traditional customers. Similarly, the miller who made the flour and the baker who worked it up were constrained to push the finishing process along in an orderly fashion to its final form as a loaf of bread, selling at a price set by the local assize court.

Even today hunger is a heartrending reality for millions. Reporting on famines in the Central African Republic a few years ago, the New York Times described a farmer who let his wife take the last of their millet to make a porridge to keep them all alive. Most people probably don’t realize that the grain that goes into bread or beer is the same as the seed for next year’s crop of wheat or barley. With persistent dearth, the temptation to eat the seed set aside for the coming season often becomes impossible to resist, as with the farmer in the Central African Republic, with dire consequences for the future.

Seeking to appreciate, rather than disturb, nature, people in traditional societies felt awe and reverence for their social arrangements, whereas modern men and women often think about reforming them. The daily philosophy of acceptance and resignation not only acted as a balm for pain, but encouraged respect for the spiritual stamina that enabled people to endure hard times. The stability imposed by authority staved off many bad consequences, but it also inhibited fresh thinking. The tedium of constant worry bred a kind of lethargy. Only by entering imaginatively into the old order that preceded capitalism can we appreciate the struggle it took innovators to change it.

Moving from the moral economy of sustaining society to that of promoting development was not accomplished in a single century. The sensibilities of contemporaries in the sixteenth century had not been formed in a commercial world. The ethos codified in the Tudor statutes regulating wages, poor relief, and the harvesting of grain rested upon powerful assumptions underpinned by God’s injunction to Adam to work by the sweat of his brow and by Amos’s direful castigations against those who “swallow up the needy.”

The salient features of the biblical economy were sufficiently congruent to the ordering of labor in sixteenth-century Europe to command belief: The world could be made fruitful through labor; labor came to man as both a punishment and a gift. As a gift, it tied human society to God’s charity. As a punishment it forever harnessed men and women in the common work of sustaining life and doing God’s will. Biblical texts explained this social order, infusing the daily round of tasks with a divine rationale. If the poor tenant found himself ground down by a cruel landlord, the pain of privation could be relieved by the lesson in Proverbs “Rob not the poor, because he is poor: neither oppress the afflicted in the gate: For the Lord will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them.”

There was little that was private in the lives of rural or urban workers. Masters hovered over servants. Guilds controlled merchants and artisans. There were hundreds of these monopolistic occupational organizations, those of merchants being the most prestigious. To scan a list of artisans’ guilds is to get a picture of manufacturing when the hand—or manus—actually did it. There were guilds for shoemakers, bakers, dyers, stonemasons, carpenters, and even white stationery makers. Highly regimenting, the guilds protected the privileges of their members against outside competition. They also regulated prices and made sure that quality standards were maintained. Boys entered trades as apprentices and moved on to become journeymen; a few became masters of their own establishments. Girls normally served as housemaids under the strict supervision of a mistress. In Europe, neither group was allowed to marry until they were well into their twenties.

The obsession with order in premodern times had its roots in the limited economic horizon that prevailed and had prevailed through all time. Concerns about each year’s harvest of grain provided the principal justification for government control of most aspects of everyday life. The propriety of political control went unquestioned, especially among the propertied. People didn’t think of limited food production as a problem to be addressed; rather it was seen as a part of the cosmic order, an unalterable feature of human life. The annual round of activities that produced food belonged to a venerable round of duties and rights designed to protect society from famine, a goal made all the more vivid by everyone’s experience of hunger. Countries were often called commonwealths because of everyone’s shared stake in survival.

Military powers like the Romans in antiquity and the Arabs in the eighth century were able to support large armies not because they knew how to produce enough food to feed the soldiers but rather because they could extract food from their conquests. The Spanish used their might in a similar fashion in the sixteenth century. When famine threatened, the Spanish took the grain crops from their possessions Sicily and Naples and let the Italians starve. No people before the seventeenth century ever succeeded in altering the grim statistic that some 80 percent of the population had to farm to feed the rest. And the designation of feeder or fed was imposed by authority.

Agriculture as opposed to getting food by hunting and gathering made possible sedentary societies four centuries before the birth of Christ. The slaves, serfs, and laborers stuck to their hoes because even the primitive cultivation of crops yielded enough food to sustain them and the social superstructure raised on their backs. The surplus from their harvests and livestock went to pay royal households, religious establishments, armies, and a small coterie of merchants and artisans living in the interstices of society. Culture emanated from the few powerful and presumably talented, wise, and learned. Many societies in the past enjoyed prosperity, but none escaped the threat of famine by significantly improving the output of their agriculture.

A Growing Basket of Consumables

Geography, climate, and indigenous animals pretty much dictated what would be put on the table in premodern times. Grains, salted meat, and root vegetables carried people through the winter in cold climates. Lambs were slaughtered in the spring, beef throughout the year, but usually when the animals were young because of the high cost of keeping them alive. Good hunters plucked birds from the sky before they flew south. Well-off farm wives could afford to keep rabbits and chickens and sometimes bees. Families ate their homegrown fruits and vegetables through October. Then apples could be turned into cider. No one wanted salted fruit, and few fruits or vegetables can be successfully dried, so any excess perished because the sugar necessary for preserving them would have been expensive. Hops and barley went into beer unless the harvest was so lean that the law stepped in and forbade sales to brewers. New World maize—or what we call corn—and potatoes came into some European diets in the middle of the seventeenth century. And then there were sunflowers. Introduced from the New World, they were grown widely from the middle of the sixteenth century. Their grand height was turned into a contest. A gardener in England reported a sunflower fourteen feet high, passed by one in Madrid at twenty-four feet and another reported from Padua at a hard-to-believe forty feet. By the eighteenth century someone had patented a device for extracting oil from the sunflower seeds.

Discoveries of water routes to the East Indies and the New World added variety to European dinner tables. They also dealt a blow to the venerable belief that human history went in cycles without anything really new occurring. Along a broad front of topics from geography to theology, the existence of life at the antipodes proved by the explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries compelled intellectual reassessments as well as practical attention. Even more arresting, the joining of the Old and New Worlds made possible a global exchange in plants, animals, human practices, and—alas—germs. Before that, the people of the Western Hemisphere had been sealed off from the rest of mankind; after 1492 a new biological homogeneity began to emerge with profound consequences for the world’s people.1

Everything about the New World seemed strange to the Europeans. They had never seen reptiles as large as the iguana, and they puzzled that there were not only no horses or cows in the New World but also no four-legged animals larger than a fox on the islands of the Caribbean. The explorers and conquerors missed the familiar trees of Europe, but they marveled at the exquisite flowering plants of the Caribbean, later determined to number more than thirteen thousand. Horses, cattle, and uninvited rats throve in their new habitat. Hernando de Soto led a four-year expedition across the southeast of the North American continent. With many of his provisions on the hoof, he trekked across what is now North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas, leaving behind a host of European pigs to propagate in the New World. Conquistadors, given vast tracts of land, began to raise cattle while the horse made its way north, transforming the culture of the Plains Indians.

