- Food, Energy and the Creation of Industriousness: Work and Material Culture in Agrarian England, 1550–1780 by Craig Muldrew
Craig Muldrew writes in the preface of the present work that he came upon its subject almost accidentally:
After finishing my first book, The Economy of Obligation, I intended to take the themes of that work forward into the eighteenth century, looking at the origin of local banking and networks of trust. While that work has continued, some years ago I became interested in the consumption of the labouring poor through my work into wage payments and research done in The Economy of Obligation which examined household consumption and market transactions.
Although modestly put, Muldrew’s highly original ideas, the kinds implicit in these prefatory remarks, have reshaped thinking about early modern English social history. Like a contemporary wayfarer, he traverses the rural countryside glimpsing its many facets. In the earlier work cited above and the other presently under review, he has explored banking and credit, food history (diet, calories, nutrition), energy sources, work, earnings, living standards/material culture of the [End Page 824] laboring poor, as well as such amorphous traits/ideologies as “industriousness”, reliability, honesty/dishonesty, and even idleness. The result is that this author has assembled a new synthesis of rural England from the sixteenth to the end of the eighteenth century.
When Muldrew contends in his preface that Food, Energy and the Creation of Industriousness “begins with food and ends with work” he is really calling for a new look at the “culture of eating” insofar as caloric intake energized worker productivity. Implicit in this approach is that a long-heralded Agricultural Revolution driven by mechanization and new practices of husbandry inadequately explains the phenomenon: it was spurred quite as much by renovation of the laborer himself as by actions of the “improver.” Nutritious and caloric diet fueled his renewal. Using a term coined by historian Jan de Vries, Muldrew labels this transformative episode an “industrious revolution.”
Muldrew bids for the reader’s attention by detailing this increasingly varied and nutritious diet-one of bread, beer, meat, dairy products, fish, vegetables, fruit, and sugar and spices-which took hold in more prosperous times after 1650. The increase in calories in the worker’s diet became the driving force for his greater productivity, steady employment, and increased affluence. A resulting decline in food prices, moreover, led to demographic growth for nearly a century, until the end of the eighteenth.
The author’s use of probate inventories, the goods on hand at the time of a late laborer’s demise, signals a transition in this study from food to work. His household furnishings, personal effects, tools, farm equipment, growing and harvested crops and even debts incurred and moneys unspent allow for measuring his living standard. and indicate how the laborer fared in the economy which evolved during the two century span of this study.
Probate inventories confirmed that the years 1650–1780 had been good ones for the laborer: his standard of living had risen despite his relative poverty when contrasted with the “middling” or lesser “sorts” of the population. These were years also when diminished population growth led to creation of a reserve of capital for consumption and investment. With a demographic pickup after 1780, however, there was a dramatic rise in food prices, not unrelated to a number of poor harvests. By this time agriculture was not the only source of employment: industry picked up some slack.
The author’s method is often one of measuring empirical evidence—examining work and earnings as they varied by the season and location, earnings by members of the laborer’s family, or earnings outside the main source of income. While all such probing is intended to shed light on the laborer’s living standard, it is not enough. Muldrew also defines the man in qualitative terms, assessing him as a person and his place in the social order. In dealing with honesty, industriousness, and...