Skip to content

The Invention of the Modern World: The Spring-Summer 2012 Serial.

The Invention of the Modern World

By Alan Macfarlane.

THE WANG GOUWEI Lectures delivered at Tsinghua University in March and April 2011 form the basis for Prof. Alan Macfarlane’s The Invention of the Modern World, a previously unpublished manuscript which is the Spring-Summer 2012 serial offering of The Fortnightly Review.

The book, writes Prof. Macfarlane, ‘synthesizes a lifetime of reflection on the origins of the modern world’ and was written ‘explicitly for a Chinese audience. I wanted to explain to my Chinese friends and the audience of my lectures and readers of this book some peculiarities of the history of British civilization which might be useful for them in trying to understand the West….’

‘This book…argues strongly for the reinstatement of an older theory which was displaced by that of the great late-nineteenth century sociologists. It suggests that there is a great deal of continuity in England from the eleventh or twelfth century and that there is no break in the ‘long arch’ of modernity over the last thousand years. So some readers will have to suspend their disbelief and, hopefully, some will be persuaded by the coherence of the alternative story I tell and the evidence I present.’

The manuscript is being published in The Fortnightly Review as a way of collecting insightful comments from readers. A box appears at the bottom of each page for this purpose. Remarks may be withheld from public view by request.

invention150Update: This book has been published by Odd Volumes,the publishing imprint of the Fortnightly. A copy may be obtained here (UK readers, here).

The author: Prof. Alan Macfarlane, FBA, FRHistS, taught at the Department of Social Anthropology Cambridge University for more than 30 years and is now Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science and a Life Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. A shelf of his books is here; his personal webpage is here.

Serial terms.

Duration: There are 17 chapters and a preface (with acknowledgements) in this series. A new chapter of The Invention of the Modern World will appear twice a month beginning 1 April 2012. Chapters published in The Fortnightly Review contain illustrations, videos, and other elements.

Access to chapters: Every chapter will remain available free of charge to readers. At the conclusion of each scheduled instalment, the chapter will be archived where it will be available to Fortnightly Review subscribers. To enter a subscription to The Fortnightly Review, click here. Subscription rates are nominal. An option exists for subscribers to direct a portion of their subscription to the World Oral Literature Project, or to donate to WOLP directly.

Purpose of the serial publication: The intention of the author is to obtain feedback, in the form of comments, from readers about the text. A box for comments appears at the bottom of every chapter. Public publication of comments will be withheld by request.

Serial sequence.

The Invention of the Modern World

By Alan Macfarlane.

Chapter notes by the author.

The Preface.

1 April 2012:

Chapter 1

What is the question?

What question should we should ask – what is the puzzle I am trying to solve? What is
modernity? What have been the favoured explanations of when and why it emerged?
A brief survey of the history of attempts to set and answer this question. What is
the appropriate methodology for the study of this huge topic? What evidence can
we use? Was the modern world invented in the ‘great divergence’ of the nineteenth
century, in the watershed of the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth century, or much
earlier? Archives 15 May 2012.

15 April 2012:

Chapter 2

War, trade, and Empire.

England was a warlike, but also a trading nation.
It was involved in constant warfare – but on others’ soil, with others’ troops,
or at sea. It also built its wealth on trade. And from the seventeenth to
the nineteenth centuries it created the vast Empire upon which ‘the sun never set’.
But how could such a tiny island do this? Archives 15 May 2012.

1 May 2012

Chapter 3

Modern technology.

The nature and history of industrial and agricultural technology is one way
in which England achieved and held its great Empire. By the eighteenth century
England had the most technologically advanced agriculture in the world;
it then used carbon energy through industrialization based on steam
some fifty years before any other country. So it was powerful –
but how could it escape, for the first time in history, agrarian constraints?

15 May 2012

Chapter 4

The origins of capitalism.

England had a very sophisticated capitalist economy
stretching back hundreds of years. It was full of money,
markets, relatively free but skilled labour, banks, limited liability,
the stock exchange, mortgages and many other devices to
help move capital and labour around.
And it was like this for many centuries before
the industrial revolution.

1 June 2012

Chapter 5

Material life.

Travelers from France, Scotland and elsewhere said that England
by the seventeenth or eighteenth century
compared to most of Europe was by far the richest country
in terms of clothes, houses, food and leisure – equaled
only by the small country of Holland. This was related to late age
at marriage, small families and the fact that economic advance
over the centuries had not been drained by rapid population growth.

15 June 2012

Chapter 6

Caste and class.

The tendency of most societies is for wealth differences
to turn into legal and ritual differences, what Tocqueville
calls ‘caste’. England is the great exception. Its peculiar statuses
of aristocrat, gentleman, yeoman, labourer were found nowhere else
in the world. They were part of a hierarchical, class, society
which developed from Anglo-Saxon times. Meanwhile
all other Eurasian societies moved towards ‘caste’.
This hierarchy-with-mobility is an essential basis
for modernity.

1 July 2012

Chapter 7


The English invented several of the most important competitive team
games – cricket, football, and rugby – and perfected others
(e.g. horse racing, shooting, tennis). These games and sports
combine contract with status in an unusual way –
having entered the game contractually, the arena and rules create
a competitive yet uniting sentiment. The games metaphor
and mentality is found through all the rest of
English society in its law, politics, society and economic activity.
The English also have the leisure and wealth to develop many hobbies.

15 July 2012

Chapter 8

Kinship, friendship and population.

