has been able to cast iron since the 2nd century), shipbuilding and navigational instruments reached the point that enabled Europeans to venture out of the well-charted waters of the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, the printing press revolutionized communications, and firearms changed war. The significance of these inventions was enormous, and perhaps in the very long run they helped bring about modern economic growth, though there was nothing ineluctable about it.20 Yet none of these resulted in much economic growth in the kind of orders of magnitude that we would recognize today as leading to a final and irreversible liberation from the Malthusian shackles that kept most European living standards at subsistence levels for another three centuries.
The European economies during the Renaissance and Baroque centuries remained essentially “stable.” Their dynamics converged to what we now call a “basis of attraction” that prevented the kind of unconstrained growth we see in the nineteenth century. In that regard, then, the Industrial Revolution represented a sea change unprecedented in human history. It was not just “another productivity shock” – it fundamentally changed the parameters of the dynamic economic system in Europe.
This is not to say that there was no growth in these economies. We should not overstate this stability: between Charlemagne and Louis XVI, the material conditions of life in Western Europe changed a great deal. Graeme Snooks, Gregory Clark, and E.A. Wrigley have all argued forcefully – coming from different directions – that economic growth was not unique to the period of the Industrial Revolution and that by the late seventeenth century Britain was an advanced and sophisticated economy.21 In pointing this out, these scholars are joining the company of Alan MacFarlane and David Levine (check) who insist in pinpointing the beginning of Britain’s modernity to the late middle ages.22 It is clear by now that far from being a “traditional” and “static” society, Britain on the eve of the
20Elizabeth Eisenstein has argued that the printing press was responsible for the intellectual changes that eventually led to the scientific breakthroughs of the seventeenth century. See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of
Change,1979. The importance of the discoveries on economic life in Europe came not just from the growth in trade and the huge increase in supplies of goods that previously had been very scarce and expensive such as sugar and codfish, but also in what I have called elsewhere “exposure effects”: Europeans observing techniques in use elsewhere and trying to copy or imitate them. Thus tobacco and potatoes were transplanted onto Europe, and the attempts to copy Chinaware (successful only in the early eighteenth century) led to the development of pottery and ceramic industries in a number of regions. Indian calicoes, of course, were the model of a product that British manufacturers tried to imitate in the eighteenth century.
21Snooks’s belief in pre-modern growth is based essentially on his comparison between the income per capita he has calculated from the Domesday book (1086) and the numbers provided by Gregory King for 1688. While such computations are of course always somewhat worrisome (what, exactly, does it mean to estimate the nominal income of 1086 in the prices of 1688 given the many changes in consumption items?), the order of magnitude provided by Snooks (an increase of real income by 580 percent)
maysurvive such concerns. See Graeme D. Snooks, “New Perspectives on the Industrial Revolution.” In Graeme D. Snooks, ed., Was the Industrial Revolution Necessary?, 1994.
22Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, 1978. David Levine, At the Dawn of Modernity –check.