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The Invention of the Modern World 5.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.

Chapter 5: MATERIAL LIFE

By Alan Macfarlane.

I REMEMBER VIVIDLY the occasion when I visited a barren region to the north of Beijing in 1996. When we asked through an interpreter about the people’s lives they spoke with enthusiasm of a recent dramatic improvement. Since the liberalization of Deng Xiao-Ping, they had seen their material comfort increase rapidly. No longer did they live on inferior grains and little meat, their clothes and houses were rapidly improving, they were starting to buy televisions and fridges. This massive transformation to a ‘modern’, modestly affluent, material world is one of the strongest ways we express and judge ‘modernity’. I have seen its effects in the remotest parts of China on numerous visits and its origins add interest to our exploration.

In all agrarian civilizations there have been some fabulously rich families. In India, China, France and elsewhere, with their splendid food, clothing, palaces and treasures, the tiny group of extremely rich have long existed. Yet normally an immiserated peasantry who eat the worst grains surrounds them, living in hovels and dressed in rags. This was the case over much of Europe in the early modern period and lasted up to the spread of the affluence revolution of the later nineteenth century which is a major sign of ‘modernity’. In 1788 Edward Gibbon completed his great work on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The following year he surveyed the world around hum. There seemed little improvement over the last two thousand years. ‘The far greater part of the globe is overspread with barbarism or slavery: in the civilized world, the most numerous class is condemned to ignorance and poverty…. The general probability is about three to one that a new-born infant will not live to complete his fiftieth year.'[1. Gibbon, Autobiography, 217.]

What was the situation in England over the centuries? Here are some general observations of observers who visited England. In the 1590’s Paul Hentzner from Brandenburg, a jurist and counsellor, visited England and commented that ‘the soil is fruitful and abounds with cattle, which inclines the inhabitants rather to feeding than ploughing, so that near a third of the land is left uncultivated for grazing.’  Upon the hills ‘wander numerous flocks’ of sheep. This, he thought, was the ‘true Golden Fleece, in which consist the chief riches of the inhabitants, great sums of money being brought into the island by merchants, chiefly for that article of trade.’ The inhabitants consumed less bread and more meat than their French counterparts, and ‘put a great deal of sugar in their drink’; ‘their beds are covered with tapestry, even those of farmers … their houses are commonly of two stories … Glass-houses (i.e. with glass windows) are in plenty here.'[2. Rye, England, 109-11.]

A German, Henry Meister, in an account of his travels in England declared, ‘I do not impose upon you when I say that though the English labourer is better clothed, better fed, and better lodged than the French, he does not work so hard. You will wonder at this the less, when you consider that the wages of the former are higher, and his diet more substantial; consequently that he has greater strength and activity in the performance of his tasks’.[3. Marshall, People, 160-1.]

Particularly interesting are the comments of those from the Netherlands, one of the richest parts of Europe in the fifteenth tand sixteenth centuries. Emanuel van Meteren was an Antwerp merchant who lived in London throughout the reign of Elizabeth and travelled through the whole of England and Ireland. He noted the high standards of living. The English ‘feed well and delicately, and eat a great deal of meat… The English dress in elegant, light and costly garments, but they are very inconstant and desirous of novelties, changing their fashions every year, both men and women. When they go abroad riding or travelling, they don their best clothes, contrary to the practice of other nations…’ He believed that the wealth came from sheep, rather than from hard labour. He noted that people did not have to work as hard as in other nations: ‘the people are not so laborious and industrious as the Netherlanders or French, as they lead for the most part an indolent life … They keep many lazy servants, and also many wild animals for their pleasure, rather than trouble themselves to cultivate the land.'[4. Quoted in Rye, England, 70-1.]

Another Dutchman, the physician Levinus Lemnius, visited England in 1560 and gives an account of affluence. He wrote of ‘their populous and great haunted cities, the fruitfulness of their ground and soil, their lively springs and mighty rivers, their great herds and flocks of cattle, their mysteries and art of weaving and clothmaking … the multitude of merchants exercising the traffic and art of merchaundise among them.'[5. Rye, England, p.79.]

