History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: 18th Century Economy and Society

Marie Antoinette and Children

Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787)
Mary Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun
Vigee-Lebrun, court painter at Versailles, painted this in an effort to revive Marie Antoinette's reputation by showing her as a gentle mother. It didn't work, and garnered complaints that the painting was paid for by the unearned taxes of the people. Hence the French Revolution, 1789.

Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) (1786)
Just couldn't resist a little more Mozart.

Lecture contents:

Marriage and Family
Food and Medicine
Concepts of Warfare

No limits whatever are placed to the productions of the earth; they may increase for ever and be greater than any assignable quantity, yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power.

-- Thomas Malthus (1798)



During the 18th century, the climate in Europe improved enormously as part of a global climate shift. Summers became warmer and drier, winters were warmer too. This led to a shift in agriculture.

medieval open-field system -> three-field rotation

The old system was based on a big open field, where the whole community farmed the same strips of land. The land was divided into strips (rather than squares) so that horses or oxen could pull the plow over a longer distance before having to turn, and every third or fourth strip was farmed for the landlord to pay for using the land. Since the same strips were planted with the same crops each year, this led to soil exhaustion as the same crops pulled the same nutrients out of the soil over and over. To help prevent soil exhaustion, peasants left strips or fields "fallow" (empty) each season, rotating their crops while the fallow fields "recovered" and became more fertile. This worked well but left one-half or one-third of good land unplanted at any one time of year. 
Three-field rotation
  Field 1 Field 2 Field 3
1st year Fall:
wheat & rye
oats, peas, barley, beans, lentils
2nd year Fallow Fall:
wheat & rye
oats, peas, barley, beans, lentils
3rd year Spring:
oats, peas, barley, beans, lentils
Fallow Fall:
wheat & rye

nitrogen-producing crops

In the 18th century, thanks to farming innovators like Jethro Tull, crops like turnip and clover were added to the rotation. It was noticed that these crops seemed to help the soil replenish itself, and provide food for animals at the same time. Thus less land was left fallow. We now know that this is because crops like this are "nitrogen-fixing"; they take nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil through nodules on their roots. Nitrogen is the most important element for the growth of plant leaves. This thinking actually led to a four-field rotation that included nitrogen crops intentionally.

drawing showing potato plant, leaves above, potatoes below ground

the great potato

The other great change that caused an agricultural revolution during the 18th century was the common adoption of the potato. Potatoes, brought in from the New World, were easy to plant, even in soils that were sandy or rocky and had few nutrients. They produced tons of food for animals, and eventually humans were persuaded to eat them too. They provided healthful carbohydrates and even Vitamin C. You can see an illustration of the potato here: one piece of a single potato could produce 12-15 potatoes, a highly productive use of farmland, especially in places like Ireland where the sandy soil could grow little else.



During the 18th century, Europe experienced an extraordinary population boom. The availability of much more food and the adoption of potatoes into the diet were one factor, but there were others.

bubonic plague gone

This guy on the left is the hero of the 18th century: the Brown Rat. (Go ahead, use your mouse to turn him around!) Bubonic plague was a disease that had first hit Europe in the 14th century, and had returned periodically and killed lots of people, keeping the population low. This was because immunity to plague could not be passed on; only those who had contracted the disease and survived were immune. The warmer climate had helped people's immune systems improve, so that widespread epidemics of plague were already unusual. But a change in the rat population ended the plague. As the weather warmed, the Eurasian Black Rat was run out of its European feeding area by the Brown Rat. Black rats were far more likely to carry the kind of flea that carries plague, and they loved hanging out with humans. Brown rats didn't tend to carry the plague-ridden flea, and tended to stay away from people.

increased food supply

Improved transportation networks (primarily ordered by absolute monarchs to improve their control over their countries) meant that fewer areas were isolated in times of famine.

gentlemanly war

Since war tended to be fought on battlefields away from the crop land, there was less loss of food as a result of war (see later in this lecture).


Marriage and family

Hogarth's Shortly After the Marriage: clergyman retreating, wife lounging, husband exhausted
William Hogarth, Shortly After the Marriage (1743)
As population grew, patterns of marriage and family life also changed.

marriage patterns

Whereas in the 17th century couples had married later in life, because they had to wait to inherit or earn their living, by 1750 they were marrying earlier. One reason was that cottage (or domestic) industry had many poorer people earning money by working at home, for example making woolen yarn or cloth. People needed only a house and a loom to support a family, so they could be independent earlier in life.

illegitimacy explosion

Sexual trends also changed. Before 1750, pre-marital sex was frequent but usually occurred between people who were already engaged. Thus there were few illegitimate children, although many were conceived before their parents were actually married. But beginning around 1750, the number of illegitimate children born in Europe began to increase, from 3% of births in 1750 to 20% by 1850. This was for three reasons:
1) Greater social mobility meant that more young people moved away from home, from the village or town where everyone knew them. Thus they moved away from the social constraints of family, church, and peers. With fewer restrictions, couples engaged in sex without responsibility for the outcome, including children.
2) Unwed mothers were rejected by society. So if an unmarried woman were pregnant, the father would be under no compunction to marry her, and no one was there to force him to acknowledge the child. There was no village or peer network to care for the baby as the mother worked, and many unwed mothers became prostitutes, often leaving their babies to foundling hospitals or orphanages as they tried to survive. 50% of children left in foundling hospitals or like places died.
3) New sentimental ideas about love encouraged the idea that young people should "follow their heart" rather than the wishes of their elders when selecting a mate. People who chose poorly ended up with illegitimate children.


