For the last few lectures, we have been talking about revolutions as discrete events that have a long-term impact. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s hegemony were felt right away, because they were political events. People all over Europe immediately took note of the Bastille’s fall; it happened on July 14, 1789. Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815 provides another distinct reference point for us. It is, therefore, easy to talk about these revolutions. We can place them in a period that begins in 1789 and ends in 1815.
Today, I am going to talk about revolutions in a different sense—one that takes a long view of history. Putting aside political events, I will emphasize deep structures that ultimately affected almost everyone in Europe, although many people may not have noticed what was happening at the time. Specifically, I will consider economic and demographic forces in the period from roughly 1750 to 1850. The forces involved were often invisible but very powerful, and you will want to take note of the vast changes that economic and demographic developments brought to daily life. In 1815, it was possible for many people, peasants for example, to look back to 1789 and wonder whether anything had really changed. In 1850, however, it was almost impossible to look back to 1750 and say that nothing had changed. The structure of Europe’s economy and society had altered so dramatically that everyone had to recognize that a fundamental break with the past had occurred.
I want to begin with a perhaps the most boring thing an historian can talk about, population growth. Beginning around 1750, Europe began a long period of population expansion that ran right into the twentieth century. Between 1750 and 1800, Europe’s population grew at .54% annually. In 1750, Europe had 140 million people. In 1800, that number had increased to 180 million. During the next fifty years, from 1800 to 1850, population growth rates almost doubled, reaching .98% annually. By 1850, Europe had an estimated 265 million people. Now we need to ask two important questions. First, why did this happen? Second, what does this mean?
There are two schools of thought among historians for explaining this demographic upsurge. One side holds that this population growth was due to an increase in birth rates. More women were having more babies. The other school holds that the population increase stemmed from a decrease in death rates. Since the average person lived longer, Europe filled up with more people with each passing year. Now, the fact is that we do not have sufficient information to make a judgment on which explanation is right, nor does it really matter. What is important is that Europe’s population increased and this had dramatic consequences. In a moment, we will discuss the underlying reasons for this growth.
Before we continue, however, we need to consider the second question: what does the population increase mean? Its meaning emerges when we compare Europe to the rest of the world. Europe’s percentage of the world population increased steadily from 1750 to 1900. In 1750, Europe had 19.3 percent of the world population. By 1900, that percentage had grown to 23.2 percent. From there it began a steep decline. In 1995, Europe had less than 14 percent of the world population, and even that share is declining, a fact that will have important implications for international relations in the coming years. What this suggests for the period we are considering is that part of the explanation for European dominance from the eighteenth until the twentieth century is its steady population growth. This does not explain everything, of course, but it is an important factor in the expansion of European Imperialism. One reason why the Europeans could project power was because they had sufficient people to do it.
Now we will consider the underlying causes of this population increase. Historians emphasize two: first, the reorganization of agriculture; second, the development of industrial methods of production. We will begin with changes in agriculture. Agricultural methods in seventeenth century Europe were not much different from methods people used in the fourteenth century. Farmers used the same tools, grew the same crops, and had the same worries. Famine was always one bad harvest away. The bleak farming situation was due largely to how agriculture was organized. First, grain was Europe’s main crop and it depleted the soil rapidly. In order to deal with the soil’s depletion medieval farmers developed the two field system: they planted one field with grain and left the other fallow. This was inefficient; half of Europe’s productive soil was unplanted in any given season, which limited the total food supply.
During the eighteenth century, a number of factors encouraged agricultural reorganization. The first was the increasing use of alternate crops, such as turnips, clover, and vetch. The second was the switch from the old two-field to a three-field system. Rather than dividing their fields in half, farmers now divided their fields into thirds. The first third was planted with grain. The second third was planted with the new crops. The last third was left fallow. The new crops brought two distinct advantages. They fixed nitrogen in the soil, replacing what the grains had taken out, which meant higher yields of grain the next time the field was planted. These new crops were also suitable for animal feed, which meant that farm animals had more to eat. Well-fed animals produced more manure, which farmers then used to fertilize their fields, bringing even higher crop yields. The results were impressive. In England, which led Europe in its reform of agriculture, the average return on seed was 10:1. For the Continent, which was slower to accept the new methods, it was roughly 4.5:1 (Just for comparison, today’s return on seed for the average farmer is 25.5:1)
All told, farmers could now produce more food and keep more animals, which meant Europe could support a larger population. This is what historians call an agricultural cycle. More food means more people, which means more land comes under cultivation. Between 1800 and 1860, for example, the amount of land under cultivation in Europe increased by 75%. Having more land in production also created a broader agricultural marketplace, as a new, non-subsistence farming market appeared. In the South, for example, farmers began to specialize in growing grapes for wine and brandy. Others grew mulberry trees for the production of silk, or olives for oil. In the North, farmers grew sugar beets, hops, and flax. These specialized products then went to market where they fetched better prices and allowed farmers to buy other things they needed but could not produce. As a result, in many areas, people gained greater access to a variety of foods, and food production became regional rather than local.
