and society in early modern England
Health, mortality and population
Like the rest of the early modern world, England lacked
adequate health care and sanitation. As a result, disease was common, and included
such killers as typhoid & smallpox.
The Plague was endemic
hit towns particularly severely: there was high
mortality in London in 1563, 1603, 1625, 1665.
Life expectancy in towns was always much lower than in
the countryside - towns were death-traps in which mortality was
far higher than the birth rate.
Despite disease & high mortality, the
expanded greatly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
1485 it was
between 2 and 2.5 million; 4 million
and stood at about 5 million in 1660.
One effect of the rise in population was a general
increase in prices - especially of food. During the sixteenth
century, food prices rose fivefold; (prices of industrial
England was an
overwhelmingly rural and agricultural country. Production of food was
the main economic activity, and the most important event of the year was
the harvest. Harvests were especially bad in the years 1554-6, 1594-7.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century,
very few English towns had more than a few thousand inhabitants
- and a only a very small proportion of the population lived
London was vastly larger than any other
English city, with a population of over 50,000 in the
early sixteenth century. By 1600 about 200,000 people lived
there, and London continued to grow despite losing about 80,000
of its inhabitants in the plague outbreak of 1665.
prices were bad news for those on fixed incomes and those without
enough land to supply their own needs. But people with large farms were
able to take advantage of rising food prices. The farmers could then
increase the efficiency of their farms to maximize profits:
Agricultural innovation (for example water meadows)
increased productivity per acre.
of new crops and their periodic rotation on land increased its long-term fertility.
reclamation of marginal land - for example draining of East Anglian fens
- brought more land into productive use.
Enclosure was the fencing in and farming as
personal property fields which had previously been leased to tenants or which
had been used as common grazing land.
Ignorance of basic economics
led many to blame enclosers for England's economic problems.
Tudor governments continually legislated against enclosure; and
Tudor writers condemned it.
|Only a very small proportion of English land
was enclosed, but the social effects were magnified because
enclosure was concentrated in a few areas - especially the
By the mid seventeenth century,
public opinion was largely reconciled to enclosure. Agricultural
improvement was seen as benefiting everyone, and fears that
England's population was declining and been supplanted by worries
that it was too large.
is a current debate on the impact of 16th and 17th century
viewpoint was that capitalistic exploitation of land was disastrous for English small holders,
and that only the rich profited .
Others - especially Eric Kerridge - have argued that an agricultural revolution
occurred which benefited the population as a whole.
In this period, industry was far less important than agriculture. Most industrial
production was not in factories but in the home.
This was true in
the case of
cloth production which was England's main industry and
its major export.
Other important industries included lead-mining (Derbyshire);
tin-mining (Cornwall); coal-mining, especially in the North of
phrase “like coals to Newcastle", which means giving
someone things they don't need, was
first recorded in 1538.
was far cheaper & more efficient than land: roads were poor.
By 1660 England was on its way to becoming the world's greatest sea-going
power. In the seventeenth century international trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and England was one of
England in the early modern period
changed from being series of regional economies largely isolated from one
another, to being an integrated national economy. London played a
crucial role in this development.
The growth of London also unified English culture; by 1600 it had become fashionable for the upper classes to spend part of
each year in London. London's growth also stimulated interest in
structure was hierarchical, but it was possible (although difficult)
to move up and down the social scale.
nobles and gentry
yeomen, merchants, and professions
eldest son of a noble family inherited a title - this kept the
number of nobles low
Though not tax-exempt, the nobility did possess important privileges, including
the right to sit in House of Lords, and the right to be tried only by their peers (other lords in the House
Bishops also sat in the House of Lords, and before
the Reformation some abbots (i.e. the chief monk of a monastery) sat there too.
It was said that "gentlemen are made good cheap in
England;" anyone with a master's degree from one of the two
universities (Oxford and Cambridge) counted as a
gentlemen, as did any member of a profession (physician,
The means of gentlemen varied
enormously, from small farmers to extremely wealthy landowners. Gentlemen held political power locally as
Justices of the Peace and nationally as Members of Parliament.
Gentry made up
approximately 2% of the English population in 1600, but owned 50% of
land (the nobility owned about 15%; church & crown owned most of the
merchants were very wealthy, for example, aldermen of London were richer than almost all
Other Commoners (non-Nobles):
Yeomen were prosperous farmers, (i.e. with incomes in excess of £40 per
annum in 1600).
Below yeomen were husbandmen,
(earning about £15 pounds per annum in 1600).
Labourer lacked enough land
to maintain himself and his family, (though he often had a cottage
and garden, and grazing
rights for cattle on the local common), and consequently had to work for wages.
going rate for day labor in 1600 was roughly 1s per day when work was available,
but agricultural work was seasonal, and many labourers would only
have been able to find work for six months in the year.
With an annual income of about £9 pounds,
labourers barely earned
enough to get by.