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Proto-Industrialization’

In response to:

The New Eighteenth Century from the March 29, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

Although Lawrence Stone [NYR, March 29] commands much authority in his own field of scholarship, it is unfortunate that he chose to pass a peremptory judgment on a subject and a field of research in which he can claim no particular competence, especially when the field is lively and controversial.

Proto-industrialization” refers to the regional growth of market-oriented rural industry and contemporaneous agricultural growth in the 17th and 18th centuries, during the decades that preceded the Industrial Revolution. The theories that accompany this concept have stimulated a considerable amount of research and debate in the last few years among European economic, social, family and demographic historians and continue to do so, as is evident from several recent books, theses, and issues of journals in these fields. The questions raised by proto-industrialization have now begun to interest a few African, Japanese, and early American historians as well.

Professor Stone, in a review of some fourteen books, only one of which is devoted to proto-industrialization,* gives in passing a simplified and misleading impression to the readers of this Review of what is really involved in this debate and controversy.

First, regarding the causes of the Industrial Revolution, it is misleading to say that the theory of proto-industrialization “for almost a decade has seemed the solution.” To most scholars, proto-industrialization has never been more than a plausible and interesting set of hypotheses, in need of yet more data. That, together with its wide-ranging implications, is in fact what has made it exciting and fruitful.

Secondly, the theory of proto-industrialization sheds useful light on the question of the causes of the Industrial Revolution, but it is mostly about economic-demographic interactions during its early stage. Its advocates have never claimed that it offers the “solution” to this very complicated question. Indeed, proto-industrialization has never attained the status of being “the” solution to anything, since it has remained controversial.

Thirdly, out of a dozen other recent publications, Professor Stone singles out one particularly polemical and even sarcastic contribution by Professor Coleman to draw the conclusion that “Proto-industrialization, in short, seems to have been neither a sufficient, nor even a necessary, cause of industrial revolution.” In fact, proto-industrialization has never been presented as a “sufficient” cause of industrial revolution; even a superficial acquaintance with the economic history of the Industrial Revolution will make it at once clear that there were many regions of Europe whose handloom weaving and other rural part-time peasant industries disappeared without any factory industry to replace them locally. As for being “necessary,” which I believe it was, in the sense that historians find very few regions of Europe that had an industrial revolution without first going through a phase of proto-industrialization, Coleman did not address himself to this question.

Finally, these hypotheses are not to be attributed to “the Germans.” They are an American export.

Franklin Mendels

University of Maryland (Baltimore County)

Catonsville, Maryland

Lawrence Stone replies:

Professor Mendels’s letter gives me an opportunity to correct an error in my published article. He is, so far as I can discover, the originator of the word and idea of proto-industrialization, which was only later taken up by the Germans at Gรถttingen. But in his comments, he tends to minimize the significant part played by this concept in the recent historiography of the causes of industrial revolutions. If he does not claim that “proto-industrialization” sets the stage for industrialization, why did he invent the word in the first place? I think he understates the importance of his own very considerable achievement, as well as the importance of the critical article by Coleman.

  1. *

    Peter Kriedte et al., Industrialization before Industrialization (Cambridge University Press, 1981), translated from the German by Beate Schempp.

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