Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

to do the work of the world.

The comparatively simple organization of feudal society broke down under the stress of these changes; a
middle class, consisting of neither lords nor villeins, was needed to cope with industry and commerce.

Handworkers also were required, so that from the middle of the fourteenth century we find a regular

flight from the land to the towns in progress. Another great change took place. No one had been rich

according to modern notions in the early Middle Ages, and no one had been destitute; there was no need

of a Poor Law. But with the expansion of the sphere of men's operations, the differences between the

poor and the rich began to increase. There is little to choose between a slow runner and a swift when the

race covers only ten yards; there is more when it covers a hundred, and a great deal when it covers a

mile. So, too, when operations are limited to the village market, ability has a limited scope, and the able

financier does not grow so very much richer than his neighbour. But when his market comprises a nation,

his means for acquiring wealth are extended; the rich become richer, and the poor, comparatively at any

rate, poorer. Hence, when in the fourteenth and following centuries the national market expands into a

world market, we find growing up side by side capitalism and destitution; and the reason why there are

so many millionaires and so much destitution to-day, compared with earlier times, is that the world is

now one market, and the range of operations is only limited by the globe.

The control of the world's supplies tends to get into the hands of a few big producers or operators instead
of being in the hands of a vast number of small ones; and this has come about through ever-expanding

markets and ever-increasing specialization. Even whole nations specialize more or less; some produce

the corn-supply of the world, some its coal, some its oil, and some do its carrying trade. It is now a

question whether there should not be some limits to this process, and it is asked whether a nation or

empire should not be self-supporting, irrespective of the economic advantages of expansion and

specialization, and of the fact that the more self-supporting it is, the less trade can it do with others; for it

cannot export unless it imports, and if each nation makes everything it wants itself it will neither sell to,

nor buy from, other nations.

There have been two periods in English history during which these general tendencies have been
especially marked. One was at the close of the Middle Ages, and the other during the reign of George III.

The break-up of the manorial system, the growth of a body of mobile labour, and of capital seeking

investment, the discovery of new worlds and new markets, heralded the advent of the middle class and of

the commercial age. Custom, which had regulated most things in the Middle Ages, gave way to

competition, which defied all regulation; and England became a nation of privateers, despoiling the

church, Spain, Ireland, and often the commonwealth itself. Scores of acts against fraudulent

manufacturers and against inclosures were passed in vain, because they ran counter to economic

conditions. The products of the new factories, like Jack of Newbury's kerseys, could not equal in quality

the older home-made article, because the home-made article was produced under non-economic

conditions. Spinsters today knit better garments than those turned out in bulk, because neither time nor

money is any consideration with them; they knit for occupation, not for a living, and they can afford to

devote more labour to their produce than they could possibly do if they depended upon it for subsistence.

The case was the same with the home-products of earlier times, and compared with them the newer

factory-product was shoddy; because, if the manufacturer was to earn a living from his industry he must

produce a certain quantity within a limited time. These by-products of the home were enabled to hold

their own against the factory products until the development of machinery in the eighteenth century; and

until that time the factory system, although factories existed on a rudimentary scale, did not fully

develop. So far as it did develop, it meant an increase in the efficiency and in the total wealth of the

 

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