Up For Another Read?

It’s time for another essay! This one I just recieved the grade for today which was a “First” (top teir).
This was an essay for my “Medieval World” module and suffice to say I am very happy with it. The title was a bit misleading at first; I instantly considered renaissance enlightenment and the technological breakthroughs it brought when in reality I should have been looking at the effects such breakthroughs amongst other societal revolutions had on the European populace.
The essay is roughly 1500 words long.
I lost marks for a slightly innacurate bibliography and for not fully elaborating on certain developments.

In What Ways Did Europeans Begin To Break The Limits of Nature By 1750?

Since the fall of the Roman Empire and until around the nineteenth century European lifestyle, society, and economics resembled the stereotypical model one normally associates with the period; the barter-economy which placed emphasis on subsistence farming. Subsistence farming, in which farmers produced food for self-survival and local distribution, was the standard across Europe until the Agricultural Revolution swept through the continent. Although technological innovations spawned from this time contributed towards the evolution of European agriculture and subsequently its society they alone cannot account for the entirety of the transition which took place during the late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. Before I address this issue it is important to establish what is actually implied by ‘the limits of nature’; this is a term which encompasses social nature, economic nature, and the natural world itself. Throughout history scholars have attempted to unravel the intricate connection these three elements have and have tried to discern which was most prominent in ushering in the transformation of Medieval Europe into an Industrial Europe. Debate also surrounds the questions of when the Agricultural Revolution supposedly started in earnest and the reasons behind its rise not becoming a uniform movement across Europe. These debates are still on going and have produced convincing arguments as to how Europe managed “to break out of a Malthusian Trap”.[1]

It is best to start addressing this debate by looking at the limitations placed on Europe before the nineteenth century. Before the advent of the Agricultural and subsequent Industrial Revolution the European peasantry was widely believed by economic historians in particular to be caught in the vice grip of serfdom which tied people to farm land and fuelled the prominent agrarian economy.[2] The existence of serfdom in the run-up to the Agricultural Revolution has been challenged by several historians who argue that the English peasantry in comparison to the majority of their European counterparts were not being oppressed as serfs. Two historians, Scott and Kumin, both refer to an earlier thesis offered by Professor Alex Macfarlane which states that English peasants displayed traits that are “symptomatic of a deeply embedded competitive, individualistic, and ‘capitalistic’ value system”.[3]This argument holds considerable ground when one considers the nature of English peasantry which indeed was not split between a ruling class and a lower class. The prime example of this thesis in practice is with English Freemen who, whilst technically classed as serfs, were still landowners in their own right and later came to employ other peasants. Whilst this does not imply social mobility it does imply that pre-industrial economics was not a black-and-white affair between those who ruled and those who worked. Across most of Europe it was underdeveloped agricultural technology and techniques which placed the greatest limitations on the land and by an extension on each respective countries economy, for an economy could not flourish unless subsistence was surpassed. The first European society to begin developing an effective alternative to subsistence farming was the Dutch, who brought their knowledge in combining technology and organization to England during the Dutch Revolt of the late sixteenth century.[4] Whilst the influence of Dutch agricultural innovations in Europe was significant it raises another debate; why were these measures not implemented across Europe simultaneously? Some have argued that despite the Dutch and the English being the first to implement new ideas to bolster production the rest of Europe still did not fall behind. Scott refers to this sentiment in his argument concerning France where he claims “historians no longer believe French agriculture to have fallen so far behind the English, nor do they see the French peasants as so apathetic as they once did”.[5] Others draw attention to evidence suggesting that French peasants were extortionately taxed by an apathetic ruling class, making them hesitant to further the economy, which is considered instrumental to the origins of the French Revolution of 1789.

Before the Agricultural Revolution took a foothold in Europe famers and workers were at the mercy of the elements; winters ravaged crops and livestock alike whilst disease and blight caused famine. These elements and more prevented mass production which in turn led to more time and human resources being poured into agriculture leaving the development of industry on the back burner. The question of whether agricultural or economic developments were more instrumental in bringing about change in this harsh environment is a debate historians engage in to this day. Was it the way crops were better grown and arable farmland put to better use that enabled rural European societies to support their fledgling industrial cities, or was it economic developments such as the rise of the proletariat and wage labour that were the most instrumental in bringing about this change?[6] On one side of this debate are historians such as DuPlessis who claim that rural developments such as the growing of fodder crops, the implementation of hedging and irrigation, and the preservation of livestock for longer periods that were the innovations which allowed farmers to sustain mass production of produce[7]. On the other hand are those in agreement with economic historians who claim that it was due to market developments such as the evolution of local trading to national trading and the drive towards ‘specialization’ in cities which helped transform organic economies into market economies.[8] It is difficult to discern which argument holds more sway in this debate as both sides indirectly contribute to the others point of view but evidence gathered from the time points to a uniform trend of the produce of rural workers supporting urban industrial centres whilst in turn receiving new technology and techniques to further improve their output; a symbiotic relationship mutually beneficial to both parties.[9] The evolution of rural societies through innovation meant that there was no longer a need for masses of human resources to be focused in agriculture; these people instead migrated to the cities where they could delve into artisanal trades and work in the emerging factories.

