The Great Transformation
Prior to 1800, life for the typical person in Europe had not materially changed for many centuries. Farming was the main occupation, as it had been for millennia. Social mobility was not impossible, but it was difficult because of legal, cultural, and economic barriers. Opportunities were largely determined by laws and customs that explicitly linked political and economic positions to families. Rule of law existed in most of northern Europe and in Japan, but somewhat different laws and rights existed for royals, nobles, peasants, serfs, and slaves, and also for men and women. A state-supported monopoly church provided religious services and a more or less uniform world view. Water, wind, and muscle were the dominant motive forces of economic production, as they had been for centuries.
Significant changes in ideas about the world had occurred in the centuries before 1800, as noted in Chapter Nine, and these changes had effects on the lives of an important subset of the relatively wealthy who engaged in international affairs, travel, and education. Such changes are part of the case for arguing that the transition in the West actually began well before the nineteenth century (North and Thomas 1973). New knowledge and ideas about the world, together with improvements in European ships, produced new opportunities for exploration and trade, which produced new trading networks as well as advances in philosophy, science, and art. Technological shifts on land were also evident during the late eighteenth century, as better techniques for using water and wind power increased the scale of efficient cloth and lumber mills. Better seeds and plows, together with new techniques of crop rotation and plowing, were also making existing agricultural land more productive. New highways and canals were being constructed to form somewhat more integrated regional markets.