Throughout the economic reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries life for the peasantry moved from one ill to another. The turbulent economic changes that marked this period would benefit the lifestyle of one generation only to completely impoverish the next. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century that the standard of living for the average citizen moved toward what could be considered comfortable.
In the early part of the 1700s the majority of Europeans were living in rural communities of no larger than 1000 people. Their lives focused only on survival. They would farm small plots of a larger field, the right for which they would often have to pay a considerable amount of their income as rent to the landholder. In most cases, for warmth they would sleep under the same roof as their animals, and heating sources usually consisted of wood, peat or dung, but very rarely coal.
While this lifestyle is harsh it had its benefits. Due to the fact that one field would be cultivated by a large portion of the community, decisions on the crop rotation would have to be determined as a community. This provided the peasant with some modicum of freedom.
When landholders started enclosing fields, and began cultivating them for profit, it devastated millions. Suddenly they had no immediate source of food nor a place to graze their animals. The immediate effect was wide spread starvation. The long-term result was that with the efficient management of fields, and the introduction of new crops, like the potato, food became more abundant. This instituted a population boom throughout most European nations.
With the introduction of the putting-out system by many merchants, as a means to circumvent guild control over the manufacture of goods, peasants were able to support themselves. With their newfound work, and the increased abundance of food they were finally able to feel secure in their livelihoods. This was just the calm before the storm.
The growing desire among the bourgeoisie for financial gain paired with new technological advances made the putting-out system inefficient. Shifts in production were made toward small workshops or larger factories. Over time the demand for rural industry decreased to the point where many were accepting next to nothing for their goods.
It became virtually impossible for the peasantry to make a living in rural communities. They were increasingly forced to move to cities where they could find factory work. Liverpool, for example, grew by 250 percent between 1600 and 1750.
With even further advances in factory mechanization, hundreds of thousands of jobs became “obsolete”. After all, if you have a machine that can do the job of one hundred men, why pay one hundred men? Once again there was a widespread loss of jobs.
Public opinion on poverty at the time did nothing to help the situation either. The poor were grouped into two categories: the deserving and the undeserving. The deserving consisted of children, the elderly and the crippled. The undeserving were healthy men and women who either were unable to find work. The attitude was that it was their fault they were poor, and thus they were treated as little better than criminals.
It wasn’t until the advent of the railroad that things really started looking up for the average citizen. The sheer amount of work required in the construction of a railroad alone provided many with work. In addition, it now became cheap to transport metal, and other heavy raw supplies for the manufacture of goods. This not only dropped the price of commodities, but also spurred industry to an even greater extent.
I feel it evident that these economic reforms consistently threw the lives of the average citizen into upheaval. We must not overlook, however, the ultimate good this period did for the world. Were it not for the willingness of those early capitalists to take advantage of the peasantry as they did, we would all likely be farming a small plot of land and heating or homes with dung.
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