On his second trip Columbus brought seeds for all the Spanish fruits and vegetables that he hadn’t seen on his first visit to the Western Hemisphere. Veritable “Johnny Appleseeds,” the Spaniards acted quickly to exchange the flora and fauna of the two worlds. Spaniards and Portuguese introduced bananas, lemons, oranges, pomegranates, figs, dates, and coconuts, the latter found in the Philippines. From the New World, Europeans got a great variety of squashes, not to mention cocoa and tobacco. The range of European vegetables and fruits was far greater than those in the Western Hemisphere, but a few New World staples like potatoes, beans, and corn were to have a major impact on food-short Europe because the New World vegetables could be grown in places inhospitable to the grains Europeans depended upon as their principal source of nutrition. For instance, corn could grow where it was too wet for wheat and too dry for rice, and it yielded twice as much food per acre. These New World crops with their differing soil and weather needs usually acted like so many insurance policies against famine.

The potato was richer in calories than grains and could thrive on very small plots. Even more remarkable, potatoes yielded two to three times more bushels per acre than wheat or barley. They could be stored through the winter and didn’t demand much in the way of cultivation. People are amazingly resistant to changing their diet, slow to adopt strange foods, however beneficial. But the harvesting bounty of the humble potato won over the Irish, who began cultivating it at the end of the sixteenth century.

Potatoes had several advantages that rarely come into play now. They could be grown at high altitudes, helping the Spanish feed the miners of Potosí and enabling Chinese peasants to flee government tax collectors by moving into hill country.2 When invading armies burned crops to the ground, potatoes remained hidden in the earth. In China, Poland, and especially Ireland the potato’s bounty translated into earlier marriages and more children. When an airborne blight struck potato plants in 1846, 1848, and 1852, Ireland lost an eighth of its population from starvation or disease—one million of its eight million people. Whole families died in their cottages; corpses were found in the fields. The devastation, acerbated by British trade policies, sent another quarter of Ireland’s men and women to the New World.

The greatest New World contribution to the feeding of Europe came from the sugar produced in the islands of the Caribbean. Columbus brought sugarcanes from Portuguese Madeira on his second voyage. The Portuguese brought sugar cultivation from São Tomé off the West African coast to their New World colony of Brazil in the early sixteenth century. Quickly exhausting the gold deposits on Santo Domingo, settlers turned to the production of sugar as a surer source of profit. Spanish colonial administrators helped by making available sugarcanes and the slaves to cultivate them. An intensive kind of agriculture, usually involving work gangs of slaves, sprang up quickly. Unknown in the European world of family-based farming, these factories in the fields were the first examples of highly capitalized agriculture. Farm work, always drudgery, became brutal when the workers were enslaved and beaten to work harder. The sex ratio in the sugar plantations was often as high as thirteen men to one woman. Sugar was instantly popular in Europe. Soon the English, Dutch, and French seized Caribbean islands of their own during the seventeenth century to exploit this new and lucrative crop.

We all know the appeal of sugar in our candies, cookies, cakes, and coffees, but we’ve lost an appreciation of the critical role it played in the European diet. Sugar did more than furnish calories and sweetness; it made possible storing fruits and vegetables throughout the year. There were only three ways to keep food before artificial refrigeration: salting it, preserving it, or drying it. Sugar was the essential ingredient for preserves. Before a nineteenth-century German chemist showed how to extract sugar from beets, people had to import it from those tropical areas where sugarcane flourished. Its desirability and rarity did for the islands of the West Indies what oil later did for the Middle East: It gave them a monopoly of a commodity whose demand continued to climb for two centuries.

While the trade in exotic spices, luxury fabrics, and precious metals from the East and West Indies added great variety to the lives of well-off Europeans, they only slowly penetrated the closets and tables of ordinary men and women. Cities had grown, and trade among European countries had greatly increased, but in the rural areas men and women, their children and servants continued to work as they had for centuries, tilling the soil, cutting timber, and caring for livestock. People did not assign themselves parts in these agrarian activities; rather these responsibilities were allocated through the inherited statuses of landlord, tenant, cottager, and laborer. Supplying the food, fabric, and shelter for survival occupied the time of the whole family with a strict gender division of labor persisting. Customs, not incentives, regulated the flow of tasks that followed the calendar. Mix in a little ignorance, isolation, and superstition, and you can see that changing this order would involve a complicated choreography of incentive, innovation, and pure chance.

It took two hundred years before the volume coming from Caribbean plantations lowered the price of sugar enough to bring this wonderful ingredient into most people’s pantries. In 1750, 1 percent of calories in the English diet came from sugar; by the opening of the twentieth century it was 14 percent. The prospect of high profits suppressed any qualms about enslaved labor. Sugar became one more item in the expanding inventory of goods that knitted European countries together in an intensifying round of material exchanges. From the Baltic countries came grain and lumber, from the Dutch came dried herring and the goods their merchants collected around the world, from the Iberian Peninsula olive oil, wine, and fine merino wool, from Italy wine and fruit, from France luxury fabrics and wine, from England wool, metal tools, and foodstuffs. Within the web of international commerce, those countries with access to the Atlantic enjoyed a distinct advantage.

The rich ate vast amounts of meat, fish, and fowl while the poor had to content themselves with a monotonous fare of bread. In northern England and Scotland not even wheat was available; the poor ate oats while everywhere members of the upper class enjoyed a great variety of dishes. A surviving household account gives us a record of what a nobleman served on the feast of Epiphany. His 450 guests ate 678 loaves of bread, 36 rounds of beef, 12 mutton, 2 calves, 4 pigs, 6 suckling pigs, 1 lamb, numerous chickens and rabbits, as well as oysters, lingcod, sturgeon, flounder, large eels, plaice, salmon, swans, geese, capons, peacocks, herons, mallards, woodcocks, larks, quails, eggs, butter, and milk along with wine and 259 flagons of ale.3 If we compare it with the monotonous diet that some 80 percent of the society ate, we see the difference in material comfort that status conferred. In this world of scarcity there were some who enjoyed abundance.

