J.P.SOMMERVILLE

 

The Economy

367-03 (4)

 

"There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common…"

(Henry VI.ii, 4.2)

 

London

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England's population grew steadily during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and this had a significant impact on the economy.

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The population of London increased from about 50,000 in 1500 to about 500,000 in 1700. London attracted migrants from all over the country and created an immense demand for goods and services. The growth of London played an important part in making England a united money economy.

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As London grew it became the predominant centre of English political and social life. Gentry families often spent part of the year in London, where they could develop business and political contacts.

 

"I hope to see London once ere I die."

(Henry IV.ii, 5.3)

 

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The governments of James I and Charles I passed legislation in an attempt to make the gentry return to the country but it was largely ineffective. It became fashionable for the gentry to spend part of the year in London and to buy homes there; this helped create a national political consciousness that superseded the regional concerns of earlier times.

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London was also the center of a flourishing printing and publishing trade. These books and pamphlets circulated throughout the country. The monarch and bishops made efforts to censor the output of the presses, but were never completely successfully. During the 1640's censorship collapsed altogether and was only partially re-established at the Restoration.
The presses at Oxford and Cambridge produced books for the university market, and during the Civil War (1642-6) many royalist pamphlets were printed at Oxford (the King's headquarters for most of the War).

 

Wenceslaus Hollar's engraving of London's Bankside in 1647.

 

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Nonetheless, England remained a basically rural society. In 1600, only about 8% of the population lived in cities with more than 5,000 inhabitants.

 

Agriculture

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Growing population increased the demand for and price of food. This stimulated agricultural innovation. A number of new techniques were developed to increase yields, including:

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Water meadows - land was flooded (by means of trenches dug to nearby streams) for part of the year in order to increase its fertility.

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Up and down (convertible) husbandry - In the Middle Ages it had been common to leave land lying fallow for one year in two or  three in order to restore its fertility. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries farmers achieved the same goal of fertility by alternating grains with other crops (peas, clover, turnips).

New crops were also introduced from the New World - in particular potatoes and tobacco - but potatoes were not widely eaten until the eighteenth century.
Tobacco was an immediate hit - in the last two decades of the sixteenth century it was literally worth its weight in silver. By 1619, a royal proclamation was issued the restrain the planting of tobacco in England and Wales. The proclamation complained that tobacco tended to corrupt men's bodies and manners, and that to cultivate tobacco was "to abuse and misemploy the soil of this fruitful kingdom". Tobacco immediately aroused controversy. James I wrote A counterblaste to tobacco in 1604, but others praised its virtues and many doctors prescribed it for its health benefits.
 
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Fertilizers - The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw an expansion of fertilization of the soil. In coastal areas, sea and seaweed were used; in other places burnt lime (i.e. limestone heated to high temperatures) was used to make heavily cultivated soil less acidic.

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Reclaiming marginal land - By the late sixteenth century much land that had not been in cultivation since the fourteenth century was being farmed. During the 1630's,  the Fens of East Anglia were drained by the Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1683), and the land used for arable production.

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Enclosure - During the Middle Ages, much English arable farming was based on the open field system. This involved dividing a large field into strips, with each local tenant farmer having strips in different parts of the field. It was aimed at ensuing fairness - each farmer having an equal chance of conveniently and inconveniently placed, fertile and barren land - but it was extremely inefficient. The system discouraged varying crops and innovative techniques. Other fields were devoted to common grazing of domestic animals. The massive depopulation caused by the Black Death encouraged landlords to enclose the (now largely empty) land and use it as pasture for sheep and cattle - a far less labor-intensive form of farming. In the sixteenth century and early seventeenth centuries, rising food prices gave landlords a big incentive to enclose land for arable, extinguishing common grazing rights, buying out their tenants or encouraging them to leave voluntarily, building hedges or fences around the land, and using hired labor to  farm it efficiently to produce food for the market. Enclosure attracted much criticism, and was seen as a cause of depopulation, poverty and vagrancy.

[More on the Black Death - thanks to Sarah Hill for this link].

 

"The increase of pasture …by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men, and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men the abbots, not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the land, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes, for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners as well as tenants are turned out of their possessions, by tricks, or by main force, or being wearied out with ill-usage, they are forced to sell them".

(Thomas More, Utopia, 1516)

 

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Most social analysts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries blamed social and economic faults on moral failings. They saw poverty as the result of idleness and high prices as the consequence of greed.

