Selling England by the pound

The Business Community of Seventeenth-Century England
January 24, 1997

Richard Grassby has grappled with the business literature covering 1590 to 1720, and tried to fashion an overview of the contribution of business to the rise of England. The text, along with over 3,500 citations and various records, looks at business as a career, the influences on businessmen, how they made their fortunes, and ran their lives.

This is a bold work, with strong likes and dislikes. It cuts a determined swathe, subordinating Stewart absolutism, civil war and interregnum, the Restoration and post-1688, and includes interesting, though often sweeping assertions as to what made a business succeed. Darwinism is frequently invoked. Those businessmen "who believed that they would prevail, were the fittest in a Darwinian struggle for survival": while "genetic inheritance is too random" to explain differences in aptitude, "businessmen do seem to have selected themselves, and to have been born, not made". But these claims are hedged around with environmental factors.

Grassby dismisses many of the ideas familiar to 17th-century scholars. The neoclassical economists receive short shrift. Historical sociologists are not favoured. Liberal and Marxist theories of the development of the bourgeoisie "are untenable". Proto-industrialisation is an "equally dubious notion"; "Protestantism could not serve as the ideology of business". Scholars will be pleased to read that it should be "mandatory for any theorist to sweat over a ledger for six months before he could pontificate about capitalism". Historians, apparently, fall either into the category of entrepreneur or bureaucrat, an intriguing claim. This is all lively stuff, although those familiar with these areas may well feel that some of his comments are rather too brief.

The challenge for scholars faced with the huge literature on 17th-century business is the diversity of the routes by which family connection, local affinities, and religious and social values, provided a structure for life and nurtured good practice. There is a vast scholarship on the ebb and flow of royal power, the strengths of Parliament before and after 1688, the common laws and regulations, the new joint-stocks, the navy and warfare, and the crucial, late-century commitment to a stable, sound currency, with strong, low-interest credit. While individual competition and ruthlessness, and the knife-edge of risk-taking, were part of business, they are not the whole story. Many economic activities, including the largest by far, agriculture, and also the foreign trades, grew in the context of policy and state power. They were in the hands of many with deep social and family bonds, a high-leisure preference, running their lives in accordance with Church and community, regulations, diplomacy, the power of the JPs, and the rest of the panoply of government and law.

Grassby has an uneasy relationship with statistics, and is hesitant to use good series where available. In the case of inventories, which he discusses, recent statistical work is overwhelming and convincing, and tells us a great deal about the material possessions of the well-off. His mention of clocks, books and other possessions would have been stronger for grappling with these figures. A similar stricture about his grip on statistics applies to foreign trade, shipping tonnage, credit, the Bank of England, public finances, even building fluctuations. The section on business returns would have benefited from a table.

There are interesting sections, including the relations of businessmen to intellectual pursuits, the fine arts and the importance of family and human capital; it is particularly effective in the way landed classes trained their heirs, and why younger sons were pushed into trade. There are useful notes on trade and small-scale production, especially in London.

But the weaknesses will be apparent to those familiar with the literature. There is little on gentry and aristocratic production, or the difficulties of landlords struggling with technology and nature in the basic industries of coal, iron, copper and lead. The book lacks a clear sense of economic change over these 130 years. Yet, as institutional arrangements shifted, especially in the years of political turmoil, it was obvious that the opportunities emerged for large joint-stocks, finance, banking, foreign trades, colonial development, and war production; indeed, one of the reasons contemporaries gave for political change was the need to nurture new economic growth.

There is a sophisticated literature on the 17th century and it will always be tough to write an adequate business history. The assumptions guiding this work, especially those of Darwinism, however tempered by reality, are rather thin ice for such a project.

Richard Saville is lecturer in economic history, St Andrews University.

The Business Community of Seventeenth-Century England

Author - Richard Grassby
ISBN - 0 521 43450 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 615

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