Agrarian practices, dignified through centuries of experience, organized by shared habits, backed by authority, knitted together communities through routines, shared tasks, rituals, and celebrations. An idealization of the rural way of life has even persisted through three centuries of modernity. Many Europeans still farmed together in common fields in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The least efficient farmer set the pace; community plots maintained strict schedules for planting and reaping. After harvesting, the villagers had to agree on a time for letting their animals graze on the remains of the crops left standing in the fields. While most villages also contained freehold farmers and prosperous tenants, their lives were also deeply entwined with those of their neighbors. The stability of this way of living had built a mighty wall of hostility to change. Even where families farmed separately, there were many restrictions on the use and disposition of land as well as complications in titles and the right to sell or bequeath one’s land.4

Population Growth and Agriculture

The rhythms of birth and death set the tempo for the expansion and contraction of population. In good times, people had more children—or more children survived. Over time the bulging demand from the new generation pushed up the price of food, which in turn encouraged some farmers to reach out and cultivate plots of marginal fertility. The higher prices that came from greater demand made it possible to extract a living from land that normally was too poor to trouble with, but as a strategy to sustain a larger population this one was doomed. Eventually the yield declined, and the enlarged population was even more vulnerable to famine. Europe and other parts of the world regularly went into these demographic cycles of growth and decline. Diseases killed people as well, often working in tandem with the debilitating effects of hunger. And then there were the casualties of war, made worse by armies battening off the countryside. The Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648, led to a 35 percent drop in population in Germany, bringing to an abrupt end the population growth of the previous century.

A few simple economic truths reigned supreme. Abundant food lowered prices; food shortages forced prices up. Population growth increased demand, and demand raised prices. With population decline both the price of grain and the acres in cultivation went down. Because premodern farmers didn’t produce enough grain and livestock to keep their families from want, the fear of bad years was ever present. It discouraged investment and increased dependence upon authority. Better to salt the money away for lean times ahead; better not to offend those who could help in grim times. With such precarious harvests, people were at the mercy of the weather. In situations like these, fatalism reigned. Only when agricultural productivity increased would bad weather become less a matter of life and death and people be willing to entertain a belief in men and women’s capacity to control their destiny.

European population had seesawed between growth and decline for centuries. It hit its nadir after the Black Death swept across the continent in the fourteenth century. Fleas on rats stowed away in the caravans coming from China carried the bubonic plague to Europe, where almost one-half of the people died within four years. Permanent cycles of the plague’s return kept population low for the next century. Only very slowly did the death rates drop.5 These sustained losses of people led to a general economic retrenchment. With fewer consumers and those scattered across the Continent, it became too costly to transport goods. Many trading connections snapped. But fewer people often meant better times for the survivors, who could garner higher wages or wrest better leases from landlords forced to compete for tenants. It was this paucity of workers that prompted Portuguese traders to sail down the west coast of Africa to buy enslaved men and women to bring back to Lisbon.

With a decline of population, people abandoned the settlements that had grown up around marginal land tilled in response to the earlier growth of population. In England more than four hundred villages and hamlets ceased to exist in the second half of the fifteenth century. At the beginning of the sixteenth century European population began to bounce back from the Black Death, but the number of Europeans did not pass the benchmarks set in the first century until the middle of the eighteenth century. The seesaw of growth and retraction returned. Population, which had grown in the sixteenth century, declined in the next century, but a new plateau emerged in the 1740s. This one became a permanent launching pad for the population growth we are still experiencing. After that, the retrenchments stopped, though continental Europeans suffered some famines in the early nineteenth century.

At the end of the eighteenth century Thomas Robert Malthus, with these realities well in mind, published his famous Essay on Population. In it, he exposed a catch-22. He started with a simple hypothesis about population growth: People would have more babies if food were plentiful, and this happy outcome would lead inevitably to dearth in the future. As he pithily put it, “The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”6 All this was because population grew exponentially: If two parents brought six children to adulthood, they could soon have thirty-six grandchildren, a sixfold increase. Agriculture, if it expanded at all, did so slowly and arithmetically—two plus two, not two times two—as more acres were added to production or yields grew larger. A 10 percent increase in cultivation would add ten bushels of grain to an initial one hundred, not nearly enough for the new mouths to feed. Hastening the return of dearth, the new tillage also would be inferior to that already tilled, for people farmed the good land first, moving to marginal land only when demand pushed up prices.

The implications of Malthus’s theory startled: Reproduction could be counted on to wipe out any abundance that big harvests ushered in. In short, good times created bad times. For Malthus, it would take the grim reaper with his train of disease, dearth, and disaster to reestablish an equilibrium between people and food. Malthus was reacting negatively to the optimism swirling through European intellectual circles after the French Revolution, so he was not about to entertain hope that people might cut down on their insistent copulation. He recognized the possibility that having fewer babies would stave off famine but gave no credence to men and women’s willingness to control their fertility. No Enlightenment, in his opinion, could rewrite these inexorable laws of population growth and decline. He did acknowledge in subsequent editions of his essay that England was fortunate in having so many horses (the English loved shooting and hunting). The horses created a firewall against famine, Malthus said, since they could always serve for food in desperate times. And of course there was also their output of manure, so precious to farmers.

Like many prophets, Malthus was right…about the past. He published in 1798 on the cusp of two dramatic developments that are central to the history of capitalism: the limitation of family size and the steady growth of harvests after two centuries of mutually enhancing agricultural improvements. England and the Netherlands had already broken through the age-old limits on productivity by the end of the seventeenth century. Even so, Malthus saw clearly that population growth was the uncaged tiger in early modern societies, which is where our story begins. His grim figures, by the way, gave his young contemporary Charles Darwin a key idea. If all species had to struggle to feed themselves, then nature had initiated a war of all against all, leading the Darwinian enthusiast Herbert Spencer to coin the phrase “the survival of the fittest.”

After World War II scholars became interested in the centuries-old accordionlike oscillation of European population because it seemed to contain some clues about “the rise of the West.” For historians, their “Mount Everest” became explaining how countries in the West had thrown off the fetters of poverty and ignorance and marched into a modern era of their own creation, one that set them apart from other places as well as their past. For a long time, scholarly attention focused on foreign trade, urban growth, and the development of industry to explain the West’s divergence from its past and other contemporary societies. It finally became apparent that something was missing from this narrative, for money and workers could not move into industry unless farmers produced more food to feed them. This meant that change, if it was to be lasting, had to come in the most conservative and populous sector of the society, the countryside.

Wishing to confirm or disconfirm Malthus’s strictures about human reproduction, demographers found ways to investigate the population dynamics of the past with more precision. They pored through extant registers of marriages, births, and deaths that parish churches kept and through the statistics recorded by governments. With family reconstitution forms and painstaking effort, they charted the dates of weddings, christenings, and burials. Cumulatively, these records yielded statistics on the average age at marriage, the typical interval between births, and the life expectancy for men and women and their children.7 Aided by computers, historical demographers were able to plot rates of fertility and mortality. Meticulously filling in family reconstitution forms for hundreds of communities, they discovered patterns for whole countries and regions.

An arresting discovery emerged from this work: The majority of men and women in Europe married at a late age, around twenty-six and twenty-seven for men, twenty-four and twenty-five for women. This stood in stark contrast with the early age of marriage among the Chinese and Indians, whose men and women got married near the age of puberty and subsequently moved in with the families of the husbands or wives. Even in southern Europe, extended families lived together. Quite the contrary in England, most couples had to establish separate households before they could marry. This custom acted as a population check. If a third of a woman’s fertile years passed by before she married, she would have fewer children. The fact that a man could not marry until he could support his wife explained how this pattern of late marriage was maintained. Acquiring a plot of land usually depended upon the death of the father, a reality that linked mortality and fertility. But the age of marriage proved flexible. Later, when there were other industrial jobs for men, the age of marriage dropped two or three years. Still, it remained much higher for European countries than elsewhere.

These findings indicated why famines in Europe had never been as severe as in other parts of the world and why they disappeared first in England. Late marriages were most marked among the poor, whose adolescence was spent in apprenticeships and as farm servants. Among members of the propertied classes, concerns about heirs to continue the family lines were paramount. The wealthy married off their pubescent girls and boys because there was money to support young newlyweds. Parents could arrange—and canon law permitted—marriages among boys and girls as young as eight and nine, but this was not typical, as had long been thought. Romeo and Juliet were the exception, not the rule, and ordinary people always had to bide their time before they could marry.

The high price of food still had to be lowered if people were to break out of the vise of food shortages that had long set limited economic horizons, but this demographic indicator showed how European countries succeeded in limiting family size. New efficiencies in farming had to release workers and capital from the agricultural sector as well as bring down the cost of food for there to be any breakout from the vise of scarcity—a very tall order. The bookkeeping of a London baker in the early seventeenth century gives us a look at food costs relative to income. He paid three dollars in wages each week, while feeding the thirteen people in his household—wife, children, journeymen, apprentices, and maidservants—cost him twelve dollars. Food took four-fifths of his total outlay. A small firm today that covered the meals of its eight employees would spend less than a quarter on food.8

How Food Costs Limited Economic Development

With something like 80 percent of the people engaged in raising food, there were too few extra laborers and too little money to support many other enterprises. Whatever surplus accrued to those who worked the soil generally went to taxes for the ruler, rent for their landlords, and tithes for the church. Instead of acquiring income from enterprise, the members of the middle and upper classes—royal officials, landlords, and clergymen—were supported by the extractions in taxes and rents from those who worked the land. Others—merchants, lawyers, bankers, tradesmen—lived off the spending of the recipients of taxes, tithes, and rents. There could be no increase in demand for manufactured goods or even for the commodities brought from faraway lands without changes in food production because there was no money to spend on them. To make the point, the percentage of the population in farming in Europe of the sixteenth century was similar to that of Europe during the time of the Roman Empire.

Food costs strictly limited the funds available to buy such luxuries as leather goods, decorative objects, spices, cutlery, carriages, furniture, fabrics, and books. Bad harvests pushed up the price of grains, curtailing purchases further. Meat, for instance, left the table of the poor for years on end in times of dearth. People would postpone new purchases until better times returned, adding an uncertainty to the prospects of those who made those postponed purchases. Even if money had become more abundant, growth in commerce or manufacturing had another obstacle, a lack of people to work outside the farm. Expanded production depended upon having men and women available to work in these enterprises, but the demand for laborers in farming came first.

This state of affairs had several consequences. It encouraged people to save money for the proverbial rainy day. It also meant that luxury consumption was confined to the very small percentage of the society with disposable income—no more than 15 percent. To get out of this box, farmers had to learn how to produce more food with fewer hands. New methods of farming would have to sustain larger and larger harvests to remove the fear of famine that inhibited investments in other enterprises. The price of food would also have to continue to drop to enable people outside the gentry and the urban rich to buy manufactured and imported goods. To further complicate the picture, these requisite changes for a permanent escape from scarcity had to start in rural communities known for their fidelity to custom.

The incentive for change must have come when food prices began to rise in the early sixteenth century. With more mouths to feed pushing up the price of grains, the improvements that the Dutch pioneered became attractive despite the risk of doing something differently. The influx of New World gold and silver caused a century of inflation period, but cereal prices rose even faster. In England a number of propitious factors converged to promote reform of the old agrarian order. The relationship between landlords and their tenants was flexible enough to permit the adoption of new practices. Landlords, their tenants, and freeholders began imitating the techniques that farmers in the Netherlands had shown to be successful.

The catastrophe of the Black Death had an impact on the structure of landholding throughout Europe. In Eastern countries, landlords turned their tenants into serfs, while in Western Europe many families escaped tenancy altogether and acquired land of their own. In England there were many independent farmers—yeomen or freeholders—along with tenants farming large tracts of land. English landlords succeeded in breaking their customary low-rent leases that lasted the lifetime of the tenant. They acquired the power to adjust rents to the price levels of the grain and livestock their tenants produced. With fixed obligations, the tenants too could plan better. Many entered into arrangements in which, for instance, they specified improvements in cropping in return for long leases that would enable them to share with their landlords in the benefits from their expenditures of time and money. In France, landlords used different tactics to increase their incomes; they squeezed their tenants with fines, feudal dues, and labor services.

Higher prices from a rising population during the sixteenth century encouraged landlords in Europe’s Baltic bread basket to move onto neglected land and bring in larger crops to export. Again, growth brought the old scissors movement of more workers lowering the price of wages and the same population growth raising demand for food along with the price of it. The wealthy flourished for a time. In the long run, food production could not keep up with the insistent demand from new mouths to feed. In the short run of fifty years, rising grain prices created a powerful incentive to find ways to get bigger yields. Most landlords in most places preferred to stick to their ingrained ways, but enough opted to try new ways to increase harvests to set Europe on the course of transforming its agricultural system.

