wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

David Landes

The Unbound Prometheus

In England, sumptuary laws were dead letters by the end of the sixteenth century; they were repealed by James I in 1604. Over the next two centuries, the trend toward homogeneity of expenditure—the effacement of vertical regional differences as well as horizontal social distinctions—continued. Contemporaries complained of the luxury of the lower classes, who dressed so as to be indistinguishable from their betters. This was an exaggeration; social lament as a literary genre is invariably hyperbolic. Besides, much of the elegance of the populace was meretricious, the result of an active trade in second-hand clothes. Even so, the very demand for cast-offs was evidence of the absence or decay of customary distinctions: the poor man could and did wear the same kind of coat as the rich. Similarly, contemporaries complained of the farmer's imitation of city ways, his abandonment of the rustic simplicity of yore. Again an exaggeration—yet the truth was that in no economy was the countryside so closely integrated into the commercial circuit; nowhere were the local pockets of self-sufficiency so broken down.

All of this was part of a general process of urbanization, itself a reflection of advanced commercialization and industrialization. London alone was a monster: Defoe estimated in 1725 that it contained a million and a half inhabitants, almost a quarter of the people in the kingdom. This figure is testimony, not to Defoe's accuracy, but to the impression the 'great wen' made on contemporaries; yet even conservative estimates put the population of the metropolitan area at about half that number. In the provinces, the cities and towns developed steadily after the Civil War; among the most rapidly expanding were unincorporated 'villages' like Manchester, which had perhaps 12,500 inhabitants in 1717 and 20,000 by 1758. An estimate of 15 per cent of the population in cities of 5000 and over by mid-century and 25 per cent by 1800 is probably close to the truth. By contrast, the French figure on the eve of the Revolution was something over 10 per cent; and Germany was even more rural.

But it was not only that England had more people living in cities than any other European country except perhaps Holland; it was the character of British urban life that made the pattern of settlement particularly significant. On the Continent, many of the cities were essentially administrative, judicial, ecclesiastical in function. Their populations consisted essentially of bureaucrats, professionals, soldiers, and the shopkeepers, artisans, and domestics to serve them. The city was not so much a node of economic activity, trading manufactures and mercantile services for the products of the countryside, as a political and cultural centre drawing tax revenues and rents from the rural population in return for government and by traditional right. Madrid is the classic example of this kind of agglomeration; but Paris was much like this, and perhaps a majority of the larger French provincial cities—including places like Arras, Douai, Caen, Versailles, Nancy, Tours, Poitiers, Aix, and Toulouse—were little else. In Germany, of course, the very fragmentation of political power was an incitement to the multiplication of semi-rural capitals, each with its court, bureaucracy, and garrison.

By contrast, the relatively smaller size of Britain's political apparatus and its concentration in London left the older provincial centres to somnolence and decay. Nothing is more striking about the map of Britain in the eighteenth century than the modernity of the urban pattern. The medieval county seats—Lancaster, York, Chester, Stafford—were overshadowed by younger places like Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham, and there was already a substantial shift of population in favour of the North and Midlands. Much of the increase, moreover, did not take place within the cities proper, but took the form of a thickening of the countryside. Numerous overgrown industrial villages sprang up—concentrations of hundreds of spinners and weavers in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, similar in many ways to the earlier rural agglomerations of East Anglia.

The pattern throughout was one of close contact and frequent exchange between city and land. Trade and shops went to the customers: the late A. P. Wadsworth noted the numerous advertisements of cottages-to-let for tradesmen in the villages around Manchester, reflecting on both sides the keen response to economic opportunity. In spite of the sparseness of the data, it seems clear that British commerce of the eighteenth century was, by comparison with that of the Continent, impressively energetic, pushful, and open to innovation. Part of the explanation is institutional: British shopkeepers were relatively free of customary or legal restrictions on the objects or character of their activity. They could sell what and where they would; and could and did compete freely on the basis of price, advertising, and credit. If most shopkeepers continued to haggle, many followed the lead of the Quakers in selling at fixed, marked prices. In so far as such methods prevailed, they conduced to a more efficient allocation of economic resources and lower costs of distribution.

In sum, the home market for manufactures was growing, thanks to improving communication, increase in population, high and rising average income, a buying pattern favourable to solid, standardized, moderately priced products, and unhampered commercial enterprise. How much it grew, however, one cannot say precisely; we have no statistics on domestic consumption.