Earthly Necessities:
Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain

Keith Wrightson

Yale University Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
Earthly Necessities is a social history of economic aspects of early modern Britain which brings to life the local details while conveying a feel for the sweeping changes that took place over a quarter of a millennium. Part one is a relatively static overview of society around 1500 and part three an overview of the situation two hundred years later, while part two (half the book) describes the transitions and changes in between.

Wrightson makes use of quantitative data, but mostly of individual pieces of information fitted into their broader context: there is no attempt to build or analyse time series and there are only two tables. His approach is more narrative, focusing on individuals and households, on both their daily lives and circumstances and on the larger structures in which they were embedded.

An introductory preface sets the work in its historiographical context, with an account of the development of British economic history, from Enlightenment writers to the turn away from economic history in the 1970s and 1980s. And Wrightson frames his account with contemporary views of British society and economic life. Part One starts with Edmund Dudley's 1509 The Tree of Commonwealth, which presents a fairly traditional "three estates" view of society. Part Three starts with Gregory King's 1695 description, which implied a "radically different" economic world, where "householders engaged, according to their different capacities, with the demands of an economic environment in which the market was the central mechanism and the power of capital was far more salient".

Households were "fundamental to the economic history of early modern Britain" and part one, "Households in a Landscape, c.1470-c.1550" begins with their size and composition and age and gender structures, how they made a living (mostly still from agriculture), and their strategies for survival and for inheritance and the formation of new households. Moving outwards, it considers relationships with lords and tenants, neighbours, citizens and fraternities, and kinship networks. And households were situated in the broader economic networks of regional 'countries' and markets, and faced structural changes — the emergence of an English yeomanry, enclosures and the growth of pasture, the ruralisation of industry, and urban restructuring — even if there were still clear limits to commercial integration.

Part two, "Transitions", begins with the price increases and population growth that "were the principal underlying causes of economic change in sixteenth-century Britain" (the only two tables appear here). It goes on to look at responses to this, at lands and rents, yeomen and husbandmen (with "rising domestic living standards"), the disendowment of the church, wages which were often insufficient to live on, protest and resistance at the bottom, and monetary and fiscal policy at the top.

Moving into the 1600s, there were expansions in production and commerce, with varying effects on different groups of landlords, tenants, merchants and professionals, and weavers and farm-workers; there was increasing polarisation in opportunity and wealth. Accompanying this came "adjustments of attitudes, values and social relations", a rethinking of "commonwealth", debates over enclosure and usury, and the development of a poor-relief system. Wrightson argues that the stabilisation of population was driven by economic insecurity and concomitant failures or delays in household formation and marriage.

The century to 1750 saw demographic stability but increasing specialisation and integration, with increases in land and labour productivity and growing trade (with associated traffic) and manufacturing. Politically, the period saw piecemeal and pragmatic policy on trade and, driven by the need to finance wars, the development of a stronger fiscal regime; economics played a key role in the Union with Scotland.

Part three, "Living With the Market, c.1660-c.1750", surveys the landed interest — the gentry, estate management, and strategies of improvement — the "middle sort of people" — different kinds of capital, the expansion of consumption, the importance of credit and reputation, and the existence of "gentlemen-tradesmen" — and labouring people — gender and skill differentiation, prices and wages, labour relations and poor-law regimes, and internal organisation from guild traditions to industrial action.

All of this is well written and nicely structured. There are many places where one or two paragraphs narrow down to examine a particular person, location or topic, telling short, almost self-contained stories.

"The rules governing the marketing of grain provide an apt example. In order to prevent its interception by middlemen and the 'forestalling' of the market, no grain was to be transported save on market day. Before market the magistrates and officers met those with grain to sell to 'confer together for some reasonable price for their grain to be sold there'. Actual prices were determined not by the free play of supply and demand, but by bargaining around that publicly announced norm. No grain was to be sold before 9 a.m. It was sold first to those requiring it 'for the necessary provision of their own houses' and in quantities not exceeding two bushels. Commercial dealers like brewers, bakers and 'corn badgers' were not permitted to buy before 11 a.m. All dealing was to take place in open market. 'Engrossing' (the amassing of goods) and 'regrating' (buying for resale at the same or another market) were forbidden."

Elsewhere Wrightson steps back to present a broader picture, synthesising both the details he has presented and the ideas of others.

"In town and country alike, the final quarter of the sixteenth century and the early decades of the seventeenth century witnessed the emergence of a larger and more wholly wage-dependent labouring population, which probably constituted at least half the English population by the mid-seventeenth century. Agricultural intensification, urban growth and industrial expansion meant that there was work for more such people, but as we have seen it was often seasonal or highly insecure, while the constant pressure of greater numbers on the labour market meant that wages were low and underemployment a general reality."

Earthly Necessities is quite dense, because of the sheer amount of material covered and Wrightson's concise prose, but it is never hard to read. References aren't included, but quotations from other historians are often accompanied by their names and there are twenty five pages of further reading notes, organised by chapter and thematically. It is too solid to have genuinely popular appeal, but anyone with a serious interest in early modern Britain should find it compelling.

May 2014

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%T Earthly Necessities
%S Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain
%A Wrightson, Keith
%I Yale University Press
%D 2000
%O hardcover, further reading, index
%G ISBN 0300083912
%P 372pp