Marooned On An Island Monographs: An Early Modern Economic History Reading List

Brodie Waddell

Inspired by Mark and Jonathan’s posts, I started thinking about what classic books I would take with me if I was marooned on a pleasant beach somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. My true list would have a fair bit of overlap with theirs, so I thought I’d better make it unique by focusing on a different subtopic, namely economic history.

As you’ll see, I’m not really a proper number-crunching economic historian, but I do spend a fair bit of my time thinking about economic life in this period, and these are the books that have proved particularly invaluable or inspiring. It’s a bit more difficult to pick monographs for this particular sub-discipline as it tends to be oriented towards articles. In fact, if you’re looking for the latest research that’s probably the place to go. To get a sense of the sort of excellent work going on right now, take a look at recent articles by people like Amy Erickson, Jane Humphries or Marjorie McIntosh. If, on the other hand, you’d just like to lay on the sand with some classics, try these…

1) R.H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912)

Tawney looking suitably pulp and piped.

Tawney looking suitably plump and piped.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have an Edwardian Christian Socialist explain the collapse of the medieval village community at the hands of rapacious Tudor landlords? Wonder no longer! It’s got thrills, spills and six colourful maps! More to the point, it is undoubtedly the most influential book ever written on the fraught issue of common lands and enclosure, inspiring a century of historical research and historiographical argument including a great recent volume on Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660 (2013), edited by Jane Whittle. It’s also freely available to read online, even the colour maps!

2) Joan Thirsk (ed.), The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol. IV: 1500-1604 (1967)

AHEW, vol. V:2. Almost as a good as IV.

AHEW, vol. V:2. Almost as a good as IV.

Nine hundred and nineteen pages of pure adrenalin. Well, at least it has a bunch of wonderful chapters on things like agricultural ‘improvement’ and the intense regionalism of early modern farming. Indeed, it set the standard for all the local and regional research that followed. That might not sound like much of an advertisement, but it is actually fundamental to how we think about the birth of agrarian capitalism in this period and how England usually managed to feed itself in a time of European famine. Volume five is pretty good too. The only problem is finding a way to properly cite them thanks to the fact that each volume in the series has general editor, volume editor, general title, volume title, etc.

3) Joan Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of the Consumer Society in Early Modern England (1978)

Thirsk amongst the 'Historians of Past & Present'

Thirsk amongst the ‘Historians of Past & Present’

Because Thirsk is so exceptional, she deserves two entries in the list. Unlike AHEW, this book is not especially quantitative. Instead, it weaves together a fascinating series of narratives about the rise (and sometimes fall) of the array of new industries, products and customers that sprang up in early modern England. In other words, long before it was cool, Thirsk set out to chart the early history of ‘consumerism’. Pins, stockings, pipes, buttons, lace and even tobacco are all here. More importantly, Thirsk shows the nature of the innovative rural industries that produced these new consumer goods and employed tens of thousands of women, children and men. It was, she argues, the revenue-hungry crown and speculative ‘projectors’ (i.e. entrepreneurs) who sparked this previously-neglected explosion in production and consumption.

4) Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (2000)

Wrightson Earthly Necessities

Hogarth peers out at us from the front cover

As with his English Society, which Mark listed earlier, this is an outstanding little introduction that occasionally doubles as an argumentative essay. Although it is perhaps not quite as forceful as his earlier books, it remains the best all-rounder as a way into early modern economic history. The intro, where he surveys previous interpretations of this contentious topic from Hume to Marx to Tawney, is a gem. So if you, like Martin, want to get into the nitty-gritty of life in this period, this the perfect place to start. It’s also filled with wonderful quotes and examples that really bring the harsh conditions of the period to life. It’s only too bad that, because of the series in which its published, footnotes have be completely stripped out, making it nearly impossible to track down the source of all his great anecdotes.

5) Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (1998)

Extraordinarily expensive, but worth every farthing

Shockingly expensive, but worth every farthing

Here we have, to use an annoying publisher’s phrase, a ‘modern classic’. Muldrew sidesteps the old debates about enclosure or the protestant work ethic and instead dives into the hurly-burly world of early modern credit. Not only does he show quite conclusively that pretty much everyone was a debtor or creditor or both, he also shows that it was about much more than mere money. We learn that ‘credit’ was about ‘reputation’ and thus about morality and respectability. Plus, he manages to reconstruct the tight-knit social and economic networks of seventeenth-century King’s Lynn along the way. Bankrupts and account books: what’s not to like? Not a bad achievement for a thesis-cum-monograph. If only the publisher would put out a paperback edition so more budding historians could actually own a copy.

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7 thoughts on “Marooned On An Island Monographs: An Early Modern Economic History Reading List

  1. These are good lists to have for future reference. Is it impolite to ask if any of you have any particular fictional preferences. That could make for a good list as well.
    I have enjoyed re-reading Pavane recently although the 70’s paperback threatened to unglue itself as I turned the pages. I am enjoying Hilary Mantel’s stories of Henry VIII’s divorce lawyer and await the next exciting episode. Luther Blissett’s Q was a fine ripping yarn and I imagine slight crossovers with Wolf Hall in an Antwerp cellar where they are printing English language Bibles. A bit further along the timeline Neal Stephenson’s System of World is deserving of a re-read.
    Apologies for lowering the tone, but I believe you alt-hemisphere types regard it as beach weather anyway.

    • This is a wonderful idea – I’ve just begun my fiction list as a result! And I will certainly be hunting down Pavane as it has had several recommendations by monster readers now.

    • Yes, excellent idea. Unfortunately I’m not the person to ask. Having a toddler means that I get approximately 0.01 hours of fiction reading most days, so I haven’t read much fiction in the last couple years. I did though enjoy Mantel’s Wolf Hall, so I guess that’s a good place to start. Also, Calvino’s Invisible Cities is not exactly historical fiction, but it is a brilliant book that really stoked my historical imagination. Graham Swift’s Waterland is another.

    • This is a brilliant idea – Laura, I look forward to your fiction top 5! A few preliminary thoughts: I loved Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. The Name of the Rose is great (as are all of Eco’s novels, several of which are historical), and I loved An Instance of the Fingerpost when I read it ten years ago.

      • I knew you guys would be good. Fingerpost was a very good read and Invisible Cities has caught the fringes of my attention a couple of times this year. I look forward to hearing more of your ponderings.

  2. Pingback: Marooned on an Island Monographs: A Historical Fiction Reading List | the many-headed monster

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