English Agricultural Revolution: Antecedents, Causes, Characteristics

The English Agricultural Revolution was the historical process during which there was an evolution in the way of farm work in England. This revolution took place in a period of time that spanned the 18th century and part of the 19th century. The result was an increase in productivity and a decrease in labor in agriculture.

England, like the rest of Europe, based its economic system on agriculture. As early as the 13th century, some novel techniques had been introduced that had improved productivity, but, over time, these changes had become less effective. When the 18th century arrived, the large landowners looked for ways to increase their profits.

Two of the transformations that were fundamental for the agricultural revolution to take place were enclosures and a new system of crop rotation. The first of these changes also meant a change in the way that land ownership was distributed in the country.

In addition to the aforementioned increase in agricultural productivity, the revolution is considered as an immediate antecedent to the Industrial Revolution . In the countryside, there was an excess of labor, so the workers had to emigrate to the cities and seek new jobs in the industries that began to appear.

Background

European agriculture had taken a great leap forward in the 13th century. Among the advances that were introduced were the introduction of a new type of plow that replaced the Roman one, the use of water mills and the beginning of the three-year rotation.

This type of rotation divided each crop field into three zones and two different kinds of wheat were planted, one in each season. In this way, they managed to reduce the area that was left fallow.

These changes worked well for a while. However, there came a time when social changes caused owners to need to improve production.

Agrarian base of the economy

Before the agricultural revolution of the 18th century began, the British economy was very traditional. Almost 75% of the jobs were concentrated in the primary sector.

The scarce existing industry maintained trade union and artisan characteristics. This meant that the number of workers employed in these industries was very small and that the introduction of complex machinery was not necessary.

On the other hand, agricultural property was highly concentrated in the hands of a few. The most common is that the land was organized into huge latifundia. The owners obtained their profits from the payment of the rents that the peasants were obliged to pay. It was, almost, a system that had maintained a feudal structure.

Low population growth

Demographics prior to the agricultural revolution showed very little growth. The high infant mortality contributed to this, largely caused by disease and lack of adequate nutrition.

During the centuries prior to the agricultural transformation, famines were very common. Each time there were several bad harvests, mortality increased dramatically. In turn, this provoked epidemics that preyed on the most disadvantaged social sectors.

Proto-industrialization

Little by little, the English economy began to show features that announced the expansion of industrialization. To begin with, trade grew stronger and mercantile companies carried their products to ever more distant places.

The need to produce items for export ended up leading to an increase in manufacturing. In turn, this resulted in capital starting to accumulate and some of it going to invest in more modern industries.

One of the types of industries characteristic of that stage was the so-called “domestic industry”, which left behind the old union organization. This industry was totally rural and in it the work in the field was combined with the manufacture of textiles that was carried out in the houses.

Causes

The English agricultural revolution had several triggers. Experts have developed various theories, depending on the importance they give to each of the causes. In general, they coincide in pointing out the importance that trade was acquiring, the change in mentality of businessmen and the invention of new machinery.

Considerable increase in population

The increase in demography can be seen as both a cause and a consequence of the agricultural revolution. On the one hand, some improvement in population conditions allowed demographics to improve. This made it necessary for the production of the crops to be greater to cover all the needs.

On the other hand, this increase in crop productivity allowed the population to continue to increase.

The data from that time clearly show this demographic growth. In 50 years, beginning in the second half of the 18th century, the population of England doubled. At the same time, agricultural production increased in order to feed this new population, to the point that it was not necessary to import cereal from abroad.

New tools

The appearance of new farming tools was one of the factors that allowed the increase in productivity. Thus, new elements such as the mechanical seeder began to be used, which improved the system significantly.

Extension of the extension of arable land

Some historians point out that the main cause for the agricultural revolution to begin was the increase in cultivated land in the country. According to his calculations, in a short time the area devoted to agriculture doubled.

Mentality change

The large landowners who controlled agricultural production in early 18th-century England began to change their mindset about wealth. That made them put all the means at their disposal to increase productivity.

Compared to the previous system, which prioritized cultivation for internal consumption, the expansion of trade made these owners gain social importance. In turn, shares and payment through banks appeared.

Some of the measures that latifundistas used to improve productivity were a new method of dividing up the land and the change in the way crops were rotated.

characteristics

The modernizing process that was the agricultural revolution began to be noticed during the first decades of the 18th century. Among other things, the structure of land ownership was modified and new techniques were applied to improve farms.

Enclosures

Until the 18th century, the land in England had been exploited with an openfield system. This consisted in the fact that there were no divisions between the different lands. None of the existing plots were fenced or closed.

The other system used was that of communal lands (commonfield). In this case, the use of fallow caused the land to have a very low productivity.

