Age of Invention: Grain Drain

You’re reading my newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. The free edition currently goes out to over 6,450 people. You can sign up here:

Whatever happened to “the Agricultural Revolution” of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain? In recent years I’ve hardly seen the term used at all, and the last major book on the subject was seemingly published twenty-five years ago. It has become almost totally eclipsed by its more famous sibling “the Industrial Revolution”, with its vivid associations of cotton, coal, and exponential hockey-stick graphs.

Yet for all that popularity, nearly every book investigating the causes of modern economic growth complains about the use of The Industrial Revolution. Even one of the pioneers of economic history, T. S. Ashton, who actually wrote the book The Industrial Revolution, complained on the very second page about the term’s inaccuracy. Much like “Holy Roman Empire”, there’s an error in every word. It involved too many series of changes to really be a The, was about so much more than just industry, and was too gradual a process to properly call a revolution. Yet Ashton had to concede that the term had “become so firmly embedded in common speech that it would be pedantic to offer a substitute.” And this was in 1948. In the intervening three quarters of a century, the term has become all the more difficult to dislodge.

I am, like everyone else, guilty of perpetuating the term Industrial Revolution. It’s a useful shorthand for people to at least get a rough idea of what I’m talking about, for me to then refine. Best to start with what people know, or at least what they think they know, and go from there. You may think of the Industrial Revolution as being about cotton, coal, and steam, but the period also saw major developments in every other industry, from agriculture to watch-making, and everything in-between. And so on. My preferred terms, like “acceleration of innovation”, always require at least a paragraph or two of explanation first.

With the term Agricultural Revolution, however, there’s just no need to reference it. Nobody really talks about it, or has anything more than a very vague conception of what it may mean. At best, people recall a few things from decades-old textbooks: names like “Turnip” Townshend or Jethro Tull, and perhaps a smattering of jargon like selective breeding, crop rotation, or enclosures. Even these are widely misunderstood. See last week’s post, for patrons, on how we get almost everything about the enclosure movement wrong. As for the Agricultural Revolution’s timing, who knows? When, over the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and maybe even nineteenth centuries is it supposed to have occurred? With the Industrial Revolution, there’s at least a “classic” period of 1760-1830, with a few decades of leeway. That is of course up for debate, and I’m especially keen on pushing it back much earlier, but it’s at least a half-decent starting point. With the Agricultural Revolution, there’s just no baseline at all. The experts themselves can’t agree.

For all that the term Agricultural Revolution has lost its salience, however, early modern changes to the productivity of agriculture were perhaps the most important of all. The ability to support a much larger population is itself a major economic achievement. For all that we obsess over historical measures of GDP per person, we often forget the much earlier and extraordinary increase in just the sheer number of people. In the early seventeenth century England’s population not only recovered to its pre-Black Death peak of about 5 million, but then from 1700 onwards it began to exceed it. By 1800, after just another century, the population of Britain had doubled to 10 million. And this in a period throughout which the country was a net exporter of grain.

At the start of the eighteenth century Britain exported enough grain to feed a whopping quarter of its own population, sending it instead to the Netherlands, France, and Spain. The government even subsidised the exports. It was only in the late eighteenth century that the pressures of the growing population forced Britain to rely on food sources from abroad. First, in the 1760s, it began to import more livestock products like beef, butter and pork from Ireland, to free up more land back home for the plough. In the 1770s, in years of shortage, it was also occasionally a net importer of grain, initially from Ireland, then also the Baltic and with a little coming from America too. If needed, the use of grains for alcohol might also be temporarily banned. Yet it was only really from the 1800s onwards, under the pressure of a few major harvest failures and the Napoleonic Wars, that the country became a regular and major net importer of grain. Indeed, in just the first fifty years of the nineteenth century, Britain’s population would double yet again, despite the government imposing severe restrictions and tariffs on imported grain (the infamous Corn Laws).

Britain’s ability to feed itself is all the more extraordinary when you consider that all the other unusual growth spurts in Europe had, over the centuries, been highly dependent on foreign food. The great early industrial centre of Nuremberg was known for being “planted in a barren soil”, relying on its artificers and their inventions to pay for grain from afar. Its granaries were said to contain many years’ worth of provisions. The Dutch Republic’s Golden Age was also famously fed using imported Baltic grain, sometimes English grain too. Even before the Dutch fought for independence from the Hapsburgs in the 1560s, enough Baltic grain was being imported to feed about 15-20% of the population of the entire Low Countries.

The Dutch also re-exported Baltic grain to the Mediterranean, where it fed the latter decades of the Italian Renaissance. By 1600, merchants bearing grain to Italy were said to be especially “cherished by the princes, with fair words and rewards, that they may come again” — especially the Medici dukes of Tuscany, who built up the port of Livorno as a place of free trade, extensive merchant privileges, and religious tolerance, even for Protestants and Jews. The port’s ascent began in the 1590s, when the duke sent agents to secretly negotiate huge grain purchases in the Baltic, to be carried there by English, Hanseatic, and Dutch ships. English and Dutch grain merchants, despite being dangerous heretics, were soon even welcomed by the Pope.

Britain stands out, then, for having fed pretty much all of its early growth itself — something all the more extraordinary when we consider the economy’s structural transformation. Before the sixteenth century at least 70% of the male workforce was employed in agriculture, with most of the rest in rural industries like making textiles. It had never had more than 3-4% of the population living in cities of over 5,000 inhabitants — even when England reached the medieval peak of its population, at just under 5 million, right before the Black Death. After this, the population languished for centuries at under 3 million.

Over the course of 1550-1650, however, things changed. At first glance, England’s population growth was unremarkable. By the 1650s, its overall population simply reached and then slightly surpassed the medieval 5 million barrier. Yet the composition of the population was very different. About 9% now lived in cities, with most of those in London alone, and the proportion of the male workforce in agriculture now stood at only 60%, possibly even lower. And during the next fifty years, when the overall population briefly stagnated, the transformation continued. By 1700 agriculture no longer employed even a majority of the male workforce, and over 16% of the population lived in cities.

It may not sound like much, but this change to me is shocking, and was perhaps unprecedented. Britain’s urbanisation rate in may well have still lingered far below those of the Netherlands and northern Italy — it did not overtake them until the nineteenth century. But the Dutch and Italian cities, from the get-go, had to be fed by the peasants of England, Scandinavia, Prussia, and Poland. Britain’s were unique in being fed by its own.

Clearly then something in Britain’s agriculture changed, for its transformation to take place. I don’t yet have the answer, but I intend to find out.

If you’re interested in supporting my work, you can subscribe here: