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Chapter 13. The Agricultural Revolution and an Expanding Europe

In This Chapter

• Exciting new agricultural techniques

More food equals more and more and more people

• The beginnings of industrialization

Mercantilism and colonization go hand in hand

The introduction of slavery into the Western Hemisphere

For all the intellectual and scientific progress made in Europe prior to the eighteenth century, the common people of Europe benefited little. In fact, for the common people of Europe, the vast majority of whom worked in agriculture, life had hardly changed at all in a thousand years.

Seeds of Revolution

The peasants of the early eighteenth century found themselves stuck in the doldrums of everyday life the way their ancestors and their ancestors’ ancestors had. Day in and day out, peasants went into the fields to till or to plant or to harvest. Their lives were tied to land that offered little more than subsistence regardless of how much labor they put into the land. Even in the most fertile regions of Europe, an acre of land offered but a few bushels of yield, scarcely more than the same acre would have produced a hundred or even a thousand years earlier.

As if the fickle nature of the land didn’t cause enough hardship, the peasants of Europe also had to face the possibility of such agricultural disasters as drought, flood, harsh winters, and crop failure. Peasants generally tried to harvest enough grain to use some immediately and keep a reserve. However, reserves were only available after bountiful harvests and often spoiled from moisture or rats. When harvests were poor or reserves failed to meet the needs of the peasants, people took drastic measures in order to survive. Records indicate that the consumption of grass and bark was quite common in villages where food supplies ran short. There’s almost no telling what other famine foods, as they were called, became part of the diets of hungry Europeans over the centuries. Poor diets led to weakened peasants with weakened immune systems. Diseases such as dysentery ravaged villages. Famine years in some villages meant that as many as one third of the inhabitants would not survive the winter.

Fortunately, between 1700 and 1750, centuries-old agricultural methods and ideas started to change, leading to what historians call the Agricultural Revolution. In recent years, it has become popular among historians to discount the importance of any one person or development in the Agricultural Revolution. Some historians claim that no revolution occurred at all, mostly because the advancements came slowly and took a great deal of time to impact all of Europe. There can be little debate, though, that the improvement of land, its more efficient use, the development of new agricultural devices, the use of selective breeding, and the use of innovative crops all led to the availability of more and better food for Europe. Furthermore, the amount of labor needed to produce the larger amounts of food actually decreased and freed up laborers to work in other industries besides agriculture.

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