Friday, February 14, 2014

Form and function

Following the class on Early Modern England of the Tudor and Stewart from Yale online 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 offers a look at the problems of the mid- to late-16th century, the time covering Henry VIII, Edward VI, Jane Gray, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I.  This period saw an increase in the population of England, which had been stable since at least the 13th or 14th century.  The records are not good but sizes of villages, towns and cities indicate that coming into the 16th century there were between 2.2 and 2.4 million people in England and by the end of the century that had grown to 3.1 to 3.3 million people.  There was no great advance in public sanitation, medicine or improvement in diet or climate that can be pointed to for this phenomena.  It is possible that the closing of the Monestaries and Nunneries by Henry VIII contributed to this (approx. 25 to 28% of society had been involved with the Church prior to this) which may influence the number of marriages and children being born.  That would be a contributing factor but unlikely to be the driving one.

What happened due to this is classical economic: productivity didn't increase, the land still produced only so much in the way of crops and trade could not increase significantly to off-set shortfalls in food.  Thus with more people and more demand for all goods and limited production basis for goods to be sold and traded, prices rose.  With that poverty increased and a stable work system from the prior century, where individuals worked within 20 miles of where they were born, began to break up.  It was seen, at the time, as a moral problem and that by putting the Crown at the head of the Church of England, that this was some form of moral lack which was being visited upon the Nation as a whole.  That moral view of poverty is one that understood that there were different types of poor.

First there were those who were poor by circumstances.  Widows and those that fell gravely ill and could not work fell into this category.  These people were poor through no fault of their own and it was a moral duty to care for such individuals by families and through charity both through the Church and by civic means through holding special Ales and meals so that the poor could be cared for.  These poor will always be with us: the poor of circumstance.

Second are those who are poor because they lack will to work.  These poor could do something about their problems and deserved perhaps a bit of a charitable hand up at a civil level to at least pay their keep until they could get regular work.  Continuing not to work, after that, was a moral lack of the individual involved.

Those without work in that era faced an economy that would have to expand to employ more people, yet that was not happening.  Thus the poor who lacked work and actively searched for it meant that the old system of working jobs in and around where one was born began to erode, and there were soon people wandering far outside their local environs in the search of work.

In modern times we have added an additional category that has two aspects to this: the cyclical poor.

Cyclical poverty was something seen by those migrant laborers who moved from job to job seasonally, usually with harvest or catch at fisheries.  These individuals were not poor by circumstance or moral character, but by job type and this required different strategies of saving and planning one's life.

The other aspect of this is the rags to riches to rags or shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves phenomena where someone may start poor and find a way to 'make good' then spend their wealth until they are poor again.  This can take generations or it can be with just one individual in a single lifetime.

The forms of poverty in the Early Modern period of England meant hardship, hunger and often rootless wandering in search of work and being able to find a spouse and create a household as I went over in a prior post on this.  Without enough work to sustain a larger family basis and without enough positions available to allow enough work for those willing to do it the economy shifted in ways unknown to prior generations.  The hardship on the poor had effects on the Yeoman and Gentry classes which utilized the necessity for implementing higher land use fees and custom, shortened lease terms and then used funds to buy up lands that the Crown made available as it sold of prior Church land to fund overseas adventures.  The amount of land necessary to rise into the landed Gentry class expanded and number of Yeomen became minor Gentry via consolidating land holdings.

Elizabeth I when she came to power had seen the effects of these changes and took some pages from prior Monarchs in England who had to quell problems in the land that were problematical to the Nation.  Straight out of Henry I she took the idea of revaluing the coinage, which meant that there would be a stable currency with a value that everyone understood.  This is no minor feat during inflationary cycles when the suspicion of adulterated or shaved coinage means the currency value is not respected.  She also took advice to implement the first patent system so that inventors of devices would have a limited term of being sole producers so that some new forms of work could come about to employ more people to the profit of the inventor.  Within the Mercantile Capitalist system this would mean that competition could take place on ingenuity and such law would foster advancement of new ways of doing business to increase the number of people employed in new endeavors.  And for those without enough money to actually invest in creating something new she also put forward a grant system wherein those with good ideas could come to the Crown, outline them and seek to get a minor grant to start up their venture. 

Finally, to deal with foreign affairs, particularly the wars and support for Catholic monarchs by Spain, she had to modernize the Navy while, at the same time, downsizing its utilization of resources which led to lighter, faster and deadlier ships that were hard to target and yet packed a punch above their normal weight class.  There would be some foreign expeditions, yes, and they would be ones that would not have an extremely high overhead and would seek to further support for Protestantism and require Spain to expend resources at a distance which is always a high cost affair.

Of the things that most attracted the Vikings to England during the time of the Danelaw, then under Canute and later under William the Conqueror was that the English people were enormously productive beyond their numbers.  For a period of time between the 7th and 9th century the city of York was the second largest city in Europe, right after Constantinople, which is no mean feat.  Canute left England alone as its vast prosperity was something he did not want to disturb, and he generally left areas under his control to local rule and imposed only a new leadership when it was necessary to assure fealty to him.  Elizabeth I is such a compelling figure in so many ways, perhaps the most intelligent of all the Monarchs of England or at least since Henry I, that it is easy to overlook her understanding of the role of the Monarch in the economy of the Nation as a whole.  She is so appreciated for her enigmatic stances on religion, both re-instituting a Protestant form of Christianity but keeping many of the trappings and forms of Roman Catholicism, that her deep and abiding trust in her own people is often overlooked in the realm of economics.

What she did was to bolster the ability of individuals to be prosperous by their own hand and only put forth limited funds (as they were limited after all the trials and tribulations from the time of her father's divorce to her accession to the throne) to reinforce the economy and shift the Navy from a relatively high overhead affair to one of somewhat lesser overhead.  The Crown could not make the realm prosperous and Elizabeth I put her trust in the people of England to work through inflationary times and use the support she instituted to become far more prosperous which would mean more jobs and productivity for the entire economy.  Before the era of economics she put forth a basic understanding that an economy flows up from its people, not down from the Crown, which was a hard thing to think of coming after the Late Medieval Period.  Plus by taking these measures she would shift the moral case away from the Crown and back to the people, so that they could figure out the best and most moral way to deal with their concerns.

Her wisdom on these matters elude many modern economists who take a very primitive and class oriented view of a Nation and do not understand that a government can only foster prosperity, not institute it.  If her government lacked funds for many things, which it did, by concentrating on the basics of defending the Nation, ensuring the value of the currency, and allowing people to utilize their ingenuity to create businesses and jobs, were in many ways extraordinary and show a keen insight into the basis of a Nation's economy which the majority of modern or modernistic politicians seem unable to grasp.  Her father had, in effect, redistributed the wealth of the Church to fund his Crown ventures and the result was inflation and a slow disintegration of a stable way of life.  With the money spent, the land in the hands of the Gentry and Yeomanry, the Crown could not spend as it did under Henry VIII and, instead, had to find a new way to do much with very little.  In doing this Elizabeth I draws us in on this level as well and demonstrates what an extraordinary woman and Queen she was who placed her faith not in government but in the people of England.  She figured she could handle the government on her own and beguile it and later generations no end, which she accomplished.

We could learn much of how a government that keeps to its knitting and lets the people be free to innovate and protects such innovation for limited duration can help change the economic aspects of the people and the Nation to the benefit of all.  Sadly such advanced learning is overlooked in a more primitive redistribution of wealth and an impoverishing of all to the benefit of the very, very few.  For so much supposed learning of the current crop of Elites, they sure aren't that advanced in their thinking.

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