HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Agricultural Revolutions

Big question for this week

How do historians explain the nature and timing of the British Agricultural Revolution?

Video Introduction

Once 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.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should be able to:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

In the Forum for this Lesson discuss questions like the following:

If you do read Allen, one of the supplementary readings, you will see that he throws some lofty language and equations at you...don't get bogged down in the details!!  Look for the overarching arguments, and the types of evidence (primary sources) they use to support their approaches.

Answering the kinds of questions listed above will help you better understand some important aspects of early modern European social and economic life, and also help you understand an aspect of European historiography.


In 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, and Kerridge, 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 discussions 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 Overton and Kerridge approach the timing of the Agricultural Revolution by asking different questions, presenting 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 two historians –- Mark Overton, and Eric Kerridge, both 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.


The 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.

Primary sources

Secondary sources

If your last name begins with A -L read:

If your last name begins with M - Z, read:

Supplemental materials

For an example of how historians engage in healthy conversations about the Agricultural Revolution, you may wish to listen to the following podcast:Or read:
One 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? If you listen to the podcast, pay attention to the points Rosemary Sweet makes regarding urban growth and agricultural improvement, as it may help you think about these maps.

To access versions of the maps that you can zoom in and out, got to
* https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Map_of_London_by_Braun_%26_Hogenberg#/media/File:GMG433_14_London.jpg
* 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)

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