Age of Invention: Capital Grains

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Something significant happened to the English countryside in the century before 1650. Although England’s population merely recovered to its pre-Black Death high of about 5 million, the economy was transformed. Having once been an overwhelmingly agrarian society, by 1650 a small but unprecedented proportion of the population now lived in cities, and less than half of the workforce was employed in agriculture. The country had de-agrarianised, and most remarkably of all, its food was still grown at home.

As I set out in last week’s post for patrons, the fact that England fed its own structural transformation is something of a puzzle. The usual and overwhelming pressure on economies with similar surpluses of grain, like the seventeenth-century Baltic, was to specialise in agriculture even more. The rising price of grain, caused by both England’s own population growth and the demands of the nearby urbanised Low Countries, should have induced workers to abandon their looms and spinning wheels and take up the plough. England should have at least remained agrarian, or have even agrarianised further. But it did not.

One possible explanation is that there was some special change in England’s agricultural technology that increased its productivity, requiring fewer and fewer people, and possibly even driving them off the land, so that they were forced to find alternative employment. This thesis comes in various forms, many of which I’m still coming to grips with, but broadly speaking it implies a “push” from the fields, and into industry and the cities. Desperate, and unable to demand high wages, these cheaper workers should have stimulated industry’s growth.

The alternative, however, is that there was nothing very special or innovative about English agriculture, and that instead there was an even larger increase in the demand for workers in industry and services. The thesis implies a “pull” into industry and the cities, causing people to abandon agriculture for more profitable pursuits, and thereby making England’s agriculture de facto more productive — something that may or may not have actually been accompanied by any changes to agricultural technology, depending on how much slack there was in how the labourers or land had been employed.

The push thesis implies agricultural productivity was an original cause of England’s structural transformation; the pull thesis that it was a result. The evidence, I think, is in favour of a pull — specifically one caused by the dramatic growth of London’s trade.

For a start, there does indeed seem to have been quite a bit of slack in English agriculture. Following the Black Death, when millions of the population were wiped out, much of the arable land that had been devoted to farming was simply allowed to go to grass, effectively becoming pasture. Arable land needs lots of labourers to work it, but you don’t need many people to keep an eye on a few sheep. The aftermath of the pandemic, with centuries of low population growth and low grain prices, also saw a flourishing of alternative uses for land — for wildfowl, game, more varied livestock, and cash crops that might be applied to industry, for flavouring, or as pharmaceuticals, rather than for basic sustenance. The late fourteenth century was the age of the vast new deer park, of dovecotes, warrens, and even fish ponds.

So there was a lot of land that could be converted back to ordinary farmland again, as the demands of the gradually recovering population put upward pressure on the price of grain. From a peak in the 1420s, over the following couple of centuries the price of grain compared to livestock steadily rose, hurried along by declining wages for farm labourers — converting grassland back to arable required more workers, and the cheaper the better. Plenty of England’s population growth up to 1650 was thus possible without the introduction of new agricultural techniques. It involved merely the resumption of the old. Overall, more and more of England was once again simply put back under the plough.

And even then, plenty of slack remained. By 1650, and even by 1700, arable land accounted for an estimated 9.6 million or so acres — still only about three quarters of the area that had been under the plough before the Black Death. The medieval acreage devoted to arable would not be reached again until the early nineteenth century, almost five hundred years later. So there must have been some increase in the productivity of agriculture per acre, but again, this doesn’t seem to have involved any actual development in agricultural technology. Arable land was definitely used more intensively, but this was achieved by allowing less and less of it each year to remain fallow, when it would go unused so that the soil could restore its nutrients. By the 1650s, only about a fifth of arable land was left fallow, compared to over a third in the medieval period. This is, at first glance, an impressive drop. But these levels of intensive use were not unknown in medieval farming. They had just been rarely called for, except in more densely populated parts of the country like Norfolk.

With the dramatic growth of London in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the more intensive methods came to be in much higher demand. Indeed, the extraordinary pull of the city’s growth resulted in English agriculture becoming increasingly specialised. Not only were there millions of acres of pasture still left that could be returned to the plough, but despite the relative fall in the prices of livestock, some areas actually became even more devoted to pasture. Many of the villages that had been abandoned after the Black Death were, even by the 1870s, over half a millennium later, still not being farmed. With wealthy Londoners demanding more varied diets, with meat and dairy, the various regions of England discovered their comparative advantages rather than all shifting to grain. There was thus extra room for agriculture to become more productive simply by devoting the best land for pasture to pasture, and the best soils for arable to arable, then trading the produce with one another, rather than have each area try to be self-sufficient. It’s something we also see in the decline of grains like rye, especially near London, to be replaced by wheat — the switching of a crop best-suited to local subsistence, to one that could be sold elsewhere and in bulk for cash.