This all sounds very nice and smooth from the perspective of hindsight, but the process of agricultural change was slow and uneven. Resistance to change was embedded in the communal nature of farming. Before the agricultural revolution took hold farm plots were organized into small fields that radiated out from a commons. The commons provided grazing for farm animals and the fields were so small that they had to be farmed cooperatively. It made no sense to turn a team of oxen around and around while plowing one’s tiny field. Thus, a village would own one team of oxen and plowing would happen at the same time every year. This meant, however, that all farmers in a given village had to cultivate the same crops.
The new methods broke up the traditional social interconnections on which farming had been based. The commons was distributed and individual farmers made their own decisions about what cultivate and when to plant, plow, harvest, etc. Moreover, as farms became more productive and integrated into local markets, they also needed fewer workers, which created a surplus pool of labor that we will discuss in a moment.
Before continuing, we need to step back for a moment and remember two things. First, this was a very gradual revolution. For a long time agricultural growth was so slow and fitful because markets were limited by the perishable nature of agricultural goods. It would not be until after 1820, when the railroads appeared, that a great market for such goods could be created. Moreover, the Old Regime still persisted in many areas. In Eastern Europe, many peasant farmers were still serfs, which prevented any real reform in methods. In Western Europe, the Old Regime persisted also, but in this case, because the peasants wished it so. Traditional rights, called “servitudes,” such as windfalls and grazing persisted. This meant that, in essence, people still had rights to other people’s land, even though a clear owner had been legally established. For this reason, the agricultural revolution was uneven, at best. When changeovers did occur, there was more food. But without a complete legal revolution, farmers could not take full advantage of new methods. In many ways the legal revolution came to the European Continent only with Napoleon.
Before we shift to manufacturing, we need to anchor the agricultural revolution more clearly in historical events. In all these developments Britain led the Continent. The main reason for this was a late seventeenth-century phenomenon called the enclosure movement. The English royal chancery and then Parliament issued a series of decrees that required all farmland to be fenced in. Small farmers who could not afford the cost of the fence were essentially driven from their land. In this way, British farms became ever larger throughout the eighteenth century, which allowed greater experimentation. As a result, the Brits soon led all of Europe in agricultural innovation. One example was the development of the Norfolk four-course system. Under this system of planting, the fallow year completely disappeared and different crops were grown sequentially. In the first year, grain was planted. In the second year, turnips came. In the third year, barley, rye, and clover were sown. This system spread throughout Britain in the eighteenth century and then moved over to the Continent.
The British agricultural revolution spurred population growth in Britain. Between 1700 and 1800, wheat yields increased by one quarter. By 1850, they increased by half again. More food meant more people. In 1750, Britain had about 5.7 million people. By 1850, that number had reached 16.6 million. (Today the number is about 60 million.) In addition, as agriculture became more efficient, fewer people needed to work the fields. By 1850, only 22% of the British population worked in agriculture, the lowest percentage in the world at the time. So now more labor was available to support non-farm production, which leads us to manufacturing.
Let us begin by considering how products were produced before the industrial revolution. Manufacturing had been mostly craft-based. In the cities individual shops, led by a master, would produce the shoes, cloth, iron, barrels, etc. for the local marketplace. These masters were organized into guilds, which protected the members from competition. Masters then took on journeymen, who would eventually become masters themselves if there was enough of a market to justify a separate shop. In essence, the entire system was meant to prevent competition.
The protective guild system came under attack from two directions. First, there was an important change in the structure of craft work. During the seventeenth- and eighteenth- centuries rural manufacturing, or outworking, appeared. Business people in search of cheaper labor sent unfinished products to the countryside and got back finished ones, which they would then sell in town. For example, an entrepreneur would buy some cotton from a supplier and have it spun by rural peasants. He would then take the finished twine and have it woven into cloth by other peasants. At the end of the journey, the entrepreneur would have a finished product that he could sell at a lower price than cloth produced in the cities. This created a lot of fights, as local guilds tried to prevent the sale of goods that were not made in their towns and cities. The second development was, however, the truly deadly one. By the middle of the eighteenth century, mechanized production began to appear, and this is what we really mean when we talk about the industrial revolution. People began to use water and, later, steam power to drive machines that produced finished products.
