Early Modern British Lives

Review: David Stead on Keith Wrightson

Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000. xii + 372 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-300-08391-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Stead, Nuffield College, University of Oxford.
Published by EH.NET, March 2001.

Keith Wrightson's latest work traces the fuller emergence of a market society in Britain between the late fifteenth and the mid-eighteenth centuries. It is an important story, and one Wrightson (formerly professor of social history at Cambridge University and now professor of history at Yale) tells well.

Earthy Necessities, which launches a new series in British economic history from Yale University Press, opens with an introductory survey of the literature on the early modern British economy. Beginning with the comments of contemporaries -- who were well aware that they were living in a time of major change -- Wrightson continues through the subsequent generations of economic historians, linking each set of writings with the general approaches prevailing in the discipline during that age.

The book then divides into three parts. Part one describes the starting point, the essential features of economic life in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. After examining the structure of the basic economic unit, the household, together with the roles, priorities and working strategies of its various members, Wrightson then considers the wider web of local and national institutions to which households belonged. These range from merchant guilds and systems of agricultural organization to regional and international trade networks. Wrightson concludes: "this was not so much a commercialised economy as a largely traditional, fundamentally agrarian economic order" (p. 111).

Part two, the largest section of the book, details what Wrightson calls "the dynamic" experienced by the British people between the early sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries. Population growth and price inflation were the principal triggers of change, a process which can be baldly summarized as "enhanced regional specialisation and intensified commercial integration within an emergent national economy which was increasingly influenced by participation in a nascent world economy" (p. 231). Wrightson shows how the intensifying dominance of the market involved and occurred alongside, amongst other things, the growth of opportunities for capital accumulation and investment, increasingly commercialized agriculture, manufacturing and trade, the development of the state, urbanization and generally rising standards of living. He also explores the gradual adjustments in the attitudes and values of early modern Britons as they contributed and reacted to these developments; one such alteration was a new discourse of "improvement."

Part three examines the endpoint of these cumulative changes through an investigation of how British men, women and children lived with the market during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Wrightson is careful to repeatedly stress the continuity with earlier periods, and equally not to exaggerate the shifts in behavior that occurred before 1750. Purely commercial relationships coexisted with and were tempered by the older traditions. Estate management practices neatly illustrate this fusion of conduct. Landlords increasingly wanted to consolidate small farms into larger holdings, but instead of turning out established tenants they waited until the land became vacant on the farmer's death. Nevertheless there was significant change in both economy and attitudes, epitomized by the differences between Gregory King's perception of the English social and economic structure in 1688 and Edmund Dudley's Tree of Commonwealth in 1509.

Earthy Necessities sweeps across almost all aspects of economic life in early modern Britain. Wrightson draws on the economic, social and cultural histories of the period, with demography also featuring strongly throughout the book. In addition to surveying the evolutions that took place, Wrightson also shares his views on various historical controversies. Here are three examples. First, he argues that the novel phenomenon of sustained inflation from the 1510s to the 1570s was fundamentally demand-pull in nature rather than being mainly driven by increases in the money supply (although debasement of the currency appears to be a much more powerful explanation for price rises in Scotland). Second, the progress made on English farms in the latter half of the seventeenth century was important but "did not constitute an 'agricultural revolution'" (p. 233). Third, it is "illusory" (p. 228) to attribute the rapid development of England after the 1640s primarily to the political changes arising from the Civil Wars and Interregnum. These events were certainly influential, but England's eventual economic success was firmly rooted in the cumulative achievements of previous generations.

Wrightson skillfully employs a combination of contemporary comment and statistical evidence to support his arguments. The text is enjoyable to read, and there are some nice rhetorical touches and images along the way. I particularly liked the imaginary Bristol merchant, wearing a shirt made from Dutch linen, drinking French wine and eating fish caught off the Anglesey coast, who Wrightson uses to illustrate the extent of trade networks at the turn of the sixteenth century (p. 108). Another strength of the book is Wrightson's ability to recognize, and articulate, the heterogeneity of experience between and within different sub-periods, regions, classes and genders. Unlike many supposedly "British" studies that pay only lip-service to Scotland and Wales, Wrightson aims to give full attention to the people living in these areas, although perhaps unavoidably given the sources available, he is less successful at achieving this goal for the Welsh. Earthly Necessities also considers the costs as well as the benefits of economic development. At various times the losers included the church, the iron and cloth industries in the southeast and -- unsurprisingly -- agricultural and urban laborers and small farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen.

Although not marketed as such, Earthly Necessities is clearly intended to appeal to a non-specialist audience. This manifests itself most obviously in the absence of footnotes or endnotes, making the book subject to the usual advantages and disadvantages of this form of presentation. The general reader is not intimidated by a cluttered text, but I found it continually frustrating to be unable to easily locate the source of the most interesting quotes and figures contained therein. (Wrightson's lightly annotated twenty-three page guide to further reading is, though, a valuable resource, particularly for those new to this field.) The book suffers from a few other blemishes. Perhaps inevitably in such a wide-ranging survey, Wrightson skips over some debates, such as disagreements over the time-path of land enclosures and the size of the non-economic returns to landownership. It is also surprising that he does not make more use of a standard tool of measuring the degree and pace of market integration, that is estimating the convergence in prices between different geographic regions. I found just two references to such an exercise, each comprising of only a single sentence (pp. 110, 261).

As is often the case with good books, Earthly Necessities succeeds at several different levels. A splendid introduction to the subject for undergraduates, Wrightson also includes many gems for his specialist readers. Anyone wanting a comprehensive, balanced and well-written overview of the changing world that was early modern Britain should read this book.

David Stead is a graduate student at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. His doctorate thesis is entitled "Crops and Contracts: Land Tenure in England, c. 1700-1850."

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Posted: 9 April 2001