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The Invention of the Modern World 3.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.


By Alan Macfarlane.

IT IS USUAL to separate the industrial and agricultural revolutions, but in the short space here available, I shall treat them together and over a much longer time frame than is normal. The final break-through to steam power in the later eighteenth century is only one, if the single most significant, chapter in the story.

The importance of what happened hardly needs emphasizing. It is the reason why Britain’s Empire ruled the world for over a century and why a set of peculiar developments on a small peripheral island changed the history of the human race. The British industrial revolution has conquered the world, allowing world population to grow to twenty times the absolute limits which Adam Smith thought possible with the energy available to humankind in the middle of the eighteenth century.

There is no sign that without the British Industrial Revolution there would have been such a revolution at all. It took between fifty and eighty years for any other nation, even with the example of England, to undergo this momentous change. Without England we can be almost certain that the modern industrial world would not have been born and we would still be living in an agrarian world.1

LOOKED AT FROM the vantage point of the author of The Wealth of Nations in the middle of the eighteenth century, it seemed clear that after a tremendous burst of development, Europe had reached a threshold which it could not cross. Mediterranean Europe was in decline, France was static, even Holland was not developing. The reasons for this were fairly obvious to the Enlightenment thinkers and consisted of two central realities. Firstly the innate limits to the productiveness of the technology had been reached. Much more could not be squeezed out of plants, animals, wind, and water. Population had reached the maximum of what the surface of the earth could provide through photosynthesis of the sun’s energy.

Secondly, the tendency towards predation and aggression had worked its usual effects so that the early promise of Italy and Southern Germany had been destroyed by war, and the tendency towards over-expansion and social hierarchies was sapping the energy of Spain, Portugal and France. The subtlest form of predation had afflicted Holland as it moved towards banking, trade, and mercantile wealth. Although Europe’s weapons and science were now in advance of China, the continent was caught in the normal Malthusian trap, the law of diminishing marginal returns, increasing war, famine and disease. The benefits from the discovery of the Americas by Europe had been largely used up.

Apart from the English case, every other civilization in history had moved towards ‘industriousness’ (a concept introduced by Hayami Akira) – that is, harder work for humans – rather than industrialization. Continental Europe between the twelfth and eighteenth century de-industrialized in this sense: there were fewer animals, less machinery, less use of non-human power and no exploitation of the huge coal reserves of the continent.  The same happened in an even more extreme manner in Japan, where even the wheel was largely forgotten and domestic animals became scarce – since all work being done by the human body.2

A form of what Clifford Geertz calls ‘agricultural involution’ was the normal course in history.3 People threw their muscles at the job and the price of labour dropped. The results might be magnificent in terms of output per hectare of wet rice paddy, yet the trajectory is precisely in the opposite direction to the’ industrial’, labour-saving, path. The cost of human labour declines; people work longer hours  and  technology as we know it regresses. An immiserated peasantry fills the land – without much leisure, disposable income, education or public relief in times of hardship.

Clicking an image launches a captioned slide presentation.

IN RELATION TO the unusual path which England took, let us look first at some elements of agriculture and the application of better technologies in harvesting energy from the sun. The proliferation of mills driven by both wind and water in England was dramatic. As early as 1086 in England the Domesday Book lists 5,624 water mills for some 3000 communities.4 There was roughly a water mill per 50 households  ‘medieval men and women were surrounded by water driven machines doing the more arduous work for them’.5 This was something new in the world, something the Romans with their cheap slave labour had never developed.

These water mills were limited to areas with good water supplies. In the large flat plains in parts of France, Germany and even in the flat east coast of England, there was often little drop and hence less power from water. The next genuine macro invention, the windmill, apparently again unknown to the Romans and others, was allegedly invented in the 1180s at Weedon in the East Riding of Yorkshire in England. From there it rapidly spread all over England and much of northern Europe.

At the same time, an even larger amount of energy came from animals – especially draught animals. By the late eleventh century, it is estimated that seventy per cent of all non-human energy consumed by English society came from animals, the rest coming from water mills’.6 The growth of the woolen industry was the backbone of England’s wealth. England is rather too wet and cold to consistently produce wheat, except in certain regions. However, much of it is upland pasture with very good grass to sustain sheep and cows and horses. So the cows which produced milk, cheese, butter, meat and manure and gave England its famous national food – roast beef – as well as its characteristic landscapes, were also important.

