Skip to content

The Invention of the Modern World 17.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.


By Alan Macfarlane.

THERE ARE FOUR possible views about when ‘The Great Divergence’ which led to our modern world began.  One is that it is a very ancient divergence. This would argue that in terms, not of productive output, but of religion, politics, society, ecology, economic organization and law and other factors, Europe and China/India had diverged more or less from the beginning of recorded history. Though many of the Neolithic technologies spread out across the whole of Eur-Asia, and the Axial revolution affected them all, there are strong grounds for thinking that there have been deep differences between the different parts of Eurasia for thousands of years.

The second time scale suggests that after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of medieval Europe, the paths of the two ends of Eurasia split again.  Here there is a divergence in Europe away from the kind of centralized civilization that had gone before. This covers most of Western Europe up to about 1200.

Clicking an image will launch a captioned slideshow.

The next divergence is the one which particularly interests me and I cover in my account. This is the divergence between England (and to a certain extent peripheral parts of Europe such as Holland and Portugal and Sweden) and continental western and eastern Europe. This is the divergence which started from the eleventh century and made England a very different place from most of Europe by 1500.

This difference increases and is the traditional period when people believe Britain  incubated the industrial and agrarian revolutions, not doing something entirely new, but building on the earlier divergence to become wealthier and more urban. This covers the period 1500-1800 and by the end of it England is the first industrial nation.

After 1800 there is the growing gap between other parts of Europe – Germany, Belgium, France in particular, became ‘modern’. By the end of the nineteenth century much of Western Europe (and also America and Japan) were very different from China and India.

Much of this is accepted. The contentious one is the third divergence, between about 1200 and 1500, which goes against much conventional wisdom of Marxist and other historiography. That assumed that the divergence within Europe, which set England apart, only occurred from the sixteenth century. I shall therefore end by setting forth an alternative narrative.

MONTESQUIEU AND TOCQUEVILLE both traced what they considered to be the extraordinary historical trajectory of England back to the ‘German woods’. Not surprisingly, particularly after the Nazi interlude, such a Germanist interpretation fell into deep disfavour. And if it has any overtones of manifest destiny or the racial superiority or purity of the Germanic or English peoples it is clearly both unacceptable and untrue. Nor is it a sufficient explanation in itself. Many people came out of the ‘German woods’ – in fact Germanic tribes conquered all of the countries in Western Europe in the two centuries after the fall of Rome. Yet different parts of Europe ended up in a very different situation a thousand years later.

Nevertheless, for a full and convincing story of how, against all traps and tendencies, the modern world was finally invented by way of the small island of Britain, we need to go back to the period around the collapse of the Roman Empire. The social and political structure of the Germanic peoples, the Anglo-Saxons,  who colonized England had certain features which were to be important over the next thousand years.

Firstly, the Germans were a rural people, cattle herders and farmers who lived in small villages. Unlike the Romans, an urbanized civilization, the Germanic peoples’ heart was in the shires. The pronounced preference even for the wealthy was to live in the countryside. This characteristic lasted.

Secondly, the Germanic peoples were a commercially minded people. They may have started as mainly subsistence farmers, but within a couple of centuries they had produced a sophisticated market system with a great deal of trading, the best silver coinage in Europe and busy ports. They were certainly proto-capitalists (and indeed the word ‘capitalism’ has its root in the word for ‘livestock’).

Thirdly, they did not live in communities with a defined legal status, but in straggling villages, which soon contained a church, a manor house, and some common land. It was a unit of government but without the sense of legal or emotional closeness of blood and identity which constitutes communities in many parts of the world. The only legally recognized ‘community’ was the borough.

Fourthly, they had a particular kinship system. The Romans had traced descent through males. The Anglo-Saxons traced their kin through both males and females. Roman Law gave the male head of households great power over children and over women. The Germans had no such patriarchal power built into their law and gave independence and equality to both women and children. The Romans gave joint legal rights in property to parents and children, while the Germans gave no intrinsic rights of inheritance to their children.

