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Early Modern Consumerism

A/N: Part I, paper 16 essay from Lent term of the 2008/09 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. M. Laven at Jesus.

'The Early Modern Period Witnessed The Birth of Europe's Consumer Society' Discuss.

To pronounce such a statement valid or, indeed, invalid a number of issues must be considered. A ‘consumer society’ implies a widespread consumption of mass produced goods; were such goods available in the early modern period? If they were, did people increase their consumption? Could they even afford to buy such goods? The work of economic historians on the topic has brought little consensus beyond the recognition of extreme regional variation. Mendels’ theory of proto-industrialisation seems to suggest an increasing dependence on the monetary economy, and a corresponding rise in consumption. Yet in recent years it has faced criticism on all sides; historians like Ogilvie have undermined the idea that such specialisation was forced on Europe by a growing population. Braudel and Spooner argue that regardless of the specifics, economic stagnation was the norm across Europe meaning increased consumption was not possible. Davis disagrees, arguing that the situation changed dramatically over the period and across regions; seventeenth-century Castile might have been facing economic crisis, but in Catalonia the economy was growing. More qualitative data seems to show that consumption was increasing; the demand for Chinese porcelain continually outstripped supply in the sixteenth-century for example. This essay shall seek to prove that the early modern period certainly witnessed the sophistication of consumer society, but that it was by no means a geographically consistent process.

For French economic historians the seventeenth-century is ‘tragic’ and likewise many historians looking at Europe as a whole have claimed that the early modern period was a time of economic stagnation. Rising population levels put increasing strain on land supplies; in France for example many peasants were scraping a subsistence existence with less than two and half hectares (i.e. around 6 acres) when historians such as Hatcher have argued that, given the primitive state of agricultural technology, anything below thirty acres was insufficient. The little money that the majority of the population managed to make was often barely sufficient to pay rising taxes. French public revenues from taxation rose from an average of twenty million livres per annum in 1600 to 100 million by 1640. Such intense economic burdens might be supposed to have left most of the early modern population with next to no disposable income. In addition early modern Europe faced a succession of plagues, famines, and other disasters which meant that a subsistence existence was the best many could hope for. Le Roy Ladurie suggests, for example, that whilst the daily calorie intake of French peasants did not fall on average over the early modern period, the quality of their diet was greatly reduced. The rising price of meat meant that around ninety per cent of their intake came from course ‘blackened’ bread. This would suggest that even with better goods available, the majority could not afford to buy them. With such a pessimistic overview it would seem unlikely that the capital was available for Europe to become a consumer society.

Such a view of early modern Europe is misleading however. The fundamental problems of economic history mean that much of it is, at best, educated guesswork and has considerable error margins. Zanden for example discusses the ‘Gerschenkron effect’; the further back one chooses weights for a consumer price index, the lower the measured growth rate will be. Groebner expresses concern over measuring purchasing power in rye grain: the main purchase in many areas was bread, which was generally between forty and eighty per cent more expensive. Many more examples could be cited but the implication would be the same; much work that, at first glance, appears so concrete and irrefutable, backed up with reams of figures and statistics, is actually far from definitive. The contemporary reality rarely followed the logical theories outlined by historians. There were always exceptions to the rules; for example Spain and Portugal enjoyed economic expansion at the beginning of the early modern period, only encountering difficulties as time wore on. Similarly although stagnation was true of fifteenth century England by the sixteenth century it, along with the Dutch Republic, was experiencing marked economic growth. Clearly this pessimistic view of the early modern European economy is too generalised.

A good example of the problems surrounding economic theory can be found in the concept of proto-industrialisation. Formulated by Mendels in the 1970s, it claimed that there was part-time industry in the countryside long before the so called ‘Industrial Revolution’. Despite the widespread acceptance of the theory into historiographical debate it has been criticised on all points. For instance Mendels linked proto-industrialisation with the pauperisation of the peasantry; they were forced into it because of ‘land hunger’. Ogilvie discovered that in Germany however it was typically those peasants who had a substantial landholding that were involved in proto-industry as they had more capital to invest in it, and a larger household workforce. Despite such inconsistencies however the idea of proto-industry has inspired a number of illuminative studies into regional industrial activities. Such studies have shown that in some areas the population were almost wholly dependent on the market for necessities. In Cornwall for example landholdings had been typically less than five acres throughout the medieval period; here the population was heavily involved in tin mining and so tended to buy the food they needed. Technological advances in proto-industry could also serve to lower prices; this was especially apparent in the textile industry for instance, by the end of the period even coloured cotton was relatively cheap. It is apparent that, in some areas at least, the ability to consume was there.

In order for a consumer society to be born there must be a supply of consumer goods. International trade saw large numbers of imported goods reach European markets. By the sixteenth-century a quarter of Dutch trade was in imported spices for example. Similarly Chinese porcelain, Turkish silks, and American sugar all found their way onto the European market. Proto-industrialisation too helped to vastly increase the number of goods on the market. In the iron industry production per head more than doubled between 1500 and 1790 for example, and the new textile proto-industries saw affordable cloth flood into the markets. As demand for imported goods outstripped supply domestic markets tried to plug the gap; imitation porcelain was made throughout Europe for example, like the famous Delftware from the Netherlands. Fuel too was consumed on a much larger scale; Paris spent around 300,000 livres per annum on almost 3,000 streetlights, lit by wax candles. By 1789 700,000 livres was being spent on over 7,000 lanterns to ‘cause foreigners to know and admire its [i.e. Paris’] splendour’. Goods, then, were certainly available, even if not always in sufficient quantities. Could Jean Baptiste Say have been right when he claimed that ‘supply creates its own demand’?

So far we have established that the economic ability to buy goods was apparent in early modern Europe, as was the supply of actual goods. In order to be a true consumer society however the desire to consume must also have been apparent. Amongst the privileged upper echelons of society the trend towards conspicuous consumption had long been apparent. Elaborate tapestries and suchlike had long been part of the inventory of royalty and the nobility. Yet in some parts of Europe trade was widening the ranks of the upper orders, thus widening the competitive accumulation of goods. Goldthwaite for instance describes how architecture and the cultural ideal of refinement led the civil elites to patronise talented craftsmen. Conspicuous consumption of imported porcelain and fine art was, then, not only an indicator of social status but also a sign of ‘civilisation’. Fynes Moryson commented that the Italians ‘bestow their money in stable things… where as our [English] greatest expense end in the casting out of excrements.’ Moryson may have had more respect for the durable consumption of the Italian civic elite but ‘luxury’ foodstuffs were forming a large portion of consumption across Europe. As the Dutch Republic was granted trading privileges in Asia spices and tea was imported in ever greater quantities; reflected in the new trend for porcelain tea services. The major difference between medieval and early modern elite consumption was this new focus n ‘civility’ and ‘luxury’ (or, perhaps, ‘comfort’ might be a better term). Houses were built with more rooms to provide privacy, and rooms were assigned specific purposes. Conspicuous consumption sought to make these houses both comfortable and status symbols.

A similar situation becomes apparent amongst the lower orders. De Vries writes of the ‘backward bending labour supply curve’, this describes the generally observable trend amongst the working classes of preferring to work less when wages were high, rather than working harder to buy more. Vestiges of this mindset remained apparent into the nineteenth century in England with the continued observance of ‘Saint Monday’. Yet in many areas a visible change was taking place. People were encouraged, and apparently did, work increasingly long hours. Some of this was the impact of religious upheaval. On the eve of the reformation the guilds in Netherlands required observance of 47 feast days; after the reformation this figure fell to just 6. Similarly Kjaergaad found that working hours in Denmark increased by roughly fifty per cent between 1500 and 1800. However Catholic countries, such as France, saw a similar increase in working hours. The contemporary Sir James Steuart wrote that ‘men are forced to labour now because they are slaves to their own wants’. Consumption was increasing; soap, for example, became a staple purchase of the lower orders in this period. In England ‘luxury’ consumption was on the rise too; gin consumption for example rose from 500,000 gallons in 1680 to over 7 million gallons in 1751. This desire to consume can perhaps best be seen in the disregard of sumptuary laws; in France Louis XIII’s regulated against the ‘Superfluity of Dress’ to little affect. In England contemporaries lamented the way that the lower orders were attempting to emulate their betters. It seems that those who could participate in this increased consumption were.

In conclusion early modern Europe did, in many ways, witness the birth of consumer society. Although conspicuous consumption had been the norm amongst the elites throughout the medieval period, the early modern period saw a huge widening of the sectors of society who consumed substantially. Urbanisation and ‘land hunger’ forced people into relying on the monetary economy in some areas such as parts of England. In others, such as the Dutch Republic, the favourable impact of trade saw an increase in the consumption of non-necessities such as artwork and decorative pottery. Yet it must be remembered that some areas remained little affected; the situation in parts of France due to war and bad harvests meant the peasantry was unable to raise the capital to become part of the market economy. Some countries, like Spain and Portugal, saw initial forays into the consumerism, only for circumstances to set the process back. It is thus impossible to generalise the European experience. Some areas saw a new age of consumerism, with goods flooding the market and the population working extra hours to afford them. In others the population was forced to work even harder just to carve a subsistence existence from their small landholdings. Where conditions were favourable then a new age of consumerism was visible.


  • Vries, J. de; The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 1600-1750, (1976), pp. 1-29, 176-209, 236-54. 
  • Zanden, J.L. van; ‘Early Modern economic growth. A survey of the European economy, 1500-1800’, in Prak, M., ed., Early Modern Capitalism. Economic and Social Change in Europe, 1400-1800, (2001).
  • Davis, R; The Rise of the Atlantic Economies, (1973), Chs. 1, 4, 6, 9-14. 
  • Ogilvie, S. & Cerman, M., eds., European Proto-Industrialzation, (1996), chs. 1-4, 7-10, 13-15. III.Cultures of Consumption 
  • Brewer, J. and R. Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods, (1993), chs. 5, 7, 8.
  • Goldthwaite, R; ‘The Empire of Things: Consumer Demand in Renaissance Italy’, in Kent, F.W. and Simons, P., eds., Patronage, Art and Society in Renaissance Italy, (1987). 
  • Groebner, V; ‘Towards an Economic History of Customary Practise: The Food Market in the Late Middle Ages’, German History, 12/2, (1994). 
  • Le Roy Ladurie, E; The Peasants of Languedoc, (1979), chs. 3, 4. 
  • Roche, D; A History of Everyday Things. The birth of consumption in France, 1600-1800, (2000). 
  • Vries, J. de; ‘The Industrial Revolution and the industrious revolution’, Journal of Economic History, (1994).


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