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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 74-100
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The Agricultural Foundation of the Seventeenth-Century English Oeconomy
S. Todd Lowry
The extensive literature and cultural traditions associated with agricultural production in the seventeenth century have been undeservedly slighted in discussions of the agricultural economy. A revolution in agricultural production has been associated traditionally with the latter half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The scientific revolution in agriculture is associated with the mid-nineteenth century emergence of soils chemistry after Justus von Liebig (Fussel 1971; Wilmot 1990). However, recent work has further documented an earlier revolution in agricultural productivity around the beginning of the seventeenth century (Kerridge  1968; Allen 1992). Two aspects of the increases in agricultural yields are striking. First, the guiding literature on agricultural practices was surprisingly constant from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. Incongruously, despite the increase in agricultural productivity during this period, the agricultural manuals are frequently dismissed as pedestrian and nonscientific.
Second, a cooler climate afflicted northern Europe from around 1300 to after 1900 (Andersen and Borns 1994; Briffa and Osborn 2002). David Grigg (1982, 85, 88) dates the period of poorest climate from 1550 to 1700, with cold winters, wet summers, and shorter growing seasons. Yet this was the very period in which English agriculture doubled its yields per acre, according to R. C. Allen's (1992) statistical study of the Midlands (see also Kerridge  1968). Perhaps a retrospective overemphasis on the growth of commerce and the mathematization of [End Page 74] science have limited our appreciation of the importance of the agricultural base of the economy and its instructional and legal components (Cipolla 1980).
I focus my analysis on the dominant economic concerns of the vast majority of the population of that day and on the reflective thought that paralleled their concerns. Emphasis must be on the physical realities of early modern agriculture. The best data indicate that, in the sixteenth century, 70 to 90 percent of the population lived on the land. This base of the population pyramid struggled to provide for itself and to supply a material surplus to support the political, military, clerical, and commercial superstructure of the society. In the prologue to his agricultural manual of 1534, Mayster Fitzherbert likened the society to the game of "chesse," with the pawns equivalent to the yeomanry. A best estimate for England in 1520 is that it took 100 families on the land to support 106 families. This indicates that roughly 94 percent of the population worked in agriculture at that time (Wrigley 1986, 136). By 1800, it is estimated that 100 families on the land could support a total of 138 families, including themselves. This indicates that over 70 percent of the population was still on the land, but there had been a sixfold increase in the economic superstructure supported by domestic agriculture and augmented by food imports (136). To put this background in perspective, compare it with modern agricultural practices. Less than 5 percent of the population in the United States is still on the land, and much agricultural production is devoted to industrial crops rather than food. The hidden distinction in such an overview is the difference between production per acre and production per laborer. The former is vital in subsistence agriculture; the latter, in capitalist agriculture.
The economic and cultural importance of basic agriculture during the 1600s can be underlined by some consideration of famine. Late medieval grain yields ran from three to five times seed in normal times. Planters used about two bushels of seed per acre, and this had to be held back from the meager harvest for the following year. In this period, bread was figuratively "the staff of life." Barley, however, was frequently malted and made into beer to improve its palatability. Altogether, the four grains (barley, oats, and wheat or rye bread) made up the foundation of the English diet. It was supplemented with a little cheese, beef, or mutton and peas, beans, turnips, or cabbage...