With the influx of produce from rural areas fuelling booming urban populations around the eighteenth century European nations began resembling what they are today; capitalist consumer societies. The main debate surrounding the birth of European consumerism revolves around the question of whether it was indeed a transition or whether it was an inevitable result of continuity. The Macfarlane Thesis previously mentioned supports the theory of continuity, where all that was needed was for more rural communities to adopt established agricultural innovations so that what was previously subsistence could become commoditized. Rural communities found themselves with viable assets to survive in this new consumer society, assets they could exchange for coin, which by the eighteenth century overthrew the previous bartering system and heralded Europe’s recognition as a “fully fledged market economy”.[10] Whilst the theory of continuity applies to England it certainly does not fit the sequence of events in other European countries such as France and Iberia where change took longer to arrive and when it did it happened in a much shorter space of time than it did in the Netherlands and England. Another important point factor is that whilst the lower classes of European society gained more licence to expand into professions suitable for the new economy the position of the ruling elites was practically unchallenged. The Agricultural and Industrial Revolution saw the rise of the proletariat, which effectively saw the death of serfdom in Europe whilst re-asserting the dominance of the upper class. The axiomatic specialization amongst city workers, spurred on by new retail-based professions, played a crucial role in establishing the market economy as the successor to the organic economy.[11] The significance of the emergence of urban retail cannot be stressed enough as it is widely seen as the final step in the transition of society to a consumer culture, the gesture which closed the door on an era of history.[12]

As it began breaking the various limits of its nature European medieval society began resembling a society more akin to what we deem ‘modern’. Before the advent of the Agricultural Revolution of the sixteenth century social mobility in much of Europe was static, unable to move due to the prominence of the subsistence culture. Through the technological innovations the limits the natural world itself placed on people began to be overcome, which in turn paved the way for the reallocation of human resources into expanding the breadth of society. Still, no matter how many technological advances were made unless society could not move forward until it found ways to build a solid foundation upon their point of origin.[13] Despite the process taking place at different points in time across different countries the developments of population growth, urbanization, agricultural innovation, agrarian change, and the emergence of specialization and proletarianization ensured that Europe was on the path to becoming a capitalist continent with consumerism instead of subsistence at its heart. Whilst it was still not fully developed by 1750 Europe was nigh-unrecognizable from its former self.

Adshead, S.A.M, Material Culture in Europe and China, 1400-1800: The Rise of Consumerism, Basingstoke, 1997
Cameron, E. Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History, Oxford, 1999
Dyer, C. Everyday life in medieval England, London, 2000
DuPlessis, R. S. Transitions to Capitalism in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, 1997
Evans, Chris & Withey, Alun. ‘An Enlightenment in Steel? Innovation in the Steel Trades of Eighteenth-Century Britain.’, (2012), 537-538
Fernand, B. A. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, New York, 1986
Fleming, J. D. The Invention of Discovery, 1500-1700, Farnham, 2011
Kumin, B. The European World, 1500-1800, Indiana, 2009
Merry, W. H. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, Cambridge, 2006
Overton, M. Agricultural Revolution in England, Cambridge, 1996
Scott, T. The Peasantries of Europe, Boston, 1998

[1] M. Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England, (Cambridge, 1996), p.206

[2] E. Cameron, Early Modern Europe, (Oxford, 1999), p.32

[3] T. Scott, The Peasantries of Europe, (Boston, 1998), p.339

[4] M. E., Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, (Cambridge, 2006), p.406

[5] T. Scott, The Peasantries of Europe, p.21

[6] B. Kumin, The European World, 1500-1800, (Indiana, 2009), p.74

[7] DuPlessis, R. S, Transitions to Capitalism in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge, 1997), p.50

[8] C. Dyer, Everyday Life in Medieval England, (London, 2003), p.278

[9] B. Kumin, The European World, 1500-1800, p.56

[10] T. Scott, The Peasantries of Europe, p.389

[11] E. Cameron, Early Modern Europe, p.240

[12] S. A. M. Adshead, Material Culture in Europe and China, 1400-1800, (Basingstoke, 1997), p.25

[13] Chris Evans & Alun Withey, ‘An Enlightenment in Steel? Innovation in the Steel Trades of Eighteenth-Century Britain’, (2012), 53 (1), 537-538.


  1. Okay, I know I’m late to the party (I’m going to use the holidays as my excuse), but this is a really interesting paper. I have a question though, what is/are proletariat? It’s a term I’m unfamiliar with. Also, I found it really interesting that the Dutch were such a big part of the English agrarian transition… cool stuff!

    1. Proletariat is an elaborate way of describing “The Working Class”. It is a term mostly thrown about by Marxist historians and modern day Communist parties.
      The rise of the Proletariat, in England especially, came about with the proliferation of urbanization and wage labor – both hallmarks of modernization. From that point onwards it was no longer a case of lords and peasants but employers and workers.

      The Dutch have played a pretty instrumental part in shaping modern day Britain as much as Britain has had a role in shaping the Netherlands as we know it.
      William of Orange (1533 – 1584) was allowed to take refuge in Elizabethan England (Elizabeth was our first prominent Protestant monarch) when his forces were overwhelmed by the Catholic Spaniards.
      The favor was returned with “The Glorious Revolution” of 1688 when William III of Orange-Nassau “liberated” (or was it conquest…?) England from King James II, who had riled the feathers of his parliament by leaning towards re-establishing Catholic dominance in the country.

      Thanks for the read!

      1. Wow… I forgot William of Orange’s flight to England. Professor Greenhaw would be mortified and so, so very disappointed. In my understanding, William III’s adventure was considered a conquest (albeit a willing one). If I recall correctly, he met minimal resistance and I think they sent him a letter asking him to come.

        Thanks for the explanation! 😀 Always nice to talk about history to someone who doesn’t return my queries with a blank stare. So far, the only people to understand my vague references and examples are history, anthropology, and political science majors, and they are few and far between around here!

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