The unusually fragmented kinship system did not form the infrastructure
of society. Children were sent away from home
when they were young. They married for love. They placed
the relationship with their married partner before that to
their parents or children. In practice, most people interacted with
non-kin networks in religion, politics and economy.
The English family system soon became unique in Europe
and later spread to America and over much of the world.
Friends replaced kin as the most important contacts,
but patron-client relations were weak.

Chapter 9

Civil Society.

The central feature of modernity is the development
of associations based on ‘contract’, rather than communities based on
birth and blood. In England, there was an enormous growth of clubs,
associations and other groupings. The development of legal trusts
from medieval times gave such activities the foundation
on which they could develop, forming the underpinning of
Anglo-American society.

Chapter 10

Power and Bureaucracy.

Usually power becomes more centralized and absolutist, as in the history
of all of continental Europe, China and many other civilizations.
England had a unique form of ‘centralized feudalism’ which was
both directed to the centre but distributed much power
to the lower levels. Without a permanent army, with the King under the Law,
with a small paid bureaucracy, it developed the first real ‘democracy’
along unusual lines. Later it governed its huge Empire
in a similar way. It employed in its schools, in its national government
and in its Empire a system of indirect or delegated government
which may be called the ‘school prefect’ system,
using the local leaders to rule and hence obviating the need
for a heavy political bureaucracy from the centre.

Chapter 11

Law and Violence.

The legal system is the key to modernity.
The unique mixture of Common Law and Equity, with
judge-made, precedent-based, law, with the presence of juries and the
assumption of innocence until proven guilty, the absence of torture,
is fundamental. There was equality before the law
and the rule of law. It was a legal system with particular
sophistication in its treatment of personal rights and duties
and the holding of property. As Adam Smith and Max Weber realized,
this was the system which underpinned modern rational capitalist
economy and politics. Over the centuries it became totally different
from that anywhere else in Europe.

Chapter 12

Education, Language and Art.

People cannot be united either in a nation or a great Empire
by formal contractual ties; they need a feeling of loyalty.
The unusual English educational system, especially the
unique custom of sending children off very young (eight or nine)
to be educated by others provided this.
It is both old and central in generating the sentiments
of a modern society. It also constructed the character
and system of authority for later life.
It was later adapted as the device for holding together the
imagined empire across the globe when young children were sent
home to be shaped into British identity through ten years of
boarding education. At school the English learnt a particular
language which both reflected and shaped their view of the world.
It is flexible, practical, egalitarian, non-gendered and capable
of producing great poetry and prose. The use of irony and satire
was much developed and a curious playful sense of humour
was widespread. It is a language which has been carried
all over the world.

Chapter 13


The unusual wealth and especially
the rapid growth in the eighteenth century
in both agricultural and industrial output
depended considerably on the application of ‘reliable knowledge’
– or science – to practical matters such as wind and water power generation,
steam engines and other machines, the rationalization of agriculture
through fertilizers and breeding of superior animals.
So the growth of knowledge and techniques, and especially
the institutions of knowledge including universities and elsewhere
was important, and was part of the triangle of
‘knowledge: technology: mass production: back to knowledge’
which lies behind modern growth.

Chapter 14

Myths of unity.

The cultural symbols which were taught in the schools
expressed and created shared values through flags, parades, festivities
and sports which united Britain and the Empire.
They created one of the very earliest nations in the world
over a thousand years ago. The cultural symbols were given legitimacy
by the stories the English told about themselves and their past,
their ‘myths’ in the sense of stories which explain the present.
In their rich literature, the great tradition they are taught in schools –
Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantics, Austen, Dickens,
the English learnt how English men and women should behave.
In the many historical accounts, from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
of the English People
in 731 A.D., through to Winston Churchill
and Simon Schama, they learnt their ‘island story’
and how continuous and rich it had been.

Chapter 15

Religion and ethics.

Formal religion has declined on the surface of much of Britain today,
but all of British society is deeply soaked in the metaphysical underpinnings
of Christianity. This was a common European heritage, incorporating
much from Greek and Roman philosophy. But in England
a religion which was in a confrontation with the State from its start,
and which emphasized the ethical dimensions of life, was particularly pronounced.
Here many of the multitude of sects, Quakers, Methodists and many others,
developed their own interpretations and thrived.
Christianity was an essential foundation for the development
of scientific thought. It also, as Weber argued, provided a necessary,
if not sufficient, ingredient in the development of capitalism.

Chapter 16

National character.

The combined effects of all that has been described before
led to a strangely contradictory national character – or even,
as David Hume suggested – the absence of any uniform national character
at all. The English were simultaneous individualistic and conformist,
shy and extrovert, lazy and restless, childish and mature,
insecure and self-confident, gentle and brutal.
These are the contradictions of modernity.

Chapter 17

The English path.

The ‘exit from a pre-modern world was totally unexpected
and not at all inevitable. The normal tendency is towards predation,
absolutism, caste, over-population or other traps.
The preservation of the tense balance between competing forces
is difficult. The development of the modern world happened
as a chance development on one small island
which accidentally avoided most of the traps.
If it had not happened there, it seems unlikely
that it would ever have happened.

Yet once it had happened, as with all great discoveries,
it was not so difficult to copy. It may be useful for China, India
and the other great developing countries to know a little more
about the first long and difficult journey to modernity. So
I have made a sketch of the developments on one small, wet, pugnacious
little island which once ruled a great Empire and whose language,
laws, political system, games, industrial system, science,
education, family system and social structure has had such a
remarkable influence on how we all live today
and into the future.


Also by Alan Macfarlane in The Fortnightly Review:

Understanding life backwards. The ‘magical realism’ of memoir.
Fragment: Concepts of Time and the World We Live In.