English People in the Eighteenth Century

By Dorothy E. Marshall | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
AGRARIAN AND INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENTS

THE great difficulty of making an analysis of any society is that unless such a study is pinpointed in time to a certain year, or even month or day, it is never static but always in a state of flux. New factors are always subtly influencing old institutions, undermining traditional acceptances, altering the pattern even as we study it. This is always so, yet at some times the stream of change seems to flow so sluggishly that it would take an observant eye indeed to perceive the slight alterations that twenty, or even fifty, years have made to its course, while at others the waters swirl so swiftly that even the half-attentive watcher cannot but be struck by the differences that the same period has made apparent. The eighteenth century, and most particularly the latter part of it, belongs to the second and not the first of these categories, so much so that the historians of the nineteenth century, looking back, have labelled its closing decades 'The Industrial Revolution.' Historians to-day use the term with more reservations as the mounting evidence of subsequent research has revealed the degree to which the foundations, of what appeared as dramatic change, were laid in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Evidently the early part of the stream was not so sluggish, the latter not so contrastingly rapid, as had once been thought. Yet when all reservations have been made, the economic changes of the eighteenth century, and particularly those that seemed to occur with increasing frequency towards its close, were strikingly significant and important. So significant and so important that it was inevitable that they should have very definite repercussions on the structure of the society which was forced to adjust itself to them.

To attempt to assess these repercussions is a fascinating, but not an easy, task; their ramifications are so often both entangled and obscure, and to isolate and simplify is inevitably also to falsify. Yet such generalizations are interesting and worth attempting,

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