Big question for this week
How do historians explain the nature and timing of the British Agricultural Revolution?
Video IntroductionOnce again, our video introduction comes from the History Hub Project at Royal Holloway University in London. Pay attention to positive correlations between population growth, agricultural improvements, and societal change overall.
At the end of this week you should be able to:
- describe the main features of at least two competing views of the agricultural revolution in early modern Britain;
- differentiate between primary and secondary sources, and define historiography;
- apply the historical thinking concept of continuity and change in your analysis of secondary sources, and begin to practice the skills of historiographical thinking.
Questions to consider, and learning activityIn the Forum for this Lesson discuss questions like the following:
- Why do Mark Overton, Robert C Allen, and Robert Bryer disagree about the nature and timing of the British Agricultural Revolution? (Avoid focusing on who your think is more believable. Instead, use the following questions to better understand each author's unique point of view.)
- Paraphrase (i.e., summarize in your own words) the main ideas of Mark Overton and either Robert Allen or Robert Bryer about the British Agricultural Revolution.
- What are their main arguments?
- What kinds of evidence do they use to support their arguments?
- How are their arguments about the British agricultural revolution similar or different?
BackgroundIn the previous two Lessons, we looked at broad understandings of the relationship between rulers and ruled in early modern Europe, including the relationship between governmental authority and church authority. We would risk over-simplification if we said that story was unchanging, but it did maintain a certain broad stability throughout the medieval and early modern eras. Despite periods of political and religious upheaval, such as the divide between Catholics and Protestants after the 1520s, the rule of nobles over subjects was maintained in most parts of Europe until the end of the eighteenth century. Even the execution of King Charles I in England resulted in the end of the English monarchy for only a short period. "The English Revolution," as the period of the English Civil War is sometimes also called, ended with the restoration of the British monarchy. The major development in this restoration is called the Glorious Revolution that brought King William and Queen Mary to the throne in 1689. This was not a revolution in the sense that we normally think of it today -- an overthrowing of a regime. Rather, it was a revolution in an older meaning. Like the revolution of the planets, the political system in England had returned from where it had begun: monarchy! By the end of the seventeenth century, the old order was reestablished. Continuity with the political past was maintained once again.
In contrast with our modern world that is dominated by a sense of constant change, continuity was a strong factor in the medieval and early modern worlds. The realities of agricultural life defined much of life before the modern era, and in agriculture continuity was a welcome force. The Limbourg brothers' famous images from the Book of Hours show a basic seasonal pattern of life on the land in the medieval era. By the 18th-19th centuries, a spirit of innovation and improvement fuelled British attitudes towards many aspects of life, agriculture included. But the question remains, was the Agricultural Revolution intrinsically linked to the Industrial Revolution or had seeds been planted in earlier centuries. Most people today do not have any close connection with agricultural life. How many people do you know who grow their own food, or get their food from the farmers who produce it? While there are many grass-roots initiative that encourage the consumption of locally grown produce, agriculture itself continues to evolve, and the farms we see today, bear little resemblance to the farms of early modern Europe…or do they?
Not all important historical developments involved political or religious events. One example is the growth of cities (urbanization). According to estimates summarized by Prof. David Cody, the population of England's largest city, London, grew from about 50,000 people in the year 1500, to about 300,000 in 1700, and 900,000 in 1800! Agricultural production, therefore, had to increase (and quite dramatically) in order to feed this increasingly urban population. It did, and historians have come to call this the Agricultural Revolution, a period of greatly increased agricultural productivity that was able to feed this increasing, and increasingly urban, population.
In this Lesson we look at this "revolution." This was a revolution of a sort different from both the Glorious Revolution and the famous French Revolution of the late eighteenth century (a subject of one of our later Lessons). The British Agricultural Revolution involved change, yes, but not the rapid upheavals of the kind that could come with political rebellion, nor even the return to an earlier kind of order. Traditionally, historians of the agricultural revolution have focused their attention on innovations driven by individuals or groups of individuals. These include practices like crop rotation, enclosures, selective breeding, and/or land conversions. OR they have focused on technological advances like the wheel-less plough, or the advent of steam power and farm equipment. More recently, historians question how non-human agents influenced agricultural change. These non-human agents address the development of transportation infrastructure, the development of a national market, and even the introduction of new crops (The Columbian Exchange, but more on that in a few weeks!). As you read through Overton, Bryer, and Allen, think about where they focus their attention.
At the heart of all these avenues of inquiry is the question: How did this change in British agriculture come about? And when?
