The nation is not only a new phenomenon, but it is the characteristic feature of what we are wont to call modern times; and hence the rise of Holland, as the heir of Portugal and a victor over Spain, the increased importance of England and the revival of France, mark an era in economic history. The transition from the medieval to the modern age has been accomplished; we are no longer concerned with the struggle of town with town, but of nation with nation, each trying to secure the greatest material advantages for its own land and its own people. The chief economic interest of the subsequent century lies in the study of the means taken by these three rivals to build up their own strength and to weaken their adversaries. Each had entered on a career of material prosperity, and each had adapted its system with more or less success to modern industrial and commercial conditions. It is worth while, however, to cast a retrospecting glance at some of the places which had been distanced in the race for wealth, and to enquire why so many of the cities which had attained to great prosperity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries failed to share in the extraordinary impulse which was given to progress by the discovery of the New World and its treasures. Some of them did not advance, and others distinctly declined.
The change of commercial routes was the most obvious reason for the decadence of some of the magnificent cities of the Middle Ages. Commerce takes the path of the least resistance, and none of the overland routes to the East or passes across the Alps could compare with the convenience of an unbroken voyage from the Moluccas to Amsterdam. The Italian and South-German towns which had been occupied with the Eastern trade, and the Baltic and Lithuanian cities which had been the great depots of the Hanse League, ceased to be the chief centres of commerce, and from the mere fact of their geographical position were left on a siding. In the case of Stettin and other towns which had been merely mercantile, and where there had been no success in developing industry as subsidiary to commerce, the decline of trade was a desperate blow. The towns which had developed an industrial life, Cologne and Strassburg, Augsburg and Nürnberg, Venice, Genoa, and Florence, did indeed suffer severely. They lost their facilities for access to the best markets or for the most convenient purchase of food and materials; but they were able to re-adapt themselves to their diminished opportunities, and to utilise their resources for the maintenance of a prosperous though less notable economic life.
Certain social conditions prevented some communities from adopting innovations which were necessary for maintaining the continuance of their prosperity. Where society had been very definitely organised and a social system was stereotyped, many insensible hindrances opposed themselves to modification of any kind. Success in the new order of things depended on adaptability. Capitalists were organising industry on other lines,