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Despite the complaints of moralists and various statues, enclosure continued apace, although during the second half of the sixteenth century, rising food prices meant that it was for arable rather than pasture.

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Books of advice on techniques of agricultural improvement were soon published. One of the most popular, Conrad Heresbach’s Foure bookes of husbandry was translated into English in1577 (Latin original 1570 - Rei rusticae libri quatuor).
By the early seventeenth century many such works were appearing, including books by Gervase Markham (1568-1637) who wrote several works on husbandry as well as A Discourse of Horsemanshippe (1593) and miscellaneous plays and poems.
From the 1630s to the1650s Samuel Hartlib (c.1600-62) a puritan living in London, corresponded with scientists throughout Europe on agricultural innovations. The Royal Society (which was inspired by Hartlib's efforts) also turned its attentions to encouraging the scientific study of farming techniques.

 


Van Dyck, English landscape c. 1630

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By the middle of the seventeenth century the English government had ceased to fear that England was depopulated. Indeed, emigration to Virginia was encouraged in the early seventeenth century, as overpopulation seemed an increasing threat.

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During the second half of the seventeenth century, English agriculture grew to be so efficient that grain was exported (not imported as in the sixteenth century).

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Increased agricultural efficiency meant growing prosperity. Real wage rates, which had declined until about 1630, began a slow improvement. Greater prosperity allowed for the accumulation of capital for investment in trade and industry.

  

 

Industry and Commerce

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Throughout the sixteenth century, England's largest export industry was the production of cloth. Most of England's exports went to the Netherlands, where they were "finished" (i.e. dyed and dressed). In the 1614, James I granted a patent to Alderman Cockayne and some other London businessmen, giving them the exclusive right to finish cloth in England. Cockayne hoped to exclude the Dutch from the profitable finishing business. The Dutch responded by refusing to accept any finished cloth from England. England's exports decreased dramatically and the price of wool plummeted. Eventually, James was forced to repeal the patent. The slump caused by Cockayne's Project was reinforced by the outbreak of the Thirty Years War which disrupted European trade routes and markets.

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England's other main industries were the mining of tin, lead and coal, and the construction industry. All of these expanded, but none dramatically.

 


The Golden Hind
 
However, the seventeenth century was a period of great commercial expansion for England as European trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. By the end of the seventeenth century, England had outstripped the Netherlands and become the world's foremost seafaring trading power.
"But ships are but boards, sailors but men: there be land-rats and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves, I mean pirates, and then there is the peril of waters, winds and rocks".

(The Merchant of Venice, 1.3)

 

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The expansion of trade went hand in hand with increasingly sophisticated financial institutions. The great trading companies - such as the Levant Company and the East India Company - enabled investors to spread risk.
In 1694, the Bank of England was founded with an initial capital of £1.2 million obtained from individual investors. Its main role was to act as the government's banker, but it was also a commercial bank. It dealt in bills (an early form of credit or overdraft finance) provided finance for trade, accepted deposits and issued bank notes.

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Increasing financial sophistication meant changing attitudes to usury (interest bearing loans).

 

"Which, like a usurer, abound'st in all,
And usest none in that true use indeed"

(Romeo and Juliet, 3.3)

Medieval attitudes to usury were very negative, strongly influenced by the Bible which condemned it. It was thought "unnatural" for money to generate more money without any effort or productive activity by the usurer.
'A certain great usurer … did hire preachers to preach against usury that all other being by the terrible threatenings of God's word stayed from that abominable sin, he alone might occupy usury…'

(John Veron, A Strong Defence , 1562)

 

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Usury was closely associated with Jews, who in many parts of Europe were forbidden to own land or enter the professions and so became financiers. The greedy usurer Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was based on this model. There were very few Jews in England - they had been expelled in the 1200's and only a few had returned by the sixteenth century to trade secretlly. Jews were invited in 1655 by Oliver Cromwell to return to England. This was partly to take advantage of their financial expertise and partly for religious reasons - Millenarian Christians wanted to convert the Jews since they believed that their conversion would precede Christ's Second Coming.

 

"Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews "

(Marvell, To his coy mistress)

 

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The growing belief that religious toleration made countries more prosperous was in part based on the case of the Netherlands. Their thriving Jewish community was composed mostly of exiles from Spain and Portugal -  Dutch  commerce grew and prospered; the Iberian economy slumped.

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