All Europe gained from the intensification of trade during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.9 More ships and carts were carrying more goods between countries, meaning that if harvests failed in one region, imports from other parts of the Continent could sometimes make up the loss. Urban population grew faster than rural areas, so city fathers began to store grain against future crop failures, particularly in the Netherlands, which always fell short of feeding its people. Spain depended upon northern European countries for wheat, copper, tin, wood, hemp, linen, and high-quality textiles, and for a while many Spaniards had the money to buy them. Naturally this increase of money chasing goods led to inflation. But interestingly, the cost of food went up faster than that of other commodities. Inflation came from an excess of people as well as of silver.

Having a natural source of water, European farmers did not have to depend on irrigation, as did those in China and the Middle East. Setting up the canals, sluices, and waterwheels for irrigation was a costly business that only the government or the well off could afford. This fact probably limited the number of possible innovators there to officials or the rich, often the most conservative members of society because they have the greatest investment in the status quo. Still, parts of China enjoyed both growth and greater wealth for a long period until population growth overwhelmed its capacity to respond in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Dutch Farming Improvements

On land wrested from the tidal incursions of the North Sea, the United Provinces were the wonder of Europe, especially after they secured their independence from the Spanish at the end of the sixteenth century. They extracted tons of herring from the seas that lapped at their shores and then created the world’s largest merchant fleet to ship this wonderful source of precious protein to their European neighbors. In Flanders, farmers reclaimed wasteland that was usually too sandy to nourish grains by planting flax and hemp, the crops that produce linen and rope (not to mention marijuana). These plants had the advantage of leaving behind fibrous stalks that could be plowed under to bulk up the sandy soil. Elsewhere the Dutch drained marshland to create more acres for tillage. They also experimented with clover, a weed that had been around forever. Evidently someone’s close observation showed that clover, like many legumes, actually left nitrogen in the soil. Turnips too became a new crop, one that could be grown in the summer and stored for winter feed for animals. This innovation led to bigger animals and more manure for the hungry soil.

Agriculture throughout the world was woefully unproductive because cropping drained the land of its fertility. The traditional remedy for soil exhaustion was allowing land to become fallow to recapture its fertility, but this took a third or a quarter of acres under tillage out of production. Farmers could also restore fertility by adding nitrogen to the soil. Their principal source of this came from animals that unfortunately had to be fed to stay alive and defecate, taking even more land away from producing food for the people. Breaking through this bind of declining soil fertility took a bundle of mutually enhancing practices. Fortunately Dutch farmers had been experimenting with possible improvements for many decades.

Some farmers in the Netherlands realized that they could abandon the old medieval practice of leaving a third of the land to lie fallow each year. This move increased the number of tilled acres by a third. Instead of the fallow rotation, they divided land into four parts, rotating fields of grain, turnips, hay, and clover each season. Not only did this increase the number of tilled acres by a third, but the clover fed livestock after it had enriched the soil with its nitrogen deposits. The virtuous circle of growth replaced the vicious circle of decline. When some landlords and farmers responded to the possibility of becoming more productive, they were taking the first permanent steps away from the age-old economy of scarcity.

English farmers copied the Dutch and succeeded in making their agricultural base feed more and more people with fewer laborers and less investment. Unlike the Dutch, the English had enough arable land to grow the grains that fed the people as well as their livestock. The Dutch could not produce what was needed to get their people through a year. With their profits from trade, they could store grain, but this lifesaving program got more and more expensive.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century England contained almost six million people and more than one million horses. The horses could deliver the power of eight to ten men, adding to the wind, water, and coal that English industry could call upon for energy.10 With many different types of soil, the possibilities of improving fertility varied. Rich but heavy clay soil could be lightened with sea sand and ground seashells if farmers lived near enough to the sea to cart them home. Farmers could dig in marl and limestone. Sandy soils were enriched through planting legumes and clover, which left behind nitrogen, the vital enhancer of all soils. Farmers also began to tether animals in fields for nature’s most efficient delivery of manure.

While some English farmers copied the Dutch four-field rotation, others adopted up-and-down husbandry. In this routine, a farmer would crop his best land for three or four years and then put it in pasture for another five, during which time the animal manure and nitrogen-fixing crops would rebuild the fertility necessary for growing grains again. As in the Dutch system, land was no longer left fallow but always growing some crop, whether for animals or humans. Every element on the farm was put to some use; every hand, given new tasks. These innovations made urgent a farmer’s attentiveness because of their interlocking qualities. Both the Dutch and English began to flood meadows to warm the soil in winter and extend the growing season. Over the course of the century all these improvements raised the seed to yield ratio, the labor to yield ratio, and the land to yield ratio. Or more simply, they led to bigger harvests from fewer acres, less labor, and fewer seeds.

Doing things differently when the subject is the staff of life took courage, imagination, and careful attention to detail. In the familiar and rather mindless narrative of progress, the assumption is made that all that was required for change was to mix opportunity with the natural human drive for self-improvement. Then people, the account goes, would seize these ingenious ways to bring prosperity to the countryside. This would be true only if traditional farm families and landlords thought like venture capitalists today. They didn’t, and many factors kept them from doing so. Novelty frightens those used to following custom. Taking risks could make the difference between having enough to eat or not having enough.

One more factor worked against the adoption of these new techniques: The biorhythms of premodern men and women were not attuned to sustained labor. People were used to suffering from want and many other discomforts but not to exerting themselves for long stretches of time day after day. Human beings do not naturally labor long hours. Raising grain crops the old way required intensive work at planting and harvesting time. In between these seasons there was lots of leisure time. The Christian calendar even encouraged work-free days with dozens and dozens of feast days, almost a hundred a year if Sundays are included. Working hard is a capacity that has to be developed, usually through rigorous, early childhood training. Fear of punishment and tenacious oversight can change habits, but only slowly. It is also clear that some people are more attuned to laboring strenuously for a perceived purpose than others. What became critically important to breaking out of the old agrarian order was making it easier for those who were receptive to exerting themselves in new ways to do so. Being what economists call a rational economic actor didn’t make a lot of sense for landlords or tenants when there were so many more customary ways to spend money and risks outpaced rewards.

