Essay: Emergence of the Modern Industrial Economy

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Emergence of the Modern Industrial Economy

Origins in the British Manorial System

Economic systems tend to reflect the societies of which they are a part. The medieval world was one of extreme localism and considerable division of power. Local lords dominated everyday life. The lord of the manor controlled, in one way or another, almost every aspect of the lives of ordinary men and women. Across much of Western Europe, the manor provided a framework for social and economic interaction. The manor was, in effect, a miniature state within a state. The central authority had lost power and influence through the delegation or seizure of responsibility. Local and regional magnates usurped the prerogatives of kings. The manor was self-sufficient - a unit of agrarian production that provided for virtually all of the basic needs of its residents. Manned largely by unfree labor, it fulfilled many of the functions that would today be filled by the marketplace. Such manufacturing as took place occurred within its territorial limits. Only commodities were usually traded from one manor to another, or across the continent. Yet, England was an unusual case. The Anglo-Saxon realm was well on its way to become a nation of great estates, after the continental model, when it was suddenly overwhelmed by the forces of William the Conqueror. William's Normans displaced the native lords as the new parceled out England among his followers. The system that was created was different from that known in most of the West - the king was established as supreme overlord. The new English Kingdom represented a reasonably orderly hierarchy that was well designed to meet the needs of political domination and economic exploitation.

In post-Conquest England, the King was ultimate overlord. Manors formed the bottom rung of an agrarian economy. Groups of manors joined together formed the baronies and counties - later earldoms - that comprised the English state. Manors were staffed by a population of serfs; men and women who were bound to the soil. Serfs received housing and certain rights in the fields and other resources, in exchange for military protection and a complex series of dues. The entire system was based on a web of interpersonal relationships and feudal oaths and obligations. The new arrangements quickly became customary. Little was done in the world of the High Middle Ages that did not depend on tradition. In its ideal form, life went on like clockwork. The lord of the manor was both business manager and source of justice for his serfs, and also for those free persons who happened to leave within the bounds of the manor. The manorial system encouraged exploitation, but did little to foster innovation. These essential conditions for industrialization existed only in germ form. The agrarian enterprises of the manor, together with its systems for exploiting the resources of field and forest, would develop only later into the source of England's industrial might. Conditions would need to change. Sweeping new laws would need to transform the countryside, and with it, English life. The old long stood in the way of the new. The fundamentals of industrialization existed, but they would take centuries to develop and expand. The largely subsistence economy of Norman England would, through the vicissitudes of the later Middle Ages and the Early modern period, create the England that was the "workshop of the world."

Sources of Wealth: National Income and Economic Exploitation

All states depend for their income on the exploitation of national resources. These resources are both human and material. In the Norman period, wealth was seen mostly as a matter of rights; of things "owed" to superiors. The king was the ultimate owner of all the land in England. Having apportioned the country among his noblemen, he expected certain services and moneys in return. In early times, the majority of these contributions came in the form of personal service in battle. But the king also controlled certain land son his own, in particular the forests and royal manors. These could easily serve as sources of revenue. In many ways, the royal revenue collection apparatus was hostile to the general population, the king collecting fees and fines from those who transgressed royal rights in the extensive forests; a system that was contrary to the continental Norman practice of selling forest produce to raise revenue.

In a similar fashion, the individual lords of the manor obtained needed funds by fining their villeins. The lord controlled the manorial court. It was here that virtually all disputes were heard. Infractions of manorial regulation typically resulted in economic gain for the lord. The manorial accounts of the Bishop of Winchester for 1209 contain a lengthy and detailed list of fines and amercements that had been imposed by the manorial courts.

The amercement was a highly arbitrary fine, with little purpose other than the raising of revenue - "an examination of an eyre roll leaves one with the impression that it was almost impossible, however much he might strive to do his duty, for a man to escape amercement at some stage."

Clearly, the ruling class did not consider it important to encourage real economic development. The villeins were essentially on their won, producing enough for their own sustenance and giving most of their surplus over to their lords. Shortfalls could easily be made up by finding imagined fault with tenants' performance. In neither direction, was there much incentive to produce more or develop new methods. Each party normally received only its share of a fixed resource. There might be years of good crops, or perhaps some additional resource, such as a mine, but these too provided only small additional sources of income through traditional forms of exploitation. "By keeping the peasants' share of their own product near the subsistence level, the ruling class is able to derive rent (or a surplus) from this scarce resource."

The entire system encouraged minimal levels of production. Further development could only occur when there was some external change, when the manor ceased to be a closed unit serving only the needs of its inhabitants and owner.

Economic Progress: The Late Medieval Wool Industry

The Black Death wrought havoc among England's population. Having climbed to at least five million by 1300, the epidemic slashed England's population by at least two-thirds by the middle of the following century.

The massive decrease in population completely altered the dynamics of the manorial system. Labor was suddenly scarce. Skilled laborers commanded twice the wages they did before the plague, while the price of wheat fell to half its former level.

A system that depended on a plentiful supply of cheap labor bound to the soil could no longer exist once that labor was scarce. Bonds began to loosen as ways had to be found around outmoded traditions. Not only did wages rise, but lords and peasants turned to new methods of supporting themselves. For the first time, embryonic industries appeared desirable as a means of raising revenue. Wool was an essential commodity in the production of textiles. Though finished cloth was not a major product of England, the raw material soon contributed a substantial source of funds. England's monarchs held a prerogative on taxing on wool and sheep pelts.

Both kings and lords had an interest in increasing the production of wool - the kings for the tax revenue it would produce and the lords for their "share" of the production on their estates. For ordinary Englishmen, sheep rearing provided a lucrative new source of income and employment. The English economy developed as, in effect, a colony of the more advanced territories of Flanders and Holland with England supplying the raw material i.e. wool for Flemish and Dutch looms.

The increasing emphasis on sheep helped to develop an early form of capitalist economy. London merchants, in particular, the Merchants of the Staple, sent their agents into the countryside to buy up the necessary wool. A sophisticated enterprise, the Merchants of the Staple controlled a network of routes throughout England that, while making many of their members rich, also connected the hinterland with the Channel ports and the Continent. The new system encouraged the best use of land - from a profit point-of-view.

Different segments of society increasingly contributed to the phenomenon of capitalistic growth. Cistercian monasteries, ostensibly centers of religious, were also major sources of economic change. Located in wild, out-of-the-way places, they encouraged the deforestation needed for the rearing of sheep as their monks excelled in the production of fine wool. Cistercians introduced to the English countryside a range of new techniques in wool production. They also helped to spread other agricultural improvements like the water mill.

Thus, economic growth became a nationwide industry involving multiple facets of society. Improved agricultural techniques helped the population recover from its post-plague lows. Expanded trade in wool spurred the development of foreign commerce in general. As more wool was produced, more markets needed to be found for this commodity. A feedback loop was created that began the transformation of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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