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Episodes

Chapter 4: Creating Utopia

Are we living in Thomas More’s Utopia? In this chapter, we’ll explore his book and his life to chart the path toward the industrialized world we inhabit today.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • The rise of cottage industry

  • Mechanical innovations

  • Increasing specialization

  • The war industry’s impact on mass production

  • The impact of the Protestant Reformation

Sources for this episode include:

Allen, Robert C. Enclosure and the Yeoman: The Agricultural Development of the South Midlands 1450-1850. Clarendon Press. 1992.

Allitt, Patrick N. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Great Courses. 2014.

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Vintage. 2014.

Ferguson, Niall. The Accent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Penguin Books. 2008.

Houston, Rab, and K. D. M. Snell. “Proto-Industrialization? Cottage Industry, Social Change, and Industrial Revolution.” The Historical Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 1984, pp. 473–492.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Revised edition. Edited by George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams. Cambridge University Press. 2002.

Herreld, Donald J. "An Economic History of the World Since 1400." The Great Courses. 2016.

Satia, Priya. Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Penguin Press. 2018.

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. 4th Edition. Westview Press. 2013.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage. 1966.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. Routledge Classics. 2001.


Full Transcript

So, I’m a little weird. On a pretty regular basis I find the modern world amazing. When I’m on an airplane, or in a skyscraper. When I binge watch a TV show on my Roku or get a book downloaded to my Kindle. Even when I’m walking down the street with my dog.

And during these moments, I imagine if someone from the past was with us today. Someone who lived in the world before the industrial revolutions. How it would blow them away.

And I have someone very particular in mind for these moments: Sir Thomas More.

If you’re Catholic, you might know him better as Saint Thomas More.

You see, back when he was alive in the 1500s, he was the Lord Chancellor of England, serving under King Henry VIII. A devout Catholic, part of More’s duties involved investigating protestants and then burning them at the stake for heresy.

But then, Henry wanted an annulment from his wife so he could marry his mistress. The Pope was not cool with it – although that was for geopolitical reasons as much as it was for religious or ethical concerns.

So, Henry said, “You know what? I’m really the head of the church in my own country. And the guy I just appointed Archbishop of Canterbury says the annulment is fine. So now we’re Protestant, and I need everyone in the country to sign an oath saying the Pope has no authority over me.”

Very few people refused to sign that oath. But Thomas More was one of them. And so, he was executed on July 6th, 1535. In the 20th Century he was canonized for his martyrdom. And today he’s the patron saint of public servants and politicians.

But years before all that drama, he wrote a book. And it’s a book you’ve probably heard of, even if you didn’t know More wrote it.

It was called Utopia. In fact, it’s from this book we get the word “utopia.” Today, we see a utopian society as a perfect society that could never really exist. A clever play on Greek words, it effectively means both “happy place” and “no place.”

And the book, Utopia, is a fascinating read. On the one hand, More was trying to emulate Plato with this theoretical discussion of an ideal society, at a time (coming out of the Middle Ages) when very few Westerners were familiar with Greek philosophy. On the other hand, More is going for some mass appeal by writing an explorer novel – a very popular form of fiction made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press and the discoveries of Columbus and da Gama.

More writes it as a fictional account of his conversation with an explorer named Raphael, who recounts his travels to the island of Utopia. The first part of the book he complains about everything wrong in Europe – particularly England. Too much war, too much politicking at the royal court, such a harsh system of justice against the poor, such thieving aristocrats. But then in the second part of the book, he describes Utopia.

Utopia is nothing like the England of the 1500s. Among other things, it’s a place where the people share a common language and culture among the many different towns and cities. It’s a federal republic with representative government, chosen by secret ballot. They have square streets laid out conveniently for the use of vehicles, populated with long rows of well-built houses.

There’s universal primary education and literacy – for girls as well as boys. Women do many of the same jobs as men, and can even become priests. People can choose their profession. There’s social mobility. There’s a limit of hours to the workday. They use paper money. There are distinguished people but no powerful nobility.

The cities are kept clean because food production is kept outside the cities. Special attention is paid to public health. They practice preventative health care and the sick are cared for in huge hospitals. Assisted suicide is allowed. They have meteorology and public lectures that resemble TED Talks. Many have concerns for animal rights. Nobody gets married until they’re adults. There’s religious freedom and religious pluralism. (and yes, given his future as a Protestant persecutor, the irony of More writing that is lost on nobody)

When you look around the world today it seems… well, positively utopian.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. There’s plenty of other stuff in the book that in no way resembles the world we (or anybody) inhabits. And the whole system described in the book is only made possible by slavery.

Still, it makes you think.

But this episode isn’t going to be about the comparisons between the industrialized world and More’s Utopia. I’m not that interested with the second part of the book.

I’m interested in the first part of the book. Everything wrong with England at the time. And one very specific complaint More makes about the state of agriculture. Because an unforeseen consequence of the practices he describes would send us down the path toward that industrialized world.

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This is The Industrial Revolutions

Chapter 4: Creating Utopia

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After the Black Death, the agricultural system in England saw considerable changes. There were fewer serfs to farm the land. So, a lot of the land was either abandoned, or turned into pasture for grazing.

And it was sheep grazing, in particular, that turned out to be really profitable. England has a comparative advantage with wool production. And unlike growing wheat and barley, it doesn’t require very much manpower.

So began a centuries-long practice in England called enclosure, where the landholders would convert their farms to pastures, going so far as to remove peasant farmers from the land and fence it off to prevent them from growing crops there.

Let me read you some passages from Utopia, the first part, where Raphael complains about a force driving Englishmen to thievery.

Your sheep, that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now, as I hear, they have become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings themselves. They devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns.

For in whatever parts of the land sheep yield the finest and thus the most expensive wool, there the nobility and gentry, yes, and even a good many abbots – holy men – are not content with the old rents that the land yielded to their predecessors.

Living in idleness and luxury without doing society any good no longer satisfies them; they have to do positive harm. For they leave no land free for the plough; they enclose every acre for pasture; they destroy houses and abolish towns, keeping the churches – but only for sheep barns…

…Thus, so that one greedy, insatiable glutton, a frightful plague to his native country, may enclose thousands of acres within a single fence, the tenants are ejected; and some are stripped of their belongings by trickery or brute force, or wearied by constant harassment, are driven to sell them.

One way or another, these wretched people – men, women, husbands, wives, orphans, widows, parents with little children and entire families (poor, but numerous, since farming requires many hands) – are forced to move out. They leave the only homes familiar to them, and can find no place to go…

…There is no need for farm labor, in which they have been trained, when there is no land left to be planted. One herdsman or shepherd can look after a flock of beasts large enough to stock an area that used to require many hands to make it grow crops…

By the 1670s, more than 825,000 acres of farmland had been enclosed – sometimes as an agreement between tenant and landholder, but more often than not the decision was unilateral. Nearly 300 villages were abandoned as a result.

So, what was the effect of enclosure?

First of all, the government responded by giving some non-aristocrats their own land. These free, commoner farmers were called Yeomen. Between the new farms owned by yeomen and the process of fencing off sheep grazing pastures, England was establishing the right to private property.

Thomas More was not a fan.

“I am wholly convinced that until private property is entirely abolished, there can be no fair or just distribution of goods, nor can the business of mortals be conducted happily,” says the fictional Raphael. “As long as private property remains, by far the largest and best part of the human race will be oppressed by a distressing and inescapable burden of poverty and anxieties.”

But with private property rights secured, an incentive for capital investments was created. New inventions are very nice, but totally useless until someone pays to make them a reality.

The other major effect, it would seem, was the rise of cottage industry.

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With ever-increasing wool production, many rural English families put knitting frames in their houses. Merchants would buy wool and pay these families to spin and weave it. This is an early example of the put-out system, which will be the model for a global textile trade centuries later. The money they made producing finished wool products helped supplement their incomes as crop farming was replaced by sheep grazing.

And other proto-industries popped up too. The manufacturing of pins would be especially important in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as the goofy ruffs people wore around their necks became popular. And as I mentioned in Chapter 2, glass manufacturing picks up with the spread of printed books and pamphlets.

Wind mills and water mills had been used for millennia by this point, but they become much more common in the age of cottage industry. Mills were primarily used to grind wheat into flour, but they were also used for other proto-industrial purposes. In the Netherlands, for example, windmills were used to power the saws and hoists in ship building.

