Tuesday, January 21, 2014

One interesting stat from early modern England

This is one of those times where a single statistic can open up a wealth of insight, and yet it does not come from our present but our past.  This one is coming from the Open Yale courses, which are freely available for viewing and have some of the most interesting professors that can have a wealth of information.  The stat comes from the HIST 251: Early Modern England which covers the time period of the late 16th century to the early 18th century and is presented by Professor Keith E. Wrightson.  To understand the transformation of England during this period it is necessary to see where it started from circa Henry VII, just before all the major changes in England took place.  I've been watching these with my lady and our side conversations tend to make the simple presentation quite long as it is necessary to pause the presentation so we can discuss material.  Thus the insight comes from that discussion.

In the mid- to late-16th century there was a relatively stable social stratification that has the Nobility at the top, the Gentry of landed estates and 'gentle birth' next, then the Yeomen class who were not of 'gentle birth' and tended to be well considered in towns and cities running trades and businesses (as well as some farms which was necessary for the era, the Craftsmen and those earning a living via craft work, and then gradations through the poor end of the spectrum which ends in Unskilled Labor.  The Clergy are considered separate (remember pre-Henry VIII) and while they can have power, it is not by lineage (as in the Nobility and Gentry) but by appointment to position (such as Bishop or Arch Bishop) by the Pope.  Literacy was low outside of those who could afford such education or that required it for daily operation (like the Clergy).  Schooling was done at home and as soon as children could contribute in any way to a household, they did so via work, first at home and then, if coming from a poorer family, by paying a Master Craftsman to take on a boy as an apprentice or by going to a household to work in any of a variety of tasks for a one year term.

This society can be characterized as stratified and one in which survival at all but the upper ranks of society is a constant pre-occupation.  Mercantile capitalism tends to fall in to the Yeomanry and Craftsman realms of society, and while the Yeomanry were socially limited they could earn quite a lot of money and purchase land from plying business trades.  Across all strata of the non-Clergy is one particularly interesting phenomena and the statistic of interest: marriage tended to be put off until the early- to mid- 20's.  This was done because establishing a new household is a costly affair (even for the rich) and must be done with much due consideration.  At the upper ranks of society choices in one's class were limited, and matches between young men and women could take time but also required agreement between families.  Sliding down into the Gentry, Yeomanry and Craftsman realms of society, men and women had a bit more in the way of choices and leeway, but parental and family consent made marriage a multi-lateral agreement in which any single party could hold a veto.  This sort of concern lessened going down to the lowest levels of society, where there was a lot more freedom for couples, agreement tended to be limited to parents, but start-up costs of a new household was high in proportion to the income of the poor.

From that this society can be said to have a high overhead cost of maintenance to it: it costs a lot of time as well as funds to get a household going.  Child birth, statistically, would happen within 18 months of marriage and then be a cyclic affair every 2 or 3 years of the woman's childbearing years.  Added to this was the high rate of infant mortality, endemic diseases, pandemics of plague, plus the normal assort of death by accidents, and life expectancy, while better than in Neolithic times, tended to be in the mid-30's with rare individuals surviving past 60.

Why is this interesting?

My lady was startled because of the American experience with families up to the early 20th century: large families with marriage happening in the late Teens.  Many marriage laws for what society would consider 'children' today included age of consent down to 12 in some States.

There are important changes by the start of the 19th century for Americans, but the life expectancy had not increased much over the 16th century, and while the Industrial Revolution would begin to transform America after the 1820's, American family size continued to be large even with advances in medicine, public sanitation and better diet.  Taking these factors into consideration, there is one other major factor that is encountered in the US that sets it apart from its Early Modern English forbearers in the 16th century: it is a society of not much in the way of 'classes' and it is one with a low overhead for maintenance.

The first is relatively self-explanatory, and while there were major land and slave holders in the Southern States (an equivalent of the Gentry class circa 16th century England)  and huge differences between those living in cities and those in rural areas, these are not largely different from the share-cropper system and differences between city and rural folk of the 16th century.  Without the rest of the class structure to burden the system and plenty of wilderness to settle in what happened is that the Americans of the early 19th century gained a definition that stuck until the early 20th century: a Frontier Culture.

By now, of course, this has interrupted all viewing of the course as this is a vital topic but approached in an oblique way.  There are large differences between a 'Settled' culture and a 'Frontier' culture, most of which revolve around the cost of maintenance of the infrastructure necessary to sustain the culture.  It is difficult to think of Early Modern England as a 'settled culture' but it has natural geographic limits to it, even when you consider Great Britain or the UK as a whole: these are islands and have definite boundaries and no frontiers.  Once an island has undergone initial exploration and settling, that is it for new resources and to get claimed land one must purchase it, which requires capital.  If you live in a town or city you can rent space, of course, but in the villages and household settings to have a new household requires land either by purchase or lease, and then a home on it.  There are many records in England from the late 16th century onwards, which allows us to glimpse a bit of everyday life via the records of deaths and coroner's inquests.  Prof. Wrightson recounts the death of one young woman who was working as a servant in a household who, at her death, had a total of 3 Pounds, 3 cows, and a chest containing items of clothing, bedding, bowl, spoon and the like.  Indeed an average of all deaths can actually yield that individuals owned perhaps as many as 25 to 35 items, total upon death.  The savings of a young woman was that of hoping to find a husband, marry, and establish a household amongst the poorer ranks of society.  She was already bringing something to the table for a marriage: she was gathering necessary overhead capital and goods for the start of a future household.