The Industrial Revolution did not happen overnight, but its effects were so widespread that even contemporaries began to notice it. Between 1780 and 1850 huge productive centers appeared that employed large numbers of people. These centers usually started out in a small town and then as the industry grew, the city grew with it. Good examples are the English cities of Manchester and Sheffield, which came from out of nowhere to dominate industrial production in Britain. Although such industrial cities centers were few in number, by the 1820s social reformers were already decrying capitalist production. Manchester, for example, became a regular stop for social critics who wanted to reform the ills of this new system of production. In another lecture I will discuss one of Manchester’s harshest critics, Karl Marx.
The new system of industrial production appeared in two phases. Textiles came first, and then coal and steel followed. In 1780, Samuel Crompton invented what was called the “mule-jenny.” It was a hybrid of two different kinds of spinning machines, hence mule, that was run by a steam engine, hence “jenny.” Between 1780 and 1820, this jenny expands across Britain, multiplying the quantity of cotton produced. Now there was too much cotton and not enough weaving. This supply of cotton had to be worked, so from 1780 on there was actually an expansion of the number of weavers. (This is important to consider, since here we see how crafts and the Industrial Revolution could, for a short time, work together.) Unfortunately for the weavers, the power loom appeared in the 1820s, putting a great many weavers out of work, while also dramatically expanding the quantity of materials available to everyone. In 1829, there were 55,000 power looms in Britain. Only four years later, there were already over 100,000. This system of power spinners and looms then spread from Britain across to the Continent. In Düsseldorf, for example, a small German town in the Rhineland, there were 6,000 mechanized spinners in the 1820s. By 1850, there were 12,000.
Before we switch over to coal and steel, it is important to keep something in mind. There was a deep interaction between the Old World and the New Industrial world. Recall the outworking system that I discussed earlier. New industries would settle in areas where such outworking had been prevalent. This happened for two reasons. First, there was a ready supply of experienced and cheap labor in these rural areas. Second, excess materials could always be sent for finishing to rural outworkers who were not already working in the mills. In this way, entrepreneurs could make maximum use of both their materials and the local labor pool. What this shows is that in some areas industry and rural labor went together. As fewer farm laborers were needed to produce the food, entrepreneurs made use of the surplus labor.
The Industrial Revolution’s second phase also started in Britain. During the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth century there was a rise in the production of iron and coal in Britain. Britain is very rich in coal deposits, and its relative ease of use made iron production more efficient. Before coal appeared, iron had been produced with charcoal, which does not get as hot as coal, nor does it burn as long. Napoleon actually contributed to this process of change, because his wars created a market for metals, encouraging many areas in Europe to expand their iron and coal production. There was a drop in demand for steel and coal after 1815, but the appearance of railroads in the 1820s stimulated new demand. After 1820, the real takeoff came, as rails and steam engines required massive quantities of steel. As before, the trend began in Britain and then spread to the Continent. By 1850, a full-blown railroad boom was underway in areas of France, Belgium, and Germany.
The boom in coal, steel, and railroads had a significant impact on many parts of European society. Peasant farmers could do quite well, as the trains opened new markets for their products. Winemakers, for example, were now in an excellent position to send their products to areas that were willing to pay higher prices. Some craftsmen did well, too. Skilled craftsmen who provided sought-after goods and services to the railway or manufacturing industries were paid well. Overall, however, many people were harmed by the explosive growth in manufacturing, as they lost any control over their work. Unskilled laborers were worst off, since there was little demand now for their physical labor. But even those people who had some skills and worked in steel or textile mills saw their wages drop and their working conditions worsen. The work schedule was brutal, as workers were required to put in twelve to fourteen hour days in terribly noisy, hot, and dangerous conditions. Even more significant, this emerging group of workers was totally dependent on wages. Unlike in villages, there was no social network that distributed resources to the needy, nor was there any opportunity to grow extra food. In general, the agricultural and industrial revolution destroyed the social bonds on which many people relied to get them through tough times.
The revolutions I have been discussing were revolutionary not for the immediacy of their effects, but for the depth of the changes they brought to daily life. Overall, here is what these two revolutions brought. The agricultural revolution brought a sharp increase in the total production of food, and created a surplus labor pool. The industrial revolution then exploited this labor pool. Initially, entrepreneurs used the surplus labor to build things, and then later they used the labor to oversee the functioning of machines. The social consequences were great. Local societies broke up and traditional social bonds disappeared. And then industrial centers arose, which brought all sorts of social ills, such as crime, disease, alcoholism, and prostitution. By the 1840s, two reactions to the changes appeared. The first was emigration and the second was unionization. In the 1840s, for example, 400,000 Germans left the Continent for the United States. And all across Europe workers began to agitate for the right to organize and bargain collectively. We will talk more about responses to the agricultural and industrial revolutions, as well as the French Revolution over the next few lectures.