The Conquest of the Material World
The scientist’s best chance of immortality is to become an adjective: Newtonian or Darwinian. His next-best chance is to become a brand-name: Avogadro’s Law, Fourier series. Few historians have much hope of becoming either, but they can succeed in getting their names firmly, often indissolubly, linked with a particular problem, phenomenon, or period. Professor J. U. Nef has for some thirty years occupied a corner of this kind. Every college student who takes a history course automatically associates—or ought to associate—the words “Nef” and “indusrial development in the sixteenth century.” He has now republished his main papers on this and congnate subjects, somewhat revised in the light of his more recent views.
One would expect a man who anticipated the current interest in the history of economic development in general, and industrialization in particular, to occupy a fairly central position in academic discussion. Curiously enough Nef remains something of a lone wolf, a role which he emphasizes by a rather marked lack of interest in work more recent than his own period of most active research. Out of the seventy articles listed in his bibliography not one (except for his own titles) is less than fifteen years old. His relative isolation is partly due to certain changes of emphasis within the history of industrialization. Nef’s main contributions were made at a time when historians tended to explain away the industrial revolution, preferring a process of continuous change to its unmanageable and catastrophic discontinuity. Nef’s own thesis of an “early industrial revolution,” e.g., in sixteenth-century England, was used—and intended to be used—to diminish the crucial importance of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century. Yet today the entire history of economic development is geared to the problem of explaining why the industrial revolution (sometimes rebaptised with the less controversial name of “take-off”) took place, or did not take place earlier, or at all. What preoccupies historians of the sixteenth century today is not how striking industrial progress was in some areas, but why it did not in fact lead directly into the industrial revolution. Such phenomena as the “seventeenth century depression,” or the stagnation of the early eighteenth century, which Nef does not mention at all, have been virtually discovered in the past fifteen years in this context. Moreover, the process of economic development is now seen increasingly as a global phenomenon, in which the backward and underdeveloped regions play an important part, if only by allowing themselves to be exploited by the developed ones. The slave plantations of the Americas, the serfdom of Eastern Europe, the ancient oriental economies independent of the West, cannot be left out of it. Nef’s own work still reflects an older West-European bias. France and England are his major concern, and the sources he uses are almost exclusively those in the three traditional languages of historical scholarship, French, English, and German.
A more important reason, however, is that Nef simply does not—and this is to his credit—fit into the increasingly specialized pigeon-hole of “economic history.”…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.