English Agricultural Improvers

The new wave of improvements moved England beyond the seven-fat-year, seven-lean-year phenomenon. This time, rather than collide with the familiar blocks to permanent change, gains were made secure. Over the next three and a half centuries, the percentage of farmers in northwestern Europe passed from around 80 percent to some 3 percent of the population. Two groups in England had largely freed themselves from institutional constraints on change. They were freehold farmers and landlords who had succeeded in replacing low fixed rents with leases reflecting market prices. These were the probable innovators. The landlords would have to succeed in finding cooperative tenants since few of them farmed their own acreage. The amount of land in the hands of the nobility and gentry varied greatly throughout England, as did the ability of landlords to coerce their tenants into adopting agricultural reforms. A few nobles so hated badgering their tenants that they turned to other economic areas like mining. Together the improving landlords and freeholders probably came to control about 60 percent of the arable land in England. The king, landowners whose customary tenants enjoyed fixed rents, landlords who had no taste for managing their estates, and poor cottagers held the rest of the arable acreage in the country.

Improving landlords and freeholders could add to their holdings by buying land that came on the market because of an owner’s death or financial troubles. They could respond quickly to price incentives because they were well off enough to gamble on change. Their success with improvements brought them the money to buy more land. The government took a hand in promoting agricultural improvements as well, granting pensions to experts to publicize utilitarian plants and demonstrating to farmers how to raise them. Manuals on farming went through successive cheap editions at the same time that literacy was increasing. Over the long haul the returns on improvement cut down the sense of risk felt by those watching from the sidelines, removing one of the disincentives to change.

The records don’t allow us to know which group—the improving landlords or the improving freeholders—played the stronger role in turning English agriculture from a largely subsistence, village-based system to a market-driven regime of private farms. Since the size of the farm had little influence upon whether or not to adopt the new techniques, we might turn to the cultural and personal qualities that prompted innovation. Roman advice books describe the best dung as being the tread of the master’s boot. Writers in the seventeenth century repeated that bromide again and again. If true, this may have given the advantage to the owner farmer over the landlord who had to induce his tenants to learn new skills. Only a very efficient manager could save all animal waste, convert his fields from pasture to tillage, rotate grain crops, grow soil enhancers like clover, flood meadows, and keep his children and servants at their various tasks.

The greatest force working for the adoption of improvements sprang from their conspicuous success in producing larger harvests. Because improvements got results, the trailblazers, few and scattered across the countryside, acted as catalysts for change. Abandoning fallow periods immediately brought more acreage under the plow. When enough people invested their resources in productive improvements, they forced others to imitate them or suffer. Enlarged harvests precipitated a drop in the prices of grains. The improvers could still profit because they had larger yields, but those landlords and farmers who had not enhanced the fertility of their soil or adopted better cropping methods would be wiped out by the persistent decline in prices. Slowly the mechanism of the market built a momentum for improvement.

The countryside’s most salient division became that between those who engaged in improvements and those who didn’t—whether they were farmers, tenants, or landlords. It was not between landlords and their tenants per se. Nor did self-interest exercise a consistent influence because in times of dramatic change it was difficult to know wherein one’s interests lay. The market was hard on those who wanted to stand still; its price dynamic rewarded the provident and improving and punished those resistant to change or out of touch. The future is always unclear, and capitalism’s reliance upon individual decisions made it even more difficult to imagine, much less know, what would be the results of cumulative decisions.

These may sound like innocuous statements, but they challenge the Marxist position that the conversion of agriculture from primitive reproduction to enhanced productivity began with farsighted landlords who coerced their tenants into commercial leases with rents set in response to harvest yields that exposed tenants to the competitive forces of the market.11 In this analysis tenants are assumed to have resisted cooperating with their landlords’ improvement plans because they feared becoming dependent on the market and losing the independence that fixed rents gave them. But there is no way that anyone could have predicted the results of initiating improvements or what dependence upon the market would entail. These are retrospective observations. Nor was it possible to imagine that adopting a few experiments in agricultural technology would start a train of unique developments leading to a total restructuring of the economy. Pointing to landlords as the agents of change makes them more prescient and disciplined than they were.12 There is no evidence that landlords, as a group, initiated the crucial changes in agriculture or that farmers and tenants were loath to embrace them on their own.

I believe that the reverse of the Marxist position is true: that new social relations were the consequence, not the cause, of the transformation of English farming. The changes themselves took place over five or six generations of experimentation and resistance, during which time there would have been a slow, untidy sorting out of the successes and the failures in all strata of the old agrarian order, from cottagers to great lords. Innovations certainly redistributed agricultural income. They delivered profits to those who undertook them and reduced returns to the landlords, farmers, and tenants who did not. This sequence of developments slowly rearranged hundreds of rural communities.

Many a gentry family tumbled from casual indebtedness to forced liquidation of estates. Tenants who did not have secure leases lost their holdings. Bad luck, sickness, or insufficient planning could push them into the ranks of cottagers—those with a house and small garden plot—or, worse, of itinerant laborers. The records indicate that some freeholders prospered even as their numbers grew smaller over the course of the seventeenth century. The most successful moved into the gentry while others lost their independent footing altogether. The market in its own impersonal and seemingly inexorable way increased both rich and poor and changed the array of options for many in the middle.

Priming the Pump of Capitalism

Improved agricultural techniques didn’t stop at enhancing harvests; they upended the old agrarian order. Producing for the market, with all of its practical adjustments, replaced a settled way of life, guided by tradition and inherited status. What Marx and his followers got right was the coherence of a new class of owners determined to use its influence and money to secure policies that favored its interests. Ironically, this complicated social rearrangement began to be seen as a natural process. Part of the improving landlords’ campaign to free themselves of the old restraints, encapsulated in the laws against engrossing, forestalling, and regrating, was rhetorical. Disputants and pamphleteers began talking about producing for the market as a natural system resistant to political tampering.

Continued, abundant harvests had another intellectual impact. They made it possible for people to feel less threatened by change, less subservient to nature, less inclined to accept authority. We might put it this way: In an emergency our psychological template is different. We’re anxious and fearful. We accept the authority of a leader; we do as we are told. Premodern society had always lived with a sense of teetering on the brink of disaster. The fading of that fearfulness made way for more optimistic assessments of the future and more positive estimates of human capacities. Men and women relaxed a bit.