The Relation, or rather a true account, of the island of England of 1497 by the Venetian Ambassador to England, Andrea Trevisano, was written as a report to one of the richest governments in Europe. It was a description of Trevisano’s impressions from a country which had had a difficult century, with the Wars of the Roses and the loss of its French empire. It is a country which is often described by recent historians as poor and marginal in Europe, yet this is not the impression Trevisano gave Instead, he was struck by the great wealth of the country: ‘…the riches of England are greater than those of any other country in Europe, as I have been told by one of the oldest and most experienced merchants, and also as I myself can vouch from what I have seen.’  He thought that this was due to their ‘great fertility of the soil,’ the ‘sale of their valuable tin,’ and ‘from their extraordinary abundance of wool.’ Whatever the cause, ‘everyone who makes a tour in the island will soon become aware of this great wealth’.

The wealth, he observed, was widely distributed: ‘there is no small innkeeper, however poor and humble he may be, who does not serve his table with silver dishes and drinking cups; and no one, who has not in his house silver plate to the amount of at least £100 sterling, which is equivalent to 500 golden crowns with us, is considered to be a person of any consequence. They also ‘all from time immemorial wear very fine clothes.’ But above all are their riches displayed in the church treasures; for there is not a parish church in the kingdom so mean as not to possess crucifixes, candlesticks, censers, patens, and cups of silver…’ This magnificence came to a peak in the wealth shown in Westminster Abbey and the magnificent tomb of St Thomas the Martyr at Canterbury ‘which surpasses all belief’’.

Even when the English were involved in a military campaign, ‘when the war is raging most furiously, they will seek for good eating, and all their other comforts, without thinking of what harm might befall them.’  Trevisano noted that money and trade were widespread. ‘The common people apply themselves to trade, or to fishing, or else they practice navigation; and they are so diligent in mercantile pursuits, that they do not fear to make contracts on usury.’ He believed that ‘there is no injury that can be committed against the lower orders of the English, that may not be atoned for by money.'[6. Italian Relation, 28-30.]

The impressive wealth noted by foreign visitors to England in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was an even more dramatic feature two centuries later. The French, who were now in many ways the leading nation in Europe, were among those who noted this. In the later eighteenth century La Rochefoucauld wrote ‘…I am inclined to think that the English must be richer than we are; certainly I have myself observed not only that everything costs twice as much here as in France, but that the English seize every opportunity to use things which are expensive in themselves.’  Even more emphatically, he wrote ‘there is no interference whatever with their business, and, in the eyes of an impartial traveller, England has the appearance of being a hundred times richer than France.’ He thought that ‘In the eyes of a foreigner Flanders is the province in France which gives the greatest impression of wealth. But, compared with England, it is nothing…'[7. Rochefoucauld, Frenchman, 30, 198, 116.]

WHAT DID THE English themselves think?  The Franciscan Friar Bartholomaeus Anglicus, in his encyclopedia on The Properties of Things compiled in the middle of the thirteenth century, wrote that ‘England is a strong land and a sturdy, and the plenteowest [most plentiful] corner of the world, so rich a land that unneth [uncompelled] it needeth help of any land, and every other land needeth help of England…’ It ‘is full of mirth and of game and men oft times able to mirth and game, free men of heart and with tongue…’[8. Property of Things, I, 734 (modernized).] It fits well with the world depicted a century later in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, even though they were written after the catastrophe of the Black Death.

Sir John Fortescue paints a particularly detailed comparative picture. He was Lord Chancellor to King Henry VI and fled into France with the young King in 1461. During the next ten years of exile he wrote his book comparing the system of government in France and England. He gave his comments on the material conditions of the two countries. In France, he found:

The people being with these [pillage by soldiers, salt taxes etc] and diverse other calamities plagued and oppressed, do live in great misery, drinking water daily. Neither do the inferior sort taste any other liquor saving only at solemn feasts. Their shamewes [a gown cut in the middle] are made of hemp, much like to sack cloth. Woolen cloth they wear none, except it be very coarse, and that only in their coats under their said upper garments. Neither use they any hosen, but from the knee upwards: the residue of their legs go naked. Their women go bare foot saving on holy days. Neither man nor women eat any flesh there, but only lard or bacon, with a small quantity whereof they fatten their potage and broths. As for roasted or sodden meat of flesh they taste none, except it be of the innards sometimes and heads of beasts that they killed for gentlemen and merchants.[9. Fortescue, Governance, fols. 81-81v.]