Finally, and equally exceptionally, there were English horses, which from being of middling quality and quantity were developed by selective breeding into the largest, strongest, and most ubiquitous animals of their kind in the world. The importance of horses in agriculture was noted, for example, by Quesnay. They were much more powerful than the oxen which were the normal agricultural animal on the continent, and one horse could do the work of twelve men. Wrigley gives figures which show that between 1600 and 1800 the amount of oats available for consumption by animals went up more than four-fold, an increase of nearly 900,000 tons: ‘This represents, in effect, a massive increase in the quantity of energy available for use on the farm, in transport, in industry, and for leisure.’7 Right up to the nineteenth century much of the energy for early industrialism was supplied by horsepower in the mills and mines, and of course in supporting agriculture where they ploughed and carried.

By the end of the thirteenth century European agriculture, and particularly that of England and Flanders, was highly productive. It was increasingly ‘mechanized’, using animals, water and wind. It was a highly ‘artificial’ agriculture, in which large areas were deliberately kept for parks, grazing and pasturage. Above all it was based on labour‑saving devices wherever they could be found.

The result was that agricultural productivity was extremely high. There are indeed grounds for thinking that medieval farming in the thirteenth or fourteenth century in England was as productive as it would be until the early eighteenth century. For example, Mokyr has recently written that ‘There is now some evidence suggesting that the high levels of agricultural productivity in Britain around 1700 were nothing new and date back to the Middle Ages. The Ramsey manors in Huntingdonshire in the eastern Midlands, which have left us a great deal of evidence, show that labor productivity in agriculture in the first half of the fourteenth century was as high as it was to be in the early nineteenth century (Karakacili, 2004)… In a similar vein, however, Campbell and Overton (1993) have found that land productivity of the 1300s was not surpassed until about 1710 in Norfolk.’8

THEN OCCURRED THE catastrophic set‑back of the Black Death from the mid-fourteenth century, which destroyed at least one third of the population of Europe. In England, this emphasized a labour‑saving approach since the cost of human labour rose even higher and the bonds of an already loose serfdom disappeared. The reaction to this was to increase the non‑human elements in agriculture – for example the number of animals and in particular sheep. It was also an encouragement to improve productivity through new fertilizers, marling and lime, new crop rotations and new crops.

It is difficult to assess the effects of the new plants brought back by European penetration of South America, in particular, but also India, Africa and the Pacific. Potatoes, tomatoes and numerous new kinds of vegetables obviously had a considerable effect. Likewise sugar, tobacco, spices and later tea and coffee would profoundly change European diets, health and many other aspects of European life.

The effects were both mental and physical. Europe before Columbus had already developed a diverse and efficient agriculture. The sudden realization of the possibility of further improving production and consumption by using a range of tropical and semi‑tropical plants must have been one of the factors behind the increasing pace of experiments in agriculture which we now call the ‘agricultural revolution’. People who had watched what was grown in their gardens and fields being transformed, and who were experimenting with new stimulants and narcotics and sweeteners, were increasingly ready to try out new ways of improving their agriculture.

The great upsurge of activity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century consisted of a set of complex and inter‑related changes. The increased use of fertilizers in the form of marl, lime and nitrogen‑fixing plants such as clover; the increased use of winter feeds through root crops and hence the over‑wintering of larger numbers of livestock; the greater amount of horse‑power; new crop rotations which obviated the need for a third of the land to lie fallow; better transportation and storage of crops; experiments in improving the breed of sheep, pigs, cows and horses, all these together, particularly in England, raised the productivity of agriculture without adding to the labour input. Without these improvements it would have been impossible to feed the growing cities, or allow up to 40 percent of the population to engage in non‑agricultural activities.

The increase in productivity can be seen in a number of statistics. For example, Wrigley has recently produced a table of cereal production which ‘suggests that total net cereal output increased almost threefold between 1600 and 1800. The population rose from 4.16 million to 8.67 million between the two dates, suggesting that the amount of cereal food per head rose by almost 40 per cent.’9 By 1800 one-third of the population were able to supply the rest with food, suggesting that output per person in agriculture expanded by at least three quarters between 1700 and 1800.10 Putting these two facts together, Bryant summarized the position: ‘Between 1600 and 1800, the English population grew from roughly 4 to 8.5 million, but the percentage of those engaged in agriculture actually fell by nearly one-half, from 70% of the total to 36% …’11

BY THE SEVENTEENTH century the English lived off the power of wind, water and animals in a way unequaled by any people in human history, and they did so by improving the harnessing of that power through increasingly complex machinery. Such machinery would easily adapt itself to mechanization using a new power source, and so the first steam engines – significantly called ‘mules’ – were developed.

Yet, there remains the question of why and how England achieved such an intensity of use of these natural resources. How could it produce so much iron and glass, how could it heat its vats for tanning and dyeing, and above all how could it not only afford to use half of its grains for beer, but over half of the land for animals?  What was its secret?

At one level, the secret lay in the development of the coal industry. Basically agrarian societies have to use much of their land to provide wood for heating, cooking and craft activities. This sets a strict limit to the land available for agriculture. This rule inhibited all other civilizations. However, starting from as early as Anglo-Saxon times, and rising steeply from the later sixteenth century, the English increasingly used coal.

We all know that coal was at the heart of industrialization in the nineteenth century, yet we tend to overlook the fact that the exploitation of coal had been central, for heating, smelting and producing fertilizers, since the medieval period. The delightful ditty ‘England’s a perfect world! Has Indies too! Correct your maps: Newcastle is Peru’ could have been written well before the later seventeenth century.12 As Wrigley has documented, England was an animal-wind-water-coal economy several centuries before the efficient steam engine set the seal on this development.

In the 1560’s, coal accounted for about ten percent of total energy consumption in England; by 1700 well before the ‘industrial revolution’, it was approximately half, by 1750 it was sixty-percent.13 By 1700 the estimated output was about 2.2 million tons; to have provided the same heat energy from wood ‘would have meant devoting 2 or 3 million acres to woodland. By 1800, on the same assumption, 11 million acres of woodland would have been needed. This would have meant devoting more than a third of the surface area of the country to provide the quantity of energy in question.’14 By 1700, England’s coal output is reckoned to be five times as large as the rest of world. By 1800 English coal production was still five times that of the rest of Europe combined.15

‘The steam-pipe has added to her population and wealth the equivalent of four or five Englands’, as Emerson was to write.16 The English were increasingly using stored carbon energy. This released them gradually from the energy trap, for example allowing them to burn lime as fertilizer to increase agricultural productivity, heat and cook their food in their expanding cities, develop their semi-industrial manufactures of tanning, dyeing, iron and glass manufacture, salt production. Well before the great improvement of the steam engine, coal was being converted for many uses, and by the end of the seventeenth century, it was even being used in simple engines to pump water for London. The final evolution of the more effective steam engine is thus both a revolutionary change, but also just one stage in a long development.

Coal was important both in the several hundred years run-up to the ‘industrial revolution’ of the eighteenth century, allowing many other factors such as high agricultural productivity and high wages. It was equally important in sustaining the momentum. As Wrigley has recently pointed out ‘… the strategic significance of coal in the industrial revolution … lay in the fact that it enabled expansion to continue rather than being brought to a halt by the energy constraints inherent in organic economies…’ He believes that the key question regarding the industrial revolution is ‘why it did not stop, the answer must lie in gaining access to a different source of energy.’17

England had already developed high levels of craft skills and reliable knowledge in relation to the manipulation of matter, and in particular the conversion of ‘natural’ energy through machinery (cogs, levers etc.) into something humans could use. The complex developments pioneered in Italy, Germany and France flooded into England and were linked together and supplemented by a few essential theoretical advances such as the discovery of the vacuum by Robert Boyle. The high level of metal technologies, particularly in iron, was also necessary. All the parts came together and fitted into a pattern which, like a complex key in a lock, had the right shape to release the population from the agrarian trap once and for all. This unlocking would, after an interval, be copied all over the globe in the following two centuries.

WHAT HAPPENED IN England was truly amazing, admirable or shocking depending on one’s taste. For Tocqueville, English agriculture in the nineteenth century was ‘the richest and most perfect in the world’.18 Yet for Heine around the same time,

The perfection of machines, which are everywhere in use here and have taken over so many human functions has for me something uncanny: this ingenious driving of wheels and rods and cylinders and of thousands of little hooks and pegs and teeth which move with a kind of passion, filled me with horror. The certainty, the exactness, the madness, the precision of life in England fills me with not less anxiety; for just as the machines in England seem like human beings, so the human beings there seem like machines.19

Already by the time of Adam Smith the English were a semi-industrial nation. But what changed everything was the ability through the steam engine and especially Watt’s double condenser, to turn coal into forms of energy to drive machines. Suddenly a world which had been living largely off the trickle of renewable carbon energy transforming the sun’s rays through plants and animals and could use millions of years of reserve energy – first in the form of coal and later of oil. The machine, urban, industrial, factory age was born on this small island, and then, fifty years later, started to spread elsewhere.

The fifty-year advantage of England in its agriculture and industry combined to make its Empire much more powerful, and its imperial rule supplied the raw materials and the markets for its goods – absorbing the sugar, tea, coffee, rubber, cotton and much else which was processed and exported. The peculiar social and economic structure, which had prevented England from following the normal course, of moving towards industriousness, was now projected outwards as part of a set of features which would conquer the world. Our world today is basically an industrial one – originally made in England, even if over half of the world’s population still live off the land.

Yet, there still remains a puzzle. England clearly had coal and this is one of the factors that made the escape possible. Nevertheless, other countries, notably Germany and France and, further afield, Japan and China, among others, had large coalfields. Yet, none of these were exploited in anything but a marginal way. Why was this? In some ways it was not a matter of coal creating the industrial revolution, but rather the industrial revolution created the need for coal. In other words, the rapid growth of the coal industry in England was a symptom of the already high level of wealth and technology. Therefore, we are left with the old puzzle of what was special about England that made it use animals, wind and waterpower so effectively and then, later, to exploit its coal.

THE PICTURE I have painted is the conventional one. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries economic historians believed that the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the eighteenth century were unique in world history. They documented in detail the developments over several hundred years which led to this momentous change. They showed that these revolutions were English in their first instance, and that apart from Holland, even in other parts of Europe – let alone further afield in India, China, America or elsewhere – nothing similar appeared to be happening. They showed that the great divergence between one society which was taking the industrial path of production and all others which were still or increasingly taking the industrious path of harder labour was something that happened well before 1800. Recently, however, this view has been challenged.

Some readers will be aware that in the 1990’s a theory emerged, most notably in the work of Kenneth Pomeranz on The Great Divergence.20 This argues that there was nothing special about either England or Europe. Parts of China, especially the Yangtze basin, Pomeranz argues, were at the same level of wages, productivity, expectation of life, and material wealth as England until about 1800. The ‘Great Divergence’ in economic production occurred after that date. Hence the contrast after 1800 was not caused by such factors as social, religious, political or economic differences, but rather by two ‘accidents’, the widespread presence and use of coal in England, and the fact that Europe had colonized parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas and could suck wealth out of them.

This viewpoint goes against the argument of this chapter. It is therefore necessary to acknowledge its presence and to comment very briefly on whether it has substance.  It is worth drawing attention to the work of a number of scholars who have looked closely at the material and arguments of the revisionists and argue that they are largely incorrect. There is a burgeoning literature of anti-revisionist criticism, so I shall confine myself to a few recent statements in articles and books.

LET ME START with two scholars who have done detailed comparative developments in the main areas upon which Pomeranz draws most heavily on, namely the most advanced parts of China (the Yangzi basin) and Europe (namely England). One of these is Robert Allen, an Oxford economic historian, whose work is frequently cited  in support of the Pomeranz thesis.

