De Vries sees a parallel between the seventeenth century economy and a slump in a modern business cycles: while the markets are apparently weak and inactive -- quiet -- deep changes are occurring, and the whole is gathering strength for a new burst of productivity and activity. If this characterization is correct, then the book has two questions to answer: first, what happened to depress European markets during the period in question; and second, what, if anything is unique to this period that helps explain the coming Industrial Revolution?
De Vries approaches his story demographically. It appears that most peasant and rural economies had reached the limit of what they could reasonably support by 1600. Consequently, poor harvests caused famines and gave more victims to the intermittent plagues that swept Europe. Among the upper classes "a tendency to die out appears to have been general among aristocratic families all over Europe in the century after 1650, " and de Vries adds "[t]he cessation of population growth in the seventeenth-century Europe differs from the demographic reversal of the fourteenth century in this essential respect: it was in part the result of efforts of several social groups to control their demographic and economic destinies, perhaps even to bring family size into accord with new concepts of economic well-being. (11-12)" Overall the North and West gained relative to the Mediterranean and the Central portions of Europe but generally growth stalled. However, because of there are regionally diverse trends, de Vries does not accept a solely demographic explanation for economic slowing. He also rejects explanations that blame the destruction accompanying the 30 Years War and the inflation caused by American silver. Rather, he sees answers in "the social structures that support a given economic system, " changes in investment, production, and consumption patterns, and the resultant "stark redistribution of economic strength and the heightened differentiation observable among regions and states." (25) He adds "[t]he age of crisis is not an idle label. It is not uniformly applicable but it cast an unmistakable gloom over much of Europe. It set in motion the pens of reformers, schemers, and crackpots, and it activated governments to initiate measures, chiefly defensive, that we today call mercantilism. It produced a desire for stability and order that helped along the construction of absolutists governments." (29) This arc toward absolutism is described regionally, through changes in investment, production and consumption patterns.
De Vries reminds us that most economies were inevitably local. "One can view the European economy of the late sixteenth century as consisting of hundreds of towns with hinterlands of 50 to 100 square miles. The great bulk of all agricultural output that left the farms was disposed of within these units" (32) Local economies can only support local ambitions, and therefore he argues that "the task that confronted the burgeoning state and commercial interests during the long economic expansion that stretched into the seventeenth century was to tap the resources of the peasant economy for the benefit of new and more distant institutions." (32) Among the more organized commodities were grain, which flowed through Europe from the northeastern and Baltic regions, and livestock which was raised in Spain and Italy. De Vries notes that the grain yield ratios are a crucial limitation: for a five person family a 3:1 ratio indicates starvation; 4:1 is a subsistence level; and a good surplus comes with an 8:1 ratio. Grain yield ratios were high in the Dutch Republics and in England, all of whom who pushed forward the drainage and development of arable land. By contrast, yield levels were low or constant in Poland and Germany. Generally, and slowly, food prices in certain regions dropped because food was produced more efficiently." The ability of cultivators in certain regions of Europe, at least, to increase agricultural output in such an environment, without having the growth of population wipe out the grain, is of primary importance in understanding the broader economic growth of the European economy." (47)
De Vries sees significance in governmental or aristocratic political policies designed to support aristocratic economic interest groups. Spain, for instance, favored wool over agriculture in response to their nobility's interests, and consequently had to import grain. In Italy, land likewise suffered from underdevelopment and over-farming. In Poland and Eastern Europe peasants, re-ensurfed to supply distant grain markets, lost the ability to own useful land in useful sizes. Eventually a wealthy but smaller farming class emerged, along side of which appeared a laboring class, estranged from the ways of the past, and from the tools of their labor.