Soon, under the influence of the Church, in England parents were allowed to make wills leaving some or all of their property to whom they wished. Children tended to leave home at a very young age to work or be educated in another family. Except perhaps amongst the aristocracy, where marriage was important to practical concerns,  marriages were made by the children on the basis of love. After marriage, the new couple would live in a separate household from their parents

The Romans had a set of hierarchical legal statuses – nobles, commoners, and slaves. The Germans had no such legal statuses. They had slaves for several centuries, but even this status was fading by the ninth or tenth century and was not incorporated into Common Law. So all social orders were permeable, for instance wealth could buy the status of an aristocrat.

The Romans devised a sophisticated written legal system based on a set of principles worked out in great detail. The Germans had powerful touring judges who sat with local people (juries) to administer a precedent-based, oral, and flexible system of common and customary law.

The language laid down by the Anglo-Saxons remained largely unchanged in its deep structure of the grammar and syntax for the next thousand years, though constantly being modified and added to. Unlike Latin and the Romance languages of the continent, it scarcely recognized status differences and the gender markings it contained were soon lost.

The Romans had a centralized, top-down, political system which, certainly by the later Roman Empire, was expressed in a form of a centralized dictatorship. The Germans in their conquests had operated a loosely federated or ‘feudal’ system. Here there were contractual ties between superior and inferior, with the inferior swearing allegiance and support, in return for protection and land. Power was dispersed and delegated downwards.

Through the seventh to ninth centuries this political system became incorporated into larger kingdoms so that by the eighth century Alfred united the whole of England under one rule, a Crown that was contractual but powerful. Thus by the tenth century, with the admixture of Viking influence, there was an independent, wealthy, integrated nation with a specific legal, political and social system.

The political system that had developed before the country was converted to Christianity, so that when mainly Celtic missionaries brought the new faith, the Church grew up parallel to, but not fully integrated with, the Crown. There were thus already countervailing forces, a powerful Crown, a powerful Church, growing merchant and farming communities, powerful aristocrats. No single force was dominant.

England was not exceptional. There was a similar pattern over much of north-western Europe. For example, the Normans, second-generation Vikings, were hardly distinguishable from the people they conquered in England. Much of southern Scotland was also similar, as was much of northern France, Germany and Scandinavia. If we had travelled over Europe at the end of the eleventh century we might have been surprised at its uniformity. From the twelfth century, however, a great divergence began to occur between England and much of continental Europe. In England, the characteristics described above persisted and were even re-enforced.

WE MIGHT HAVE expected the persistence of these patterns over all of Europe as the contract-based feudal system developed. And indeed it did continue to a certain extent for a century or so. The rapid integration and growth of Europe from the eleventh to twelfth centuries saw the developments of those separations and oppositions and productive tensions which Guizot maps so well in his Civilization in Europe.1

This was the golden period described in Richard Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages. It was the time of the founding of the first universities, the flourishing of the Benedictines and Cistercians, the building of the first cathedrals, the revival of ancient learning by way of Arab scholarship, the rapid development of cities and trade, the rapid growth of population, the introduction of new technologies such as the windmill and the mechanical clock. It looked as if all of  Europe was moving towards what we have defined as ‘modernity’.

Then, between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, almost all of continental Europe, moved in another direction. This is a huge topic, so I shall only sketch in a few of the landmarks. One was the rise of a pact between the State and the Church, demonstrated above all in the Crusades and in the savage repression of the Albigensians and the forming of the Inquisition. Church and State were now unified in most of Europe, working together against external (Moorish, Arab) foes, or internal enemies (heretics, Jews and, later, witches). By the eighteenth century there was a strong, control of deviation of all kinds. This did not happen in England.

Secondly there was a growing separation and institutionalization of legal differences between status groups or estates. There was instituted blood nobility, a separate educated bourgeois, a special clerical class and a vast peasantry. The peasants owned their land in a system not found in Britain, yet this meant that they had no desire to move off their holdings and when they needed more would sharecrop for larger owners.

Much of what happened can be examined through the progress of the ‘Reception’ of late Justinian Roman law. This emphasized legal differences – class, gender, familial, royal. Kings were absolute; nobility were a separate caste; men were intrinsically superior to women; fathers were absolute rulers of their children; cities were separated off from the countryside, the court from the country.

What happened over the centuries was a freezing, a growing rigidity. It is tempting to blame the terrible Black Death for this and no doubt it exacerbated a trend, but it could have worked both ways. In Britain it raised the price of labour and wiped out serfdom. In most of the Continent it tied the peasantry even more firmly to the land and in eastern Europe it foreshadowed the second re-enserfment of the population. So Europe turned into a vast, peasant-based, civilization with a huge gap between literate and illiterate, town and country, the rulers and the ruled.

It seems obvious that a structural reason for this was the continental problem of landed boundaries. Basically a ruler could exert centralizing power by threatening to throw those who disobeyed to marauding outsiders. To fight off the adjacent enemies a country had to keep a large standing army. This in turn required extortionate taxes and a large centralized bureaucracy. It was the exact antithesis of Adam Smith’s three desiderata: there was little peace, easy taxes or due administration of justice. The populace, often restless, often starving, were kept in control by force, by summary punishment, an armed militia, spies and informers.

Over the centuries this led to a situation which even by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries meant that a person travelling through Europe no longer felt that it was uniform, as it had been three hundred years earlier. All along the sea margin of Europe, where attacks were easier to fend off, namely Scandinavia, Holland, Portugal and Italy, there was greater freedom and continuity. Yet over the great plains of central Europe the slide towards absolutism and the immiseration of four fifths of the population was well advanced.

Despite the attempts of Henry VIII to introduce a strong tie between Crown and Church, England escaped most of this. By the fourteenth century it held much of France, then it sank back to a small power on the edge, only starting to grow into an offensive overseas expansion toward the end of the sixteenth century.

As we have seen in earlier accounts of fifteenth and sixteenth century travellers from Europe, or of those going from England to Europe, people expressed their surprise at the wide gulf which now seemed to separate off this island. So by the middle of the sixteenth century there were already two worlds: that of England (and southern Scotland and parts of Wales), and to a certain extent Holland, Scandinavia and pockets in Italy and Portugal on one side, and much of the rest of the Continent on the other.

The world which existed in England was already a ‘modern’ one. That is to say the four spheres were institutionalized and separate. There was an autonomous, instituted economy, as Adam Smith realized, with a functioning market, a great deal of trading, a developed manufacturing base, widespread use of money, an elaborate division of labour. There was an uniform, autonomous and widely respected legal system. There was a separate political system, with a Crown under the Law, parliaments, devolution of power to the localities, an efficient and relatively fair taxation system.

There were flourishing and free universities in Oxford and Cambridge (and four in Scotland). There was widespread and growing affluence with rapidly improving transport, housing, clothing, new foods and new drinks. There was no legal distinction between classes, but rather a constant scramble for money and status. The countryside was widely pervaded by ‘urban’ values in relation to time, money and status, and was filled with an educated and wealthy gentry and small farmer and artisan ‘middling sort’.

This is the world which Chaucer and then Shakespeare depicted in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is the world where Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century believed that man could take control of nature through understanding its hidden laws. It is the world where England, now effectively Britain from the seventeenth century, was no longer seeking to hold an empire in France, but rather to explore and profit from overseas trade in the Americas and the Orient.

In the eighteenth century people on this island launched the first industrial civilization. This was to transform human history more than any single event since the development of settled agriculture. In relation to agriculture it developed the most efficient system in the world. Britain was well towards controlling a quarter of the planet by the end of the eighteenth century.

These two hundred and fifty years have many special features: the development of institutionalized science, the rapid growth of various technologies in shipbuilding, glass, ceramics, weaving. It was a world where early replacement or supplementation of human energy through wind, water, animals and coal grew rapidly, where communication costs were reduced by canals, roads and soon railways, where wealth flowed into the nation, particularly with sugar, tobacco and the profits of the slave trade.

BY THE START of the eighteenth century England no longer just surprised visitors, it astonished them. They had found a new world, with little resemblance to the ancien regime countries from which they had come. It seemed an extraordinarily ‘modern’ place. It seemed to have a peculiar key to success which it was passing on to its colonies and conquests.

The development of the many inter-connected aspects of ‘modernity’ was like the proverbial difficulty of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. It was not an easy accomplishment. Using Rostow’s metaphor of the take-off of an aeroplane, it requires a long runway, a long time period of increasing speed and a powerful thrust from a powerful engine.2 As we can see after the event, England was large enough, rich enough, free enough and practical enough to escape from the agrarian traps which the classical economists had outlined and had believed to be inescapable. England did something which had hitherto never even been imagined. Even a century later, in the middle of the nineteenth century, many intelligent people such as John Stuart Mill still believed it to be impossible.

The exceptional nature of what happened is clear. There were no signs of the ‘escape’ happening anywhere else in Europe or in other parts of the world. Indeed the reverse was happening. The only possible candidate was Holland. Yet it was too small, too vulnerable by land, too dependent on commerce rather than manufacture and, crucially, it lacked coal. It was a high-level commercial Empire, similar to, though larger than Venice or the other early successes in Italy.

All the different parts of the combination lock were in place when Adam Smith was writing his great treatise on the Wealth of Nations published in 1776. Among other things he explained why humans had reached the limits of growth, though he also explained some of the conditions which would allow us to squeeze a little extra wealth out of a finite world.

What was finally needed to open the door was, ironically, happening down the corridor from Adam Smith in Glasgow University where James Watt was working on the double condenser steam engine, which would more effectively unlock the power of thousands of years of sunlight stored in coal.

So great was the lead of Britain at this point that even though the technical solution was now known, and the vast coal and iron of the Ruhr could be exploited, it was still another two generations before any other European country began to industrialize, or three generations before the first followers outside Europe, Japan and north America, began their industrial revolutions. The story of the outwards spread of the modern world from England is a complex and interesting one. Since it is a whole new chapter, I shall not deal with it here, but just refer to the excellent account in C.A.Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 which synthesizes much of the recent research on the topic.

PERHAPS I CAN end by returning again to the question of the invention of the modern world. To a large extent the components of our world have come from all over the globe. It is worth quoting a small part of Ralph Linton’s account of how our material culture is drawn from everywhere. He imagines the beginning of an American citizen’s day.

Our solid American citizen awakens in a bed built on a pattern which originated in the Near East but which was modified in Northern Europe before it was transmitted to America. He throws back covers made from cotton, domesticated in India, or linen, domesticated in the Near East, or wool from sheep, also domesticated in the Near East, or silk, the use of which was discovered in China. All of these materials have been spun and woven by processes invented in the Near East. He slips into his moccasins, invented by the Indians of Eastern woodlands, and goes to the bathroom, whose fixtures are a mixture of European and American inventions, both of recent date. He takes off his pajamas, a garment invented in India, and washes with soap invented by the ancient Gauls. He then shaves, a masochistic rite which seems to have been derived from either Sumer or ancient Egypt.

Linton continues in this way for another four similar paragraphs and ends,

While smoking he reads the news of the day, imprinted in characters invented by the ancient Semites upon a material invented in China by a process invented in Germany. As he absorbs the accounts of foreign troubles he will, if he is a good conservative citizen, thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is 100 per cent American.3

Yet, while all this is true, it is also true that much of the wealth of world inventions was funnelled for a while through one small island, and then spread around the world by its Empire, and in particular by way of North America. It is wrong for an Englishman to boast, so we can leave it to a Chilean academic to claim that ‘We were all born in a world made in England and the world in which our great-grandchildren will mellow into venerable old age will be as English as the Hellenistic world was Greek, or better, Athenian.’4

Among the important ‘exports’ from England which have been considered are the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution, the model of democratic politics, many principles of English law, many aspects of modern science and a number of important technologies including railways. Also important is the language, which Paxman considers to be ‘the greatest legacy’ of the English. ‘It is the medium of technology, science, travel and international politics. Three quarters of the world’s mail is in English, four fifths of all data stored on computers is in English and the language is used by two thirds of the world’s scientists… an estimated one quarter of the entire world population can speak the language to some degree.’5

Others might argue that it is English games and sports, previously listed, which have been its greatest export, others that it was the English educational system or its literature.  Yet there are many other things one might think of. Some of them are rather surprising. ‘The English created modern tourism with the Grand Tour and Thomas Cook’s first package tour. They developed the first modern luxury hotel (the Savoy with electric lights, six lifts and seventy bedrooms). Charles Babbage produced the world’s first computer in the 1820s. A Scot, John Logie Baird, was one of the inventors of television, in an attic in Hastings… Sandwiches, Christmas cards, Boy Scouts, postage stamps, modern insurance and detective novels are all products “Made in England”.’ Or we might dream with Macaulay that it was ‘the imperishable Empire of our arts, our morals, our literature and our laws’, which would be the English legacy.’6

Perhaps the greatest legacy is not in any specific thing, but in the relations between parts of our lives. I believe that modernity and its freedoms and benefits emerge from the never-ending tension caused by separating and balancing parts of our lives. England was the first country which successfully held the demands of the State, the Church, the Family and the Economy in some kind of balance where none came to dominate. This leads to personal responsibility and freedom. It also leads to endless contradictions and confusions. So perhaps the great contribution of England is to show that muddle, confusion, contradiction and paradox should be welcomed.

When Huizinga tried to understand the character of his adopted country he felt that ‘To generalise about “the” British, I soon realised, was nothing but foolishness. There were at least two or three vastly different Englands, if not many more, and their obvious dissimilarities were not only a matter of class…’ So he approvingly quoted another long-time student of the English in the twentieth century, Paul Cohen-Portheim: ‘the endless contradictions that confront one at every step and to grasp how it is that this country is at once the most aristocratic and the most democratic in the world … how medieval chivalry and the commercial spirit confront one another in it; how the English philistine is counterbalanced by the imaginative Englishman and the shopkeeper by the conqueror; how the romanticism of a Byron and the fanatical genius of a Turner or a Blake could spring from such a prosaic and matter-of-fact environment’.7

The English were lucky yet they were no better than the rest of us (speaking from Scotland, my other ancestry), let alone from the wider world. They were often oppressive and though they provided a bridge into our modern world they did this on the back of the Scots, Welsh, Irish and  slaves and workers around the world. Yet if England had not existed, if it had not separated out economy, society, politics and religion, it is difficult to see that I would be writing this on a sophisticated computer, sitting in a quiet garden in the Cambridge fens, while a busy world hums and the latest ricochet of the effects of English imperialism and democracy unfolds in one of its former colonies, Egypt. England and Britain may be the past, but they are also the future. And the new world Empires, of China, India and elsewhere will take up the white man’s burden more effectively if they understand something of the path which, against all likelihood, led us to where we now are.

The lecture on which this chapter is based:

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

Chapter 17 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

© 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

This chapter concludes the Serial.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):

  1. Guizot, History
  2. Rostow, Theory of Economic Growth
  3. Linton, Study of Man, 326-7
  4. Claudio Veliz, quoted in Paxman, English, 63. See Veliz, Fox, throughout for this argument, especially chapters 5 and 7.
  5. Paxman, English, 235
  6. Quoted in Huizinga, Confessions, 202
  7. Huizinga, Confessions, 80

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *