Saturday, December 31, 2016

To what do we owe the Industrial Revolution?

One of the small pleasures of my year was watching the deft political manoeuvrings of Thomas Cromwell in the TV miniseries of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

Of course, this has nothing to do with the economy – or does it?

I've just been reading a paper by three economic historians, Monks, Gents and Industrialists, arguing that an important reason why the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century began in England, and in particular parts of England, was the long-run consequence of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries between 1532 and 1540.

Henry's right-hand man in orchestrating the dissolution was Thomas Cromwell.

The economists are Leander Heldring, of Oxford University, James Robinson, of the University of Chicago, and Sebastian Vollmer, of the University of Gottingen in Germany. Their paper is published by America's National Bureau of Economic Research.

We owe today's economy to the two centuries of economic development precipitated by the Industrial Revolution, a period of radical technological innovation beginning in the 1760s.

It involved the replacement of hand tools with power-driven machines, and the shift of production from artisans' homes to factories.

The initial changes were in textile manufacture and metals, using new forms of inanimate power such as the steam engine and new methods of transportation, such as the railway.

The newly ubiquitous form of energy was coal – the start of our ill-fated love affair with fossil fuels.

There's less agreement among historians on why the Industrial Revolution started in England. Some give the credit to Britain's superior economic and political institutions. Others see it as a consequence of various "economic shocks", such as the Black Death of the mid-14th century or the expansion of Atlantic trade.

These led to changes in England's social structure, to political conflict in the 17th century, particularly the English civil war of the 1640s, to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which William of Orange seized the English throne from James II and, ultimately, to favourable changes in economic institutions.

The famous English historian Richard Tawney argued that the dissolution of the monasteries caused a change in the rural social structure, which led to the civil war.

Later scholars have discounted this, but our authors argue the dissolution helped bring about something much bigger, the Industrial Revolution.

As part of Henry's break with the Pope – which happened at the time of the Protestant Reformation in other parts of Europe – parliament first decreed that the Catholic monasteries' tithes be paid to the king rather than Rome, then that the monasteries be dissolved, with their lands expropriated by the crown. The king was declared head of the Church of England.

In 1530 there were about 825 monasteries in England and Wales, housing about 10,000 people. The term "monasteries" includes nunneries, friaries, abbeys and priories.

Aside from maintaining property and collecting rents, the monks engaged in prayer and singing for the local community, were active in education and were expected to provide food and lodging to travellers and distribute alms to the poor.

The church is thought to have held between a quarter and a third of all the land in England and Wales.

Henry gave away some of the expropriated land – including to Thomas Cromwell – but sold most of it. Two-thirds had been sold by 1547 and most of the rest by 1554, during the reign of Edward VI.

A key part of the authors' thesis is that most of the land was sold to the "gentry" – all non-noble landowners with sufficient land or wealth to put them above the yeomen farmers.

It's estimated that the gentry's share of English land rose from a quarter in 1436 to about half in 1688. What Tawney called "the rise if the gentry" mattered because they tended to be more commercially minded rural entrepreneurs.

The authors hypothesise that, in parishes or counties where the gentry rose more, and where commercial farming was more advanced, the gentry would be involved in other activities which would ultimately coalesce into the Industrial Revolution.

Three mechanisms could have connected the gentry to industrialisation. First, they had the vote, were able to sit in parliament and to lobby for legislation favourable to their economic interests.

Second, it's plausible the gentry were part of "proto-industrialisation", where the necessary conditions for industrialisation were established. There are many case studies of such things as gentry establishing coal mines on their properties.

Third, to the extent that the gentry were entrepreneurial commercial farmers they would have been more innovative and productive, and this "agricultural revolution" could have directly stimulated the Industrial Revolution.

But the endangered species of economic historians isn't allowed just to think up plausible theories about the past. Academic economists' obsession with mathematics means they have to seek empirical evidence for their theses by using fancy statistical techniques to find correlations between whatever "data series" they can find.

The authors digitised the 1535 Valor Ecclesiasticus – a census of the monasteries' incomes, ordered by Henry – and compared it with the 1838 survey of textile mills, as well as figures from the British census of 1831 showing the proportions of the labour force engaged in manufacturing, retail and agriculture.

They showed that the monastic income in a parish in 1535 was positively and significantly correlated with the presence of a textile mill in the parish 300 years later. Monastic income was also correlated with the proportion of the labour force in manufacturing and retail 300 years later.

They then used a census from 1700 showing the number of gentry in each of 24,000 towns and villages. Again, a good correlation with the distribution of monastery incomes 165 years' earlier.

And they used other figures to show monastic income is correlated with the number of agricultural patents registered in a parish between 1700 and 1850, implying the dissolution may indeed have led to greater innovation.

So, thanks for your help, Thomas.