The process would take centuries, but by Elizabethan times it had surely begun. Serfdom had all but disappeared from England, and money rents and wages had largely replaced other forms of compensation and exchange. The new importance of trade contributed to a profound change in attitudes, one that was beginning to re-shape society itself. In 1579, Thomas Churchyard defined as nobles, "Merchauntes that sail forrain countreys," a statement that underscores the importance of generating wealth.
Though not legally noble, these individuals were already beginning to emerge as substantial players in English society.
Economic Expansion: The Manor as Productive Estate
The vast expansion of trade and commerce in Early Modern England found its fullest expression in the thirst for new outlets for national enterprise. England's growing collection of colonies represented an attempt to compete economically on a world stage. Rivalry with other European powers encouraged the discovery and settlement of the Americas and the establishment of trading posts in Africa and India. These new colonies could provide raw materials for the goods that were now beginning to be produced at home. By the Seventeenth Century, England was becoming a major producer of finished textiles. Grain, too, was marked for export, protected by the Corn Laws that made importation of foreign grain prohibitively expensive.
The Corn Laws were part of a structure designed specifically to safeguard landed estates. The landed estates - economic units designed more for profit than for simple social order - formed the backbone of the English state and economy. Proponents of this system would set up similar arrangements in the colonial world. The Southern colonies of the later United States would owe their prosperity directly to the raising of cash crops. Though many of the details of the system would be different - the South's dependence on unfree labor and its focus on the production of "exotic" crops like tobacco and indigo - the results would be similar. Throughout the English-speaking world the landed gentry and their allies in the growing merchant class came to wield the bulk of political power and influence. The Corn Laws, together with bounties for indigo and other colonial products, showed the ability of the owners of large estates to control the legal system and to legislate for their own benefit.
Legislating for its own benefit entailed the maximization of the profitability of each estate. Medieval manors had been worked according to tradition in two and three field systems whereby peasants held rights to scattered strips of arable land. By the Eighteenth Century, owners of manors had begun to experiment with more productive methods. Innovation demanded fields of considerable size. The old strip system was inefficient and only encouraged the preservation of traditional methods of labor organization. Landlords used the legal system to enclose their lands, thereby organizing it into compact blocks and encroaching on traditional rights to the commons. Ambitious peasants rented large farms and began to grow crops for the market rather than just their own use, while at the same time leasing excess land to other peasants. They also drained swamps, increased their use of manure, and began to specialize in growing fodder for ever larger flocks of sheep and herds of cattle.
Such yeomen participated in a vigorous cash and credit economy, borrowing money from aristocrats and well-to-do merchants. England's colonial entrepreneurs depended on these credit systems to establish their small holdings and plantations, and even simply to equip their migrations to the New World.
Agricultural expansion both at home and abroad contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of people the land could support. Towns grew rapidly. In 1500, London was not even among the twelve largest cities in Europe, but by 1700 it was far larger than any other.
Similar stories could be told of other English towns. The agricultural surplus was now able to support distinct populations of agricultural laborers and urban craftsmen, laborers, and merchants.
The larger the populations of these towns the more they transformed from simple agricultural centers or market towns into real urban centers. The new town dwellers were no longer engaged directly in the rural economy. They worked in association with it, but in capacities that were tending toward trade and manufacturing. The towns themselves became cities, growth itself feeding further development:
Greater efficiency was promoted, in part, by such developments...
To some extent, therefore, capital was substituted for labor.
In other words, as successful businesspeople made money they invested it in other projects that tended to further encourage the development and growth of business facilities. The old manor, improved a sit was through agricultural innovation, was quickly becoming a foundation for growth in other areas. Its surplus population could people growing settlements the success of which was founded on non-agricultural enterprises. More people meant more goods produced. More people meant more settlers for overseas colonies and greater exploitation of raw materials. Greater amounts of raw materials contributed to the increase of manufactured goods that led to greatly increased trade and further explosive growth in capital sums available for more investment. The stage was being set for true industrial development.
The Birth of Industry
Thus, the stage was set for the dawn of a new era in the English economy. A still, primarily rural nation now served as support for a network of cities - including one of the largest urban centers of the time. The old manors, increasingly enclosed, and given over to scientific farming and stock-raising, could supply a large surplus population. Not only was the population exploding, but traditional agricultural operations were far more productive. It took fewer hands to produce a given quantity of food and fodder. The new class of unemployed needed work. The landlords possessed additional resources. Great landowners turned to the exploitation of coal and water power on their estates. They used the excess population to work the mines and mills, securing parliamentary sanction for acts that further increased their ability to exploit the land and its inhabitants.
Many of these occupations offered an opportunity for higher wages. Rural pay was notoriously low. Traditional arrangements certainly did not encourage workers to apply extra effort or work longer hours. According to theories popular at the time, poor workers labored only long enough and hard enough to obtain the small amount of extra funds they required for luxuries such as liquor and tobacco. Once these demands had been satisfied, they would lapse into a period of idleness, during which they gave themselves over to the enjoyment of these goods.
For industrialism to work; therefore, it necessitated the creation of an entirely new attitude among the rural and working poor. Studies have shown that, rural workers did indeed begin to change their ancient habits during the Eighteenth Century. Popular holidays were curtailed - institutions such as "St. Monday" that had served to create two day weekends when added to Sunday - fell into disuse.
Workers also begin to work longer hours. Wages rose only slowly and the extra hours were necessary to produce the increased income that workers felt was essential to maintaining a decent lifestyle. In fact, it was the change in lifestyle that contributed significantly to the development of industrialization. The luxury goods, the simple pleasures, that earlier moralists believed were the sole goals of mid-Eighteenth Century rural laborers, were gradually being superseded by various forms of consumer consumption. A decline in the price of food relative to industrial goods enhanced consumption of these goods as well.
These transformations in spending habits and consumer tastes show the industrial revolution to be a true revolution in daily life. The poor and working classes strove to emulate the lifestyles of the upper classes. Cheap industrial production made this dream possible:
Emulation of this kind, it is argued, led to penetration down the social scale in the ownership of various goods, with the proviso that this was made possible by price reduction or by increased availability of cheaper (but similar) versions of the same kinds of goods. The evidence quoted for this kind of process is usually based on contemporary observation of the habits of other (often lower) social ranks in copying specific fashions or clothing or adopting some specific new behavior, such as drinking tea.
Style and fashion are important attributes of consumer culture. The traditional world of rural England was giving way to a cosmopolitan realm of interrelated consumers. Rising incomes equaled rising desires. These desires rapidly became needs.
It is no coincidence that, during this period, advertising first became an important factor in the molding of consumer tastes. Industry was soon producing goods in such quantity that it was necessary to create a market for all of the additional products. Early advertising capitalized on the same social trends that were transforming the traditional rural world. Still,…
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