Before the steam engine, mills were the only form of production that used power not generated by a human or animal. But this kind of labor-saving technology was likely an early inspiration for later feats of mechanical engineering, especially in textiles.

With cottage industry came cottage capitalism.

At first, the families who put things like knitting frames in their houses were doing it on a small scale. They’d buy the equipment themselves and do the labor themselves. But then came our old friend, the potato, and the population started to increase. That meant more demand for wool clothing and more workers looking for a job.

So, some of these cottages hired workers from outside the family. Early factories start to appear in the early 1500s, but they were slow to spread, partially because of fierce opposition from the urban guilds, and partially because national governments didn’t know what to do with them yet. But the factory system started to pick up in the late 1600s, as proto-industrial families were buying more wool than they were able to produce by themselves.

With an increased labor force in the small, new factories, organizational principles improved. Tasks were subdivided to improve the overall efficiency of the factory.

The concept of specialization had existed for millennia, but only insofar as some people were farmers, and some were priests, and some were weavers, and some were blacksmiths. Now you had specialization within the production process of a single good. Someone was in charge of spinning, someone else weaving, someone else packaging, someone else shipping, someone else accounts payable.

With this rise in wage labor came a rise in demand throughout the economy. For most of history, spending decisions were made by your household for your household. But increasingly, individuals were making purchases for themselves and just themselves. Output soared to meet growing demand. Economic growth was starting to happen in the ways we think of it today.

Children raised in the families of these expanding cottage industries would often go on to inherit them. Not only did this mean an accumulation of wealth for re-investment, but also new ideas. Many a boy who watched his parent’s system growing up figured out how to improve it when he finally took over.

And it’s in these settings, by the early 18th Century, we begin to see the development of two distinct industrial classes: the classes Marx called the bourgeoises and the Proletariat. During a trade slump in 1736, for example, one proto-industrialist noted that he had to lay-off many of his workers, demonstrating a new sense of manufacturing labor expendability.

Assisting this rise of capitalism was the advent of merchant manuals. The proto-industrialists were able to buy pamphlets and periodicals that outlined new production processes, trade tips, pricing data, and more. They weren’t just feeling out the market, they were actively studying it.

It wasn’t just enclosure though. In the first part of Utopia, More complains about another human tragedy that ultimately led to industrialization: War.

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Since the time of Henry VIII, the manufacturing of cannons and firearms was a major industry in Great Britain, and in the lead up to the first industrial revolution, there were few industries larger than the one supporting European wars and global domination.

As I mentioned in Chapter 2, cannons required cast iron work, which meant ore mining. And to mold the cannons required considerable heat, meaning coal was need, meaning coal mining was needed too. And as we’ll see in a few episodes, iron and coal mining are going to play a major role in what’s to come. In fact, many historians speculate that it was Britain’s considerable coal resources, often densely packed, that made the first industrial revolution possible.

But there was another way militarization led to industrialization – a way that’s often overlooked.

Military drills require uniformity, down to what the soldiers and sailors are wearing. Obviously weapon training needed to be similarly uniform. So, to train every solider and sailor how to fire his weapon properly, all the weapons needed to be identical.

In 1716, an agent of the British government’s Small Gun Office went to Birmingham to instruct workers there how to fit locks to a mold. His name was Richard Woolridge and he was part of the effort to get the country’s gun manufactures on the same page.

You see, until the early 18th Century, firearms were often treated like luxury items. They were things of beauty, crafted by skilled gunsmiths who were proud of the detail they put into their work. But with thousands of soldiers needing guns, the manufactures were pressured into reducing the artisanal value of their products.

It was a process fraught with drama. The government and the contractors couldn’t seem to agree on price. The contractors were convinced that the low price the government was seeking wouldn’t allow them to create an end-product they would be proud of. So, the government decided to divide up work among several contractors. One would be in charge of the muzzles, another the bayonets, another the flintlocks, etc. Then they were assembled into a standard musket for all British soldiers: The Brown Bess.

Over the years, the design of the Brown Bess would occasionally be improved, but this standard Land Pattern Musket would be the firearm of British soldiers for over a hundred years.

