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Social Transformation in the 18th Century for AP European History (page 2)

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Market-Oriented Agriculture

The rise in population created more mouths to feed. The existence of a vast colonial empire of trade created an increasingly wealthy merchant class who both bought land from, and affected the behavior of, traditional land-holding elites. The result was the destruction of the traditional manorial system in which land-owning elites (lords of the manor) held vast estates divided into small plots of arable land farmed by peasants for local consumption and vast grounds known as commons where peasants grazed their livestock. That system was slowly replaced by a market-oriented approach in which cash crops were grown for sale and export.

The shift to cash crops created pressure that led to the reorganization of the social structure of the countryside. The traditional land-owning elites abandoned their feudal obligations to the peasantry and adopted the attitude of the merchant class. Cash crops created a demand for larger fields. Landowners responded by instituting a process known as enclosure because of the hedges, fences, and walls that were built to deny the peasantry access to the commons, which were now converted to fields for cash crops. Later, the land owners extended enclosure into other arable lands, breaking traditional feudal agreements and gradually transforming much of the peasantry into wage labor. By the middle of the eighteenth century, three-quarters of the arable land in England had been enclosed informally or "by agreement" (though the peasantry had not, in fact, been given any choice); after 1750, the process continued more formally as land was enclosed via acts of Parliament.

Rural Manufacturing

The increase in population also created greater demand for the other necessities of life, particularly clothing. In the feudal system, all aspects of textile production had been under the control of guilds (which were organizations of skilled laborers, such as spinners and weavers), who enjoyed the protection of the town officials. Membership in a guild was gained only through a lengthy apprenticeship. In that way, the guilds kept competition to a minimum and controlled the supply of textiles, thereby guaranteeing that they could make a decent living. In the eighteenth century, merchants faced with an ever-expanding demand for textiles had to find a way around the guild system; the result was a system of rural manufacturing known variously as cottage industry or the putting-out system.

In the putting-out system, merchants went into the countryside and engaged the peasantry in small-scale textile production. Each month, the merchant provided raw material and rented equipment to peasant families. At the end of the month, he returned and paid the family for whatever thread or cloth they had produced. Initially, peasant families supplemented their agricultural income in this way; eventually, some of them gave up farming altogether and pooled their resources to create small textile mills in the countryside. As the system grew, the guilds of the town were unable to compete with the mills; cottage industry replaced the urban guilds as the center for textile production.

The new system of rural manufacturing went hand-in-hand with the shift to market-oriented agriculture; the destruction of the manorial system could not have been accomplished if some of the cash flowing into the economy had not found its way into the hands of the rural population. The creation of cottage industries provided the cash that enabled rural families to buy their food rather than grow it themselves.

However, the social change that accompanied the destruction of both the manorial system and the guilds also brought hardship and insecurity. The enclosure movement meant that thousands of small landholders, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers lost their land and their social status. Forced to work for wages, their lives and those of their families were now at the mercy of the marketplace. The destruction of the guilds produced similar trauma for the artisans and their families. For both the peasantry and the artisans, the economic and social changes of the eighteenth century meant the destruction of their traditional place and status in society: they were now faced with both new opportunities and great insecurity.

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