In this week’s forums you will discuss some of the basic features of England’s agricultural economy, and how it changed over the early modern period. You will also see, however, that historians have different explanations of not only why that happened, but also when it happened. Thus, you’ll also learn about some of the broad interpretations that scholars have proposed for making sense of agricultural change in European history. In other words, this Lesson gives you your first major opportunity in this course to think explicitly about historiography –- that is, interpretations of evidence from the past -- although you have been using historiographical sources in previous lessons. Both Allen and Bryer address Overton's claims regarding the Agricultural Revolution, but present different arguments, coming to different conclusions, and using different sources (or at least asking different questions about similar sources). What are these sources, and what are their questions? These debates (or friendly conversations) are a crucial part of what historians do. In a sense, when you write essays you are creating your own works of historiography. We often call these interpretative works "secondary sources." By "secondary" we do not mean to imply that they are lesser. "Primary sources" are simply the basic materials (the evidence) that historians work to make sense of in "secondary sources." They are both essential parts of the practice and the study of history.
Primary sources are of course really important for the study of history. If you look at the historical thinking resources on sources and evidence (part of the Toolbox in previous Lessons), you might notice that they focus only on primary sources. Although these historical thinking resources are valuable for all levels of historical study, the webpages that outline them (e.g., http://historicalthinking.ca/historical-thinking-concepts) are aimed at teachers and students in schools up to grade 12. One of the challenges of the study of history, especially at the university level, is that you have to learn to interpret not only primary sources. Interpretations of past evidence also require your own interpretation, and your understanding of the interpretations of other historians! When we focus on understanding the process of interpretation, we move into the realm of historiography, by which we mean the creation of and work with secondary sources. You'll get lots of practice working with historiography in this course, so it's good to pay attention to this distinction between primary and secondary sources -- and how to use them together.
To begin your practice of reading secondary sources, you will work with texts from three historians –- Mark Overton, Robert C Allen, and Robert Bryer, all historians of English agriculture in the early modern period. They all accept that greatly increased agricultural productivity allowed cities like London to grow; growing cities meant workers could work in factories, work that took them away from fields; and growing agricultural production meant that those workers could be fed. But as you’ll see, while they agree on what happened, they disagree on why it happened, and indeed on when it happened. Overton argues that these changes really took place in the 18th and 19th centuries, whereas Allen and Bryer argue that we need to look earlier to the 16th and 17th centuries. Examine each historian's focus, and evidence, as you assess their arguments.
ToolboxThe main skill to practice this Lesson is the analysis of secondary sources. In effect, you'll be learning an important skill that is related to historical thinking. We could call this "historiographical thinking". The section above provides you with more details about historiography.
A historical thinking skill that is related closely to historiographical thinking is the recognition and analysis of perspective. Not only can we analyze differing perspectives in primary sources from the past, but we can also recognize how people's perspectives (including our own) are complex and varied "today". This is of course also true of the writings of historians who try to make sense of the past. In this course (and in all your other history courses -- or courses on other subjects) practice comparing perspectives in all the sources you examine.
One further aspect of historical thinking that is worth reviewing for this Lesson is the skill of identifying continuity and change. After all, it is the issue of change that Overton, Allen, and Bryer discuss in their related but importantly different interpretations of British agricultural history. Note that continuities and changes can take place in the short, medium, or long term. In other words, our view of change depends on the perspective that we take. This is one of many examples of how the elements of historical thinking are interrelated with one another.
Follow the links in the two paragraphs above to read more about perspective, and continuity and change.
- There are no primary sources for this Lesson's Forum (although you may consider the images in the Lesson -- including the maps -- to be primary sources). You should pay attention to how all 3 historians discuss primary source evidence. What types of evidence do they use? How do they use evidence? Do they use the same evidence?
- For background knowledge and terminology review: "British Agricultural Revolution," Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Agricultural_Revolution).
- skim this, and come back to it if you need clarification events or terminology from the articles
- Overton, Mark. “Re-Establishing the English Agricultural Revolution.” The Agricultural History Review 44, no. 1 (1996): 1–20.
If your last name begins with A -L read:
- Allen, Robert C. “Tracking the Agricultural Revolution in England.” The Economic history Review 52, no. 2 (1999): 209–235.
If your last name begins with M - Z, read:
- Bryer, R.A. “The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer: Towards a Marxist Accounting History of the Origins of the English Agricultural Revolution.” Critical Perspectives on Accounting 17, no. 4 (2006): 367–397. (Select pages only)
- For the full article, click here.
Supplemental materialsOne way to think about continuity and change is to examine how cities grew in the early modern period. For example, you could compare the map of London from the sixteenth century with the map of London from the eighteenth century that is below. One is from about 1574 and the other is from 1746. What evidence can you find on the maps of political, economic, religious, social, industrial and agricultural life?
To access versions of the maps that you can zoom in and out, got to
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rocque%27s_Map_of_London,_1746 (look for the 24 clickable sheets of the map; part-way down the page)
This page has paths:
This page references:
- Antique Map of London by Braun & Hogenberg (ca 1572-1624)
- View over Smithfield Market 1831
- John Rocque's Map of London, 1746
- Illustration of a plough from Jethro Tull Horse-hoeing husbandry (1762)
- Brothers de Limbourg, The Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry ca 1412-16
- The Norfolk method of improving the breed
- Arthur Young, Course of Experimental Agriculture, 1770