Skip to content

Response to Review no. 12

Replying to a book review is a rare treat, especially of course when an aggrieved author can take the opportunity of commenting on a review considered unfair or misleading. In this case, however, I have very little to quarrel with in Professor Mingay’s review. It is considered, well-balanced, and gives a fair summary of the main arguments of the book. Nevertheless there are four issues raised by Professor Mingay about which I should like to comment.

The first concerns his summary of the book. He is quite right to concentrate on my arguments about the agricultural revolution. But almost a quarter of the text deals with farming in the sixteenth century; before the age of the agricultural revolution. To some extent this discussion sets the scene for what is to follow, but this section of the book makes a contribution to the debate about regional differentiation in early modern England. The argument is that attempts to produce a single set of distinct regions, both for describing rural economies and societies, and for analysing relationships within them, have led to confusion. This is because some of the relationships between these elements have been mis-specified and too deterministic an interpretation is given for the influence of agricultural practice. Thus, the relationships between agriculture and industry, between farming and the natural environment, and between the type of agriculture and the degree of social control, need more careful examination.

Second, Professor Mingay obviously thinks the book is too short, since it is ‘tersely written and remarkably compressed’ and ‘the author decided to err on the side of brevity’. It is true that I have a predilection for brevity, but, as is so often the case, it was not the author but the publisher who determined the length of the book. Sticking to my brief (75,000 words) was difficult and no doubt in places the argument is compressed. Since space was scarce, a specific guide to further reading was considered more important for a student readership than footnotes, which often intimidate students. No doubt this will irritate some academics. Even so, almost all the secondary sources used in writing the book are listed in the bibliography (of over 700 items). All direct quotations are referenced, and, since the arguments of the book (at least as far as output and productivity are concerned) rest on quantitative data in the tables, full sources are given so that those who wish to check my work are able to do so.

Third, in attempting to identify the driving force behind the agricultural revolution I stress the importance of developments in the market. Professor Mingay points to a conundrum here, over the chronologies of changes in output and productivity and changes in the market. The great leap forward in output and productivity took place after 1750 yet he points out that by 1700 the proportion of the non- agricultural population was about 50%, and by implication that the market was already developed. The significance of the market lies not in whether markets, or a market in a particular commodity, existed, but whether markets (in both senses) were responsible for determining farmers’ decisions on what they should produce. As I point out in the book (p.146- 7) the key developments in marketing were the integration of the multiplicity of local markets into a national market for agricultural products, which was a prerequisite for the regional specialisation of agricultural production and for the demands of distant markets to be transmitted to farmers in most parts of the country. The increasing sophistication of the marketing process also reduced transaction costs so increasing the efficiency with which markets operated. These developments cannot be equated with the size of the non- agricultural population and are more illusive to identify. It is possible that by 1700 a national market in wheat was in existence, but it would be premature to speak of a national agricultural market at that date. A variety of indications suggest that it was not until the later part of the eighteenth century that the market was beginning to determine the production decisions of a significant number of farmers. Even so, it is difficult to identify a process of linear causation with market developments as a ‘first cause’; there is a reciprocal relationship between market development and production behaviour: ‘farmers required the stimulus of increased demand mediated by the market to increase production and profit, but that demand could only continue provided they were able to increase production.’ (p.147).

Fourth, and finally, I agree with Professor Mingay that investment and capital supply in agriculture require more attention. Yet some of the most important processes by which output and productivity rose required little or no new investment. The cultivation of clover and turnips, for example, required little beyond access to new seed and an ability to change crop rotations. On the other hand there were many areas where new capital was required: in floating water meadows, in reclaiming and draining land, and in the process of enclosure. As farm sizes grew, the amount of working capital tied up livestock increased, and, by the early decades of the nineteenth century, there was considerable investment in new agricultural buildings and in new machinery and farm implements. The problem is in discovering the size of this investment in particular areas and the magnitude of its contribution to output and productivity change. It is likely that capital investment as a proportion of rental income more than doubled between the 1760s and the first decade of the nineteenth century. If it were possible to calculate reliable estimates of the rate of return on this capital investment it might well turn out to be rather lower than the returns from land and labour. In other words, total factor productivity may well have been lower than the productivities of land and labour considered individually.