Marginal Europe: The Contribution of Marginal Lands since the Middle Ages

Marginal Europe: The Contribution of Marginal Lands since the Middle Ages

Marginal Europe: The Contribution of Marginal Lands since the Middle Ages

Marginal Europe: The Contribution of Marginal Lands since the Middle Ages


The momentum of the British industrial revolution arose mostly in regions poorly endowed by nature, badly located and considered backward and poor by contemporaries. Pollard examines the influence of geography upon the environment, asking why people living in marginal areas (mountains, forests, marshes) have taken the lead in key phases of European progress, such as in the Dutch Golden Age.


Having in the last chapter attempted to define, in a preliminary way, the concept of marginality used in this study, we proceed in this chapter to follow through one particular type of marginal area, that associated with an expanding territory and a moving frontier of occupation. There are clearly some differences between societies occupying economic frontier areas of this kind and those in which the marginal status has greater permanence, but more significant are the basic similarities. in particular, like the permanent marginal lands, the frontier lands were far from the centre -- they were areas of hardship, of limited communication and uncertain prosperity, but they were also often areas of vigour and of promise which provided favourable conditions for enterprise and innovation.

Although it illustrates one special type only of the broader group which is the topic of our interest, this chapter has its rightful place at the beginning of our study, because, in describing the long-term moving frontier of European occupation, it highlights a major factor in European economic history which is too often neglected. Expansion has been a feature of life in Europe in the past millennium; and the people at the cutting edge of this expansion were people of the margin.

The drive for territorial expansion was provided above all by the growth of population. Ever since the dawn of recorded history, the long-term trend of Europe's population has been upward. There have been occasional reversals, when population declined temporarily, but numbers in each phase of renewed expansion easily exceeded those of the previous peak.

There were three main ways of feeding a population growing for centuries at an exponential rate. One was improved technology, permitting more food to be drawn from a given acreage. a second method, which has become available only in the two past centuries, was to import food from outside Europe and pay for it by products of European industry and by services. There was also a third way: this was to expand the land used for food production in one's own region. It is the one most appropriate where agriculture is the main occupation and opportunities for technical change are limited, and it is that which forms the topic of this chapter.

When a population extends its area of agrarian occupation, its edge of settlement becomes a moving margin. It is marginal at least in the sense of having been occupied last, while the previously marginal area becomes sub-marginal as soon as more land is occupied, possibly to be incorporated into the core in due course. This phenomenon of the moving margin had an important influence on Europe, as Turner thought it did on America, until region after region became fully settled, and no . . .

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