The mortality rates for children did not change that much during this period. I think that more children could have lived longer, given the changes in diet (next section),

picture of baby
Detail from William Hogarth, Gerard Anne Edwards in His Cradle (1733)
but that the poor care of illegitimate children prevented this from happening. Only about half of all children born lived to adulthood. This has caused historians to believe that people tried not to love their children too much, because the grief of losing half of them would be too great.

Documents indicate, however, that this was not the case, and that most people loved their children deeply.

Poor people tended to breastfeed their children, which helped space the kids about 2-3 years apart. The rich used wet-nurses (often with the best intentions -- country air, etc.) but many found their children undernourished. Infanticide was common. Wet nurses would kill a weak child, especially an older child, in order to have room to take on more small babies who would consume less breastmilk. Sometimes parents who couldn't afford another mouth to feed would "overlay" their baby, smothering it in bed (a crime that was hard to prove). Even children who were well cared-for were subject to diseases and such.


Fat man

Food and medicine

diet for poor and rich

Changes in diet helped increase general life expectancy, from 25 years old in 1700 to 35 years old in 1800. Before the 18th century, the poor ate mostly grain and vegetables, peas and beans for protein, and rarely had milk or meat. The rich, however, disdained vegetables as "animal food", and ate tons of meat. Wealthy folks often had meals with 3 fish and 3 meat courses, and gluttony and overeating was a sign of wealth.

Of the new foods introduced to Europe from the Americas (corn, tomatoes, chocolate), the potato was the most significant. It improved the diet of the poor, adding needed vitamins and starch. Believing that potatoes were for peasants only, the rich turned instead to the other new stuff: refined flour, refined sugar, chocolate. Thus the poor got healthier as the rich got sicker.

smallpox innoculation and vaccination

Lady MontaguIn 1715, a lovely woman named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to the Ottomon Empire, contracted smallpox.It ruined her good looks, pockmarked her skin, and left her without eyelashes. She also lost her only brother to the disease. She learned about innoculation from the Turks, and innoculated her own son in 1717, thus introducing the smallpox vaccine to Europe (though it required facing opposition from the medical community and needed Queen Caroline's support to get her argument heard).Smallpox was a major killer, and the innoculation consisted of putting a small amount of pus from a pox under the skin of a healthy person. This was a dangerous procedure because it made possible contracting the disease itself from the innoculation. Doctor Edward Jenner was the one who made the connection between smallpox and cowpox. In the 18th century everyone knew that milk-maids (who did their job with their cheek leaning against the cow) got something icky called cowpox, but never got smallpox. Jenner's vaccines were made with cowpox (which wasn't fatal), so vaccines instead of innoculations could be used to prevent smallpox.



The 18th century also saw a big shift in economic thinking. Mercantilism had been the paradigm of the 17th century. It was based on three ideas:
1) There's a finite amount of wealth in the world. Thus one nation becoming richer meant others became poorer.
2) Wealth is gold and silver. Called "bullionism", this meant that nations tried to keep gold and silver within their countries, and export goods.
3) The government should control the economy. This idea is expressed in these documents:

But in the 18th century, new ideas were emerging. Perhaps there was plenty of wealth to go around. Perhaps dominating trade was as important as hoarding bullion. Perhaps free enterprise could create a better global (and national) economy than government control could do.

This new approach will eventually be called Classical Liberalism, and is based on Smith's ideas. I'd like you to think of it as the economic verson of John Locke's political liberalism. In both concepts, freedom is the foundation. For Smith and economic liberals, it's the freedom of trade -- free trade will create the best world for all. For Locke and political liberals, it's freedom within the body politic.

We're using the word liberal, then, in its 18th (and later 19th) century context: do not confuse this with the twisted way we use the word today! Liberals valued freedom over either stability (valued by conservatives) or equality (valued by radicals). In the U.S. today, both the Republican and Democratic parties are conservative liberals.