By the middle of the seventeenth century both population and prices had leveled off in England, only to begin a climb again after 1730. The world’s population had expanded and contracted over three millennia, but from that eighteenth-century benchmark it has continued to the present. Unlike the old accordion pattern that had characterized previous European population fluctuations, the increase in people this time laid a new basis for future growth with each cohort forming a larger springboard from which world population still soars. Food supplies were to be severely strained from time to time, but instead of shrinking, they expanded to sustain new levels of population. The twenty million Frenchmen Louis XIV ruled in 1700 became the forty million Frenchmen who couldn’t be wrong in 1914. English population grew at an even faster clip. And in England’s North American colonies—that catch basin of surplus men and women from northwestern Europe—the number of people doubled every twenty-five or so years.

Since officials started keeping systematic records for agricultural output in England only in 1860, the numbers I’m giving here are guesstimates from the account books farmers kept and records from litigation over leases. In 1520, when almost 80 percent of the English population worked the land, 100 families could produce enough food in a regular season to feed 125 families. Those 25 extra families constituted the country’s military, clergy, and royal officials as well as retailers, mechanics, merchants, and artisans. From 1600 onward fewer and fewer hands were needed in English farming. In 1800 only 36 percent of adult male laborers were working in agriculture, and those farm families grew the food for their own and 60 other families. This meant a fourfold increase in those who composed the political, clerical, and commercial sectors of society. In the next half century the farming population dropped to 25 percent of the whole. At the same time other countries in Europe would have had between 60 and 80 percent of their men and women still working on the farm while the populations of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands grew by the same amount.13 France did not have the market integration in the middle of the nineteenth century that England had achieved by the end of the seventeenth century.

We need to take a last look at the traditional agrarian world in order to understand the outrage that the new agricultural practices elicited. Farming had been organized around villages, most of which contained large common fields with strips of land on which villagers could sow and reap. While each villager farmed his own strip, decisions about when to plant, when to harvest, and when to glean were made collectively. The weak and the irresponsible were knit into the same web of responsibilities with the able and industrious. The countryside was also peopled by cottagers who had one or two acres for growing food and keeping poultry. They got by through working on the farms of others, as did servants on yearly contracts and casual day laborers. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, private farming had pretty much replaced the old open fields, regardless of the law, but the old ideal lingered on as a—well—ideal.

As food prices kept climbing, it grew more and more attractive to consolidate what was left of the communal strips into separate, private farms. Because the government was so heavily invested in preventing food shortages, such enclosures required parliamentary statutes. As the word suggests, enclosures enclosed what had previously been open. During the first half of the sixteenth century, when wool prices were high, some English landlords had turned their arable land into sheep runs. These enclosures cast tenants out of their holdings. They then became the “masterless men” who walked the roads looking for work and food during the Elizabethan period. Although frowned upon and much criticized, these enclosures continued until wool prices fell again. Enclosing to create private farms for grain tillage, which was done mainly in the seventeenth century, had a different social impact. These enclosures actually created jobs and produced more food, so they didn’t make government officials anxious. They looked like a better management of cropland, the matrix from which all other economic activities sprang.

The coordinated tilling, weeding, and reaping of the common fields had created patterns of work, play, and ceremony that reinforced the corporate life of the village. Enclosure disentangled each person from this network of community obligations and activities. It permitted individuals to organize their own resources and brought in its train greater disparity between the poor and the prosperous. The awareness of a common fate faded when the principal producers became single families rather than a group of villagers coordinating their round of seasonal tasks.

Unlike many other changes, the consolidation and hedging of once open fields were conspicuous. And they drew commentary. For moralists, community farming was worth maintaining because it taught men and women their duties to one another. But by the mid-seventeenth century advocates of new farm techniques had vigorously challenged this argument. They were impressed by the productivity gains achieved when the farmer had the flexibility to lay down pasture or plant grain, flood meadows, and follow his own crop rotation. The disputants evoked different ideals. Cherishing the poor and cultivating brotherly love were pitted against using one’s own wits, foresight, discipline, and intelligence to enhance the bounty of nature.

Two ministers in the 1650s traded pamphlets that explored with great passion these options. The Reverend John Moore started the exchange with a full-throated attack on enclosures: they turned husbandmen into cottagers, undoing them because they could not care for their families on tiny plots. They encouraged indifference to the poor that amounted to not loving Christ. Responding anonymously, the Reverend Joseph Lee agreed that not caring for the poor was a sin, but tenants and freeholds would be better able, after enclosure, to contribute to the relief of the poor. The gain in productivity was the virtue of enclosure. As Lee explained, “the monarch of one acre will make more profit thereof, then he that hath his share in forty in common.” While arguing on the basis of advantage, Lee also strongly suggested that people had the right to do what they wanted rather than be shackled to an idea of corporate well-being.14 Similar battle lines were to be drawn over and over again as contemporaries wrestled with economic practices that had no sanction in the Bible and little connection to community traditions.

Equally concerned with reknitting the old social fabric, the English Poor Laws passed at the end of the sixteenth century reaffirmed society’s commitment to feed its members and look to their need for work. It established two overseers of the poor in each parish, the basic unit of local government. Every English man, woman, and child was entitled to relief from his or her birth parish when in need. Parish officials made dead certain that applicants were eligible before giving them any relief. One overseer of the poor encapsulated the gist of the law: “work for those that will Labour, Punishment for those that will not, and Bread for those that cannot.”15 These laws established the community’s responsibility either to give outdoor relief or to provide facilities for indoor care. The law grew in importance as more and more people, once settled in villages, became impoverished cottagers or migratory laborers during the long process of change from open fields to enclosed, private farms.

We can get something of a handle on the dimensions of poverty in England because a civil servant named Gregory King compiled a detailed list of his country’s social categories at the end of the seventeenth century. He drew up lists that numbered, among others, those who were baronets, shopkeepers, persons in the law, and vagrants.16 Scholars have pored over and amended King’s fascinating enumerations ever since. One startling fact in his summary is that more than half the English had to turn to some form of charity to get through each year. That group had probably been larger a century earlier, when roving bands of beggars and vagabonds alarmed the propertied. Such fears prompted standards for all labor contracts and wrote into law the ideal of a settled population in which each worker had his superior. Employers were bound to keep their wage servants for at least a year and to observe statutory limit in wages.