In an article published in 2006 by Allen and others on ‘Agricultural Productivity… in England and the Yangtze Delta’, they write that ‘Real male wages and female textile earnings were significantly lower in the Yangtze than in England in the early nineteenth century … The real wage comparisons push the start of the Great Divergence back from the nineteenth century to the seventeenth. …In addition, all of the income measures in the Yangtze Delta were trending downward from the mid seventeenth century onwards. The rising population is the obvious explanation…. The Yangtze Delta looks more like an economy becoming increasingly involuted rather than one on the brink of take-off. This analysis suggests that the Yangtze’s golden age was in the seventeenth century and that its future prospects were poor.’21

A year later Allen and others published an article on ‘Wages, Prices and Living Standards in China…’ They conclude that Adam Smith’s views on China seem correct. ‘Money wages were in accord with his view: In China, they were certainly lower than wages in the advanced parts of western Europe in the eighteenth century. Chinese wages were similar to those in the lagging parts of Europe… The upshot of the wage and price comparisons is that living standards were low in China. In the eighteenth century, advanced cities like London and Amsterdam had a higher standard of living than Suzhou, Beijing or Canton. The standard of living in the Chinese cities we have studied was on a par with the lagging parts of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, India, and Japan…Wages seemed to be slipping in China in the eighteenth century.’ They conclude that ‘newly discovered data would have to be very different from what is currently at hand to convince us that pre-industrial Chinese living standards were similar to those in the leading regions of Europe. In this regard, Adam Smith’s pessimism looks closer to the truth than the revisionists’ optimism.’22

Allen’s views, in line with the above argument, have been spelt out in much greater detail in his recent book. The general theme of the book is that it was the uniquely high price of labour and goods in England which encouraged the spread of labour saving inventions and provided a large consumer market for the new manufactures.  All this happened from at least the seventeenth century. For example, one chapter ‘emphasizes that north-western Europe’s ascent began in the century before the American and Asian trades became important. This emphasis extends the work of historians like Davis (1954) and particularly Rapp (1975), who have noted that the commercial revolution began in the seventeenth century before the Atlantic trades became significant and was an intra-European reorganization in which north-western Europeans out-competed Mediterranean producers in woollen textiles.’23

A SECOND SCHOLAR who has worked for much of his life on the economics of Chinese agriculture is Philip Huang. He has written a long review of Pomeranz’s book in which he notes that ‘in further contrast to the growing capitalization of eighteenth-century English agriculture, the Yangzi delta was moving in the opposite direction of ever greater labor intensification.’24 The difference in trajectory of labour intensity in the agricultural systems ‘make understandable the difference in average farm sizes between England and the Yangzi delta in the eighteenth century: The difference would be 125 acres to 1.25 acres, a difference of 100 to 1…. The above differences in labor intensity, farm size, and agricultural land per capita tell crucially about involution and development not only in farming but also in rural industry, rural incomes, and consumption. But this basic information is not discussed anywhere in Pomeranz’s book.’25

In relation to Pomeranz’s claim that China did not have the coal which gave England its advantage after 1800 Huang writes,

His assertions about coal supplies in China and for the Yangzi delta are also highly questionable. Tim Wright’s detailed study of the coal industry in China shows China to be one of the best-endowed countries in the world in terms of coal deposits (1984, 17). …. Obviously, those same mines could as easily have supplied the Yangzi delta. China’s (or the Yangzi delta’s) delayed industrialization, in other words, cannot be explained by the lack of availability of coal as Pomeranz asserts; rather, it is the lack of industrial demand that explains the non-development of China’s coal industry. Pomeranz’s argument, in short, places the cart before the horse.’26

He concludes, ‘It is ironic that Pomeranz should have chosen to use a comparison between pre-1800 Britain and the Yangzi delta to anchor down his argument of no economic difference between Europe and China until after 1800. England and the delta in the eighteenth century, we have seen, were in fact virtually at opposite poles in a continuum from development to involution across Europe and China.’ In eighteenth-century England there were a set of intersecting features, ‘an agricultural revolution, proto-industrialization, new demographic patterns, new urbanization, new consumption patterns, and large coal output. But none of these was present in eighteenth-century China or its Yangzi delta. What was present were not the roots of a nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution but rather the roots of a massive nineteenth-century social crisis.’27

THERE ARE NOW numerous other detailed critiques. Stephen N. Broadberry and Bisnupriya Gupta, in ‘The Early Modern Great Divergence: Wages, Prices and Economic Development in Europe and Asia, 1500-1800’ (2005), write in their abstract that ‘Contrary to the claims of Pomeranz, Parthasarathi and other “world historians”, the prosperous parts of Asia between 1500 and 1800 look similar to the stagnating southern, central and eastern parts of Europe rather than the developing north-western parts….The “Great Divergence” between Europe and Asia was already well under way before 1800.’

Peer Vries in a short book in Via Peking back to Manchester (2002), writes,

I think the thesis can indeed be defended that China had fallen into a “high-equilibrium trap”: from which it could only escape by external impulses from industrialised countries. There is no indication whatsoever that China in the eighteenth century, or even at the beginning of the First Opium War (1839-1842), was on the brink of having an industrial revolution of its own. There simply are no indications whatsoever that technological breakthroughs of the kind that were at the heart of Britain’s industrialisation were imminent. The Industrial Revolution in Britain was a miracle; an industrial revolution in China would have been super-miraculous.28

Later, Vries notes, ‘Broadly and comparatively speaking, China’s pre-industrial agriculture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be characterised as land-, labour-, and resource-intensive. Britain’s agriculture can be characterised as land-extensive, energy-intensive and resource-extensive. As a matter of fact these qualifications can be applied to their entire economies.’29

There is a wide-ranging 2006 article by Joseph M. Bryant on ‘The West and the Rest’, surveying the work of Jack Goody and Pomeranz.  He summarizes a number of arguments and then writes,

Given all these pronounced differences in social organization and in economic practices, is it sociologically plausible that the advanced regions of China and Western Europe were trending along a comparable developmental course, a shared trajectory that would have yielded similar outcomes, but for the “accidents” of geography. How can a society that remained overwhelmingly agrarian, increasingly overpopulated relative to resources and technologically stationary, and whose key social players were peasants, rentier landlords, merchants, and a stratum of governing officials whose training was literary rather than technical, have been open to the developmental possibilities of a society that was increasingly urban-based, effectively harnessing new scientific knowledge to technologies that were revolutionizing the means of production, and whose key social players were, as these changes unfolded, capitalistic farmers, proletarians, industrialists, and parliamentary representatives?30

Another critique is by Robert Brenner and Christopher Isett. After detailed surveys of the evidence, they conclude, ‘In marked contrast with developments in the Yangzi delta, the secular trend in England toward rising agricultural labor productivity constituted the basis for a transformed relationship between agriculture and industry and between country and town, what was indeed a classically Smithian pattern of growth via the gains from trade.’ They add, ‘Pomeranz believes that the developmental trajectories pursued by the Yangzi delta and the English economy were basically similar through around 1800. In fact, the Yangzi delta’s Malthusian path made for decline and crisis, while the English economy followed a Smithian trajectory during the same time period.’31 And they conclude,

It has been our central argument, in contrast, that between roughly 1500 and 1750, the developmental paths of the two economies had already led them in radically divergent directions, with the result that by the second half of the eighteenth century, England had, by world-historical standards, become a developed economy and a relatively quite wealthy one, while the Yangzi delta had become ever poorer.’32

Bozhong Li and Jan Luiten van Zanden  have made a detailed comparison between one of the most advanced parts of China, the Hua-Lou area of the Yangzi delta, and the Netherlands, in the early nineteenth century. ‘On average, labour productivity in the 1820’s [in the Netherlands] is about double the level found in Hua-Lou,’ they write, ‘…and GDP per capita is circa 86 percent higher in this part of Western Europe…’ And they conclude that Chinese per capital GDP as a whole was only a little over half that of Europe as a whole. ‘These results appear to confirm the view that there existed large differences in GDP per capita between these two parts of Europe.’33

