Dam Square with the New Town Hall under Construction (1656) by Johannes Lingelbach. Photo courtesy The Amsterdam Museum/Wikipedia
This is how Europe became the richest place on earth: by being politically fragmented, yet intellectually united
How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Learned tomes by historians, economists, political scientists and other scholars fill many bookshelves with explanations of how and why the process of modern economic growth or ‘the Great Enrichment’ exploded in western Europe in the 18th century. One of the oldest and most persuasive explanations is the long political fragmentation of Europe. For centuries, no ruler had ever been able to unite Europe the way the Mongols and the Mings had united China.
It should be emphasised that Europe’s success was not the result of any inherent superiority of European (much less Christian) culture. It was rather what is known as a classical emergent property, a complex and unintended outcome of simpler interactions on the whole. The modern European economic miracle was the result of contingent institutional outcomes. It was neither designed nor planned. But it happened, and once it began, it generated a self-reinforcing dynamic of economic progress that made knowledge-driven growth both possible and sustainable.
How did this work? In brief, Europe’s political fragmentation spurred productive competition. It meant that European rulers found themselves competing for the best and most productive intellectuals and artisans. The economic historian Eric L Jones called this ‘the States system’. The costs of European political division into multiple competing states were substantial: they included almost incessant warfare, protectionism, and other coordination failures. Many scholars now believe, however, that in the long run the benefits of competing states might have been larger than the costs. In particular, the existence of multiple competing states encouraged scientific and technological innovation.
The idea that European political fragmentation, despite its evident costs, also brought great benefits, enjoys a distinguished lineage. In the closing chapter of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789), Edward Gibbon wrote: ‘Europe is now divided into 12 powerful, though unequal, kingdoms.’ Three of them he called ‘respectable commonwealths’, the rest ‘a variety of smaller, though independent, states’. The ‘abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame’, Gibbon wrote, adding that ‘republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times.’
In other words, the rivalries between the states, and their examples to one another, also meliorated some of the worst possibilities of political authoritarianism. Gibbon added that ‘in peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals’. Other Enlightenment writers, David Hume and Immanuel Kant for example, saw it the same way. From the early 18th-century reforms of Russia’s Peter the Great, to the United States’ panicked technological mobilisation in response to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, interstate competition was a powerful economic mover. More important, perhaps, the ‘states system’ constrained the ability of political and religious authorities to control intellectual innovation. If conservative rulers clamped down on heretical and subversive (that is, original and creative) thought, their smartest citizens would just go elsewhere (as many of them, indeed, did).
Apossible objection to this view is that political fragmentation was not enough. The Indian subcontinent and the Middle East were fragmented for much of their history, and Africa even more so, yet they did not experience a Great Enrichment. Clearly, more was needed. The size of the ‘market’ that intellectual and technological innovators faced was one element of scientific and technological development that has not perhaps received as much attention it should. In 1769, for example, Matthew Boulton wrote to his partner James Watt: ‘It is not worth my while to manufacture [your engine] for three counties only; but I find it very well worth my while to make it for all the world.’
What was true for steam engines was equally true for books and essays on astronomy, medicine and mathematics. Writing such a book involved fixed costs, and so the size of the market mattered. If fragmentation meant that the constituency of each innovator was small, it would have dampened the incentives.
In early modern Europe, however, political and religious fragmentation did not mean small audiences for intellectual innovators. Political fragmentation existed alongside a remarkable intellectual and cultural unity. Europe offered a more or less integrated market for ideas, a continent-wide network of learned men and women, in which new ideas were distributed and circulated. European cultural unity was rooted in its classical heritage and, among intellectuals, the widespread use of Latin as their lingua franca. The structure of the medieval Christian Church also provided an element shared throughout the continent. Indeed, long before the term ‘Europe’ was commonly used, it was called ‘Christendom’.
If Europe’s intellectuals moved with unprecedented frequency and ease, their ideas travelled even faster
While for much of the Middle Ages the intensity of intellectual activity (in terms of both the number of participants and the heatedness of the debates) was light compared to what it was to become, after 1500 it was transnational. In early modern Europe, national boundaries mattered little in the thin but lively and mobile community of intellectuals in Europe. Despite slow and uncomfortable travel, many of Europe’s leading intellectuals moved back and forth between states. Both the Valencia-born Juan Luis Vives and the Rotterdam-born Desiderius Erasmus, two of the most prominent leaders of 16th-century European humanism, embodied the footloose quality of Europe’s leading thinkers: Vives studied in Paris, lived most of his life in Flanders, but was also a member of Corpus Christi College in Oxford. For a while, he served as a tutor to Henry VIII’s daughter Mary. Erasmus moved back between Leuven, England and Basel. But he also spent time in Turin and Venice. Such mobility among intellectuals grew even more pronounced in the 17th century…