Age of Invention: The Forgotten Golden Age

Welcome to my newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

In the middle of the sixteenth century, England was not the place that one would have expected to have an acceleration of innovation. As I’ve said before, it would have seemed a technological backwater, with little trade, few industries, and a host of social and political problems. It was, overwhelmingly, an economy based on the primary production of raw materials.

Yet within a just century, it was already well on its way to sustained economic growth. By the 1650s, it had achieved a critical mass of inventors and scientists, with London a major and internationally-recognised hub of innovation. I’m still exploring why, but one thing I’ve been investigating as I try to figure it out is to look at how England changed through the eyes of foreigners.

To that end, I’ve spent the past couple of days reading the work of an Italian geographer, Giovanni Botero. His 1590s treatise, on The Strength of all the Powers of Europe and Asia (translated into English in 1601 as The Traveller’s Breviat) tries to provide a comprehensive account of the relative strengths of all the world’s great powers. It can be a bit dry — at times it’s a bit like reading a table of statistics, but in paragraph form, as he goes through every country’s population, geography, and industries, as well as their manpower, the sizes and qualities of their armies and navies, their political systems, taxes, and geopolitical situations. Yet in all that information, we get a snapshot of what characteristics stood out internationally, at a point that was midway through England’s crucial century of change.

When it came to innovation in England, Botero mentioned its “most swift ships, excellent well furnished with ordinance”, as well as its feats of navigation. After all, Francis Drake had by this stage circumnavigated the globe, and Matthew Baker had ushered in revolutionary changes to shipbuilding. And London was fast becoming a hub of trade, “never without resort of Portuguese, Spanish, French, Flemish, and Easterling merchants”. But other than that, Botero mostly mentions England’s age-old production of raw materials. It had abundant grain, livestock, horses, and fish — especially pike and oysters — and cultivated pulses and saffron. As a result, its population seemed to have pretty high living standards. He said the English had a “tall, strong and manlike stature”, which made them especially suitable to serve as pikemen. But then again, he said similar things of the Germans, who apparently were so “corpulent”, that they were too slow to breach the walls in a siege. England was otherwise exporting animal skins and coal, as well as an “infinite quantity of beer” into the Low Countries, and its major exports were still tin, lead, and especially wool. In terms of industry, he only really made note of its woollen cloth. It still does not sound terribly urban or industrialised.

Instead, when it came to innovation, Botero singled out another region. It was the Low Countries, with “all territories rich, plentiful and exceeding populous”, that had apparently “invented the art of printing, restored music, framed the chariot, devised the laying of colours in oil.” Its industries included “the working of colours in glass, the making of tapestry, says, serges, worsteds, russets, frisados, and diverse sorts of linen cloth, with innumerable other small trifles: all sorts of clocks and dials, and the mariner’s compass”. From weaving to printing to instrument-making, the Netherlands were therefore top (if you’re wondering about the printing press, Haarlem tradition has it that it was one of their citizens, Laurens Janszoon Coster, who invented it before Gutenberg). In terms of resources, Botero made note of its lead, copperas (aka green vitriol), coal, and stone, as well as its madder, woad, flax, and hemp. And the Dutch made astounding amounts of money from fishing, of salmon, cod, and especially herring. London might have begun to emerge as a trade hub, but Europe’s commercial centre was still Antwerp: a place so full of foreign merchants that its inhabitants spoke two, three, four, or even five languages.

In a sense, this was unsurprising. The Low Countries had long been the most urbanised region in Europe, and the seventeenth-century “Golden Age” of its northern half, the Dutch Republic, is famous even today. It’s already on the known list of “efflorescences”: temporary bubblings up of innovation and economic growth, which ultimately resulted in stagnation or decline, but which we need to explain if we’re to understand why Britain’s didn’t also fizzle out. Yet there was another region that Botero singled out in terms of its technological and economic achievements, which I had never heard mentioned before: the land of “The Xeriffe”.

The term is usually rendered as sharif, denoting a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad via his grandson, Hasan ibn Ali. In 1600, the title was claimed by the rulers of the Saadi Empire, centred around Fez, in present-day Morocco. Botero claimed that its cities were of marble and alabaster, decorated with great lamps of brass. In Fez in particular were “200 schools of learning, 200 inns, and 400 water mills, every one driven with four or five wheels”, from which the ruler derived a substantial rent. The city also featured “600 conduits, from whence almost every house is served with water.” Indeed, he noted that “the inhabitants are very thrifty, given to traffic [commerce], and especially to the making of clothes of wool, silk, and cotton.”

So here was a remarkable city. One that was wealthy, populous, somewhat industrialised, and given to trade. It was a centre of learning for the entire region, especially under the long rule of one of its sultans, Ahmad al-Mansur “the Golden” and his immediate successors: the library they amassed forms one of the major surviving collections of Islamic manuscripts on literature and science (which was captured during a war in the seventeenth century, and has been in Spain ever since). The Saadi Empire even had some military might: during its rise it successfully contended with Portugal, and it had a large arsenal of gunpowder weapons, which it put to use in conquering parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. It maintained friendly commercial and diplomatic links with both England and the Dutch Republic, uniting with them in their opposition to Spain.

And yet, the Saadi Empire is never mentioned as an efflorescence. It doesn’t even feature in debates about the causes of the Long Divergence — the centuries-long reversal of economic fortunes between northwestern Europe and the Islamic world. The latest major book on the reversal, by Jared Rubin (which is excellent, by the way), is entirely devoted to comparisons with the Ottoman Empire, not discussing Morocco even once. That may just be a product of which sources are most readily available in English, or because there are currently quite a few excellent Turkish economic historians, like Şevket Pamuk or Timur Kuran. It’s also possible that the descriptions of Fez’s wealth were exaggerated, or that there are straightforward explanations for its relative economic decline. But, if we’re to fully understand the causes of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, I think the rise and fall of the Saadi Empire is another efflorescence we need to seriously consider.

Til next week,


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