And the war industry was leading to other innovations across the North Sea. The Dutch weren’t just mass-producing components of the ships they were building, they went a step further and manufactured interchangeable parts. These advancements greatly sped up the ship building process.

And the blast furnace was becoming more and more popular in the Netherlands, England, and northern France. While primarily used to make cannons at first, this technology was applied to scale output in other metallurgy.

So, we see proto-industrial developments across northern Europe, which leads us to ask the obvious question: “Why England? What happened there that made not only proto-industrialization, but the first industrial revolution, possible?”

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To explain proto-industrialization – or, the “Industrious Revolution” as it’s sometimes called – many scholars have pointed to religion in northern Europe. Prussia, the Netherlands, and England were all Protestant countries. Even France had the Huguenots way back when.

This theory was popularized by leftist historian Max Weber in his famous 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and Spirt of Capitalism. In it, he suggests that capitalism came in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther came along and gave “everyday worldly activity a religious significance.” Then, John Calvin spread his theory of predestination, and in time, followers of Calvinist sects would try to demonstrate how they were among the elect for heavenly salvation by living soberly and accumulating wealth.

The history of Protestantism did play a huge role in the coming of the Industrial Revolution, but only marginally for the reasons Weber supposed.

You see, Henry VIII removed England from the control of the Catholic Church, but theologically he wasn’t super-Protestant. He liked most of the old Catholic traditions and rituals. He destroyed the monasteries, yes, but only to take their money. The Protestants in his kingdom were usually itching to take the Reformation further.

When Henry died in 1547, he was succeeded by his only son, Edward VI. But Edward – the son of Henry’s third wife – was only nine years old when he took the throne, and so during his reign, the kingdom was governed by his Council of Regency. And those guys were super-Protestant. Catholics were persecuted and all the old Catholic traditions of the Church of England were dismantled.

But then Edward died, at just 15 years old, with no heir of his own. And the crown passed to his older sister, Mary, the daughter of Henry’s first wife.

And like her jilted mom, Mary was super-Catholic. Protestants were persecuted and the Catholic Church was restored entirely. For her deeds, Protestants called her Bloody Mary, which (I assume) is where we get the name of the breakfast cocktail.

And then five years later, Mary died without an heir! So, the crown was passed to her younger sister, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife, the mistress, Anne Boleyn.

Elizabeth was Protestant so, once again, England left the Catholic church. But theologically she was no zealot. Surely influenced by the fact that her parents’ marriage started this whole reformation mess – and then her father beheaded her mother anyway – Elizabeth was ready to simmer things down.

And so, the Church of England developed in sort of a compromised way that was structured like the old Catholic Church and with some basic rituals and stuff, but with the incense and Latin and literal interpretation of the eucharist removed.

This arrangement pleased some people more than others. Certainly, the Catholics weren’t big fans, but they were seen as in league with England’s enemies on the continent anyway, especially Spain, so they best kept their mouths shut.

But the more radical Protestants weren’t big fans either. And what was supposed to be a pejorative term for these folks took off as a description they were quite proud of. They were Puritans.

The Puritans never really got acclimated in the Anglican Church, which they saw as watered-down Catholicism. Instead they tended to prefer something closer to what the Scots were doing with their Presbyterian churches.

Puritans would play a major role in English history – and even U.S. colonial history – for the next hundred and some years. As a result of the English Civil War in the mid-1600s, the country was briefly ruled by a Puritan named Oliver Cromwell. More pressing than religious disagreements was a disagreement over the nature of monarchy. Charles I said divine will made him king, therefore he could do whatever he wanted. But in English history, going back to the Middle Ages, the Parliament had represented taxpayers, and all tax increases had to be approved by that body, a pretty unique situation in Europe at the time. The King and Parliament went to war. The king lost. There was no more monarchy. Well, for a few years anyway.

After the monarchy was restored, with Charles II, there was yet another succession crisis.

Charles had something like eight kids, but none with his actual wife. So, when he died, the crown passed to his brother, James II. And this was a problem because, in the years leading up to his ascension, James had converted to Catholicism. And then he had a son with his Catholic second wife. And you can probably see why the thoroughly Protestant English started freaking out.

So they invited James’ Protestant daughter by his first marriage, Mary, to sail on over from Holland with her husband, William of Orange. In 1688 they invaded, James fled, and his daughter and son-in-law became the new King and Queen in what is known to history as the Glorious Revolution. Anglican Protestantism was restored.

This had a pretty profound impact in a few ways.

First of all, the new King William was no random dude. He was the Stadtholder of the United Provinces of the Dutch republic. And with him came some Dutch ideas, including publicly-sold government bonds to help finance the growing British empire. Prior to issuing bonds, the government would have to borrow from the goldsmiths who assigned interest on royal debt to their own creditors.

The effect of the change was it shored up British finances, something that wasn’t happening in most of Europe. British rivals like France and Spain let spending get totally out of control during the age of global empires, and they frequently screwed over their creditors. And bond purchasers had found a way to hedge their investments. This way they could invest some money in a risky business venture while having other money secure in a government bond.

Second of all, the Glorious Revolution put an end to the religious and political chaos of the last 150 years in England. There would be no more arguments about the divine will of the king versus the Parliament. It would be a constitutional monarchy, which helped solidify private property rights. This created a more stable environment for investment, including investment in industrial technologies.

And finally, the near-death experience of Protestantism in England tempered the old Anglican-Puritan divide. The Puritan movement split into a number of new sects like the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers. Together, they were called the Dissenters or the Nonconformists, because they operated outside the official Church of England.

And to belong to a nonconformist church was to belong in a sort of social purgatory. On the one hand, you were allowed to practice your faith as you see fit and earn a living in all sorts of cottage industries. You didn’t face the kind of discrimination and harassment that Catholics typically did. On the other hand, you weren’t given very many opportunities. You couldn’t serve in government. You couldn’t be a military officer. You couldn’t send your kids to Cambridge or Oxford. Your family couldn’t climb the social ladder into the nobility.

The thing is, climbing the social ladder is what you did in Europe in those days. Peasants wanted to be yeomen, yeomen wanted to be electors, electors wanted to be knights and MPs, knights and MPs wanted to be lords, lords wanted to be dukes, etc.  But to do it meant spending money. It took money to go to Cambridge and Oxford. It took money to keep up a manor. It took money to get elected to Parliament and serve in government.

With the nonconformists making money from their cottage industries, but barred from the social ladder, what would they do? Well, they could have used it to buy fancy clothes and get drunk, but that wasn’t really fitting with their religions. This is where the sober-living ideas of Weber kind of fit into the narrative.

Instead, they reinvested their money into their businesses, accumulating a massive amount of capital along the way.  

These were the ways England’s unique history with the Protestant Reformation fed into industrialization. They correspond to a number of circumstances to try to explain why the first industrial revolution started in England – and perhaps, happened at all.

There was:

  • The legacy of enclosure and cottage industry;

  • The emergence of so-called “war capitalism”, with nationalized efforts to standardize the production of ships and weapons;

  • An age of Enlightenment that included political theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, influenced by the battle of ideas in the English Civil War, but also included scientists like Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, and the Royal Society;

  • A merchant class getting rich from the slave trade and the trade of products cultivated by slaves;

  • The emergence of private property rights, joint stock corporations, a bond market, sophisticated forms of insurance, a Central Bank, and other financial instruments;

  • An especially good system of transport infrastructure, particularly canals – which I haven’t really talked about but will get to it in a future episode;

  • The availability of natural resources like coal and iron ore;

  • And, yes, the Protestant ethic – or, at least, the limited options available to specific kinds of Protestants in Great Britain.

Perhaps all of these elements were necessary for the industrial revolutions. Perhaps some but not others. Perhaps all of these elements could have been in place, but it took sheer luck for industrialization to happen. Who knows?

But the revolution does happen. And it happens in England, starting in the mid-18th Century, thanks to one specific industry: Textiles. Next week, on the Industrial Revolutions.

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A quick administrative note, you may have noticed there was not a bonus episode this week. There was a scheduling conflict with the interview, so that episode has been postponed. I’ll let everyone know on social media when it’s ready.

But that means you need to follow me on social media! The Industrial Revolutions is on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @IndRevPod, that’s @ I-N-D – R-E-V – P-O-D.

And this Tuesday there will be a bonus episode, so come back to hear it. Thank you.

Dave Broker