Rise of Proto-Industrial Economies Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Prior to the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, Europe’s population became largely accustomed to the conditions of manufacturing labor through work in peasant homes and small villages where the workers derived their support from wage labor.

Summary of Event

The idea of proto-industrialism was advanced by scholars after World War II. The general outline of the concept was presented in an article by Franklin Mendels, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, in an article published in the Journal of Economic History in 1972. In his article, based on his study of cottage manufacture in Belgium from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, Mendels argued that the foundation of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lay in the creation of a laboring population accustomed to deriving its support not from agriculture but from manufacturing work in small shops and peasant homes. These sites existed in areas where the land was insufficient to support all those who lived in the area, either because the quality of the soil was not well suited to raising traditional crops or because the supply of good land was simply too restricted to support a large population. [kw]Rise of Proto-Industrial Economies (17th cent.) [kw]Economies, Rise of Proto-Industrial (17th cent.) [kw]Industrial Economies, Rise of Proto- (17th cent.) [kw]Proto-Industrial Economies, Rise of (17th cent.) Economics;17th cent.: Rise of Proto-Industrial Economies[0100] Trade and commerce;17th cent.: Rise of Proto-Industrial Economies[0100] Organizations and institutions;17th cent.: Rise of Proto-Industrial Economies[0100] Europe;17th cent.: Rise of Proto-Industrial Economies[0100] Proto-industrialism[Protoindustrialism]

Mendels supported his argument with some statistics derived from information about population in the area of Belgium south of the city of Ghent. This study suggested to Mendels that there were certain characteristic features of areas in which proto-industrialism took place. These included a fairly rapid increase in the population and the sale of manufactured goods on the international market. In the case of the area cited by Mendels, the manufacture of linen textiles was the defining feature, though he noted that although populations rose significantly in these areas, there was no discernible improvement in wages. At the same time, agriculture became increasingly commercialized, requiring large labor inputs only for short periods, so that a laborer could not rely solely upon such work to support a family.

Mendels’s argument was picked up by historians in Europe, some of whom saw the concept as supporting the arguments of Karl Marx that the growth of an impoverished class of wage earners was an inevitable accompaniment of industrialization. Marx, indeed, had advanced a distinct but closely related argument to that of Mendels when he wrote that the “violent expropriation” of workers from the land was a necessary precondition of the Industrial Revolution, because it had created a large pool of potential unskilled laborers in urban centers, which alone made assembly-line manufacturing economically feasible. Whereas Marx looks at the issue from the point of view of the growing migration of former peasants from farmlands to urban areas, Mendels emphasizes that even the relatively rural pockets of proto-industrialization that developed in the seventeenth century provided a pool of workers already accustomed to working for wages barely above the subsistence level and therefore made the growth of factories in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries easier. Migration;peasants into urban areas

Proto-industrialization is similar in important respects to what was once referred to as “cottage industry.” Cottage industries Under this system, individual peasants who lacked sufficient land to support themselves through agriculture alone supplemented their income with small-scale manufacture, usually of textiles and often in their own homes. The early textile devices were very simple and inexpensive, so a peasant could easily afford, for example, a spinning wheel or even the simple looms common in the seventeenth century. Much cottage industry production consisted of turning common European fiber, either wool or flax, into textiles. With the growth of sheep raising in England, it became worthwhile for rural laborers to convert the wool first into yarn and then into woolen fabrics.

One common feature of the cottage industry was that it almost invariably occurred in the countryside. A major reason for this location was that, in many European towns in the seventeenth century, the guilds that had grown up in the Middle Ages still largely controlled manufacture; their authority, however, did not in most cases extend to the countryside outside the towns. Production outside towns was therefore not subject to the urban limitations imposed by the guilds to protect their economic position.

Historians differ over whether seventeenth century proto-industrialization can be seen as a consistent transitional step along a steady, systematic path of industrial evolution from the household manufacture of the late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Research has demonstrated, for example, that population growth Population growth;Europe was encouraged as much by such things as the international trade in basic grains that emerged in the sixteenth century and the cost of living fluctuations related to that trade as by the opportunity to earn a living from wage labor. The specialization of agriculture, moreover, had as much to do with the variable productivity of the soil as with the existence of alternative means of support for a burgeoning population, and it was found that in some areas, where early cottage industry existed, changing commercial relations could also lead to de-industrialization.

The two industries in which examples of proto-industrialization were most prevalent were textiles and mineral production. As agriculture became less generalized and the raising of sheep became common in England in the fourteenth century, the crop the sheep produced, wool, was at first largely exported to the Low Countries and Italy. English production at first focused on the cities, where it was controlled by the guilds, but in the sixteenth century, production shifted away from the cities to the countryside. Woolen yarn and then textiles came to be produced in Yorkshire, East Anglia, the West Country, and even the southwest. In central England, hosiery knitting became extremely popular, because, although it was labor-intensive, it did not require much skill and therefore lent itself to the type of household industry that was characteristic of the earliest kinds of proto-industrialization.

In addition to the development of English proto-industrial textile manufacturing, small mining operations were also scattered over the English countryside. These operations produced iron, lead, and tin—the latter notably in Cornwall. The Kentish Weald was dotted with small iron furnaces in the seventeenth century, and in Derbyshire lead mining was common. In the West Midlands, many small metal objects were produced in modest shops, notably in Sheffield and Birmingham, areas that remained major producers of metal products in subsequent centuries.