Improving agriculture had thrown many out of work, but it also enabled more people to survive. Historical demographers happened on to a critical benchmark in English economic history when they reconstructed rising and falling grain prices along with rising and falling births and deaths. They learned that after the terrible harvest failures of 1648–1650, spikes in prices were rarely accompanied by more deaths. Though food costs could skyrocket from time to time, dearth stopped turning into disaster. By 1700 English annual output in agriculture was at least twice that of any other European country and continued so until the 1850s.17

Englishmen and women did not know that they had crossed a barrier that divided them from their own past and from every other contemporary society. Yet they had. After the middle of the seventeenth century famine no longer threatened them. Chronic malnutrition lingered on for the bottom 20 percent of European population, not completely disappearing for another century. Agricultural productivity, combined with the purchasing power to bring food from other places in times of shortage, had eliminated one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from England’s shores. A powerful reason for maintaining the strict social order had unobtrusively disappeared, leaving behind a set of social prescriptions whose obsolescence would slowly be discovered. Nothing could have so dramatically distinguished England from the rest of Europe with its last general famine in 1819, not to mention the rest of the world, which still wrestles with failing food supplies.

Despite the dislocations of the Agricultural Revolution, it improved everyone’s life chances. Inland trading in foods and other goods became denser. A single national market, the largest, free trading zone in Europe, took shape. This countrywide commercial network created another bulwark against famine because rarely did crop failures hit all regions at the same time. Now there were the connections—transportation, middlemen, and means of payment—to ship food anywhere there was a dearth. If the poor couldn’t pay for food, the government did. The formation of a national market reflected more than a good road system. It gave proof of farmers’ willingness to ship their harvests outside the local area. They did so, but not always happily. One contemporary lamented, “[W]e had once a kind of Market in every Parish and could utter most of our Commodities at home. We were not then forc’d to carry our Corn God knows where, deal, with God Knows whom, sell for God knows what, to be paid God knows when.”18

England and the Netherlands were the only European countries to enhance their capacity to feed their people in the first half of the seventeenth century. A half century later they were the first countries to increase population and income at the same time. When we turn to the rest of Europe, we see the enormous difference made by agricultural improvements. In Europe the protracted fighting of the Thirty Years’ War and a spate of storms and freezing temperatures wreaked devastation from Russia to Ireland. Agricultural practices in Italy and Spain remained static. Population growth only exacerbated declining agricultural productivity in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and the Balkans.19 Farther east landlords in Russia and Poland had been able to tie their peasants to the land through a regime of serfdom that removed incentives to improve agricultural routines. Those landlords in the Baltic who had responded to rising food prices by bringing more land into cultivation proved so indifferent to the peasants’ welfare that they shipped grains to garner profits in foreign markets at the expense of those starving at home.

In France, where farmers had access to information about Dutch improvements and soil and climate conditions were similar, no such improvement took place for another century. The depopulation of the Black Death had given the French peasantry a firmer hold on their land, but they were subject to numerous legal burdens. When population began to rise in the sixteenth century, the survival of more heirs meant that family plots had to be divided. This morselization of holdings left families struggling to survive on too few acres. France also lacked what England had in abundance, a network of rivers and canals to carry grain shipments. A byzantine maze of feudal privileges overlaid the French countryside. So difficult was the transportation of goods from one region to another that Frenchmen and women in one part of the country could almost starve to death when there was abundant grain in another.

While the French had a strong presence in trade and manufacturing, their agriculture stagnated. The misery of the peasantry only grew as noble landlords and the state siphoned off more and more money from their meager returns. French landlords had little leverage to change the farming techniques of these penurious peasants, but they could and did revive old feudal privileges to extract more money from them as prices rose. The king also exacted higher and higher taxes from the peasantry, even while he was protecting them from aggressive landlords.20 Not until the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century would there be any meaningful reform of the so-called ancien régime.

Traveling across Spain and France in 1787–1789 on the eve of the French Revolution, Arthur Young, an ardent English agricultural improver, reported his astonishment at the neglect of farming in Spain and the poverty in France. Noting that the poor went without shoes in one province, Young put his finger on a problem that still plagues economies. Widespread poverty struck at the root of national prosperity, he noted, because only the poor can consume in numbers sufficient to sustain other trades.21 The double role of workers had become salient to him. Keeping their incomes low made goods cheaper while at the same time limiting the market for those goods. In both Spain and France, Young criticized the intrusion of government, noting that in France, ancient privileges clogged the circulation of all goods, even grains in time of famine.

Being able to feed more people more cheaply with fewer workers released workers for other occupations and left more money in everyone’s pockets for purchasing pottery, utensils, Indian cottons, books, and a range of leather goods from shoes to saddles. When English farmers went from feeding six additional families to meeting the needs of thirty, they underwrote a stunning transformation in productivity. The steady increase of food output also introduced a new measure of certainty in people’s lives. After a generation without famines, spenders and investors could shed the caution associated with fear and begin to take a few risks with their savings. There is no direct connection between more effective farming and the ingenious engineering of new machines that ushered in a new age in manufacturing. The Agricultural Revolution could not produce the inventions central to industrialization, but without its bounteous harvests, those inventions would have been confined to that small part of the economy not dedicated to growing food for the whole.

Unlike the earlier quickening pace in commerce, the production of more food with less money and fewer workers released the vital resources of people and capital for a variety of other economic activities, some of them previously unimaginable. Among the welter of revolutions in the early modern centuries, that in agriculture is the one with the most profound consequences. Yet this revolution is often slighted in studies because it was not as conspicuous as the glamorous trade in spices, porcelain, and textiles or the marvelous parade of machines that advertised the “rise of the West” and its industrial might.

Village life stayed the same for those who inherited their parents’ places, but their redundant siblings lost those prescribed roles in life. Displaced by irreversible changes, they took to the roads, searching for work in nearby towns, or sought out forests and upland meadows where they might establish themselves as squatters. The commercialization of farming increased the number of men and women who worked for wages. Once uprooted from the traditional agrarian order, they lost their village status and were forced to join a class of workers in a modernizing society where patrons were few and employment was uncertain. Some became part of a migratory, seasonal work force. Many moved to London, a few no doubt catching hold of an opportunity created by a maturing commerce and a developing industry. Others traveled in a constant search for work, their feet following the course of economic expansion.

Henceforth the people of England could be divided between those whom the changes of the century dislodged and those who stayed put. Their experience was the harbinger of what awaited the entire European peasantry in the ensuing decades. Millions of these men and women would cross the Atlantic to establish a European beachhead in North and South America while their sisters and brothers became part of an emerging proletariat. Present-day famines remind us of the complex challenge of feeding a society. They also make us aware of how an agricultural revolution made capitalism possible.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!