The rise of agrarian capitalism and the decline of family farming in England

The rise of agrarian capitalism and the decline of family farming in

Farming - Early Modern
Farming – Early Modern


Leigh Shaw-Taylor

Economic History Review, Vol.65 (2012)


Historians have documented rising farm sizes throughout the period 1450-1850. Existing studies have revealed much about the mechanisms underlying the development of agrarian capitalism. However, we currently lack any consensus as to when the critical developments occurred. This is largely due to the absence of sufficiently large and geographically wide-ranging datasets but is also attributable to conceptual weaknesses in much of the literature. This paper develops a new approach to the problem and argues that agrarian capitalism was dominant in southern and eastern England by 1700 but that in northern England the critical developments came later.

This article aims to document the timing of the shift to agrarian capitalism in England. By 1800 England’s agrarian social structure was very different from that which prevailed in most parts of Europe. The agrarian landscape was dominated by a tripartite social structure in which most of the land was owned by large landowners, rented to large-scale tenant capitalist farmers and worked by agricultural proletarians whereas small scale family or peasant farming generally predominated on the continent. English agriculture was also characterised by much higher levels of labour productivity than the rest of Europe. The high labour productivity of English agriculture is widely held to have been a consequence of its distinctive social structure. In two of the most influential recent accounts of the first industrial revolution both Tony Wrigley and Nick Crafts have attributed England’s precocious early industrialisation to the high labour productivity of its agriculture. More recently Crafts and Harley have explicitly argued that England’s agrarian capitalism is the key to understanding why England industrialised before other European countries.

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