The history of textile production in parts of the Low Countries was what led Mendels to develop his theory of proto-industrialization. While the area of modern Belgium had been known since the early Middle Ages for its woolen textiles, by the seventeenth century, it was more widely known for its linen goods. The flax that produced the fiber that was the basis of linen was grown throughout the Low Countries, and when agriculture became concentrated in the better lands, the peasantry living where the soil was less suited to commercial agriculture began to specialize in flax and linen production. Mendels found, in the area around Ghent, excellent examples of small-scale production of textiles, often in the homes of the workers; his concept, then, was a generalization of his study of this specific area.

Linen production was also found in many areas of what is now Germany. In parts of the Rhineland, particularly Silesia, there were numerous villages where the flax fiber was treated (a labor-intensive process) and then spun into linen yarn. The yarn was then passed on to the linen weavers, who enjoyed an international reputation. In the Swiss canton of Appenzell Outer Rhodes, the production of linen goods was widespread, since the mountainous countryside did not lend itself to raising crops. In the vicinity of Basel, there were households busily producing silk ribbon in the seventeenth century. In some areas, ownership of small agricultural plots was combined with textile production, as in the Oberlausitz region.

In Italy, where woolen textiles had been a major industry in the Middle Ages, production had shifted to silk by the seventeenth century. Silk was produced in the parts of Europe with a Mediterranean climate, especially in southern France and northern Italy. The combination of silkworms and mulberry trees, native to that region, was essential. Raising the silkworms to a level where the silk filaments could be captured and converted to thread was a labor-intensive business that was widespread in northern Italy and southern France. Woolen goods, which had been produced in the major Italian cities in the Middle Ages, became a cottage industry in the seventeenth century, particularly in the valleys of the lower Alps.

There were, also, many small producers of iron in the northern Italian valleys in the seventeenth century. Because the mountain streams provided sufficient water power to operate the bellows used in smelting the iron, the necessary ingredients were locally available. In the seventeenth century, metallurgical technology still allowed for small-scale production without heavy capital investments. Even as the technology came to call for greater investment, it still needed abundant producers of charcoal.

In Russia, where there were few towns, the production of manufactured goods necessarily took place in the countryside Russia;serfdom . As serfdom spread throughout the country, however, much cottage industry developed under the sponsorship of large landowners, although in some areas the produce of such enterprises was shared by owners and workers. The latter arrangement represented a logical extension of the not uncommon sharecropping used in agriculture to the rudimentary manufacturing industry that was just beginning to emerge.


The notion of proto-industrialization was an attempt to develop a comprehensive model that would explain how a world that had been overwhelmingly agricultural for so many centuries came within a single century or so to be predominantly industrial. By suggesting that industrialization as it developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had deep roots particularly in the seventeenth century, the proponents of proto-industrialization theory offered historians a seamless picture of the gradual conversion of working lives from ones spent in the field to ones spent first in the rural workshop and then in the factory.

Further research has shown the simple, steady evolutionary version of the concept to be too neat, however. Many places that had thriving cottage industries did not become industrial centers when the technology changed. In some cases these regions became depopulated when other requirements of the industry compelled its location in urban areas. Thus, although the theory of proto-industrialization is appealing as a way of understanding the developing economies of seventeenth century Europe, reality often refuses to be stuffed into a single paradigm. Nevertheless, while the changes predating the eighteenth century may in fact have been uneven and inconsistent, theories such as those of Mendels and Marx are important, because they help to illustrate the extent to which the advent of the Industrial Revolution was simply not possible until significant prior demographic and lifestyle changes had already occurred within the European population.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berg, Maxine, Pat Hudson, and Michael Sonnenscher, eds. Manufacture in Town and Country Before the Factory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Contains essays that call into question the restricted scope of the idea of proto-industrialization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coleman, D. C. “Proto-Industrialization: A Concept Too Many.” Economic History Review, 2d ser. 36 (1983): 435-448. One of the numerous criticisms of the oversimplification implied by the concept of proto-industrialization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The Economic Organization of Early Modern Europe. Vol. 5 in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. General background to the proto-industrialization of Europe.
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    xlink:type="simple">Knotter, Ad. “Problems of the ’Family Economy’: Peasant Economy, Domestic Production, and Labour Markets in Pre-Industrial Europe.” In Early Modern Capitalism, edited by Martin Prak. New York: Routledge, 2001. Knotter examines economics based on familial production in the century before work moved outside the home.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kriedte, Peter, Hans Medick, and Jüürgen Schlumbohm. “Proto-Industrialization Revisited: Demography, Social Structure, and Modern Domestic Industry.” Continuity and Change 8, no. 2 (1993): 217-252. The principal neo-Marxist supporters of the proto-industrialization concept modify their views to accommodate their many critics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mendels, Franklin F. “Proto-Industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrial Process.” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 241-261. Mendels’s original proposal of the concept.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ogilvie, Scheilagh C. State Corporatism and Proto Industry: The Württemberg Black Forest. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A detailed study of one area in Europe where pre-industrial cottage production was extensive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ogilvie, Scheilagh C., and Markus Cerman, eds. European Proto-Industrialization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A collection of fifteen articles covering Europe by most of the scholars involved in the issue.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Thomas Savery. Proto-industrialism[Protoindustrialism]

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