HS-102 Readings

Forerunners of the Industrial Revolution


Agricultural Revolution
Reorganization of Labor
Commercial Revolution
Population growth

Economic developments in Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were essential forerunners to the Industrial Revolution.

The open-field system, based upon the rural village and communal working of the land, had been the way farming was done since the beginnings of European civilization. Crop rotation involved a 3-field system which allowed one third of the land to lie fallow in order to rejuvenate the soil

1. Changes in agriculture often referred to as an Agricultural Revolution involved:
     an end of the open-field system,
     crop diversification and introduction of vegetable crops,
     greater efficiency with the introduction of the seed drill,
     and importation of the potato.

All of the above contributed to an agricultural surplus needed to feed a growing non-farm population.

The change began in Holland with the:
    Cultivation of vegetables on otherwise fallow land. Turnips were a favorite.
    Additional food supported more cattle. They produced more manure which was used to
    fertilize the soil--resulting in a greater crop yield.

    Dairy industry developed, producing cheese for export.

    England followed within a generation. England had close contact and trade with Holland since medieval times. Land had been enclosed for sheep raising for the textile industry. Therefore, land was owned by wealthy landowners who could afford to take the risk of trying something new.

    The potato was discovered by the Spanish in Columbia, South America in the 16th century. It yielded 7 times as much as the grains in food value per unit of land.

2. Reorganization of labor
    Guilds of merchants and craftsmen had established  monopolies in the cities. They regulated the industry, licensed craftsmen, kept out competition, and protected their own interests.  They became too restrictive to meet the needs of a society with an increasing population.

    The environs of cities became safe for living because of the growth of the national monarchies. Cities ceased to need the protection of walls.

    The guild was bypassed by well-to-do entrepreneurs who went to the environs of cities; nearby rural areas where surplus labor was available. They employed the peasants in those areas, supplied them with the equipment and the materials needed for production in the peasants' cottages, and periodically picked up the finished product for marketing and sale.

    Peasants in those areas were no longer dependent exclusively on agriculture. They supplemented their income with what is known as cottage industry, the domestic system, or the the putting-out system.

There were important social effects:
    Beforehand, wealth depended exclusively on the land. Severe economic limitations prevailed.
Parents determined marriage for economic reasons; not the couple.
    Afterwards, it was more likely that marriage would be earlier, and with fewer controls. Therefore population increased in the areas where the domestic system developed.

3. Commercial revolution:
     Expansion from Western Europe to the world brought resources and capital to Europe, and led to the expansion in numbers and wealth of a class of merchants and entrepreneurs, particularly in the lowlands and in England.

    England was the primary beneficiary of this expanded overseas trade because it had emerged as the leading European overseas power in the 18th century. A long period of tension, punctuated by periodic wars mainly between France and England, ended in English ascendancy.  The Seven-Years War (1756-1763) saw victory for the English on all fronts while French colonial losses were severe.

     An ideology of mercantilism determined the policies of government with respect to economic competition. Each state was conceived to be in competition with the others, and the measure of success was to accumulate gold, the international currency used to balance accounts between states. Such accumulation was to be obtained by government regulation, tariffs and quotas on trade to benefit home-country production. Colonies were considered as adjuncts to the mother country in serving this policy.

     Mercantilism came under increasing criticism toward the end of the century, particularly in England where the spectacular growth in the economy appeared to some to be inhibited by government regulation. Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher, in his book, THE WEALTH OF NATIONS, argued that economic growth would be encouraged if entrepreneurs were completely free of government regulation. He became recognized as the foremost advocate of free trade, or, as it was known in France, laissez faire.

4. Population growth provided the expanding labor force needed for industrialization. Population had been  increasing ever since the 14th century and, by the 17th century was pressing upon the available means of support. Population growth had stagnated by the mid-17th century, suggesting the possibility of a downturn. In some areas, particularly in Germany during the Thirty Years War, the population decreased. Following the mid 17th century crisis, however, European population began once again to grow, as the agricultural revolution and the reorganization of labor increased human fertility.  Increasing  population produced the surplus labor needed for further economic growth. This population increase would continue into the 19th and 20th centuries in a symbiotic relationship with substantial long-term economic growth.