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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: February 2011



In this book I have argued that employed labourers ate more and better food than has previously been assumed. This made it possible to supply the economy with the necessary energy to produce enough food to feed the country and then to eventually feed an expanding number of people working in manufacturing as well as an increased number of workhorses. However, before this the country went through a very difficult period of high food prices and labour surplus before agricultural output and employment rose. This confirms much historiography which describes the period before the Civil Wars as one when it was hardest for day labourers to make ends meet. Although contemporary diets suggest that for those in employment, food remained sufficient and continued to contain a surprising amount of meat, for those day labourers searching for work conditions were hard, and in these years poverty and emigration increased.

But this was rapidly turned into a situation of potential labour shortage after 1650 as farm production expanded and other industries grew in size, attracting labour, while population growth remained sluggish. The evidence of probate inventories shows that this led to a general rise in standards of living for labourers, but, more importantly, that it led to a significantly widening gap between the poorest and wealthiest labourers. Thus I think it is fair to say that the evidence points to a more optimistic view of labourers' standards of living in the period from 1650 to 1770.

Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Oxford, 1976), Book I, ch. viii, pp. 99–100