The Earlier Tudors, 1485-1558

By J. D. Mackie | Go to book overview
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I N the field of economics, as in all other fields, the early sixteenth century witnessed the transition, or part of the transition, from the medieval to the modern world. This transition was neither sudden nor violent. Phrases like 'the agricultural revolution' or 'the reorganization of industry' are convenient, but they suggest changes cataclysmic or deliberate; and the suggestion is not altogether fortunate, for the changes which occurred were due to the speeding up of processes which had begun long before the Tudor had mounted the throne of England. Yet there is significance in the fact that changes occurred, simultaneously and with increased velocity, in every sphere of human activity, and the changes in the world of economics have been ascribed, not without justification, to the triumph of a certain spirit in man's approach to his agricultural, industrial, and mercantile affairs. That spirit would represent the victory of individual enterprise over communal effort, of competition over custom, of capitalism -- and not unnaturally its growth has been connected with the reformation in religion. In the ecclesiastical world, too, may be witnessed the rejection of old custom, the assertion of the individual conscience, and the development of creeds which seemed to set the virtues of thrift and industry above those of resignation and charity. Few authorities would now ascribe the rise of capitalism to a triumph of Calvinism, but many would assert that Calvinism and capitalism are alike children of the same active, achieving, self-satisfying spirit.

The theory has obvious limitations: capitalism was present in the middle ages, at first under various disguises, later quite openly, long before Calvin was born. Again, Calvinism can hardly be said to have produced either the economic man or the free individual. How much free enterprise in the spiritual world was permitted in the city of Geneva? How much liberty did the soul enjoy in the trammels of determinism? New presbyter was but old priest writ large. What is true in a world of religion is true in a world of economics. As the forces which produced the great change were there before the 'period of


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