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Response to Review no. 183

First, let me thank Professor Goose for his review of my book. Any author would be grateful for such an extensive and fair-minded discussion of his work, and I appreciate both the generosity and the constructive spirit of his criticism.

Secondly, a word of explanation. Professor Goose comments that “the complete absence of footnotes” in the book is “unfortunate in the extreme”. I agree. Although the book has been initially published in hardback by Yale University Press, it was originally commissioned as a volume in the New Penguin Economic History of Britain, and will be brought out as a Penguin paperback early in 2002. It is the editorial policy of the Penguin series that there should be no footnotes; only a guide to further reading. In my view this is a mistaken policy. However, having made that point to my editors, I had to work within the series rules. Hence the stylistic ‘tick’, which may irritate some readers, of naming historians in the text whenever I felt it necessary to identify the source of a particular argument or to quote interpretative judgements. It was the only means available by which I could acknowledge such specific debts. For the rest I had to content myself with a fuller than usual bibliographical essay in which I hope the works which most influenced the content and arguments of particular chapters can easily be identified.

As regards referencing, then, I did the best I could in the circumstances. I myself am far from satisfied with the outcome. I hope, none the less, that the absence of footnotes will not render this “a dangerous book to recommend to students” or discourage its use in survey courses. Economic history has been too much neglected in the teaching of early modern Britain. Part of my intention in writing the book was to reassert the significance of the economic developments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and to render the findings of economic specialists more accessible and meaningful to students of the period in general. I wanted to show newcomers to the field why this subject matters and to persuade those already familiar with other dimensions of its history to devote more attention to the economic past. I trust that an editorial policy with which I personally disagree will not frustrate those purposes.

To turn to matters of content: Professor Goose suggests that the subject of my book “is nothing more and nothing less than the rise of capitalism”. Yes, those aspects of the development of capitalism that were peculiar to the early modern period are indeed an important part of the story I tried to tell. At the same time, however, my intentions were neither so specific nor so ambitious. As I have explained, this book was a commissioned volume. Had I been asked to write on a theme as formidable as the “rise of capitalism”, I would certainly have run for cover. Happily, I was not. I was asked to write an economic history of early modern Britain. I would not have agreed if I had not thought that the opportunity to take a fresh approach to that subject provided an intellectual challenge. But the challenge was not so much that of getting to grips with the rise of capitalism as that of attempting, as I put it in my preface, “to make sense of the processes of economic change in Britain between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, to convey something of the distinctive textures of the human experience of that age, and to introduce both in a manner which I hope will explain why they have a continuing claim on our attention” (p.xi). For me that meant delineating the gradual creation of an integrated national economy in which market relationships were the central mechanism, a market economy which, as it emerged, became increasingly a capitalist economy. But it also meant attempting to write a social, cultural, and in some respects a political history of economic change over two and a half centuries. For years I have bored my friends with my anxieties about the consequences of the segmentation of the subject into discrete areas of thematic and chronological specialisation (see, e.g. my “The enclosure of English social history”, in Adrian Wilson ed., Rethinking social history. English society 1570-1920 and its interpretation, Manchester & New York, 1993). This book provided an opportunity to try to practice what I preach – to explore the interconnectedness of the economic, the social, the political and the cultural dimensions of the processes of historical change. More specifically, it was also a chance to try to give economic history rather more of a human face by illustrating what those processes meant to the men, women and children who lived them. Both the subtitle of the book and its cover – showing the faces of six of William Hogarth’s servants – were deliberately chosen to convey that message. All this considered, it is flattering to have the subject of my book described as “nothing more and nothing less than the rise of capitalism”. But the truth is, I intended a great deal less than that in some respects, though perhaps rather more in others.

The structure of the book is shaped by the ambitions I have described. Trying to realise them was very much an exploratory experience for me as an historian, and it was also an interrogative process: it posed questions that I had not anticipated and which I had to try to resolve (within the limitations of the available literature and my own knowledge and capabilities). I felt an obligation to try to put forward a structured argument, and to that extent my emphases inevitably reflect my own responses and preoccupations. But as I hope will be clear to readers, I am very much aware of the many complexities, uncertainties, ambiguities and ironies of the story I tried to tell. Sometimes the sources speak with conflicting voices, revealing different perspectives. Sometimes they are silent. They provide a guide “not to what we must think, but to what we are being given to think about”. (I borrow this phrase from Graham Bradshaw, Misrepresentations. Shakespeare and the Materialists, Ithaca & London, 1993, pp. 32). I could certainly have thought harder about some things, as Professor Goose points out, and I thank him for the questions he has raised and the alternatives that he suggests. Rather than engaging in a point by point discussion of specific questions of emphasis, however, I would like to focus upon two broad interpretative issues arising from his comments.

First, the problem of the status quo ante: my characterisation of economic life at the turn of the sixteenth century. Professor Goose is right to point out that in some respects this is the most important section of the book. He is also right to stress that this period is relatively under-researched – partly, as he observes, because the evidence is often “thin and intractable”, partly because of the prevailing conventions of periodisation The period falls between the two stools of a ‘medieval’ literature that tends to wind down in the late fifteenth century and an ‘early modern’ literature that tends to take off from the 1540s. Yet it is vital. In his recent essay on “The Divergence of England” (TRHS, 6th series, X, 2000) E.A. Wrigley remarks upon how unusual it is for one component part of a long-settled area with a common culture and technology to substantially increase its relative economic weight within the whole. Yet such a shift certainly occurred in the relative position of England and Wales between the early sixteenth and the late seventeenth centuries, and in the eighteenth century it came to involve Scotland too. To explain that departure we need to have a firmly delineated starting point. That is why I found that I had to do much more than provide a brief opening chapter which would simply set the scene for the narrative of economic change that would follow. The single chapter that I originally envisaged grew into four, in which I tried to piece together the essential structures and dynamics of economic life in the late fifteenth and earlier sixteenth centuries.

I fully understand why Professor Goose prefers to suspend judgement on my characterisation of the structures and dynamics of economic life at the turn of the sixteenth century. But let me elaborate a little on the position I took. In approaching the period I tried very hard to avoid the risk of presenting a bowdlerised account of the late medieval economy. I emphasised its diversity, its complexity, the extent to which a large minority of actors in economic life were responsive to commercial stimuli, and its elements of dynamism. Yet at the same time it seemed vital to me that these characteristics, so evident in recent research, be placed in perspective. England was still an overwhelmingly rural society in which the best local studies indicate that access to at least a toehold on the land remained widespread. A substantial minority of the rural population did indeed work for wages, and might be assessed on them in the subsidies of the 1520s, but exercises in local record linkage commonly reveal that they were also smallholders who subsidised their livings with wage earning rather than being wholly wage-dependent. This was a household-based economy in which most rural (and many urban) families still engaged in a good deal of self-provisioning. Of course they engaged in marketing, but for the most part in the form of relatively localised exchange; their domestic economies were not primarily oriented to commercial production. The degree of specialisation in agriculture and the division of labour in manufacturing were weakly developed because markets were too limited in size and too geographically contained for it to be otherwise (the cloth industry providing a notable exception). A long established urban system certainly existed. It articulated flows of goods and people within local and regional economies, and there were also well developed inter-regional and international trading patterns. Yet the demographic conditions of the fifteenth century entailed a contraction or stagnation of demand outside certain sectors such as wool and cloth production, and there was too little commercial activity to sustain the whole of the urban system developed prior to 1350. Again, there were undoubtedly a number of more thoroughly commercialised areas, notably in the south-east. But more generally it seems more appropriate to think in terms of a limited number of commercial currents flowing across local economies which retained a great deal of autonomy, or of a set of commercially-oriented sectors of activity with dispersed outposts scattered across the kingdom. In short, economic life in England was a mixture of forms in which the commercial element was vital, and in some respects growing, but by no means dominant. To my mind that interpretation remains persuasive. And I am encouraged in thinking so by an important recent study which crosses the conventional medieval/early modern divide: Jane Whittle’s The Development of Agrarian Capitalism. Land and Labour in Norfolk, 1440-1580, Oxford, 2000 – a thoroughly researched account of one of England’s most diversified rural economies which comes to conclusions largely compatible with my own perception of both the extent and the limits of commercialisation in this period.

Some of those limitations were cultural, and in addressing these aspects of the situation I was very conscious that I was treading on dangerous ground. Nevertheless, it seemed essential to discuss the economic culture of the period if I was to have any hope of grasping the significance of the shifts in attitudes and values, the changes in economic institutions and relationships, which were among the most hotly contested aspects of economic change over the succeeding century. Accordingly, I tried to describe the priorities and strategies which shaped contemporary perceptions of the meaning and purpose of economic activity at the turn of the sixteenth century. To characterise my argument as being that “economic activity remained firmly bound by moral ends, and subordinate to them”, however, seems to suggest that I imagine an idyllic ‘before’ with which to contrast the soiled ‘after’ of market society. I don’t. My point is rather that the economic culture of the time was in many ways ambivalent about commercial activity. This was a culture familiar enough with markets, but it was also one that lacked the concept of a market order as a self-regulating system of economic relationships. “True labour and lawful business” for the purposes of maintaining one’s household at an appropriate level of well being was deemed legitimate. Yet gain as an end in itself was viewed with suspicion, and the notion of unrestrained individual freedom in economic affairs was regarded with hostility. The priorities of most households seem to have been the maintenance of a reasonably predictable flow of resources in the present and the advancement of the next generation, in due course, into economic independence at a level comparable to that of their parents. Co-operative organisation in agriculture, customary rights, the neighbourly economy of mutual obligation, the guild ordinances of the towns and the regulations governing the open market were similarly aimed at sustaining an accustomed style of life and marked the boundaries of permissible individual enterprise for most households. Of course their effectiveness was limited. To suppose otherwise would be na├»ve. But the values and priorities informing the continued vitality of such institutions and relationships could still exert a powerful influence upon the conduct of economic affairs and shape the nature of economic ambition. They were to be powerfully reasserted in response to the stirrings of economic change in the sixteenth century and their subsequent mutations (the moral repositioning described in my ninth chapter) were an essential part of the process of economic change. We need to know much more about all this, and I am conscious that my argument reflects a reading of the evidence that may well provoke dissent. If that in turn helps to draw attention to these relatively neglected matters, however, I will be satisfied.

One final issue concerning “the point of departure”: Professor Goose suggests that the best starting point for an economic history of early modern Britain might well be 1400 rather than 1500, for the reasons outlined in the final paragraph of his review. I find that an extremely interesting and imaginative suggestion. Indeed, one might add a further reason for pursuing it: the recasting of landlord-tenant relationships which was a consequence of the surprisingly rapid decline of serfdom in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries (a transition emphasised by Jane Whittle in the monograph cited above). A more complete recasting of the conventional periodisation of economic and social history strikes me as a potentially illuminating way forward. In this respect, I realise in retrospect that my own imagination was contained by the fact that I took for granted that my principal task was to write about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (The series will include a medieval volume and another dealing with industrialisation). I certainly found that I could not do the job satisfactorily without extending back into the fifteenth century at one end and forward into the eighteenth century at the other. But it did not occur to me to take a more radical approach to the problem of the time period most appropriate for the exploration of the themes I wanted to address. I understand, however, that the author of the medieval volume currently intends to carry his study up to around 1540. The two volumes will therefore overlap for some seventy years. It will be extremely interesting to see what effects our differences of chronological perspective will have upon the treatment of the ‘shared’ generations at the turn of the sixteenth century. And if major differences of perspective and interpretative emphasis emerge, I hope that they will produce a creative friction that will be of benefit to us all.

A second broad issue for discussion is suggested by Professor Goose’s comments upon the problem of regional disparities in development and upon my relative neglect of “the processes of economic interchange between Britain and continental Europe – England’s apprenticeship by foreign trade or other means”. This raises the general problem of economic networks and flows and of the diffusion of influences, which is indeed central to the history of this period. As Professor Goose recognises, I did try to pay a good deal of attention to such matters, two of my principal themes being the creation of a more integrated market and the growing ubiquity of market relationships. But though I stressed the unevenness of these processes, and emphasised that in the early eighteenth century economic life in Britain still remained very much a mixture of forms (albeit a different mixture) I agree that more could have been done to explore such disparities. In retrospect I can see that this might have been a particularly useful approach to the different degrees to which regions of Wales and of Scotland became articulated to the dominant influence of England, but similar problems could also be explored among the English regions. As for relations with Europe, I agree that overseas trading patterns were too lightly dealt with prior to 1650, and that I could have done more to examine such matters as the influences emanating from the close connections of both England and Scotland to the Netherlands. An unwritten chapter begins to rise before my eyes and stares at me reproachfully! I can stammer defensively that I am not at all sure just how far the available literature provides the material to approach these matters satisfactorily, but I could certainly have tried harder to find out.

Thinking about the above problems also raises the general question of the appropriate geographical unit within which to examine economic change in this period. My brief was to write about mainland Britain as a whole, and I found that very difficult. Britain did not exist as a coherent entity at the start of my period, and if it was coming into being by the end, that process remained very partial. Moreover the available literature is so uneven in its concerns and its coverage (both geographical and chronological) that I found it very hard to examine that process in the way that I would ideally have liked to do. This is a consequence, I think, not simply of neglect or of inadequate documentation, but of the different preoccupations of the national historiographies of England, Scotland and Wales, and of a tendency to emphasise difference rather than shared processes. Looking across the narrow seas, de Vries and Van der Woude have recently hailed the spectacular economic advance of the Dutch Republic in this period as having created “the first modern economy”. ( See Jan de Vries & Ad van der Woude, The First Modern Economy. Success, failure, and perseverance in the Dutch economy, 1500-1815, Cambridge, 1997). The emphasis again is on a distinctive national story – the role of the Dutch in “playing a pioneer role in the larger economic phenomenon of modern economic growth” (p. 716). We might all agree that the Dutch took the lead in those “processes of institutional, organisational and technological change that improve the efficiency of production and distribution” (p. 713). But even an area as tiny as the Dutch republic also contained its regional disparities. And is also the case that in many respects, some ‘Britons’ (to use an anachronistic term) were not far behind by 1650 and the gap was closing. The English and Welsh learned a good deal from the Dutch, the Scots from the English and the Dutch, and as time went on each made distinctive contributions of their own within a larger web of reciprocal influence.

Taking Professor Goose’s cue to think more radically about the way we construct our histories, the implication might be that in understanding these things, national units are arguably not the most appropriate units of analysis. To go back to the starting point of my book, for example, we should perhaps be thinking in terms of a relatively ‘advanced’ zone of north-western Europe embracing the Netherlands and south-eastern England, to which my regional ‘outposts’ of commercial activity were connected. That might help to resolve some of the difficulties of characterising economic life in Britain around 1500. It might also help to explain how the economic dynamic of the succeeding centuries was triggered and sustained. Moving to the end point, we could add the perspective of those largely north American historians who are urging the value of thinking in terms of a ‘British Atlantic World’ (or an ‘Atlantic World’ tout court). Such larger frameworks would not diminish the distinctiveness of particular national histories, but they might provide a context which can illuminate neglected aspects of those stories.

There remains much to think about in considering the economic and social development of early modern Britain. One of the great benefits of attempting a general survey is that it alerts one to the many questions that remain unanswered, or inadequately answered; a process that begins in the course of the work, and continues through the responses of such constructive discussants as Professor Goose. The subject has been undergoing a gradual process of consolidation and reappraisal in the last twenty years. New possibilities for its development have been gestating in many minds. If my book, ‘warts and all’, helps to draw the attention of a new generation of students to the importance of this field of research and its continuing potential, it will have been well worth doing.