Furthermore, they show in all kinds of production, such as printing, oil-pressing, spinning and weaving, the level of mechanization was very low in this most advanced part of China; it was far behind that in the Netherlands. For example, ‘the Dutch developed a highly capital intensive windmill-technology to press their oilseeds, the Chinese version of this was driven, again, by humans or oxen.’ Chinese junks were inefficient in terms of the need for labour so that there was a ratio of a ton per man ratio of about 5 or 6. In Dutch shipping, a ton per man ratio of 15 to 25 was already usual in the 18th century.’34 If we remember that England was already fully richer than the Netherlands by the early nineteenth century, its use of non-human energy was well in advance of the Netherlands, then we see that there must have been a considerable divergence between the most advanced parts of China and Europe well before the start of the nineteenth century.

There are other interesting contributions to the debate – for example those made by Ricardo Duchesne in several articles and his recent book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. The general conclusion of these writers is that while England moved towards industrialization and growing productive efficiency in terms of agriculture and industry in the period 1500-1750, there is no sign of this in southern or Eastern Europe, India and China before 1800. There is no sign that China was moving toward the kind of trajectory to be found in England. The ‘Great Divergence’ debate has strengthened the previous interpretation that there was something unique happening in one part of the world. Yet it has also emphasized that this is not a matter of ‘the west’, but of England.

All the measures show that Adam Smith was right: England was significantly different even from France, let alone other parts of southern and eastern Europe. It was not a ‘European Miracle’ as it used to be called– though it was developed out of features from across Europe. Instead, it was an English (or perhaps a British) miracle. As Joel Mokyr concludes in his latest book, The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1850, ‘It was a remarkable confluence of circumstances that led to the events described here, and one of the irrepressible sentiments of the economic historian studying the Industrial Revolution is a sense of amazement that it occurred at all.’35

A video of the lecture on which this chapter is based:

2012 Serial Index: Introduction and Contents | Preface | Bibliography.

Chapter 3 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

© 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):

  1. For useful tables of other countries, see the diagram in Rostow, Stages, 1;  Landes Wealth, table 16:1, 231.
  2. For a detailed analysis, see Macfarlane, Savage, ch. 3.
  3. Geertz, Agricultural.
  4. White, Technology, 84.
  5. Mokyr, Lever, 34.
  6. Mokyr, Lever 38.
  7. Wrigley, Energy, 75, 83.
  8. Mokyr, Enlightened, 173.
  9. Wrigley, Energy, 80.
  10. Huang, ‘Great’, 502.
  11. Bryant, ‘Divergence’, 434.
  12. Quoted in Vries, Economy, 167.
  13. Wrigley, Energy, 37.
  14. Wrigley, Energy, 39.
  15. Wrigley, cited in Huang, ‘Great’, 532.
  16. Emerson, English, 124.
  17. Wrigley, Energy, 101, 207.
  18. Tocqueville, Ancien, 34.
  19. Heine quoted in Wilson, Strange, 179.
  20. Pomeranz, Great; see also Blaut, Frank, Goody, Goldstone, Bin Wong cited earlier.
  21. Allen, ‘Yangtze’, 15.
  22. Allen, ‘Wages,’ 30-1.
  23. Allen, British, 128.
  24. Huang, ‘Great’, 506.
  25. Huang, ‘Great’, 510-1.
  26. Huang, ‘Great’, 533.
  27. Huang, ‘Great’, 533-4.
  28. Vries, Peking, 32.
  29. Vries, Peking, 47.
  30. Bryant, ‘Divergence’, 432.
  31. Brenner and Isett, ‘England’s’, 636.
  32. Brenner and Isett, ‘England’s’, 650.
  33. Li and van Zanden, ‘Before’, 24-5.
  34. Li and van Zanden, ‘Before’, 22-3.
  35. Mokyr, Enlightened, 487.


  1. wrote:

    This concept of the high-equilibrium trap appears to fit perfectly to the Post-Bellum slavery to agricultural labor American South versus the eventual mechanization of agriculture that overtook events in the period 1865-1980

    Monday, 9 July 2012 at 21:43 | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    This is a great lecture and is enlightening and hopefully people will see how the English fate was not really something that will naturally be travelled by the rest of the world even without the English miracle!

    Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 02:03 | Permalink

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