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A Christian Materialist

The Conquest of the Material World

by John Nef
University of Chicago, 408 pp., $8.95

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.” His essays “were written, and they are presented, to suggest original explanations of European history,” whose object is to subordinate economics to the wider ideals of a belief in the combined virtues of liberal civilization and Christianity, or, in more strictly relevant terms, the quantity of production to its quality and that of human life. Inevitably this widens the author’s perspective beyond that of the man exclusively concerned with economic development, let alone the incomplete man who is concerned simply with discovering enough statistical series in the past to enable some retrospective computer to verify the kind of hypotheses which can be formulated for verification by computers. He is an “economic historian” only in the sense that Marx was one (the parallel might not please Professor Nef), namely because production is a central fact of human life. Curiously enough his methods are a great deal less ethereal than his objective. Nef’s Christian conclusions, which appear to have become more pronounced in the course of time, are a sort of superstructure imposed on a materialist, not to say mechanist, base. They are not of course irrelevant to his methods. He is constantly trying to show that what he believes to be good (individual freedom, peace, Christianity) was also historically effective, a view not without its difficulties. The task of the man who wants to prove that war never advanced economic progress is not much less complex than the proof that, e.g., the medieval Church was a major cause of industrial advance. Still, the unbeliever could reformulate most of Nef’s propositions in neutral terms without depriving them of their content.

The argument may, at the cost of oversimplification, be presented as follows. Modern industrial development depends on the substitution of useful consumer goods in a mass market, for works of art and craft, of quantity for quality, e.g., of a mining economy based on coal and iron for one based on silver. It required “the collapse of those barriers in thought and habits which hindered quantitative progress,” and this could be achieved only through “individualism and free enterprise.” In the countries of the Reformation the barriers fell more completely—for instance, by transferring resources from the economically unenterprising clergy to enterprising landlords and businessmen—and the positive incentive to the growth of mass production was greater, because the Reformation left “an economic vacuum” by reducing the demand for ecclesiastical building, equipment, and decoration. This was filled by a transfer of activities to civil needs. But absolutist governments provided both an alternative outlet for production and an increasingly effective brake on private enterprise. In England, fortunately, they were weak and abdicated some of their more dangerous economic functions (for instance, the control or management of mining), partly because the valuable metals on which they normally seized, were of no great importance there compared to the sixteenth-century continent. What is more, England enjoyed a long period of peace. In consequence of all this the country pulled decisively ahead of the continent in the period 1540-1640, at all events in per capita industrial output.

The new ideology of freedom and individualism (which Nef would distinguish from the “capitalist spirit” of Max Weber) was not merely given greater scope, and fostered by, the absence of medieval church and absolutism, but also provided more room for intellectual achievement. Higher productivity gave men in Northern Europe more time to devote to other things than the output of bare subsistence, and since television had not yet been invented (p.323), some of it would very likely be used for science. Scientific and industrial progress therefore went together, though neither was essential to the other until much later.

So far the argument could be easily reformulated in the rather mechanical terms of late-nineteenth-century second-hand Marxism, say of the Kautskyan type. But Professor Nef does not wish to abandon the Middle Ages to gothic barbarians and feudal obscurantism. In the first place he stresses the medieval record of technical innovation. In the second, he pins his faith—without much evidence or argument (“a contribution which remains to be explored”)—to the “qualitative hopes, such as a love of delight, which were fostered by the evolution of the artistic crafts,” and which he regards as characteristic of the Catholic era. Possibly this might carry more conviction if he did not also assert that Catholicism was “a mainspring for different kinds of economic development” in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Thirdly, and more convincingly in the light of recent work, he emphasizes the theological heritage of certain forms of abstract and rationalist thought in seventeenth-century science. Lastly he traces back the new moral atmosphere of modern Europe—the belief in the improvement of human nature, in progress, in the possibility of universal peace, etc.—to the “influence of Christian morality and Christian love,” including the influence of the pre-and post-Tridentine Roman Church. He will not command universal assent for these propositions.

Whether this amounts to an “original explanation of European history” is a question which Professor Nef leaves “for others to judge in the years ahead,” and so can the reviewer. It is, in any event, a learned and passionate book by a very notable and unique historian. Even those who are unmoved by the author’s own sentiments will admire the scholarship, the capacity to survey large areas clearly, and the lucidity. They will probably also be convinced by some of his arguments, especially on the history of mining, his first field of research and the one in which he has perhaps remained most completely at home.

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