Although some portions of the rural population became poorer, and some industries shifted away from urban to rural labor, centers of trade and industry generally obtained, because Flanders Venice, Milan, Augsburg, Liege, Amiens, Ghent had concentrated populations with particular skills. The changes that did occur because of political oppressions carried skills to new locations. (e.g. the Huguenots) In discussing industry, De Vries returns to his theme: changes he calls "proto-industrialization" (91) made the way for the Industrial Revolution by achieving three things: better organization; lowered costs of production and increased supplies of raw materials. He also notes three key industrial developments: the wind-powered lumber sawing mill; the Fluitschip as bulk cargo vessel; and the shipyard with standard size parts. As regards raw materials, for the Dutch, cheaper peat meant great expansion in available and possible industries. The Italians and the Spanish lost primacy to the Dutch, who in turn yielded it to the English. The Dutch were the ones who continued the market in bills of exchange, and Amsterdam was the place to do business.
In harmony with his ideas on proto-industrialization, De Vries feels that intra-Europe imports were more important than colonial exports. "...We must qualify any argument that a growing colonial trade stimulated the European economy with the proviso that this stimulus was not automatic. It could only act where the domestic economy was responsive to the new opportunities thus created." (145) Regional cities got bigger, and became centers of local and more far flung grain trade. Again the Dutch did best at supplying their city with grain from distant sites -- mostly Baltic -- sites. By protecting its carters and muleteers, Spain did least well in solving its transportation problems. France did somewhat better, creating a canal system which sometimes, but not always, paid for itself. But they failed to remove local trade barriers, and the same situation obtained in German parts of the Holy Roman empire
De Vries reminds us that demand in this period is still rather weak. Increasing demand was seen as creating new markets, not creating new needs in existing markets. Two limitations were omnipresent: first, peasants depended on the market for very little of their consumption; and second, if wages rose, people worked less. However, paying government taxes forced peasants into the money economy and new cities permitted new commodities to gain ground. Falling food prices allowed for some luxury items to creep into the cities: for instance, retail shops came into existence; Chinese porcelain gained many imitators, and coffee, gin, brandy and rum entered daily diets. Among other innovations were newspapers, street lights and better postal services. De Vries shows that there was some inclination toward higher education, but it was still proportionately small. A much bigger change occurred the proportion of the population that could claim basic literacy (very roughly, and at best, 40% of men, and 20% of women). Government demand as expressed in taxes, helped some, however inefficient the collection might have been. (France's tax farmers are the standard exemplar). It was wars, and the necessary armies, that were the big government expenditure, and they stimulated arms and clothing manufacture as well as causing death and destruction. At any rate, De Vries doesn't see war as entirely negative stimulus. De Vries thinks that "positive developments" prevailed. "Among the wage earners, real income rose even though there was no catastrophic fall of overall European population. The backward bending labor supply curve seems to have been gradually breaking down as a widening range of simple consumer goods became available; all classes of society except the poorest exhibited a strong interest in upgrading standards of comfort." (208-09) De Vries attributes the concentration of wealth into urban and more efficient networks of production and distribution to government policy, military expenditure, and colonial trade. (209)
De Vries sets aside the question that post WW II scholars thought relevant: "How were initial accumulations created?" (211) He believes that capital was there, and was moving from lenders to borrowers. He sees the problem as misinvestment and dissipation (214). How to keep money away from landed estates, city officialdoms, and meaningless titles? Buying bonds in joint stock venture companies was a new way for the bourgeois families to invest and get a steady income, but capital could also be drained away in stock and tulip bubbles. The Bank of England's note issues helped money to circulate, as did commission merchants and colonial traders. Most absolutist governments, as they developed, were hindered by dependence on precious metals for trade. "As we investigate mercantilism, the state reveals itself as unifying agent, unethical fiscalist, and catalyst of economic development. It is most convincing, however, in its role as the agent of economic stability." (243)
De Vries argues that small changes had big results: some regions won
distinctly over others, (losers were Spain, Genoa, Southern Germany, Flanders).
Industries that were protected were set to help the economy when it bettered,
and in this case, England did best to "get ready " by developing local
business and industries everywhere. It had the tremendous luck of a good
supply of low-cost fuel and a diverse and responsive market.