In England, on the other hand, the position of rural inhabitants was very different. The absence of heavy taxation, of billeted soldiers, and of internal taxes, meant that ‘every inhabiter of that realm useth and enjoyeth at his pleasure all the fruits that his land or cattle beareth, with all the profits and commodities which by his own travail, or by the labour of others he gaineth by land or by water.’

The result was that ‘the men of that land are rich, having abundance of gold and silver and other things necessary for the maintenance of a mans life. They drink no water, unless it be so that some for devotion, and upon a seal of penance do abstain from other drinks. They eat plentifully of all kinds of fish and flesh. They wear fine woollen cloth in all their apparel. They have also abundance of bed coverings in their houses, and of all other woollen stuff. They have great store of all hustlements [utensils, tools] and implements of husbandry, and all other things that are requisite to the accomplishment of a quiet and wealthy life according to their estates and degrees.'[10. Fortescue, Governance, fols. 84v-85v.]

Fortescue thought people lived easily in England at this time in a wealthy country so that people ‘are scant troubled with any painful labour.’ He believed that ‘In deed England is so fertile and fruitful, that comparing quantity to quantity, it surmounteth all other lands in fruitfulness. Yea it bringeth forth fruit of it self scant provoked by man’s industry and labour.’ It is an elegant description of a paradise, where ‘the lands, the fields, the groves and the woods do so abundantly spring, that the same untilled do commonly yield to their owners more profit than tilled, though else they be most fruitful of corn and grain.’ The livestock grazed safely in the absence of wild animals, so that ‘their sheep lie night by night in the fields unkept within their folds, wherewith their land is manured.'[11. Fortescue, Governance, fols. 66-66v.] Nor did Fortescue believe that the rich and free land he was describing in the middle of the fifteenth century was new. His explanation for its existence – a combination of natural fertility, limited monarch, and Common Law – made him believe that the differences were very ancient.

IN SHAKESPEARE’S AGE there are many descriptions of the state of England. One of the best known is that of John Aylmer which has echoes of Fortescue’s account. Aylmer had been the tutor of Lady Jane Grey and was later to become Bishop of London under Elizabeth. He was exiled to Europe during the reign of Mary and lived abroad, like Fortescue, for ten years. He had visited France and Germany and clearly gleaned information about Italy. As with Fortescue, he made an explicit comparison of England and its neighbours. It is clearly a polemical piece, warning of the dangers of Catholicism and continental absolutism, yet it fits with other observations at the time, and some of the minor details, which we can check, ring true. I shall only quote a part of his lengthy exhortation:

In Italy they say it is not much better [than France], the husbandmen be there so rich: that the best coat he weareth is sacking, his nether stocks of his hose, be of his own skin, his diet and fare not very costly, he cometh to the market with a hen or two in one hand, and a dozen eggs in a net in the other, which being sold and told, he buyeth and carrieth home with him, no Beef or Mutton, Veal or sea fish, as you do: but a quart of oil to make salads of herbs, wherewith he liveth all the week following. And in Germany though they be in some better case than the other: yet eat they more roots than flesh…Now compare them with thee: and thou shalt see how happy thou art. They eat herbs: and thou Beef and Mutton. They roots: and thou butter, cheese, and eggs. They drink commonly water: and thou good ale and beer. They go from the market with a salad: and thou with good flesh fill thy wallet. They lightly never see any sea fish: and thou hast they belly full of it. They pay till their bones rattle in the skin: and though layest up for thy son and heir…Thou livest like a Lord, and they like dogs…'[12. In Orwell, Pamphleteers, I, 30-1.]