It was in the early 18th century that these systems began to change. Then the so-called “enclosure” appear; that is, fences with which the land was divided, which allowed the crops to be individualized.

To generalize this practice, the Parliament of Great Britain passed a law, the Enclosures Act. From that moment on, peasants were free to cultivate each piece of land in the way they saw fit.

In less than 50 years from the turn of the century, 25% of all agricultural land in the country had been fenced off. This, apart from improving productivity, also led to a concentration in land ownership.

Technical innovations

The aforementioned concentration in land ownership allowed large landowners to invest in technical innovations that increased productivity. Another factor that encouraged these landowners to implement these innovations was the increase in demand.

Although there were some previous inventions, the first great contribution was made by Jethro Tull in 1730. That year, this agronomist and lawyer presented a mechanical animal-drawn planter that allowed sowing in lines and using machines to dig.

It was a tool designed for the cultivation of large areas, where it represented a huge improvement in production.

Norfolk system

The introducer of the other great novelty in British agriculture was Lord Townshend, a nobleman who had been stationed at the English embassy in the Netherlands. These were an agricultural powerhouse and Townshend studied some of their techniques to adapt it to his country.

The so-called Norfolk system consisted of rotating crops four years. This made it possible not to have to use the fallow and that production never stopped. The key was to alternate planting cereals with legumes and forage plants.

In this way, the system not only improved food production for the population, but also produced it for animals. These, to complete the cycle, provided fertilizer for the field.

On the other hand, Townshend also developed some improvements to drain the land and encouraged the creation of meadows intended for animals to have food during the winter.

The owners welcomed these innovations proposed by the nobleman with great enthusiasm. In turn, encouraged by the improvements, they invested to investigate how to achieve more effective chemical fertilizers or how to build better plows.

Changes it produced

The agricultural revolution in England changed not only the way of farming. Its repercussions were felt in demographics and even caused a change in social classes.

According to experts, this transformation in agriculture was the first step towards the subsequent Industrial Revolution.

Production increase

At the beginning of the 18th century, agricultural productivity in England caught up with that of the leading countries in this field. In addition, this increase in production drove its general economy to grow.

Demography and the Industrial Revolution

As has been pointed out, the agricultural revolution was fundamental for the Industrial Revolution to take place later.

On the one hand, the crops gained in profitability, in addition to the fact that the harvests were higher. At the same time, they generated more raw materials and, in turn, demanded machinery that had to be built in industrial factories. To these factors must be added the demographic increase that caused the improvement of crops.

All the improvement in productivity had come from the introduction of new techniques, which meant that fewer workers were needed. Many of those who were left without jobs migrated to the cities to seek job opportunities in the factories that were opening.

Finally, many of the landowners who were increasing their profits decided to invest in the creation of new industries. The same State increased its income and dedicated part of it to improving road infrastructure.

Introduction of new species

The transformation in English agricultural production not only affected the property system and technical innovations. It also caused new foods to be grown, such as potatoes and turnips. In the first case, its introduction must have overcome the reluctance of many peasants who thought it was harmful to health.

However, in the second half of the 18th century cereals began to become more expensive, forcing the peasants to accept the cultivation of these tubers. In the case of potatoes, in a short time it became a staple food for those who worked, under very poor conditions, in factories.

In fact, this dependence on the potato had a very negative consequence in the following century, especially in Ireland. Several bad harvests caused famines that led to the death of many Irish people. Others were forced to emigrate, especially to the United States.

Class differentiation 

The agricultural revolution also had social effects. Large owners were the ones who benefited from the changes that had occurred, while small owners and day laborers suffered the negative effects.

The same happened to those who only owned a few heads of cattle, who saw that with the enclosure of the land they could no longer take them freely to feed.

The vast majority of those who were harmed by changes in agriculture ended up moving to the cities. There, they joined the mass of industrial workers. In time, they were the ones who would form a new social class: the proletariat.

References

  1. Lozano Cámara, Jorge Juan. The English Agricultural Revolution. Obtained from classeshistoria.com
  2. Montagut, Eduardo. The agrarian and agricultural revolutions in Great Britain. Obtained from nuevarevolucion.es
  3. National School College of Sciences and Humanities. Agricultural revolution. Obtained from portalacademico.cch.unam.mx
  4. Overton, Mark. Agricultural Revolution in England 1500 – 1850. Retrieved from bbc.co.uk
  5. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Agricultural revolution. Retrieved from britannica.com
  6. Worldatlas. Did The British Agricultural Revolution Lead To The Industrial Revolution ?. Retrieved from worldatlas.com
  7. History Crunch. Agricultural Revolution. Retrieved from historycrunch.com

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