Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/529

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page needs to be proofread.


CHAPTER XV.
ECONOMIC CHANGE.


We are accustomed to remark on the extraordinary economic changes which have taken place during the last three hundred years. Commercial intercourse has increased enormously; the age of invention has brought about a veritable revolution in the processes of manufacture; and agriculture has been indirectly, but deeply, affected by these influences. Despite the growth, however, in the volume of trade, in the mass of wealth, and in the numbers of the population, similar principles of economic policy and commercial enterprise have been in vogue all this time. The seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries belong to the same period in the world's history. The turning-point was passed when the age of geographical discovery opened up the possibility of communication between all parts of the globe; and when the seventeenth century began, there had been time for the readjustment of the more limited ambitions of the Middle Ages to the new conditions. Rival nationalities were trying then, as they are to-day, to strengthen their naval and military forces with the aid of resources drawn from distant lands; and a close analogy is observable between the practices which were then pursued by the most progressive countries and some of the expedients which are being proposed at the present time. The commercial struggles and the economic controversies of the seventeenth century may seem petty and trivial; but the atmosphere is perfectly familiar, since they are thoroughly modern in character.

The preceding period of three hundred years with which we are concerned at present-the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries -was also a time of rapid movement in the economic sphere; but the changes which occurred in that era contrast forcibly with those of the modern world. There are few indications of steady growth in those troubled times; they were marked, instead, by the break up of medieval society and the reconstruction of economic organisation on entirely different lines. It is probable that according to modern standards no startling change in the total volume of trade occurred between the reign