This is a stark contrast to the American Frontier experience that included clearing land, marrying early, and settling that cleared land for little to no overhead cost beyond sweat equity.  Raw materials were readily available, land was anywhere from free to cheap (compared to Early Modern England, at least), and the idea of 'go forth and multiply' was something that was held near and dear to the heart in reverence to God.

What is the condition of America today?


It has a high overhead cost of maintenance to start a household.  Even with politicians distorting lending markets no end, the cost of starting a household is high.  Those that learn the Trades in America, today, actually have a low overhead cost from education: there is less burden on them and a trade craft repays the cost of education in it quickly.  A distorted market in 'Higher Education' arising from the 'good deed'  in the GI Bill post-WWII flooded colleges and universities with people which then changed the requirements in the marketplace for what is a 'minimum necessary education'.  That 'Higher Education' no longer repays itself and is a debt burden to those who go through such education and have no useful job skills at the end of it.  It is a high cost that must be paid down before starting a family.  The result?  The age of marriage has increased, couples expect both parties to bring something to the new household, children are put off for a period of time after marriage, on average and yes there are exceptions to this just as there were in Early Modern England of the 16th century.

At the lowest end of the economic spectrum there is a payment of funds from tax receipts (or in added debt) to the poor to 'care for women and children' who happen to have children out of wedlock.  Women get payments based on number of children and husbands are no longer required to get support: government has taken on that role.  The result is a liquidation of the once solid poor family structure that was purposefully uprooted during the 'Urban Renewal' that started with the Truman Administration and the movement of poor families from homes they owned to tenements they rented from under the 'Great Society' programs.  Add in payments based on childbirth to women who are not required to be married and have a stable family situation, and you liquidate the foundations of the stable culture that was once a part of the urban landscape prior to the 1950's.  Although a Nation in which by any objective standard pre-1940 there is no poverty, at all, we still have the strange belief that the poor are a condition of poverty.  And yet the poor are always with us, as being poor is part of the condition of individuals within mankind. 

Poverty, as such, was transitional in America where anyone could aspire to be a 'rags to riches' story and maybe end up in the Middle Class or at least better off than one's parents in material goods and security.  What there also used to be was no support system for the rich who failed: you could go from rags to riches to rags and cycle back and forth between them.  The establishment of regulatory regimes to allow failing concerns to remain open (and even get direct government help via taxpayer funds) means that those who make poor decisions under those regulatory regimes no longer fail and they no longer succeed, either.  They become zombie concerns depending on the lifeblood of taxpayer funds and supported regulatory regimes to survive and exist.  Any comparisons between this and later English companies supported by the Crown and later found to be bankrupt is purely coincidental with the Modern England.  In the Early Modern England there was too much upheaval to allow for such things.

Thus there are similarities of type between the US of 2014 and mid- to late-16th century England, but not of kind.  There are entirely different sets of overhead concerns for starting a household, and yet they arise for the same reason of being in a settled and geographically limited society.  The Old West in America is just that: the historical Old West.  And while there are still unsettled lands in the US, no one can rightly call them a Frontier in the expansive way of the early 19th century.  Yes Alaska is still nasty, has a low population level and if you can gather the overhead costs to establish yourself there, it has a frontier-like feel to it.  Social stratification becomes more apparent in the modern US but not due to the gentleness of birth but the connectedness to corrupt government and those that serve and service its corruption.  Just as in Early Modern England this is not a stable situation.

The result in Early Modern England was the Industrial Revolution and the great colonization effort that spanned the globe.

America, today, is at the cusp of a similar sort of transformation, as well.  It is not a dour and bleak totalitarian one, that is if we don't work to counter it.  No, it is one that also had an antecedent in Early Modern England: a New Frontier.

America has tested its endless expanse and now is home to many private concerns that dream big dreams of endless expanses of territory and wealth to be made.  It can't be made just by the rich or even with robotic systems, as those are fragile to this new and hostile wilderness.  And in this wilderness children will learn from the earliest of ages how to survive, what to do and not to do, and the rest of 'education' as we know it will be geared to those concerns first and foremost.

What happened when the English had access to new territories?  Some people were banished to them.  Others fled to them because of the freedom they offered for a new life at great risk.  They were Frontiers.  No social stratification.  Relatively low cost of overhead compared to what was left behind. Great and terrible risk to eke out a new life together with those who also decided that this was better than being settled.  Vast populations from Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, Spain, Italy... they followed when the cost of transportation to the Frontier was cheap enough to escape the settled lands of their old homes.

As I've said before and say again: there isn't anything so wrong with America that a New Frontier will not cure.

Freedom and Independence will beckon to us, to all mankind.

No one from the time of Henry VII could have seen the rapid changes that would follow his death.

And we can compress those massive changes of centuries down to decades, and no totalitarian power will be able to stop it once the flood gates open.

All we must do is curtail the grasp of tyranny in the present, hold it off by all means possible, and a New Frontier will open to us.  Like Early Modern England seemed a strange place to look for such transformation in its stratified ways and settled lands, so, too, does America look like a strange place to expect the push for a New Frontier.  Yet Early Modern England was pre-adapted to such things by its history and America, along with a few other Nations, is pre-adapted to Frontier culture by its cultural heritage. 

It is easy to fight tyranny in space: open an airlock.  Nature plays no favorites, but you can.

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