Published by EH.NET (March 2001)
Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern
Britain. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000. xii + 372 pp.
$35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-300-08391-2.
Reviewed for EH.Net by David Stead, Nuffield College, University of Oxford.
Keith Wrightson’s latest work traces the fuller emergence of a market society
in Britain between the late fifteenth and the mid-eighteenth centuries. It is
an important story, and one Wrightson (formerly professor of social history at
Cambridge University and now professor of history at Yale) tells well.
Earthy Necessities, which launches a new series in British economic
history from Yale University Press, opens with an introductory survey of the
literature on the early modern British economy. Beginning with the comments of
contemporaries — who were well aware that they were living in a time of major
change — Wrightson continues through the subsequent generations of economic
historians, linking each set of writings with the general approaches
prevailing in the discipline during that age.
The book then divides into three parts. Part one describes the starting point,
the essential features of economic life in the late fifteenth and early
sixteenth centuries. After examining the structure of the basic economic unit,
the household, together with the roles, priorities and working strategies of
its various members, Wrightson then considers the wider web of local and
national institutions to which households belonged. These range from merchant
guilds and systems of agricultural organization to regional and international
trade networks. Wrightson concludes: “this was not so much a commercialised
economy as a largely traditional, fundamentally agrarian economic order” (p.
Part two, the largest section of the book, details what Wrightson calls “the
dynamic” experienced by the British people between the early sixteenth and
early eighteenth centuries. Population growth and price inflation were the
principal triggers of change, a process which can be baldly summarized as
“enhanced regional specialisation and intensified commercial integration
within an emergent national economy which was increasingly influenced by
participation in a nascent world economy” (p. 231). Wrightson shows how the
intensifying dominance of the market involved and occurred alongside, amongst
other things, the growth of opportunities for capital accumulation and
investment, increasingly commercialized agriculture, manufacturing and trade,
the development of the state, urbanization and generally rising standards of
living. He also explores the gradual adjustments in the attitudes and values
of early modern Britons as they contributed and reacted to these developments;
one such alteration was a new discourse of “improvement.”
Part three examines the endpoint of these cumulative changes through an
investigation of how British men, women and children lived with the market
during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Wrightson is
careful to repeatedly stress the continuity with earlier periods, and equally
not to exaggerate the shifts in behavior that occurred before 1750. Purely
commercial relationships coexisted with and were tempered by the older
traditions. Estate management practices neatly illustrate this fusion of
conduct. Landlords increasingly wanted to consolidate small farms into larger
holdings, but instead of turning out established tenants they waited until the
land became vacant on the farmer’s death. Nevertheless there was significant
change in both economy and attitudes, epitomized by the differences between
Gregory King’s perception of the English social and economic structure in 1688
and Edmund Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth in 1509.
Earthy Necessities sweeps across almost all aspects of economic life in
early modern Britain. Wrightson draws on the economic, social and cultural
histories of the period, with demography also featuring strongly throughout
the book. In addition to surveying the evolutions that took place, Wrightson
also shares his views on various historical controversies. Here are three
examples. First, he argues that the novel phenomenon of sustained inflation
from the 1510s to the 1570s was fundamentally demand-pull in nature rather
than being mainly driven by increases in the money supply (although debasement
of the currency appears to be a much more powerful explanation for price
rises in Scotland). Second, the progress made on English farms in the latter
half of the seventeenth century was important but “did not constitute an
‘agricultural revolution'” (p. 233). Third, it is “illusory” (p. 228) to
attribute the rapid development of England after the 1640s primarily to the
political changes arising from the Civil Wars and Interregnum. These events
were certainly influential, but England’s eventual economic success was firmly
rooted in the cumulative achievements of previous generations.
Wrightson skillfully employs a combination of contemporary comment and
statistical evidence to support his arguments. The text is enjoyable to read,
and there are some nice rhetorical touches and images along the way. I
particularly liked the imaginary Bristol merchant, wearing a shirt made from
Dutch linen, drinking French wine and eating fish caught off the Anglesey
coast, who Wrightson uses to illustrate the extent of trade networks at the
turn of the sixteenth century (p. 108). Another strength of the book is
Wrightson’s ability to recognize, and articulate, the heterogeneity of
experience between and within different sub-periods, regions, classes and
genders. Unlike many supposedly “British” studies that pay only lip-service to
Scotland and Wales, Wrightson aims to give full attention to the people
living in these areas, although perhaps unavoidably given the sources
available, he is less successful at achieving this goal for the Welsh.
Earthly Necessities also considers the costs as well as the benefits of
economic development. At various times the losers included the church, the
iron and cloth industries in the southeast and — unsurprisingly —
agricultural and urban laborers and small farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen.
Although not marketed as such, Earthly Necessities is clearly intended
to appeal to a non-specialist audience. This manifests itself most obviously
in the absence of footnotes or endnotes, making the book subject to the usual
advantages and disadvantages of this form of presentation. The general reader
is not intimidated by a cluttered text, but I found it continually frustrating
to be unable to easily locate the source of the most interesting quotes and
figures contained therein. (Wrightson’s lightly annotated twenty-three page
guide to further reading is, though, a valuable resource, particularly for
those new to this field.) The book suffers from a few other blemishes. Perhaps
inevitably in such a wide-ranging survey, Wrightson skips over some debates,
such as disagreements over the time-path of land enclosures and the size of
the non-economic returns to landownership. It is also surprising that he does
not make more use of a standard tool of measuring the degree and pace of
market integration, that is estimating the convergence in prices between
different geographic regions. I found just two references to such an exercise,
each comprising of only a single sentence (pp. 110, 261).
As is often the case with good books, Earthly Necessities succeeds at
several different levels. A splendid introduction to the subject for
undergraduates, Wrightson also includes many gems for his specialist readers.
Anyone wanting a comprehensive, balanced and well-written overview of the
changing world that was early modern Britain should read this book.
David Stead is a graduate student at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.
His doctorate thesis is entitled “Crops and Contracts: Land Tenure in England,