In general, the south and east of England became increasingly arable, while the north-west concentrated on pasture. Yet there were also exceptions to be made for London’s particular wants. Thus, county Durham converted more land to arable to feed the miners of Newcastle coal, used to heat London’s homes; and the county of Middlesex, now largely disappeared under London’s own expansion, specialised in pasture for horses, rather than feeding people, so as to feed the city’s main sources of transportation. As the writer Daniel Defoe put it in the 1720s, “this whole Kingdom, as well the people, as the land, and even the sea, in every part of it, are employed to furnish something, and I may add, the best of everything, to supply the city of London with provisions.”

The expanding London market also encouraged a greater diversity of specialisms, with every county soon finding its particular niche. Suffolk and Essex became famous for supplying poultry — especially turkeys, driven in great flocks to the city to be slaughtered. From Kent the city demanded apples and cherries, as well as hops for beer. From distant Devon came vast quantities of cider, and from Cheshire, cheese, while Somerset was where many horses for the city’s coaches were initially bred. Gloucestershire and Wiltshire were famous in London for their springtime cheeses, as well as their bacon, the hogs having been fattened on the region’s whey and skimmed milk. West Country barley made its way hundreds of miles on barges up the winding River Thames, through Oxfordshire, where it was made into malt for alcohols, before being taken to the city downstream.

Some towns even came to specialise in processing the vast quantities of grain that were sent by river and sea, setting up mills to grind it into meal or flour, to send it on ready for London’s bakers. The ships and barges often carried timber too. Parts of Buckinghamshire thus devoted land to forest, rather than arable or pasture, to supply the wood needed for the capital’s chairs, tables, carriages, and carts. The demand from London exerted so powerful a pull, that many bulk goods could bear the cost of transportation for long distances even by land, such as Herefordshire’s cider and bacon. Great herds of cattle were even driven to be slaughtered by the city’s butchers from as far away as Wales.

London’s growth thus shaped the entire country’s agriculture to suit its needs. Despite the general pressure of population on grain prices, it encouraged vast tracts of land to be set aside for orchards for fruit, forest for wood, and pasture for meat and dairy, not to mention leather and wool, as well as some marshland for fish and fowl. In parts of Staffordshire, the land was even allowed to be overrun with ferns, to be cut up and burnt for their ashes. Pot-ash, after which the element potassium was named, was an important resource for London’s textile industry, used for washing and scouring wool. And of the arable land itself, the city’s demand encouraged farmers to devote it to growing dyestuffs for industry, such as woad, or to flavourings like liquorice and saffron.

London demanded, from English agriculture, the finer things in life. It was not for nothing that as early as 1600 residents of London were being derided as “cockneys” — originally a word for misshapen, useless eggs, so ugly they must have been laid by a rooster. Pampered and spoilt, Londoners were mocked as “eaters of buttered toasts”. So it was no surprise that so many hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the city, swelling its population — yet another sign that agriculture’s changes were pulled, rather than pushed. The peasants leaving the countryside did not flock in huge numbers to any old city, like Norwich, Bristol, Exeter, Coventry, or York, even when they were closer — a pattern we might have expected had they been pushed. Instead, they overwhelmingly singled out London. A typical town might draw most of its new apprentices from within an orbit of twenty miles, whereas London attracted country folk from hundreds of miles away, with especially many initially coming from the Midlands and the North. Its streets may have still largely been paved with muck, rather than gold, but the allure of buttered toast was apparently strong.

As I’ve discussed before, what initially drove the labour-hungry expansion of London was the sixteenth-century development of its international trade and wool export industry — a trend that accelerated the much broader, rural shift of the economy out of agriculture, which again suggests a pull. The early phase of industrialisation largely involved people remaining in the countryside, rather than being forced from their homes. They stayed in their villages and tiny towns, but instead of farming they spun and wove wool, creating textiles that were overwhelmingly sold abroad via — you guessed it — London. And just like in agriculture, rural industry became increasingly specialised too. Parts of the country that were famous for producing their own wool and fashioning it into textiles even began to import some raw wool from Spain.

But for all these effects of London on the countryside, some questions remain. It’s still unclear just how much of England’s increased agricultural productivity can be accounted for by just specialisation and diffusing the older methods of reducing fallow, before some technological advances were required. They definitely happened, at some stage, and there were certainly many attempts to introduce new techniques from the late sixteenth century onwards. But the issue is one of timing and effect. So when, exactly, was there an appreciably widely-adopted innovation in British agriculture? It’s a question, I think, for next time.

P.S. Patrons of the newsletter get another, more regular “behind-the-scenes” kind of post every other week. Last week’s was on the return of serfdom to the Baltic, and why that matters for understanding England’s development. The previous was on misunderstandings of the enclosure movement. The one before that on what Ottoman elites thought about the printing press and other technologies. Students, and others on low incomes — whom Dr Johnson affectionately called garret-dwelling scribblers — can become subscribers at a discount here.

P.P.S. Speaking of discounts, my book Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation, is currently on sale from the publishers, but for this week only. One of my favourite reviews of it was in History Today, where historian and broadcaster Matthew Sweet described it as “a comedy about preposterous or earnest characters at work in an essentially virtuous institution”.