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Barriers to Growth: English Economic Development from the Norman Conquest to Industrialisation

Author(s):Jones, Eric L.
Reviewer(s):Bailey, Mark

Published by EH.Net (August 2022).

Eric L. Jones. Barriers to Growth: English Economic Development from the Norman Conquest to Industrialisation. Palgrave Macmillan: Palgrave Studies in Economic History, 2020. xii + 153pp. £79.99 (hardback), ISBN 978-3-030-44273-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Bailey, University of East Anglia.


The causes of the Industrial Revolution are one of the great debates in economic history. What were the forces that transformed human society from centuries of low productivity and organic economic activity to sustained growth, increased wealth per head, and technologically adaptive modernity? In this short, stimulating, and highly readable monograph, Eric Jones offers a fresh perspective on the reasons why the Industrial Revolution occurred so quickly and comprehensively in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. He considers how manifold minor and subtle institutional changes over the previous eight centuries slowly but inexorably eroded the inefficient customs and practices that had acted as obstacles, impediments and barriers to growth: the net result was to diminish the economy’s susceptibility to shocks (such as disease and extreme weather events), to improve the allocation and productivity of its resources, and hence to enhance its receptiveness to immense and widespread changes from the eighteenth century. He is not concerned with synthesising or critiquing the vast debate on the causes of industrialisation, and pays scant attention to other major debates on the earlier Great Divergence (whereby economic development in Europe pulled ahead of Asia) and the Little Divergence (whereby parts of northwest Europe pulled ahead of the rest of the Continent). He does not rehearse the standard explanations for ‘take off’, such as various prime mover models (e.g., the Protestant work ethic, falling interest rates) or the new technical innovations (e.g., steam power, railways), but instead maintains an unerring focus on elucidating the merits of his alternative line of argument with admirable clarity.

Shifting the focus of the debate away from the various engines driving economic growth to consider instead the gradual evaporation of the ‘deadweight costs of old practices and big blockages inch by inch one after the other’ (p. 144) is inspired. The modern mindset tends to associate economic growth with innovations that increase productivity and social product, but here we are asked to contemplate what had prevented growth and, by extension, how the removal of such impediments in turn stimulated growth. By addressing a familiar debate by posing a different question, Jones re-illuminates it with a searing shaft of light. He forces us to consider how, for example, extravagant and unproductive expenditure on the likes of castles and cathedrals had placed a burden on the productive sectors of the medieval economy ‘by tying up capital in structures designed to intimidate’ (p. 13), and how a reduction in that expenditure released capital for more productive purposes.

Jones argues that the slow reform of institutions and the erosion of customary forms of governance resulted in the better allocation of resources, improved technology and materials, and greater societal resilience to shocks. In the centuries before industrialisation, prolonged, varied, and minor institutional changes occurred at a glacial pace to reduce inexorably deadweight expenditure, to shift assets to people more likely to exploit them productively, to eliminate destructive domestic conflict through civil war, and to enable the exploitation of previously un- or under-utilised resources. These processes were not always linear—some intended improvements could end up choking advancement—and their benefits were sometimes inadvertent, although by the nineteenth century the waning of resistance to change, and the speed of institutional change, were startling. In all of this, Jones captures a common-sensical view that institutions evolve more slowly than technology changes, exerting a drag or brake on productivity gains, and their reform could take decades or centuries (p. 61). He is unquestionably correct to point out that prejudice and the want of a decent education meant that the productivity capacity of women and most of the lower orders of society remained low until the modern era.

Jones elucidates his arguments through eight short, sharp case studies of how various impediments to growth were gradually eroded in the pre-modern era. The first section of the book considers the erosion of obstacles, the second section coping with shocks. The chapters deal in turn with (section one) military and ecclesiastical building; the dissolution of the monasteries; civil war; communal farming and underused land; tithes; archaic institutions; obstructive infrastructure; and maladministration. Then section two consider disease; “insults to agriculture”; storms and adverse seasons; floods; and, finally, fire. The book is topped and tailed with an introduction and conclusion. All of the chapters are short, and each one is accessibly and clearly written. Referencing is light, seldom more than a dozen footnotes per chapter, and Jones’ earlier work features prominently among the citations. Quotable and telling lines jump out of the pages. Communal field systems are ‘a device for preserving equality in principle and poverty in practice’ (p. 53), and the voices and zeal of nineteenth-century social reformers ‘relegated the lifestyle of the Regency bucks to dark corners’ (p. 82).

While there is no synthesis or critique of the manifold other theories about and approaches to the causes of the Industrial Revolution, Jones is undoubtedly well informed about them. Nor does he attempt to measure the growth of the English economy over time to identify key phases for his readers, and so Broadberry, et al.’s monumental British Economic Growth 1270 to 1870 (2015) does not warrant a footnote. He is respectful of, but unimpressed by, overarching explanations for the Industrial Revolution based on an identified prime mover. He recognises that they provide a powerful conceptual framework to ‘put inchoate events into some type of order’ (p. 32) and render comprehensible the ‘bewildering surface of manifold events’, while exposing their limitations: taking predetermined abstractions as given, cherry-picking examples that fit the theory while overlooking detailed historical experience that does not, and confusing correlation with causation. Equally, Jones is fully aware that localised history can fail to identify key patterns, or segregate the significant from the insignificant, and can be too susceptible to ad hoc interpretations. So we are offered neither a new prime mover theory nor a fresh empirical study, but an alternative pathway for exploring an old conundrum. To illustrate his approach, Jones mines a succession of local examples from obscure local history journals and publications, and from the disused works of great historians, such as Hoskins, Willan, and Trevelyan. As he states, ‘local evidence sometimes alters one’s mind about relative significance and I do not always discern the world of my ancestors in the abstractions of my profession’ (p. 3).