Around the same time, the Essex clergyman William Harrison was gathering material for his detailed Description of England, published in 1577, which gives a detailed portrait of the material wealth of England, for example in its furniture, housing and clothing.[13. For example, Harrison, England, 200ff.] Likewise in the early seventeenth century, when Fynes Moryson made extensive travels for many years over much of the Continent, his published reports showed the great wealth of England in comparison to most of the places he visited.[14. For example, Moryson, Itinerary, IV, 233.]

By the end of the seventeenth century there could be no doubt in Englishmen’s minds that, along with Holland, they were living in the wealthiest land in the world. ‘The working manufacturing people of England eat the fat, and drink the sweet, live better, and fare better, than the working poor of any other nation in Europe; they make better wages of their work, and spend more of the money upon their backs and bellies, than in any other country’.[15. Daniel Defoe, quoted in Allen, British, 25.]

The gap was even greater in the eighteenth century and obvious to travellers such as Arthur Young or Thomas Malthus.  Malthus wrote:

Now it is generally agreed that the condition of the lower classes of people in France before the revolution was very wretched. The wages of labour were about 20 sous, or tenpence a day, at a time when the wages of labour in England were nearly seventeenpence, and the price of wheat of the same quality in the two countries was not very different. Accordingly Arthur Young represents the labouring classes of France, just at the start of the revolution, as “76 per cent. worse fed, worse clothed, and worse supported, both in sickness and health, than the same classes in England.”[16. Malthus, Population, I, 230-1.]

RECENT SCHOLARS ALSO have commented on the differences, though I shall only give a few examples here. Colin Clark estimated that French wages in 1700 were the equivalent to 2.6 kg. of wheat per day, whereas in England some fifty years earlier the wages had been almost twice this with 4.8kg. of wheat per day, which in turn was ‘only half what it had been in the fifteenth century.'[17. Clark, Subsistence, 109.] Joel Mokyr guessed that in 1788 British GNP per capita was about thirty percent. higher than that of the French– and this presumably included Scotland and Wales.[18. Mokyr, Industrial, 45.]

France was not the extreme, for it was part of the relatively rich western European complex. If we compare these figures to the Third World until recently they are even starker. De Vries estimates that the figures reported in 1688 by Gregory King set per capita income as two or three times as high as contemporary modern Asia or Africa.[19. Vries, Economic, 211.] David Landes suggests that in the eighteenth century the English income, equivalent to about £100 per head, was four times higher than that per head in India in the 1960’s.[20. Landes, Prometheus, 13.] In other words, even before the industrial revolution, England was over the threshold of poverty, ‘modern’ in its affluence, different from most of its neighbours – except the Dutch, who were even richer for a short while – and far away from the Third World.[21. For recent work see Mokyr, Enlightened.]

IN MOST ANCIEN RÉGIME societies, perhaps up to three-quarters of the population were forced to live on low quality foods, inferior grains, little or no meat and few vegetables. What was the situation in England?  In the sixteenth century, Harrison wrote, ‘It is no marvel therefore that our tables are oftentimes more plentifully garnished than those of other nations, and this trade hath continued with us even since the very beginning’.[22. Harrison, Description, 124.] A century earlier, as we have seen, Fortescue had described this contrast. In the eighteenth century, Saussure wrote of the English:

They are all well fed and well dressed, and the coarse black bread our peasants eat is unknown to them. On Sundays they always have a good piece of beef before the fire, and all the year round a cask of ale in the cellar; in a word, there is plenty everywhere…[they] are large eaters; they prefer meat to bread, some people scarcely touching the latter.[23. Saussure, Foreign, 221.]

Arthur Young, in the same century, described a suitable diet for a labouring man:

On the first day he was to eat two pounds of bread made of a mixture of wheat, rye and potato, two ounces of cheese and two pints of beer. Next day he was to have three messes of soup made of lean beef, peas, mealy potatoes, ground rice, onions, celery and salt and water.[24. Marshall, People, 173.]

Emerson describes the contrast between well-fed English and the scarcity of good food on the continent right up into the later nineteenth century:

They use a plentiful and nutritious diet. The operative cannot subsist on water-cresses. Beef, mutton, wheat-bread, and malt-liquors are universal among the first-class labourers. Good feeding is a chief point of national pride among the vulgar, and, in their caricatures, they represent the Frenchman as a poor, starved body.[25. Emerson, Traits, 56.]

In particular, from the medieval period at least, the best and most expensive of grains – wheat – had been the staple even of the poor in England. Thus, Thorold Rogers wrote, ‘From the earliest times the staple food of the English people has been wheaten bread, and wheat is the costliest, and on the whole the most precarious of our corn crops.'[26. Rogers, Industrial, I, 59.] The Scotsman Kames noted in the middle of the eighteenth century that ‘Not a person in London who lives by the parish-charity will deign to eat brown bread; and in several parts of England, many who receive large sums from that fund, are in the constant custom of drinking tea twice a-day.'[27. Kames, Sketches, III, 83.] In Kames’ home country, the staple was oats; as Adam Smith commented,  ‘The common people in Scotland, who are fed with oatmeal, are in general neither so strong nor so handsome as the same rank of people in England who are fed with wheaten bread’,[28. Smith, Wealth, I 179.] putting in a matter-of-fact way Dr Johnson’s gibe that the English fed their houses with the oats which the poorer Scots ate themselves.

In sum, the transition to a ‘modern’ high protein and carbohydrate diet only occurred in the later nineteenth century on much of the Continent, and after the Second World War in parts of East Asia. It is only now occurring in China and India. But the ‘modern’ diet, seems to have been a perennial feature of England, from the top to very near the bottom of society and from the medieval period onwards.[29. For more evidence, see Macfarlane, Savage, chapter 6.]

WHAT YOU DRINK has always been important for the English. As we show in Green Gold, the English, unlike all continental countries, would not, if possible, drink water over the centuries up to the nineteenth.[30. Macfarlane, Green Gold.] For example,  ‘In 1726 a Swiss visitor to London, M. de Saussure is astonished at the amount of water used. He says that absolutely none is drunk; that the lower classes, even the paupers, do not know what it is to quench their thirst with water’.[31. Quoted in Wright, Decent, 93.]

The English favoured expensive alternatives. For a number of centuries, they drank half of their grain harvest as beer and ale. Later they turned to tea imported from China, supplemented by sugar from Jamaica. Saussure commented, ‘Throughout the whole of England the drinking of tea is general. You have it twice a day and, though the expense is considerable, the humblest peasant has his tea twice a day just like the rich man; the total consumption is immense.’ He later wrote, ‘I have already remarked the universal consumption of tea in England from the lowest peasant to the highest of the nobility and in such large quantities that it is reckoned that in the course of the year every single person, man or woman, on the average consumes four pounds of tea. That is truly enormous.[32. Rochefoucauld, Frenchman, 23, 26.]

This consumption of ale, beer and then tea with sugar and milk, had immense effects on the health and working capacity of the English. It gave them a drinking regime which is in effect ‘modern’ – in other words it consisted of cold and hot drinks produced through human intervention, rather than highly polluted and dangerous water which most other peoples have endured. Without this drinking pattern, it is difficult to see how the English could have broken out of the Malthusian trap of larger cities like London growing to a size where polluted water would cause high mortality.

One outcome of the difference in nutrition lies in the history of famines. Apart from the famine of 1315-9 there is no evidence of any national famine in the country between the Norman Invasion and the present day. In the rest of the world, famine with massive deaths continued until the later eighteenth century in the rest of Europe (Scandinavia and continental Europe), the later nineteenth century in Japan, the 1930’s in the Soviet Union and the middle of the twentieth century in China and India. Thus the English effectively escaped famine five hundred years before most of the rest of the world’s population.[33. For an account of famine and some reasons for its early disappearance in England, centuries before most other countries, see Macfarlane, Savage, chapter 5.]

TURNING FROM WHAT we eat and drink to the way in which we protect our bodies, we can first investigate clothing.  The essence of modern clothing is that in cold periods it protects and preserves body heat and in the summer it keeps us cool. Many of us take such a ‘modern’ clothing regime for granted. In most ancien régime countries clothing was and still remains for many skimpy and cheap and often the majority of the population wear no shoes or hats. We can see this in the traditional clothing in Japan, China or India until the twentieth century and even in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland as well as in many parts of Europe until the later nineteenth century.

