BOOKS: The Destitution of Pre-Capitalist Europe

by | Jan 23, 2006 | Europe, POLITICS

What were the cause(s) of the high death rate in the first half of the century – and of its diminishment in the second half?

An excerpt from Capitalism Magazine’s Book of the Year, The Capitalist Manifesto : The Historic, Economic and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire by Andrew Bernstein.

Prior to the advent of industrial capitalism (in roughly the 1760s) the lot of the English working class was generally miserable. Utter destitution was rampant, literal starvation not uncommon and the country was overrun with paupers. “There was, in point of fact, widespread poverty of the most abject kind in England and other countries of 18th century Europe.” It is difficult for men in the industrial West today to conceive of the kind of poverty that was widespread in pre-capitalist Europe. By a test employed in Lyons, France, in the 17th century, poverty was reached when daily income was less than the daily cost of minimum bread requirement – in other words, when a person could not make enough money to buy a crust of bread. A quarter to half the population of 17th century England subsisted near or below this line of destitution. If the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics were to today employ a similar standard of poverty, Americans below the poverty line would be those making $18 a month, or $216 a year. England had such a problem with penniless vagrants that in 1547 Parliament passed a law that “they should simply be sent into slavery;” revoking it two years later only because the legislature was unable to decide whom such forced labor should serve. It is staggering to Westerners today, but this was the condition of a large portion of the pre-capitalist European population.

Many hardships in post-Medieval, pre-Industrial Europe were caused by a continuous absence of scientific, technological and medical knowledge. But government controls of the economy exacerbated the widespread poverty and generalized misery. The acronym GECAT, short for Guilds – Enslavement – Corn Laws – Alcohol – Taxes, can be created to illustrate merely some of the government’s harmful policies. The laws restricting the practice of numerous trades to members of guilds (professional organizations holding legal monopolies) and imposing requirements of lengthy periods of apprenticeship often made it impossible for poor workers, though possessing marketable skills, to make a living. Adam Smith argued against such laws in the 1700s, but their history extended back for centuries. Two hundred years earlier (and before) “those who…sought an entrance into industry, found their way barred by stringent guild restrictions or exorbitant fees.” Both years of apprenticed, unrecompensed labor and professional entrance fees were, of course, exactly what the poor could least afford.

Another problem was that the practice of serfdom continued into the post-Medieval period, ending in western Europe only in the 15th and 16th centuries (although its gradual phasing out began somewhat earlier in England.) Under serfdom, a peasant was legally tied to the land, owed military service to his lord, and was subject to the power of judge, jury and executioner invested in his single authority. “The feudal nobleman… for all practical purposes…was the local government: he combined in his person the powers of policeman, judge, and lawmaker. His workers were legally prohibited from leaving his estate…he derived his income in his capacity as a virtual slave owner and as a tax collector.” Serfs did possess specific legal rights, and the lords were under certain limited obligations to them. Nevertheless, as a form of enforced involuntary servitude, serfdom bore some moral resemblance to slavery.

The deleterious economic consequences of this institution should be apparent. By effectually enslaving peasants and tying them to the land it undercut the establishment of a mobile labor force. It formed an integral component of a militarist system responsible for endless wars and destruction. Above all, by granting to peasants only minimal opportunities for private ownership and profit seeking, serfdom vastly undercut the incentive to agricultural production. To a significant degree, the feudal system contributed to the near all-encompassing destitution existing at the birth of the modern era. Even in England, where serfdom was virtually eradicated by the late-14th century, it left a legacy of oppression and poverty against which men struggled for centuries. As cited above, the economist, Angus Maddison, estimated a European per capita income of $215 in 1500 and of $265 in 1700.

Further, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution the British government imposed the Corn Laws, i.e., high tariffs on imported grain after the Napoleonic Wars, designed to “protect” the English landowners. The artificially high food prices brought about by such protectionism were especially onerous for the poor who, above all others, benefited from the lower prices provided by free trade in grain and other foodstuffs. Additionally, governmental policy contributed significantly to mass death from alcoholism among the poor in the early 18th century. The English historian, M. Dorothy George, has provided a detailed picture of London life prior to the Industrial Revolution. It is not a pretty sight. “In the middle of the [18th] century there was one fact which stood out with terrible clearness…that the deaths in London greatly exceeded the births…” In the first half of the century, burials outnumbered baptisms by an order of roughly three to two; in the three years from 1740 through 1742 the ratio was better than two to one. In 1741, London saw 32,169 burials, while it had only 13,571 baptisms in 1742. According to the best figures available at the time, the London death rate was 1 in 25 in 1700, 1 in 20 or 21 in 1750, 1 in 35 between 1797 and 1801, 1 in 38 from 1801 to 1811 and 1 in 40 in 1821. The London mortality rate shows a marked decline as the 18th century progressed past its midpoint and on toward the 19th.

What were the cause(s) of the high death rate in the first half of the century – and of its diminishment in the second half?

To read the rest of this chapter pick up a copy of Andrew Bernstein’s The Capitalist Manifesto : The Historic, Economic and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire.

Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the City University of New York. He lectures all over the world.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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