The drawback with this approach, and with Jones’ predilection for citing his own work in a threadbare system of referencing, is that occasionally—but only occasionally—an important and relevant scholarly contribution is overlooked, an opportunity is missed, or a point is stretched too far. As an example of the latter, Jones states that the transition from wooden to stone bridges awaited the late eighteenth century, and cites lengthy disputes over their upkeep, as examples of obstructive infrastructure (pp. 70-1) in the pre-modern era, yet the work that he cites (Harrison, 2004) actually states that such disputes were not the norm and that most bridges were built of stone by 1700. As an example of the former, a whole chapter is devoted to the theory developed by Leander Heldring, James A. Robinson, and Sebastian Vollmer (2015) that the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s created a land market and harnessed the entrepreneurial zeal of the gentry, which combined to remove a dead weight from the economy and catapulted England and Wales to industrial growth. Jones deploys their essay skilfully to illustrate the benefits of his own approach while gently highlighting the limitations of such an overarching monocausal theory constructed by economists with limited grasp of the historical reality and scholarship. Yet the prominent and influential work of Bruce Campbell (2005, 2008) is omitted from the analysis, even though it reveals that the landed estates of religious houses comprised no more than 5% of the arable area of England, over half of which by the 1530s was in the hands of tenants in the form of leases or other forms of tenure. Thus we have a splendid example of economists and early modern historians overlooking important work in medieval history (they are not alone…medieval historians are also guilty of not engaging with economists and early modernists!), which has established that religious houses had direct control of less than 2% of the arable land of England. In which case, how can their dissolution have had such a transformative effect on the land market and the productive capacity of English agriculture, or, indeed, how can their dissolution have removed a significant obstacle to economic growth?

These observations do not detract from Jones’ fundamental argument, they simply underline the need for more careful formulation and exemplification. Jones selects various cogent examples of customary practices that impeded growth—such as tithe payments to the church, which were not removed until a parliamentary act in the nineteenth century—and, following his lead, other economic historians will be stimulated to contribute grist to his mill from their own areas of expertise. One example would be the history of tenures, whose structure evolved significantly between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. The peculiar institutional structure of land tenure before the Black Death of 1348-9 meant that the pressure of rising population caused land holdings to splinter, mean holding size to plummet and immiseration to spread, and therefore it acted as a major barrier to the growth of the medieval economy. In the decades after the Black Death this archaic structure was gradually dismantled through the adoption of more contractual and monetarised tenures, and the shift of a higher proportion of land from the seigniorial to the (hands on) peasant sector, both of which enabled more productive use of landed resources in the early modern period.

Another topic worthy of closer scrutiny is the development of the law, which in general receives bad press from Jones. He portrays property law as cumbersome and expensive until the introduction of a comprehensive system of land registration, and depicts the legal system more widely as corrupt, self-serving, protecting the interests of elites, and raising transaction costs for producers (e.g., pp. 36, 56, 138). While the English legal system was certainly neither equitable nor fair, it was better than the alternative. The development of a system of common law from the late twelfth century under the auspices of royal justices and officials, and the permeation of its principles and processes into the operation of many other local tribunals such as manorial and market courts, had profound, far-reaching, and inadvertent consequences in removing barriers to growth. It created a culture of decision-making and dispute resolution based on written proofs, precedents, formal modes of representation, and consistent treatment of similar wrongs. It was hostile to personal discretion and arbitrary judgements in social relations, and—to some extent—held the elite to account. It enabled land to be treated as an asset transferable for money rather than a gift in exchange for services, and its title to be defensible and heritable, therefore creating a liquid asset capable of acting as security for loans. It offered cheap, accessible, independent and (relatively) fair resolution in petty disputes over debt, trespass and breach of contract. In short, the development and spread of a legal system and culture reduced risks and transaction costs in commercial activities, providing a major incentive to the growth of factor and commodity markets. Indeed, Jones himself acknowledges that the presence of an independent legal tradition in Western Europe was a key element in the Little Divergence (p. 89).

This is a stimulating, enlightening, engaging, wise and learned book, packed with common sense and sharp analysis, and characterised by a lucid writing style gloriously free from jargon. Jones is a leading scholar at the top of his game, and provides a new perspective and a framework for analysing economic growth that will advance one of the great debates in economic history.


Mark Bailey is Professor of Late Medieval History, University of East Anglia. He is the author of The Decline of Serfdom in Late Medieval England (2014) and in 2019 was the James Ford Lecturer in British History at the University of Oxford; the Ford Lectures have been published as After the Black Death. Economy, Society and the Law in Fourteenth-Century England (2021).

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative