Some Origins of the Modern Economic World

By E. A. J. Johnson; Ernest Teilhac | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II THE LATE-MEDIEVAL BACKGROUND

I

Although the origins of the modern economic world reach back into the remote past, there are two characteristics of modern economic history which stand in sharp contrast with medieval economic life: the rise of the factory system of industrial production and the accompanying breakdown of the peasant system of agriculture. Because these two historical events have been outstanding manifestations of economic change in modern times, they deserve careful analysis. Yet change can only be measured by reference to a position of rest. Relatively viewed, the medieval world fulfills this condition of rest fairly well, and for this reason it seems appropriate and useful to begin the brief history of the modern economic world, which will be sketched in the next five chapters, with an analysis of late-medieval economic life. This picture will be restricted to the English scene, not because England typifies medieval economic culture better than the Continent, but because the rigid peasant organization of rural society disappeared earlier in England than on the Continent and because the fundamental changes in the conduct of trade and industry, rather infelicitously called the "Industrial Revolution,"1 also emerged earlier in England's "green and pleasant land."

England in the first half of the fourteenth century affords an illuminating picture of late-medieval economic life. On the eve of the Black Death, in 1348-1349, the population included probably three and a half to four million persons. That goods were scarce can hardly be doubted; life for the majority of people was difficult and painful, methods of

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1
See below, Chap. IV.

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