Concepts of Warfare

The New International Relations

"balance of power"

This was the new concept that any nation that got too much power needed to be restricted by the other nations. Thus, a country's alliances might shift depending on which other power was gaining ground. The new concept was based on Enlightenment rationality: a sense of order, or balance, in human affairs. It was especially good for Britain, which could stay apart from the continent, and only intervene if one power (like France) was becoming too dominant.

old economic and political goals18th c map of Europe

However, although the concept of "balance of power" was new, the old economic and political goals remained. Economically, each region of Europe wanted to dominate trade, and increase their own wealth. France wanted to expand on the continent, and was restricted by the German Empire and Spain (both controlled by the Hapsburg family). England wanted to expand internationally: her competitors were France and Spain. Austria wanted to expand Hapsburg power, especially against the Turks, and prevent Russia and Prussia from expanding. Prussia wanted to unite its territory in northern Europe, and prevent Austrian dominance to the south and Russian dominance to the east. Russia wanted to expand to the Baltic and Black seas, and prevent Austria and Prussia from dominating Europe.

significance: effect on warfare

toy soldierThese goals left no form of diplomacy except war, in order to maintain the balance of power. It's ironic that the system was based on rationality, but left war as the only way to maneuver. The result was a pattern of "polite" or "gentlemanly" wars. "Cabinet wars", as they were often called, were limited in scope and had little effect on the ordinary populations. Battlefields were the stage, away from population centers and crops. There was a code of conduct; opposing generals sometimes dined together the night before a battle, and there was no fighting on Christmas. Soldiers died, but the goals of each war were known and limited. No states were wiped off the map.

Changing Alliances

Maria Theresa, 1750

Wars of succession

Many of the European famillies were related to each other, and the death of a monarch provided a good excuse for war.

Austrian War of Succession (1740-1748)

In 1711, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI found himself the last remaining male member of the Hapsburg family in Europe. An old European law prevented women from inheriting the throne, so Charles issued the Pragmatic Sanction before his death to ensure the succession of his daughter, Maria Theresa. The other rulers of Europe agreed at the time, but as soon as Charles died, they reneged and made claims to her land. War was, of course, the result.

Diplomatic Revolution

The significance of the War of Austrian Succession was that it left Austria and France too weak to threaten each other, so the two countries formed a new diplomatic alliance against the victors (Prussia and England). Historians call this the Diplomatic Revolution. It lines everyone up for wars like the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, and the wars with revolutionary France.



Seven Years War (1756-1763)

This was the first real world war, with France, Russia and Austria fighting Prussia and England, and Spain versus England for colonies. It was fought on three continents.


Prussia fought most of the war on three fronts, against Russia, France and Austria. Britain tired of supporting her, and in 1761 cut aid to Prussia. Luckily, Peter III of Russia (husband of Catherine the Great) was a big fan of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and made peace. This infuriated Catherine and most Russians, by the way, which led to Peter's demise and Catherine's accession to the throne of Russia.


In India the French and British fought for economic dominance. The native Mughal Dynasty was crumbling, and both the French and British East India Companies vied for control of the disparate principalities, forming alliances with local princes to fight each other. In 1756, an incident of legend (and cultural literacy) occurred when 146 captured British soldiers were kept in a poorly-ventilated prison overnight, and 123 died. This was the legendary "Black Hole of Calcutta", and although there may not have been that many men involved (it's unlikely that many were stationed there), the incident was used to justify the "civilizing" of India by British rule.
map showing France holding much of North America
France owned much of North America until the Seven Years War.

North America

In North America the war was called the French and Indian war, since the French had Native American allies against the British. The French were trying to connect their territory around the Great Lakes with their holding at New Orleans. The British were trying to expand westward from their colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. This was the scene of George Washington's first command, of British troops against the French (he surrendered at Fort Duquesne). The British were victorious here, as they were in India.

War of American Independence (1775-83)

end of benign neglect

After the Seven Years War, Britain had a huge debt. Although she had won in North America and India, the cost had been great. Many of her trade laws had gone unenforced in America for about 80 years. Britain had to end this "benign neglect" and begin collecting the duties due to her from British subjects in North America in order to pay for the war.
engraving of tarred and feathered man, with hot tea poured down his throat
Patriots pouring boiling tea down the throat of a tarred-and-feathered servant of the Crown. Such acts of terrorism are part of our heritage.

constitutional arguments

American merchants did not want to pay. The Stamp Act of 1765 was particularly galling to them, and they avoided it and other taxes and acts, engaging in smuggling and considering it a patriotic act. The claim began that Americans were no longer British subjects, but a different people. Few went along with it, and most believed in the authority of the British Parliament and King. You can read any American History book for details on how merchant upstarts and lawyers in Boston found commonality with constitutional lawyers in Virginia to create the American Revolution. Their primary source of a constititutional argument against Britain was John Locke.
Remember from the first unit?
bookWorkbook document: Locke

patterns of warfare broken

The American War for Independence (as it came to be called in Europe) broke the pattern of gentlemanly warfare that had become common. Americans, learning from Amerindians, were as likely to shoot at British soldiers from their homes or from behind trees as meet them on the battlefield. Americans used their knowledge of the terrain and the sentiments of local populations to outmaneuver the British. They even attacked at Christmas.


The Treaty of Paris that ended the war did not eliminate the British presence in North America; that would have to wait till the War of 1812. But it did set an extraordinary precendent for colonies to break from their mother countries, using Enlightenment constitutional justifications. It began a trend of political liberalism that would be an example for revolutionary leaders, especially in France.


All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.