Observers noted that the English wore expensive and substantial clothes from early on. Aided by the fact that they had many livestock – and hence animals skins – they wore leather shoes, they often wore hats, and they had warm, well-made woollen clothing coming from their abundant sheep, later added to by cotton from the eighteenth century.

The sumptuous clothing of the English is described in the Canterbury Tales. Many railed against the ‘fantastical’ and the lavish clothing of the ordinary people.[34. For example, see Harrison, Description, 145-6.] In the sixteenth century, Thomas Becon wrote:

I think no realm in the world, no, not among the Turks and Saracens, doth so much in the variety of their apparel, as the Englishmen do at this present. Their coat must be made after the Italian fashion, their cloak after the use of the Spaniards, their gown after the manner of the Turks: their cap must be of the French fashion; and the last their dagger must be Scottish, with a Venetian tassel of silk.[35. Becon, Works, 438.]

The English constantly changed their clothing according to fashion at least in the middling groups and all this led to comfort, conservation of energy, and an encouragement to manufacturing.

In the early eighteenth century the Swiss observer Saussure noted that the ‘lower classes are usually well dressed, wearing good cloth and linen. You never see wooden shoes in England, and the poorest individuals never go with naked feet’. With the middling sort, ‘Englishmen are usually very plainly dressed, they scarcely ever wear gold on their clothes; they wear little coats called “frocks”, without facings and without pleats, with a short cape above. Almost all wear small, round wigs, plain hats, and carry canes in their hands, but no swords. Their cloth and linen are of the best and finest’. As for the women, ‘They pride themselves on their neatly shod feet, on their fine linen, and on their gowns, which are made according to the season either of rich silk or of cotton from the Indies. Very few women wear woollen gowns. Even servant-maids wear silks on Sundays and holidays, when they are almost as well dressed as their mistresses’.[36. Saussure, Foreign, 113, 112, 204.]

A particular oddity was the English love of hats. A nineteenth century American, Oliver Wendell Holmes, described this: ‘As for the Englishman’s feeling with regard to it, a foreigner might be pardoned for thinking it was a fetich, a North American Indian for looking at it as taking the place of his own medicine-bag. It is a common thing for an Englishman to say his prayers into it, as he sits down in his pew.'[37. O.W. Holmes in Wilson, Strange, 231. For clothing, see Macfarlane, Savage, chapter 13.]

THE SUBSTANTIAL NATURE of English housing is still visible to anyone who travels through the Cotswolds, East Anglian wool towns, the Yorkshire dales or in the older parts of country towns. As far as I know, England is the only country in the world which still has many thousands of houses whose basic structure and building materials date back to over five hundred years ago.

Let me just again quote two French observers.[38. There is a detailed description in Macfarlane, Savage, chapter 12.] The first is Rochefoucauld: ‘In a word there is always a marked superiority in the houses of the common people of England over those of the poor peasants of France, which it often pained me to observe.'[39. Rochefoucauld, Frenchman, 158.] The second is Saussure: ‘I must own that Englishmen build their houses with taste; it is not possible to make a better use of ground, or to have more comfortable houses’.[40. Saussure, Foreign, 68.]

Again the contrast, for example, between an eighteenth or nineteenth century Japanese peasant’s house and that of poorer people in England was immense. The former were, in Lafcadio Hearn’s delightful phrase, ‘floating lanterns’ made of cheap materials without foundations and only lasting a few years. The latter are substantial and expensive buildings, often of two floors, built of brick or stone, particularly from the seventeenth century, with chimneys, separate rooms, perhaps a cellar and probably a garden. Karamzin in the early nineteenth century noted that ‘England is a realm of bricks; in towns and villages all the houses are of brick, covered with tiles and unpainted.[40. In Wilson, Strange 129.]

The result of all this was another positive feedback to economic activity in the building and furnishing of these dwellings, as well as many other aspects of life. This was well summarized by Defoe, who observed, ‘This…causes a prodigious consumption of the provisions and of the manufactures … of our country at home and this creates what we call inland trade,'[42. Quoted in George, London Life, 264.] This process was one of the key ingredients of the industrial revolution. A rich and large middle class was actively consuming manufactured goods and hence stimulating further production. This ‘consumer revolution’ had, in fact, started in the middle ages, but it increased in strength through the centuries until by the eighteenth it was a central feature of English economic development.

It would be possible to find much further evidence of the extraordinary wealth of England from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onwards in its communal buildings, particularly the amazing cathedrals and churches which still cover England. The presence of the beautiful and expensive churches in many English towns and villages, whether in my own King’s College Chapel and the chapels of Oxford and Cambridge, or in the Suffolk and Norfolk wool towns or elsewhere is a testament to the spread of affluence in the later medieval period when many of these were built. Many countries have a few of these medieval buildings– great French cathedrals for example. Yet even the French cathedrals pale beside their English equivalents. ‘English Cathedrals are, most of them, larger than any other cathedrals in Europe, except St. Peter’s.'[43. Betjeman, English, 16.]

THE EFFECTIVENESS OF the production system also meant that the patterns of work were different. This is another key feature of modernity. The considerable time for leisure and hobbies was already present in England in the fourteenth century as we can see from Chaucer’s pilgrims. Many considered the English to be less hard-working than their neighbours; a study comparing English with Japanese work patterns certainly shows how incredibly hard the Japanese worked as compared to all Europeans, but especially the English.[44. Macfarlane, Savage, 42-8.]

Sorbière wrote, ‘The speed [the English] make on horseback appeared so much the more remarkable to me, because of its being used in a country where the people are very lazy, which I can very well affirm without offence; for they do perhaps glory in their sloth, and believe that true living consists in knowing how to live at ease…'[45. Sorbière in Wilson, Strange, 45.] More precisely, La Rochefoucauld commented:

For this wage, which is enormous, they do not do nearly as much work as our people. I have been at close enough quarters to follow some of them and to watch their work throughout the day, and I can assure you that, whatever may be the opinion of some of the English who have travelled in France and disagree with this view, the English labourers do their work in a very casual way, taking frequent rests and talking a great deal. I am convinced that a French workman does nearly a fifth more work in a day than an Englishman.[46. Rochefoucauld, Frenchman,77-78.]

The relative amount of leisure and the good diet of the English is the background of many of the oddities of the culture. The English on the whole were not exhausted at the end of work and hence engaged in and developed energetic sports and games – from football and rugger to bell ringing and mountain climbing – to absorb their surplus energies. To fill in the long hours of leisure, they invented the ultimate time-user, cricket.

While others were constantly busy when away from the fields trying to keep up with work-related chores, Peter Kalm noted with amazement in the middle of the eighteenth century that the rural English labourer was able to devote time to his own pleasure, observing of farm servants that ‘as soon as they entered the cottage in the evening, they did not apply themselves to the least work more than that they ate, sat and talked till eleven o’clock in the evening. They never troubled themselves to make waggons or agricultural implements’. He was puzzled at the time they spent in the local pubs with friends and often ‘wondered over this, that folk who could only provide food for themselves, their wives and children out of daily wages, could spend time and money in this way.'[47. Marshall, People, 193.]

The English obsession with time-filling hobbies – including flowers and gardening – and with energetic sports and games, all fit within this pattern. The effects on nature and the countryside – the prevalence of song birds (usually eaten in peasant societies) or of often-neglected wild fruit, is an old feature.

The result in England was a countryside in which much valuable land was not put to agricultural production; it was used for leisure or conspicuous consumption. Laing describes this well:

Woods and groves planted and preserved for ornament, parks, pleasure-grounds, lawns, shrubberies, old grass fields of excellent soil producing only crops for luxury, such as pasture and hay for the finer breeds of horses, village greens, commons, lanes between fields, waste corners and patches outside of the fences or along the roads, hedges, ditches, banks, walls, all which together occupy perhaps as much land in England as the land under crops of grain, are very rare on the Continent.[48. Laing, Observations 147-8.]

In general, England is a country which has long afforded the luxury of much spare time, much spare land and much material well-being of a kind which is only now becoming common in many countries. It is one of the main fruits and signs of modernity.


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

 

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

Chapter 5 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

© 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):

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