Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 112-113
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Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain
Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain. By Keith Wrightson (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000) 384 pp. $35.00
Suddenly, just when you think that university presses have come up with every twist and turn in the book, Yale University Press invents a new one: a scholarly book obviously intended for specialists published without a single footnote. Wrightson's Earthly Necessities possesses nary a note, and the reviewer is left asking, why? For whom could this book have been intended? It dwells at great length and with much learned detail on the early to mid-sixteenth century where much change also presents considerable confusion. The period began with a gentle improve-ment of household economies, only to be buffeted by inflationary price increases at mid-century. By the end of the century, the already landed and prosperous had grown fatter while survival at the bottom of society had become more precarious. So far we have learned fairly straightforward economic history, complete with an opening survey of the historiography that would leave bored all but the truly specialized. The "Lives" promised in the title are few and far between, but the book does pay attention to the labor of women and children. Scotland and Wales also get their due. But the thought of assigning this book to a class of undergraduates should be firmly resisted.
The specialists at whom the book is aimed must also share some of its working assumptions. They must assume that the central political transformation of the age, the revolution that began in 1640 and was finally settled in 1688/89, has basically nothing to do with the economic history here recounted. Banished from the historiography are major works by Hill and Brenner. 1 It is one thing to disagree with their reading of the intimate link between economic developments and the causes and the outcome of the English Civil Wars; it is another to write as if they had never written. Wright seems to think that out of the left-liberal historiography of the last century, only Tawney, the socialist historian, deserves to be cited, but of course Hill wrote under his mantle. 2 In Wrightson's account, the wars of the 1640s simply appeared, and they had no noticeable effect on economic institutions. Few specialists will buy into this account. The eighteenth century is treated as an extension of long-term developments in coal mining, manufacturing, and trade. That is a good perspective, provided that it does not ignore the enormous potential of the new power technology introduced by James Watt and others by the late 1770s. Amid a framework that eschews links between the political and the economic, there are some very good parts on [End Page 112] the social experience of the age, in particular Chapter 13 on the "middling sort," which could be put into any good course reader. As a book-length read for the undergraduate, it fails, and, not least, many specialists will not accept that early modern British economic history can be taught as if Hill had never lived.
Margaret C. Jacob
University of California, Los Angeles
1. Christopher Hill, Economic Problems of the Church: From Archbishop Whitgift to the Long Parliament (London, 1971; orig. pub. 1956); idem, Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th Century (New York, 1965; orig. pub. 1958); idem, Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1974); Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Princeton, 1993).
2. R. H. (Richard Henry) Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (New York, 1947; orig. pub. 1926).